Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-Seven)

Reichen had slept off most of the day, but he'd still awoken twitchy with the need to feed. After his confrontation with Tegan, he'd somehow managed to get himself from the weapons room to his temporary quarters in the compound, where he'd crashed on the bed and swiftly fallen into a state of unconscious oblivion. Now, showered and dressed, finally able to remain upright on his own motor, he was swamped with the urge to hunt. He knew enough about Bloodlust to realize that the hunger would only worsen if he fed it now, but that didn't slow his pace as he made his way along the corridor to the bank of elevators that would carry him up to street level and the city that pulsed with humanity just beyond the gates of the Order's headquarters. His mouth watered at the thought, his gums aching with the swell of his fangs. Aboveground it could only barely be sunset, but Reichen wasn't worried about a few minutes of ultraviolet sizzle. He stalked to the elevators and pushed the button to call the car. As he waited, impatient as a cat, he heard heavy boot-falls coming up from the other direction. Warriors Kade and Brock rounded a curve in the corridor, both of them garbed in full combat gear and hard-core weaponry. They looked as though they were suited up for war.

"Hey," Kade said, his wolfish quicksilver eyes grim and narrowed as he greeted Reichen with a slight lift of his square jaw. His spiky jet hair was covered by a black knit skullcap, the same thing that stretched over Brock's dark-skinned, close-shaved head. The two big males paused when Reichen turned to face them. "What's going on?" he asked the warriors, hoping they weren't about to ask him the same thing. "Heading out in a few minutes for Connecticut, my man," Brock said, his deep voice a thunderous roll of bass and battle readiness. "With any luck, we're gonna be handing Dragos his own ass on a platter before the night is through."

"Dragos," Reichen echoed. "We've got a lead on him?" "Best one so far," Kade put in. "Gideon's getting the coordinates from Renata as we speak." "When did the women return?" Brock gave a slow shake of his head. "They haven't. The Rover is toast, so we'll be picking them up tonight when we get there." Alarms kicked up a sudden racket in Reichen's whole body. "What do you mean–the vehicle broke down on them?" "Crashed into a tree," Kade said. "Could have been a hell of a lot worse, if the Minions trying to run them off the road had actually gotten ahold of them. Everyone's okay, and the mind slaves are dead. Renata gave them both a fatal case of lead poisoning." "Good Christ." Reichen's blood ran ice cold. Minions. A car crash and gunfire. Claire… "Gideon is on the phone with the women now?" he demanded. Kade nodded. "Where?"

"The tech lab." Reichen took off at a dead run, feet and heart pounding with the need to hear Claire's voice, to hear from her own lips that she truly was unharmed. Gideon was inside with most of the Order, everyone gathered and reviewing the map and coordinates that hung on the far wall of the lab. Tegan, Nikolai, Rio, and the former Gen One assassin named Hunter were all dressed like Kade and Brock, all dripping weapons and lethal purpose. Reichen entered the room and walked straight over to Gideon, just in time to hear the warrior end his conversation with Renata and disconnect the call. "I need to talk to Claire." "She's fine," Gideon said. "The situation is totally under control." "Like hell it is," he roared, practically shaking with concern. "They were attacked by Minions and now they're stranded out there? What the fuck happened?" "We knew the mission was not entirely without risk," Lucan said soberly. When Reichen pivoted to face him, the Order's leader went on. "The women knew the risks, too. They accepted it, and they handled it.

Quite well, in fact." Reichen simmered down, but only slightly. "Tell me what happened." Gideon gave him a quick rundown of the facts Renata had reported: Claire's certainty that they were within mere miles of Roth; the double sightings of the Minions who'd apparently been following them since early afternoon; the high-speed pursuit that ended in an undeveloped stretch of woodlands some three hours away; and the astonishing news that Dylan's psychic gift had not only delivered the women to safety but also, apparently had led them right into the vicinity of what could only be Dragos's hidden lair. As stunned as he was to hear the day's extraordinary events–as relieved as he was to know that neither Claire nor the other two women had been injured–another part of him was awash in confusion… and guilt. Claire must have been terrified when she and her companions had come under attack by the Minions. At the very least, her adrenaline should have kicked into high gear, and yet Reichen's blood bond to her had told him nothing. "You didn't know?" Tegan said, his gaze seeming to read right through him. Reichen gave a curt shake of his head. He'd been laid flat while Claire was in serious danger. The knowledge of how badly he might have failed her hit him like a stab to the chest. And now she was out there in the open, vulnerable, near enough to Roth that she could feel him, and possibly within Dragos's reach, as well. Reichen bristled with the thought.

He felt the first crackling trace of heat begin to bloom in his gut while the Order went back to reviewing the night's operation. Pushing the fire down deep, all his focus centered on Claire, he listened in to the warriors' plan to search the wooded area the females had mapped out, with the goal of uncovering Dragos's apparent base of operations. From the information Claire's blood bond had given them, they were confident they'd find Roth, but the ideal goal remained to locate Dragos himself, flush the bastard out of hiding and into the Order's hands. The warriors began to disperse, those in combat fatigues heading for the corridor while Lucan, Dante, and Gideon would be monitoring the mission from the compound. When Reichen moved to join Tegan and the others on their way to the hallway, Lucan stopped him with a look. "This is the Order's mission, and we can't afford any weak links in the chain." At Reichen's disapproving scowl, Lucan went on. "Listen, you've been a hell of an ally thus far, Reichen, but Tegan's filled me in on a few things–what you're going through with the pyro and the aftereffects. I also heard about the vision that Roth's Breedmate saw in Mira's eyes. Those are no small things, and we can't afford any liabilities right now."

Reichen held the Gen One warrior's keen gray eyes. "I'm bonded to her, Lucan. I love her. If you want to keep me out of this, you're going to have to kill me right here and now." A silence fell over the lab and the group of warriors standing around them. "I've given the Order my full support," Reichen said. "It's cost me dearly, but I am dealing with that. Now I'm asking you to give me this one thing: I want Roth dead. I need Roth dead, and so does the Order.

Let me take the son of a bitch down, if it's the last thing I do." "And if it is the last thing you do?" Lucan pressed. Reichen gave a slow shake of his head, feeling determination light up his veins in far greater measure than even the worst of his pyro. "I don't intend to lose this battle, Lucan. I don't intend to lose Claire, either." The Gen One vampire stared at him for a long moment, his gray eyes weighing him in unflinching scrutiny. "Very well," he said at last. "Suit up and get the hell out of here. Godspeed, Reichen. I have a feeling you might need it."

The last ray of sunlight dipped behind the westerly tree line just as Claire, Renata, and Dylan left the Range Rover behind them near the river and started walking up the dirt lane toward the road. They had collected everything of importance from the disabled SUV–maps, notes, weapons, and ammunition–and were taking up a post near the main road as the warriors had instructed Renata when she'd phoned in their situation a short time ago.

As they walked up the narrow path in the gathering dusk, Claire couldn't keep from looking over her shoulder or jumping at every unexpected noise that came out of the ever-darkening forest that flanked both sides of them. The day had been unsettling enough as it was, but it was the buzzing in her veins–the dreadful certainty that Wilhelm Roth was near–that had her skin feeling too tight on her body, all of her senses on edge. She kept revisiting her last dreamwalk with Roth, chilled to remember how he'd seethed with his promise to make Andreas and her suffer. And she also recalled, all too vividly, the numerous women being held in Dragos's cages–prison cells that might be located not far from where she and her two companions had been standing not long ago. It sickened her to think of the horrors those captive Breedmates might have been through. Horrors that had ended in death for many of them, as evidenced by the group of specters that had shown themselves to Dylan back in those remote woods. Dragos had to be stopped.

Wilhelm Roth, as well, and any other members of the Breed who would condone the kind of torment and terror that she'd witnessed through Roth's subconscious mind. Claire knew men like that needed to be removed from existence, but it didn't dampen her fear for the ones who had made it their life's mission to see that kind of evil destroyed. It didn't dampen her worry about Andreas, and the harrowing vision of fire and death that she prayed would never come true. As she and her two companions sought shelter to wait for the warriors to come and meet them, Claire couldn't help thinking that the night ahead of her might be only the beginning of an even greater darkness yet to come.