Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-Six)

Claire dried her hands on a brown paper towel as she came out of the public restroom of a small gas station situated on a rural stretch of two-lane blacktop somewhere near the northwestern border of Connecticut. At midafternoon, the sun was already beginning its descent toward the tops of the brushy pines and the leafless oaks that covered the hilly forested region of the state. She squinted, shielding her eyes from the blinding orange rays and wishing they had a few more hours to continue their search. They were so close now; she could feel it all the way to her marrow. For the past couple of hours, she and Renata and Dylan had been circumnavigating the area where the blood bond Claire had now grown to hate beat the strongest. They were tightening the noose on Wilhelm Roth mile by mile, systematically narrowing down the range of locations where the Order was likely to find him.

Another couple of hours combing the area and Claire was certain they'd have his location nailed to within an easy square mile. If only the late-autumn day could stretch a bit longer, she thought, impatient as she tossed the used paper towel in a trash can and walked the short distance back to the Order's black Range Rover parked at the gas pumps. Renata was filling the tank for the return trip to Boston, her stance cautiously casual as she leaned against the vehicle and watched the digital gauges clock on the pump's display. Claire didn't miss the fact that the female's right hand was crossed over the front of her body and hidden beneath the folds of her dark trench coat, no doubt either resting on the butt of a pistol or wrapped around the hilt of one of her blades. She was as vigilant as any of the warriors, and, Claire imagined, just as deadly when the situation warranted lethal force. Nodding to Renata as she approached, Claire climbed into the SUV and gently closed the passenger door behind her, careful not to wake Dylan, who was taking a quick doze in the backseat. It had been a long day, made even longer by the fact that none of them had gotten much sleep before they'd left the compound that morning.

Claire was exhausted, but she couldn't stand the idea of giving up before they'd gotten a solid lock on Roth. She reached around the seat to pick up the map that they'd been working from, which was now highlighted in color-block patches of yellow, green, and orange, to indicate the range of areas where her sense of Roth had been the strongest. "Where the hell are you?" she whispered low under her breath, tuning out the ding of the station bell as a car pulled into the full- service pump next to her. She put all her concentration into that beat of dark, visceral awareness that ticked in her pulse, trying not to think about the fact that Roth must be sensing her in much the same way. Did he know how close she was to finding him right now? He must, surely. Only the simple fact that the sun had yet to set gave her any kind of comfort when she thought about the fury she would face if she ever fell into his hands again. He would kill her, she was certain. But not before he took his anger out on her and made her wish she was dead. Rattled by the thought of him, Claire pivoted in her seat again to stow the map. It was then she noticed the two men getting out of the car beside her. They were big men, both dressed in black from their zipped-up leather jackets to the fatigues tucked into the tops of their combat boots. They looked her way as she watched them, and a chill settled deep in Claire's bones. Their eyes were cruel, strangely vacant. And this wasn't the first time she'd seen the pair of human males today. Claire had noticed them just a couple of hours earlier, when she and Renata and Dylan had paused at a greasy-spoon diner for lunch in a neighboring town.

Hard to miss all that dark clothing and barely concealed menace. Hard to miss the way the two men studied her now, then exchanged a wordless look with each other before one of them went around back to get something out of the trunk. She jumped when Renata opened the driver's-side door. "We've got a tail." "I know," Claire said as Renata dropped into the seat, closing the door with one hand and turning the key in the ignition with the other.

"I saw them earlier. They were staring at us then, too. There's something wrong with them–with their eyes. It's making my skin crawl." "That's because they're Minions," Renata said matter-of-factly as she threw the SUV into gear. From the backseat, Dylan sat up and sucked in a quick breath. "Oh, shit. You guys, we've got company." "Yeah, we're on it," Renata replied, glancing in the rearview mirror. "Buckle up." Dylan started to say something more, but then Renata stomped on the gas and the Range Rover's tires peeled rubber on the pavement. They screamed out of the gas station and onto the tree-lined, curvy two-laner.

In seconds, the Minions were right behind them. Claire pivoted around to gauge their distance. "They're coming up fast. Oh, my God, they're going to ram–" The sudden jolt of impact made the Rover jump and jostle on the road. To Renata's credit, she held the wheel steady, correcting the vehicle when it started to veer sharply into the other lane. She sped up, gaining a couple of car lengths before the sedan came roaring up on them again, trying to force them off the road. "There's a small access lane up ahead on the right," Dylan said, her voice raised to be heard over the whine of the engine and the pounding air of urgency that filled the cabin. "Turn in there, Renata. It's just past that dead tree stump. Do you see it?" "I see it," Renata said, "but I don't want to risk turning off and getting us trapped in the middle of the forest. Hang on. I think I can outrun these bastards." "We won't be trapped," Dylan insisted. "You have to do it now!" Claire glanced back at the auburn-haired Breedmate and saw the certainty in her gaze. "How can you be sure of that?" "Because the ghost of the dead Breedmate sitting back here next to me is telling me it's our best chance of surviving." Claire felt her eyes go wide.

"Good enough for me in that case," Renata said, and eased up on the gas only enough for her to make the turn off the road and onto the bumpy woodland path that Dylan had indicated. "Keep going," Dylan instructed.

"Just follow this thing until I tell you to stop." "All right." Renata gunned it, throwing up dust and pebbles in their wake. Behind them, the Minions in the sedan had to hit their brakes hard as they skidded sideways to make the turn. They managed it, the car lurching forward like a bullet, still fast on their tail. Through the cloud of debris between the two vehicles, Claire could just make out the bared teeth and dark, sharklike eyes of the two human mind slaves. Were they Roth's Minions, or did they belong to someone even more dangerous than him–Dragos? She didn't want to know. She only hoped that Renata's driving skills and Dylan's Breedmate talent would be enough to spare them. If not… If not, then this stretch of thicket-choked forest might be the last thing any of them saw. "Faster, Renata!" Dylan urged. "Keep going–as fast as you can!" The Range Rover rocked and bounced, branches scraping its sides and slapping at the windshield and windows like spiny tentacles. And still the Minions kept coming. "Cut left," Dylan shouted. "As sharply as you can, Renata. Cut left then punch the gas!" Claire gripped the dashboard as the vehicle made a sudden, swinging pivot on its front wheels. The rear of the SUV arced out behind them in what felt like a slow-motion turn, as graceful as a ballerina. Claire glanced out her window just in time to see that they were riding the very edge of a sharp drop. Below them a couple of steep yards, a river raced and tumbled past boulders the size of a small car. She couldn't bite back her scream. Nor could she do anything but watch in stricken wonder as the Minions' sedan came barreling toward them in that same instant.

It smashed into their back bumper in a sickening crunch of protesting metal and kept going, shoving them forward out of the way as the car catapulted over the edge and plunged down, the hood crashing into the water.

"Holy shit!" Dylan cried. "It worked! Did you see that?" Renata looked far from celebratory. The Range Rover was out of control, coming to an abrupt halt as the front bumper wrapped around the trunk of a small tree. Airbags exploded out of the dashboard with the impact, throwing off an airy whine and a puff of electronic smoke as they deployed. Dazed and shaken, it took a few seconds for Claire to get her bearings as the restraints slowly deflated. Renata, meanwhile, calmly batted the obstacle out of her way and climbed out of the vehicle. She stalked around to the back of the SUV and grabbed the nasty-looking weapon that Nikolai had given her. Then she walked swiftly but steadily over to the edge of the embankment. Claire and Dylan got out of the smashed Rover and followed, jogging to her side just as the Breedmate readied her aim on the Minions, who were scrambling to get out of their car before the river swept them downstream. Renata took just two shots–each hitting its target with unerring accuracy. The Minions, both bleeding from gaping holes in their heads, drifted lifelessly into the swift-moving current. "Everybody okay?" she asked, glancing over with a steady, unnerving calm. "We're fine," Claire answered, still astonished by everything she'd just witnessed–not the least of which being Renata's coolly efficient manner as she'd killed the two deadly assailants. As the women turned away from the ledge, Dylan froze in her tracks.

"Um…you guys? You know how we were hoping that if we found Roth we might also be able to use him to find solid intel on Dragos's location?" She looked at Claire and Renata. "I think we're getting close." "Is that what the dead Breedmate is telling you now?" Claire asked. "Uh-huh." Dylan slowly lifted her hand to indicate the wooded area all around them. "She and about twenty others like her. They're coming out of the trees one after the other and standing right in front of us." Claire swallowed hard as she stared into the empty forest, the last few rays of daylight burnishing everything in a deep russet glow. She couldn't see what Dylan was reporting, but the fine hairs began to rise on the back of her neck. "We'd better call the compound," Renata said. "Uh-huh," Dylan murmured. "Good idea. Because I think we may be standing almost on top of Dragos's lair right now."