Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Four)

She didn't know what woke her. With a start, Claire lifted her head from where her brow had been pressed against the cool glass of the window. She didn't know how long she'd dozed–long enough that the faint pink blush of dawn had marched all the way over the horizon, bringing with it a drizzle-laden shroud of fog that blanketed the forest and the ground below. Oh, God… morning. Daylight growing brighter by the minute. And no sign of Andreas's light anywhere. Claire's breath misted the glass as she peered down from the window at the lifeless stretch of grass, pavement, and pines outside. Had he left while she'd slept? Was he gone now? Was he dead? After what she'd witnessed him do last night, she wasn't sure why the thought should put such a knot of dread in her breast. But before Claire could tell herself that she should be damned grateful just to have survived the night herself, she was already on the stairs, descending swiftly through the heart of the manor house. She freed the locks on the front door and eased it open, pulling one of the guards' coats off a stand in the foyer and wrapping it around her shoulders to ward off the wet chill as she stepped outside. The striking quiet hit her first. No sound at all other than the intermittent patter of a light rain. It was so peaceful and still, she might have been tempted to think last night had just been a horrible dream. But then the pungent stink of extinguished fires carried across the grounds. It had all been real, worse than the stuff of nightmares. Her nose burned with the acrid reminder of the violence she'd witnessed. Claire drifted across the grass, bypassing the long drive to avoid the carnage of her vanguard. She didn't want to see what the fires had done to the Breed males who'd been killed last night, nor did she want to know how quickly the rising sun would consume whatever might remain of them.

It was that thought–the understanding of what prolonged ultraviolet exposure did to the hypersensitive skin of the Breed–that pushed Claire deeper into the forest. Toward the place where she'd last known Andreas to be. It was difficult to tell where the fog ended and the trailing smoke from burnt trees and scorched ground began. Everything seemed cloaked in heavy gray mist. Her skin dampening with each step she took, Claire watched her feet move through the low-lying fog, following a blackened trail that led some long distance into the woods. The quiet reached out to her as she moved past singed bramble that clawed at her like skeletal fingers of the dead. The stench of old smoke and burnt vegetation grew stronger here, catching in the back of her throat. And yet another sharp odor–not that of cold, extinguished flames, or even the electrical tang that had been rolling off Andreas's body last night. But there was something else in the air. Fresh, rising heat. The sickly sweet olfactory assault of burning flesh. Oh, no.

She took a few anxious steps, faltering a bit as the earth dropped sharply, about a foot below her. The hole where the old tree root had been, she dimly registered. The hole that became a crater when Andreas blew her hiding place to bits in his rage. It was at this spot in the woods that he'd lingered last night. He hadn't followed her at all. And he hadn't left before the sun began to rise. He was still here.

Claire cautiously approached the large, dark shape huddled ahead of her on the fog-threaded ground. He wasn't moving, hardly breathing. The fire that had been burning around him and within him was gone now. His clothes were scorched and torn. His skin sizzled under the hazy rays of the sun, already forming blisters everywhere that he was exposed. He didn't look so dangerous like this. He wasn't the monster she'd met out here in the dark; he was just a man now. A man made deathly vulnerable by the part of him that was something more than human. Like this, it wasn't difficult at all to remember that she had once loved him like no other. It surprised her how easily the pain of their abrupt parting came back to her, as well. Those days were long past, but no matter what she felt for him then or now, she could not let him suffer. She would not abandon him to the sun, no matter what he'd done or what he'd become in the long time since they had been together. "Andre," Claire whispered, her voice breaking the closer she got to him and saw the severity of his burns.

"Oh, God, Andreas … can you hear me?" He groaned something inaudible, but unpleasant. When she crouched down and put her hand out to touch his shoulder, he bared his fangs and snarled like an animal caught in a trap. "You have to get up." Claire took off the oversize trench coat and held it up for him to see. "I'm going to cover you with this to shield you from the sun. But you can't stay out here or you're going to die. You have to get up and come with me. Will you do that?" He didn't answer, but he also didn't lash out at her when she gently placed the coat over his exposed skin. "Can you stand up?" He glared, his lip still curled back off his teeth. Something was very wrong with him, despite the fact that he was no longer livid with fire. His elliptical pupils hadn't dilated back to normal yet, and his irises were still bright amber instead of the absorbing hazel color she knew them to be. All of the Breed transformed in this manner when they hungered or in times of elevated emotional responses, but this seemed different somehow. More severe. Claire couldn't see many of his dermaglyphs–the intricate skin markings present on every member of the Breed–but the ones that were visible on his arms and through the torn patches of his clothing didn't look right. Their colors were pulsing rapidly changing and mutating, as though some part of him were short-circuiting from the inside. "Stand up," she said, more forcefully this time.

"I need you to walk, Andreas." To her surprise, he began to obey her. Slowly he dragged himself up off the ground. Claire offered him her hand when his knees buckled at first, but then he was on his feet, towering over her even though his spine was bent and his head was dropped low on his chest. Claire tugged the collar of the trench coat up over the back of his neck and skull to protect his head from any more UV damage. "This way," she told him. "You can hold on to me if you need to." She noticed he didn't even try to take her up on that. With a pained grunt, he lurched into motion beside her. They progressed at a snail's pace, trudging in silence out of the woods and back across the lawn to the manor house. By the time they reached the front entrance, Andreas's feet were dragging beneath him like lead weights. Claire tried to assist him up the few steps to the door, but he brushed her off as though her touch would burn him even worse than the sun's rays beating down through the dissipating haze. Instead she went ahead and opened the door, holding it for him as he climbed the steps and all but collapsed in the foyer. He went down on one knee, then staggered back up with a groan. "Goddamn it," he snarled, his breath sawing between his parched lips. He looked up at her, his face sweat-soaked and raw with UV burns. "Where to now?" Claire pointed to the other end of the foyer. "You might be most comfortable downstairs in the cellar.

Wilhelm had a private room installed down there when the house was originally built, but it's never used …" He started moving even before she finished speaking. Claire followed him, sticking close in case he had trouble on the old stone staircase that led beneath the main floor. She heard his relieved sigh as the cool darkness enveloped him. He didn't need artificial light to see, but Claire's eyes took longer to adjust to the pitch-black surroundings. She flicked the switch and watched as Andreas staggered off the last step and sank down onto the cold stone floor. He didn't move to Wilhelm's plush personal suite, just peeled off the trench coat and flung it aside, then let himself crumple in a broken sprawl. Claire said nothing as she eased down to sit on the third step from the bottom. She watched him in silence for a while, unsure what to make of him. "Why did you do it?" His rough voice scraped out of the shadows, but his gaze was fierce with unearthly amber light. "Why did you help me?" Claire found it hard to hold that hot, scathing look.

"Because you needed help." He scoffed, a coarse, mocking sound. "You were never stupid, Claire. Bad time to start." The slam stung, but she only shrugged. "And you were never someone who would think nothing of killing dozens of people in the space of a few hours." He blinked, those amber irises shuttered for a long while. Did he know what he had done last night? Had any of it registered with him when he was in that state? He blew out a low curse, then turned his face away from her. "Andre," Claire murmured softly. "Whatever is wrong with you, I'm sure there are people who can help. But you don't have to think about any of that right now. All you need to do is rest, let yourself heal. You're safe here." "Nobody's safe now," he muttered under his breath. He rolled back to face her, pinning her with the twin lasers of his transformed eyes.

"Especially not you, Claire." She stared at him for some long moments, unsure how to respond. She couldn't pretend she wasn't afraid. Even battered by UV light, he was still very dangerous. Still a lethal predator, armed with a terrible power she'd had no idea he possessed. It staggered her that she could have believed she'd known him so well in the four months they'd been inseparable, yet she had been oblivious to the side of him she saw last night. Then again, she'd also thought he loved her, only to be blindsided when he simply vanished from her life without a word of explanation. Now he was back–finally, after three decades, she was looking at him once more–though nothing like she'd imagined it might be to reunite with him. Now she didn't know who he was anymore…or what he was.

"Get some rest," she finally managed to say. Claire stood up and began the climb back up from the cellar, well aware that Andreas's eyes followed her the whole time. She flicked the light switch, plunging the place back into darkness before she closed the cellar door and leaned her spine against it. Her hands were trembling, her heart banging around in her rib cage. Dear God. She hoped she hadn't just made a terrible mistake. One thing she knew for certain was that she had to find Wilhelm, and find him fast.

Wilhelm Roth was getting a blow job behind the wheel of a Jaguar XKR coupe doing 120 mph on an open stretch of highway when he noticed that his Breedmate had walked into the dream unannounced. She came up out of the median and paused on the side of the moonlit stretch of road about a quarter mile ahead of him.

For a second, Roth kept his foot heavy on the accelerator, thinking he would just fly past her like she wasn't there–give her a reminder of how he detested her unique talent and had long ago forbade her to use it on him. But as the Jag roared up the fast lane and Claire's face came into the light of his high beams, he realized she was upset about something. Visibly stricken. Not at all typical of the otherwise calm, cool, and collected female. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the headlights, and Roth took the opportunity to vanish his dreamtime plaything. The naked blonde he'd conjured from the cheap porno film that was running as he'd dozed off disappeared with just a thought; the fierce erection he was sporting from the fly of his unzipped Armani trousers wouldn't go away quite that easily. Not that Claire would question him about it if she noticed. She'd learned her place years ago, and after all, it wasn't as if he could be held accountable for where his mind went when he was sleeping. Precisely the reason he'd given her for barring her from dreamwalking around him. That and the fact that it simply pissed him off to have his privacy invaded in any form.

Annoyed, Roth tucked himself back into his pants as he brought the car to a smooth halt right in front of his anxious Breedmate. She didn't wait for him to address her, didn't apologize for the interruption. "Wilhelm, something terrible has happened." She gripped the edge of the driver's side door, her dark eyes intense with worry. "There's been an attack at the country house." Roth felt his jaw go tense with anger more than surprise. "An attack? When?" "Last night. A few hours ago." And he was just hearing about this now? Through her, and not his guards? Roth scowled. "Tell me what happened." "It was awful," she said, closing her eyes as though the memory pained her. "There were fires everywhere … explosions in the woods near the house and on the road. So much smoke and ash. We tried to leave, but we were too late."

His anger spiked. "Where are you now?" "At home… well, at my home. I'm still at the country house." "All right." Roth nodded vaguely. "What about the men on watch there? Why is it they've left you to tell me all of this when they're the ones who owe me the explanation?" "They're dead, Wilhelm." Her voice faltered, dropping to a whisper. "Everyone else who was here tonight is dead." Roth bit off a ripe curse. "Very well. Stay put. I'll contact the Hamburg Darkhaven and arrange for an envoy to pick you up and bring you back into the city." Claire was shaking her head before he had a chance to complete the thought.

"Wilhelm… haven't you heard? The Hamburg Darkhaven. It's gone." "What?" "The Darkhaven came under attack first. There's nothing left of it. No survivors, other than one Enforcement Agent who escaped the fires to warn us that we were likely in danger, as well." Roth absorbed this news in grim silence. He didn't have a lot of kin–no sons of his own to want to oust him from power, no brothers of any generation who'd managed to live as long as he had. The Darkhaven community he shepherded in Hamburg consisted only of a few nephews, who'd never been good for much; various household staff; plus a small garrison of guards on loan from the Agency. He hardly knew any of them, in truth, and frankly, he had more important things to consider than wasting any time mourning the loss. "I'm sorry, Wilhelm," Claire was saying now, sentiment he dismissed with a curt wave of his hand. He supposed he had to know something like this was going to happen. He did know, in fact. He'd known from the moment he'd been informed of the first Enforcement Agency death at the Berlin office several weeks past–the up-close-and-personal killing of an agent who reported directly to him on covert, often unofficial, operations. When the second violent murder within his private contingent occurred, then the third and fourth, it left little question that someone was out for blood. The only trouble with that theory being the fact that the someone in question was dead. At least that had been the report coming out of the Agency. At the time, Roth hadn't had the opportunity or the inclination to doubt the intel; more important business had already called him away to Montreal.

That business was still his chief priority, but this assault on his personal holdings could not go unmet. "I will take care of the matter," he told Claire. "And you needn't worry, I'll call in a few favors to find you temporary shelter in the region until I am able to return." "Where exactly are you, Wilhelm? One of your guards told me you're not in Germany." She looked around at the dream landscape, her gaze clearly taking note of the jags of steep granite that flanked some of the stretch of rural highway his mind had manufactured. "Are you in New England?" Too clever, his Yankee-born Breedmate. And far too inquisitive now for her own good. Roth neither confirmed nor denied his whereabouts. "Stay put, Claire. You'll be fine." "Wilhelm," she said slowly. "Aren't you even a little bit curious about who attacked us last night? I would think you'd want to know who's responsible … and why." Roth stared at her. "Andreas Reichen," she said, watching him much too closely for his reaction. He was careful to give her nothing, not so much as a blink of his eyes or a kick of his pulse. He frowned after a moment, feigning confusion. "You speak of a ghost, Claire. Andreas Reichen perished with the rest of his kin this past summer when his Darkhaven burned to the ground." In fact, Roth thought with private disappointment, the arrogant son of a bitch should have been dead long before then. Claire shook her head. "He's alive. He's… changed, Wilhelm. He has a terrible rage inside him–a power I can barely comprehend. The fires and explosions here and in Hamburg? He made them. They came out of him. I saw it with my own eyes." Roth listened, both incredulous and concerned.

"Wilhelm, he says he intends to kill you." He scoffed. "The bastard will never get close enough to try." "He's here, Wilhelm." Claire's gaze was imploring. "He is here, in the house with me, passed out in the cellar. I don't know what to do." Roth's furious curse was punctuated by an electronic bleating that pierced the fabric of his dream. His surroundings warped and vibrated. The ribbon of dark pavement and the perfect starlit sky above trembled, the vision of Claire starting to fade out with the sound waves that were rousing him from sleep. "My mobile is ringing," he said, ready to be done with her anyway. As he spoke, the Jaguar he'd been sitting in vaporized, leaving him standing on the strip of moonlit pavement beside her. "I have to take this call now–" Claire's filmy image reached for him. "What about Andreas?" He ground his molars together at the apparent easy familiarity she still seemed to feel toward the other male, even after decades of separation. "Keep the son of a bitch contained at the house while I make arrangements to deal with him."

"You want me to stay here with him?" She stared, uncertain. "For how long?" "As long as it takes. I'll send another Agency detail to remove him at sunset." "Remove him into Agency custody, you mean? You won't let your men hurt him, will you?" Her apparent concern was thoroughly pissing him off. "My men are professionals, Claire. They know how to handle a situation like this. You needn't worry about the details." The jangle of his ringing phone came again, pulling him further away from her, back to consciousness. "What about me, Wilhelm?" Claire murmured. "How am I supposed to keep Andreas here until your men arrive?"

"Do whatever you must," Roth replied flatly. "You know him better than most, after all. Intimately, if memory serves. I'm sure you'll think of some way to detain him." He didn't wait for her to say anything more. The phone rang again and Roth's eyes snapped open, severing his thready connection to Claire. He grabbed the mobile from the table next to his bed. "Yes." "Herr Roth," said a nervous Breed male on the other end of the line. "This is Agent Krieger from the Berlin office, sir. There's been a murder here last night–Agent Waldemar's body was just discovered in his residence. His neck was broken. And… there's more, sir. It seems there was an incident at your Darkhaven in Hamburg, as well." Roth scoffed, full of sarcasm. "You don't say." "Sir?" "Assemble a combat team and send them to my country house as soon as the sun sets. The unit on-site has been attacked and eliminated. Now my Breedmate is there without any cover. She's alone, and she's holding Andreas Reichen for you." "Reichen?" asked the agent.

"I don't understand, sir. Wasn't he killed in that freak accident at his Darkhaven some time ago?" Roth's fingers tightened on the thin case of the mobile phone. "Apparently the bastard is very much alive … for the moment. Instruct the team that I want him taken out on sight. Make him dead, agent." "Yes, sir."