Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-One)

It was sometime after daybreak when Claire stood outside the shower in her compound quarters and reached in to turn on the water. She stared, unseeing, into the warm mist that began to rise on the other side of the glass. She was losing him again. Again, because of Wilhelm Roth. Cold all over when she thought of everything Roth had already taken from Andreas, and from her, she stepped under the steaming spray and stood there, trembling from the chill that permeated down into her bones. In just a few hours, the sun would be setting again and Andreas would be joining the Order on their combat patrols–heading right into the very city where Roth was now. Heading potentially into death. He'd made it very clear that nothing she said would keep him from lending his help to the Order. Just as nothing would stop him from pursuing the justice he felt he needed, no matter the cost to him. Or the cost to the love they were rediscovering after being kept so long apart. At least this time he wasn't walking away without any explanation at all. He had his reasons. Good, noble reasons. None of which made the truth any easier to accept. Some desperate, selfish part of her had wanted to run back immediately to the Order's chapel and beg him to reconsider. She would offer him anything.

Say anything. But she knew he couldn't, or wouldn't, change his mind. He was too honorable a man. And she loved him too much to try to make him bend his integrity just to satisfy her breaking heart. But God, it hurt to think of letting him go. Of possibly losing him forever. Grief and anger swamped her. She felt so confused and afraid… so alone already. Claire sank down onto the tile floor of the shower and let the hot water and steam engulf her. She closed her eyes and thought about how difficult it was going to be when he left with the warriors that night. Being at the compound to await his return would assuage some of the ache in her heart, but only until she considered that he would also be out there looking to have his battle with Roth. And if she added Dragos to that equation, too? She could hardly bear to imagine the outcome of a confrontation of that magnitude. But what could she do to prevent it? A small, desperate voice in the corner of her mind whispered that there was something. Something she hadn't yet considered.

Something so distasteful that it caused bile to rise in the back of her throat. She could go directly to Roth himself. Not for mercy because she knew he had none, particularly not now. Not where she or Andreas were concerned. But as certain as she was of that fact, she was also certain of just how deeply Wilhelm Roth despised losing. He had always been consumed with winning, even the most trivial of contests.

Would he be willing to accept the only thing she had left to offer him? Claire couldn't be sure unless she tried. Repulsed by what she was about to do, but feeling it was her last hope where Andreas was concerned, she leaned her head back and slowed her breathing. She was adept at putting herself into a swift sleep, but finding Roth–hoping that he might be sleeping too–was not quite as easy. She rode the tide away from consciousness and drifted toward the dream realm, searching, praying she would find Roth there. It took her several long minutes before she felt the edge of his dreaming mind through the veil of slumber. Ice formed in her stomach as she moved toward him, ignoring every instinct inside her that screamed for her to flee in the other direction as fast as she could. She saw him in front of her now. He had his back to her, hastily making his way through what appeared to be some kind of earthen vault. Claire followed him in silence, formulating her desperate appeal. Ahead of him, a heavy door opened to let him pass. Claire slipped in behind him just as the thick stone panel swung closed. Roth was grumbling to himself low under his breath, unintelligible words filled with venom and frustration. Inside another room, this one more clinical than the primitive-looking anterior chamber, he stormed past a counter lined with microscopes, dishes, and beakers. As he neared the end of the long surface, he shot his hand out and swept a bunch of the equipment to the floor.

Claire gasped as glass crashed and shattered in front of her. "What the fuck–" Roth wheeled around. When he saw her there, his cruel eyes narrowed and he laughed, a brittle, dangerous rumble in the back of his throat. "Well, well. If it isn't my faithless bitch of a Breedmate." She didn't let his verbal slap hurt her. "We need to talk, Wilhelm. You and I need to come to some kind of agreement before things go any further between you and Andreas." Now he chortled in true amusement. "Let me guess. He sent you here to appeal to my mercy? My sense of honor?" "He didn't send me, no. He doesn't even know I'm here." When his brow quirked with curiosity, she forged on. "I've come to ask you to stay away from Andreas. Drop your animosity for him–and for me–and let Andreas move on with his life." Roth scoffed.

"You can't be serious." "I am," Claire said. "And I'm willing to offer you everything I have to secure your word right here and now. I will come back to you, Wilhelm. Do whatever you want to me–take your hatred for him out on me, I don't care anymore. Just leave him alone. Please." His eyes went narrow as blades, cutting her with their malice. "Are you truly so naive, Claire? I could care less about him," he said, utterly devoid of emotion. "You either, for that matter." Hope kindled, dim but promising. But then Wilhelm Roth let loose with a terrible laugh that made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. "It's never been about you, Claire.

Didn't you know that? Didn't you ever suspect? You were just a prize I wanted because it would mean taking something precious away from him. Destroying his Darkhaven and the people closest to him was a pleasure I hadn't anticipated. One I relished, nevertheless." "You're sick, Wilhelm." Her stomach twisted with contempt. "My God. You really are a monster." "And you, Claire, are already dead to me," he whispered, his voice an airless growl that chilled her to the bone. "You and Andreas are both already dead. You just don't know it yet. You are obstacles standing in the way of greatness, and you will be removed. You and the Order, as well." "Is that your promise to Dragos?" she asked woodenly "How long have you been doing his evil for him?" Roth smiled maliciously at her disgust. "Our revolution began even before I made the misjudgment of taking you as my mate. I should never have bothered wasting time on you, no matter how much it pleased me to know what I had taken from you and Reichen both. It might have been just as gratifying to me had I farmed you off to Dragos with the other females I sent to him over the years." Claire struggled to make sense of what he was saying. Other females. Roth was sending females–did he mean Breedmate females?–to Dragos. For what purpose, she wondered, but only needed to guess for another moment. From out of the ether of the dream, a wall of barred cells appeared. Dank, lightless, terrible prisons. And within them were captive women. Breedmates. Claire could see the teardrop-and-crescent-moon birthmark on a few of them even from where she stood. The same birthmark she bore. The same birthmark that denoted a human female capable of bonding with a Breed male and bearing his young. Good lord, there were upward of twenty women caged in those cells. Her stomach roiled even more miserably to see that some of them were pregnant.

"What's going on here?" she asked, appalled and sickened. "What the hell are you and Dragos doing?" As she said it, her voice rising in outrage, she caught the low howl of an animal emanating from somewhere deep within the place where she and Roth stood. The howl rose to a roar–a pained, keening cry that vibrated through the soles of her feet and straight into her marrow. It was unlike anything she'd ever heard before … an utterly alien noise that put a knot of terror in her lungs. God, what was this place? What horrors were Dragos and Roth conducting in here? The terrible cry kept going, so loud it rattled the floor beneath her feet. Roth threw his head back and howled along with the unseen creature, mocking and sadistic. Then he smiled a murderous smile. "You're dead, Claire. Just like those Breedmates over there. He's going to tear you limb from tender limb. Unless I have the pleasure first. You think about that the next time you let Reichen touch you. The next time you let him fuck you, know that this is waiting for you. I'm going to kill you both and relish doing it." Then just like that, Roth and the chamber of horrors were gone. He severed the web that connected them in sleep, and Claire woke up shaking, panting under the warm spray of the shower.

"Oh, God," she gasped, putting her face into her wet palms. Bile rose in her throat. "Oh, God… what have I done?"

It wasn't until a few minutes after he woke that Wilhelm Roth realized the depth of the mistake he'd just made with Claire. At first he'd been shocked to see her in his dream–he hadn't expected the female to have that kind of guts, putting herself in close proximity to him, even in the realm of sleep, after having knowingly stoked his anger with her whoring for Andreas Reichen. After the surprise of her sneaking up on him had worn off, Roth had let himself indulge in provoking her, baiting her fear with a good hard look at what he and Dragos were capable of. He'd delighted in letting her hear the savage roars of the Ancient in his cage. Her horror over seeing the captive Breedmates that Dragos had been using in all manner of experiments had given him a deliciously sadistic thrill. Now that he was awake, he had time to consider the price of his little game. He had shown her the laboratory and underground bunker where Dragos kept all of his secrets. Would she understand what she'd seen? He hoped not. Claire had an inquisitive mind, but what could she do with this knowledge?

Tell the Order, of course, but the saving grace there was that Dragos was already anticipating a move by the warriors in Boston. He'd been banking on the Order eventually finding him out, ever since the gathering they had disrupted near Montreal. Dragos had been making plans, moving pieces on the chessboard of his master design. Still, Roth knew he could not let this slip go untold. If he did, he knew without question that Dragos would somehow unearth the truth in no time. He had to own up to the error and let the chips fall where they may. With luck, his head would not be made to fall along with them. Formulating his excuses, Roth called Dragos's private line. "Sire," he said as the other vampire picked up with a snarled greeting. "Forgive the interruption, but I have news that, unfortunately, could not wait." "Speak." Roth told him about the encounter with Claire in his dream. He was careful to gloss over most of his self-blame for the slip, pinning the fault on the weasly stealth of his Breedmate's talent. "She spied on me without my knowledge, sire.

When I discovered her there in the dream with me, it was too late to prevent her from seeing the lab." "Hmm," Dragos grunted, listening in a maddening silence. "I'm growing very tired of knowing that this female and her companion are still breathing, Herr Roth. Now that you have things under way in Boston, perhaps it's time you dealt with her as we discussed." "Yes, sire. And I will." He cleared his throat, feeling the aggression pouring over the phone line despite Dragos's outward calm. "It will be my personal pleasure to choke the life out of the bitch–after I let her watch me kill Andreas Reichen." "I have a better idea," Dragos said, his voice soft and venomous. "I want you to come to the headquarters at sundown." "Sire?" Roth was confused. "What about the blood bond?" "What about it?" "If she tells the Order what she saw today, what's to say that the warriors won't use her blood bond to find me and the lab?" There was only the briefest hesitation on the other end. "Be here at sundown, Herr Roth. Your instructions will be waiting for you."