Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-Three)

Reichen caught up to Claire as the meeting in the tech lab dispersed. He hung back while the rest of the warriors filed out of the room to prepare for the night's last mission in the city, his gaze locked on to Claire in a volatile mix of outrage and absolute fear. "What the hell was that all about?" he demanded as she and Gabrielle and Savannah exited the lab together. "When Tegan told me a few minutes ago that you had made contact with Roth, I didn't believe him. What the fuck were you thinking, Claire? More to the point, were you thinking at all?" She swallowed hard under the verbal assault, but she didn't flinch. "It's all right," she told the two Breedmates accompanying her. "Andreas and I should talk alone." Reichen's fury simmered as Lucan and Gideon's mates departed and left him standing in the corridor with a very defiant, very unfazed Claire.

"My God," he said, feeling as though the wind had been knocked out of him. The same feeling he'd had when Tegan broke the news of Claire's dreamwalk visit to her mate after the encounter that had ended so clumsily in the compound's chapel. "What did you think to accomplish by approaching Roth like you did?" "I had my reasons," she answered evenly. "Such as?" "It doesn't matter. He wasn't interested in negotiating. I'm sure that comes as little surprise to you." Reichen scoffed. "Roth never negotiates. He takes. And where he can't simply take, he steals. He kills, Claire. What the hell did you possibly think you could gain by seeking him out, even in a dream?" She started to move past him, as if she intended to leave him standing in the hallway without an answer. Before she could take two steps, he grabbed her by the arm and drew her back to him. "What did you ask him for, Claire? Your freedom? His mercy?"

He scowled, as furious at her recklessness as he was relieved that she was alive and warm in his tightly gripped hand. "Did you think he would simply release you if you asked him to let you go?" "No," she said, her proud chin hiking up with her reply. "I didn't ask him to let me go, Andre. I asked him to take me back… but only on the condition that he would agree to let you live." She might as well have punched him in the sternum with a lead fist. "You what?" Good Christ, the thought of her going back to Roth–under any conditions–was enough to make his blood boil.

That she would offer herself up to Roth in exchange for him? He wanted to roar his outrage to the rafters. "He doesn't want me. He never did." She shook her head as she extricated herself from his grasp. "He said he only took me as his mate because he knew it would hurt you. He has been trying to hurt you for a long time, Andreas." That Roth's hatred spanned many years was no shock to him, but he could hardly process any of that when the gravity of what Claire had done–what she'd been willing to subject herself to, for him–was still settling like hot oil in his heart. "Do you have any idea how it would have hurt me if he'd agreed to your offer?" "Probably not as much as it will hurt me when you go to your death trying to destroy him." Reichen deserved that; he knew he did. But it didn't prevent him from blocking her path as she tried to dodge around him again.

"You're not going anywhere near him, Claire. Not with the Order, not with an entire goddamn army at your side. I heard what you said in there, and I know you want to help take him down, but you're not leaving the compound so long as Roth is out there somewhere. I forbid it." She gaped at him. "You what? You forbid–" "I won't let you do it." "And I don't recall asking for your permission," she said, anger spiking in her pulse now, so sharp he could feel it echo in his own. "After what I saw in Roth's dream today, I have to help the Order take him down. By whatever means I can. I would think you of all people could understand that." Reichen shook his head, refusing to so much as consider the idea. "You're not doing it, Claire. I can't let you." She stared at him for a long moment, then something caught her eye past his shoulder, at the other end of the corridor. "Your comrades are waiting for you." He turned to look and found Tegan, Rio, and a couple of the other warriors standing near the elevator that would take them topside. He nodded to them, indicating that he needed another minute. When he looked back to Claire, she was no longer standing in front of him but walking at a determined pace down the corridor. "Damn it," he whispered low under his breath. Then he pivoted back to the warriors and fell into a jog to join up with them for the night's patrols.

Wilhelm Roth felt the cold, emotionless eyes of five Gen One assassins staring at him as he performed yet another systems check of Dragos's underground laboratory. Everything was in place precisely as he'd been instructed, and now all he could do was wait. Wait and hope that Claire was with the Order right now, wailing over his mistreatment of her and Andreas Reichen, and telling the warriors everything she saw in her damnable dreamwalk.

As difficult as it may be to find the hidden location of Dragos's lair, the Order was resourceful and determined. Those were the very qualities Dragos was counting on to get them halfway into the trap that he and Roth had set for them. Claire's blood bond to Roth and her ridiculous sense of honor would do the rest. Roth had no misconceptions that his future was riding on the success of this pending offensive strike against the warriors. If none of the assassins charged with aiding him didn't finish him off should he fail, then Dragos certainly would. As he made his final inspection of the detonators and pounds of explosives, he wondered if he hadn't been handed a suicide mission. But he had no intention of dying here. The warriors, however … Once they were led into his trap, there would be no chance of any one of them getting out alive.

He could only hope that the Order sent their entire membership after him. It would be such a pleasure to watch the group of them perish in one fell swoop. So much the better if that number included Claire and her reunited lover. Satisfied that all was in readiness in the lab, Roth headed into the UV-light prison area to check the settings one final time. He wanted everything to be perfect for the Order's imminent arrival… and their resulting demise.

It was too damned quiet. Lucan and the rest of the Order had spent the better part of the night combing the city, looking for any signs of Dragos or the Gen One assassins he'd apparently loosed on the streets to bring the Order out. Several hours of searching every deserted lot, warehouse, back alley, and rooftop, and Lucan was coming up empty. So were the rest of the teams on patrol tonight. He'd just hung up with Niko and Renata, who'd been jointly sweeping the area down by the Mystic River with Dante and Hunter. Not a trace of trouble, other than the usual bullshit perpetrated by mankind against its brothers. Frankly, the relative peace he was finding tonight didn't sit well with him.

Something seemed… off. Lucan could still feel it in his marrow that some serious trouble had been ramping up in the city the other night. Those human killings were significant in their brutality and their brazenness. The Order was being lured out to play in a very blatant manner, so why would Dragos pull back his strikes now that he had their attention? As Lucan made one more visual sweep of his area in the final hour before dawn, he couldn't help feeling that he and the rest of the Order were standing in the way of a pending tsunami. The tide and wind had sucked back hard, leaving an eerie, false state of calm. It was quiet now, but at any minute that mother of a wave was going to come pouring over them and consume everything in its path.