Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Two)

Claire Roth's lips pursed in contemplation as she stared down at the architect's model spread out on the table in her library. "What do you think about moving the bench away from the strolling path and closer to the koi pond, just on the other side of the cottage roses?" "An excellent idea," said a bright female voice over the speakerphone situated nearby. The young woman was calling from one of the region's Darkhavens. Having seen some of her work elsewhere within the vampire community, Claire had been working with her for the past week, privately consulting on the design of a small garden park. "Have you decided about the material for the walkways, Frau Roth? I believe initially you'd mentioned cobblestones or crushed rock–" "Would it be possible to keep the paths natural instead?" she asked as she moved along the side of the table, perusing the rest of the scale model. "I'm thinking soft earthen walkways trimmed with something simple yet inviting. Forget-me-nots, perhaps?" "Of course. That sounds lovely." "Good," Claire said, smiling as she considered the change. "Thank you, Martina. You've done a wonderful job. Really, I couldn't be more pleased with how you've taken my jumble of rough ideas and turned them into something so much more than I imagined."

The young Breedmate's voice brightened on the other end of the line. "The park is going to be beautiful, Frau Roth. It's obvious how much time and care you've put into your vision of what you'd like it to be." Claire quietly registered the compliment, feeling less pride than relief. She wanted this slice of empty land to be turned into something beautiful. She wanted it to be perfect. Every planting, every carefully placed sculpture, bench, and strolling path was intended to be a place of total peace and tranquillity. A sanctuary meant to inspire the mind, heart, and soul. She wasn't one to pick up the torch for a cause–well, not in a very long time, at any rate–but she had to admit this project had become something close to an obsession for her. "I just need it to be right," she murmured, blinking past a sudden misting of her eyes. She'd been overly emotional lately, and was grateful that there was no one in the library to see her weakness. "Don't worry," Martina's cheerful voice soothed. "I'm certain he's going to love it." Claire swallowed, caught off guard. "W-what?"

"Herr Roth," the young Breedmate replied. An awkward silence stretched out for long moments. "I, um … I'm sorry if I'm prying. You'd asked me to keep the park and its design a secret, so I suppose I assumed that you meant it to be a gift for him." A gift for Wilhelm? Claire had to work to contain her bemused reaction to the idea. She hadn't even seen her mate for half a year. He came to the country only because his blood compelled him to. Claire had grown to dread those visits, expected as his mate to feed him from her veins and to take his blood in exchange. Wilhelm hardly pretended to feel differently about their coolly obligatory arrangement. They had discreetly lived apart nearly all of the three decades of their pairing–he in his Darkhaven mansion in the city, she and a handful of security staff here in the country manor a couple of hours away.

No, the garden park was not a gift for her chronically absent mate. In fact, she was sure he'd be furious if he found out that she'd undertaken the project on her own. Fortunately for her, Wilhelm Roth hadn't taken an interest in anything she thought or felt or did for quite some time now. He was more than content to leave her to pursue her assorted philanthropic and social activities; his business with the Enforcement Agency was all that mattered to him, particularly of late. That was his obsession, and in a quiet corner of her heart, Claire was glad for her solitude. Especially these past difficult weeks. Martina let out a small sigh over the speaker. "Please, Frau Roth… forgive me if I've overstepped my bounds in any way." "Not at all," Claire assured her. Before she had to offer Martina either a pleasant lie about her motivations for the park's construction or explain her estrangement from the Breed male she saw infrequently at best, a hard rap sounded on the library door.

"My thanks again for the lovely design, Martina. Let me know if you have any other questions before we proceed with the project." "Of course. Good night, Frau Roth." Claire ended the call, then stepped out of the room. She closed the door behind her, still feeling protective of her secret undertaking and seeing no reason to invite questions from Wilhelm's loyal hounds. But now that she was standing alone with one of the half-dozen Enforcement Agents assigned to look out for her and the property she occupied, she realized that her little side project was the least of the security detail's concern. The guard seemed agitated, uncharacteristically twitchy. "Yes. What is it?" "I need you to come with me, Frau Roth." "What for?" She could see now that the big male was visibly rattled. Considering he was Breed, in addition to being armed to his fangs with firearms and combat gear, rattling someone like him was no small thing. Something was terribly wrong. The comm device clipped to his black bulletproof vest was crackling with intermittent static and snippets of urgent conversation among the other agents posted at the country house. "We're evacuating the premises immediately. This way, if you would." "Evacuating? Why? What's going on?"

"I'm afraid there is no time to waste." More static sounded over his comm. More voices issuing clipped orders in the background. "We're readying a vehicle for you now. Please. You must come with me." He started to reach for her arm, but Claire stepped out of his range. "I don't understand. Why do I have to leave? I demand that you tell me what's going on." "We had a situation at the Darkhaven in Hamburg a short while ago–" "A situation?" The guard didn't elaborate, simply spoke right over her. "As a precaution, we're clearing out of here and taking you to another location. A safe house in Mecklenburg." "Wait a minute–I have no idea what you're talking about. What situation in Hamburg? Why do I need to be moved to a safe house? What exactly does any of this mean?" The guard gave her an impatient look as he barked his position into his comm device. "Yes, I'm with her now. Bring the vehicles around to the front and prepare to roll out. We're on the way to meet you." He made another grab for her and Claire's patience snapped.

"Goddamn it, talk to me! What the hell is going on? And where is Wilhelm? Get him on the phone. I want to talk to him before I let you haul me out of my own home with hardly an explanation." "Director Roth has been out of the country since July," the agent told her, his schooled expression seeming to suggest that he didn't notice her embarrassment over the fact that a basic security detail could know more about her mate's whereabouts than she did. He cleared his throat. "We're attempting to contact the director now to brief him on the attack–" "Attack," Claire replied, awkwardness forgotten as her skin went cold and tight. "Good lord. Was someone attacked at the Darkhaven? Has someone been injured?" The guard stared at her for what seemed like endless minutes before he finally hissed a curse and blurted out the details in a toneless spill of words. "The Darkhaven in Hamburg was breached less than an hour ago. We just received the call from one of the guards who managed to escape. The only guard who escaped," he amended. "It was a complete annihilation. Everyone present at the mansion tonight is dead." "Oh, God," Claire whispered, leaning back against the closed library doors for support. "I don't understand … Who could do something like that?"

The guard shook his head. "We don't have a clear count of how many attackers were involved in the strike, but the surviving agent said the assault was like nothing he'd ever seen before–fire everywhere, as though hell itself had blown down the gates and swept through the place. There's nothing left but cinders." Claire stood there, stricken and voiceless, trying to process everything she was hearing. It was impossible … unbelievable. It just didn't make sense. God, so much of what had been happening lately made no good sense at all. So much random violence. So much senseless death. So much pain and loss …

"We can't delay," the guard was saying now. "We have to get you evacuated before this location comes under attack, as well." "You really believe that whoever did this will come out here? Why?" This time the guard didn't pause to tell her anything more. His fingers clamped down hard around her arm and he started walking–quickly. The message in his brisk stride was plain enough: Claire could hurry to keep up with him, or he would drag her out of there.

Either way, she was leaving the premises and doing so under heavily armed, grim-faced security. There was no stopping for a coat or her purse. She fled with the guard, out of the house and into the chill of the late October evening. The cold autumn breeze bled through the fibers of her wine cashmere sweater and her gray wool pants as she ran alongside the guard to the paved drive, the soles of her suede loafers scuffing in her effort to keep up with the longer-legged gait of the agent dragging her along by the arm. Claire was shown to the open back door of a Mercedes that idled in the center of a vanguard of four other vehicles.

"Get in," the guard instructed her, and gently but urgently guided her inside ahead of him. As he slid in next to her on the leather seat and closed the door, Claire tried to rub away the bone-deep chill that seemed to emanate from within her body rather than without. Everything was happening so fast. She was still trying to come to grips with the terrible news of the attack on the Darkhaven in Hamburg, let alone register the idea that not a few minutes ago her biggest worry was the proper placement of a garden bench or flower bed. Now the handful of Wilhelm's relatives and personal guards who'd resided at the Darkhaven were dead and she was being removed from her home in the middle of the night, fleeing from an unknown, unfathomable evil. Why? The question wailed in her mind.

It was the same thing she'd been asking herself some three months ago, when another Darkhaven had fallen to tragedy–a tragedy that also had left behind only ash and smoke in its wake. But that had been an accident, according to the investigating Enforcement Agents. A freak explosion so fierce and total that it likely killed all of the Darkhaven's residents instantly. And still the question haunted her, as painfully as it had when she first heard the awful news … Why?

"We are in and rolling," said the guard seated behind the wheel, radioing to the other vehicles. He stepped on the accelerator, and, like a fast-moving snake, the fleet of black sedans began to speed as one down the lengthy, forest-lined driveway. Claire sat back, trying not to feel the anxiety that hung in the stale air of the car. The woods around them seemed darker than usual, so strangely quiet. Overhead, the thin moonlight was blotted out by the densely needled tops of the towering pines. The vanguard cleared the first bend in the nearly mile-long private drive. They sped up on the straightaway, all of the cars lurching into a higher gear as they gunned it for the main road. There was no warning of the assault that hit the lead car in that next instant. From out of the pitch-dark forest came a blinding ball of orange fire.

It smashed into the first Mercedes in the line, exploding the car on impact. Claire screamed, feeling the sonic vibration of the blast all the way into the soles of her feet. "What the fuck is that?" shouted the guard next to her in the backseat. "Jesus Christ, hit the damn brakes!" Red taillights went bright in front of them, and it was all their driver could do to avoid crashing into the back of the other sedan as it skidded to a stop. Like a toy train suddenly gone off its track, the caravan of vehicles bunched up, their line skewed and broken. And up ahead, the first car was engulfed in flames that shot high into the black sky. Just then another fireball launched out of the cover of the forest. It flew in a speeding, comet-bright arc, projecting straight toward the halted cars. Yet another orb of flames came quickly in its wake, both of the airborne threats awesome in their terrible, burning beauty. The guard seated beside Claire leaned forward, his fingers clawing into the headrest of the seat in front of him. "Back up–fast, damn it!" he yelled at the shell-shocked driver. "Throw this thing into reverse and get us the hell out of here!" Tires squealing, the Mercedes jerked into a violent backward retreat.

As the car spun around on the narrow track of pavement, its bumper crunching into the vehicle behind them in the driver's panic, Claire watched the guards in the two remaining cars out front throw open their doors and try to make an escape on foot. One of them leapt to safety in the woods. The other proved only seconds too slow. The first fireball crashed down into the hood of his car, obliterating man and metal both in a sickening roar of twisting, flying debris. Claire screamed, turning her face away from the carnage just as the second fireball rained down onto the empty car ahead of them on the road. The thundering explosion shook the earth and chewed a deep, smoking crater into the ground. The guard next to her made the sign of the cross on his chest, then punched the back of the driver's seat with a nasty curse. "Go, you moron! Hit the fucking gas! Get us out of here!" Too late. From out of nowhere–from out of the sky itself, it seemed–came a rolling, fiery sphere of heat.

The fireball soared down past the windshield of the vehicle, the glow of it so intense it filled the interior of the Mercedes with blinding white-hot light. Whatever it was, it felt charged with the power of ten suns, as electric as a bolt of lightning, concentrated into an orb the size of a bowling ball. All the hair on Claire's arms and at the back of her neck rose up as the thing smashed into the ground mere feet from the hood of the car. Another fireball hit behind them, knocking Claire and her two companions forward in their seats. The driver's head hit the steering wheel with a sickening crack. The airbag detonated with the impact, setting off the car's security system. Amid the bleating alarm and the puff of chemical smoke from the deployed airbag, Claire also smelled the trace scent of blood. She wiped her forehead and swallowed hard when her fingers came away stained crimson. Shit.

It was never a good idea to bleed in front of vampires, even vampires disciplined by Enforcement Agency training and dedicated to the service of her very powerful, very unforgiving mate. Not that she really expected to live long enough tonight to worry about the potential blood thirsts of her guards. It didn't seem likely that she or any of them would survive these next few moments.

"Run," growled the one in back with her. He had a gun in each hand. His pupils were contracted to vertical slits in the center of their amber irises as he glared at the door handle beside her. The panel swung open with the force of his Breed mind. "Run as far as you can. It's your only hope." Claire scrambled out and hit the ground in a clumsy stagger. Her legs were weak, shaking. Her head was ringing, her heart hammering in her chest. She heard the guard roar as he got out of the vehicle on the other side and stood to face whatever assault was coming. Claire drifted toward the tall black shadows of the woods as the chaos continued all around her. A couple of guards raced past her, weapons drawn, as though any of them could stand against the hell that had arrived here tonight. She couldn't imagine what kind of army had opened up such a brutal offensive strike.

Claire shot a terrified look over her shoulder as she made her way to the edge of the forest. Whoever the attacking forces were, they were coming closer now. The unearthly glow of the forest behind her was growing brighter, marking their progress. Her steps slowed as the orange light reached through the trees like rays of scorching sunshine in the midst of coldest darkness. She stared, transfixed, unable to look away from the approach of what was probably going to be her death. A silhouette began to take shape. Not an army, but a single man. A man whose entire being was alive with flames.

For one instant–one jarring, delusional instant–Claire thought she recognized the broad cut of his shoulders, the fluid swagger of his stride. Impossible, of course. Still, a glimmer of familiarity kindled in the back of her mind. Could she know him somehow? But this was no man–certainly none that she knew, now or ever. This creature was something out of a nightmare. He was death incarnate. The crack of a gun firing jolted Claire's attention to the gathered group of Enforcement Agents nearby. Another bullet rang out, then another and another, until the air was filled with the sound. For all the good it did. The man of flame kept walking, unfazed. The bullets popped like firecrackers as they neared him, exploding harmlessly the instant they met the wall of heat that surrounded his body. When the last shell was finally spent, he paused.

He lifted his hands in front of him, though not in surrender. With little more than a second's warning, he turned loose a volley of fire on the defending guards. Claire couldn't bite back her scream of horror as the flames engulfed them, incinerating them on the spot. She knew the instant the man noticed her. She felt the heat of his eyes pierce her from across the distance, every nerve ending in her body going taut with fear. "Oh, God," she whispered, stumbling backward a few paces. The man of flames took a step in her direction, all of his terrible fury now rooted entirely on her. Claire bolted, not daring to look back again as she plunged into the woods and ran for all she was worth.