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Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Eighteen)

How's Harvard doing?" Lucan asked as Gideon came out of the compound's infirmary. "Still unconscious, which is probably for the best right now. Fortunately the bullet passed clean through, but the holes it left behind in his chest and back are going to need some time to heal. He's going to be okay, but he'll be hurting for a while, and he's down for a week, minimum." "Shit," Lucan muttered. "The last thing we need is to lose any of our numbers while Dragos is apparently ramping up his operation." The altercation earlier that night in the city had proven to be one hell of a revelation. The Order had been aware of the fact that Dragos had other highly skilled assassins like Hunter at his beck and call, all of them presumably kept loyal by unremovable UV collars, programmed to detonate and sever the head of any who tampered with the device or disobeyed his command. But what Lucan and the Order hadn't known for a fact–and, frankly, had dreaded to imagine–was that one or more of those assassins might be first-generation Breed, like Hunter. And to take that disturbing thought one step further, it was easily feasible to assume that if Dragos had other Gen One assassins in his service, Gen Ones who looked remarkably like Hunter himself and with similar glyphs, then the son of a bitch had to be breeding them from scratch off one of the original, otherworldly fathers of the vampire race on this planet. An Ancient.

Like the one that the Order recently discovered had been kept in hibernation deep within the rock of the Bohemian mountains for probably centuries. The one that Dragos had awakened and removed God only knew how long ago. If that creature was in fact alive, being used to produce new sons with first-generation strength and abilities–if a breeding process like that had been going on for decades or longer–then it wasn't only the Order and the vampire nation that had cause for concern, but all of humankind. Bred in great numbers, a force that brutal, that bloodthirsty and powerful, would be virtually unstoppable. The dark thoughts followed Lucan as he and Gideon left the infirmary wing and walked the twisting corridors to the tech lab. The entire compound was gathered there, the warriors in from patrol, and all of the Breedmates. Hunter was also in attendance, the big Gen One looming at the back of the room, while the rest of the group had taken seats around the large table in the center.

Lucan gave the male a brief nod of greeting, silent acknowledgment of Hunter's assistance tonight–assistance that had probably saved more than one warrior's ass and also netted the Order an up-close look at the technological wonder of the dead assassin's UV collar. Although it was smashed and detonated, Gideon had been playing with the device ever since it arrived, trying to get a handle on how the thing worked and how it could potentially be used against its wearer. "How's the arm?" Lucan asked, turning his attention to Brock, who sat between Kade and Nikolai at the table. The bulky black warrior shrugged his wounded shoulder and cracked a broad grin. "It'll feel a helluva lot better when I get a chance to smoke one of these Gen One freaks of nature." He glanced over at Hunter. "No offense." The vampire's golden gaze was as flat as slate. "None taken." Lucan took his place next to Gabrielle at the head of the table and addressed the assembled team. "Obviously, after what we learned a few hours ago, our mission to disable Dragos and his operation has acquired a new, immediate objective. I don't need to tell any of you that the last thing we need is a Gen One killer loose in the city, slaughtering humans at will and wreaking general havoc. Now, we can hope that it was just the one inpidual, an isolated incident, but I'm not the kind to rely on hope. I need answers.

Solid intel on just what we might be dealing with here–before Dragos sends it to our doorstep." There were a few nods around the table, and more than one of the mated warriors shot Lucan a look that communicated the same dread he felt whenever he thought of the potential of their war with Dragos coming home to the compound. "Tomorrow night I want a sweep of the entire city," he said. "We'll pide up: Tegan, Hunter, and myself each accompanying one group in case we run into more Gen Ones. This is an extermination mission. If one of Dragos's assassins is spotted, we take him out. I want to send a very clear message to that son of a bitch and drive him back. Hard." "That could be exactly what he wants us to do," Tegan replied. "Have you considered that what happened these past two nights might have been Dragos's way of baiting us? Trying to pull us into street combat with his underlings so we're not going after him?" Lucan nodded. "It could be. But if he's sent assassins into the city, can we really afford to take that chance and not confront the threat head-on?" Very subtly, tenderly, Tegan slid his hand over to cover Elise's. "No, we can't." "Okay," Lucan said. "Let's go over the map and pvy up territories for tonight's patrol."

Reichen closed the cell phone and raked his hand over the top of his head. "Jesus Christ." "Is it bad news?" Claire came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, her body still glistening with droplets of water from her shower. "It's not good," he said, glancing up from where he sat on the edge of the bed. It was close to midnight, and he'd been waiting for Claire to get cleaned up and dressed before he broached the subject of leaving Newport, when the disturbing call came in from the Order. "Two of the warriors were shot earlier tonight in a confrontation with one of Dragos's henchmen." "Good lord," she whispered. "I'm sorry to hear that, Andre. How terrible." Reichen nodded gravely. "They're down one man now, and planning to run intensive sweeps of the city tomorrow night to rout out any other potential threats." Claire inched over to join him where he sat, but instead of touching him, she wrapped her arms around herself. He could feel her unease in both the tentative way she moved and the sudden spike of her adrenaline, which echoed in his own veins.

"Do they believe Dragos is in Boston, then?" "I don't know. Bad enough he's sent his Gen One assassins in to stir up problems." "He has assassins who are also first-generation Breed?" Claire's expression fell a little more. "I had no idea. Dragos must be a very dangerous enemy to have." "Yes," Reichen agreed. "But Gen One assassins are only part of what makes him so dangerous. He has other things, too… the Order believes he controls one of the Ancients, hidden somewhere in a location we've yet to uncover." Claire frowned. "But all of the Ancients were killed during the Middle Ages. It was the Order that declared war on them and carried out the slayings. Even I know that part of Breed history." Reichen slowly shook his head. "One escaped the war with the Order. He was secreted away in a crypt in Bohemia for a very long time–until Dragos had him removed. I saw the empty crypt myself, last year, when I climbed the mountain outside Prague with some of the warriors. We'd been hoping the Ancient was dead and dust by now, but he's not. Apparently Dragos has been keeping the creature alive for centuries, using him to create a new generation of the most powerful vampires in existence. With enough time and resources, Dragos could craft his own personal army of Gen One assassins bred to do his bidding." "Not if the Order can stop him," Claire said hopefully. "We have to stop him," Reichen corrected. "We have to strike at him wherever and however we can."

Claire watched him with cautious eyes. "We? But you aren't–" "I owe them," he said solemnly. "The Order has been there for me when I needed them in the past, and I have pledged to them that I am here when they need me. I meant that. I can't go back on it." "What are you saying?" "They're down one man in Boston now. I need to step in and help them." "You're going to Boston?" He didn't know why that should make her pulse lurch the way it did, but he felt her alarm echo in his own veins. "But you're not one of them, Andreas. You're not a warrior, so how could they ask that of you?" "They've asked nothing of me. I've offered them my assistance because they are my friends." She glanced away from him, seeming to struggle with her words. "But I thought we were … I thought, after last night, after everything we said to each other…" He laid his hand gently on the side of her face. "It doesn't change a thing about what we've shared here, or how I feel about you. I love you, Claire. But this isn't a choice between you and them. It's simply my duty. My honor. And if teaming with the Order to move against Dragos brings me closer to finding Roth, so much the better." Claire got up and paced away from him, across the room. Her shoulders were held in a tense line. Even if he hadn't been linked to her by blood, he would have known without question that she was troubled by something deeper than anything she had said so far. "I don't want you to go, Andre.

You can't go to Boston. Not now." "You had to know that neither one of us could stay here like this for long." He moved toward her, gently turned her around to face him. "The Order is sending a vehicle. It will be here within the hour." "You'll be killed," she said, her voice cracking. "Andreas, you will die if you go to Boston. I can feel it in my heart. If this vengeance of yours doesn't kill you, then your fury surely will." He lifted her chin so that she was forced to look into his eyes. "I have more reason to live than ever. I'm not looking for death, but I can't pretend I'll have a moment's peace until Roth and his ilk are wiped from existence. Neither will you." "You can't go," she murmured, stubbornly refusing to hear him. When he started to shake his head in denial, she spoke with even more determination. "What if I asked you to let go of your hatred of Wilhelm Roth? What if I were to ask you to choose–" "Don't," he whispered. "There is no choice for me to make here." He smoothed her hair out of her face, feeling as though something precious were slipping through his fingers. "If I stayed now–even if I set aside my hatred of Roth–what will we do when he comes looking for us? Because he will, Claire. You know that as well as I do."

"Then we will face him together. When and if that time comes, we'll defeat him together." Reichen shook his head slowly. "This is my battle, not yours. I wouldn't want you anywhere near when I finally get my hands on Roth. It's far too great a risk. What do you think would happen to you if the fires inside me ignite and won't ebb?" God, he'd thought about that awful scenario a hundred times, beginning on that day in the farmer's field outside Hamburg. He'd been thinking about it as recently as last night, and today, as well, when he could still feel the heated embers glowing in his belly. How would he ever forgive himself if he brought any harm to Claire? "I can't risk it," he said again, more forcefully now. "And I won't let you risk it, either. I want you to come with me tonight to the Order's headquarters. You'll be protected in their compound, and you can stay there until–" "Until when?" She closed her eyes for a long moment, as if absorbing the weight of his words. "Until you are either dead or very near to it? You want me to stand by and watch you pursue your own destruction, Andre? Now you are the one asking too much." He wanted to tell her that her fears were unfounded. More than anything, he wanted to promise her that he had no doubts about how this thing with Roth was going to work out. He wished he could assure her that somehow they would come through all of this in the end, that they could have a future together–the future Wilhelm Roth had denied them so many years ago. But he couldn't deceive her. Taking down Roth might demand the last of his thin control. If he had to unleash his power to its hellish maximum in order to destroy the bastard, he would. And if the situation called for that, he knew the odds of him emerging from it with any shred of his humanity intact was virtually nil. He gazed down at her lovely face and tenderly smoothed a damp tendril from her brow.

"Get dressed now, all right? We can talk more, but it won't be long before our ride arrives to pick us up. And you are going with me, Claire. That much is not open to debate." She looked at him for a long moment, saying nothing. Then she pressed her lips together and gave a faint shake of her head. "I know where Roth is, Andre." Reichen couldn't speak as those words spilled out of her mouth. He stood there, dumbstruck and confused, a building sense of rage forming swiftly from deep inside him. "I felt his presence through my blood bond to him last night, when we first arrived in Boston." Her admission was calmly voiced and steady, filled with certainty. It made him pause, even while his pulse slammed into a violent tempo. "He's here in the United States?" She nodded faintly. "In Boston." Reichen's blood began to sizzle. "You knew this? You knew this, but you didn't tell me." He didn't mean for it to come out as an accusation, but the heat flickering to life within him made it hard to form words. His head was buzzing, and it was hard to do anything but fight to keep control of the kindling fire that was already starting to spread through his body. Roth was a mere hour away. All this time, so close to his grasp. "I couldn't tell you, Andre. I didn't want to give you information that might only get you killed. That's why I left the airport without telling you. But then you followed me here, and I thought maybe if we spent some time together, the way we used to, then I could convince you to give up your need for vengeance." Reichen could barely breathe. His nostrils filled with the acrid tang of smoke and heat. All along his limbs, electricity crackled, growing hotter by the second. "For fuck's sake, Claire. You should have told me about this. I needed to know. Goddamn it, the Order needed to know also." "I didn't want my blood bond to Roth putting you or anyone else in danger."

His vision beginning to bleed red with rage, he stalked away from her, fuming. "Claire, you have been the one in danger all this time. With Roth so close, he had to know you were here, too. He could have shown up on this doorstep at any time." "But he didn't," she said quietly from behind him. "I couldn't tell you that I knew where he was, or you would have gone after him. You can't tell me that you wouldn't have insisted I help you locate him, Andreas. You're so determined to claim your justice, how long would it have taken you before you asked me to use my blood bond to lead you to him?" "Never," he said, appalled. He spun around to face her then, his body teeming with heat. "I never would have used you. Never. God, don't you know that?" "I suppose I wasn't willing to find out," she replied. "Andreas, please, don't be angry with me–" "I'm fucking furious with you!" he roared, unable to bite back the fear that had such a firm hold on his heart. His chest heaved with every breath he pulled into his lungs. He shook from a place deep within, a pit of dread so black and endless, it might have swallowed him whole. And the heat of his destructive power continued to rise, burning through his reason and self-control. "I can't be near you right now.

I have to get the hell out of here." When he moved to walk past her, Claire's hand shot out to him. Too late to warn her away, he felt her fingers close around his hand. She yelped in sudden pain and pulled back, cradling her palm to her chest. Oh, God. He'd burned her. He had stomped on her heart and now he was hurting her in still another way. Just as he feared he would do eventually. He stepped past her and, with a few brisk strides, chewed up the distance to the door. "Andreas," she called out behind him. He didn't look back. His body lethal with the heat of his fury, he stormed out of the room and leapt off the second-floor balcony to the foyer below. He heard her cry his name again, but he didn't so much as pause for a second. Glowing now, his pyrokinetic curse screaming through his veins and limbs, mind and soul, he threw open the front door with a sharp mental command. Then he stalked out into the crisp, cool night air without looking back.

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