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Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Thirty-Four)

Dragos snapped his cell phone closed and jammed it into the pocket of his cashmere dress coat. He stared up at the starlit sky above an industrial park off I-90 in Albany, New York, and hissed a violent oath. Wilhelm Roth wasn't answering his calls. Which meant that Wilhelm Roth was dead. The fact that Dragos's cameras and communication systems at his Connecticut headquarters had all gone offline and ceased working meant that the bunker had been detonated as planned. He could only hope that Roth had managed to ensure that a number of the Order's members had been blown to pieces along with the hastily abandoned lab. As for Roth himself, Dragos hadn't actually cared if his German lieutenant survived the lab's destruction; it was the matter of a moment to find another right arm to carry out his mission. And so he had. Dragos moved away from his Minion-chauffeured sedan to inspect the work of Roth's replacement.

The second-generation Breed male who'd been recruited from the West Coast was overseeing the movement of Dragos's assets–a persification made necessary by the aggravating and persistent interference of the Order. But Dragos hadn't come this far without anticipating a few speed bumps in his operation. Alternatives had been explored and provided for years ago, and now it was merely a matter of rearranging the pieces that he already had in play. The Order had cost him only a few days–a couple of weeks at most–then he would be right back in business once again. Stronger than before. Unstoppable, no matter what disturbing things he had seen in the witchy eyes of the child seer all those weeks ago in Montreal. "Are we ready to move out yet?" he asked his lieutenant. The big vampire nodded curtly where he stood behind one of several semi-trailer trucks that had been loaded and were waiting to roll out of the industrial park to their appointed destinations. The double doors of the one nearest his lieutenant were partially open yet, revealing the anxious faces of the Breedmates who'd been removed from their cells in the lab for transportation elsewhere. They knew better than to scream or try to escape.

The industrial park was owned by Dragos, manned by his Minions. Besides, the chains and shackles that bound the women to one another would prevent any of them from getting very far, even if they were foolish enough to attempt it. "Seal them up and get them out of here," Dragos said, watching in satisfaction as his lieutenant swung the doors closed and set the heavy steel bolt and locks. A quick thump of the vampire's fist on the back of the truck sent the thing rolling with one of Dragos's Minions at the wheel. Farther on in the yard, several more trucks awaited their departure orders. Dragos walked past the ones containing his many millions of dollars' worth of state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, his gaze fixed on the large white trailer at the far end of the line. It was a refrigerated container, specially equipped for preserving the fragile cargo that was locked and sedated inside. Two Gen One assassins had been stationed within the trailer to stand guard over the contents; another pair would ride up front with the Minion driver and Dragos's West Coast associate to ensure the shipment encountered no problems en route to the rail yard, where the next leg of the container's long journey would begin. "Everything is ready, sire."

"Excellent," Dragos said. "Contact me as soon as you arrive in Seattle to make the last connection." "Yes, sire." Dragos watched as the fleet of trucks lurched into motion and exited the yard. The Order may have disrupted his operation, but he was far from defeated. With a confident smile tugging at the corner of his lips, Dragos walked back to his waiting car. He climbed into the backseat and waited in boredom as the driver closed the door behind him then hurried back around to get behind the wheel. Tonight the lair he'd gone to great pains and expense to construct was gone, but Dragos preferred to think of it as a necessary step in the evolution of his plans. Now he would begin a new phase in his operation, and he could hardly wait to get started. Dragos leaned his head back against the soft leather seat and watched through the rear window as a thread of pale clouds skittered across the milky moon overhead.

Andreas didn't wake up once during the three-plus hours it took to drive back to the Order's headquarters. Nor the entire next day. Claire heard Tess use the word "coma" in conversation with Gabrielle and Savannah when the three women had been preparing the private apartment for him in the compound early that morning. She couldn't pretend it didn't worry her, and the longer he stayed unconscious, the deeper her dread became. This slow, helpless waiting was even worse than watching him rail and struggle against his pyrokinesis. Claire held his hand as he lay unmoving on the bed. She knew he was in there. She could feel his blood moving beneath his skin, could see the occasional flicker of his closed eyelids when she spoke to him. "Is there anything else you need?" Tess asked gently, drying her hands on a paper towel from the bathroom. Dante's mate was trained in veterinary medicine and had possessed an even greater psychic gift for healing with her touch before her current pregnancy had inhibited her talent. Now she laid her hand softly on Claire's and offered a kind, compassionate smile.

"You really should eat, you know. And get some rest." "I know," Claire said, glancing to the tray of uneaten food on the rollaway table brought up from the infirmary and now sitting beside the bed. "I'm fine. I'll have something in a little while. I'm not really hungry. I just want to sit with him for a bit longer." Tess didn't look convinced. "I'm going to come back and check on you in a couple of hours. Promise me that sandwich won't still be sitting on that plate." Claire just smiled with an assurance she only wished she felt. "Please, don't worry about me. I'm fine." Tess gave her a faint nod.

"Let someone know if there is any change in him, okay? You both are in everyone's thoughts and prayers right now, Claire." "Thank you," she murmured, touched by the kindness everyone in the compound had shown her. They loved Andreas like one of their own, treated him like kin, and because of that, she loved them all, as well. "I'll see you in a couple of hours," Tess said as she slowly closed the door behind her. Claire turned back to Andreas and smoothed her hand over his forehead, brushing his tousled brown hair back from his face. She watched him, wondering where he was in his deep, trauma-induced sleep. Wondering when–and if–he would ever find the strength to return to her.

"Oh, Andre," she whispered, gazing at the proud, handsome face she had loved for so long. She brought her lips to his and kissed him, unable to stem the tear that rolled down her cheek when his mouth pressed soft and warm, but unresponsive, against hers. Claire moved up on the bed beside him, needing to be closer. Stretched alongside him, she laid her head against his shoulder and placed the palm of her hand over the steady beat of his heart pounding beneath his sternum. She closed her eyes and let that hardy pulse buoy her thoughts. Andreas was alive. So long as she could touch him, breathe him, she would not give up hope that he would be with her once again. And if he wasn't ready to come back to her, then she would go to him. "Forever this time," she murmured. Letting her eyes drift closed, she sought him out in the dream realm. He wasn't hard to find. Claire walked into a bleak, black void, drawn to the glow of a fire burning hotly in the distance. She was alone and naked, her bare feet walking over a length of cold, dark stone that seemed to stretch out for interminable miles … terminating at the place where the flames danced like orange streamers far ahead. Andreas was up there, too.

Claire could just make out the bulk of a large male form, lying on the ground in front of the roaring wall of fire. He was naked, as well, sprawled brokenly on his side as he had been on the forest floor after Renata had blasted him into unconsciousness. Claire walked closer, realizing only now that the length of black stone beneath her feet was merely a narrow strip of solid surface, a treacherous promenade that allowed no more than a couple of feet on either side of her. The black stone path floated over a sea of darkness, an abyss, which, at its core burned like the deepest pits of hell. And Andreas lay at the very end of the long stretch of cold stone. "Oh, God," she whispered as she drew nearer, realizing just how precarious his position truly was. One careless movement–one unconscious slip–and he would tumble off the edge and plummet into the inferno raging below. Claire approached him carefully and inched down next to him on the sheer precipice of stone. Tenderly, terrified of waking him suddenly she stroked her fingers over his cheek. He didn't stir. His skin was too cold, his breathing unrushed, slumberous. He slept on, didn't even know she was there. "That's okay, Andre," she told him softly as she moved down onto the cold black surface of the ledge.

She curled herself behind him, wrapping her arm around him to keep him from falling and molding her body against his to give him her warmth. "We'll sleep here together for a while. I'll wait with you until you're ready to come back to me."

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