Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Three)
His vision flooded red with heat, Reichen cast a ruthless eye over the wreckage. He could see no sign of the bastard. But Roth's mate was here. She would know where to find him. And if her lips refused to give him up, her blood would tell soon enough. Claire. Her name flickered like a shorting-out circuit in his mind, dimly, darkly, only to be devoured by the rage that owned him. Right now, to him, she wasn't anyone he'd known, once or ever. She was no one he'd ever held in his arms. No one he'd ever loved. Right now, like this, his fury knew only that she was the female who belonged to Wilhelm Roth. And that made her as much Reichen's enemy as Roth himself. He stalked toward the edge of the woods where he'd watched the Breedmate run. Vaguely he registered the scent of melting pine pitch and singeing leaves as he passed into the thick stand of trees.
Low-hanging branches curled out of his way, bent from his path by the heat rolling off him with each stride. He knew precisely where the female had fled. He could hear the rapid panting of her breath as he walked deeper into the forest. She was afraid, the scent of her terror a crisp note that the drifting smoke didn't quite conceal. Up ahead now, her footsteps went silent. She'd found someplace to hide from him–or so she thought. Reichen's boots chewed up an unerring path toward her. Bloodred, laser-sharp, his focus locked on a huge ball of crumbling earth and the exposed, twisted dead roots of a fallen tree.
Roth's Breedmate crouched behind it. Reichen heard the pound of her heartbeat kick even faster as he neared and the current traveling his body began to cook the ancient root ball, steam rising from deep inside the dark clump. It would be just moments before the whole thing ignited. His heat was too strong now and roiling outward in pulsing waves. He wouldn't be able to stop the coming explosion, even if he tried.
"Come out, female." His voice sounded rusty and foreign to him. Tasted as dry as ashes in his throat. "You don't have much time left. Come out of there while you still can." She didn't obey him. Some distant part of him wasn't exactly surprised by her stubborn resistance–he might even go so far as to say that he'd expected it. But another part of him, the part that was lit up with pyrokinetic fury and deadly short on patience, let loose with a ground-shuddering roar. The warning, such as it was, proved effective. He caught a flash of movement–heard the quick rush of footsteps flying over leaf-strewn ground–in the instant before the tree root detonated. Sparks shot out in all directions, sending streamers of orange light high overhead. Reichen saw Roth's woman bolting deeper into the woods as smoldering debris rained down around the crater that now gouged the earth where she'd been hiding. On a black curse, he went after her. She was running fast, but he was faster. There was nowhere for her to go. It didn't take her long to figure that out for herself. Her steps slowed, then stopped altogether. Reichen paused where he stood, some ten paces away from her. Leaves crackled and withered above his head, all around him branches scorching from his heat.
Her hands flexed and fisted at her sides, her feet shifting as she seemed to weigh her chances of escape and quickly dismiss them. "If you're going to kill me now, then do it." Her voice was quiet, but without the slightest falter. The velvet sound of it awakened scattered memories that shot through his mind in a barrage of images: He and this woman, naked in bed together, caught in a tangle of sheets, laughing, kissing. Her deep brown gaze dancing in golden candlelight as he fed her sugared raspberries on a midnight picnic by the lake. Her arms wrapped around his waist, her cheek resting against his bare chest as she confessed that she had fallen in love with him. Claire…
It took long moments for him to shake loose of that remembered past. He forced himself to think of a more recent one, the one that he could still taste in the bitter tang of the smoke that hung in the forest air. The one that was soaked in the blood of too many innocent lives. "I haven't come for your death, Claire Roth." She went very still at the mention of her name. Reichen stared at the rigidly held spine ahead of him, the delicate shoulders squared and unshaking, defiant, as his enemy's mate slowly pivoted to face him. Her large, dark eyes held his gaze across the distance. He saw a note of recognition there, but it was swallowed up by disbelief. She mutely shook her head, staring at him as if he were a ghost or, rather, some kind of monster. He knew he was, especially after tonight, but seeing it in another's eyes–in her eyes– made the anger in him surge a bit wilder.
"Tell me where he is," Reichen demanded. She didn't seem to hear him. She stared for what seemed like forever, taking him in with that keen, inquisitive gaze. Finally, she gave a slow shake of her head. "I don't understand how this can be," she murmured. She took a step forward, only to back off a second later as blackened leaves and pine needles fell from their branches around him and turned to white ash at his feet. "My God… Andreas. Is this a dream? I mean, I must be dreaming, right? This isn't real. It can't be …" The words came haltingly, sounding weak, choked in her throat. Despite the intense heat pouring off him, she lifted her hand as if she meant to reach out for him. "I thought you were dead, Andreas.
All these three months since the fire destroyed your Darkhaven… I believed that you were dead." Reichen snarled at the threat of her touch. On a startled gasp, Claire snatched her arm back. She rubbed the fingers that would have incinerated on contact with him, no doubt feeling some measure of that truth on her unprotected skin. Her confusion was clear. As was her horror. "Good lord, what's happened to you?" Of course she wouldn't know.
He had been different when she knew him. Christ, everything had been different then. The heat that lived in him now had been cold and dormant, lurking deep beneath even his own awareness–until the hellish power of it had been beaten and tortured out of him for the first time some thirty years ago. It had taken all he had and all that he was to snuff the accursed power and hold it down inside him. It had been so long since the heat had risen in him, he'd actually been fool enough to believe he'd driven the heat back for good. But it was still there, banked but smoldering. Waiting for the slightest chance to ignite while he strove to deny its very existence. He had lived a lie for the past three decades, only to have it erupt in his face. Now he would never be the same. Now Wilhelm Roth's treachery had reawakened that monstrous side of him. Now grief and anger had invited the terrible ability back into his life, and the fires were always burning inside him. They were beginning to rule him. To destroy him.
And because of the ruthless actions of her mate, Claire was seeing that hideous truth with her own eyes. No, he would never be the same again. And he would not rest until he had his vengeance. Through the flames, Claire's eyes searched his, part in worry, part in pity. "I don't understand what's going on, Andre. Why are you like this? Tell me what's happened to you." He hated the concern in her voice. He didn't want to hear it, not from Roth's mate. "Please, talk to me, Andre." Andre. Only she had called him that. After her, he'd not permitted anyone to become that familiar–that intimate–with him. After her, there had been many things he'd not dared permit, of himself or others. The sound of his name on her lips now was a pain he hadn't anticipated. Reichen bared his teeth and fangs in a sneer meant to cower her, but she wouldn't relent with her demand for answers.
"Who, Andre … who has done this to you?" He let the fire of his rage wash over him, his voice as rough as gravel in his throat. "The bastard who sent his death squad into my home to slaughter my kin in cold blood. Wilhelm Roth."
"Impossible," Claire heard herself say, although whether she meant the awful charge against Wilhelm or the fact that Andreas Reichen was very much alive–alive and unfathomably lethal–not even she was certain. "You need help, Andre.
Whatever has happened to you to make you like this … no matter what you've done tonight… you need help." He scoffed, dark and dangerous. It was an animalistic sound, matched by the feral look in his eyes. His rage was obvious, a force so immense his body didn't seem able to contain it. Claire's gaze swept over him, over the pulsing currents of heat that ringed his limbs and torso and distorted his facial features to something monstrous and inhuman. God in heaven. This hellish heat was his rage. "Oh, Andre," she whispered, her heart tightening despite the confusion of emotions tumbling through her. "I know how you must be hurting. I hurt for you, too, when I learned what happened at your Darkhaven." "Fifteen lives," he snarled. "All dead. Even the children." Pained to think of it, Claire closed her eyes.
"I know, Andre. I heard, of course. Everyone in the region was stricken when the news of it reached us from Berlin. It was an awful, unimaginable tragedy–" "It was a fucking bloodbath," he barked, the sharp, raw scrape of his voice cutting her off. "Fifteen innocent lives wiped out at Wilhelm Roth's command. All of them murdered, shot like dogs on his orders." "No, Andre." Claire shook her head, confused. Appalled that he could think such a thing. "There was an explosion. The Enforcement Agency investigators concluded there had been a rupture in the estate's gas main. They ruled it an accident, Andreas. I don't know where you got the idea that Wilhelm–"
"Enough," he growled. "You can't protect your mate with lies. Nothing can protect him from the justice he deserves. I will avenge them." Claire swallowed hard. She wasn't so naive that she believed Wilhelm Roth's honor to be without a blemish or three. He was a cold male, distant but not cruel. He was a ruthless politician who'd never made a secret of his driving ambitions. But a murderer? Someone who could be capable of the kind of death Andreas accused him of? No, she couldn't reconcile that. As difficult as it was to consider, Claire wondered if it was Andreas, not Wilhelm, who was the true monster here. She need only look past his broad shoulders to see the smoke and fire still rising from the carnage he'd left on the road. And there was yet more death and destruction in Hamburg, at the Darkhaven where Wilhelm Roth and his smattering of kin and staff had lived. Death and destruction not so unlike the kind that had visited Andreas's own Darkhaven three months ago. The fire in Berlin had been immense.
The annihilation had been merciless, complete. Nothing had been left of the mansion or its inhabitants when the smoke had finally cleared. The flames had consumed them all. Oh, God… Claire stared at Andreas, a sickness swelling to ugly life in her heart as the heat rolling off his body warped the air around him. Maybe there was an explanation for what had happened at his Darkhaven. Maybe he had snapped somehow. Had something occurred to send him over the edge, to bring out this terrifying side of him? "Andre, listen to me." She took a step closer to him, her hands held out before her in a gesture of peace, of calm.
"I don't know what's happened to you, but I want to help you if I can." He growled a nasty curse. The heat coursing over him seemed to intensify, putting a sharp electrical tang in the air. Claire went on, hoping she might be able to break through whatever madness it was that gripped him. "Talk to me, please. Tell me how to help you and let's sort this out together. I'm willing if you are." Although she'd forced a fearlessness into her voice, she couldn't help jumping a little as a crackle of illumination–as intense as white-hot lightning–began to arc off his body. He grunted through his teeth and fangs. His already thinned pupils narrowed to the barest vertical slits of black in the center of his fiery amber eyes. He was Breed, a predator by nature, but the vampire in him had never scared Claire. It was this other side of him–the side she'd never known he had, let alone seen firsthand–that made her blood run cold in her veins. Uncertain now, horrified by all that had occurred tonight and wary of this stranger she no longer knew, Claire took another step toward him. "Please, you must know that you can trust me. Will you let me help you, Andre?" "Goddamn it, stop calling me that!" At his bellow, a tree to the immediate right of her burst into flames.
Claire threw a nervous glance at the fire suddenly climbing the trunk of the tall pine. Heat blasted toward her from the instant conflagration, hitting her face as though she were caught in a furnace. Had he intended that as a warning, or a threat? Was he able to control this part of him at all? She wasn't certain he could. Claire inched away from the flames, keeping her eyes on Andreas, who followed her with a narrowed, searing gaze. She searched those eyes for reason–for some small thread of sanity–but all she saw staring back at her was rage. And pain. Dear God, so much pain in those eyes now. "Tell me where he is, Claire." She gave a weak shake of her head. "I don't know." "Tell me." She shook her head again as her feet carried her a few more paces away from this creature who had once been her friend… her lover.
At one time, she had thought Andreas Reichen to be her everything. Now she was certain she was looking at her death. Hers and Wilhelm's both. "I haven't seen Wilhelm in quite a while. He doesn't inform me of his business or his travels. But he's not here, and I don't know where he is. It's the truth, Andre." Another roar flew out of him as his name slipped past her lips. Nearby, another tree went up in flames like a Roman candle.
Then another, and another. Heat exploded on either side of her, fire rolling high into the night sky. Claire couldn't hold back her scream. Nor could she curb the survival instinct that kicked her legs into motion as the forest around her began to burn. She ran in the only direction she could, away from Andreas. Her sense of bearings was lost in the chaos of her terror, not that she actually expected she would escape.
She ran, waiting to feel the scorch of hellish fire on her skin, certain that Andreas's fury would not permit her to live. But still she ran. She was breathless by the time she reached the edge of the woods. Breathless and shaking, her feet stumbling over the grass and rough ground. She lifted her head and nearly burst into relieved tears to see the manor house looming up ahead of her. Behind her was darkness and the glow of flames in the distance. A jolt of adrenaline surged into her bloodstream, and Claire raced across the open lawn to the front door of the fortresslike estate. The place was unlocked, left open in the guards' haste to evacuate earlier. Claire flew inside and slammed the door behind her, throwing all of the bolts and locks home. She ran for high ground, grabbing a cordless phone along the way and fleeing up the stairs to the third floor, praying that the sanctuary she'd just found wouldn't turn out to be her tomb. She was halfway through dialing Wilhelm's secretary before she realized the phone had no dial tone.
It was dead, nothing but endless broken static on the line. "Damn it!" Claire threw the phone down as she drifted to the large, shuttered windows on the far wall. She had some inkling of what she'd see on the other side of the glass, but it still robbed her of breath when she opened the shutters and peered out over the estate's expansive grounds. Black smoke plumed from the long drive and from within the forest. Orange fire twisted up over the treetops, licking at the starlit sky. And in the center of the woods, a brighter light glowed–throbbing white heat, blindingly intense. Andreas. He was the source of all that eerie light.
Would he come for her now? If he did, she had nowhere left to run. But the light from his body didn't move. Neither did Claire. Her feet stayed rooted to the floor near the window as she watched that unearthly pulse, unable to look away. She watched, until hours passed and the fires on the road and in the forest began to die down. She watched… as night crept steadily toward dawn and the glow of Andreas's fury continued to burn.