Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Thirty-Six)

The endless dark refused to release him. Reichen's lungs expanded and drew in air as if he'd been underwater and just broke through the surface after half a year of drowning in the tide. He gasped in sharply, then immediately began to choke on the acrid taste of sulfur and smoke. He felt a light weight draped around him in the pitch blackness of his surroundings. Claire's arms, holding him close. Her soft, tender body curved along the length of him from behind. Amid the bleak void that engulfed him, he'd never felt anything so perfect and right. He knew he was dreaming, but for how long? He couldn't dismiss the feeling that he'd been lost in the darkness of this other realm for a good long time. And Claire was with him. Good Christ… had she been here with him the whole time? He smoothed his palm over the velvety length of her arm. Her skin was cool to the touch, alarmingly so.

She didn't stir at all as he gently stroked her. What troubled him more was the shallow panting of her breath beside his ear, the notable limpness of her cold fingers as he grasped them in his own and tried to rouse her. "Claire," he murmured, his tongue thick, his voice sluggish and rusty in the heavy pall of this smoke-clogged dream. "Claire?" She wouldn't respond. Panic clutched him, snapping his eyes open.

It was then he noticed the glow of flames rising up from far below the cold hard perch where he and Claire had been lying together. As he sat up, the flames shot higher, as if they, too, had been merely resting but were now stirring with renewed life. Beyond the steep, narrow ledge was a great abyss. A pit of fire and roiling lava churned at the bottom of that hellish drop. The flames surged violently upward, twisting and tumbling, nearly blinding him with the intensity of their heat. Like a beast breaking loose of its shackles, the fire lunged for him. Bright white-hot tendrils made a sudden grab across the stone ledge, stretching greedy fingers of flame toward the place where he and Claire sat. Reichen quickly covered Claire's body with his own, twisting himself over her as the heat roared all around them. The burn licked at his naked skin, searing and relentless. But it couldn't touch her. He wouldn't permit it. No goddamn way would he let the fires get near her. He bellowed with fury as the force of his pyro rolled over him and around him. This hellish heat was his–it was him, the terrible curse of his birthright. The very power that had protected him from the explosion in Dragos's underground lair.

Memory of that moment slammed into him in an instant. He recalled how he'd had to conjure every measure of his fury in order to shield himself from the inferno that had erupted all around him. The pyro had spared him from death in the blast, but it wasn't through with him yet. It was still burning inside him. Ready to consume him, just as Claire had tried to warn him. Just as he himself had known it would, from the moment the very first spark had lit within him in that godforsaken field in Hamburg. If he let go now–if he gave one fraction of his will to keep Claire safe from the heat–the curse that had plagued him for so long would own him. And it would destroy Claire in the process. He felt the fires searching for her, flames hissing and flicking like serpents' tongues, hungry for a taste of the treasure he was denying them.

"No," he heard himself growl. "Goddamn it. No." With his arms and body wrapped around her to shield her, Reichen turned all of his rage inward. He focused on the heat that lived in the deepest core of his being. He reached for it with his mind, with every measure of his will, feeling the pyro try to slither out of his grasp as he seized on it and yanked it tight in the fist of his determination. He couldn't let it win. He had to finally take control of the beast. He had to master it, here and now. Forever. He strengthened his mental chokehold on the twisting coil of fire inside him. All around him, he heard the hiss of flames, the sputter of struggling heat that was slowly being beaten down, extinguished. In the periphery of his gaze, he saw the writhing columns of flame drawing back from the stone ledge, back into the deep abyss that had borne them. And still he didn't let go. He turned his face toward the rolling, gnashing fires that were still seeking to leap out of the pit, his teeth and fangs bared in a tight sneer as he roared with power and furious intent.

"No!" he bellowed. "I own you. You will bow to me now!" It was his love for Claire that gave him the resolve he needed in this moment. His need to protect her, to keep her safe above all else, was the driving force that made him certain he could defeat the curse of his destructive power. It was the love she'd given him in return–the love he could feel beating inside him, in his veins, in the blood bond that linked him to her now and always–that made him reach for the hope that one day he might not only master his hellish ability but maybe even come to view it as something more than a curse. He knew a sudden certainty that the curse he had dreaded for so long might one day become a talent that would serve him, instead of destroying him. Reichen clung to hope, and to his love for Claire, as he commanded the fires to quell.

He sent them back down into the abyss below, not out of fear or self-contempt but out of strength. Out of a burgeoning sense of unshakable control. A triumphant cry broke out of him as the last bright flame began to gasp its death. The fires went dark in the pit. The choking ash and smoke cleared away. His eyes blinking open, Reichen lifted his head and found himself no longer isolated on the narrow bridge of cold black stone, but in the center of a large bed. He was curled over the small form of Claire's body, still shielding her, even though the dark dream had finally released them. He stroked her cheek.

"Claire, are you all right? Open your eyes for me, sweetheart." No response. Panic twisted in his gut. He said her name again, more choked this time for the alarming look of her as she lay motionless across his lap, her silky black hair falling loosely over her cold, sallow brow. He took her slender shoulders in his hands and gave her listless body a firm shake. "Claire. Wake up now." An icy pain stabbed him as he leaned down and pressed his mouth to her parched, cracked lips. She was so weak… starving. The piercing jab he was feeling now belonged to her. He felt the severity of her hunger echoing in his blood, keening in his veins. He thought back to the endless dream, and the swamping, unrelenting weight of it. How long had it been since he was last awake? He remembered storming Dragos's vacated lair with the Order. He remembered killing Wilhelm Roth. He remembered the explosion in the underground headquarters, and the look of fear and horror on Claire's face as he strode out of the rubble engulfed in hellish fire. He remembered her courage as she railed at him in stubborn determination, refusing to let him die. Then he remembered… endless nothing. It might have been days since he'd lost consciousness. Maybe a week or more. How long had Claire been with him in the dream realm, neglecting her own well-being to comfort him through the darkness? "Claire, please. Open your eyes. Tell me you can hear me." He smoothed his hand over her face and hair, feeling his heart cracking open as he held her weakened body against him.

"Let me know that you are still with me, that I haven't lost you." God help him, but she did not respond at all. She was cold and unmoving, her breathing far too thready and shallow. Reichen vaguely registered the sound of approaching footfalls outside the open door of the room, but all of his focus was rooted on bringing Claire around. Someone gasped from within the corridor, followed by more voices as a small crowd of warriors and their mates gathered outside the door. "Holy hell," Tegan muttered, a curse that was echoed by more than one person. Reichen didn't know if their stunned reaction was meant for the fact that he was awake and absent of the pyro or for the disturbing condition of Claire lying limply in his arms. He swung his head toward Lucan, Tegan, and several other members of the Order who stood outside the room with Tess and the rest of the Breedmates who lived in the compound. Tess and Savannah were holding IV tubes and bags of clear liquid. Behind them, Gideon had rolled up a gurney from the infirmary. "Something is wrong with Claire," he murmured, his throat dry. A cold gust seemed to blow through his body, settling behind his sternum. "Let us help her,"

Tess said gently, lifting the medical supplies she'd brought. "No. It's too late for that," he murmured, knowing instinctively that she was beyond the need of any mortal intervention. She needed blood. As much as he had once feared that he would only bring her harm, that his love would not be strong enough to keep her safe from what the pyro had made him become, Reichen felt beyond any shadow of doubt that he was the only one who could save her now. He snarled when a couple of the warriors began to enter the room, as if they meant to pull Claire away from him. She was his–now and always. "Come back to me," he whispered, then lifted his wrist to his mouth and sank his fangs deep into his flesh. Blood surged from his veins as he carried the wound to her slack lips and pressed the punctures against her tongue. "Drink, Claire," he whispered softly, holding her head up and willing her to live. He didn't care if he had to beg her. Didn't care that they had an audience watching in solemn, uncertain silence just a few feet away. "Drink for me now. Please, Claire …"

The first sweep of her tongue against his skin made Reichen suck in a sharp breath. Then she began to swallow, fixing her lips more firmly to the source of warm, life-giving blood. His blood, which would flow within her and give her prolonged strength and life. His blood, which would bind her to him as his mate, now and forever. "Andre," she murmured drowsily, lifting her dark-fringed gaze up to him. "I've been so afraid. I thought I'd lost you." "Never," he replied. "Never again." Her mouth curved into a weak smile as she went back to suckling at his wrist. "Take all that you need of me, love," he encouraged her tenderly, his throat clogged with emotion. He didn't care that his voice and hands shook as he brought her closer. He was thoroughly unashamed of the depth of his feeling for this woman. His woman.

His mate. His beloved, finally, and for all the rest of their lives. When he glanced over to where his friends had been gathered, he was surprised to see that they were gone. The door to the room was closed, leaving Claire and him to the intimacy of their reunion alone. Reichen didn't rush her so much as a second. He let her drink for a long time, content simply to hold her in his arms and watch as his blood brought a glow to her cheeks and renewed life to her body. And some long while later, after she was finally sated and strong, he settled back on the bed with her and wrapped her in his protective embrace, giving her a hundred solemn promises that he was very eager to keep, and loving her with all the reverence and worship of a blood-bonded male who had stared hell in the face and now understood that he was holding heaven in his arms.