Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Twenty-Five)

Reichen had been prowling the compound's corridors for the better part of the morning, trying unsuccessfully to walk off the spasms and tremors that were racking his body. He padded barefoot down one of the long, twisting spokes of white marble hallway, forced to pause every twenty paces or so when the shakes and dry heaves got too bad for him to keep moving. His chest was clammy, the cool air of the compound hitting his skin like an arctic gust. The jeans he wore felt like heavy weights on his legs, the fabric damp with sweat. He shuddered and reached for the wall to stabilize himself as his head started buzzing and another wave of nausea gripped him. When he opened his eyes, his vision bled amber-bright through the slits of his lids. He tasted blood on his tongue and realized with some alarm that his fangs were fully extended, sharp points digging into the flesh of his lower lip.

His dermaglyphs pulsed all over his body, the skin markings flooded dark with the colors of intense hunger. "Shit," he hissed tightly, as fresh pain slammed his gut and he dropped to his knees on the hard, polished floor. Doubled over and panting, he crossed his arms over his shredding stomach and bit back the groan that curled deep in his throat. His ears rang with the sound of his own blood racing through his veins, the pound of it practically driving him mad. He leaned forward to plant his cheek and brow against the cold stone beneath him until the agony passed, simply concentrating on breathing in and out, in and out…

God help him, but his blood thirst was back again, worse than ever. It had been pecking at him like a raven on carrion for the better part of the morning, the only thing that had kept him away from Claire when she and the other two Breedmates had been leaving to begin their daytime intel-gathering trip for the Order. Fortunately for him, most of the warriors and their mates were in the tech lab now or in their private quarters–a small mercy, as it would have only added insult to an already unbearable injury should anyone happen to see him in such pitiful condition. Summoning every ounce of his will, Reichen forced himself to his feet and began an unsteady shuffle out of the corridor. He was near the weapons room, as it turned out, the darkness of the empty facility welcome as he dragged himself inside and collapsed against the nearest wall. He slumped there, exhausted and wretched, his breath rasping through his bared teeth and fangs. He might have slept for a few seconds or even an hour; he had no idea how much time had passed before the soft whisk of the opening door jolted him awake and the lights of the firing range lit up all around him. Reflections bounced off the mirrored glass of the training area, and through the bleariness of his vision, he saw that Tegan was standing near the door, his hand just now coming away from the light switch. The warrior muttered a ripe curse and something about d?j? vu, but Reichen's brain was too beleaguered to try to comprehend his meaning. He sat there in misery, growling a warning for the other male to leave him alone. Tegan scoffed and took a couple of long strides toward him instead.

Piercing green eyes bore into Reichen with a cold brand of understanding. "Feeling about as shitty as you look, I take it." Reichen swallowed, his throat too parched for words. He glared up at the Gen One he considered a friend, his vision swimming from the steady pound filling his head. He caught the downward flick of Tegan's gaze, knew that the warrior could read his agony in the churning colors of his exposed glyphs. "That blood you took in the city a couple of nights ago should have held you long past now," he said, his deep voice flat as hammered steel. Tegan's jaw went tight, nostrils flaring slightly with his indrawn breath as he crouched down on his haunches in front of Reichen. "How long has the thirst been dogging you?" He managed a vague shrug of one shoulder. "All day… it never really let up, even after I fed."

"Fuck." Tegan ran a hand through his loose tawny hair. "You know what this is, don't you?" Reichen grunted, let his eyes fall shut when his lids got too heavy to keep open. "It's because of the pyro," he murmured thickly.

"The fires ease up … then the blood hunger sets in. Happens every time." "And every time it happens, the hunger gets worse," Tegan said, not even close to a question. "Shit, Reichen. It might be the pyro bringing it on, but what you're feeling is the first whiffs of Bloodlust, my man. You haven't fallen over the steepest ledge yet, but you're heading there fast. And you know damn well that's what's going on, don't you?" Reichen attempted to deny it with a shake of his head, but Tegan was no fool. When Reichen looked up into the warrior's face, he saw bleak understanding there. Hell, he saw a male who'd tasted this same blinding thirst himself. A male who, from the grave look of him now, was still haunted by the memory of an even deeper blood addiction than the one Reichen battled each time his pyro overtook him. He wanted to ask him how he'd fought it–how he'd won against the fierce thirst that could turn even the strongest members of the Breed into savage killers–but just then his gut gave another violent twist. He snarled with the spasming pain, his limbs contracting in on his body. "Breathe through it," Tegan commanded him. "You gotta be stronger than the thirst. Don't let it own you." Reichen did as he was told, willing to grasp at any advice if it would help alleviate some of his agony. It took several minutes before the worst of it passed. Once it had, he nodded weakly, relieved by the sliver of peace that followed the pain. "Tell me about the pyrokinesis," Tegan said when Reichen huffed out a breath and dragged himself up to a sitting position. "How have you managed it so well until now? Hell, we've known each other off and on for the better part of a couple centuries, and I had no clue about your ability." "I'm not proud of it," Reichen murmured, an understatement if ever he'd uttered one. Tegan's expression was sober but not condemning.

"You think I haven't done things that I regret? It's hard to walk through even a year of life without hurting someone or something when you didn't intend it. If I started telling you about all the shit I've done wrong or wish I could take back… trust me, we don't have that kind of time. So, why don't you go first. Tell me about the pyro." It might only have been the warrior's way of distracting him, enticing him to talk instead of anticipating the next round of agony, but whatever Tegan's motives, Reichen found himself explaining how he'd lived most of his life with no knowledge of the curse that lurked inside him. He told Tegan how he'd first come to discover the fires through Roth's treachery some scant thirty years ago … and how abhorred he'd been to realize for that first, godawful time what his pyrokinetic heat would do to anyone careless enough to get near him. "I killed an innocent young girl, Tegan. In mere seconds, she was so charred I couldn't even recognize her as human." He felt sickened all over again–not from blood hunger but from a profound self-loathing that hadn't dampened and likely never would. "After that, I was determined to never let my power surface again. And I worked damned hard to make sure it didn't.

Then Roth sent his death squad to my Darkhaven and there was nothing I could do to hold the fires back. He took away everything and everyone who mattered to me." "Almost everyone," Tegan said, those shrewd gem-green eyes unflinching. "How long have you been in love with Claire?" Reichen expelled a deep sigh. "So long, I don't even recall what it was like not to be in love with her." "You've drunk from her, yeah?" He nodded, seeing no point in denying it. "How about after the pyro? You drink from her then?" "Yes," Reichen said, recalling that first time he'd put his fangs into her throat, the night in Roth's office in Hamburg.

It seemed like a lifetime ago to him now. "I drank from her the night after I went to Roth's Darkhaven." "How'd you feel after you drank from Claire? How bad was the thirst after you had her blood inside you?" Reichen considered it for a moment. "Better, I guess. Not as severe." He hadn't noticed it then, but now he was certain that drinking from Claire had lessened his need to overload on blood. He craved her always, but in a much different way than the post-pyro urge that turned him into something close to an animal. Reichen nodded. "I would do anything for her, Tegan. Including walk away from her, which I did a long time ago."

"And now?" Tegan prompted. "Now…" Reichen frowned, thinking of the way he'd left things with her. She'd asked him only to be with her–the one thing he wanted more than anything else–but in his heart he knew he couldn't give her that. Not when his power was so close to ruling him. Closer than he wanted to admit, even to himself. And then there was the fact that Wilhelm Roth and Dragos were still breathing, still walking free and able to carry out their evil designs. Reichen's power was terrible, but perhaps a necessary weapon in this worsening war. At least then it might serve a purpose–a noble one. He might then serve a purpose, something more than just his own wants and desires. "One more fire and I really don't know if I will be able to come out of it, Tegan. Each time my power rises, it becomes stronger. Less controllable. The blood thirst afterward is hellish enough, but the fire itself is death to anyone who gets near it. I don't care what happens to me, but Claire–" He broke off abruptly, refusing to consider the thought. "She doesn't deserve to be caught up in my personal hell." Tegan arched a tawny brow. "You really think she's not already caught up in it? Just because you push her away doesn't mean she'll be any safer without you."

"She saw my death, Tegan." "What?" "The little girl, Mira, showed her a vision of my death earlier today. Claire told me she saw the flames and the smoke. Saw herself running toward the fire, into the heat, to try to save me." "Jesus." Reichen nodded grimly. "You understand, of course, I can't let her do that. She can't be anywhere near me, not when the fire is in control. Harming her is the one thing I could not bear.

I want her safe from Roth, as well. I don't care how long it takes me to hunt down the bastard, I will find him, and I will see him dead." "Yeah, about that," Tegan said. "You might get your chance sooner than later. It's actually the reason I came looking for you. We got an update from Claire and the others a few minutes ago." Alarm spiked through Reichen's blood, even stronger than the thirst that was still stabbing at him. "What happened? Is she all right?" "Claire's fine. Nothing's wrong, but she did pick up on Roth's presence a couple hours south of here. It was getting stronger the farther they drove into Connecticut, so they're chasing it down, hoping to triangulate a location on him before sundown." "Roth is in Connecticut now? Where, exactly?" Reichen swallowed hard, every muscle tense. He felt the kindling flickers of his fury begin to awaken. He recognized the need to tamp them down, but his concern for Claire overrode all other rational thought. "Damn it, I don't want her getting close to that son of a bitch!"

"Relax," Tegan said evenly, taking quick, obvious note of the heat that had started to crackle under the surface of Reichen's skin. "Claire is in no danger on this op, I promise you. They're only mapping things out from the road, and they'll be heading back for Boston in a few hours with whatever intel they find." Reichen simmered down, letting himself sag back against the wall. He cursed roundly and dropped his head between his updrawn knees. He could feel Claire in his blood, his bond to her giving him the assurance he needed that she was, in fact, okay. She was a calmness beneath the torrent raging in his own veins, cool water soothing the dry heat of the fire waiting for the opportunity to devour him. "What if this has gone too far, Tegan?" His voice sounded wooden and hollow, even to his own ears. "What if after everything we've been through, after everything I've tried to do to protect her, it's not enough? What if the vision she saw proves to be right? The one thing I can't protect her from is me. What if Claire gets too close one day, and the heat destroys her?" "And what if you're wrong?" Tegan said. "What if she's the only thing that might save you from yourself?" Reichen stared at the hardened Gen One warrior who'd once struck down sixteen Rogue vampires in a feat of legendary, single- handed efficiency. Tegan had never been the warmest of inpiduals, but there was a tranquil wisdom in his eyes now–a soulful knowledge that hadn't been present even when Reichen had seen him last, almost a year ago in Berlin. Love for his Breedmate, Elise, had transformed him somehow, made him stronger while at the same time it had smoothed away some of his roughest edges. But Tegan and Elise had different obstacles they'd had to overcome. Reichen's relationship with Claire had been complicated nearly from the beginning. Now it had become one impossibility after another. "I can't risk it," Reichen said.

"I won't risk it. If I go down, damn it, I go down alone." Tegan exhaled sharply and bared his teeth in a smile that wasn't quite friendly. "Blaze of glory, eh?" "Something like that," Reichen replied. The warrior abruptly stood up and cast an assessing look on him. "You may think you're keeping Claire out of harm's way by shoving her aside right now, but the only one you're protecting is yourself. If you go down, whether it's the pyro or the Bloodlust that gets you, it's going to kill that female, and you know it. You just want to make sure you're not around to see it." Reichen didn't try to deny the accusation. Not that Tegan gave him the chance. He backed away from where Reichen sat, then strode out of the weapons room, hitting the light switch on his way out and plunging the place back into darkness.

Wilhelm Roth was on a phone call with Dragos when his veins came alive with awareness of his erstwhile Breedmate. Remarkably, it seemed Claire was not far. In fact, by the way his pulse was stirring from his blood bond to her, he was damn well certain that Claire was within some twenty miles of where he stood … and moving closer all the time. What the hell was she up to? He checked the clock in Dragos's lab and scowled to see that it was just past one in the afternoon. Broad daylight. Had she and Reichen not turned to the Order for help, after all? Or had the warriors for some reason denied them sanctuary at their compound? Roth could think of no reason Claire would be in the area in the middle of the day–presumably without the protection of Reichen or any of the warriors from Boston. Could she actually be foolish enough to seek him out again on her own? Roth might have laughed at such idiocy if not for the fact that his current objective for Dragos depended on Claire leading the Order straight into his hands. If she was coming alone, she would be fucking up the entire plan.

"You're suddenly very quiet, Herr Roth. Anything amiss?" Dragos asked. His voice had to compete with a din of noise in the background on the other end of the line, a metallic roar that didn't quite mask the fury that rode just below the surface of the vampire's outward calm. "You were telling me how everything is in place, just as we arranged." "Yes, sire," Roth replied. "But there is… something odd." "Oh?" The tone was as level as a blade poised above a head soon to roll. "Do tell." "It's Claire. I sense her on the move, sire. I believe she may be getting close to the lab's location.

I'm certain she must sense me, the same as I am aware of her. It's my guess that she has decided to come looking for me." "What time is it?" Dragos asked, his question pierced by the sudden blast of a horn and a muffled voice squawking unintelligibly over some manner of warehouse loudspeaker. "It's early afternoon, sire. A few minutes past one." Dragos grunted, contemplating in silence for a long moment. "If your lovely Breedmate is coming to find you, by all means, let's help her get there. Give the Minions on ground-level security a description of the female. Tell them I want them to go out and find her, bring her into the facility." "But the plan," Roth interjected. "I thought we needed her to lead the Order to us." "Yes," Dragos hissed. "And she will. Her pain will draw the male who's bonded to her, and he will ensure that the Order comes along." "Torture?" Roth suggested, torn between delight at Claire's imminent pain and his own shared agony, since his blood bond to her would absorb everything that she was subjected to, as well.

Dragos chuckled on the other end of the line. "I'll leave the specifics of her treatment up to you, Herr Roth. Contact me as soon as you learn anything more." "Yes, sire," Roth answered. He flipped the phone closed and began to imagine the many slow, sadistic ways he could make Claire scream.