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Ashes of Midnight (Chapter Thirty-Three)

The fire owned him. He knew this, knew it from the moment the bunker had exploded all around him but didn't take him down with it. He knew he was too far gone, even as he'd crawled out of the ashes and rubble intact, his body protected by the furious heat that only seemed to grow stronger, brighter, more uncontrollable by the second. He had lost the battle with his terrible ability, with himself, just as he'd feared would happen. The others gaping at him in the flame-drenched darkness of the woods knew it, too. Especially her, the female whose welling, dark brown eyes tore at something deep within him. He loved her. Not even the madness of the unrelenting heat could burn away that fact. She lived in his heart, this female. His female. His mate, something primal and anguished howled from inside him. He loved her deeply, completely, but knew he could not have her. Not now.

Not ever again. He threw his head back and roared at the thought, and his voice turned loose a ball of white flames. The orb pitched high, then smashed into the ground a half-dozen feet from him, showering the area in sparks and clumps of upheaved loam. "Andreas, please," his woman cried. "Let us help you." Fire danced all around her. Tears filled her eyes, her hands trembling as she held them out to him through the smoke and pale, floating ash that was raining down like snowflakes from the canopy of trees above. "Andre, look at me. Hear me. I know you can." She stepped toward him, ignoring the sober warnings of more than one of the males in her company.

"I'm not ready to let you go," she said fiercely, words that seemed to echo back at him like a memory. Had he heard them in this very spot earlier tonight? Had he been the one to say them to her? It didn't matter. He couldn't let it matter. She and the others with her–friends, his instinct called them–were not safe around him now. They had to go. Except she wasn't about to leave him there. He could see that plainly enough in the stubborn tilt of her jaw. He growled with fury, and felt the swell of another ball of heat building in his gut. Incredibly, she moved even closer to him. A vision flashed through his mind as he watched her take yet another step toward him. He saw a little girl with sandy pigtails and a gentle smile holding her hand out to him in a gesture of kindness.

He saw a bright, innocent face offering him help and compassion…just before the fire that lived within him leapt out to consume her. He'd killed something precious and pure once before. He would not do it again. Bellowing his self-contempt, he sent a small volley of fireballs at the ground in front of him. A low barrier of flames twisted and crackled, driving her back. It wasn't enough. He needed her gone–needed to know that she was far away from his destructive power. He needed all of them gone now. He threw more fire, forcing the entire group to pull back. As they gradually retreated, he saw the tear-streaked, beautiful face of the woman–his woman–fixed on him through the climbing wall of flames that separated them. "No, Andre," she mouthed. "No. I'm not going to let you do this."

Heat gusted from the dancing flames in front of Claire and the others. Behind the wall of undulating fire, she watched Andreas's face. His eyes were filled with torment and pain. With madness, too. Heartbreaking, bleak resolve smoldered in his gaze. He was giving up. He was trying to drive her away from him, so he could deal with his suffering–most likely his death as well–alone. No, Claire thought, firmly rejecting the idea. No goddamn way was she going to accept that. Not after all they'd been through. Not when she'd been waiting for him, had never stopped loving him, all this time. There had to be some way to break through to him. There had to be some way to help him. "Renata," she said, turning to look at the other Breedmate. "You did something to him a few minutes ago with your mind. It dimmed some of the heat surrounding him–" "Yes," Renata agreed. "I saw it, too."

"I need you to do it again now." Nikolai stepped over, his expression grave. "Renata's talent is lethal, Claire. It's not something you want to mess around with, trust me. If she turns it loose on Reichen again, it might–" "Might what? Kill him?" Claire felt hysteria bubble up inside her. "Look at him. He's already dying. If we don't do something fast, then the pyro will kill him." She looked at Renata, desperate for even the slimmest chance of saving Andreas. "Please … please, try." Renata gave a curt nod, then looked away to fix her attention on the formidable tower of heat and flames that was Andreas. She stared unblinking, focused like a laser. Claire felt the air beside her shift almost imperceptibly as an unseen current leapt outward from Renata's mind and seized on its target. He reared back the instant it hit him.

Claire's heart lurched as he threw his head back and howled, all of his muscles going taut as cables. He grabbed both sides of his head and doubled over as Renata held him in the debilitating psychic grasp of her strong mind. Andreas shuddered and roared … and as he struggled, the glow that swamped him began to fade. "Keep going, Renata! Oh, my God, I think it's working." Claire heard more than one of the warriors curse from nearby, where they all stood watching, everyone as transfixed as Claire was as the mental blast Renata delivered continued to douse Andreas's heat. He dropped to his knees, buckled over, still holding his head in his hands. He looked to be in complete agony, but the heat traveling his limbs and torso had lessened even more. "Please, Andre … hang on," she whispered, her heart shredding to see him suffer so. Her nerve faltered. Just when she was about to tell Renata to stop, Andreas pitched forward and collapsed in a heavy, boneless sprawl. "Claire, stay back!" someone shouted, but she was already running toward him. She dodged the flames that still burned in places on the ground and raced to Andreas's side. Energy crackled over his skin, raising goose bumps on her arms, but the glow was gone. The heat was cooled.

"Andre," she sobbed, folding her legs and dropping down beside him on the ground. She lifted his head onto her lap and stroked his bloodless cheek and brow. He was cold. Unmoving Oh, God. "Andre, can you hear me?" She cradled his broad shoulders and bent to press her face against his. "Andreas, please don't die. Please … come back to me." She kissed him all over, holding him tight. Praying she'd done the right thing. Hoping he was still in there somewhere, and that the gamble she'd taken with his life hadn't been the worst mistake she would ever make. "Andre, I love you," she murmured, dimly aware that Renata and Dylan and the warriors had all gathered around them now. "You can't leave me. You can't." Tegan knelt down beside her and put his hand on the side of Andreas's neck. "He's alive. He's breathing, but he's out cold. Got a strong pulse, at least…" "Thank God," Renata whispered, clutching Niko in a tight embrace as she looked down at Claire in kinship and shared concern. "We have to get him out of here," Tegan said.

He glanced up at Renata. "Will you be able to keep him under control if he comes to on the ride back to Boston?" She nodded. "Whatever it takes, yeah. I'll cover him." "Come on, Claire." The warrior nudged her gently as he crouched to heft Andreas's heavy bulk onto his shoulder as he would care for any one of his fallen brothers in arms. "I'll carry him back to the Rover. Everything's going to be okay now." Claire nodded numbly and fell in alongside him as they all made the short trek from the smoldering forest and obliterated bunker to the waiting vehicles. She wanted to believe Tegan, but when she looked at Andreas's unresponsive, ashen face, she couldn't help feeling that where Andreas was concerned, everything was still a long way from okay.

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