Everything is burning, my throat, my chest, my head, every single extremity feels as if it’s ablaze. I try to scream out in pain, but I can’t seem to make a noise. I try to lift my arms, but it’s no use. They are heavy; leaden. My heartbeat quickens as I begin to panic. I suddenly feel like I’m suffocating, like someone is holding me underwater.
Then, just as quickly as it began, it subsides, and I am able to open my eyes. I blink against the bright light streaming through the window and I look around the room. I am not in the sterile room that the healer took me to, but this room is familiar. It is my room at the Mortem castle. I blink again as my hazy vision begins to clear and I spot the inky-haired Reaper, slumped in a chair in the corner. He is asleep, so I don’t wake him. I move stiffly and silently into the bathroom and ease the door shut. I turn on the faucet and watch the hot water steaming into the large porcelain tub. My muscles ache and I long to ease into the hot water. As the tub fills, I remove my clothes and examine myself in the mirror. I look different. Where I had just been too thin around my ribs, is now full and healthy looking. There is a glow to my skin that hadn’t been there before and my copper hair shines brighter and hangs in silky waves. I look down at the Werewolf bite and see that it is now barely a scratch.
The door opens behind me and I see Ash’s eyes darken as he looks at my body. He turns away quickly, almost in embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, Lark,” he apologizes, “I didn’t realize…”
“It’s okay,” I say, wrapping a towel around myself, “You can turn around now.”
He does so, hesitantly, looking ashamed, “I swear I didn’t intend to intrude.”
“Calm down,” I tell him, “It’s nothing.”
“It’s definitely not nothing,” he says with a wicked grin and a wink.
“Shut up,” I tell him, feeling my face heat with embarrassment.
“I missed seeing you here,” he says, growing serious, “I didn’t realize how much I had come to enjoy your presence until you were already gone.”
I move toward him and he backs up against the door, as if I’m a predator and he’s the prey. Strange twist, I think. My skin feels hot, overwhelmingly so. I unfasten the buttons of his shirt until it hangs open. I press my cheek against his bare chest, letting his icy skin cool the fever that is burning through me. Everything about him settles me and brings me a sense of peace. I want this to last forever.
“You’re different,” he comments.
“I know,” I nod, “I can feel it, see it even.”
“You slept for days, Lark,” he says against my temple, concern in his voice.
“Days?” I question, “That can’t be right.”
“Three days, to be exact,” he says.
I look up into his face and I see his eyes and how serious and worried his expression is. I notice the shadows under his eyes that normally aren’t there and how exhausted he looks.
“How long has it been since you reaped?” I ask.
He shrugs, “A few weeks,” he admits.
“Weeks?” I ask, unsure if I heard him correctly.
“I don’t want to reap,” he says finally.
“Take it from me,” I tell him.
He cocks a brow in question, “What?”
“Take some of my soul,” I tell him.
“I can’t do that, Lark,” he replies, his voice breaking as his desire wars within him.
“I want you to,” I say, “I want you to take just enough to stay strong.”
“I won’t do it, Lark,” he says, “It’s too dangerous. I won’t risk your life.”
“Then I need you to reap from someone else, Ash,” I demand, “I need you to be at your strongest. I need you to be able to protect me in this world.”
He thinks on that for a moment before resigning, “You’re right. You win. I will reap today.”
“Thank you,” I say, standing on my toes to press my lips to his, realizing a moment too late that it’s the first time we’ve actually kissed.
His arms move around my waist and he reaches down with one hand to shut off the water. My heartbeat quickens as I realize what I want in this moment, what I intend to give him.
“Ash,” I say, a little breathless, looking at him expectantly.
“We don’t have to, Lark,” he says, as if reading my thoughts “No pressure. When you’re ready, if you even want to.”
“I do,” I tell him, “I want to give you that, only you.”
He seems surprised the realization that he, an only he, will be the one to claim the last shred of innocence I have. And so, I let him take it, there in the washroom in the Mortem castle, after months of missing him, hating him and loving him, after a dangerous journey to get back to him and a Werewolf bite to the leg, I give him all of myself and I hope that he doesn’t make me regret it.
I stand in front of the mirror again afterwards, still baffled by how healthy I look. I pull on the lacy under garments that I had grown used to in my time here before Ash left me in Medeor. Ash comes back into the bathroom wearing only gray lounge pants, his bare muscled torso drawing my gaze easily. He moves behind me and wraps his arms around me and rests his head on my shoulder.
“What are you thinking?” he asks, worried, “Do you regret what we did?”
“No, not at all,” I say, shaking my head, “I just, well, do I look different to you?”
“The Lycan virus accelerates your healing. It was able to flood your system before the silver could fight it off,” he explains, “I’m sure you will return to your old self in a few days.”
“Are you certain that the silver was able to counteract it?” I ask, uncertain.
“If it hadn’t, you would still be in bed, writhing in pain,” he says confidently, pressing his lips to my bare shoulder.
I nod, willing to believe him if for no other reason than not wanting to think of the alternative. If the full moon comes and goes without consequence, I will feel more relieved.
“I have a serious question for you, Lark,” he says.
“What is it?” I ask, meeting his gaze in the mirror.
“Would you consider taking my Blood Mark?” he asks.
I turn in his arms to face him, “Like marry you?” I ask.
“In human terms, yes,” he clarifies.
“Has a Nokturn ever taken a human mate before?” I ask.
He shakes his head, “Not that I’m aware of. But, technically speaking, I’m pretty certain you aren’t a human, Lark. Remember what you did to Uncle Jonas? I know it was only one occurrence, but my experience with humans, little as it may be, they cannot do such things. But I do understand that everyone else still believes you to be human. I’m sure it will cause a lot of political and social outrage, but frankly, I couldn’t care less about that. I want you bound to me. Forever.”
“Is it dangerous for me to take your blood? You seemed concerned about that before,” I remind him.
“It is no more dangerous than taking a shot of silver to the heart,” he answers with a smirk, “You survived that well enough.”
“Are you only asking me because you think I’m not human?” I ask him, hating how weak and self-conscious I sound.
“Lark, I could care less if you were human, Werewolf, Vampire, it doesn’t matter to me. I simply want to keep you with me forever,” he explains.
“Okay,” I agree, “I’ll do it, but only under one condition.”
“And what might that be?” he arches a brow in question.
“You must have a Blood Mark from my blood,” I tell him.
“Are you trying to start a war, Lark?” he asks, a look of amusement in his eyes.
“Someone has to ignite the fires of a revolution, no?” I shoot back playfully, though all look of jest has gone out of him.
“I’ll do it, Lark,” he agrees, “I’ll bear your mark.”
Blood Mark ceremonies are much like that of a human wedding. There would be a dress and flowers and everything one might imagine for a traditional ceremony, except, along with exchanging vows of loyalty, we would also get a Blood Mark. I don’t know much about Blood Marks other than they are inked into the skin using your mate’s blood.
I sit in our living quarters, reading a book when Ash storms into the room, causing the heavy wooden door to slam against the wall. Rage is written all over his face and I stand and cross the room to him, placing my hands on his arms.
“Ash, what’s wrong?” I ask calmly.
“I told my father and mother of my intentions to give you my Blood Mark,” he huffs, “He’s threatening to disown me and denounce my claims to the Mortem throne.”
“That’s terrible,” I tell him, “We don’t have to do it, Ash. We could always just exchange vows of loyalty in private or something.”
He shakes his head, “No, absolutely not. I’ll not cower at the first threat my father makes. I’ll give it up if that’s what it comes to.”
“You would do that?” I ask, shocked.
“Yes,” he answers without a trace of doubt, “I want nothing more than to be bound to you.”
I am both emboldened and saddened by his words. They make me come alive, causing my heart to race. On the other side of things, it would be incredibly selfish of me to allow him to give up his birthright for me, a human, of all things.
High Lady Neena had threatened me before, telling me I had until the Winter Solstice to leave Mortem. Perhaps I would have to act on that. As much as I wanted to stay with Ash, I needed to make a difficult decision to do what is best for him. I couldn’t possibly allow him to give up the Mortem throne. Maldara needed him in power. If he were to sit the throne instead of his father, humans wouldn’t have so much to fear from Reapers. That was a valuable ally to have, but none of that would come to pass unless Ash was on the throne. So, I make the hardest choice I might ever possibly have to make. Although I’ve only been back in Mortem for a few days, in this moment, I make the decision to run away from Mortem, and Ash, forever.