With the stolen medallion in his pocket, Alex clasped Teira's hand in his, grateful for her warmth, her softness and her strength.
A tremor racked him. Not from the cold or blood loss, but from the forced drug-induced hunger. He craved, oh, how he craved more of that damning substance. His mouth was dry. His head pounded, creating a dull ache he knew would soon become a raging inferno of pain. He needed those damn drugs and was appalled that a part of him wanted to stay here and await another dose.
The other part of him, the saner part, flashed pictures of his sister and his mother through his mind. Next came an image of Teira being dragged away, being hurt in the worst possible ways. This picture lingered, fueling a spark of anger. And that anger overrode the hunger.
He was leaving this place tonight.
Saving Teira was necessary for his peace of mind. He owed her. They were in this together; they had only each other.
"Are you ready?" he asked. They'd waited for the palace above to quiet, and now silence held them in its grip.
"Ready," she answered.
"I'll keep you safe," he promised her, praying he spoke true.
"And I will keep you safe," she replied, her tone more assured than his own.
How could he ever have doubted her? Alex wondered. He gave her hand a squeeze. "Let's do this."
Together they stepped toward the doors, and the thick ivory barriers slid open smoothly, as if they'd never offered any hindrance. How simple , he thought. Carry a medallion and come and go as you please . Drawing in a steadying breath, Alex hurried Teira from the cell. He kept his footsteps light, but all the while his heart thudded in his chest.
The deeper he roamed from the cell, the more frigid the air became, chapping his skin. Fog billowed about like a frenzied snowstorm, so thick he could only see what was directly in front of his face. Dry ice, he realized, recalling how Jason had bragged about sending bags of it through the portal. The shards crunched beneath his boots.
He was grateful for the fog. It embraced him in its chilly depths and kept him hidden from view. Using his free hand, he trailed his fingertips over the wall, letting the rough texture be his guide.
Beside him, Teira's body shuddered. He released her hand and wrapped his arm around her slim waist, pulling her into the warmth of his side, rubbing his hand over her ice-cold arm. Her delicate scent wafted to his nose, heating his blood. He wished he could see her face, wished he could see the glistening fog create a halo around her because he knew beyond a doubt that it would be the most erotic sight he'd ever seen.
"I'm here," he soothed.
"The cold... it makes me weak," she said, stumbling.
His own weakness had him stumbling, as well, but he used his weight to hold them both steady. "I'll get you warm," he said. As they trekked deeper through the palace, Alex expected alarms to erupt. He expected men with guns to surround them. Instead, silence.
The wall ended all too quickly, and he was left with only air and fog to guide him. Where did he go from here? The ghostly whiteness was too thick. As he deliberated, a lone figure parted the fog and rounded a corner.
Unseen, Alex forced Teira quietly behind him, waiting until the man closed the distance. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled with tension as each new second passed. When the guard stepped close enough, Alex didn't allow himself to think. He simply slammed his fist into the man's exposed trachea, cutting off his air. Gurgling, he went down hard and fast. Alex didn't know if he'd killed him, and he didn't care.
Motions shaky, he removed the man's coat and fastened it around Teira's shoulders. The thick brown material swallowed her slight frame. He looked for a gun, but didn't see one. When he spotted a fallen fire extinguisher, he hefted it up and looped the straps around his shoulders. Not a great weapon, but it would have to do.
"Which way is the portal?" he whispered to Teira.
"You cannot use the portal here. I tried to escape before, when they took me from you. Too many guards. Too many weapons."
He uttered a frustrated sigh and pushed a hand through his hair. He hadn't come this far to be stopped now. "We'll have to take them by surprise." Though how the two of them were going to pull that off, he didn't know.
"There's another way," she said. "A second portal on other side of the island. Darius en Kragin is Guardian there and we will con-convince-is that right word?-him to allow you to pass."
A grin of relief lifted the corners of his lips. He placed his face so close to hers their noses touched, and he gazed into her golden eyes. "You lead the way, baby. I'll follow you anywhere."
She returned his grin, though an air of sadness clung to the edges of hers. "I do not want to lose you," she said. "I do not want you to go."
"Then come with me." When she opened her mouth to protest, he interjected, "Don't give me your answer now." He didn't want to lose her, either, he realized, and would actually fight to keep her with him. After clinging to his freedom all these many years, he was finally willing to surrender it in favor of permanency with a woman. This woman. "Just think about it, okay. Right now we need to get out of here."
He curled his fingers through hers again, and Teira weakly led him up a winding staircase. The room they entered next was even more frigid, but not as thickly fogged. Alex surveyed these new surroundings. There was no furniture, yet there was more wealth than he'd ever seen. Ebony at his feet, jewels at his side, and crystal above. He halted midstep and could only gape.
This is why Jason desires the mist. Hell, I want it, too.
A sense of greed momentarily choked his throat. There had to be a way to take some of this home. Conceal a few jewels under his shirt. Fill his pockets. He'd be able to keep his family in luxury for the rest of their lives.
The thought of his family drowned him in a desperate need to see them. Jason claimed they were unhurt, but Alex couldn't believe a single word out of that murderer's deceitful mouth.
No one would ever have to know what he'd done, and that was a heady thought indeed. He reached out and traced his fingers over the jeweled wall. As he did so, the exotic scent of jasmine wafted around him, loosening the tightness in his throat and reminding him that he already held a treasure. Teira. He glanced down at her, and she smiled slowly up at him-a smile of trust. His hand fell to his side.
Atlantis had to be kept secret. Men like Jason would continue to plunder, never ceasing their quest for riches, killing men, women and children in the process. God, how stupid I've been, how caught up in my own need for glory . He'd endangered his entire family for this . For prestige and money. His stomach churned with shame, making him all the more aware of his body's need for drugs.
"Come on," he said. "Let's get out of here."
They maneuvered around corners, stumbled through empty rooms, making Alex feel like he was navigating a maze. Most walls were bare, ripped of all jewels. Several guards were posted throughout, but they never detected Alex and Teira, hidden as they were by fog and shadows.
Two ten foot panels of glistening dragon-inlaid ivory ended their winding search. The pair of doors opened, welcoming them into the night. Crashing waves created a calming lullaby, and warm air laden with the fragrance of salt and sea cascaded gently. Teira stopped, allowing the warmth to thaw and strengthen her. Color returned to her cheeks, and her back straightened.
She dropped her coat and spread her arms wide.
Alex drank in the mesmerizing beauty of both Teira and Atlantis. There was a dusky glow over the breath-takingly lush green foliage and stunning array of colorful blossoms. Blossoms Teira seemed to be a part of.
How did a city under the sea have night and day? There was no sun, no moon. Crystal prisms stretched above to form a dome as far as the eye could see.
Vibrancy and vitality pulsed all around, strengthening him to his very core, making him forget his dry mouth, making him forget his bitter need.
"If we follow the forest path," Teira said, her voice stronger than it had been inside the palace, "we can reach Darius by morning."
"Then let's go."
One of the guards scattered along the bastion noticed them. "Down there," he shouted.
Someone else called, "Stop them!"
Pop. Whiz . Bullets flew, peppering the ground a few feet behind them. Alex increased his speed, sprinting for all he was worth, the fire extinguisher slamming into his back. Later, he would feel the bruises. For now, he felt only the blessed numbness of his adrenaline rush.
Still hand in hand with Teira, he forced her to keep pace beside him. He launched into the safety of the trees before finally slowing. Alex liked to think he was in top physical condition, or had been, thanks to his daily workouts. But right now his breathing was ragged, and his pulse leapt like it was connected to a live wire.
"You need rest," his companion panted. "We are safe here. We can stop-"
"No. No resting. Keep moving."
She claimed the lead, and he forced his suddenly heavy feet to step one in front of the other. Forced his mind on the task at hand and not the drugs he was leaving behind. For a moment, his vision blurred and he swayed. Teira glanced at him over her shoulder, her expression concerned.
"Keep moving," he said again.
When they swerved around a large elm, a giant of a man jumped from the shadows, followed quickly by another. Their features weren't visible in the growing darkness, but Alex felt the anger coiled so tightly in their bodies.
Acting instinctively, Alex sprayed the liquid nitrogen, spinning in a circle as he did so. A thick foam of white coated the men, and they growled indistinguishable curses as they wiped at their faces. He tossed the red canister to the ground and jerked Teira through the thick foliage. Then they ran. Ran around trees and bushes, flowers and stones. They waded through two crystalline rivers along the way, and through it all he heard the men racing in pursuit, their footsteps fast, determined.
"Which way?" he called.
"East," she said, panting a little. The white gown she wore swished and swirled around her ankles, and her moonbeam pale hair whipped behind her. "There is... a town... nearby. We can lose ourselves."
Alex veered east, pushing himself past his endurance. The longer he ran, the less he heard of his followers. Either he'd lost them or they'd given up. Or were somehow able to silently follow. He didn't relax his defenses. Only when Teira was safely ensconced inside his apartment would he rest-after he made love to her. Several times.
After what seemed an eternity, they reached the town. One moment they were surrounded by dense forest, and the next by shimmering gold and silver buildings. He slowed when he found himself on a crowded stone road. Throngs of people strolled in every direction. No, not people. Winged men, bulllike animals and horned women. Interspersed throughout were tall, lean humanoid creatures with skin the color of new fallen snow. They glided rather than walked.
Alex felt their dynamically surreal eyes boring into him hungrily, as if they could already taste his every drop of blood. Vampires. He shuddered. They moved with fluid, catlike grace, mere slashes of white skin and flowing, black clothing. The only color they possessed was in their eyes, an inhuman blue that hypnotized and promised every desire satisfied.
His shudders intensified, and he reached up and massaged his neck, covering the marks of his last encounter with a vampire. The Book of Ra-Dracus told of their insatiable thirst for blood-more so than earth legend proclaimed. He knew that firsthand.
"In here," Teira said. She ushered him inside the nearest building. "We will hide here until we are sure we are safe."
Loud music, more fluid than rock, less structured than classical, boomed in every direction. Voices and laughter blended with the music as people mingled and danced. He and Teira swept through the crowd, trying to remain unnoticed. There, in the back, was an empty table, and they hurriedly claimed it.
He plopped into his seat. The adrenaline rush he'd experienced in the forest had helped mask his need for drugs, but now, as the surge receded, he became increasingly aware of his shaking hands and aching temples.
A woman approached them and clanked two glasses onto their table. Two small brown horns protruded from her forehead. She gave them a brittle smile and said something in the same language Teira sometimes used. He was beginning to catch on to its unusual inflections and pronunciations, so he didn't need an interpreter to know the waitress had said, "Drink up and leave, or tonight will be your last," before she flittered away, suddenly lost in the crowd.
"There are many vampires here," Teira said, gazing around. "More than usual."
A wisp of dark cloth. A shiver of electrifying power. Then someone was there, standing behind Teira, caressing her shoulder. The laughter and music slowly tapered to quiet, and the patrons stared over at them.
"You smell good, little dragon," a vampire male said, his voice hypnotic and dark. Seductive. "I wonder, though, how you will taste."
It took Alex a moment to translate. When he did, he saw red. He didn't care how much stronger the vampires were, he didn't care that he might be inciting a fight, he would not allow threats to Teira's life. "Back off," he said, glaring up at the bloodsucker. "Or it will be your blood that is spilled this night."
The vampire snickered.
"I taste like death," Teira finally responded. Her gaze flicked from Alex to the vampire nervously. "Now leave us. We wish only to rest. We will leave soon."
"No, you won't. Not until I've sampled both you and your human."
Another vampire joined them, his mouth a blood-red frown. "We are not to harm the human, Aarlock. You know that."
"I will not kill him. The dragon, however... "
Still another vampire approached, crowding their table further. "The human doesn't wear the mark. We can kill them both if we so desire."
All three bloodsuckers glanced at Alex's neck. The one called Aarlock smiled slowly. "No, he doesn't wear the mark of the other humans. He is fair game."
Alex could almost see the knife and fork clanging together in their minds, and he wondered what mark Jason and his minions wore to prevent vampire attacks. I have to do something , he thought, vaulting to his feet. Not knowing what more he could do, he drew back his fist. Before he had time to blink, the vampire caught his arm and held him in a bruising grip. Those eerie eyes turned to him, gazing deeply, probing.
A strange lethargy worked its way through him, as if he'd been shot full of those delicious drugs. Suddenly he wanted only to feel this vampire's fangs sink into his neck, wanted only to give himself to this powerful man.
Dainty, gentle Teira, who loved tender contact, snarled a sound more animal than human, jolted up and bared amazingly sharp claws. She shoved the vampire backward, causing him to stumble as he released Alex.
"Do not touch him," she snarled. "He is mine."
The rest of the vampires gathered around them, some baring their fangs, others hissing. Alex shook himself out of his stupor just as Teira flashed her own set of fangs, hers longer than the vampires. Alex's eyes grew round. He'd known she was a dragon changeling, but he hadn't really expected her body to physically change.
"We must leave," Teira mouthed, once again speaking his language, never taking her attention from the creatures in front of her. "We will need a distraction."
Determination rushing through his veins, his palms sweating, he glanced around, searching for a spear, a torch, something. Anything. When that failed, he looked for a back door-not that they could have used it. The vampires had formed a circle around them, their bodies nearly transparent and vibrating with hungry energy.
His protective instincts sharpened. He'd have to use his own body to divert their attention. He'd never bat-tied a vampire before-obviously-but he'd always welcomed new experiences. "I'll distract them." His muscles tightened, readied. "Run, baby, and don't look back."
She sucked in a breath. "No. No!"
The front doors burst open, saving her from another reply.
Three of the largest men he'd ever seen tramped inside. An air of menace surrounded them, as dark as their clothing. Their faces were red, their eyes puffy from some sort of toxin. Alex concluded almost instantly that they were the giants from the forest.
The vampires uttered a collective hiss and inched away.
Teira peeked over his shoulder, and when she saw who had entered, she gasped. "Braun, Vorik, Coal!" Smiling with relief, she waved with one hand and laced the other on Alex's shoulder. "They will help us."
The three men flicked them a glance, gave a barely imperceptible nod, then spread out and assumed a menacing come-and-get-me-you-bloodsuckers stance.
Alex had yet to fight past his shock. "You know them?"
"They are Darius's men."
"Then why did you scream when they approached us in the forest?"
"I not realize who they were. Come. We go to them."
While he was grateful for the help, Alex was oddly disappointed. He'd wanted to be the one to save Teira. He'd wanted her praise to be all his own. How foolish, since he wouldn't have lived to hear such praise.
As Alex and Teira skidded toward the front door, the vampires and dragons divided the bar, each group taking one side, facing the other. The moment Alex came within striking distance of his rescuers, he was roughly shoved behind them. Teira was gently lifted out of the way.
"What were you doing in the forest, Teira?" one of the warriors asked. He never removed his piercing gaze from the enemy.
"Escaping," she answered.
A hard, dangerous glint consumed his golden eyes. "Escaping? You will tell me more of this later." He motioned toward Alex with his chin. "What of the human?"
Teira cast a glance at Alex. And the human ? The question had plagued her over the last weeks. If only he were like the others of his kind, she could have ignored him. If only she hadn't been so completely drawn to him... He was nearly as tall as a dragon warrior, with wide shoulders and a lean, strong body. Short, curly red hair framed a strong, square face. His lips were wide and soft, his jaw angular. But it was his eyes that truly captivated her. They were big and green and filled with so many dreams. Those dreams called to her in so many ways.
"He's my friend," she said to Vorik. "No harm is to befall him."
Having listened to the conversation, Braun whipped around, facing her, radiating fury. "What of Javar?"
She hated to give him the news, here and now, like this, but she would not lie or evade. "He is dead," she said sadly.
"Dead!" all three dragons exclaimed at once.
Remorse flitted over Braun's expression, but he quickly hardened the emotion into determination. "There were other humans at the palace. They carried strange objects that fired some type of disc."
"Those discs stayed inside the dragon bodies, keeping their flesh open and preventing them from healing."
"That alone would not-"
"That alone would . The palace has been made into an ice land. When our strength was drained, the humans attacked us with their weapons." She remembered how easily her people had been destroyed. One moment, healthy, happy and whole. The next, gone. Murdered.
Her hands clenched, making the sharpness of her claws bite into her flesh. She barely felt the sting. Why the humans kept her alive and imprisoned, she could only guess. A threat to Alex, perhaps? A bargaining tool? They had kept her weakened by the cold, had tried to keep her hungry, as well, but she'd stolen bits of food here and there. More than anything, however, the humans had kept her frightened. For herself, for Alex.
She would not rest until the intruders were destroyed.
She had loved her husband, had loved the time she spent with him, and even missed him, but he had never filled her with such great longing as Alex did, as if she couldn't breathe without him near. She sighed. What was she going to do with the handsome human? She wanted him to stay here, with her. Wanted him to hold her in his arms every night, and wake to his kisses every morning. If he wouldn't stay, she would lose him. She could not survive on the surface.
The sound of guttural curses sliced at her reverie.
"You are not welcome here, dragons," a vampire snarled.
"We came for the human and the woman," Vorik said calmly. He kept his hands over the hilts of his swords-swords that could pierce a vampire's chest, sending poison through the creature's body and striking a lethal blow. "We mean you no trouble."
"We claimed them first. They belong to us."
"Perhaps you'd like to fight us for them." Coal offered his opponents an anticipatory smile.
"That is an invitation we cannot refuse." The vampire offered his own anticipatory smile.
Dragons were stronger, but vampires were faster. Years ago, the two had warred and the dragons had emerged the victors. But both races had suffered horribly. If they fought now, Teira was not sure a single man would be left standing.
"Let them go," a vampire said to his brethren, surprising her. "These dragons will bow to us soon enough."
"We will never bow to you," Braun spat.
The words, "We shall see," were delivered with supreme confidence. "Yes, we shall see."
Vorik arched a brow. "We shall see now ."
Without emitting a single sound, the dragons flew at the vampires, teeth bared and gleaming a hungry white, a vision of silent death as they transformed from man to beast. They dropped their swords, relying instead on their natural reflexes. Vampires moved quickly, gliding to the ceiling, then launching themselves at the dragons before gliding upward once again. It was a dangerous dance.
There were snarls and grunts of pain, the sound of ripping cloth. The flash of claws, and the scent of blood and sulfur.
"The stench of dragon can be smelled miles away," one of the vampires snarled, lashing out with his sharp nails as he slipped past.
"Since you can smell me, Aarlock, you might as well feel my flames." Vorik spat red-orange sparks out of his mouth, catching the vampire in the side.
A tormented scream erupted, blending with the sound of sizzling skin. Eyes glowing with hatred, the vampire retaliated, attacking straight on, fangs bared. Before Vorik had time to move, their bodies slammed together and Aarlock sank his teeth in Vorik's neck.
Vorik gripped him by the neck, ripped him away, and tossed him to the ground.
"I see you still bite like a girl, Aarlock," he seethed.
"I see you still breathe like a hatchling."
They were on each other again.
"Hand me a dagger," Alex said to Teira over his shoulder. When the fight first began, he'd shoved her behind him. He didn't know if he'd be any help, but he couldn't let these dragon men fight alone. He had to do something .
She tried to maneuver around him for what seemed the hundredth time. The woman wanted to guard him instead of the other way around. "No," she said. "We must not interfere. We would only distract them."
Alex continued to search for a weapon, catching glimpses of the brawl at the corner of his gaze. Each of the species fought hard and cruel, biting and slashing. The dragons drew blood with teeth, claws and tails, while the vampires relied on speed, moving from one end of the bar to the other. Their rusty-brown blood dripped onto the dragons, acting like acid.
In the end, speed and poison blood weren't enough.
The more fire the dragons produced, the stronger they became. Even Teira seemed to soak up the heat like a flower turning to the sun. All color had returned to her cheeks. Alex wiped at the sweat dripping from his face.
When the battle finally ended, burning embers and vampire ashes littered the ground. Braun, Vorik, and Coal were still standing. They were covered in blood and wounds, but by God, they were standing.
One of the dragons, Braun, pushed Alex outside. The others, Teira included, followed. She quickly made the introductions. Alex had never been more aware of his human frailty. The men he knew did not behave like these warriors, ready and eager for bloodshed.
"What do the humans at the palace want, Teira?" Vorik asked.
"The riches. They are taking them back to the surface."
"Damn this," Coal snarled. He threw a withering glance toward Alex.
Alex backed away, palms up. "I'm not with them. I'll help you in any way I can."
"He was a prisoner, like me." Teira met each man's stare. "Are there other warriors with you? Can we retake the palace tonight?"
Braun shook his head. "We cannot act until Darius returns. Our orders are to stay outside of the palace, detaining any who try to enter or leave."
Vorik frowned down at her. "The time for war will come, and then we will act. Until then, we do nothing." His gaze became piercing. "Understand?"
"When will Darius return?" she demanded. "I am eager for vengeance."
Ignoring her question, Coal exchanged a concerned glance with Braun. "As are we. As are we."
Jason Graves studied the vampire stronghold with assessing eyes. While this fortress lacked the same magnitude of wealth as the dragon palace, it held enough to capture his attention. Silver walls. Gold inlaid floors. A violet ram's fleece rug.
Perhaps he needed to rethink his alliance with the vampires.
They had supplied the tools necessary to strip the dragon walls of their jewels, as well as the location of coins and other treasures. And in return, Jason was to slaughter the dragons. A good bargain, in his estimation. Or so he'd thought. He was beginning to suspect that the moment the dragons were exterminated, the vampires would feed off of him and his men, the alliance forgotten. He swallowed, allowing the idea of striking first to take root in his mind. That way, he would not only save his own life, but also gain vampire riches. He had heard they knew where to find the greatest treasure of all. The Jewel of Atlantis. A powerful stone, granting the owner unimaginable victories.
Right now, his unlikely allies knew that any human wearing a medallion was to be left alone. Jason had made it clear in the beginning that if one of his men were harmed, just one, he would join forces with the dragons instead.
That threat would no longer work when the dragons were gone.
"You have defeated Javar," Layel, the vampire king, said. He stroked deathly pale fingers over the seam of his lips and leaned back in his throne. A throne comprised of human bones. "It is time for you to defeat Darius, as well."
"We haven't emptied out the first palace yet," Jason hedged. He stood in the center of the room and shifted nervously. He hated coming here and never stayed longer than necessary. Knowing his men waited outside the throne room doors, weapons cocked and ready, did not soothe his unease. Layel could have his neck ripped open before he managed a single scream for help.
"No matter. I want them killed immediately." The king slammed a fist onto his armrest-a femur, Jason thought. "The dragons have kept my people oppressed for hundreds of years. They must die."
"And they will. We just need a little more time. I cannot divide my forces, and I will not leave the first palace until it is completely emptied."
Heavy silence encompassed them.
"You dare tell me no?" Layel said quietly.
"Not no, exactly. I'm merely asking you to have more patience."
Layel slowly ran his tongue over his razor-sharp teeth. "I knew you were greedy, human. I didn't know you were also stupid."
Jason scowled. "You are more than welcome to fight the dragons on your own." He didn't need the vampires anymore-he already possessed the tools. But they both knew Layel still needed him. Jason might be intimidated by this creature, but damn if he didn't enjoy what small power he held over him.
Intense fury blazed in Layel's eerie blue eyes. "How much longer?" he ground out.
"A week. Two at most."
"That is too long! The only reason you were able to defeat Javar was because you surprised him. Without that surprise, you will not defeat Darius." In a hiss of rage, Layel hurdled his jeweled goblet at Jason's head.
Jason ducked and the cup sailed past him. Barely.
"He is stronger than his tutor ever was," Layel said.
Jason glared up at him, a heated retort pressed at the gate of his lips. The doors burst open before a single word escaped.
One of his men ran inside. "Alex and the female escaped."
"What!" Jason shouted, spinning.
"Word arrived only seconds ago. They escaped through the forest."
"How?" Scowling, he strode toward his man and met him halfway.
"We aren't sure."
"Damn it! Search the forest. I want him found within the hour and brought back to me."
"If possible. If not... "
The man hastened to do as he was bid.
Jason stood there, grinding his teeth. A part of him didn't care that Alex had escaped. The bastard would probably be found and killed by any number of vicious creatures. But the other part of Jason, the part that acknowledged wars could be lost by a simple mistake such as this, recognized the damage that could be done. Alex could stumble upon Darius, could warn him.
"Jason," Layel said.
The hairs prickled at the base of his neck, and without looking, he knew the vampire king was directly behind him. Jason slowly turned, hoping his features remained emotionless. "Yes?"
"Two days. I want Darius and his army destroyed in two days."