Grace stood at the edge of a huge arena of white stone and marble that resembled a restored Roman coliseum. Only the ceiling marred the illusion, boasting the same sea-covered crystal dome that comprised the rest of the... building? Castle?
Wide and long, the arena spanned the length of a football field. The air was scented with sweat and dirt, courtesy of the six men brandishing swords and basically trying to annihilate each other. Their grunts and groans blended with the cringe-worthy clang of metal. They had yet to notice her.
Her heart thudded in her chest, and she whipped around, intent on running back down the corridor. When she spied yet another warrior, this one just entering the far end, she scooted to the side, out of sight. Had he seen her? She didn't know; she only knew the nearest exit was blocked. The nearest exit was blocked !
"Calm down," she whispered. She'd wait two minutes. Surely the hallway would be clear by then; surely for such a short amount of time she could stay right here and remain unnoticed. Then she'd escape. Simple. Easy.
Please let it be simple and easy.
"Who taught you to fight, Kendrick?" one man snarled. He was the tallest man present, with broad shoulders and ropelike muscles. His pale hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, and the long length of it slapped his cheek as he shoved his opponent to the ground. "Your sister?"
The one called Kendrick jumped to his feet, sword raised in front of him. He wore the same black leather pants and black shirt as the others. He was obviously the youngest. "Perhaps it was your sister," he growled. "After I tumbled her, of course."
Grace's jaw dropped as green scales momentarily appeared on the first man's face. When she blinked, they were gone.
The tall blonde sheathed his sword and held out his hands. He motioned for Kendrick to approach him. "If I actually had a sister, I would kill you where you stand. Since I do not, I'm merely going to beat you senseless."
A man stepped between the two combatants. He had brown hair and surprisingly sad features. He was unarmed. "That's enough," he said. "We are friends here. Not enemies."
"Shut up, Renard." A boy only slightly older than Kendrick jumped into the argument. He pointed the tip of his sword at the sad one's chest. Wet strands of brown hair clung to his temples and framed the dragon tattoo that stretched up from his jawline. "It's time you and all the other lucifaeres learned you're not infallible."
Renard's golden eyes narrowed. "Remove the weapon, little hatchling, or I will gut you where you stand."
The "little hatchling's" face paled, and he did as commanded.
Grace inched backward a step. Breathe , she commanded herself. Just keep breathing . They were going to kill each other.
"Smart move," another male said. This one had strawberry-blond hair and a breathtakingly beautiful face, which thoroughly contrasted with the fact that he was polishing a two-pronged hatchet. Dry amusement gleamed in his golden eyes. "Renard has killed men for less. I guess it helps that he knows exactly where to cut them, where to make them bleed and suffer for days at a time before finally, mercifully dying."
At his words, cold sweat beaded on Grace's forehead. She managed another inch backward.
"He's only trying to scare you," one of the younger boys gritted out. "Don't listen to him."
"I hope you kill each other." The heated phrase came from a black-haired warrior who slammed his weapon into the ground. "Gods know I'm tired of listening to all of your whining."
"Whining?" someone said. "That's rich coming from you, Tagart."
Kendrick chose that moment to launch himself at the large blonde. With a howl, the two men fell to the ground, fists flying. Every other man present paused only a moment before throwing himself into the fray. Oddly enough, every one of them seemed to be smiling.
Grace cast a quick glance to the hall. Empty. Relief threatened to topple her. She kept her eyes on the combatants and moved another inch backward... then another... then another.
And backed herself right into the table of weapons.
In a sudden symphony of disharmony, the different metals clanged together and tottered to the floor.
All six men stopped, whirled and faced her. In the space of a few seconds, their bloody and bruised expressions registered shock, men happiness, then wicked hunger. Her breath snagged in her throat. She scrambled behind the table, specks of dirt flying about her shoes. A thin piece of wood would not stop these men, she knew, but she garnered a little courage with a barrier between them. She tried to lift a blade but it was too heavy.
A solid wall suddenly crowded her from behind. A very much alive, solid wall.
"Like to play with a man's sword, do you?"
Strong male arms wound around her waist-and they weren't Darius's. This man's skin was darker, his hands not quite as thick. But more than that, he didn't cause the same wave of arousal that Darius stirred in her. This man's embrace caused only fear.
"Remove your hands this instant," she said calmly, mentally applauding herself. "Otherwise you'll regret it."
"Regret it, or keep loving it?"
"Who do you have there, Brand?" one of the warriors asked.
"Give me a moment to find out," her captor answered. His rough voice drew closer to her ear, becoming a suggestive rumble. "What are you doing here, hmm?" he asked. "Women are not allowed in this palace, much less the training arena."
She gulped. "I-I-Darius is-"
He tensed against her. "Darius sent you?"
"Yes," she answered, praying such an admission would scare the man into freeing her. "Yes, he did."
A chuckle rumbled from him. "So he heeded my advice, after all. To keep us from teasing him, our leader sent us a whore. I never expected that. What's more, I never expected him to act so quickly."
Her mind only registered one portion of his speech. A whore? Whore! If they thought she was paid to have sex with them, they'd most likely see any resistance on her part as a game. She shuddered.
"Excited already, little whore?" He chuckled again. "Me, too."
Applying the same technique she'd used on Darius, she jabbed her foot atop her captor's instep, then rammed her elbow into his stomach. He umphed and loosened his hold. She twisted, jerked back her fist and let it fly. Her knuckles collided with his jaw. On impact, his chin snapped to the side, whipping his sandy-colored braids across his cheek. He howled and released her.
Free now, she attempted to run. The other warriors had already encircled her, however, halting any progress. Her heart stopped beating. Their bloodlust seemed to have deserted them entirely-leaving only lust.
One of them pointed at Brand. "I guess she doesn't like you, Brand." He laughed.
"I'm willing to bet she'll like me."
"None of us like you, Madox. Why would she?"
"Why don't you send her over here to me? I know how to treat a woman."
"Yes, but do you know how to eat one?"
They erupted in laughter.
Eat her? Good God. They were cannibals. They wanted her to whore for them and then become their evening snack. Worse and worse. A tremor shook her, trekking down her spine, then spreading over the rest of her body. Death by human banquet. No, thank you.
Brand, the one who had grabbed her, rubbed his jaw and smiled at her with genuine amusement. "Did you bring any friends, little whore? I do not think I want to share you with the others."
As he spoke, "the others" began tightening the circle around her. She felt like a slab of beef at a barbecue for the starving. Literally. All they needed to make the meal complete was a knife, a fork and an extra large bottle of easy-squeeze ketchup.
"I want her first," the warrior with the thickest shoulders said.
"You can't have her first. You owe me a favor, and I'm collecting. She's mine. You can have her when I'm done."
"Both of you can shut up," the most beautiful of the group said-the one who'd polished his hatchet. "I have a feeling the little whore will want me first. Women like this face of mine."
"No, I don't and no, you can't have me first," Grace announced. "No one can have me. I am not a whore!"
The man with the tattoo on his jaw grinned at her suggestively. "If you don't want to be our bedmate, you can be our meal."
She gasped, moving in circles to avoid their outstretched hands. Threaten them, scare them . "I taste sour," she rushed out. "I've been known to cause major heartburn."
Their grins widened.
"Acid reflux is serious. It can cause cancer of the esophagus. It can erode your stomach lining!"
Closer, closer they came.
"I belong to Darius!" she rushed out next, grasping at any frenzied thought her mind produced.
Each of them ground to a halt.
"What did you say?" Brand asked, giving her a blistering frown.
She gulped. Perhaps claiming Darius as her lover hadn't been such a good idea. He could have a wife-why did she suddenly want to destroy something?-and these men could be said wife's brothers. "I, uh, said I belong to Darius?" The words flowed out as more of a question than a statement.
"That's impossible." Brand's frown became a vehement scowl, and his gaze bore into her, inspecting, taking her measure for a different scale than he'd previously used. "Our king would not claim a woman such as you for his own."
King? A woman such as her? Did they think she was good enough to eat for dinner, good enough to whore for them, but not good enough to belong to their precious leader, Darius? Well, that offended her on every level.
She couldn't be any more irrational, she knew, and blamed her overwrought emotions. They'd run the gamut today and were no longer hers to command. She'd always been emotional, but usually controlled her impulses.
"Is he married?" she demanded.
"Then yes," she said, not taking the time to analyze her relief, "he would welcome a woman such as me. In fact, he's expecting me back. I'd better be going. You know how upset he gets when someone's late." Nervous laugh.
Brand didn't let her pass. He continued to study her with unnerving intensity. What was he searching for? And what did he see?
Suddenly he grinned, a grin that spread and lit his entire face. He was extremely handsome, but he wasn't Darius. "I believe she speaks the truth, men," he said. "Look at the love mark on her neck."
Quick as a snap, Grace brought her hand up to her neck. Her cheeks warmed. Had Darius given her a hickey? She was struck first by shock, then by an unexpected, unwanted and ridiculous surge of pleasure. She'd never had a hickey before.
What's wrong with me ? Jolting into motion, Grace shoved her way past Brand, past the others. They let her go without protest. She sprinted down the hallway, fully expecting them to follow. She heard no footsteps, and a quick glance behind her showed she was alone. When she reached the fork inside the bathing area, she trudged around the opening on the left. A salty breeze bit her in the face. She prayed she'd made the right decision this time.
At the end, she found herself in a large dining hall. Darius was there, sitting at an enormous table, his eyes focused on the far wall of windows as if he were in deep thought. A heavy air of sadness enveloped him. He looked so lost and alone. Grace felt herself freezing, felt her muscles locking in place.
He must have sensed her, or smelled her, or something , because his gaze abruptly leveled on her, widening with puzzlement, then narrowing with ire. "Grace."
"Stay where you are," she said.
He growled low in his throat and sprang up, a panther ready to strike. And like a panther, he leapt over the table, coming straight toward her. She glanced around wildly. A side-table rested next to her, decorated with a multitude of breakable items. She swiped them to the ground, causing vases and bowls to shatter and sprinkle glass in every direction. Perhaps that would slow him, perhaps not. Either way, she pivoted on her heel and bolted.
Arms pumping frantically, shoes thumping into the ebony, she snaked the corner and rushed through the final hallway. She didn't have to glance back to know Darius was closing in on her. His footsteps resonated in her ears. His fury bored intense, determined flames into her back.
At the end of the corridor, she spied a downward spiraling staircase. She quickened her speed. How close was she to victory? How close to failure?
"Get back here, Grace," he called.
Her only response was the shallowness of her breathing.
"I'll come after you. I'll not rest until I find you."
"I'm tired of your threats," she growled, throwing the words over her shoulder.
"No more threatening," he promised.
"Doesn't matter." Faster and faster, she pounded down the stairs.
"You don't understand."
At the bottom of the last step, she spied the opening to a cave. And there, just ahead, the mist swirled, calling to her, beckoning. Home , her mind shouted. Almost home .
With one backward glance in his direction, she hurdled herself into the fog.
Instantly her world spun out of control, and she lost the solid anchor beneath her feet. Dizziness assaulted her; nausea churned arduously in her stomach. Round and round she plunged and spun, so jerkily, so erratically the dragon medallion tore from her neck. Screeching, she reached out and tried to scoop the chain into her hands.
"Nooo," she cried when it danced out of reach. But in the next instant, she forgot all about the necklace. Stars winked in every direction, so bright and blinding she squeezed her eyelids closed. Grace flailed her arms and legs; she was more scared this time than before. What if she landed in a place more terrifying than the last? What if she didn't land at all, but remained in this enigmatic pit of nonexistence?
Loud screams resounded, piercing her ears, but one stood out from the others: a deep male voice that continually bellowed her name.