Once again seeing only black-and-white, Darius flattened his palms above his head, against the rocky cavern wall. He stared into the swirling mist. She'd escaped. Grace had actually escaped. Everything inside him urged him to vault into her world and hunt her down. Now . However, his reasons were not what they should have been. It was the beast inside him that craved her nearness-not the Guardian.

Teeth gnashing together, he remained in place. No matter his desires, entering the surface world was not an option. Not until he appointed a temporary Guardian. Darius uttered a brutal curse into the mist, hating that he must wait. Yet beneath his impatience was an undeniable pang of relief. Grace would live a while longer, and he would see her again, no matter where she went, no matter how far.

He dropped one of his hands and clasped his medallion from beneath his shirt. When he felt only one, he stilled. Frowning, he reached inside his pocket, encountering only the buttery soft glide of leather. His breath became as chilled and frosted as the mist, and dark fury pounded through him. Not only had Grace escaped him, and quite easily, too, but she had also stolen the Ra-Dracus. His hands fisted so tightly his bones threatened to grind to powder.

The woman had to be found. Soon.

With one last glance at the mist, he stole out of the doomed cave and up into the palace. Seven of his warriors were waiting for him in the dining hall.

They stood united, each of their arms crossed, each of their legs braced apart. The stance for war. In the center was Brand. His lips were thinned in displeasure, and his brow was stern. There was a mischievous gleam in his eyes that didn't quite match the rest of his expression.

"Do you have something to tell us, Darius?" his first in command said.

Darius paused midstep, then he, too, assumed a pre-battle position. His men had never waylaid him like this, and he cursed himself for allowing their game. "No," he said. "I have nothing to tell you."

"Well, I have something to tell you ," Zaeven growled.

Madox placed a warning hand on the young dragon's shoulder. "That tone will get you nothing but a beating."

Zaeven mashed his lips together in silence.

"I do not have time to play your silly game right now."

"Game?" Renard said, exasperated. "You think we're playing a game?"

"What else would you be doing here if not trying to win your wager? I told you to stay inside the practice arena for the rest of the day. That is where I expect you to be." Darius pivoted and strode toward the hallway.

"We know about the woman," Tagart called, stepping forward. A scowl marred the clean lines of his features.

Darius paused abruptly and spun to face them. He schooled his features to reveal only mild curiosity. "Which woman is that?" he asked with false casualness.

"You mean there is more than one?" Zaeven jumped in front of Tagart. His features lost their steely edge.

"Shut up," Brand told the boy. He refocused on Darius. His next words lashed out as sharply as a sword. "I'll ask you again. Do you have anything to tell us?"

"No." Darius's tone was absolute.

Tagart's scowl darkened with a flash of scales. "How is it fair that you are allowed to have a woman here and we are not?"

Brittan leaned against the far wall. He crossed his feet at the ankles and grinned with wry humor. The infuriating man found amusement in every situation. "I say we share the woman like the nice little fire lizards we are."

"There is no woman," Darius announced.

Their protests erupted immediately. "We saw her, Darius."

 

"Brand touched her."

"We even fought over who would have her first."

Silence. Thick, cold silence.

Very slowly, very evenly, Darius roamed his gaze over every man present. "What do you mean Brand touched her?"

The question elicited different reactions. Brittan chuckled. The younger dragons paled, and Madox and Renard shook their heads. Tagart stormed from the room, muttering, "I've had enough of this."

Brand-the gods curse him-rolled his eyes.

"You're missing the point," Brand said. "For years we have followed your orders and your rules without dispute. You said women were not allowed, and so we have always forgone pleasures of the flesh while residing in the palace. For us to discover that you have a whore hidden in your chambers for your own personal use makes a mockery of your rules."

"She is not a whore," he growled. Instead of offering an explanation, he repeated his previous question. "What did they mean you touched her?"

His friend pushed out an exasperated sigh and threw up his hands. "That's it? That's all you have to say?"

"Did you touch her?"

"She backed into a table, and I helped right her. Now will you concentrate?"

Darius relaxed... until Madox muttered, "Yes, but did you have to 'help' her for so long, Brand?"

With surprise his lips thinned.

With disbelief his jaw tightened.

With fury his nostrils heated with sparks of fire.

Darius recognized the emotions and did not even try to mute them. All three hammered through him, hot and hungry, nearly consuming him. He didn't want any man save himself touching Grace. Ever. He didn't stop to examine the absurdity of his possessiveness. He just knew it was there. He didn't like it, but it was there all the same.

"Did you hurt her?" he demanded.

"No," Brand said, re-crossing his arms over his chest. "Of course not. I'm insulted that you even have to ask."

"You will not touch her again. Not any of you. Do you understand?" His piercing gaze circled the group.

Each man wore his own expression of shock during the ensuing silence. Then, as if a dam had broken, they hurdled rapid-fire questions at him.

"What is she to you? She wore your mark on her neck."

"Where is she?"

"What's her name?"

"How long has she been here?"

"When can we see her again?"

He ground his teem together.

"You have to tell us something," Madox snapped.

Or there will be a revolt , rang in the air unsaid.

Darius tilted his head to the left, felt me bones pop, men tilted his head to the right, felt the bones pop. Control. He needed control. "She only just arrived," he said, offering them a bit of information to pacify them. He liked and respected all of his men. They'd been together for over two hundred years, but right now they were nearly more than his precarious discipline could withstand. "She has already left."

Several moans of disappointment harmonized, from deep baritones, to the crackling timbres of the young.

"Can you bring her back?" Zaeven asked eagerly. "I liked her. I've never seen hair that color before."

"She will not be returning, no." A sharp pang of disappointment caught him off guard. He wanted to see her again-and he would-but he wasn't supposed to desire her here, in his home, lighting the room with her very presence. He wasn't supposed to look forward to their encounter, to sparring with her or touching her. Neither was he supposed to mourn her loss.

It isn't the woman herself he wanted, he assured himself. Merely her ability to regenerate his senses.

"There has to be a way we can bring her back," Zaeven said.

They didn't know that she was a traveler and must die, and he didn't tell them. They had never understood his oath, so how could he explain this most loathsome task of all?

"Brand," he barked. "I need to speak with you privately."

"We aren't finished with this conversation." A muscle ticked in Madox's temple. "You have not yet explained your actions."

"Nor will I. The woman was not my lover and was not here to see to my personal pleasure. That is all you need to know." He pivoted on his heel. "This way, Brand."

Without another word or even a backward glance to ensure his friend followed, Darius strode to his chambers. He sank stiffly onto the outer lounge and jerked his hands behind his head.

How had his life become so chaotic in only a few short hours? His men were near revolt. A woman had bested him-not once but twice. And though he'd had sufficient time, he had failed to do his duty. His hands curled into fists.

Now he had to leave all that he knew and travel to the surface.

He despised chaos, despised change, yet the moment he'd encountered Grace he'd all but welcomed both with open arms.

Brand stepped inside and stopped when he reached the edge of the bathing pool. Darius knew that if he could see colors right now, Brand's eyes would be a deep, dark gold filled with bafflement. "What is going on?" his friend asked. "You are acting so unlike yourself."

"I need your help."

"Then it is yours."

"I must journey to the surface and-"

"What!" Brand's exclamation rang in his ears, followed quickly by a heavy pause. "Please repeat what you just said. I'm sure I misheard."

"Your hearing is excellent. I must journey to the surface."

Brand frowned. "Leaving Atlantis is forbidden. You know the gods bound us to this place. If we leave, we weaken and die."

"I will not be gone more than a single day."

"And if that is too long?"

"I would go still. There has been a... slight complication. The woman was my prisoner. She escaped." The confession tasted foul in his mouth. "I must find her."

Brand absorbed that information and shook his head. "Do you mean you let her go?"

"No."

"Surely she did not escape on her own."

"Yes, she did." His jaw clenched.

"So you did not let her go?" Brand persisted, obviously stymied by the concept of his leader's failure. "She managed to outwit you?"

"How many ways would you have me say it? I locked her up, but she found a way out." Because she slipped the medallion from my neck when I was distracted by the feel of her body under mine , he silently added.

Slowly Brand grinned. "That is amazing. I'm willing to bet that woman is like a wild demon in bed and-" His words ground to a halt when he noticed Darius's thunderous glower. He cleared his throat. "Why did you have her locked away?"

"She is a traveler."

His grin faded, and his eyes lost all sparks of merriment. "She must die. Even a woman can lead an army to us."

"I know." Darius sighed.

Brand's tone became stark. "What do you need me to do?"

"Guard the mist while I am gone."

"But I am not truly a Guardian. The coldness of the cave will weaken me."

"Only temporarily." Darius sent his gaze to the domed ceiling. The seawater that encompassed their great city churned as fiercely as his need to see Grace. The temptress, the tormentor. The innocent, the guilty. Just what was she? Waves crashed turbulently against the crystal, swishing and swirling, driving away all sea life. Just as quickly as one wave appeared, another took its place, leaving a splattering of foam on each individual prism. Was this an omen, perhaps, of his coming days? Days of storms and turmoil?

He heaved another sigh. "What say you, Brand? Will you remain in the cave and destroy any human who passes through the portal, be they man or woman, adult or child?"

With only a brief hesitation, Brand nodded. "I will guard the mist while you are gone. You have my word of honor."

"Thank you." He trusted Brand completely with this task. Only a man who had lost loved ones to a traveler truly understood the importance of the Guardian. Brand would let no one through.

Brand inclined his head in acknowledgment. "What am I to tell the others?"

"The truth. Or nothing at all. That is up to you."

"Very well. I will leave you now so that you may prepare for your journey."

Darius nodded and wondered if there was any way to actually prepare himself for another encounter with Grace.

The messenger he sent to Javar's holding returned as the sounds of the day began to fade. Darius was submerged from the waist down in his bathing pool, gazing out at the breathtaking view of ocean beyond the window he'd bared only an hour ago. Its viewing had become a nightly ritual, granting him some measure of tranquility. He motioned for the young dragon to share his news.

Standing at the edge of the pool and shifting nervously from foot to foot, Grayley said, "I'm sorry, but I was unable to deliver your message. Does that," he gulped, "make you want to yell at me?"

Darius's eyes narrowed, and his hand stilled over the warmth of the water. "Did you purposefully act against my orders merely to win your game?"

"No, no," the boy rushed out, game forgotten. "I swear. The guards refused my entrance."

"Guards? What guards?"

"The guards who told me to leave. The guards who said I was not wanted there."

"And Javar?"

"Refused to speak with me, as well."

"Did he tell you this himself?"

"No. The guards informed me of his refusal."

Darius frowned. This made no sense. Why would Javar refuse a messenger entrance? That was their usual way of communication, and neither of them had ever refused the other. Besides, why would a dragon refuse another dragon?

"There is something else," the dragon said, hesitating. "The guards... they were wholly human and carried strange metal objects like weapons."

Strange metal objects... He jolted to his feet, sloshing water over the rim of the pool, then stalked naked to his desk and withdrew a sheet of paper and writing ink. He gave both to Grayley. "Draw the weapon for me."

What the young warrior drew appeared larger than what Grace had carried, yet was roughly the same design. Darius absorbed that information, mulled it over, men came to a decision. "Gather my men in the dining hall. After that, I wish you to find the unit on patrol in the Outer City. Vorik is acting as leader. Tell him I want him and the others surrounding Javar's palace, unseen, detaining any who enter or leave."

"As you command." The young dragon bowed and rushed to do as he was bid.

Darius dried himself with the nearest robe before jerking on a pair of pants. What a mess this was becoming. He'd thought Javar alive, and had hoped his tutor had merely lost his medallion. Now that seemed implausible.

What were humans doing inside his tutor's palace? Humans. Plural. More than one. Perhaps an army. Frustrated, Darius shoved a hand through his hair. Grace's arrival was no coincidence. The answer lay with her and her brother. He was sure of it. Finding her, he realized, was no longer a luxury. Finding her was a necessity.

His warriors awaited him inside the dining hall. They sat at the table, silent, unsure of his intentions. He positioned himself at the head of the table. Before they could think to begin their game, he said, "You wanted something to do, and now I am giving it to you. I want you to prepare for war."

"War?" they all gasped, though there was an undercurrent of excitement in every voice.

"You are letting us declare war upon the vampires?" Madox asked.

"No. Humans have overtaken Javar's palace, and they carry strange weapons. I do not yet know if they have killed the dragons inside, nor do I know what they are planning. But I have sent Grayley to the Outer City where he is to inform Vorik's unit to surround the palace. Tomorrow's eve, you will join them."

"Tomorrow?" Madox pounded a fist into the table. "We should act today. Now. This instant. If there is a chance the dragons are alive, we must do what we can to save them."

Darius arched a brow. "What good are you to them if you are dead? We do not know what kind of weapons these humans wield. We do not know how to protect ourselves from them."

"He's right," Renard said, leaning forward. "We must discover what these weapons do."

"I will be traveling to the surface," Darius said. "I will learn what I can."

"The surface?" Zaeven gasped.

"You cannot," Madox growled.

"Lucky bastard," Brittan said with a wry smile.

"Go now," Darius told them. "Sharpen your weapons and prepare your minds. Brand, your new duties will begin immediately."

His friend opened his mouth to question him, but changed his mind. He nodded in understanding.

Chairs skidded as they rushed to obey; then the shuffle of their footsteps sounded.

Darius shut himself in his personal chambers. With Brand now guarding the mist, he closed his eyes and pictured Javar's palace. Within seconds, he stood inside the very walls he imagined. Except, these walls were barren, devoid of any type of jewel or decoration. He frowned.

A billowing mist stretched to the prismed ceiling, and as he floated into the next room, he noticed what looked to be ice crystals scattered across the floor. Those crystals produced a thick mist. He bent down and smoothed his palm over a few shards, wishing he could hold them in his hand and feel their coolness. Why weren't they melting? His frown deepened, and he straightened. Unlike the emptiness of the first room, human men abounded in this one. No one saw him, for he was like the mist. There, but not there. Able to observe, but unable to touch.

Some of the occupants were striding in and out, holding weapons just as Grayley described. Attached to their backs were strange, round containers with a single tube that stretched from the top. The men who weren't holding weapons were holding spikes crafted by Hephaestus himself. They jammed those spikes into the wall and pried at the jewels. Where had these humans acquired tools of the gods?

Had he been a man who allowed emotions to rule him, Darius would have morphed into dragon form. Prongs of fury simmered to life just beneath his skin. He watched a female vampire glide casually inside the room and lick her lips as her gaze caressed the humans. A trickle of blood fell from her chin, testament of a recent feeding. She stopped to speak with a human.

"Tell your leader we've done all that was required of us," she said in the human language, trailing a finger over his now pale cheek. "We are ready for our reward."

The man shifted nervously, but nodded. "We're almost ready to venture further."

"Do not take too long. We might decide to turn our appetites to you." With one last lick of her lips, which sent the man rearing backward in fear, she left as casually as she'd entered. Her white gown flowed behind her in sensuous waves.

Darius watched in shock. Vampires and humans aiding one another? Inconceivable. Perplexed, he moved his gaze over the rest of the chamber. Sections of the walls and floor were blackened from fire. In a far corner lay the broken, dead body of a dragon. Veran, one of Javar's fiercest soldiers. A white film covered him from head to toe. He bore several injuries, yet there was no blood around him.

What type of weapon could destroy such a strong creature? Vampires were strong, yes. Humans were resourceful, yes. But that wasn't enough to capture an entire dragon palace. His fury increased. Darius found himself reaching for one of the humans, intent on curling his fingers around the bastard's vulnerable neck, but his hands drifted through the man like mist.

Now more than before he knew he could not send his own army here until he learned just how to combat these men and their weapons.

Darius searched the rest of the palace. He did not find a sign of Javar or any more of his men. Had the rest met the same fate as Veran? Or had they merely abandoned this place? Left unsure, he whisked himself back inside his own chamber. Answers. He wanted answers. Answers he suspected lay with Grace. If he hoped to gain what he wanted from her, he needed to be focused, distant. Utterly unfeeling.

Heartless.

He only wished he did not feel so alive each time he thought of her. So vital.

Well, he would remove the sight of her from his mind. All of that glorious hair tumbling down her shoulders. Eyes more vibrant than the sea. He would even remove the sound of her voice from his ears. That sweet voice entreating him to continue their kiss.

Instead of forcing her from his thoughts, he only managed to strengthen her hold.

He easily saw himself carrying her to his bed, laying her down and stripping the clothes from her body. He imagined himself parting her sweet thighs, luxuriating in the softness of her skin, then sliding deeply inside her. He could see her head thrashing from side to side. Could almost hear her moans of rapture.

Desire became a heady essence in his veins, his cock strained to an unbearable thickness. He growled from the pain of it. Jaw clenched, he removed the medallion from his neck and held it in his palm. "Show me Grace Carlyle," he commanded.

The twin dragons glowed incandescent with energy. Power whirled inside them, mighty, burgeoning, and when it became too much for them to bear, blood-red beams shot from their eyes, creating a circle of light. Inside the light, air crackled and thickened.

Grace's image formed in the center.

In that instant, his senses came to life. He didn't understand how a simple glance at her could undo centuries of safeguards. She lay in a small bed, and he studied her. Her eyes were closed; her cheeks were pale, making the freckles scattered across her dirt-smudged nose and forehead appear darker. Her carmine curls were wound atop her head, all but a few loose tendrils framing her temples.

She wore the same dirty shirt, and some sort of small, clear tube protruded from her arm, partially covered by the thin white sheet draping her from the chest down. Two male humans approached her bed.

Darius scowled as his possessiveness resurfaced.

"Looks like the morphine is working," the man with dark hair said, his voice a smooth baritone.

"Not just morphine. I gave her three different sedatives. She'll be out for hours."

"What are we going to do with her?"

"Whatever she wants us to do." He chuckled. "We're to play the gracious host."

"We should just kill her and be done with it."

"We don't need the attention her disappearance would bring-not when her brother is already missing."

"She won't stop searching for Alex. That much is obvious."

"She can search all she wants. She'll never find him."

The dark-headed one reached out and trailed his fingers over Grace's cheek. She didn't awaken, but mumbled something unintelligible under her breath. "She's pretty," he said.

A low, menacing snarl rose in Darius's throat.

"She's too fat," the other said.

"Not fat, just not anorexic. She's soft in all the right places."

"Well, keep your hands to yourself. Women know when their bodies have been used, and we don't need her bitching about it. The boss wouldn't like it." With a disgusted shake of his head, he added, "Come on. We've got work to do."

The two humans walked away-which saved their lives. Grace's image began to fade. With much regret Darius hung the chain back around his neck.

Soon. Soon he would be with her again.