The voice called to her from a long, dark tunnel. She tried to respond, but her lungs refused to cooperate.
She opened her mouth, surely the most difficult thing she'd ever done, but again no sound emerged. "Jewel. Come on, baby. Talk to me."
Gray. She'd recognize that sexy drawl anywhere, anytime. He sounded worried and very upset. The fog blanketing her mind was thick, but she managed to push her way through it and -
Her eyelids popped open.
Gray crouched in front of her, his silver eyes swimming with a wealth of emotion: concern, relief, fear.
She blinked and licked her lips, orienting herself. Where were they? What was he afraid of? Pale locks of hair tumbled on his forehead. Dirt streaked his cheeks.
He caressed a fingertip down her nose. "Don't ever do that again, or I'll - Just don't do it. Understand?"
Do what? She glanced around her, noticing the stone buildings flanking her front and back, the gravel she lay upon and the robe draped over her head. The sounds of chattering people, pounding horse hooves, and the scents of meats and fruits drifted into her awareness.
"We're in the Inner City," she said. She remembered being by the river, the Mers attacking and then... She'd had a vision, she realized with a shake of her head. She always lost track of time and place. "How did we get here?"
His cheeks burned bright red. "I, uh, sort of flew us. First class," he added dryly.
"With wings?" She jolted up and only experienced a moment's dizziness. "You grew wings?"
"I did the levitation thing." His chin canted to the side with an I-dare-you-to-contradict-me air. "Those walking fish men are everywhere. They followed us here." He cupped her jaw and turned her head toward him. "You were catatonic, and said we'd find a shield here." Sighing, he leaned back on his haunches. "We've got to get to a safe place. I spotted demons and vampires, as well."
Her brow puckered. "They rarely venture here. Are you sure?"
"I never forget a creature that wants to make me breakfast." His wry expression matched his tone. She chuckled, but her amusement quickly faded. "I shouldn't be laughing. We're in danger."
"It's good to find humor at times like this." His arm snaked around her waist and hefted her up. "You all right?"
He was watching her so intently, searching her face for... something. What?
"You want to tell me what happened to you?" he asked.
She swallowed, licked her lips. How could she explain what had happened to her without revealing too much? "Sometimes I lose awareness. I - "
A splash sounded, and Gray's head whipped to the side. A small bird drank from a puddle. When he realized they hadn't been spotted, he said, "You don't have to explain now. I shouldn't have asked. There'll be plenty of time to talk later."
The words I hope hung unsaid in the air, drifting on the breeze with a slight hint of unease. She knew he was not afraid for himself. The man lived for danger. Thrived on it. How many missions had he thrown himself into wholeheartedly, eager for the trials that awaited him? Countless.
Which meant - he feared for her? Oh gods, he did. He cared for her. Shock and pleasure and happiness held her immobile. He'd pushed her away earlier and she'd thought he had learned of her love and wanted nothing to do with her. He cared for her; the knowledge was there in his eyes, shining brightly.
Kings and queens fought to own her, to enslave and direct her, to use her, but this man sought to protect her. To give her pleasure.
"Let's get out of here," he said.
Jewel gave him no indication of her intentions; she simply threw herself against him. His breath whooshed out even as his strong, muscled arms enfolded her.
"You are a wonderful man, Gray James." She kissed his cheek. "I know where we can find shelter for the day."
He offered her a tender smile, but stepped away from her as if he didn't dare hold her too long. "I would have been shocked senseless if you didn't know where we should go."
Jewel stepped back into the curve of his body and moved her hands low, cupping his buttocks. Awareness sizzled along her nerve endings. She would have happily remained where she was for the rest of her life, but she gave a gentle squeeze before releasing him. "We'll survive this if for no other reason than for me to get you into bed."
His pupils dilated and his gaze settled on her neck. He swallowed and stepped away again, his expression hardening. Just like that her gentle, teasing lover was gone, and a cold warrior stood in his place.
"Follow me," she told him, not allowing herself to experience hurt over his sudden change. He cared for her. That was all that mattered.
As they entered the heart of the city, the alley shadows faded, and they were surrounded by bright, illuminating light. Mer soldiers marched from the threshold of one building to another.
Knowing how recognizable she was, Jewel tugged her hood lower over her face, then cast a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure Gray had done the same. He had. But she could see that his eyes were slitted and watery, as if the brightness was too much for him to bear. Probably was. Some vampires never learned to tolerate the light.
She intertwined their hands. His strong fingers wrapped around her delicate ones, his skin rough where hers was smooth. The city pulsed with activity, just like before. Taverns, inns, and shops lined the streets, each bursting with creatures of every race. She paused as two centaurs pranced past, their whooping laughter echoing behind them. Stalls flowed with silks and robes of every color. Vendors peddled roasted fowl.
"One day I will not have to guard my every move," she said with determination. "One day," he agreed.
Gray's eyes burned against the light. He found himself staring at Jewel, as usual. Her face was partially covered, but what he could see of her features radiated life, wistfulness, and resolve. As slender as she was, she should have appeared fragile and dainty. Yet, there was a core of strength that radiated from her.
Three demons darted down the street, shoving their way through delicate-looking sirens, muscled Cyclopses, and tail-chasing griffins. The demons continually scanned faces. Gray straightened his shoulders, his every kill-or-be-killed instinct going on instant alert. He didn't slow as he shifted his knife from the folds of his robe, his grip tightening on the hilt.
A minotaur woman whose furry bull face was familiar to him skidded to a halt when she saw Jewel. Her gaze widened, and she shifted her bundle of clothes from one arm to the other.
"Erwin," Jewel said, forcing Gray to stop. "How is your boy?"
"He is well, thanks to you." Erwin smiled. "They came for us, just as you said."
"Ladies, can you continue this conversation later?" As discreetly as possible, Gray positioned Jewel behind him.
One of the demons several yards in front of them stopped and sniffed the air. He whipped around, his red eyes searching, searching. His gaze locked on Gray.
"Human!" The scaly creature released a snakelike hiss.
Not waiting around for a welcome-to-town party, Gray jolted into motion, dragging Jewel with him. "We've been spotted, baby."
People gasped as he pushed through them. What he would have given for a few hollow point bullets. Maybe a grenade. Unfortunately he was out of both. His only weapon was his blade. Demons could fly, so there was no reason for him to attempt that little feat again. Plus, they would do better if they lost themselves in the crowd. If he could find a vendor selling robes, he could steal two, changing the colors he and Jewel wore.
The crowd was thinning at a fast rate. Centaurs galloped away. Minotaurs burrowed in the ground, finding shelter under mounds of dirt. Pebbles flew from beneath Gray's boots.
The woman, Erwin, had followed them, racing at his side. "Keep going," she said. "I will distract them." "No," Jewel said at the same time Gray said, "Thank you."
"We're in deep shit, so we'll take all the help we can get," he added, leaping over a fallen food cart. "Jump," he commanded.
She jumped, her robe billowing around her like a storm cloud. Her hood fell, and her hair spilled down her back, a black, glossy river. She looked over her shoulder and saw Erwin throw her armful of cloth at the demons, momentarily shielding their vision before she ran away.
Gray continued sprinting between buildings and alleys. He knew the demons were getting closer. And closer. And shit! They were doubling in numbers with every step. Their teeth were yellow and razor-sharp, dripping with saliva. "There," Jewel cried, pointing.
He followed the direction of her finger and spotted a female centaur trotting ahead, completely unaware of the turmoil behind her.
"No," Gray said, knowing what she wanted him to do. "Yes. It's the only way."
"Just hop on and ride. Don't be a baby."
If he didn't know better, he'd swear Jewel sounded excited, rather than fearful for her life. He could not believe he was contemplating this... He didn't mind riding a woman, but holy hell. He preferred it be Jewel.
Increasing their speed, they sidled up to the horsewoman. Her pale-as-moonlight hair streamed behind her. Without giving any warning, Gray grabbed a fistful of that hair and pulled himself up, dragging Jewel up behind him. Immediately the centaur tried to buck them off. When that didn't work, she reared up.
"Giddy-up, horsey," he said.
"Get off me." She twisted, trying to bite Gray's leg. When she saw him, her eyes widened and she stilled. "Adonis! My deepest apologies, Great Lord. Thank you for this honor. I shall never - "
Without another word, she kicked into gear, her lithe body spurring into motion. Wind tangled in his hair as she raced stealthily around people, through alleys and over carts. Adrenaline surged in his veins, flowing with the force of an avalanche. He'd experienced more adrenaline rushes since entering Atlantis and meeting Jewel than he had in his entire two years with OBI.
Just thinking of his employer made his hands sweat. They were getting antsy, he knew they were. It was only a matter of time before they sent someone else through the portal, looking for him. What would happen to Jewel then?
The female centaur stopped, her hooves digging into the rocky ground. He frowned. "Keep moving. Go!"
"My Lord of Lords. There are vampires blocking the path in front and demons blocking the path in the rear." Her voice trembled with fear.
"Layel," Jewel gasped.
Gray dismounted, keeping his gaze locked on the trio of vampires. They wore black, and the dark material eerily offset their too-pale skin. Their otherworldy blue eyes were... just like Jewel's, he realized. What the hell?
He blinked, but shook off his unease. Jewel tried to dismount. He stopped her with a firm grip on her thigh. A chorus of hissing laughter erupted behind him.
"When I say so, take off," he mouthed to the centaur. "Take her to safety. I'll find a way to repay you." Her only response was a frightened whinny.
Shoving his hand away, Jewel slipped off and stood beside him. "If you stay, I stay."
Their eyes met, locking, clashing. In the next moment, the vampires and demons flew into action, heading straight toward them.