"Out of paradise and straight into purgatory," Gray muttered as he maneuvered through a thick, cackling crowd of... people. He used the term loosely. Around him meandered bull-faced men (with actual fur!), women with skin that glowed and glittered - and who also dressed in scanty, see-through robes with more cleavage than a Playboy centerfold (which he only flipped through for the articles). They reminded him of the siren he'd encountered last night, pretty and delicate.
Giant, one-eyed Cyclopses shook the ground as they walked, and griffins, half lion, half bird, raced on all fours, growling and snapping at each other, their tails whipping from side to side. Overhead, birds flew - no. Not birds, he realized. They possessed grotesquely misshapen faces, female torsos with large - very large - breasts, and the body of a bird. Talons, wings and all. Harpies, that's what they were. With
beautiful breasts. Had he mentioned those?
He was truly hard up if female birds were turning him on. Maybe it was time to renew his subscription to Playboy. For the articles.
There were a few centaurs, half man, half horse like the sheep farmer, and each of them carried long, thick clubs. A pack of giggling horned children darted past him, throwing rocks at each other as they ran.
Jewel had navigated him down the mountain and into this - whatever it was. Town? Freak fest? He'd already checked in with home base, and now gripped his knife, careful to keep the dark metal hidden within the folds of his robe. Heat stretched from the crystal dome above like a too-tight rubber band, ready to crack and break at the first sign of pressure. Still, he was glad for his robe and hood. They blended him into the crowd quite nicely. And if anyone sensed his human blood, they gave no notice.
You made it, Jewel said, breathless with excitement. You really made it. The last was barely a whisper. The closer he'd drawn to this area, the more desperate she'd become for him to reach her.
"Finally," he muttered. "Where am I?" A salty breeze at last stirred, whisking his hood around his face. This is the Centralagora - market - for the Outer City.
Only then did he notice the vendors selling their wares. Gleaming linens, sparkling jewelry and - slaves. His eyes widened. A man with green scales instead of skin and red-rimmed eyes paced in front of a line of naked humanoid men, shouting about the merits of buying them, he'd bet. What he wouldn't give to speak Atlantean. The slaves were well muscled and streaked with dirt and whip marks, and they each wore an expression of dismay, their cheeks flushed with humiliation as they stared down at the ground.
Gray's hands flexed and relaxed, flexed and relaxed. He wanted to cut them loose, at least try to save them, but that wasn't his mission and he couldn't afford to draw attention to himself. Maybe, after he found the jewel, he'd come back for them.
Those men are rapists, killers and thieves.
"Then they deserve what they get," he said, losing all traces of pity. He turned away from them. The scent of fresh, succulent meats taunted his nose, and his mouth watered. Having eaten only one decent meal - the rest being fruits, nuts, and tasteless energy bars - in the past five days, he craved steak, so rare it mooed, with a loaded baked potato on the side.
With a sexy serving wench, I'm sure. "You got that right."
She snorted. Since dragons control and protect the Inner City, outcasts and the more bloodthirsty races stay in this area. It's why everyone here carries a weapon. No one trusts anyone else.
Gray intensified his guard. He even let his robe drop from his wrist, revealing the long length of his machete. Jewel was right. Everyone else had a weapon, and they weren't afraid to show it. He'd stand out if he didn't showcase his blade.
Someone pushed past him, jostling the backpack that was hidden under his robe and causing him to stumble forward. He growled, knife raised, ready to strike, but the bull-faced man never turned to engage.
Follow him. He'll lead you to me.
Gray quickened his step, elbowing figures out of his way as he clambered past a tall, stone gate and toward a black crystal castle that swept a towering apex toward the dome. His gaze remained on the bull-man's back. Anticipation unfurled in his stomach, then quickly spread through his veins.
This morning he'd finally admitted to himself that his desire to reach Jewel had less to do with his mission, and more to do with seeing her in the flesh. More than anything, he wanted to save this woman who had been his only companion for two days.
"Where are you?" he muttered quietly, not wanting the creatures surrounding him to hear his foreign tongue.
I'm at the top of the palace steps. Hurry, Gray, please hurry. I will only be here a few moments more. I want to see you and know' I'm not dreaming. That you are really here.
He finally reached the bull-man and shoved him out of the way. Sweat beaded across every inch of his skin, trickling down and wetting his robe. He would have preferred to hold his gun, but there wasn't much two bullets could do in a crowd this size. Since he hadn't used the grenades, he had those, and would use them if necessary. He only hoped it didn't come down to that kind of destruction.
Several beings grumbled when he continued to shoulder his way closer to the castle. Almost there. He'd see her any moment...
"What am I up against, Jewel? You never told me." Even as he spoke, he scanned the area, searching for any signs of trouble. Searching for her. Someone stepped directly in his path, and he barreled into the man's back, propelling him forward. Damn it, would this crowd never part? Would he never reach the steps?
I can feel your presence.
Strangely, he could feel hers. A warm, feminine energy pulsed inside him with greater intensity every step he took. Faster, faster, he strode, only then realizing she hadn't answered his question.
And then, he forgot about his need for answers.
He was there, standing at the front of the crowd, his feet hitting the bottom of the steps. He stopped, but his gaze still moved, roving, searching, climbing the dirty, blood-soaked staircase. Where was she? His heart hammered inside his chest, nearly cracking his ribs with its fierceness. He couldn't see her.
The centaur beside him pointed to the top left and whispered something to his female companion. Gray shifted his attention - and sucked in a shocked breath.
There she was.
He knew it was her, knew it was Jewel. And she was a stone fox. A bound stone fox, and seeing her arms tied over her head, the ropes anchoring her to a towering column, pissed him off royally.
A pristine robe draped her slender body, knotted at her right shoulder and just below her stomach. The long material hung loosely, hiding and showcasing her curves as it billowed against her frame. Silky, jet-black hair cascaded down her back, a startling contrast against her virgin-white clothes. Even from here, he could see the creamy, flawless purity of her skin, skin that seemed to glisten like a pearl.
His stomach tightened - right along with the rest of him. In anger at seeing her bound. In arousal at simply
seeing her. Her face was as smooth and pure as his mother's antique cameo. Not classically beautiful, but
somehow so exquisite he ached simply from looking at her. Her lips were full and pink, deliciously pouty.
She was familiar to him, but he didn't know where he'd seen her before. He only knew that he had seen her at some point in his life. How was that possible?
A black-robed man knelt in front of her, his head bowed. Too busy scanning the masses for Gray, she ignored him.
"I'm here," Gray whispered. "Toward your left." Her chin snapped up and turned in his direction. Their gazes collided.
He sucked in another breath, this one burning his lungs with the force of its sizzle. Her eyes were large, so large they dominated her face, and they were amazingly blue. Startlingly blue. Otherworldly blue. A
shade so clear and deep he could easily lose his soul in their depths - and thank her for the loss. They hypnotized him.
"My God," he said, unable to hold the words inside.
Her buttercup lips lifted in a dazzling smile, and that smile rocked him to the core, nearly laying him flat. Her teeth were straight and white. Perfect.
You're even more handsome than I realized.
And she was lovelier than he ever could have guessed.
He watched as a scaled, yellow arm reached from behind her and nudged her in the shoulder. Her grin quickly faded, I'm sorry. I must finish my day's work. She turned her attention to the kneeling man. Her rosy lips moved as she spoke to him, but Gray was too far away to hear what she said.
She closed her eyes, paused for a long, protracted moment, then spoke some more. The man was jerked up and hauled away, sobbing in relief.
Gray's eyes narrowed, and his temper sparked to life. What was going on here? He forced himself to study the little details he had missed in his haste to see Jewel. A trio of demon guards stood behind her. Two small, sharp horns protruded from each of their scalps. Their noses beaked, and their skin pulsed with a yellowish, scaly hue. Evil red eyes stared out at the crowd. None of them held a weapon, but then, they didn't need weapons. Gray knew from experience that demons relied on their superior strength and speed, as well as their razor sharp teeth to defend and attack.
A wave of shock worked through him as he realized exactly what he was seeing. This is what Jewel had meant when she told him it was only the beginning. She needed him to save her from an army of demons. Sure. No problem. Whatever.
"How many are there?"
She needed no explanation. More than I can count. I can make an escape plan for us, but I must wait until I'm alone.
Gray wasn't sure he had enough firepower to beat such a large army. But damn it, he was here, and he wasn't leaving without Jewel. He also knew he wasn't going to wait on Jewel to make the escape plan. That happened to be one of his specialties.
A guard cut her ropes, and she sank into a heap on the ground. He yearned to race up the steps and sweep her away, but she was quickly scooped up and carried inside the castle.
"What's going on? Where are they taking you?" Silence.
"Jewel!" he shouted, and he didn't care who heard him. "Answer me." Again, silence.
Damn it! He didn't like this. Didn't like not knowing. Didn't like the feeling of helplessness working its way through him.
The crowd began to disperse, and he soon found himself alone, staring up at the black castle through slitted eyes. He released a heated sigh. "Be ready, babe. I'm coming in."
"What know you of a portal that leads from Atlantis to the surface world?"
On her perch at the edge of the bed, Jewel blinked up at Marina, Queen of the Demons, and prayed her expression remained blank. "A portal?" She phrased the words as a question, though she already knew the answer.
"Darius of the Dragons has taken a human bride. I've heard the woman came to him through a portal located below the dragon palace." Marina's arms were crossed, and she drummed her long, sharp claws against her scaled forearms. The scent of sulfur emanated from her. "You spent several years with the dragons, so you should know if the portal exists. Does it?"
Lying, for Jewel, brought great physical pain. She didn't know why, she only knew that it did happen. Horrendous, agonizing pain. The information Marina wanted was not information Marina needed. If she told the truth, bad things would happen to the dragons, a race of creatures she adored. But if she lied, bad things would happen to her.
Silence would not work. As always, Marina would threaten to kill an innocent for every minute Jewel remained silent. She would simply have to trick Marina into believing something different.
"Do you truly believe a cold and merciless warrior such as Darius en Kragin, King of the Dragons, would discuss a secret portal with me, knowing I would one day be stolen from him?"
Marina leveled a narrowed glance at her. "I'm onto your ways, girl. Answer with a question and your words are never lies. Not this time. You will answer me with a yes or a no. Understand?"
"What did I lie about?" she said, lifting her hands. "Darius is known throughout the land as a warrior whose only joy is killing. Tales of the deaths he's inflicted abound. You know that as well as I."
"That is not the information I wished from you, and well you know it. I'll ask once more, and do not answer me with generalities and misdirections or you will suffer for it. Did Darius discuss a portal with you? Specifically," Marina added, "a portal that leads from Atlantis to the surface world."
Jewel frowned, gauging her next words very carefully. "I can honestly tell you that he never willingly supplied such information to me."
The queen growled low in her throat, and the sound rippled menacingly from the walls. Marina paced, hands fisted at her sides. Her sheer, transparent robe revealed every outline of her body, every horn protruding from her back. Her green and yellow scales pulsed, and her eyes glowed bright red.
The woman was pure evil.
"You think you are so clever," she grumbled. "Have you ever seen a portal?"
"I have never seen a portal with my physical eye."
She paused midstride, catching Jewel's meaning. Unfortunately. "Does that mean you have seen one in a vision?"
Trying again to lead Marina down a different path, she said, "If I had seen a portal in one of my visions, don't you think I would have done whatever was necessary to return to the dragons? To find and enter the portal? I am tired of being stolen from one leader to the other. I would love to enter the surface world and lose myself in their masses."
"Once again you refuse to answer as you were told." she growled. "Because of your refusal, one of the prisoners that were released today will be found and killed. That will be your punishment. Now, do you care to rephrase your last answer?"
"Please," she said softly, regret, helplessness, and anger working through her. Of all the ways to be controlled, this was the worst. Knowing other lives, others' suffering, revolved around her cooperation. "Please, do not do this."
"I'll take that as another refusal. Two will die this night. And know this, little slave. You do not have to worry about being stolen again because I plan to keep you for eternity. Whether that eternity feels as if you are in Olympus or Hades is up to you. Think on that, and we'll speak again in the morning." Marina stalked from the room, slamming and locking the door behind her.
The threat lingered in the air long after she'd gone, and a shudder racked Jewel. Marina always found a way to get what she wanted. Jewel longed to call her back, but pressed her lips together. The knowledge she possessed had the potential to destroy all of Atlantis.
She leapt to her feet and paced the confines of her chamber. Or rather, prison. A prison fairly bursting with anything and everything a woman could desire. Huffy pillows spilled from the gold-wrought bed; brilliant sapphire-and-emerald dyed lambs' fleece carpets adorned the marble floor. A large, heated bathing pool, canvas and paints, and a table piled high with mouthwatering food. All were here to keep her occupied, keep her thoughts away from escape.
She might have luxuriated in the room and its offerings if she were allowed an ounce of freedom. Instead, the queen kept her sealed inside. Jewel was only allowed out to hold court with the queen's supposed enemies, where Jewel herself judged them friend or foe. Oh, she had tried to escape. Many times. She had always failed miserably - and others had been punished for her efforts. Still, she kept a satchel hidden and ready, just in case an opportunity arose.
"Just in case" might actually be tonight, she thought with a slow grin. Gray had promised to come for her, to save her. She needed to plan their escape route. Should have done it already, but had no time alone.
There were no windows here, but she knew darkness had already fallen, for sentinels marched outside her door. Their boots thumped against the floor, blending with the sound of her own pacing. Her silky white robe wisped at her ankles, as delicate as clouds.
Be ready, babe, he'd said. I'm coming in.
With every step, Gray's words echoed through her mind, bringing with them a wealth of emotion: joy, excitement, hope. His arrival almost seemed too wonderful to be true. How long had she waited for this day?
The answer was simple. Forever. She'd waited forever.
He will be hurt.
The warning suddenly echoed through her mind with the force of a tempest, swirling and churning, consuming. Her joy and excitement were instantly replaced by dread. Her eyes widened in horror. Oh my gods, what had she done? Her premonitions were never, never wrong. If Gray entered this palace, he would be hurt. The knowledge now burned inside her as hot as flames, and she covered her mouth with a shaky hand.
What if she'd led him to his death?
If something happened to him, she'd never forgive herself. The demons were a vicious race, always happy to kill and maim. And now, with knowledge of the portals apparently spreading, the demon queen
would desperately need Jewel's aid. She wouldn't hesitate to kill Gray in the most painful way possible. A tide of apprehension slammed into her.
"What have I done?" she whispered brokenly.
She never should have led Gray here, no matter how desperately she needed him. The demons would smell his human blood. They would find him and rend the flesh from his bones.
The consequences of her actions rose full force in her mind. Jewel rubbed a hand over her forehead and briefly closed her eyes. A dark, dangerous inner storm threatened to flood and drown her; she was responsible for this. She should have known better, she thought, laughing bitterly. She of all people should have known better than to ask someone to help her. Especially Gray.
He had always been a part of her life. Her earliest memories were filled with him; throughout her life, she'd had visions of him, of his path from child to man, of his silly antics with his siblings. Of his kill-or-be-killed missions. Of his numerous - too numerous, to her way of thinking - women.
Quite simply, she'd always loved him.
His image formed in her mind, though it didn't soothe her as it usually did. Her fear increased. Wonderfully tall and strong, he was muscled like the fiercest warrior. He had pale blond hair and slate-colored eyes fringed by spiky black lashes, and he glowed with unflinching life and vitality. He fairly sparkled with it.
His lips were pink and lush like a woman's, but perfect for his masculine features, softening the rough edges and providing an utterly arrogant smile that promised absolute pleasure. For years she'd imagined those lips all over her, tasting, sucking...
A shiver trekked along her spine. His body was a work of art, bronzed and roped with sinew and scars. So many times she'd longed to somehow breach the vast distance between them and touch him. Trace her fingers over him and assure herself that he was real, flesh and blood, not an exotic figment of her imagination.
As if she needed another reason to stand out to the creatures of this land, her connection to Gray provided one. Having observed him and the people of his world for so many years, she knew their language, their attitudes, and their humors. She hadn't meant to, gods knew, but she'd adapted herself to their way of life instead of her own.
She'd known Gray would one day enter Atlantis, and she should have resisted the urge to lead him to her. She'd foolishly allowed her desire for freedom, her craving to learn about herself, her abilities, and her father, to color her actions and thoughts. But more than all of that, she'd simply longed to see him. To see Gray.
She had to do something, anything, to prevent him from entering this palace. She would find a way to escape on her own.
She closed her eyes, pressed her lips together, and fought a tremor of regret. "I've changed my mind, Gray," she said, projecting her voice into his mind. "Do not enter this palace. Just... go home. Go home and forget about Dunamis. Forget about me."
He didn't respond, but she knew he heard her. "Gray!" she shouted. "Answer me."
Not new, Jewel. His hard voice growled inside her mind, and it was the most beautiful sound she'd ever heard.
Frustrated by his lack of concern, she crossed her arms over her chest. "You better be packing up and heading out."
"I'm appointing myself your commanding officer, and I command you to go home." His only reply was a derisive snort.
"Did you hear me, soldier? I told you to lea - "
She gasped and tumbled to the ground, the explosion rocking the very foundation of her room. Her heart skipped a beat; her ears rang - and that ringing soon blended with the sound of demonic screams and racing footsteps.
Gray was here. Damn him, he was here. Where are you? He demanded.
Stiffening with helplessness, horror and fear, she gritted out, "Do not enter the palace, Gray. Bringing you here was a mistake. You'll be hurt!"
I'll get there faster if you tell me. Otherwise, I'll end up wandering these damn halls and searching every damn room.
Too late to send him away - he was already inside. How could she protect him? Shaken to the core of her soul, she quickly rattled off directions. "Be careful," she whispered.
Her limbs trembling, she climbed to her feet. Nothing would happen to him, nothing would happen to him, nothing would happen to him. She'd protect him, somehow, someway.
A lump formed in her throat, and hundreds of sharp knots twisted her stomach. She didn't know what to do. Seconds passed without a word from him. She yearned to call out to him, to ask him where he was and what he was doing. Too afraid to distract him, she remained silent. She merely stood in the center of her room, helpless and racked with guilt and worry.
Even more minutes passed, becoming longer and more torturous. Another explosion rocked the palace.
Jewel gripped the bedpost, holding herself upright. Her blood ran cold and hot, alternating between the two as demons hissed and wailed beyond her door. Her limbs shook violently.
"Please, let him live," she prayed. "Bring him to me unharmed."
The gods didn't respond, but then, they never did, preferring instead to pretend the people of Atlantis did not exist.
Get away from the door, Jewel.
Her eyes widened, even as hope and excitement flared to life inside her. "I'm already away." Cover yourself with something. Anything.
He sounded so urgent, so forceful. Bending down, she crawled under the bedframe. "I'm covered." Boom!
The third explosion nearly burst her eardrums. Wood chips and marble chunks crashed onto the floor, raining around the bed like hail.
This time, Gray's voice wasn't inside her head, but inside her room. Nearly crying with the force of her relief, she crawled from under the bed, pushing past plumes of smoke. She winced when her knee slammed into a broken shard of glass.
"Here," she shouted, waving a hand in front of her face to clear the haze. "I'm here." Her gaze darted around the destruction until she found him.
He wore his green and black clothes, his robe nowhere to be seen. His shirt was tight against his bulging muscles, and his pants were ripped at the thigh. A cloth made of the same material as his shirt anchored over his hair, hiding the paleness of the strands. He'd painted his face green and black, but beads of sweat had lightened the colors and now streaked his forehead and temples.
He looked so beautiful.
He scanned the room, searching for her. And when their gazes collided, locked, hot awareness stole her
breath. Her heart skipped a beat. He was strength and life epitomized just then, and he was here for her.
Slowly his lips lifted in a tender smile completely at odds with the fiery carnage behind him. "Hello, Prudence."
She nearly melted.
"And just so you know, you are so not the commanding officer in this relationship. Now let's go."