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VALERIAN COULDN'T BELIEVE someone had entered his room without his knowledge. Even when he was caught up in the most animalistic of his desires, his warrior instincts did not diminish.

Not so with Shaye. With her, he concentrated only on the loving. Such a thing had never happened before.

At the moment he battled a fierce torrent of rage and desire. He had Shaye where he'd wanted and needed her for so long, and now he had to leave her. But her safety came before her seduction. Always.

Her safety came before his own pleasure.

Perhaps he was trapped inside a nightmare, for this was the worst thing that could have happened to him. "Warn the others," he told Broderick, the words ripped from him. "I want everyone in full armor and in the arena. I will be there shortly."

"Consider it done" was the reply before his second-in-command rushed off.

He rubbed a hand over his face. Gods, he'd known this day would come. Why could it not have come in the morning? "Broderick," he called, and the warrior quickly returned. "Have the women been seen to?"

"They are being hidden even now."

"Excellent. Go, then. You have your orders."

Broderick stalked from the room a second time, his hurried footsteps echoing off the walls.

"I'm sorry, moon," Valerian said, gazing down at Shaye. Color flushed her cheeks; her pale hair splayed over the bed like ribbons of white silk. Her breasts, covered by the violet sheet, were outlined, her nipples pearled. "I must go."

She didn't respond.

He didn't know what else to say. Withdrawing from the bed, from her embrace, was the most difficult thing he'd ever done. He wished there was time, at least, to sate her desire and give one of them relief.

As he hurriedly dressed, tugging on his pants and retrieving his chest armor - still stained with blood from today's practice - he realized he was still not at full strength. His grip wasn't as tight, his limbs not as steady. There was no help for it now. He laced up his boots.

"You're going to war?" Finally his woman spoke, but her voice gave no indication of her emotions. It was as blank and cool as if he'd never caressed her. Never moved his fingers inside her.

That angered him as much as Broderick's interruption. "If that is what is required to keep this palace, then yes, I will go to war."

"But... you're injured."

"Yes."

"You shouldn't be fighting. You'll make your wounds worse."

He kept his back to her as he gathered his helmet and shield. The Skull rested inside. "Do not begin doubting me again, moon. I am well able to protect and defend."

"Why don't you just give the dragons back their palace?"

He would not have his army become wanderers again, no real home, no real refuge. "It is mine now, and I keep what is mine. Always." He uttered the words as a warning to her. She was his now, and he would never let her go. "Get dressed."

She glanced down at the sheet she clasped, at her gaping pants. She gasped as if she only then realized she had yet to cover herself completely. Motions stiff, she grabbed the black shirt from the floor and tugged it over her head.

 

Valerian mourned the loss of her seminakedness. He held out his free hand and motioned her to join him. Surprisingly she did so without protest, anchoring her belt into place as she walked. However, she didn't take his offered hand.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked. Deep concern swam in the dark pools of her eyes. For him? he wondered hopefully. He doubted it was for herself.

"I want you safe, which means I'm going to place you with the other women."

"Where?" she insisted. "The room we were in earlier today?"

"No. I will show you." He knew she would balk if he told her where she would be placed. If he simply took her there, her steps willing, he would save them both time and exertion.

Urgency battered him. He must get Shaye to safety.

He grabbed her hand and tugged her through three separate hallways. Several of his men rushed past him, nodding in acknowledgment as they headed for the arena. That was not his destination. As he continued on, the air became cold, thick with moisture. Mist curled toward the ceiling.

"You're taking me to the portal?" Shaye slapped him on the shoulder. "I thought you said I'd drown if I went back through."

"I am not, nor will I ever send you into the portal. Not for any reason." Cave walls came into view. Rocky. Jagged. Sensual murals painted all around. He bypassed the swirling portal, careful not to touch the dappled liquid separating him and Shaye from the sea.

"I don't understand," Shaye said.

The sound of female voices filled his ears. Twigs and bones - left over from when the dragons owned the palace and killed every human who strayed into Atlantis - snapped under his boots. More than once Valerian had wondered why Atlanteans could not survive upon the surface but humans could come and go as they pleased. Armies had once passed through, which was why the dragons had killed so unmercifully, why this cavern had once been a place of death and destruction.

Still, Valerian thought it was better off in his hands. Innocents did not deserve to die. What if Shaye had passed through before his arrival? She would have been slain.

"Are those bones?" Shaye covered her mouth with a shaky hand. "I didn't notice them before."

He explained about the dragons, about the portal. "Humans have tried to destroy the creatures of Atlantis in an attempt to steal their riches. Dragons did what they thought was right to protect the Atlanteans."

Valerian descended a flight of stairs, this one hidden in the narrow crevice between two bloodstained boulders. The portal was exactly why the dragons wanted control of this palace again. They would fight to the death to have it. Darius, King of the Dragons, was Guardian, a slayer of trespassers.

"You never told me the most erotic place on a woman's body," Shaye said. Fear layered her voice, as if she was desperate to think of anything but war and death.

"Nor will I," he replied. The mystery would occupy her mind, keeping her distracted. "Not until I have you in bed again."

"Jerk."

"Beauty."

A pause. A sharp intake of breath. Shaye ground to an abrupt halt. "What is this place?" Her voice echoed around them.

They had reached the bottom of the stairs, had entered a new room. Valerian propped his shield against the wall and slipped a hand around Shaye's waist, urging her to his side - if only to prevent her from running when she spied the prison cell. "Welcome to the dungeon, moon."

The gaggle of voices tapered to quiet a second before happy coos sprang forth. "Valerian, you gorgeous thing! I'm so happy to see you."

"Valerian!"

"Hi, Valerian."

Glowing blue bars came into view, bars that held all of the other women.

"Hell, no," Shaye said, and he knew she'd seen the prison - a prison that could hold an immortal if necessary. She jerked from him, cutting off all contact. "I'm not letting you trap me like that. I will not be helpless!"

Determined, he faced her. She, too, wore an expression of determination. Her dark eyes flashed fire as he backed her into the wall.

"Try and intimidate me all you want." She squared her shoulders and raised her chin, the picture of total defiance. "I'm not staying down here while you war it up, up there."

"This is the safest place for you."

"What if you're killed? Will we be stuck down here forever?"

"That will not happen," he insisted.

"Can you guarantee it with one hundred percent certainty?"

"Yes." He would allow nothing bad to happen to himself because Shaye's life depended on him. That was fact.

She crossed her arms over her chest. "How can you guarantee such a thing? Are you psychic?"

His eye twitched as he jerkily pointed to the group of warriors standing in front of the prison bars. "If anything happens to me, these men will release you. Satisfied?"

"I'm not a little cupcake who will do stupid things while the big, strong he-warrior takes care of her. You don't have to worry about me rushing into the battle. I'll stay in this room, okay. You don't have to lock me up."

"The bars aren't for you. They are for the dragons. If they catch you, they will burn you or ravish you. Perhaps both. Is that the fate you desire for yourself?"

What little color her face held drained away.

He softened his tone. "Try and keep the others calm while I'm gone. Will you do this for me?"

She stared into his eyes, and for a brief moment he caught a glimpse of sheer terror. For him. For his safety. But she frowned and nodded. "Fine. I'll do it. But they aren't upset," she grumbled. "They're freakishly happy to see you."

"We are, Valerian," a brunette said, stepping forward. She gripped the bars. A buttercup-yellow robe draped her lush body. "We're very happy to see you."

Shaye pinched the bridge of her nose. "If you don't come back, I swear to God I'll kill you."

Valerian nodded to Terran, who stood sentry at the cell. Terran extended his arm and brushed his fingers against the bars, making them nothing more than mist. Valerian couldn't help himself. He crushed Shaye's lips with his own, his tongue swooping inside for a quick taste, bringing all of his fiercest desires to the surface. She responded violently, brutally, taking everything he could give her.

As he kissed her, he backed her into the cell. When she was ensconced inside, he jerked away from her and the bars solidified in front of her face.

Their eyes locked. Silence sizzled between them for a heartbeat. Her gaze widened in understanding, and she gripped the bars. She gave them a good shake, but they did not even rattle. "You bastard! I said I would willingly stay here. You didn't have to trick me inside."

"I'm sorry." He hated to leave her. Wanted to kiss her again. Wanted to linger. He couldn't. He hefted up his shield and stalked from the enclosure, her curses ringing in his ears. He headed for the dining hall. Broderick met him halfway.

"The men are ready."

He pushed Shaye from his mind, determined to act as a warrior should. Cold, unemotional. Lethal. "Excellent. How far are the dragons from reaching us?"

"They are still in the Outer City."

"Have they any allies with them?"

"No. They come alone."

"Darius leads them?"

"Yes."

Valerian nodded. He and Darius had fought once before, and though Valerian had injured the hulking beast, the end had been a draw, with neither man able to completely conquer the other. "I want our best men on the parapet and a group of soldiers strategically placed in the surrounding forest. I want the dragons' every move tracked. I want to know if they send flyers onto the roof."

"And if they do?"

"Cut them down." All dragons had wings that allowed them to soar through the air. They were also fire-breathers and if they weren't stopped quickly, they could decimate everything in their path. The nymphs' greatest strength lay in their power to seduce. Even men were not immune and could be caught in their spell, slaves to their will. More than that, the nymphs' passion spilled into every area of their lives. Not just sexual passion, but fury.

The dragons would not fall prey to their charms, which meant they would have to rely on their wits, sword skill and potent fury. At least the palace, which had been made for dragons, was fire resistant.

"Do you want traps set?" Broderick asked.

He considered the idea. "No. Let the dragons reach us without incident. They'll be less likely to rush in to attack, and we can launch a surprise assault of our own in the coming darkness."

Broderick rushed to convey all he'd been ordered.

In the dining hall, Valerian strode to the wall of windows and gazed out. Empty streets greeted him. The citizens who lived in the Outer City must have spied the dragons and run home, fearing for their lives.

War had finally arrived.

Valerian spun on his heel and strode to the arena. Broderick was busy instructing the men. As they received orders, they raced to obey. "May the gods go with you," he told those who passed him.

"And you, my king," he heard uttered numerous times.

Those without assignments formed a line and eyed him expectantly. He paced in front of them, saying, "I want you to circle around the Outer City undetected and remain behind the dragons. I want them flanked by nymphs on every side."

They nodded in unison.

"When you receive my signal, close in on them and let them know you are there. Now go."

Hurried footsteps echoed as the men rushed to obey. Valerian found himself alone. Gripping his sword hilt, he stood there a moment, his thoughts drifting inexorably to Shaye. Had she not been here, he most likely would have led a section of his army into the outskirts of the city and attacked the dragons there. As it was, he wanted all of his forces surrounding the palace. Close at hand. A circle of protection.

All he had to do now was await the dragons' arrival. And kill, of course. Kill each and every one of his enemies.

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