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VALERIAN PACED THE PARAPET. The rhythmic pounding of army footsteps reverberated in his ears. He could see the dragon army at last, hundreds of them, cresting the violet horizon. That they'd chosen to walk to the palace instead of flying in dragon form meant they were not overcome by rage - yet - and did not mean to attack - yet.

Waiting for their arrival was maddening. He was a man of action. More than that, he was a man eager to finish the fight and return to his woman.

He stumbled forward, one boot snagging on a branch. He caught himself with his hands, bracing them on the wall. He drew in a shaky breath. The wait had drained more of his strength. What he needed was sex. With Shaye. His might wasn't at an optimum level, and he was now feeling its absence.

"My king," Broderick said, concerned, suddenly at his side. "Are you well?"

"I'm fine." He straightened. He was not fine, and he knew it. He'd gone two days without sex, without self-pleasuring, and weakness was unfurling insidious fingers through him. He was well enough to fight, he hoped; well enough to lead, he knew; but for how long?

His arm injury had increased the speed and intensity of his weakness. Had he managed to get inside Shaye earlier, he would be completely healed. "If the dragons come within a hundred yards of the palace, shoot them down," he said.

Broderick nodded. "Archers," he called. "Prepare."

The men knelt and pulled their bows tight. Waiting. Waiting. Time ticked by slowly. Surprisingly, Joachim stepped onto the parapet and approached Valerian. The man limped and his features were tight with pain, but he managed to stay upright.

"What are you doing?" Valerian demanded.

"Fighting," was the harsh reply. "There is to be a war, is there not?"

"You have yet to recover."

"That does not mean I should remain in bed while my brothers fight."

Valerian searched his cousin's face, seeing determination, the need to make things right. He nodded in approval. "Very well. Take your place in the lines below."

Joachim turned, ready to do as he'd been commanded. Then he paused. "I will not apologize for challenging you," he said stiffly, "but I will tell you that I respect your skill and your leadership."

The words were unexpected and surprising. But more than that, his cousin's tone was unexpected and surprising. He'd spoken with affection, as if they were the inseparable boys they'd once been. "Thank you," Valerian said and clapped him lightly on the shoulder. He assumed a battle stance at the wall, overlooking the clear field that led to the palace. Ever closer the dragons came. Their armor glinted in the day's light. Trees rattled behind them, the ground visibly shaken. Colorful petals floated from flowers.

His hand curled around the hilt of The Skull as Darius, king of the dragons, claimed the lead position. He, too, clutched a sword, a long, menacing blade stained crimson from his many kills. Yes, Darius was a lethal killer, an unfeeling warrior with no conscience that Valerian knew of. A worthy adversary, to be sure.

The dragon soldiers came to an abrupt halt.

"Hold," Valerian told his men. "Hold until I give the signal." To the dragons, he called, "Welcome to my home, fire-breathers. You will understand if I do not invite you inside."

Darius scowled. "You know very well the palace belongs to me."

He tsked under his tongue. "If you wanted to keep it, you should have sent a stronger battalion to guard it."

"What did you do with the dragons inside?"

"I locked them away, of course. They will make powerful bargaining tools."

"I have your word of honor that you did not kill them, then?"

 

"You have my word of honor that I did not kill all of them."

Darius nodded, the action clipped. "My wife has asked that I not slaughter your entire race for daring to steal what is mine. I will heed her wishes - for now - if you do the two things I require of you."

"And what are those?"

"Release my men and leave the palace."

Valerian laughed. "I'm rather fond of it. I think I'll stay."

"You are inviting war, nymph."

His eyes narrowed, and he gave up all pretense of humor. "As are you, dragon."

"Yes, but you invite the wrath of the gods, for you know not what to do with the surface travelers. Already you have allowed one human male to slip into Atlantis, a human who captured our Jewel of Dunamis."

Valerian shrugged, unconcerned. The jewel was better off in human hands. When an Atlantean owned it, they became all-powerful, undefeatable.

"Do you know what happens when humans learn of Atlantis, Valerian? They tell others of their kind, and soon armies of humans are marching through our land, trying to kill us all."

"I must disagree. None of my humans have been allowed back to the surface, so they are unable to lead anyone here. They are too busy occupying our beds." Several of his men chuckled.

"So other humans have come through?" Darius growled.

"Did I not just say so?"

The dragon king's eyes glinted sharply. "Tell me you slayed them. Or tell me you at least wiped their memory."

"I did no such thing. I told you, we bedded them."

"You truly do curry the wrath of the gods, Valerian."

"The gods have forgotten us. Surely you know that. Now, we are done with this conversation. I find I am bored."

Smoke curled from Darius's nostrils, the first sign he would soon morph into his dragon form. "You wish to pit your army against mine, then, for I will reclaim the palace and I will take charge of the humans you so foolishly hold."

"Try," Valerian said, his jaw clenched, "and I will kill you myself. The portal and everyone who has come through it belong to me. They are mine."

Darius paused, as if he hadn't expected such a forceful response. "Why do you want charge of the portal so badly? You cannot survive on the surface."

He opened his mouth to give a flippant reply but stopped. Why not give the truth? "I do not care about the surface. I care about my people, my home." His voice rose with the ferocity of his conviction. "The nymphs have never possessed a home of their own. Since the dawning of our time, we have traveled from one place to the other, living with one race or another, sleeping in their beds, eating their food. We were good only for pleasuring and warring. Our women deserve a home of their own."

"As to that... " Darius's lips curled in a gradual, arrogant smile. "I have your women."

Crackles of fury ignited inside him. "What did you say?"

"They were on their way to this palace, and we captured them."

"Have you hurt them?"

"No. They are safe."

"Thank you for that," he allowed. What Valerian really wanted to do was beat the dragon king until his blood flowed, a river of pain. Those women were his responsibility.

"I know your men are weak without sex. And since I have the female nymphs, I can guess the lot of you will be easy to destroy. Are you sure you want to war?"

"We are plenty strong, Darius. I told you, the surface dwellers have occupied our beds."

Darius uttered another growl, smug no longer. "How shall we do this, then, to keep it fair?"

A fair fight from a dragon? Inconceivable. And yet, if Darius meant to fight dirty he would have done so already, sneaking in at night for a surprise attack. However, Valerian wouldn't doubt if Darius had an alternate plan of action. "I suggest a battle of sword skill."

"Very well. Shall we meet on the battlefield in the morning?"

"Why wait?" Valerian didn't want Shaye locked away for longer than necessary. He wanted this over and done with as quickly as possible. "We can settle this, you and I. No others need fight."

"I accept." Darius grinned as if that had been his hope all along, his sharp teeth gleaming. He wore no armor, but then, he couldn't. Not if he wanted to transform into a true dragon. "Winner takes the palace and everything inside."

"Agreed."

"But, my king," Broderick said at his side, speaking in a low, whispering tone. "You have not - "

"Worry not, my friend. I will prevail."

Broderick was not convinced. "At least go to Shaye. Let her suck you or welcome you into her body, but do not go down there without - "

"Silence." He held up his hand. He would not have Shaye's first time be nothing more than a quick tumble meant to strengthen him. No, their first time would be slow and tender. She would be mad with desire for him. He would show her the most pleasurable place on her body, then introduce her to his. "I will be down shortly, Darius," he called.

The dragon king nodded.

Valerian turned to Broderick and the men even now circling him.

"This could be a trap." Joachim clutched his sword hilt. "Once you go down, they could close in on you and kill you. That is what I would do."

"Keep the archers in place," Valerian instructed. "If a dragon warrior appears to step out of rank, kill him."

Broderick nodded.

"There is something I must do before I meet the dragons." None of his men said a word as he strode away from them. They knew what he meant to do - at least, they suspected. They were partly right.

He exited the parapet and found an empty corner room. While he would not visit Shaye, neither would he fight the dragon king without first doing something. He conjured his mate's pale face in his mind, saw her lips parted, saw desire in her velvety-brown eyes. As he imagined sinking inside her body, he slipped a hand inside his pants and wrapped it around his cock. Up and down he stroked the thick, hard length.

He could almost feel her hot, wet tightness. Could almost hear her breathy moans and eager purrs. He'd increase his tempo because she'd be wild with need and would crave a hard slamming. His testicles would slap her, and even that would be arousing. Wildly so.

When he heard her shout his name in climax, he roared with his own. Seed squirted from him. And with the release of his seed came a wave of strength. Not as intense as if he'd been with Shaye, but enough.

He cleaned himself and stalked back to his men.

"Here is your shield," Joachim said. The change in his attitude was remarkable, and more than Valerian could ever have hoped for. "The Skull is inside."

"Do you require your spear?" Shivawn asked.

Valerian gripped the shield and cast a glance to Darius, who now stood in the center of a half circle, dragons flanking him. Darius held only a sword. Because they'd fought before, Valerian knew that was not the man's only weapon. Darius would use his teeth, his claws and his fire, and Valerian in turn would need every weapon at his disposal.

"Yes," he said. "Spear. I will need a dragon medallion, as well."

Shivawn gathered the items and handed them to him. "May the gods be with you, my king."

Valerian anchored the necklace around his neck and slapped Shivawn on the shoulder. "I finally have something worth fighting for. I will not allow a dragon to keep me from her."

Broderick arched a brow. "Her? Do you not fight for the palace?"

"I fight for Shaye. I fight for all of our women, nymph and human, that they might have a home."

"Half of the men should come down with you," Joachim said. "We can close the circle with your allies."

He nodded. "Excellent."

With a troupe of nymphs marching behind him, he sliced down the steps on the edge of the wall and soon stood at the door.

"Open," he said, lifting the necklace. The door instantly obeyed; a crack formed between the white stones, slowly widening.

He and his men filed out, never relaxing their guard. The dragons remained in place, growling. Nymphs snarled in response. Valerian's eyes locked on Darius, the only blue-eyed dragon in existence.

The dragon king had a stern face, harsh and savage. Up close, Valerian could see the scar that slashed down Darius's face - a scar he himself had inflicted. "This is amusing, really," Valerian told him.

Darius arched his brows in a menacing salute. "And why is that?"

"You took a human woman for your mate, and now you scold us for doing the same."

"You have taken a mate?" Darius laughed. "Your conquests are legendary."

"As are my victories," he said with a proud tilt of his chin. "I will fight to the death - your death - to keep my woman safe."

Gradually the dragon's amusement faded, and he regarded Valerian with something akin to understanding. "Though they have been absent from us for many years, the gods cannot like such continued defiance. I was ordered, long ago, never to enter the surface and never to bring humans here." He spewed a stream of fire. "I fear you will bring their wrath to us all."

"Me? What of you?" Valerian leapt forward. The fight had begun. He leveled his spear at Darius's middle and stabbed.

Darius jumped out of the way, spraying more fire as he did so. Valerian rolled from its path of destruction, the flames barely missing him. The scent of charred hair filled his nose. He used the momentum of his roll to stab at Darius again.

The spear whooshed, hitting only air. Darius's wings expanded, the thick length of opalescent membrane gliding up and down. Valerian popped to his feet. He dodged left, away from another blast of fire, then spun on his heel and pretended to lunge. Instead, he swung his spear behind him and stabbed forward from the opposite side. The tip grazed Darius's thigh while he still hovered in the air.

The other dragons hissed, but Darius gave no outward reaction. He simply opened his mouth, unleashing a terrible inferno. Valerian raised his shield just in time, blocking. But the metal began to burn his hand. He leapt up and swung.

Clang. The vibration from metal against metal stung the wound in his arm. He moved with the impetus, though, and twisted, slicing his spear through the air and forcing Darius to duck. Without pause, Darius charged. Valerian blocked and lunged. Blocked. Stabbed.

"We could do this all day, for I am sure we will once again prove to be an even match," Darius growled.

Valerian gouged his spear at a downward angle, hoping to slice into Darius's other thigh. If he could hobble the dragon, making him rely only on his wings, Valerian could gain the advantage. But Darius jolted up and down quickly, placing the wooden length of the spear under his foot and snapping the weapon in two.

Immediately Valerian slid The Skull from its scabbard on the inside of his shield. He ran two steps, jumped and cut downward. This time Darius did not move quickly enough and the blade sliced into his arm.

Once again the dragons hissed, and once again Darius gave no reaction. It was as if he was impervious to pain. Unfortunately, Valerian was not. His wounded arm throbbed and his legs were growing shaky. If the fight didn't end soon...

Distantly he heard his men cheering for him.

"For Shaye," Broderick shouted. "Shaye. Shaye. Shaye."

Her lovely face flashed before his mind, and he gathered his strength. Rallied himself. He'd been pushed to the brink before. There had been times he'd gone without food and water, his people without a home. He could prevail. Perhaps he should change his battle strategy. Instead of forcing Darius to fly, perhaps he should cut into Darius's wings, grounding him...

The dragon king suddenly slammed into him, knocking him down, hacking his chest armor. He tasted dirt in his mouth, felt warm blood ooze, and kicked backward. Darius soared over him, taking Valerian's shield with him. Valerian didn't bother rising to his feet this time. He spied Darius from the corner of his eye and simply shot out his sword.

It stabbed into Darius's side, between arm and rib.

There was a collective gasp from the dragons, as if they couldn't believe it had happened. There was a cheer from the nymphs. Then Darius hit the sword with his own, proving it had slid through air, not flesh. Valerian anchored his feet and leapt up. He swung behind him. Clang. Quickly he pivoted, swinging again. Clang.

"Shall we do this all day or will you finally leave the palace?" Darius said, his tone a bit hollow. He spoke between hits.

Clang. "I'd really rather kill you now," Valerian answered, "if it's all the same to you."

"I will let you keep the women." Clang.

"And how will we shelter them without the palace?" He drew in a deep breath - and noticed the scents of blood and death had suddenly thickened the air.

"Vampires," a dragon hissed.

The word echoed through the crowd. A curse to dragons, a blessing to nymphs. No one warred more fiercely with the vampires than the dragons.

Darius stilled. Valerian did the same. He could see that the vampires were interspersed with the contingent of men he'd sent to close in the rear.

"You tricked me," Darius snarled. "This was not to be a fair fight, after all. You dared bring the vampires here to aid you."

"I didn't ask them to come, but I certainly won't send them away. They are my allies. We can finish this fight here and now, you and me."

"As if I will trust the vampires not to attack me while I'm distracted. We will leave now, Valerian, but we are not finished with you and yours."

As he spoke, the black-clad vampires closed in. They floated rather than walked, and they were hurling curses at the dragons. The dragons in turn mutated into their bestial forms. Wings sprouted from their backs, ripping every piece of their clothing. Scales consumed their skin, green and black and menacing. Fangs grew in place of their teeth. Tails sprouted from their lower backs.

They didn't engage the vampires or nymphs in any way. No, they sprang into the sky, moving higher and higher, before disappearing from Valerian's line of vision.

They would be back, Valerian knew, and the fight would not be as mild as it had been today. It would not be a battle between two men, but a bloodbath between races.

LAYEL, KING OF THE VAMPIRES, and his army came to an abrupt stop on the field. Seeing the dragons had disappeared, he and his army gave a cheer.

"Good to see you again, my friend," Valerian said when the cheers died down.

"I heard the dragons were marching toward you and decided to help."

Valerian clasped him on the shoulder. "Last time I saw you, you were holding court with the demon queen." He had not forgiven those hideous creatures for what they'd done to his people. "Do you ally yourself with her still?"

Layel smiled slowly. He had white hair, though it wasn't as pale as Shaye's. Ice-blue eyes, strong, mystical features. "I never allied myself with her. I used her, and then I killed her."

Valerian returned the grin. "Then you and yours are welcome inside."

"My king," a female vampire said, approaching Layel's side. She had the same pale shade of hair as Layel, the same blue eyes, except her features were soft, eerily beautiful.

Usually Layel did not allow his females near the nymphs.

"Alyssa," the king acknowledged.

"Do we have your permission to... dally?" Her gaze was locked on Shivawn, and there was lust in her eyes.

Ah. Valerian suddenly understood why she'd been allowed to come. She wanted Shivawn and had probably asked to join the army just to see him.

Layel looked to Valerian. Valerian, of course, nodded his permission. The woman, Alyssa, grinned seductively and floated to Shivawn.

"Come," Valerian said. He turned on his heel and strode to the palace, taking the dragon medallion from under his shirt and holding it up so the door sensor would allow the entrance to open.

Layel kept pace beside him, the others closing in behind them.

"Did you ever find the Jewel of Dunamis?" Valerian asked him. They entered the main hall. "I know you were on a crusade to unearth it, yet Darius told me a human now has possession."

"Alas, it escaped me. It escaped all of us, really."

"On the surface, as Darius said?"

"Yes."

"Any way to get it back?"

"None, I'm afraid."

Perhaps he could travel to the surface and search for it, Valerian thought suddenly, for it might be the best way to protect Shaye. He would ponder that later. For now, he had a reprieve from battle. He was weak and tired and needed his mate.

"Broderick," he called, "see that guards are stationed around the entire palace, top and bottom, inside and out."

"My men can help," Layel offered.

"You are guests. You will enjoy. Dorian, see to our guests' comfort."

Layel's brows arched. "You are not remaining with us?"

"No. There is a woman I must see to."

His friend grinned, though sadness clung to the edges. He'd lost his love years ago. "I understand. Go. Be on your way. We will be fine without you."

Valerian needed no further urging. He strode down the rest of the hall. His hands itched for Shaye. Finally he would make her his. Completely.

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