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WITH THE NIGHT'S activities complete and morning fast approaching, the palace fortified, his guests seen to, Valerian raced back to his bedroom. Urgency filled him. He wanted Shaye again. He hungered for her. The more time he spent with her, the more he needed her. The more time he spent without her, the more he needed her.

He just needed her.

And he sensed that she needed him. A moment ago, he'd heard her voice in his mind, calling out to him. He quickened his pace, speeding through the hallway, through the curtain blocking him from his room. He'd strip, then crawl into bed beside Shaye and awaken her with his mouth between her legs. She'd scream his name, the sound echoing between -

He stopped abruptly. He stood at the edge of the bed, golden rays of light streaming over its emptiness. Only rumpled sheets remained. "Shaye," he called.

When silence greeted him, he spun, searching. She had not been in the bathing pool; he would have seen her when he passed. "Shaye?"

Again, only silence. Thick, frightening silence. Where had she gone? He didn't want her roaming the halls alone. He wanted nothing taken for granted where Shaye's safety was concerned. He didn't allow himself to panic - yet. Her scent covered the walls, permeating his senses. But there was another scent... his nose crinkled and he frowned, hoping he simply smelled the ones who'd lived here before him.

He stepped into the bathing room, then into the hallway. For twenty minutes he searched the main areas: the dining hall - receiving curious glances - the training room, the weapons room in case she'd gotten lost. He'd been remiss in his duty toward her. He should have taught her the layout of the palace.

Everyone he encountered, he demanded to know if they'd seen her. No one had. In fact, several warriors were looking for their women, as well.

"I cannot find Brenna," Joachim said, worry thick in his voice.

So, Joachim had taken Brenna from Shivawn - or maybe Shivawn had given her to the man. Valerian didn't know and at the moment he didn't care. All that mattered was Shaye.

"I cannot find my bed partner," another said.

"I cannot find mine." Still another.

Hearing this, Valerian finally allowed his panic free rein. He sprinted to the cave. Surely Shaye hadn't left him, hadn't led all the women into the portal. She'd promised to stay. She'd told him she desired time with him. She had been so close to giving him her love. Had she changed her mind?

Had she lied?

Sweat trickled from his skin. Tension thrummed and pulsed. What if she had tricked him? Had gained his trust so he would leave her alone, without a guard, so she could gather the other humans and -

No, he told himself. No. She would not have left him willingly. She hadn't lied. Last time he'd seen her, she'd worn a soft, sated expression. Vulnerability had glinted in her eyes as she vowed to trust him. She'd said she craved fidelity from him and those were not the words of a woman intent on leaving.

He pounded his fist into the wall. When he'd held her in his arms, there had been truth between them.

That meant only one thing. She had to have been taken. But where? And by whom? He'd smelled dragon in his room. Had his enemy returned more quickly than he'd anticipated? If so, why had they taken the women and not killed a single nymph?

Damn this! What in Hades had happened? He swung around and backtracked to the top floor, leaving the coldness of the cave behind. He ran into Broderick.

"Where are the women?" Broderick asked. "I am in need of a lover."

"They have been taken. It happened within the last few hours, so there is a good chance they are still here. Keep searching." Yet there was nowhere else to look and he knew it. He'd been through the palace top to bottom.

He stalked into the dining hall. Layel still sat at the table, staring into emptiness, sadness consuming his features. Valerian's teeth ground together. If the women had been taken out of the palace and into the Outer City... It was not a place for unarmed females. Demons would eat anything, for they survived on fear and carnage. They would view the women as succulent treats.

"Layel," he said. He did not think the vampire or his people responsible. Blood would have stained the floor, the beds, something. "I need your help."

 

His friend jolted upright. "It is yours."

"Can you and your people withstand the light?"

"Most of us."

"You can scent humans as no one else. Take your vampires through the forest and into the city and search for our women. Someone has taken them."

In a movement so fluid it was almost undetectable, Layel stood. "I will do as you've asked. Do you stay or do you go?"

Valerian didn't know what to do. If he stayed and Shaye was in the city, she would not know Layel and would fight him, perhaps getting hurt in the process. But if Valerian left, and she was still inside the palace, perhaps being hidden and held against her will, he would never forgive himself for leaving her.

Indecision and frustration ate at him. Fear and hope slicked through him. Go? Stay? "I will go," he finally said. "Ready your men."

Layel nodded and rushed off.

Valerian raced into his room and gathered the dragon medallion he'd tossed aside when making love with Shaye. He stuffed it in his pocket before hunting down Broderick, who had a small contingent of armed warriors stomping through every room, questioning other nymphs and vampires. "I am going into the city. Send a messenger if they are found... whatever you find," he added starkly.

Broderick nodded.

Alone, Valerian dropped to his knees and prayed. For the first time in his life, he prayed. He beseeched the gods, begging them to surround Shaye in a hedge of protection, to bring her back to him, healthy and whole. "I will trade my own life for her. Gladly," he said to the heavens.

Still torn apart inside, still raw and frantic, he stood and raced outside. The vampires possessed an unnatural speed. They would move much faster without him, and as much as he wanted to reach Shaye first, he would not hinder them.

At the outer gates, the vampires gathered, preparing for the search. "Do not let me slow you down," he told Layel. "Move as quickly as you can, and I will make my own way. Gather any human females you find."

Layel's eyes glowed bright, vivid blue. "We will find her, Valerian."

Valerian turned away before he broke down, just fell to his knees and sobbed. Loss was not new to him, but this loss would kill him. "Go." The single word was hoarse, scratching his burning throat. "Go."

The vampires leapt into action; one moment they were there, the next moment they weren't. Valerian entered the stable and mounted the same centaur that had taken Shaye and him to the city only a day ago. They raced around trees and quicksand, as he continually shouted Shaye's name. Pausing, listening for any sign of her.

She was not in the forest.

She was not in the Outer City, either. None of the humans were. He spent all day looking, until dusk fell once again. Seething emotions pulsed through him. Fear. So much fear. Where was she? She was not... dead. He could barely even think the hated word. He would feel it. As her mate, he would know. Just as he'd known when his twin had died, all those years ago. Wouldn't he?

He left Layel and his army in the city with instructions to continue the hunt, then he returned to the palace. When he reached the gates, he dismounted and ran inside without a word. As he ran, he withdrew the dragon medallion from his pocket. The crystal door split apart and closed behind him.

The palace was eerily silent, none of his men anywhere to be seen. "Broderick," he called. "Joachim. Shivawn." He ground to a halt. The fine hairs on the back of his neck stood at attention, and he encountered the same faint scent he'd smelled in his room. He quickly withdrew his sword from the sheath at his side.

"Your men are otherwise occupied," a voice said above him.

A dragon voice. Darius's voice.

Lips thinning in a fierce scowl, Valerian looked up. There, circling him from the second floor, was the entire dragon army. "What did you do with my woman?"

"We sent her home, nymph. We sent her home."

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