Two hundred years later
JUST A LITTLE CLOSER, fire-bastards. Just a little bit closer.
Hidden by lush, dewy foliage, Layel watched as the dragon army marched through the detestably named Forest of Dragons. Where they were going, he didn't know. Why they were going, he didn't know, either. He only knew that he was going to relieve them of their burden. A young - human? - female was bound and gagged inside a portable prison. That prison was balanced by two wooden beams slung over several of the warriors' shoulders, swaying with their movements.
Obviously, she was their enemy.
He didn't know the girl, but a dragon's enemy was his dearest friend. And he didn't like his friends being bound.
The dragons continued to march forward, slowly, steadily. He motioned for his own army to hold...remain composed. They obeyed without hesitation. Since that dark day two hundred years ago, he had happily led his men with an iron fist - straight into a never-ending war. His will was not questioned. Ever. Not without severe consequences.
"...not going to end well," Brand, second-in-command of the dragon soldiers, was saying. Golden light seeped from the crystal dome that surrounded all of Atlantis, forming a halo around his pale, braided hair and disgustingly handsome features.
Brand was strong, brave, loyal to his king, kind to his people. A pity he was a dragon. Had he been born even a demon, Layel thought perhaps he would have liked him. As it was, he wanted Brand alive long enough to take a mate. A mate Layel would then steal. Brand would suffer, for a little while at least, and then Layel would gut him.
Brand had not been one of the warriors present all those years ago - none of the warriors here had been present, for Layel had slaughtered them all. Remembering their deaths, he smiled. Not all of them had faded quickly. Some he had lingered over, enjoying their pain, taking his time with every slice and bite.
Still, killing those responsible hadn't been enough. Not for the horrendous crimes that had been committed against Susan. Hadn't he been blamed for the actions of others? It was only fair to use that same logic against the dragons.
Only when Layel had obliterated the entire race would Susan be avenged. And only then would Layel deserve to join her in the hereafter. Soon, my love. Soon.
"If her sisters see her like this, there will be a war," a dragon called Renard said.
Renard was a dark-haired tyrant who, Layel knew, had studied how best to kill every race in Atlantis. The demons, the nymphs, the centaurs, the gorgons and all the other creatures the gods had deemed mistakes in their quest to create humans. Of them all, Renard hated vampires most and was always eager for a fight.
Eager himself, Layel ran his tongue over his elongated teeth.
"What else could we do?" an irritated voice proclaimed. Tagart. Untamed, almost feral, with black hair and an even blacker heart. He was loyal to no one and was even jealous of his own king. "One more word out of that girl's mouth and I would have cut out her tongue. We had to gag her."
All of the soldiers nodded. Each was taller and more muscled than the last, and each had a long, menacing sword strapped to his bare back, nestled between the slits that hid his wings. Layel collected those swords and hung them on his walls as trophies. He used their bones as furniture.
"Whatever our reasons for binding her, they won't understand. Even though we're taking her back to them. Kind of. If we can find their camp." Brand again. "She's their beloved, their future queen."
Amazons, Layel realized.
His lips curled in another slow grin. Fierce creatures, the Amazons. Devoted to each other, bloodthirsty, though they mostly kept to themselves unless provoked. Oh, yes. And vicious. Legend claimed that anyone who threatened an Amazon would soon find his deepest fear bearing down on him. A shadow, a determined phantom that would devour him whole.
Yes, the stories of their conquests were endless, though Layel himself had never fought one, never tasted one. He had no interest in doing so, either. Always before, they had been a nonentity to him, unworthy of his time or consideration, for he existed simply to torment the dragons. Nothing more.
But now his mind whirled with ways he might be able to use them. Perhaps he should not liberate this captive, after all. Perhaps he should find the Amazon camp, lie and tell them the dragons meant the girl harm, perhaps meant to kill her in front of them. The dragons would have their asses handed to them by little girls. Now wouldn't that just be -
A loud, piercing war cry sounded.
What seemed like hundreds of warrior women but could only have been a handful suddenly burst from the trees. They were scantily dressed, breasts covered by thin strips of leather, waist and thighs covered by some type of frayed skirt. The vast expanse of skin visible was painted in blue, the color marking royalty.
"Big mistake, dragons," a woman shouted.
"Your last mistake," another called.
What a bright day this was turning out to be. Layel would not have to search for the Amazons, after all.
Blades were anchored to their muscular arms and legs, and death radiated from their fierce expressions. Most were as tall as the dragons, but a few were petite, almost...fragile looking.
In the span of a single heartbeat, a battle was raging between the two races.
Weapons were twirling, men and women grunting and blood splattering. The metallic scent wafted to Layel's nostrils, sweet and tangy. He breathed it in deeply, felt it sweep through his entire body, fuse with sinew and bone and ignite a guttural hunger.
"Now!" Layel shouted to his men.
Together, they rushed forward. How he would have loved to simply materialize in the midst of battle, but he could not. None of them could. Well, not if they hoped to survive. A vampire could materialize anywhere he wanted with only a thought, but there were consequences. Once they reached their destination, they were drained. Exhausted. Unable to move for hours. Escape was the only time the ability proved useful, and he didn't want to escape this.
As he reached the dragon masses, sword swinging, slicing, light from the upper dome warmed his sensitive skin, all the hotter as it blended with the dragons' kiss of fire. He did not allow either to slow him, however. Sweat streaked down his chest and back. His wrist flicked left and right in constant motion, giving his blade a fluidity that cut through dragon flesh as smoothly as if it were cutting through water.
He reveled in every drop of crimson that he spilled, rejoiced with every body that fell. Every pain-entrenched shout brought a new smile to his lips. More than anything, he loved seeing his opponents' golden eyes as their minds registered his blow. They always widened; horror always filled them. The light inside always died right along with them.
Later, when the fighting was done, he would have to stalk through the masses and remove their heads. Dragons, like vampires, healed quickly. He liked to eliminate any possibility of regeneration. But right now, with fire dancing in every direction, he could only cut their decayed hearts in half.
Two dragons rushed him from different angles.
Ducking low, he arced his sword forward with one hand, slashing through one warrior's stomach while withdrawing a dagger from his waist with his other hand, then reaching out, leaning...stretching...and stabbing the second warrior in the groin. There was an unholy scream.
Both warriors collapsed.
Grinning, he leapt back into motion. Someone swept in front of him and managed to nick his side. He hissed, saw that one of his men, Zane, was already chopping his way forward to aid him. Layel didn't go in for the kill himself but kicked the dragon in the stomach, sending him flying in Zane's direction. Seeing this, the battle-hungry vampire spun, sword singing with lethal menace.
Seconds before the dragon's head rolled, he unleashed a blistering stream of flames. As the body dropped, those flames found a target on Layel's cheek. He wiped at the charred, sizzling skin. Felt a warm trail of dragon blood drip down his arm. Grinned again. He still held the dagger and the blade gleamed a vivid crimson.
"You are well, yes?" Zane asked him, breath sawing in and out.
He nodded. More. Need more. Needed to inflict more injury, more carnage. His focus landed on a nearby dragon already engaged in a fierce fight with a vampire. Layel stalked forward and swung, gutting the creature without warning. There was a grunt, a jerk. The body toppled. Did Layel mind striking from behind? Never. Fighting fairly would ensure nothing but failure.
Another dragon railed at him. Moving faster than the eye could see, he stabbed the bastard in the belly, pulled out, stabbed in the heart, pulled out again and stabbed in the neck. Only three seconds had passed. Too quick, too easy, he thought.
Brand, ripping an Amazon off his chest and tossing her to the ground, came into view. Yes, Layel thought, tracing his tongue over his sharpened teeth in anticipation. That one. That one would die today. No more waiting. He would not simply incapacitate the bastard; he would kill.
Layel kicked and bit his way through the ranks, gaze locked on the dragon captain. Halfway there, he heard a growl behind him, pivoted to dispatch the threat swiftly and return his attention to Brand. But his sword slashed and clanged against another sword, jarring him. No easy, unprepared kill this time, apparently.
He blinked as an Amazon swirled in front of him, swinging at him a second time. Clink. Scowling, he blocked her third thrust. Clang.
"I do not wish to hurt you," he gritted out.
"How admirable," she replied drily - before swinging at him again.
He twisted to the side, barely escaping the sharp tip. Had she just mocked him?
Wind gusted past them, lifting her cerulean-colored hair off her face. Suddenly Layel was granted a full view of breathtaking, incomparable beauty. Beauty even the war paint couldn't hide. Beauty that nearly felled him. Definitely rendered him dumb, for he ceased moving. Brand who?
Layel hadn't taken the time to appreciate the beauty of a woman in two hundred years, yet he was helpless to do anything but drink this one in, this fantasy come to life. It was as though she exuded something...magical? Something that forced the eye to her. Something that would not release its hold. But Amazons weren't able to weave spells. Only dragons could.
He continued his scrutiny of her, searching for signs of a dragon relative. Her eyes were so bright a violet they sparkled like freshly polished amethysts. Long black lashes. Slightly rounded cheeks. Flawless, bronzed skin where the paint had washed away. Unlike most of her hulking sisters, she was of the petite variety, barely reaching his shoulders. No, no dragon.
From her fluid grace to her perfect curves, she was sensual and exotic, ready for a bedding rather than a battle.
"You should not be here. I could have killed you, woman." He didn't mind killing females, had done so on many occasions, but it would have been a shame to destroy something so lovely. His jaw clenched as he realized exactly what he was thinking. Damn her. He did not regard women with any kind of desire. Not anymore.
One corner of her lush, red mouth kicked up, causing his stomach to tighten. "Please," she said, voice sultry, like a dream. "You'll need a few centuries' more sword practice before you have the skill to eliminate me, vampire." She swung at him yet again, this time aiming for his neck.
There were no creatures faster than the vampires, and he managed to arch backward with swift precision as the blade soared just over his nose. "And you fancy yourself my tutor? I think not." But he admired her confidence.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded. Another swing.
Another block. "Helping you."
A tinkling laugh escaped her, floating over his skin with the surety of a lover's caress. His stomach tightened again. He scowled, mouth thinning over razor-sharp teeth. How was she affecting him like this?
He had not experienced even a single wisp of need since - do not think of Susan. You will lose focus.
Growling, he swung at the Amazon. She blocked the harder blow and frowned. Better. A frown was better than a laugh. And so he did it again. Slashed at her, using all of his might. When their swords next met, both of their bodies vibrated from the impact.
Her delicate nose twitched. In irritation? Amusement? Delight?
Surely not the latter two.
"This is how you help me?" she demanded.
"No. That was me, helping myself. Now this is me, helping you." With a swift jerk of his arm, he tossed his dagger. The tip embedded in the neck of the dragon racing toward her from behind. "See the difference?"
She spun, surveyed the fallen, dying warrior. When she faced Layel again, there was no longer any question about what emotion she experienced. Irritation. "Well, we don't need your help and will not grant you any type of boon for offering it."
"Your gratitude is humbling. Fortunately, cutting out the hearts of my enemies is boon enough for me."
The pink tip of her tongue emerged and traced over those lush lips, smearing war paint. All the while she eyed his lips. Had his words...excited her? Shock rooted him in place, staying his sword. Such depravity should have disgusted her. And her excitement should have disgusted him.
He hissed at her, suddenly as desperate to get away from her as he was to dispatch the dragon army. "Get in my way again, Amazon, and I will take you down." Perhaps he would not need to, he thought, before he could turn from her. Already another dragon closed in behind her.
Layel's vehemence seemed to shake her out of her inactivity. She returned his hiss with one of her own. "Try, and you'll die like the dragons." As she spoke, she stabbed behind her, sinking the apex of her sword into the very dragon that had been sneaking up on her. She gave a twist of her wrist, digging her weapon deeper, causing even more pain for the injured man.
Her gaze never left Layel.
The warrior fell to the ground, a final gasp echoing from him.
Layel didn't waste another moment. He moved around and behind the woman and her lethal beauty, knowing he was nothing more than a blur to her. She didn't have time to turn when he kicked out his leg. Contact. Her ankles knocked together. She grunted and toppled to her knees. But she was back on her feet in the next instant, spinning around and glaring at him.
Except there was no anger in that glare. Only vulnerability. Raw vulnerability. It was the kind of look a woman gave a man she was considering taking to her bed - but knew she should resist. A look he had resisted from others, without hesitation, for what seemed an eternity. She's dangerous.
Layel backed away from her, a spark of panic igniting.
"You knocked me down," she said, breathless.
For years he'd assumed his heart was withered, dead. And yet, hearing the excitement in her voice, the foolish organ sped to life, nearly beating through his ribs. Keep moving away, damn you. "Yes," he said, his legs suddenly heavy. "I did."
"But...you knocked me down."
And he would do more if she approached him again. He'd have to. Something about her...
He should not have to remind himself that desire was not something he wanted in his life. He would avenge Susan's death, and then he would join her. Nothing and no one else mattered.
"Play nice with my vampires, little girl, and I might save a few dragons for you. If not, I'll come for you. And when I find you, I will take your head and hang it beside my throne with all the others I have collected in my long life. Doubt me not." With that, he flashed her a dark grin and pushed his way into the thick of battle, through the raging fires, Brand once more in his sights.