"YOU HAVE INTERVENED for the last time, Hestia," Poseidon growled as he materialized in the forest, mere inches away from the goddess in question.
The dark-haired goddess cast him an innocent glance, not the least ashamed of her actions. Or fearful because she'd been caught. "Me? What have I done?"
"Cheated, that's what." Ares appeared in a blink. "Again and again. I should strike you down."
Apollo quickly followed, a blinding light surrounding him. Artemis was beside him a second later, ice to the sun god's heat, seeming to drain his power and diminish the aura around him. Interesting. Poseidon had never noticed that before.
Hestia gave up the innocent act and glared at them. "Like any of you are blameless. I've watched each of you save your chosen contestants and lash out at their enemies. And don't try to deny that some of you have even offered your players tips. Besides, I grow weary of waiting for the finish line. I want this game over and done, the winner declared."
Poseidon crossed his arms over his massive chest. He agreed. Evidently the other gods had the same fickle attention span and restless need for constant amusement as he did. The game had begun to lose its appeal, the weeks dragging by. He wanted back inside Atlantis, its citizens his and his alone to enjoy, and he wanted to ensure these gods remained out of it.
"How about one final challenge?" Artemis said. Her demons had been eliminated, therefore she had lost the competition already. Atlantis would not be hers, yet she hadn't left the island, apparently too curious about the end result. "A winner could be declared today."
Excitement saturated the forest. Poseidon fairly shook with it. One final challenge...surely he could help a dragon win. Somehow, some way.
"What shall the challenge entail?" Apollo asked eagerly.
"And what should we do with the losers?" Hestia added, rubbing her hands together.
"I have an idea," Poseidon said. They huddled closer to him, each grinning with anticipation.
LAYEL WAS STILL RAW an hour later, when the gratingly familiar challenge horn sounded. He stiffened in dread but pushed to his feet. Once Susan's image had faded, he'd dressed and begun tracking Delilah's footprints. He'd been hunkered on the ground, following her trail, but her prints had seemed to disappear.
He needed to find her, talk to her, hold her. He just...needed her. If necessary, he would beg for her forgiveness. He should have fought for her, should not have driven her away. Hopefully it was not too late.
She'll be at the challenge, he thought, quickening his footsteps, dread shifting to anticipation. I will make her talk to me.
These past few weeks, he hadn't drunk any blood, hadn't slept, hadn't really eaten. He'd been tortured with thoughts of Delilah and Susan, with need and want and pain and bone-deep suffering. All he'd wanted was Delilah, he realized now, but he'd hidden the need with memories of the past. A curtain, a shadow.
Finally he'd allowed the light inside. Nothing and no one would do but Delilah.
I've been such a fool. He'd wasted all of this time. Time he could have spent in Delilah's arms. I'll make it up to her.
The sky was brightening as he broke through the forest's trees, and his heart was pounding. Everyone was already in place. Delilah was there, too, and his breath caught in his throat at the sight of her. Mine. Her back was to him, and that blue hair he so adored hung to her waist in silky waves. He wanted his hands in it, fisting it, jerking her face to his for a kiss. Never again would he deny himself those delectable lips.
My mate. My love. He needed her to love him, which meant he needed her to give him what she'd offered before: a chance. And once he had her, he was going to get them both the hell off this island and safely back to Atlantis, where they could be together in peace. He'd go wherever she wanted, live in the Amazon camp if necessary.
His focus stayed on her as he stalked to the beach. She didn't stiffen when he drew near her side, didn't act as if she cared at all.
Tagart, who stood guard at her other side, was less nonchalant. He hissed at Layel with the feral intensity of a hungry predator.
Layel paid him no heed. All he cared about was Delilah. "Delilah," he said, savoring her name on his tongue.
She flicked him a bored glance. "Go away."
I deserve that. Once, she would have turned to him with longing in her violet eyes. Once, her arms would have opened for him and she would have proudly embraced him. "Delilah, I want you to know I care nothing about the dragon you were with. My past has hardly been perfect. I - "
"Will leave," Tagart growled. "You aren't wanted here. By any of us."
Brand strode to the warrior's side and gripped his arm, probably holding him back from a sure fight. A fight Layel would have craved only hours ago, with blood, with death and staggering amounts of his enemy's pain. Today, there was only one thing Layel wished to fight for and it wasn't the death of a dragon.
He breathed in Delilah's scent, a fragrance of femininity, the essence of pleasure, and savored every drop in his lungs, his mind accepting his adoration without protest. Peace truly was his for the first time in centuries.
"I need you," he told her, and they were words straight from his soul. "I need you more than I've ever needed another."
Her gaze finally returned to him, but her eyes were devoid of emotion. Violet yet...blank. Gone was her warmth, her laughter. "I'm sorry, but I'm no longer interested."
Again, deserved. She'd once asked him to reveal the worst thing he'd ever done. Now he knew. It was causing this, this change in her. She looked colder. Harsh. Hard. He battled despair. "You should never be sorry. Not to me. It is I who owe you a thousand apologies. I know a thousand will not be enough, but however long it takes, whatever I have to do, I am willing. For you, anything."
"Go away," she said again, just as bored.
Never. "All I ask is that - "
There was a screech, high-pitched, infuriated, and then a spear was sailing toward him. Lightning fast it happened, yet he watched as if the world had slowed to a crawl. He heard the whistle of air and managed to reach out and catch the limb just before it penetrated his heart. A second longer, and he would have been dead. As it was, the razor-fine tip managed only to slice his skin.
There was no time to search out his attacker. No need, either. Nola was shoving him down before he could drop the weapon. He allowed her to pin him, punch him and claw at him. He had vowed never to let anyone hurt him without retaliation. But her, he let. She was avenging her sister.
Delilah watched, her blank expression never changing.
A hard right was delivered to his nose, and the cartilage snapped out of place. Nails scored his cheek, drawing blood. Another right, then a left.
"That's enough. Stop!" Brand had issued the command with enough force to halt the Amazon's fist midair.
She glanced at him, murder in her eyes. "Don't interfere, or you'll be next."
Then someone was lifting Nola off Layel, and she was cursing in outrage.
Zane, he realized. The warrior held the now struggling Nola, and released a roar the likes of which Layel had never heard. "Be still, woman! And be quiet."
Zane, willingly touching a female?
"I warned you what would happen if you neared her again!" Brand launched himself at the vampire.
Layel scooted back, out of the way. A war had erupted, it seemed. The three rolled on the sandy beach in a tangle of fists and kicks. Both Brand and Zane tried to shove Nola aside as they punched and bit at each other, but she kept returning, going for Zane's throat every time.
Her fury was like a living thing.
I was like her, Layel mused. He'd been filled with hatred and anger, not really living for anything but death. Susan would have been ashamed of him had she met the man he'd become. But Delilah had found a way to love him, anyway.
She was a gift. A treasure.
And she was striding toward the bloody trio, he realized. He popped to his feet and dashed to her, grabbing her arm and pulling her back. She turned to him, still expressionless.
"Release me," she said.
"Stay here. Please. I will help your friend." It would be his pleasure, giving her something she desired.
She opened her mouth to reply, but another voice stopped her.
"Actually, we will stop them."
Layel's stomach clenched as the trio was frozen in place. How he despised these gods and their seemingly all-consuming power.
In a blink, the fighters were on their knees, bowing, blood trickling from their wounds. They were panting as a clear jellylike being materialized in front of them. No, not one. But five. Five beings. Layel's eyes widened. He'd known there was more than one god pulling the strings, but hadn't expected so many.
"I admire your vehemence, vampire," one of them said, solidifying into a tall, muscled, dark man. Fire blazed in his eyes, fierce and war-hungry. Ares. Ancient scrolls and portraits of the gods had once filled his palace. After Susan's death, Layel had removed them. He'd felt forgotten, abandoned, and had wanted no part of the beings who seemed more concerned with their own selfish pleasure than with the well-being of their children.
"Enough is enough," another added, solidifying, as well. Hestia. She was plain of face yet somehow so sensual she would have made any other man hard as a rock in seconds. Any but Layel. His body existed only for Delilah.
"The time has finally come to end this." Another female. Dark-haired, lovely. Dressed in a bright yellow robe. Artemis.
"I, too, am tired of waiting." A man. Blond, muscled, casting an aura so vibrant Layel had to squint. Apollo.
"Vampires, Amazons, dragons and nymphs. At last we come face-to-face. You've become predictable, the lot of you. My amusement with our little game has rapidly waned. You were to prove your strength to us, as well as demonstrating which race is superior to all others." Dark hair he sometimes changed to gold, male, tall and muscled, with eyes as blue and fathomless as the sea. Poseidon. "We could not decide, you see, and fought amongst ourselves. You were brought here to settle that argument, but all you've done is prove you are as weak and foolish as the humans, placing your hearts above your own survival."
"What more do you want from us?" Layel asked them, inching in front of Delilah to shield her. He didn't trust these beings, and wouldn't tolerate their attention being turned to his woman. "We've done everything you've asked."
He was on his stomach a moment later, writhing in pain beyond imagining. Dirt filled his mouth as he gasped for breath.
"No questions are allowed, vampire," Ares said. "Damn, but I'm disappointed in you! You should have slayed them all by now."
"And you." Hestia looked at Delilah and tsked under her tongue. "I had such high hopes for your independence and strength, yet you focused on a man and lost sight of the true prize."
"I know you," Delilah said, frowning. "Your voice. You were there. In the forest. You - "
"Enough from you," Hestia rushed out, and then Delilah, too, was on her knees. At least she wasn't writhing.
"Enough from all of you. You had your chance, yet here you are. While we admire your fortitude, your continued refusal to remove the threat of your enemy has been...disappointing," Ares said to the still-bowing trio. "The time has come to narrow the combatants to only one creature per race. That means you three are no longer needed. Brand, Zane, Nola, rise."
Hestia stepped forward as they obeyed. All three blanched, opened their mouths to protest, he was sure, but no sound emerged. "Dragon, vampire, you fought over the Amazon, and so you shall soon be surrounded by them. We are sentencing you both to be their slaves."
Zane roared with fury and terror, leaping backward, away from the crowd. "No." Finally, sound. "No!"
"I'm begging you not to do this," Brand gasped out. "I never wanted the Amazon. She is like a sister to me."
Their cries went unheeded. Each of the gods waved their hands through the air, an eerily synchronized movement, and the two warriors disappeared, only the imprints of their feet left behind. Layel had been reaching for his soldier, trying to grab hold of him. Beside him, Delilah remained unmoved. With his other hand he grabbed her calf, stroking, offering comfort though he could see she felt no fear.
"Great Ones, please," Nola said on a shaky breath, backing away. "I beg you, do not - "
"Silence!" Artemis bellowed.
And so there was silence, even the insects ceasing their songs.
"Better." Hestia relaxed, her expression softening. "I don't like the thought of a woman being enslaved, nor do I like the thought of destroying you when you have not yet had a chance to truly live. And so you will not be given to the vampires or the dragons."
Gradually Nola, too, relaxed. Until...
"Therefore, because you failed time and again to kill your targets," Hestia continued, her tone cold, "you will be sentenced to watch them live, unable to be seen or heard by those around you." The goddess paused. "Let this be a lesson to you. When a goddess demands a favor of you, promising a reward beyond imagining in return, see it through. Had you done so, you would have known a different outcome this day."
All color leached from Nola's cheeks. Shock and terror filled her eyes, and tremors rocked her body so forcefully even the ocean's waves undulated. "No. Please, no. I didn't pit them against each other. I didn't. And I tried to kill the king. I did, but he - " Nola disappeared, her words gone with her.
"Return her. Now." Delilah stood and strolled forward, the casual movement at odds with her words, as if she was doing what she knew she should but couldn't bring herself to care about the action.
Layel latched on to her ankles and jerked. She hit the sand face-first and came up sputtering. Though still in pain, he pushed to his feet and moved in front of her. The few creatures left standing were pallid, quiet. He wanted to tell Delilah there would be time to save their friends later, but kept silent, unwilling to incite even more divine punishment.
Hestia dusted off her hands, a job well done.
"You." Ares pointed to the female nymph. "You appear weak."
Gulping, she took a trembling step backward. "Me?"
She appeared strong to Layel, healthy, her color good. He frowned.
"You're being eliminated, as well. There is no place for weaklings here. However, I have decided to be lenient and restore your strength to full capacity. That is why you will wait in my heavenly chambers. I will join you shortly."
Her fear turned to eagerness as she realized what he wanted from her, and she vanished with an excited gasp. Now Layel understood, as well. The war god wanted the nymph for his own.
Poseidon frowned. "That wasn't fair. I wanted her."
Ares shrugged, unconcerned. "He who hesitates does not deserve such beauty. But do not worry. Who would know better than you, Poseidon, that there are plenty of other fish in the sea?"
The sea king glared, but didn't issue a rejoinder.
"Finally, the four strongest contenders remain," Apollo said, rubbing his hands together. "Delilah, the stubborn Amazon. Broderick, the loyal nymph. Layel, the fierce vampire king. Tagart, the determined dragon. Which of you will survive, though? Which of you will fall?"
"Soon you will face the greatest challenge yet, and only one can win." Hestia splayed her arms wide. "What will this winner receive, you ask? The answer is as simple, or as life-altering, as you want it to be. A boon. Anything you wish of us, we will do. Anything you desire shall be yours."
"And what of the others?" Layel asked. "What will happen to the losers?"
Rather than scold him for asking a question, Poseidon eyed him sharply. "That, too, is a simple but life-altering answer. They will die."
Die. The word echoed in his mind, an ominous threat that overshadowed the physical pain still beating through him. Gods. He was going to have to win this competition. His boon - sparing Delilah's life. Once he would have used such a favor to obliterate the dragons. No longer. Delilah came first.
"Before the prize can be awarded, the challenge must be met. Heed our words well, for things are not always what they seem. Each of you will travel up the mountain behind you," Artemis said. "There you will find something the likes of which even the bravest of men would run from. Something you fear above anything else. You are to face it, defeat it."
There hadn't been a mountain on the island before, but Layel was willing to bet that if he turned, he would see one.
Poseidon grinned, a wicked edge to his amusement. "But fear not, creatures of Atlantis. I'm returning all the weapons you crafted, for what better way to prove the true depth of your might than to utilize such instruments of death on your fellow opponents? Although...perhaps you have all you will need without them, hmm?"
Layel was suddenly weighed down with swords, daggers and lances. And then, one by one, the gods vanished.
"May the best warrior win," whispered on the breeze in their wake.
His pain instantly ceased. Panting, sweating, he straightened, squared his shoulders and looked at Delilah. She was watching him. Unemotional. Unreadable. They stood there in silence for several seconds - an eternity.
"One of us will die," she ventured, but she didn't sound as if she cared who lost their life.
It would not be her, he vowed. He would die himself before he allowed any harm to fall upon this woman. "No." He shook his head. "One of us will win a prize. Anything we desire, even the life of the other."
Her head tilted to the side, thoughts swimming in her eyes. "Or the life of someone else. Your mate could live again."
For one moment, he was overjoyed by the possibility. Susan...returned to him. He couldn't catch his breath, saw white lights behind his eyelids. Then, with a glance at Delilah, the joy shifted. Susan's return wasn't what he wanted anymore. It was time to let her rest in peace, as he'd realized at the waterfall. He wanted Delilah. She was his present, his future. "I want you."
Tagart approached Delilah's side, eyes narrowed on Layel. "Come," he commanded the Amazon. "We'll work the mountain together."
All of Layel's possessive instincts surfaced with a roar. Mine! "You will not touch her. You will not aid her. I will."
Delilah, ever emotionless, shrugged off Tagart's hold. "You have issued ultimatum after ultimatum, dragon. I was to follow you or risk death. Well, I am tired of following you. Our alliance ended when the teams were dissolved. I think you now want me to die. Anything to punish the vampire. So I'll work the mountain on my own. Besides, I'm an Amazon. I don't need a man."
She turned and strode away from them, Layel's gaze tracking her every movement. She approached a - His eyes widened. There was a mountain, huge, towering, dark and surrounded by foreboding shadows. Even the bravest man would run from what's up there, the gods had said.
Tagart took advantage of Layel's distraction and attacked, claws raking Layel's chest. Rather than engage, Layel simply dematerialized. Only one thing mattered right now - and for once, it wasn't the dragon.
DELILAH FELT DEAD inside as she increased her speed, going from a stroll to a run in seconds. She dodged trees, their limbs slapping at her, jumped over thick roots and ignored the eerie animalistic purr that reverberated through the air. Soon she was panting, didn't know where she was or where she was going, and didn't care.
Her sister had been sent away to be mentally and emotionally tortured, and she hadn't been able to save her. Layel was toying with her for some reason, offering her everything she'd once desired. I want you, he'd said. She still couldn't bring herself to care - not even if he'd meant every word.
I should care. But in the void that was her heart, there were no regrets. No happiness, no concerns.
One second she was running, the next she was soaring through the air. She struggled until she drew in the scent of man, strength and blood. His arsenal of weapons pressed into every point of contact, abrading her skin.
"Put me down," she said flatly.
"Hold on to me." Layel's voice was strained. Sweat beaded every inch of his face, and lines of fatigue etched his eyes and mouth. Never had he appeared more exhausted.
"Put me down." There was a spark of awareness inside her, arousal about to bloom, but it was quickly snuffed out as if it had never been. What was wrong with her?
"I hurt you," he said into her ear. "I am sorry for that, so very sorry."
"As sorry as you are about your mate's death?" she found herself asking. She didn't care about his answer, but something compelled her to ask, anyway.
"Yes," he replied without hesitation.
"There's no reason to lie. You're nothing to me now. I was merely curious."
Pain glowed in his eyes, deepening the blue to a sorrowful black. "I want to be everything to you."
A few hours ago, she would have rejoiced. Now..."I told you, I no longer want you." Truth. There was nothing inside her to give him. Or anyone, for that matter.
"I want you. You are all that I desire, and instead of cherishing you as you deserve, I was cruel. I beg your forgiveness for that, and will do anything to get it." When she said nothing, he added, "I hate that I hurt you, that you now look at me as if I'm invisible."
Wind ruffled her hair across her face as she studied his features. She saw what she'd wanted to see all these many days: tenderness, kindness and caring. She saw...love? In that moment, she did regret the numbness. "You were calling her name. You told her you were sorry."
His brow furrowed in confusion. "When - Oh. Yes, I was. I was telling her goodbye."
"Telling her - " Delilah couldn't form the words, couldn't comprehend what he was saying.
"Telling her goodbye," Layel repeated. "Susan is no longer my mate. She is gone, and I am here. I want you. I want to be with you, have a future with you."
"Layel - "
"You asked me for a chance, but I didn't give it to you. Now I am begging you for one." He shifted her in his arms, forcing her to wind her legs around his waist and lock her ankles to maintain some sort of balance. "Please. I will do anything for it. Anything at all."
They were hovering in the air, over the trees and inside delicate puffs of white. She braced her arms around his neck, staring deep into those bright eyes. "I'm sorry. I have nothing inside me to give you anymore. Besides, there's no time for this. Tagart and Broderick are searching for the monster, or whatever it is the gods wish us to slay."
"We will make time. Nothing is more important to me than you. Not even the win."
"But without the win, one of us will die."
He sighed at the reminder. "Much as I wish otherwise, you are right. But..." He nuzzled her cheek with his nose. "The blankness still lingers in your eyes and that tears me up inside. What can I do? Tell me what to do to help you?"
"I wish I knew. One of the goddesses came to me earlier. Hestia, I realize now. She wanted me to forget you and focus on the game so she...she..." Delilah's eyes widened, the truth crystallizing. "She took my love for you so that I would no longer place you above victory."
Layel's arms tightened around her, anger flashing over his countenance. "I don't understand."
"I have no emotions. She took them, all of them." Delilah should have been infuriated by that, but again, there was nothing inside her, not even a single spark of the fury that was so warranted.
"You love me?"
"I did." She could think of no reason to deny it. "Yes."
"And the goddess made it so that you felt nothing?"
"Yes," she repeated.
"Oh, Delilah, sweet Delilah. I am so sorry. It seems I have more to apologize for than I knew." His warm breath fanned her ear, a drugging caress she should have enjoyed. "I will have to feel enough for both of us, then, because I love you, sweet. I love you so much and I cannot let you go."
It was everything she'd ever longed to hear. Here, now, a strong, powerful man was looking at her as if she were a prize, talking to her as if he would fight anyone or anything for her honor. As if he would hold her tight and never let her go. But still she did not care.
"I will find a way to heal you," he vowed.
Could he, though? Whichever of them won could ask the gods for the life of the other as their boon. But then the prize could not be the return of her emotions.
It seemed that no matter what happened, they were doomed.