ONLY A FEW HOURS of darkness remained, Delilah thought, more sated than she had ever been in her life. She and Layel had made love several more times in several different positions. He couldn't seem to get enough of her, his need almost...desperate.
He'd made her promise all kinds of things. To always love him. To always forgive him. To kiss him every morning for the rest of her life. To be the one to win the challenge, no matter what she saw or heard, no matter what happened. She had been more than happy to agree to everything but the last - which had only made him work harder to convince her of the rightness of her taking victory for herself. Finally, she'd given in and promised. She would win, and she would demand Layel's life as her prize. But she didn't want Tagart or Broderick to die, either. Was there a way to save everyone?
Miracles were indeed possible, she now realized. He loves me, she thought with a shocked grin. They should be up, finishing the challenge, but she cherished this time with him and couldn't stand the thought of it ending. He had said goodbye to his old love; they were going to be together. She didn't know how they would leave the island together - the prize perhaps. But never again would she push him away.
"I could happily lie here forever, sweetheart, but time is running out for us to find the answer to the gods' riddle," Layel said as he rubbed a hand down her spine. Confusion, determination and dread layered the announcement.
She shivered and propped her head on her hand, looking down at him. Just catching a glimpse of his eerie beauty caused her chest to constrict. He's my man. What an exhilarating concept. "What makes you think it's a riddle? We were told there was something up here that even a brave man would run from. And we have heard the creature's cry, so we know they weren't lying."
As if it had heard their conversation and wanted to re-affirm its presence, the unnamed creature howled, the unholy sound rending the air. Judging by the volume, the beast wasn't close to them, but it was closer than it had been a few hours ago.
"The goddess Hestia called this challenge a riddle."
"No, she didn't. I would remember."
His glowing blue eyes focused on her, and never had they appeared so grave. Secrets churned in their depths. "Trust me on this."
"All right. I do." She trusted him with her heart, so there was no reason to doubt him in this.
He leaned up and kissed her, and just like that she felt him grow hard against her thigh. Reaching down, she curled her fingers around his length and squeezed. His eyelids closed in ecstasy as he hissed in a breath.
"Are you always this insatiable?" she asked with a laugh.
"I could ask the same of you, sweet. But to answer your question, yes, but only with you."
No wonder she loved him. "I'm glad, because I would slay any woman who tried to take you from me." And it was the truth. As she stroked him, loving the feel of velvet over steel, she said, "What would a brave man turn away from, I wonder."
"I don't know. I can't think right now."
After moistening her lips, she moved above him, scattering kisses over his chest and delving her tongue into his navel. "I like when you can't think." Lower still. Her mouth sank down on his erection, her tongue playing the head.
"Delilah, I - I - we should be figuring this out. This challenge, this - " Her tongue swirled over the plump head. "Oh, gods."
"Has a woman done this to you before?" She'd heard talk of it among her sisters and knew men relished having it done.
She would be the first, then, and the knowledge filled her with possessive pride. "I've never done this for a man, but it's my honor to do it for you." Without another word, she sucked him. Loving the moans and groans he made, reveling in the gyrations of his hips, the feel of his hands fisted in her hair.
Up and down she worked, taking him so far down her throat she couldn't breathe. But she loved it. Couldn't stop. Rode his erection with her mouth until he collapsed, spent.
Smiling, she curled beside him. Gods, she loved this man. There was nothing he wouldn't do for her, she knew that now. Battle her sisters - yes. Walk through raging fires - of course. Kill Vorik - she had only to name when and where.
"You were saying something about a riddle," she prompted.
"I'm not sure why the gods would give us a riddle rather than test our battle skills. Didn't they mention they wanted the strongest warrior to win? If so, why not give us another, more straightforward challenge?"
"Strongest warrior, yes, but also the best warrior. They've already tested our might, our endurance, our memory. Perhaps intelligence is the only thing left." He sighed, loud and long. "We'll figure this out. And if necessary, we'll destroy the creature, whatever it is, as well as that blackguard Tagart. Broderick, I would like to save, if only there were a way. As for you, you've managed to distract me again. I believe I owe you a very special kiss. And while I'm tasting you, I want you to remind me of everything you've promised me. If you stop talking, I stop kissing."
And with that naughty threat, he bent and made good on his word.
SHIVAWN HAD ALYSSA behind him on the centaur as they pranced toward the edge of the cliff. The Amazon camp was nearby. Thanks to nymph senses, they could sniff females out anywhere, anytime. Her hands were on his waist, holding tight. He had never felt stronger, more alive.
Valerian rode beside him, the nymph army lined in their wake.
"Brenna will not be happy if we slaughter the female warriors," Joachim said in his deep, gruff voice. He was a strong soldier, one of the best, and he was mated to the human Shivawn had once owned.
They were friends now only because Shivawn had relinquished all claim to the girl. That was a good thing, too. As he was learning, all things happened for a reason. If he'd kept Brenna, he would not have been free to mate with Alyssa, and he would rather die than be without his Alyssa.
"Clearly, they are hiding in wait. But they have not attacked us yet," Valerian pointed out, "so our charms must be working."
The lure of the nymphs, he thought, something he'd always been proud of but cursed today. He didn't want Alyssa upset for any reason.
There was a whoop, a war cry, and then the Amazons were flooding the edge of the cliff above their camp. "Halt," a female voice shouted angrily. "State your business, nymphs."
"Perhaps we aren't as charming as we assumed," Valerian muttered. He raised his arm, and the army obeyed. "We came to speak with the prisoners."
One woman stepped forward. She was fair-haired, tall and muscled, yet as pretty as an angel. "No," she said, and Shivawn recognized the voice that had commanded them to stop. She must be the tribe's queen, Kreja. "You may now turn around, Valerian, and return to your palace. We won't kill you. This time."
Shivawn had heard of her bloodthirsty nature, her un-bending determination and the iron fist with which she ruled her people. What he had not heard was whether she'd ever spent time with Valerian. That familiarity...had they once been lovers? If so, Valerian would have cast her aside - females never left the nymphs. Correction: females rarely left the nymphs - and would not wish to help the nymphs in any way if they had.
"Tell us what you know of them," Valerian demanded. "Please."
Kreja smiled, smug. "A please from your lips...irresistible. They were given to us by the gods," she said. "Therefore, they belong to us."
A young girl pushed her way through the masses. Kreja grabbed for her, saying, "Lily, no!" but the child squirmed for freedom and rather than hurt her, the queen let her go.
She approached, spear in hand, eyes wide. "Pretty," she breathed, gaze locked on Dorian, an irreverent dark-haired warrior who preferred variety over quality.
"As are you." He winked at her indulgently. "Perhaps we'll meet again in a few years."
The queen watched the exchange, looking both proud that the girl was brave enough to approach the warriors and worried for her safety. As if the nymphs would ever harm a child.
"I'm old enough to have a slave," the girl called Lily said, chin lifting. "His name is Brand the dragon. I made him wash my clothes and fetch my breakfast this morning. I could talk to my mother about keeping you instead."
His lips twitched. Even Shivawn smiled at that. "No, thanks," Dorian said. "Perhaps another time."
"Lily!" Kreja shouted, and the little girl jumped.
"Until then," she said, turning and running back to the females. Instantly they absorbed her into their midst, leaving no sign of her presence.
A muscle ticked below Valerian's eyes. "Where are you harboring the men? They have information we need," he said, returning everyone to the business at hand.
"Information I now have. Information I will share only because I have every intention of demanding payment for it one day. You worry for your missing soldiers, I presume. They were taken to an island, far from us," she said. "They told me of sun, moon and sand, where mers swam and the gods could freely exercise their power. Something they did often, testing the warriors mercilessly. Both nymphs were alive when the vampire, Zane, and the dragon, Brand, were brought to me."
Valerian glanced at Shivawn with dread before refocusing on the queen. "What island?"
"They did not know."
"You realize the dragon and vampire armies will come after you if you keep those men, yes?"
"Yes." She grinned with relish. "Let them come. Amazons enjoy combat, if you hadn't heard."
"I am ally to both. Should they ask me, I will fight at their side and do all in my power to bring you down."
Rather than frighten her, the boast merely intensified her giddiness. She sent an eager gaze over the army. "Out of fond remembrance of our week together all those years ago, I will warn you not to try."
So they had been lovers. Curious, Shivawn thought. Before settling into their current residence, the nymphs had wandered Atlantis from palace to palace, race to race, taking their pleasure wherever they found it but never remaining in one place for long. The Amazons, however, they had always avoided. They didn't desire companions; they desired slaves. For a time. It wasn't in a nymph's nature to submit. Well, not outside the bedroom.
"One youthful mistake," Valerian said on a sigh. "I will do what I must, Kreja, memories or no."
She smiled. "You always do. Do it, then. Fight us. Mating season soon approaches." A horn sounded in the distance, and all of the Amazons stiffened. Frowning, the queen glanced behind her as the horn echoed once more. "Until we meet again..." What that, she and her followers stepped backward in unison and simply disappeared.
"Alyssa," Shivawn said.
Realizing what he wanted, she gripped him all the tighter and flew him to the top of the cliff. Down, down he looked. The women had stepped off the cliff and into a churning lake. They made a splash when they hit, then surfaced and swam to shore, waving coyly up at him.
"First they challenge you, and then they run," she muttered. "What odd creatures."
They floated back down, and Valerian sighed. "Where could this island of sun and moon and mers - " He pressed his lips together, head tilting to the side. "Wait. I know where it might be. Come with me."
As quickly as their centaurs would allow, they traveled to the nymph palace. Valerian's queen was waiting for him when they arrived. The nymph king dismounted and ran to his pale moonbeam, swinging her around while she kissed his face.
Alyssa bit Shivawn's shoulder, an action of possession, for Brenna waited atop the front steps, wringing her hands together, black curls billowing around her lovely face as she searched the sea of soldiers for Joachim. The warrior was pushing through the masses. When he reached the little female, he jerked her into his arms and she sighed with relief.
Shivawn turned until he was facing Alyssa. "I love you," he told her. "Only, always, you."
Her features softened, fangs retracting.
"The human means nothing to me, I swear it."
Alyssa looked away from him. "But you almost bedded her that day. Wanted to bed her."
What a fool I was. "Let us discard the past, love. We have started fresh."
"I guess I'll have to kill someone else," she muttered.
He chuckled. "That you will."
"This way," Valerian called.
Shivawn dismounted and helped Alyssa do the same. Side by side, they followed Valerian through the palace, past jewel-encrusted walls and men making love to nymph females in every corner. Decadent moans echoed as they descended the steps and strode into a cave.
Valerian pressed against a jagged rock in the upper corner of the wall and two boulders parted, revealing a breathtaking view of the ocean. Fish. Mermaids waiting to catch a glimpse of a nymph.
The king twisted another of the rocks and withdrew a small, round glass, extending it from the wall like an arm. He bent down and placed his eye in the center. Several minutes passed, warriors shifting from one boot to another as they waited.
What was he doing?
He moved his body left and right, angling for...what? Finally he stepped back and nodded stiffly. "I was right. Look."
Shivawn bent and peered through that glass, realizing he was looking up, up and out of the sea. Breath hitched in his throat. There was a patch of land, a large expanse of pin-pricked black, and a round golden sphere. Water lapped at the edges of a beach, white sand stretching into thick, emerald foliage. "What is that place?"
"I have never been sure if it is on the surface or if it's another hidden city like Atlantis."
"How do we get there?"
"The portals, perhaps."
Shivawn's attention slid to the portal in question. It was upright, surrounded by the mist that constantly seeped from it. Touching it pulled a person out of Atlantis and into the ocean. The one and only time he had done so, he had swum to the surface to steal human females. That's when he'd met Brenna and hurt Alyssa so terribly.
"Then we swim," he said. He turned to Alyssa to explain the need for such an action and apologize if necessary. Assure her again of his love, most definitely.
"My king is out there," she said before he could utter a word. "I, too, will go through the portal."
He glanced to Valerian, who nodded. Attention returning to Alyssa, he tenderly kissed her temple. "You are a true warrior, after all, love. Together, we will bring our people home."
WHEN THE SUN ROSE, Layel was tense. Afraid. So afraid. His night with Delilah had been the stuff of fantasies and dreams. He needed more. But would he get it? Or would she lose her emotions as Hestia had warned?
He'd been watching her sleep for hours, the gentle rise and fall of her chest a mating call. He hated to wake her and lose this peace, but it was necessary. "Delilah," he said, gently shaking her.
Slowly her eyelids cracked open.
And that's when he knew. His chest constricted with painful intensity. Once more her gaze was cold, blank. She rolled to her back, eyelids already closing. "What's wrong with me?" she asked groggily.
"Your emotions were taken again." Layel wanted to kill something. The goddess would be a nice choice.
"Oh." She didn't sound as if she cared.
"I love you," he croaked out.
She yawned. "I know. I love you, too."
At least she knew, even if she couldn't feel. Hestia had been right in urging him to use logic. "Do you remember everything you promised me?"
"Of course. It's my emotions that disappeared, not my brain."
He sighed. "It's time to find and destroy the monster, love."
"All right." Unhurried, she rose and dressed.
He'd half expected her to insist he allow her to continue sleeping. Hopeful, he pushed to unsteady feet. After he'd donned his pants, he plucked several berries from a nearby bush and held them out. "Eat."
"I'm not hungry." She studied the length of several blades before sheathing them at her sides. She didn't look as if she cared to use them or even knew what to do with them.
"Eat. Please. You need to stay strong."
Reluctantly, she took and ate the fruit.
"You said you remembered what you promised me, but do you remember last night? What happened between us?"
"Yes," she said, looking at him. Blinking without concern. "Are you ready? I promised to win this contest, which means I need to fight a monster."
He grabbed her shoulders, desperation flooding him. "Delilah."
For a moment, one sweet moment, warmth fluttered over her expression, chasing away the cold, but it was quickly gone. And then the beast was roaring in pain and fury, the high-pitched scream enough to bust his eardrums. Layel stiffened, realization settling deep. "The monster has been found. Come."
He clutched Delilah's hand and jerked her into motion, racing through the trees, his heart pounding against his ribs. She stumbled several times, and he began to worry for her ability to do what would be needed. Whatever would be needed. Not knowing what else to do, he picked her up and leapt into the air, flying high...higher...
An eternity passed, the mountain seemingly never ending. Trees knifed toward him, slapping, but then the beach came into view and he knew he was farther away from the action, not closer, the monster's newest roar weaker. With a twist of his body, he turned them around and headed back into the trees. Where in Hades were the other warriors?
Finally, in the center of the mountain, he caught a glimpse of Tagart exiting a cave, sword raised. Broderick jumped out and attacked him with a sword of his own, the two men swinging and thrusting at each other, grunting and slashing.
Layel didn't want Delilah fighting in this condition, but he didn't want to risk defeating the monster himself, either. Damn the gods! What should he do? He set her down. She didn't protest. Just sat there, watching the fight through indifferent eyes.
"Stay here," he whispered.
"I promised to win," she said.
"Worry not, love. I'll only be a moment and will find a way to ensure your victory."
She nodded, the easy compliance so unlike her, his heart sank a little.
"What's in there?" Broderick demanded of Tagart.
"Nothing." Tagart swung his sword. Missed as the nymph jumped out of the way.
"Wouldn't matter. This is my kill. I found it first."
"Yes, but I'll be the last thing it sees."
Layel dropped to his stomach and inched forward. With the combatants distracted, he could sneak into the cave and injure whatever was inside. If something was even in there. How could this be a riddle?
He didn't get very far.
A huge, monstrous creature with black wings and red eyes lunged out, teeth snapping at Layel, then at the struggling warriors, who leapt apart with shocked gasps. Heart drumming in a wild frenzy, Layel backtracked, shoving Delilah behind him. She wasn't ready for such a battle. Might not care enough to dodge a death-blow.
"I don't think we should fight it," she said, voice devoid of either fear or eagerness.
He wanted to look at her, but was afraid to tear his attention from the monster. Afraid that a single moment of inattentiveness would cause the beast to attack him, and thereby Delilah. "Why?"
"I don't fear it." Stated so matter-of-factly.
"Well, I do. And you would, too, if you still had possession of your emotions, brave Amazon warrior or not."
"No, you're not understanding. The gods said we would find something the likes of which even the bravest of men would run from, something that we fear more than anything else. We are to face it, defeat it. But the thing I feared above all else was being without you. Last night I faced that fear. I defeated it. I gave myself to you, without reservation, hopeful for the future. Don't you see, Layel? I don't need to slay this beast. I've already won the gods' challenge."
A riddle. Just as Hestia had said. He stilled, his eyes widening. Delilah had done it. Had truly done it. And she'd done it without him. The foolishness he felt at not having figured it out himself was no match for his pride in the woman who had. His woman. Grinning, he turned and hugged her close. Her arms wrapped tentatively around him, and the small gesture warmed his heart.
"Very good, my child. Very, very good. And so a winner has been declared," a laughing voice whispered through the trees. "Ah, but do not fear, vampire, nymph and dragon. No one need die this day. The losers shall be spared, as each of you proved useful in some way. And I know what you are thinking, vampire. I told you otherwise before. But how could you have faced your worst fear if there were no consequences for your actions?"
With the words, the monster disappeared, though its roar continued to echo throughout the mountain. Tagart and Broderick whipped around, confused, searching. "Where did it go?" they panted in unison.
Each of the five gods appeared in a blazing cascade of lights. As Layel blinked against their brilliance, he saw that only Hestia was smiling.
The goddess faced Delilah. "Amazon, you have surpassed my expectations. Of all the warriors, you have displayed the most strength, courage, endurance and wit. At any point, you could have given up, yet you persevered, determination your beloved companion."
"Not true! My dragon displayed the most strength. You cheated," Poseidon growled at the goddess.
"As did you," she replied smugly. "Do you honestly believe none of us heard your meeting with the dragon last eve? You told him exactly what his greatest fear was, and still he failed to understand. The Amazon is unquestionably the winner of this game. And that means I have won our game, as well."
Ares clenched his fists so tightly blood ran from his palms.
Artemis regarded them coldly, as if the outcome didn't affect her one way or another.
Apollo was popping his jaw, the glow around him more diminished than before.
Then they each nodded in reluctant acknowledgment.
War cries abounding, an army of nymphs suddenly burst past the trees, and stopped. The roars became gasps and snarls. Layel raced forward, his goal to protect the nymphs, his friends, from the gods. But before he reached them, the gods repositioned themselves, beside him one moment, blocking his path in the next. Layel ground to a halt.
"Valerian," he called.
"Layel," the nymph king responded. "What's been going on? How can we - "
Hestia waved her hand at them and they disappeared as quickly as they'd arrived. "Good riddance."
"You," Apollo said to Broderick, as though there had never been a disruption. "I have a task for you, nymph. As I am no longer welcome inside Atlantis, I feel the need to return to the surface world. And there is something you can do for me there. The least you can do, really, since you did not win me this contest." The two vanished. At least Broderick had appeared amenable.
"And, you," Poseidon added, pointing to Tagart, eyes narrowed. "You cost me sole claim to Atlantis. For that, you will be punished. And then you will exist simply to amuse me." They, too, disappeared.
"And then there's you," Ares said to Layel. "Victory could have been ours, but you chose to put love first." Despite his words, there was no anger in his voice. "I would punish you, but you seem to have saddled yourself with a permanent mate. That is punishment enough, I'm thinking."
A mate was not punishment, Layel thought. A mate was a reward. But he gave no protest as Ares, too, vanished.
For several heartbeats, there was silence. Then a female sigh echoed. "Enough distractions. I will now award Delilah's prize." Hestia merely blinked at them and they were suddenly standing in front of the Amazon camp, a cliff rising in front of them. The women obviously couldn't see them, for they were readying for war, unconcerned by the vampire in their midst.
There was the young girl, the one who had been locked in the dragon cage what seemed an eternity ago. To Layel's delight, she was leading a scowling Brand by a chain, as though he were nothing more than a pet.
"Lily," Delilah said. She reached out stiffly, as though the action were automatic rather than heartfelt.
"Delilah," the goddess said, stopping her in her tracks. "As you know, my precious, you have earned a boon. What would you like? Name it, and it's yours. Remember, your sister Nola is out there, perhaps in pain."
Layel's jaw clenched. Low blow, he thought. Remember your promises, he projected to Delilah. Remember my promises. Please remember. During their night of passion, he had vowed to help her search for Nola, and he would. However long it took. He would not rest until her sister was safe. The boon wasn't needed for that. Would she remember? Would she care?
"Or I could give Layel back his mate," the goddess continued. "That would please him, I think."
Layel locked gazes with Delilah, letting all of his love pour from him.
"May I ask a few questions first?"
"Of course," the goddess replied magnanimously.
"What happened to the nymph army?"
"The army was returned to Atlantis, healthy and whole. If your fellow competitors Broderick and Tagart are lucky, they will someday follow suit."
Delilah nodded, satisfied. "Since you have already agreed to spare Layel's life, I ask for my emotions," she said, and Layel sank to his knees in relief. "I want my emotions returned. My love for him."
"I planned to return them anyway," the goddess surprised Layel by saying. "After you chose your prize. Logic aids us so much more than sentiment, after all. Besides, mere emotions don't seem a large enough reward for your efforts. Is there nothing else you would like?"
"Loving Layel, being with him, is what I desire most. But as you are giving me that, as well, I ask for Nola's safe return."
Hestia studied her a moment, then nodded. "Very well. All that you have named, you shall have. But not all at the same time. Nola has much to learn first."
A moment later, Delilah's body jerked and she screamed in pain, just as she'd done the night before. All Layel could do was gather her close and hold on to her until the throbbing subsided. Finally she collapsed, panting, sweating.
"Thank you, thank you," he said, raining kisses all over her face. "Thank you for remembering. Thank you for loving me."
Her violet gaze lifted, piercing him. "Does some part of you wish I'd asked for your mate's return?"
"Ah, but you did ask for exactly that. You are my mate. My greatest prize."
Slowly she grinned. "A prize," she said with wonder. "Me. It's what I've always wanted to be, what I secretly dreamed of each night in camp and every time I saw other creatures holding hands and basking in each other."
"It's what you've always been, what you will always be." He kissed her forehead, her nose and then her precious lips. "We will never be parted again, I vow it. We can live in my palace or I will be your eternal slave at the Amazon camp."
Her eyes widened. "You would be my slave?"
"I am your slave, love."
Now those widened eyes filled with happy tears, her smile brighter than the sun. "I would love to live in your palace. To have you all to myself, no war or battle-training to distract us. Maybe, though, we can visit my tribe upon occasion." She looked down, as if it was too much to hope for.
"Anytime you wish. The girl, Lily, can even stay with us when we return, if your queen will allow it. Perhaps she can help us practice our parenting skills."
"Oh, Layel." She kissed and nipped at his face. "I would like that. And I think Lily would, too." Her head fell back and she laughed, a sound of true joy. "We'll have to deal with her new slave, though. Are you sure - "
"My quest to kill the dragons is over." He shrugged sheepishly. "But perhaps I will torture Brand a wee bit. Or perhaps he will prove useful as we rescue Zane and Nola. Because if I know my Amazon, you will not be content to wait for Hestia to send the girl to us, just as I am not content to leave my soldier in torment."
"You, Layel, are a wonderful man. My dark and passionate king." She cupped his face, her thumbs tenderly brushing his lips. "So...now that you have me, what are you going to do with me?"
"That's easy, love," he said, holding her tight. "Cherish you, all the days of my life."