THAT BASTARD! Delilah thought. That bloodsucking fiend. That black-hearted warrior. That...man! He had no conscience, no sense of fairness. And she...liked it. A sigh slipped from her, and she nearly melted to the ground in a boneless heap of feminine delight.
The warrior had dropped her to her knees. No one had ever dropped her before. No one. She was too strong, too fast, too menacing and too eager to exact revenge. And if she could not, her sisters were more than willing to see the task done, which every species in Atlantis knew.
But the vampire had acted against her without reservation or remorse. What was worse - better? - was that he could have done so much more. One moment he'd been in front of her, the next he'd been behind her. He could have sliced her throat as he'd done to so many of the dragons, and there would have been nothing she could've done about it.
Well, she could have died. But where was the fun in that?
She should have been wary of such skill. She wasn't; she was excited. Which was foolish! Number eight of the ten Amazon commandments: never fight an opponent face-to-face if you couldn't defeat him. Wait and stab him in the back later. The vampire could have defeated her. Utterly. Would have. Yet she'd practically begged for more.
The thought of his cunning made her pulse leap and her blood heat as if dragon fire had somehow seeped through the war paint, past her skin and straight into her veins. He'd tripped her, and she had wanted to kiss him for it.
Yes, all right, fine. She had spent many nights lying awake, wishing for what she couldn't have and shouldn't want: a man strong enough to risk her sisters' ire and claim her. A man who didn't think of her as too violent to enjoy for more than a few nights. A man who gave as intensely as she did, who would fight for her with the same ferocity she brought to every battle she joined. A man who would topple any barrier to reach her.
A man who would view her as the most important thing in his life. A prize to be won and cherished.
All of those desires embarrassed her, however, and were not something she would - or could - ever mention aloud. Not if she wanted the respect of her tribe. She was a warrior; they all were. Battle came first. Love, never.
Besides, she'd tried love. Or at least, had given herself to a man. He hadn't been forced to accept her. Hadn't been picked during the Ceremony of the Chosen, where Amazons decided which slaves to bed. No, she'd met him on the battlefield. She'd gone to stab him and he'd kissed her. Intrigued, flattered, she'd let him live, had even snuck out of camp later that night to see him. You're the one for me, he'd told her. I knew it the first moment I saw you. But after the loving had finished, he'd walked away and had never looked back. She'd been nothing more than a passing fancy, an enemy to use, a woman to sate himself on and, later, a bad memory to bury.
Her fault, though. If she hadn't secretly watched other races over the years, melting at the sight of men fighting for their women, doing anything and everything to protect them, the need for a love of her own wouldn't have sprouted. A need that was a clear violation of the third commandment: if you begin to desire more than a bedding from a man, kill him or he'll take you from your sisters, betray you.
A rage-drenched snarl resounded through the forest, claiming her attention. She thrust her sword forward, twisted the hilt, then slammed it backward. Both in front of and behind her, a dragon warrior dropped at her feet.
Another dragon sprinted toward her. Silly men. They were strong soldiers. She knew that, had fought a few of them before, but she was stronger. Despite her delicate appearance.
Delilah raised her dagger, ready to meet this new opponent. One of her sisters stepped in his path, however, and the two became locked in a fierce battle of clanging, sparking metal. All too soon, the weaker, still-in-training Nola fell against the brute's powerful sword thrusts. The man threw his sword aside, ready to use his meaty hands.
The first commandment: always aid a sister in need.
Steps sure and quick, Delilah reached her sister's side - only to realize proudly that she needn't have bothered. The Amazon shot to her feet and met the dragon warrior's fists with a high kick. He grunted, stumbled.
Nola is fine, and you have a mission. Delilah turned, eyeing the macabre scene before her. Blood, grunting, collapsing bodies. All necessary. She had come here for a specific reason: to find and rescue her sister by race, Lily.
Where are you now, sweet Lily? Before attacking the dragons, Delilah had seen her in the cage. Since then, there had been no sign of the girl. Come on. Show yourself. Lily had disappeared a week ago, and they'd tracked her to the dragon palace and followed the warriors into this forest. Better to ambush them there. Whether the dragons had taken her or she'd gone willingly was not important. They had bound her hands and mouth. They had imprisoned her.
For the first, they would suffer. For the second, they would die.
Lily was a child, an innocent, and their future queen. Delilah - and all Amazons - doted on the girl. At thirteen, she was charming, precious, amusing. Everything the rest of the Amazons were not.
Bring my baby home, the queen had instructed Delilah, her chin trembling. Seeing the usually staid Kreja near tears had been a torture all its own. You know what to do with those who harm her even in the slightest way.
Every warrioress fighting this battle would do anything, everything, to preserve Lily's sweet innocence - if the dragons had not destroyed it already. If they had...Fury clouded Delilah's vision, winking red and black.
Concentrate. Several warriors had already morphed into their animal form, flesh replaced with scales, serrated tails whipping back and forth, wings flapping and claws slashing. They would be harder to kill that way, but she relished the challenge.
From the corner of her eye, she caught a flash of white hair and glowing crystalline eyes framed by long black lashes. Features almost too pretty to be male. Sensual, exotic. Her heart gave a strange leap. The vampire who'd knocked her to the ground. He could have been the god of wickedness and temptation, and she would not have been surprised.
What was his name? The question whispered through her mind before she could stop it. He doesn't matter, remember? Why, then, could she not tear her gaze from him?
He disappeared in the midst of the crowd. Two enemy warriors clomped toward him, their bodies monstrous and scaled, faces elongated and teeth like sabers. Would the vampire be strong enough to fight them both?
As excited as she was by the thought of his success, a part of her was...scared? Her brow furrowed. No. That wasn't possible. Nothing scared her. Not battle, not pain, not death. Yet she couldn't deny the unsteady rhythm of her heart just then. What if the vampire was struck down? There were so many around him, all going for his neck.
Delilah's attention again snagged on Nola, who still fought a few inches away and was not faring as well as Delilah had hoped. Nola was not one of her closest friends, was too solitary to have any friends, but the tribe came first. Always.
Shoving the vampire from her mind once and for all, Delilah leapt at the dragon engaging her sister, propelling him to the ground and allowing Nola to finally sink her blade into his chest.
He roared. "Damn it, woman!" He lay there, panting, intermittingly staring at his chest and Nola with fury, but he didn't get up again. "That hurt."
"Good." Ninth commandment: never leave a fight without first injuring your opponent in some way. Delilah whipped around, ready to fell another. But once again, she found herself searching for the vampire. Not forgotten, after all. Surrounded by countless adversaries as he was, he would surely be cut down. Despite the prowess he'd demonstrated, he was only a man. A breathtaking, commanding man, but as fallible as all his brethren.
Panting, Nola followed the line of Delilah's gaze. "Shall we cut out his heart?"
"Don't even scratch him. The vampire is mine," she said, the words tumbling from her before she could stop them. Fifth commandment: what's yours is your sisters'. Nola had just as much right to him as she did.
There was a shocked pause. "The chaste Delilah finally chooses a male? I must meet him." Nola rushed forward and inserted herself into the throng of Amazons, dragons and vampires. The latter two attempted to shoo her away while continuing to fight each other. Their lack of attention cost them, and they began falling like raindrops during a storm, her sword flashing like lightning.
Did Nola plan to win the vampire for herself? At first, Delilah stood unmoving in astonishment. Stoic Nola always kept to herself, had never fought for a male prisoner and only warred when commanded, despite her growing skill. By nature, she was a watcher, not a doer. She would not want the vampire. Would she?
Perhaps I am not the only one fascinated by his strength. Seething with sudden fury, Delilah stalked forward. What she would do when she reached the thick of the fray, she didn't know. If only cleaving Nola's head from her body were an option.
The illicit thought had her gasping. Were she to say something like that aloud, she would be sentenced to death.
Someone pushed her to the ground before she'd gotten halfway to her target. The vampire had done the same and it had excited her. This...didn't. She rolled to her back. There was no time to rage, though, as this newest threat leapt on top of her and pinned her. She looked up and saw that it was the last dragon she'd stabbed. He'd already partially healed - and clearly wanted more. She wiggled her arm free to slice him.
"Oh, no, you don't," he said, fingers clamping around her wrist.
"Oh, yes, I do." She worked one of her legs between them and kicked him in the face. His body twisted to the side, lifting his weight, freeing her. She stood, kicked him once more, aiming for his oozing wound. He jerked, then stilled, eyes closed. Satisfied he wouldn't come for her again, she marched away, catching sight of the vampire and watching him move with lethal grace and fluidity, his weapons extensions of his arms, as if he had been born with them in his hands.
Behind him, a dragon opened its mouth to spew a stream of fire.
"Nola!" she shouted, too far away to shove him out of the way herself. But the Amazon was distracted by the tail being swung at her, and didn't hear her cry for help.
Swiftly, Delilah withdrew one of the daggers crisscrossed at her back and tossed it. The tip wheezed through the air before embedding in the dragon's chest. There was a chilling howl, but thankfully no fire.
The vampire spun, and his gaze collided with hers. A sizzle of awareness swept through her, stronger than the one she'd experienced at their first encounter. He glanced at the dragon falling to his knees, then inclined his head in acknowledgment of Delilah's action. Disappointment joined ranks with the awareness.
What did you expect? That he'd blow you a kiss? "Your gratitude is humbling," she called, echoing his earlier words to her.
Without a word, he pivoted and attacked another of the fire-breathers, seeming unconcerned as flames danced over his skin, charring and blistering. The more steps she took toward him, the more opponents jumped in her way. And as Delilah fought her way to him - no, to her friend, damn it! - she saw Nola dive low, slide past a dragon that had just stabbed a vampire in the stomach and slice into its scaled ankles. There was another roar as the creature dropped, no longer able to stand.
Delilah reached her then. The white-haired vampire had vanished.
"Where's Lily?" Nola asked her, panic layering her voice. Ribbons of black hair whipped across her delicate face as she searched left, then right. A loner she might be, but she loved Lily as much as the rest of them.
Delilah followed the direction of her gaze - and finally found the cage Lily had occupied. It was empty. No. No, no, no. "Surely one of the others freed her and carried her to safety."
"That was not the plan. She was to be taken, cage and all to keep her safe and snug, out of harm's way. Most likely she picked the lock herself. She knows how, we made sure of that at least."
"True. All right. You sweep the north, and I'll head south. We'll find her."
Nola nodded, and they were off.
Delilah raced through trees, twigs slapping her face and arms. Rocks dug past the soles of her boots. All the while, she kept her eyes to the ground, searching...searching...there! Three sets of footprints came into view. One was delicate and bare, two were large and booted. Male.
All three were headed toward the Amazon camp.
The dragons wouldn't know the way, which meant Lily was being chased.
Enraged, Delilah increased the speed of her steps, her own haggard gasps ringing in her ears. For once, she regretted the fact that Lily had not been instructed in the art of battle like all the other Amazons.
Sweet Lily, the queen's only child. She'd been a tiny infant, born too soon and constantly sick. She should have been killed at birth, or at least later as it became apparent she would never be strong enough for war. But no one had been able to do it. She'd captured their hearts from the first.
And so, sickly as she'd been, the girl had not been taken from her mother. Had not been thrust into combat training at the age of five. She hadn't been beaten for revealing any hint of weakness, like tears and sadness. Hadn't been slashed and hurt, then thrown into the elements to learn how to survive while her body screamed in pain and the world around her supplied nothing but bone-chilling ice or skin-melting heat.
On her own, Lily would die.
Violated, Lily would probably want to die.
I'm coming, sweet. I'm coming. Where are you? Where -
A terrified scream pierced the air, an answer to her prayers. Her nightmares.
Lily! Still sprinting, Delilah unsheathed the remaining daggers at her waist. She burst through an emerald thicket - and found Lily being held down, her ankles tied, her arms flailing as she tried to free herself from the men subduing her.
"Let me go!" she shouted.
"You brought war to our doorstep, girl. Now you're going back to our king whether you want to or not."
Tears streamed down her cheeks; she whimpered. "I just want to go home."
With a leap, Delilah was there. She elbowed one man in the temple, spun and kicked the other in the neck. Both crashed to the ground with dazed grunts. She didn't give them time to recover. Arms crossing, she tossed her remaining blades. They embedded in each target's chest. There was a gurgle, there was a howl, then both men slumped over, every beat of their hearts edging them closer to death.
"Lilah," Lily cried, removing the ties at her ankles. She scrambled up and threw herself into Delilah's waiting arms. The girl was shaking, sobbing, those warm tears still trickling down her cheeks.
Delilah remained on guard as she stroked a hand through the girl's silky hair. "I'm here now. Everything will be fine."
"I didn't mean...the blood...my fault..." Lily said between sobs. "I just wanted to be strong like you. Prove myself. Explore. When I stumbled upon the dragons, I decided to ambush them and bring home their claws as proof of my skill. I've been practicing on my own, but they wouldn't fight me back. Just took me to their home and locked me up so I'd stop trying to hurt them and they could figure out what to do with me. I'm sorry. So sorry. I just...I'm not a child."
"I know, sweet. I know." Anything to calm her. Even a lie. Lily was dissatisfied with her life? Before disappearing, Lily had offered nothing but smiles and laughter. She'd been a radiant glimmer of light among otherwise dark, violent warrioresses. She'd been doted on, coddled, and she'd seemed to soak up the attention.
"If someone dies because of me..."
"You know better." Delilah cupped her jaw and lifted until they were peering at each other. Watery green eyes stared up at her, branched with red, slightly swollen from her tears. "Your sisters will be fine. They are warriors to the core, and the fire-breathers will not defeat them." And what of the vampires?
Her pulse gave another of those strange flutters, the blood instantly heating in her veins.
Lily shuddered. "Promise?" she asked weakly, hopefully.
"Your need for a promise is insulting."
"I'm sorry. I would never insult you on purpose, but I'm also scared for the dragons. They didn't hurt me, were actually kind."
"That doesn't matter." Her voice hardened. "They should have let you go immediately. Instead, they kept you. Locked you up. Your mother has been wracked with worry."
"But - "
"If we are lenient in this matter, other races will think such treatment of you will be tolerated. We will be seen as weaklings, and we will find ourselves under constant attack. Therefore we must fight now to prevent worse conflicts later." The lesson had been beaten into her until it was as natural as breathing.
A sniffle, a nod.
"Now. It's my turn to extract a promise from you." As she spoke, she scanned the forest. So far, there had been no indication they were being watched or followed. That didn't mean they were completely safe, however.
Lily nibbled on her bottom lip but nodded.
Oh, this girl, Delilah thought with a sigh. Tomorrow, she was going to issue a request to the queen asking that Lily be trained for combat. She didn't want the girl fighting, but she did want her better able to protect herself. "Promise me that you will never leave our home without permission again."
"Promise," was the instant reply. No hesitation. "I've never been so frightened, Lilah. Men are not the frail, feeble beings I thought they were."
No, they weren't. The vampire...Delilah tightened her grip and tried to blank her mind. "If you break this promise, baby girl, dragons and vampires aren't the only thing you'll have to fear. Understand?"
Lily shuddered. "Yes."
"Then let's find the others and go home."
WHILE THE BATTLE CONTINUED to rage, Layel searched the clearing for the blue-haired warrioress but saw no sign of her. He was surprisingly disappointed, which was completely unacceptable. First desire, now a craving to see her?
Hopefully she had been slain. Yes, hopefully, he thought, though some hidden part of him screamed no. Better she die in battle than torment Layel's mind a second more. His thoughts belonged to Susan. Only Susan.
"I should have known you'd be nearby," a voice snapped behind him.
Layel rotated and found himself facing both Brand and Tagart. Finally. Oh, finally. They were still in human form, more vulnerable to attack. He grinned slowly, raising one arm and pointing, blood dripping from his hand. He'd abandoned his blades a while ago, preferring to make the kills more personal with nails and teeth. "You."
"Yes, me. It's time to end this, Layel," Brand said.
"Your friends tasted good," he said, wiping his mouth and knowing he smeared more crimson across his face. "But I think the two of you will taste better."
A black curtain of rage fell over Tagart's blood-splattered features. The warrior's stomach was sliced open and bleeding, but he didn't seem to notice. "Killing you is going to be a pleasure, vampire."
"A pity you think so, as you'll never be granted the opportunity to see it through."
A muscle ticked below Brand's eye. "You'll suffer for all you've done to our friends and all you plan to do to us, vampire. You know that, do you not?"
"I know nothing of the kind. It's because I suffer that I've done all I have to your friends. And, yes, I have loved every moment of this." Layel might have killed the dragons that raped and burned Susan, might have taken some of them to his dungeon and tortured them for weeks before delivering the final blow, but he didn't think he would ever tire of hurting their brothers by race.
Truly, he lived for one purpose: to wipe out their entire lineage.
"You invite war!" Brand snapped.
"Funny, I thought I had invited it two hundred years ago. Did you just now receive your invitation?"
"I did. And here's my acceptance." Tagart stalked several steps forward before Brand grabbed his arm, holding him still. The dark warrior looked ready to shake off his commander's grip and attack.
"Not yet," Brand said. Then he roared loud and long, morphing into his dragon visage. His clothing ripped away, floating to the ground, and green scales overtook his skin. A snout lengthened his face, claws stretched from his fingers and his teeth sharpened to dripping points. Wings sprouted from his back, gossamer and clear, deceptively innocent as they spread toward the trees. Tagart's transformation quickly followed.
"Come and get me, little hatchlings," Layel told them.
A spew of fire, then Brand and Tagart were flying toward him. Layel sprang at them, ready, so ready. "Susan!" he shouted. His war cry. A constant reminder of what had been taken from him, of what he fought for, of what he would die for.
Except he never reached the warriors.
Midway, Layel's entire world blackened and crumbled piece by piece into nothingness. Nothing around him, nothing in front of or behind him. The ground, his only solid anchor, opened up and swallowed him, his body suddenly careening down a long, dark void. Round and round he twirled. Grunting, he flailed for another anchor but discovered only capricious air.
Ignoring the panic sweeping through him, he forced his breathing to slow, his heart to cease its erratic patter. Transport. Now! He tried, but a moment passed and nothing happened; he continued to fall, his body a solid mass. Teeth grinding together, he spread his arms and attempted to fly. But the invisible chain tugged him down...down...down...never slowing, refusing to relinquish its hold on him.
Shock and rage joined the panic and sped through him with sickening intensity. He didn't know what was happening, didn't know how it was happening. Only that he could not stop it.
His hand slapped into something hard. A man, he realized. A man's chest. The male grappled for him, fingers clawing for purchase. Layel hissed, his arm soon ripped to shreds. Thankfully, he spun out of reach - and slammed into the softness of a woman's body. She gasped, the sound low, frightened. How many? he wondered, even as he hit - a horse? There was a whinny.
Someone screamed. Someone else whimpered. All the while they continued to plummet, no landing in sight.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FOREST, Delilah shoved Lily behind her back. Danger suddenly lurked nearby. She could sense it, almost smell it as a presence, a power, thickened the air.
"What's wrong?" Lily whispered, her terror palpable.
"Stay behind me." Delilah reclaimed the daggers she'd used to slay the dragons, her grip tight. Where are you? She scanned trees, leaves, shadows. There, to the right, something was rattling branches together. Her lids narrowed, eyes focusing, but she couldn't make out a form. Just -
A gasp tore from her lips as that something sprang into view, as clear as the air she breathed but thicker, like water. She had no time to react, no way to attack. Then it was there, right in front of her, consuming her, sucking her into a black hole.
"Lily!" she screamed, daggers ripping from her hands as she thrashed her arms, desperate for some type of security. She found nothing. Only air. The more she tumbled, the more wave after wave of dizziness assaulted her, slamming with enough force to double her over. Shouts, grunts and groans pierced her ears, as discordant as the bells that tolled when an Amazon died.
"Amazon," a familiar male voice called, rising above the chaos.
"Vampire?" Her heartbeat should not have calmed. The sweat just beginning to bead over her skin shouldn't have cooled, but it did. She shouldn't have been relieved, but she was. As she grappled for him - a touch, she only needed a touch - her head slammed into what must be a jagged rock and she grunted, thrown from the vampire by the force.
Stars winked over her eyes, the white lights thickening, expanding, becoming all that she saw. Somehow that light was more terrifying than the darkness, a ray of hope dashed in the cruelest way.
"Reach for me," the vampire commanded.
"Can't," she tried to say, but the word congealed in her throat.
In the end, she didn't have to reach for him. She hit another wall and flew forward. Their bodies collided, knocking the air right out of her lungs. Instantly the terrible white faded into welcome darkness. All of Delilah's muscles slackened and her head lolled against something hard. The vampire's fingers latched around her arm, hot and strong and more necessary than breathing. She wrapped herself around him, wanting to cling to him forever.
Take what you want. It's yours. The sixth commandment rang in her head. She knew beyond any doubt its Amazon creator had not meant snuggling against a male and placing her safety in his hands. Still she held on. Don't let me go, she thought before slipping into the oblivion.