DELILAH FROZE. That voice...that power...In all her years, she'd never heard such a sound or felt such a presence. And yet, the shock of both failed to compare to the shock of having been face-to-face - body to body - with Layel, king of the vampires.

She had heard stories of the man's prowess, of course, of his dark nature, his unquenchable thirst for blood and power. Delicious qualities, indeed, and she couldn't help but desire all of his strength, all of his fervor, at her fingertips again. He was a warrior to the core and would not care what her sisters thought of him. He would fight for what he wanted, damn the consequences.

He was the kind of man she'd secretly wanted for years, the need solidifying every time she saw a couple, no matter their race, cooing over each other. The kind of man she'd once thought she'd had, only to lose because he hadn't desired more than a night. But unlike the other, Vorik, who, at the height of passion, had claimed he would crave her forever, Layel said he wanted nothing to do with her. Should she believe him? His heated glances suggested otherwise.

She almost wished she'd spent more time with the male species. But with the exception of her ill-fated assignation, her tribe only consorted with them twice a year - mating season - when men were stolen from their homes, reduced to slaves, their bodies used repeatedly. When the Amazons finished with them, they were sent on their way. Because Vorik had not been one of those slaves, Delilah had foolishly hoped that, after all his tender promises and heated caresses, her man would fight to stay with her. Or, at the very least, fight to take her with him.

Not even a backward glance, she mused darkly.

So many times since then she'd wondered why none of the men - not just hers - had ever asked for more. After all, not one slave had even put up a fight when he'd first realized his destination and purpose. In fact, they'd seemed overjoyed. Willing and eager. And even though they were slaves, they were treated well, sex available anytime they wanted it.

But apparently, though Amazons were fun for a time, they just weren't worthy of forever. Not that any other Amazon but her wanted forever. What's wrong with me? Though her virginity was long gone, thanks to Vorik, she couldn't even use the slaves casually, as the sexual vessels they were meant to be.

Since taking her lover, Delilah had never experienced the urge to give herself to another, only to toss him aside later - or be tossed aside herself, his old life more important than the new one he could build with her. But Layel...she desired him, she realized. Desired his tongue in her mouth, hot and insistent. Desired their sweat-soaked skin slipping and sliding together. Desired his body arching and straining over hers.

Foolish girl. She could desire such things, but she could never allow them. Already she wanted Layel too fiercely. How much more would she want him if she learned the reality of his touch? The true bliss? She would give herself to him, wholly and fully, yet he would walk away afterward. Once again, she would be forgotten. This time, though, she suspected she would not get over the loss. She'd been given a glimpse of the man behind the legend and she'd liked what she'd seen.

Someone stepped on her foot, drawing her from her troubling musings back to the equally troubling present. What in Hades was going on? Everyone was inching toward the beach.

"Reveal yourself," the dragon with the braids was saying to the invisible being, his arms splayed wide as he turned in a circle in front of her. "If you have the courage."

Someone gasped. Someone pointed.

Wonderful. Another surprise. Delilah followed the direction of that finger, and her eyes widened. There, above the water, the air had begun to crystallize and thicken. A force of good? Or evil? She settled one foot behind her, ready to leap and attack at a moment's notice. The other creatures did the same, she noticed, each of them preparing for battle.

Unfortunately, the only weapons to be had were their own bodies.

Even Layel had stopped to face the swirling being. His expression was intent, though untamed, feral and savage, and somehow banked with undeniable sensuality.

"Oh, I have the courage. But do you, dragon? Do any of you? Only time will tell." Wind billowed and wet droplets sprayed. "Citizens of Atlantis, welcome to Paradise, created for the gods yet happily relinquished to you, our faithful servants."

Paradise? Servants?

The voice came from the water, but the air never coagulated completely. Just remained thick and dappled in the shape of a human - large, probably male. Three mermaids - a blonde, a brunette and a redhead - swam around the misty form, cooing their admiration of his power and glory.

"Be not afraid," the being continued. "You have been chosen to participate in a monumental event. All we ask in return is that you show us your valor, strength and cunning, qualities you have amply displayed on the battlefields of your home." He paused, probably awaiting nods and murmurs of encouragement.

He got neither. The others were no doubt as perplexed as Delilah.

A rumble of irritation sounded from the water.

"Why did you bring us here?" she demanded before the being could speak again. So far, he had offered no answers, only more confusion.

"There's going to be trouble," one of the mermaids sang happily.

 

"You will not speak to me in that tone," the booming voice announced, the jelly-air rippling violently.

"And you can't just - " Delilah began.

"Silence!"

A stream of water slammed into her, hitting with so much force she dropped to her knees, gasping for breath. Her mouth filled, and she gurgled and choked. Even if you are dying, show no fear. The second commandment. She might have broken most of the commandments this day, but she wouldn't break that one.

Her gaze automatically sought Layel, the man who made her feel both protected and hated. His beautiful azure eyes were narrowed on her, his soft lips thinned. In displeasure? She hadn't seen him move, but he seemed closer to her than before. She forced her expression to remain neutral.

"Next time, Amazon, you will be buried in water," the being warned.

She didn't respond, even when the water spray ceased and she managed to suck air back into her lungs. As a warrioress, she had been trained in combat since the age of five. Every time she had failed at a lesson, she had been punished severely. A whipping most often, until her flesh was torn to ribbons. Sometimes a stoning. Sometimes a parade through camp, her faults shouted for all to hear.

She understood the need for such training, and didn't regret it. Her ancestors had been slaves to males of all races - just like the slaves they now took into their own camp those two months out of every year. Only their captivity had been eternal. Or had been meant for eternity. One day they'd risen up, attacked and escaped, determined never to suffer such a fate again. Determined no Amazon would. And so the commandments had been born.

Delilah bore both her internal and external scars proudly, for she had learned never to fail twice at the same thing. This god would not receive a second opportunity to best her.

"Impertinence will not be tolerated. We are Supreme Beings, your leaders, your creators. You will treat us with the respect we deserve, or you will suffer our wrath."

We. There was only one being here, yet he spoke of others. Were they all here, simply invisible? The thought didn't scare her; no, it infuriated her. An unseen, unknown enemy would be harder to defeat.

"Listen, all. You are our creations, meant for our amusement and protection, yet we have never made use of you. For too long, you were forgotten, our attention turned to the humans. But no longer must you endure our neglect. You have been remembered and now you shall know our favor."

The voice paused again, as if everyone should exclaim with joy that they'd been remembered. When no one did, there was another irritated grumble.

"Our greatest wish is to learn all about you. For weeks we have been watching you, studying, wondering who among you is the strongest. Those touched by Apollo's flame? Those gifted with Aphrodite's beauty? Those with Ares's thirst for war? And that is how you came to be here on this island, for after careful consideration, we plucked the most courageous, the most feared from the masses." Once more the wind blustered. "Faithful servants, it is time you put an end to our wondering, once and for all."

Delilah almost groaned. She could guess what the god - for what else could the force be but a god? - would say next. They were going to force the creatures here to fight one another. While she didn't mind fighting, she didn't like being jerked from her home, from Lily to -

Lily.

Damn this! What had happened to the girl after Delilah had disappeared? Had she made it home safely? Had she been captured again? Hurt? Delilah's hands curled into fists, itching to pound something. Someone. The tenth and most important commandment was to always protect the queen and her family. Had she left Lily at the mercy of the dragons?

"This will not be an easy undertaking, nor will it be swift. Not for you, and not for us. Time is required to sift through sand and find the gold. That is why you will remain on this island," the being continued, "where you will be divided into two teams. Every few days you will be tested, challenged, our way of dusting the sand from the gold. It will be up to you to prove your mettle and show us we were right to return to Atlantis."

"Every few days" would translate into weeks, if not months. Her nails dug crescents into her palm. What did I do to deserve this? Courage should be rewarded, not punished.

"Before you proclaim your joy at this great honor we have bestowed upon you, you should know that we conferred many days before bringing you here, one truth very clear to us all - the weak should feel the sting of our disappointment." There was another pause, laden with tension. "That is why the losing team will counsel with us. And why one member will be chosen...for execution."

Shocked gasps circled the beach. Delilah's jaw almost hit the ground. Executed? For losing a silly challenge? She could understand a beating - what Amazon wouldn't - but death? Does it matter? You will win by whatever means necessary.

"We have no doubt that all of you will try your best. But in the end, there can be only one winner."

"My lord," Brand said, stepping forward. "We - "

"For now," the god interjected, cutting the dragon off, "take this day for yourselves. You will find the elements no longer pain you." That seemed to be addressed directly to Layel and the other vampire. Had they been hurt? "Restore your vigor, build what weapons you think you need to aid you in your path to victory. I prevented you from killing each other when you first awoke, but I won't intervene any longer. Just know that to destroy another creature could very well be to destroy your own team - and so could bring you one step closer to facing execution. Welcome to Paradise, Atlanteans. Let the games begin."

The thickened air began to break apart, thinning to raindrops...then mist. But that soon dissipated, as well, curling toward the brightening blue overhead. A blue as clear and fathomless as Layel's eyes.

All three mermaids disappeared below the water's surface. A second later, their iridescent tails lifted and wiggled. Then those, too, vanished. Still, no one on the beach spoke.

Perhaps, like Delilah, they were shaken to the core, throats unworkable.

Nola was the first to move. She crossed the distance, grabbed Delilah's arm without slowing and tugged her into the surrounding palms. When they were far enough away that the others would not hear them, the warrioress stopped and whirled. "What are we going to do? Who was that?"

"I don't know." She massaged the back of her neck, hating the situation more with every second that passed. "I just don't know. Poseidon most likely, for he is the water god." She'd never interacted with a god before and hadn't ever thought to do so. As the being had said, the heavenly sovereigns had not bothered the citizens of Atlantis for thousands of years - and that had been just fine.

"The voice kept saying we," Delilah continued. "Others are involved."

"Did he? I didn't notice. All I could think about was the fact that I was looking at a creature comprised solely of water who wanted me to prove myself or die." Nola shook her head, dark hair flying in every direction. "We have never been friends, Delilah, but you are the only person I trust in this so-called Paradise. What if we are separated? Placed on opposing teams? Our first commandment is to always aid a sister in need. How can I aid you if we are suddenly enemies?"

"Nola, I'm just as confused as you are." Nothing like this had ever happened to her before. Most days were the same. Wake up, train for war, eat, train for war, sleep. Repeat. The only difference was usually going to war, something they did at least twice a year, whether provoked or not, to prove their continued strength. "Let me think for a moment."

Back and forth she paced, the trees blurring. Of the two of them, Nola was younger, less experienced. That meant the responsibility of keeping the girl alive fell on Delilah's shoulders. "We cannot leave, that much we know. And if we cannot leave, that means we must compete in the god's silly games or be killed." If they were forced to compete against each other, Delilah knew she would not be able to hurt Nola. Even if it meant dying herself.

She had been raised to protect her sisters, no matter what. That was her purpose, her privilege. A game was not going to change that.

Win by whatever means necessary, she'd thought only a few moments ago. Now she snorted. "We may not be separated, so let's not worry about that just yet. Right now we're going to gather all the sticks we can carry, as well as every sharp rock that we see. I want us prepared for battle by nightfall. Just in case."

Nola gave a stiff nod, but she didn't move off immediately. "Tell me we'll return home soon. Tell me, and I'll believe it." The vulnerability glowing from her expression was surprising.

"We'll return home," she replied without hesitation. Defeat was not something Delilah allowed. Ever. What about Layel? He shoved you down, could have hurt you and you wouldn't have been able to stop him. "You have my word," she forced past the sudden lump in her throat, her blood churning into liquid lightning. Damn that man, and damn the heavens! "Go. Before everyone else decides to make weapons, as well, and there's nothing left for us."

ENVELOPED BY SHADE, Layel had watched as each pair of creatures disappeared into the trees. To talk, he was sure. To plan. To arm themselves. At the moment, he was too furious to move. He'd been taken from his people and his war for the amusement of the gods. Intolerable!

"I will not stand for this," Zane snapped at his side.

"Nor I."

Zane blinked at him in surprise, as if he had expected Layel to chastise him rather than agree. "What can we do?"

"We can kill every creature the god brought to the island. That way, there are no players for his sadistic game and we can return home."

"What of the nymphs you so favor?"

A sigh slipped from him. "They are our friends. They live."

"What of the Amazons?"

Layel closed his eyes for a moment, drew in a shuddering breath. He'd thought to kill Delilah earlier, but had failed. Mistake. Now there was another reason to do so. A reason not so easily discarded. "They will not be so fortunate."

A slow smile spread across Zane's pale face. "The gods will regret bringing us here."

"Yes." A warm breeze slid against what little skin Layel had bared - the skin on his face, as well as a patch on his arm where one of the dragons had burned away his shirt. While he smelled salt and dew, flower blossoms, fruit and aroused female - damn, but he wanted to banish that scent! - this island lacked the scent of enchantment that Atlantis possessed.

In Atlantis, he could wander the halls of his palace, imagining Susan at his side, laughing up at him, green eyes sparkling. Here, he seemed to imagine nothing but the little Amazon. Even now, all he could picture was that blue hair fisted in his hands, that exotic face staring up at him in passion and need, those eyes hot, legs spread, feminine core wet and glistening, his tongue tracing those tattoos.

He craved her blood in his mouth.

His fangs sharpened, ready...so ready...

He would kill her first, he decided, hands compressing into fists. His nails were once again elongated into claws. They cut past skin and into the meat of his hands until warmth trickled and pooled in the creases of his fingers. Why are you so upset? Why are you hurting yourself? Any more blood loss and you'll weaken. As the god said, you need your strength.

"We'll wait for darkness to fall," he told Zane, the words emerging on another of those broken sighs. Why the reluctance to see his plan through? He didn't care about the Amazon. He hated her. Yes, hated. With nearly the same intensity he hated the dragons. "Then we'll attack them, one by one."

Delilah has done nothing wrong, his mind protested. She does not deserve death at your hands.

Logically, he knew that to be true. Yet logic meant nothing to him just then. He had to get that woman out of his head. She didn't belong there and was disrupting the only sense of peace he knew. A peace he desperately needed, for any distraction could allow the dragons to best him.

This time, when she was within reach, he would not look at her, would not smell her sweet fragrance. He would simply act. "Come, we need distance from the gods," he said, leading his charge deeper into the forest, not stopping until they reached a riverbank.

Zane bent down, palmed a stone and tossed it into the pristine water. "I wonder what happened to our brethren after we were taken."

"If they assume we are dead and crown a new king, I will kill them all."

Zane snorted in amusement, as Layel had meant for him to do. He valued his people; they were his greatest weapon against his enemy. And though he had been teasing, knowing well how loyal his men were, he would not tolerate a new king. It was funny, really, since he'd once abhorred his crown. "If they are the warriors I trained them to be," he continued, "they finished slaughtering the dragons and are now celebrating the victory and planning a search for us."

"A celebration we are missing." A dark glaze spread over Zane's eyes, making the irises as black as onyx. He grabbed and threw another stone. "I hate this place. The demons here..."

"Are yours." When Layel had stormed the demon queen's palace to pilfer her treasury after he'd killed her, he'd found Zane waiting in her bed, naked and oiled so that he would be ready for her pleasure. Clearly he hadn't been forced by physical means to remain there, but his relief at her death had been palpable.

Layel didn't know why he'd been there, seemingly willing; he only knew the warrior's hate was as great as his own.

Zane's wide shoulders relaxed slightly. Until both men caught a glimpse of blue hair several feet away. The owner of that hair never came into sight, limbs and shrubs hiding her as she searched for...weapons? A place to stay? No, his first supposition was right, he mused, his traitorous heart speeding up. He would stake his life on it. Did she know he was nearby? Probably.

"What of the little Amazon you nearly ate?" Zane whispered fiercely. "I would like to finish her, as well."

Layel experienced a spark of anger. "She is mine. I will take care of her."

"That, I know. But do you plan to bed her or kill her? You looked ready to do both when she straddled your chest."

"What do you think?" he asked, because he did not wish to lie to a fellow vampire.

"I told you. I think you would like to do both."

"And I think you are in danger of unleashing my wrath." Truth.

"Nothing new there." Unconcerned, Zane tossed another stone. Plop, plop. "Perhaps you can do both."

Surely that had not been wistfulness seeping from his tone. "No." Layel ran his tongue over his teeth. One of his fangs stabbed into the sensitive organ, the resulting bead of blood reminding him that he'd gorged himself earlier, while battling the dragons, yet that hadn't stopped his cravings for Delilah. "No," he repeated for his own benefit. "Too cruel." For Delilah and himself.

"Have you ever tasted an Amazon?"

"No." Every race possessed a unique flavor. The dragons - sulfur. The demons - rot. Centaurs - sweet, almost like honeyed hay. Minotaurs - strong, tangy. Nymphs - ambrosia. But Amazons? What would they - she - taste like?

You will never find out, he vowed. He would die before he placed any part of himself inside that woman. It was time to change the subject. "Come. Time grows short. We'll make spears, daggers and arrows."

"And which do you plan to use on the girl?"

"My bare hands," he said. Even as he spoke, he longed to use his hands in a different way. For pleasure, not pain. Satisfaction, not death. Neither of which he would allow. The fact that he still wished to do such a thing told him beyond any doubt he needed to rid himself of her, just as he'd planned.

Zane gave another of those eerie smiles. "Until nightfall, then."

Layel nodded grimly.