Layel stood at the edge of the forest overlooking the former dragon king's palace. Javar no longer lived, of course, killed by Layel's own hand. He'd relished killing the man, he had to admit. The bastard had been cold and unemotional and should have had more control over his men. If he had, perhaps Susan would still be alive.
A cool breeze wafted past him as he continued to stare at the palace, blocking out the sounds of the armies behind him. Crystal beams stretched to the golden skyline, casting rainbow shards in every direction. The mocking beauty of this place always amazed him.
Some of the most horrendous crimes against Atlantis had been committed in this lush glen, juxtaposing the beauty against the horror.
Humans sacrificed, battles waged until blood ran like a deadly river. Women and children stolen. He'd played a part in it, all of it, and he did not feel guilty. The women and children were now slaves, but they were well cared for. The humans he'd killed had been evil, a means to an end. The dragons he'd fought had thought nothing of raping an innocent female, so they had deserved what they got.
Unlike other races where only one ruled, there had always been two dragon kings. One to guard and protect each side of Atlantis. When Javar died, only Darius remained, and the stupid man had yet to crown another. Yes, he'd sent soldiers here to guard but without a true sovereign in residence, the palace was left vulnerable.
Right now, warriors stalked the parapet of the palace, guarding, watching all that happened below them. With his extraordinary vision, Layel saw them as clearly as if they were pacing directly in front of him. Twelve armored men, perfectly muscled, perfectly bronzed. But they did not possess the telltale golden eyes of the dragons.
His brow quirked to his hairline, and he began to notice another odd detail. Usually dragons flew overhead at all hours. Today, this moment, there was no sky guard. Only a soft, amber glow from the crystal.
Everything was falling smoothly into place. He grinned slowly.
Weeks ago, Layel had casually mentioned to the nymph king that Javar's palace was without a leader, that Darius had left an army of hatchlings in charge. Valerian must have immediately gathered his forces and ambushed the palace, claiming it as his own. For it was the nymphs who walked the parapet this dawning, their bodies bronzed and muscled to perfection, their hair as silky as satin, their faces so luminous they glowed brighter than the dome above.
Word of this victory had yet to spread, for not even he had known. Satisfaction filled him, then dimmed with a single thought. The female slave stolen from Marina probably knew. She knew everything. He himself had owned her for a brief time, so he knew her abilities very well.
Would the slave tell anyone of this? Would she reveal his own plans? Would she come here?
No, he decided in the next instant. If she told anyone, she would have to reveal exactly who and what she was, and she would be taken prisoner, a circumstance she would avoid at all cost. She would shun the nymphs just as she shunned the demons. They were a powerfully sensual race, dangerously erotic, and they enthralled everything female. Enslaved them body and soul, until all a woman thought about, all she craved, was her nymph.
Layel's plans were not in jeopardy.
His smug gaze strayed to Marina. The queen would never be allowed inside the palace - and thanks to the nymphs, he didn't have to prowl his mind for a reason they should not enter. He'd led the bitch here under false pretenses, buying time.
No matter what happened, no matter what he had to do, he would make sure Marina never claimed the slave girl again. Too much was at stake.
As if his thoughts had summoned her, the demon bitch rode her horse to his side, its hooves pounding into the ground. She'd stolen the beast from a Gorgon village - after she'd eaten its master. The animal ground to a halt.
Marina's thin, sheer wings flapped behind her like a gossamer cloak, the only elegant part of her hideous, horned body. "Those men do not look like dragons, they look like nymphs. Nymph warriors." Her eyesight was as good as his own, if not better.
"That they do," he said, trying not to allow himself another smile. "They must have fought the dragons and taken possession. Do you think they heard about the portals and want them for themselves?"
She gasped. "That's exactly why they're here. I'd stake my life on it." He'd stake her life on it, too. Happily.
"How dare they?" she screeched. "The portals are mine. Mine!"
"Keep your voice down." Not that he cared, but he had to act the part of concerned friend. "You know how sensitive their hearing is. And don't you mean ours?"
"What if they now have my slave, as well as control of the portal?" Panic crested her voice to a high, deafening pitch. "You said she would come here, that the human would need the portal to return home."
"They do not have the girl. Otherwise, a thousand warriors would have been waiting for us here."
"You're right" She loosed her viselike hold on me reins, an air of superiority forming around her. "I don't care who is inside that palace. We ride. If they try to keep the portal for themselves, I'll kill them. And their children."
Before he could utter another word, she leapt into action, and Layel was forced to follow. "Forward," he called, and their armies sprang into a ran. His vampires could move faster than the blink of an eye, but they kept a steady pace beside the demons. They knew him well and would not fly into full attack without his express permission.
Both demons and vampires sprinted through the open field, headed toward the towering double doors. This was foolish, he knew it was, but if nothing else, it would prove entertaining. Marina would never get inside, and he would enjoy watching the nymphs shove her from her exalted pedestal.
An arrow suddenly rent the sky and landed at their feet.
Marina's horse reared up, tumbling her backward before she could right herself with her wings. She hissed as she hit the ground, thumping and rolling. Layel laughed heartily with genuine amusement Something he hadn't done in years. Ah, yes, this would definitely be a day to relish.
Marina jolted to her feet, scowling at him and everyone around who dared laugh. "That animal is - is - " "A true hero of war?" Layel asked.
"Stay where you are," a nymph called. "You are not welcome here."
Layel recognized that voice. Valerian, King of the nymphs. He gave the king his full attention, Marina forgotten at his side. His eyes searched until found the king on the highest ledge of the palace. Golden hair framed a wickedly mesmerizing face. Perfectly tanned skin, perfectly chiseled features. Lush, pink lips and long, fringed lashes. Eyes so blue-green they were as deep and fathomless as the ocean above them.
Valerian's features should have made him appear feminine. For some reason, his physical perfection made him all the more masculine, all the more harsh. All the more desired by women.
"Is that how you welcome an old friend? With arrows?"
"You know you are welcome to enter, Layel. The demon, however, must remain outside the walls."
"Alas," Layel called. "Where she is, there must I be, as well. Why do you not join us? We both wish to speak with you."
"Trust a demon enough to enter its midst? I think not." His laugh echoed across the distance, rich and husky, a caress even Layel felt. That was the way of the nymphs. With their voices, with their bodies, with their every glance, they radiated sensuality. "Why have you joined with one such as her?"
He couldn't announce his true reason, and he wouldn't lie to the only man he'd considered friend over the years. Though he knew Valerian would refuse and was glad for it - Layel didn't want him involved any more than necessary - he ignored the question and said, "We wish only to speak with you. You have my word you will leave exactly as you enter."
"I wish to fight you, coward." Marina bandied a claw through the air. She climbed back on her horse. "Bring your army down if you dare."
"Are you sure you can control her?" Valerian said, grinning. "She seems quite determined to place me on her dinner menu."
"Are you afraid?" she spat. "You must be. I plan to cut out your tongue and eat it in front of you." Layel rolled his eyes. When would the woman learn such words and actions would get her killed?
His ears suddenly perked as he picked up the sound of Marina's soldiers readying their weapons for attack. Eyes slitting, he flicked his second-in-command a glance, motioning to the demons with a tilt of his chin. No words were necessary; his man understood what he wanted. If a demon made a single move toward the palace, it would be killed.
"Cut out her tongue if you must, Layel," Valerian said, "but shut her up. I'm tempted to come down if only to humble her. As if a female would ever be able to attack me." He chuckled. "The idea of such an occurrence is ridiculous."
"If you want my tongue, come down here and get it." Valerian's golden brows arched.
"Not another word from you," Layel bit out, hand shooting up and latching onto Marina's thigh. If he hadn't needed her so much, if there had been any other way to defeat Darius, he would have killed her here and now.
Later, he comforted himself.
"His every breath insults me," she whispered fiercely. She squirmed against his hold. "He's taunting us."
"Obviously you've never been in the presence of a nymph before. If you go to him or if he comes to you, you will gladly become his slave. You will beg to remain at his side; you will want nothing else in your life but to please him. The nymphs cannot help it. Their very presence causes women to become enslaved to them."
Horror darkened her expression, and her gaze whipped to him. "If you knew that, why the hell did you invite him down here in the first place?"
"I knew he would refuse the invitation. I also knew it would open our lines of communication."
"Why are you here?" Valeran said on a sigh, cutting into their conversation. "See," Layel muttered. "Now we are communicating."
Marina opened her mouth to reply, but Layel silenced her by strengthening his hold on her thigh. Painfully. Her lips pursed.
"We thought to take the palace, but as you arrived first we will leave it to you. However, now that we are here, I wish to inquire about a human man." As he spoke, hundreds of nymphs lined up beside their king, showing their great numbers. They were all tall and strong with a beauty that surpassed that of any other creature or object. Such exquisite magnificence hurt his eyes, nearly forcing him to shield them.
"Did you also come hoping to find the Jewel of Dunamis?"
Layel shrugged. Valerian knew him very well.
"It's mine," Marina screeched. "Do not think you can keep it for yourself."
"I think I'll do whatever I wish," Valerian said, his sensual timbre laced with amusement.
Marina's hands tightened on her horse's reins, and her green scales drained of color. "Let's destroy him," she whispered. "Let's send these creatures to Hades."
Stupid woman. "We do not have the time nor the resources to war with both the nymphs and the dragons. You may take comfort in the fact that once Darius is defeated, we can do what we will with the nymphs." Not that he'd allow her to attack Valerian, or even mat she'd still be alive at that point.
"I do not want to wait."
"But you will." He cast a glance at the armies behind him. His vampires stood completely still, halving their attention between the demons and him, not paying heed to the spectacle above. They awaited his signal.
The demons, however, continued to shift restlessly on their feet, licking their lips in hungry anticipation. That was the difference between trained warriors and slovenly idiots.
"You know the dragons will attack you for taking this palace," Layel told his friend.
"Of course. We look forward to their visit. If you've disposed of the demon by that time, you may come and aid us." Valerian spoke as calmly as if they were discussing the weather, not a prophecy of war and death. "Now, if you have nothing more to say - "
"Have you seen the human and the girl?" Layel called for Marina's benefit. "They have not passed through this land today or any day we have been here."
"You're lying," Marina hissed, and Layel saw her claws elongate, preparing to attack. "We'll fight our way inside, if we must, and see for ourselves."
Valerian shook his head. "I bid you goodbye, Layel."
"The portal." Her features were desperate as she turned her attention to Layel. "What of the portal? We cannot leave it in that bastard's care."
Hearing her, Valerian's beautiful face drained of all emotion, all amusement. His perfect lips lifted in a slight scowl. "You can, and you will," he said, his tone dangerous, menacing.
She gasped. "So, there is one inside? You've seen it?" "That is none of your concern."
"All this time." Her snakelike tongue flicked out and moistened her lips. "The portals existed, and I had no idea. Javar's palace - "
"This is Valerian's palace now," the nymph king snapped. "Best you learn the name and use it." "Javar's palace," she continued with a sneer, "Javar's, Javar's, Javar's."
"If the armies come any closer, kill them," Valerian shouted to his men. "All of them."
Layel knew the king, slow to rage, would not hesitate to slaughter them all now that he'd been provoked. Their friendship was the only reason Marina still lived.
"We have the information we need," he told her.
"Let us leave. We will head toward Darius's palace. We must pass through the Inner City to get there and will search for the couple on our way."
"No, we can take Valerian. We can slay him."
"I have already explained to you why we will not."
He spun around and stalked away from her, before he killed her now, all he'd worked for forgotten. She was forced to follow or die. "I hate Darius. I will help you kill him. But I will not hurt Valerian."
She decided to follow. Her horse whined as she turned it around, and she was soon at Layel's side. "And if the human and the girl are not found? What will we do then, mighty vampire king?"
"We will fight Darius as planned."
"Fight him without the slave at my side?"
"You were perfectly willing to fight Valerian without the slave."
"He is a nymph. He knows how to fuck, nothing more."
Layel stopped and glared up at her. Her green scales were vivid and disgusting in the light. Puffs of smoke and sulfur constantly curled out her nose. "Have you just arrived in Atlantis, woman? Is that why you know nothing of the creatures here?"
"He could be harboring my slave inside those walls."
"He is not." Layel kicked back into morion.
"Valerian is many things, but he is not a liar."
"How do you know?" she demanded, keeping pace beside him. "Why do you like him so?"
Their armies followed behind them, and they soon reentered the forest. Limbs stretched long fingers toward them, and twigs snapped under his feet. "If he had her, he would have paraded her across the parapet, showing her to us and laughing. The man has a twisted sense of humor."
"We wasted our time coming here." An irritated statement, not a question.
"We learned the human and the slave have not left Atlantis. They have not passed through a portal, so they are here, waiting to be found and captured."
Slowly she smiled.