Gray had done some crazy shit throughout his life, but this topped the list. After today, if anyone told him he didn't have balls of steel, they'd be wrong. Usually he enjoyed flying. He'd jumped out of planes, for God's sake. Hell, he'd levitated and flown himself into town.
Right now, as the wind soared through his hair and the crystal dome emitted a soft golden glow above, all he wanted to do was vomit. His only anchor against free-falling to his death was his kung fu grip on a dragon. An actual, fire-breathing dragon. Behind him, Jewel leaned her head against his shoulder, soaking up the experience like they were in first-class accommodations aboard the Concorde.
"There it is," she said, pointing straight ahead. "Darius's palace."
Sure enough, a huge crystal fortress loomed, a jagged and glistening monstrosity of uneven towers. All the colors of the rainbow guttered from the edges. Brand flew closer and closer to it, and a cold sweat broke over Gray's skin. There were no doors that he could see. No windows.
And the stupid dragon wasn't slowing down. Was, in fact, gliding his thin, nearly transparent wings faster. Someone should have told him the plan was to crash into the wall and bust it open.
"Jewel, hold tight to me. Get ready for impact."
But the top of the domed ceiling creaked open, quickly becoming wider. Sea water cascaded inside the palace. The dragons flew straight into the waterfall. Salty liquid rained on him, and he reached behind him and pulled Jewel's face into his back.
Moments later, the dragons glided softly to the wet, tilted floors, allowing the water to drain at the sides. Water dripping from him, Gray hurriedly hopped down and helped Jewel do the same. He would not admit having shaky limbs.
"Thank you." Her wet hair clung to her face and shoulders. Now that they were here, there was a sad gleam in her eyes and a melancholy layer in her voice. Was she thinking about the ruined temple? Not knowing what else to do, he kissed her lips.
She blinked up at him and slowly smiled. Damn if his chest didn't constrict. "What was that for?" she asked.
He turned his attention to the dragons. Because Jewel trusted them so completely, he was able to relax his guard more so than usual. And wasn't that ironic? He couldn't trust the human partners OBI sometimes stuck him with, but he could put his life in the hands of a fire-breathing beast. For the first time since entering Atlantis, he didn't feel chased or hunted. Or like the next item on the menu.
As he watched, the creatures' scales disappeared beneath their bronzed skin. Their elongated faces shrank, their tails and wings retracted under small slits of human skin, and they were once again completely human. Of course, they were also completely naked."Don't stare, Blaze, or I'll cover your eyes."
"This way," Brand said. Without waiting for their agreement, he and the others stalked from the room.
Side by side, he and Jewel followed them into a hallway. Sconces lined the walls, illuminating the glistening wealth. He didn't know what he expected of a dragon palace, but what he found wasn't it. Diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and rubies adorned the walls. Gold and silver provided the glue that held the gems together.
"My God," he muttered. So much wealth... He'd never seen its like.
Forcing himself to look away proved difficult, but he couldn't allow himself to be distracted. "If anything happens, get behind me. Okay?" He might trust the dragons in this room, but he didn't know what lay beyond these doors. Steadily he moved the knife from his waistband and tucked it under his shirtsleeve.
"I hope you remember being this protective in the morning."
The morning... when she would give him Dunamis? When she would give him herself? "You can count on it," he said, trying to assure her that no matter what she told him, he would not hurt her.
She bit her lip then opened her mouth to say something. She closed it with a snap. "I... like you, Gray."
That wasn't what she'd wanted to say. He would have preferred to hear "I love you" again, but those words would do for now. He really liked every damn thing about her. "I like you, too, sweetheart."
"Can you two not shut up for a few seconds?" Renard said on a sigh. "You are just like Darius and Grace. Sweetheart this and sweetheart that. We are sick to death of such nonsense."
"Where are you taking us?" Gray asked.
"To meet Darius," Jewel answered for the dragon.
Brand pivoted on his heel and approached the far right wall. For the first time, Gray noticed the medallion hanging at the warrior's neck. It was small and round and now emitted a slight blue glow. As if sensing its presence, two panels immediately opened.
"I spent two years here," Jewel said. "Javar was leader then. Darius was but a hatchling, learning the dictates of a Guardian."
"And a Guardian is... "
"A protector of this city. When humans try to enter, Guardians kill them."
"Darius doesn't do as much killing these days," Renard said. "Grace gets mad. So now he takes the traveler somewhere on the surface and clears his memory."
"I was not killed or redirected," Gray pointed out.
"Yes," Brand said. "And we are curious as to why. Darius has every intention of finding out."
They finished their walk down the wide, long hall in silence, leaving a trail of water. They turned a corner - and stepped into a dining room of utter decadence. A dragon-clawed table, ivory walls, ebony floors. A large bay window opened in back, overlooking the entire span of the city. His sister, Katie, restored homes and would have killed to own this room. Hooks lined one section of the wall, each dangling a piece of clothing.
A big warrior sat at the head of the table, a dainty redhead on his lap. She whispered something in his ear and the beast laughed. Even laughing, Gray had never seen a more imposing figure. A scar slashed from the man's left eye to his chin. He looked like he dined on small children for breakfast and glass shards for dessert.
"We bring news, Darius," Brand announced. He stopped in front of the still laughing male.
Color bloomed bright on the redhead's cheeks. She popped to her feet, giving Gray his first full look at her. Her hair curled around her shoulders and freckles adorned every inch of visible skin beneath her jeans and T-shirt.
He'd seen nothing but robes and togas for the past week, and the modern surface clothes shocked him.
Darius frowned, standing and skidding his chair behind him. "Dress first. Then tell me what you have learned." He braced his feet apart and locked his hands behind his back, prepared, awaiting bad news.
The warriors dressed, taking clothes from the hooks.
Unlike every other dragon Gray had seen so far, Darius did not have golden eyes. His were blue and swirled like a morning mist, as otherworldly as Layel's. As otherworldly as Jewel's. In fact, both Jewel and Darius possessed the same silky black hair. Gray's gaze shot from one to the other. Jewel had traits of the demons, vampires, and now dragons, yet she appeared human. What did that mean?
Renard straightened to attention. "Vampires and demons have joined forces. They were making their way here when they stopped in the Inner City to give chase to this human and - "
"Me." Jewel stepped around him. All eyes focused on her.
Because he felt a sudden rush of pride for her, Gray didn't try to push her behind him this time. She stood strong in the face of danger and accepted the consequences. Even though he hated doing nothing, he would not take that away from her. Especially when he sensed these men would not harm her.
His dad had raised him to believe women needed safeguarding, that they were weak and vulnerable without a man. His strong, capable sister, Katie, proved that theory wrong every day. Jewel, too. She sought to guard and defend his life, to place herself in danger in hopes of saving him.
"You escaped from Marina," Darius said. His voice was as hard and unbending as his expression. "I am unsure whether to trust you. Are you here at her bidding?"
A wave of hurt flickered in Jewel's eyes, but she quickly doused it and returned the dragon leader's frown. "No. Do you truly believe she would have let me leave for any reason? Even your downfall?"
Darius studied her and nodded. "You are right. I have many questions for you. The human, though - " "Is my only reason for coming with your men. If he leaves, so too do I."
The dragon growled low in his throat. "Very well, then. If he hurts, destroys or steals anything, I will personally see to his death."
"I'd like to see you try," Gray said without fear.
Unused to insubordination, Darius advanced toward him. Anger darkened his eyes.
The redhead stepped forward with a smile, blocking his path. Her smile seemed genuine despite the tension growing in the room. "I'm Grace, the big guy's wife. It's so nice to meet you."
As she stretched out her hand to shake Gray's, Darius growled, "Touching Grace is not permitted, human. You will keep your hands to yourself."
"Oh, hush up," she said without turning around. She and Gray shook. "I, for one, am glad to see another human."
Darius threw up his hands in exasperation. "You see your brother every day." She only smiled again. "Can you really consider Alex a human?"
Darius's lips pressed tight as he fought a grin of his own.
"Don't let Darius fool you," she told Gray. "He's nothing but a softie." Grace turned to Jewel. "We're so happy to have you here. I've heard so much about you. Why don't I show you to your rooms, and you can prepare for lunch. We'll all have a nice conversation after we've eaten."
Darius stalked to the petite woman's side. "I do not want you taking part in this. You - "
Grace turned her attention full force on her husband. She batted her lashes and curled her hands over his chest. "I seriously hope you're not trying to send me away because you'd be in a shitload of trouble."
The man melted, that was the only way to describe it. His expression softened and he reached out and brushed a red curl from Grace's temple. "Take them to their rooms, then. After lunch, we will question them together."
Grace planted a swift kiss on his lips before beaming up at Gray and Jewel. "As I was saying, I'll show you to your rooms."
"Room." Gray shifted to battle stance. No way was he going to be parted from Jewel. "Only one is needed."
She looked to Jewel for confirmation. Jewel nodded, her cheeks bright red with color.
The blue-green of Grace's eyes sparkled with knowing. "You can bathe, rest or... whatever, and we'll meet back here in one - "
"Two," Jewel said, looking down at her feet. Gray's lips twitched.