That was only the beginning.
The warning echoed through Gray's mind, ominous and dark. A malevolent tempest gusting straight toward him. He forgot his need to question the woman, to know her name and her true reasons for helping him.
"What do you mean that was only the beginning?"
Danger still lurks here. You need to reach the safety of the streets. "What kind of danger?"
Other demons are nearby, vampires, too. Once they learn of their friend's death, you will once more be a hunted man.
His inner child perked up immediately, thinking: all right, I get to blow more stuff up. His adult self groaned in protest, suddenly too fatigued and too sore to play anymore, wanting only to take his toys and go home.
"This jungle is a real who's who of Atlantean crap, you know that?" As he'd feared, his adrenaline rush was quickly dissipating, the explosions and heat taking their toll. He needed to find a safe place to crash.
For some dumb-ass reason, though, he didn't want the woman to know how winded he was. He wanted her to think of him as strong and invincible. So he kept his breathing slow and even, kept his shoulders straight and his expression firm.
"Can you get me out of this jungle?" His fingers flexed around the machete's hilt. North Head north.
His feet heavy, he plodded through the ash, rocks and twigs until he came to a grove of white trees. They swayed like ghosts. He didn't recall seeing them before. He plucked one of the white leaves, the woman's sexy voice leading him past them. Soon he found a pair of footprints and realized someone else had once taken this same path.
Those are your footprints. "No way," he said in disbelief. Take a look.
He bent down and studied the dirt etchings. Sure enough. They matched his size and shoe type. He scowled. He'd been here before, but he'd obviously gone the wrong way. "How close is this to the exit?"
You'll see, she laughed.
He emerged five minutes later.
Gray cursed under his breath. He stood at the edge of a cobbled path, winding away from the forest. So
simple. So easy. The darkness was growing thicker, but without the density of trees hovering around the road, ribbons of the crystal dome's soft golden glow slipped free.
Frowning, he released his grip on the machete and fisted his hands at his side. It had only taken him three miserable days, three explosions and a goddamn Invisible Woman to get out.
"I could have found it on my own," he mumbled for pride's sake.
The woman laughed again, a sound so lush and sexual his body instantly responded. Most likely she could have cursed him to everlasting hell and he would have lusted after her. Would have hardened for her, ached to touch her. She sounded that sexy.
He didn't like how quickly and easily she affected him. Wasn't used to it, in fact. As much as he loved and treasured women, as much as he enjoyed savoring and pampering them, they always came to him, had to work to gain his interest. He'd never responded so potently to a specific one; there were just too many to choose from.
The only way you would have made it out of that jungle without me, was if your dead body had been dragged out between that demon's teeth.
"Smart-ass," he said, but he found himself grinning.
The creatures never would have found you if you hadn't doused yourself in insect repellant. "You're kidding me? That repellent is supposed to be scentless."
For insects, perhaps.
He lost all remnants of his grin. If the label had said one word, one freaking word about attracting demons and vampires, he never would have used it. Disgusted, Gray stopped and sipped from his canteen, the coolness of the water soothing his ashy throat.
"Where do I go from here? I need a hot meal - " the energy bar in his bag wouldn't cut it this time " - a bath and a soft bed." A willing woman wouldn't be amiss, either. Preferably the one eavesdropping on his thoughts.
She cleared her throat. Yes, well, just follow this path.
He chuckled and jolted into motion. Perhaps it was folly on his part to trust her so completely, but trust her he did. She'd saved his life. Twice now.
Maybe that was part of a diabolical plan, but he just didn't care. At the moment, she could have lead him straight into a human stew pot and he would have willingly gone.
His boot struck a cluster of pebbles, skidding them forward and tripping him. He righted and rubbed the wound on his thigh. Every action increased the pain there.
You need to clean that, as well as the one on your neck.
"As soon as I find shelter, I'll use the first aid kit in my bag." Not that the antibacterial ointment would do any good. He'd been using it for two days to no avail.
You received these wounds yesterday, yes? From the vampire?
And they've only grown worse? That is not good. Not good at all.
He caught the underlying foreboding in her tone. "Do I need to worry about morphing into a bloodthirsty phantom of the night?"
His dry tone raised her hackles. You should not joke about something so serious. Did the demon bite or scratch you today?
"Are you kidding? The bastard barely got near me."
She sighed. Neither of us has reason to worm, then, For now. Besides your monstrous ego, you should be fine.
He was tired, though. God, was he tired. He hadn't lied. He needed food and a bed as soon as possible or his legs were going to give out on him. The bath and the woman were optional at this point.
A cool wind wafted past him, gentle and welcome, offering a bit of comfort to his stiff muscles. Darkness was reaching the point of total black, like a tomb, where he wouldn't be able to see a damn thing.
Down the road, he noticed a slash of white against the shadows. After a moment, he realized that slash was actually a person, slowly padding in the same direction he himself traveled, just twenty paces ahead of him. Gray tensed and reached for his gun, never slowing his gait. He had two bullets left in the clip.
He'd only need one.
You may rest easy, Gray. The nymph will not bother you.
"Nymph?" He paused briefly, the word dancing through his mind. "An actual nymph? As in a female with such a high sexual drive, she leaves her partner in a coma of pleasure?"
Will you get serious?
"I am serious. Do you know her? Can you introduce us?"
She growled low in her throat. For your information, the surface legends are wrong. Most nymphs are males.
Male? "No way."
Look closely and see for yourself.
He did, his gaze probing deeply into the creature's back, taking in the small details. Broad shoulders. A masculine gait. Large, booted feet peeked out from the robe's hem.
A shudder raked Gray, and all thoughts of pleasurable comas vanished. "That man needs to die simply for ruining my fantasy."
He will not be as easy to kill as the demon. Nymphs are the greatest warriors in the land, stronger even than dragons, though they never strike first. As long as you leave him alone, you'll both walk away unscathed.
"I'll remember that." The closer Gray came to the nymph, the taller he realized the creature was. Taller than him, actually. An amazing feat considering Gray stood at six-five and usually towered over everyone he encountered. Keeping his weapon ready just in case, Gray maintained a wide berth as he passed.
The imposing white-robed male grimaced, glanced over at him, and waved a hand in front of his surprisingly feminine and starkly beautiful face. He barked something in a deep, guttural language.
"What did he say?" Gray asked as soon as he was a safe distance away. That you reek of ash and death.
"Well, aren't I the special little boy today." Nearly eaten alive, then aromatically insulted. He sniffed himself, and his lips pursed. Okay, so he did smell a little.
He delved deeper into the shadows, listening for telltale signs of footsteps or the cock of a weapon. As his mind-companion predicted, the nymph left him alone.
Only when he'd gone a mile further, however, did he relax his guard. He breathed deeply and let his gaze wander. The beauty here amazed him. Dew sparked like diamonds atop the brilliant green foliage. The whisper of waves created a melodic rhythm, and the scent of pineapple and coconut fragranced the air. Throw in a La-Z-Bpy recliner, a fridge loaded with ice-cold beer, and a dozen dancing hula girls - naked of course - and he'd be in heaven.
Can yon think of nothing besides women and sex?
"Sure I can," He jumped over a pile of rocks, never breaking stride. "Why don't you take off all your clothes and tell me who you are and why you're helping me."
At first her only reaction was a gasp, and he would have given anything to see her expression. To see her . He suspected she was blushing. Would her blush color only her cheeks, or would it spread, delving further, along her collarbone... her breasts?
He swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat.
We can discuss that later, she finally said.
"You keep saying that, and to be honest, I'm sick of hearing it. I don't even know your name." Silence.
"A name is such a simple thing. Surely you can tell me yours."
"Yes, you can. Open your mouth and let sound come out. Try it, you might like it."
No, I truly cannot tell you. Because, well... because I don't have one, she admitted reluctantly, shamefully.
His brow furrowed. Not have a name? Everyone and everything had a name. Was she lying, perhaps? No, he decided in the next instant. Her shame was too real. Which left the question: why didn't she have a name?
Instead of pressing for more details, he said, "Why don't I call you Babe? It's short, easy, and perfect for you."
I am not an infant, she said, clearly offended. "In your case, the word means hot and sexy."
ok ohhh. He imagined her smiling dreamily. Still, I think I prefer something less suggestive. You may call me... Jane Doe.
"Now it's my turn to nix." He chuckled. "I'm not calling you by a name I use for dead female bodies I can't identify."
She sighed, will you call me Jewel?
He experienced a jolt of surprise that she had picked that name, since it was the whole reason he was here. Is that why she chose it? he wondered suspiciously. "Jewel it is, then." He rolled the name across his tongue, savoring its taste. He hadn't seen her face, but anyone with such a flat-out sexy voice deserved a flat-out sexy name, and Jewel fit the bill.
He skirted around a pile of rocks. "Why did you help me, Jewel?"
She exhaled slowly, and the breathy trickle caressed his nerve endings, tickling like the tip of a feather. I need your help. She sounded defensive. Unsure.
"Help doing what?"
Saving me. I've been imprisoned again and I -
"Again?" He stopped and his backpack slammed into his spine. "What the hell for?"
For being me. I believe you surface dwellers would say everyone wants a piece of me.
The scolding edge in her voice made him laugh, and he jolted back into motion. "I'd like to help you, babe, but I'm kind of pressed for time."
I know. Bitterness hardened her tone. You're after the Jewel of Dunamis.
The moment she spoke, the muscles in his shoulder tensed. Oh, he wasn't surprised she knew - she could read his thoughts, after all. But hearing her say the words... He didn't want to have to find her and silence her (permanently) because she knew something she wasn't supposed to. Could tell someone she wasn't supposed to.
He drew in a breath and slowly released it. "What I'm doing here isn't relevant to you."
I can take you to the jewel, Gray. That's why I picked the name Jewel for myself. I am the only one who can lead you to it.
"Please. I can find anything, anywhere. That's why my boss chose me for this mission. Besides that, I work alone." He enunciated each word, wanting no misunderstanding of his refusal. "Always."
Still she persisted. You'll never find it without me. This I swear to you,.
He shook his head and his bandana fell askew. He shoved the material back into place. "This little baby says I can," he said, patting the GPS system he'd hooked to his belt, the quiet, steady rhythm of its beep soothing.
She snorted. So that little baby helped you out of the jungle, did it? That little baby helped you defeat a demon? Let me tell you something. You, will not successfully navigate or survive Atlantis without me.
His fists clenched at the reminder - and the threat, veiled though it was. "You'd say anything to get your way."
Yes, she replied truthfully, surprising him. I would. In this case, however, I'm not dancing around the truth. We need each other.
His teeth bared in a scowl, and he kicked a large rock with the steel toe of his boot, sending the white stone skidding down the path. Jewel might have proven herself trustworthy, but he preferred to rely only on himself. People got scared, did stupid things. The last partner OBI had given him abandoned him in a weapons compound at the first sign of trouble, leaving him at the mercy of an infuriated alien warlord. Only Gray's long-standing seduction of Lady Luck helped him escape alive. That, and a two-pound package of C4 explosives.
If Jewel was the only way to reach the gemstone, he needed her. Period. He'd be wasting valuable time by not going after her. And Gray hated wasted time almost as much as he hated feeling helplessness.
I feel the same.
"I can do without the commentary," he told her dryly.
Don't forget I saved your life. Twice.
"That's debatable," he said, even though he'd thought the same thing only moments before.
If she were with him, he could make sure she didn't tell anyone about his mission and compromise him. But if he rescued her and she conveniently "forgot" to help him find Dunamis, if she tried to harm or stop him... He sighed.
I would never harm you.
He was going to liberate her, and he knew it. No use trying to talk himself out of it. He'd save her and force her to help him, if need be. And he'd do it for reasons that had nothing to do with that I'm-waiting-for-you-to-find-and-fuck-me voice.
I am not!
At her outrage, he lost some of his anger. To be honest, he was looking forward to seeing Jewel and hearing her voice in person, to coming face-to-face with the woman who could read his mind.
The cobbled path twisted sharply to the left, scattering his shadowy cover. He quickened his pace until he maneuvered back into the deepest darkness. Up ahead, the road stretched for miles.
Maybe he'd get lucky and stumble upon a massage parlor. "Do I have to walk this entire road to get to you?"
At first, she said nothing. Then, You're going to help me? "We're going to help each other. Isn't that the deal?"
Yes. Yes! Oh, thank you. You, won't be sorry.
Joy and shock and excitement radiated from her words, and he imagined her dancing... wherever the hell she was, wearing nothing but a skimpy black leather halter top and a smile.
Another bout of silence erupted, before she humphed and said, I'm wearing a long white robe that covers me from head to toe, if you must know.
"Way to ruin the fantasy and cause Private Happy to hide." He tried to sound stern, but his amusement seeped through. He'd never had this much fun teasing a woman. "I think we picked the wrong name for you. I think I should call you Prudence."
Do it and your private Happy will receive a proper introduction to my knee.
A rich, husky laugh escaped him. "Ah, Pru, we've got to loosen you up a bit. Show you the advantages of being wicked. I'll add that to my 'To Do' list."
Yes, well, you can be here in two days, she said, changing the subject. "Two days?" He so did not want to endure another two days in this hellhole. Just go around the far hill, past the sheep farm -
"Over the river and through the woods, then down the yellow brick road. I know." He exhaled. "One thing at a time, babe. One thing at a time." Maybe two days wasn't such a bad thing. It would give him a chance to rest up, rebuild his strength. "I'm still needing that hot meal, bath, and soft bed."
Oh, yes. of course. The sheep farm has everything you need.
Three hours later, the darkness waned and Gray reached the farm. He performed a perimeter check and discovered the owner asleep in his bed. The man/thing possessed the top half of a human, and the bottom half of a chestnut horse, complete with tail and hooves. Dear God.
Don't hurt him, please.
Silently Gray withdrew a tranq-filled gun from his backpack and with a quick shot to the horse-man's neck, injected him. The creature jerked, then stilled completely. This was the only tranquilizer Gray had brought, and he hated to use it now. At this point, however, he would have injected his own father if it meant eating a hot meal without interruption.
When Gray was assured the creature wouldn't awaken for hours yet, he strode into the kitchen and dropped his backpack on the freshly polished wood floor. The place reminded him of a country cottage, complete with straw beds, wood-burning stove, and fresh, home-cooked scents.
He filled a clay basin with water, stripped to the skin, and washed himself from head to toe, taking care around his wounds. He slathered those with antibiotic ointment before slapping bandages over them.
Be gentler, please. You're making me cringe. He arched a brow. "Can you see me?" Only through your eyes.
How prim she sounded, he thought, smiling, just before he looked down. She gasped.
He chuckled. "I think General Happy likes you." Yes, well... I thought his - its - name was private.
"He seems to be the one in command lately, so he's come up in the ranks. Got a nice promotion." His throat clenched as he fought to contain his guffaws of laughter. "Wishing I'd look down again?"
She remained silent, and his smile grew.
Clean at last, he redressed in his mud-caked fatigues. He hated wearing dirty clothes, especially now that he was clean, but he wouldn't leave them behind. After he devoured a bowl of fruit and nuts and a plate of some sort of meat pie, he pilfered a royal blue robe and a yellow toga from the creature's closet. He
slipped the first over his head and shoved the second in his bag.
"Why do centaurs wear robes?"
They don't. The clothing is for visiting sirens.
Sirens. Women who lured men to their deaths by singing. Of course. He should have known. You, can sleep here. The centaur will not mind.
"I prefer to find a spot in the woods." Solitude was always safer. A long length of rope caught his eye, and Gray stuffed it into his backpack. "He wouldn't happen to have bullets lying around, would he?"
No. No bullets.
"It was worth a shot." He hiked his way back to the cobbled path, feeling more energized than he had in days. Darkness had faded even more, making way for a bright golden glow. Flowers opened their petals, carpeting the ground with all shades of pastels, from the barest lavender, to the daintiest yellow. Trees swayed with renewed life.
He spied several similarly robed people, their faces covered by their cloaks. Again, his first instinct was to whip out his knife and strike.
The sirens are as harmless as the nymph. Simply block their voices from your mind,.
Gray strode past the small group, and his gaze met a woman's gaze. She was pretty in a delicate, protect-me way, with pale skin and mossy green eyes. Despite her prettiness, he felt not a shred of attraction toward her. She opened her mouth, about to speak to him, and he quickened his speed, not about to let the sensuality of her voice lure him to his death.
When he was out of hearing distance, he said to Jewel, "You told me everyone here wants a piece of you. Now tell me why."
I'm special, she evaded.
He opened his mouth to press her for more details, then closed it with a snap. She sounded so forlorn, on the brink of tears, and that knowledge unbalanced him for some reason. Made his stomach twist into several painful knots. Made his chest tighten and ache. She'd been impudent and bold up to this point.
"Do they hurt you? These people who hold you captive?" I don't want to talk about this. Her voice wavered.
Which meant, yes, they did. Fury pounded through him, scalding hot and blistering. Gray had done many unfavorable things in his life, all in the name of patriotism, but he had never hurt a woman. He would if he had to, yes, had even considered silencing Jewel on his own, but he did not like the thought of anyone else hurting her. She seemed soft and delicate to him, in need of protection. Anyone who hurt a woman like that deserved pain. Lingering, torturous pain.
He'd already decided to spring Jewel from her prison, but his determination intensified, reaching new heights. No way in hell would he abandon her now. He'd save her or die trying.
There will be no dying on your part. Promise me.
"Of course there won't. You might have missed the memo, but I'm invincible."
Another hour passed, this one in silence as they each mulled their own thoughts. All the while he climbed up a steep, dangerous mountain, fast losing his bout of energy.
Finally - God, finally - Jewel uttered the magic words his tired, exhausted body longed to hear. You'll be safe here.
Gray immediately tossed his bag onto the ground and made camp. Only when he lay atop his bedroll, the stolen yellow toga acting as his pillow, did he allow himself to drink in the scenery. He was perched atop the highest ledge of the mountain, overlooking a breathtaking vista of trees and flowers, and a waterfall that glistened like liquid pearls. So clear it was, he could see the mossy bottom.
Exotic birds with bright, colorful feathers soared around him, calling to one another in a symphony of squawks and cries. This was, quite possibly, the most beautiful sight he'd ever beheld.
Above him arched the crystal dome, so close he had only to reach out to touch the glistening, jagged fixture. Seawater churned in every direction, splashing one way, then another, before dancing away. Foam and mist lingered determinedly as schools of fish swam past.
I'll warn you if anyone approaches. Sleep well, Gray.
"I won't let myself sleep deeply. I'll know if anyone comes close to me."
Whatever you say. A soft melody drifted through his mind, Jewel's sexy voice lulling him to deep, deep sleep.
His eyelids grew heavy against the dawning brightness, and he yawned. Why fight it? Slowly he surrendered to nothingness, one final thought drifting through his mind: if today was only the beginning, getting to the end was going to be one hell of a ride.