Jewel's head broke the water's surface, her lungs screaming in pain. She gulped in great gasps of oxygen, her arms and legs flailing to keep her afloat. Pitch-black greeted her eyes, an unholy darkness filled only with phantomous shadows. Every inch of her burned for more air, and the burning eased only slightly with each intake. In, out, she breathed, as fast as her lungs would allow.
The choppy, frantic sounds must have disturbed nearby wildlife, because the clatter of snapping limbs, rustling bushes, pitter-pattering hoofbeats rang in her ears.
"Gr - Gray," she called between pants, swallowing a mouthful of water. The liquid slid down her throat, cool and sweet, but it was too much, too fast. She choked and coughed.
"Don't," he said, his voice labored and hoarse as it sliced through the void. "Don't try to talk. Just breathe. Slowly."
Where was he? She'd lost her grip on him somewhere along the way. The darkness around them wasn't thinning and she couldn't feel him near her. Forcing her throat to relax, to gradually allow her mouth to draw in oxygen-rich air, proved difficult, but she did it, letting every breath wash through her as steadily as Gray's words.
"Where are you?" he demanded.
"Here," she croaked. "I'm here."
He followed the drum of her voice, silently treading through the restless water until he found her. His arm brushed her stomach, and she shivered, resisting the urge to grab onto him and ascertain he truly was there.
"Yes." The sound of lapping water beat between each syllable. "You?"
"I can't see shit, but I'm fine." He sounded relieved, concerned and angry all at once. "Think you can make it to shore? Wherever the hell the shore is," he added darkly.
"Of course." Determination rode her hard, and she said, "I can make it." The words were for her benefit rather than his.
She must not have sounded convincing. His arm snaked around her waist, pulling her into the curve of his body. "Just keep breathing, and I'll do the rest."
"No, I - "
"Save your strength for an argument you can actually win."
The feel of him holding her, his strength surrounding her, was a heady thing, but the thought of lying back and allowing him to do all the work... No! She might love the feel of his arms around her, and she might teeter on the brink of total exhaustion, but she kicked and paddled with him, adding to their speed.
"Sometimes," she said between breaths, "an argument... can be won... without words."
"Smart ass. Don't you know you're making me look bad? I, man, do the rescuing. You, woman, do the eager accepting."
Jewel grinned, loving the way he teased her. It made her feel normal, accepted. As if she was his friend. Set apart from the Atlantean races as she was, she'd never had a true friend before. But she'd wanted one. Gods, she'd wanted one. At times, the ache had been so fierce, it had almost been a living entity.
"That is not how our rela - " Sharp pains shot through her calf like a thousand knives cutting through bone. She jerked and cried out.
Gray's arm tightened around her, and they ceased moving forward, his leg movements the only thing keeping them above water. "What's wrong?" he demanded, concern in the undercurrents of his voice.
"Just a cramp," she gritted out, her leg already relaxing.
Expelling a relieved breath, he jolted back into motion, his muscles bunching and straining. "You're doing great. But listen to me this time, and stay still." He spit out a mouthful of water. "I've done this kind of rescue before, and with a two-hundred-pound man no less. Featherweight that you are, I can get you to shore, no problem."
"I will help."
"Damn it, Jewel."
She forced her arms to swim more quickly.
"Stubborn woman," he muttered. "Have it your way."
"I will. Thank you."
His legs kicked out and brushed hers. His free arm pushed at the water and skimmed over hers. Because of the danger, such an innocent contact shouldn't have affected her, but it did. Currents of something dark and light, hot and sweet, floated through her blood as swiftly and surely as the river flooded around her, giving her added strength.
"Thank you for coming for me," she said, swallowing more liquid. The words whispered from her, soft and raspy, husky with her gratitude.
"I wish I could say it was my pleasure, but so far the adventure has sucked like a Hoover." She laughed heartily.
The water slapped as if he'd whipped his head to face her. She wished there were at least a kernel of light to reveal his actions and features, but the darkness was simply too heavy.
He squeezed her waist. "I didn't expect you to get that. Do you even know what a Hoover is?" "Well, yes. I know a lot of things about the surface."
"You ever traveled there?"
She heard his true question: do Atlantean creatures travel to the surface? "I've never been, no. None of us have. It's forbidden, not to mention impossible. I've only seen it in my visions." Visions of him.
He huffed out a moist breath. "Impossible how?"
"Just impossible," she hedged. "I admit I've always dreamed of visiting the surface." She couldn't hide her edge of wistfulness. "You have so many fascinating things there."
"Yeah? Like what?" Fatigue was beginning to layer his words, making them drag slightly. "Exactly what does Prudence Merry weather find fascinating? This I've got to hear. Wait. The water is becoming more shallow," he said. "We're almost to shore. See if your feet touch."
Her legs sank toward the bottom until her feet hit a soft, mossy foundation. "Yes! I can touch." Limbs almost too weak to support her, she labored onto the sand, trudging step by step.
Finally she collapsed atop a soft bed of foliage. Water poured from her as she smoothed sopping hair out of her eyes. Gray dropped beside her. The ragged sound of their breathing blended with the gentle rush of the river. Gods, they had made it.
They had escaped the demons.
Several minutes passed in raw silence. She could have closed her eyes and drifted to sleep - would have drifted to sleep, if Gray hadn't picked up their conversation where they'd left off.
"What do you find fascinating about the surface?" He was only a little winded. "This land of yours is amazing. It's littered with evil incarnate, true, but the sheer beauty of the terrain is awe-inspiring."
She shivered as a wave of cool air brushed her. "I'd trade every flower and tree for the chance to sit inside a theater and watch a movie. To anchor myself in a hoodless car and soar down the road, the wind in my hair. To wiggle on a waterbed and smoke a cigarette. To taste a - "
"Whoa, there." He chuckled, the sound rich and smooth with his amusement. "Back it up a minute. Waterbed? You live in water, in case you hadn't noticed, and you think a waterbed is cool? And why the hell would you want to smoke a cigarette? They taste like a demon smells."
Her cheeks heated with a blush, and she was suddenly glad for the darkness. Gray hadn't thought cigarettes tasted so horrible the night she'd seen one of his women smoke one. He'd just finished making love to her, and the two had been lying on a waterbed, the sides lapping around their sweat-soaked limbs. The woman's pretty features had been totally relaxed, euphoric even, as the smoke wafted around her. Gray had appeared equally sated, not the least disgusted by the supposedly ashy fumes.
"I'm waiting for some type of explanation, Smoky Smokerson."
"People seem to enjoy them, that's all. And as for the waterbed, well, I'd like to know how it feels to lie on a bed of liquid and never sink."
"They're hell on the back."
"Who says I'd be sleeping?" she said primly.
He snorted, and she had to curb the urge to kick him. Did he think she couldn't tempt a man? That she couldn't seduce one into loving her body madly and passionately?
"My guess, Prudence, is that you'd be bundled up in a neck-to-ankle body stocking, complete with chastity belt and semiautomatic trained on any man stupid enough to try and get into your panties."
"That's not true! I'd have a lover with me. And we'd be naked," she added with a defensive edge.
"Would you now?" He drawled the words slowly, dragging out each syllable, making her feel achy inside. "And what would the two of you be doing, being naked and all?"
. She knew Gray liked to linger over a woman's body, taking his time and learning every nuance, every scent. Gods knew how many times she'd seen him do it, wishing it were her he was pleasuring. She drew on that knowledge now, the only sensual knowledge she possessed.
Trying for a casual tone, she said, "I'd caress my hands over his chest and back, of course, while he kissed me. With tongue. His fingers would slide between my legs, sinking inside me, moving in and out while I arched my hips. And I'd be so, so wet. And when I screamed his name, begging him to fuck me - "
"Did you just drop the F bomb?" he asked, incredulous, cutting her off.
"Yes. He'd lick my breasts, sucking my nipples into his mouth, and impale me with his thick, hard penis. I would wrap my legs - "
"That's enough!" Gray's body couldn't take much more. He was rock hard and tense, ready to explode. Just from her words. When had that ever happened?
He cleared his throat and flopped to his back. "Christ, I get the picture. And I'm seriously considering renaming you Blaze Champagne."
There, she thought smugly. Now he'd never again call her Prudence or assume she wouldn't know what to do with a man in bed. "What kind of name is Blaze Champagne?" She already knew the answer. She wanted him to say it, though, to hear the words aloud.
"The naughty kind reserved for porn stars, that's what. Fuck me, indeed."
A wide smile lifted her lips. "Have I offended your innocent ears? If so, you can just fuck off, Mr. Monk ." Being naughty was more fun than she ever could have imagined. She hadn't felt so lighthearted in - ever.
"Jesus. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?"
"My mother's dead." She said it simply, merely stating a fact.
"God, Jewel, I'm sorry." Contrite, he reached out and wrapped his fingers around her forearm, squeezing gently. The heat of his grip banished any lingering cold caused by the wind. "I never would have said that if I'd known."
"It happened so long ago, I barely remember her." "Still, I shouldn't have said it and I'm sorry."
His hand left her, and she heard the zip of his bag, a rustle of movement, a crack - almost like glass breaking. A golden glow of light erupted, surrounding them in a luminescent halo. Gray held a long, thin tube, she saw, eyelids closing to half-mast to dim the bright rays.
"What is that?" The object fascinated her, as she'd never seen its like. It looked as if he were holding pure fire in his hands.
"It's got a technical name, but I just call it a glow stick." Gray's gaze met hers, and he claimed her fascination. The cloth he'd worn on his head had slipped off, so his pale hair was plastered to his scalp. Streaks of green and black paint remained on his cheeks, but most of it had washed away.
Droplets of water trickled from his forehead to his nose, then onto the leaves. His lashes were black and I spiky, his eyes a liquid silver, as mesmerizing as the water itself. Her gaze devoured him.
He smoothed away a dark strand of hair from her forehead. His fingers were callused but, oh, so gentle. The night air should have made her miserable by this point, but the chill barely touched her wet body. A growing sense of warmth and lassitude wove through her, starting exactly where he'd touched her.
As he studied her, his lips dipped into a frown. "Have we met before? I mean, sometimes when I look at you, I'd swear I've seen you before."
She'd dreamed of just such a circumstance, of meeting him; she'd wanted it, craved it, but the answer was an unequivocal no. "I promise you, we have never met in person until this night."
"Still." He shrugged away the mystery. "Be honest. Are you really all right?"
"Yes. Promise. How do you feel?" She longed to reach out and trace her fingers over his face. Had the poisons begun weakening him yet?
The question popped into her mind, reminding her that they had not yet escaped all danger. Had the demon and vampire poison already begun to interweave, clashing together, fighting for dominance? Destroying Gray little by little?
Nausea churned in her stomach, rising to fill her throat. She could not let this wonderfully alive man die. There had to be a way... something to do... but at the moment, no miraculous answer came to her.
Arms stretching over his head, he twisted each vertebra of his spine. "I'm good to go. Stronger than ever."
He did look healthy and capable, his skin bright with color, his eyes sparkling. Maybe the venoms wouldn't affect him, she thought hopefully. Maybe she worried for nothing.
"Come on," he said. "We've hung around here too long. We need shelter ASAP."
He pushed to his feet with the agility of a jungle cat and readjusted his bag over his shoulder, one hand continuing to keep the glow stick elevated, lighting the surrounding area.
She, too, pushed up, her movements a bit slower and less sprightly than his. As she shifted her weight to her feet, her knees shook. Dizziness struck her, and she massaged her fingertips into her temple.
Gray wrapped his arm around her waist, holding her up. "Lean on me."
"I'll be fine," she said, stepping from him. Gods, he'd felt so good, but she would not be a hindrance. At last her vision cleared, and she said, "I can lead us to shelter. Follow me."
"With pleasure. Your robe is sticking to your skin, so I can see the outline of your a - " "Gray!"
"Your gaze better remain straight ahead."
"Ah, come on. Cage Prudence, and let Blaze come out and play."
Smothering a laugh, Jewel moved in front of him, her hands covering the object in question. "We'll need to stay along the river's edge."
"Take your time. I'll just be enjoying the view. Your fingers don't hide anything, baby."
"Incorrigible," she muttered with a falsely grim shake of her head. He wasn't like this with everyone, only his family and co-workers. For everyone else, even his women, he usually presented a gruff, take-no-prisoners persona. The fact that he favored her enough to tease her delighted her. "This way."
Time passed in agonizing slowness as they maneuvered through trees, bushes and thick, wet sand. Knowing Marina would expect her to avoid civilization, Jewel led them toward the Inner City.
The breeze soon dried her clothes, making the material stiff, unbending. But at least they weren't sticking to her bottom! Insects were eerily silent, and night prowlers stayed away.
"Jewel," Gray said softly. "Something's wrong with me."
She glanced at him over her shoulder, then stopped abruptly. His eyes had lost their teasing light, and now blazed with pain, the lids lowering slowly, then snapping wide open as he struggled to remain awake. His normally bronzed skin was pale and pallid, with a greenish tint. Sweat dripped from him.
It had begun.
Intense fear raking her, she said, "We're almost there. Focus on me, on my voice, and I'll lead us to safety."A wave of dizziness must have hit him because he swayed on his feet. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers into his temples. "What's wrong with me?" His voice emerged as weak and unsteady as his legs.
She didn't answer, but she did race to him. He was so tall, the top of her head barely brushed over his shoulder, but she wrapped a supporting arm around him, opening her mind to his. The wall she'd encountered inside the demon fortress was still gone, and his thoughts instantly slammed into her. The pain. Can't give in to the pain. Must get Jewel to safety.
The vampire and demon poisons battled inside him, and she knew his blood heated to a boil. His limbs ached with the sting of a thousand needles. His head throbbed and pulsed like a war drum.
"Lean on me," she coaxed.
"No. No help." He tried to tug from her clasp, but didn't have the strength. His arms fell weakly to his sides, the tube of light stretching its rays across the twig-laden ground. "I... can do... it on my own."
She knew multiple betrayals at his job had conditioned him to rely on no one. One partner had abandoned him, another tried to kill him. Another had left him behind to save himself. In his weakened condition, that ingrained, self-reliant instinct surfaced with renewed force. She knew that, and was determined to destroy it.
"Gray," she said softly, gently. With her free hand, she claimed the glow stick and held it up, encompassing them in golden brilliance once again.
He didn't speak. Lines of tension bracketed his face. She sensed the panic growing inside him, heard his thoughts of, Don't fall. Don't fall. Get Jewel to safety, and tightened her hold on him.
"Gray," she repeated firmly. "The only way to get me to safety is to let me help you. Lean on me." Using all of her strength, she stepped forward. "Now walk."
He gave no indication he'd heard her until he moved forward, carefully placing one foot in front of the other. Always beside him, Jewel absorbed most of his weight. Her limbs and back soon burned from the strain. All the while, she retained a steady, albeit one-sided, conversation, hoping her voice would keep him awake. If he were to fall into slumber... She shuddered at the thought.
"I only have one memory of my father, and that was the first and only time I met him. I remember how big and strong he was, how his shoulders dwarfed me when he drew me to him for a hug. I didn't get to spend much time with him, probably five minutes. When he released me, he waved goodbye and my mother carried me away. I didn't know it was the last time I'd see him. My mother was killed soon afterward, and I was all alone." She continued her monologue. "All I've ever wanted to do is find my father again. Well, that and - " She fumbled, realizing she couldn't admit she'd wanted him.
A grove of white trees filled her line of vision, and she ground to a halt, drawing in a shocked breath. "We're here." She hadn't expected to reach the alcove so soon. At her side, a waterfall crashed into the river, falling from a towering cliff.
Gray moaned. His shoulders were slumped, and his breathing shallow. The noises of the Outer City reached them, blending with the rush of the water. Scents of freshly baked bread and dewy fruits wafted on the breeze.
"Five more steps and you can rest, Gray."
"Rest," he repeated, the very word brought forth on another moan of pain. He shook his head. "No rest! Protect Jewel."
"We're safe here. I'm safe," she promised, urging him forward, toward the secluded glen. When they finally reached it, Jewel eased Gray to the ground. He collapsed onto the bed of leaves with a grunt.
Few creatures dared enter this area. The Forest of Dragons belonged to Darius en Kragin, Dragon King and Guardian of the Atlantean Mists. Fierce, bloodthirsty warlord that he was, only the most desperate of people tempted him to anger by trespassing.
"I'll take care of you," she said. "Don't worry." She dug her satchel out of Gray's bag, amazed that the contents inside were completely dry, and withdrew her robe. After ripping several strips, she strode to the river edge and soaked them in the pink sand.
Thankfully she no longer needed the glow stick. Above them, the crystal globe approached its dawn cycle and swept thin, golden fingers of light over the forest.
Cloth heavy with the healing sand, she hurried back to Gray and wrapped it around his arm wound. He didn't make a sound. He didn't move. Her fear and apprehension grew, and she fought against a sting of tears. He'd saved her life, only to die himself? No. No!
This was her fault. She had guided him to her, had convinced him to rescue her. She had to save him.
If only he didn't look so pale, so near death... She pressed her lips together to cut off her sob of terror. He's stubborn, she reminded herself. When he accepted a mission, he succeeded. Always. Whatever the cost. Whatever the consequence.
"You have to beat the poison, Gray, or your mission will fail. Do you want to be a failure?" She shouted the last words, desperate for him to hear her.
"Do you want to be a failure?" she whispered brokenly, shaking him this time. Not even a flutter of his eyelids.
With a growl, she ripped two more strips from her robe, filled them with sand, and used them to bind the bite on his neck. The vampire cut on his thigh had opened and now oozed a thick, black blood. She bound that with sand, too, fighting back a rising sense of hysteria.
She couldn't lose him. He was a part of her, had always been a part of her. But what more could she do to help him?
She watched the slow, shallow rise and fall of his chest. She possessed so many gifts, that of knowing truth from lie, the ability to sometimes see the future, the ability to read minds, and yet none of those could help Gray. Then...
Her eyes widened in horror as he gasped for air - then stopped breathing altogether.
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