It was supposed to be an easy mission. An in-and-out job. A one day-extraction.
His boss had fed him that line of bullshit, and Grayson James had foolishly believed him. Upon first entering this lushly green, sea-kissed land known as Atlantis, however, Gray realized he would have had better luck trying to sell a Fridgidaire to a goddamn Eskimo. At a goddamn jacked-up price.
Not a myth. Damn it. He'd hoped otherwise.
He scowled. In one hand, he held a beeping, miniature GPS system programmed from coordinates found on a map. An actual, honest-to-God map of Atlantis his boss had discovered in a missing millionaire's stash. Right now, the GPS signal bounced off the earth's magnetic core, helping him navigate his way through this Atlantean jungle. In the other hand, he gripped a machete. The sharp silver blade hacked at the thick foliage blocking his path.
No, Atlantis was not a myth. It happened to be home to the most loathsome creatures he'd ever encountered.
And as an employee of OBI, the Otherworld Bureau of Investigations, he'd encountered plenty. Made him wonder why he'd even joined the agency.
He knew the answer, though, and it wasn't because he'd (secretly) watched Star Trek for most of his teen years and knew how to speak Klingon. "Heghlu'meH QaQ jajvam," he sighed. Today is a good day to die.
When he'd learned (to his horrified shock) that there actually were other colonized worlds in the vast expanse of the galaxies, he'd left his job as a detective with the Dallas PD and began searching for a Men in Black-type operation. When OBI finally contacted him he'd signed on immediately. He believed fiercely in the need to learn about these otherworlders and protect his own planet from them.
How could he have known that the most fearsome creatures of all resided here, on his own planet? Simply buried beneath the ocean, protected by some kind of crystal dome?
As he dodged a stray limb, he ground his teeth together. "Atlantis," he muttered. "Code name, Hell."
After entering a swirling, gelatinous portal OBI had discovered underwater in Florida, he'd found himself inside an enormous crystal palace guarded by huge, sword-wielding men. Luck had been on his side as he stealthily maneuvered his way past them, unnoticed, and entered this jungle.
That's when he kissed that fickle bitch Lady Luck goodbye.
For the past two nights, a blood-sucking vampire, a fire-breath dragon, and a hungry, salivating winged demon aka the Welcoming Committee had chased him, each sharpening mental forks and knives.
The memories made him feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
He knew the routine now. In less than one hour, night would fall and those... things would emerge again. They would hunt him. They would attempt to fucking eat him. And not in a good way.
His blood ran cold at the thought and not even the hot, humid air could warm him. For fifty-eight hours he'd been stuck in this seemingly never-ending maze, and for fourteen of those hours, he'd followed the exact same pattern: creatures track, Gray evade.
The first night, he'd tried to shoot them with his Beretta. He managed to nail the dragon between the eyes, but his other pursuers dodged the bullets, quickly and effortlessly gliding out of range.
The second night, when the two remaining creatures appeared, Gray utilized his combat skills and slit the vampire's throat. A pleasure, he had to admit, but he hadn't emerged unscathed. Five deep, raw scratch and bite wounds adorned his neck and thigh, throbbing constantly. Not festering, but never quite healing.
How he'd escaped the demon after that, he didn't know. Injured and weak as he'd been, he would have been easy to overpower. Hell, his bleeding body would have made a delicious dinner buffet. Many times he'd wondered if the demon had purposefully let him go, enjoying the thrill of the hunt a little too much.
Well, the demon wasn't the only one who was going to enjoy himself tonight. An anticipatory smile lifted Gray's lips. Smarter now, he wouldn't be caught off guard. Plus, he'd already worked up a plan affectionately dubbed Operation Kill the Bastard. If KTB unfolded successfully, the demon would soon join his bloodsucking friend in hell. If it didn't, well, Gray would resort to Plan B: Operation Oh Shit. He'd sprint like a madman and hide until light glowed once more from the seemingly alive dome above.
His gaze flicked to said dome. There was no sky here, only mile after mile of iridescent, pearlized crystal. Waves constantly washed over the outer side, and multiple-sized and colored fish swam in every direction. He like the naked mermaids best.
A twig slapped his cheek, snagging his attention, slicing skin and adding one more item to his growing shit list. He'd lost all remnants of his good humor. At least the insects had stopped swarming him. A real silver lining, he thought bitterly. He never should have taken this job.
He veered left just as his wristwatch vibrated. He stopped abruptly. "Just what I need," he muttered. If it wasn't one thing, it was another, and now it was time to check in with home base.
He dropped his backpack, dug inside, and withdrew a small black transmitter, switching it to On. If he failed to check in at least once a day, the cavalry would sweep in and finish his job. He'd never failed a mission, and he wouldn't fail this one.
"Santa to Mother," he said, cringing when he spoke his code name. His unit had thought it was funny as hell, saying he swooped into other worlds and left little presents (like bombs and dead bodies), so the name had stuck. "Do you copy?"
A few seconds of static, before he heard, "Go ahead, Santa." He recognized the voice of his boss, Jude Quinlin.
"I'm still without the package, but all is well." "Copy that."
"Over." He ended the transmission and stuffed the receiver in his backpack, then kicked into gear again. All was well, his ass. To survive Operation KTB himself, he needed to find a small clearing with ample room to sprint, dodge, and dive for cover. So far, no luck. And he was running out of time, his hour ticking away unmercifully.
When a wall of trees blocked his path, he pivoted right, but the GPS erupted in a series of erratic, high-pitched beeps, a sign he'd taken a wrong turn. Growling low in his throat, Gray spun around and backtracked until the miniature device calmed. Sweat trickled from his temple and dripped onto his military fatigues.
He'd been due a vacation, damn it, a chance to see the brothers and sister he hadn't visited in over two years. He called them regularly, of course, but that wasn't the same as hugging them, laughing with them.
Being with them. He wanted to play with Katie's children, wanted to make sure her husband Jorlan was treating her like the prize she was.
Working for OBI - which translated into constant planet-hopping through inter-world wormholes - didn't allow for frequent trips home. Hell, working for OBI didn't allow for trips anywhere except alien planets. And now underwater cities. It sure as hell didn't allow for dating and getting laid. Unless he wanted to have a one-night stand with a three-eyed, blue-skinned, slimy alien female.
. He'd never liked one-night stands, preferring instead multiple nights with multiple orgasms. . Three eyes? Slimy skin? Uh, gross.
. Did he mention that he liked to take his time with a woman, lingering over every nuance of her body, savoring her scent, her taste? That he liked to hear her shout about his unbelievable sexual talents in English?
He grinned at the thought of "unbelievable sexual talents."
A branch slapped his cheek, and he lost his grin. Your fault, man. You shouldn't have let your mind wander into the gutter. How true. Now was not the time to be thinking of sex and women. Or having sex with women. He blamed the heat for his wayward mind. That, and the fact that he hadn't gotten laid in a long, long time. Too long.
Way too long.
Why else would he have lost focus on what was important - his survival - in favor of picturing a naked woman. A naked woman with long, velvet-soft legs that wrapped around his waist and -
Another twig slapped him, in the eye this time. "Damn it!" It's not like he suffered from ADD. You're here for a reason, James. Think of nothing but that.
One moment of distraction could cause a mission to fail. He knew that, and was surprised at how easily his mind kept veering. Perhaps being hunted by a cannibalistic demon wasn't exciting enough for him. If that was the case, he needed a total body probe and psych exam ASAP.
"The mission. Think only about the mission." As they had a thousand times before, his boss's departing words drifted through his mind. We found a book, Gray. The book, actually, titled Ra Dracas. It tells of dragons and vampires and other such nonsense, but the true message is hidden between the text, written in code.
"The text about dragons and vampires is nonsense," he mocked. Hindsight sucked major ass.
Once we broke that code, his boss had added, we learned about the Jewel of Dunamis, a jewel so powerful it can be used to predict the future. A jewel so powerful it can show who's lying and who's speaking the truth. Whoever holds it will have the ability to destroy any enemy. Conquer any army.
Small wonder his government wanted so desperately to own it.
Gray was to find and steal this precious jewel, then bring it home. If his mission was compromised in any way, he was to destroy it so that no one else got their greedy hands on it.
It was that simple.
Simple? Yeah, about as simple as routine brain surgery. Gray paused briefly and sipped from his dwindling canteen of vitamin-enhanced water. The cool liquid slid down his parched throat, offering a much-needed burst of energy before he jolted back into motion.
For an eternity he pushed himself onward, never slowing, ever conscious of what awaited him if he didn't find a spot to enable Operation KTB. His gaze darted to his wristwatch, the digital red light barely visible under the dirt and grime covering him. Twenty minutes until showtime, so he had to find a workable patch of land now. He scowled and -
Watch out for the quicksand.
His eyes jerked swiftly across his surroundings as he searched for the speaker, a woman. He didn't duck for cover, didn't stop walking, preferring instead to be mobile. He didn't want to scare her with any surprising movement.
He did tighten his grip on the machete. The odds were fifty-fifty the woman had a weapon, and even higher that she'd actually use it.
Are you listening to me? I said, watch our for the quicksand!
The husky, heavily accented female voice slammed into his mind once again, so richly sensual and commanding he acquired an instant, unwanted, and surprising hard-on - before he promptly began sinking into a large pool of quicksand.
"What the hell?" Instinctively he attempted to raise his legs, which only caused him to sink farther and faster. He stilled and glared at the ground, watching it slowly rise, covering his feet... his ankles.
Now you've done it. Exasperation clung to the edges of her words. She might even have added, Dumb ass, but he wasn't sure. I tried to warn you.
"Where are you?" he asked, using his gentlest, most reassuring tone as he eyed the lush green bushes circling him. The leaves here were thicker than any he'd ever encountered, barely moving in the gentle wind.
He didn't want to frighten the woman away. She'd tried to save him from the quicksand, so she obviously meant him no harm. God knew he needed all the help he could get right now.
There was no hint of person or clothing peeking from the shrubbery, still no rustle or snap to indicate movement.
"You can come out," he said. "I won't hurt you. You have my word."
Think for a moment, Gray. You don't hear me with your ears, but with your mind.
"How do you know my name?" he asked sharply. Then he blinked, shook his head, blinked again. The voice remained, echoing from each corridor of his brain. She was right. Her words were actually inside his mind.
How was that possible?
How the hell was that possible?
"I'm schizo." The statement burst from his mouth, too shocking and surreal to keep inside. "I've finally jumped over the ledge of sanity with thousand-pound weights tied to my ankles." He'd seen some weird shit in his lifetime, and it had finally caught up with him.
He should have known it would come in the form of a split personality. A sexy as hell female personality, at that. Her whisky-rich voice... he'd never heard anything quite so erotic.
Down, down he sank as the sand covering his calves with its gooey wetness. The scent of stagnant water and decaying - he wrinkled his nose. He did not want to guess what was decaying.
Insane or not, he hadn't survived two days and nights of torture to die by stinky sand. No matter what he had to do, he'd save his life - or rather, lives - from this mess.
God, this sucked.
Unwilling to lose a single supply, he tossed his GPS and machete to dry ground. Careful not to jostle too much or too quickly, he removed his backpack and tossed it beside the blade, wishing to God he'd brought a propel wire. But why would he have needed one for such a quick, easy job?
"Jude Quinlin, you lying sack of shit." He scowled for, what... the third time in as many hours? The expression well represented his views of Atlantis. Meanwhile, he continued to sink, slowly, slowly, the wet sand working its way past his knees, up his thighs. The thick liquid grains were cold, and his body temperature fell a couple degrees. His blood pressure was the only thing on the rise.
Amid the popping and gurgling of wet suction, he searched his surroundings again, this time looking for a lifeline. No branches, no vines were nearby. Only a large white rock, but it was too far away to reach with his hands.
Take off your shirt, the sensual, I-want-you-naked-and-in-my-bed voice said.
He snorted derisively. He was sinking toward death, and his new female personality wanted him to strip. Why wasn't he surprised?
"Want me to remove my pants, too?" he asked dryly. At least he'd picked a hot, nympho chick to be his mind-companion and not a nasally old man.
Idiot! she huffed, a blush dripping from her tone. Take off your shirt, clasp the opposite ends in your hands, and hook the material around the rock
His eyes widened as he studied the distance of the rock again. That might actually work. For the first time in days, he laughed with genuine amusement. He might be schizophrenic and teetering on the brink of total insanity, but he was also a freaking genius.
The woman - it was hard to continually think of such a distinctive, seemingly real voice as merely an extension of himself - sighed, why did the gods have to pick you?
Her dejection caused his smile to grow. "I could ask myself the same question, babe."
Reaching behind him, he gripped the neck of his shirt and tugged it over his head. With one end of the camouflage material in his left hand and the other in his right, he leaned forward and tossed the looped shirt at the rock. He missed.
He tried again and missed.
Okay, so he seriously needed to increase the hours he spent at target practice.
The sand now reached his waist. He continued to lean and toss until the shirt finally anchored solidly. He gave a hard jerk and stopped sinking.
"I know what to do." He pulled, using all of his strength. His arms burned from the strain. The sand grasped at him like strong, greedy fingers, holding him in place.
Grimacing, he continued to hoist up his two hundred pounds of muscle. His shoulders popped, the weight straining sockets and bones. The sand continued to tighten its embrace, burning the wound in his leg. The teeth marks in his neck throbbed against the exertion, perhaps even split open because he felt a trickle of something warm and wet on his skin.
Just a little more... almost... there. The sound of ripping cotton and poly filled his ears. With a final yank, his body landed on dry, solid ground. He sucked in a relieved breath.
No, run. Hurry. The demon has already begun to stir.
Ignoring her, Gray rolled to his back before easing up and into a crouch. As he glanced at his wristwatch, a soft, salty breeze drifted past him, reminding him of the beach vacation he so craved. This area would be as good as any other, he supposed. He'd run out of time.
"Let Operation KTB commence." He slipped on his shirt, unzipped his backpack and rooted inside. What are you doing? Turn, you fool.
"You need a name," he said, ignoring her demand and continuing his search inside the bag. Didn't all split personalities have names? If he was going to be insane, he might as well embrace it fully. For now, at least. Once he returned home and told the captain about his new friend, he'd be poked with so many needles it would make an alien probing seem like a sensual massage.
Maybe he'd call her Bunny. Or Bambi.
Please, she cried. You need to hide. If you don't you'll be hurt again and - "I'm not running. I'm going to kill it."
She paused, absorbing his words. Listen, Gray. You aren't insane, I'm not a figment of your imagination or a personality inside your mind. I'm very real, and I can help you. I know Atlantis and the creatures here. Listen to me and you just might live for one more day.
Now it was his turn to pause. Her claim made a weird sort of sense. Throughout the years, he'd seen and experienced all sorts of strange things. "Can you prove it?" he almost said, but stopped himself.
Though he hadn't actually spoken, she heard him and uttered a frustrated hiss. You are such a human. Prove this, prove that Humph! I'm speaking with you, aren't I?
Several alien races communicated psychically, so he already knew it could be done. He just hadn't known it could be done with him. Fact is, he was relieved his brain hadn't experienced full meltdown.
"Where are you?"
Hades, It seems.
He grinned. "Yeah? Me, too. Want to tell me how you know my name?" He resumed his search inside the bag. "And how are you getting inside my mind?" That bothered him, a lot, but he had too many other things to worry about right now.
Do you really wish to discuss this now? Time is your enemy.
Again, she was right. He truly didn't have long, perhaps five or ten minutes and he needed every second. "I'll let those questions slide, but there's one thing I've got to know. Why are you helping me?"
Pause. It would be a shame to mar your pretty face. Good answer. Dare he say irrefutable?
"You know how to take down a demon?" Myths claimed garlic, a stake through the heart, or holy water would do the trick. Wait. Those killed vampires. What the hell killed demons? The Book of Ra Dracas might have very well provided step-by-step instructions, yet he'd paid no attention, seeing the script merely as camouflage for the hidden code about the jewel. Stupid.
There is no reason to fight. I can lead you to safety.
"Poison? Dynamite?" As he spoke, he lifted the items in question.
Heavy silence blanketed his mind.
"I'm not going anywhere, honey, so you might as well tell me."
His haul, she finally said on a trembling catch of breath. You have to - well, you know.
"Yes, I'm afraid I do." He bypassed the grenades; he might need those later, and withdrew four sticks of dynamite, as well as his night vision goggles.
That dynamite, won't help you. Demons are strengthened by fire.
"I'm hoping the force of the explosion will slow him down so I can get close enough to him to... you know." He slapped a clip into his gun and slid a load into the chamber. This was his last round of ammunition, so he had to make the most of it.
Be careful. Please, be careful.
So many emotions layered her words. Terror, regret, hope. Concern. Emotions he didn't understand and didn't have time to ponder.
"I give you my word," he answered, and then he tuned her out completely, unwilling to let her distract him from his purpose. If he wanted to win, he had to get in his zone - and stay there.
Sensing his needs, she said, I won't speak again until this is over.
Forming a large circle with the dynamite, Gray planted a stick next to each of the towering trunks. The breeze intensified, prancing with renewed life. Darkness approached steadily, threading gnarled fingers through the thickness of the trees. Adrenaline thundering through his veins, he anchored his night goggles over his eyes, the world dimming to reds and grays.
Dynamite in place. Check.
Gun in hand. Check.
Bullets loaded. Check.
Knife. He lifted the machete and hooked it to the waistband of his pants. Check.
All that remained was covering his body with a blanket of leaves, camouflaging him from the demon's view. But as he bent to gather the first leaf, a whiz sounded next to his ear, followed by a sulfur-scented wind and taunting laughter.
The demon had arrived.
Mentally cursing, Gray crouched low and tightened his grip on his weapon. As he lay there, sweat dripped from his forehead and onto his goggles, momentarily shielding his line of vision. His head moved slowly, his eyes scanning from side to side, looking for a telltale blur of heat. Where the hell was it? Come on, show yourself.
Not finding a hint of the creature on land, he flicked a glance upward-and saw a figure speedily diving toward him, down, down. He didn't panic as it came closer. Closer still. No, he grew eager, anticipatory.
Almost here... Gray rolled out of the way a split second before contact. The demon crashed into the ground, and an evil hiss slithered through the night. Unfortunately the creature was up and hidden in the trees before he could fire off a shot.
"You want to play hide and seek," he shouted, "we'll play hide and seek. Come and get me, you ugly bastard." Gun pointing straight ahead, Gray jumped to his feet and ran. Ran toward the first cluster of dynamite, praying the demon followed. When he heard the rustle of a cloak and felt the warmth of breath on the back of his neck, he smiled with satisfaction.
Oh, yeah. The little shit had followed him.
As Gray passed the tree, he whipped around and aimed his gun. Boom! The bullet nailed the dynamite. Instantly fire spewed, and the tree exploded. The blast lifted Gray into the air, then slammed him onto the ground, shoving the air from his lungs. It did the same to the demon, and amid its howls of pain and fury, wooden shards and charred leaves rained.
He'd hit him, Gray knew, fighting for breath, but had he slowed him down?
An acrid stench and black smoke billowed around him as he pushed to his feet. Gray launched into a sprint, closing the distance between himself and the second cluster of dynamite. Infuriated, the demon followed once more; no longer playful and taunting, it stayed close on his heels. Saliva dripped from the too-white, too-sharp teeth, and onto Gray's neck.
Gray spun around and fired. Boom! The second cluster exploded, lighting up the shadows with orange-gold flames. A blast of pure heat swept over him; he went airborne again, but this time he expected it and hit the ground rolling. The demon propelled into another tree trunk, shrieking in rage and renewed pain, growling curses in a language Gray didn't understand.
Gray jolted up and started running.
Now! the female shouted inside his mind. Fire now!
He hadn't passed the third cluster yet, was just in front of it, in fact. If he fired now, he might barbecue himself. He aimed and fired anyway, diving for the ground.
The impact threw him backward, and he covered his head with his hands. Waves of heat rolled over him, hotter than before, burning his clothes, his skin. A loud thump, then a gasp for breath echoed in his ears.
Unfolding from the ground, Gray readied his knife. He raced to the demon. The ugly bastard had slammed into another tree and now struggled to right himself. His eyes glowed a bright, eerie red. Horns protruded all over his scaly body. Without pausing for thought, Gray raised the blade and struck. Blood splattered.
Silence greeted him. The scent of rotting sulfur filled the air.
Remaining in place, Gray moved his gaze through the clearing. The smoke was thicker now, heavier, and billowed around the remaining trees like angry clouds. Bits of bark and foliage continued to fall from the sky. His goggles had come off sometime during the fight, and his eyes watered. His nostrils stung, but most of all his joints ached.
He jerked the bandana from his head and smoothed the material over his nose, blocking the foul, heated air.
You won? the woman said, awe and joy laced in the undercurrents of her voice. You really won.
"I never doubted it," he lied. Without any hint of emotion, he carefully stretched every vertebra of his spine, working out the kinks and bruises. He was getting too old for this shit.
After replacing the camouflage bandana on his head, he kicked through the rubble until he found the GPS system, his goggles and his backpack. Each was burned around the edges, but essentially unharmed. He flipped the safety on his gun and stuffed it in the holster at his side before hooking the pack over his shoulder. That done, he cleaned his machete and sheathed it at his side, as well.
"Now," he said, knowing his adrenaline rush would soon wane. Best to finish his business with the woman before he crashed. He leaned against a thick, splintery tree trunk and rubbed the throbbing wound on his neck. "Let's you and me have a little chat, shall we? I want to know who and where you are. I want to know the real reason you helped me. As much as I hate to admit it, there's got to be more to it than you like the look of me."
She sighed, the sound heavy and long, This isn't the time.
"Sure it is." Patience was for old men and priests. Gray wasn't old, and he damn sure wasn't a priest. I'll tell you anything you want to know. Later.
"That's what you said before. And by the way, I'm not sure I like this role reversal thing we've got going on. Woman love to talk and share every detail of their lives. Men don't. But look at us? I'm wanting to talk and you're wanting to shut me out."
"Yes?" he prompted when she slipped into silence. He shifted from one foot to the other, not liking how quickly she'd lost her happy timbre.
That was only the beginning.
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