Marina, Queen of the Demons, studied the vast expanse of the forest, her extraordinary gaze cutting through thick foliage and mounds of dirt and rocks. Flames from her army's crackling fire illuminated the surrounding trees, casting shadows and light in every direction. Smoke billowed toward the skydome, a curling, scented stream of ash. Frustration gnawed at her with the determination and frenzy of a hungry beast.
The murdering human was nowhere to be seen. More importantly, her favorite slave was no where to be seen.
"Damn this," she growled, hands tightening into fists, sharp claws biting into her skin.
Calling a halt to the search and commanding her army to make camp here had not been easy. Not when she was desperate to regain possession of the girl. Yet with every minute that passed, Marina lost more and more of the girl's scent. Morning was due to arrive at any moment, and while the harsh rays of dawn would not kill her, her people hunted best in the dark, their eyes too sensitive for the day.
Now she would have to wait, and the knowledge curled her lips in a scowl. Where was the slave? Where had the human hidden her? Humans. How she loathed them. The gods amused themselves by sending some to Atlantis and watching the ensuing chaos. But one human should not have been able to steal her slave.
Where were they?
Would the pair beg protection from another race? she wondered, but discarded the idea almost instantly. Her slave always lauded the merits of freedom and would not risk enslavement from another kingdom. Easily recognized as she was, she would have to avoid the cities.
Which was why Marina was so far from the city. Her gaze continued to search, but she saw nothing out of the ordinary. She uttered a low snarl in the back of her throat, the sound of it reverberating throughout her entire body. Where were they?
A gentle, metallic breeze kissed the back of her neck and Marina whipped around, knowing her solitude had just been interrupted. Her eyes narrowed at the handsome intruder standing before her.
"Hello, Marina." The silky male voice floated across the short distance.
"What do you here, Layel?" The question emerged on an angry growl. Had this been one of her men, she would have struck him down instead of demanding an answer.
The vampire king lifted his dark brows, giving them a dangerously seductive slant. "That is no way to welcome an old friend."
Old friend? Ha. "You didn't answer my question." As she spoke, her claws elongated, preparing to strike. Why not strike him down? While the demons and vampires were not enemies, they were not friends, either. And she'd wanted to destroy this smug, haughty bloodsucker for many years. Every time she looked at him, she was reminded of the time she had begged him to love her - and he had denied her.
Vampires were fast, unnaturally fast. She'd have to take him by surprise. As she slowly inched toward him, her gaze drank him in. He was tall and lithe, a creature who radiated power and sex. A lethal combination. Many an Atlantean queen, no matter her race, had fallen prey to his deadly charms. He possessed pale skin, perfectly sculpted features, and crystalline eyes that usually revealed only mocking amusement. At the moment, he was as still as a night stalker.
"You are not welcome here," she drawled, claiming another inch closer.
"Of course I am." He chuckled, the sound rich and husky in the night. "This is my hunting field."
She stilled. Only her gaze moved as she reassessed the milieu. The trees were taller than those on her own land. Lusher. Greener. The sweet scent of ash and sulfur so prevalent to her kind did fragrance the air, but underneath it was the scent of flowering blooms and sea salt.
It was his land, which meant the vampire's own army skulked nearby, hidden and silent. Waiting.
Her claws retracted into her nailbeds, and she scowled. How had she missed them? Another failure on her part, obviously. Her scowl deepened. She might be able to kill Layel right now, but she wouldn't live long enough to gloat; no, his army would emerge from their hiding place and attack and slaughter.
"Well?" Layel prompted, his eyes narrowed. Instead of menacing, the expression made him appear all the more sensual, all the more erotic.
"I'm looking for a human," she finally said. "A man. Have you seen him?"
Layel grinned. "The human who decimated half of your palace and decapitated several of your guards?"
She gritted her teeth at the reminder. She didn't understand how one man, a human at that, had wreaked such desolation. All she knew was that she would not rest until she caught him. And when she captured that human bastard, she would feast off his body for days, prolonging his suffering and enjoying every moment of it.
"How do you know of his actions?" she demanded, her voice so sharp it could have cut glass. "Word travels fast here. That, you should know."
A movement to her right caught her attention, and Marina remained silent as one of her sentinels glided toward her. The demon camp behind him buzzed with activity. Pitching tents. Sharpening weapons. Consuming dinner - a satisfactory array of squealing pigs.
The guard, a handsome male with a profusion of horns on his arms and legs, and long raven hair that cascaded down his back, held a goblet in each hand.
He offered the first to Marina, then presented the second to Layel with an alluring smile. Her jaw twitched. Even her males were susceptible to the vampire.
"I saw you here and thought you might be thirsty," he said, his words for Marina, but his gaze on Layel. "Do not come this way again," she snapped. "Remain at camp or it will be you the army has for dessert." Expression panicked, the demon rushed to obey, the long length of his wings flapping erratically. Leaves and twigs floated and danced in his wake, before dropping back onto the dirt.
Alone with the king once again, she gripped her goblet, watching him over the rim, studying him, considering. He was so pale, so exotic. She sipped the rich, crimson liquid, wishing the animal blood were sweeter, warmer.
"Darius en Kragin has a new bride," she said, leaning against the rough bark of a tree trunk. The tips of her horns pierced the top layer. An idea began to form in her mind, overshadowing her desire to destroy the king.
Layel arched a dark brow. "I know. I have seen her." "Then you know she is human."
"Of course." He drained his goblet, his gaze never leaving hers, and unceremoniously dropped the cup. He slowly closed what little distance there was between them, gliding over the dirt and limbs in his path. When he was just within reach, he stopped, his cool breath caressing her cheek. "What does she have to do with the human male? Why do you even mention her?"
A single drop of blood trickled from his lips. She leaned forward and captured the droplet with her fingertip. She brought her finger to her lips and licked away the drop with relish.
Perhaps she and Layel could help each other. For the time being.
Yes, she thought, a wave of giddiness destroying her sense of failure. Yes. Together, they would be all-powerful. Together, they could destroy anything. Destroy anyone.
She dropped her cup to the ground, letting it clatter against his. Instead of answering his questions, she asked him one of her own. "What do you know of a portal that leads from Atlantis to the surface world?"
He laughed, his husky amusement irritating her. She scowled. Marina was not a woman to be mocked.
"The gods would not be so stupid as to place a doorway to their precious surface kingdom," he said. "They hate us. They want us to remain here, forgotten."
"Of course they would erect a doorway to the surface. If there is a way in, there has to be a way out."
"True, but a doorway would place the human world in danger, and... No, the gods would never do such a thing." His words dismissed her, as did his tone.
"Then how did Darius bring his human bride here? She was not sent by the gods. My spies claim Darius left Atlantis and brought her here."
Layel frowned and stroked two fingers over his jaw as he considered her. "The portal is not for your use, Marina."
She jerked her chin up. "So you know it's there? You know it exists, and yet you tried to pretend it does not?"
He gave a negligent shrug. "I know everything. And yes."
"You are not the Jewel of Dunamis," she said, her eyes slitting. "You cannot possibly know everything."
"Ah, Dunamis." He dragged out each syllable as if they were a caress to his senses. "A thing no longer yours to command," he said with a smirk.
The razor-sharp points of her teeth gnashed together. Every sovereign in the land had owned the jewel at some time or another, and Marina had possessed it all too shortly. "I will get it back, I assure you."
His wide shoulders lifted in another shrug. "I do not have to be Dunamis to know that the portal brings only death to Atlanteans. If you enter, the gods will kill you."
"Darius survived. Besides, the gods do not care what we do. They will not harm me, I assure you." She paused, a heavy silence encompassing her as Layel's warning echoed through her mind. Even the sounds of the demon camp and the idle chatter of her men drained away. She might sound assured, but she did not feel that way.
What if the vampire was right? The gods had ignored them for so long, had made their preference for the mortals so clear...
No. No. She wouldn't let the possibility of their anger affect her decision.
"I do not like that you have known about the portal and never thought to tell me," she said with deceptive calm, traipsing her finger over the seam of her lips.
"Perhaps it amused me to think of your ignorance."
"Are you frightened of the gods, Layel?" She smiled slowly. Innocently. Mockingly. "Do you fear their wrath? You must, you poor, poor baby. Otherwise, you would have used the portal to find yourself another human bride."
Though his expression remained neutral, impassive, and still revealed not a hint of his emotions, his teeth elongated and sharpened. He must be furious, she thought with a smug inner grin, for the man did not like to be reminded of the woman he had loved and lost.
"Best you watch your tongue, demon," he said softly. "Before you lose it."
Her head canted to the side, her own teeth lengthening. "Best you recall whom you are threatening."
The blue of his eyes sparked with flecks of red. "You do not want a war between our people, and you are very close to beginning one."
Marina dragged in a frustrated breath. If she wasn't careful, he would leave, and she would be forced to find her slave on her own. Forced to battle Darius and his dragon army alone, because she wanted control of the portal. Badly.
If only she still possessed Dunamis, she would not need Layel or anyone else. She would know exactly what battle plan would work, would know exactly what her enemy planned.
Oh, how she cursed the jewel's loss!
She did not like this feeling of helplessness. She liked even less the necessity of catering to another creature - especially the seductive and enigmatic Layel.
"We both know you hate Darius," she said, padding a few steps away from him. His closeness unnerved her. She watched as trees swayed against the breeze. "He killed your lover, and you have never had revenge."
Layel didn't answer for a long while. When he did, his features were blank, revealing no emotion, but his voice was thick with dry amusement. "Such subtlety warms my heart. Truly it does."
"You do not have a heart."
"True," he said, his amusement richer. "Tell me something. Why do you wish to travel to the surface? You are a queen, and you possess everything you could ever wish."
"Are you truly so foolish you do not know?"
When he made no reply, she added, "Think of it. On the surface, we will be the gods. Not kings and queens, but gods who are worshipped and revered. Humans will be forced to obey our every command and we will drink from their bodies anytime we desire, no longer reliant on animals to sustain us."
"You would risk the gods' wrath for dessert?" He tsked under his tongue. "Silly demon. Can you truly be so foolish?"
As the sound of his renewed amusement echoed from the forest, her irritation with him intensified. Bastard. Could he not see the rightness of her fantasy? "You know as well as I that there is nothing sweeter than human blood."
"I have done without for so long, I hardly remember the taste."
She tried another line of persuasion. "Have you ever longed to fly until you see nothing but heaven? I have. Here, we never reach anything but crystal and water. I crave freedom, Layel. True freedom." Never mind she repeated the same words her slave girl always gave her. This was different. This was her desire.
Several moments dragged by in silence. Layel liked doing that, liked making her wait for his response. Patience was not part of her nature, and waiting now, when the matter held such importance, proved impossible. "On the surface, you can seduce a thousand human women if that is your desire. You can find another human to love," she added on a whispery catch of breath.
His lips dipped into a wistful frown, giving his features a lethal kind of beauty. In that moment, she knew that she had him. Knew that he would help her in any way necessary.
With a conscious effort, she kept the blaze of triumph from her expression. "Together, we can control the portal. Together," she added, "we can destroy Darius and his army and get inside his palace. That is where the portal resides, isn't it?"
He nodded, one slow decline of his chin.
"Fire kills you. My demons are impervious to it. And your vampires can do things we cannot. Darius will never be able to fight both our armies at the same time."
Utter silence reigned for several long moments.
Her fists clenched as she awaited his answer.
"Very well," he said smoothly, as if he hadn't kept her waiting. He nodded again. "I will help you."
"You will not regret this decision." That was the truth, for a dead man could not regret anything. Once Layel no longer proved useful... She grinned. "From this day forward, let it be known vampires and demons are allies."
His lips pursed, but he didn't deny her words. "My spies saw the human male and a female slave headed for Javar's palace."
She crossed her arms over her chest. "The former dragon king is dead. His palace is empty. Why go there?"
"If there is a portal at Darius's palace, doesn't it stand to reason that there is one at Javar's, as well? The human will want to travel through it. You can kill him and we can take the first and easiest portal, then worry about the other."
Her eyes widened. "You are right. We will kill the human, steal back my slave, and I will take possession of one of the portals. Perfect." And so much easier than she ever could have imagined.
"Don't you mean we will take possession?" he asked, one brow arched. "Yes, of course," she lied glibly. "We."
"I will gather the rest of my army and return within the hour." Offering no other explanation, he disappeared, moving so quickly it was as if he'd never been there.
Marina finally allowed her smile of victory to emerge. Life suddenly seemed so sweet.
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