As she watched, her eyes still open—maybe it was a dream, yet another dream where she believed she’d woken up; no it couldn’t be a dream, she’d never felt pain in one of those dreams—the small crack widened and lengthened into a rapidly growing spiderweb.
Her confusion turned to terror and her mind started screaming at her, a mindless howl of fear that turned to rage.
LET ME OUT, LET ME OUT, LET ME OUT!
Almost before she had time to realize she might be in danger, a wave of power built up in the crystal case until the cover shattered, exploding outward as if she’d shoved it with a giant smithy’s hammer. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t process the shocking truth.
She was free.
And her magic had grown exponentially since she’d last attempted to use it, thanks to the influence of the Emperor’s power.
Ignoring everything outside her immediate actions, she took a deep breath and then the next step—the first step. Carefully, oh so carefully, she lifted one leg, bare under the long tunic she wore, and stepped out onto the marble floor, easily avoiding the glass shards that had blown several paces away from her small pod. She stood, gazing around herself in wild-eyed wonder, for nearly the space of a single thought, and then her legs gave way beneath her and she collapsed onto the cool, hard surface.
Magic and stasis had kept her body in perfect working order, but neither could overcome the dueling emotions warring inside her. Ecstasy fought terror and her mind was the battleground—the shock of finally, finally attaining the freedom she’d dreamed of for so very long threatened to shake her rational mind free of its foundation. She huddled on the floor for a moment, then lifted her head and forced her voice to work. “I’m free. Oh, thank Poseidon, I am free.”
Perhaps not words profound to anyone else but her, but that was enough. She scanned the room, still lying on the marble floor she’d last touched when Atlantis rode the surface of the waves, finally thinking to wonder why the attendants hadn’t come to her aid. The answer was instantly apparent. The burst of power that had shattered her crystal cage must have smashed the three of them against the walls of the chamber, and they lay unconscious on the floor.
She hoped they were only unconscious. She summoned long-unused senses, tentatively reaching out to them. Yes, unconscious. Relief poured through her. Three hearts beating strongly. She hadn’t woken into the new millennium as a murderer, even an accidental one. She pulled herself up to stand, moving cautiously, not trusting that the magic had really kept her limbs in working order. But both legs worked and her muscles felt as firm and flexible as if she’d walked across the palace courtyard just hours before, instead of countless years ago.
A high priest’s magic, fueled by a god’s power, had held her safe and whole for so long. But what, then, was happening now? Still moving slowly, she made her way to the other glass cases, one by one, around the room, to all five that still held occupants. Five more women, all so young when they’d been encased in crystal. The youngest, Delia, had been only twenty-five years old, the same age as Serai, when they’d trapped her. Just barely old enough to wed, by Atlantean standards—ten or more years past that by the conventions of the rest of the world at that time. But Atlanteans lived a very long life span, and a quarter century was barely old enough to risk the soul-meld—hundreds of years bound to the same person.
She shook her head, impatient with her wandering thoughts. Perhaps the stasis that hadn’t weakened her body had weakened her mind. Shouts in the distance alerted her to the very real possibility that the priests of Poseidon’s temple had sensed the disturbance here.
“If they catch me, they’ll try to trap me,” she said, either apologizing or making excuses to Merlina, the woman sleeping in the pod nearest to her. “I can’t take the chance. I can’t be caged again—not ever. I have to run.” Desperation shuddered through her, but she forced her trembling body to move. One step, then another, until she came to the first attendant lying so still against the marble wall. A painting, of, oddly enough, peacocks wandering in the palace gardens, had fallen and crashed onto the floor near the man, luckily missing his head. Or maybe it had fallen first, then he. She didn’t know, and she didn’t need to know.
She needed to run.
No weapons anywhere in sight, not that she wanted to use them, but if she had to defend herself, she would. Daniel had taught her basic sword fighting during the hours she’d escaped her guards and met him at his forge.
Daniel, again. Always hiding in her mind, a ghost haunting both her dreams and her waking mind. The memory of his bare, muscled arms gleaming in the reflected light of the fire as he worked on one of his commissions caused her breath to hitch a little. The blacksmith and the lady. So impossible.
No time for memories. The shouting voices were coming closer. She’d always been fast. She would run so far they’d never find her. To the portal and even beyond. She slipped through the doorway that she remembered entering on that last, horrible day, saw the sunlight from windows down the hall, and nearly fell down to her knees from pure joy. But it was too late to run, the door at the end of the hall was opening, so she ducked behind a column and called on Poseidon to hide her from her enemies. And, even more important, to hide her from anyone who wanted to be her friend.
High Prince Conlan made it to the Maidens’ Chamber close on the heels of the priest running flat out in front of him, because he flew there in mist form and didn’t bother with walking until he hit the doorway.
“Tell me,” he demanded, knowing the priest, too, had felt the massive power surge, unlike anything Conlan had ever experienced in Atlantis.
“You know the gem from Poseidon’s trident, the Emperor, controls the stasis pods,” the man told him, stumbling over the words. “It has been erratic lately. Causing some sort of magical stuttering in the connection to the maidens.”
Conlan managed not to slice skin off the man’s hide with a blistering reply, but he had little patience these days for people wasting his time by repeating what he already knew.
“What I know is that you have five seconds to explain what just happened, or find someone else who can.” Conlan strode past the man and into the main chamber, pausing at the threshold at the sight of shards of crystal littering the floor and fallen attendants lying scattered, like discarded dolls flung by a careless child.
“Poseidon’s balls. What in the nine hells happened here?” He didn’t stop for the priest’s reply, but crouched down by the first fallen attendant, checking for a pulse. The man turned his face and opened his eyes, blinking in confusion.
“What happened?” His eyes widened and he tried to push himself upright. “Your Highness.”
Conlan recognized Horace, the chief attendant. “Rest a minute, but tell me what happened while I check on these others.”
Horace nodded but then shook his head and scrambled to his feet to follow Conlan. “Yes, sire. I mean, no, I have to check on the maidens.”
Both of the other attendants, two women Conlan recognized by face only, were already stirring, so he turned to the priest who was still standing in the doorway, wringing his hands. Conlan narrowed his eyes. He needed to talk to Alaric about his choice of acolytes. This one was useless.
“You,” he snapped. “Get the healers over here. Now.”
The priest bobbed his head and then, backing out and doing a bizarre sort of dancing bow, turned and ran for help. Conlan shook his head in disgust. Damn Alaric anyway. The high priest should be here to help him with this, not off in North America somewhere pining over Quinn.
Horace was bent over one of the crystal stasis cases, his hands splayed on the surface, his eyes closed, perfectly still, but Conlan could feel the power humming from whatever the chief attendant was doing.
“She’s fine,” Horace said, opening his eyes and sighing. “I’ll check the others.”
Conlan nodded and headed for the case that clearly wasn’t fine. The case he’d stared into with mixed portions of anticipation and dismay on many occasions throughout his life. The case that had held the incredibly beautiful woman who once was to have been his wife and the future queen of Atlantis.
Except it was empty. Shattered. Clearly the explosion of crystal had originated here.
He spoke out loud the words he couldn’t quite believe. “She’s gone. Serai is missing.”
Serai, still crouching down in hiding, heard the voice she’d once anticipated with such fear and longing. It was him. The high prince. The one who’d been destined to marry her. The one who’d abandoned her for the charms of a human woman, according to the attendants and their gossip.
She hated him. Not that she’d ever wanted to marry a man she didn’t know and could never love. No, she despised High Prince Pretty Boy Conlan because he wasn’t Daniel, and because he’d been her chance for freedom and he’d left her to rot.
Enough woolgathering. Conlan had called for healers. More people would be coming. And Poseidon only knew where High Priest Alaric was—if he appeared, her brief moment of freedom would be over. The high priest terrified her.
It was time to run, and she knew exactly where to go. The portal and then the surface. The Emperor’s unique magic had fed knowledge of the outside world and of Atlantis to her and the other maidens for all these years. She could hide there; she would be inconspicuous and fit in—just another human woman, not a discarded Atlantean queen-to-be. She knew the languages. She could speak modern slang, even.
“Groovy,” she whispered. “That’s a bitchin’ idea.”
And then she picked up the hem of her skirt and ran.
Daniel walked into the water in the cool pearly light of impending dawn. It had been water that separated him from Serai, after all, and it only seemed fitting that water stand guard and witness over him at the time of the true death. The few people he could see were jogging, that peculiar human preoccupation with spending hundreds of dollars on shoes and clothing to drive their cars for an hour, so they could run for five minutes.
Human logic. It would have destroyed them all thousands of years ago, their stubborn, foolish excuse for logic, but the humans had one crucial quality that neither the vampires, the Fae, or even the shape-shifters could ever possess: they bred like rabbits. The sheer overwhelming numbers of them far outweighed any concentrated threat by any of the supernatural factions.
But unlike rabbits, humans had forgotten how to run—really run—most of them. Daniel bared his teeth in what passed for a smile with him these days, not even caring for once if his fangs were showing. He could show them again what it was to run. Run for their lives.
Run from the monster.
He’d done it before. He’d even enjoyed it. Ripping throats open with his teeth. Bathing in fountains of blood. Brutal, violent, glorious death. Back in the dark days. The lost days. After he’d died the first death and risen, cold and alone and without the only woman he’d ever loved. He’d become a monster and a killer, and he’d reveled in it.
But no more.
Now it was time to die.
He thought briefly of last words as dawn edged its way into the world, turning the edges of the obelisk from silver to a rosy glow as the sun rose, proudly silhouetted against the morning sky. What would be fitting to close the chapter of a single lonely vampire who’d lived for so very very long? Memory was nothing more than a collection of clutter, polished and positioned to shine in the light of untrustworthy wishful thinking and hindsight. Death took its final inventory, and nothing survived it except deeds recorded in history books by the victorious.
So he didn’t try for the momentous, instead speaking only the truth of his heart.
“Good-bye, Serai. I have always loved you. If there truly is a land beyond this one, may I find you again.”
Then he raised his face to the horizon and watched the sun rise for the first time in thousands of years. The shimmering first rays swam toward him on the surface of the water, changing the deep rose of dawn to burnished gold. Closer, ever closer, until the first questing ray of light from something like his four millionth day on the earth reached his legs.
No pain—not yet—just a sense of wonder at the glory of it. How could he ever have resigned himself to eternal night? Especially alone in the darkest reaches of his own heart. Always alone.
Closer. Rising to his waist. Still no burning—no uncovered skin yet touched by the deadly glow.
He took a breath, drew it deep into lungs that hadn’t breathed daylight air in so long. Closed his eyes, then opened them again. He’d face this final test with the same defiance with which he’d lived his entire life.
Heat now. Burning. Fire sizzled across the skin of his throat at his open shirt collar. He raised his chin. Only one final moment of life—but no regrets. It was too late for that. Agony seared through him as the sun struck his face, full-on, and he clenched his teeth against the scream.
A final blast of heat and pain crushed his courage under the sun’s indifferent power, and he fell forward into the pool, silently screaming or cursing or praying, and the vortex of light and sound sucked him in, sucked him under, pulled him through, whirling and twisting, over and over, around and around, until a shove from a mighty force smashed him face-first into a solid surface.
He was dead, finally, finally dead. And he was lying on . . . grass?
The afterlife was paved in grass? He’d not expected that. Not for one such as him. Maybe oceans of burning lava or canyons filled with blazing fire. The deepest levels of the nine hells were surely reserved for vampires. However, not only was he lying on grass, which smelled like a particularly ripe and blooming spring, but he was lying in the sunlight. He was lying in some verdant field of the afterlife in sunshine . . . and he wasn’t burning.
Defiance gave way to joy, and he murmured thanks to any gods who would listen. All save one. The vampire goddess Anubisa deserved no thanks from him, and may she rot in whatever dark corner to which she’d escaped. Maybe not an appropriate thought for heaven, though.
He rested there for a long minute, with his face pressed into the grass, every bone in his body aching with the force of the collision, and considered whether or not to lift his head and look around. Before he could make that crucial decision, the unmistakable point of a spear jabbed him in the side of his neck, and a voice that had haunted him since his first death spoke.