No time to worry or wonder now, it was so close . . . oh, goddess, it was an amethyst the size of an ostrich egg. Even if it hadn’t held such incredible power, the monetary value alone would have made the risk worthwhile. As it was, Ian’s future was now secured.
The gem floated closer and closer to Ivy’s trembling fingers, and she sent one last prayer to the dark goddess who’d owned her heart since Ivy’s first communion with the moon. “Protect me, Lady, and help me to master this new gift I offer to your glory.”
The gem stopped its forward motion and shook slightly, almost as if in response to the prayer, but then it soared through the air even faster and slammed into Ivy’s waiting hands. She had a moment to wonder at its cool, hard weight before its power smashed through her defenses, through her mental shield, and through any pretense or hope she’d had of being the one in control. Images cascaded through her mind, ancient images and glittering scenes of persons and places so fantastic that Ivy’s brain couldn’t keep up with the input. She tried to open her fingers to release the gem, to break the connection, but the amethyst clearly had other ideas. Her hands were frozen in place, and she was unable to break her own grip.
The gem’s power lashed out at her with a crushing pressure on her mind—either a warning or a punishment—and the last thing she saw before the blackness took her was Aretha Moon Blossom, lying on her back on the dark floor, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling from bleeding eyes.
Nicholas walked carefully around the dead human on the floor and motioned to one of his blood pride to deal with it. He stood a couple of paces away from the fallen sorceress and stared down at her, listening to the faint, stuttering beat of her heart.
“Are you sure we can’t take it away from her?” Smithson asked, greed shining in his beady eyes.
“No. Everything we know about this stone tells us that only the most powerful sorcerers even dare touch it. She has obviously achieved a connection, and it would almost certainly kill both her and whichever unfortunate being tried to take it from her.”
“Can we touch her?”
“Only one way to find out.”
Vampire looked at human, neither willing to be the first to drop his gaze.
Nicholas finally laughed. “For a human, you’re surprisingly unafraid of me.”
His temporary ally shrugged. “I’m not just a human. I’m an investment banker. Some would call me an even worse bloodsucker than you.”
Nicholas laughed again. “Ah, such self-awareness in one so young. This alliance may prove to be most entertaining. Are you sure that Ivy Khetta will agree to continue? The young one died, and I doubt she intended that.”
The banker, Smithson, smiled. Nicholas had seen just such soulless smiles in the rare demons he’d encountered over the centuries. He managed not to shudder, but just barely.
“She’ll have incentive. Trust me,” Smithson said.
Smithson pointed at a couple of his thugs, who were hovering far enough away that they hadn’t heard the conversation about the possibility of hideous death. “Bring her. Carefully. We have to get out of here before the park personnel show up.”
They lifted the sorceress and . . . nothing blew up.
Nobody else died.
Nicholas was faintly disappointed.
Daniel watched Serai as she tossed and turned in a restless sleep, her hair tangling around her. He wanted to stroke it back from her face, whisper soothing endearments to ease her, but those were a lover’s prerogatives, so he refrained. Also, if he touched her, she might wake up, and she needed to rest. She was exhausted and the sun’s pull called to him to sleep, too, but he wasn’t willing to close his eyes for a minute. She might disappear again. This dream he was living in which a long-dead love suddenly returned to him at the moment he’d finally decided to face his own death was too surreal to be true. He couldn’t trust it yet.
He wasn’t sure he trusted her, either.
It was too . . . something. Too coincidental, too unexpected, too unreal.
And so, here he was again, back to reality, or the lack thereof. His mind and heart had fought over the problem during the past hour or so while she slept, but he couldn’t quite reach a conclusion. Quinn and Jack had been real enough. He didn’t know whether to laugh or snarl at the memory of Jack rolling over to show his belly like a submissive kitten being chided by its mother. If Jack had hurt Serai, Daniel would have ripped him to tiny, furry pieces.
But Serai hadn’t needed his help. A saber-toothed tiger, of all the impossible things. He’d known she had some magic, back when she was a girl, but this? Again, his mind stuttered at the paradox. Back when she was a girl—no. She’d been a woman then, as she was now. Almost to her twenty-fifth birthday when he’d known her. An important one, in Atlantean culture; the birthday that signaled she was old enough to be courted. To wed.
He’d had plans for that birthday. He’d begun sketches for a piece of jewelry he wanted to craft for her from the most amazing Atlantean metal, orichalcum. Like copper infused with silver, tensile and malleable yet stronger than steel. He’d wanted to design and forge a pendant that captured her beauty and her grace, but nothing had seemed good enough. Never elegant enough.
He’d been a blacksmith’s apprentice, after all, not a jeweler’s.
She kicked the blanket off again, and he gave in to the impulse and gently pulled her onto his lap. He wanted—no, he needed—to hold her in his arms again. To prove to himself that she was real. Her soft warmth belied the notion that she might be a ghost, and he had to fight himself to keep from holding her so tightly she wouldn’t be able to breathe. She stirred a little, but didn’t wake.
The scent of the ocean surrounded her; more fragile and yet more perfect than any perfume. She smelled of sunlight, salt water, and hope. The hope that he might indeed have a future. One with someone other than his faithful, constant companions over the last millennia: loneliness and despair. The search for redemption alone was never enough to keep a man warm at night, not body or heart or soul.
But Serai—she was everything. If only she could ever forgive him.
If only he could trust her.
If only he could trust reality. He tightened his embrace, as if strength alone could capture moonlight.
Her eyes flew open and she stared up at him, terrified again, as if she remembered nothing, or else far too much. She started to speak, but her body suddenly went into spasm, and she arched up in his arms, her head almost smashing into his chin before he jerked his head back and out of the way. She screamed loud and long, with such a piercing shriek that two of Quinn’s guards ran into the room, weapons at the ready.
“It’s just a bad dream,” he yelled at them. “Stay out.”
“Hell of a bad dream,” one of them observed.
But they left, and that’s all he cared about. As she gasped for breath, he rocked back and forth, making soothing noises, trying to think of what might calm her down or wake her up or whatever it took to make her stop screaming as if she were dying.
The world might not survive the monster he would become if she left him for a second time.
“Daniel?” She looked up at him with those enormous ocean-blue eyes, eyes a man could drown in, and he knew that he was lost. “Why did you leave me? What really happened that day?”
“Shouldn’t we talk about more current events? Like what just happened? What or who is the Emperor, and why is it affecting you like this?” He forced himself to release her when she pulled away from him to sit up on the pallet, leaning back against the wall.
She drew in deep breaths, and he tried not to think about what interesting things that did to her breasts under the filmy dress she had on, but hell, he was only a man. Vampire, yes; mage, once; politician, no more; but before and after all of that, he was only a man, and hot damn but she was beautiful.
“The Emperor is a gemstone from Poseidon’s trident,” she finally said, when her breathing was back under control. “One of the seven that the Atlanteans of my time scattered throughout the world when Atlantis dove beneath the sea.”
“Why? And who had the balls to steal jewels from the sea god?”
“There’s no need to be crude,” she said, and he was intrigued to see the flush that rose in her cheeks, visible even by firelight.
She was blushing. Eleven thousand years old and still an innocent. The lustful images his mind had been playing as he watched her in the firelight washed away in a wave of guilt and shame. She was lost, in trouble, and hurting. She was a maiden, she’d said, and though part of him was primitively, stupidly glad that no man had ever touched her, the weight of the knowledge sobered him. She was a virginal Atlantean princess, and he was a monster. Beauty and the beast never had a happy ending together in real life. He of all beasts knew that.
“Poseidon gave his trident to Atlantis so that we could escape war on the surface,” Serai said. “I think it was only supposed to be a temporary measure. But as the years, centuries, and then millennia passed, the secret of where the jewels had been originally hidden—not to mention where they had gone since then—was lost.”
Daniel jumped up and walked around again, needing to put distance between them. “What does that have to do with you? I understand on the bigger level, Atlantis needs all the gems to rise, right. But why is the Emperor causing you pain?”
“The Emperor has special powers. Well, all the jewels do, actually. But one of the Emperor’s powers is to sustain Atlanteans in stasis, through a connecting gemstone.”
Daniel had heard stranger things. He nodded and motioned to her to continue.
Serai shrugged. “I’m not exactly sure of the mechanics of it, if that’s what you’re asking. Who really understands how magic works? All I know is that the analogy one of the priests used several thousand years ago resonated with me. He compared the Emperor to a great river like the Nile; both sustain life. And, like the Nile overflowing its banks to irrigate Egypt, once a year the Emperor flooded our minds with information, so when we were awakened, we weren’t anachronistic, useless women with no knowledge of how the world and Atlantis had changed in our . . . absence.”
Daniel realized belatedly that she’d been speaking English as well as she’d spoken ancient Atlantean. “How many languages do you speak?”
“I don’t know. All of them?”
His mind flashed back to a movie he’d watched with Ven once on a rare evening the demands on an Atlantean warrior and a vampire leader abated enough for them to escape their responsibilities. “Can you do kung fu?”
“What? What are you talking about?” She stood up and pushed the heavy weight of her hair back from her face, igniting in him a powerful desire to be the one touching her hair. Kissing her sensual lips. Caressing—No.
Virgin. In trouble. Not taking advantage of her. Not if he ever wanted to live with himself.
“What about kung fu?”
“Nothing. Never mind. Stupid random thought. So why is the jewel hurting you?”
She crossed to the fire and put her hands out to the heat, although it wasn’t particularly cold in the cave. Not to him, at least. Maybe to a woman fresh out of thousands of years in a crystal prison, it felt freezing. He had no idea how to deal with this Serai, the woman who had stepped out of a fairy tale, so beautiful and so tempting.
“Sleeping Beauty,” he murmured.
She glanced back at him over her shoulder, the fire silhouetting her curves through the thin material of the dress, and his body hardened. Wanting. Needing. Even his fangs were aching, trying to drop down, and he’d had complete control over them for centuries. He realized he was breathing in time with the beat of her heart, and he forced himself to back away as far as he could get. Still, it was a cave. He was maybe a dozen paces from her, a distance he could cross in a split second with vampiric speed.
She could be his, the monster inside him whispered. She belonged to him. He could take her, right now, and never let her get away from him.
“Daniel, I need your help.”
He sighed. The four deadliest words in any language, especially when spoken by a damsel in distress. He smiled at the thought of a woman who could become a saber-toothed tiger ever being a damsel in distress, but what the hell. He had his little quirks—the delusion that he could ever be a white knight foremost among them—and he was way past believing he could change.
“You’re smiling?” Her voice rose, and he could tell she was annoyed. She’d gotten that little frown on her face, the same patrician, aristocratic expression that had warned her guards all those years ago that they’d better leave her alone for a while or face a highly unpleasant few hours.
“You need my help, and I gladly and most willingly give it, my lady,” he said, sweeping his best, if quite rusty, bow. He’d been a blacksmith, not a courtier. “But I need more of the facts. What is the Emperor doing to you, and what do you need my help with?”
“It’s connected to me and to the other maidens, who are still in stasis, and somebody is trying to use it. Someone has already tried to channel magic through it, and it nearly killed him . . . no, her,” she said thoughtfully. “It felt like female magic. She’s gone now, from my awareness, either dead or unconscious, but for a moment we were connected. I could feel the others, too. If this woman, this witch, tries to wield the Emperor again, it could kill us all.”
At the thought of Serai’s death, the breath left Daniel’s body so fast and hard he nearly doubled over, but instead he put his hands on the hilts of the daggers he always wore, even in Washington.
Actually, especially in Washington.
“We need to find it. Now,” he said, and his voice rasped as he formed the words.
“I can feel it,” she said. “I think I can find it. We should leave now.” She started toward the cave entryway, but stumbled before she’d gotten three steps.
“You have to rest first,” Daniel said, catching her before she could fall, and steeling himself against the punch of bloodlust. “Sleep. Your body isn’t used to so much activity. I don’t know how you’re walking at all, actually, after such a long period of inactivity. How are your muscles not atrophied?”
“The Emperor and the high priests over the years took care of that. Magic can achieve what science cannot, after all. Think of it. How am I even alive in a world that has changed beyond any possibility of recognition?”
She pulled away from him a little but then surrendered to his unspoken demand, leaning back against his chest and sighing. Daniel realized she was trembling, and he swept her into his arms and carried her back over to the pallet. He arranged the blankets around her again, prepared to wait on the floor near the entry way, blocking anyone from entering, but she stopped him with one slender hand on his arm. He stared down at the curve of her wrist and at her delicate fingers, wondering how something so clearly fragile had the power to stop him in his tracks.