"WAKE UP, SHAYE." Shake. "Wake up."
Shaye heard the voice from a long, dark tunnel. Yes, she thought. Must. Wake. Up. Trouble was nearby. Trouble for her, for Valerian. Gradually consciousness worked through her mind, chasing away the darkness.
Slowly she cracked open her eyelids. Sunlight glared down at her and orange-gold spots danced before her vision. Dry cotton filled her mouth. Sand and salt coated her entire body. Her clothes were stiff, as if they'd soaked and dried right on her. The sound of lulling waves greeted her ears, soothing, familiar. Yet... wrong. The smells weren't right, either. Yes, she smelled salt, but not orchids. Not Valerian.
"Valerian," she said. Her throat felt raw, scratchy. "Valerian."
"No. It's me."
Her attention veered to the speaker. Her... "Mom?" She rubbed at her eyes. "What are you doing here?"
"I've been haunting the beach since you were taken. Are you - " her mother gulped " - okay? Did they hurt you?"
"I'm fine." From the corner of her eye, she saw Kathleen pass her, dark hair hanging in tangles around her sandy face. "What's going on?" Shaye demanded of her.
"We were brought back to the surface," she said, never slowing.
Brought back... Understanding clicked. Yes. The dragons had invaded Valerian's room, had threatened to take her to the surface, then rendered her unconscious. She shoved to her feet. Her equilibrium was off balance, and she swayed. Her mom wrapped an arm around her waist.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yes. I'll be fine," Shaye said, massaging her temples to ward off the dizziness. When the world righted itself, she catalogued her surroundings. White-gold sand stretched as far as the eyes could see. Waves crested to the beach, leaving sea foam in their wake. The sun shone brightly, no hint of crystal.
There was a group of scuba-clad men sitting nearby, reminiscent of the time Valerian came to the surface. They were gazing around the beach in confusion.
"I wasn't here when they arrived," her mom explained, realizing the direction of her gaze. "But I questioned them when they awoke. They can't recall their names, why they're here, or even how they got here."
Had the dragons wiped their memories, too? Sleep, woman, they'd told her. On the morrow, you will not remember any of this. But she did remember. Everything. Kathleen, too, had seemed to remember.
"There's even a boat docked over there." Her mom pointed to the right. "The men inside don't know anything, either, but I saw the initials OBI on some papers, whatever that means."
"I still don't understand why you're here," Shaye said, pinning her with a frown.
Tamara's expression became tortured. "After you disappeared, the police arrived at the tent. They didn't believe us when we told them what had happened. They laughed at us, said you girls had probably gotten bored and taken off. All I could think was that you were gone, I'd never see you again, and the last words between us had been harsh."
"I - " didn't know what to say, Shaye realized. Her mother had never shown her such a vulnerable, repentant side.
"I haven't been the best mother. I know that," the distressed woman rushed on. "And I know things will probably never be comfortable between us. I'm just glad you're okay."
Tears burned Shaye's eyes as she wrapped her arms around her mom. "Thank you for that." She'd wanted closure, and she'd gotten it.
Tamara hugged her back, expelling a shaky breath.
"So you're happy?" Shaye asked her.
"Yes." Her mom drew back and wiped at her own tears with the back of her wrist. "I think Conner truly is the love of my life, and Preston seems to like me. They're at opposite ends of the beach, passing out fliers with your picture and asking if anyone's seen you."
Wow. For the first time in her life, Shaye felt like she had an actual family. An honest-to-God family. But... "I have to go back, Mom." She wanted - needed - Valerian. He probably thought she'd left him on purpose. If he wasn't - No! She wouldn't think of him as dead. He was strong, the strongest man she'd ever encountered. He would have gathered his army and defeated the dragons.
"I have to go back," she repeated.
"Go back where, exactly?"
She didn't have time to explain. "Just... find Conner and Preston and tell them I'm okay. Tell Preston I'm sorry for the way I acted at the wedding. I'll return if I can. If not, know that I'm happy and that I've found the man of my dreams, too."
"But - "
"Trust me. Please." Shaye gave her mom one last hug and moved toward the water. All around her, women in Atlantean robes were awakening. Any beachgoers probably assumed they'd come from a costume party, and had drunk and swum afterward.
"Are you going back?" Kathleen asked, suddenly at her side.
"I want to go with you."
The whole world could come if they wanted. She didn't care, as long as she could go back herself. She loved Valerian. There, she'd admitted it. She did. She loved him with all of her heart, a heart she'd once thought too cold to care for anyone. But she couldn't deny her feelings any longer.
Fear had made her do so, she realized that now. When faced with the choice to live without Valerian... there was no greater fear than that. He loved her, too. She wouldn't doubt him any longer. He loved her for exactly who she was; he didn't want her to change.
Water lapped at her ankles, sand squished between her toes. Rising, rising, the cool liquid soon hit her calves, her thighs. If those dragons hurt her man in any way, she'd hunt them down and destroy them.
She swam as far as she could, all the women with her, then dove under the water. When she didn't see the portal, she came back up for air. Hours passed, but they didn't give up their search. Shaye's body tired, her lungs burned.
"Why are we doing this?" Kathleen panted as she treaded water beside her. "I... I can't remember."
"Atlantis." Shaye swallowed a mouthful of salty liquid. "The nymphs."
"The who?" Kathleen's face scrunched in confusion. So did everyone else's - except Brenna's. She possessed an aura of determination, just like Shaye.
"I hate to swim," one of the women said. "I'm going home."
"This is stupid."
"I don't even know how I got here. Wasn't I at a wedding?" On and on they muttered as they swam back to the beach.
They were forgetting, just as the dragons had promised, and Shaye was suddenly afraid of the same happening to herself. Already Valerian's face was blurred in her mind. "I won't forget," she said between labored breaths.
"We have to get back," Brenna wheezed.
They swam under and up for an hour longer. By then Shaye was shaking with fatigue. Tears streamed down her cheeks, tears of frustration and fury. If she didn't go back to shore, she would drown here. Brenna, too. The need to get back to... what was his name?
I will not forget. Valerian. Yes! That was it. His name was Valerian, and she loved him. "One more dive," she told Brenna.
Brenna was gasping for breath, but she nodded. "Need. Joachim."
If they failed to find the portal this time, they would swim back to shore and try again tomorrow. Try every day until they succeeded. When Shaye went under, the salt stung her eyes. But she pushed herself farther than ever before, Brenna at her side.
The ocean's bottom remained out of sight.
Shaye's arms and legs shook violently. Fish brushed against her. Damn this, she mentally cried. Brenna stopped moving, her hands and feet stilling, and Shaye grabbed on to her. She switched directions, angling upward. But it was too late. She'd pushed herself too far and didn't have the strength to swim the rest of the way up.
At first she panicked, flailing, opening her mouth, desperate to fill her burning lungs with oxygen. She swallowed more water instead. Still she retained a grip on her friend, trying to get them both to the top.
A strange blackness, thicker than any other darkness she'd ever encountered, began to weave through her mind. Then a flash of light sparked in her line of vision. A bubble floated in front of her, growing, growing, until it completely surrounded her and Brenna.
She spit out a mouthful of water and gasped for breath. Miraculously, she sucked in actual air. Wet hair clung to her face, but she didn't brush it aside. Couldn't. Was she dreaming? Dead? She dropped to her knees in front of Brenna, who lay unconscious. She'd never performed CPR, but she'd seen it done and mimicked the motions.
"Come on," she panted. "Come on."
After a long while of pumping and breathing for her friend, Brenna coughed. Her eyes remained closed, but she, too, sucked in a breath of air. Depleted, Shaye sagged beside her.
"Foolish human," a deep, thunderous voice growled. "Why are you doing this? You nearly died, both of you. And for what?"
Her exhausted gaze circled the bubble. Water churned around it, but she couldn't see a person - inside or out. "Where are you? Who are you?"
"I am Poseidon, God of the Sea."
A god. A freaking god. "Take me to Valerian," she demanded.
He laughed. "A command from a human. Your sense of humor pleases me. Unfortunately, your lover is already dead."
"No." Fierce despair tried to sink sharp claws inside of her. "No. He can't be."
Colorful sparks appeared just in front of her, solidifying into a male form. He was beautiful, more so than even Valerian. White hair framed an utterly masculine face. His eyes were as blue as the ocean, a liquid crystal, utterly hypnotic. They were almost neon, glowing, pulsing with energy and power.
"Valerian disobeyed the laws of Atlantis. He brought humans into the city."
"He doesn't deserve to die for that," she snarled at him, trying to gather the strength to rise. She could only lie there.
Poseidon smiled at her, an amused twitching of his sensual lips. "I had forgotten how fierce you humans can be when someone you love is threatened. It is quite entertaining."
"Take me to Valerian. Right now!"
He quickly lost his smile. "Do you wish to die? With your every word, you are begging me to slay you."
"Please." She nearly curled into a sobbing heap. "I just want Valerian."
Poseidon studied her face for a long while, then studied Brenna's. His expression never softened. "I told you, he is already dead."
"No. I won't believe you until you show him to me. I would know if he was dead. I would feel it."
Silence. Even the water refused to make noise.
Then, "What would you give me if I allowed you to see him? To go to him?"
"Anything. Everything." A huge black-and-white whale swam past her side, its majestic body consuming the area. She watched in amazement as it lowered its head to Poseidon.
"Your own life?" the god asked.
He blinked in surprise.
"Have you never been in love?" she asked. "Have you never craved another person so much you would rather die without them?"
"No," he admitted. "The concept is laughable at best." Slowly he circled her, his hair like a curtain, ribboning in the air. His body was fluid, rippling like waves.
She maintained eye contact.
"I am not an evil god, but to send you back into Atlantis and allow the nymphs to live will make me appear soft. My people will continue to break the law."
Joy thrummed through her because, with his words, he'd confirmed the nymphs were not yet dead, that there was still time. "Or," she said, "they'll think you merciful and sing your praises and be happy to obey your every whim."
His eyes narrowed, but not before she saw sparks of pleasure flickering in their depths. "You think you are clever, don't you?"
"I just want to be with my man."
There was a long pause. "Watching one such as you battle with the nymph king could be amusing," he said absently.
He wanted to be amused, did he? "I'll give him nothing but trouble," she promised. "I'll turn his life upside down. I'll create absolute havoc."
As she spoke, the god's expression became more and more excited. Visions of the coming trouble were rolling through his mind; she could see it in his eyes. "Very well," he said, and there was relish in his tone. "I will allow you to reenter Atlantis."
Her joy tripled, an avalanche of incomparable force. "Thank you, thank you so much. Brenna, too, right?"
"I suppose." He sighed.
"You will not regret this, I promise you."
"However," he continued as if she hadn't spoken, "I will not stop the course I have set. I will allow the Fates to decide what befalls the nymphs. The dragons even now have them at their mercy - a mercy they do not possess."
The bubble burst in the next instant, and water suddenly barraged her. She reached for Brenna but couldn't find her. Water shot inside her nostrils, her mouth, her lungs. A dark void closed around her, spinning her in every direction. Stars winked in and out. Then the water was sucked away, leaving only a tunnel.
She coughed and sputtered as she fell, tumbling headlong into an abyss. She wasn't frightened, though. She knew Valerian awaited her on the other end. Valerian. Her love, her life.
Suddenly her feet hit a solid foundation, jarring her all the way to her bones. She swayed, righted herself. Cracked open her eyes. Never had she seen a more welcome sight. The stark walls of the cave closed around her, crimson-stained, decorated with those beautiful murals. Cool air slithered from every corner.
Home. She was home.
She heard a female moan and glanced down. Brenna was sprawled out and just opening her eyes. "We did it," Shaye told her. She couldn't stop grinning. "We did it."
Eyes lighting, Brenna eased to her feet.
The sound of angry, familiar male voices bombarded her ears, and she whipped around. The nymphs must have been placed in the cells. She motioned to Brenna to be quiet, and her friend nodded.
Just in case dragons were guarding the area, she sneaked along the walls. Brenna tiptoed behind her. They remained in the shadows. Leaning forward, she peeked at the cell. It was overcrowded, positively bursting with nymphs. She looked for Valerian, but didn't see him. Still, she didn't allow herself to become upset. He was here and he was alive. She knew it.
There was a single dragon guard, probably because the fewer men outside the cell, the fewer who could open it. She picked up the largest rock she could find and mouthed for Brenna to run for the cell and free the men. Eagerness danced through her as she silently held up her fingers. One. Two. Three. They burst inside. Shaye surprised the guard and smashed his temple with her rock.
He roared, but didn't fall. At the same time, Brenna touched the bars. They misted and the nymphs spilled out, toppling the guard.
"Brenna!" a male voice shouted.
Brenna squealed happily and rushed forward. Joachim wrapped his big arms around her. Shaye searched for Valerian. He's here, he's here, he's here. The crowd of nymphs was parting, but she didn't see him. "Valerian? Valerian!"
Where was he?