He heard his name being called, and his stomach clenched. Shaye's voice. His head shot up; his mouth fell open. "Shaye? Where are you?" Before the last word left him, he spotted her in front of the cell. He stood and their gazes locked.
A grin split her entire face, jubilant. Radiant.
"You came back." He pushed forward, past his men. He felt tears burn his eyes - not that he'd ever admit such a thing aloud. He thought perhaps Broderick went to free the nymphs from the other cell, but he wasn't sure. He cared only about reaching Shaye.
She met him halfway.
He grabbed her, kissing her and nipping at her face. "I thought you were lost to me," he said, and his voice shook.
His arms banded around her, lifting her feet off the ground. She wound her legs around his waist, kissing him with the same welcoming, relieved intensity he'd bestowed on her.
"I promised to stay, didn't I?" she said.
Valerian breathed deeply of her scent, letting it fill him, strengthen him. "I'd planned to come for you. I was going to help my men retake the palace then go to you. Live with you up there. One day with you is better than a lifetime without."
"I love you so much."
"Thank the gods." His arms tightened around her. "I love you so much, my sweet moonbeam. I can't believe you came back to me."
"What of the others?" Broderick asked her. He stood just off to the side. "Did they return, as well?"
"No. Only Brenna and me," Shaye told him, apologetic. "I'm sorry."
Broderick shrugged. "Oh, well. Their presence would have been nice since we are about to go to battle."
Valerian turned to his men, but didn't release Shaye. He wasn't ready to let her go, couldn't stop touching her.
"It's time we reclaimed the palace," Shaye said before he could speak. Several of the warriors smiled at her.
Valerian flicked her a grin of his own. "That's right. The dragons have the female nymphs, so you will not go without a woman for long, Broderick." He placed a kiss on Shaye's soft lips, lingered far longer than he should have, savoring her taste, then sighed.
"You're going to kick dragon ass, right?" she asked.
"Absolutely." He grinned. Despite his humor, grim determination churned inside him.
"Where are the vampires? They could help us."
"I sent them into the city. By the time they returned, the dragons had already regained control and barred them from entering." His stare became hard, penetrating. "I want to leave you down here."
"No," she said.
"She is queen," Broderick said, clearly entertained. "You will not be able to command her."
Valerian sighed. "Promise me you will duck and hide when the fighting begins."
"Promise," she said.
His hand closed around hers. Gods, he loved the feel of her. "Men, we go in hard and we go in fast."
"Like Broderick does with his women," someone joked.
Male chuckles abounded.
"Where is Shivawn?" Brenna asked.
"No one has seen him," Joachim replied, hugging Brenna close. "He probably left the palace before the dragons arrived and is sleeping off the night's excess."
"Lucky bastard," Broderick muttered, but he was smiling. Everyone was happy to be out of the cells.
"Try not to kill the dragons," Shaye said. "They could have killed us - and you - but they placed us on the surface unharmed and only locked you away. You owe them the same consideration."
"My mate is very wise," Valerian said. "Listen to her." After confining them inside the cells, Darius had looked him in the eyes and said, "I have been ordered by the gods to execute every nymph ever created. Perhaps I bring the gods' wrath upon my own head, but I do not think your race deserves annihilation. You will remain here until I decide what to do with you."
An honorable man such as that did not deserve to die.
As quietly as possible, he crept up the stairs, Shaye behind him, the army behind her. They were without weapons, yet they were determined. This was their home, and they weren't giving it up.
"Split," Valerian uttered softly when they reached the top.
The men branched in every direction. Joachim had kept Brenna with him, as well, Valerian noticed. Surprise was their biggest advantage right now. Their footsteps sounded lightly, barely echoing from the walls. Torches glowed, heating the air, lighting their path.
"This way." Valerian led his contingent into the dining hall. A group of dragons came into view. They stood at the table, discussing their best course of action.
"Kill them and be done with it," one of them growled. "I do not wish Poseidon's wrath upon my family."
"If we let Poseidon's threats affect us, we give him complete control of our lives," Darius said. "What if he wishes us to kill our own women tomorrow?"
"If we disobey him, we may not live long enough to know."
"There is a reason the gods have never slain us, a reason why they sent us back into this palace instead of destroying the nymphs themselves." Darius again.
"I do not know, yet knowing there is a reason gives us a bit of power. All I am saying is that if we do this, we become servants and we put our own race in danger. If the gods destroy one, what is to keep them destroying another?"
"Nothing," Valerian answered. His signal.
Weaponless, the nymphs swarmed forward. Valerian wished to the gods he held The Skull, but he could not postpone this fight. Streams of fire spewed from the dragons the moment they realized they were under attack. Valerian shoved Shaye behind a small side table and leapt forward. He and Darius met midair. That the dragon king retained his human form meant he was not enraged. Yet.
They grappled to the ground. Valerian landed a hard punch into his opponent's face. Blood trickled from Darius's mouth, yet the cut healed quickly. Dragons possessed accelerated healing, which made them difficult to slow. He gave another punch and rolled, then kicked out his leg, hitting Darius's stomach.
Darius was flung backward, but immediately righted himself. He spun. His tail had sprouted and that tail slashed at Valerian's face, cutting deep. He felt the sting of it, but didn't let it affect him.
All around him nymphs and dragons warred. Their grunts permeated the air.
"I agree with what you said about the gods." Valerian lunged, punched. Contact.
"Then you are not as foolish as I thought." Darius kicked again, and his foot slammed into Valerian's side.
Spinning continuously, he lashed out at Darius. He landed four successive blows. "I will not give up this palace. It belongs to us. You already have a home."
"For the safety of Atlantis, the portal must be guarded. How can I trust you to do this? To not use it for your own gain?"
Darius did the same.
They stared each other down, both panting. "When we win the nymph females back from you, we will have no more need of the surface world."
Around them, the battle still raged. Valerian ducked as a stream of fire propelled toward him. The heat of it burned, singed, even though none of the flames touched him.
Darius said, "Poseidon said that according to the laws, only Guardians were to use the portals to travel to the surface, that any other deserved punishment. If you were a Guardian... "
"I would do my duty." Valerian studied Darius's face. That scar slashed from eyebrow to chin. His eyes were swirling blue, determined to kill if he must, but hoping to find another way.
"The portal I guard leads to a jungle on the surface. The portal here leads to an ocean on the surface, as I'm sure you know. If you stay here," Darius said, "human travelers will come through. Most often they simply swim too deeply, are innocent, but they will be yours to destroy. The Outer City will be yours to guard. I am ready to relinquish this duty as it was never meant to be mine. I have enough handling the Inner City."
"I will protect it with my life," Valerian vowed. "This is the only home we have ever known."
Valerian knelt without hesitation. He stared up at Darius, who sliced a thin cut down the center of his chest, and offered a blood oath to always guard the portal, to keep the city safe.
Around them, the men finally stopped fighting to listen and watch. Shaye approached Valerian's side, and he stood. He linked their fingers. He should have scolded her for leaving the safety of the table, but he liked her where she was too much.
Darius's gaze flicked to her and widened with surprise.
"I told you I wouldn't leave him," she said with a proud tilt of her chin.
His lips twitched. "My Grace would have done the same."
"Shall we trust each other, dragon?" Valerian waited impatiently for the answer. Everything he'd ever wanted hovered within his grasp.
Darius's gaze became piercing. "Yes," he finally said. "We shall trust each other. And battle the gods together if we must."
Valerian held out his hand. Darius eyed it for several seconds before clasping it with his own. The truce was sealed, and Valerian did not know how he would explain this to Layel. "Let us hope we live long enough to regret this." He turned to Shaye and gathered her in his arms, where she belonged. Where he planned to keep her for all of eternity.
"This is the most unhappy I've ever been," she said, grinning. "I just hate you so much."
Softly he kissed her lips. "Not nearly as much as I hate you."
Oh, but they were going to have a long, happy life together.