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LEANING AGAINST THE SIDE OF THE BOAT SO THAT SHE could watch the nearby sailboats gliding over the clear blue water, Geary didn't know what was wrong with her. She was so sleepy she could barely keep her eyes open, and that wasn't like her.
"I think I have narcolepsy."
Tory paused by Geary's side before looking her up and down. "Possibly. Did you know that seventy percent of people with narcolepsy also suffer cataleptic attacks?" Before Geary could open her mouth to comment, Tory refuted her own theory. "That's not you, though. I've seen you angry enough times to know that that lovely symptom doesn't affect you. Of course, narcoleptics also have vivid hallucinations either while asleep or even while awake. And, of course, sleepwalking. I know you don't sleepwalk. Have you become delusional lately?"
Yes, but discussing vivid sexual fantasies with a fifteen-year-old bookworm wasn't something Geary intended to do.
Geary scowled at her. "How do you know all this? Jeez, Tory, you're a kid. Act like it." Before she could even blink, Tory reached out and punched her on the arm. Hard. "Ow!" She rubbed her biceps where Tory had hit her. "What was that for?"
"Unexpected and irrational emotional outbursts. Isn't that what teenagers are supposed to do? Oh, and sulk. A lot."
Geary held her hands up in surrender. "Fine. Have it your way, Dr. Kafieri."
In an expression more akin to her age, Tory gave her a gleeful grin before she went to help the boat's captain with some line he was securing.
Shaking her head, Geary headed back belowdecks to find Teddy and Scott, who were grumbling about Thia's presence on their team while they worked… something Geary couldn't help since she'd promised Thia's mother to watch after her this summer. Apparently, the little shrew had attacked Teddy for taking up too much of Scott's time.
Geary hoped they'd get over their ire soon. She had banished her cousin to the city for a short round of shopping while they prepared to sail back to the area where Geary believed Atlantis was hiding. The last thing they needed was to have Thia gaggling about, complaining over everything.
Besides, Thia lived for shopping. The shinier the object, the more she adored it. So much so, the girl had actually worn red horns last Halloween that were decorated with dangling diamond hoops. As was fitting for her, Thia had dressed up as a shopping demon.
Brian had volunteered to accompany her and keep her out of trouble—which, knowing Thia, was a necessary assignment. Their luck, she'd end up being either abducted into white slavery or stolen by green aliens.
Meanwhile, Geary was so tired, she couldn't stand it. It was all she could do to stay awake.
"Megeara. Return to me.…"
A chill went down her body as she heard the deeply erotic voice in her head again.
From the corner of her eye she saw something move. She turned and there in the doorway, on the stairs that led to the top deck, was Arikos. Dressed completely in black, he stood to the side with wicked eyes that promised her an endless night of orgasm, and a seductive smile that froze her to the spot.
"Come, Megeara." His voice whispered like a phantom wind, caressing her. Lulling her.
He held his hand out…
Never had she seen a more compelling pose. All she wanted was to take his hand and have him sweep her up in his arms like he did in her dreams. She wanted to strip him bare and taste the perfection of his body.
To taste those inviting lips.
Without thinking, she held her hand out toward his. So close that they were almost touching. Only a breadth of a hair more…
But he wasn't real and she knew it.
"Geary? Can you hand me my ruler?"
She started at Teddy's voice. Dropping her hand, she glanced to her left and saw the ruler on the cluttered desktop. She barely blinked before she looked back toward the stairs.
They were empty, with no sign of Arikos waiting there for her to return, and that filled her with extreme disappointment.
I am losing my mind.
Yeah, but what a way to go. Everyone should be stalked by such a sexy hallucination.
Not wanting to think about that, she picked up the ruler and handed it to Teddy, who was watching her with a concerned frown. Even though he was only a few years older than her, he acted more like a father to her than a friend or colleague. His short brown hair was always impeccably combed, and he had jolly brown eyes and a sweet set of kind dimples. "Are you okay?"
He scratched his head as if baffled by her response. "You slept fourteen hours last night."
She patted his arm. "I know, but I'm still tired."
"Maybe you need a physical."
More likely my head examined. She pushed that thought aside to smile at him. "I'll be fine. Really."
At least she would be if she could stop having these bizarre delusions. Even now she felt as if someone was watching her…
ARIK WANTED TO CURSE IN FRUSTRATION AS HE WATCHED Megeara smiling at another man. Why wouldn't she succumb to his serum? To his pleas?
How could a mere mortal woman be so strong?
As light intruded into his dark chamber once more he let out a tired sigh at the sound of his uncle Wink's voice. Arik was getting seriously tired of these interruptions when all he wanted was to be with his human target. "What?"
"I've been told to retrieve my sleeping serum from you. You seem to be abusing it and making your human ill."
Arik rolled over to face the older sleep god. Wink's long brown hair was braided down his back as his light gray eyes danced with mischief. Even though Wink was one of the oldest gods, he held the personality of thirteen-year-old boy. There was nothing he loved more than to play pranks and tease—two of the very things that had gotten Arik and his brethren cursed.
At one time, they'd been too easily seduced and manipulated by the other gods and had allowed themselves to be used by Wink, Hades, and the others in private jests and wars.
Until the day Zeus had put a stop to it once and for all. Funny how he'd only punished the tools and not the ones who'd wielded them.
But then Zeus wasn't known as a god of justice.
"And if I want to keep the serum?"
Wink arched a brow at that, then tsked. "Come now, Arikos, you know the rules." His face sobered. "You also know what happens to those who don't cooperate."
Of course he did. All of his kind knew. His back bore more scars than the sky held stars. There were times when he suspected his grandfather Hypnos, who oversaw their physical punishments, was nothing more than a sadist who could only feel pleasure when he was doling out pain to others.
How cruel was it to send the Skoti in to drain humans of excess or pent-up emotions, then punish them when they didn't want to leave because they finally experienced something other than pain?
But that was the way of it.
After his "chat" with M'Ordant, Arik had known it would come to this. There was no use in arguing. Wink had been sent to retrieve the Lotus serum they used on humans, and all the bribery on Olympus wouldn't sway him. Wink was only a pawn who served the sleep gods.
Arik pulled out the small vial and handed it to Wink, who took it with a stoic smile.
"Cheer up, old boy. There are plenty of other dreamers out there for you to play with. Mankind is generous to you that way. They live for their dreams and are possessed of them constantly."
Yes, but none of those humans held the type of uninhibited, vivid dreams of Megeara. It made Arik long to know what she'd be like outside the dream realm. What she would be like as a human…
Arik watched as Wink withdrew, then left him in the dream chamber to face the darkness alone.
Perhaps this was just punishment after all. A son of the god Morpheus, Arik had originally been one of the Oneroi. As was customary for such, he'd been assigned humans to watch over and protect against the Skoti who sometimes preyed on them. In those days, he'd spent his life monitoring his subjects, making sure the ones under his protection had normal dreams that would either help them work through their problems or inspire them.
Until that one fateful night.
He'd gone to help one of his assignments who was ill. Because of her sickness, her dreams had become extremely vivid and emotional—so much so that one of the Skoti had latched onto her. Such a thing was common and even tolerated. Skoti fed from human emotions, but so long as they kept it under control and didn't lead the dreams or interrupt the human's life, they were allowed to drain humans. It was only when the Skoti began to return repeatedly and took control of the host that they were punished.
Humans held fragile psyches. A returning Skotos could easily turn human minds and either drive them insane or make them homicidal. In the worst case, a Skotos could even kill the human, which was why the Oneroi monitored them. If a Skotos spent too long with their host, then it was the Oneroi's place to step in and drive them out.
If all else failed, the Oneroi would kill the Skotos.
At one time, Arik's life had been dedicated to protecting his humans. To feel nothing and to only follow the orders of the elite Oneroi. In his day, he'd vanquished numerous Skoti without understanding or caring why they sought humans the way they did. Why they felt a burning need to risk their lives for their quest.
And then one night… no, one encounter had changed that and brought with it a clarification that still resonated within him.
Born of a human mother and the dream god Phobetor, Solin lived on earth, but at night he ran amok in the dreams of other humans. Completely amoral, he didn't care what he did to others so long as he enjoyed himself.
For centuries, the Oneroi had been trying to stop and trap Solin. He was one of the few Skoti who'd warranted a death sentence. His voracious appetites and fighting skills were legendary among the Oneroi who'd been unfortunate enough to confront him.
And Arik had been one of them. Still young by their years, Arik had thought to take Solin on his own.
Most of the Skoti fled at the approach of an Oneroi. The Oneroi had full backing of the other gods to do whatever they had to do to control the Skoti. Since a Skotos could drain emotions from any human, they normally left without issue and didn't waste time fighting when they could simply move on to someone else.
But Solin was stronger than most. Bolder. Instead of fleeing as Arik had expected, Solin had turned the human loose on him. By their laws, Arik had been forbidden to hurt the human, and Solin had known it. Arik had tried to pry her away without harm, but the moment her lips had touched his and he'd tasted her lust something inside him had shattered.
He'd felt pleasure and arousal for the first time in his life.
And when the human had dropped to her knees and taken him into her mouth, he'd known his war in this was lost and his conviction shattered. In one heartbeat, he'd gone Skoti.
He'd been Skoti ever since.
Drifting from one dream to the next, he'd been searching all these centuries for someone who could raise his emotions to the level of that first night. But no one had come close.
Not until Megeara.
Only she was able to reach through the emptiness inside him and make him see vivid colors again. To make him feel her emotions. After all these centuries, he finally understood why certain Skoti refused to leave their partners.
Why they were willing to risk death.
Because of Megeara, he wanted to know what the world looked like through her eyes. What it tasted like. Felt like. And her ability to pull herself away from him was starting to seriously piss him off.
But what could he do? Even if he went to earth to be near her, he couldn't really experience her or her environment.
He wanted her passion. Her life force.
There might be a way to touch her…
Arik paused at the thought. It was true that both the Oneroi and Skoti could take human form in the mortal realm, but because of their curse, they still lacked emotions. So what was the point? They were just as cold and sterile and unable to feel in human form as they were in their own god form.
That wasn't what he wanted.
No, he wanted to be human. He wanted feelings and emotions so that he could experience her to the fullest extent possible.
Or was it? They were gods, with god powers. Why should such a thing be unattainable?
Your powers aren't capable of such. Zeus had made sure of that when he punished them for tampering with his dreams.
Then again, Arik's weren't. But there were others whose powers made a mockery of his. Gods who could make him human if they willed it.
Zeus would never concede such a thing—he hated the dream gods too much. His children would be too afraid of him to try. But his brothers…
They were a different matter entirely.
And Arik knew which one to barter with.
Hades. The god of the Underworld held no fear of anyone or anything. His powers were more than equal to any of the others', and best of all, he hated the other gods as much as they hated him. Because of that, Hades was always open to a good bargain, especially if such a bargain would irritate Zeus.
It was at least worth a shot.
With Megeara's niggling emotions retreating from him, Arik flew from the Vanishing Isle where most of the dream gods resided and descended down, straight into the heart of Hades' domain. It was dark as night here. Dismal. There were no ivory or gold halls like the ones found on Olympus. At least not until one visited the Elysian Fields, where good souls were sent to live out their eternity in paradise. Those lucky enough to attain residence there had any- and everything their hearts conceived of. They could even be reincarnated should they choose it.
But the Elysian Fields were only part of a much vaster realm. One that held nothing but misery for those who were damned to it. Especially this time of year. Three months ago the god's beloved wife, Persephone, had been sent to live with her mother in the upper realm. Until Persephone's return, Hades would be literally hell to deal with. From the moment she left until her return, he would spend his time torturing all those around him.
A saner god would wait to try to deal with Hades after Persephone's return, when he was more reasonable, but Arik was desperate. The last thing he wanted was to take a chance on another Skotos finding Megeara.
No, it was now or never.
Besides, Arik had never been a coward. He'd never once retreated from battle or conflict. It was what had made him one of the best of the Oneroi and what had made him one of the deadliest Skoti.
He always took what he wanted. Damned be the consequences. He had eternity to deal with those. What mattered most was the present, and that was what he focused on. Always.
As he flew past Cerberus, the three-headed dog rose up to bark at him. Ignoring it, he dove down into the catacombs made of the skulls and bones of Hades' enemies. Many of whom had been Titans and ancients who'd had the misfortune of irritating the somber god—they didn't even warrant Hades torturing them for eternity. He'd relegated them to nothing more than decoration.
That alone should be a warning to Arik…
But the brave and the desperate never heeded such.
Arik slowed his flight as he entered the main chamber of Hades' domain. This was the only room in Hades' opulent palace that was open to outsiders... But there was a lot more to his home than this one room.
Arik knew that because no one was immune to the powers of a Dream-Hunter. No one. All gods were vulnerable whenever they rested, which was why they feared the Dream-Hunters so, and it was times such as those that Arik had ventured here to see what Hades kept so secret.
Now Arik faded to invisibility and rose up toward the black ceiling that glittered eerily in the dim light. Hades sat below, alone, on his throne. Made of Titan bones, his black throne had been polished until it gleamed like steel. Hard and intimidating as the god had intended, it dominated the dais where it sat. Beside it was a much smaller chair. One made of gold and cushioned with pillows the color of blood. It was where Persephone sat whenever she was home with her husband.
Hades stared at her throne with a look of such longing that Arik could almost feel his grief. And it wasn't until Hades moved that Arik realized the god held a small, delicate fan in his hand. One made of lace and ivory.
Closing his eyes, Hades held it to his nose and gently inhaled the scent.
Then he cursed and tossed the fan back to the throne by his side.
A heartbeat later, he got up to retrieve it and place it more carefully in a small holder on the right arm. Obviously that was where Persephone kept it.
Hades froze and cocked his head as if he was listening for something. "Who dares to enter my hall without summons?"
Arik lowered himself to the floor and materialized. "I do."
The god turned about slowly and narrowed his amber eyes on Arik. "What brings you here, son of Morpheus?"
There was no need to hide what he wanted. "I would like to bargain with you."
"I wish to be human."
Hades' evil laughter rang out in the hollow hall, echoing around them. "You know how to be human, Skotos. Stop eating ambrosia and drinking nectar."
"That would only make me mortal and I don't want to die. I want to feel, and for that I need to be a human and not a god."
Hades approached him slowly until he stood just before Arik. "Feel? Why would anyone in their right mind wish for that? Feelings are for fools."
Arik glanced to the fan. "Even you?"
Hades bellowed in rage as he flung out his hand and pinned Arik against the wall with his powers. The jagged bones bit into Arik's back, tearing the fabric of his clothes.
Arik fought the hold, but there was nothing he could do at the moment except bleed.
"For a god who doesn't wish to die, you speak of things you'd best not address."
The force holding him receded so fast that he barely had time to recover himself before he fell. He hovered over the floor for a heartbeat until he placed his feet on the ground.
Hades raised his brows in surprise. "You're faster than most."
"And in my realm, I'm capable of even more feats."
"What are you saying?"
Arik shrugged. "Only that a god of such power should be careful. Even the great Hades has to sleep sometime."
"Are you threatening me?"
"I'm only stating a fact." Arik looked pointedly at Persephone's throne. "And reminding you, my lord, that there's nothing worse than allowing a Skotos to know of a weakness."
Hades narrowed his eyes before he again broke out into laughter. "It's been a long time since anyone dared such boldness in my presence. Look around you, Skotos. Do you not see the remains of the people who have pissed me off?"
"My name is Arik and I see everything, including the beauty and comfort of the palace you hide behind this faзade of death. But in turn, I would ask you what good does it do to threaten someone who can't feel fear?"
Hades inclined his head. "Point well taken. So tell me… Arik, what bargain do you wish to propose?"
"I want to live in the realm of the humans as one of them."
Hades tsked at his request. "That's not so easy to attain, dear boy. No Olympus-born god can live on earth for very long."
"But we can live there for a time. I would go there now, but there would be no point, since I could only witness what's around me and not experience it. It's the experience I want."
"What good is this experience when you'll only forget it once you return?"
What the god didn't know was that Arik wouldn't forget. He'd remember and he wanted that memory. Unlike M'Ordant and many of the others, Arik had no knowledge of true emotions or sensations—they'd been beaten out of him so long ago that he'd completely forgotten what it was like to feel. He wanted to know how much more intense feelings could be when not blocked by the curse.
"Does the why really matter?"
Hades considered that for a moment. Folding his arms over his chest, he frowned at Arik. "For what you want, there would have to be a steep price."
"I expected nothing less. Just tell me your fee."
"A soul. A human soul."
That was easy enough. Taking a human life wouldn't bother him. They lived finitely anyway and very few of them even bothered to appreciate the beauty that was the human existence. He, however, would savor his brief time as one of them. "Done."
Hades clucked his tongue at Arik. "Child, how naive of you. You agreed too soon. It's not just any soul I want."
"I want the soul of the woman who has compelled you to make a deal with the devil. Surely she must have a magnificent soul for you to come here and barter with me, the most despised of all gods."
Arik hesitated. Not out of feelings for Megeara but rather because he wasn't sure he would be through with her by the time he was forced to return. "And if I fail to complete this bargain?"
"It will be you who suffers here in her stead. If you fail to deliver her to me, I will kill you as a man and keep your soul in Tartarus. The pain you've felt to date will be nothing when compared to what you'll suffer then. And before you reconsider, remember that you've already agreed to this. There is no going back now. Our bargain is set."
"How long will you give me?"
"Two weeks and not a day more."
Arik had no time to even twitch before a strange thick blackness covered him. One moment he was standing in the middle of Hades' throne room, and in the next he was encircled by wetness.
It was water…
And unlike in dreams, his body was heavy. Leaden. Water poured in through his mouth and nose, causing him to choke as it invaded lungs that weren't used to really breathing. He tried to swim, but the water was too thick. It seemed to be sucking him down deeper into the sea.
Panic consumed him. There was nothing he could do.
He was going to drown.
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