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M'ORDANT WALKED SLOWLY THROUGH THE HALL THAT led to the Onethalamos… just in case someone was watching. It was in the Onethalamos that the three leaders of the Dream-Hunters, M'Ordant, D'Alerian, and M'Adoc, gathered to make policy, keep peace, and…
Issue death warrants.
Protected from the other gods and zealously guarded, this room contained all the secrets that the three of them would kill and, more important, had killed to maintain.
One of them being the fact that the three of them were no longer bound by Zeus's curse. Their feelings had come back, and with every year that passed those emotions grew stronger, as did these Dream-Hunters' need to protect them. But outside the doors of the Onethalamos no one could ever know.
Inside the room, however, anything went.
The moment M'Ordant walked through the oversized gold doors, he slammed them shut with his thoughts.
M'Adoc looked up from his book with an arched brow. "Careful, adelphos. The last thing we want is for someone to know you have a temper."
"Yeah, and in about three seconds so will you."
Laying the paperback aside, M'Adoc sat back in his cushioned chair to eye M'Ordant suspiciously. "Meaning?"
"We have a renegade."
M'Adoc laughed. "And this is different how?"
"Oh, give me a second on this one," M'Ordant said, approaching M'Adoc's chair. "We're not talking one of our guys went Skoti. It should be so simple. No. One of our Skoti just went human."
It took several seconds for that shocking bit to fully penetrate M'Adoc's mind. "Excuse me?"
M'Ordant drew a ragged breath before he explained. "Arikos has cut a bargain with Hades. He wanted to be human for a few weeks. The price. One human soul."
The color faded from M'Adoc's face an instant before rage darkened his cheeks. "What is he doing?"
"Fucking things up for the rest of us." M'Ordant slammed his fist down on the table. "I swear, Zeus as my witness, I'm going to tear him limb from limb. How could he be so fucking stupid?"
M'Adoc shook his head. "Enough with the vulgarity. I know you love the word, but save it." He growled low in his throat, letting M'Ordant know he was equally willing to break eggs, heads, and bones in this as M'Ordant was. "Zeus and the others will question how Arik could have developed a desire so strong it would make him bargain with Hades to quell it."
"Yeah, and there will be hell to pay if they come knocking on our doors. If they ever find out that the curse is weakening…" He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't have to. Unlike Arikos, he, M'Adoc, and D'Alerian were the first ones they'd rounded up at Zeus's order and punished for the Oneroi's ability to manipulate dreams for their own personal gain.
To this day, the three of them, who had been innocent in the crime but held up as examples to the others, could still feel the pain and humiliation of that torture. When it came to absolute punishment, no one could match a Greek god bent on vengeance. It was what kept the three up at night and seeking the Skoti to make sure they didn't violate the laws Zeus had set for them. The three would do anything to not relive the merciless hell they'd gone through—and they were the three whom the gods would punish again if they ever learned the secrets M'Ordant, M'Adoc, and D'Alerian carried.
No one would show them mercy, and they knew it.
"Does anyone else know?" M'Adoc asked.
"Just Hades and us."
"How did you find out?"
Straightening up, M'Ordant folded his arms over his chest. "I make it my business to keep an eye on Hades and Hypnos." They had been the two most mischievous gods who'd gotten the rest of them cursed, "When they sleep, I'm there every minute of it. I just don't let them know I'm spying."
"Good man. We have to contain this. Call out the Dolophoni. We need that bastard dead, then if Zeus finds out we can tell him that it was an aberration unique to Arikos that we handled."
"You think he'll buy it?"
"If not, we'll have to find some way to sell it to him." M'Adoc's phosphorescent blue eyes flickered with malice. "I don't know about you, but I have no intention of bleeding for another one of these assholes."
M'Ordant arched a brow at M'Adoc's word choice. He generally profaned profanity—which told M'Ordant just how determined his brother was. M'Ordant held his hand out to M'Adoc. "I hear you, adelphos, and we're in definite accord."
M'Adoc wrapped his hand around M'Ordant's and shook it. "Arikos dies."
GEARY PAUSED IN HER CHAT WITH THIA TO WATCH ARIK bite into one of the Hostess cupcakes that Tory had broken out for the celebration. His eyes actually glowed with pleasure as he tasted it.
His smile was broad and enchanting. "This is incredible."
Tory laughed at him. "I can't believe you've never had one before. Man, that would stink, to grow up without Hostess. This was the staple of my elementary-school lunch box."
He practically inhaled it. "Do you have any more?"
"Hang on." She ran from the room.
Excusing herself from Thia, Geary made her way to Arik, who was frowning at the black cake that was stuck like glue on his fingers. Geary picked up a napkin as she approached him. "It must be bare in the mountains."
He licked the sugar from his lips before he responded. "I know what things are, but I haven't been able to experience them before. Like this cake. It's really very good."
"As the girth of my hips will attest."
By his face, she could tell he didn't understand she was calling herself fat. For some reason, she found that as endearing as his amazement that he couldn't easily get the cake off his fingers.
Smiling, she took his hand in hers so that she could help him out. She paused at the sensation of his flesh against hers as she wiped the pads of his fingers with the napkin. He had the most beautiful hands. Large and masculine, they made her want to lick them clean. In her dreams, she would have done that in a heartbeat.
He lifted his hand so that he could place a very sweet kiss on the back of her knuckles. "Thank you."
Geary swallowed as white-hot desire shot through her. What was it about this man that made her literally melt? "You're welcome."
Tory came running back in with her entire stash of junk food that she kept in a large shoe box that normally lived under her bed… protected by Mr. Cuddles of course. "Okay, Moon Pies."
Geary laughed in disbelief. "You're going to share a Moon Pie? Now? You know you can't get any more of those until you go back to the States, right?"
"It's for a good cause. We need more addicts. Besides, there's always Grandpa to bail me out with an emergency shipment if I get too desperate." Tory handed a chocolate-coated Moon Pie to Arik.
Geary shook her head. "Oh no, if you really want to be wicked to him, nuke it first."
Tory made a slight face of contradiction. "Yeah, but given his reaction to the cupcake, that might overload his taste buds with pleasure and kill him."
This was true. The mighty Moon Pie could be orgasmicly deadly when nuked… it rated right up there with the infamous Australian Tim Tam Slam and the deep-fried Twinkie. "Good point. To be on the safe side, the first one should always be tasted at room temperature."
Arik frowned while Tory unwrapped the small, round cookielike object. And as soon as he tasted it, he was in obvious ecstasy. "Oh my God, that's good."
She exchanged a mischievous grin with Tory. "Reese's," they said in unison.
"Reese's?" Arik asked, puzzled.
"Oh yeah," Geary laughed. "You'll be dying the minute you bite into one." She started digging through Tory's shoe box until she found one. She made an evil noise in triumph as she pulled it out. "You know, Tor, I have no idea how you stay so skinny eating all this crap. I swear I gain ten pounds just rooting through it."
"I'm still growing."
Geary snorted. "So am I, but it's out instead of up. Remind me tomorrow to start my diet again."
Arik scowled at her. "I think you're beautiful as you are. Why would you want to change?"
Something warm tickled her at his words. "You're just trying to flatter me."
"No," he said seriously. "I'm only telling you the truth."
"Awww," Tory said dreamily. "He's such a sweetie. Can we keep him?"
Geary gave a nervous laugh. "He's not a puppy, Tory."
"Yeah, but we did fish him out of trouble. In some cultures that would make us responsible for him forever."
Arik gave her a hopeful grin. "And I wouldn't mind being kept for a while."
Geary shook her head at them. "You two are a terrible combination. Kind of like gasoline and fire." She looked past Arik's shoulder to see Kat entering the room finally. She had a very sour look on her face, as if something wasn't settling right with her. "Hey," Geary called out to Kat, catching her attention. "You okay?"
With an extremely fake smile, Kat walked over. "Yeah. Fine."
Tory set her shoe box to the side. "So where's the gorgeous ZT?"
Geary frowned at the name she didn't recognize. "Who?"
Tory made a clicking noise with her teeth like a woman calling a horse. "Kat was with this really cute guy on deck when you sent me up to check on her." She looked back at Kat. "Did he not stay?"
"No, he had to leave."
"ZT?" Arik asked with a speculative gleam in his eyes. "As in Zebulon?"
Kat gave a very curt nod.
Tory looked back and forth between them curiously. "You know him, too, Arik?"
"He knows him," Kat said in an odd tone. Her gaze was cutting as she met and held Arik's. "He sends you his best."
All emotion fled from Arik's features. "I'll bet he does. How is old ZT doing, anyway?"
"Charming as ever."
The sarcasm between them was so thick it could have been carved into an ice sculpture.
Arik put the unopened Reese's back inside the box as if he'd lost his appetite. "Nice to know some things never change."
Geary scowled even more. "How is it that you two have a mutual friend when you didn't know each other before today?"
"It's a small country," Kat said evasively. "The old families tend to stick together and Arik's has probably known ZT's for quite some time now."
"Yes," Arik said with a wry grin. "He's like a rash for which there's no cure. It only goes away for a bit before returning unexpectedly to ruin every pleasurable experience. He should have been named Herpes rather than ZT. Or maybe just Herpes Z, since he's a very special irritant."
Kat laughed. "Very aptly put, hell, it's even Greek and he is creepy—I'll give you that. But I wonder if he knows how you feel?"
"I'm sure he does. He's rather astute and I'm anything but subtle."
Okeydokey, this was getting a bit out of hand and she wanted to avoid a herpes discussion in front of the walking/talking medical textbook who was only fifteen years old. So, trying to stave off the animosity and veer to safer territory, Geary stepped forward. "And on that happy note, children, I think we should all turn an eye to retiring. It's been a long day and we have a really big day tomorrow."
"Hear! Hear!" Teddy concurred from the other side of the room. "As long as we've been waiting for this excavation, I want to make sure that we all have one that's error free. We can't afford a single mistake, people."
There were a few grumbles, but overall everyone agreed. If they were to get cracking at dawn, then they needed their rest.
"So Where's Arik bunking?" Tory asked.
Geary hesitated. There really wasn't any place to put him without inconveniencing one of the guys. Their rooms were cramped at best, and she was sure none of them wanted to bunk with a stranger.
Arik gave her a hopeful look that brought an unexpected smile to her face. "I already have a roommate."
There was no missing Arik's disappointment. "Who?"
Tory rocked back and forth on her feet. "Me and Mr. Cuddles."
"Yeah," Geary said, nodding, "and Mr. Cuddles is a jealous sort. He doesn't share us well."
Arik didn't miss a beat. "Does this mean I'll have to fight him?"
"You'd never win," Tory said sweetly. "Mr. Cuddles cheats. You think he's just a pushover teddy bear, but he's vicious, I tell you. Vicious."
Kat cast a speculative look at Arik. "You could throw him on a hammock on deck."
Geary considered it. It actually wasn't a bad thought. "We will be up at dawn, so it wouldn't really wake him once we hit the deck…"
Tory leaned toward Arik. "Bet you're thinking you should have gone home, huh?"
"No," he said, his tone sincere. "I had a great time tonight." He looked at Tory and smiled. "And you're right. The mighty Moon Pie is the best. Thank you for sharing your treasure with me."
"Anytime." She rose up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "Good night, Arik. I'll see you in the morning. Sweet dreams."
"You, too, Tory."
Kat gave him an odd look before she bid them good night and followed Tory to the hallway.
Thia came forward with a calculating gleam in her eyes. "Well, if no one else wants him… I could share my bunk with him."
"Go to bed, Cynthia," Geary said sharply, "before Justina kills you for pimping out your shared cabin."
Thia gave a weary sigh. "I was just trying to be friendly. They always say you shouldn't sleep alone in a strange bed."
"Yes, and they didn't have their cousin on board to watch over them, either. One who would report any sleazy behavior to their mother. Good night, Thia."
Tossing her hair over her shoulder in a huff, she left them alone.
Geary gave Arik a once-over as she realized he'd have to sleep in his borrowed jeans and shirt. "What are you going to do for clothes?"
"Solin said he'd return with something for me to wear in the morning."
"Ahh, okay. Well, I guess I'll grab a hammock and meet you topside."
Arik started to offer to go with her, but she was already feeling smothered by his presence. He would back off for a bit even though it was the last thing he wanted to do. "All right. I'll see you on deck."
He headed for the stairs to the upper deck while she went the other way, deeper into the boat. He paused at the handrail, amazed by the slick feel of it. Nothing here was what he'd expected. Especially not the food. He didn't know why the gods made such a fuss over ambrosia and nectar given how wonderful human food tasted.
Perhaps the gods were in denial because they were only supposed to have the best and it bothered them to think that mankind had perfected some of their world even while they battled one another.
Or maybe the gods honestly didn't know better.
Dismissing the thought, he climbed up to stand on deck as a light breeze whispered against his skin. The sensation was exquisite, but it was nothing compared to the sight of the city that sparkled over a velvet black landscape. The water lapped quietly against the boat as a faint jingle of music and laughter reached him. No wonder humans didn't want to die. Their world was remarkable, and their lives were made even more precious by the fact that they had so little time to spend here.
How did they do it? How did they exist knowing that the specter of death constantly haunted them? It was enough to depress anyone, and yet for the most part they were happy with their lot. They ignored their impending doom and inarched on toward their death with dignity and grace while finding shards of happiness to content them.
It was truly amazing.
But then they didn't know how long their lives would be. Decades or weeks. So they prepared for the worst and expected the best. It was actually rather noble.
And how strange it must be for Solin and ZT and the others to live this close to walking corpses. No wonder they were closed off from everyone. Who would want to reach out and befriend someone when he or she could be torn away from you at any moment? When there was no chance of a lasting relationship. Everything here was doomed to finality.
It must be horrifying for them all.
Arik looked back the way he'd come and wondered what Megeara would think if she knew her life was about to end.
Because of him.
He went cold with the thought. Now there was something he couldn't dwell on. He'd been naive when he'd made his bargain with Hades. Now there was no way back from it. As M'Ordant and Wink had pointed out, there would be others to beckon Arik back to this realm once Megeara was gone.
And yet he knew better. She was unique in this place of overwhelming emotions. In all the centuries, he'd never met anyone like her.
Where he lived, the human world seemed vague and unreal. But here it was vivid and extreme. Too extreme perhaps…
"Here you go."
He turned to find Megeara heading toward the prow. Her face was silhouetted by the moonlight.
"You're lucky we have these. Otherwise it'd be a pallet on the deck for you."
Arik watched as she set about stringing the hammock out. "You like to sleep in the hammock on cool nights, don't you?"
She looked up with a panicked expression. "How do you know that?"
He knew it from her dreams, but he didn't tell her that, since his goal was to soothe and seduce her, not scare her more. "From the look on your face and the skill you're showing as you lay it out."
She blushed before she returned to her task. "Yeah, I like to look up at the stars at night."
He knelt down to help her as she untangled some of the lines. "And what do you find when you look up there?"
Her hands worked deftly to straighten out the canvas and lace the cord through the grommets. "When I was a little girl, my father used to lay on deck with me and my brother and point out the constellations. Then he'd tell us stories about how the Greek gods supposedly formed them."
He could hear the bittersweet agony of her memory. She'd both loved and hated her father. It was a dichotomy Arik barely understood. He held no feelings whatsoever for his parents. But then he'd never really known either one of them. Morpheus had too many children to pay attention to any one and Arik's mother, Myst, couldn't be bothered. She was a carefree goddess who held no real affinity for anyone or anything. At least nothing he knew of.
It wasn't that he was angry over it. He was truly ambivalent. It was how things were in his world, so there was no feeling there for his parents whatsoever, not even while he was human.
But it made him wonder what it would be like to love the way Megeara loved. To feel that pain of betrayal when the person was no longer there. To have that surge of joy when the person was…
He helped her anchor a corner. "So which story was your favorite?"
She tugged the line to make sure it was taut. "Orion. I always thought it was cruel and tragic that Artemis loved him, and that her own brother tricked her into killing him because Apollo was jealous and hated the fact that she was in love with a mere mortal."
"That's only one version of the story. The other is that Artemis killed him because he raped one of her handmaidens."
"I've heard that one, too, but I believe the first one."
"And why is that?"
"I don't know. It just seems right."
She was astute and part of him wanted to confirm it for her, but he didn't dare. She'd spent her whole life studying the gods and ancient civilizations, looking for corroboration that they'd all existed, and here he was, living proof, right beside her. He wondered what she'd do if she ever learned that he was one of the gods, along with her friend "Kat."
It might be a little too much to expect Geary to take it in stride.
Geary was a bit nervous as she finished securing the hammock to the hooks. It hung about a foot above the deck. Not too high, but not so low it wouldn't be comfortable. Her only concern was that he might catch a chill even with blankets.
Would that worsen his condition? Not that she knew what was wrong with him, but still the last thing she wanted to do was take even a moment of his life away with more illness.
Which begged the question of what was wrong with him? She wanted to know but didn't want to remind him of how short his life would be. It seemed somehow wrong.
Instead, she gestured toward the hammock. "All yours."
He tsked at her. "I really wish you were talking about you and not the hammock."
"Yeah, I'll bet you do."
As she started past him, he pulled her toward him, and before she realized what he intended he kissed her. She moaned at the sweet taste of him, at the hunger of his embrace. For the first time in her life, she wished she were more like Thia. She wouldn't have a bit of trouble taking him to her bed. But Geary wasn't like that. She'd never been a one-night-stand woman. She preferred a relationship before she got naked with someone, which was why she seldom even dated. Her quest had left her very little time for anything else in her life.
But Arik was seriously starting to bring her ethics into question.
Pulling back, she picked the blanket up from the hammock and held it to his chest. "Good night, Arik."
He let out an exasperated breath as he took the blanket from her with a grimace. "Good night, Megeara. May the dream gods be good to you."
A tingle went over her at the way he purred those words. It was as if he knew she'd been dreaming of him.
Putting that thought out of her mind, she left him and headed below, but as she reached the stairs she couldn't help looking back at him. He was already lying in the hammock, watching her.
In the darkness, his eyes seemed to glow.
She swore she could hear his unspoken request for her to return to him. It reminded her of the same disembodied voice that kept beckoning her to the dig site—only that voice was definitely female. And it called out to her even now to find Atlantis and set her free.
I am losing my mind. Maybe she should see someone about schizophrenia…
But she knew better than that. This wasn't schizophrenia. It was merely her quest calling to her to fulfill her promise. She understood that. What she didn't understand was this odd connection to Arik. Why she heard and saw him even when he wasn't around.
Go to bed, Geary, and forget it.
Waving good night to him, she went to her room to find Tory already in her nightshirt and bed with Mr. Cuddles tucked under her arm. Since Tory's glasses were on the nightstand by her head, she was squinting at Geary. "I wasn't expecting you to come back."
"What do you mean?"
"C'mon, Geary, I may be half-blind, but that man is the finest thing I've ever seen… blurry or not. If I were you, I wouldn't have come back here tonight."
Geary scoffed at her. "You're only fifteen, Tory. It's not like you've got a lot of experience under your belt to judge hot men by."
"Point taken, but it doesn't change the fact that he's gorgeous and he likes you. A lot. So why are you back here?"
"Because we have a four A.M. wake-up call."
Tory sighed and shook her head. "You're the only person I know who's more pathetic than I am. I'm an orphaned kid, Geary. You shouldn't have to be alone all the time."
"Oh, hush, and go to sleep before I kidnap Cuddles. And speaking of furry things, where's Kichka?"
"I don't know. I haven't seen her. Maybe she's stuck in the hold again."
As if on cue, Geary's cat came running in the open door to rub against her leg. A Bengal cat, Kichka had been Tory's Christmas present a year ago, but the cat had taken such a liking to Geary that all of them had finally given up and just let Kichka own her.
"There you are." Geary picked Kichka up from the floor and set her on the bed while she undressed.
Before Kichka curled up on her pillow to clean one paw she meowed loudly at Geary.
Tory turned over and gave Geary her back.
Her thoughts on Arik, Geary turned off the lights, tucked herself into the bed, and closed her eyes while Kichka moved from the pillow to sleep on the small of Geary's back. Within seconds, the cat was purring, Tory was snoring, and the gentle roll of the boat was lulling Geary away from all her problems.
And before Geary knew it, she was drifting to sleep.
ARIK HAD NEVER SLEPT AS A HUMAN BEFORE. THE WEIGHT of his body was odd, especially combined with the swinging motion of the boat and hammock. But it didn't take him long to lose himself in the realm of dreams.
It was strange to be back where he lived. His dreams were misty and cold. At least in the beginning, but after a time they began to clear and he realized something.
His powers were back.
Arik paused, unsure if what he felt was real. Floating above the ground, he held his hands out before him and conjured a swirling ball of flames. The heat was warm but not painful as he built the ball with his mind to a dangerous height.
Invigorated, he threw it into the darkness, where it exploded even brighter than the sun. Harmless pieces of ember rained down around him as he threw his head back and laughed.
Oh yeah, it was good to be a sleeping dream god. He had emotions and his powers.
Which left him with one goal.
It was time to find her. But that proved to be easier thought than done. True, he had his powers again, but he didn't have the strobilos and finding her without it proved to be rather tricky. He was also lacking Wink's serum to keep Megeara asleep. If he found her, she could wake up and leave him all over again.
I'll kill her. But even as he thought it, he knew that was an empty threat. He'd never hurt the very woman he craved.
For several minutes he cruised through the subconscious realm, drifting through dreams of naked musicians writhing in money and Jell-O shots, a toy poodle attacking a Doberman, a woman who bore a strange resemblance to a lollipop who was singing with cows, and one curious incident of a hemorrhoid chasing one woman around a block of cheese until it exploded…
Yeah, people were very odd beings.
No wonder he left these dreamers to the other Skoti. He much preferred sexually creative women.
Arik paused between dreams to take a deep breath. This was wasting time, and since Megeara was planning an early morning, he needed to find her quickly.
Closing his eyes, he felt the ether around him… listened to it as it breathed and whispered through his being. She was out there.
And then he heard it. The faint sound of her laughter. Honing in on it, he willed himself to her dream.
She was on the beach again, dancing in the surf to music only she could hear.
Arik froze at the sight of her there with her damp hair flying around her face. Her white dress clung to her body, showing him every lush, delicious curve. Every inch of flesh that he wanted to taste.
Unable to stand it, he dropped to the beach and walked toward her with a predator's intent.
His breathing ragged, he came up behind her and touched her shoulder.
She turned on him then and what happened next absolutely blew his mind.
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