Present day, off the coast of Greece â¦
t wasn't a good day to die.
In Orion's opinion, no day was a particularly pleasant one to have the flesh ripped from your bones and be devoured alive by a horde of the Phoenician war god's minions. But apparently, Orion wasn't to be given a choice. It was fight his way out of this quickly-constricting circle of Melqart's shades or start singing his own Atlantean death chant worthy of a soon-to-be deceased prince.
Why hadn't he remained on the island a while longer? Most Atlanteans could leave the embrace of the sea and breathe air for short periods of time, but his gift was the knack for remaining on land for days at a time without succumbing to the constant bombardment of poisonous substances that land walkers had created. But, no, he was impatient, as alwaysâeager to be back with his regiment, anxious to carry the news of the latest outrage to the High Council. And where had it gotten him? Seven fathoms deep, surrounded by foul abominations that existed for one purposeâto rip him into bite-sized morsels, grind his bones between their teeth, and swallow him to the last tasty drop.
Shrieking, two of the androgynous soul-suckers surged from the ranks and closed in on him, one on the left, and the other to his right. These were fully mature shades, over six feet from saw-toothed hind flippers to snub-nosed simian heads, armed with poisonous clawsânine to an appendageâeach the size of a Bengal tiger's. They dove at him, ghoulish eyes glowing red in ashen, bansheelike faces, gaping maws filled with jagged teeth that could rip and tear through flesh as easily as a great white shark bit through a seal's belly.
Orion grasped the hilt of his broadsword in both hands, swinging it in a figure-eight pattern, slicing one predator in half on his first downward stroke and taking his remaining opponent as he completed the swing. Cutting the creatures in half was the only way to destroy them, and the water around him hissed with a black, acidic slime that he supposed passed for blood with them. The stench was enough to sicken a moray eel! Zeus' bullocks, but he hated killing shades.
Hissing and moaning, the circle widened, and the crunch of cartilage and internal organs grated on Orion's ears. As usual, the horde let no life force go to waste, quickly cannibalizing what was left of their two comrades. His stomach clenched. He was a warrior, a prince who'd spent a lifetime defending the kingdom. He wasn't easily fazed by bloodshed, but the combination of his hangover and the odor brought bile up in his throat.
What he wouldn't give for one of his brothers at his side! A half-dozen shades would have been child's play for him to deal with, but there were two dozen, perhaps three that he'd counted, and a second sword would have made a big difference. For all their ferocity, the creatures showed little courage. If they couldn't swarm over a victim and conquer easily, they drifted away to seek an easier target. Today, in this spot, he was that vulnerable prey.
By Ares' foreskin! How could he have been so stupid? This wasn't even his fight. He hadn't intended to stumble on the human bodiesâor rather the gory remainsâof two luckless German tourists on the lonely beach. Had he been hunting Melqart's hordes or suspected they were feeding in the area, he would have had a trusted team of seasoned Atlantean warriors and their combat dolphin partners at his back.
The foul things had withdrawn into the shadows, but he could hear them all around him, hissing and moaning, gathering courage for a second rush. He flexed his shoulders and tried to think of some way to get himself out of this alive. On a scale of one to ten, ten being hopeless, he generously gave himself a twelve.
When he'd spotted the first gleam of teeth and red eyes in the depths, he'd sent out a frantic mental SOS to any friendly beings in the area. Mermen would fight beside him, as would dolphins and the occasional lone whale. Once, an ancient sea turtle had proved a godsend when he was cornered by two hammerhead sharks, but squid and eels would as soon join the shades as come to his assistance. They possessed no sense of fair play, caring only to feed their own bellies. And if he died at the teeth and claws of the horde, there would be scraps enough to satisfy the scavengers.
Attacks by Melqart's hordes were less frequent than they'd been in centuries past. The shades were merciless, and intelligence, if they possessed such, was more a group thought process than an individual one. They often pulled down lone swimmers at night, tearing the bodies apart or simply sucking them dry, leaving the humans to believe that the deaths were caused by sharks or barracuda. The creatures reveled in blood, feeding on the life forces of Atlanteans, humans, and other humanoids. And the energy from each life provided substance to their master Melqart.
Orion should have had reinforcements, but regretfully, he was alone. He'd been on leave and had unwisely spent the last two weeks more than slightly intoxicated in the arms of a particularly well-endowed mermaid of vast imagination and dubious moral character. Mermaids were known for their insatiable sexual appetites, and this particular lady was a legend among her own kind. Orion hoped the energy he'd spent in satisfying her wouldn't be the death of him, but she'd been wet, willing, and as tight as a sword sheath. Two dozen interludes had not been enough, and if his groin ached from the rigorous exercise, he could console himself with knowing that he'd gained a wealth of information about triggering multiple orgasms in females, especially in mermaids.
To his left, somewhere near the misty island, a siren's seductive voice sent a frisson of ice down his spine. It was one thing to contemplate the epic dirge his brother would create in memory of his last battle against hopeless odds, and quite another to hear the proclamation of his demise from one of the pitiless hags who'd lured humans to destruction for eons.
Orion sensed, rather than saw, the circle tighten once more. “By Aphrodite's sweet mound,” he swore under his breath. They were coming for him, coming in numbers too great for him to overcome. He flexed his sword arm, moved so that his back was guarded by a massive wall of fallen granite, and uttered an Atlantean war cry. If he had to die here and now, he'd not go gently.
Elena knew that coming too close to the jagged rocks jutting up from the sea might be disastrous. Yet, impulsively, despite the rising wind and the ever-increasing rain, she steered the Zodiac nearer to the island. The small watercraft pitched and bounced in the waves, making her question the wisdom of coming out to the shipwreck at all this afternoon. But it wasn't as if she hadn't been doing this half her life, and she was in a Zodiac. They were supposed to be practically unsinkable, weren't they?
She'd approached the expedition's charter boat captain early this morning and asked him to run her out to the site. She knew the seas were too rough for diving. She simply wanted to make certain that the unidentified boat that had been hanging around didn't carry some amateur archeologist who might take the opportunity of the bad weather to poke around the wreck.
But Anso would have none of it. He'd given her a hound-dog look and shaken his head. “No, no, no. No today. No tomorrow. Bad storm. Big waves. Too danger.” His heavily accented English wasn't quite as good as her Greek, but he'd made himself clear enough. Rubbing the great belly that bulged out in a hairy tire over his patched trousers, he'd muttered something to his first mate that sent the little man into spasms.
Petros echoed between gales of laughter. Then, he'd pinched his nose and given a bad imitation of drowning. “
old boat. No today.”
Knowing her cause was hopeless and unable to convince any of her team to go with her, Elena had set off in the Zodiac alone. The thought of losing yet another day of work due to bad weather was maddening. The university's dive permit was for a limited time, and a storm could easily cover the site in silt, burying several weeks of careful excavation. She'd called in too many favors to acquire this project, and so far, they'd uncovered nothing significant. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that this was no ordinary Phoenician trading vessel, and that just a few inches or feet away waited a discovery that would add enormously to the pool of knowledge about this ancient race of seafarers.
She'd had the same feeling before, two years ago, when she was an assistant on a Nile River expedition. Her hunch had paid off when she'd insisted on making one last dive, and had discovered the ruins of a previously unknown temple dedicated to Hathor, dating several centuries earlier than the rise of her cult. As an archeologist and scientist, Elena knew she should have disdained hunches as superstition, but like her father before her, she'd learned to heed that inner voice.
A curtain of drenching rain broke over the Zodiac, making it difficult to see. Elena yanked off her glasses and tossed them onto the deck. Every instinct told her to steer away from the island before a rock tore a hole in the inflatable's side or punched through the bottom, but she felt an overwhelming need to go closer. And, if she was honest with herself, she was happiest when she was swept up in the rush, savoring life to the bottom of the cup.
Abruptly, amid the foam and churning water, a man's head broke the surface only a few yards ahead. She stared in astonishment as the swimmer raised one hand over his head, grasping something long and black and shiny. Elena blinked, and peered through the heavy rain, certain her eyes were playing tricks on her.
For an instant, she could have sworn that the drowning man held a glittering bronze-age sword. Then, a wave broke over him, and he was lost from sight. Whoever he was, he was obviously in trouble. No one could survive in these conditions.
“Hold on!” she yelled. “I'm coming!” She gunned the motor, fighting waves and tide, guiding the Zodiac closer to the spot where he'd gone down. Her heart pounded against her ribs. If he didn't come up on his own, he was lost. There was no chance of finding him in the churning water. He might have been caught in an undertow, sucked down to be trapped in the rocks and drowned.
“Where are you, damn it?” she cried into the driving rain. She untied a life ring and waitedâbreathlessâfor what seemed an eternity. Then, when she was certain that he was gone, he shot up on the port side. For a moment, their gazes locked. They were so close that she could see the color of his eyes. As green as the sea. Her first thought was that his expression wasn't one of panic or despair. Instead, he looked exhilarated.
“Here!” she shouted, throwing the life ring.
He caught it in the air, slipped it over his head, and pulled himself arm over arm to the side of the pitching Zodiac. She couldn't take her hands off the tiller to assist him into the boat, but he managed it on his own, flinging his body over the side and collapsing face down on the deck. Face down was good, because he was stark naked.
Elena didn't have much time to admire the scenery if she didn't want the Zodiac to run smack into a rock pillar dead ahead but, for the blink of an eye, she had a delicious glimpse of wide muscular shoulders, narrow hips, and powerful thighs and calves. No Greek swordâher eyes must have been playing tricks on herâbut the man's taut buttocks made up for it.
Her stowaway pushed himself up on his elbows, shook the long yellow hair out of his eyes, and grinned at her. Her heart missed a beat. He looked like a movie star or a model on the cover of
. “Run between those rocks!” He pointed. “You can beach it on the sand!”
She wasn't certain she wanted to attempt it, but it might be their only chance. The storm was growing worse. The waves were higher, the wind whipping up a tempest as jagged lightning split the black clouds overhead. Elena had threaded between the rocks to reach this spot, but with the tide coming in, and the force of the waves, it might be more dangerous to try to turn the Zodiac and head back for open water.
“Are you sure we can make it?” Visibility was fast dwindling, and the raindrops battered her face and body.
He flung her another wicked grin, and the strength went out of her knees. “No, but if you don't, you'd better be a good swimmer,” he shouted before moving to the bow to balance the weight. “Cut hard to port!” He pointed at a finger of stone barely visible above the waves.