COMING DECEMBER 4!! IT'S FINALLY HERE!!!
Did you read the Prologue and Chapter 1 excerpt posted at my website? No? Go ahead, we'll wait. *taps foot* Oh, are you back already? Great! Here is chapter 2!
Chapter 2 – Six Weeks Later
Quinn sat in her claustrophobic room and stared at nothing, trying to ignore the quarter ton of tiger leaning up against her, wondering if she should take another shower, wander back to the garden, or simply bash her head against the wall to alleviate the unmitigated disappointment and sense of failure. As always, the idea of showers in a cave vaguely amused her. She hadn’t bothered to ask how Archelaus had installed showers and other modern amenities in a cave. She’d seen enough of Atlantean power over the element of water to take it for granted. Of course, in a world where vampires, shape-shifters, and even the Fae had walked out of fairy tales and into reality a little more than a decade ago, there were many, many things that nobody bothered to disbelieve anymore.
The crystal clear water in her cup was from a mountain stream right here on Mount Fuji—no magic involved except that of Mother Nature herself. It tasted better than any water she’d ever had before.
She stared down at it as if answers to her multitude of problems might be hidden at the bottom of the cup.
Whiskey would have been better. She could usually find an answer or two at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Even if they were the wrong answers, at least she had a place to start. The one thing she’d never, ever been good at was feeling helpless, and now she'd lived through six entire weeks of being completely and utterly unable to help Jack. They'd rested. He'd healed from his physical injuries and eaten enough to clear out half of Japan of its livestock, probably.
But human Jack--her Jack--still hadn't put in an appearance, and it was looking less and less likely every day.
Jack looked briefly around the room and then dropped his head back down on her leg. The low bed sagged from the weight of five hundred pounds of tiger, but she wasn’t about to tell him to sleep on the floor. He’d voluntarily followed her into the room and up on to the bed, after ignoring her for the past week. She was glad and—maybe, just maybe—a little bit hopeful that he’d followed her at all.
She hesitantly put a hand on his head, and his eyes snapped open. Another mystery of the shape-shift: his eyes were green in human form and pure amber fire as a tiger. She stared into their depths, thinking of that saying about eyes being the windows to the soul. If it were true, then there was nobody home in Jack’s soul.
Only a disturbingly feral intelligence peered out at her from behind that glowing amber. She steeled herself against the shudder trying to shake its way through her body and rubbed one silky ear between her fingers. Jack closed his eyes, and they sat there, two wounded warriors, heart-sore and silent, for several long minutes. Jack’s rumbling snore was hypnotic, and Quinn’s eyes started to close. Jack tensed and lifted his massive head a few seconds before she heard Alaric’s voice.
He'd been there for her, staying in the background and giving her the time and space she'd needed to rest and heal; the time she'd needed to try to help Jack recover his humanity. But during every minute of those long weeks, no matter how her heart filled with despair over Jack, Alaric had remained in her awareness. A solitary presence, brooding and watchful. He'd told her when Serai and Daniel had succeeded in their quest; he'd let her know that Riley and the baby were doing well. Other than that, he'd honored her request for time alone, but she could tell from the intensity of his emotion that his patience was coming to an end.
“Are you ready to talk to me yet?” he asked quietly, dividing his attention between her face and the tiger at her side.
“Where is that woman, or portal spirit, or whatever she is?” Quinn asked for the first time. She hadn't had the energy to be curious about anything at first.
“Archelaus and his people are tending to her. This place is a sanctuary, as you know, for those with the most dire need. They are well prepared to care for lost souls.”
“Is that what we are? Is that why you brought us here?” She heard the bitterness in her voice but was too tired to try to disguise it. The fight had been too long. The losses too high. More than a decade of her life fighting for human independence from the vampires and shape-shifters who were taking over the country and the world, and she was no further along now than she’d been as a desperate teenager. Even with the Atlanteans on her side, it never felt like enough. Never felt like the rebels could win. Now there were even some humans joining Team Evil—black magic practitioners and, horribly, non-magical human collaborators who willingly served the bad guys, like sheep volunteering for the slaughter.
She shook her head. “Let them do it. Why do we even care? It’s social Darwinism.”
“What are you talking about?” Alaric crossed the room to her side and pulled her to her feet, and she caught her breath at the electricity that surged between their clasped hands. Even the lightest touch from him was like a roundhouse punch to her emotions. She didn’t need to be an emotional empath to know what he was feeling right now.
Burning need. Intense desire. A furnace of wanting seared between them, and she fought to maintain her balance. She put a hand on his chest to hold him at a distance, but the feel of his heartbeat under her fingers only made it worse.
“I need for you to put a damper on all the strong emotion, please,” she whispered. “I don’t have the reserves of strength right now to handle it. I've spent so much energy trying to convince Jack to come back--”
He brushed a kiss on her forehead, and her knees nearly gave out from the tidal wave of longing she felt from just that brief caress. But after that—nothing. It was as if a metal shield had slammed down between them. Suddenly, she couldn’t feel even a hint of his emotions.
Perversely, she hated the loss of them. She looked a question at him.
“I’ve had hundreds of years to learn to block my feelings, mi amara. Even a powerful aknasha such as yourself cannot penetrate my defenses,” he said calmly. Or at least he sounded calm. For all she could tell, he might have been boiling with suppressed emotion, but not an ounce of it leaked out.
His words finally registered in her tired mind, and she pulled away from him. “Don’t call me your beloved, when you know we can never be together, okay? Aknasha is fine; we all know I’m an empath. But I can’t be your amara.”
She turned away and whispered, almost to herself, “Even if I want to be.”
Jack, as if sensing the tension in the room, lifted his lips away from his fangs and growled at Alaric.
“I’d almost rather he had enough fight in him to attack you,” she said.
“Thank you,” Alaric replied dryly. “Your concern for my safety is touching.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not worried about you. I’ve seen you in action, remember?”
Jack turned those huge golden eyes to her and growled again, almost as if he understood her. He and
Alaric had thrown enough testosterone at each other since they’d met that the Jack she knew—human Jack—would never have put up with her comment. The fact that tiger Jack didn’t seem to like it either gave her another moment of hope.
Archelaus appeared in the doorway and nodded to her. “My lady, you want your privacy, I know, but our guest wishes to speak with the two of you.”
Quinn had to think for a second or two before she remembered what guest he was talking about. By then, Alaric had caught her arm in a firm grasp, as if to prevent her from moving. She pointedly looked down at his hand and then up at him.
“No. I don't trust her,” he commanded.
“Of course you’re not talking to me, are you? You would know better than to try to give me orders, Your Royal Priestliness, wouldn’t you?” she asked in a voice so sweet it made Alaric blink.
She cut him off. “Stop it. I’m still the leader of the North American rebel alliance, as far as I know, even after this hiatus, not a helpless woman who needs the big, strong Atlantean to tell her what to do. Let’s go see this woman.”
“The sooner we see her, the sooner we can find out who she really is,” she explained, in her most reasonable tone. She figured reasonableness was better than pulling out her Glock and shooting him in the foot.
He’d just heal himself, anyway, so it wasn’t like he’d learn a lesson in Not Being Bossy.
She yanked her arm out of his grasp and strode across the chamber toward Archelaus, surprised to find the older man grinning like a delighted child.
“Oh, Alaric, you are in so much trouble, aren’t you?” Archelaus said, shaking his head.
Alaric snarled something in a language that might have been ancient Atlantean, but whatever he’d said, it only made Archelaus laugh out loud. “Good luck with that, youngling.”
Quinn, who knew Alaric was at least five hundred years past being called a youngling, shot a suspicious look at Archelaus but decided she was too tired to care about the relative ages of Atlantean warriors. “Just take us to her. Jack, are you coming?”
Jack slouched down off the bed and padded after her as she followed Archelaus down the stone corridor toward a kind of courtyard. The area was enclosed by the walls of the cave, but high up on one side an opening allowed sunshine to stream into the space. The surprise at first had been the garden flourishing in the heart of a cavern, filled with fantastical flowers that she’d never seen before.
She noticed a trace of a smile cross Alaric’s face and wondered at the source, realizing they'd never both been in the garden at the same time before
She raised an eyebrow. “You like flowers?”
“It’s a miniature replica of the main palace courtyard in Atlantis, even to the tiny fountain burbling in the corner,” he said.
Archelaus nodded. “Yes. A bit of home I couldn’t resist bringing with me. My friends are always asking for cuttings and seedlings, so I fear I have introduced Atlantean life to the surface before Conlan was quite ready.”
“I doubt the high prince is concerned about this kind of population,” Alaric said dryly.
Quinn tilted her head and stared up at the jagged edges of the window, which was actually not much more than a cleft torn in the ground above. “Had any hikers fall in recently?”
Archelaus smiled. “As you know, there is a powerful repellent spell in the area above. I may not have mentioned this before, but no hiker has come near the spot since the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, came on a pilgrimage to the sacred Fuji-san in 1867.”
“The mountain is sacred to the Japanese?”
The Atlantean elder nodded. “Yes. Certainly more at that time than now, as so many of our gods and sacred places have lost their meaning in this modern age.”
“But not to you,” she pointed out, slanting a long look at Alaric. “Your god, Poseidon, is as real to you today as he ever was.”
Jack, who was prowling around the edges of the room, lifted his shaggy head and aimed his amber gaze at Alaric, growling softly.
Alaric ignored the tiger. He crossed his arms on his chest and stared right back at Quinn. “As real, and even more demanding. Yet not all of us will continue to dance to his tune forever.”
“You are his sworn high priest, my son,” Archelaus said, his face troubled. “What you speak is worse than blasphemy; it is akin to breaking an oath.”
Alaric turned away from the man, as if dismissing the topic, and pointed at the dark-haired woman sitting silently on a bench in the middle of the space. Her back was toward them, but Quinn recognized the cut of her hair and her slight figure.
“Yes, that is our visitor. Her name is Noriko, and it is also Gailea, as far as we can understand. She speaks in an odd language—a confusion of ancient Atlantean mixed with Japanese. Between my friend Mizuki and myself, we’ve managed to cobble together what we think she means, but she mostly has sat silent, as you see her, since she arrived, refusing to talk much at all. She was very ill when she arrived and now she appears to be somewhat better, but she will not allow us to examine her, nor will she allow Alaric near enough to attempt a healing.” Archelaus said, frowning. “I confess I do not know how to proceed with her. I am merely an old warrior, not wise enough in the ways of women or lost souls.”
The woman turned her head and pinned her dark gaze on Archelaus. “You are quite wise, and your heart is evident, Old One,” she said in perfect, lightly accented English.
Alaric stepped forward slightly so that he stood between Quinn and the woman. Probably thought he was being subtle about his protectiveness. Quinn rolled her eyes as she dodged around him.
“Now that you have deigned to speak to me, state your name and how you appeared in our portal,”
The woman rose gracefully to her feet and bowed, dark eyes flashing with a hint of defiance. “I needed time to discover the shape of my current reality. I am Gailea, the one you know as the spirit of the portal, and you, Alaric, are as arrogant as ever, I see.”
"The shape of your reality. Yeah, because that makes sense," Quinn said, studying Gailea’s delicate Japanese features and raising an eyebrow, not caring that the other woman recognized her skepticism.
“You look so much like the other ancient Atlantean woman I know. You and Serai could practically be sisters.”
Gailea bowed again, this time toward Quinn. “And I am also Noriko, the woman you see before you. She came to Mount Fuji to die. She recently discovered that she had an advanced stage of cancer, and having lost her family to the tsunami, she believed she had no reason to live.”
Shame flushed Quinn’s cheeks with heat, but she knew better, after years of dealing with traitors, spies, and villains, to take anything that anyone said at face value. “And we should believe you why, exactly?”
Noriko/Gailea calmly said quite a long paragraph of . . . something.
Alaric snapped to attention, whatever it was that she’d said. His body tensed and he clenched his hands into fists at his sides.
“Poseidon’s long-term plans and schemes can no longer rule my life,” he snapped. “I don’t want to know what you think.”
Before Gailea could respond, Jack snarled viciously and leapt through the air toward her, knocking the woman/portal spirit to one side. As Noriko backed away toward the cave wall, Quinn automatically drew her gun and dropped into a battle-ready crouch; years of fighting with Jack at her side had trained her responses to his actions to be instantaneous. She followed Jack’s gaze up and up. The light in the chamber suddenly dimmed, and everyone else looked up at the opening in the top of the room, too, just in time to see the first of a wave of wild creatures with bared fangs and outstretched claws leap down through the air.
Quinn’s mouth dropped open. “Monkeys? Now we’re being attacked by flying monkeys?”
END OF EXCERPT, HEART OF ATLANTIS BY ALYSSA DAY, COMING 12/4/12, copyright Alesia Holliday