"In more ways than one." He lifted her hand that still held the vial. "So what do we need to do?"
"We need a bed."
He arched a brow at that. "Really?"
She laughed. "Stop that. You know why. We need to be comfy because one shot of this will put us out for a full night… or longer."
He gave her a becoming pout. "You take all the fun out of this."
His words confused her. "Fighting is fun?"
"Oh, yeah. The adrenaline rush ranks up there right below sex."
Uh-huh… "It’s a man thing, isn’t it?"
"I would say yes, but I’ve known enough women to say that it’s not unique to my gender. I’ve met plenty of marathon sluggers in high heels."
She rolled her eyes at him. Stepping back, she held her hand out. "C’mon, soldier. Let’s go feed your need."
He slid his gaze hungrily over her body. "Which one?"
"Let’s save your life, then we’ll worry about your body."
He let out a sound of disgust. "There are some pleasures worth dying for."
"Yes. But I don’t want to be one of them."
He was still pouting as she tugged him toward the bedroom. Leta made him lie down first so that she could place three drops of the serum on his tongue.
Aidan made a terrible face. "Ack, that’s bitter."
She watched as he started blinking, trying to stay awake.
"Don’t fight it. I’ll see you on the other side."
His green gaze met hers. "You better. I’m trusting you to be there, Leta. I need you there." And with that, he was out.
Leta took a moment to run her gaze over him. He really was beautiful. Wanting nothing more than to save him, she lay down by his side and rested her head on his shoulder before she drank the serum.
She didn’t know what awaited them in the dream realm, but it would be harsh and it would be cold.
Even so, they would face it together.
"I won’t betray you, Aidan." Yet even as she said the words, she wasn’t sure she would be able to keep that promise. The one thing she’d learned in her long life was that the best intentions were often the most lethal.
All she hoped was that Aidan wouldn’t be her next regret.
Aidan stood in the center of a blinding gale. Harsh winds cut against him, howling in his ears. All around him was darkness so bitter that it permeated every part of him. He didn’t know where to turn. Every move was buffeted by winds so brutal that they all but suffocated him. He didn’t dare take a step for fear of it getting worse.
Panic set in as he struggled for his footing and bearings. He hadn’t felt like this since the day his brother had turned on him and taken from him every person he’d ever trusted and left him standing alone. Rage clouded his sight, but it didn’t do him any good. His anger was nothing now against the lost feeling that overwhelmed his entire being.
And still the winds tore at him.
Save me.. .please . .. The call inside his weary heart was weak, like that of a small child, and he hated that part of himself that felt so lost and abandoned.
The anger was trying to surface again. That was what he knew. That was who and what he was. Yet he was so tired of being alone. Tired of fighting on his own.
How could he keep going alone?
His heart clenched at the soft call of Leta’s voice that somehow drove back the madness seeping into him. Then he felt it… that tender touch that cut him soul-deep. It steadied him and jerked him back from the edge of panic.
Acting on instinct, he pulled her against him and held her tight. He let the scent of her settle him even more. This was what he needed-someone to balance the insanity. Someone he could believe in even during the most brutal of attacks. Someone who wouldn’t flee in fear, anger, or jealousy.
And she was here, standing by his side without flinching or adding to the pain of it. That knowledge seared him.
Leta closed her eyes, amazed by the way Aidan held on to her-as if she were sacred to him. More than that, he actually trembled in her arms. It was a vulnerability she was sure he would have shielded from anyone else. She was the only one he still trusted to show this part of himself to and it filled her with an unbelievable joy.
"You didn’t doubt me, did you?" she teased.
His grip on her tightened. "Everyone else has deserted me, why wouldn’t you?"
She heard the ragged, raw emotion in his voice and it brought tears to her eyes. "I will always be here."
She pulled back to cup his face in her hands. "Look at me, Aidan. Don’t you ever doubt my sincerity. I don’t make promises I can’t keep."
And there in the meager light she saw the most incredible thing of all, the glimmer of trust in his green eyes an instant before he gave her a kiss so powerful, it stole her breath.
Elated over it, she snapped her fingers and pulled them away from the storm into a quiet meadow. Still, she felt his uncertainty as he looked about as if expecting the storm to return. He needed distraction. An enemy he could focus on to take his mind off the fact that he’d exposed himself to her and let her see a part of him that he preferred to keep secret.
"Shall we summon Dolor?"
He shook his head. "Not here. It’s too open. In a fair fight, he might take us."
She hated to admit it, but she was grateful he understood the danger they were facing. "Then what do you suggest?"
The world shifted until they were again in Lyssa’s garden. Leta scowled as she looked around-everything was completely different than it’d been earlier. Now the colors were muted and the shrubbery looked to be made out of water. It still twisted and turned in sharp angles that made no logical sense. "What are you doing?"
His smile dazzled her as he stepped away and released her hand. "Unnerving my opponent."
She cast a suspicious glance to a shrub that turned from a whale into shark shape-one that tried to bite her as she walked past it. "What about us? Won’t it do the same?"
Aidan shrugged. "I don’t know about you, but I’ve been living in madness for years now. I find this place kind of comforting."
"That’s not what you said earlier."
"I wasn’t planning on fighting here earlier. If we’re going to do something as insane as calling out the god of pain to fight him to the death, what better place than this?"
He did have a strange point with that logic. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked.
"It’s a little late to doubt ourselves, isn’t it?"
Perhaps, but she still had the bad feeling this was a mistake. If it was, then she intended to make sure that Aidan was shielded. And in the back of her mind, she knew this was the best shot they had. This environment, they had some control over.
"All right then." She took a deep breath before she bellowed. "Dolor!"
The god flashed in before them and this time he wasn’t alone.
Aidan felt a tic begin in his jaw as he glared at the two gods.
Dolor stood a good foot taller than him with a bald head and intricate tattoos that covered his entire face and body. While he was tall and lean, the man to his left was short and beefy with hands that would easily make two of Aidan’s fists.
Aidan looked over at Leta for confirmation of the other god’s identity. "Timor?"
She nodded glumly.
Nice to know his usual luck was holding. He now wished he’d stayed home. Then again, he wasn’t about to lie down in this fight and let them roll over him. He’d been born two months prematurely and his mother had always said that even as an infant he’d had more fight in him than a ring of boxers. He’d come into this world as a scrapper, and if he was going to leave it, then he’d go down swinging.
Dolor arched a brow as a cruel smile twisted his lips. "I’m impressed, Leta. You said you’d be quick bringing him to me, but this is fast even for you. Nice work."
A chill went down Aidan’s spine as his old mistrust burned through him. "What?"
Timor smirked. "Didn’t you know she was working with us to lead you straight into our hands?"
"Liar!" Leta snapped. She turned toward Aidan with large, fear-filled eyes. "Don’t listen to them. They’re just trying to hurt you."
But it was hard not to believe it as old scars and fears were ripped open with a brutality that left him feeling nak*d in front of them. Everyone else had betrayed him… his own flesh and blood had thrown him to the dogs and laughed while they did so. It wasn’t a big leap of faith for him to think she’d toss him to the dogs too.
"Aidan," she said, reaching out for him. "Trust me. Please."
He wanted to, and when her hand touched his face, he felt himself coming undone at the emotions that tangled deep inside him. Fear. Anger. Agony. And yet beneath all that was a glimmer of something he hadn’t felt in years. Hope. He wanted desperately to believe in her.
Was she lying?
Closing his eyes, he covered her hand with his and savored the softness of that touch. But did he dare believe in it?
Taking a deep breath for courage, he braced himself for a brutal moment of truth.
"You know what?" he asked, opening his eyes to glare at Timor and Dolor. "When I spoke the truth no one wanted to believe me even though I gave them no reason to doubt me. Even though they had seen the truth about me time and again. They wanted to believe the trash and the lies about my character. It’s so much easier to believe the lies over honesty. So much easier and safer to blame than to love."
He took her hand from his face and looked into her eyes that were filled with apprehension. "Untilyou give me a reason not to, Leta, I trust you." He kissed her hand before he reluctantly let it go.
Leta’s emotions choked her as she realized what he’d just given her. But she didn’t have time to dwell on it before Dolor bellowed in rage and launched himself at Aidan. The two of them tangled and fell to the ground.
She barely had time to duck the punch Timor swung at her. Stepping back, she elbowed him hard in the ribs. The sky above them darkened dangerously, as if it were responding to their fight. Leta rained blows on Timor as he blocked and returned punch for punch. When he landed one solid blow to her chin, she tasted blood. Her face stung from the solid hit, but she couldn’t let it faze her.
Growling at him, she pulled out a short staff and blocked his backhand. He came back with a sword that he manifested out of thin air. She rolled to the grass that began slithering like snakes as he lunged and lunged again. One swing came so close to her that she felt the blade graze her skin. She kicked up, catching him in the ribs again and knocking him back.
Timor staggered sideways.
Aidan took a second to check on Leta. It literally pained him that he couldn’t help her, yet she seemed to be holding her own against the larger god.
Because of Aidan’s distraction, Dolor landed a solid blow to his jaw. Before he could recover, the ground under his feet shifted. He cursed as the blades of grass wrapped around his feet like long, skeletal fingers, clutching him and holding him in place. Aidan tried to shake them off, but they were persistent.
Dolor laughed. "Thank you, Sister Lyssa."
Aidan narrowed his eyes before he flung his hands out. Using his imagination, he conjured a sticky solution to blast from his palms. It wrapped around Dolor like a rope. He jerked the god forward to head-butt him. "Yeah," he said with a sinister laugh. "Thanks, Lyssa, for reminding me I’m in a dream."
Dolor let out a bellow of rage. Aidan laughed again before he flipped away from the grass. He ran up the side of the nearest wall and manifested a long staff.
When Dolor tried to follow, Aidan used the staff to knock the god off his feet. Dolor shot a blast at him. Aidan held his arm up and used his mind to block it with an invisible shield.
"Damned if it doesn’t work," Aidan laughed.
Oh, yeah, this was making him feel better. He was beginning to think they might stand a chance after all. If only he could find some way to kill the beast.
He turned at Leta’s call to see eight more Dolors coming at him.
And all of them looked pissed off.
The first one caught him about his waist and knocked him to the ground, flat on his back. Before he could move another one brought a sledgehammer down on his head. He managed to block it with his arm, but he swore he felt the bone shatter.
Cursing, Aidan tried to clone himself, but he couldn’t focus on his goal enough to accomplish it as they hit him over and over again and his entire being ached from the attacks. So much for not being able to feel pain in a dream, huh? His body throbbing, he tried to manifest a shield, a weapon, anything.
But he couldn’t.
He heard more laughter.
Suddenly, Leta was there, trying to pull him away from the others. He felt her cover him with her body as Dolor’s clones continued to beat him with the sledgehammers.
The ground below them was trying to swallow them. "We’re losing," she breathed in his ear.
"No shit," was all he could manage.
The skies above them opened up with rain so strong it slashed against his body like needles lacerating him. Yeah, this wasn’t looking good for the home team.
He rolled with Leta, trying to keep her from taking any more damage from Dolor. The blows continued down his back until he feared they’d broken it.