A shimmering light began to glow behind him, but it was too soon and in the wrong direction, so he turned to see that the damned capricious portal was opening.
“Too little, too late,” he said, laughing or crying. “Go back to the hell you came from, demon.”
A dark form stepped out of the portal, silhouetted so that he couldn’t see its voice.
“I’ve been called worse,” Ven said, crossing the grass to him. “I hear you’ve had a rough time.”
The prince dropped to the ground to sit next to Daniel and put a hand on his shoulder. “How are you holding up, my friend?”
“You need to stay back,” Daniel said dully. “When dawn comes and the flames take us, there is no need for you to be harmed.”
“We are unhappy with your decision to die, nightwalker,” said another familiar voice. “We owe you an ass-kicking,” Lord Justice continued.
Figure after figure walked out of the portal and ranged themselves around Daniel and Serai. Conlan and his wife Riley. Ven’s Erin. Justice’s Keely. Christophe and a woman Daniel had never met. Brennan and Tiernan, who stopped to put a hand on his shoulder before she moved on. Even Reisen and Melody, who seemed to have recovered from her injury, though she wore a splint on one arm.
“The portal seems to be working again,” Daniel observed, too exhausted and anguished to respond to the presence of so many Atlanteans.
“Not exactly,” Ven said, still sitting next to him. “It—or rather, she—is kind of taking a vacation. But the new portal presence is a little more chatty, and told us a secret or two.”
Daniel stared blankly at his friend and wondered why Ven thought he would possibly care about Atlantean secrets.
“First, apparently you really do have a soul.”
Daniel just stared at Ven, still not understanding. Maybe answering would make him go away. “I know that. Soul-meld. Can’t you leave us alone?”
He pulled Serai closer and rocked back and forth, wishing again that he knew how to sing. Or play the harp. His mind was shattering. His heart had already done so.
But Ven was still talking. “Second, it seems that if you complete a third blood exchange with an Atlantean with whom you’ve reached the soul-meld, both of your lives will be saved.”
Daniel heard the words but couldn’t understand their meaning. It was too much. Too hard. Losing Serai . . .
Twenty minutes until dawn, his internal clock reminded him.
Losing Serai . . .
But wait. He tried to focus on Ven’s mouth, which was still moving. Forming words. Important words.
“What? What did you say?” he demanded.
Ven grasped Daniel’s shoulders and shook him a little. “Wake up, my friend. We’re running out of time. You need to make a third blood exchange with Serai, and you’ll both be saved.”
Daniel looked around the circle of people he mostly had dared to think of as friends. “Truly? The third blood bond?”
“Now,” Conlan commanded. “For once in your life, listen to me and do it now.”
“Please,” Tiernan added.
Fifteen minutes until dawn.
“If it kills her—” he began, but Ven cut him off.
“As opposed to sitting here, waiting for the sun to turn you both into barbecue? Do it now.”
When Daniel still hesitated, afraid of turning Serai into the monster he’d once become and feared more than anything he’d become again, Ven drew one of his daggers.
“Forgive me, Daniel,” he said, and then he quickly grabbed Serai’s hand and drew a line across her palm. Daniel almost didn’t realize what Ven had done until he smelled the rich, warm scent of her blood.
“And you,” Ven said, and almost blindly Daniel held up his own hand. Ven made the same cut, and Daniel gently placed his hand across Serai’s slightly open mouth and lifted her hand to his own. As he drank, too desperate to hope, too terrified to be self-conscious about taking her blood in front of everyone, her lips moved, just a fraction of a movement at first, but then more strongly, as she drank his blood. He felt the pull on his hand and drank more strongly from hers, and the Emperor, lying forgotten between them, suddenly pulsed in a blaze of purple fire.
Serai’s body arched up in his arms, and Daniel cried out as the same pain she was feeling—he could sense her pain, as she could feel his—transformed, magically, miraculously, into restorative healing warmth that flooded from the Emperor into both of them, surrounding them, embracing them, giving them life when they’d faced death.
The tsunami of light went on and on, scouring them inside and out, until he fell back, exhausted, on to the grass, still tightly embracing Serai.
“I see we’re having a party, and you’ve decided to invite some friends,” Serai said, lifting her head from his chest and looking around. “Perhaps next time, you could wait until I’ve had a proper bath and arranged my hair.”
Daniel stared at her, dumbfounded, and when that sexy, seductive, magnificent smile formed on her lips, he knew he truly had died and gone to the most spectacular of all heavens.
“We’re alive?” he asked stupidly.
“We’re alive, and I’m really, really hungry,” she said, and everyone around them started laughing.
But then the sun rose over the horizon, and the first questing rays of light reached them, and the entire world caught on fire.
Serai was staring up at the sky, reveling in the first rays of the sun, when the Emperor caught fire and exploded into a shimmering dome of light. The stone itself was still whole; she could feel it in her hands, but the searing purple flames shooting from it were like the most magnificent fireworks the fire guild had ever created.
It wasn’t only the Emperor, though. As she looked around, she realized that the Atlanteans had joined hands and were contributing their own magic to support the dome protecting Daniel from the sun. Protecting her.
Saving them all with love and friendship.
But the Emperor told her a secret of its own, whispering to her through its magical resonance: they didn’t need protection.
She and Daniel were now the first two of a new breed of nightwalker; no longer nightwalkers at all. They would be able to walk in the daylight forever more.
“Daniel,” she said. “Do you trust me?”
“Always,” he said instantly.
“We have to walk into the sun.”
Not a flicker of doubt crossed his face. “Yes, except I think we’ll fly.”
She jumped up, strong and whole and sure, and held out her hand. “Now, please.”
He took her into his arms and shot up into the rosy, golden light of the breaking dawn, and together they soared high in the sky, high above the people who loved them and who would wait for them, high above the caves and the darkness and the pain.
The light shimmered on their skin like a caress and they stared at each other in fascinated wonder.
“I have not seen the dawn in eleven thousand years,” Daniel said, his beautiful eyes shining in the sun.
“Nor I,” Serai replied, laughing and crying and kissing him.
“I want to see every single dawn for the next eleven thousand years, with you,” he said, his love and sincerity shining as brightly as the dawn sun itself.
“Well,” she said, after some consideration. “I may want to sleep in once in a while.”
He shouted out his laughter to the morning skies, and then he kissed her so deeply that they were spinning like a deep-sea whirlpool when the kiss ended. As they floated back down to earth, back down to the top of Cathedral Rock, back down to their friends, Daniel embraced her so tightly she almost couldn’t breathe.
“My own Sleeping Beauty is finally awake,” he said.
“And my own Prince Charming woke me with his kiss.”
As they finally touched back down, still lost in a passionate kiss, they became aware of cheering and applause. When they broke the kiss and looked around, Serai’s face flamed red as she realized what a spectacle she’d just made of herself. A proper Atlantean princess would never . . .
She cut off the self-criticism, in her father’s words, midthought.
“What the heck,” she said, looking around at everyone and grinning. “I have it on very good authority that I’m a hot chick.”
As if in response to her words, the sky split in two, and a whirling torrent of water and power and silvery light burst into the space above them as a voice like thunder tore through the fabric of the world.
HOT CHICK, INDEED, DAUGHTER OF MY ANCIENT DAYS. YOU HAVE SERVED ME WELL. I AM PLEASED TO SEE MY AMETHYST AGAIN, AFTER SO MANY THOUSANDS OF YEARS.
All of the Atlanteans bowed deeply, leaving Daniel, his mouth hanging open like a carp’s, staring up at Poseidon. Serai grabbed his hand and pulled him closer to her.
Daniel just blinked. “Is that—are you—”
I AM POSEIDON, GOD OF THE SEA, AND I SEE THAT YOU DO INDEED HAVE A SOUL, CHOSEN ONE OF MY DAUGHTER.
“Your daughter? I thought that was just a figure of speech,” Daniel muttered, and Serai tried not to laugh.
“It is,” she whispered. “Just listen.”
DO YOU AGREE TO CHERISH AND PROTECT MY DAUGHTER FOR NOW AND UNTIL THE END OF THE WATERS OF TIME?
“Nobody could stop me,” Daniel said, finally bowing.
Poseidon’s booming laugh split the air like a crack of thunder.
THEN FEEL THIS, NIGHTWALKER, AND KNOW THAT YOU, TOO, ARE NOW SWORN TO MY SERVICE AS A WARRIOR OF POSEIDON.
An arrow of water and light sliced through the air and slammed into Daniel, knocking him down, and when he stood, his shirt hung in shreds and the brand of the Warriors of Poseidon had been burned into the top right side of his chest. Serai threw herself into his arms, crying and laughing.
“Now you’re mine forever,” she told him.
NOW YOU BOTH ARE MINE FOREVER, TO BE ACCURATE. BUT ENOUGH OF THIS, I AM WEARY OF THIS HIDEOUS PLACE WITH ITS LACK OF WATER. GIVE MY AMETHYST TO CONLAN. I RETURN TO MY OCEANS AND AWAIT WORD THAT YOU HAVE ALL FOUND THE FINAL GEM MISSING FROM MY TRIDENT.
As Poseidon disappeared, they could all hear his final words booming through the dawn air.
“But it’s a dry heat,” Daniel said, and Serai started to laugh, almost collapsing with relief and joy and love.
As Daniel kissed her, right there in front of the departing sea god and everyone else, she heard their laughter, too, and she smiled against his lips. She couldn’t think of anything more miraculous than being reborn to the sound of laughter.
“I will love you forever, and never leave you,” she said, when Daniel finally let her speak.
“Damn straight,” he growled, and she laughed.
“Is that man-speak for me, too?”
“You know it.”
“Here we go again,” Ven called out, still laughing. “This is going to be one wild ride.”
Serai held out her hand, carefully cradling the stone, and looked at Conlan and the woman who must be his wife. “I believe this belongs to you.”
Conlan reverently took the amethyst and dropped it into a velvet pouch tucked into his belt. “Thank you,” he said, bowing deeply. “You may have saved Atlantis.”
“You saved your sisters,” Riley said, stepping closer and smiling at Serai. “You saved Guen, Helena, and Merlina. They are awake and perfectly healthy, asking a million questions.”
“We saved them,” Serai said, squeezing Daniel’s hand.
“And now on to the next step,” Conlan said. “We have to find the final jewel from the trident. Poseidon’s Pride.”
Daniel smiled down at Serai. “I happen to know two people who have plans for a world tour, if you need volunteers.”
“This is going to be the best year of my life,” Serai said blissfully, and then Daniel kissed her again, and by the time she could think or see or even breathe again, the portal again shimmered in the rosy dawn air, and everyone else had disappeared.
She blushed but then pointed to the portal. “Shall I show you Atlantis before we get started?”
He grinned. “Hot bath?”
“An actual bed?”
“I don’t know, Daniel, I’m kind of developing a fondness for camping,” she said to tease him, and he swept her into his arms and headed for the portal, so they could begin the rest of their lives.
Together. Finally, after an eternity, together.
Nothing could ever be better than that.
When the portal deposited them, after its usual swirling, twirling ride, in Atlantis, they were still locked in an embrace that would last them a thousand lifetimes. Serai finally looked around when she heard a discreet throat clearing. Her face flamed a hot red until she realized these were different guards than the ones she’d knocked out with her magic when she’d escaped.
She’d need to make some apologies.
“I hear there is cake, Lady Serai, and that the other maidens are waiting for you on the palace terrace,” one of the guards said, a twinkle in his eye.
“I’m very fond of cake,” she told Daniel.
“I have very fond ideas of what to do with you and a bowl of cake frosting, and a huge, soft bed,” Daniel whispered in her ear, quite wickedly.
She laughed and held his hand as they ran all the way to the palace.
Daniel strode through the mansion that the royal family had given to him and Serai, nodding to anyone he passed but not stopping to talk. He held his surprise for Serai in his hands, finally, and wasn’t about to let anything deter him from reaching her.
She was sitting in her private garden, of course, among the flowers and in the fresh air. She still couldn’t bear to be trapped indoors for long.
“Are we packed? Ready to go find the final gem?”
She glanced up at him, startled at first, and then she smiled with so much love and welcome that he was amazed and humbled all over again that this woman was his. He figured he’d get past that feeling in a few hundred years or so.
“Ready to go as soon as we have a lead,” she said, rising to come toward him, her arms held out for a hug.
“Ah, but I can’t hug you. My hands are full,” he said, teasing. “A present that has waited eleven thousand years to find you.”
She tilted her head, still smiling. “I love presents.”
“And cake, or so I hear.”
She blushed as they both remembered the fascinating uses they’d made of frosting just the night before.
“For you, my lady. My princess. My love,” he said, and the power of the emotion surging through him left him unable to say anything else, so he simply held out his hands and presented his gifts.
She lifted the shimmering silver and orichalcum pendant on its delicate chain and gasped. “Oh, Daniel, this is so incredibly lovely. Did you design this yourself?”
“Yes, when I first met you. It took me this long to be able to fashion it for you, but as with everything else about us, time has only enhanced and polished the possibilities we first recognized so long ago,” he said, fastening the pendant around her neck.
She turned and threw her arms around him. “I love it. I love you.”
He kissed her for so long that he nearly forgot the second gift, hidden in his pocket.
Nearly. But not even her sweet, honeyed kisses could make him forget this.