"Men are the scourge of the universe. I say we line them all up along the highway and then mow them down with big trucks." Chrissy paused as her light blue eyes widened with a new thought "No, wait. Steamrollers! Yeah, let's steamroll them all until they're nothing more than slimy wet spots on the road."
Arching a brow at the rancor, Erin McDaniels looked up from her desk to see her co-worker Chrissy Phelps gripping the edge of Erin's tan cubicle wall. The large brunette's eyes were flashing mad and Chrissy had the look of a woman one step away from the edge.
"Having trouble with the boyfriend again, eh, Chrissy?"
"Actually, it's my younger brother who has me ticked, but since you brought up the boyfriend thing, take my advice: Be the black widow. Find a guy, have fun with him, then eviscerate him in the morning before he can brag about it to his friends."
"Okay," Erin said stretching the word out. "I think someone needs a time-out."
"Someone needs a two-month vacation in the Bahamas without her boyfriend along." Chrissy's eyes brightened. "Oooh, hey, sex camp. Yeah. That's the ticket. We need to start a sex camp where women can tell their hubbies they're going to a fat farm and instead of the boot camp diet with Nazi dieticians, they go to the beach and have hot men treat them like goddesses!"
"No, I'm serious. We'd be rich."
Erin laughed even harder. "You'd better get back to work before Lord King Bad Mood catches you over here again."
"Yeah, I know. See, proves my point. All men should be shot."
Erin was still laughing as Chrissy returned to her desk. Two seconds later, Chrissy was back, peeking over the cube wall again. "Hey, are you still having those nightmares?"
Erin's humor fled as she remembered the horrendous nightmare she'd had last night where she'd been cornered in a dark cave by an unseen force that seemed to want to feed off her terror. For the last three weeks she'd barely slept a wink. Her exhaustion was getting so bad that she was even having dizzy spells.
"Yes," Erin said.
"Did that medicine the doctor gave you help?"
"No. If anything, I think it made the dreams worse."
"Oh, man, I'm sorry."
Erin was, too. She'd hoped for at least one good night's sleep. But that no longer seemed possible.
Their boss's door opened.
Chrissy dodged off as their rotund, militant boss left his office in a huff and headed toward the coffeepot with his extra large coffee mug in hand. Oh, yeah, like that man needed any more caffeine to add to his jittery crankiness.
Erin sighed as John filled his mug to the brim and her thoughts turned back to her nightmares.
Honestly, she no longer knew what to do about them. They were just so bizarre, and every night the dreams seemed to worsen. At the rate she was going, she figured she'd be a raving lunatic by the end of the month.
Rubbing her eyes, she focused on her computer screen. She had to get her marketing report in by Friday, but all she really wanted to do was sleep.
In the back of her mind she kept seeing that huge, snarling monster that came for her. Hearing him call her name as he reached his taloned hand out, trying to claim her. Like some bad horror movie, the scenes kept haunting her, whispering through her thoughts during any unguarded moment.
Shaking her head, she dispelled the images and focused on her computer screen. But as she read, Erin felt her eyelids getting heavy again. She blinked fast and widened her eyes in an effort to stay awake.
Marketing report, marketing report…
Oh, yeah, like that was a good way to stay awake! Why not down a couple of sleeping pills and drink a glass of warm milk while she was at it?
What she needed was more caffeine, and since she couldn't stand coffee, she'd have to go to the Coke machine. Maybe the walk down the hall would help revive her, too.
She slid her chair back and opened her desk drawer to get her change, then rose to her feet.
As soon as she was upright, a strange buzzing began in her head. The world tilted.
And in one heartbeat everything went black and her body froze…
Erin felt herself falling down a deep, dark hole. All around her, winds rushed and howled in her ears, sounding like huge, frightening beasts trying to shred her.
They were hungry. They were desperate, and they wanted her.
They whispered her name on breaths of fire. Told her they waited only for her.
Not again! She couldn't take any more of this horrible nightmare.
Wake up, wake up!
But she couldn't.
Erin reached out to grab anything in the darkness to stop herself from falling. There was nothing to hold on to. Nothing to save her.
"Help!" she screamed, knowing it was futile but needing to try.
Still, she fell.
She didn't stop falling until she reached the cavern she knew all too well. Dark and dank, it smelled of rotting decay. She heard the hissing and screams, the absolute agony of souls in torment.
Her heart pounded as she stumbled in the dark, over the rough floor that seemed to grab on to her feet with rocky fingers as she tried to find an exit. She struggled to see, but the oppressive darkness wouldn't let her. All it did was stab at her eyes like tiny needles.
She reached out with her hands and touched a slimy wall that slithered and moved under her fingers. Disgusting though it was, at least it gave her some support, something tangible that might lead her home.
And she had to find a way home. The frightened voice in her head told her that if she didn't get out of this now, she'd never be able to escape it.
Panicked, she saw a dim light flickering up ahead. She ran toward it as fast as her legs would carry her.
The light. It would save her. She was sure of it.
She ran into a large cave where the light was shining over the veined and broken walls that oozed some kind of gelatinous muck. The smell of sulphur burned her nose and the screams grew louder.
Erin skidded to a halt. If she had been terrified before, it was nothing compared to what she felt now.
The dragonlike monster, with shimmery blood red scales and jet-black wings, rose up in front of her, snarling. His long teeth snapped as he eyed her hungrily.
He moved closer to her, lulling her with his eerie silver-blue eyes. Eyes that seemed to see more than just her physical self. It was as if they saw all the way into her mind, her soul.
And she knew the beast wanted her. That he longed to possess her with a fevered madness.
Oh God, this was it. The beast was here to take her. To consume her.
There was no escape.
Erin stumbled back, toward the entrance. She wouldn't just lie down and die. It wasn't in her. She was a fighter. And she would fight until the last breath left her body.
Turning around, she ran to the opening, but before she could escape, it closed up, sealing her in.
"You're not going to leave me so soon, Erin," the scaly dragon lisped, his talons scraping the floor as he drew closer. "I need the light inside you. Your thoughts. Your feelings. Your goodness. Come to me, and let me feel the warmth of you wash over me."
He lunged for her.
Erin closed her eyes and imagined a sword in her hands to fight him.
She got a tree limb. Not her weapon of choice, but it was better than nothing. She swung it at him, catching him hard across the face.
Laughing, he shook his scaly head as if he didn't feel the blow at all. "Such spirit. Such intelligence and ingenuity. And you wonder why I want you so. Show me more, Erin. Show me what else you can come up with."
She forced him to step back while she wielded her tree limb. It was a stupid weapon, but it was all she had for the moment.
As if growing bored, the dragon jerked the limb from her hands. "I want your mind, Erin. I want to feel your fear of me."
He moved even closer.
Before the beast could reach her, a bright light flashed between them, stinging her eyes even more. It grew in intensity until it appeared brighter than the sun. When it finally faded, it revealed another monster.
Erin swallowed in terror. Why couldn't she control this dream? Ever since she'd been a child, she'd been able to wish herself out of bad dreams. But for some reason, she had no control in these nightmares.
It was as if something other than her was directing them. As if she were nothing more than a marionette whose strings were being pulled by the monster.
The newest monster appeared in the form of a giant snake. Only in place of a head, she had a woman's upper body. Her scaly green complexion looked craggy, and her bluish eyes glowed.
The she-snake slithered toward her, smiling a fanged smile as she raked her eerie gaze over Erin's body. "What a tasty little morsel she is."
"She is mine!" the dragon roared. "I will not share her."
The she-snake licked her lips as her long tail slithered across the floor. "She is strong enough for us both." Then she turned toward the dragon, her hideous face a mask of rage. "Besides, I saw her first and well you know it. You found her through me and I won't let you have her."
The dragon attacked the snake.
Terrified beyond belief, Erin took advantage of their combat to pick up a rock and pound at the cave's opening. "Let me out," she demanded between clenched teeth.
She closed her eyes and tried to imagine the wall opening and her running through it.
It got her nowhere. Not until the tail of the dragon whipped around trying to sting the snake. The snake ducked, as did Erin, and in one resounding crash, the tail splintered the wall.
Trembling, Erin ran out into the darkness again. The screaming howls intensified.
"Please," she begged out loud, "please wake up! C'mon, Erin, you can do it." She pinched herself and slapped her own face as she ran, and did everything she could think of to make herself come out of this nightmare.
Nothing worked. It was as if the monsters wouldn't let her go.
She rounded a corner and found herself sliding down a small slope. At the bottom was a boiling pit where the snake-woman waited. The heat of the pit burned Erin as golden-red lava percolated.
The snake rose up before her, smiling. Those demonic eyes with their diamond-shaped pupils watched her eerily. "That's it, little prize. Come to me. It's my turn to feed off you."
Erin turned to run again, but her feet were locked to the ground. They wouldn't move at all.
The snake drew closer.
So close Erin could feel the flick of the snake's tongue. Smell the greasy slime of her body and hear the rasping of her scales moving against the rock floor.
Defenseless, Erin closed her eyes and called out with her mind for help. She tried to summon a protector. Tried to imagine a champion who could come and defeat her monsters.
Just as the snake reached her, the cavern shook.
The snake pulled back an instant before a man appeared between Erin and the beast.
And he wasn't just any man. Clad in a suit of black armor, he had incredibly broad shoulders and long jet hair. Erin couldn't see his face, but she could feel the power of his presence. Feel the warrior essence of him as he prepared to fight the demon.
The snake shrieked in outrage, "Stand down, V'Aidan. Or perish from your stupidity!"
Erin's summoned champion laughed out loud at the she-snake's anger. "I'd perish from your breath long before my stupidity killed me, Krysti'Ana."
Screaming in outrage, the she-snake increased to ten times her size. Her massive jowls snapped and she hissed as the cavern walls around them shook even harder than before. Loud crashes sounded as pieces of stone broke free of the cavern and formed into stone men.
Erin's savior turned to her, and her breath caught at the sight of his face. More handsome than anything imaginable, he held eyes that were so clear and blue, they seemed to glow. A shock of jet-black hair fell over his forehead and contrasted sharply with his tawny skin.
Before she could move, he wrapped his lean, muscular body around hers in a protective cloak, shielding her as the monsters attacked en masse.
Erin could feel the blows he took as they vibrated from his body into hers. She didn't know how he stood the pain of it. How he maintained his hold on her.
All she knew was, she was grateful for it. Grateful for the power and strength of his presence. Grateful that he cradled her so gently and that she was no longer alone to face her nightmare.
The warm, spicy scent of his skin soothed her. Instinctively she wrapped her arms around his lean armored waist and held on to him, afraid of letting him go. "Thank you," she breathed, shaking. "Thank you for coming."
She saw the confusion in his gaze as he frowned down at her. Then his face hardened, his eyes turned icy.
"I have you, akribos," he whispered quietly, and yet his deep, accented voice rolled over her senses like a powerful tidal wave. Soothing, warming. "I won't let the snake Skotos take you."
She believed that, until one of the new monsters seized her about the waist with a stone tentacle. She screamed as it tore her from her savior's grasp.
The dark knight created a sword out of air and pursued them through the dark cavern. She watched as he dodged the other stone monsters, as he literally ran down the walls themselves to get to her. He jumped over the thing carrying her, to land before them and cut off the monster's escape.
The creature caught him about the waist with a hard kick and sent him slamming high into the wall.
V'Aidan didn't seem to feel the pain at all as he slid down the wall to the floor. More monsters swarmed over him, but he fought them down. His face was a mask of determination until he stood strong and victorious over their broken bodies.
He narrowed his eyes on the thing holding her, then held his hand out, and a red glow blasted the monster, splintering it.
The knight grabbed Erin then, scooped her up in his arms, and ran with her through the darkness.
Erin wrapped her arms around his neck and held on for dear life. She could still hear the snake calling out.
"I will have her, V'Aidan. I will have both of you!"
"Don't listen," V'Aidan said. "Close your eyes. Think of something soothing. Think of a happy memory."
She did and, oddly enough, the most comforting thing she could imagine was the sound of his heart pounding under her cheek. The deep accent of his voice.
"V'Aidan!" the she-snake's voice echoed in the cavern. "Return her to me or I will make you wish you had never been born."
He laughed bitterly. "When have I ever wished otherwise?" he mumbled under his breath.
Suddenly the wall before them burst open, spilling more monsters into their path.
"Hand her over to us, V'Aidan," a large gray lizard-man demanded. "Or we will see you pay with the flesh off your back."
Still holding her close, V'Aidan spun around to flee but couldn't.
They were surrounded.
"Give her to us," an old dragon croaked, reaching out its claws. "She can feed us all."
Erin held her breath as she saw the indecision in her dark knight's eyes.
Dear Lord, he was going to hand her over.
Her heart pounding, she touched his face, her fingers brushing against his hard, sculpted jaw. Erin didn't want the monsters to have her, but inside she understood his reluctance to help her any further. He didn't know her at all. There was no reason for him to endanger himself.