Gabriel's heart thudded rapidly in his chest as he continued on through the abyss of the dragon Tunnels. Had the Dyadd lovers of the dragons really once used these passages to meet their amours? It was astounding to him that this had been done by anyone with any frequency. But then love created compulsions that were very close to madness.
Shuffle, scrape. Shuffle, scrape. Breath.
Fear closed in on him. His sense of time, he knew, had been horribly distorted. How long had he been walking? Ten minutes? Three years? It could have been anything. All of his instincts rebelled against what he was doing, demanding that he run like hell. All, that was, but the strongest of all, the one that dovetailed perfectly with one of the most important rules Saint Columba had given his Pack, their Sacred Dictates.
Protect thy mate.
So he pressed on. And after what might have been an eternity, the air began to freshen, the impenetrable darkness to lessen degree by minuscule degree. Until he walked in grayness, the black cut by a nimbus of light just ahead.
The exit. Rowan. Thank God.
Whatever he might face with the dragons, nothing would compare to this horrifying journey into their lair. He would rather fight what he could see, no matter how terrible. He picked up his pace as he drew closer to the light, seeing now that it was the outline of something covering the exit, hopefully nothing difficult to move. Behind him the pace of that steady shuffle picked up as well. And to the left of him he heard something else stir into life down another passage, nothing more than a black hole in the barely existent light.
Don't run. Do NOT run, he told himself. Until the shuffling, faintly moaning somethings were joined by a third, and a fourth. And just ahead, in the very last dark opening before freedom, a white form so misshapen and revolting his joints began to leaden at the barest hints of what it might truly look like dragged itself hungrily toward him, trying to head him off.
To hell with not running.
He was too close to lose now, damn it. Gabriel put his head down, took a deep breath, and barreled forward, hoping that whatever was blocking the exit had at least a little give to it. Because it was either hit it or deal with his pursuers, and at this point an ice pick under the claws sounded better than the second option.
His speed kicked in immediately, like nothing he'd felt before. Even at his initial Change he'd noticed that his Wolf form seemed enhanced in this realm. More powerful, bigger, faster. As though the air on Coracin had been tailored specifically for his benefit. He wondered briefly what else he might be capable of in this place, and just as quickly decided he would find out later. It was time to get out of here.
The creature ahead of him snarled and made a swipe as he rocketed past, numbing the area where its long and malformed fingers brushed. Behind him the moans had turned to howls of anger, muffled and wordless torment that was painful to hear. Gabriel bunched his muscles as the rest closed in behind him, feeling how their speed increased to match his own, feeling the hands swiping at the air just out of reach.
He leaped as the cries behind him reached a deafening pitch. Then he found himself passing directly through the dark square in the center of the light, coming to land hard on the other side as the miserable voices fell silent all at once. He had crossed some sort of invisible barrier, Gabriel thought as he straightened, looking around cautiously. Beneath him was a smooth stone floor, black as the mountain itself. On either side of him a high arched corridor stretched and curved away, lit by flick-ering torches that produced no smoke. And just in front of him, where he would have expected to see some hint ofthe opening he had just passed through, hung a faded and dusty tapestry depicting what could only be daemon feasting on ... on ...
Gabriel curled his lip and turned away. It seemed his people and the daemon had never gotten along very well. And he had better things to do than look at the evidence All that mattered was that this corridor was blessedly deserted, that even now he could begin to catch hints of the one he sought beneath the overpowering scents of smoke and incense. And that he would not have to bring her back the way he'd had to come in.
It was time for the Andrakkar to understand a little something about arukhin tenacity. They might have been gone a long time, but they hadn't lost the traits that had made them worthy adversaries of the dragons. He was an Earth man, yes. But he was also a Drakkyn who had discovered that some things were truly worth fighting, even dying, for.
And he had come for his mate.
Rowan sat on the edge of the bed, still enough that she might have been a statue, waiting for the inevitable knock at the door. Though there was no natural light in the room, which was lit only by small torches on the calls that had been enchanted to burn endlessly without smoke, she knew it must be getting on toward evening. and apart from the ghostlike Wolf hovering outside the door, she had been left completely alone.
It couldn't last. And perhaps that was best, she decided, running a hand absently over the heavy and sumptuous fabric of the bed coverings. Best to get it over with, so at least she would be rid of this terrible sense of impending doom. Rowan wasn't quite sure what to expect, but she supposed the Andrakkar had enlisted some of those wretched daemon for whatever ceremony they would perform
. What evil might yet be done to her she couldn't begin to guess. But no matter what, she would be playing the willing victim, pretending to soften toward Lucien. Beginning to set him up for what would be, if the Goddess were just, a terrible fall. Yet it would never be as painful as what he deserved.
She still couldn't believe Gabriel was dead.
Rowan rose, moving restlessly about the small chamber looking for something more to occupy her thoughts. Anything but that final image of Gabriel reaching into the sky and shouting her name while his captor waited and watched, smiling. But there was; nothing she hadn't already looked at a thousand times. The bed, a small table, a chair. Heavy fabrics and dark colors, jewels glittering dimly around an empty fireplace. Nothing to help her. No way out.
So she thought of Gabriel, and that cut through her numbness and sliced the wound open anew. Rowan tipped her head back, digging her fingers into her hair and tugging, closing her eyes. Maybe she truly was cursed. She almost hoped she was, if she was to belong to Lucien. If she must make some pale imitation of a life here, among the dragons.
How she hated them. And yet found she hated not Lucien, but Mordred most of all. He had led the dragons to new depths of destruction, had twisted his son into a creature that couldn't comprehend real love. He hunted the arukhin because they still existed, because he was afraid of beauty and courage and beings who fought with their hearts along with their teeth and claws.
He had turned what the Drak had made in his own image into a violent, amoral waste. But the Drak had turned a blind eye long ago. And she was no dragon to make it right.
If it weren't for Bastian and whoever was left of the Dyadd, she would have gladly fought them all to the death. It would have been worth it if she could have taken one of the Andrakkar with her. As it was, she was cornered. Heat gathered at her fingertips, and she raised her hands before her to watch as they glowed, pulsing gently in the dim light. So much power. So utterly useless.
A bitter smile twisted her lips. If ever there were a time when she would have consented to Gabriel rescuing her, this was it.
The soft scratch at the door made her jump, her heart swelling with hope even as she cursed herself. But when she opened the heavy wooden door, it was only Malachi, cowering a little as though he thought she might decide to strike him at any minute.
"What is it?" she sighed, but the Wolf couldn't answer, just pinned his ears back and whined softly. Rowan frowned, and the animal shrunk away from her, though he didn't leave.
"No, no, I'm not going to hurt you," she said softly, giving in to her instincts to soothe him though she hadn't been able to soothe herself. She held out her hand, feeling slightly foolish about it once she realized what she was doing. This wasn't really a Wolf, after all, but a man. He probably didn't want to sniff her hand or be petted. And sure enough, Malachi surprised her into smiling when he ducked his head away and gave her a look that was plainly disgruntled.
Whatever had been done to him, there was still man in the Wolf, she decided. He looked nervously over his shoulder, into the shadows of the hall that had been carved from the mountain itself, then back at her and whined again.
"Is it," she asked haltingly, "is it time to go?" She could think of no other reason for the intrusion. The only way she'd known Malachi was even there before this was because she'd poked her head into the hallway twice earlier on, and he'd been sitting sentry by the door both times. But instead of taking her hand in his mouth and leading her off as he had earlier, he backed away slowly, still whimpering and darting quick looks into the shadows.
She looked in both directions to make sure that no one would catch her out of the room, then took a step toward Malachi.
"Look, whatever it is, maybe I can help. You don't need to be afraid of me ..."
But she saw then that it wasn't her the Wolf was afraid of at all. Rowan went completely still as she looked into one of the pools of darkness that was untouched by the flickering torchlight. And as she watched, a great pair of glowing golden green eyes opened to regard her, seeming to float in blackness.
Her hand fluttered to her throat to catch the sound that threatened to erupt from her mouth and bring all the dragons running. She knew those eyes.
Gabriel padded smoothly into the light, his inky fur making him look like a shadow come to life. Rowan swallowed hard, frozen in place. Something in her feared that if she moved, he would just fade away. But the black Wolf seemed to have no such worry. His gaze never wavered from her face as he approached, finally coming to a stop inches from her. His great head, which came up to her waist, lifted slightly as he continued to look at her.
It was the yearning in his eyes that was finally her undoing.
With a strangled cry, Rowan dropped to her knees before him, threw her arms around his neck, and buried her face in thick, soft fur that smelled of forests and wild, far-off hills. Her will to remain here shattered at that first blessed touch. She couldn't stay here with Lucien knowing Gabriel was still alive, not for another second, though she knew it would mean the fight of both their lives. She had no idea what would become of them, but one thing was certain, for now and evermore. From this day forward, Gabriel MacInnes could rescue her all he wanted to.