Loke stared off to his right at the mouth of the cave, searching for a way to improve the relationship between him and his ward, and stop himself from surrendering to the darker instincts that were beginning to wake inside him. He wanted her and had done since first setting eyes on her, he would never deny that, but he would also never seek to possess her in the traditional ways of a dragon. She wasn’t an object to be owned or a slave to be taken against her will.
She was beautiful and fierce. She was a little Amazon. A warrior.
That side of her both fascinated and concerned him. It drew him to her but pushed him away at the same time. He had to keep reminding himself that she wasn’t strong. She was mortal. A weak species. He had proven that by hurting her without ever realising it.
He cursed himself and swiftly stood, intending to apologise to her. When he risked looking back down at her, her deep blue eyes were on the tunnels to his left again. Maybe there was a way to make her feel more comfortable in his home. She did seem very interested in the tunnels.
“Come. You must be hungry. I will show you the larder.” He held his hand out to her but she didn’t take it.
She rose to her feet and he looked back at the cave mouth while she dressed, giving her some privacy.
“It’s probably just because you think I’ll run off the moment you turn your back,” she muttered.
Loke smiled. “It had crossed my mind.”
She swept her arm out towards the tunnels. “Lead the way.”
He decided that would also be unwise, so he opted for walking beside her. On her left. So she couldn’t grab his knife he had sheathed against his left hip.
When he reached the fire, he picked up the wooden torch he kept near it, lit it and held it ahead of them, illuminating the path.
“In my world, we have things called torches… but they’re powered by batteries.”
“Batteries?” He looked down at her and caught her staring at his bare chest. His heart missed a beat as fire swept through his veins and he had to battle to bring it back under control.
Her gaze leaped away from him and her cheeks darkened. “Tiny power cells. We use them to run all kinds of electronic equipment.”
“Electronic?” He tried to focus on their conversation and his curiosity about her world, using it to shut out the temptation to shift closer to her. He wouldn’t cross that line. No matter how fiercely he desired her. She was under his protection only until the time came when he received word that the battle was over and she could return to her people. He meant to keep his promises.
Perhaps his desire to understand her was too dangerous to indulge. He feared that if he came to understand the sylph beside him, he would be done for, no longer able to keep his distance from her. It was better she remained a mystery then and he interacted with her as little as possible.
His dragon instincts roared to the fore, pushing back against that idea. Leaving her as a mystery meant denying his curiosity about her. It meant not learning about her world and her life as a mortal. She was his chance to gain knowledge about a world he could never venture into, no matter how fiercely he wanted to see it. He needed to hear her tales, her first-hand accounts of everything the mortal world had to offer.
Loke scrubbed his free hand through his hair, grasping the longer lengths and tugging them back until his scalp stung.
Everything about her was impossible.
She was impossible to understand as she leaped between polar emotions in a heartbeat. Impossible to comprehend as he pitted the fact she was mortal against the knowledge she was a warrior. Impossible to ignore as she huffed beside him and he felt her gaze briefly touch on his body again.
Impossible to resist.
Loke glanced down at her, his eyes straying to her despite his attempt to keep them locked on the tunnels ahead of them.
She looked unimpressed and he was coming to hate seeing that expression on her face because it made him feel inadequate.
“You seriously don’t know what electricity is?” She rolled her eyes and sighed emphatically again. “Heaven help me.”
“I do not think the angels will help you, Little Amazon. They cannot venture into Hell as far as I know.”
She stopped dead and he walked a few steps, her gaze boring into his back, before halting too and looking over his shoulder at her. Her stunned expression drew a smile from him and lightened his mood, chasing away the ache in his head and lifting him out of the mire of his conflicting desires.
“Angels?” she whispered, a touch of fascination in her voice.
He grinned now. “Ah, it would seem it is my turn to sigh ever so dramatically.”
Her face darkened into a scowl. “Whatever. I’m sure if there were angels, Archangel would know about them.”
She had mentioned Archangel before, when she had called herself a demon-hunter. The other female he had met in the battle, the one with black hair, had called herself such a thing too. It made sense for that female. She had been powerful.
His little Amazon was not.
Yet she apparently hunted immortals. A foolish venture for a mortal. He was surprised she had survived to her current age.
He wasn’t sure what age that was, or how many cycles of the earth around the sun it took for a mortal to grow to adulthood, and he wasn’t about to ask her. She would sigh again and right now he had the upper hand and he was enjoying it.
“Angels exist.” He made it a statement, so she didn’t question it.
It didn’t stop her. “So where are they? Why haven’t I met one? I’ve been hunting for years and I’ve never met one.”
“You would most likely be dead if you met one of the breed who make Hell their home. Fallen angels are dangerous prey, Little Amazon. You must not approach or engage them.”
He must have looked serious because she didn’t argue. Instead, her eyes took on a shimmer of curiosity.
“You’ve met a fallen angel?”
He nodded. “And barely escaped with my life… but it was long ago and I am stronger now. I am confident I could hold my own against one if I ever meet another.”
She ran her gaze over him, a wave of heat following it, scalding him wherever she lingered, and then raised her eyes back to his. “How long ago?”
Loke thought about that as he began walking again, leading the way towards the tunnel. He gave up searching for a definite answer and shrugged as he made a guess. “Around four thousand years ago. Give or take a few centuries. It is difficult to remember.”
She stopped again and he sighed. If she kept stopping whenever he said something that astounded her, they were going to take hours to reach the larder.
“Four thousand years. Blimey. Prince Loren is around five thousand years old or something like that according to—”
“Prince Loren… of the elves?” Loke ignored her scowl but noted she didn’t like being interrupted. “You know him?”
She nodded and his eyebrow quirked.
He had known they had fought on the same side in the battle between the Third and Fifth realms of the demons, but he hadn’t expected her to know royalty. It surprised him that the prince of elves had worked directly with her people rather than allowing one of his commanders to do such a low and menial task in his place.
“He’s getting married to one of our scientists,” she said with a smile. “Something about Olivia being his mate.”
Olivia. He frowned at that name. The black-haired female had mentioned it, stating how Olivia would love to study him. A scientist. He knew of science in the sense they meant it. Studying. Cutting open creatures to see their insides and gain knowledge of them. He curled his lip at his little Amazon, flashing a hint of fang.
She planted her hands on her hips. “I don’t recall saying or doing anything to deserve that sort of look.”
“Speak not of scientists and mates. It is a ridiculous notion that the prince of elves would find a mate in such a weak species.”
“Well, it happened… like Sable is probably going to get hitched to King Thorne.” She stormed past him and he was the one standing still and staring at her in astonishment now.
“King Thorne has a mate too?”
She nodded and looked over her shoulder at him. “You met her. She trod on your throat.”
He rubbed the front of it and pinned her with a black look as he recalled the dark-haired huntress. “She was strong. A worthy mate for a demon king.”
Her pretty face darkened, her fair eyebrows dropping low above her deep blue eyes, and she turned on him. “Strength comes from more than the body, you know? It comes from in here too.”
She pressed her hand between her breasts.
“Strength of heart does not make you strong, Little Amazon. It does not stop a blade from slicing your throat open.” He stepped towards her, closing the gap between them, and swept his fingers in a straight line just inches from her delicate throat as he stared down into her eyes. “It does not make you a match for one of our kind. Physical weakness cannot be overcome by emotional strength. A mortal is a poor match for an immortal. It would be far too easy to harm you by mistake.”
He swept past her, leaving her to follow, and paused only when he reached the mouth of the tunnel that led to the larder.
She stood where he had left her, staring at him, a myriad of emotions crossing her face and colouring her eyes, clashing and colliding, but through them all one rose.
She straightened her spine, tilted her chin up, and clenched her fists at her sides as her lips compressed into a mulish line.
“You know nothing about mortals. Physical strength isn’t everything. Without emotion… without heart… you’re nothing but barbarians. But I should’ve known that you were a barbarian… after all… you act like one.” She stormed past him again and didn’t slow this time.
She marched ahead of him into the darkness and he let her, even though he wanted to argue with her. He scrubbed his free hand over his face and held back his sigh. Perhaps he had been too hard on her kind. He wasn’t sure what had possessed him to say those things to her, pointing out the differences between mortals and immortals. The thought that the prince of elves had been given a mortal female as a fated mate, and that King Thorne of the Third Realm had also received one, had set him on edge for some reason.
Loke watched her stomping towards the edge of the reach of the light from his torch.
If she kept marching blind as she was now, she was going to trip over something and hurt herself. He quickened his pace, eating up the distance between them with long-legged strides, and only slowed when he was within a few feet of her. She muttered things beneath her breath and he caught his name from time to time.
The larder came into view ahead of them and she finally slowed down, her head turning this way and that as she took it in. He had carved shelves into the black walls of the small round cave many centuries ago, allowing him to keep his food off the floor, where bugs were prone to nibble on it.
He placed the wooden torch in the diagonal shaft he had hacked into the rock near the entrance of the larder and picked up the iron cauldron he had traded from a witch in the free realm. He placed his only metal bowl and a wooden spoon down inside it, and then set about gathering the items he needed for their meal.
“Eww, what is that. Tell me you don’t eat that.”
He turned to find Anais pointing at a lump of white fat he had carved off an old Hell beast, one of the kind with horns and talons. It had been a difficult battle. He could have easily won if he had resorted to using his dragon form, but his kind preferred to hunt in their mortal appearance. They relished the challenge and the chance to test their skills against a larger foe.
Loke shook his head. “I do not eat that. I use it for fuel.”
“For the fire?” She looked back towards the exit. “And the torches I guess?”
He nodded this time. “It helps. I eat this.”
He picked up a skinned side of Hell beast, around a quarter of the original carcass, with the front left limb and ribs intact, and she looked as if she might vomit.
She swiftly covered her mouth and turned away from him.
Would he ever understand her?
She claimed to be strong, but when faced with a butchered creature, she paled and looked ready to flee. He was beginning to wonder whether she had ever taken a life during her battles. Surely a female who couldn’t look at a piece of meat was incapable of taking a life?
“I think I might be vegetarian,” she muttered into her palm.
Loke wasn’t sure what that meant but he didn’t like the sound of it. “I will make a stew from the leg.”
“What does it taste like?” She peeked over her shoulder at it. “Does it taste like beef or maybe lamb? I’m not big on lamb.”
Beef. Lamb. He presumed these were creatures of the mortal world.
He shrugged. “I am afraid I cannot compare it with something from your realm as I have never been there.”
She frowned and shifted to face him, her fear of the carcass evidently forgotten. “You haven’t left Hell?”
He shook his head. “No dragons leave Hell… so you see I cannot offer you a comparison to ease your mind… but it tastes good.”
“I think I’ll have to be the judge of that. If it does, I’ll tell the world… there’s a bachelor in Hell who can cook.” She paused and ran another glance over him, rekindling the fire in his veins. “You are a bachelor? I figured you were since this cave doesn’t look like the sort of place where a lady dragon would live. It lacks a female’s touch.”
Loke bit back a groan.
His cave wasn’t the only thing that lacked a female’s touch. He had been lacking that for a long time.
His gaze fell to her hands and he was wondering what her touch would feel like before he could stop himself. He tried to shake away the image of her running her palms over his bare chest, making him burn with a soft caress, but it was impossible. He had invited the images into his mind, had opened himself to them, and they flooded him, refusing to go away.
He was vaguely aware that he was standing in the larder, staring at her like a complete dolt and asking for another kick to the groin.
Anais snapped her fingers in front of his face and he jerked backwards, blinking at her.
“I don’t want to know what you were thinking, but your eyes were being weird.” She shuffled away from him, to such a distance that it was clear she had lied and knew what he had been thinking about and knew the reason his eyes had brightened, verging on glowing.
He was hungry, but not for food.
He wanted a taste of something far more dangerous and alluring.
The fascinating little Amazon diligently keeping her eyes off him.
As if that would stop him from desiring her.