~ ~ ~
Oklahoma, January 15
The wrinkled old man stayed crouched for hours in the same shadowy corner of the library where Isa Telwyn worked, which was odd, because it was obvious that he didn’t know how to read.
The large encyclopedia looked tiny in his huge, warty hands. He hadn’t turned the page since he’d arrived, but he kept peering over the top of the book at Isa like he was trying to figure out if he knew her. But the really strange part was that he didn’t seem to realize he was holding the encyclopedia upside down.
Closing time was minutes away, and he didn’t look like he was going anywhere soon. His bulbous body sat folded into a creaky oak chair that strained to hold his mass. The cowboy hat he wore was too small for his round head, but it shaded his face, leaving only an impression of sagging skin, wiry whiskers, and oddly-shaped eyes.
Wind howled outside as the winter storm front closed in. Tiny pellets of ice clicked against glass panes that had protected the books for so long they were rippled with age. The smell of old paper and aging wood wafted through the building as the fierce wind worked its way in through drafty cracks in the aging brick and plaster walls.
The buzzing fluorescent bulbs overhead hadn’t been replaced in years. There weren’t as many as there should have been, thanks to cost-cutting measures, leaving the whole space a labyrinth of shadowy mazes with high bookshelf walls. Even the utilitarian carpet on the floor seemed to absorb light as well as it did sound. Footsteps were muffled, but the creak of aging boards underneath was easy to hear all the way from the back wall to the check-out desk.
Mrs. Bird, the library’s oldest employee, shuffled toward the front desk, eyeing the strange man. Her white hair had thinned, but she still twisted the little wispy bits into a bun that was more bobby pins than hair. She settled her crooked hands on the back of a rickety chair too large for her shrinking frame. “It’s seven,” she said to Isa, confusion clear in her tone. “Why is he still here? Everyone knows we close at seven.”
“I don’t think he’s a local,” Isa said. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “In fact, I don’t think he can read. I bet he’s been sitting over there all day, trying to work up the courage to ask about our classes.”
“Classes are on Saturday. It’s Tuesday.”
Isa stifled a grin at the seriousness of Mrs. Bird’s statement. She’d lived in Silver Gulch her entire life, and after eighty-eight years had a hard time remembering there were other places on the planet where people could exist. This town—this library—was the center of her universe, and Isa feared that if she didn’t get out of here soon, she would end up just like Mrs. Bird sixty years down the line.
“I’ll go talk to him,” Isa said as she moved around the aging desk worn slick with use. “You should get home. The freezing rain they predicted has already started to move in, and you don’t want to be out driving in that stuff.”
A look of stark terror bleached Mrs. Bird’s papery skin. There were only two things the older woman feared: a fire in the library and bad roads. “Are you sure you’ll be okay to lock up by yourself?” she asked as she removed the knitted sweater she wore every day—cold or not—and hung it on the back of her chair.
“I am. Do you want me to walk you to your car?”
Mrs. Bird pulled on her coat and slipped her purse strap over her arm. “And leave the library unattended with that stranger in it? No, thank you. I’ll be fine. You protect the books.”
Isa seriously doubted that a man who obviously couldn’t read would steal their relatively meager collection of books, but saying so would only hurt Mrs. Bird’s feelings, so Isa kept her mouth shut about it. Instead, she held up one hand as though swearing an oath. “With my life. See you in the morning.”
The tarnished brass bell on the front door chimed as Mrs. Bird left, braving the oncoming storm.
Isa glanced at the stranger again. He’d been here for hours. She couldn’t even remember him using the bathroom. Whenever she’d passed by, he’d hunkered down and hidden his face. An odd musty smell hovered around him. Maybe he was homeless, using the library as a refuge from the storm.
A pang of sympathy swept through her, but she couldn’t let him stay here. Maybe she could drop him off somewhere on her way home—assuming he had somewhere to go.
She felt him watching her from beneath the brim of his too-small cowboy hat. There was something wrong with his eyes. They were obscured by shadows, but even so, she could tell they were misshapen. Tall and narrow, glinting with a bizarre orange color when a bit of light slipped in beneath the brim of his hat.
“It’s closing time,” she called out as she gathered her purse and coat. “We open again at nine.”
The man’s head shifted slightly. He’d heard her, but made no response.
She pushed on with her hints that he should leave. “We have several adult classes if you’re interested. Genealogy, computer skills, basic reading classes. We’d love to have you join us. Would you like me to sign you up?”
He stood, and she could see now just how huge he was. Easily as tall as the bookshelves flanking him, he lumbered down the aisle. He moved slowly, carefully, as though he was trying not to knock things over as he passed. The closer he came, the stranger he looked. In fact, she was almost sure that he was sniffing. That, combined with his heavy jowls, gave her the impression of some kind of hunting dog.
Warning bells chimed in her head as he got closer. She’d tried not to stare at him, worrying that she’d hurt his feelings, but now she’d wished she’d taken a closer look, or that Mrs. Bird’s eyesight had been a bit better.
Some deep, primal part of Isa screamed at her to turn and run. Only her sympathy for him kept her feet pinned in place. She knew how she’d feel if someone ran away from her, screaming.
His clothes were strange, rough—almost like burlap. Mismatched panels were laced together with leather and stretched over his thick body. He wasn’t wearing shoes, but his feet were wrapped in some kind of fur that was held closed with cord around his ankles.
The logical guess was that he was homeless, but her instincts were telling her that wasn’t the case. Something here was off. Way off.
Isa tugged her coat on and clutched her purse. The need to back away clanged through her, leaving behind a jumbled pile of nervous energy. “Sir? Are you okay?”
He wasn’t. There was something terribly wrong about him. And as he stepped closer to the desk where her lamp sat, she could finally see under the brim of his too-small hat.
His skin had a grayish cast, hanging in loose folds around his mouth and jaw, like a hound. Black, corkscrew whiskers poked out of his face at wild angles. He wasn’t just suffering from some kind of birth defect or odd skin condition. His eyes told the real story. She hadn’t been seeing things. They were taller than they were wide, with narrow, orange pupils.
The man wasn’t a man at all—at least not a human one.
Isa stumbled back, a squeak of shock springing from her mouth.
He sniffed in her direction, and this time, she knew she hadn’t imagined it.
“Child of House Loriah?” the creature asked, his words clear despite the extra skin around his mouth. “Come.” He held out his hand, and she saw now that he wore tight, flesh-colored gloves to mask his gray skin tone.
“Uh. No, thank you. I’m on my way out.” As she grabbed her keys, the need to get away pounded through her.
“Come,” he insisted.
Not in this lifetime.
Isa vaulted over the worn wooden counter, ripping the back seam of her long skirt, and sprinted for the door. She pushed on the cold, rippled glass. The bell had just begun its merry jingle when she was jerked back hard. Her shoulder screamed out in pain. Even through the padding of her winter coat, she could feel the bruising force of his grip around her biceps.
Her back hit his front, and the fleshy folds of his body cushioned the blow. They jiggled and lapped around her, shoving his musty smell into her nose.
She gagged at the stench, but that was the least of her troubles. His hold on her was too tight to break, especially with her damaged shoulder.
But she still had her keys in hand.
Isa reached over her head, ignoring the searing pain in her joint. She shifted her hold on her keys to shove one out like a small blade, and jabbed for his eyes.
He whirled her around and leaned back, so that his eyes were out of her reach. But the rest of him wasn’t.
Fear clawed its way up her throat, making her screams come out like the howl of a strangled, mewling cat.
“No pain to you,” he said. “Be calm.”
A sour, metallic taste filled her mouth, just as it always did when someone lied to her. She wasn’t sure where the bizarre radar had come from, but she’d had it all her life, and she certainly didn’t need it now to know that this creature definitely did mean her harm. Lots of it.
He was so freaking strong, taking control of her flailing hands as easily as if she were a child.
As the seconds ticked by, she was running out of options. As doom spiraled down on her, rage bloomed from deep inside, shoving aside her fear long enough for her to think.
If this was a male—and she sincerely hoped it was—it would have some kind of dangling male bits for her to target.
Isa gathered her strength, channeling every ounce of her fear and rage to her legs. Her knee came up in a hard, fast hit, right between his fleshy thighs.
He went still for a split second before a low, pain-filled moan erupted in a cloud of acrid stench. His hold on her arms loosened just enough for her to jerk free. The move caused a white hot flash of pain in her shoulder, but she didn’t care. She turned and ran, pushing her way out through the doorway into the frigid night.
The sidewalk leading to the library had been salted in preparation for the storm, but once she hit the parking lot where her car sat in the distance, her feet slipped on the thin layer of freezing rain that had already accumulated and turned to ice. She slid right past her car, her pretty dress shoes no match for the ice.
A giant, four door truck pulled into the lot, its headlights bouncing off the frozen grass and ice-coated twigs. It braked as the driver saw her, but the tires skidded along the ice. Her dressy shoes might as well have been skates, easing her over the pavement in an uncontrolled slide.
Time stretched out, and she saw herself gliding right into the path of the oncoming vehicle. The timing was perfect. There was nowhere she could go to avoid the collision. She couldn’t slow herself down. She couldn’t even shift her weight so that she fell out of the way. Two seconds from now, she was going down under several thousand pounds of steel.
A deep sadness shoved away every trace of fear. She wasn’t ready to die. There were so many places she hadn’t seen yet. G’ma’s last few years had left her frail and unable to travel. All those promised trips to Europe had necessarily gone by the wayside. Isa had never even seen the ocean she dreamed about nearly every night.
She was twenty-eight, and she’d never fallen in love, never held a child of her own in her arms. She hadn’t made a single, lasting mark on the world. Only the few residents of the tiny town of Silver Gulch even knew she existed.
And now she was going to end up squished, bleeding out on the frozen, cracked pavement of the town library. Assuming the monster behind her didn’t get to her first.
She couldn’t accept that fate. Life was supposed to be more than this. Her G’ma had always said she was destined for great things, and G’ma never lied.
The passenger door of the sliding truck shot open. A man flung himself onto the hood, holding onto the door frame by one hand. In a move so graceful he had to be an acrobat, he propelled himself off of the hood, his powerful legs bunching as he launched himself at her.
He flew over her, lifting her from the ground as he passed midair. His arms curled around her body, and she felt him turn her as they flew toward the grass. He landed first, taking the brunt of the impact. Her jolt was cushioned first by his body, then by their controlled roll into the bare bushes.
They came to a stop. She was alive, but she couldn’t breathe. The air had been knocked from her lungs, sending a spike of primal panic through her.
She laid there for a moment, trying to calm down and let the shock of what had just happened sweep through her, hoping it would open her airway. Heat from the man’s body protected her from the icy rain falling from above, but the frozen grass was cold and crunchy against her back.
He looked down at her, his eyes wide with concern. She swore she could see little pinpoint sparks winking in his dark eyes, but that had to be her rattled, oxygen-deprived brain talking.
“Are you hurt?” he asked. His voice was nice. Smooth, with a faint accent she couldn’t place. She tried to concentrate on that, rather than her screaming need for air.
Isa opened her mouth to take a small breath, but her lungs seized on the cold air, refusing to function.
His concern deepened, and he palpated her head for injuries.
She pushed his hands away and choked out a faint, strained, wheezing sound. “Can’t breathe.”
He didn’t even hesitate. His mouth covered hers, and a rush of warm air filled her aching lungs as he breathed into her.
Isa was stunned stupid. First by his actions, then by the feel of his mouth on hers. It was hot, firm, determined, making her think instantly of the kind of kiss she’d always longed for—the kind of kiss that not one single man in this town had the courage to give her.
As oxygen filled her body again, and the panic of not being able to breathe evaporated, she relaxed under him.
His head lifted for a moment, and then again his mouth covered hers and another puff of warm air filled her.
Finally, her lungs functioned again, sucking in a gasp of cold air all on her own.
He rose over her, his lips damp from hers. “Better?”
She licked her lips, tasting him there—clean snow and mulled cider. Some primal part of her woke up shivered in response, leaving her unable to do anything but stare.
He had long, dark hair that fell toward her in thick waves. Along his right temple was an intricate braid laced with vibrant blue silk. It tickled some distant memory, and associated with that were feelings of warmth, trust and complete safety.
She reached for his braid, stunned and off-balance. How could something so simple evoke such strong emotions? She’d never seen him before. The good ol’ boys around here sure as hell never wore ribbons in their hair.
As soon as she shifted her arm to touch the braid, her shoulder exploded with a sharp pain.
In that instant, everything that had just happened, including how she was injured, came rushing back to her. With it, a heaping load of fear.
Her voice shook as she spoke. “Call for help. There’s a stranger in the library. He’s not… human.”
The man pushed to his feet with the same powerful grace he’d used to leap from a moving vehicle. “Get in the truck. Stay there.”
A second later, he was gone, running toward the library.
Isa sat up and looked at the truck with its engine running and three doors left hanging open. Then she looked at the library door. From here she could see a pile of books strewn across the entry. Another handful hit the door, knocking the bell around. There were shadows of at least three people—or things—moving around in there.
Something bad was going on inside, and the man who’d saved her life was in there with it.
She searched for her cell phone to call the police, but it wasn’t in her pocket. Her purse lay nearby, its contents strewn over the frozen grass. She didn’t see her phone, but maybe it hadn’t been knocked out of her purse.
The front doors of the library shattered. Glass crashed, tinkling as it hit the ground. An instant later, she felt the heavy impact of the fleshy creature as it hit the asphalt. It kept sliding until it collided with her car hard enough to rock it.
The thing was much more agile than anything its size had a right to be. Within seconds, it regained its footing and charged back into the library, chin down, fur-wrapped feet moving easily over the ice.
She froze there, still and silent, hoping it wouldn’t notice her crouched by the bushes.
As soon as it plunged back through the doors, she grabbed up her purse and dug through its contents. Her phone wasn’t there, either. And she desperately needed a phone. Any creature that could take a hit like that and keep going needed more firepower than one truck full of unarmed people could offer. They needed help. Police with lots of guns, and maybe a sturdy cage.
She walked on the grass to keep from slipping, edging around the perimeter of the parking lot until she was close to where the salt had been laid out. She really didn’t want to go back in there, but someone needed to call for help, and with all the commotion going on in the library, she wasn’t sure that any of the people inside had found the time. That left the job to her.
Isa peered through the cluttered doorway, making certain the coast was clear. She could see motion at the back of the library. More books flew around. A shelf toppled over, making her cringe so hard it hurt her injured shoulder.
Mrs. Bird was going to be pissed that all of her beloved books were being abused so mercilessly.
With no one in sight, Isa hurried inside and headed straight for the phone behind the front desk.
Her cherry red cell was sitting on the desk, right where she’d left it. She’d been in such a hurry to get out, she’d forgotten it. But now she scooped it up and tucked it in her pocket while she used the land line to dial 911. If she had to run, she could leave the phone off the hook so the police would know where to come.
She hadn’t yet finished punching the last number when something flew past her head, missing by less than an inch. Before her hair had stopped swaying, she looked up and saw the fleshy gray creature lumbering toward her. Its orange eyes were lit with victory, its huge hands stretched out for her. “Child of Loriah.”
She didn’t stop to think, she just took the object in her hand and aimed at its head. The cordless phone sailed over the desk, hitting the creature in the cheek. Its many folds of skin flapped as they absorbed the blow. She hadn’t even slowed it down, and now the phone was gone.
Isa pushed herself back, using both arms and legs to get out of his way. Her dressy shoes slipped on the floor. Her long skirt impeded her movement. It felt like she scrambled forever—like some kind of cartoon character—but finally she found enough traction to spin around the giant desk and duck behind a sturdy shelf.
Through the stacks, she could see three men charging her way. The first in line was the man who’d flown through the air to snatch her out of the way of the truck. The second was shirtless, with deep bronze skin, wearing wide leather bands around his wrists. The third had a shaved head that was covered in intricate tattoos. All three of them were big, scary, and headed her way.
The man with the braid wore four rings on each hand. He clapped his hands together, and when he pulled them apart, filaments of blue-white electricity stretched between the rings, forming a kind of net.
He let out a bellow so loud the shelves rattled. She didn’t understand the word he’d uttered, but he said it with such force and conviction—such complete and utter command—she felt herself freezing in place.
So did the creature. It stopped and turned, baring thick teeth that looked like chips of gray granite. A deep rumbling warning vibrated its lips and cheeks.
The man with the braid stepped onto the top of the main desk, moving as casually as if he’d gone up a single stair. The light between his hands crackled as he spread his arms wider, splaying his fingers to thicken the streaming web of electricity.
“Warrian,” the bare-chested man said. “The woman.”
“I see her,” the man with the braid answered. “I will let no harm reach her.”
Isa waited for the metallic taste of his lie to coat her tongue, but none came. He truly believed she was going to be okay.
For some reason that bolstered her courage. She’d seem some freaky things tonight—his electrical finger web included. Maybe he knew something she didn’t. She sure as hell hoped so.
His gaze flicked to her for a split second. “Run.” It wasn’t an order. It was barely a suggestion. But his complete confidence surged through her, both infectious and welcome.
Isa ran for the door.
Before her second step had landed, she saw him move. The man called Warrian leaped from the desk, flying toward the beast. The web of light flowed between his hands like water, answering to even his smallest of movements.
His booted feet hit the creature’s saggy stomach and bounced off, landing neatly on the floor in front of it. It reached down beneath its tattered clothing and pulled out two red blades—each one the length of her forearm. They looked like table knives in its giant fists, but much more deadly.
The blades moved toward the heart of the man who’d saved her life, yanking a scream of fear from her chest. She stopped, trying to warn him of the danger, but no words came out. She couldn’t look away. She stared in shock, completely consumed by the battle playing out.
Warrian moved his hands in a big circle, making the web dance between them. The strands looped around the creature’s wrists. He pulled hard, causing the muscles of his arms and back to bulge under the strain.
Both of the creature’s hands flew off, completely severed by the brilliant net. Not a single drop of blood fell, but the smell of burning hair and flesh filled the air. The creature roared in pain and rage, but the man didn’t back down. He jumped up, tumbling over the creature’s head and looping his webbing around its neck. By the time his feet were firmly on the floor, the creature’s severed head was tumbling down, bouncing off its fleshy gut to land on a pile of books.
Isa stumbled to a halt, her heart pounding hard. She couldn’t believe what she’d seen, and yet the reality of it was all around her in the form of toppled books, monstrous body parts, and the smell of charred flesh.
All three men turned and stared at her as if expecting her to say something. Or maybe they were seeking applause.
Whatever it was they wanted, they were going to have to get it from someone else.
“I’m calling the police,” she said, pulling her phone from her pocket.
The bare-chested man reached for her phone to stop her, but Warrian gave him a warning growl. “She is of House Loriah. You may not touch.”
“Are you certain?” asked the dark-skinned guy who was mostly naked and doing a fine job of pulling off the look.
“I am. She looks like her mother.”
Isa went still in the act of dialing her phone. “What did you say?” she asked, nearly too shaken to get the words out. Her mother had been dead for years, since Isa was an infant. She didn’t even have pictures, and yet somehow this man knew what her mother looked like?
His gaze hit hers and held fast as he made his way to her, stepping over toppled furniture and books as if they were no more an obstacle than blades of grass. When he got close, she had to tip her head back to look him in the eyes.
He bowed his head. His voice was calm, almost reverent. “I am Warrian of House Loriah, Your Imperial Majyr. You look like your mother.”
Imperial what? She had no idea what he was talking about. He had to be mistaken. “My mother is dead.”
He closed his eyes and bowed his head momentarily. “Yes, sadly. A fate which will not find you while I yet breathe.”
“We can’t stay here,” the man with the tattooed head said.
Her savior seemed to be in charge, and started issuing orders. “Talan, destroy the body, then head outside and scout the area.”
Talan, the tattooed man, nodded and pulled a small metallic spike from his belt. He knelt over one of the huge, severed hands, plunged the metal spike in it, and seconds later, the hand fell into a pile of white powder.
Isa stared in shocked gratitude. At least no one was going to have to clean that up.
“Radek,” said Warrian, turning to the half-naked guy. “Search the building. Then we go separate ways. The Dregorgs rarely travel alone. There will be a hunt.”
Radek clenched his fists in anticipation. “We’ll need her scent to draw them away.”
Isa was having trouble keeping up with everything. It was all happening too fast. But there was one thing she had caught. She looked up at the man with the braid. “You mean there are more of those things out there?”
“Many. We must go.” His gaze slid past her to the parking lot. “Do you have a vehicle?”
“Your keys.” He held out his hand in expectation.
His palm was wide, square, and marked with calluses—the hand of a man who was not a stranger to hard work. She remembered how his fingers had felt sliding through her hair as he searched for signs of injury, gentle yet insistent, just as his mouth had been. She swore she could still feel the heat of his touch lingering along her scalp.
Each long, thick finger was encircled by a ring covered in tiny, intricate symbols she didn’t recognize. The rings on his right hand were silver, while those on his left were a rich, dark gold. There were no more strands of electricity spilling from the odd weapon, but she knew what it was capable of doing.
Isa swallowed hard to make room in her tight throat to speak. “I’m not giving you my keys. How will I get home?”
“You will not go home, Your Imperial Majyr. The Dregorg found you, and once his master sees what was done here he will know your true identity. More Dregorgs will follow.”
Who she was? A sick sense of dread began forming at the base of her skull. She wasn’t completely sure what was happening, but something in the back of her mind began to tingle, like a distant memory slowly surfacing. “Just exactly where is it I should go then?”
“Of course,” she snapped, fear and frustration getting the best of her. “Why didn’t I think of that? Just hop into a car with a monster-killing stranger with electrified hands. No big deal.”
“I will not harm you,” he said.
And unlike with the creature, she tasted absolutely no hint of a lie in his words. “I don’t know you. I don’t trust you.”
He flinched as if her words had hurt him, as if her lack of trust was some kind of wound to his pride. “I will not leave your side. You’re not safe here.”
“And where will I be safe?”
“That is a question that requires a longer answer than we have time. Please. Come with me. Your life depends on your cooperation.”
Again, no lie. Whoever this guy was, he really believed what he was selling.
“What happens if I refuse?” she asked.
His shoulders dipped on a sigh. “Then I will force you to come with me and accept the consequences of my actions once you’re safely away from this threat.”
“You mean you’ll abduct me against my will and just deal with me being pissed? You know I’ll press charges, right?”
He frowned for a second as if he didn’t understand her words. Between that and the slight accent lilting through his words, she was sure that English wasn’t his native language.
“No,” Radek, the bare-chested man, said. “Warrian means that he’ll do whatever it takes to protect you, and then when he gets you back safely where you belong, they’ll execute him for daring to go against your will. Is that what you want for the man who saved your life?”
Isa was struggling to find some scrap of sense or thread of logic she could grasp on to help her figure out what was going on. No one was going to execute him. It was a ridiculous thing to say, but all that she could shove out was a fumbling, “No, of course not.”
“Then give him your damn keys.”
She looked at Warrian’s square palm, then up at his face. There was no hint of anxiety in his expression. All she could see was a stoic kind of patience; he’d accept her decision—whatever it might be. His gaze moved slowly over her face, as if he was looking for something or memorizing her features. He lingered over her mouth for a moment, his eyelids drooping slightly.
She didn’t know who this man was or where he’d come from, but the need to know more swelled from deep within. Every time she glanced at the braid, some distant memory tugged at her, tickling the edges of her mind. It was almost like she knew him, except that if she’d ever met a man like him before, she never would have forgotten it.
Warrian was too big, too solid, too completely male. Even with ribbon in his hair, he screamed badass.
Isa had been staring too long, yet she couldn’t pull her eyes away. Watching him calmed her nerves in a way she couldn’t understand. And every time she looked at his mouth, she remembered the feel of his warmth sliding into her and the spicy taste of him.
She licked her lips to see if any hint of him remained. Warrian’s shirt shifted as his stomach clenched, but other than that, he had not moved. He was still standing there, solemnly awaiting her decision.
There were many things about what had happened in the last few minutes that Isa did not understand or care to dwell on. The one thing she knew for sure was that whoever this man was, she wasn’t quite ready to let him leave. He was the key to something—something important. And until she figured out what that was, she was willing to go along for the ride.
“What the hell,” she said, slapping her keys into his hand. “It’s not like tonight can get any scarier.”
Just then Talan came sprinting in from outside. The chains dangling from a multitude of piercings along his ear glittered under the fluorescent lights. “Two more Dregorgs are closing in fast. It’s time to go.”
Isa sincerely wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
Warrian tried not to stare overly long at the empress. He’d already dishonored her by putting his mouth to hers, and he refused to add to that shame by gawking at her like some kind of besotted adolescent. No matter how beautiful she was.
Fear stained the hollows beneath her cheekbones and widened her eyes. They were the color of deep, turbulent seas—a fathomless mix of blues, greens and grays. Her blond hair was worn loose, without a single sign of her house or status braded into the locks. Being in her presence like this was similar to seeing her in a state of undress—something only close family would ever witness back on Loriah. It was a form of intimacy that she wouldn’t understand, and, therefore, he would refuse to acknowledge. No matter how much it intrigued the baser parts of him. There was nothing to gain by embarrassing her, or shaming himself.
His family already carried enough shame.
Her frame was more delicate than it would have been had she been raised on her home world. The mass of this planet was slightly less, leaving her bones thinner and more breakable. His commander had warned him that she might appear strange, but there had been no warning that her fragile appearance would stir up and strengthen the protective instincts that had been bred into Warrian’s bloodline. It was his duty to see to her safety, but what he felt now went much deeper than duty, drilling down all the way to bone-deep, undeniable instinct.
This woman was important, and he would give his life to see to her safety. That was to be expected. What surprised him was that he realized even if she hadn’t been from House Loriah, he would have felt exactly the same way. She was an ethereal, priceless creation that was meant to be protected. By him.
Warrian tossed the empress’s keys to Talan, the soldier representing Imon’s national interests on this mission. A trio of chains dangled from metal loops along the outer edge of his ear, twinkling with tiny, complex charms. An intricate trail of markings covered his shaved skull, cascading down to disappear beneath his shirt.
“Lead the Dregorgs away in her vehicle,” ordered Warrian.
Talan nodded once. “I’ll need her scent. Something fresh for the Dregorgs to track.”
Warrian nodded, and turned to the empress, regretting the haste with which he had to treat her. “I must pluck some of your hair.”
She took a small step back, covering her head with trembling hands. “My hair?”
Talan shifted impatiently, but didn’t touch her. No one outside of members of House Loriah would dare touch her. Warrian would only do so if absolutely necessary, which had happened within seconds of seeing her. Even now, the thought of cradling her slender body against his again was enough to make his stomach clench with the need to see her to safety.
“The Dregorgs can track your scent,” said Talan. “We’re going to lead them away, but we need something that smells like you. Your hair, a piece of clothing—”
“No clothing,” said Warrian. He wanted her as fully dressed as possible in front of these foreigners.
She lowered her hands and leaned forward. “Okay. Sure. Whatever. Just do it fast before more of those whatever-you-called-thems come back.”
“Dregorgs.” Warrian did his best to touch her as little as possible, but the strands clung together, forcing him to slide his fingers in deep enough to feel the silken glide of her hair over his skin. He separated two strands and gave them a quick tug.
Talan took one. “That’ll work.”
“Head west,” Warrian ordered.
Talan nodded his intricately marked head, and sprinted out into the night.
Radek from House Soric held out his hand to receive the other strand. He wrapped it around two fingers, gathered it up and tucked it beneath the wide leather cuff around his wrist. “I’ll head north.”
Warrian nodded his agreement. The storm was worse in that direction, and Radek was most able to tolerate the cold.
“Are you sure those things are going to be able to smell me from just that one strand of hair?” asked the empress.
Warrian pinched the fabric of her puffy coat and tugged on it to get her moving toward the truck. “I am. We need to hurry now, Your Imperial Majyr.”
A book slipped out from beneath her shoe, causing her to stumble. Warrian grabbed her to steady her, and his hand accidentally found the slim curve of her hip. He should have pulled back, releasing her royal person, but they still had another mountain of books, a shattered glass door and an icy stretch of roadway to overcome before reaching the safety of the truck. So instead of doing what was proper, he did what was necessary. He tucked her against his side, tightened his grip on her body and sped toward escape.
The fact that every male instinct within him perked up at her closeness was an inconvenience he was going to have to ignore.
As close as she was to him now, her scent wrapped around his head. He dragged it in, reveling in the way it reminded him of warm ocean breezes and sun-drenched beaches. It had been a long time since he’d experienced the luxury of such things—not since the Raide had invaded Loriah and turned their world upside down. War had a way of driving all the good away, but here in this moment, he remembered the peace of his childhood, and silently thanked the empress for the pleasant respite from pain and death.
“I’ll take the bike,” said Radek, grinning at the thrill of the chase. He lifted a two-wheeled conveyance from the back of the truck and mounted it. The growling engine sparked to life, forcing out a billow of steam behind it.
The empress stopped in her tracks right in front of the bike. “You’ll freeze to death on that thing. You’re not even wearing a freaking shirt. And where’s your helmet? The roads are icy deathtraps.”
Radek’s smile widened at her ridiculous claim. “I’ll be fine, Your Imperial Majyr.” He thumped his chest and winked at her. “Good bloodlines.”
Warrian ignored the veiled insult at his own bloodlines and took the empress by the arm to help her up into the truck. She stifled a hiss of pain, clenching inward to favor her shoulder.
“Did I injure you?” he asked. He’d treated her roughly, tackling her to the ground as he had. He’d done it to save her life, but if he’d damaged her…
“No. That fleshy gray guy did it.”
A feeling of relief trickled through him. As selfish as it was for him to worry over such things, he was grateful he hadn’t hurt her. “I’m pleased that the Dregorg is dead, then. I would kill him for you again if it were possible.”
“Uh. Thanks. I guess. We’re good. Besides, I’ve never had anyone kill for me before.”
That wasn’t true, but he doubted she remembered much from the night of her escape. Warrian had been only ten at the time. She had been a baby, still mastering the art of walking. She’d wobbled past him, hand in hand with her sobbing mother, as she and the other children from House Loriah were rushed into hiding—sent to this distant world that no Raide knew existed. At the time.
And now all of those children needed to come home. Loriah and all of her people depended on it.
“How badly are you injured?” he asked.
“It’s not good, but I’ll live. Let’s just get out of here before company comes.”
He reached behind the seat to where his cloak lay and set it in her lap without touching her. “Put this on, covering as much of yourself as possible.”
“To mask your scent from the Dregorgs.”
She pulled the soft green cloak around herself as she asked, “How is a little fabric going to help when a single hair of mine is enough for those things to track?”
“Because I wear that cloak often and it smells of me. The fabric is a tight weave. It sheds water and deflects wind. Perhaps it will help.” And it was imbued with a substance the Builders had created that masked scent, but telling her that would only create more questions when there was time for none.
“Perhaps is better than no perhaps, I suppose.” She folded her legs on the seat, and draped herself completely. Only her face remained free, pale and pinched with pain and fear.
The urge to draw her against his chest and offer the comfort of his embrace was nearly overwhelming. He remembered how she’d melted beneath him, going boneless and relaxed as he’d breathed into her. Perhaps that had been shock, or the relief of feeling her lungs expand with air, but there was an instinct in him that whispered of something else, something deeper. It demanded he surround her with his strength and hold all enemies at bay.
Instead, he shut her door and climbed into the truck. He would see to her injuries as soon as it was safe, and in doing so, he’d once again have reason to touch her. Until then, Her Imperial Majyr was to stay out of his grasp.
Warrian turned the truck around slowly, cautious of the ice. There were no visible signs of Dregorgs approaching, but Talan was an excellent scout. If he said they were coming, then they were.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“We will keep moving for a while, then we will stop.”
“Way to be specific, Warrian. Care to try again?”
He was shocked by her use of his name. Most guards were only referred to by their position, if at all, especially by nobility. Her familiarity hadn’t been purposeful, but like her unbound hair, it was one more intimacy meant to fool him into forgetting his place.
He tightened his hold on the wheel and kept his gaze focused on the road ahead. Maneuvering these streets while coated with ice was much more difficult and slower than usual, which gave him all the reason he needed not to look at her. “I will drive until I’m sure that no more Dregorgs are on our trail. Then I will take you to a place of safety while we wait for the window.”
She wasn’t ready for that step of their journey yet. He could tell she was still suffering from the stress of the assault as well as her injury. “Are you hurt anywhere other than your shoulder?”
“Not really. And how did you know it was my shoulder?”
“Because I was watching you.” Too closely, but at least the lack of self-control had served him well in this case.
“I think I may need to have it x-rayed.”
Warrian glanced at her, hoping to figure out what she meant. “I don’t know this word, x-rayed.”
“Really? You’ve never had a broken bone with all of that tumbling, leaping, flying, rescue-fighting stuff you do?”
He put the pieces together, determining that this x-rayed had something to do with broken bones.
“You think your shoulder is broken?” The pain must have been more serious than he’d thought, though he should have expected it. The reduced gravity of this world had weakened her, leaving her prone to damage.
“I don’t know,” she said. “That Dregorg thing yanked on it pretty hard. It could just be dislocated. Either way I’m going to need a doctor.”
“I will provide what you need.”
“So you’re a doctor and an acrobat?”
“I am neither. But I will tend your injury as soon as it is safe to stop. I’m sorry it can’t be sooner.”
“I’m fine. Just keep driving away from those things and I won’t complain.”
“It is your right to complain as you wish, Your Imperial Majyr.”
“Imperial what? That’s not the first time you guys have called me that. Why?”
Perhaps he should have been more cautious with his words. Apparently she had no idea who she really was, or that this was not her world. His commander had been unsure if her permanent guardian would have told her the truth, assuming the woman had survived long enough to do so. The Raide had found this planet, and there was no way to know how long they had been lurking here.
Warrian’s orders were to deliver all information to the empress carefully, easing her into her role. Barring that, he was simply supposed to deliver her to the palace, handing the job of education over to someone more capable than him. Likely the council, who would shape her into an instrument that suited their goals.
Warrian’s face heated with frustration and a sense of failure. “Forgive me. I am much better in battle than in conversation.”
“You called me imperial something. What the hell does that mean?”
She wasn’t ready for the truth yet. And he clearly wasn’t capable of enlightening her gently. His only viable option to maintain the integrity of his mission seemed to be to lie to her—something he was loathe to do. Still, since it was for her benefit… “I misspoke. I apologize.”
“Liar. Try again. Why did you call me that?”
“What would you like me to call you?”
“Isa works. Ms. Telwyn if you’re nasty.”
His spine straightened with indignation. “I assure you I am not nasty.”
She sighed. “Okay then. That’s settled. Now about this imperial stuff…”
Warrian was trapped. Lies and evasion were not working. He could sit in silence, ignoring her questions, but that chafed against his sense of duty. She was undoubtedly confused, and if the trembling of his cloak was any indication, afraid. She’d been attacked by something she’d never seen before, nearly crushed beneath a truck, and whisked away by a stranger. She was injured, her body was frail, and the least she deserved was for him to answer her questions.
He pulled in a long breath as he checked for signs of danger. There were few vehicles out on the streets. The farther they went, the worse the storm became. Dregorgs or not, they were going to have to stop soon or risk dying on the roads.
“I was sent here to find you,” he said. “This place—this world—is not your home. But at your home—your real home—you are nobility. If my guess is right, you are daughter of the previous empress.”
“And since my mother is dead…”
“That leaves you empress now.”
Isa sat in silence for a while, staring at him. He could feel her gaze against the side of his face, warm like the fleeting brush of sunshine in a forest. Finally, her voice came out, quiet and uncertain. “You’re not lying. If you were lying, I’d know.”
“It was rumored that your mother could taste a lie.”
She sucked in a shocked breath. “So can I. It’s all metallic and icky, like old pennies.”
“Does that mean you believe me?”
Her head fell back against the seat in defeat. “Do I have a choice? It seems like the only other options are that I hit my head and am experiencing some kind of concussion-induced hallucination. Or I’m dead and the afterlife is an insane place filled with hot men with braids and scary, giant, dog-faced monsters.”
A little wave of pride puffed him up. He didn’t understand why people here used temperature to describe attractiveness, but he did understand her meaning. She found him appealing, which was both flattering and concerning.
She didn’t truly understand her station. She didn’t understand that she was supposed to see him as a tool—one meant to pry her from this place and carry her home. She was seeing him as an equal, which, while exhilarating at moments, was dangerous for both of them.
Warrian could not forget his place. He would not forget it. She ruled. He fought. There were no intersections between the two beyond orders given and obeyed.
His phone rang. The human devices were handy for communication, and while Loriah had its own kind of communication technology, it worked poorly here.
Talan’s voice came through the device. “One Dregorg is trailing me. The other was tracking Radek. He killed it.”
“There are none following us,” said Warrian.
“Okay. I’ll take this one out and we should be good.”
“Of course you should be good. You are a man of honor.” Talan had lived here long enough to have picked up the language better than Warrian had, and he was often left trying to determine the other man’s meaning.
“No, I mean I’m going to kill him.”
“I like your plan. You may proceed.”
“Glad it meets your approval. Where are you?”
“The empress is in need of repair. I will take her to the southernmost camp where I will mend her. We will regroup there.”
“Sounds good. Bye.”
“By what?” Warrian asked, but Talan had already ended the connection.
“You’re going to mend me?” the empress asked, her sharp tone stating clearly that she was not fond of the idea.
“You object to this?”
“I object to you not taking me to a medical professional.”
“I don’t trust anyone to repair you as efficiently as I can.”
“You know, words like repair and mend make me think of duct tape and electrical wire. I’m not letting you get anywhere near my shoulder without proof that you know what you’re doing. It already hurts enough.”
If there hadn’t been a thread of pain weaving her words together so tightly, he would have complied with her wishes. But she was in pain, and that alone was enough to push him to argue with her—something of which he never would have thought himself capable only hours ago. Before meeting her. Before seeing just how fragile this world had left her.
“There will be no wires, and less pain than the needles and knives your doctors use.”
“No needles?” she asked, her tone hopeful.
She deepened her voice and gave it an artificial roughness. “I like your plan. You may proceed.”
He’d said those same words to Talan only moments ago. “Are you mocking me?”
“A little. But you’re man enough to take it, and it gives me something to think about instead of the pain and the fact that there may be monsters chasing us.” There was an edge of vulnerability in her words that made him wish he could sweep her away from here sooner.
“I will not let the Dregorgs find you.”
“And if they do?”
“Then I will kill them.”
She turned away from him and stared out of the window. “How much trouble am I in, Warrian?”
The Dregorgs could still find her, but they weren’t the only threat. They were beasts of burden, war slaves of the Raide—the true threat. From now until the empress stepped back through the window, her life was at risk.
And then, when she did return home to the battle waging across Loriah, her safety was even more in question. If there were any other way of protecting their people from the Raide, Warrian would have left her here in peace. But there was no other way. Her people needed her, whether or not she knew it. Whether or not she wanted to be needed.
He wasn’t sure how to answer her question, and he knew that if he lied, she would sense it. After some silent thought, he settled on, “The trouble you are in is large, but there are many who would give their lives to keep you safe.”
“I don’t want that. All I want is for you to take me to a hospital where I can call the police or animal control to deal with my little infestation.”
“Your life has changed course.”
“But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t ask for this.”
“You were born the daughter of an empress. That’s all it takes to map out the course of your existence.”
Frigid rain hit the windows, mixed with the faint click of icy pellets. Heat was blown into the truck’s cabin, but he could feel cold air slinking in all around them.
“I hate it that I know you’re not lying,” she said. “If I didn’t know, then I could pretend that you were some deranged Comic-Con escapee.”
“I don’t know this Comic-Con thing, but I understand that lies are sometimes easier to bear. For burdening you with the truth, I am sorry.”
She continued staring out the window, and he found that he disliked not being able to glance over and read her expression.
“G’ma always said I was special. But all grandparents say that. I never thought it was anything more than pretty words—at least not once I was old enough to know there was no Tooth Fairy.”
Warrian wanted to ask about this fairy, but his focus had to remain on the empress. “This woman—your G’ma—was sent here with you. She was your guardian, charged with your protection and preparation.”
The empress let out a harsh laugh. “Prepare me? She told me stories of ocean kingdoms and warring lands brought together by a common enemy. She went on and on about beautiful places that don’t exist, lush island paradises, giant ships, and a way of life destroyed by greed. The only thing I’m prepared for is telling really great bedtime stories.”
She was wrong, though he refused to say the disrespectful words aloud. She never would have been entrusted to a guardian who would not have prepared her for her duty. There had been only one heir to the throne. The late empress would never have risked her entire empire by sending her only daughter away with a guardian who did not understand the magnitude of her responsibilities.
An entire world rested on Isa Telwyn’s slim shoulders. If she had not been prepared for her duties, then there truly was no hope.
Kemp, Battle Lord of the Third Arm of Force Dimas, surveyed the damage his Dregs had left behind. Paper books and glass littered the scene, along with the powdery pale remains of failure.
He turned to Oc, the lumbering giant looming nearby awaiting orders. “Where is the Loriahan?” he asked, his voice quiet.
This Dreg was less offensive than most, garbed in scented robes that masked his pungent odor. For that reason alone, Kemp tolerated his proximity.
“Gone,” Oc answered. “Carried away. Protected.”
Oc closed his brilliant orange eyes as he reached out to his people with his mind. All Dregs shared an intricate mental link that Kemp’s kind had yet to unravel. No matter how many subjects they tested, or what portions of the Dreg’s brains they removed, there had been no advancements in understanding. So the Raide were left leaning on a race of creatures who lacked intelligence, but had strength, stamina and a built-in system of communication.
“Two more of mine died on the hunt. No scent was shared.”
“Meaning you have no way of tracking her,” Kemp guessed.
Oc frowned in confusion, causing wrinkles to form between the skin folds sagging along his brow. “Mine died before they could share the female’s scent. Mine need a scent to track.”
Kemp sighed and trudged over the clutter to see if there were any signs of the woman inside. The intelligence unit of Force Dimas had learned that the Loriahan woman worked in this place. If she had been here every day, there had to be some trace of her left to find.
“Hunt for her scent.”
Oc stepped over a toppled shelf in one long stride and began sniffing the air. “There are remnants of too many beings here.”
“She worked here. Surely you can smell her scent over those who merely passed through.”
“I smell you.”
Kemp gritted his teeth in frustration and backed away. Oc continued sniffing, leaning down so that the folds of skin on his face hung close to a workspace chair.
“Four beings sit here.”
“Can you narrow it down?”
Oc began picking up items from the desk and bringing them to his nose. He paused over the sleeve of a sweater hanging on the back of a chair. “Old female.”
“The Loriahan woman is not old.”
Oc discarded the object and reached for another—a ceramic mug this time. “Male.”
“Try again.” Kemp looked around for something that might help. There, caught in the loose joint of a chair were a few strands of hair. He pulled them free and handed them to his slave. “What about these?”
Oc separated the strands with bulky fingers, bringing each to his nose. “Yes. Young females.”
That would have to suffice. “Send those scents to the others and have them begin the hunt.”
“Are mine to kill?” Oc asked.
“No. They are absolutely not to kill. Bring the women back alive, or yours die.”