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How to melt his icy exterior!
— Nola Lee, Oklahoma Love Match Magazine
AD 701, human timeline
103rd All War, Month 2
Kill. No mercy.
On the trail of his next target, Bane skulked through a Terran jungle. Sweat drenched him, draining his strength, but a rush of adrenaline kept him going, feeding his ravenous muscles. Massive trees abounded, their interwoven limbs forming a leafy canopy, blocking the sun's too-harsh rays. A blessing and a curse. Those gnarled limbs also placed intractable walls in his path, slowing his progress.
Hurry! As he maneuvered around another tangle of vegetation, menace accompanied his every step. He did his best to remain in the shadows. Monkeys watched him from the trees, wary and frightened. Did they sense a predator greater than themselves?
An ever-present fury clung to him like a second skin, worsened by the sweltering heat and thick veil of humidity. Beneath his fury, the need for vengeance remained unflinching. A lifeline. His only friend. Maintain your focus. Do not think of Meredith.
Gloriously strong Meredith.
He bit his tongue, tasting blood, and forced his mind on the hunt at hand.
He carried no weapons; he had no need. I am the weapon. His target owned a mystical sword known as The Blood Drinker, able to cause unfixable wounds. To strike at Aveline with such a blade ... to hear her screams ... to watch her writhe in agony ...
I must have it! According to one of three All War rules, each combatant was allowed to bring a single item from home. Thirty-nine warriors meant thirty- nine weapons to claim. To activate a weapon, you had to kill its owner. Since Bane had known he could steal from combatants as well as native dwellers known as vi- kings, he'd brought a pair of goggles to protect his eyes.
So far, he'd killed a single soldier, winning a dagger able to turn its handler into mist. But the beast had burst from its cage, and shredded the metal like paper.
Today, he would kill a male named Valor, acquiring and activating The Blood Drinker.
Bane would have to remove Valor's head or heart, or burn his body to ash. The only ways to end a combatant. Even the fire-breathers like Bane could be burned, one blaze not always equal to another.
When he came upon a wall of gnarled limbs, he traced a fingertip over the Rifters on his left hand. Every combatant owned Rifters, three crystal rings able to create a one-minute portal anywhere within the Terran realm. As the rings vibrated, he waved in the direction of the limbs. Two layers of air split apart, creating a doorway through the obstacle.
Animals and insects created the perfect soundtrack as he walked to the other side. Birds squawked, frogs croaked and locusts buzzed. A jungle cat roared. The beast shoved an answering roar past his lips, the animalistic sound echoing from the trees. The rest of the forest went silent, and he paused to listen for any sign of his enemy's approach.
Nothing. Inhale, exhale. Good, that's good.
Beneath the scent of earth and foliage, Bane picked up his target's distinctive musk. So close! Anticipation drove him forward. Soon, the morning sun would rise, putting him at a major disadvantage.
Kill the combatant, return to my mountain lair.
He yearned for the day he could slay every combatant and return to Adwaeweth. First, he had to find a Terran princess, ensure she reached her eighteenth birthday and train her to fight. Which meant the All War had to motor on, even if he had to start saving combatants. Therefore, he would contain the beast, however necessary. Even if he had to obtain a lover.
Denial screeched inside his mind. He would rather die an agonizing death than touch another woman. But he would rather live with endless guilt than give Aveline what she desired.
I will avenge you, sweet Meredith. Nothing and no one will stop me.
Enough! Ignore the grief. Forge ahead.
Hushed voices drifted from a short distance away. He froze, listening more carefully. Two speakers — his target and another male with a deep tenor. Another combat- ant. One who'd brought an elaborate suit of armor with retractable spikes that ripped through flesh and bone as easily as melted butter.
Anticipation spiking once again, he stalked around a tree. Closing in ...
Behind him, a twig snapped. He ducked and spun, and a sword was swinging over his head with an ominous whoosh — the sword. The one he wanted more than his next breath. Hello, Valor.
"Voice projection," Bane said. "Nice trick." Staying low, he flowed with his momentum and kicked Valor's ankles together.
The warrior dropped, but swiftly rolled to his feet.
Movement to the left. Another warrior approached — a male named Malaki. He jumped from a tree while clinging to a vine, swinging, swooping ... The spikes in his armor slashed Bane from cheek to navel, shearing off hanks of muscle. Searing pain. Tides of blood pouring from the open wounds.
The beast snarled and beat at his skull, wanting out of its cage.
Calm. Steady. Both opponents were tall and packed with strength, yet they were no match for Bane, even with the beast under lock and key.
"Did you think we'd make this easy for you, beast?" Malaki landed on his feet, the grille of his helmet splattered with bits of Bane's face.
Valor grinned with cold calculation. "You murdered my brother during an All War." He lifted his sword, the metal glinting in a beam of sunlight. "Today, I avenge him."
Morning had arrived.
Both males spoke in their native languages. Languages Bane had never learned. Because of the translator embedded in his brain, he interpreted every word. They had translators, too, and understood when he answered in Adwaewethish. "I'm sure your brother was a worthy adversary," he said. "For others."
A dark scowl replaced Valor's grin, the taunt hitting its mark. The time for words had ended. With a ragged war cry, the male lunged and swung his sword. Target: Bane's throat.
He dodged, and a savage dance ensued. He punched, kicked, blocked and clawed, went high, went low. The two allies worked together in a constant flow of motion. When one man attacked, the other adjusted his position, preparing to deliver the next blow.
Bane deflected a particularly nasty blow, then slammed his palms against Malaki's armor. The spikes embedded in his hands, as hoped. Despite the pain, he tossed the male into a tree. The trunk split, shards of bark volleying in every direction. Leaves rained down, beams of sunlight spotlighting Bane. He hissed.
Eyes stinging, his skin blistering, he slashed, punched and kicked to herd the pair into a shadowed alcove. When Malaki's armor grazed his gut, his intestines spilled out. A flare of pain. Dizziness. The beast protested, razing more of his control as he put himself back together.
Valor thrust the sword at Bane, but Bane jumped up and latched on to a hanging vine. He soared overhead, landed directly behind the bastard and kicked him into Malaki's path. The two collided, the armor doing its job, skinning one side of Valor's chest.
Valor wailed in agony, and Malaki staggered back, his features contorting with horror.
In a quick one, two motion, Bane swung to Valor a second time, cupped the man's forehead and jaw — and twisted. Valor went limp, his spine severed.
Down but not out. Must remove the head or heart before he heals.
"You'll pay for that," Malaki snarled, diving into him.
They careened backward, those metal spikes nicking an internal organ or two. More pain, more blood. When they hit the ground, the spikes cut deeper, earning more protests from the beast.
Careful. If the beast shredded the sword and the armor ...
But "careful" got him pinned to the ground, with Malaki's knees digging into his shoulders. The warrior raised a gauntleted fist, ready to whale, but Bane acted fast, slamming his knees into his back, unseating him. The punch landed in the dirt.
The other man struggled to regain his balance. Bane slid out from underneath him, turned and kicked. A mistake. Valor had healed — and snuck up behind him. Pain ricocheted through Bane's shoulder, the blade going in one side and coming out the other. His vision blurred.
Valor hopes to kill me, to deny me the right to avenge my wife. He dies today. Now!
Rage overtook Bane. Blood screamed in his ears, his heart thudding against his ribs. Finally, the beast broke free. Bones elongated. His gums burned, his teeth lengthening and sharpening. Flesh hardened, dark green scales sprouting from his pores. Darkness eclipsed his mind.
He heard anguished wails in the distance ...
Pleas for mercy ...
Pop. Whoosh. Thump. Then, silence.
When next he blinked, carnage surrounded him. An ocean of blood soaked the ground, body parts scattered here, there, everywhere. Bits of skin and muscle dangled from tree limbs. Pieces of Malaki's indestructible armor lay on the mossy grass. Damn it! The sword ...where was Valor's sword? There! The hilt had sustained some damage, but the blade itself remained intact.
Heaving a sigh of relief, Bane labored to his feet. A sharp ache drew his attention to his shoulder, near the tree of life tattoo on his chest. A tattoo every combatant possessed. The mystical ink infiltrated their blood, allowing an Enforcer to track their every move.
The wound caused by The Blood Drinker hadn't healed, the cut just as raw and red as before. He massaged his nape. There had to be a way to reverse the damage.
Think! A combatant carried a sword with healing properties. Another owned a magic wand able to manipulate energy. Perhaps one of the two could mend the unmendable.
Very well. Bane had his next targets. Once he'd completed his tasks, he would end Aveline's tyranny at long last ...
Then, I will join you, my darling Meredith. We will be together again.
103rd All War, Month 5
Somewhere in the Arctic Circle Assembly of Combatants
For the past three months, Bane had kept his mind on his goals, burying his grief beneath layers of seething hatred for Aveline. Somehow, he'd held the beast at bay without the aid of a lover. He hadn't killed anyone else, or destroyed any more weapons. Of course, that meant he hadn't won the healing sword or magic wand, either.
Another mistake on Bane's part.
Minutes ago, the Assembly of Combatants kicked off. A mandatory roll call. Soon after, an army of vikings had attacked the combatants in droves.
Now, the remaining twenty-five combatants worked together. Immortals against humans, the immortals trapped inside an icy mountain valley, unable to leave until the conclusion of the meeting. Yet, their assailants could move in and out at will.
Metal clashed against metal, the scent of blood permeating the frigid breeze. Grunts, groans and bellows echoed, the battle as savage as the terrain. Above, streaks of green and purple lit up the night sky.
Ignoring the throbbing pain in his stitched shoulder, Bane swiped up a discarded sword and lopped off a mortal's head. Since battling Valor, the wound in his shoulder had only worsened. Blood loss winded him far too easily, and slowed his reflexes.
Footsteps. Challengers approached at a clipped pace. The beast roared, enraged, thirsty for blood and hungry for flesh. As usual.
Calm, steady. If Bane transformed, he would slaughter the vikings, yes, but also the combatants, winning the war before he'd found the Terran princess. If that happened, he would remain bound to Aveline.
Unacceptable! Her downfall trumped everything. Right now, the vikings were obstacles in his path. Obstacles got mowed down.
Bane twisted and lurched. He ripped out one man's throat with his teeth, and punched into the other man's chest cavity, removing his heart. An action that pained his own heart, reminding him of the worst day of his existence.
Inner shake. Blank your mind. Another viking raced toward him, an ax raised and ready. But, just before they collided, an arrow pierced the man's eye, and he dropped.
"Thank you," he grumbled.
Emberelle of Loandria nodded and pivoted to unleash a volley of arrows upon the mortals outside the circle.
Usually she fought with a viking sword. She must have known she'd need a different method today. Possible. From home, she'd brought a metal band that fit over her forehead and allowed her to read the minds of anyone around her. Early on, she'd won a pair of wrist cuffs that might or might not grant the wearer the ability to time travel. Weapons Bane could utilize.
He placed her at the top of his hit list. Find the princess, make my kills.
When the skylights brightened, reflecting off the ice, his eyes burned and watered. He cursed. He'd left his goggles in his lair, knowing there would be a battle at the assembly's conclusion; there was always a battle after an assembly. In the chaos, weapons were often lost, stolen or destroyed.
Should have risked it.
Another mortal approached, brandishing an ax, and the beast fought harder for release, sending a lance of pain through his temples. Bane blocked the human's swing, spun and clawed out his trachea.
Behind him, a war cry sounded. Again, he spun and blocked — a plunging seax this time. Bane rammed his claws through the male's torso, ripping out his intestines. No time to rest. The next challenger arrived. In a (literal) snap, Bane ripped off his arms — and used them as clubs.
A horn erupted, blaring through the mountains. The vikings went still before rushing backward, forming a circle around the combatants, remaining outside the strike zone.
A male wearing a horned helmet split from the group and stalked closer. Blood smeared his tanned skin, scars marred one side of his face and a thick black beard covered his jaw. He wore leather, fur and sheepskin, and held a long staff with a bulbous tip. The Rod of Clima. Bane stiffened. The Rod belonged to a combatant named Cannon. Had the viking killed him? If so ... The viking had joined the All War.
Immortals drew together, watching as two soldiers dragged a decapitated body forward. Someone else pitched the head. It rolled, rolled ... Oh, yes. Cannon was dead.
Hisses of fury blended with shouted threats, combatants throwing themselves against the invisible wall that trapped them inside the clearing, only to bounce back. "When I rip off your dick, even your future children will scream."
"Should I cut off your head, remove your heart or burn you to death? Who am I kidding? I'll do all three." "I'll enjoy making you rest in pieces, you son of a bitch."
Bane remained in place, the beast busy tearing through his skull. Deep breath in. Out. Maintain control. In, out.
The helmeted male lifted the Rod and announced, "You invaded our land and killed our men, because you did not fear us. I am Erik the Widow Maker, and I will teach you the error of your ways." He slammed the tip of the Rod into the ice.
A brutal arctic wind erupted, howling and blustering, the ground shaking. Between one blink and another, ice grew over Bane's feet, up his calves. Higher, higher.
Ice grew over all of the combatants.
Horrified, Bane battled for freedom ... to no avail. Trapped. Helpless. My fight over?
No! He hadn't used his final weapon.
Bane stopped fighting the beast, and the transformation begun. Muscles and bones —
Nothing. The beast remained trapped as well, the ice unbreakable as it spread. Over his waist, his shoulders. Panic decimated what remained of his calm. None of the combatants escaped. Then, the ice covered his face.
I am ... defeated?
I failed Meredith?
No. No! He refused to accept defeat. He would escape. He would find the Terran princess, win the All War and oversee the Blood Rite, finally severing his bond to Aveline. Aveline would come to Terra to claim the planet and then ... oh, yes, then he would have his vengeance, die in peace and rejoin the love of his life.CHAPTER 2
You've got to tease to please!
Present Day Strawberry Valley, Oklahoma
magnolia "nola" lee swallowed a cocktail of medications, readjusted the mound of covers piled atop her and settled more comfortably in bed. Well, not more comfortably. Not really. Her entire body ached, her fingers looked like sausages, fatigue rode her like she was a horse and her every nerve ending sizzled, mini-bolts of lightning zapping her again and again. And again.
It — never — ended. Disease wrecked everything. Romantic relationships. Friendships. Goals. Fun. She'd only ever wanted to be a normal girl, with a normal life. But nooooo. Early on, she was diagnosed with lupus. After going into remission, fibromyalgia decided to come and play.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Frost and Flame"
Copyright © 2019 Gena Showalter.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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