Halloween, Sneak Peeks

Read a sneak peek: Shadow and Ice by Gena Showalter


Read a sneak peek: Shadow and Ice by Gena Showalter

The New York Times bestselling author who brought you the Lords Of The Underworld, introduces a scorching new paranormal romance series… GODS OF WAR. The epic saga begins with book one, Shadow And Ice

Knox of Iviland has spent his life competing in the All Wars, where vicious warriors with supernatural powers fight to the death to claim new realms. One winner takes everything – and all losers die. Enslaved as a child for his ability to control shadows, the most ruthless champion in history will stop at nothing to kill his king. But first he must win the battle for Earth. When a fearsome weapon imprisons every combatant in ice, centuries pass without progress…until she walks in.

Vale London craves a fun arctic getaway with her foster sister before settling down to open a bakery. Street-tough but vulnerable, she is unprepared to find ancient gods escaping a frozen cave – merciless beings who target her when she inadvertently enters their war.

Though Vale is now his enemy, Knox is consumed with lust and a fierce need to protect her. But only one combatant can prove victorious, and he will have to choose: live for freedom, or die for love.

Shadow And Ice


AD 701, human timeline
103rd All War, Month 5

TWENTY-FIVE COMBATANTS stood between Knox of Iviland and victory.
He waited on a mountain plateau, a dagger clutched in each hand. Shadows bathed him, frigid wind battering his bare chest. One of his myriad trainers once told him he was as cold and treacherous as the icy world now surrounding him.
The trainer wasn’t wrong.
Over the centuries, other Iviland soldiers had called Knox sadistic, barbaric and pitiless. They weren’t wrong, either. Or alive. They had died painfully, by his hand. As practice.
Live a violent life, suffer a violent end. Sow seeds of suffering, reap a harvest of the same. One day, Knox would meet the same end as his victims, could not avoid his dreaded fate.
He might meet his end tonight—assembly night.
In eleven minutes, forty-three seconds, green and purple lights would set the night sky ablaze, and the next Assembly of Combatants would begin. A time mockingly dubbed “check-in.”
You check in, and help others check out.
Acid coated the inside of his chest, scalding him, but not by word or deed did he reveal his discomfort. With combatants, perception was vital. Reveal a weakness, become the day’s target.
An assembly lasted an hour, occurred once a month, and helped hurry the war along. Attendance was mandatory, forcing every participant in the Terran All War to visit this icy tundra, even the cowards and hiders.
Stroll in one second late, and you would be disqualified. A fate worse than death. You were hunted by an Enforcer who had the means to track you and disable any special abilities—your own, and those of your weapon. All because of a mystical tattoo.
Before the war, every combatant was permanently marked. The ink permitted the Enforcer to link with you anywhere, anytime. Supposedly this allowed the High Council to facilitate a fair war. Knox had his doubts, and suspected the ink did so much more. Considering he bore the mark on his left shoulder—a tree inside a circle—there was nothing he could do about it. He was as vulnerable as everyone else.
Removing the tattoo wouldn’t help. The ink got in your blood. Running from the Enforcer wouldn’t help, either. When he caught you—and he always caught you—he would chop off your limbs, and nail what remained of your body to a wall of ice that was within sight of the assembly. While you were still alive.
You were to serve as a cautionary tale.
If your limbs regenerated, the Enforcer removed them again. However many times were necessary. You were executed only after a winner was declared.
Sometimes combatants set traps before an assembly to encourage others’ tardiness without actually breaking the rules. The very reason Knox had yet to move from this spot high on a cliff, hidden by boulders and trees. Last month, Zion of Tavery managed to trap him in an ice pit; by some miracle Knox had climbed out and crossed the threshold with eight seconds to spare.
Most of his opponents congregated in a clearing below him, imprisoned by walls of energy. However, the warriors themselves remained visible. They were loaded down with weapons, and trash-talking.
“Hope you enjoyed your last day on Terra.”
“Your severed head will look amazing on my mantel. Note to self. Get a mantel.”
“I need a new workout song—your screams should do the trick.”
The Terran All War had kicked off five months ago, and hostilities had blazed hotter every day since. The combatants had only one thing in common—their hatred for Knox, Zion and Bane of Adwaeweth.
Understandable. Knox was ruthless beyond compare, a four-time champion who’d already eliminated three men. Both Zion and Bane had taken out three, as well. A handful of others had made a single kill.
How many warriors will attack me when the assembly ends?
Last month, he’d had to fend off twelve at once, nearly losing an arm in the process. He dreaded assembly day…and greatly anticipated it.
For one hour, the Enforcer would telepathically communicate with the High Council, letting them know who lived and who had died, and bloodshed would be prohibited. Powers and weapons with any kind of supernatural capability were deactivated. Knox wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder, expecting an ambush. He could scheme, even nap, or silently rage about High Council members who were luxuriating in opulent homes while honorable men and women were forced to commit terrible acts in order to win new territories for a king or queen just as despicable as the High Council members.
Hate the High Council. They governed those kings and queens, while supposedly remaining unbiased about each All War’s outcome. Knox suspected they’d cheated a time or twenty, but voicing such an accusation would get him killed sooner rather than later. He’d seen it happen time and time again, good soldiers taken out under mysterious conditions after daring to speak the truth.
A worry for another day. Survive now, thrive later.
When the assembly ended, the ban on fighting would lift. Between one blink and the next, everyone’s powers would reactivate, and warriors would spring into action. There would be casualties.
Eight minutes, twenty-eight seconds until check-in.
Knox scanned the battlefield, not yet catching sight of his prey. He rolled his head left, right, popping bones and stretching his muscles, preparing. I won’t hesitate. I’ll do what’s needed, when needed.
His gaze snagged on the Enforcer who’d been assigned to Terra. He was known as Seven. Every Enforcer had an identification number rather than a name. One through ten. The higher the number, the more vicious the individual. There were hundreds of thousands of men and women who bore each number.
Seven wore a hooded black robe, his face obscured by darkness. Like a grim reaper of legend, he carried a scythe.
Knox sympathized with the death dealers, knew they were slaves, just like him, their pasts as fraught with violence as his, but he’d never met one willing to go against orders, even for the safety of another living being. They were brainwashed as children, and grew up to serve as the arm of the High Council, a seemingly undefeatable force that ensured every realm obeyed every edict, no matter how big or small.
Some Enforcers possessed special powers, some didn’t. You could win against one, even twenty, but overcoming the force as a whole was impossible. There were simply too many, unshakably loyal to each other and their leaders, and they couldn’t be reasoned with or swayed from a chosen task.
Six minutes, fourteen seconds.
Behind Knox, ice crunched. His muscles knotted, his body preparing to strike. Someone approached.
He used his ability to control shadows, forcing darkness to rise from the ground and surround him in thick waves, until he blended into the landscape. This particular skill had saved him over and over again.
He could even make the shadows spin, creating a vortex that flung opponents hundreds of yards away.
He was on alert… Waiting, ready…
Finally, Shiloh of Asnanthaleigh appeared.
{No malice or threat detected.}
During Knox’s second All War, he’d developed an eyaer, or hard-core battle instinct with one purpose, and one purpose only: to ensure he lived. To the eyaer, he didn’t even have to live well.
Despite the instinct’s reassurance, Knox trusted no one, ever, and kept his guard up.
Shiloh stopped at Knox’s side, radiating wariness as he studied the clearing.
Knox maintained a mental file about every combatant and constantly added details, tallied who had killed whom, who possessed what weapons and supernatural abilities, preferred climates, lovers, potential lovers, and who had formed alliances or vowed vengeance.
Different facts about the six-foot-eleven male raced through his mind. Comes from a heavily forested realm. Good with swords and daggers. Avoids battle if innocents are nearby. Sensitive to the plight of others.
For his home-weapon, the Asnanthaleighling selected special eye lenses that allowed him to see through anything, even Knox’s shadows.
I want. I take.
“Hello, my friend.” Though Shiloh spoke a language Knox had never learned, the device surgically attached to the inside of his ear translated each word. Thanks to technological advancements gained every time a new realm was discovered, every combatant had a similar device, and it updated automatically.
“I’m not your friend,” Knox replied. “If you trust me, even for a moment, you’ll regret it.” That wasn’t a threat, but a fact.
Before the war, their kings had come to an agreement—Knox and Shiloh would work together to reach the final two. An unprecedented development. Most other-realmers despised Ivilandians, often referring to them as “gutter rats.” The insult wasn’t unearned. To evade a deadly topside environment, the citizens had flocked underground, where they’d lived ever since. They were led by Ansel, the king of gutter rats. He kept his word only when it suited him.
Just before Knox had left for Terra, Ansel had told him, Slay Shiloh as soon as you feel it’s necessary.
When the time came, Knox would strike, and he would strike hard, compelled by a force greater than himself.
But here was the kicker. No matter Ansel’s order, Knox would do anything to advance his personal agenda.
Some men had moral lines they wouldn’t cross. Knox found the concept of moral lines confusing. Not do everything possible to win? Foolish.
“Yesterday, I beheaded Ammarie,” Shiloh said, continuing on, ignoring Knox’s warning. “She attacked me. I merely defended myself but…”
Knox updated his tally. Twenty-four combatants stood between him and victory. “Guilt is pointless. You survived.” Shiloh had also gained custody of a mystical bow and arrow known as The Bloodthirsty. That arrow chased its victims like a heat-seeking missile, increasing in speed and ferocity with every kill it made.
I want. I take.
Shiloh’s shoulders slumped. “She had a daughter.”
Knox’s hands curled into fists. Ignore the heartache. “Learning about her family was your second mistake. You cannot allow another warrior’s loved ones to mean more than yours.” Bitterness laced his tone, icing every word.
“If that was my second mistake, what was my first?” Shiloh asked.
“Having loved ones at all. Family and friends are one of two things. Anchors that weigh you down with worry, distracting you, or they are leverage that others can use against you.”
Knox had firsthand knowledge of the latter. Once, he’d had a daughter.
Oh, yes. Once.
Blessed and cursed.
A sharp pang of sorrow and grief tore through him, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. One day, Knox would avenge her and slay the king of Iviland—and he would make it hurt. Ansel was the one who’d forced him to fight. The one who’d allowed his baby girl to die while he performed his “duty.”
Now, Ansel used freedom to motivate Knox. Win five All Wars in my name, and I’ll free you from your slave bands.
Those bands ringed his neck, wrists, and ankles. Upon each vertebra of his spine, he bore an X. But whether rings or Xs, each mark had been made with mystical ink similar to what the High Council used to create the tree of life. This particular ink compelled Knox to do everything Ansel demanded, zero exceptions.
Knox had no choice but to continue on, as if the king had spoken true. What else could he do?
If Ansel had lied… He bit his tongue until he tasted blood. If Knox won a fifth war—this war—and wasn’t freed…
A sharper pang tore through him, cutting so deep he doubted he would ever recover. I’ll just have to find another way to gain my freedom.
The moment he succeeded, Ansel would die. Badly. People would hear stories for centuries to come and marvel at Knox’s cruelty.
He almost smiled, anticipation dancing with fury.
Focus. Emotion of any kind would only distract him; distraction would get him killed.
“How can you be so callous about the death of another?” Shiloh asked.
“Because I want to live, and mind-set is everything. While you will hesitate to end a friend, you will eagerly take out an enemy. These people are our enemies.”
Wearier by the second, Shiloh scrubbed a hand down his face. “This is my first All War. I knew it would be tough, but I am my home’s strongest competitor, and I believed I could do…anything. I was wrong.”
“You sound as if you’re eager to die. Good news. I’m happy to help.”
“I’m sure you are, but I don’t want to die. I don’t want to kill, either.”
“Ah, I see. You’d rather make your people suffer.”
Shiloh glowered.
For the “privilege” of participating in an All War, a realm’s sovereign had to give the High Council thousands of children. The exact number depended on a combatant’s order of elimination. The faster you were eliminated, the more your realm had to pay. But in order to forfeit a war entirely, sovereigns had to hand over even more children.
From infancy to the age of eighteen, boy or girl, children were chattel, commodities raised to be Enforcers.
Only the winning realm was exempt.
“My people already suffer,” Shiloh said. “Our realm is overcrowded.”
Iviland was overcrowded as well, more and more immortals born or created every day. New realms were desperately needed.
In the beginning, whenever a new one was discovered, multiple armies invaded at once. Battles raged, the trespassers hoping to seize control. Violence spread far and wide, ultimately destroying everything, leaving the lands uninhabitable.
Under the guise of saving future domains, ruling factions created the High Council and All War—an ongoing battle between a single representative from each otherworld, the new realm acting as the arena.
In the past few months, the people of Terra had begun fighting back and setting traps. Not a first, but definitely a problem on days like today. The citizens weren’t bound by assembly rules. But then, they had no supernatural abilities and were no match for immortals.
Knox had seen no sign of a human army today. Maybe they’d fled in fear? To them, combatants were gods.
Knox, they’d nicknamed Loki, the “evil trickster.” A moniker he bore with pride.
“When I killed a woman I respected, a part of my soul died,” Shiloh said, pulling him from his thoughts. “Why can’t the realms reach terms without bloodshed?”
“Greed.” Why else?
Movement at the side of a mountain. Knox slid his gaze across the ice—at last. Zion. A man of six and a half feet, like Knox, with dark hair, wide shoulders and a body honed on the most savage battlefields with no hint of softness. Also like Knox.
But unlike Knox, he refused to use the weapons he won. Reasons unknown. The choice angered Knox, even though it aided his cause. Such a waste.
He tightened his grip on his most prized possessions—the daggers he’d taken from his first victim. The blades were serrated, hooked at the tip, and had brass knuckle hilts. With a single blow, he could slice, dice and pulverize.
Zion reached the check-in point and spread his arms, all Here I am, come and get me. Embedded in his arms were jewels, each one set in specific patterns, as bold as the man himself. On his hands, a pair of spiked metal gloves able to punch through anything.
I want. I take.
Locked on tonight’s target.
Anticipation resurged and redoubled, burning inside Knox, and growing hotter by the second. Zion was a warrior he would gladly slay.
“Come.” Knox jumped from his perch, falling down, down, landing a few yards away from the check-in point. Though the impact jarred him, he walked forward without a hitch in his step, boots crunching in the snow.
Shiloh jumped, as well, and hurried to catch up.
As they passed the invisible wall that sealed them inside the clearing, Knox experienced a familiar and abhorrent vibration from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. His ability to control shadows had just been neutralized.
“So nice of you to join us,” Bane said, his tone as smug and condescending as ever.
Like most Adwaewethians, he had pale hair, golden eyes—and a beast trapped within. When the creature took control of his body, his appearance changed. He became a monster, hideous beyond compare, strong beyond compare, and developed an appetite for blood. No one and nothing was safe.
Bane’s greatest vulnerability was light. Adwaeweth was a dark realm, shrouded in gloom and without a sun. The very reason he’d brought a pair of goggles as his weapon of choice. Like Shiloh’s lenses, those goggles allowed him to see everything.
Knox tipped an invisible hat. “Glad to see you left your balls at home.”
As Bane cupped the balls in question and made a lewd expression, a chorus of insults erupted from the others.
“May you die bloody today, Knox.”
“I won’t just remove your heart. I’ll eat it.”
“Hope you’re ready for some internal body bling, murk.”
“Murk” was another derogatory term used for Ivilandians, but only those like Knox, who commanded shadows. He’d been called worse, but insults of any kind tended to burn like acid in his ears.
“Where are Major and Cannon?” Emberelle of Loandria waved a deceptively delicate hand to indicate the group, the rings on her fingers glittering in the moonlight. With hair like snowflakes, skin a pale shade of blue, eyes the same green and purple as the glowing skylights, and delicately pointed ears, she looked as fragile as glass. A deception. Of the females, she was the deadliest.
“I took out Major,” Ronan of Soloria replied, not exactly proud, but not exactly remorseful, either.
Knox added a notation to his mental file. Now, twenty-three combatants stood between him and victory.
“What of Cannon?” Ronan asked. “Is he dead?”
Silence reigned, no one taking credit for a kill.
A clock continued to count down in Knox’s head. Thirty-two seconds until Cannon of Dellize missed today’s check-in.
Still no sign of the male. Three…two…
The ground shook. The Assembly of Combatants had just begun.
Only twenty-two warriors stand in my way.
From his position outside the circle, Seven slammed the end of his scythe into the ice. The ground shook harder, shafts of light spraying from the curved blade to shower over the combatants.
“Would anyone like to volunteer for a merciful death?” Zion asked conversationally. He couldn’t bring himself to fight the fairer sex, and constantly looked for ways to prevent an all-out battle. “My offer will expire when the meeting ends.”
Prickles erupted on the back of Knox’s neck. He scanned… Celeste of Occisor gave him a come-hither smile.
He scowled. Trying to curry favor? Impossible!
Despite the fact that she’d won an All War, he’d never considered her a threat. He’d seen no evidence of combat skill, only a knack for seduction. To his knowledge, three males had succumbed to her allure, and each had possessed a supernatural ability the female had exploited for her own gain. Of the three, only one still lived—Ranger of Jetha.
Zion and Bane had killed the others, and Knox had often wondered if Celeste had helped.
Another warrior—Gunnar of Trodaire—glared daggers at him and inched closer to Celeste’s side. A fourth conquest? Who had time for such drama?
Emberelle shifted into Knox’s line of sight to flash her pearly whites in a parody of a smile. “You trolling for a date, murk? Because my sword is interested in getting to know your insides. Care to arrange an intro?”
Teeth, grinding.
Darkness slithered across the ice, catching his notice. He’d left shadows stationed throughout the mountains to act as scouts. This one entered the clearing and ghosted through him, leaving an image branded in his mind. He stiffened. Hundreds of humans had crossed the northern border. They were running, running, closer and closer, their swords raised.
“Vikings,” he shouted. A word meaning “native dwellers” in the All language.
The other combatants quieted, a stampede of footsteps echoing through the mountains. War cries erupted.
“They’ve come to avenge their fallen,” Bane said, practically foaming at the mouth with eagerness.
“End the assembly,” Zion commanded Seven. “If the energy wall comes down, our powers will be activated, body and weapon. If not, the mortals will have an advantage.”
Wind blew back the Enforcer’s hood, just an inch, but enough. Knox caught sight of a flawless face seething with hatred. For combatants?
Seven remained silent, sparks still shooting from his scythe.
The wall of energy endured.
“We must work together, then.” Guess he had a temporary alliance, after all. Knox squared his shoulders. “Form four lines of five, each one facing a different direction.”
“So a square?” Emberelle asked, her tone suggesting he was an idiot.
“Do it,” he snapped. “As close to the Enforcer as possible.”
Warriors raced into position, armaments at the ready. Knox stood between Zion and Bane and scrutinized the approaching enemy. Mostly males who topped out at five-nine or ten. All had mud smeared on their faces, fury in their eyes, and fur draped over bodies built for combat. Some wore helmets made of iron.
Knox couldn’t help but respect the army. These soldiers defended their homeland and protected their people. But they threatened the All War, therefore they couldn’t be spared.
“Twenty seconds,” he shouted.
“Females, move to the center of our—”
The females in question interrupted Zion with threats to remove his testicles.
“If you want to know how I’m going to kill you, Knox,” Bane said with a cold smile, “watch me kill the vikings.”
“How adorable,” he replied, his tone dry. “You think you’re going to survive the night.” Addressing everyone, he counted down. “Five seconds until impact. Four. Three. Two.” He braced—
Vikings breached the circle.
Knox ducked, avoiding a sword swipe to the throat, then spun and straightened—and punched a dagger into the offender’s side. His daggers had no special powers and worked the same as always.
When the weapon exited the man’s body, pieces of liver dangled from the hook. A pained grunt blended with a macabre chorus of groans, wails and curses.
He spun once again, stabbing two more mortals. As warm blood sprayed over him, he lost track of everything but battle. Adrenaline revved him up, taking his heart for an impromptu joyride, the world around him seemed to slow to a crawl. He stabbed, head-butted, elbowed and kicked, bodies quickly piling up around his feet. More blood sprayed. More internal organs shredded as they met his daggers.
Any viking who dared approach Seven immediately fell unconscious without ever making contact. Neat trick.
Laughing, Bane picked up a discarded sword and cut through two men with a single swing.
With one metal-gloved hand, Zion lifted a viking by the throat. With the other, he punched, his fist coming out the male’s other side.
Another viking sneaked up behind the Taverian, a mere blink away from landing a blow. Lunging, swiping out, Knox hacked through his wrist, the sword and hand plopping to the ground.
“I won’t thank you,” Zion told him while cutting through an opponent’s neck.
“I wouldn’t accept, anyway,” Knox replied. Jab, jab. He ended another challenger with a double-tap to the heart.
No match for me, even when I’m unable to summon shadows.
One shout drowned out all the others, causing vikings to rush from the circle to form a wider ring around the combatants. Then a male splattered with blood stalked forward. He stopped just short of the invisible walls. He was the tallest of his brethren and the only one wearing a horned helmet. Scars littered one side of his face, and a thick black beard covered his jaw. He’d paired a fur-lined tunic with sheepskin pants, neither of which protected vital organs.
He held the Rod of Clima, Cannon’s weapon.
Knox tensed. If the viking had killed Cannon after check-in, he had entered the All War, gained immortality and the ability to activate the rod without being placed on Seven’s kill list. And since he wasn’t within the check-in circle, the rod remained active.
Timing was everything in an All War.
The sea of vikings split down the middle, allowing two males to drag a headless, bleeding body closer. A fresh kill. They dropped their cargo, and someone else threw the head, pitching inside the circle. Cannon’s lifeless eyes stared at nothing, his features frozen in an expression of horror.
Curses and threats spewed from the combatants, some even throwing themselves against the invisible wall, only to bounce back.
“You invaded our land and killed our men because you did not fear us.” The one with the horned helmet raised his chin, pride and strength in his bearing. “I am Erik the Widow Maker, and I will teach you to fear us.”
Erik of Terra. A new name to add to Knox’s list of combatants. Twenty-three warriors stand in my way.
The leader lifted the rod high in the air, then slammed the end into the ice. The ground juddered so violently, hunks of snow tumbled from the mountaintops. In seconds, an arctic blizzard blew in, howling wind seeming to bristle with thousands of nails and glass shards.
Next, a hill of ice grew beneath Knox’s feet—then swallowed his feet. He kicked…tried to kick, but couldn’t. Wasn’t long before his boots were fully concealed.
Panic stole his breath as the ice spread up, up, winding around his calves, slithering past his knees, and there was no stopping it. Ice spread up every combatant’s legs, even the Enforcer’s.
Knox fought harder, fought with all his might. His torso—covered. His shoulders…neck. Shock set in. Defeated? By a much weaker Terran? No!
Grunts and groans filled his ears, the other combatants fighting the horrifying entombment just as fervently.
When the ice reached his chin, he lost the ability to move.
This is a minor setback, nothing more. I will overcome, and I will repay. Then the ice grew over his face, entombing him, leaving him aware but powerless.



Present Day
Somewhere in the Arctic Circle

Sore, tired and chilled to the bone, Vale London dropped her ten-thousand-pound backpack, leaned against a wall of ice and scanned her surroundings—a sea of snow broken up by mountains and seracs that looked like ocean waves had flash-frozen just before they’d come crashing down. Subzero wind blustered, screams of pain and helplessness seemingly echoing within.
“Are we talking literally or figuratively?” Her beloved foster sister Magnolia “Nola” Lee dropped her pack as well, sat atop it and drew a thick flannel blanket around her shoulders. “With you I never know. You aren’t known as a street-tough scrapper for nothing.”
Vale savored the flavor of sweetened brown butter that coated her tongue. At some point in her childhood development, wires had gotten crossed in her brain, leaving her with a severe case of synesthesia. She heard sounds, just like everyone else, but she tasted them, too. Letters also registered as colors, and numbers appeared as a three-dimensional map inside her head.
The more nuanced the sound, the richer the flavor.
“Figuratively…maybe,” she replied, then sighed. “The next time I see our guide, he’ll be lucky to walk away. Or even crawl.” The POS had ruined what was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime.
Dang it, Nola hadn’t needed this kind of stress. The girl worked two full-time jobs. If she wasn’t baking and selling the goods at local offices, she was writing How To copy for a dating column on the Oklahoma Love Match website.
Vale had hoped to enjoy one last hoorah—or maybe a first hoorah—before she and Nola settled down and opened a fancy-schmancy gourmet doughnut shop slash catering center slash speed dating and bachelorette party hub, with Vale on paperwork duty and Nola behind the oven and the counter.
And okay, okay. She supposed some of the blame for this situation rested on her shoulders rather than their absentee guide’s. She’d booked each of their excursions with the cheapest companies available, hoping to do more stuff on a very limited budget.
Well, quality beat quantity every time. She understood that now. So how about a break, world?
If only time travel were possible…
Three weeks ago, she and Nola arrived in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. For five days, adventures abounded. Then they’d road-tripped into Russia and hiked through the Khibiny Mountains with a thirtysomething guide who’d promised a kick-A experience. Temperatures had proved frosty, but there’d been very little snow, and no ice. A plethora of trees had thawed, their leaves plush and green enough to rival freshly polished emeralds, seemingly dusted with diamond powder. Here and there, rivers had babbled happily, and breathtaking waterfalls had cascaded into crystal pools.
Somehow, their little trio had veered off path between one blink and the next, and ended up in this icy wasteland.
Backtracking hadn’t helped, the ice stretching on. Eventually, a single set of footprints had led them to a cozy cabin, where Vale and her sister had spent the past two weeks. Day one, the guide had gone off to scout the perimeter and never returned.
This morning, they were forced to make a difficult choice: remain in the warmth of their lodgings and slowly starve to death, or set out to find help, and possibly (quickly) freeze to death.
As their foster momma used to say, If you want to experience the miracle of walking on water, you gotta get out of the boat.
A pang of homesickness cut through her. The world was a sadder place without Carrie, aka Care Bear.
In extreme need of one of those water-walking miracles, Vale and Nola had strapped on snow gear they’d unearthed in a trunk only a few days before. Oddly enough, the garments had fit perfectly, as if tailor-made for them. The coincidence had roused her suspicions, sure, but in the end she hadn’t cared about how or why, only the end result. She and Nola had set out bright and early this morning, and trudged through mile after mile of snow.
Now sunset approached. So far, they’d found no hint of life, and Vale was getting worried.
Getting? Please. She’d been worried every second of every day since the nightmare had started.
I’m not ready to die.
She’d put her life on hold for years, working various jobs while going to school full-time. Just when she’d completed a business degree from the University of Oklahoma—Go Sooners!—with zero student debt, she was going to kick the bucket? No! Unacceptable.
And die knowing she’d caused her sister’s demise? Never.
“I’m sorry,” she said, guilt overtaking her. Despite a top-of-the-line face mask, her nose and lungs burned when she breathed.
“The blame is mine, and I never share. You know that.” Nola’s breath no longer misted the air. A bad sign. Very bad. “I was feeling so good, I kept bugging you to add more stops to our itinerary.”
Her sister suffered from fibromyalgia. On any given day, Nola’s overactive nerves could cause extreme fatigue, total body aches, and swell her joints. A cocktail of medication helped alleviate the symptoms, but couldn’t cure the disease.
“Sorry, sis, but the hike was my idea.” Apparently, relaxing wasn’t her thing. Anytime she’d had a quiet reprieve, she’d considered the avalanche of responsibility headed her way and panicked. Which made zero sense. She’d dreamed of opening the donut shop for years. And yes, okay, her dreams had revolved around Nola’s happiness rather than her own, but come on! Making Nola happy should make Vale happy. Still, in an effort to hide her panic, she’d made sure she had no quiet moments. “The blame is mine, and that’s final.”
“Fine. We’ll go halvsies.” Nola pretended to fluff her hair. “If we die, we die, but at least we look cute.”
“Dude. We do look cute.” They wore sleek coats, downy jackets, thermals, fleece tights, goggles, face masks, hats and gloves, multiple pairs of wool socks and hiking boots with ice cleats. “We could charm the flannel off a snow-biker gang.”
“Or win the heart of a yeti with a Southern girl fetish.”
“If he doesn’t want to eat our hearts first…battered and deep-fried, with melted butter on the side.” Her mouth watered. “I wonder what sautéed yeti tastes like.”
“If you start licking your chompers when you look at me… I won’t feel so guilty for debating whether your liver would pair better with a nice red or a six-pack of cheap beer.”
“You’ve seen my hangovers. Avoid my liver and go for the rump roast.” She gave her butt a little slap.
Nola chuckled, only to lapse into silence when a bitter wind nearly knocked them both off their feet. “D-distract me f-from the cold, and I’ll l-l-love you forever.” Her lips were tinted blue, her teeth chattering with more force.
“You already love me forever.” Just as Vale loved Nola, the greatest person in the world, living or dead, real or fake. Would move heaven and earth for her. “But I’m awesome, probably the awesomest, so I’ll take on this herculean task. Tell me your favorite part of the trip.”
“Only e-everything.” Nola shifted atop her bag, unable to stifle a whimper of pain. Then she continued as if all was well. “Except f-for the abandonment, starvation and h-hypothermia, of course.”
“Such trifling matters.” Helplessness pelted Vale’s insides. Tamp down, move on. “We did everything on our BA lists.” BA—before adulting. “We marveled over the northern lights.”
The teeth chattering slowed, and Nola said, “We went on an overnight dog sled expedition that made me want to adopt a rescue pet as soon as I get home.”
“We ice sculpted. FYI, my blob was better than your blob.”
“It’s true. Oh! We also hot-tubbed while drinking champagne.”
“Lastly, we hiked through the Arctic Circle.”
“Only one item remains unchecked.”
“Fall for a handsome local,” they said in unison.
Nola grinned and added, “I thought I had a connection with our guide, until he left us to die and all. But even then, he was better than my most recent online dates. Would you please explain why so many modern guys like to send complete strangers unsolicited pictures of their genitals, and why they do it with such pride?”
“Because of course women are catapulted into a foaming-at-the-mouth sexual frenzy the instant we catch sight of some rando’s man-junk. Duh.”
“You’re right! That’s it. And of course, it’s soooo flattering when the creeper doubles down and asks for a tit pic in return. I’m all, yeah, sure, let me reward you for making me vomit in my mouth.”
They snickered.
“But,” Nola added.
“Oh, no. No buts.” Her sis was a hopeless romantic and optimistic. Nola believed everyone deserved a second, third and fourth chance—which was why she wrote such an excellent How-To column. How to intrigue your crush blah, blah. Vale, however, was a realist.
She wasn’t closed off to relationships, per se, but she wasn’t open, either. People were intrinsically flawed. At some point, they were going to disappoint you—and they were going to leave you. So she lived by a code. Always be the leaver, never be the leavee. And yes, she knew the code had roots in childhood abandonment issues. So what? Issues were issues for a reason. Intrinsically flawed, remember? Most people sucked a nut.
Nola and Carrie were exceptions. Her mom, too…until she’d died of a brain aneurysm, forever altering the course of Vale’s life.
Once, her dad had been an exception. But soon after her mother’s funeral, he’d taken off, leaving Vale to bounce from home to home. He’d never written, or called or visited, leaving her to wonder what was wrong with her, why no one ever wanted to stick around.
Danger. Avoid! That particular thought train had one station—Depressionville.
Moving on. Vale had a low tolerance for BS, and believed happily-ever-afters were merely an illusion. The longer families, friends or couples stayed together, the more they got to know each other, the more they glimpsed the garbage heap piled inside their loved one’s heart. In relationships, someone always got hurt.
Get in, get out.
Vale had dated around, but she’d never allowed herself to get serious with a guy. And really, no guy had ever wanted to get serious with her. She had to spend an enormous amount of energy pretending to be sweet and gentle, and it stressed her out, which had made her even more prickly, blunt and abrasive.
There wasn’t a man alive who was willing to put in the work and fight to be with her, and she couldn’t blame them. She wasn’t willing to fight for a guy, either.
“Lately, my love life has been exactly like a private jet,” Nola said.
“Oh, yeah? How so?”
“I don’t have a private jet.”
She laughed. Funny girl. “Come on. Let’s travel a little farther before we settle in for the night.” Their bodies needed heat, and movement would add logs to the fire.
Nola lumbered to her feet, and they helped each other strap on a pack before marching forward. Vale hauled the bulk of supplies while her sis had blankets and medications, but even still, guilt robbed her of breath every time Nola grunted or groaned from exertion.
Okay. Another distraction, coming up. “I miss Carrie,” she said.
At thirteen years old, both Vale and Nola were assigned to the woman who handled “difficult” cases—young girls with a disability of some sort. Carrie had done more than open her home and heart; she’d taught her charges how to love themselves, and how to thrive.
Vale, honey, do you think a twenty-dollar bill is worth any less if it’s dirty and wrinkled? No way in heck! You might be a little rough around the edges, but you are still priceless.
Carrie and her words of wisdom. She’d loved the adage about the potato, egg and coffee bean most of all.
In boiling water, the potato softens, the egg hardens, but the mighty coffee bean changes the water. Don’t let difficult times weaken or harden you, girls. Get up and change the situation!
Eyes gleaming with fondness, Nola nodded. “If she were here, she’d cook up a feast. Snowcakes. Slush omelets. Ice bacon. Hail biscuits and blizzard gravy.”
Vale grinned, even as hunger gnawed her empty stomach. But the grin was quickly shaken off by a trembling chin. Last year, Carrie had suffered a massive heart attack and never recovered.
Her death left a hole in Vale’s heart. “I vividly remember the day I moved in. Back then, I lived by prison rules. You know, show them who’s boss on day one. So of course I destroyed Carrie’s living room, toppling furniture and breaking anything glass.”
“Of course.”
“When I finished, she calmly asked if I’d like my sweet tea iced or steaming.”
Mimicking the prim and proper Carrie, Nola said, “Always be a lady, until you need to be a land mine.”
Carrie had only ever exploded when it came to the protection of her girls.
Another pang of homesickness. Great! Now she needed a distraction from the distraction.
As they motored on, she asked, “What are we going to call our donut shop, anyway?”
They’d toyed with The Donut Bar and Drunkin’ Donuts, since their sweet treats paid homage to alcoholic beverages, but both names were taken.
“What about Happy Hour Donuts?” Nola asked.
“Cute, but it doesn’t say gourmet.”
“Well, frick.”
Frick—Carrie’s favorite “curse” word. “We could simplify and go with Lee and London,” Vale said.
“I love it, but no one will know what we’re selling.”
“Maybe not at first but select ad campaigns can help spread the word.”
“Well, if we’re going in that direction, why not something like… I don’t know… Lady Carrie’s?”
“Duuuude. I know we’re high-end and all, but you just gave me a girl-boner. Lady Carrie’s is perfect.”
“Well, sprinkle sugar on my tush and call me a donut. Did we just name our shop?”
Vale was just about to reply—when she spotted an ice hill up ahead. There was something about it… Something odd. But what, exactly? Nothing seemed to be out of place.
“I’m going to scout ahead.” Heart and legs picking up speed in unison, she crossed the distance. A perfect six-foot hole had been carved into the side of the hill, leading to a tunnel with an upward tilt. Definitely man-made. What was inside? Or better yet, who was inside?
Anticipation shook her. If the tunnel led to a cavern—occupied or unoccupied, it didn’t matter—she could get Nola out of the elements sooner rather than later.
“Wait here,” she said when her sister reached the hill. “I’ll go inside and—”
“Nope, sorry. We go in together.”
“What if there’s a wild animal just waiting for a meal on legs to show up?” Mmm. Meal.
“You’ll be the main course, and I’ll be dessert.”
Stubborn girl. “Fine.” Vale withdrew a long coil of rope from her pack, knotted one end around her sister’s waist and the other around her own. No way Nola would fall to her death on her watch. Next, she withdrew ice axes. Two for each of them. “We’ll find a cavern or drop. Whichever comes first.”
After adjusting her bag, she swung an ax, inched her spiked boots up several jagged steps, then swung the other ax, and inched up a few more steps. Rinse, repeat, slow and steady. Nola did the same.
The higher they climbed, the darker the enclosure became, and the more her muscles protested.
Drip, drip. Drip, drip.
Ironically, the steady chorus of water drops tasted like melted vanilla ice cream on a hot summer day. Like hope. Hope gave her strength. Up, up. Higher still.
“I’m not sure…I can go…much farther,” Nola said, heaving from exertion.
When a soft, warm—well, warmer—breeze caressed a patch of exposed skin, she gasped. “You can. You will. Now move that little sugar tush of yours.”
The tunnel curved to the right and—
Revealed a small pinprick of light. “There’s something ahead!” She climbed faster, closing in.
The light expanded as the tunnel leveled out…and opened into a cavern. Into salvation! Massive ice pillars propped up a domed ceiling at least eight feet high. There was enough space between each pillar to stretch out and get comfortable.
Trembling, Vale dropped her tools and bag, then helped her sister over the ledge.
As Nola sank to the ground, panting, Vale pulled the logs and kindling from her pack, and used a match to start a fire. Instant heat. Oh, such glorious heat. Smoke billowed, curling upward, and she removed her goggles and face mask.
“Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you.” Nola followed suit, ditching the headgear, revealing a face so perfect she looked airbrushed. Dark eyes, delicate nose and model-plump lips, all surrounded by flawless brown skin and a fall of straight black hair.
The best part, she was just as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. She deserved better than the tragedy and adversity she’d been dealt. Her parents had died in a car crash when she was a baby. With no other living relatives in her family tree, she’d been placed in the system.
Using the axes and rope, Vale made a hanging line to dry her hat and coat.
After hanging her items, Nola frowned and pointed to one of the walls. “Is that…ice graffiti?”
“Let’s take a look.” She approached the wall.
Well, hello there, beautiful. Images had been carved throughout, like ancient hieroglyphs or something, depicting some kind of battle. Twenty men and four women holding various types of weapons. A cloaked figure clutching a scythe stood nearby. The grim reaper, maybe?
A headless body sprawled on the ground, separating the warriors from a crowd of shorter men. She shuddered. A man—beast?—with horns, had a staff lifted high.
Drip, drip, drip.
The taste of melted vanilla ice cream intensified, aggravating her hunger. “Someone has to live here, or at least visit upon occasion. We could be close to civilization. I’m going to have a look around for clues.”
“Be careful.”
“How about I be armed and ready for anything instead.” She grabbed an ax before following the artwork around the farthest column…and entering another chamber.
No one waited within, but she did find more carvings. Impressed by the intricate details, she walked forward—only to draw up short. No way! More pillars littered the new enclosure, forming a perfect square, only these pillars were unlike the others. They glistened, in the process of melting, and they had… They…
I can’t possibly be seeing what I think I’m seeing.
Her pulse points thundered, and a cold, clammy sweat slicked over the back of her neck. Each pillar contained a human being. Twenty males, four females.
At five foot ten, she was used to towering over people. These guys towered over her. They were a range of ethnicities—and species? One of the women had pretty blue skin and pointed ears. One of the men had wings. Another maybe kinda sorta had gills that flared on each side of his neck.
This was fake, absolutely, positively. It couldn’t be real. Maybe she’d stumbled upon some kind of frozen wax museum intended for people like Vale who read sci-fi and fantasy voraciously and watched any movie or TV show featuring anything magical, futuristic or dystopian.
Whatever the reason, she’d been right; civilization—and salvation!—were nearby. And gold seal of approval to the company responsible for this masterpiece. Never had Vale encountered such lifelike figurines—and those bodies! Each guy could star in a porno. Not that she ever watched those, cough, cough.
When tourists came through, they’d definitely get their money’s worth. Come one, come all, see barbarians and their concubines on ice. To be fair, though, the women appeared just as vicious as the men.
As Vale moved deeper into the cave, different sets of eyes seemed to track her. So creepy. Just beyond the columns, she spotted what looked to be the staff depicted in the carvings. The one the horned man had held.
Unlike everything else, the rod wasn’t obscured by ice. It stood on its own, no sign of the horned man.
Intrigued, she reached out…
A powerful blast of wind knocked her backward, and she slammed into a pillar. Electric pulses danced over her skin, stars winked through her vision, and air gushed from her lungs.
Crack, crack. Lines appeared in a handful of pillars.
Frick! This had better not be a you-break-it-you-buy-it situation.
All right, forget the staff. She straightened on unsteady legs and returned her attention to the soldiers. Yeah, definitely soldiers. They stood in assorted battle poses, clutched weapons and wore varying expressions of absolute, utter fury.
Her gaze skimmed over a black-haired man, only to zoom back. He exuded enough power to crush…anyone. And he was heart-stoppingly gorgeous. The kind of gorgeous that stole your breath and your thoughts and incinerated your panties.
One look at him, and she was certain she’d ovulated.
He was sex, rough and raw, primal and animalistic, his masculinity a palpable caress against her skin.
No one, real or fiction, was sexier. Not even Legolas, the standard by which she measured every man.
This statue had the sinister aura of a pitiless conqueror, radiating both icy cold and boiling heat, his hard expression promising both earth-shattering orgasms and a torturous death. His eyes outshone the bluest, rarest sapphires; they were framed by long, curling lashes reminiscent of black velvet, somehow both pretty and primeval.
So many contradictions. So intriguing.
His cheekbones appeared to be carved from granite, and his lips…glory hallelujah. His lips were plump, scarlet, and made for kissing. His chin was square, his jaw slanted and shadowed by stubble.
Her gaze returned to his lips, drawn like a magnet, and her fingers followed, tracing a swirling pattern over the ice—not just any pattern.
Ugh. She’d drawn a heart. “I believe every life is a book in progress, and my story just got a lot more interesting,” she told him.
He was shirtless, revealing a ring of black tattoos around his neck and wrists. Taking up prime real estate on one of his muscle-cut shoulders was a tree of life, set inside a circle. In fact, all of the frozen men and women bore a tree of life tattoo somewhere on their gorgeous bodies.
Her attention returned to the sex god. Or war commander. He held two daggers with brass knuckle handles. Pants made of a black leathery material covered his lower half, and a silver belt buckle rested atop his snack basket—a modern gadget when everything else about him screamed ancient warrior.
“A shame you aren’t naked.” He—
Vale jolted. Plot twist. He’d just blinked.
No way. Just…no way. While some part of her had always believed ancient myths were based in fact, aliens and ghosts walked among humans, and magic truly existed, she had trouble accepting what she’d seen. What she thought she’d seen.
She wasn’t crazy—most of the time; she just hadn’t found any evidence to support her suspicions. Therefore, he couldn’t have blinked. And those ocean-water blues couldn’t be staring at her, intent with challenge, daring her to come closer.
He wasn’t aware of her. He wasn’t aware of anything. Because he wasn’t alive.
He couldn’t be alive.
Could he?

Shadow And Ice

Keep reading Shadow and Ice by Gena Showalter 


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