Jarred Varrain was no stranger to fear. He’d tasted its metallic tang staring down the muzzle of an ion pistol held in a clawed hand. He’d smelled its sickening stench as a prisoner on an alien moon, held so deep underground he’d thought he’d never see the stars again. He’d even felt it drain away into hopelessness as his life’s blood pumped from gaping wounds he somehow always survived.
And he’d seen the sheen of fear in his enemies’ eyes as he’d killed, with pistol or blade or bare hands. So many times he no longer kept count.
He’d killed to protect. Killed to avenge. Killed because there’d been no other choice. Killed until he’d become an object of fear himself, even to the aliens and androids who didn’t feel that emotion as humans did.
But never had he known this kind of icy, helpless terror, not even when he’d been bound and at the mercy of a merciless enemy. Then he’d been too busy plotting, trying to find a way out, a way to turn the tables and win, as he’d always won before.
But Jarred knew from bitter experience there was no way to win this time. Not if Mykhayl failed.
Because Celeste Carson was tired of him.
“I mean it, I’m killing the son-of-bitch off,” she said, as he stared at her with clenched fists. Celeste sprawled across a white love seat in her primitive twenty-first century living room, dressed in a confection of black lace and red silk that hugged every luscious curve. Bright curls tumbled around her delicate face, and her full lips were pulled into a tight line as those big cat-green eyes narrowed in irritation. She looked more like a Kyristi sexsub than the implacable enemy who’d tortured him for a decade.
At least until the next words came out of her mouth: “He’s toast. I just have to come up with a suitably heroic way to cash his chips.”
Her sister looked up from the pile of whisper-thin fabric on her lap, blue eyes rounding with scandalized horror under her smooth cap of platinum hair. “You can’t do that. The fans….”
“This is science fiction, Corinne. Nobody promised them a happy ending.”
“But I love that character!” Jarred wanted to kiss her elfin face. “You love that character!”
“And I’ve been writing about him for ten years now. It’s time for a change. I want to do something fresh.” Celeste rose and began to pace. Her lovely breasts swayed seductively under the thin black lace that barely covered them as her long, muscled legs scissored with her stride. Jarred watched with resentful hunger. God, he ached to turn the tables on her. If Mykhayl came through with that spell….
But without the spell, Jarred couldn’t touch her. He was trapped in this limbo, able to see and hear his tormentor, but unable to take the revenge he craved.
“Besides, he’s so damned infuriating to write,” Celeste continued, oblivious, as she always was, to his invisible presence. “No matter what I plot out, he insists on doing the opposite.” Usually because whatever she planned was going to get someone killed.
The memory of his friend’s bloody, broken body rose up in Jarred’s mind until he had to shut his eyes and fight the need to strike out in pointless rage.
“And if I try to force it, the characters just turn into cardboard,” his enemy said as she paced by. Reluctantly compelled, he opened his eyes to admire way her luscious ass rolled with every long-legged, seductive stride. “It’s driving me nuts.”
“Tell me about it,” Corinne muttered, picking up the outfit draped across her lap and studying it dubiously. “Mykhayl’s been making me crazy for years. Now I can’t even get him to pick a wife. And since he’s sterile from that fight with the ice snake, he’s going to have to have to leave the kingdom to somebody else. God knows who that’s going to be…. Do I really have to wear this?”
Celeste propped her hands on her curving hips. Jarred stared, his attention caught by the golden shimmer of her hair as it tumbled to her waist. He imagined wrapping those bright curls around his fist as he rode her, taking a slow, sweet revenge while he taught her to crave every minute of her punishment.
“Oh, come on, Corinne,” she said. “It’s just us girls. Everything you’ve got, I’ve got. Besides, considering what you just paid for that lacy piece of inspiration, I’d think you’d want to try it on.”
“Yeah, well, I only bought it because you insisted.”
Full lips curled into a teasing smile. “I only insisted because you dress like a bag lady. Who can write sexy romance in sweat pants?”
“I can,” Corinne retorted. “As I think I’ve amply proved, considering I’ve been doing it for the past ten years.”
Celeste flopped onto the couch, one long leg curled over the arm, the other stretched to one side. Jarred’s eyes were drawn to the thin red fabric molding lovingly over the lips of her vulva. He thought about plunging his cock into her, burying himself in slick cream and heat. “And do you or do you not have writer’s block? Look, nothing puts me in the mood to turn out something fantastic like wearing really expensive silk. Come on, put it on and we’ll brainstorm. You can help me figure out how to kill off Jarred.”
“Okay, but you’ve got to help me figure out who Mykhayl marries. Damn, I wish he’d stop screwing all those women and start courting somebody. Stubborn jerk. He could follow the damn plotline once in a while!” Grumbling, Corinne ducked down the hall to the bedroom.
Jarred barely noticed, his attention locked on his deliciously sprawled foe. “Bitch,” he growled at her. Celeste didn’t hear him, of course. She never had, not even in the beginning when he’d roared like a madman at her for the way she tortured him.
For a decade he’d shuttled back and forth between his own universe and this limbo between their worlds, listening to her plan his torment, then returning home to try to outmaneuver her. But his attempts always failed. Even when he blocked one plot, she’d come up with something else that landed him in the same agonizing situation she’d originally intended. Yet she always made sure he survived.
Bloodied, broken, surrounded by the bodies of those he loved, he always survived.
But if Celeste had really decided to kill him, this time he would die.
It was incredibly frustrating. The cybernetic implants scattered throughout his body allowed him to call up superhuman bursts of strength that made him a match for the toughest, most vicious alien warriors the galaxy could produce. Yet tiny, delicious Celeste could torment and destroy him at her whim, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
But if he ever got his hands on her….
Suddenly he felt a familiar presence, a sense of simmering, formidable power. “Mykhayl?”
“Aye,” rumbled a deep voice. Not for the first time, Jarred wondered if his friend looked anything like the artists’ depictions on the covers of Corinne’s romance novels. As many years as they’d shared this half-existence together, neither had ever seen the other. They remained as mutually invisible as they were to their creators, though at least they could hear one another speak.
“Did you get it?” Jarred demanded.
“Yes. I had to pay that thrice-damned wizard in dragon’s blood, but I have it.”
But would it work? Mykhayl came from a realm of sorcery and dragons, and to him spells were as commonplace as star cruisers were to Jarred. But that was no guarantee the amulet he’d fought to obtain would work in this universe. And if it didn’t….
“What are the little witches plotting now?” Mykhayl asked.
Jarred clenched his fists. “Celeste means to kill me off.”
There was a short, stunned silence. “Then we must act quickly. If you have a god, my brother, pray to him.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Work a spell.” The warrior king sounded grim. “A very dangerous spell.”
Mykhayl’s deep voice dropped even more as he began to chant, guttural phrases streaming off his tongue in twisting, incomprehensible syllables. As he spoke, Jarred felt threads of power shimmer into being, lines of force that quickly wove together in a net around them both. Energies so dark and strange his skin crawled as every muscle in his body drew tight and his mind howled in instinctive disbelief. There is no such thing as magic!
And yet there was. The proof came in the pain that flared through Jarred’s body as his nervous system protested the alien forces seizing him. A sense of pressure built, as if he were being forced against an invisible bulkhead. Light exploded behind his eyes….
Suddenly there was a floor beneath his booted feet. He staggered forward, barely catching himself in time to keep from falling on his face. As he looked up, a man appeared beside him – even taller than Jarred himself, red hair brushing the small of his back, tight green trousers clinging to his powerful thighs as a fringed vest hugged his muscled chest.
And yes, Mykhayl looked just as he had on all those covers.
Jarred’s head snapped around. Celeste was staring up at them both, her lush mouth rounded in a perfect O, green cat eyes huge in a face gone as pale as paper.
She could see them.
It had worked.
Glancing back at his ally, Jarred felt a demonic grin of pure anticipation spread across his face. Mykhayl returned it with one just as nasty.* * * * *
Celeste felt her jaw drop as she stared up at the two men looming over her.
One minute she’d been the only one in the living room. The next, everything had seemed to … stretch somehow, like a rubber sheet or a movie special effect. Then she’d heard been a thunderous clap, a kind of mini-sonic boom.
Now two men were looming over her, looking for all the world exactly like Jarred Varrain and Mykhayl.
Except for distinctly unheroic expressions of pure, wicked anticipation….
The redhead was damn near seven feet tall, with the same handsome, hawkish face she knew from the cover of Corinne’s books.
The other man she’d seen only in her dreams. No artist had ever managed to capture Jarred Varrain’s hard, wolfish face with its broad cheekbones, narrow nose and cruelly sensuous mouth framed in that neat dark goatee.
Yet here he was, just as she’d always imagined him, dressed in the gleaming black armor that looked and moved exactly like leather. It was as if he’d somehow stepped out of her head.
It couldn’t be.
She gaped helplessly, her eyes locked with his, feeling as if the planet had suddenly made an unexpected dip to the left, leaving her standing in empty space. “How did you do that? Who are you?”
“Magic,” he said, his teeth flashing white in his grin. “And you know exactly who we are.”
Before she could insist that she most certainly did not know — they couldn’t be who they looked like — high heels clattered in the hallway. Corinne burst in, just barely dressed in something lacy. “Celeste, what the hell was…”
“By the dragon’s breath,” the Mykhayl-alike said, his eyes lighting as he rocked back on his heels to look her up and down. “There was a woman’s body under all that baggy cloth after all.”
Corinne’s brows snapped down. “Oh, not again. Look, buddy, I have nothing to do with casting that damn movie, so you’re wasting your….”
“I don’t think they’re actors,” Celeste said hoarsely. The costumes the two men wore looked nothing like the cheesy outfit the last would-be Mykhayl had worn in a futile bid to convince her sister to get him an audition. Anyway, even though they were slated to start shooting Corinne’s The Leopard and the Lily in a few months, nobody planned to make a movie out of any of Jarred’s books. There was no reason for the dark-haired man to costume himself like that.
Besides, no mere actor could make the air … stretch.
“Of course they’re actors.” Corinne propped her fists on her lace-covered hips and scowled at the Mykhayl-looking one, who had started toward her with a long, lazy stride. “And they’re going to be actors in jail if they don’t get their leather-clad backsides out that door now.” She broke off and blinked as the redhead loomed over her, grinning evilly. He was more than a foot taller than she was, and as wide across the chest as the side-by-side refrigerator in Celeste’s kitchen. “Damn, you’re big.”
“And getting bigger by the moment,” the Mykhayl-alike rumbled. “What call you that bit of lace you wear?” He reached out a huge hand and cupped her breast. Grinning tauntingly, he purred, “‘Tis intriguing.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?” Corinne squawked in rage and hauled off to slap him, but he picked her wrist out of the air and spun her around, waltzed her three steps forward, and bent her over the arm of the couch. It was all done so neatly, so swiftly, she didn’t have time to fight.
“I am the warrior you spent these past ten years tormenting, like a child poking a chained dragon with a stick,” he growled, whipping a length of rope from a pocket of his trousers. Before Corinne could rear out of his hold, he whipped it around her wrists in several neat, tight turns. Ignoring her frantic kicks, he tied off the ropes, leaving her wrists thoroughly secured. “But now the dragon has slipped his leash, and you will pay for every poke.” He rolled his hips against her butt as if he planned to do some poking of his own.
Celeste’s temper snapped. “Let my sister go!” She lunged for the big man, but before she took more than a single step, a powerful forearm coiled around her waist. The next thing she knew, she was plastered against a hard, black-clad body.
Instinctively, she opened her mouth and shrieked like an opera star trying to shatter a wine glass.
The Jarred-alike clamped a hand over her mouth, his hand so big it practically engulfed the lower half of her face. “Shhhh,” he crooned. “I haven’t given you a reason to scream. Yet.”
Furious, she bared her teeth and sank them right into his palm. He simply tightened his grip until she thought she heard the bones of her jaw creak. Desperately, Celeste stomped one high-heel down onto her captor’s foot, but it glanced off the hard, slick material of his boot.
A material that felt way too much like the armor Jarred wore in her books.
Celeste forgot her unease over that comparison when he bent her forward and began forcing her down onto the carpeted floor. She went wild, kicking and punching at him as she spat a stream of acid curses, but she couldn’t get in a solid blow with him behind her.
He ignored her struggles as he flattened her ruthlessly on the pretty white carpeting. The smooth, slick surface of his armored jacket pressed against her back as he covered her body with his, then caught her right wrist with his free hand and released her jaw. She writhed, fighting to free herself, but it felt as though he’d blanketed her in solid steel. “Let me go, you son-of-a-bitch!”
“Not until I’m done with you,” he told her in a low, threatening rumble. Deliberately, he let his weight settle onto her, trapping her so thoroughly under two-hundred-and-thirty pounds of very large male that all she could do was squirm. “And considering everything I have in mind, I won’t be done with you for a long, long time.”
He reared off her just far enough to pull something metallic from one of the pockets of that jacket. As Celeste watched over her shoulder, her captor wrapped the thin length of cable around her wrist, then grabbed her other hand. Despite her frantic efforts to jerk away, he effortlessly gathered both her wrists together behind her back and finished coiling the cable around them. The minute he released it, the flexible metal line went rigid.
Celeste’s eyes widened. The fictional Jarred used something just like that in her books, but there was no such thing in real life. Which meant….
Oh, no. Ice slid through her veins at that additional bit of evidence. She thrust the idea away. No no no!
Her captor stood, pulling her up with him as though she weighed no more than a cat. As Celeste tried to regain her balance with her arms tied behind her, she saw the big redhead still had Corinne bent over the couch, his hips plastered against her fanny. He was whispering something in her ear. Her blue eyes were the size of dinner plates, but she looked less outraged than intrigued.
Celeste’s captor laughed, a low, suggestive rumble. “There’ll be time enough for that when you’re back in your own universe, Mykhayl,” he said. “Why don’t you work your spell, so we can both get started on our revenge.”
“Revenge?” Celeste squeaked.
“What are you talking about?” Corinne protested, as the big redhead chuckled and straightened. A thoroughly impressive erection strained the fabric of his tight green pants. His captive looked at it, her eyes widening even more. “Revenge for what? I didn’t do anything to you!”
“Except feed me to a thirty-foot ice serpent,” the redhead told her grimly. “Which bit me. And made me sterile, so that now I cannot sire a son to become my successor.”
“Don’t even bother asking what you did,” the Jarred-alike hissed in Celeste’s ear.
The bottom dropped out of her stomach. “This is impossible,” she said in a voice that shook. “I will not believe this. You are not him!”
“But I am.” He looked over her head. “Mykhayl?”
The big man nodded and swung his captive up over his shoulder as he began to chant something alien and guttural.
“Nobody speaks Dragonese! There’s no such language — I invented it!” Corinne squeaked, the first less than perfect sound Celeste had heard from her since kindergarten. “Look, I’m sure if we all just sit down and talk….”
She broke off in a screech as Mykhayl smacked her rump without interrupting his chant.
They’re fiction, Celeste thought frantically as her skin began to tingle from the rise of dark energies. None of it really happened. Oh God, I hope none of it happened. Garr… If he thinks I killed Garr…. Did I kill Garr?
Rainbow bands of energy appeared and began to swirl right in front of Celeste’s living room couch. The color bands swirled tighter and faster, until it seemed they were boring like a giant drill bit, right through the wall into … somewhere else.
Celeste could almost glimpse that elsewhere through the dark, man-sized opening the energy bit created. Wind poured through the shimmering hole, cool and smelling faintly metallic.
“Jump, my brother,” Mykhayl said, his voice sounding strained. “I know not how long I can hold the connection to your world. It … fights me.”
“No!” she gasped, whirling instinctively to run. With a soft, grim curse, Jarred bent and swept her into his arms. She screamed in pure terror as he turned and leaped right into the glowing maelstrom.
“NO! Celeeesssste!” Corinne’s scream was the last thing she heard in the twenty-first century.