Meal-on-wheels, eighteen-year-old Rose Pascal thought hysterically. That's me.
The bars of her cage rattled as the creatures who'd captured her only an hour before steered her toward a large tent hidden among a thicket of gnarled trees. What awaited her in there . . .
Would it be worse than what surrounded her?
Bile burned her throat. These men—things—were tall and muscled, with razor-sharp horns spiking down the center of their skulls, black scales that somehow looked as smooth as glass, and too-white fangs peeking from between bloodstained lips. The worst, though, was their glowing red eyes. Hungry eyes. Watching her, eager.
Frigid rain pounded from an onyx sky, splashing between the four-by-four iron that imprisoned her. She huddled in a corner, arms around her middle, shivering and freaked. Today was her birthday. She'd stayed up late, hoping to greet midnight—and thereby the shedding of her adolescence—with a laugh and call to her best friend, Claire. But the moment her clock changed from 11:59 to 12:00, her world had utterly shifted.
The indigo walls of her bedroom had faded, as had her bed, her desk, and her computer, only to be replaced by this dark, hammering rain. She'd spun, searching for something, anything familiar.
No panic, though. Not yet. Perhaps she'd fallen asleep, she'd mused, and nightmares now plagued her.
But the silly hope had lasted only a moment. The monsters had already scented her, racing to reach her before she could figure out what had happened and where she was. Panic? Oh, yes. A tidal wave of it. The creatures had pawed at her, uncaring as she fought and screamed, and tossed her into this cage.
What she'd known then—she'd never been here before. What she knew now—she never wanted to return. How had she gotten to this place? She still had no clue. The . . . things had tried to talk with her before jolting into motion, but they spoke in a language she'd never heard and they clearly didn't understand hers.
The cart stopped abruptly, and she gulped. They'd reached the tent. Her heart pounded against her ribs as one of the creatures unlatched the door, the heavy thunk jolting her into action.
"No!" When he stretched an arm inside, she kicked, batting his claws—so sharp and deadly—away. "Leave me alone!"
A grunt, a snarl, and then those claws banded around her ankle, jerking. Rose slid forward and onto her back, skull slamming into wood. Icy air sawed between her lips as her vision swam with winking stars. Another jerk, and she was out of the cage entirely, staring up at the dark, endless sky, raindrops like little needles against her skin. Then multiple sets of those red eyes were peering down at her.
I'm on my own. Helpless. Tremors rocked her, destroyed her, because she could no longer move. Death watched her, but she couldn't freaking move. Her blood was like sludge in her veins, weighing her down, pinning her in place.
Tears caught in her lashes before flooding down her cheeks, and even those were cold. "Let me go. Please." A mere shimmer of voice this time.
Angry muttering assaulted her ears. Demands? Threats?
"I don't know what you're saying!"
Firm hands hauled her to her feet and shoved her forward. Rose stumbled, but managed to remain upright despite the rigidity of her body. When she reached the tent flap, one of the monsters held the material up and out of the way, and motioned for her to go inside. Shaking her head, she tried to press her heels into the ground and slow her momentum. Finally, movement, just not the right kind. Her efforts earned her another shove, and this time she fell straight into the tent, smashing her belly, lungs, and face on the ground. More of those stupid stars flashed through her vision.
The flap closed behind her with an ominous swish.
Her tremors intensified. Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God.
No sudden moves, but you have to find out what you're up against. Slowly she raised her head and cast her gaze wildly about. To her left was a bed of furs. Avoid! In the center blazed a crackling fire, licking her with welcome warmth. Every cell she possessed craved more. Just beyond those flames was a wooden tub, a shelf of books. To the right, a table piled high with platters of food. Food. How long since she'd eaten? But her empty stomach didn't have time to twist hungrily. Beside that table stood a man. A man who was studying her, casually sipping a glass of amber liquid.
Gasping, Rose jumped up. At six feet, she usually towered over the people around her, yet this man towered over her. He was as muscled as her escort, but unlike those monsters, this man had sun-kissed skin, tousled black hair, and violet eyes framed by thick, spiky black lashes.
His face was . . . beautiful. Haunting, like that of a favored angel. Seriously, airbrushed models weren't this perfect. He wore a black shirt and black pants, and if he'd unfolded white, feathered wings from his back, she wouldn't have been surprised.
Was she, dared she hope, safe now?
"Deutsch? Francais? English? Espanol? " he asked.
And he purred. The oh, God s in her head instantly changed in tone and volume. From frightened and screeching to awed and whispering. None of the boys at her school spoke like that. "I'm A-American," she said, smoothing the dripping hair from her face. Her black nightshirt and leggings absorbed every drop, and she was suddenly painfully aware of how terrible she must look. Silly girl.
"English, then. How many times have you been here, darling? Not many is my guess."
Darling. The endearment soothed like balm. "Th-this is the f-first time." Stupid chattering teeth.
The cold and waning shock had caught up with her.
He smiled over the rim of his glass. "Happy eighteenth birthday, then." Gaze never leaving her, he drank what remained, ice cubes clinking, and set the cup on the tabletop.
That smile nearly stole her thoughts as well as her breath. "How did you know today is my birthday?" For that matter: "Where am I? Wh-what are you going to do with me?" Chattering teeth couldn't be blamed for that last stutter. She wanted to blame renewed fear, but . . .
"One question at a time, yes? After we're comfortable. Be a good girl and sit down for me."
"N-no, thank you. I prefer to st-stand." She was less vulnerable that way.
His eyes darkened, narrowed. "I don't recall asking what you preferred, darling." The purr was gone, and in its place was a cold demand for absolute compliance. Instinct told her that refusing meant suffering.
Yes, renewed fear. Though she wanted to run screaming, Rose sat, her knees buckling under sudden pressure. She tried to scramble backward, but again, her body acted the traitor and remained in place.
There was something odd about this immobility. Immobility that was far worse than what she'd experienced outside, because there was absolutely no hope of overcoming it. She was stuck.
Why can't I move? Because of him? Quaking, she fought a fresh round of terrified tears. She wasn't safer with this man, this fallen angel, she realized with certainty. Not even close.
"Good girl. Now." He dragged a chair in front of her and eased down, resting his elbows on his thighs and leaning toward her. He smelled of peat smoke and wildflowers, of all things, and the fragrance made her . . . ache. From more of that fear, surely. "What's your name?"
Too close. He was too close. And that ache, it was too unsettling, born of fear or not.
"Name." Another demand.
"Pretty. My name is Vasili, and I'm going to ask you some questions, Rose, and you're going to answer. If you lie to me, I'll know, believe me, and I will not be happy." He waited until she nodded in acknowledgment before continuing. "Do you know what happens to people who fail to make me happy?"
She gulped, shook her head.
"They die. Slowly, painfully."
Said so easily, he left no room for doubts. One lie and he would killher. Dear God. Breathe.
"Why are you here, Rose?"
"I—I don't know. I swear to God, I don't know," she rushed out, expecting him to punish her for her ignorance.
He merely arched a black brow. "You weren't told to spy on me? To hurt me?"
"No! I don't even know who you are."
"What a terrible blow to my ego," he said, clutching his heart.
Life and death rested in his hands, and he . . . teased? Sparks of anger bloomed inside her, numbing some of the fear and kicking her common sense in the teeth. "I'm sure you'll survive," she replied before she could stop herself. "Unfortunately."
"What's this? Spirit from my little mouse?"
Now he mocked her. Several more sparks joined the fray.
Don't forget a predator lurks under that easy charm.
Thank you, Common Sense, for finally coming out of your coma. Wisely, she offered no reply to him.
"Do you know what you are, Rose?"
What kind of question was that? "I'm human. Educated. Civilized. Unlike—" Uh-oh. She'd forgotten. Rein in the temper—a temper that had always been her downfall.
Her lips pressed together in a mulish line. Again, he'd get no reply from her. Her, a "little mouse." Oh, how that still burned. She liked to hunch her shoulders, sure, to make herself appear smaller, and she'd always preferred to blend into the background of a room, rather than stand out.
And yes, she avoided confrontation whenever possible. But sometimes she snapped and lashed out, consequences be damned, and those "sometimes" were not pretty.
"In this, you clearly have no education," he said, tapping the tip of her nose with a strong finger.
As if she were a naughty child. "But allow me to instruct you. You are what's called a Dimension Walker. You crossed from your dimension and into this one, the dark side of your golden world."
"No." What was he talking about? Dimension Walker? "No, that isn't possible. That only happens in books and movies."
"Then you tell me. How are you here?" He spread his arms. "What is this place?"
"I don't know. All I know is that what you described is—"