Bone-chilling, nut-shriveling, ass-biting cold. Especially ass-biting, in this cursed ritual garb she insisted he wear. Cape sewn from the sleek fur of the aurak, tied at the neck over a bare chest. Sword in its sheath, hanging from the thunder dragon belt. He swore the howling wind held a note of maniacal laughter as it swirled around the leather kilt hanging low on his hips to nip at his bare backside underneath.
His foot slipped and he dropped. Ten feet, twenty, fifty. Flailing at the ice-covered cliff face as he plummeted, scraping his hands raw before he found a hold. Heart pounding, he risked a glance down. The roar of the river pouring through the canyon a thousand feet below was barely audible at this height. At least the adrenaline rush of narrowly escaping death got my blood pumping fast enough to provide a shot of warmth.
He fought his way back up, his bare hands so numb he never felt the thousand tiny slashes inflicted by the razor-sharp ice shards. For the thousandth time, he wondered how she got to the summit. Maybe she never left it. Had a flock of vultures deliver the mangled remains of warriors who didn’t survive the climb for her to dine on. He wouldn’t put it past her.
Sacred Oracle, my ass. She was a vicious old witch, that’s what she was. Dragging him up here when all he wanted to do was sit by the fire and drown himself in Luvian ale. By all the gods, he had every right.
Faces haunted his dreams. Faces—and bodies. A stray hand still wrapped around a dagger, a headless torso tossed casually onto a moss-covered ridge. He’d killed them all, as surely as if he himself wielded the sword. Completed his last mission at a terrible cost. And to what end? For every enemy they killed, ten more stood ready to take their place.
He’d taken an oath, sworn to serve the Seneschal of the Seven Stars until he took his last breath. Over the last few months, he’d prayed for that last breath to fill his lungs. But the gods hadn’t seen fit to grant his request. No matter how much he loathed himself, taking his own life was an act of cowardice he couldn’t bring himself to perform.
Now the Oracle had summoned him. Kadan pulled himself up the sheer face of the cliff, painfully making up the ground he’d lost when he fell. Maybe this was the answer to his prayers. Maybe he’d never reach the summit. Perhaps he was fated to die making this climb. Some would call it an honorable death—but only if you considered failure honorable. He stretched for the next outcropping of rock, vowing he wouldn’t give the bitch the satisfaction of dining on his remains.
Putting all other thoughts out of his head, he concentrated on the ascent. Find your advantage. The icy gusts howling around him were a blessing. They flattened him against the cliff face, instead of ripping him away. The cold stopped his battered hands from bleeding, so his fingers were less likely to slip when he jammed them into crevices or gripped the narrow ledges. Inch by inch he battled his way up, until he dragged himself over the edge to collapse, face down and gasping for breath, onto the plateau at the top.
“About time you got here.”
The voice was shrill. Harsh. He turned his head slightly. A pair of gnarled, wrinkled feet came into view, clad in flimsy leather sandals despite the frigid temperature. Skinny legs with skin mottled blue from the cold disappeared under the hem of a drab gown that blended into the chill gray mist.
He struggled to his knees and bowed his head. “Forgive me, Sacred One. The journey was… challenging.”
She laughed, a piercing cackle. It echoed off the stone walls of a temple that stood at the edge of the cliff. Up the flight of ice-coated steps, a pair of wooden doors in the structure stood open. Like everything else on this wretched moon, they’d been scoured a dull gray by the harsh weather. Though the doors were easily the height of three warriors standing one atop the other, they were dwarfed by the size of the structure.
“Challenging?” She snorted. “If what is to be done were easy, I’d have no need of an Omega Warrior. Come along. I haven’t all day.”
Kadan pulled himself to his feet and followed her through the swirling mist up the steps of the temple. Trembling from cold and exertion, he stumbled and fell, landing painfully on his backside.
He let out a muffled curse. She whirled around, caught sight of him sprawled on the steps, and began that maniacal cackling again. He glared at her.
“Quit complaining and get up. You aren’t hurt. Your ass broke your fall.”
Delighted by her own wit, the old woman hobbled up the remaining steps, chuckling all the way. Kadan limped after her, lured by the flames flickering in enormous iron cauldrons he spied beyond the temple doors.
He stepped in and the doors slowly closed on their own, sealing him inside with a thud. He took his time following the old crone, allowing the blessed warmth of the fires to ease the chill in his bones while he examined his surroundings.
The structure was huge, stretching off into the dim light as far as he could see. High overhead, a ceiling covered with paintings of the gods was held up with rows of carved stone pillars as big around as the girth of a full-grown Berugian stag. Along the outside walls, more fire-bearing cauldrons sat on stone bases, one every thirty feet or so. Flickering torches threw strange shadows on the walls. The wind howling outside seemed to make the shadows come alive, strange beasts growling and roaring as they roamed the dimly lit recesses of the temple.
The Oracle had ascended a platform in the center of the room and now sat before him on a high-backed chair. He examined her in the faint light. Old. Really old. The oldest creature he’d ever seen, in a form-fitting silver-gray gown the same shade as the wispy strands of hair hanging nearly to her waist. Despite its depressing color, the garment might have looked attractive on a younger woman. But on the Oracle, it hugged her sagging breasts and belly cruelly.
Sharp black eyes peered out from the wrinkled face. Gave him a once-over.
“Kadan. Omega Warrior of Anteres. Sworn to defend and protect the World of the Seven Stars and all its inhabitants. Now a self-pitying drunk.”
Anger surged. He reached automatically for his sword, then checked himself. The Oracle was hoping for a reaction from him. Why give the old hag what she wanted?
He bowed instead, extending one hand in a flourish. “I am at your service, Holy One.”
“Hah. That remains to be seen. You don’t know yet what I’m going to require of you.”
“It matters not. I have taken an oath to do the bidding of my ruler. Give my life if necessary. And he instructed me to answer your summons and take on any task you request.”
“Request.” Her voice quavered, then grew stronger. “Such a pretty word. So polite. Seneschal Niall should have been more honest with you. Decree. Order. Command. Any of those words would have been a better choice. Request implies you have the option to decline.”
“I gave up that option when I swore my oath.”
She waved a hand and a table appeared by his side. On it sat a tankard brimming with ale. “You always have options. For example, which do you choose? Your honor—or your thirst?”
Without breaking eye contact, he swept the tankard from the table, hoping she couldn’t see how his hand shook as he did. It crashed to the ground, then both table and tankard disappeared.
She sighed. “It appears I must rely on your sense of honor to save our realm. I pray to the gods your resolve is strong. Very well, then. Watch and learn.”
Between them, a hologram took shape. The Seven Stars and all their planets, complete with spinning moons in a rainbow of colors orbiting them. The image grew, expanding to neighboring solar systems with comets and asteroids whizzing by. He recognized their nearest neighbor Tau Delta and his mouth curved into a smile. The ridged pussies of the females on Tau Delta had given his cock some of its bawdiest memories.
“Pay attention,” the Oracle snapped, as though she could read his mind. She waved at the hologram. “This is our World.”
He stifled a groan. Gods’ balls, she was a tiresome old biddy. “I am familiar with our World. I’ve been studying it since I was a lad and I’ve navigated some of its furthest reaches,” he shot back.
“Then you must be familiar with this.”
The hologram grew, spreading into the dimmest recesses of the room. Other galaxies took shape, more than he could name. In the distance, a dense blue-black cloud appeared. It moved slowly, swallowing up entire solar systems, growing larger and more menacing as it advanced. In its center, a glowing purple light pulsed, becoming stronger with every world it absorbed.
Speechless, Kadan could only stare.
“You know nothing of the Universe, Warrior. This is the Void. And at its center, the Entity.”
“A civilization of alien beings, all interconnected. They conquer other Worlds, enslave their people, and plunder whatever resources they have. If the beings offer resistance, they are swallowed up, absorbed by the Entity along with their whole planet. The other worlds disappear forever. With each conquest the Entity becomes more vibrant and powerful. It travels through the Universe on an unending path with only one goal—to be all that is.
“We have known of the Entity for some time,” she continued. “Tracked its progress. But now it is drawing closer to the Seven Stars. It must be destroyed before it consumes us.”
“Who are ‘we’?”
The Oracle had been prattling on but she stopped midsentence. “What?”
“You said ‘we’ have known of the Entity for some time. Who are ‘we’?”
“Why, the gods and I, of course.”
“I thought the gods created all things in the Universe. Why have they only known about the Entity for some time if they created it?”
At a loss for words, she settled for giving him a fierce glare. He stared back calmly, waiting for an answer. Finally she replied.
“There are Forces at work in the Universe, both Light and Dark. Have been since before the beginning. Layer upon layer of Forces overlay the cosmos, both gods and demons. If you succeed in peeling one layer away, learn their names and learn their ways, you will discover another, even more powerful than the last. No mortal being can ever truly know all there is to know of the Universe.”
She paused again, weighing her words before speaking.
“I will tell you a truth not known to many. The gods I serve bow to other gods, some of them less inclined toward kindness and mercy than those you worship.” She made the admission wearily. “But I did not summon you here to answer questions. The time grows short. You must act quickly if we are to save our World.”
He watched the holographic cloud advance. Slowly. Relentlessly. Snuffing out every bright star in its path. “What would you have me do, Sacred One?”
“The very thing that makes the Entity so strong is its weakness as well. Its people are intertwined, one with the other. When one defeats an enemy, all experience the thrill of victory. But when one feels pain, all do.”
She beckoned him to come closer with one gnarled finger, lowered her voice as though the advancing cloud might hear her. “The Entity functions as a living being. It has a single Heart. Not an organ pumping blood. This Heart is a glowing stone, a talisman stolen thousands of years ago from the first World it swallowed up. Though the object has no real power, the Entity venerate their Heart. They believe the object makes them invulnerable. In that belief lies their downfall.”
As she went on, her voice became nearly inaudible. Kadan climbed the steps to her throne one at a time, straining to hear the raspy whisper.
“The Heart is kept in a secret place, guarded night and day by fierce warriors. Losing their Heart will make them doubt their strength, make them believe they are vulnerable to attack.”
When he neared the top, she shot out a bony hand and clenched it around his arm with a surprising grip. “Your task is to bring back the Heart that will defeat the Entity. But even an Omega Warrior cannot accomplish this task alone. The gods have a gift for you.”
At her touch, the hologram disappeared, then even the walls of the temple. He found himself in a dimly lit stone chamber, staring out a window into the shadows beyond.
He heard a rustling in the darkness behind him. Drew his dagger and whirled around.
“What the hoarfrost hell are you doing here? I ordered you to stay at the base.”
She smiled, shaking her head. Her dazzling turquoise eyes met his. “You can’t order me, Kadan. I’m not one of your soldiers.”
“Dammit, woman, why won’t you do as you’re told?”
“I’m going with you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He glared at her, furious. The woman was stubborn. Impossible. “You’ll be killed. I nearly stabbed you myself just now.”
“You would never hurt me.”
His eyes narrowed. “Wouldn’t I?”
He grabbed her arm and sank onto the rough wooden bench beside him, dragging her face-down over his lap as he did. Yanking up the long skirt of her gown, he gave her bare ass a harsh swat.
“I will not have you defying me!” He smacked her again. The loud crack of his palm echoed off the cavernous walls. Seeing the bright red imprint of his hand on her quivering bottom only fueled his anger. That lush, soft body. So much more delicate than a man’s. So vulnerable. His mind raced, imagining what they would do to her if they caught her.
“You don’t belong here.” He spat out the words, punctuating them with more firm whacks. “I’ve told you how dangerous this is. But you won’t listen. Maybe a good thrashing will get through that obstinate head of yours.”
She wriggled on his lap, trying to avoid his hand. Her movements only ground her hot core against his groin. His manhood surged. Damn the woman. Even angry as he was, the sight of her glorious ass fueled his constant hunger for her.
He wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her to her feet. Grabbing her shoulders, he backed her against the cold stone wall. Swept aside her tangled mass of auburn hair and ripped open the front of her gown, baring her breasts. Bent his head to capture one deep red nipple in his mouth. Fastened his lips over it, reveling in the way it puckered into a firm peak.
She moaned and buried her hands in his hair, holding his head tight against her breast. He nipped it with his teeth, then moved to the other nipple, already standing out. Sucked hard, knowing he’d hear a breathless gasp, feel her rub her mound against his thigh.
He knew what that meant. She said when he sucked her nipples, her pussy always started to throb, as though an invisible current flowed from one to the other.
Reaching up, he grabbed her wrists, pulled them away from his hair and trapped them against the wall above her head. She shuddered and gave a wild cry. He smothered it, crushing her lips with a fierce kiss, invading her with his tongue.
She opened her mouth willingly. Melted into him, yielded to his mastery. Then took his fever even higher when she spread her long legs apart. Lifting her knee, she hooked one ankle around his waist, opening herself to him fully. He caught the scent of her arousal, dragged her gown up to her waist, and plunged two fingers into her.
No sweet seduction. No slow, sensuous lovemaking. Only this savage need that raged inside him, burning even hotter as the muscles of her slick sheath squeezed his fingers.
He drew his hand out, pulled away from the kiss. “I love the scent of your arousal.”
She gave a strangled sob. “Take me with you.”
“I will. You’ll be with me every moment. I’ll march into battle with the sweet sounds you make when you come still ringing in my ears.”
“No! I want to be by your side. I can fight. I’ve been training.”
He laughed harshly. “Don’t be a fool. You’re my weakness. They’ll know that. They’ll attack you first. I’d be wounded trying to protect you. But they wouldn’t let me die. They’d make me watch while they ravage you. Then kill you. Slowly and painfully.”
She shook her head wildly, tears running down her face. “Please. You’ll need me there. Need my skills. You have to take me with you.”
“Enough,” he growled. He let go of her wrists long enough to free his raging cock, then cupped both hands around her bottom cheeks. Lifting her off her feet, he lowered her until his stiff rod was poised at the entrance to her core. He dug his fingers into her ass, holding her against the wall as he thrust deep.
She gasped and he felt the walls of her channel convulse around him. Dropping to his knees, he laid her on the thick woven carpet, then drove into her. She locked her ankles around his waist, grinding her hips against him with every stroke.
He kept his eyes open, memorizing every inch of her face as he fucked her. Lost himself in the silky deep pools of her eyes, rimmed with turquoise as vivid as the sea they’d frolicked in. Bent to lick the salty tears from her cheeks. They tasted like the drops of water he’d licked from her breasts after he carried her out of the ocean in his arms and kissed her trembling lips for the first time.
“Kadan!” She screamed his name, clawing his back with her nails as he rode her to a shattering climax.
Her pussy contracted, pulsing around his cock. With one final thrust, he exploded. Kadan wrapped his arms around her and held her tight, knowing this moment had to last him forever.