Scientists don't believe in dragons.
Dragons never think much about humans at all.
Maybe it's time for their worlds to collide amidst the dangerous beauty of Antarctica.
Doctor and biochemist, Erin signed up for six months aboard an Antarctic research ship to escape her stifling surgery practice. Jerked from her cozy cabin, she's dumped in an ice cave by men who assume she's dead.
Konstantin and Katya, twins and dragon shifters, have lived miles beneath the polar ice cap for hundreds of years. Other dragons left, but they stuck it out. When several humans—all but two of them dead—end up not far from their lair, the opportunity is too good to pass up.
If the lore is to be believed, humans can become dragon shifters. Delighted by a simple solution to their enforced isolation, the dragons lure the humans to their home. Surely, they'll be thrilled by the prospect of becoming magical.
Too bad no one shared the script with the humans. Science be damned, they're horrorstruck in the face of fire-breathing dragons. All they want is to escape, but home is thousands of miles away.
Ann Gimpel and I have been friends for many years. I've read much of her work, and always find her books to be immersive and compelling. Her urban fantasy often explores "what-if scenarios" that beautifully balance science and extraordinary elements. As a Jungian psychologist, she delves into the deeper and darker elements of storytelling. Feral Ice was written a few years after Ann visited Antarctica in 2014. Talk about dedication to authenticity! The heroine, Dr. Erin Ryan, is a doctor and biochemist shanghaied off her Antarctic research ship. Beaten senseless and left for dead, she has more than the Southern Pole's harsh climate to worry about. –Melissa Snark
"I love this author's writing! She makes it so believable and keeps the action high in this fast-paced beginning to a new series! Get in on the ground floor and enjoy this wonderful dragon shifter adventure! You are definitely going to love it!"– Amazon Review
"This is the first book in a new series called Ice Dragons. It's a fast-paced and standalone book that will keep you engaged from start to finish. There's action, adventure, drama, danger, suspense, twist/turns, enemies, survival, intrigue, humor, mystery/secrets, surprises, friendship, conflict, resolution, confusion, fighting, chaos, magic, arrogance, truth, trust, rumors, threats, happiness, romance, passion/lust and love."– Amazon Review
"Loved this book in what promises to be another wonderful series penned by Ann Gimpel. Ms. Gimpel has the unique ability to write dialogue and situations that are immensely entertaining…case in point is the interaction between Erin and Konstantin."– Amazon Review
Consciousness returned in a rush. I clapped my hands over my ears, but it barely made a dent in the incessant noise battering me. Water crashed over rocks. Far from soothing, the noise pushed me toward madness. I was screaming too. The ungodly racket blasting from my throat didn't help anything. I could do something about that part, so I shut up. My fingers were cold. So cold, maybe I hadn't felt them in a long time. Did I even still have fingers? In the world I remembered—the one apparently lost to me—extremities withered and died from frostbite.
I know these things. I was a surgeon back in a distant universe. Dr. Erin Ryan. I muffled a snort that sounded more like a groan. At least I remembered my name. It was a start.
Images of blackened fingers and toes flashed through my mind. Right along with men clipping off dead appendages with scissors, a bloodless proposition because bodies had a way of jettisoning their losses.
I let go of my head, took my gloves off, and stuffed my hands into my pants right on top of my stomach. Maybe if they weren't too far gone, I could save them.
The bitterness in that question pounded a whole lot home. Like how desperate my situation was. Maybe letting myself fade from the tips of my body inward wasn't a bad thing. Dying from cold wasn't painful. There were worse ways to go. Lots of them.
Exquisite agony shot through two fingers as blood returned to them, coaxed by the heat of my belly. Soon the other fingers joined the party, screaming in protest. They'd liked being dead. Saved them a whole lot of trouble.
I rolled to my knees, awkward without using my hands for balance. From there, I forced myself to my feet. They were just as numb as my fingers had been, but I hadn't noticed them when I was crumpled in a heap on the ground.
I hurried up and dragged my heavy, insulated overmitts back on. No point in allowing the subzero temperature of my prison to cancel the good work my stomach had begun.
Where the fuck was I? I blinked against the cave's dimness, willing my eyes to bring me more details.
It didn't work, so I reached for the headlamp built into the hood of my suit. Clumsy with gloves, I finally located the switch. Nothing. It must have died hours ago. Or was it days? How long had I been here, anyway? I paced in a circle, trading the pins and needles return of sensation in my hands for similar misery in my feet.
"I am not ready to lie down and die. Not yet."
I spoke out loud to steady myself. The words echoed off the walls of the cave that might well become my tomb, if I didn't get moving and hunt for a way out. Stumbling to a ribbon of half-frozen water splashing down one wall—the same cascade that had forced me awake and maybe saved my life—I angled my head to drink. The liquid had a funny, metallic taste, but Antarctica was full of mineral wealth. Untapped riches. Icy chunks mixed with the water made my teeth hurt. I wrapped my arms around myself and started pacing again, trying to remember what had happened. How the hell I ended up here.
The harder I pushed my sluggish brain to spit out something, anything, the more mulish it became. Bits and pieces of memories battered me like flashes of time-lapse photography, and got me nowhere.
Before waking up here, I'd been part of a metallurgical research expedition. We'd been based on a ship, the Darya, but we'd spent time at many of the research stations dotting the Palmer Peninsula. Scientists liked to compare notes. It was a cheap and dirty way to replicate findings, without actually doing the work.
I'd signed on with the expedition as a lark. It might have been stupid of me to walk away from a lucrative surgical practice, but I was burned out dealing with insurance companies and batshit crazy practice partners. At the time I left, I told myself I was taking a break, nothing permanent.
The looks I got—like I was the worst kind of fool—annoyed me. What business was it of anyone's if I chose to take advantage of my master's degree in biochemistry? I figured some of them were jealous because I had the freedom to walk away. No husband. No kids. No more student loans. No mortgage. Free as the proverbial bird.
Because they were jealous—and resentful—they'd labelled me selfish, immature, self-indulgent. I'd laughed it off and left anyway.
My job was assessing the effects of Antarctica's severe climate on human bodies. That part of things had gone well; evaluating physiological changes was right up my alley. What wasn't so fine were rival firms, all wanting to tap Antarctica's stores of mineral wealth. The Antarctic Treaty forbade mining rich veins of gold, silver, cobalt, copper, chromium, and uranium, but there wasn't much of a police force in Antarctica. In my months at the southern end of the world, I'd discovered the conglomerate I worked for was almost the only honest one. They stopped at mapping Antarctica's mineral wealth. Other less scrupulous groups came behind us, drilling the sites we'd recorded.
Illegally, I should add. Antarctica is controlled by twelve countries, the original signers of the Treaty back in 1959. Drilling and mining are off the table. Not allowed under any circumstances.
When my bosses complained, reported the scavengers to the Antarctic Treaty System, retribution was swift in a place with zero law enforcement. Men boarded our vessel, forcing us into several Zodiac rafts. I'd resisted. All my struggling did was earn me a blow across the back of my head from the butt end of an automatic rifle. And that's where my memories jump off a cliff into the abyss.
I reached up, intent on assessing the lump behind my head, but taking off my gloves again and unzipping my insulated suit enough to push the hood back were huge deterrents. Warmth is my friend. Warmth will keep me alive. If I sustained a concussion, it wasn't incompatible with life. Probably because I was focused on it, my head throbbed, but not much I could do about a subdural hematoma.
And it probably wasn't as serious as something like that since I was up and wandering around.
Maybe this place, the one I'd been chucked into like so much trash, was one of the many ice grottos dotting the Palmer Peninsula. I considered it, but too many things didn't fit. For one, it's too warm in here, and the running water suggests otherwise.
Another look at the rock and dirt walls made me certain I was underground, which narrowed things down. Antarctica's ice sheet has thinned from global warming, but there aren't too many spots with accessible cave systems. Most are buried beneath fifty feet of ice or more.
I'm not that far down. Nowhere close. Light is filtering in from translucent places above me. I squeezed my eyes shut to rest them for a moment. Now that I was up and moving, I was determined to explore every aspect of my prison. When I first regained consciousness, I'd screamed my lungs out, but no one answered. Or if they did, I couldn't hear them over the roar of rushing water.
Where were the seventeen other researchers from my boat? How about the twenty seamen who'd piloted it?
Whoa. Rein it in.
I buried my face in the high neck of my suit and took a few deep breaths of warm air. Panic was close to the surface. Too close, and I couldn't afford to make any mistakes. I have a good mind. It's always been one of my saving graces, and it was past time to put it to use. There has to be a way out. I was tossed in here—or carried—which argues there's a way out as well.
Oblong rocks lined one wall. Odd shapes, the distribution didn't look natural, but maybe my head injury was worse than I thought. I scrunched my forehead, sorting possibilities, but then realized my mind was wandering. Mostly to force a way past the inertia gripping me, I walked toward the closest group of rocks.
Breath caught in my throat before my stomach doubled up in rebellion. Between the two, I had a hell of a hard time breathing. Not oblong rocks. Bodies wrapped in tarps. Horror turned my guts to water. I bit back a shriek.
"Jesus fucking Christ. Get hold of yourself," I gritted out and hurried forward.
Kneeling, I rolled the first tarp over and exposed the body within. I didn't need to check for a pulse to know Brian was dead. He'd been a Scottish chemical engineer with a quick grin and a quirky sense of humor. Heedless of my newly warm fingers, I yanked off my gloves so I could examine him. I had to know how he'd died. Was it exposure or something far more malevolent?
Quick and methodical, I pushed more of the tarp out of the way. Its canvas was stiff and unyielding from congealed blood, but I forced it aside. Gunshot wounds, two of them, sat over his heart. My soul ached at the senseless slaughter, and I pulled his lids over his sightless eyes.
"Aw, Jesus, Brian. I'm so sorry."
Not much point in wrapping him back up, so I moved on to the other forms I'd misidentified as rocks. Horror yielded to numbness, the same dispassionate place I'd discovered as a young doctor. One that allowed me to move forward on autopilot, no matter what was unfolding around me.
I made my way from body to body. After Brian, I didn't expect any of them to be alive. My clinical detachment deepened as I checked each corpse for cause of death. So far, two others had been shot, and three looked as if they'd died from exposure.
"Well, that's six out of seventeen." I was talking out loud again. It made the carnage spread before me easier to absorb. And kept me from dissolving into a helpless muddle of tears. I'd cry at some point, but it wouldn't be today.
I've never minded being alone, but the isolation in that cave unnerved me, haunted me, made it seem as if the walls were moving closer, threatening to choke the life from me too. After a few breaths to steady myself, I crawled to the last body, ignoring sharp rocks that cut through the heavy fabric of my outdoor suit. If I hadn't been dressed for going outside when the men boarded my boat, I'd be just as dead as the rest of my crewmates.
Maybe not from gunshots, but exposure would have done me in.
I rolled the last body onto its side. This one was different. Rigor mortis hadn't yet set in, and it turned easily. I focused on the man's sharp-boned face and hope speared me, so sharp I almost couldn't breathe. Johan Petris, the Dutch metallurgical engineer, was still alive. Dark stubble dotted his cheeks and squared-off chin.
I knelt next to him and ran my hands down his body, assessing for injuries.
Please. Please. Let him be all right. I wasn't certain who I prayed to, but the words ran through my mind like a mantra embedded in a tape loop.
His eyes flickered open. "It is useless." His accented words were harsh. "My leg is broken."
"I can fix it. I'm a doctor." I winced. I sounded like an idiot. He knew about my training, even though there'd been another "official" ship's doctor to tend to the sick and injured.
"I did not forget." He yelped when I touched his upper leg, finding the broken femur easily. It had bled like a bitch, and a huge knot pressed against his insulated bib pants.
"Steel yourself. I have to realign the bones—"
He grabbed my hand, clamping his fingers around my wrist. "Leave me. Even if you line up the bones, I have lost blood. A lot of blood. You can get out of here, Erin. I am dead weight. The cold will do me in soon."
He focused very blue eyes on me. "If you stop moving, the cold will get you too."
I ground my teeth together. I wanted to shake Johan, tell him he had to try, that giving up wasn't an option. Besides, it set a terrible example for me. Hadn't I flirted with curling up in a corner and giving in to a death that felt inevitable?
"I propose a deal."
"Really? Here at the end of our lives—or mine, anyway—you want to turn into a gypsy trader?"
"I'll realign the bones. You tell me what happened. They knocked me over the head before I even got into a raft. Do you know more about what unfolded after that?" I sucked in a ragged breath. "Do you know where we are?"
"Yes to both, but a bargain presumes you have something I want. I already told you there is no point setting my leg."