Talia Reed yawned and stretched before swiping her badge in the card reader in front of her.
With a click, the heavy steel door unlocked, giving her access to the biology department of Oakwood University and, more importantly, her lab.
Well, technically, it wasn’t her lab. As a graduate student working on her PhD in microbiology, she was required to work alongside one of the university’s tenured professors.
Like Dr. Tim Henrick, whose name was on the door.
As Talia entered the lab, the cool, sterile air of her workspace wafted over her, bringing faint hints of bleach and steel, as her sneakers squeaked on the white linoleum floor.
She flicked on switches as she went, and fluorescent lights blinked to life. Benches with tools and supplies, both rudimentary and complex, filled her vision. After a couple years, the lab was a second home to her and would be until she had the body of research necessary to publish her work and earn her doctorate.
Talia adjusted her reading glasses and sat down at her computer to check her emails. When she saw one from her mentor, she quickly clicked it open, hoping for some kind of exciting news.
Just shipped in some crates from Siberia. They’re in storage. If you need new samples, only take the smallest specimen. Otherwise, they are to be undisturbed until I return.
Currently out searching for new equipment. Will return shortly.
Siberia. So that’s where he was now. She sighed in both relief and annoyance because he’d been increasingly erratic lately, ever since she’d taken over most of the work in the lab.
She didn’t mind. She liked her thesis. Some people might not think “microbiomes in glacial sediments” was a sexy subject, but she found it fascinating. And besides, it fit within Dr. Henrick’s focus on anything to do with ice.
Pulling her lab coat around her, Talia headed to the industrial freezer at the back of the lab, curious to see what Dr. Henrick could possibly be shipping from Siberia.
When Talia pulled open the thick metal door and saw what was inside, she gasped in shock. Three huge metal crates practically filled the freezer from wall to wall.
Talia swore under her breath, noting that her regular samples had been pushed onto shelves that were now unreachable. How was she supposed to work with these gargantuan things making her research impossible to access?
Perhaps the answer was right in front of her. She hadn’t worked on any samples from Northeastern Europe. Maybe these would be the key to proving her hypothesis.
She unclicked two big latches and swung the front of the metal crate open. A huge solid block of ice greeted her, the edges rough where it had presumably been cut from some larger mass. Perhaps from some glacier or ice cavern.
But why did Dr. Henrick bring back humongous blocks of ice when all Talia needed was a dozen or so test tubes worth of material?
Talia felt a chill go down to her bones as she stared up at the gigantic mass in front of her. In the center of it, she could make out some sort of dark shadow, but that was probably just color variation caused by temperature fluctuations… or something.
She moved quickly to her bench, grabbing a power drill so she could cut off a few small chunks and be done.
But as she picked up the hefty tool, she heard a crack. Suddenly alert, she whirled around, expecting someone to be in the lab with her. But the lab was as empty as it had been when she’d walked in only minutes ago.
In spite of her own logical mind, a heavy uneasiness settled over Talia like wet snow, cold and engulfing.
She fumbled with the drill as she attempted to attach a two-inch bore. When she finally managed it, she turned back toward the ice block in the freezer. For a moment, it seemed to flash with some unearthly glow before returning once again to its normal blue and white.
“Just glare from the lights reflecting off your glasses. You just aren’t used to samples this big.” She tried to take an even breath, but it caught in her throat, stuttering.
She tested the trigger on the drill, and it whirred, filling the silent lab with sounds like something from a horror movie. Then she stepped forward, pressing her hand to the ice, centering the bore over a corner where, hopefully, she wouldn’t disturb whatever plans Dr. Frankenstein—er, Henrick—had for these blocks.
The drill buzzed as it made contact with the ice, sending tiny chunks of frozen mass into the air. But as Talia pushed harder, she could feel an odd buzzing in the air around her. It started silent, barely audible above the squeal of metal on ice. But gradually, it grew louder and louder, humming and resonating in her ears until the air was pounding, throbbing like heavy beats on a drum at impossible speeds.
Stunned, she dropped the drill, and it clattered to the floor at her feet. For a second longer, the humming persisted until, abruptly, it stopped.
There was utter silence. Eerie, like a forest in winter with the feeling of being watched by eyes you cannot see but are there all the same.
Talia took a long breath, and she saw a heavy puff come from her mouth, the temperature in the room suddenly subzero.
With a loud snap like a dry, heavy tree branch breaking asunder, a huge crack split down the center of the block of ice. Talia’s primitive instincts kicked in, her heart racing as she quickly ran from the freezer and ducked behind a bench. As she did, snaps and shatters filled the air around her, and line after line appeared in the ice.
She could swear she could see something moving. A form, humanoid in shape, becoming more distinct with each second.
Then there was an explosion and a flash of light that sent thick chunks of ice flying outward and ricocheting off the walls. The bench Talia had been using for cover buckled over, and she ducked backward to avoid a cascade of tools as they slid overboard.
Talia, heart racing amid the confusion and still on her knees, looked over her shoulder to see what had caused the explosion.
But she couldn’t believe what she saw.
At the center of a human-shaped indent at the center of the ice, a humongous man stood before her, shirtless and wearing only what looked like a tattered pair of old-school pants. Before her jaw could even drop open, he strode forward, raising his arms before him and tightening his hands into fists.
“The lord of winter has returned!” he shouted triumphantly into the silent room, as if he were addressing some invisible throng of people.
For a moment, Talia was certain she was dreaming. But the cold floor and her hyperaware senses were a quick reminder to the contrary.
Somewhat in shock, she couldn’t help staring at the man in front of her. A man that should be dead.
The first thing she noticed was that he was beautiful. The most handsome man she’d ever seen, with a hard jaw, straight nose, full lips, and striking cheekbones.
Eyes a clear light blue like the sky over a frozen lake. Long, light-blond hair that fell down to his shoulders.
And damn, that body. Even as a scientist, she couldn’t help noting thick pecs and broad shoulders that tapered down to a trim waist. Long, powerful legs. Finely formed feet.
As if he’d felt her eyes on him, the man’s gaze snapped to hers, and light from the lamps above lit up his irises like sun glinting off a glacier. Her entire body felt drawn to him in an inexplicable way.
“You there, peasant,” he said haughtily. Even though he spoke English, the way he spoke reminded her of someone not from this century.
Talia’s mouth opened, but no words came out. Just a tiny squeak.
To her surprise, the man’s mouth curved in a smug smile, and he took a step toward her. Only then did she realize that he stood well over six feet, towering over her even from halfway across the lab.
“I see the lord of winter has rendered you speechless. Don’t worry. I have that effect on many people.” He folded his arms as he spoke, making the muscles there bunch like a living anatomy model.
“Oh crap,” she muttered under her breath. As the utterly unreal circumstances started to settle on her, Talia began to consider her options.
She had to call campus security. Call the police. Call the hospital. Call someone.
Because someone needed to explain this to her right now.
She hopped to her feet and ran to the landline phone on the wall near the door. Heart racing, she dialed the number for the campus police.
“Where are you going?” the man asked, annoyed but not moving from where he stood.
The drone of the line dialing seemed to go in slow motion. But as she waited, she looked once more at the man.
And then, like a lightning bolt in her brain, she had an idea.
“Hello, campus police. How can we help?”
The receiver seemed to float in the air next to her ear as Talia’s eyes traced the tableau before her. Man wearing post-medieval garb. Giant block of ice. Samples shipped from Siberia.
“Hello? Is everything okay?” the male voice asked again.
Maybe, just maybe, she’d stumbled across the find of the century.
“Sorry, wrong number,” Talia blurted out and hung up the phone.
If she wasn’t wrong, and if this wasn’t some sort of an elaborate hoax, then this man was living proof of cryogenic hibernation.
“What’s wrong with you, woman? Does the sight of me somehow vex you?” The man’s voice seemed to boom through the room as he appraised her, seemingly annoyed.
Everything about this flew in the face of current medical science. From all perspectives, it didn’t make sense. Yet here he was, walking, breathing, talking.
“I… I’m sorry. Just a little surprised.” She finally spoke up.
“I see. Well, that’s to be expected.” The man seemed placated, and for the first time, he took a moment to appraise his surroundings. “Where am I?” Confusion swirled in his expression, and he picked up a nearby microscope, hefting it awkwardly as if to somehow determine its purpose.
There had to be some explanation. Perhaps something in the chemical composition of the ice he’d been interred within. Perhaps something microbial or maybe something genetic. The cogs in her head spun, postulating possible explanations.
But right now, she just had to figure out what to do with him.
Not finding any answers with the microscope, the man tossed it aside and squared his shoulders, looking down at her once more like some regent condescending to a vassal.
“I tire of this place. Take me to your master so that I may overthrow them and claim this kingdom for my own.”
Her jaw dropped again, and this time she used her hand to physically push it shut.
“There’s no one like that here. This is Oakwood University. In the twenty-first century.” She spoke slowly, as if it would help him understand better. But everything she said seemed not to register with the man, only making him more annoyed.
“Don’t bother me with such trifling matters. Someone rules this land. And I intend to make it mine.” He began to pace, long legs covering substantial distance as he perused the lab. Then he spotted the door and made for it.
Talia raised her arms. “Wait! You can’t go out. Not yet.” The last thing she needed was this guy tromping around campus, raising questions.
“How dare you stand in the way of the lord of winter?” He sounded angry.
“Just let me explain a few things first,” Talia begged, hoping to calm him.
But it had the opposite effect. His brow furrowed, and for a second, Talia felt something almost inhuman emanating from him.
“If you do not let me pass, I will bathe this land in eternal winter.” Suddenly, he was standing before her, raising his hands to the sky, and Talia worried something really was going to happen.
Then, to her utter shock, the man’s icy eyes rolled back, and he passed out, slumping onto the ground at her feet face first with a heavy thud.
Stunned, Talia just stood there for a second, adrenaline running her nervous system ragged for what felt like hours. Then she quickly bent down to check the man’s pulse, worried about his condition.
Thankfully, his heartbeat thumped in his carotid artery more evenly than a metronome. And despite his still-damp hair, she could feel warm, smooth skin at her fingertips. His body, so much larger at such proximity, bulged with taut muscle.
She sighed in relief. Phew. At least her newest discovery wasn’t dead. That would have sucked for both of them.
One thing was for sure. She needed to move this guy off campus. At least for the time being. If he escaped, security wouldn’t hesitate to tase a shirtless man running amok.
He hadn’t seemed to want to hurt her. Maybe if she got him home, she could talk some sense into him. Explain a few things without him throwing another fit.
She stood up, looking around for options. A large lab cart sat unassumingly in the corner of the lab, and that combined with a large blanket gave Talia an idea.
But even if she pulled this off, how was she going to explain it to Dr. Henrick?
Hopefully, she had a few days to figure things out before he got back.