- The Darkest Surrender
Fifteen hundred years ago…
A million years ago…
(Just depends on who you ask.)
FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, the bi-century Harpy Games ended with more participants dead than alive, and every single one of the survivors knew fourteen-year-old Kaia Skyhawk was to blame.
The day began innocently enough. With the morning sun shining brightly, Kaia strolled through the overcrowded camp hand in hand with her beloved twin sister, Bianka. Tents of every size littered the area, and multiple fires crackled to ward off the early-morning chill. The scents of filched biscuits and honey coated the air, making her mouth water.
Forever cursed by the gods, Harpies could only eat what they stole or earned. If they ate anything else, they sickened horribly. So Kaia’s breakfast had been a meager affair: a stale rice cake and half a flagon of water, both of which she’d pilfered from a human’s saddle.
Maybe she’d appropriate a biscuit from a member of a rival clan, she mused, then shook her head. No, she’d just have to remain semi-hungry. Her kind didn’t live by many rules, but the ones they had, they revered. Such as: never fall asleep where humans could find you, never reveal a weakness to anyone and, most importantly, never thieve a single morsel of food from one of your own race, even if you hated her.
“Kaia?” her sister said, her tone curious.
“Am I the prettiest girl here?”
“Of course.” Kaia didn’t even have to look around to confirm that fact. Bianka was the prettiest girl in the entire world. Sometimes she forgot, though, and had to be reminded.
While Kaia had a disgusting mop of red hair and unremarkable gray-gold eyes, Bianka had luxurious black hair, shimmering amber eyes and was the image of their exalted mother, Tabitha the Vicious.
“Thank you,” Bianka said, grinning with satisfaction. “And I think you’re the strongest. By far.”
Kaia never tired of hearing her sister’s praise. The more powerful a Harpy was, the more respect she earned. From everyone. More than anything, Kaia craved respect. “Stronger, even, than…” She studied the Harpies in the area, searching for someone to compare herself to.
Those who were old enough to participate in the traditional tests of might and cunning bustled about, preparing for the one remaining event—Last Immortal Standing. Swords whistled as they were tugged from sheaths. Metal ground against stone as daggers were sharpened.
Finally, Kaia spotted a contender for her comparison. “Am I stronger, even, than her?” she asked, pointing to a brute of a woman with bulging muscles and thick crisscrossing scars adorning her arms.
The injuries that had left those scars must have been severe indeed; immortality caused their race to heal quickly and efficiently, rarely allowing any evidence of hard living to show.
“No question,” Bianka said loyally. “I bet she’d run and hide if you decided to challenge her.”
“No doubt you’re right.” Actually, who wouldn’t run from her? Kaia trained harder than anyone and had even felled her own instructor. Twice.
She didn’t want to boast, but she’d always trained harder than any other Harpy in their clan. When everyone else stopped for the day, she continued until sweat ran down her chest in rivulets, until her muscles trembled from the strain…until her bones could no longer support her weight.
One day, perhaps even one day soon, her mother would be proud of her. Why, just a few nights ago, Tabitha had slapped her on the shoulder and said her dagger throwing skills had almost improved. Almost improved. No sweeter praise had ever left Tabitha’s mouth.
“Come on,” Bianka said, tugging at her. “If we don’t hurry, we won’t have time to wash in the river, and I really want to look my best when I watch our clan destroy the competition. Again.”
Just thinking of the prizes her mother would collect caused Kaia’s small body to puff up with pride.
The Harpy Games had begun thousands of years ago as a way for clans to “discuss” their grievances without causing a war—well, without causing any more wars—as well as allowing allied clans to showcase their superiority, even against each other. Elders from each of the twenty tribes met and agreed on the competitions and awards.
This time around, each winner of the four battles earned one hundred gold pieces. The Skyhawks had already earned two hundred of those pieces. The Eagleshields had won one.
“Out of your head…that’s a good girl,” Bianka said as she quickened her steps, forcing Kaia to quicken hers in turn. “You daydream too much.”
A sigh from her sister, an admission of defeat.
Kaia grinned. The two of them drew a bit of notice from nearby Harpies, and she made sure to stroke the Skyhawk warrior medallion hanging from her neck. Her mother had gifted her with hers a few months ago, and she treasured the symbol of her strength almost as much as she treasured her twin.
Most everyone who met her gaze nodded in deference, even if she belonged to a rival clan. Those who didn’t…no Harpy would dare attack another while on neutral ground, so Kaia didn’t worry about possible conflict. Actually, she wouldn’t have worried anyway. She was as brave as she was strong.
At the very edge of camp, nestled in a grove of trees, she noticed something strange and halted. “Those men,” she said, pointing to a group of bare-chested males. Some roamed freely, a few were tied to posts and one was chained. To her knowledge, males were never allowed to enter or even watch the games. “What are they doing over there?”
Bianka stopped and followed the line of her finger. “They’re consorts. And slaves.”
“I know that. Hence the reason I asked what they’re doing over there and not who they are.”
“They’re meeting needs, silly.”
Kaia’s brow scrunched in confusion. “What kind of needs?” Their mother had always stressed the importance of taking care of yourself first, your family second and everyone else not at all.
Bianka considered her response carefully, then shrugged and said, “Doing laundry, bathing feet, fetching weapons. You know, menial things we’re too important to do.”
What she took away from that? If you owned a consort or slave, you’d never have to do laundry again. “I want one,” Kaia announced, and the tiny wings protruding from her back fluttered wildly.
Like all Harpies, she wore a half top that covered her breasts—though hers were tragically nonexistent at the moment—but remained open in back to accommodate the small arch of her wings, the source of her superior strength.
“And you know what Mother always says,” she added.
“Oh, yes. A kind word will win you a smile, but who in their right mind wants to win a smile?”
Bianka pursed her lips. “You can’t really kill a human with kindness. You have to use a sword.”
“Not that, either.”
Exasperated, her sister tossed her arms in the air. “Then what?”
“If you don’t take the treasures and the males you want, you’ll never get the treasures and the males you want.”
“Oh.” Bianka’s eyes widened as her attention returned to the men. “So which one do you want?”
Kaia tapped a fingertip against her chin as she studied the candidates. Each of the men wore a loincloth, and each hard body was streaked with dirt and sweat, but none of the men were cut or bruised as she was, indicating they’d proven themselves on the battlefield. Or at least, had tried to do so.
No, not true, she realized a second later. The one in chains was covered in battle marks, and his dark eyes were definitely defiant. He was a fighter. “Him,” she said, motioning with a tilt of her chin. “Who owns him?”
Bianka looked him over, trembled. “Juliette the Eradicator.”
Juliette Eagleshield, an ally as well as a coldhearted beauty trained by Tabitha Skyhawk herself.
Conquering a male the Eradicator had failed to tame would be… “Even better.”
“I don’t know about this, Kye. We were warned not to speak to any of the men.”
“I wasn’t warned.”
“Oh, yes, you were. I know this because you were standing right beside me when Mother delivered the warning. You must have been daydreaming again.”
She refused to be swayed from her chosen path. “New rule—if a daughter doesn’t hear a warning, she doesn’t have to heed it.”
Bianka remained unconvinced. “He reeks of danger.”
“We love danger.”
“We also love to breathe. And I think he’d rather chop us into pieces than bathe our feet. Not to mention what Juliette will do to us if we succeed in taking him.”
“Trust me. Juliette isn’t as strong as I am, or she wouldn’t have had to chain him.” Sure, Juliette was known for her willingness to slay anyone at any time, no matter their age or gender, but Kaia would soon be known as the girl who had one-upped her.
Her sister thought that rationale over for a moment, then nodded. “Very true.”
“I’ll just explain the punishment he’ll receive if he disobeys me, and I promise you, he won’t disobey me.” Simple, easy. Her mother was going to be so proud.
Tabitha wasn’t proud of many people, only those who proved to be her equal. So…in other words, she wasn’t yet proud of anyone. Maybe that was why every Harpy wanted to be her and every male wanted to win her. Her strength was unparalleled, her beauty unmatched. Her wisdom, limitless. All trembled at the mere mention of her name. (If they didn’t, they should.) All respected her. And all admired her.
One day, all will admire me.
“H-how are you going to sneak him away?” Bianka asked. “Where are you going to hide him?”
Hmm, good questions. But as she pondered the answers, indignation filled her. Why should she sneak him away? Why should she hide him? If she did, no one would know what she’d done. No one would write stories depicting her strength and daring.