- The Darkest Surrender
His heart skipped a stupid beat, making him feel like a schoolboy with a crush. Something he’d never been. Zeus had created him fully formed, a weapon ready to be unleashed upon anyone who threatened the former god king and those he loved. Even then, before Strider had been given his demon, he had liked to win, railroading anyone who got in his way.
What joy could be found in defeat? None.
His demon grunted in agreement.
Strider refocused on his surroundings before the little shit began pushing him around. As he continued to watch Gwen, he noted how much she resembled her older sister.
Here we go again. Gwen had a thick mass of blond hair streaked with red—the same shade of red as Kaia’s. If he were being honest, though, Kaia’s was prettier. Wavier, silkier. And while Gwen’s eyes were a startling mix of gray and gold, just like Kaia’s, Kaia’s were still lovelier. On her, the gray veered toward liquid silver and the gold, well, the gold flickered like fireflies.
What are you? A wuss? Stop weaving poetry.
Anyway. When Kaia’s Harpy took over, her eyes went completely black, death swimming in their depths. But, if he were still being honest, even that was sexy.
Gwen and Kaia shared the same button nose, the same cherub cheeks. Same stubborn chin. Yet somehow Kaia was sin incarnate and Gwen was innocence walking. Made no sense. Even still, the resemblance affected him, heating him up.
He willed his body to remain unaffected. Sabin would fuss if Strider sported a hard-on around his precious. And of course, “fuss” meant Strider would find his intestines wrapped around his neck, breathing a thing of the past.
Bring it, he thought.
Defeat chuckled, startling him.
On edge, he waited for a challenge to be issued. It never came. Sweet gods above, he’d have to be more careful. No more close calls.
What was he doing here, anyway? He should be in the heavens with Paris. He should be in Nebraska with William, torturing the family who had abused Gilly, a human they’d befriended. He should be out there killing Hunters. He should be in Rome, bargaining with the Unspoken Ones—monsters who were chained inside an ancient temple, desperate for freedom.
He’d given them one of the four godly artifacts needed to find and destroy Pandora’s box. A relic the Hunters were searching for, as well.
The Unspoken Ones had the Paring Rod and the Cloak of Invisibility, and the Lords had the Cage of Compulsion and the All-Seeing Eye. So. Lords 2. Hunters 0. Boo-yah.
Unspoken Ones weren’t interested in the actual artifacts, though. They were interested in what they could trade for the artifacts. Whoever presented them with the head of the current god king (minus his body) would earn the Paring Rod in return, leaving only the Cloak to claim. The Cloak Strider had once owned but had exchanged for Haidee.
At the time, he hadn’t minded making the exchange because he’d been pretty damn confident the Unspoken Ones would keep the thing to bargain with him later. Still was. He’d have to pay through the nose, he was sure, but that was better than allowing Haidee to escape him and reveal his secrets to her Hunter friends.
And he’d meant to go back long before now, but losing her to Amun had knocked Strider on his ass for over a week, his demon a writhing, seething cauldron of pain.
Maybe that was why he’d been unable to let go of the idea of being with Haidee, he mused now. The echoes of that pain. Maybe that was why he still resisted Kaia.
Don’t think about her anymore, you nutcase. You’ll start foaming at the mouth. He resisted her because she would ultimately trample his pride, his well-being and probably even his will to live.
Did he really need another reminder of that?
He forced his thoughts back to the artifacts. Strider had vowed to recapture the Cloak. And he would. Soon. Because whoever found Pandora’s box first would win the war, and more than he wanted Kaia, not that he was thinking about her, he wanted to win the war against the Hunters.
Talk about the ultimate victory. The pleasure he would feel…gods, he could only imagine. Better than sex, drugs or rocking hos.
Anyway. Instead of all of that, he realized he’d purposely cleared his plate this morning, visiting everyone, making amends just so he could leave and… Shit! Not good. This was not good at all.
Just so he could leave and check on Kaia. He had to make sure she was okay. Even if that meant putting his obligations on hold again.
Dude. You can’t do that. And he wouldn’t. No damn way. Now that he’d realized his intention, he could put a stop to it.
“Why the hell are you just standing there?” Sabin suddenly lashed out. “State your business and leave, Stridey-Man. You’re turning Gwen into a raving lunatic.”
“You’re turning me into a raving lunatic!” she growled, removing the bullhorn from the suitcase yet again. “We don’t need all this stuff.”
“How do you know?” Sabin demanded. He scrubbed a hand through his dark hair, the gold in his eyes lighter than usual. “You’ve never participated in the Harpy Games before. And goddamn it, you shouldn’t have to participate in them now!”
“You heard Bianka. Every single one of Tabitha Skyhawk’s daughters have been summoned. And even if we hadn’t, even if only a handful of clan members had been summoned, I would still be going. They’re my family.”
“Well, you’re now part of my family.”
“Actually, you’re part of my family, and as I’m the General, the Captain and the Commander, you go where I go. And I’m going!”
“Fuck.” Sabin plopped onto the edge of the bed and put his head between his knees.
“That bad, huh?” Strider asked, doing his best to sound casual. I’m not dying of curiosity. Really.
Kaia had tried to hide her fear yesterday, but she hadn’t quite managed it. He had mentioned her trip, and she had trembled, paled. He shouldn’t have noticed. He’d had his back to her. Except there’d been a crack in her curtains, allowing him to study her reflection in the windowpane. And oh, had he studied.
She had sparkled like a diamond, drawing his eye automatically, and he’d been so eager to touch her that his body had been on fire.
Harpy skin…there was nothing more exquisite. Nothing. Funny, though, that he’d never wanted to stroke and taste Gwen, Bianka or Taliyah the way he’d wanted to stroke and taste Kaia.
Not that he was thinking about her anymore.
Defeat uttered another of those chuckles, and Strider tensed. When the little shit made no reply, accepted no challenge, he relaxed somewhat. Damn it. What the hell was going on with his demon?
Gwen chewed on her bottom lip. “Bianka told me the games are so violent that half the participants end up dead or praying for death. And once, about fifteen hundred years ago, far more than half died. Like, nearly all of them.”
Strider straightened, his blood chilling. “What? Why?”
“She didn’t tell me more than that, so don’t look at me like you’ll cut my throat if I don’t fess up. Anyway, she wasn’t exaggerating,” Gwen continued. “Oh, wait. She did tell me a bit more. Apparently the Skyhawks haven’t been allowed to participate in centuries because of something Kaia did, not that anyone will tell me what. No one in our clan has ever spoken of it, and I was never really around other clanswomen. They’ve always shunned us. But now, suddenly, they’re welcoming us back with open arms. It’s weird, and I don’t like it, but I’m not sending my sisters into hostile territory alone.”
Strider’s mind snagged on one detail only. Kaia had caused the turmoil. What had the gorgeous troublemaker done?
“Oh, and one other thing. Bianka thinks this is a trap.” Gwen angled Sabin’s head up and sank into his lap. Automatically the warrior wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. “She thinks the Skyhawks, Kaia especially, will be targets, everyone out for revenge.”
Kaia…a target for every Harpy with a grudge… Now his blood heated for a different reason, the need to rage an inferno inside him. “Men are allowed to go?”
“Consorts and slaves, yes, and they’re more than allowed, they’re encouraged. Blood is medicine to Harpies, and those consorts and slaves help the injured participants heal.”
“Does Kaia have a…slave?” He croaked the question. On one hand, he wanted her to have one, to be safe. On the other, he already wanted to murder the ugly prick.
Defeat snarled, no trace of amusement in the sound. Or his usual fear.
This isn’t a challenge, buddy. Or was his demon upset by the thought of someone besides Strider hurting Kaia?
In a sick, twisted way, that kind of made sense. His sense of possessiveness was highly developed, with his enemies especially, but even with friends. Kaia was a bit of both.
Thankfully, Defeat offered no reply. Strider didn’t need the added complication of fighting Kaia and/or anyone who challenged her. She wasn’t his responsibility. She wasn’t his problem.
“No,” Gwen finally said, sadness creeping into her tone. “Kaia doesn’t have a slave.”
Relief, so much relief. “We’ll find her one, then.” Fury, so much fury.
“No.” Those strawberry-blond tresses slapped her face as she shook her head. “She thinks you are her consort.”
Yeah, once upon a time Kaia had said something like that to him. He’d believed that she believed, but he’d also believed she was mistaken, that she was letting simple attraction confuse her. Not that there was anything simple about her attraction to him. She wanted the best of the best for herself, and he couldn’t blame—
Ego check. He massaged the back of his neck with his free hand. Rephrasing: she wanted someone strong, capable and handsome. Shit. Ego check, he thought again. She’d wanted someone somewhat handsome.
No. That didn’t work. When a fact was a fact, there was no getting around it. She’d wanted someone extremely handsome, and he fit the bill. But…
Paris was handsomer.
Handsomer wasn’t even a word, damn it. Was it? Yeah, it probably was, and had most likely been coined because of Paris. “So?” he said with more force than he’d intended.