“There is no price,” she snapped. “Not for this.”

“Are you afraid?” A low blow, yeah, but he was desperate.

She hopped off the TV, teeth bared and sharpening into something far more dangerous than one of those daggers, black bleeding into her eyes and overshadowing all hint of color.

“You’re gonna get it now,” Bianka sang, and Lysander pressed his hand over her mouth, preventing her from saying anything else.

“Idiot,” Sabin muttered. “I’m not even gonna assist you. You deserve what’s about to happen.”

“I’m afraid of nothing.” Two voices layered Kaia’s words, and both were raspy, menacing…slashing. In and out she breathed, each inhalation labored, each exhalation ragged. “You’re very lucky my Harpy is adamantly opposed to harming you, or you’d be in pieces right now. And if you try to steal the Rod on your own, after I told you not to, I will challenge you to contests you cannot possibly hope to win. Forever.”

He wanted to shake her. Wanted to kiss her—but only to shut her the hell up, of course. Damn it, she skirted the edge of challenge even then. Defeat prowled from one side of his skull to the other, practically foaming at the mouth for a go at her. Only fear of losing kept the demon from accepting.

You’re the one who demanded we come here. You’re the one who decided to take down anyone who attacked her. Yeah, Strider had been leaning in that direction himself. Yeah, he kinda wanted to gut and decapitate her opposition before they could strike a single blow against her. However, he understood his own motives—attraction, and an overdeveloped sense of possession. Defeat’s motives? Not so much. Why are you doing this?

Win, was all the beast said. As always.

“Got it?” Kaia demanded when he offered no response.

Disappointment rocked him. She was trying to punish him, and he’d kind of expected better of her. They might snipe and snap at each other, they might be hopelessly fascinated by each other, but they were also friends. Or so he’d thought. Friends helped friends.

Case in point: he was in Wisconsin when he should have been in any of a thousand other places.

He spun around and glared at Bianka. He didn’t mind thieving on his own. Usually. However, Harpies were a different breed of animal than anyone or thing he’d dealt with before. They could move faster than the eye could track. They could rip through a man’s trachea with only their teeth. Hell, they could rip through an entire army in seconds.

There was no line they wouldn’t cross, no deed too vile. If he went for the Rod and they caught him, they would kill him. But without the Rod, he was dead, anyway. So, no contest. He was going for it.

“What about you?” he threw at Bianka.

“Tone, warrior,” Lysander said, his voice so mild Strider almost couldn’t detect the power behind it. Almost.

That’s not a challenge, he told his demon, refusing to repeat himself to Kaia’s twin. Thankfully—or not—Defeat was still too focused on Kaia, the Cloak and the Rod. If Strider failed to obtain the latter two, and soon, he would lose the battle. He would hurt. Yet he couldn’t leave Kaia without hurting, either.

Bianka shoved Lysander’s hand away from her mouth. “Sorry, big boy, but I can’t help you.”


She shrugged, all innocence. “If you want me to list reasons, I’ll list reasons. I can’t guarantee they’ll be truthful, though.”

He faced Gwen. “And you?”

“S-sorry?” she said, sounding confused. She glanced at Kaia, who shook her head. He knew because he was watching her reflection in the picture over the nightstand between the beds. “I can’t,” she finished more firmly.

Okay, something was going on here. Kaia wasn’t afraid. No matter what he’d said, he knew that. Girl was too brave for her own good. She’d stood in a roomful of Harpies, and even though they’d regarded her as if she were a slab of ribs and they were dedicated vegetarians, she’d kept her head high, daring them to try and take a bite.

The only time he’d ever seen her lose her cool, trembling with an emotion he hadn’t been able to name, was when she’d looked at her mother. Her very hot, clearly murderous mother, who might have spoken inside his head. He still wasn’t sure.

As the freakishly young-looking, dead-eyed brunette had perused his body, judging him, taking his measure, he’d heard a cold, emotionless and yet very feminine voice whisper, Kaia will die before the final game begins.

Like hell. Nothing else had been said, and no one else had heard the threat. And shit, maybe he had an overactive imagination. Either way, he didn’t care. He was here, he’d do what he’d promised, but damn it, Kaia was going to bend a little in this matter.

“Get lost,” he told the couples on the beds.

Knowing Strider as well as he did, Sabin gathered Gwen without protest and hustled her out the door. Their knowing gazes locked until the last possible moment. They’d move mountains to obtain that Rod, with or without the approval of the Skyhawks. First, though, they’d do what they could to obtain answers. Even if that meant splitting up and being without backup.

Thanks to a soft, “I’ll be fine,” from Kaia, Bianka and Lysander followed close on Sabin’s heels, shutting the door behind them with a soft click. The angel didn’t know him, or what he was capable of, but must have recognized the danger he posed.

“Why?” he demanded, swinging around.

Kaia didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “They’ll say I had no confidence in my abilities. They’ll call me a coward.”

“So?” She was willing to risk his life for her ego? “A little ridicule never killed anyone.”

She flicked the long length of that curling red hair over one shoulder, the picture of feminine pique. At least the black had faded from her eyes, a sign her Harpy was under control. “Lookit, you’re here, and much as I hate to admit this, you’ll find out anyway, so I might as well tell you.”

A heavy pause. “Go on.”

She gulped. “A long time ago, during the Harpy Games, I tried to steal…something from another…clan.”

Oh, really? “Why the hesitation?”

“Anyway,” she continued, ignoring him, her cheeks flushing prettily. “My actions resulted in a massacre. Half the Harpy population was wiped out, and I have never been forgiven.”

He knew what that meant. They had ostracized her. And if anyone understood the sting of rejection, it was Strider.

When the gods had chosen Pandora to guard dim-Ouniak, the box containing the evil spirits that managed to escape the depths of hell, he had allowed pride to rule him. How dare they pick her, a female, when he had never lost a battle? Anyone Zeus had wanted eliminated, Strider had eliminated.

He’d wanted to prove himself worthy, which was why he’d helped steal and open that box. Of course, he’d had every intention of recapturing the demons after they’d caused a little havoc. He would have been all “See what I can do? See what your precious Pandora can’t?” But the box disappeared, and the havoc had been far more than a little. He’d never encountered its like, before or since.

Not even when Defeat was first shoved into his body and the urge to hurt, maim and destroy consumed him. Yet that hadn’t been enough of a punishment for the Greeks. They’d kicked him out of the only home he’d ever known and never acknowledged him again.

So, rejection, unforgivingness, yeah, he knew them intimately. But he couldn’t let anything, even Kaia’s potential downfall, stop him from obtaining that Rod. Too much was at stake.

“If I take something else…they’ll kill me, Strider. After they ensure I feel every bit of pain they have felt.”

She believed what she said. The truth glistened in her eyes as surely as a sheen of tears. “I’ll protect you.”

“Don’t make me state the obvious about what you can and can’t do,” she said with a bitter laugh. “I could run, sure, but what kind of life is that? And what if they go after my sisters when they’re unable to find and punish me?”

Good point, and one he couldn’t—wouldn’t—shake her from. He tried another route. “No one has to know you took it. We’ll get in and get out, no problem.”

Sad, she shook her head. “Wouldn’t matter if I left evidence behind or not. If the Rod goes missing, they’ll blame me no matter what.”

“So?” he said again. He had to harden his heart.

“You know nothing about Harpy justice, Strider. There is no trial. There is no innocent until proven guilty. If I’m suspected, I will be hunted, I will be tortured and as I said, I will be killed.”

“I’ll protect you,” he repeated, and that was the truth.

She arched an auburn brow. “You’re going to make me state the obvious, but okay. You can’t.”

That isn’t a challenge. “I can.”

“You’ll protect me from an army of Harpies who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt everyone you love to get to me? An army of Harpies who would help the Hunters if it meant punishing me?”

Shit. “What do you propose I do then, huh?” He stalked to her, gripped her upper arms—she felt so fragile, so vulnerable—finally shaking her as he’d wanted to do for so long. Every movement wafted her scent to his nose, cinnamon and sugar, a feast for his senses. His mouth watered, his blood heated. “What? Tell me.”

Her heartbroken expression never wavered. “What you originally came here to do. Act as my consort. I will fight, and I will win the Rod. Honorably.”

“I thought you didn’t do honorably.”

She peered up at him through narrowing eyes, indignation at last replacing sorrow. When her lashes fused together, he was strangely glad to see the silver swirling underneath, no hint of gold. “In this and only this, I do. Too much is at stake,” she added, mirroring his thoughts. “Not just for me, but for my sisters.”