I will not fail. Too much was at stake. Her reputation. Strider’s respect. Hell, his life.

Not that he’d agreed to her terms. He’d never flat-out said he’d wait for her to win the Rod and keep his thieving hands to himself. She’d realized that only an hour ago as she’d prepared for Tag. She’d needed a distraction from her the-world-is-at-stake panic and had replayed her every conversation with Strider.

Was he planning to search for the Rod during the game? Most likely. She wondered if he didn’t trust her to bring home the gold, or if he was simply too impatient to wait.

Don’t think about that now. Concentrate.

I will not fail.

“Wait till you see Neeka fight,” Taliyah said, almost…grinning? Surely not. Taliyah never grinned. Or scowled. Or yelled.

“If she’s so good, why’d her clan let her go?” Kaia asked.

“’Cause she’s deaf and they’re idiots. Plus, she was voted Most Likely to Go Off the Deep End and Kill Everyone Around Her.”

And she was now on Kaia’s side? “Sweet!”

The shrill screech of the whistle sounded, echoing from the walls and blasting Kaia’s ears.

Game on.

Immediately the girls in the center of the court leapt into action. Kaia stiffened, watching. They attacked each other, claws and fangs bared, and within seconds bodies were slamming into the wall of waiting onlookers. Blood sprayed, warm and rich. Her Harpy caught the coppery odor of it and squawked for a taste.

Calm, she would remain calm. The only people she could harm were the ones in the ring. Hurting anyone outside it would result in a disqualification. If her Harpy took over, she would hurt everyone.

Each team could be disqualified from one event, and one event only, and still qualify for the grand prize. If that happened, though, you had to hope and pray you had a good showing at the other three events, earning at least third place each time, or you wouldn’t stand a chance.

An unholy shriek drew her attention, and she found herself concentrating on Neeka. The sweet-looking beauty…dear gods. Neeka jumped up and hovered over the battling girls Matrix-style, slow motion, arms outstretched, knees drawn up, gaze quickly roving, taking stock, before picking her prey and dropping in a blink. She landed atop a wide set of shoulders, her hands wrapping around the attached head and twisting. Bone snapped, and the poor girl collapsed.

Ouch! Neck injuries were the worst.

Neeka grinned in satisfaction—just as a muscle-stacked brunette slammed into her, knocking her down. Neeka’s head cracked on the floor, blood quickly pooling around her. She was dazed, unable to rise, and her opponent used her unstable condition to her advantage, punching and punching and punching, fists raining like poisoned hail.

Shit. If Neeka were knocked unconscious, no one from Team Kaia would be able to enter the ring anytime soon. Or at all. They had to be tagged in.

Several others noticed that Neeka was down and swarmed her helpless, prone body, pummeling her senseless.

“Come on, Neeka!” Bianka shouted from the stands. Kaia would have recognized her twin’s beloved voice anywhere, amid any kind of noise. She only prayed Neeka could somehow discern the praise since she couldn’t hear it. “Show ’em your titanium balls!”

“Kill her!” someone else shouted. “And hack off those balls of hers!”

“How about I kill you instead, hater?” Bianka snapped back. Then there was the stomp of feet, a pained hmph.

Kaia didn’t switch her attention, though she knew her twin had just attacked whoever had spoken.

Somehow, Neeka collected her wits. Bodies flew in every direction as she once again Matrixed over the combatants. This time she didn’t attack, but dove for Gwen, slapping their palms together.

Gwen darted into the ring, and Kaia breathed a sigh of relief. “Good job,” she said. She would’ve patted Neeka on the back, but feared knocking the poor, shaking thing to her knees.

“They punched out a tooth!” Neeka slurred past cut, swollen lips.

“You’ll have a chance at revenge,” Taliyah assured her.

What Juliette hadn’t explained to the crowd was that every team member had to enter the fray at least three times. If someone failed to do so because they were, say, dead, that team was considered out, disqualified. And to be declared the winner, every member of your team had to be conscious by the final round.

Apparently, this particular game had been played at the last three bi-century competitions. Rumor was, Tag could churn on for days, but even then, there were no breaks allowed. Not to drink or heal or use the bathroom.

Rumor also was, the winner was sometimes declared simply by waiting to see who woke up first.

As the fight continued, other team members tagged in and out. Like the first group had done to Neeka, the new ones swarmed Gwen en masse. She was fast, though, dodging with the speed of a bullet.

“You can do it, baby!” Sabin’s proud voice boomed through the gym, louder than everyone else.

Bullhorn, Kaia thought.

The member of Team Skyhawk managed to grab Gwen’s arm as she passed, swinging her in the opposite direction. Gwen used the action to her advantage, knocking down several of her opponents bowling-ball style. Practically vibrating with the need to retaliate, the fallen jumped up and turned on her. When they realized who they had in their sights, they dove on her. For a moment, all Kaia could see was her sister’s flailing legs.

Sparks of rage heated Kaia. And guess who played dirty, leaping in there and going for Gwen’s wings? That same member of Team Skyhawk. Worse, the bitch was laughing. The sparks grew…spread…

“Get off her!” Sabin shouted now. “Or I swear to the gods—there you go, baby! Yeah! That’s the way.”

Gwen roared with pain and rage as she kicked a few of the girls off her.

“That just happened,” Sabin blasted arrogantly.

Of course, the girls came back for more.

Kaia had never felt so helpless.

Another roar, and then Gwen was clawing her way out. Tension had whitened her face, making the blood splattered there stark and obscene in comparison. She managed to fight her way to the sidelines and tag Taliyah, who sprang in with a vengeance.

First person she attacked was her mother’s soldier, tossing the girl to the ground and grinding her face into the wooden planks.

“You okay?” Kaia asked Gwen.

“They…broke my…wing,” her sister panted.

Oh, shit. Kaia’s hopes plummeted, her body cooling down. A Harpy’s wings were the source of her strength. When those wings were disabled, she weakened unbearably. Gwen would have to go back in and fight at least two more times, but how effective would she be when she would hit and move as feebly as a human?

Before the question formed completely, Kaia had begun to strategize. They were warriors; they could deal. Gwen would go in a second time toward the end of the match, remaining in the ring for only a few seconds, and then tag out. Then, when every other team had been disabled, Gwen could go in for her third and final time. Boom, done. Easy.


Kaia blinked in astonishment. Okay, that hadn’t been her inner voice, but a man’s. Familiar, and yet…not. Only one person—or creature?—craved victory as much as she did. Automatically, she looked up. Strider was no longer situated between the pale-faced Sabin and the stoic Lysander. He wasn’t in the stands at all.

Red flickered in her line of vision as she returned her attention to the battle. The wolves had descended on Taliyah in unison, pinning her in as they punched and kicked her to the ground. Only, they couldn’t hold her down. She was there, the center of their fury one moment, but gone the next, a cloud of black smoke in her place.

Confused, the combatants looked around. Another cloud of smoke appeared behind them, and Taliyah stepped from its center. She twisted, giving herself an unstoppable momentum, and lashed out. Heads banged together, and bodies fell.

When those who were standing realized what was happening, they once again descended on the tall, slender Taliyah. And once again, Kaia’s older sister disappeared in a cloud of smoke, reappearing elsewhere.

The same scene repeated itself over and over again. Taliyah was merciless, slashing and biting before dancing away. But the Harpies she felled soon made their way to their feet and tagged in another team member.

Like Kaia, the ones on the sidelines had been watching her, and they’d learned to anticipate her moves, to watch for the smoke. So the next time Taliyah appeared, they were waiting for her. A fist immediately met her jaw, propelling her backward. No one approached her, because they knew. And yep, when she righted herself, she disappeared as expected. Another fist met her jaw when she reappeared, once again sending her flying.

She shook her head, probably seeing stars. They didn’t jump her this time, either. They simply waited.

Taliyah’s ice-blue gaze sought Kaia.

My turn, she thought, eagerly holding out her hand. Come on.

Taliyah raced forward, enduring pummeling fists and jackhammering boots to reach—Neeka.

For a moment, Kaia stood frozen with shock. Then reality slammed into her like a strong right hook, and she snarled with affront. “What the hell, Tal!”

“Better this way,” was all her panting sister said.

What, her sis doubted her skills? Oh, that cut. “You know I have to go in three times.”

“Yeah, but it’ll be better if you go in at the end.”

When everyone was bruised and battered and at their weakest. Oh, that cut deeper. “Gwen’s wings are damaged. She needs to go in at the end, not me.”

“She will. She’ll just go in before you.”

This time, she wasn’t cut. She was destroyed. Her family loved her, yes, but like her mother—like Strider—they had no faith in her. “You’re not the leader of this team. You gave that right to me.”

“Do you see what they’re doing to us, baby sister? Warring teams are working together to destroy us. But you, you they’re going to try and massacre.”

“I know.” She raised her chin. “I’m prepared.”