There was that deep, raspy voice again. Not Strider, not his demon as she’d hoped. How could it be, when the warrior was nowhere to be seen? But…who did that leave?

Taliyah sighed. “All right. Fine. You want in next, you’ll go in next. But the loss will be on your shoulders.”

The loss. As if defeat was a given.

Tears burned Kaia’s eyes as she concentrated on the fight. The swelling in Neeka’s face had gone down, so her vision was no longer obscured. Still, every single one of her opponents knew she was deaf and opted to use the infirmity against her. They called out instructions to each other, outlining a demolition she couldn’t hear—or defend herself against.

“You take the left and I’ll take the right.”

“I’ve got middle.”

“I’ve got rear.”

Neeka lifted herself into the air.

“Grab her ankle!”

The girl in the middle did as commanded, swinging Neeka around and tossing her away from her teammates, ensuring there would be no tagging out. Breath gushed from her parted, bleeding lips when she landed. Someone was there, waiting, and kicked her in the stomach. She curled into a ball, trying to suck in a breath.

The red dotting Kaia’s gaze darkened to black. To her knowledge, opposing teams had never worked together before. That they were, that Kaia’s demise was the goal that united them…that they still hated her so much…she felt scraped raw inside.

She’d been a kid when she’d inadvertently destroyed their families, for gods’ sake.

Well, she wasn’t a kid anymore, and it was past time these women learned she wouldn’t lie down and take their shit. As her determination increased, the black dots wove together, nearly obscuring her vision completely, leaving only the haze of body heat.

Calm down before you forget where you are and what you can and cannot do.

Inhale deeply…exhale sharply… That didn’t help. Kaia pictured Strider, his fall of blond hair, those navy blue eyes, that wicked smile. Finally the black faded, and her sight returned to normal. She watched as Neeka battled her way from the midst of the violence and scrambled toward Taliyah.

As promised, her sister kept her hands at her sides. Kaia reached out and gently tapped Neeka’s obviously broken fingers. The girl collapsed on the sidelines as Kaia stepped into the ring. As one, everyone stilled and glared over at her. They were bleeding, sweating, panting. And clearly, they’d been waiting for her.

“My sister died because of you.”

“I lost a daughter.”

“We never sought revenge against you out of respect for your mother, but she has at last disavowed you.”

No reaction. The burn started up in her chest again, but she willed it away. Locked it up tight. No going Harpy. Or whatever else. “Good. Now let’s see what I can do to each of you.”

“I have a feeling I’ll be disappointed in your skill.”

They chuckled, and her cheeks flushed. And then, as one, they turned and tagged in a new team member. She recognized the woman on her mother’s team. Had once trained with her.

Like Kaia, these women had yet to fight. They were at full strength and utterly determined to use it. Against her face, no doubt.

You’re strong. You can take them.


Yes. She would.

That was her last thought before her opponents descended. Kaia ducked and spun, going low and slashing. Someone managed to nail her in the temple with a hard rasp of knuckles, but that didn’t stop her claws from slicing into several Achilles tendons. Grunts of pain sounded, and then the crash of knees hitting wood.

“That’s the way!” Strider shouted.

He was here. He was still here. Dizzy pleasure rushed through her, but she didn’t have time to stop and focus. The Harpies again rushed her. This time, she allowed them to surround her, arching her spine as they punched, swinging her elbows forward and backward, kicking, every motion fluidly blending into the next.


“Pluck out their eyes!” Bianka screamed.

The dance never slowed, even though she did not remain unscathed. She was punched—everywhere. She was kicked—everywhere. Soon her muscles were knotted and bruised, her limbs shaking. Strider was up there, watching, and the knowledge kept her strong. A few times, the burn tried to work free of its cage, but she maintained a sturdy enough grip to keep it hidden.

With an elbow to the trachea, she finally took out one of her opponents for good. That left ten more to go. Then another one went down as Kaia took a page from Neeka’s book and broke a neck.

This enraged the nine remaining, and they attacked with greater fervor.

Kaia darted out of the center of the horde, intending to run and gain enough momentum to leap and kick someone’s teeth into her brain. But she was grabbed her by the hair and jerked backward. She crashed into a hard wall before multiple fists battered at her.

“Come on!” Strider roared. “You’re better than this. Fight!”

“Eat their tongues for dinner!” Bianka shouted.

Though she fought with all of her might, they managed to pin her with embarrassing ease, holding her arms and legs to the floor. Those who didn’t have a grip on her rose above her and rained down their damage. She felt bones breaking, organs rupturing.

They laughed. Then, thankfully, she couldn’t see their smug expressions, the world around her fading to black. And not the good kind of black that might have saved her. Before her Harpy could come out of the shadows swinging, before the burn could spring from the cage, she was flipped over, her wings receiving equal punishment.

So much pain…agony…loss…failure…

“Damn it, Kaia!” Strider.

“No! Noooo!” Bianka.

“Snap out of it.” Taliyah.

“Just move, Kye. Just get to me.” Gwen.

Win! Win!

A warm flood in her throat, spilling out her mouth. Maybe blood filled her ears, as well, because the noise level dulled…dulled…until there was only silence. Then a fist hammered into her temple, again and again, and she was no longer aware of the silence.

Only oblivion, such sweet oblivion.


STRIDER WAS READY TO COMMIT cold-blooded murder. He’d start with Sabin and Lysander, who tried to force him to remain in his seat. They might not realize it, but their actions challenged his demon and Strider face-planted them both. They released him, but rather than bolt for the basketball court, he stayed put. Barely.

He’d tried to leave once before this, determined to reach the Eagleshields on the other side. Then Kaia had been tagged into the ring. He’d found himself racing back to his seat.

If he allowed himself to act, he would slaughter his way through those women. Game over. No first prize awarded—and if he failed to find the Paring Rod himself, he would need Kaia to win. Also, Kaia would be humiliated by his interference. But just then, he didn’t really give a flying fuck about first prize or humiliation.

Was Kaia okay?

She’d gone limp, and an eternity seemed to pass as she was beaten. And beaten some more. Thankfully, the Harpies soon lost interest in her unconscious form and turned on each other. When Strider saw her, he nearly leapt from his seat again. Blood covered every inch of her face. Her clothes were ripped, and just as bloody. Her hands were swollen, her chest motionless.

Sabin straightened and dusted the dirty popcorn from his shoulders. “She’ll be okay,” he said. “Look at Bianka over there. She’s pissed, not frightened.”

Funny that the keeper of Doubt was trying to reassure him, but Strider obeyed. He looked. Bianka paced the top of the bleachers, and everyone around her had long since moved out of her way. She stomped so hard the wood was probably cracked underneath her.

He scrubbed a hand—a trembling hand!—down his face, his attention returning to Kaia, where it remained for yet another eternity. She needed to drink from him. He wanted her to drink from him. She just had to move, just had to finish this.

Come on, baby doll. You can do it.

Her team could still pull through and win. And even if they didn’t… No. He wouldn’t let himself contemplate that. What mattered, surprisingly, was Kaia. She’d been doing so well, fighting with a skill that had aroused him. Yeah. He’d watched her while sporting a hard-on. Then they’d gang-banged her.

What the hell had she done to warrant such hatred?

Next time they were alone, she would tell him. No more lies, either. No matter how sexy she was while she spun them.

Finally, movement. She twitched. Every muscle in his body tensed. No one noticed her as she blinked open her eyes. He knew the exact moment clarity struck her because her teeth flashed in a crimson snarl. But broken as she currently was, there was nothing she could do to hurt those who had hurt her. So she did the next best thing. She crawled to Taliyah.

“Come on, baby doll,” he muttered, his thoughts forming into words and grinding past the knot in his throat. “You can do it.”

Win. Defeat had been shouting for victory long before Kaia entered the match.

Yeah, she will. Gods, he’d never been prouder of another living being. Not even his friends, who had fought Hunters at his side, watching his back. Because when they’d gone down, they’d been out for the count. Not Kaia, though. She continued on.

Kaia’s hand inched up, her face contorting in a grimace. Someone screamed and scrambled toward her, intent on stopping her from tagging out, but at last her hand connected with her sister’s and the pale-haired Harpy jumped in with a fury.

Seconds later, screeches of pain erupted, a symphony of abuse. Bodies flew—and didn’t get up. Until a panting, blood-splattered Taliyah was the only one standing in the ring. She tagged in Gwen, who simply hobbled around kicking everyone who was down. Gwen tagged in Neeka, who did the same. Neeka retagged Gwen, who entered for a third time.

When Gwen finished, she tagged in Kaia, who managed to crawl a few more inches and kick one of the fallen in the stomach. The action, though, must have aggravated some of her more serious internal injuries because she lost consciousness for a bit.