- The Darkest Surrender
The burn…Kaia wanted to yell and really wanted to bat her sister’s hands away, but she didn’t. She forced herself to concentrate on something else. Her team. She studied Gwen, who was pale but unharmed. There were two team members beside her. Juno and Tedra. One was scratched up, but the other was riddled with puncture wounds and swaying on her feet. She wouldn’t be fighting in the next competition. Damn it!
And hadn’t Kaia smelled cinnamon just a little while ago? Wasn’t that how she’d calmed? So where was Strider now?
“All done,” Bianka said, straightening. Worry layered her tone. They both knew Kaia needed Strider’s blood, or she’d be in bad shape later.
“Thank you.” Kaia stood and closed the rest of the distance between her and the Hunter. He was taller than her by at least five inches and probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds, yet the scent of fear wafted from him, acrid and potent. He’d had a front row seat to the show, after all.
“Please…don’t kill me…” he cried. “Not like that. Not like them.”
“I won’t,” she promised with a cold smile. “And in return, you’re going to do me a favor. Yes?”
“Yes.” Tears of relief tracked down his cheeks. “Please, yes.”
“Good. That’s good. Now, listen closely because I won’t repeat myself.” She unsheathed the dagger from her ankle holster and ripped a strip of furred cloth from her fallen coat.
“Wh-what are you doing? You said you weren’t going to hurt me.”
“No, I said I wasn’t going to kill you and I’m not.” Moving swiftly, she worked the crimson strip around his neck. “Are you listening? Good. Here’s what you’re going to do…”
STRIDER SCENTED THE BLOOD long before he saw the pools of it.
He’d been on Kaia’s trail for hours, his demon going crazy inside his head. Win, win, win. If he heard the word one more time, he was going to kill someone. Namely himself. Then Kaia. Seemed impossible, but he’d find a way to do it. He was that determined and she was that much to blame for this mess.
Except, as he sniffed to make sure he’d identified the notes correctly, he forgot about his irritation with Defeat, forgot about his anger with Kaia and thought only of her safety. Definitely blood.
He and Sabin shared an oh-shit glance and burst into rapid-fire movement, shoving past ice-laden branches and being slapped in the face for their efforts. Strider had his Sig in one hand and a dagger in the other, ready for anything—except to see Kaia hurt. Or worse.
Win, win, win.
Find her? Yeah, he would. Save her? Yeah, he’d do that, too. Lysander and Zacharel flew overhead and they must have scented the odor of death as well, because those long, graceful wings began flapping frantically, and they began a quick descent.
All four men hit the scene at the same time.
Bodies littered the ground. All male. Blood soaked the snow, evidence the humans had not died easily—but by the end, they had probably begged for that death.
Lysander walked the scene, sniffing, touching. “A few of the Harpies were injured.”
“Kaia?” he croaked, his heart skidding to a stop.
A terrible pause. “Yes, but she walked away. They all did.”
Thank the gods. His heart eked back into a semblance of a beat.
“These humans were tainted by the demon of Strife,” Lysander added. “Their minds were locked only on dissension.”
Rhea was possessed by the demon of Strife. And Rhea had opened her Garden of Goodbyes to all Harpies. To better destroy the women of her enemies? “Not the demon of Hope?” he asked, hopeful himself.
“No. This was Strife’s doing, no question.”
Shit. Strider’s job—protecting Kaia—was now ten thousands times more difficult. Not that he cared. He’d do what he had to do, even go up against the queen of the gods. “How can you tell?”
“Each demon emits a certain scent.” The words were said with disgust. “And the pungent stench of discord seeps from these men even still.”
“Our girls are in danger, then,” Sabin growled.
“We know.” But that was Sabin for you, Captain Jackass of the USS Obvious. Strider scrubbed a hand down his face. Now he was just being testy. Something else to blame on Kaia. Who was injured, without his blood to heal her.
“I will summon my angels to clean the mess,” Zacharel said.
His angels? “Not yet.” Amid the death, he, too, caught the hint of a scent. Kaia’s, to be exact. His sense of smell might not be as highly developed as Lysander’s, but when it came to Kaia, Strider was attuned to the littlest things.
Sniff. He followed the coppery odor and Sabin followed him. Sniff. Strider crouched and lifted a broken arrowhead. Blood coated the tip. He brought that tip to his nose and gave another sniff, this one deeper. Sure enough, Kaia’s scent was there. As Lysander had said, she’d been injured.
Having the evidence right in front of him did something to him. A red haze of fury dotted his vision. The thin shaft snapped in his hand. I need to hold her. Make sure she’s okay. And I need to hurt the one who hurt her.
“She’s fine,” Sabin said. “She walked away. The angel can’t lie.”
He heard a muffled whimper and every muscle in his body stiffened. Someone lived. He and Sabin broke apart, winding around a thick tree stump. A man—human, a Hunter, his arms pinned at his sides and turned to display his tattooed wrist—was trapped there, wearing nothing but a blood-coated bow around his neck. Furred, like Kaia’s coat.
A gift, then.
When the Hunter spotted the warriors, he began crying in earnest.
Strider stomped to him and gripped his chin, his dagger pressed against the man’s cheek. “You’re alive for a reason. What is it?” Wait. Precautions first. “If you dare try and utter a word of challenge, I’ll cut your throat before you can finish. Understand?” He wouldn’t put something like that past his Harpy. She was a wily little thing, determined to leave him behind.
Well, too bad. Rhea would strike at him the moment she spotted him, but he didn’t give a shit. He wasn’t supposed to hurt her, because hurting her would hurt Cronus—literally—and Cronus would then eat him for lunch. Neither thought bothered him. He was going to be there for Kaia. Was going to shelter her from the god queen at all costs.
For the Paring Rod, yeah. For his demon, yeah, that, too. But mostly because he was desperate to finish what they’d started inside the bar. If he didn’t get that lithe little body under him, and soon, he would implode.
What happened to waiting until after the competition?
Stupid plan’s been ditched. I want her now.
“Yo-you are the one named St-Strider?” the human asked.
He gave a stiff nod.
“I’m—I’m supposed to tell you n-not to worry. The g-girls have everything under c-control.”
Sabin moved to Strider’s side. “That’s all?”
The human flinched. “N-no. If you follow them, if they catch sight of you, they’ll let themselves be d-disqualified.”
Strider and Sabin shared another look, far past oh-shit and now entering oh-fuck territory. If anyone was willing to cut off her nose to spite her beautiful face, it was Kaia.
“Thanks for relaying the message,” he told the Hunter—just before finishing him off.
He expected the angels to admonish him, but they remained silent as the human’s head lolled forward, his worthless life now expunged.
Sometimes, Strider let his enemy walk away, hoping they’d learned a lesson about the shades of gray between good and evil. This time, no, that wouldn’t be happening. The man had attacked Kaia. His fate had been sealed already.
The victory was mild and Defeat barely reacted.
“Come on,” Strider said, cleaning his blade on his jeans and jabbing it back into its sheath. “We’re not too far behind them.”
Zacharel tilted his head to the side in thought. “You are willing to risk—”
Strider shut him up with a glare. “We’re going. We’re just gonna have to make sure we aren’t seen.”
THE PORTAL TO THE HEAVENS rested exactly where the text had promised, a shimmery pocket of air between two iced-over, moonlit mountains. Kaia’s team was crouched on a cliff high above, watching, waiting. Dreading.
Kaia lay on a slippery ledge, the cold seeping all the way to her bones. Normally, such frigid temperatures did not affect her. This time, she shivered, her teeth chattering. Her wound might be infected, her body slightly feverish, but at least there was no pain. The cold had numbed the stupid, still-gaping injury.
To heal from this kind of injury, she needed Strider’s blood.
Actually, she just needed Strider. She wasn’t sure how she’d ever gotten along without him. Naughty girl that she was, she wouldn’t get him. Not anytime soon—and maybe not even after that. Hopefully, he’d gotten the message she had left him and had charted a course to Buda. His well-being came before her understandably great need for him. But only a little!
She twisted the dial on her binoculars for a closer look at the surrounding area. White, white and more white, but so far, she’d spotted no other Harpies. No misty air to reveal the telltale sigh of heated breath. No bright colors slinking down the rocks, inching ever closer to safety. No clicks in the breeze as arrows were notched. Even still, she expected foul play. At least until they reached the bottom of the mountain. The moment her team stepped through the portal, they would be on neutral territory. No one would be able to strike at them.
The problem, however, would be reaching bottom.
“I think we’re good,” Taliyah said, confiscating the binoculars and panning the higher peaks. “And really, we can’t wait much longer. You and Tedra need to be tended, and we can’t do that here.”
Bianka confiscated the binoculars from Taliyah and peered down at the flatlands. “If Lysander were here, he could fly above and—”