- The Darkest Surrender
Within seconds, the teams were sectioned off in huddles, feminine murmurs blending in the daylight.
“I want this,” Kaia said to kick them off. She had a lot to prove.
Bianka kissed her cheek. “I love you, Kye, you know that, and you know I think you’re Grade A at brute force and vengeance, but flying, well, after everything that was done to you last time, isn’t wise. Not to mention the fact that you’re still injured!”
“Yeah,” she replied dryly. “Thanks for not mentioning. Just for the record, Heavenly Hills, you were just shot up, too.”
“Hey! You promised never to call me by that ridiculous name again.”
“Like that’s a promise I can really keep.”
“Bee’s right,” Taliyah said, ignoring them. “Everyone’s already out for our blood. They’re going to gang up on us big-time, so we have to have our fastest players in the air.”
Kaia sputtered. “I know you’re not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting. I’m fast. Like, bullet fast.”
“Yeah, but Gwen’s faster. So am I, for that matter. So is Neeka. So is Bianka. Hell, Juno and Tedra are faster than all of us combined,” Taliyah added, motioning to their other members. “That’s why I recruited them. Plus, Juno hasn’t played yet, and Tedra’s already healed from the arrows.”
Everyone but Kaia nodded. She pressed her tongue into the roof of her mouth. This almost seemed rehearsed. What was clear, though, was that they didn’t want her fighting. Didn’t think she could help, only hinder.
Gods, the hurt she experienced…the humiliation…both nearly knocked her down. Made her want to curl into Strider’s lap and cry. His strong arms would band around her and he would coo at her, comfort her, then tell her how capable she was.
Last time they were together, he’d wanted her to train with his friends. Even he doubted her skill.
She could have fought her sisters on this. Could have pulled rank and insisted. Instead, she nodded as if she agreed with them. Just as she’d done with Strider. One, they would have argued with her and she had no solid legs to stand on. Just wound-ridden ones. Two, as they’d so rudely pointed out, she wasn’t at her best. And three, victory was priority one, not her pride.
“All right,” she said, forcing a confident tone. “Bianka, Juno and Tedra. You’re up. If you’re okay, Bee. You were shot up pretty badly.”
“I’m fine.” She offered Kaia a relieved yet sad smile. She knew the thoughts pouring through Kaia’s mind. “I was carrying a vial of Lysander’s blood with me and drained the contents on the way here.”
Smart. And hell, why hadn’t she thought to ask Strider for a vial of his blood? Not that he would have agreed to give her one. Not after everything she’d done to him. Plus, to do so, he would have to care for her. Would have to be more concerned for her health than with remaining at her side.
“You guys can decide on the fourth member,” she said, knowing they would anyway.
They accepted the decree without a token argument, surprise, surprise, and it was swiftly decided that Gwen would join the fray. Sabin’s blood had healed her after Tag and she hadn’t been hit by an arrow. Neeka’s deafness could be used against her and Taliyah wasn’t quite as equipped for airplay as the youngest Skyhawk.
A shrill whistle blasted and the groups quieted.
“Time’s up,” Juliette announced. “Take your places, everyone.”
Footsteps shuffled. While chosen team members climbed to the top of the trees, Kaia remained on the ground, watching, a painful vise-grip on her heart. A grip that tightened when she caught Juliette’s eye and the Harpy grinned with her patented smug satisfaction.
Knew you couldn’t cut it, that smile seemed to say.
Kaia tried not to flush or tear up.
“Don’t pay any attention to that hag,” Taliyah said, slapping her on the shoulder. “You’re better in every way.”
Neeka dug the hopefully unneeded medical supplies from their backpacks and joined them. None too soon, either.
Juliette raised a gun high in the air, held steady while everyone tensed, waiting, expectant, then squeezed the trigger.
High above was an explosion of movement. Leaves rustled and bodies slammed together. Grunts of might, groans of pain and screams of rage rang out, tolling bells of injury and satisfaction. Kaia tried to keep track of her sisters, but the girls were too high up, moving too quickly, disappearing behind leaves and clouds and she soon gave up. She watched the ground, waiting for bodies to fall.
Within minutes, she felt a whoosh of air, tensed when she heard a splat. Tensed even more when she spied a motionless…Songbird a few feet away. Blood pooled around the girl as one of her teammates rushed to administer aid.
Thank the gods. Kaia’s stomach unclenched, though the burn of acid didn’t recede. Would Gwen end up that way? Bianka?
Hands fisting, body trembling, she tore her gaze from the huddle of Songbirds. At the far edge of the clearing, she spotted a shake of leaves and a flash of dark hair. An innocent Harpy, just needing a moment alone? A malicious Harpy bent on attacking someone, even though they stood on neutral ground? A Hunter, who wouldn’t care about anything but destroying his target? Or maybe Rhea herself?
Hell, for all Kaia knew, that dark hair belonged to Sabin. Or even Lazarus. The way he’d watched her at the bar, the way he’d taunted her…he wasn’t done with her. That, she knew all too well.
Taking no chances, she leaned over to Taliyah and whispered, “Saw something. Gonna check it out.”
Her oldest sister didn’t switch her attention from the fight. “Be careful. Shout if you need me.”
She knew her sister well enough to know Taliyah was merely humoring her. If she’d thought there was an actual threat, Taliyah the Cold-Hearted would have insisted on coming with her. There was another stab of hurt in Kaia’s chest, but she shook it off.
She melted into the thick, green foliage. The trees and plants actually seemed to turn away from her now, as if word had spread and they were all afraid of her. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for her fellow Harpies.
Staying low, a dagger in each hand, she worked her way around the clearing. Her legs were a bit rubbery, causing her feet to drag. She was louder than she’d intended, but there was no help for it. If the intruder didn’t notice the clomp of her boots, he’d definitely hear the beat of her heart, drumming like a jackhammer set to its fastest setting and slamming against her ribs.
Finally she spotted footprints that didn’t belong to a Harpy. These were big, thick and pressed deeply enough that whoever had made them weighed at least two hundred pounds of solid muscle.
That narrowed things down a bit. She was dealing with either a Hunter, Sabin or Lazarus. Her mind buzzed, quickly eliminating suspects. If this were a Hunter, there would be other footprints. After all, Hunters were like cockroaches. Where one hid, a thousand others did, as well. If this were Sabin, she would scent Strider. The two were never far apart.
That left Lazarus the Tampon.
Well, well. Maybe they’d have their knock-down drag-out at last. And wouldn’t you know it? They’d have that knock-down drag-out while she lacked full throttle. Wasn’t that just peachy?
A hard weight crashed into her back, throwing her face-first to the ground. That same weight pressed against her so forcefully her wings were smashed into their slits, hindering their movements and decreasing her strength even more. Oxygen gushed from her suddenly dirt-coated mouth, an explosion that left her reeling.
She’d been so determined to sneak up on her prey, she’d failed to guard her back properly. She knew better! Damn it, what was wrong with her?
Here was more proof of her weakness. No wonder her sisters hadn’t wanted her in the air.
Nothing would prevent her from fighting, though. Her claws emerged, and her fangs sprouted. But just as she attempted to twist and wedge her knee between their bodies, a male voice whispered, “Don’t. I won, and that’s that.” Satisfaction and pleasure layered that familiar—beloved—voice.
Strider. Unlike Juliette’s satisfaction, his didn’t bother her. She actually reveled in it. He was here. He was with her, alive and well. He was also in danger, but at the moment she couldn’t make that matter. He was here!
“We good?” he asked in that same silky whisper. His warm breath caressed her ear and absolute relief washed through her. Until he added, “Wait, don’t answer. That bastard Lazarus is just ahead, waiting for you. He set a trap.”
When she caught her breath, she rasped out, “What kind of trap?”
“The kind with flowers, candlelight and a bejeweled goblet filled with his probably diseased blood.”
Her eyes widened. Lazarus was going to try and…seduce her? Why? “I don’t know about diseased, but that blood is probably poisoned.” Right? A trick meant to lure her into softening before the bastard went in for the kill.
“If we’re lucky, he’ll die of disappointment when you fail to show.”
“Actually, if he’s lucky.”
“Good point. Now I have to decide whether to kill him now or kill him later.”
“Option two?” she asked hopefully.
“My thinking exactly. Right now, I have something better to do.” Strider eased back a little and she finally twisted, lying on her back. His legs straddled her waist, and his navy eyes glared down at her. Dirt smudged his sun-kissed skin and his pale hair was pink with dried blood and plastered to his face. “Don’t worry, though. He’ll get his.”
“Are you hurt?” If someone had hurt him, she would unleash her Harpy. She wouldn’t be able to help herself. She would—
“I’m fine.” His expression softened, and gods, he was beautiful. “Remember the Hunters who last attacked you? Well, they suffered afterward. You’re welcome.”