You aren’t helping. Hard knuckles connected with his mouth, his teeth shredding the bastard’s skin. Not quite the silver lining of his dreams. His brain banged against his skull and for a moment, he saw stars. He hated stars. Blood coated his tongue, slid down his throat. Lazarus rolled on top of him, pinning his shoulders with firm, bony knees. Punch, punch, punch.

Bone cracked. Broke. Shattered.


I damn well know, he mentally sneered. And he would win this. Just as soon as he found his knives in the blood-stained snow. Bastard was going to lose his head. Maybe. Hopefully.


At the very least, Lazarus was going to spill his guts. He was a threat to Kaia. Threats to Kaia were not allowed to live.

She will die. Tonight. There is nothing you can do to save her. Tabitha again.

Punch, punch, punch.

More stars, riding the coattails of pain. Rage stormed through him, lightning caged too long, finally released. He bucked with all his strength, sending Lazarus crashing behind him.

Strider was on his feet in an instant. Through swollen eyes, he saw Lazarus smile with delight as he, too, stood. In the back of Strider’s mind, he knew Lazarus could have done a lot worse to him. Could have sliced and diced him. Could have gone for his man-business. Instead, the child of a god and a nightmarish monster had used his fists. What was up with that?

As the Harpies cheered, the warriors circled each other.

“How predictable you are,” Lazarus tsked under his tongue. And wasn’t that weird. He’d spoken in the language of the gods, used so long ago. A language the Harpies probably didn’t understand.

Strider replied using the same harsh tones and nearly forgotten words. “How pathetic you are. Lazarus the Lapdog, Juliette’s bitch.”

Bye-bye smile. Gold star for Strider—and suddenly, he really liked stars. Go figure. Defeat chuckled.

“You think you’ll be any different? Juliette will enslave you the same way she has enslaved me. What else do you think this competition is about? Not the idiotic games these females like to play. This is simply about punishing the redhead.”

“For what you did, the way I hear it.”

Lazarus shrugged, unconcerned. “She freed me. The blame falls on her.”

“She was a child.”

Another shrug of those wide shoulders. “And I was worked into a fury over my circumstances. I cannot control myself when the fury hits.”

Which meant he wasn’t worked into a fury right now. Or, if he was, the chains tattooed around his neck and wrists prevented him from doing anything about it.

“Start fighting again already,” a Harpy called.

“Seriously. Bor-ing!” This speaker tossed an empty beer bottle at him and the glass slammed against his stomach.


Stupid Defeat.

You talk. She dies. And there was Tabitha yet again.

He gnashed his molars. He knew the bitch was simply taunting him, trying to distract him, to work him into a lather, convincing him to walk away from this altercation and purposely lose. Then he’d be out for the count and Kaia vulnerable.

“If Juliette’s so powerful, why hasn’t she tried to enslave me yet?” Strider demanded. Answers first, ass kicking second. “Tit for tat.”

Lazarus’s gaze was pitying. “Haven’t you learned anything? The Harpies enjoy drama and theatrics more than any other race.”

No denying that. “How’d she do it, then? You’re a pretty tough guy. For a pussy. How’d she enslave you?”

Swollen lips twitched. With amusement? “As are you. All I can tell you is to beware of first prize.”

The Rod? The Rod had enslaved Lazarus? “So it’s the real deal?” There went his theory that Juliette had been faking. A theory he’d wished to the gods had proven to be true. No hands were better than the wrong hands.

“I can’t say.”

“Won’t, you mean.”

Those onyx eyes glittered with a thousand secrets. “No. Can’t. I’m skirting the edge of obedience even saying that much.”

“And what happens when you disobey?”

“Pain. Death. The usual suspects. And now, I’m sorry to say, I must continue distracting you.”

Strider cocked a brow. “You’re sorry to say?”

A confident nod. “You’re not really a bad sort and I actually like the redhead. She’s feisty.”

“She’s mine.”

A grin as slow and thick as dripping honey. “You have to survive first.” That was the only warning Strider had. Lazarus sprinted forward, a blur the naked eye couldn’t see.

Fists once again hammered into him, the impact throwing him in a tailspin of pain. He rotated when he hit, uncaring that he could no longer breathe as long as he could protect his face.


At least the demon wasn’t screaming anymore. Strider scanned the snow and bodies for weapons, darting left and right as he did so, moving around the Harpies, hoping the warrior wouldn’t punch them just to reach him. Dude reminded Strider of Sabin, who thought men and women were equals in battle and didn’t discriminate when it came to killing. But Juliette was his mistress and she’d probably forbidden him from hurting her sisters.

Finally. He spotted broadswords. Not his own, but a Harpy’s. He slid them from their sheathes at her back.

“Hey,” she squawked when she realized what he’d done.

He darted away before she could claw him for the theft. His boots slipped on the ice. Finding his balance proved difficult, but he kept moving, listening for any telltale sounds that might give away Lazarus’s location.

Feminine huffs—directly behind him. That meant Harpies were being shoved aside, rather than danced around. Such an obvious mistake, he thought. Lazarus was too good a fighter for that. Did he want to lose?

Damn it, Strider didn’t want to like him.

Spinning when he reached an unoccupied stretch, Strider went low. He stretched out his arms, the blades extended. Contact. Lazarus jumped, but he was too late. The metal sliced into his ankles, hobbling him. He fell and fell hard, the ice offering no cushion from impact.

With Defeat cheering inside Strider’s head—won, won, won—he pinned the warrior exactly as he had been pinned, knees to shoulders. Lazarus didn’t resist.

“That hurt.”

“Sorry.” Strider slammed the sword tips beside the man’s temples. “And thank you,” he said, fighting the wave of pleasure victory had brought. It would distract him.

Eyes bright with surprise peered up at him.

“What, you didn’t think I’d realize you’d thrown the fight? Give me some credit, at least.” Once again, he used the ancient language of the gods.

Then that wave of winning-induced pleasure blasted free of his restraints. He couldn’t hold it back a second longer. He shivered and moaned right along with Defeat.

Sparks of ecstasy ignited in his veins, heating him up. Not to the same degree that making love with Kaia had, but enough to cause him to spring instant, embarrassing, wood.

Before Lazarus could reply, the man’s surprise gave way to amusement and the warrior winged a brow in question.

“Not for you,” Strider said, flushing.

“Thank the gods for that.”

“So.” Let’s get the rest of this over with. “You heal quickly?”


“I’m sorry for this, but I need five minutes alone and I can’t have you coming after me.” He reclaimed the swords, jerked them from the ice, then slammed them into Lazarus’s shoulders. “Do me a solid and stay down.”

A grunt, a stiffening of that big body. Boos all around him.

Strider pushed to his feet and moved out of striking distance, already scanning the vista. Harpies gaped at him, even backed away. A few of the braver ones offered him pinkie waves and seductive grins, open invitations to bed them.

He caught Sabin’s gaze. Lysander was beside him, golden wings arching over his shoulders. Despite the cold, the two were sweating. They must have heard the commotion and rushed here.

He motioned to the mountain at his left with a tilt of his chin and they nodded. While Lazarus had been pounding his face in, he’d kept an eye on Kaia. She’d climbed that mountain and disappeared inside a cavern.

He stalked forward, determined. Within a few steps, the consorts were flanking his sides. Along the way, he thought he smelled smoke. And burning flesh. Panic suddenly infused him and he looked up. The panic mixed with dread. Dark smoke wafted from the cavern.

Shit! No time to climb. “Get me up there,” he demanded. “Now.”

Lysander caught his urgency. He gripped Strider under the arms, wings extending, legs bending to push. They shot into the air and the angel dropped him onto the ledge before heading down to repeat the process with Sabin.

“Kaia!” Strider rushed inside, coughing as the smoke thickened and burned his throat. He waved his hand in front of his stinging eyes, trying to see. Then he was in the center of the destruction, and there was no reason to wave away the darkness. He could see just fine.

At least twenty-five bodies were on fire, flames still crackling from them, illuminating the area. They were so charred, he couldn’t tell if they were male or female. His heart nearly burst from his chest, his blood heating with more of that panic. She couldn’t be one of the dead. She just couldn’t.

He would have failed her. He couldn’t have failed her. He needed her. Loved her. “Kaia,” he said past the lump growing in his throat. “Kaia, baby doll. Where are you, love?”

“What the hell?” Sabin demanded behind him.

“Great Deity,” Lysander breathed.

Strider ignored them, bending to study the bodies closest to him. He was shaking as he reached out and removed the dagger clutched in that blackened hand. The hilt was so hot his skin immediately blistered, but he didn’t release it. He didn’t recognize it, either. Okay. Okay, then. This one wasn’t her.

A whimper echoed a few feet ahead of him. Female. Pain-filled. Familiar. No sweeter sound. He was on his feet in an instant, racing toward it. Then he saw her, and ground to an abrupt halt. His stomach twisted into a hundred sharp knots, each one cutting at him.