In a whirl of determined movement, Strider faced him. The warrior’s earlier urgency finally infected him. “Where is it?”

Lazarus looked bored. “I now have the ability to hide objects in the space around me. It is here. Here.”

Eyes wide, Strider glanced around him, then patted the air around the warrior’s shoulders. He encountered only body heat, but he knew. It was here. So close he’d probably brushed against it during their conversation. His heart hammered against his ribs.

“Give it to me. Now,” he said. Then he recalled what Kaia had said to him, not so long ago, and he paused.

If he stole the Rod, she would be humiliated in front of her people. Except, while she’d been passed out and sick, writhing in pain from her injuries, she had babbled about stealing it herself. So he suspected she’d been planning to do so. For him. He should walk away—for her—but he couldn’t. Too many lives were at stake. He would find a way to make it up to her, he told himself. He would.

Black eyes became flat. “I…can’t.”

“Like hell. Pull it out of the goddamn air. Like you did that first night, during orientation.”

“I can’t,” Lazarus repeated.

“Why?” His voice lashed like lightning.

“Part of my soul is trapped inside the Rod. Physically I cannot do anything Juliette has forbidden me to do. I just can’t, no matter how hard I try. Believe me, I have tried. That is the only reason she entrusted me with the Rod’s care. And so I am to die before I allow the Rod to be taken from me.”

Strider withdrew a dagger from his ankle sheath. “I don’t want to fight you.”

A stubborn chin rose, reminding him of Kaia. “And I do not wish to fight you. I have considered this so many times I’ve lost count, and always the solution is the same. Juliette controls the Rod, and therefore controls me. She will never willingly part with either. I am her consort, and as I am sure you have learned, the Harpies do whatever is necessary to keep their consorts by their sides. Even if the impossible occurred and I managed to escape her a second time, she would never cease searching for me. I have decided I would rather die than help her in any way. I would rather die than make her happy. A decision you should support, since she wants me to seduce and hurt your woman.”

Dude was so not doing the seduction/hurting thing. “Just to be clear. You’re saying…”

“I am saying I have been used as a sex slave before. I will not be so used again. I am saying your woman once set me free, and I hurt her for it. I will not hurt her again. I am saying Juliette killed my mother. Now I will kill her dreams.”

Shock pounded through him. “You—”

“Want you to slay me. Yes. More than destroying Juliette, I cannot live as a slave any longer. I’ve spent too many centuries inside a cell, and now I’m supposed to while away the rest of eternity with a woman I despise? No! I crave freedom, even if I can find it only in death.” Lazarus dropped to his knees and tilted his head to the side, exposing the length of his vulnerable neck. “Do it. Before I change my mind.”

In that moment Strider realized he had never admired a being more. Self-sacrifice had never been a big part of his life, but here was Lazarus, giving up everything. Not for love, but for revenge, and that motive was a hell of a lot better.

If anyone deserved a second chance to live a long and happy life, he thought suddenly, it was this man.

Strider had done a lot of despicable things in the name of victory, done even worse as a consequence of the war with the Hunters, but this—putting a good man down—would top them all. In another life, they might have been friends.

“Death doesn’t have to be the end,” he said to make himself feel better.

He saw a spark of regret in the other man’s expression. “For me it will be. Much like you Lords would be incomplete without your demons, I am incomplete without the part of my soul that is trapped inside the Rod. When I die, the best I can hope for is that that part of me will wither and die, as well. As I’ve been led to understand, it is improbable to hope for the two pieces of my soul to unite and journey to heaven.”

“So basically what you’re saying is that you don’t know what will happen to you?”

A blink of bafflement. “Is that what you need to believe to do this deed? That there’s a chance for me to be happy in the afterlife? Because I must admit I am confused by your reluctance to end my life. I expected more from a fearsome Lord of the Underworld. Don’t make me challenge you for this, Lord of Defeat. Just do it. Set me free.”

He raised the blade higher, watched that pulse batter. His wrist twitched, but he remained exactly as he was.

Damn it. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t end this creature forever.

Lazarus must have sensed his waning determination. “Should I live, I will find a way to get your woman into my bed. Should Juliette live, she will kill your woman when I’m done with her. And that is only if she’s feeling generous, which she never is.

“The plan now, as I know it, is to finish the games, humiliating your woman with her many failures. And then, when she tires of the ridicule, Juliette will take Kaia’s free will, just as she has done to me. Kaia will be unable to stop herself from joining the Hunters under Juliette’s command. Oh, did I not tell you that part? Juliette will force Kaia to destroy you and all that you love. Do you understand what that means? You will be at war with your woman.”

Just like that, the decision to act solidified. Not because Kaia would come after him, but simply because Kaia’s happiness was everything to him, and she, too, deserved a second chance.

He would not let Juliette humiliate her. He would not let the bitch play with her mind, her emotions. And allowing Juliette to further screw with Lazarus, a guy who was noble enough to jump ship to save someone else? A guy who’d been hurt enough? Not going to happen.

“Thank you for your sacrifice. It will not be in vain. Juliette will be punished,” he vowed. “You have my word.”

“Thank you…friend.”

Strider struck.


A few minutes earlier…

HER TEAM MIGHT HAVE STARTED out at a disadvantage, Kaia thought, panting from exertion, but they’d certainly evened the odds. And quickly, too. Right now, only members of the Eagleshields and Skyhawks were still conscious.

At first, insults had been hurled at her. “Weak.” “Stupid.” “Bitch.” For once, they hadn’t distracted her. Maybe because she’d been locked on a single thought: save Strider from pain.

The man who hated being challenged had challenged himself. For her. If she’d harbored any doubts about his love, that would have convinced her.

She had to win this. For him. He’d threatened to kill anyone she did not defeat, but she knew he wouldn’t follow through with that one. He loved her too much to hurt a member of her race. So, if she failed, and then he failed to deliver punishment, would he experience twice the pain?

Win, win, win.

Oh, yes. Her strategy? Beat and run. She hadn’t let herself engage a single person. Well, no longer than it took to punch once—okay, sometimes twice. She’d struck, and then she’d moved on, never allowing herself to be surrounded. When more than one Harpy had converged on her, she’d simply moved out of the way and let them slam into each other. That had, of course, sent them into a fight of their own, effectively doing the work for her.

Their determination to end her, and her alone, was going to be their downfall. Fitting, she mused, swinging around to face her next opponent. When she spotted the Harpy, her anticipation withered.

Her mother.

Kaia’s throat dried. For the first time this round, sparks of heat lit up inside her. She’d been so careful.

Tabitha dropped the motionless body she held by the hair and faced off with her forgotten daughter. Around them, the battle continued to rage. Bianka noticed what was happening, though, and alerted the others. Soon Team Kaia was moving the rest of the females outward, giving Kaia and her mom a wide berth.

“At long last, the daughter I once spent an entire morning praising, telling my competitors that you would one day be stronger even than me, only to find you’d nearly ruined us all,” Tabitha said. Her anticipation was palpable. “Finally you will be punished for that. I will put you in your place for the humiliation you caused.”

She’d spent an entire morning praising Kaia? Had claimed Kaia would be stronger? Don’t soften. That’s what she wants.

“And where is my place?” She had to be cold. This fight was necessary, and centuries in the making. Use might, not fire.

One seemingly delicate shoulder lifted in a shrug. “At my feet. Of course.”

At one time, that would have destroyed Kaia. Today, however, she experienced only the mildest twinge. She was loved, and by a man who didn’t love easily. He considered her worthy. That was enough. “You can try.”

“Oh, I’ll do more than that.”

Talk, talk, talk. Kaia waved her fingers, the fire beaten back. “We just gonna stand here or are we gonna do this?”

Surprisingly, Tabitha remained where she stood and arched a dark brow. “I’ll give you five seconds to run away, a chance I’ve never offered another. For old time’s sake, you could say. And Kaia, that’s the only handicap I’ll give you. After that, I will take your head.” She tossed a dagger in the air. A dagger already coated with blood.

“One,” Kaia said.

If she wasn’t mistaken—and she had to be mistaken—pride flickered in her mother’s amber eyes. “You’re weaponless. Do you really expect to win?”


Another flicker. “Trying to impress your man? Too bad he’s not up there. He disappeared several minutes ago.”

No reaction. She wouldn’t fall for such tactics. Wouldn’t be distracted from her purpose. “Three.”

The corners of Tabitha’s mouth quirked. “Do you recall when you were a girl and I spent hours training with you? I had you laid flat every time.”