No damn reaction. “Four.”

“All right. No more conversation.” Tabitha threw her gaze at the crowd. “No one is to interrupt us. Is that clear?” With that, she assumed a battle stance, her legs apart, her knees bent and her arms at the ready. “It’s just you and me now, daughter.”

Her heart skipped a beat. “Five.”

They flew at each other.

Tabitha hadn’t earned the name “Vicious” for nothing, and slashed at Kaia the moment they were within striking distance. They were too close for her to avoid being hit and Kaia knew it, cursing herself for expecting her mother to try and get her on the ground first. So she did the only thing she could. She lifted her arms, allowing the blade to slash at her forearms rather than her neck or her chest. As the sharp pain tore through her, skin splitting open, her mother struck again, lightning fast, aiming for her stomach this time.

Kaia counterattacked. She caught Tabitha’s hand midway, gripping her wrist in her elbow and twisting up, using the momentum to her advantage. When their arms reached shoulder level, she pressed Tabitha’s wrist and the blade against herself and punched her mother in the temple with her free hand. She could have used the flat of her other hand to bat at the dagger and send it flying, but better to strike now, while she had the chance, than to remove the weapon from her mother’s possession.

Why fight as if they had forever when she could do something to end things now?

Tabitha stumbled from the impact and dizzily dropped to her knees. Of course, she regained her footing in the few seconds it took Kaia to close the distance between them. Before she could strike, Tabitha spun, avoiding contact. Then, within a blink, Kaia was struck from behind. In the skull. She staggered, thinking fast. Knowing her mother as she did, she was sure the woman would fly at her, try to push her to the ground, cutting her neck while her weight smashed her wings. Only one way to combat that. Kaia used those staggering steps to push off and back flip.

Below her, for less than a blink, she saw the top of Tabitha’s dark head. Saw that she’d been right. Saw Tabitha stop, realizing she wouldn’t be winning so easily. Then Kaia landed and kicked out, aiming for her mother’s kidney. Score.

Grunting, Tabitha fell to her knees. Kaia kicked again—no mercy—aiming for those fluttering wings. Boom. Her mother’s body was flung forward, the cartilage in the right wing snapping on impact. Again, the entire action happened so quickly, anyone watching would have missed it if they’d blinked.

That should have slowed her mother down, but Tabitha had about a million years on her and had fought with a broken wing before. Seemingly impervious to the pain she must be feeling, the woman rolled, stood, turned.

“That all you got, baby?” Tabitha was smiling, but there was blood on her teeth.

Cold. Merciless. “Let’s find out.”

Once again they launched at each other, meeting in the middle. There was a flurry of punching and blocking. Cold, stay cold. With every shot of her mother’s left arm, the dagger she held made a play for Kaia’s jugular. Kaia was nicked a few times, but the blade never sank deep enough to do much damage. And that wasn’t because her mother pulled her blows! Kaia had skills even she hadn’t known about.

Tabitha currently had the lead, pushing Kaia backward. She held her own—cold, cold, so cold, tamping down any new flickers of heat that tried to spring from her—until she tripped over an unconscious body. Down, down she fell. Tabitha was on her in an instant.

When the dagger arced toward her, she knew there was only one way to save her neck. And her life. That dagger needed a target. She met the metal with the palm of her hand, allowing the tip to spear her flesh all the way through, going in one side and coming out the other. Hurt like a son of a bitch, but it was totally worth it. Even though her bone was splintered, the dagger was stuck between the pieces and Tabitha drew back an empty hand.

That didn’t stop her. Fist after fist battered at Kaia’s face so swiftly she couldn’t avoid them and she was almost knocked senseless. Still she remained cold and finally gathered the strength to roll backward, to her shoulder blades, scooting her mother off her stomach and allowing Kaia to swing her legs.

She locked her ankles around Tabitha’s neck and jerked down. The woman fell to her back and lost a lungful of oxygen. Or would have, if Kaia hadn’t jammed the heels of her boots into her mother’s throat, crushing her wind-pipe and preventing the air from escaping.

Without a pause, Kaia stood, her field of vision shit as blood dripped into her swollen eyes. End this. With all of her might, she jerked the dagger from her palm—and damn, it hurt worse coming out than going in!—then tossed the weapon out of the circle. Now they were both unarmed.

She stalked forward, hoping she would be on her mother before the practiced soldier had time to heal or strategize. That didn’t work out for her. Tabitha was on her feet in an instant and they were facing off for the third time, circling each other.

“Bravo for you,” Tabitha rasped, voice broken thanks to her still-healing trachea. “I expected you to fold long before now.”

“That’s because you think too highly of yourself and too little of those around you.”

“With good reason.” Emotionless.

I will make her feel something. Kaia licked her lips, tasted copper. “Mother of the Year Award, meet Tabitha the Vicious. Or not. But don’t feel bad. I took Father’s away, too.”

Tabitha stilled, blinking, those lids hiding and revealing distress. “I’m a good mother.”

Uh, what? That had struck a nerve? “If by good you mean you’re the world’s worst, then yeah, you’re at the top of the list.”

Amber eyes narrowed, the distress vanishing. “When you’re dead, another Harpy will take possession of your man. You know that, don’t you? And as your conqueror, I’ll have first rights.”

Ouch. Going for the jugular with words now, too, trying to elicit an emotional response. As Strider had said, Kaia was all about her emotions. She could feel the fire springing back to life inside her, heating…heating…

She could release the flames, end things now. They’d fought. There’d be no crying foul now. Kaia had held her own, but though there was no love lost between mother and daughter, she didn’t want to burn the woman to death.

What she wanted didn’t matter, however. Not now. Do what you gotta do to survive, Strider had told her.

It was time.

Finally she opened her mind to the heat, welcoming it, letting it grow, spread—consume.

Hotter…hotter… She didn’t know what to expect. Last time, the change had come over her so unexpectedly, she hadn’t had a second to stop and think about what was happening. What would she do if the flames refused to come?

Shock clouded her mother’s expression. There was a roar in Kaia’s ears, her body hotter, hotter, then all she could see was a cerulean haze. In less than a heartbeat, the flames had coiled from her pores, catching every inch of her in a raging inferno. Even her clothes burned away.

“Sorry about this, Mom,” she said. She leapt, closing the distance between them. Contact. They fell to the ground. Flames jumped from Kaia to Tabitha. She paused, waiting.

Where were her mother’s screams?

“You really think I would have slept with a Phoenix if I wasn’t protected against his fire? But I’m impressed. You fooled me. I had no idea you were capable of this.”

“I—I—” Had no response. Was too stunned.

Tabitha went on, “I can’t summon the flames, but I can withstand them. So, fight on.”

Once again Kaia was rolled to her back and punched over and over again. This she allowed, more from her own sense of astonishment than an inability to fend her mother off.

When her senses crystallized back into focus, she stopped trying to protect her face and neck. There was only one way to end this.

The punches continued to descend. As sharp pain exploded through her, her eyesight soon obliterated, her throat soon crushed—and knowing claws were coming next, and with them, the loss of her head—the heat was replaced by a return of her cold determination.

Do whatever it takes.

Kaia arched up, still taking the blows. Her mother suspected nothing, too lost in the rhythm of her fists, expecting Kaia to slip into unconsciousness at any moment. Kaia reached around her mother’s back and ripped. A shriek echoed through the air as warm blood coated her hands. Those fists finally stopped raining. The weight lifted from her shoulders.

Kaia brought her hands to her mouth and licked. Anything to survive, she told herself again. Blood, any blood, was medicine and she needed to heal. Her mother’s life force slid down her decimated throat and into her stomach. The effect wasn’t as powerful as when she drank from Strider, but her vision cleared somewhat and she sat up the rest of the way.

Her mother lay a few feet away from her, unconscious and naked from the blaze. She might have withstood a broken wing, but she couldn’t withstand a total loss of them. Her back was a mess, her wings completely gone. Kaia’s chest constricted. In sorrow that their feud had come to this, in pride that she had won.

She considered her surroundings. The rest of the fight had ended, as well. To her disappointment, she saw that the Eagleshields had defeated her sisters, who had in turn defeated the Skyhawks. Those who were still standing regarded her with stunned expressions. She only cared about her team.

Thankfully, every beloved member was alive. Held at bay by sword-point, but alive. One at a time, she met each of their gazes. They nodded in apology and appreciation. She didn’t care that they’d lost—only that they lived.

They would have a chance at vindication during the next competition. And perhaps she could have validation now. Unconcerned by her nakedness, she lumbered to her feet. No matter what happened next, there were now only three contenders for first place in round four. And whoever won there would win everything. Bragging rights and the Paring Rod.

Had Strider realized how close they were to ultimate victory?