- The Darkest Surrender
Strider. Her sisters might be alive, but she had lost. By defeating her team, the Eagleshields had defeated her. Strider had just lost his own challenge.
No, she assured herself in the next instant. He’d only sworn to kill those who defeated her. Or was it hurt her? Either way, there’d been no time limit for his death-blow deliveries. Right?
She searched the cheering crowd, but caught no sight of him. There were Sabin and Lysander, who’d disappeared for a while, too, but had now returned. Both were tense, pale and agitated, clearly wanting to grab their women and leave.
Was Strider okay? Where had he gone?
Was he currently in pain?
She could have challenged the Eagleshields and continued the fight. But she couldn’t disable all of them at the same time. One of her team members would be harmed, maybe killed. So she had to decide. Save them, or save Strider agonizing pain.
Praying he would understand, she knelt, admitting defeat.
Three things happened at once. Their surroundings changed, the Coliseum no longer new and fresh but old and crumbling, man-made blockades and humans suddenly materializing around them. Juliette’s scream of rage and disbelief echoed from the walls. And, worst of all, Strider’s agonized shout cut through her soul.
ABSOLUTE, UTTER CHAOS surrounded him.
Winded, stricken to his knees by debilitating pain, Strider gripped the Paring Rod. Harpies, consorts and slaves raced in every direction, trying to get away before the cops arrived. And they would, bringing reporters with them. Countless laws had been broken and a national treasure desecrated. Even now, blood soaked the ground, pooling around Strider’s feet.
What the hell should he do? And why was his demon so agonized, moaning and writhing inside his head? They’d won. Hadn’t they?
The moment Lazarus lost his head, the artifact had appeared. Something shimmery had risen from his body and been sucked into the tip of the Rod as if a vacuum switch had been thrown. The warrior’s soul, probably, the rest joining the piece inside.
No longer able to hold the illusion, the world had returned to normal. Strider hadn’t thought of that little complication, and therefore hadn’t prepared for it. Had only considered at last acquiring the Rod. Now he had it, but few options for successfully hiding it.
Juliette knew her man was dead, knew he wouldn’t have disobeyed her otherwise. That scream… She would be searching for the body. Would learn who was responsible. There’d be no covering up the truth. Not now. Too many people had seen Strider hovering over the lifeless body, a bloody sword in hand. Not that he would have tried to cover up the truth. He’d done the crime, the consequences his to bear.
Now, though, he’d brought evil to Kaia’s door. Juliette would no longer be content to humiliate her. Juliette would want to punish her. Hurt her. Destroy her.
The truth struck him and he wanted to vomit. What the hell had he done?
Strider lumbered to his feet, his head swimming. He swayed, comprehension a bitch slap of truth. He had challenged Kaia to win the game; she must have lost. Shit. Shit! Was she okay?
Someone slammed into him and he stumbled, his pain intensifying. His grip tightened on the Rod. He had to keep it safe; he also had to reach Kaia. Sabin and Lysander were probably looking for their women, so they would be no help.
With his free hand, Strider jerked his cell phone out of his pocket. He needed Lucien.
His vision was too blurry to see the numbers. He tried to call the keeper of Death, anyway. The warrior was on speed dial, so all Strider had to do was press three numbers—just three—then utter one word—help—and his friend would appear.
Someone else bumped into him and he stumbled more forcefully. The phone fell from his hand, clattering to the pavement. Shit! He bent down, his bones and joints protesting as he patted the area around him. Finally his fingers closed around the plastic.
Multiple pairs of booted feet stomped all over his hand, crushing the bone—and the cell. Those same feet dug into his back, breaking his ribs and stabbing the jagged shards into his lungs, deflating them. Next, his face was shoved into the dirt.
Stampeded, he thought, dazed. How humiliating. He jerked the Rod underneath his body, hoping to shelter it. He doubted anything could break it, despite its fragile appearance. There was an hourglass on each end, the staff itself thin and wooden, but the thing had been made by the gods. And he was living proof that the gods didn’t make inferior products. But the Rod could be stolen and that he wouldn’t allow.
He almost couldn’t believe that he was holding the fourth artifact. After all this time, the final piece of the puzzle had fallen straight into his lap. At a terrible price, yes, but he had it.
Eventually the footsteps let up and Strider forced his battered body to stand. He wheezed, swayed. A few more Harpies ran into him as they raced past, but they failed to knock him down. Maybe because they weren’t trying. They were just in a hurry.
Another feminine scream rent the air, closer this time. The agony in that scream…agony and rage, blending together in a vicious harmony.
“I. Will. Kill. You.” Juliette’s words reverberated, each one a lash of hatred.
Even though he couldn’t see shit, he turned and let the momentum of the thinning crowd lead him away. A few times, his knees threatened to buckle, but he used the Rod as a walking stick and kept going.
How close was Juliette on his heels?
Kaia! he mentally shouted. They’d never spoken telepathically, but he’d never been this desperate to reach her before. He could only hope their marriage had enhanced their connection. Where are you?
“I’m here.” A familiar fragrance filled his nose a split second before a warm arm snaked around his waist, jerking him to the left. “Is that what I think it is?”
Thank the gods. She was alive, she was here, and they could speak telepathically. An advantage he would explore when they were safe. Right now, he could feel her heart beating against his side, fast, but hell, it was beating, it was beating and that was enough. “Yes. I’m sorry, baby doll. I had to take it. Couldn’t let the opportunity pass. And don’t touch it, okay?” He didn’t know how the Rod worked, how to pass the souls and abilities trapped inside to another person, or how to steal souls and abilities from the living, and he didn’t want to risk doing irreparable harm to Kaia. “Are you okay?”
“You can’t see for yourself?”
“Nope. Corneas busted.”
“That explains why you were about to smash into the wall,” she said dryly. “Listen. Even though I want to bash your head in—seriously, you think I’ll take the Rod from you?—I’m sorry I lost. I’m sorry you’re in pain. I could have won, could have killed everyone, but my sisters would have died, too, and I couldn’t—”
“You don’t have to explain. I’m just glad you’re here. And no, I don’t think you’ll take the Rod from me. But it’s dangerous and I don’t know how to work it properly.” Should have explained that.
She tugged him to the right. “All right, then. I forgive you for snapping at me, but back to the subject at hand. You hate losing. Honestly, I think you would kill your own mother to win a battle. If you had one. And you put your faith in my ability, but I—”
“Kaia,” he said, cutting her off again. “You are too stubborn for your own good. Nothing matters but the fact that you’re alive, I swear. And to be honest, you aren’t even the one who needs to apologize. You told me not to take the Rod, to let you win it, but I took it anyway.”
“I had changed my mind about that.”
A tug to the left. “I know. That doesn’t change the fact that I—”
“You knew? How? Never mind. We’ll discuss it later. Now who’s the stubborn one?”
Despite his pain, he found himself grinning.
“Damn,” she suddenly cursed. “Juliette’s still on our tail and I can’t seem to lose her.”
His amusement vanished.
Kaia ushered him down a flight of stairs, around a corner. “She’s closing in, and if I don’t do something, she’s gonna reach us.” Without a pause for breath, she pushed him against a hard, cool wall. “Stay here.”
There was no time to question her. She released him and a second later, a sizzling blast of heat wafted over him. She’d just set herself on fire, he realized.
Female shrieks erupted.
“You will pay—” Juliette began, only to be cut off by a grunt of agony.
He wished he could see what was happening.
Sweat rolled down his body. His pain hadn’t lessened and without Kaia there to distract him, to move him, he experienced each lance full force. He hunched over, vomited. He should be fighting alongside Kaia, yet here she was, doing everything on her own. He was a hindrance. If not for him, she could have escaped already, with no problem.
“That should hold the bitch up for a while,” she said with satisfaction, once again winding an arm around his waist and jerking him forward. Though she wasn’t currently on fire, her body temperature had risen substantially.
“You’re getting good at that,” he said, gritting his teeth to help withstand the burn of her.
“Maybe because she keeps me in a constant state of white-hot fury.”
The scent of burning cotton filled his nose. His shirt, he realized. And then another thought hit him. She’d caught fire. Completely. Her clothing would have already burned away.
“You’re naked, aren’t you?” He hated the idea of anyone but him seeing her like that, but he was amused by the picture the two of them must make.
“Yeah.” No shame accompanied the affirmation. “I have been for a while. So how’d you get the Rod?”
A wave of guilt slammed through him as he explained about Lazarus, Juliette and the kind of power at stake. All the while, Kaia piloted him around corners, down steps, up steps.
“So Lazarus is dead?”
A cool, welcome breeze slapped at him. “Yeah. He wasn’t such a bad guy. I wish there’d been another way.” And maybe there was. Lazarus had said As I’ve been led to understand—which meant he could have been wrong. He could possibly survive what Strider had done to him. His soul, anyway. He could be trapped in the Rod right now.