Fifteen hundred years ago...
A million years ago...
(Just depends on who you ask.)
FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, the bi-century Harpy Games ended with more participants dead than alive, and every single one of the survivors knew fourteen-year-old Kaia Skyhawk was to blame.
The day began innocently enough. With the morning sun shining brightly, Kaia strolled through the overcrowded camp hand in hand with her beloved twin sister, Bianka. Tents of every size littered the area, and multiple fires crackled to ward off the early-morning chill. The scents of filched biscuits and honey coated the air, making her mouth water.
Forever cursed by the gods, Harpies could only eat what they stole or earned. If they ate anything else, they sickened horribly. So Kaia's breakfast had been a meager affair: a stale rice cake and half a flagon of water, both of which she'd pilfered from a human's saddle.
Maybe she'd appropriate a biscuit from a member of a rival clan, she mused, then shook her head. No, she'd just have to remain semi-hungry. Her kind didn't live by many rules, but the ones they had, they revered. Such as: never fall asleep where humans could find you, never reveal a weakness to anyone and, most importantly, never thieve a single morsel of food from one of your own race, even if you hated her.
"Kaia?" her sister said, her tone curious.
"Am I the prettiest girl here?"
"Of course." Kaia didn't even have to look around to confirm that fact. Bianka was the prettiest girl in the entire world. Sometimes she forgot, though, and had to be reminded.
While Kaia had a disgusting mop of red hair and unremarkable gray-gold eyes, Bianka had luxurious black hair, shimmering amber eyes and was the image of their exalted mother, Tabitha the Vicious.
"Thank you," Bianka said, grinning with satisfaction. "And I think you're the strongest. By far."
Kaia never tired of hearing her sister's praise. The more powerful a Harpy was, the more respect she earned. From everyone. More than anything, Kaia craved respect. "Stronger, even, than..." She studied the Harpies in the area, searching for someone to compare herself to.
Those who were old enough to participate in the traditional tests of might and cunning bustled about, preparing for the one remaining event-Last Immortal Standing. Swords whistled as they were tugged from sheaths. Metal ground against stone as daggers were sharpened.
Finally, Kaia spotted a contender for her comparison. "Am I stronger, even, than her?" she asked, pointing to a brute of a woman with bulging muscles and thick crisscrossing scars adorning her arms.
The injuries that had left those scars must have been severe indeed; immortality caused their race to heal quickly and efficiently, rarely allowing any evidence of hard living to show.
"No question," Bianka said loyally. "I bet she'd run and hide if you decided to challenge her."
"No doubt you're right." Actually, who wouldn't run from her? Kaia trained harder than anyone and had even felled her own instructor. Twice.
She didn't want to boast, but she'd always trained harder than any other Harpy in their clan. When everyone else stopped for the day, she continued until sweat ran down her chest in rivulets, until her muscles trembled from the strain...until her bones could no longer support her weight.
One day, perhaps even one day soon, her mother would be proud of her. Why, just a few nights ago, Tabitha had slapped her on the shoulder and said her dagger throwing skills had almost improved. Almost improved. No sweeter praise had ever left Tabitha's mouth.
"Come on," Bianka said, tugging at her. "If we don't hurry, we won't have time to wash in the river, and I really want to look my best when I watch our clan destroy the competition. Again."
Just thinking of the prizes her mother would collect caused Kaia's small body to puff up with pride.
The Harpy Games had begun thousands of years ago as a way for clans to "discuss" their grievances without causing a war-well, without causing any more wars-as well as allowing allied clans to showcase their superiority, even against each other. Elders from each of the twenty tribes met and agreed on the competitions and awards.
This time around, each winner of the four battles earned one hundred gold pieces. The Skyhawks had already earned two hundred of those pieces. The Eagleshields had won one.
"Out of your head...that's a good girl," Bianka said as she quickened her steps, forcing Kaia to quicken hers in turn. "You daydream too much."
A sigh from her sister, an admission of defeat.
Kaia grinned. The two of them drew a bit of notice from nearby Harpies, and she made sure to stroke the Skyhawk warrior medallion hanging from her neck. Her mother had gifted her with hers a few months ago, and she treasured the symbol of her strength almost as much as she treasured her twin.
Most everyone who met her gaze nodded in deference, even if she belonged to a rival clan. Those who didn't...no Harpy would dare attack another while on neutral ground, so Kaia didn't worry about possible conflict. Actually, she wouldn't have worried anyway. She was as brave as she was strong.
At the very edge of camp, nestled in a grove of trees, she noticed something strange and halted. "Those men," she said, pointing to a group of bare-chested males. Some roamed freely, a few were tied to posts and one was chained. To her knowledge, males were never allowed to enter or even watch the games. "What are they doing over there?"
Bianka stopped and followed the line of her finger. "They're consorts. And slaves."
"I know that. Hence the reason I asked what they're doing over there and not who they are."
"They're meeting needs, silly."
Kaia's brow scrunched in confusion. "What kind of needs?" Their mother had always stressed the importance of taking care of yourself first, your family second and everyone else not at all.
Bianka considered her response carefully, then shrugged and said, "Doing laundry, bathing feet, fetching weapons. You know, menial things we're too important to do."
What she took away from that? If you owned a consort or slave, you'd never have to do laundry again. "I want one," Kaia announced, and the tiny wings protruding from her back fluttered wildly.
Like all Harpies, she wore a half top that covered her breasts-though hers were tragically nonexistent at the moment-but remained open in back to accommodate the small arch of her wings, the source of her superior strength.
"And you know what Mother always says," she added.
"Oh, yes. A kind word will win you a smile, but who in their right mind wants to win a smile?"
Bianka pursed her lips. "You can't really kill a human with kindness. You have to use a sword."
"Not that, either."
Exasperated, her sister tossed her arms in the air. "Then what?"
"If you don't take the treasures and the males you want, you'll never get the treasures and the males you want."
"Oh." Bianka's eyes widened as her attention returned to the men. "So which one do you want?"
Kaia tapped a fingertip against her chin as she studied the candidates. Each of the men wore a loincloth, and each hard body was streaked with dirt and sweat, but none of the men were cut or bruised as she was, indicating they'd proven themselves on the battlefield. Or at least, had tried to do so.
No, not true, she realized a second later. The one in chains was covered in battle marks, and his dark eyes were definitely defiant. He was a fighter. "Him," she said, motioning with a tilt of her chin. "Who owns him?"
Bianka looked him over, trembled. "Juliette the Eradicator."
Juliette Eagleshield, an ally as well as a coldhearted beauty trained by Tabitha Skyhawk herself.
Conquering a male the Eradicator had failed to tame would be... "Even better."
"I don't know about this, Kye. We were warned not to speak to any of the men."
"I wasn't warned."
"Oh, yes, you were. I know this because you were standing right beside me when Mother delivered the warning. You must have been daydreaming again."
She refused to be swayed from her chosen path. "New rule-if a daughter doesn't hear a warning, she doesn't have to heed it."
Bianka remained unconvinced. "He reeks of danger."
"We love danger."
"We also love to breathe. And I think he'd rather chop us into pieces than bathe our feet. Not to mention what Juliette will do to us if we succeed in taking him."
"Trust me. Juliette isn't as strong as I am, or she wouldn't have had to chain him." Sure, Juliette was known for her willingness to slay anyone at any time, no matter their age or gender, but Kaia would soon be known as the girl who had one-upped her.
Her sister thought that rationale over for a moment, then nodded. "Very true."
"I'll just explain the punishment he'll receive if he disobeys me, and I promise you, he won't disobey me." Simple, easy. Her mother was going to be so proud.
Tabitha wasn't proud of many people, only those who proved to be her equal. So...in other words, she wasn't yet proud of anyone. Maybe that was why every Harpy wanted to be her and every male wanted to win her. Her strength was unparalleled, her beauty unmatched. Her wisdom, limitless. All trembled at the mere mention of her name. (If they didn't, they should.) All respected her. And all admired her.
One day, all will admire me.
"H-how are you going to sneak him away?" Bianka asked. "Where are you going to hide him?"
Hmm, good questions. But as she pondered the answers, indignation filled her. Why should she sneak him away? Why should she hide him? If she did, no one would know what she'd done. No one would write stories depicting her strength and daring.
More than she wanted a slave to do her bidding, she wanted those stories. Needed those stories. Because she and Bianka were twins, they were constantly teased about sharing what had been meant for one. Beauty, strength, anything, everything. As if they each had only half of what they should.
I'm enough, damn it! And I will prove it.
She would take the man here, now, in front of everyone.
Nearly bursting with urgency, Kaia turned to her sister and cupped her wind-pinkened cheeks. Worry consumed Bianka's delicate features, but that didn't stop Kaia from saying, "Allow no one to pass this point. I'll only be a moment."
"Please. For me, please."
Unable to resist, her sister sighed. "Oh, all right."
"Thank you!" Kaia kissed her right on the mouth then marched away before the sweet-tempered darling could change her mind. She palmed a dagger. The men pretended not to notice her as she shoved her way past them, and not a single protest was uttered. Good. Already they feared her.
When she reached the object of her young desire, she posed as she'd seen her mother pose a thousand times before. Hip cocked to the side, a fist resting on top, the blade of the dagger pointing outward.
The man sat on a stump, his elbows propped on his scabbed knees. His head was slightly bent, his inky hair falling over his forehead.
"You," she said in the human tongue. "Look at me."
Through the tangled locks, his dark gaze lifted and leveled on her. He was handsome, she supposed. Each of his features appeared to be chiseled from stone. He had a blade of a nose, sharpened cheekbones, thin but red lips and a stubborn chin.
Up close, she realized his chains were wrapped around his wrists and only his wrists, a metal link stretching between the two. Nothing bound him to a post. Either Juliette had no idea how to properly restrain a captive or the man was weaker than Kaia had assumed.
Disappointing, but she wouldn't change her mind now.
"You're mine," she told him boldly. "Your previous mistress might try and fight me for you, but I'll defeat her."
"Is that so?" His voice was deep and husky, seemingly layered with thunder and lightning. She repressed a shudder. "What's your name, little girl?"
Her teeth gritted together, her momentary apprehension forgotten. She wasn't a little girl! "I'm called Kaia the... Strongest. Yes, yes. That's what I'm called." Titles were important among the Harpies, chosen by the tribe leaders, and while Kaia had yet to receive hers, she was absolutely certain her mother would approve of her choice.
"And what exactly do you plan to do with me, Kaia the Strongest?"
"I'm going to force you to meet all my needs, of course."
He arched a brow. "Such as?"
"Doing my chores. All of my chores. And if you don't do them, I'll punish you. With my dagger." She wiggled the weapon in question, the silver blade glinting lethally in the sunlight. "I'm quite cruel, you know. I've killed humans dead before. Really dead. So dead they even hurt afterward."
He didn't flinch at the weapon or at her implied threat, and she fought a wave of frustration. Then she consoled herself with the knowledge that most humans had no true concept of a Harpy's skills. Clearly, he was one of the uninformed. Because he himself couldn't lift a thousand-pound boulder, he probably couldn't fathom anyone else doing so.
"When shall I begin these new duties?" he asked.
"Very well, then." She had expected an argument, but he unfolded his big body from the stump. Gods, he was tall, forcing her to look up...up...up.
She wasn't intimidated, though. While training, she'd fought beings a lot taller than him and won. Well, maybe they'd only been a little bit taller. Fine, they'd all been shorter. She wasn't sure anyone was as tall as this man. No wonder Juliette had claimed him.
Kaia grinned. Her first solo raid, in broad daylight no less, and she would be leaving with a prize among prizes. She'd chosen well. Her mother would find no fault with the man, and might even want him for herself. Maybe after Kaia finished with him, she would gift him to Tabitha.
Tabitha would smile at her, thank her and tell her what a wonderful daughter she was. Finally. Kaia's heart skipped a beat.
"Don't just stand there." Before the male had time to reply, she rushed behind him, wings flapping frantically, and pushed him. "Move."
Kaia rolled her eyes. "I think you've been hanging with the angels too much. Your IQ has dropped."
"What? That was funny." Square-tipped nails painted bright blue drummed against the metal rack between them. "And by the way, the angels aren't that bad."
"Whatever you need to tell yourself, my love."
Bianka blew her a kiss full of fang. "All's I'm saying is that Strider's gonna be a handful-and not the good kind. He's-actually, wait. I recant. He's too big to be anything but a good handful. Or more. But he's also gonna be a bad one. Wait. That doesn't ring true, either. How should I put this? He's going to-"
"I get it already! He's got a huge package, and he's irritating as hell. What's your point?"
"Glad you're finally up to speed. It's sad, really, that you need so much explanation." The sparkle in her sister's eyes dimmed. "Anyway, you told him how you felt about him and he rejected you. He'll be annoyed by any further contact you initiate, and an annoyed demon-possessed warrior is a global disaster waiting to happen."
"I know." If she had realized his importance to her sooner, she wouldn't have slept with his friend Paris, the keeper of Promiscuity. Otherwise known as Paris the Sexorcist, a male so sensual he could make your head spin. And if she hadn't slept with the Sexorcist, Strider the Stupid wouldn't have rejected her.
Or maybe he would have. Because to her consternation-yes, consternation, and not an all-consuming, organ-flaming rage-he kinda sorta desired another woman. Haidee, a pretty female who belonged to his friend, Amun, keeper of Secrets.
At least Haidee was off-limits, and Kaia didn't have to worry about Strider getting handsie. Honor among evil demons, and all that.
But damn it, just the thought of his gaze on another woman caused Kaia's nails to elongate and sharpen, her fangs to sprout and her blood to boil. Mine, every cell in her body cried. She would kill anyone who made a play for him, as well as anyone he made a play for; she wouldn't be able to help herself. Her dark side would take over, driving her to protect what was hers.
"Seriously, he's lucky to be alive, and not just because I want to chop off his man parts and feed them to zoo animals while he watches," Bianka continued. "Any man who can't recognize your worth deserves a good torturing."
"I know." Not because Kaia was anything special-though she was, kind of, maybe...damn it, she used to be-but because no one could reject a Harpy without suffering severe consequences.
Actually, most Harpies would have taken Strider despite his wishes. So maybe she was the stupid one for allowing him to push her away. She just wanted him willing. She needed him willing. To abscond with him was to defeat him, and to defeat him was to hurt him.
She couldn't bring herself to hurt him. Even at the expense of her sanity.
"You're too good for him, anyway," Bianka said, loyal as always.
"I know," she repeated once more, lying this time. She would only ever be a disgrace to her clan. He deserved better.
Her sister sighed. "But you still want him." A statement of fact, not a question.
"So what are you going to do to win him?"
"Nothing," she said, fighting a wave of depression. "I chased after him once." And he'd found her lacking. "I'm not going to do it again."
"No. A few weeks ago, I challenged him to kick more Hunter ass than me." Hunters, the enemy out to destroy all things demon. The fanatics who loved to go after innocents who dared get in their way. The pre-dead humans who would meet the tips of her claws if they approached Strider again.
Well, if they dared approach him with a weapon in hand. She might let them crawl toward him to apologize for the trouble they'd caused throughout the centuries. Torturing the Lords-only she was allowed to do so. Blowing up buildings-yawn. Could they be any more B-movie? Sooo irritating. Decapitating the keeper of Distrust-okay, that one was a little more than irritating, considering Strider was still messed up about it and everything.
Speaking of Distrust's murder, Haidee had helped carry it out. Yep, that Haidee. The one Strider desired.
Kaia didn't understand it. If he could want Haidee despite her crimes, why couldn't he want Kaia?
"I wanted to help him kill the men who were after him. I wanted him to see how capable I was," she added. "I wanted him to admire my skill. But did he? Noooo. He was pissed. He raged about all the pain I was going to cause him. So I let him win. Freaking let him. You know I never throw a fight." That smacked of weakness, and too many people viewed her as weak already. "And how did he thank me? By telling me to get lost." Hu-mil-i-ating. "Now, let's change the subject." Before she threw a temper tantrum and razed the mall to the ground. "What look are you going for?" she asked, flipping through the racks herself.
"Slutty yet sophisticated," her sister said, allowing the change without comment.
"Good choice." She rubbed her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she studied the colorful array of garments. "Think dressing up will help your sitch?"
"Gods, I hope so. I plan to let Lysander rip the garment off me, make love to me in the dirtiest way possible, and then, while he's trying to catch his breath, drop the big, bad bombshell on him and run like hell."
Something Kaia would have loved to do with Strider-the dirty loving part, anyway-but he wouldn't give a shit about anything she told him. As he'd already proven. "What are you going to say to Lysandy, anyway? Exactly."
Bianka shrugged her seemingly delicate shoulders. "Exactly...I don't know."
"Try me. Pretend I'm your disgustingly in love angel consort, and confess."
"Okay." A sigh, a straightening of her spine, then lovely amber eyes were staring over at Kaia with trepidation. "All right. Here goes." A pause. A gulp. "Darling, I, uh, have something to tell you."
"What is it?" Kaia said in her deepest voice. She propped her elbows on the bar, the hanger hooks digging into her skin. "Tell me quickly because I need to spread my happy fairy dust and wave my magic wand when-"
"He doesn't spread happy fairy dust! He's a killer, damn it." The indignation drained as quickly as it had formed. "But as for that magic wand..." Bianka shivered, smirked. "It's really big. Probably bigger than Strider's."
Kaia just blinked at her, waiting.
Her sister inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly. "Fine. Continuing. Darling, for the first time in forever, my family has been invited to participate in the Harpy Games. Why for the first time in forever, you ask. Well, funny story. You see, my twin sister did the dumbest thing and-"
"I'm sure you're exaggerating about that part," she interjected, still using that deep voice to mimic Lysander. "Your twin is the strongest, most intelligent female I've ever met. Now tell me something important."
"Anyway," Bianka went on smoothly. "I'm not sure why we've been invited, but a gold embossed card demanding our attendance came via Harpy Express a few days ago. We can't refuse without bringing intense shame to our entire clan. We would be labeled cowards, and as you know, I'm no coward. So...I'm leaving in one week, and I'll be gone for four. Oh, and each of the four agreed upon events involves bloodshed, possible limb removal and definite torture. See ya." She gave a pinkie wave, stilled, then waited for Kaia's response.
Kaia nodded. "I like it. Firm, informative and unwavering. He'll have no choice but to let you go without a fuss."
Some of Bianka's worry melted away. "You really think so?"
"Gods, no. I don't, not at all. He's gonna flip his lid. For real. You've met him, right? Protective to the extreme." Lucky girl. "So what about this one?" She held up a barely there confection with thin silver chains connecting the sides.
"I think it's great. Perfect, actually. I also think you're a brat."
She flashed an unrepentant grin. "You love me anyway."
"Like you said, my IQ has dropped." Bianka chewed on her bottom lip. "Okay, so. Here's how I think it will go after I confess. First, he'll try to stop me."
"You got that right."
"Then, when he realizes he can't, he'll insist on going with me."
"Right again. Are you good with that?" Everyone would make fun of her for hitching herself to a do-gooder. Even their mother. Especially their mother. Tabitha hated angels more than most, since she'd always thought their youngest half sister's father was an angel and had blamed the man for Gwen's supposed weaknesses.
"Yeah." Bianka smiled dreamily. "I'm good with that. I don't like to be without him, and really, I will slaughter anyone who speaks ill of him, so that'll add spice to my days."
"Not to mention weed out the competition because I will help you with those slaughterings." How she wished she could take Strider with her.
Actually, no, she thought next. Thank the gods he wasn't going with her. She was reviled among the Harpy clans. She would die of mortification if he saw her own kind turn their backs on her, and she would fall into that shame spiral if he ever heard her despised nickname.
A soldier like Strider prized strength. She knew because she was a soldier like Strider.
Of course, her next thought struck hard and cut deep- Haidee was strong. The bitch. Though (mostly) human, the girl had managed to defeat death time and time again, coming back to life to fight the Lords. Until she'd fallen in love with Amun.
If I didn't adore Amun so much, I'd send that female back to the grave-for the last damn time! No one caught Strider's notice without suffering unbearably.
Maybe before Kaia left for the games she'd ensure the girl acquired a raging case of head lice or something. No one would be hurt, Strider would be repulsed and Kaia would feel like she'd accomplished some sort of revenge. Win-win.
"Are you listening to me or have I lost you to the thought train again?" Bianka asked, exasperated.
She pulled herself out of her head. "Yes, I'm listening. You were talking about something...of great consequence."
"You were listening," her sister said, hand fluttering over her heart. "Anyway, thank you for offering to help punish everyone who insults Lysander. You're my favorite enabler in the world, Kye."
"You, too, Bee." Things would work out for Bianka. Lysander would support her no matter what, and the Harpies would see how intractable he could be and back down. Kaia, though... No, things would not be working out for her.
"Mother Dearest is gonna be there," Bianka said, trying for a casualness neither of them felt for this particular topic, "and she's gonna hate him, isn't she?"
"For sure. But then, she has lousy taste in men. Take our father, for instance. A Phoenix shifter, aka the worst of the worst in terms of immortal races. They're always pillaging and burning stuff to the ground. Seriously, you have to be a real nutbag to hook up with one of them. Which means, what? Mother is a real nutbag. I'd be worried if she liked Lysander."
What would Tabitha think of Strider, though?
Bianka gave a low, warm chuckle. "You're right. She does, and she is."
"And you know what else? She can suck it, for all I care." Brave words, yet, on the inside Kaia was still a little girl, desperate for her mother's approval. "But, maybe, I don't know, maybe she'll finally bury the hatchet with me." Gods, was that needy tone really hers?
Bianka leaned across the rack and patted her shoulder. "Hate to break it to you, sister mine, but the only way she'll bury a hatchet is if she gets to bury it in your back."
She tried not to sag with regret. "So true." And she wouldn't care. She wouldn't. Really. But why, why, why did no one but her sisters consider her good enough?
One mistake, just one-when she'd been a child, no less-and her mother had written her off. One mistake, just one, and Strider wouldn't commit to her. Wasn't like she'd cheated on him. They'd both been single for years, and hadn't even been on a date together. They hadn't kissed. Hadn't really even talked. And the night she slept with Paris? She hadn't known she would one day want Strider sexually. Or at all.
He should have recognized her appeal from the very beginning and tried to seduce her. So, really, when you thought about it, the blame could totally be laid at his door. Or maybe at his demon's. Defeat had yet to realize that losing her was far worse than losing a challenge. Otherwise, Strider would suffer without her.
She wanted him to suffer without her.
The demon was bonded to Strider and essential to his survival, so...maybe she could do something to win the evil fiend over. If she decided to make another play for Strider. Which she wouldn't. As she'd told her sister, he'd lost his chance. Besides, approaching him now would make her seem desperate. Which she was.
Gods, this was depressing. And infuriating! Opposition was to be crushed, always, but how was she to fight a man she also wanted to protect?
"What are you thinking about now?" Bianka asked. "Your eyes are almost completely black, so I know your Harpy is close to taking over and-"
"Hey. Hey, you! What are you doing in here?" someone shouted.
Forcing herself to breathe deep and calm down, she threw a quick look over her shoulder. Great. Mall security had arrived. "I'm fine, swear. Meet you back at the house?" she said, tossing the chosen dress at her sister.
"Yeah," Bianka said, catching the garment and stuffing it down her T-shirt for safekeeping. "Love you."
"Love you, too."
They sprinted off in different directions.
"Stop! I'll shoot!"
Kaia's red hair practically glowed in the dark, making her the easier target, so the guard-who didn't shoot, the liar-chased after her as he radioed for backup. The fact that she'd flipped him off before taking that first corner had nothing to do with it.
Most of the store lights were switched off, and the rest of the mall offered very little illumination. Not that it mattered to her superior Harpy eyesight. Her gaze expertly cut through the shadows as she dodged and darted her way toward the exit. Unfortunately, the human knew the area better than she did and managed to keep up with her.
Time to kick things to the next level.
Her wings fluttered...readying...but just before she could blaze into hyperspeed, the guard did the unthinkable and tasered her. Tasered. Her. Not a liar, after all. Kaia fell to her face, oxygen instantly turning to lightning in her lungs. She was mere inches from the doorway, yet her spasming muscles prevented her from completing her escape.
She could have jerked the clamps from her back. She could have twisted, pitched one of the many daggers strapped to her and ended her pain. Ended the human. But this was her hometown, and she didn't like to kill the locals. Or rather, she didn't like to kill more than one a day and she'd already hit her limit.
A lie, but she'd go with it.
Plus, why kill the guard when she hadn't truly given the chase her all, knowing deep down that he could provide what she'd secretly craved: a reason to call Strider.
After all, someone would have to bail her out of jail.