The Darkest Surrender – Gena Showalter

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. “Yes?” “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.” “Do not.

” “Do, too.” “Not!” 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?” “Not that.” 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.” “But—” “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. “Now.” “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.” He stumbled forward, but quickly managed to catch himself. With his head held high, he marched the distance. Just before he reached the edge of the enclosure, however, he stopped abruptly. “Move,” she repeated, giving him another push. He remained in place, not even twisting to face her. “I can’t.

This clearing has been encircled with Harpy blood, and the chains prevent me from leaving without suffering severe pain.” Her gaze narrowed on the muscled width of his tanned back. “I’m not a fool. I won’t remove your chains.” Plus, she wanted him docile while she paraded him through camp, not vying for freedom. When Juliette discovered what she’d done, a challenge would be issued. Kaia would need her attention focused, not divided. “Removing my chains isn’t necessary.” Not by tone or deed did he reveal a hint of his emotions. “Simply add your blood to the circle already there, then smear a drop on the chains, and you can lead me across without any problems.

” Ah, yes. She’d heard of blood-chains before. They trapped the wearer within the confines of the circle, however wide or small that circle was, and only a Harpy’s blood could negate the restriction. Any Harpy’s. “Good idea. I’m glad I thought of it.” She surveyed the Harpy camp. No one had noticed her, but Bianka was nervously shifting from one foot to the other, looking from Kaia to the camp, the camp to Kaia, her gaze pleading. With swift precision, Kaia used her dagger to slice her palm. The sharp sting barely registered.

After adding her blood to the crimson ring on the ground, she smoothed her weeping flesh over the cool links of metal between the man’s wrists. That done, she raced behind him a second time and pushed. He stumbled past the circle, paused to shake his head, stretch his spine, flex his shoulders. No matter how hard she pushed this time, she couldn’t budge him. Then he turned back and grinned at her. Before she could reason out what was happening, he had his hands wrapped around her neck, her feet lifted off the ground. Her eyes widened as he choked the life out of her with a power no human should have possessed. Despite her lack of air, fogging brain and burning throat, realization struck. He wasn’t human. Hatred suddenly poured from him, his dark eyes swirling hypnotically.

“Foolish Harpy. I might not be able to break these chains, but that circle was the only thing preventing me from rampaging through the camp. Now, all of you will die for the insult delivered to me.” Die? Hell, no! You have a dagger. Use it! She tried to stab him. Laughing cruelly, he batted her hand away. In the background, she heard Bianka shriek. Heard footsteps pound as her sister hurriedly closed the distance. No, she tried to shout. Stay back.

Then her thoughts fragmented as the man choked harder, tighter. A black wave swept her into a sea of nothingness. No, not nothingness. Screams echoed…so many screams… Grunts, groans and growls. The slide of metal against flesh, the pop of breaking bones, the sickening sound of wings being ripped from their slits. The nightmarish symphony lasted hours, perhaps days, before at last quieting. “Kaia.” Callused hands wrapped around her upper arms and shook her. “Awaken. Now.

” She knew that voice… Kaia fought her way from the sea, her eyelids fluttering open. A moment passed before her mind cleared and the darkened haze faded. Through a sliver of moonlight, she saw a blood-soaked, scowling Tabitha Skyhawk looming over her. “Look what you’ve done, daughter.” Never had her mother’s timbre lashed so harshly—and that was saying something. Though she wanted to refuse, she sat up, grimaced as pain lanced through her neck to attack the rest of her, and shifted her gaze, studying the camp. Bile rose. Harpies and…other things floated in rivers of scarlet. Weapons lay on the ground, useless. Strips of cloth from decimated tents had caught on tree branches and now waved in the wind, a sad parody of white flags.

“B-Bianka?” she managed to gasp, her voice raw. “Your sister is alive. Barely.” Kaia pushed to shaky legs and met her mother’s amber eyes. “Mother, I—” “Silence! You were told not to enter this area, and yet you disobeyed. And then, then you tried to steal another woman’s consort without gaining my permission.” She wanted to lie, to preserve her dream of the coming accolades. She found she could not. Not to her beloved mother. “Yes.

” Tears stung her eyes, that dream quickly flaming to ash inside her. “I did.” “Do you see the destruction behind me?” “Yes,” she repeated softly. Tabitha showed her no mercy. “You alone are responsible for the travesty this day.” “I’m sorry.” Her head fell, chin resting against her sternum. “So sorry.” “Keep your sorries. They cannot undo the anguish you have caused.

” Oh, gods. There was hatred in her mother’s voice now. True, undiluted hatred. “You have brought shame to our clan,” Tabitha said, ripping the medallion from Kaia’s neck. “This, you do not deserve. A true warrior saves her sisters. She does not endanger them. And so by this selfish act you have earned your title. From this moment on, you will be known as Kaia the Disappointment.” With that, Tabitha turned and walked away.

Her boots splashed in the blood, the sound echoing crudely in Kaia’s ears. She fell to her knees and sobbed like a child for the first time in her life.


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