A GONG SOUNDED throughout the deceptively tranquil night, followed by the echo of a whisper. Beach...

Delilah almost groaned. No. Not now. Not yet. Layel had just finished kissing her. During that kiss, the world around her had faded, shattering everything she'd ever known, before another anchor had taken over: his tongue, his touch. Him. And then he had walked away from her, leaving her alone with the dragon. No, he hadn't walked. He'd run as if demons were devouring his skin. Leaving her half-naked, aching, wanting. Confused. He hadn't looked back.

He'd left her just as Vorik had left her.

Hands shaking, she bent down and gathered what was left of her top. She hastily pulled it around her, tying it in the center - which shoved her breasts together. Wonderful. If she ran, they would bounce. Perhaps, though, Layel would like that. Silly girl.

Tagart didn't turn away while she dressed. He watched her the entire time through slitted lids, golden eyes bright. Bastard. "The vampire king doesn't truly want you," he said.

She could have sliced his head from his body for that, for voicing what she feared most. The vampire king doesn't truly want you. Layel had left her and sworn never to come near her again, lending truth to Tagart's claim. But...that passion could not have been forced. More than that, Layel had fought the dragon like a man possessed. For her. She knew it had been for her.

Please let it have been for her.

When she failed to respond, Tagart sighed. "You know very well that Layel is the enemy. Our enemy, not just mine, right now."

Yes, she knew that. It just hadn't mattered. She could have claimed her actions had been for the good of the team. A kiss to soften, weaken the vampire. The boast wouldn't leave her tongue, however. She'd finally discovered magic in the arms of a man. She had no desire to taint that memory.

But damn him, she had never felt so raw. What had happened with Layel...what she'd experienced in the vampire's arms...it had been a possession. For that brief time, she had been the most important thing in his life - and she would have betrayed her tribe, not to mention her team, for him. Would have followed him anywhere, would have begged him for forever.

He had given her pleasure, wildness, freedom to simply experience. She'd climaxed around his fingers, his mouth on her nipple. She'd felt the rasp of his sharp teeth, but he hadn't broken her skin - something she should have been happy about, yet she would have willingly given him all the blood in her body, if only she could remain in his embrace.

In that moment, he'd had absolute power over her. Far from angering her as that should have, she reveled in the knowledge. I could not have stopped him. Could not have escaped. She shivered in remembered bliss. She had been his captive, had worried about nothing and reveled in the knowledge that she was safe, protected, cherished, and could give herself over completely without any type of rejection. With Vorik, she'd never lost her inhibitions and simply gone wild in his arms. She had worried about everything. Am I doing this right? Does he like this? Should I do more?

"Have you no reply, Amazon?"

"I know he is our enemy," was all she said.

"I expected better of you. A fierce fighter. The very woman who tossed me aside during battle only one day ago."

She blinked up at him in surprise. There had been so many opponents, she couldn't summon the image of a single dragon face. "We fought?"

He threw his hands up in disgust. "I'm so insignificant, you do not even remember."

"Fight harder next time," she suggested helpfully.

Far from being appreciative, he snarled at her in fury. "More and more, I am unsure as to why I'm concerning myself with you. Perhaps you and the vampire have been in league since the beginning. He did join you on the battlefield and every time I see you, you are near him. Or watching him. Is he paying you to topple your own team? A climax for every loss?"

She balled her fist and punched him, moving so quickly he had no time to protect himself. Her knuckles slammed into his nose, snapping it. He howled in pain, in outrage. He even stepped toward her, as though he meant to return her blow with one of his own. But he didn't.

He glared at her, blood dripping down his chin. "Do that again and you will regret it."

"The dragons incurred the wrath of the Amazons when they bound one of our sisters." Lily. Poor, sweet Lily. How was she doing? Delilah pushed the worry from her mind. It was either that, or break down. "That we are teammates is the only reason you are still alive. And now that the gods' ridiculous game is beginning, let's see how long you stay that way." She blew him an unconcerned kiss, not surprised to see the puncture wounds on his neck were weaving back together and his nose was snapping back into place.

Dragons and vampires were swift healers. Unfortunately, Amazons were not. When it came to injury, they were as susceptible as humans. Recovery from a broken bone could take weeks, sometimes months. That was one of the reasons they trained so rigorously. Preventing injuries was necessary for survival.

 

Without another word, she leapt into motion. The gong sounded again. What would happen if she ignored it? Another blast of water in her face? Probably. Her steps increased in speed, and soon she passed a centaur.

What would the first challenge be? Sword fights? Hand-to-hand combat?

A naked branch slapped her cheek, and she reached up to rub the fresh wound. That's when she realized that she was still trembling from Layel's kiss. She was still hot, still achy. Tagart hadn't calmed her, the summons hadn't calmed her. By Kreja's Ax, the climax hadn't calmed her.

Worse, she knew that if Layel had been near her, if he'd shown the slightest bit of eagerness, she would have fallen right back into his arms. Anything to have all of his strength wrapped around her, under her palms, hers to lick.

Damn Tagart for interrupting! one part of her cursed.

Praise the gods he interrupted! the other part rejoiced.

Consorting with the enemy simply for pleasure - ridiculous! And utterly against Amazon code. Now she most likely had to face the vampire king on the battlefield. Again. She stiffened her spine and drew on every ounce of resolve she possessed. Angry as he was, he might try and hurt her first.

If it came to that, she would have to cut him down.

She broke through the foliage and at last reached the glistening sand. Moonlight, such lovely moonlight, bathed the island in amber mist. Waves danced without a care, spraying droplets onto the shore with delightful abandon.

Several of the creatures already waited in front of her, and her eyes widened as she spotted the long, winding...thing in front of them. Made of wood, it stretched across the water. Multiple spiked bars swung from both sides. Whoosh. Whiz. Whoosh. There were holes carved into the bottom planks.

Anyone who walked the length of it would either be pummeled by the spikes or dropped into the ocean - where sharks already circled as though they sensed a tasty snack lingered nearby. And if she wasn't mistaken, mer-warriors were also in the water, spears raised, teeth gleaming as they smiled.

Confused, Delilah stalked beside...She searched her mind but could not remember the minotaur's name, even though he was on her team. He was tall, fur covering every inch of his bull face and humanlike body. Saber-teeth protruded from his lips down to his chin. Two horns rose on each side of his head in place of ears.

She'd invaded a minotaur camp once. The bull-men hadn't had a king in centuries, but one had risen among their ranks and tried to take the reins of power. To prove himself strong and unafraid, the foolish creature had insulted nearly every king and queen in Atlantis.

Kreja, Amazon queen then and now, had decided to teach him the error of his ways and ordered Delilah to lead the army into battle. Delilah had chosen a sneak attack as she considered the weaker race unworthy of a full-on clash. During a rainstorm, she'd infiltrated their midst and simply cut the limbs from the bastard's body.

The next day, she'd delivered each of those limbs to a few of the kings and queens he had insulted. She wondered how Layel would have reacted to the gift, had he been among the recipients.

"What is that?" she asked the minotaur now, nodding at the monstrosity up ahead.

He turned his head and eyed her from top to bottom. Searching for weapons, most likely. She fluttered her lashes at him, projecting, I'm harmless. You have nothing to fear. If Tagart's accusations reached her teammates, they would most likely try and slay her in her sleep. They would believe him, too, because she had left their meeting so abruptly.

Gods, she was going to have to win their loyalty.

Slowly the bull-man relaxed. "I believe it's called a gauntlet. My mother used to tell me stories about brave warriors who attempted to defeat such things."

Gauntlet...the word played through her mind, finally snapping into place. Bedtime stories told of courageous soldiers forced to run the entire length to prove their valor. Trepidation bubbled in her chest, followed quickly by excitement. Danger always had that effect. Half of her hated it while the other half thrived on it.

Perhaps she had always been a woman divided. Perhaps she could not lay her dueling needs to conquer and be conquered at Layel's feet.

As if her thoughts had summoned him, a gliding black slash appeared down the beach. Layel had arrived. Her stomach quivered, and her knees weakened. Moisture flooded between her legs. Gods. He wasn't near her, yet she could almost feel his fingers inside her, pumping her to satisfaction.

His effect was even more potent than the thought of danger, for there was not a single part of her that hated it. Come to me, she projected. He didn't. And all of her willpower was required to remain in place - or, at the very least, not motion him over.

Should she call out to him? One glance at his eyes, that was all she needed. Hopefully, he had calmed, those invisible demons forgotten.

In the end, she didn't have to do anything. He faced her, a quick meeting of gazes before looking away. Usually he appeared cold, withdrawn. Sometimes, like a little while ago, feral. But now the hate had returned. Oh, had the hate returned. The heat and force of it was blinding.

Why?

She scoured her mind but couldn't recall anything she might have done to offend him. Could he, like her, be battling conflicting desires? She'd wondered before, but never had the possibility seemed more likely.

She knew why she did so. She wanted to be both woman and warrior, respected by her sisters and loved by a man. What was his reasoning?

"If you cause us to fail," Tagart said, suddenly at her side and blocking Layel from her sights, "I will kill you myself. Doubt me not."

She went rigid. In the past, no one would have been able to sneak up on her. Damn Layel and his strange pull on her! "Perhaps you haven't realized that your threats mean nothing to me."

Nola approached her other side, and Delilah turned away from the dragon. An insult, she knew. As if he were so insignificant he did not bear watching. She kept her ears tuned to him, though, in case he decided to strike.

He growled low in his throat, but never moved for attack.

"This cannot end well," Nola muttered. Strands of her dark hair brushed her cheek and whipped over her eyes. "I hate that we have been separated. My team leaves much to be desired."

Though they had never been close, Delilah's loyalty belonged to those of her own race. Do not forget. "No matter what we are ordered to do, I will not betray or hurt you. You have my word."

Nola's gaze fixed on the gauntlet. "I want to believe you. I do. But - "

"No. No god is going to change my allegiance."

"I cannot believe this is really happening. I want to go home. I want to hold Lily. I want my life back, riotous as it was."

"Everyone here wants to return to Atlantis, but we can't. So you're going to put those things out of your mind and concentrate on the task at hand. That's an order. It's the only way to ensure your survival."

Nola bristled, but a moment passed and she gave another nod. "All right. Yes."

Delilah's relief was short-lived.

"The time has come."

The god-voice came suddenly, without warning, and Delilah's already stiff body gave a jerk. This voice sounded different, deeper than the one yesterday had been, raspier than the one before. A third god? She faced the ocean, where the air and water beside the gauntlet mixed, thickening and dappling and already taking the shape of a man. Again, no face was visible.

"Citizens of Atlantis," came the voice again. "We hope that you have had sufficient time to prepare for this first test of your mettle. If not, you are not the warriors we thought you were and we will be highly disappointed."

Thunder suddenly boomed in the sky. A second later, dark clouds formed above the warriors and the gauntlet, and fat droplets of rain fell over the group in a hard pelting. Delilah didn't bother to wipe the water from her face; she wouldn't give the god the satisfaction.

"In life, as in this game, there are many obstacles. One wrong move and you could be destroyed. Remember that..."

Lightning streaked brightly, illuminating the god for a split second. Underneath the mask of water, Delilah thought she saw the visage of a gloriously handsome man. Eyes of bright blue, hair of honeyed silk. Perfect lips curved into a perfect smile of delight.

"Line up," he commanded. The rain mixed with ice, beating against them, bruising.

At first, no one moved. Were they, like her, disgusted by this god's behavior? What would happen if they continued to refuse?

Unwilling to find out, they finally trudged up three separate tiers one by one. Soon they stood on a flat platform. There were two identical paths in front of the scaffold, each leading to identical treachery. She was shivering, cold misting with her every breath, as she studied the gauntlet from this new angle. How had she gotten to this point? She might have devoted her life to mastering the art of combat, but never had she imagined being involved in something as sinister as this.

Tagart elbowed Delilah out of the way and claimed the first position for their team. She thought about protesting, then shrugged. Let him lead. He could be the first to fall, the first to be pushed.

In the other line, Brand assumed the lead and Layel floated to the space right behind him. His arm brushed hers, a slow stroke of fire. Unintentional? And why was he warm? He was usually as cold as the ice now falling from the sky. Don't look at him, don't you dare look at him. He would distract her, perhaps destroy her resolve.

"A successful team player will work to ensure that all members walk away from a battle, not just himself," the god said. "I suggest you use whatever means necessary to buoy your team along, for every one of you must reach the end." A crack of thunder boomed, and the god cleared his throat. "The first team to reach the end wins. Not only will you bask in the glow of our approval, but as a reward for your efforts, we will gift you with something you surely crave even more than another tomorrow. A glimpse of your home, your loved ones."

A glimpse of her loved ones...of Lily. She shook with the sudden force of her determination, all the while continuing to fight the desire to face Layel, gauge his reaction to the god's announcement. Was there someone at home, waiting for him? A woman, perhaps, snuggled in his bed?

Don't look, don't look, don't - she did it, willpower broken by need. She looked. Breath caught in her throat. The vampire was watching her, and their gazes clashed as sharply as the storm.

That quickly, her blood heated with renewed desire. Renewed? As if the sweet hum had ever left her.

Her nipples pearled again, her knees weakened.

Before he could turn away from her, dismissing her, she refocused on the god. Instantly her eyes mourned the loss of his decadent face.

"Before we begin, there is one rule I must mention. If one participant falls into the water, that creature must return to the beginning and start over. A little punishment for failing, if you will. Help your team or not. Hinder your team or not. The choice is yours. Just know that we will be watching, judging. Deciding." With barely a pause, the god added, "Go."

A moment passed before Delilah realized the contest had begun. Tagart, too, hesitated, even when Brand sprang forward.

"Go, go, go!" she shouted, shoving Tagart over the threshold. Her heart raced in her chest, adrenaline surging hard.

He tripped, sliding on the ice-covered wood. When he caught himself, he whipped into fervent motion. She stayed close to his heels, barely able to see past the pounding rain. The first spiked lance swung at her, and she ducked. Whoosh. One of the spikes sliced her shoulder blade. There was a sharp sting, a rush of warm blood, and she winced.

She didn't slow.

"Jump," Tagart shouted.

She did, a gaping hole suddenly underneath her, sharks swimming just below it, snapping up at her. Their teeth were long, white and jagged. As she landed, knees absorbing the impact, she threw over her shoulder, "Jump!"

The minotaur didn't react as swiftly as she had and failed to obey in time. He began to fall, down, down, swiftly. Not knowing if she would do more harm than good, Delilah stopped, spun and dropped to her stomach, grabbing for his arm. Their palms clapped together, and he latched on to her with frantic desperation. His heavy weight nearly slid her from her perch.

The team member behind the minotaur jumped and landed on Delilah's back with his hooves - a centaur - shoving the air from her lungs. The bastard kept galloping, obviously deciding she wasn't worth the effort. So much for buoying his team along.

"Pull me up," the bull-man screamed, his eyes darting between her and the hungry fish below him. Sweat dripped from his dark fur, and she lost her grip. Their fingers slipped.

"Hold tighter, damn it!"

A grinning merman swam to the bull and reached up, trying to grab his ankles. All the while she did her best to hoist him up. She was strong, but he was so heavy it felt as if her arms were being torn from their sockets.

"Kick him," she commanded through gritted teeth. She dug her booted toes into the wood planks and rolled her hips. Slowly, with every roll, she inched backward. "Don't let him latch on to you."

Another team member slapped into her back, and she nearly lost her hold again. So much for team players. Somehow she managed to maintain a solid hold this time, even as the minotaur flailed to avoid the laughing merman.

Layel appeared beside her, startling her. She glanced up, embarrassed that she needed help but happy to see him all the same. He didn't touch her or say a word as he kicked his leg into the hole. His foot slammed into the bull-man's face.

"What are you doing?" she shouted, rain filling her mouth.

The minotaur sobbed and grabbed for her wrist with his other hand.

"Let him go."

"No!"

Layel kicked the bull again.

Strong arms suddenly latched on to her waist, a thick leg whizzing past her temple and connecting with Layel's chest. The vampire soared backward and her helper gave a hard tug, pulling Delilah to her feet and the minotaur the rest of the way to safety. She glanced up, panting, and saw Tagart.

His eyes were grim, his face cut and bloodied. Water trickled from his cheeks in little rivers. "Let's go." He turned and was off, unwilling to wait for her.

She rubbed her shoulder and stumbled forward. As she moved, a flash of black drew her attention to the left. Layel had regained his balance and now kept pace beside her on his side of the gauntlet, watching her through eyes red with fury. Time seemed to slow, the dragon and minotaur racing toward the finish line and her other teammates rushing past her, her labored gait too slow.

Determined, she increased her speed. Every step jarred her shoulder and lanced her with fresh pain, but she didn't care. She dodged the spikes and jumped the holes without missing a beat.

Layel, she noticed, simply floated above the gaping holes. He never fell behind her, nor did he inch in front of her. Truly, what was his purpose? He could have maimed her, slowed her down and won, but he hadn't.

A pendulum swung at her and she ducked, soon realizing there was a rhythm to the game. Step, step, duck. Step, jump. Step, step, duck. Again, she quickened her movements. Twice, she skidded across the slippery ice, but both times she managed to stop herself before she slid straight into the water.

Where was Nola? Had the girl already reached the end? She looked, slipped.

Concentrate. Ducking nearly to her stomach as the lowest lance yet whizzed overhead, Delilah's gaze connected with Layel's as though tugged by an invisible chain. He'd already made it past the spike and was standing off to the side, next to a hole.

One of his teammates dangled under it, she saw, hanging on with only one hand. Gaze never leaving her, Layel stepped on the creature's fingers. There was a pained cry. Then nothing. Then a splash. Then another cry. Her mouth fell open in shock. Why had he done that? He had hindered his own team, sentenced them to lose.

To show her that he had no remorse when it came to killing?

To help her win?

The thought was heady. Shameful, but heady. She wanted to throw herself into his arms, feel him embrace her. Hear him proclaim to all the world that she was his, belonged to him, and he would stop at nothing to ensure her happiness.

Someone grabbed her arm, and she cried out at the renewed agony in her shoulder. Her attention skidded to her tormentor. Tagart.

He tossed her a dark scowl. "You're the last. Hurry!" With that, he jerked her forward.

She tried to pull back. Foolishly, she didn't want Layel to lose. But it was too late. In seconds, they were at the end. She saw every one of her teammates hunched over, gasping for air. But they were there, which meant her team had won. Cheers soon rent the air, louder even than the crashing thunder.

She turned as Layel reached his own team. They were hunched over and gasping, as well, but they didn't cheer when they saw the vampire. They snarled in rage. He was the reason they had lost, and they knew it.

"You'll pay," Brand snarled.

"You kicked him!" a centaur roared. "You kicked Irren."

Irren, the formorian in question, limped to the finish line a short while later. His only arm clung to its socket with thin strips of crimson flesh. Like all of his race, he possessed only one leg. That leg was missing hunks of muscle. Both of his wings were broken, barely able to flap, but keeping him upright. Injured as he was, he still attacked Layel from behind.

Frowning, Layel reached behind him, latched on to the creature and flipped him overhead. Smack. Irren hit the wood, causing the entire platform to vibrate. The formorian didn't rise. He just lay there, panting, tears streaming down his cheeks.

"You could have helped me," Irren choked out. "You could have helped."

"But I didn't," Layel replied coldly. He was peering at Delilah as he spoke, as if his every action was for her benefit.

Did he think she would turn away, repulsed by him? Did he hope that she would?

Violence was not abhorrent to her. She had done much worse over the years.

Not knowing what to make of him, Delilah tore her gaze away and searched for Nola. She found the girl in the corner, scowling over at her. Blaming her for the loss?

Having none of that, Delilah lumbered toward her. Just before she reached her target, however, everyone on the losing team disappeared. There one moment, gone the next. At first, Delilah glanced around in confusion. Then her stomach clenched as realization set in.

Elimination.

One member would not return from their counsel with the gods. And after the way the team had glared at Layel, she didn't have to guess who that team member would be.

IN THE SPAN OF A HEARTBEAT, Layel found himself sitting in front of a fire, trees surrounding him. The rain had stopped. Damn this! He was tired of being popped in and out of locations without warning. He himself had the ability but he rarely utilized it, not liking the sense of total exhaustion that always accompanied the transport. Still, he would rather deal with the weariness than with the god's seemingly unbeatable power. Freedom of choice was something he valued.

His teammates sat in a circle around him. They, too, had been popped here. How...wonderful.

"You purposely pushed the formorian into the water," Brand growled without preamble.

Layel arched a brow but did not verbally respond. He refused to explain himself to a fire-breather.

In truth, he couldn't even explain himself to himself. He didn't think he'd acted to prevent Delilah's team from losing. He despised that woman and her dangerous kisses. More than that, if they'd lost, Tagart might have been the one to die - a thought that pleased Layel.

Tagart.

Layel's teeth cut into his gums and blood flavored his tongue. Tagart obviously desired Delilah, obviously wanted her for his own. The dragon bastard was unworthy of her passion. All men were.

"He stepped on my hand," Irren cried, drawing him out of his dark musings.

Brand knifed to a towering stand. The fire crackled, amber light dancing over his harsh countenance. His hair beads slapped together in an ominous beat. "You cost us the victory, bloodsucker."

Rather than address the dragon, Layel eyed the formorian. "You cost us the victory, and you know it. You are simply too cowardly to admit it. Had you not fallen into the hole and slowed our momentum, I would not have been able to step on your hand, now would I?"

The creature's bruised cheeks colored in embarrassment, a rainbow of reds, blues and blacks. His glittering green eyes added to the rainbow effect. "Do not blame this on me! I would have climbed to safety."

"With your arm or your leg?" he scoffed without mercy. "You are the weakest among us and would have caused us to lose whether you climbed up of your own volition or not. You will cause us to lose every challenge, I have no doubt." He shook his head in disgust, though privately he admitted that disgust was not for the creature's infirmity. Rather his reaction stemmed from the desire he'd seen in Irren's eyes whenever the creature looked at Delilah. "You deserved to be hurt."

Surprisingly Brand had no response to that. None of them did.

Amid the silence, Layel's mind returned to Delilah and their kiss...His fangs elongated even more. He'd had his tongue and his fingers inside her. He'd rubbed his swollen shaft against her. He would have drunk from her and he would have bedded her if Tagart had not interrupted.

Not once had he thought of Susan.

Not once had he cared that it had not been his mate's gentle voice rasping his name, her soft hands clawing his back. No, Susan would not have clawed him. Their lovemaking had always been tender, as sweet as Susan herself. He had savored every moment with her.

Not once had he ever felt the desire to dominate her as he had with Delilah. He had wanted to possess the Amazon's very soul. Brand himself inside her, claim her every cell for his own. The need had been fierce, a rising tide of tangled darkness and light.

Because of that, he had betrayed Susan more than ever before. He didn't deserve pleasure. He didn't deserve happiness. And that he had experienced them, even for so short a time, made him as pathetic and shameful as the dragons. Yet...

When Delilah had reached for her teammate - nearly falling herself in the process - his first instinct had been to grab hold of her. Save her, keep her close. Guard her. He had refrained at first, telling himself it would be easier this way. She would fall, perhaps die, definitely be hurt. And he would stop craving her.

Finally, though, he had been unable to resist. He'd moved toward her. Rather than touch her, however, he had tried to dislodge the bastard holding her down. Stubborn as she was, she'd wanted to save her team member. Which Tagart had helped her do.

Layel blanked his mind as his teeth gnashed together. It's done. Over. You can't go back and change what happened.

As he focused on the here and now, he realized Brand had moved in front of him. Golden eyes were boring down at him, hot, wild. "I asked you a question, and I will be ignored no longer."

"What question?"

"You think to pretend ignorance?"

Annoyance swept through him, sure and potent. He'd been lost in thought and far away from the conversation. He wouldn't admit to it, though. Instead, he withdrew one of his wooden daggers, moving with lightning speed to slash Brand's jugular. But the blade disappeared from his hand, causing Layel to hit the dragon with his fingers. Brand opened his mouth to spew fire.

"Sit down," a booming voice commanded. A female voice this time, though just as powerful as the male voices they'd encountered before.

He frowned. How many gods were pulling their strings? Watching them? Torturing them? This was the fourth. He glanced left, right, unsurprised that he could not see the being's form.

"Until next time, fire-bastard," he said.

"Next time, bloodsucker. If you survive the elimination, which I do not think will be the case." Jaw clenched, Brand stomped back to his seat.

Layel did the same, grimly suspecting Brand was right. This would probably be his last night alive. He deserved the death, yet he still wasn't ready for it. But not for his usual reasons, damn the gods. He found, in that instant, he regretted that he would die without tasting Delilah fully.

"Here we are, in the losers' circle, the first challenge completed. Some of you showed more courage than others. Some of you more weakness." There was a pause. The gods, Layel had noticed, did love their dramatic pauses. "In the end, you allowed your opponents to best you, and for that you have earned our displeasure. While the other team celebrates their victory, reaping its rewards, you are here before me, one of you destined to die."

Another pause, this one angry. "Because we could not agree amongst ourselves, we are leaving the vote up to you," the goddess said. "The creature with the most votes will be the one to face execution. May I recommend the dragon or the vampire?"

With her last words, a growl whipped around them as fierce as wind. Only sharper. Cutting. Layel thought he heard the words No interference, but he couldn't be sure.

The goddess sighed, then uttered a distinctly forced chuckle. "Just a little gallows humor, of course. Pick whomever you feel is most deserving of elimination, the warrior who will cause you to lose over and over again if he remains on your team."

Layel raised his chin, even as his heart shuddered. His death had never been more certain, for his teammates could never trust him.

"Brand." She said his name with...distaste? "You may begin."

"We need time," the warrior said. "Time to talk and decide."

"Actually, what we need is to be sent home." Layel figured he was about to die, so why not speak his mind? "This game is barbaric. We should never have been brought here."

"Brand," the goddess snapped, and Layel balled his fists at being ignored. "Vote. Now."

One by one, the members spoke their choice. Layel sat stiffly, and when his turn arrived a sword materialized and hovered just over the fire. Waiting...waiting for a target. And then the last vote was delivered.

"And so it is done," the goddess said.

Sharp silver twirled in the air and struck the first member to be eliminated from the game.