Nola stood in the center of the battle tent, watching as her sisters-by-race lined up. Each shifted eagerly from one foot to the other, clutching their weapon of choice. She spotted several axes, a few spears, but mostly swords.
Mating season had officially begun.
Soon the females would break into groups, fighting each other for the right to whichever stolen slave they desired. Those slaves, eight in number, were currently chained to the far wall at the end of the spacious enclosure. Three dragon shifters, two centaurs, two male sirens and a vampire. All eight were muscled, beautiful...and all but one was grinning. The vampire.
Her vampire. Zane.
The men would be bedded this night and for several weeks to come. Then they would be freed, never to return. That was the way of the Amazons. Capture, breed and abandon. Of course the males were happy about this. All but Zane.
Zane had dark hair, equally dark eyes and the fiercest temper she'd ever encountered. He didn't like to be touched and had actually injured many Amazons - not an easy feat - in his quest for freedom. Finally, in an effort to tame him, they had stopped feeding him the blood he needed for strength. Now he was physically weakened, only able to lean against the wall and wait for his mistress to be declared.
However, nothing could weaken his hatred - or the promised retribution that radiated from him.
Nola had met him what seemed an eternity but had actually only been four months ago. He'd desired her, had tried to win her affections - and she'd tried to kill him. With the memory, guilt filled her. But in her defense, she hadn't known him then. Had only been concerned with her own survival. The gods had swept them to a remote island, along with several other creatures, and pitted them against each other, forcing them to fight, to watch helplessly as their friends were executed.
More than that, she'd spent her entire life hating men and the pain they brought with them. As a young child, she'd been sold by her own mother to male after male; she'd been used, hurt, taunted...ruined. Zane's desire had frightened her, and she had lashed out.
And now, she was paying for that.
No one could see her. No one could hear her. Though she was encircled by the bright, golden light seeping through the tent's apex, no one knew she was there, that she'd been among them, month after month. The gods had cursed her with invisibility when she'd been eliminated from their impossible contest - and then chained her to this camp as surely as Zane was now chained.
The gods had seen to Zane's captivity, as well, gifting the vampire to the Amazons to use as they saw fit. And use him they would - and had. Because mating season had not begun until today, they had forced him to work their land, hauling boulder after boulder for the building of more tents. He'd had to find sticks and sharpen them into weapons. They'd even forced him to feed many of the women by hand. Of course, he'd tried to escape, so they'd resorted to starving him. That starvation caused him to weaken unbearably, rendering him useless. Lately all he'd been able to do was lie in place and curse.
"Stand before the slave you wish to claim," Kreja, the Amazon queen, commanded. She stood at the edge of her royal dais, her gaze scanning, expectant. She was a lovely woman, with pale hair and light eyes, both of which gave her the appearance of fragility. But she possessed an iron core, a vicious nature.
The warrioresses broke apart, as Nola had known they would, and crowded around the males that tempted them.
Nineteen of the thirty-two females chose Zane.
She had hoped their aversion to biting and blood would deter them. She should have known better. Strength was prized among the Amazons, and Zane had nearly won his freedom. Twice. They wanted that strength for their offspring, which was the entire point of mating season.
"Excellent," Kreja said with a grin.
That delighted the women around him, edging them to a new level of eagerness.
Nola fought a wave of anger, of helplessness. She should not have feared Zane. She should have enjoyed him while she'd had the chance. His was the first touch in the entire span of her life that had not filled her with disgust. There had been something almost...reverent in his every gentle caress. If she'd welcomed him, he might have helped purge the demons of her past. He might have saved her from herself.
Now, she would never know.
"Fight for me if you wish," he said through sharp, gritted teeth, "but know that I will slay the winner with my bare hands."
He was not a man given to boasting, Nola knew.
"So vengeful," someone twittered happily.
"So mine," another snapped.
"It is I who will win his seed," still another growled. "I who will give birth to his offspring."
"No one will bear my child," he roared.
He is not meant to be a slave, Nola longed to shout. He was too proud, too defiant. Traits she also possessed. Which was why she had finally risen up and slain her own mother. Which in turn was why she sometimes cried herself to sleep, wishing she could claw the images from her mind.
Scowling, Nola strode forward and reached out, hoping that, for once, her fingers would do more than ghost through as she tried to shove the Amazons aside. As always, her hand slipped through their bodies as if she were nothing more substantial than mist.
A cry of frustration escaped her.
Still, no one paid her any heed.
"Those of you who desire the vampire will now enter the arena." Kreja's hard voice silenced their arguments. Together they did as commanded, bypassing Nola, even stepping through her.
"Damn you!" she shouted. "Hear me!"
Of course, they did not.
Shoulders slumping, she closed the distance between herself and Zane and sank beside him. Like the others, he did not act as if he noticed. But she could almost - almost - feel his warmth, and goose bumps broke out over her skin.
"Lily," Kreja called with a wave of her hand.
Lily, the child-princess who would one day rule this clan, stood up from her throne atop the dais and walked to her mother's side, her little body draped in velvet robes rather than the leather straps and skirts worn by the warrioresses.
She had changed much in the past few months. No longer was this queen-in-training giddy and innocent. Once having run from camp to prove herself worthy of her people - thereby inadvertently beginning a war between the Amazons and the dragons, a war she'd thought had caused the deaths of Nola and another Amazon - she was now solemn, determined to become a worthy leader. She'd even relinquished her right to claim Brand the dragon shifter, another of the gods' exiles, as her personal servant, and had offered him up to her people. He now sat among the other slaves.
"You will not fight to the death," Lily proclaimed in her soft voice. "But you will continue to engage each other until only one of you is left standing. It is she who will earn the right to bed the vampire."
After Nola's own experience with the gods' cruel contest, she had no desire to watch another. For Zane, however, she would watch. And she would wish.
There was only a slight pause before Kreja said, "You may begin."
Immediately the women leapt into action. Metal clanged against metal, grunts abounded, and sand was flung in every direction. Bodies were collapsing, cries of pain echoing, as one pink-haired female savagely worked her way through the masses.
Soon, she was the only one standing.
Nola wanted to vomit.
"And so we have a winner." Kreja motioned to Zane with a wave of her hand. "Claim your prize, beloved. Know that we are proud of the strength and tenacity you have demonstrated today."
As the female approached, Zane trembled. In rage. Perhaps in fear.
"I won't let her have you," Nola vowed, though she knew there was nothing she could do to stop what would happen.