“Live. Finally, we will live.”
And they did.
WHEN THE GODS REALIZED that the wall between earth and Hell had been breeched and a horde of Demon Lords let loose upon earth, they sent an immortal army to repair the damage—but no one could catch the fiends. And even if they could, the gods knew that locking them back inside Hell would merely invite another rebellion.
Something had to be done.
Though the stone barrier had fallen, the goddess of Oppression’s body was still bound to the wall of Hell. And so the gods rebuilt the wall and then created a box-sized prison from Kadence’s bones, confident that the powers she had tapped into hours before her death still resided deep in the marrow.
They were proven right.
Once opened, the box drew the demons from their hiding places, holding them captive as even Hell had been unable to do.
Of course, the gods were pleased with their handiwork and gave the box to Pandora, the strongest female warrior of her time, to guard. But that is a story for another time.
THE AMAZON’S CURSE
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. Anticipation thickened the air.
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. His fury was palpable.
Despite that fury, her gaze drank him in. Zane had dark hair, equally dark eyes and a body made for war. And sex. He had muscle stacked upon muscle and scars that laced his corded chest.
He also had 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, for whatever reason, and 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. Worse, forcing them 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 already. 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, time after time, so they’d resorted to starving him. That starvation had caused him to weaken unbearably, rendering him useless. Lately all he’d been able to do was lie in place and curse.
She hated seeing him like this. Maybe because she no longer viewed him as an enemy. How could she? He suffered as she suffered. But now, they would never have a chance to explore their…feelings for each other. Yes, feelings, she thought. On her part anyway. Finally, she felt. A need to protect. A need to defend.
Yet she could do neither. And after the way she had treated him, rejecting his advances, he might not want her to try.
What did he see in me, anyway? She’d never understood. That dislike of another’s touch…he’d possessed it even on the island. Even with his own king, Layel. Except with her.
Her, he had welcomed. Again, why? What made her so different?
And why had she not reveled in him while she’d had the chance?
Foolish girl. That’s what her mother had called her every time she’d complained about her abuse. Nola had never agreed. Until now.
“It is time,” a commanding female voice suddenly boomed. “Stand before the slave you wish to claim.”
A royal decree the warrioresses rushed to obey, breaking apart, rushing forward.
Kreja, the Amazon queen, 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. Which was why Nola had always served her well. She cherished order and had truly enjoyed being led by a woman who thought battles were to be won at any cost.
Now? Not so much.
Finally, the women were crowded around the males that tempted them.
Nineteen of the thirty-two females chose Zane.
Shocking. She had thought 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.
Her hands curled into fists. Fists that would remain useless, for they could make contact with no one but herself.
“Excellent,” Kreja said with a grin. She nodded to the ones standing in front of Zane. “You have chosen well. Though the vampire is a parasite, his daughters will be stalwart.”
They should have been mine. Amazons only gave birth to girls. Nola didn’t know why or how, only that it was so. And she wanted to kill anyone who would accept this man’s seed.
“And if our goddess is shining upon us,” Kreja continued, “we will be able to train those daughters to consume something besides blood. If not…” She shrugged, but Nola knew what she implied.
The daughters would be killed.
That delighted the women around him, edging them to a new level of eagerness.
Nola fought a wave of anger, of helplessness. He knows what Kreja plans, and does not like it. He wants to protect his children, even though none have yet been conceived. No, she should not have feared Zane. She should have enjoyed him, maybe run away with him.
Like him, she did not like being touched. Except by him. 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.
Just as she’d wondered what made her so different to him, she wondered what made him so different to her. That they were so alike? That they sensed, on a bone-deep level, the other’s hurt? Because yes, every time she neared him, her heart squeezed and shuddered. Pain always rested in his eyes.
“Fight for me if you wish,” he said through sharp, gritted teeth, drawing her thoughts back to the tent, “but know that I will slay the winner with my bare hands.”
He was not a man given to boasting, Nola knew. He promised—and he followed through.
“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. “I will die first.”
He could not die!
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 bloody 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. “He shall be the first prize.”
“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 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 once thought had caused the deaths of Nola and another Amazon, Delilah—she was now solemn. 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.