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.
The female was going to kill him, Zane thought dazedly, dispassionately.
She'd won him, however long ago she'd fought for him—one day? Two? Weak as he was, he'd lost track of time. All he knew was that she'd tried multiple times to bed him. But she needed a hard cock for that, and he hadn't given it to her.
Denying her had delighted him.
Now two of those wretched Amazons stood around him, staring down at his naked body. If he hadn't been half-starved and teetering on the brink of total collapse, those stares would have sent him into a killing rage. He hated being looked at as much as he hated being touched.
He'd spent too many centuries as the demon queen's whore, hers to use, hers to hurt. And he'd suffered those indignities willingly, all for the love of a woman. A slave, as he was supposed to be now. Marina, that detestable queen, had promised to set his beloved free if Zane pleased her until she grew tired of him. But she'd never grown tired of him, and Cassandra, his chosen mate, had begun to hate him as a result. Yet, still he'd stayed, determined to finally win his prize.
And then Layel, the vampire king, had done the impossible and drained the demon queen, finally freeing both Zane and Cassandra, and he'd thought to earn back her love. After all, everything he had done had been for her. Only, she'd fled him. For another man. Perhaps that was for the best.
Zane was not the man he'd once been. He eschewed females and wanted no part of them. Wanted no part of sex. He shuddered at even the thought of it. The things he'd done…the things that had been done to him…sickness churned in his stomach. Had he eaten that day, he would have vomited.
But then Nola had walked into his life. Beautiful, passionate, fierce Nola. A woman who hadn't wanted him, who had rebuffed him. A woman he'd craved with every ounce of his being, despite what had been done to him. A woman the gods had taken from him. He did not know if she'd survived their island game or if the gods had set her free, but sometimes he would swear that he smelled her sweet scent, felt the gentle glide of her hands.
The first time he'd seen her, he'd thought her a gift from the gods. For why else would he have been able to endure—no, enjoy—her touch and no other's? Now, he thought that perhaps she'd been another curse. He craved her still, yet like Cassandra he could never have her. What did I do to deserve this?
"I'm strong," his "owner" said now, drawing his attention, "so of course he desires me. I mean, look at what I did to my competitors! Eighteen against one, yet I owned that arena. But he's too weak to be claimed."
"He needs blood," another said.
"Yes, but if he's given blood, he'll be able to raise his head and bite me."
Both of the females shuddered.
Did these Amazons—who abhorred the biting of flesh and the drinking of blood and who thought to rape him to steal a child from him—not realize the child of a vampire would most likely need to bite and drink blood to survive?
Would they kill the halfling if it proved to be more vampire than Amazon? Even through the haze of weakness, rage sparked inside his chest. He would kill them first.
Perhaps they meant to feed the child as they'd fed him, he thought next. The idea mollified him somewhat.
Before his last escape attempt, they'd kept him nourished by allowing him three small cups of blood a day. Who had donated the blood, he didn't know. Didn't care. What they didn't realize was that he never took from a living source. He only took from those he'd killed. As he was too weak to hurt them, they were in no danger of being bitten. Even starved as he was.
He would be lying if he said he didn't enjoy their fear and distaste.
But all of that was moot, he knew. He would never leave a child of his behind. What was his, was his.
"Did you try manipulating his rod?"
"Of course. He's not my first slave, you know."
"Well, give him blood, then bind his mouth. That way, he'll be strong enough to bed but unable to nibble on you."
"Oh, excellent idea! Grab a goblet." The pink-haired woman—he hadn't cared to remember her name—palmed one of her daggers, sliced a groove in her wrist and held the wound over the offered goblet.
His mouth watered at the sight and smell of that crimson nectar; his fangs elongated.
She approached him and held the cup to his lips. Thankfully, her skin did not touch his. "Drink."
He obeyed, swallowing three precious mouthfuls. Instantly, warmth spread through him, followed on its heels by strength.
"It's working. His color is returning." The cup was removed from his mouth, and he found his gaze locked with that of his captor. She was pretty, if he cared for such things. He didn't. He only cared that she had pink hair rather than black, brown eyes rather than turquoise, and she did not smell like Nola. Like sea and storms and flowers.
There was a pause, then a purr of agreement. "He's beautiful, isn't he?"
"Don't forget he's mine," was the snapped reply.
"Well, his cock is still flaccid, so you won't be claiming him any time soon," the other Amazon lashed back.
As the blood continued to work through him, the lethargy that had plagued him all these many days dissolved, leaving energy in his muscles, a sizzle in his bones. Escape, he thought, a growl working its way past his throat.
Both Amazons jumped away from him with a yelp.
"Hurry! Let's bind his mouth."
"Don't touch me!" Growls intensifying, Zane jerked at the chains circling his wrists and ankles. He hissed and snapped, kicking as much as he was able as the Amazons maneuvered around him. "No touching! Do you hear me? I'll kill you."
Suddenly a golden ray of light spilled inside the tent, and he would have sworn he caught a glimpse of Nola.
"No—" He stilled, his heart slamming against his ribs.
His captor moved, reaching for his neck, blocking the vision.
"Out of my way!" he shouted, bumping his hip against hers and sending her toppling to her face. He'd imagined Nola before, there in the battle tent. This vision, he planned to enjoy as long as possible.
Sure enough, there was a shimmering outline of long black hair, a glow of turquoise eyes, as Nola tried ineffectually to tug his captor away from him. He lost his breath. So lovely. His shaft hardened quickly and painfully. Nola. His sweetest tormentor.
Sadly, the illusion didn't last more than a few seconds. He wanted to scream and hurt and maim. To kill and be killed. The desire came too late, though, his stunned immobility costing him. The Amazon was able to leap to her feet and easily hook a thick strap of material around his mouth.
"Finally." Sighing with satisfaction, she leaned away from him, crouching on her haunches and smiling smugly. "And just as I suspected, your rod is—" Her words halted and her smile faded as his cock withered before her eyes. "But…you were…why…"
He had only imagined Nola; he knew that, but he couldn't stop his gaze from searching for another glimpse of her. To his dismay, he saw only furs, carved furniture and weapons. Even as his captor attempted to arouse him once more, stripping for him, caressing him, he did not stop searching.