That brought Aello’s stare firmly to rest on Sam. Her green eyes glowed in the strange light. "I know you."
"No. You died before I was born. I’m the granddaughter of Hippolyte and I’m told I favor her."
Suspicion hung heavy in her eyes as she measured Sam from the top of her head to the tip of her feet. "You want the girdle." It was a statement, not a question.
Sam nodded. "It belongs to me. It’s part of my inheritance."
"And are you Amazon?"
She lifted her chin in pride and indignation that Aello would dare to question her heritage. "I was queen."
Aello lowered her spear. "Then you know nothing in our tribe is ever freely given. You must earn the right to wear your grandmother’s girdle."
Ethon scoffed. "Couldn’t we just buy a Playtex?"
"Silence!" Aello jerked the spear and would have beheaded him had he not ducked.
Ethon grabbed the lance and jerked it from her hands. "I’m not–"
Before he could finish, the spear turned on him and beat him down without anyone touching it. It swept his feet out from under him and once he was on his back, it kept slapping the ground on each side of him until he stopped moving. Then it hovered threateningly right above his neck.
Aello called the spear back to her. With a feral grimace at Ethon, she returned her attention to Sam. "Do you accept my challenge?"
Like she had any choice? "I do indeed, but I have no corporeal form, which puts me at a disadvantage." Something no self-respecting Amazon would accept. There was no dignity in winning over a lesser opponent. Only in defeating the absolute best.
Aello grabbed her and jerked her forward.
Sam’s breath caught as she was transformed back into her body. Not just that, but she no longer wore a T-shirt and jeans. She was now in her warrior’s battle armor.
She’d forgotten how heavy it was. Still, it was a good weight. A familiar weight. And it came complete with all of her weapons.
Oh yeah…with this she could do damage.
Bring those mutant lions forward now and she’d show them the business end of her toys.
Aello nodded in approval. "Now you look like what you claim."
The armor invigorated her as it reminded her exactly who and what she was. "I am what I claim."
"We shall see."
The manticores pushed the men back as Aello moved forward to pull Sam away from them. "The test is simple." She gestured toward the water.
The dark boiling waves receded. From the sand a pedestal arose. On top of it, in a glass case that held a nest of cobras, was Hippolyte’s shimmering gold girdle.
Aello’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. "You race me to the girdle. She who dons it, owns it."
"And if I lose?"
Aello didn’t hesitate with her answer. "You all die."
The manticores laughed happily.
Sam looked at Dev and she saw the concern in his beautiful blue eyes for her. She had no choice in this. If she refused the challenge, Aello would still kill her.
She met Aello’s gaze without flinching and delivered the code of their people. "I am the steel and the hammer that forged a nation never defeated. My arm is without equal and my judgment pure. My heart is fierce and this challenge is met. I will not be defeated. Not by you. Not by anyone. I am Amazonia."
Aello smirked at her. "Spoken like a true queen. But let’s see if your skills match your tongue."
Sam gripped her spear with her right hand and her bow with her left. And as Aello sprang forward into the obstacle course without notice, she remembered something crucial about her people.
Amazons always cheated.
Dev held his breath as he watched Sam run to catch up to Aello. He’d known Sam was a fierce fighter, but this was without a doubt the most impressive display of skill he’d ever seen from anyone.
The first test was an open pit that had arrows shooting up from it in random spurts that had no pattern whatsoever. Aello hit it at a dead run. She launched herself into the air and flew to the other side as several of the arrows grazed her, but none did any real damage.
Safely across, she brushed at the bloody patches on her skin and kept going.
Sam took a second to put her bow over her head and shoulders so that it lay diagonally across her back. Tossing her spear to the other side where it embedded itself in the soil, she ran up a side bank and, jumping up, backflipped over to catch four of the arrows that the pit shot out before she landed on the far edge, facing him, right beside her spear. In one fell swoop, she winked at him, put her gathered arrows into the empty quiver on her back, and yanked her spear out of the ground. With a grace that the gods would envy, she turned and ran for the next obstacle.
"Damn," Fang breathed in awe.
Dev beamed as a wave of fierce possessive desire tore through him. "That’s my girl."
Ethon scoffed at both of them. "Trust me. You ain’t seen shit she can do. That was child’s play"–something she proved well at the next challenge. There, they had to launch themselves up from a small springboard made of moss to land on single poles jutting out of the ground that were barely as big around as their feet. In fact, they had to stand on their tiptoes to fit. The only problem was the poles weren’t stable and the moment their weight hit the tip, they wobbled, requiring superb balance to keep them from slamming down and crashing into sharp rocks lining the ground.
If that wasn’t difficult enough, Aello attacked her as soon as she was on one, using her spear as a staff. With her own staff in hand, Sam countered the rapid blows that came so fast, Dev heard them more than he saw them. Sam shoved Aello back, then moved to jab her with the tip of her spear.
Aello danced to the next pole and renewed her assault.
Sam followed and the two of them created a frightening ballet of lethal skill as they moved down the line while fighting like juggernauts.
Dev’s heart pounded as he feared for her. One sneeze…one subtle miscalculation and she would slam onto the rocks below and be killed.
Aello jabbed at her feet, requiring her to dance to one pole, then jump to the next. One pole crashed to the ground, splintering into pieces as the rocks rose up literally to devour it.
Without thinking, he took a step forward, intending to lend a hand.
The manticore in front of him reared up and forced him back. "Help her, Bear, and she forfeits."
And they would all die….
But it was hard to sit back and watch as she risked everything for them.
Sam landed a vicious blow to Aello’s side. The Amazon wobbled and just when Dev was sure she’d go down, she flipped to the ground on the safe side. There, she ran to Sam’s poles and used her spear to start knocking them down before Sam could reach them.
Cursing, Sam ran as fast as she could while maintaining her balance. As Aello knocked over the last, Sam caught it with her foot and literally rode it to land beside Aello.
With a cry of fury, Aello tried to stab Sam. Sam caught her wrist and head butted her, driving her back. She sliced at Aello’s throat. The Amazon barely dodged it before she swung around with a cut Sam countered like pro. Then Sam lifted her leg and kicked Aello back.
Realizing Sam was the better swordswoman and fighter, Aello threw a dagger at her and ran to the next obstacle.
Sam caught the dagger and automatically moved to toss it at Aello. Dev saw her barely stop herself before she threw it. Most people wouldn’t have had the integrity to do that, especially given the way Aello had been cheating.
But Sam was better than that. She refused the cheap shot and he couldn’t be prouder of her.
The next obstacle had them climbing up a thick vine into a copse of trees they had to run across. The only problem was the trees were thin and some kind of prehistoric bird of prey that looked like a cross between a pterodactyl and an eagle kept attacking them.
Sam reminded him of a gazelle as she leapt through the trees with a sure foot that a satyr would envy. When the bird dove at her, she fell to her knee and pulled an arrow from her quiver. With perfect aim, she let fly the arrow that embedded in the place where the bird’s wing met its body. Not a mortal wound, but one that forced the bird to land and leave her in peace.
Aello paused to stare agape at the shot. But as soon as Sam was on her feet, Aello returned to the competition. Unlike Sam, she hacked and stabbed at the birds until she made her way across.
The final challenge was to reach the girdle’s case.
What was she waiting for? She’d be first if she’d just run straight to it.
But Sam stayed back. And when she put the back end of her spear into the ground and it instantly disintegrated, he understood why. It was redsand. So named for the lives that had been lost to it. Unlike quicksand which was seldom deep or inescapable, redsand had been created by Hades to keep the damned penned in Tartarus. In the highly unlikely event one of them escaped, the sand would make sure they didn’t get far. It was like an acid that would eat through any form. Living. Dead.
Or in between.
All that would be left behind was your blood. Hence the name, redsand.
Aello laughed. "You give up?"
"Never." Sam cupped her hands around her mouth and let loose a strange bird call. It came in pulses of three and was followed by a whistle.
Aello duplicated the sound.
Dev exchanged a scowl with Scorpio and Fang. Ethon however was grinning.
"What are they doing?" he asked the Spartan.
"They’re calling for Ares’s arpaktiko pouli."
Dev rolled his eyes at a term he couldn’t even begin to wrap his lips around. "Dude, that’s all Greek to us. You ever notice there’s a reason why people pick on Greek?"
Ethon scoffed. "Only because they’ve never tried to speak Welsh. Trust me, we’ve got nothing on them." Then he moved back to the important topic. "They are the war birds of Ares and were special to the Amazon nation." He jerked his chin toward the women. "The Amazons used to keep them as pets."
Dev looked back and sure enough there was a flock of giant black birds headed toward them. Yeah…that would be like keeping Nessie in a wade pool. How in the name of pickles could they have ever domesticated something bigger than a semi?
Fang sucked his breath in sharply. "This can’t be good. They won’t even have to chew before they swallow us. And I have to say that being wolf jerky sucks." He slid a look over to Ethon. "I bet Dark-Hunter jerky is chewy though."
Ethon shoved him.
Ignoring them, Dev prepared for war as the birds swooped down. Manticores or not, if those things went for Sam, he was going for them.
Sam picked up the bone necklace from around her throat. She placed it in her mouth and blew it sharply in a distinct pattern.
One of the birds cawed then ducked down and glided on the wind. Sam held her hand up as if summoning it like an old friend. The huge bird landed in front of her on the ground. Spreading its wings, it snapped its head back and made one last cry before it settled down. It leaned forward, brushing its beak against her cheek.
Sam caught it against her and gave a light pat.
There was no missing the gleam of respect in Aello’s eyes as she watched Sam swing herself up onto the bird’s back. The bird bristled ever so slightly before it became acquainted with Sam’s foreign weight.
"Ya!" Sam shouted, kicking the bird into flight. Spreading its wings, it shot to the sky with a velocity that made Dev’s stomach draw tight. He didn’t know how she stayed on its back, but she managed well.
Aello duplicated the gesture. Unsheathing her sword, she went for Sam.
Fang let out a low whistle. "Anyone know that Amazons could ride a giant bird?"
Ethon gave him a duh stare. "Those of us who fought them, yeah, we know. How you think they kept kicking our asses?"
"Cause you’re pansies. Everyone knows that."
Ethon went for Fang, but Scorpio caught him. "He was joking, Ethon. Grab a sense of humor." Especially since Fang’s sense of humor was close enough to Ethon’s that they should be relatives.
Ethon growled at Fang before he stood down.
Dev stayed focused on the fight in the sky. It was incredible to watch. Aello attacked and Sam countered as they circled in the air over the pedestal. How they could remain on the back of the birds and fight was beyond him, especially since neither had a saddle nor bridle. They guided their mounts with their knees and held on with one hand.
Dev glanced down at the manticores. He still wanted to help Sam, but he knew better than to try. They looked a little too eager to kill.
Aello circled around, then dove for Sam. In a maneuver that Dev would have called impossible, Sam twisted with the bird and went straight up, parallel to the ground, letting the blow miss them entirely.
However, it overextended Aello’s reach and unbalanced her. With one sharp cry, she slipped from the back of the bird and went tumbling toward the ground.
Sam jerked her bird around and headed for her. Tucking its wings to its body, the bird looked like a black torpedo moving through the sky. They cut though the air, trying to catch Aello before she hit the ground. Just as Dev was sure Aello was a stain in the dirt, Sam caught her by the wrist and pulled the Amazon on to the back of the bird, draped on her stomach, in front of her. Sam guided the bird to the shore, then set Aello down in a safe area before she headed back to the pedestal.