Strider could actually hear Kaia’s thoughts; they were so forceful, they rode the threads of the connection between them, jolting him. What a freaking shocker. Mother actually acted motherly and helped me out. I want to hug the woman, then shake her. Can’t soften, though. This is war. “Well, you should have told me!” she fumed aloud.
“Seriously,” Strider said. He would have sat up, glared, something, but damn, the pain inside him continued to intensify, his demon moaning and groaning.
Taliyah paid him no heed. “And cause you pointless worry? Hardly. Now that it’s happened, you still have nothing to worry about. Okay? Your father will not try and take you, I promise.”
“You really think?” Vulnerability wove through each of the syllables.
He wanted to call her over, hold her tight. If her dad—his father-in-law, he realized with a start—proved to be a problem, her dad would feel the wrath of a demon-possessed warrior.
“I really know,” Taliyah assured her. “He’s dead. I killed him myself. And I know, I know. His people would have wanted you the moment they heard you could withstand their fire, since there aren’t many females who can.”
“Would have wanted?” Kaia and Strider asked in unison. He noticed she gave no indication that her father’s death bothered her. No sorrow wafted through their connection, her mind calm.
A stiff nod, as if their surprise offended her. “I’m sure Strider told you about Neeka and I sneaking off and meeting a group of men. Anyway, Neeka owes me a big-time favor and agreed to wed a Phoenix warrior in your place.”
That must be some favor, if wedding a stranger was appropriate payback. And what the hell had she meant? “In her place?” Strider hadn’t intended to yell, but damn. “They think she’ll marry someone besides me? They can damn well think again! She’s mine.”
“I don’t understand,” Kaia said softly. “And he’s right. I’m his.”
Hearing her confession heated him up as surely as her internal fire always did, but at the same time it soothed him, as she’d probably intended.
Taliyah said, “They would have come after you, and they would have killed him. I knew that would upset you, so I made other arrangements.”
Just like that? “Now they’ll just try to take both of them.”
“No,” Taliyah assured him. “I won’t give you specifics about the deal—that’s up to Neeka—but they won’t come for Kaia.”
“Neeka,” he said, his gaze landing on the gorgeous black girl.
She was watching the sisters, expression a little sad, so she didn’t realize he’d spoken to her. Kaia looked at her, too, and the Harpy nodded.
“Why?” Kaia asked her.
“I saved her life,” Taliyah answered for the Eagleshield. “Like I said, she owed me.”
“Can she withstand their fire?” Strider asked. If not, the warriors would come after Kaia, anyway.
“Not yet,” Neeka replied.
His gaze returned to her and he saw that she was watching him now. “Then what you’re doing is—”
“I will. One day, I will. But right now, I have something else they prize just as much.”
“And now we really do have to go,” Taliyah said, tugging her friend back to the door before Neeka could expand on that statement. Not that she would have. She’d zipped her lips pretty damn tight. “We’re tracking Tabitha, making sure her people get her to safety. You messed her up pretty damn good. I was so impressed, baby girl.”
“Thank you.” A tendril of guilt drifted from her.
Taliyah gave the most fleeting of smiles. “Soon as I know she’s taken care of, I’ll come back.”
The door shut and the pair was gone.
Strider watched as remorse washed over Kaia’s pale features.
“For your mother?” Strider asked.
“Yeah,” she answered, knowing what he meant. “I wish our relationship hadn’t reached such a terrible point, but—”
Lucien chose that moment to materialize and Kaia pressed her lips together. The big warrior took in the scene in an instant and cursed. “What the hell happened to you two?”
Strider focused on his friend. Black hair, mismatched eyes—one blue, one brown—and a face as scarred as the nightstand. “What happened doesn’t matter. Only the end result. This,” he said, holding out the Paring Rod with a grimace, “is the fourth artifact.”
Lucien’s eyes widened as he assumed ownership. “You’re kidding me, right?” His gaze raked over the item in question.
“Nope. There’s a very angry Harpy out there who wants it back and she will do anything to get it.”
The keeper of Death popped his jaw, every inch the dedicated soldier. “How’d she get it in the first place?”
“That’s a story for another day.” Strider’s voice…so weak, so distant. Again he tried to sit up, anything to keep himself focused and there. The gut-wrenching pain and exertion of the day began to drain what little strength he had left. He lay there, fighting for breath, and pressed on. “At least we finally know what this artifact can do. Somehow, it can trap souls and supernatural abilities inside its tip. That tip can also impart those souls and abilities to others.”
Tense, heavy silence as Lucien absorbed the news.
Then a beep echoed around them.
“A text.” Kaia whipped out her phone, stared down at the screen and sighed in relief. “Gwen and Sabin are safe. I told them where we are and they’re on their way.”
Strider experienced a wave of his own relief and hurried on, wanting to get the rest of the deets out before he slipped into unconsciousness. “I don’t know how to use the damn thing. I only know that whoever is holding it can’t ever take what’s inside. They can only give the powers to others.”
A pause. “Lysander can’t find Bianka,” Kaia said now, traces of panic in her voice. “He’s worried, and asks if anyone has seen her.”
“I’m sure she’s—” Lucien began.
Another pause. “Oh, my gods.” Kaia choked on a cry of rage. “No, no, no. No!”
At last Strider found the strength to sit up, concern rocking him. Her upset fueled his own. “What is it, baby doll?”
The rage glassed her eyes as she showed him the screen. Her hand shook as he read, Want sis 2 live? Let’s trade.