Shadow and Ice (Gods of War)(4)

By: Gena Showalter


I want. I take.

Soon...

Shiloh’s shoulders slumped. “She had a daughter.”

Knox’s hands curled into fists. Ignore the heartache. “Learning about her family was your second mistake. You cannot allow another warrior’s loved ones to mean more than yours.” Bitterness laced his tone, icing every word.

“If that was my second mistake, what was my first?” Shiloh asked.

“Having loved ones at all. Family and friends are one of two things. Anchors that weigh you down with worry, distracting you, or they are leverage that others can use against you.”

Knox had firsthand knowledge of the latter. Once, he’d had a daughter.

Oh, yes. Once.

Blessed and cursed.

A sharp pang of sorrow and grief tore through him, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. One day, Knox would avenge her and slay the king of Iviland—and he would make it hurt. Ansel was the one who’d forced him to fight. The one who’d allowed his baby girl to die while he performed his “duty.”

Now, Ansel used freedom to motivate Knox. Win five All Wars in my name, and I’ll free you from your slave bands.

Those bands ringed his neck, wrists, and ankles. Upon each vertebra of his spine, he bore an X. But whether rings or Xs, each mark had been made with mystical ink similar to what the High Council used to create the tree of life. This particular ink compelled Knox to do everything Ansel demanded, zero exceptions.

Knox had no choice but to continue on, as if the king had spoken true. What else could he do?

If Ansel had lied... He bit his tongue until he tasted blood. If Knox won a fifth war—this war—and wasn’t freed...

A sharper pang tore through him, cutting so deep he doubted he would ever recover. I’ll just have to find another way to gain my freedom.

The moment he succeeded, Ansel would die. Badly. People would hear stories for centuries to come and marvel at Knox’s cruelty.

He almost smiled, anticipation dancing with fury.

Focus. Emotion of any kind would only distract him; distraction would get him killed.

“How can you be so callous about the death of another?” Shiloh asked.

“Because I want to live, and mind-set is everything. While you will hesitate to end a friend, you will eagerly take out an enemy. These people are our enemies.”

Wearier by the second, Shiloh scrubbed a hand down his face. “This is my first All War. I knew it would be tough, but I am my home’s strongest competitor, and I believed I could do...anything. I was wrong.”

“You sound as if you’re eager to die. Good news. I’m happy to help.”

“I’m sure you are, but I don’t want to die. I don’t want to kill, either.”

“Ah, I see. You’d rather make your people suffer.”

Shiloh glowered.

For the “privilege” of participating in an All War, a realm’s sovereign had to give the High Council thousands of children. The exact number depended on a combatant’s order of elimination. The faster you were eliminated, the more your realm had to pay. But in order to forfeit a war entirely, sovereigns had to hand over even more children.

From infancy to the age of eighteen, boy or girl, children were chattel, commodities raised to be Enforcers.

Only the winning realm was exempt.

“My people already suffer,” Shiloh said. “Our realm is overcrowded.”

Iviland was overcrowded as well, more and more immortals born or created every day. New realms were desperately needed.

In the beginning, whenever a new one was discovered, multiple armies invaded at once. Battles raged, the trespassers hoping to seize control. Violence spread far and wide, ultimately destroying everything, leaving the lands uninhabitable.

Under the guise of saving future domains, ruling factions created the High Council and All War—an ongoing battle between a single representative from each otherworld, the new realm acting as the arena.

In the past few months, the people of Terra had begun fighting back and setting traps. Not a first, but definitely a problem on days like today. The citizens weren’t bound by assembly rules. But then, they had no supernatural abilities and were no match for immortals.

Knox had seen no sign of a human army today. Maybe they’d fled in fear? To them, combatants were gods.