The last man alive wins…and his competitor is the woman he loves!
A Survival Race Championship victory will award scientist Griffin the spaceship he needs to deliver his people to freedom. But when raiders attack his refuge and capture his appointed champion, Griffin’s last hope is to recruit the tough yet tempting female warrior they left for dead.
Injured and abandoned, genetically engineered superhealer Katana is rescued by a gallant scientist with an enticing proposition and an entry into the gladiator race of her dreams. A victory would free her from destitution. But how can loner Katana win an elite world championship when she’s never competed at the professional level?
As brain and brawn team-up in the arena, desires ignite and passions soar…and a game-changing secret is revealed. But the race masters demand a single champion in this blood sport, and the rivals-turned-lovers must choose between winning their freedom and losing each other.
(Enemies to Lovers, Alpha Female, Stand alone story in a series, No Cliffhangers. WARNING: Characters discuss their physically and sexually abusive pasts.)
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RENEGADE: CHAPTER ONE
Katana trudged up the steep snow-covered ridge, muscles aching, breathing labored, and an eye half-shut from freeze-dried blood.
It wasn’t her blood. Not all of it, anyway.
Staying alive meant staying out of striking distance from the two gladiators behind her and staying alert to the two ahead.
She crested the ridge and stopped short at a cliff. Men’s grunts and the familiar clang of Hyborean steel swords echoed in the chasm below. Taking cover, Kat dove onto her belly and crawled to a vantage point at the cliff’s edge.
Cam and a gladiator in a light gray thermal suit battled with gladimort swords in what appeared to be an inescapable, spectator-less ice arena. The one section of arena not encircled by cliff face was enclosed by a forty-foot high Hyborean-made wall of ice. To enter, she’d have to slide down the steeply angled ice wall.
A black pennant waved proudly in the center of the arena marking the final checkpoint.
She’d made it! The fatigue that weighed heavy moments ago dissipated. A smile tugged at her chapped lips, cracking them, and she tasted blood.
Small camera drones zipped around the men, transmitting every swing and clash to the survival race viewers. The loser’s death would thrust her into the top four remaining gladiators—her personal best.
Hopefully, Cam would kill the guy in gray. The higher a gladiator’s finishing rank, the greater their chances of being reawakened. It would suck if her training partner—the closest thing she had to a friend—died his final death. His ultimortem.
Plus, she knew Cam’s moves and could finish him with a clean kill, making it possible—and probable—for a routine reawakening.
A glance behind showed no sign of the last two gladiators. Good. She had time to wait and see how things played out below.
A deep roar exploded from the chasm, echoing off cavern walls.
Chills having nothing to do with the arctic temperature slid down her spine, and she shuddered. A saber-toothed smilodon tiger entered the arena. Its thick, powerful legs moved gracefully as it stalked the gladiators.
If the smilodon killed both men, she would use her last two throwing knives to dispose of the beast. Then she could slide down, collect the fallen men’s weapons, and wait for the last two gladiators.
A top three finish would prove she had value, that she wasn’t damaged goods, that she earned her cage and slop. Maybe she’d be awarded a few extra scraps and a blanket. Or maybe a heating cube. No more sleeping on cold, dank creepy-crawly floors. No more empty belly.
And if she won—
Well, that could possibly get her sold to the Hyborean subclass. It may be a small step up from the slums, but it was a step in the right direction. She pressed her lips together to keep from smiling.
Focus, Kat. Getting ahead of yourself is dangerous.
Another quick glance behind. Still alone.
The saber-tooth’s claws swiped Cam, shredding his skintight thermal suit and chest. He fell on his back and his sword skidded across the ice. He scrambled to get to it, but the gladiator in gray retrieved it first and stabbed Cam through the gut.
Blood spilling, Cam collapsed to the ground in what would be a slow, agonizing death. Slow deaths were the worst. Too much time to think.
“Here, kitty, kitty.” Gray cautiously backed away, leaving Cam as a barrier between them. “Suppertime.”
The smilodon’s roar thundered through the arena.
“No,” Katana whispered, wanting desperately to jump up and scream it, but she knew better than to reveal her position. “Cam’s down. Go after the other guy.”
Willing it didn’t make it so. The tiger stalked Cam who struggled to get up. Her heart pounded.
The smilodon licked its chops. Its head wavered between Cam and Gray.
Katana sprung to her knees. Surely it wouldn’t eat Cam before killing the remaining predator. If Cam were ripped apart, he couldn’t be reawakened. This would be his ultimortem.
Who would she train with?
Who would she talk to?
Who would chase away her loneliness?
She flipped the switches on her boots’ inner soles to engage the crampons. The metal spikes dug into ice as she raced from the cliff’s edge onto the top of the thick ice wall, gauging her distance and the rotations needed to embed her throwing blades.
From the knife belt on her thigh, she pulled her weapons and let the first one fly. Afternoon sunlight glinted off the blade sailing beautifully through the brisk arctic air.
The blade pierced the tiger’s neck an instant before its long, serrated teeth could sink into Cam’s body. The beast screamed and reared up on hind legs.
Her last knife pierced its heart.
The dead saber-tooth collapsed onto Cam, pinning him.
Gray removed the throwing knife from the smilodon’s neck, locked gazes with her, and shook his head at her foolishness. He had all the weapons. She had none.
Crunching snow snapped her attention to the head, shoulders, and then body of a burly gladiator rising over the ridge, sword in one hand and the fifth gladiator’s bolo in the other. Fresh blood spatter decorated his tight, metallic blue thermal suit. Thick, white clouds erupted from his mouth with each labored breath. The instant he saw her, he raised his blades and surged forward, screaming his battle cry.
Endorphins flooded her veins. Weaponless, she dropped onto her hip and slid feet-first down the ice wall. Picking up speed, the bitter arctic air whipped tiny ice crystals across her cheeks like the burning sting of a tattoo needle.
Gray raced toward her with sword drawn.
If she could impale him with her boots’ crampons, she might have a chance. She raised her feet determined to fight to his death, not hers.
Speeding toward him, she kicked.
His sword arced.
Burning pain sliced up her side as she spun out of control over the ice, everything a blur. She smashed into a heavy mound of flesh and the world stopped spinning. In the distance, steel clashed and men cursed.
“Stupid.” Cam wheezed in her ear. She had crashed into the smilodon carcass. “You c-could’ve w-won.”
It hurt to inhale. “I still can.” Exhaling hurt, too. Why couldn’t she catch her breath?
“Sorry, K-Kat.” His sad eyes glanced behind her.
Was a gladiator coming? She turned her head. A crimson skid mark painted the ice from the base of the arena wall to her body. She’d been sliced open.
The pain vanished. That was a bad sign.
Tears blurred her vision. After all she had endured to get here, after struggling for nine days to survive, after coming this close to her dream…she’d blown it.
Everyone was right, she was stupid and worthless.
“Les-son one—” Cam coughed up blood. “Caring…kills.” He choked on his last breath.
She struggled to reach out to stroke his bearded cheek, but her paralyzed muscles wouldn’t comply. If she hadn’t gone numb, her heart would be aching. Mourning Cam without knowing if this was truly his ultimortem lacked sense, but she couldn’t help it.
Cam was right. Caring made fools of the toughest warriors. She’d given up the advantage, a win, and her life for what? A guy she liked because he’d been less cruel than other men?
She was an idiot.
The crunch of metal crampons bit into the ice. Gray nudged Cam with his boot, confirming his death. Long, muscular legs in a blood-soaked thermal suit straddled her limp body. With both hands on the hilt, he held a bloody sword above her chest. “Congratulations on making it into the top two.”
The blade plunged into her heart.
Next time, she’d guard it better.
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