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Autumn McGinn grimaced with embarrassment as she crawled through the rain-soaked grass, frantically searching for the lighter she'd accidentally sent flying for the third time.
"You okay, Autumn?" Larsen Hallihan's voice darted across the rainy Dupont Circle Park, cutting through the gloom. Light poles bordered the concrete circle at the center of the grassy park, illuminating the huge marble chalice that stood in the middlethe beautifully carved fountain that shared real estate with the invisible gate into Esria.
"I'm fine!" Autumn called back.
Why couldn't she have left her inner klutz home just this once? For four months, she'd angled for an invitation to help guard the gate, ever since the first Esri, Baleris, had found his way through. For four weeks, Baleris had terrorized the nation's capital, raping young women and enchanting armed cops while he tried to destroy the handful of humans immune to his magic. The humans the Esri called Sitheen. In the end, the humans had won. Baleris was dead.
But the gate remained unsealed. Apparently, it had always been unsealed, but the Esri hadn't known about it until Baleris had stumbled upon it by accident. Unfortunately, after Baleris died, one of his slaves had escaped back through the gate before they could stop him. Chances were good he'd told others and the Esri would invade again.
Fortunately, the gate only opened during the midnight hour of a full moon. One hour a month, four humans who could resist the spell of enchantment guarded the Dupont Circle Fountain. That is, they had until this month, when two of the four Sitheen had been called out of town.
Autumn had been invited tohelp, finally, though not quite the way she'd wanted. Ordered to stay far back from the fountain, she'd been enlisted as an extra pair of eyes. If one of the creatures came through, her only job was to watch where he went. Not the greatest responsibility in the world, but she wasn't Sitheen. Even though she wore a bracelet of holly which supposedly gave her immunity, they still feared she could be enchanted.
She sighed as she crawled through the soaked grass. If only she could do something truly important for once. But considering she was spending most of her time on her hands and knees, watching was probably the safest job for her for everyone's sake.
Her numb fingers finally brushed against something hard as the rain beat a tattoo against the raised hood of her jacket. With relief, she grabbed the renegade lighter and scrambled to her feet, her soaked jeans clinging to her legs.
Fire, combined with the Esri death chant, was the only known weapon against the Esri. Logically, she knew her little lighter wasn't going to do an ounce of good in the rain, especially since she didn't know the death chant, but she felt safer with it in her hand. If she could just keep hold of the darned thing.
"What time is it?" Larsen called from the other side of the park. Larsen Vale, now Hallihan, had been her roommate in college and one of her best friends for years.
"One-thirty," Larsen's husband, Jack, replied. The two of them stood on opposite sides of the fountain, each a distance from Autumn. "We'll give it another ten minutes, then call it quits for the night."
Autumn sighed. She hadn't really expected to see an Esri tonightnone had come through the gate the past three full moons. Still, she'd hoped. As a curator for the Smithsonian, she was too much of a history and folklore buff not to be excited by the prospect of other-worldly creatures, even if they were armed with powerful magic and malicious intent.
"I'm heading straight for a hot bath when we get home," Larsen said.
Autumn couldn't hear Jack's reply, but knew it was something suggestive. Jack and Larsen had only been married a couple of months and couldn't seem to keep their eyesor handsoff one another. Autumn was happy for her old friend, but sometimes life was so unfair. Larsen was blond, beautiful, married to one of D.C.'s hottest cops, and Sitheen. Autumn was six foot four with flaming orange hair, two million freckles and a gene for klutziness. Where was the fairness in that?
The rumble of thunder shook the ground as the rain turned to a downpour. Cold and miserable, Autumn huddled beneath the hood of her raincoat while heavy drops beat at her shoulders and back. Okay, now she was ready to call it a night. Clearly, the Esri weren't coming.
Jack's shout made her jump. She jerked her gaze to the lit fountain just in time to see a large, dark-cloaked figure leap from the marble base as if he'd been encased in stone all these years.
The creature, taller than Jack, jumped over the low wall of the fountain's pool and took off running at warp speed. Jack sprinted after him, his flamethrower arcing at his side.
A real live Esri.
Excitement pounded through her as she watched the chase until Larsen's yell snapped her attention back to the fountain where three more cloaked figures jumped from the marble base and scattered. Larsen pointed her flamethrower at the nearest one, but the pouring rain doused the fire before it could reach the fleeing target.
Autumn stared in stunned wonder until she realized the smallest of the three was headed straight for her! Her mind screamed at her to run. But as the creature passed within feet of her, some inner need to prove herself had her racing forward on frozen feet to tackle the slender creature to the ground.
As she struggled to catch her breath, she stared down into the face of a skinny, white-as-a-sheet teenaged boy peeking out of a coal-black cloak. Eyes that glowed as orange as her hair stared back at her in furious terror.
What had she done? The hair rose on her arms as she met the gaze of this inhuman monster.
The creature struggled against her hold, his face contorted with his futile effort. Either she was in serious need of a diet, or the kid had no muscle mass. His white face twisted in terror and bravado even as he blinked against the onslaught of rain.
"We'll find the power stones," he sneered. "All of them, as my king demands. You'll not stop us even if you kill me!" His eyes flooded with moisture that had nothing to do with the weather.
Autumn stared at the creature beneath her. He was crying! She'd made a monster cry. This had to be a new low in her life.
"Stop it! I'm not going to kill you."
Beneath her, the Esri youth stilled. "I don't believe you." He continued to thrash until she was sure he was going to give her a headache. "You'll set me aflame as you did Baleris. You dark blood. You human!"
She stared at the angry hopelessness that twisted the kid's mouth and felt a sharp stab of pity. She'd told him she wasn't going to kill him, but he was right not to believe her. She might not kill him, but Jack and Larsen would. This was war and there was no taking an Esri prisoner. Jack had tried that once. He'd locked up Baleris in the police station overnight. By morning, the Esri had managed to enchant the entire D.C. police force, turning them into his own personal hit squad.
They had to kill him. And yet he was just a kid.
Her mind aimed a swift kick at her heart. She couldn't be soft on this. If she screwed up now, Jack and Larsen would never let her help again.
"Autumn, hold him!" Larsen's voice carried through the rain.
The Esri struggled beneath her. "Release me!" But the anger in his voice was crumbling beneath his fear. "I beg of you, release me. I do not wish to die." The tears ran freely from his eyes, now. "Please, my lady. Please. I mean you no harm."
Dear God, what was she supposed to do? He was Esri. Evil.
He was just a kid.
With a groan of despair, she knew she couldn't be the reason he died.
"If I let you go, you have to go back through that gate. Right now."
The boy stilled, his orange eyes widening with hope. "Aye. I shall go back. You'll not regret it. I'll make it up to you. I give you my vow."
"Right. Just make sure you go back through that gate. If you don't, my friends will catch you. And then you will die."
She rolled off him into the muddy grass, knowing she was going to regret this. Jack and Larsen were going to be furious. The kid leaped to his feet and made a dash for the fountain as Larsen tried to intercept him with her flamethrower. But the kid was fast. Before Larsen could catch him, he dove into the fountain, his cloak billowing out behind him for one brief moment before he disappeared.
Autumn rose from the soaked grass, her shoulders heavy with guilt.
"Damn, damn, damn!" Larsen's epithets rose in volume as she ran toward Autumn. "Did he hurt you?"
"Do you know what just happened?"
Autumn cringed. "If you're asking if he enchanted me, I don't think so. I'm still wearing my holly." She held up her arm, displaying the rough band of wood she wore around her wrist. Holly was the only thing they'd found that protected true humans from the Esris' mind control. "I know I had him. I know I let him go."
All her life Autumn had longed to be smaller. Now she felt about two inches tall. And it hurt. "Larsen, I'm sorry. He looked like a fifteen-year-old kid. And he was crying." Even to her own ears, her reasons sounded lame.
Larsen looked around with a deep sigh, her expression one of frustration, her movements agitated. "All right. Well, it's done." Larsen dug in her pocket and handed Autumn a set of keys. "Go get in the car and lock the doors. The others may come back and I don't want you to get hurt."
Autumn pressed her lips together, wanting to argue that she could help. But she'd just proved she couldn't be trusted.
"Larsen, he said something that might be important. He said they came for the power stones."
Larsen's gaze jerked to hers. "Stones? Are you sure the word was plural?"
"Positive."Autumn shoved the keys and her cold fists deep into her pockets. "He said they'd find them all."
"We thought there was only one. We have only one."
"Yeah. That's why I thought it might be important."
"I really wish you hadn't let him go, Autumn."
Autumn met her friend's rueful gaze. "Me, too."
"There's Jack! Did you catch him?" she called to her husband, but he just shook his head.
As Larsen ran to join her husband, Autumn turned to make her way to the car, her heart heavy with the knowledge she'd finally gotten the chance she'd been longing for. A chance to make a difference. To be a hero.
And she'd blown it. Not only had she failed to be of help, she'd become something far, far worse.
She'd become a liability the Sitheen could not afford.
Two weeks later, as the sun set amidst painted clouds, Kaderil strode across the busy street near the D.C. waterfront to the squeal of brakes and the honks of impatient human drivers. He'd learned enough during his short time in the human realm to know he was expected to give way to the vehicles, but he'd spent fifteen centuries making otherspowerful immortalscower before him.
He refused now to submit to humans, regardless of the armor they wore, though he had to admit to a certain fascination with this armor. Cars, they called them. And trucks, minivans, SUVs, convertibles. The humans had a different name for nearly every one and he knew them all.
A cold breeze ruffled his hair as he stepped onto the curb and started across the parking lot to the low-slung building of the marina's offices. The human world was not what he'd expected. The humans were not the unintelligent, animal-like beings of Esrian legend. When they were free from enchantment, they were, in fact, surprisingly quick of mind. Much to his relief, he'd discovered that he possessed some small talents against them, talents he hadn't expected. Although he could not fully enchant them as other Esri could, he was able to push thoughts into their heads and borrow knowledge from their brains with a single touch.
Knowledge that had told him he needed documents and a fictitious background that would withstand thorough investigation if he wanted any hope of fooling the Sitheen. A single misstep and he could well find himself burning beneath a death curse.
He'd bullied Ustanis, the third in their party, into setting up his documents and history since he was fully capable of enchanting the humans, forcing them to do his will, and Kaderil was not. It had taken Ustanis nearly a fortnight to accomplish the task, though Kaderil suspected Zander had played a large part in the delay.
He'd worried that a month would be too little time to infiltrate the Sitheen and earn their trust. Now he had only two short weeks.
His stomach burned with tension. The only thing the slave had been able to tell him about the Sitheen was a name, Larsen Vale, and this place, the Top Sail Marina in downtown D.C. They were his only clues. If he failed to find her here, his mission might be lost before he ever started.
Hoping that wasn't the case, he strode up the path toward the door that said Office. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, caging the Punisher. It was a struggle to fight the deeply ingrained need to fling bodies and demand fear, but he was learning. Humans were fragile creatures, far too easily alarmed by violence. And he had to pretend to be human.
Kaderil opened the door and walked into the marina office.
A solitary, bearded man glanced up from behind the long counter. "Can I help you?"
Kaderil forced his mouth into a semblance of a smile and thrust out his hand. "It's great to see you again!" Human males, it seemed, were incapable of ignoring the invitation of an extended hand.
The bearded one's mouth smiled in a poor attempt to hide his lack of recognition. The moment their hands clasped, Kaderil pushed thoughts into the human's head. His name is Kade and I know him. I trust him.