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Mlidnight was still several hours away, the moon full behind a thick layer of snow clouds. Activity around the Dupont Circle fountain in downtown Washington, D.C., buzzed with a grim, almost desperate determination as more than a dozen metropolitan police, wearing wristbands of holly, cordoned off the traffic circle while a team of D.C. firefighters set up the fire ring that would be lit just before the witching hour.
Harrison Rand strode around the circle, overseeing the activity as the humans busily created a defense against the night's probable coming invasion. Every month, for an hour at midnight of the full moon, the gates between the human world and Esria opened. For fifteen hundred years, the Esrithe man-sized, malicious creatures at the heart of the legends of fairies and elveshad been locked out of the human world, the gates sealed, but for the one forgotten a gate that opened, oddly enough, into the heart of Washington, DC.
Six months ago, an Esri had stumbled upon that forgotten gate by accident, on the scent of one of the seven stones of power, and things had gone downhill fast. Now all twelve gates were open and the Esri's King Rith was hell-bent on tearing down the walls between the realms and enslaving the entire human race. Apparently, he had the power to do it. Or he would have, if he managed to get his hands on the magically powerful stones that had long ago been left in the human realm, stones that Harrison and his small team had searched for and found, and now guarded with their lives.
Harrison's sole mission in life had narrowed down to one thingprotecting humanity from the Esri. And the only way any of them could do that was to reseal the gates before King Rith's minions managed to steal back the stones, giving Rith the power he sought. But sealing those gates was a damn sight easier said than done.
He adjusted the combat vest that he'd donned in case the Esri came through shooting arrows this time. Blasted, uncomfortable thing. The CEO of his own computer software company, his world used to be one of the office, his uniform a pair of khakis and a polo shirt. It was his brother, Charlie, who'd always been the soldier, not him. But thanks to the trace of inhuman blood that apparently ran through their veinsEsri blood from some long-ago immortal ancestorthey were both soldiers now.
Those who couldn't be enchanted, the humans with that trace of Esri bloodhumans the Esri called Sitheenwere the only ones who could fight this war. And the Sitheen numbered only a handful.
As snowflakes began to swirl, his gaze moved to the white marble fountain itself, rising high into the air like a giant chalice. In the summer, water would tumble from that high loft down into the circular base from which the carved pedestal rose.
In the dead of winter, there was no water. If anything moved in that chalice tonight, it would be Esri.
A chill went through him that had only a little to do with the frigid air. He zipped up his parka and listened as Jack and Kade gave last-minute instructions to the five new Sitheen recruits Kade had found at area military installations and police departments.
Jack Hallihan was a D.C. cop, six feet tall, as big or bigger than any of the recruits. Kade, or Kaderil the Dark as he was known in Esria, towered over the lot of them like they were midgets. Seven feet of hard-muscled Esri, the immortal was half-human and didn't look anything like his pale-skinned, pale-haired, slim-built brethren. Thank God for small favors, Kade was on their side now.
Harrison frowned. He didn't want to trust the Esri any Esri. And he definitely didn't want to like this one. But Kade had offered up his immortal life to protect the humansin particular, Autumn, the human woman he'd fallen in love with. It was hard to hate a guy like that.
But that didn't mean he couldn't hate the rest of the raping, murderous bastards. And he did. He despised them with a fury he sometimes thought would choke him.
Six months ago, an Esri had touched Harrison's seven-year-old daughter, Stephie. He'd just placed his white hand on her head, but whatever he'd done to her had made her scream and scream. And when the screaming had finally stopped, her mind had flown to a place no one could reach. She remained in a catatonic state from which doctors and Harrison's ex-wife feared she might never recover. God alone knew what that monster had done to her. All Harrison knew was that the Esri were powerful, dangerous, magical beings. And he would do everything in his power to stop the bastards. Which meant getting these damned gates sealed again.
For the hundredth time since he'd arrived at Dupont Circle tonight, he pulled out his cell phone, making certain it was still on.
If only Charlie would call. His ex-navy SEAL brother had gone through the gate last month on a Hail-Mary mission to free the captive Esri princess, Ilariathe one they believed had sealed the gates between the worlds fifteen centuries ago.
To beg her to seal them again.
Dammit, Charlie, call me.
He knew his brother had taken a cell phone. If he came through one of the other gates, he'd call. And considering midnight fell at different times in different placesand they suspected most of the gates opened into northern Europethat should have happened at least a couple of hours ago.
They thought. They really didn't know squat about these gates.
Come on, Charlie. Call me, little brother. Tell me you and Tarrys got the princess. Tarrys, a pretty little ex-slave from the Esri world had accompanied him through the gate, intending to keep an eye on him. Tell me you made it out of there alive.
Jack's wife, Larsen, joined him, her blond hair tucked beneath the hood of her dark green parka. Larsen had been one of the first Sitheen targeted by the Esri, one of the first to understand that the bleached-skinned, murdering rapist she alone saw clearly, wasn't human.
"Any word?" she asked softly. She was an attractive woman. A lawyer, if they ever got their lives back. Jobs no longer meant much when they faced an evil bent on the destruction of their world.
Her hand went to his arm as if he might need some strengthening or commiseration at Charlie's lack of communication, but Harrison was more than used to this. Charlie had always been the more adventurous of the two, even before Dad left on a business trip with his young female assistant and never bothered to come home, propelling Mom into a deep and abiding relationship with the liquor cabinet. Afterward, his brother had turned wild and still seemed to thrive on danger. Harrison had long ago accepted the fact that sooner or later Charlie wouldn't return from one of his missions.
For the sake of the world, he just hoped this wasn't the one.
"Charlie warned it might take time to reach the princess," Larsen said. "If he doesn't make it out of there this month, he'll come back next."
Harrison nodded once. There was nothing to say to that. Charlie would make it or he wouldn't. Unfortunately, if he didn't return, they might never know his fate. He could be captured and imprisoned. Or enslaved. He could desperately need their help and they'd never know.
As his stomach threatened to turn into a mass of knots, he took a deep breath and forced the tension out with an exhale. In his mind, he retreated to that dark, colorless room devoid of emotion. Another breath. Calm, controlled.
"If it's any consolation, I haven't had any visions."
He met Larsen's gaze, understanding her meaning. Many of the Sitheen seemed to have inherited some kind of fairy gift from their Esri ancestors. Larsen foresaw death, the deaths of other Sitheen. No visions meant Charlie was still alive.
"That's something," Harrison murmured.
Larsen gave him a hopeful little smile and turned away. But she'd gone no more than two steps when she suddenly jerked, as if she'd been struck.
Instinctively, Harrison's gaze flew to the gate, assuming she'd seen something. But no dark forms leaped from the base of the fountain. Larsen swayed. Understanding hit him like a body slam. She was having a vision. Larsen was watching someone die.
He grabbed her by the shoulders, steadying her. "Jack!"
Jack Hallihan's dark head snapped up, his body leaping into motion as he ran for his wife. As Jack pulled Larsen into his arms, he looked up, Harrison's own despair mirrored in his eyes. Together, they waited to find out which of them she was watching die.
Please, God, don't let it be Charlie. I can't warn him. I can't help him change his fate. Larsen finally stirred, turning her head to press one cheek against Jack's shoulder, revealing a tear-streaked face as pale as any Esri's.
"What did you see?" Jack asked softly, stroking her cheek with his thumb.
She lifted her hand to cover her mouth, as if struggling for control, and Harrison knew they weren't going to like the answer. Finally, she pulled out of Jack's embrace and swiped at the tears. Though visibly shaken, the woman was tough. With a deep, shuddering breath, she met their gazes, one after the other.
"I saw ten or twelve slaves come through the gate first, all shooting arrows. Fifteen or twenty Esri flew through after." She opened her mouth to continue, then squeezed her eyes closed as more tears ran down her cheeks.
Jack gripped her shoulder, offering her strength as they both waited silently for her to continue. As bad as Harrison knew her vision had been, one thought kept racing through his head. So far, it was about them, not Charlie. And they could change it.
Larsen got control again and continued, her bottom lip unsteady. "Most of us die from arrows through the neck and head."
"The vests aren't going to be enough," Jack murmured.
"No. And those who don't die from the arrows, will be killed by Esri knives."
Harrison's neck felt stiff as he lifted his gaze to Jack's, seeing in the cop's eyes the same frustration he was feeling. A month's worth of extensive planning and it was all going to be for nothing.
With a rough sigh, Harrison shook his head. "We need a plan B, and fast."
"What about the fire ring?" Jack asked his wife. The firefighters were setting it up, even now. "Does it help at all?"
"I didn't see any fire."
Jack frowned, his gaze returning to Harrison's. "What does that mean?"
"They have to be coming through early."
Alarm flashed in the cop's eyes. "I agree. They could be coming through any minute. And we're going to need additional protection against the arrows." He kissed his wife on the cheek, already springing into motion. "I can get us some helmets. And we'll circle vehicles around the park to act as shields." His voice floated back as he took off toward the police captain.
Harrison squeezed Larsen's shoulder. "Are you okay?"
She met his gaze with traumatized eyes. "It never gets any easier."
Hatred clawed at his insides. "We're going to stop them, Larsen. I swear it." His gut clenched. "You didn't.?" He couldn't finish.
"I didn't see Charlie. I think I would have, Harrison. I think I'd know if he'd died. He told you he'd return with a fairy princess on his arm, didn't he? We have to believe he will. Princess Ilaria is our only hope."
For the hundredth time, he thought of that painting some nineteenth-century Sitheen had painted of a woman he'd never known, a woman Kade later confirmed was Princess Ilaria. That pale, pale skin and hair. Those bright green eyes. If she weren't Esri, he might have thought her beautiful.
She was their only hope. An Esri was their only hope, and what did that say about their chances of success?
That they were next to zero, that's what. His fingers curled into fists inside his pockets.
Even if the Sitheen resistance survived the night's battle, they were in deep trouble.
He reached once more for his cell phone.
If only Charlie would call.