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I can't go back there.
Slavery. Pain. Degradation. Her body controlled by another's mind, every action orchestrated by her master's intent, her free will ripped away. Eliminated. Destroyed.
I will not go back to that.
With shaking hands, Tarrys dumped the leftover coffee into the kitchen sink as the two brothers, Charlie and Harrison Rand, argued behind her in the living room of the small apartment she shared with Aunt Myrtle in downtown Washington, D.C. Their every word scraped at her conscience.
"Dammit, Charlie, you'll never get through Esria alive. It's suicide."
Charlie Rand made a sharp sound of disgust. "It's not suicide. Give me a little more credit than that, Harrison. But even if it is, what choice do we have? If we don't stop the Esri, we're as good as dead anyway."
It was almost three in the morning, but the meeting of the Sitheen Resistancethe mere handful of humans who knew of the Esri invasion and could actually fight ithad just ended. The others had left or retired to bed, the plan set.
When the gate into Esria opened at midnight tonight, Charlie Rand was going through.
And would almost certainly die.
I could help him.
Tarrys's stomach clenched painfully. Shaking her head against the whispers of her conscience, she soaped the sponge and began cleaning the coffee carafe. She'd prayed it wouldn't come to this. Prayed the humans would find a way to seal the gate between the worlds, shutting the Esri out once and for all, leaving her on this side.
Because, though they treated her as one of themas a humanshe wasn't.
She looked human though, at five feet tall, a small one. Her body might be slender, but for the first time in her life she had food aplenty and had started to develop true curves. Even her hair had begun to grow and now covered her scalp in a sleek, dark cap of which she was immensely pleased.
Yes, she might pass for human easily enough, but she wasn't mortal. She was Marceil, one of the slave race of Esria.
After knowing freedom and kindness, how would her heart ever survive slavery again?
"There has to be another way to seal those gates," Harrison said. "We'll find it."
"And how many more people will die in the meantime?" Charlie's angry frustration set the air to vibrating, quickening her pulse.
Tarrys grabbed the dish towel and turned to lean against the counter as she dried the carafe, her gaze drawn to Charlie. While Harrison maintained an air of deadly calm, Charlie was living motion and muscle, passion and anger. Like his brother, he towered over her in height, his hair close-cropped and sun-streaked. But it was Charlie, with his mercurial temperament and his charmer's smile, whose presence dominated the room, heating her flesh and stealing her air.
It was Charlie Rand who made her wish she were human, a beautiful human he might want in return.
"In the five months since the Esri found that gate, they've killed at least two dozen people and raped who knows how many more." Charlie's hand sliced upward. "And that's with one gate open. Now they've got all twelve unlocked
and we don't know where they are. We can't guard them. They'll have free rein of this world, enchanting and destroying at will. If we don't get those gates sealed, the human race is doomed. We can't wait, Harrison, and you know it."
Until five months ago, the humans hadn't known there was another world connected to theirs. In ancient times, the magical Esri had enchanted their human victims, raping virgins and stealing children to fill the slave halls and harems of Esria. Fifteen centuries ago, the Esrian princess, Ilaria, put a stop to the pillaging by sealing the known gates and leaving the keys, the seven stones of power, in the hands of the humans for safekeeping. Over the centuries, the humans had forgotten about the keys and all but forgotten about the creatures of Esria, most especially the Esri themselvesthe pale, cruel, man-size beings who had once struck terror into every human heart. The terrifying tales evolved from generation to generation until the names the humans had once given the invaders, faeries and elves, were no longer whispered in terror but in joy and laughter.
The humans had never known that Ilaria had left one gate unsealed, though hidden. And that the Esri had been searching for it ever since.
Five months ago, Tarrys's own master, Baleris, had stumbled upon the lost gate by accidentthe first Esri to do so in fifteen centuries. She'd been with him, along with a second slave. Over the course of weeks, Baleris had found the strongest of the power stones, raped more than two dozen virgins, enchanted the entire D.C. police force, and hunted the humans he couldn't enchant, humans with a touch of blood from a long-ago Esri ancestor. Mortals whom the Esri called Sitheen, Charlie and Harrison among them. Baleris had rounded up dozens more virgins and had been preparing to take them back through the gate with him when the Sitheen stopped him, destroying him with fire and the ancient Esrian death chant.
With her master dead, Tarrys had finally been free. The humans had offered her sanctuary and she'd gladly accepted, but the other slave had escaped back into Esria to report to the Esrian king. Soon after, more Esri had come through the gate, and they'd found the seven stones, the seven keys, unlocking all the gates between the worlds.
The situation had quickly turned dire. And now Charlie Rand was determined to infiltrate Esria to find the one person who might be able to help them. The person who'd sealed the gates the first time.
Harrison silently watched his brother pace, his jaw working, clenching and unclenching. "At least take a guide. Take Tarrys."
Tarrys's pulse leaped with dismay, her fingers closing around her opposite wrist, her nails digging into her own tender flesh.
Charlie just snorted. "No way." He glanced at her, shooting her a quick, apologetic smile that nevertheless set hummingbirds to flight in her chest. "Nothing personal, eaglet, but you're safer here. And I'll make better time on my own."
Tarrys nodded. He didn't want her to go. She closed her eyes, waiting to savor the relief that should rush in at his words. But the relief wouldn't come. The truth remainedEsria was a magical and dangerous world and, no matter what he thought, Charlie Rand was ill-prepared to navigate it.
With help, with her, he might stand a chance.
Her heart thudded a hard, dull pounding. How could she turn her back on the only people who'd ever shown her kindness? The humans needed her help. They deserved whatever aid she could give them. They had so much to lose if they failed to stop the Esritheir world, their lives.
In truth, she had nothing to lose. The freedom and happiness she'd found here weren't real. They weren't hers. All her life she'd longed for the freedom to make her own decisions, to act as she chose instead of as another demanded. Now she finally had that freedom. The freedom to do what she knew was right.
How could she live with herself if, instead, she used her precious free will to hide?
Such a decision would not only be selfish, but foolish. If the humans failed, the Esri would overrun the earth. Everything she'd found here, and everyone she'd come to care about, would be lost. Including her freedom.
Sweet Esria, can I really do this?
The fact that it was Charlie going made the decision both easier and infinitely harder. From their first meeting on the battlefield at the Dupont Circle Fountain, she'd had eyes for no one else. He was both strong and beautiful, warrior-hard, yet wonderfully gentle with those who weren't his enemy. She'd tried to kill him, yet he'd understood she was under Baleris's control, not her own, and had restrained her without hurting her. And her infatuation had bloomed.
He featured in all her dreams and was the focus of her desires, though she wished he wasn't. She resented even such a small loss of the precious control she'd finally claimed.
Fortunately Charlie didn't know his effect on her. He barely noticed her at all.
Her stomach clenched with dread at the thought of what she must do. She slid her hand beneath the soft Redskins sweatshirt and pressed her fist against her warm abdomen, desperate to quiet the turmoil inside her.
Charlie didn't want her to come with him. Perhaps she could stay hidden, following him, watching over him, ready to intercede only if he needed her, only if he got into trouble. Until the Esri caught her and enslaved her again.
Charlie clasped his brother's shoulder. "Let's go. I'm sure Tarrys is ready for us to get out of here. And I need some sleep. I've got a mission to plan."
"This discussion isn't over," Harrison growled.
Charlie's expression turned to granite as he opened the door and ushered his brother through. "Yes. It is." The door clicked shut behind them.
Tarrys collapsed against the counter, her heartbeat fast and uneven, her mind awash in dread as she contemplated a future just like her past.
But, for now, all that mattered was remaining free long enough to keep Charlie Rand alive.