Willing Sacrifice

The Sentinel Wars, Book Eight

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They are the Sentinels. Three races descended from ancient guardians of mankind, each possessing unique abilities in their battle to protect humanity against their eternal foes: the Synestryn. Now a warrior weighs the price he will pay for love….

Theronai warrior Torr has never forgotten Grace, the human who stole his heart and nearly gave her life to save his. So when he is summoned to the aid of Brenya, the powerful woman who healed Grace, he is devastated to find that Grace’s cure has left her mind devoid of any memory of Torr or their love.

However, despite not knowing who he is, Grace is inexplicably drawn to the dark warrior. As they team up to stop the invasion that threatens the people Grace now considers family, her memories slowly start resurfacing. But sometimes the past is best forgotten—a lesson that Torr may learn too late….

Sample Chapters

Chapter 1 ~ Chapter 2 ~ Chapter 3

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The Sentinel Wars in Chronological Order

Burning Alive (May 2009)
Finding the Lost (November 2009)
Running Scared (May 2010)
On the Hunt – “The Collector” (February 2011)
Living Nightmare (November 2010)
Blood Hunt (August 2011)
Bound by Vengeance (February 2012)
Dying Wish (March 2012)
Falling Blind (April 2013)
Willing Sacrifice (March 2014)
Binding Ties (March 2015)

Chapter 1

Kansas, November 9

 

Torr Maston would rather have fought a hundred poisonous demons bare-handed than face the man lounging on his motel room bed.

Nicholas Laith pointed the remote at the crappy TV, not even glancing away from it as Torr stepped out of the cramped bathroom. If Nicholas had found him, then more of his brothers would be close behind. They’d all gang up on him, trying to convince him that he should return home. And when that failed, words would turn to force.

Torr really didn’t want to hurt any of his brothers.

“Nice shower?” asked Nicholas. His face was heavily scarred, the crisscrossing marks making it hard to read the man’s expression.

“How did you get in?”

“Electronic key card lock. Easy to open.”

Torr silently cursed Nicholas’s techie skills as he forced his words out slow and even. “Why are you here?”

“You asked me to come.”

“No, I didn’t.” Company was the last thing Torr wanted. Isolation was better. Easier.

“Not directly, maybe, but you definitely issued a challenge by disappearing like you did. You knew I’d have to come looking for you just to see if I could find you.” A grin creased his scar lines. “Surprise. I win.”

Torr instinctively moved toward his sword, only to find that it had been relocated. His sword belt was on the nightstand across the room rather than propped just outside the bathroom door, where he’d left it.

“How’d you find me?”

The man who’d been his friend a lifetime ago—before Torr’s world had been shattered—shrugged and switched to the next TV station. “You didn’t make it easy. Ditched your cell phone. Ripped out the truck’s tracking devices. Never used any plastic. You really shouldn’t have challenged me like that if you didn’t want me to come find you.”

Torr’s hand tightened into a fist on the damp terry cloth around his hips. “Do you think, maybe, that I disappeared because I didn’t want you to find me?”

Nicholas shrugged again and paused for a commercial selling videos of drunken young women lifting their shirts for the camera. “Don’t care what you want. It’s time to come home.”

“No.”

“No? That’s it? I track you down after going AWOL for seven months, and you just refuse to come back? I found you fair and square. That means I win and you have to come home.”

“Since you’re apparently no good at taking the not-so-subtle hints I left behind that I want to be alone, I thought I should make it easy for you to understand. I don’t know how to be any clearer than a single word with only two letters.”

“You’ve pouted long enough. Time to move on. Get back to work.”

“Pouting? You think that’s what I’ve been doing?”

“I know you loved the woman, but she’s gone now.” Nicholas’s voice dipped low, to that gray area between sympathy and pity.

A flash of rage ignited just beneath Torr’s skin. One second he was standing several feet away from Nicholas. The next, he had his brother-in-arms pinned against the wall with a forearm digging into his throat.

The skin between the scars on Nicholas’s face darkened from the lack of air, but the man didn’t fight back. He just stared at Torr, his bright blue gaze calm. Accepting.

Torr wished Nicholas would fight back. Smashing heads would have gone a long way toward distracting him from his misery.

But Nicholas didn’t fight. He didn’t even blink. No way could Torr hit a man who wasn’t fighting back.

With a feral growl, Torr shoved away from his brother and stalked across the room.

Nicholas rubbed at the bruise already forming on his neck. “I’ll let Joseph know you’re not fit for duty.”

For some reason that pissed Torr off even more than if Nicholas had tried to drag him back. “I fight fine. I just need you all to leave me alone.”

“So you can get yourself killed?” Nicholas shook his head and started texting. “I don’t think so. You need to stay out of the field until your head’s screwed on straight.”

“I don’t take orders from you.”

“Are you still taking them from Joseph? Or have you stopped giving a shit about everything you used to hold dear?”

“I vowed to fight, to protect humans, to kill Synestryn. And that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s what I’ll continue to do whether you, Joseph, or anyone else likes it or not.”

“Until one of the Synestryn brings you down. Which will be soon if your state of distraction is any clue.”

“I’m not distracted.”

“No? Then how did I find you? I’ve been on your trail for a couple of days now, keeping my distance. You never noticed me once.”

“Maybe you’re just that good.”

He snorted. “Or maybe I’m not and you’re in no condition to fight alone. I know losing Grace has upset you, but—”

“Upset me?” Torr stripped off the towel and started dressing so that he wouldn’t attack his friend again. “I’m so far past upset I can’t even find a word to fit where I am.”

Nicholas’s tone turned gentle. “You will get over her. You’ve been alive long enough to know it’s true. It sucks, but it’s true.”

“I don’t want to get over her. I want to be with her.”

“It’s not possible. Even if she survived, she’s on another world.”

“I know that,” growled Torr as he fastened his jeans and belted his sword around his hips.

“You have to let her go.”

“Don’t tell me what I have to do. I know all the platitudes, all the hollow advice. Move on, stay strong, life goes on.” He couldn’t bring himself to look at his brother as he confessed, “I love her. She’s still out there. She may even need me. And there’s not a damn thing I can do to change any of that.”

The metal disk attached to his back pressed against his spine as he bent over to lace up his boots.

Grace had put the disk on him—embedded it in his flesh in an effort to save his life and reverse his paralysis. The magical device had worked, leaving him whole and strong. His wounds, his pain, his weakness—they were all hers now, slowly killing her human body and stealing from him the fragile spirit it housed. He would have done anything to take back those wounds and spare her, but the device worked in only one direction.

She could heal him, but he couldn’t do a thing to help her.

His sweet, selfless Grace had sacrificed herself for him, leaving him both grateful and furious.

“There are a lot of things we can’t change,” said Nicholas, his voice ringing with absolute certainty—the kind that comes only from hard lessons learned.

“And we’ve all lost people we love.”

“Knowing other people suffer doesn’t make me suffer less. I just need to be alone. Why can’t you get that?”

“Because it’s likely to get you killed, and we need you too much to let it happen. You’re one of the most deadly warriors we have.”

“I used to be.”

“You still are. I saw you fight last night. Whatever rust might have grown on you during your paralysis, you’ve knocked it all off. You fight like the warrior I remember. Maybe even deadlier.”

“Then there’s no problem. You can report back to Joseph that I’m fine. I’ll come home when and if I’m ready.”

“I said you were deadly. Not careful. You took too many risks. And you weren’t watching your back.”

“I’m not suicidal, if that’s your worry. There’s no way to know what might happen to Grace if I die wearing this disk. We’re still connected, and as long as that’s the case, I’ll be careful.”

“If you call that careful, then you’re worse off than I thought.”

“Calculated risks, Nicholas. I’ve been fighting for a lot longer than you have. I know what I’m doing.”

“So do I, which is why you and I are going to be partners for a while.”

“I don’t want a partner.”

“I think I already mentioned that I don’t care what you want.”

“Don’t push me, Nicholas.”

He smiled, making his scars pull tight. “You think I’m afraid of you?”

“I think you should be.”

“Aww. You do care. How sweet. No wonder Grace was crushing on you.”

“Stop talking about her.”

“Nope. This is a deal-or-die kind of situation, and it’s my job to make sure you deal.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Let’s pretend it is, just for giggles.”

“I’m serious, Nicholas.”

“And that’s part of your problem. You need to lighten up.”

“The woman I love may be dying, and you want me to lighten up?”

“She might be dying. She might not be. But even if that freakishly powerful Brenya chick is able to heal her, she’s still human. She’s still going to die in the blink of an eye. That’s a fact, and you have to find a way to move on. I figure now is as good a time as any—before we lose you, too.”

“I don’t know how you can be so casual, talking about her death like it’s of no more importance than what you had for breakfast. I thought you were a better man than that.”

“Just because I accept reality doesn’t mean I don’t care. I risk my life for humans every day. But they’re different from us. We were never meant to be with them—not in the way you want to be with Grace. Letting her in was a mistake, and if you don’t believe me, then all you have to do is look to that ache in your chest for proof that I’m right.”

“So . . . what? I just stop caring?”

“No, you face reality. It doesn’t matter if she lives or dies today. She’s human. A few decades from now—a mere blink of time for a man like you—she will be gone. The leaves on your lifemark will have fallen. Your soul will die, and there’s not a damn thing that either one of you can do to change that.” Nicholas stepped closer, his voice dipping back to the land of pity. “She can’t save you, Torr. She can’t be what you need her to be for you to survive. All she can do is stand in the way of you finding the woman who can save your life and be your true partner. And if she really loves you—which her actions shout that she does—that’s not the kind of life she’d want for you. If she were here, she’d tell you to move on, too.”

“You can’t be that cold.”

“You can’t be that blind.”

“I don’t care if she can’t save my soul. I want to be with her anyway.”

“Well, you can’t. She’s worlds away, and not even your determination is strong enough to activate a Sentinel Stone and open a doorway to her. The only way she’s coming back is if Brenya allows it.”

In that moment, Torr realized the truth. Nicholas was right. Brenya was in complete control. She was the one who would decide if Grace lived or died. She was the one who would decide whether to let Grace come home. Brenya was powerful in a way Torr could barely comprehend. She knew the score. She knew that the Sentinels—men like Torr and Nicholas—were losing the war against the Synestryn, and that if they lost, Brenya’s home would be flooded by demonic beasts who fed on the blood and magic of her kind.

She wasn’t going to let that happen, even if it meant keeping Grace out of his reach forever. Brenya needed Torr to fight to defend her home world, and the way he would do that best was if he sought out a woman like him—a Theronai who was compatible with his power and could take her place at his side in battle.

That had been Brenya’s endgame all along. He’d thought she offered to help Grace because he’d sworn to fight for Brenya in battle if she ever needed it. But he was already fighting for her. He’d been doing so for four centuries—since he’d been old enough to swing a blade. His vow to protect humans ensured that he also protected her.

The crescent-shaped mark she’d left on his shoulder—the one that allowed her to summon him at any time—burned with betrayal. She’d tricked him. Offered him hope. Kept him fighting rather than wallowing in grief.

She’d told him that so long as the disk on his back stayed in place, Grace was alive. Now he questioned even that comfort. What if Brenya had lied just to get him to do what she wanted?

Nicholas let out a long, sad sigh. “You finally figured it out, didn’t you?”

Torr nodded. “Brenya is devious. I bought her lie. For all I know, Grace is already dead.” Even saying the words ripped something vital from his chest.

Not even the scars on Nicholas’s face could hide his sympathetic frown. “Which is why you have to let go. Grace gave up her life so that you could have one. Don’t belittle her gift by squandering it.”

“I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t want Grace to sacrifice herself for me.”

“But she did. Of her own free will. The only way to honor her memory is to make sure the life she gave you counts. You owe it to her to live as long as you can and find some way to be happy. Fulfill your purpose. Find your mate and kill as many fucking demons as possible.”

“It’s not enough,” said Torr. “It will never be enough.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. But it is your duty to try.”

“You clearly already have opinions on where I should start, don’t you?”

“I do. Rory and Cain located a system of caves down south in desperate need of a good cleaning. Thought you could join us.”

Torr opened his mouth to respond, but before he could pull in a breath, the air around him shifted. The flickering fluorescent glow of his hotel room morphed into a brilliant, fiery swath of light. The drops of shower water drying on his bare back heated, adding to the thick humidity creeping across his skin. The floor beneath his boots disappeared, leaving him feeling weightless for a split second before he once again felt substantial.

A giant wave of dizziness slammed into him. High-pitched female screams of fear and the pounding of rushed footsteps echoed in his ears. The smell of dirt and smoke choked him.

Torr blinked to clear his swimming vision, but all he could see was color and light. Metallic blue streaked with brilliant orange.

His hand curled around the hilt of his sword, its cool, rigid contours a welcome familiarity. He didn’t dare draw the blade for fear that some innocent might be close. Instead, he planted his feet and shut his eyes in an effort to locate the cries for help.

A warm hand settled on his shoulder. He tried to shrug it away and face the potential threat, but the grip was too tight.

“Settle, young Theronai,” ordered a familiar feminine voice.

Instantly, the world stopped its whirl and he was once again able to focus.

The sky was orange. The trees were covered in shiny bluish leaves that looked more like metal than plant matter. One sun burned high in the sky, and below it, smaller and more distant, a second one cast its light low over the ground.

Wherever Torr was, he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Chapter 2

Torr spun to face the woman who’d touched him.

Brenya’s long silver hair whipped around her shoulders as she grabbed his arm and started to run, forcing him to follow where she led. A layered mess of fur, coarse fabric and leather covered her body, frothing around her calves with each hurried step.

They ducked into a rough hut made from inky black sticks and thick, stiff grass the color of gunmetal.

“Where am I?” he asked.

“Temprocia, the world I now call home.”

“Where’s Grace?” demanded Torr.

“No time for that. We are under attack.”

No way. Torr might get only one chance to find the woman he loved, and he was not going to waste it. “Your attack can wait. Where is Grace?”

Brenya pulled aside a leather hide covering a window and pointed across the clearing. Several huts dotted the area. One large fire burned in the center of the clearing, ringed by pink stones. Just on the other side of the fire crawled a reptilian animal twice Torr’s size.

It had six legs that sent it slinking across the ground like a centipede, but faster. Its long tail was forked, and each prong moved independently of the other. Both were thick and covered in bonelike spikes. Its elongated head was filled with rows of conical teeth meant for ripping apart meat and crushing bone.

“Your Grace is dead if you don’t help. Now go forth and slay the beast before it reaches my baby girls.”

A small child with white-blond hair raced toward a hut, but her chubby little legs weren’t fast enough to carry her out of harm’s way. The beast saw her and charged.

Torr drew his sword as he bolted out of the hut. A bellow burst from his lungs, drawing the creature’s attention away from the child.

It hissed, tensed its body, and a second later used that massive forked tail to fling itself toward him.

Torr leapt out of the way, rolling as he hit the ground. Rocks and sticks dug into his bare back, grinding the disk against his spine. The pain of it was a distant, inconsequential thing that he gave no attention to.

He came out of his roll, landing on his feet, his sword level and ready to swing.

The creature was only a few feet away. He could see now that it had massive eyes the color of swamp water. Its skin seemed to shift on its frame, creating a dizzying pattern of movement that drew his attention.

Nicholas was right. Torr was way too easily distracted.

From the corner of his eye he saw movement. A woman sprinted across the ground to scoop up the little blond girl and carry her to safety. For a second, Torr thought he recognized the woman. She almost looked like Andra, but younger.

Tori? It was possible, but the woman he saw was too old to be the same one who’d left Dabyr with Grace only a few months ago.

Now wasn’t the time to worry about who she was, not when the beast was preparing to charge.

Torr shifted to his left, using the fire to protect his back. There was no way to know if this creature was alone, and the last thing he needed was a nasty surprise.

Another hiss erupted from the reptile, and its tail curled up under it, preparing to launch it into the air again.

Torr held his ground. The thing charged through the air. He stepped cleanly out of the way, letting it jump headfirst into the roaring fire.

No! called Brenya, her voice a resounding boom inside his skull. Not the fire!

Torr had no idea what she meant until he saw that the creature wasn’t screaming in pain. It wasn’t even moving fast to escape the blaze. All it was doing was burning as it turned around for another attack.

That’s when Torr realized what Brenya meant. Fire wasn’t hurting the creature; it was simply giving it another advantage. Because now, he wasn’t just fighting a giant flying lizard—he was fighting a giant flaming flying lizard.

And he wasn’t fireproof.

The creature launched itself toward Torr again. He spun out of the way, but the beast came so close that it left a singed patch across his bare ribs.

Blade in hand, he turned to face it, angling away from the fire and the surrounding huts. The lizard followed him, one huge eye focused on him and the other moving, scanning for more danger. Or prey.

Torr growled and thrust his sword at the creature, making sure he was the most dangerous target around.

The little blond girl was safely hidden inside one of the rough buildings, and Brenya had the good sense to stay out of sight. A couple of flimsy doors were cracked open enough for Torr to make out people watching.

The woman who’d rescued the little girl was struggling against the hold of two other women, who barely managed to restrain her from combat. Her short sword gleamed under the orange sky, but she was unable to break free without using it on them—something she was apparently reluctant to do.

Good. The last thing he needed was another distraction, and an unknown partner in combat was definitely that. The odd patterns on the lizard’s skin were more than enough to absorb his attention, especially now that they seemed to be moving faster under the flames coating its hide.

He kept backing up, drawing the beast away from the women.

The ground beneath his feet became softer. The humidity hugging his skin grew thicker. Shadows enveloped him, and heavy drops of warm water hit his bare shoulders.

He’d entered the edge of the surrounding forest. As thick as the trees were here, the lizard was going to slam its head into a trunk if it tried to come flying at him again.

The creature’s skin hissed as water dripped onto it, but the flames remained steady. There was too much humidity here for the brush to ignite. At least Torr hoped that was the case.

A thick black tree trunk loomed on his left. A low branch ran nearly parallel to the ground, supporting a rustic swing made from rough rope and a warped plank of wood. The tree’s metallic leaves reflected the firelight in a dazzling display of indigo and gold. If not for the hissing creature and its flaming skin and bone-shattering teeth, Torr would have found this place strangely beautiful.

He slowed to a stop, choosing a location just inside the tree line. The dense tree growth was going to impede his blade, but not nearly as much as it would the beast’s flying trick.

Torr charged, keeping his sword angled to fit between the surrounding branches. He went airborne at the last moment, avoiding the lizard’s open jaws as he leapt over its head. A razor-sharp tongue flicked out, slicing cleanly through the fabric of his jeans. He landed on the creature’s back, ignoring the searing lick of flame singing his skin. All he needed was one clean blow—one single jab into the lizard’s brain and then he’d deal with his burns.

Staying atop its thrashing back, he gouged the tip of his sword right between the swamp water eyes. Rather than sinking cleanly through meat and bone, his blade merely skittered off the thing’s tough scales with a shower of greenish sparks.

No way was he going to be able to bash through that hide without a sledgehammer. He needed a soft spot.

The searing heat drove him off the beast’s back. He jumped up onto a low branch, out of the lizard’s reach.

The tree swayed with his weight, raining fat drops of water that had pooled on leaves above him.

He swiped the water from his eyes and watched for an opening below.

The lizard reared up on its forked tail, obviously preparing to launch itself into the tree after Torr. He stood still, flexing his fist around his sword in anticipation.

As soon as the beast became airborne, Torr spun himself around the trunk with one arm, putting the solid girth of the tree between him and the lizard.

It slammed into the wood with a hard thunk, followed by a screaming hiss of pain. By the time Torr eased himself to the ground, the lizard was on its back, thrashing in the matted, metallic leaf litter that covered the ground.

He didn’t hesitate to take his shot, keeping out of range of that sharp tongue. He slammed the tip of his sword into the thing’s chest, feeling his blade shift as it slid between two ribs. With a savage burst of strength, he changed the angle of the sword and shoved it deeper into the lizard’s rib cage.

Thick orange blood poured from the wound. Its body convulsed, and the heavy forked tail hit Torr like a battering ram.

He flew through the woods a few feet before coming to a painful, abrupt stop against a tree trunk. His head rattled with shock so fresh that there was no pain yet. But it was coming. The wind was knocked from his body, and it was all he could do to still the panic of suffocation. Only the need to be sure the lizard was dead gave him the will to regain his feet.

The pain arrived like a speeding freight train—massive and completely unstoppable. A wave of dizziness caught him off guard. His eyes refused to focus enough for him to tell if the animal was moving or if it was just a trick of the eyes.

He stumbled forward, sword ready. His chest burned with the need for air. Pain radiated out from his spine and skull. His legs were strangely weak, reminding him of the time he’d been paralyzed and helpless.

Torr had promised himself he’d never be helpless again, yet here he was, falling to the ground, and there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop it.

Chapter 3

Torr woke up inside a dimly lit hut with Brenya’s face hovering only inches above his. Even this close he couldn’t tell her age, but she looked older than when he’d last seen her, and more tired.

Movement within her eyes caught his attention, reminding him that this woman was not Sentinel or human. She was Athanasian—an ancient race of beings who’d birthed his kind as well as the Sanguinar and Slayers.

She didn’t blink, and he swore her irises looked exactly like leaden waves kicked up by a storm.

Like all the Athanasians he’d met, there was an unearthly quality to her—a kind of power that radiated out of her that he could only imagine possessing.

The disorientation cleared, and the spinning in his head slowed until he remembered where he was. “Did I kill the lizard?”

“Yes. We will eat well tonight,” she said, easing back out of his personal space. Bits of fur and feathers were laced through her long silver hair. It swept over his bare chest as she moved, and the branches of his lifemark—the image of a tree embedded in his skin—trembled in response to her power.

Torr stomach heaved, and he wasn’t sure if it was the thought of eating the giant lizard, the concussion, or Brenya’s nearness that caused it. He swallowed down his nausea. “Is everyone okay?”

“Yes.”

“Even Grace? Is she alive?”

Brenya paused, frowning as if searching for the right words. “Parts of her are.”

He was stunned silent for a moment, trying to figure out if he was hearing her correctly or if his concussion was playing tricks on him. “Parts?”

“It is too complicated for someone of your limited abilities to understand.”

His mind went to a dark place where Grace’s body had been ripped apart, the pieces harvested for organs.

While he knew that someone as selfless as Grace would have wanted no less than to save others in her death, the idea infuriated him.

His voice came out cold and edged with steel. “Then use small words.”

The older woman pressed her lips together in irritation, as if dealing with a whiny child. “I tried to restore her. Make her whole. But she had given too much of herself to heal you, and there was nothing more I could do.”

Nothing more . . . The words were a bleak echo in his head.

“Is she . . . dead?”

“In part.”

This was not the time to be fucking with him. Frustration, grief and fear prowled under his skin, too close to the surface to hide. His voice was a cold whip that lashed out at her. “You’d better start making sense. Fast.”

Irritation tightened Brenya’s mouth until tiny lines formed. She was silent just long enough to remind Torr that he held no control here.

“Some of the woman you knew lives on. Some of her did not survive my efforts to heal her and are lost forever. And some of her lingers between life and death, struggling for survival even now.”

What the fuck did that mean? “I want to see her.” Maybe if he did, he could make sense of what Brenya was telling him.

“No.”

He tried to sit up, but the spinning in his head had him thinking twice about the move. The last thing he needed was to show weakness and convince Brenya that he couldn’t handle the truth of what had happened to his Grace.

Brenya pushed him back down, and the instant she touched his skin, the crescent-shaped mark she’d left on him a few months ago burned.

“Why the hell not?” he demanded.

“You will want to be her heart, but the parts of her that loved you are gone from her. She will not know you.”

“Not know me? Of course she’ll know me. She nearly died to save me.”

“Memories of you are one of the many things lost to her.”

“You don’t know that. Not for sure. She hasn’t even seen me yet.”

“I do know. The healing I did bound us inextricably. I’m part of her now, as she is of me. I know her mind. And you, young warrior, are no one to her now.”

Those words, delivered without warmth or pity, hit him harder than any wound he’d ever suffered. His voice cracked with pain. “You’re wrong. Let me see her and I’ll show you how wrong you are.”

“What will you do if you see her? Confess your love? Demand that she remember a man who is no longer a part of her mind? Grace is still weak. All your words can do now is damage her more.”

“I’d die before I’d hurt her.”

“Then give me your words. Pretend you do not know her. Speak nothing of her past. Stay silent until you see that what I say is true.”

“Whatever you want. Just let me see her.” He had to see her with his own eyes, to know she was safe. And no matter what Brenya thought, the bond that he and Grace had went deep. She’d been willing to die for him.

She nearly had. No matter how much she’d changed, she couldn’t have forgotten him.

“Vow it,” demanded Brenya, the stormy waves in her eyes rising.

“I swear. I won’t say a word to her until you allow it.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, the weight of the vow he’d given bore down on him, making it hard to pull in his next breath. Even if he wanted to speak to Grace, the magic binding him to his word would make it impossible.

“Lie still,” ordered Brenya. “I will bring Grace to tend your wounds so she will not question why she is here. If you do anything to upset her, I will fling you back to your world and never call on you again. Grace will live out the rest of her years here, never to see you again. Do you understand?”

“I do. I promise I’ll be good.”

Sadness made Brenya’s strange eyes tilt downward. “I wish that goodness could be repaid by something other than disappointment.”

“Grace has never once let me down. She’ll remember me.”

“That Grace—the one you think you know—is gone. The sooner you accept that, the less pain you will suffer.”

He didn’t care how much pain he had to endure. Grace was worth whatever price he had to pay to have her back again. And this time he wouldn’t squander the gift she was. Nicholas was right that her human life would be only a brief moment of time to Torr, but he would relish every second and spend what time there was making her the happiest human who’d ever drawn breath.

Brenya let out a long, sad sigh. “I had hoped you would have chosen the easier path. I see the folly in that now.” She stepped across the room and sat on a stone stool. “Brace yourself, young warrior.”

Anxiety and excitement buzzed along Torr’s veins. The pain of his wounds was still there, but none of that mattered. Grace was alive. Nothing could diminish the relief that gave him. Even if she was weak from risking her life for his, even if she was no longer quite herself, he didn’t care. She was still his Grace, and the side effects of her sacrifice for him could not possibly make him love her less.

Torr found the strength to push himself upright just as the door opened, letting in dusty shafts of sunlight. He refused to squint at the sudden brightness. He didn’t want to wait even one more second to see her again.

“You summoned me, Brenya?” Grace asked in a quiet, sweet voice he would have recognized anywhere.

He still couldn’t see her from this angle. She was standing outside of the doorway, blocked from view. Still, his entire body became alert, every cell standing at attention in response to her nearness.

The need to see her—to see proof with his own eyes that she was alive—nearly drove him to his feet. Only his worry that he might topple over and embarrass himself kept him pinned in place.

Brenya waved toward him. “This man was injured slaying the beast. Tend him.”

“Yes, of course.”

Grace stepped into the hut. The door shut. His eyes adjusted to the dimness almost immediately, revealing a slight glimpse of the side of her face.

Her hair was longer now. Much, much longer. Soft black curls fell nearly to her waist.

There hadn’t been time for her hair to grow that long, had there? She’d only been gone for seven months.

Some bit of stored knowledge tickled the back of his mind, but his head was throbbing too much for him to grasp the thought.

Her arms and legs were bare beneath a short leather tunic, showing off muscles he was certain hadn’t been there before. His Grace had always been softly rounded, with curves that made him pant with need. The leaner, harder body he saw now was proof that she had changed.

Maybe food was scarce here. Maybe that was why Brenya had seemed so pleased about a giant pile of lizard meat.

Just the thought of Grace going without the basic necessities was enough to make a sudden wave of anger swell in his gut.

Never again. So long as he lived, Grace would never go hungry again. And even though his vow was silent, its weight was as solid and real as if he’d spoken the words aloud.

She turned to face him then, and he was struck breathless. Her beauty was so brilliant and glowing it made him feel the need to shield his eyes. Those sweet brown eyes of hers, always so filled with sincere concern, were just as he remembered. Her skin was a bit darker from sun exposure, but still as flawless and smooth as in his dreams. Her hands were adorned with intricately knotted fiber rings and bracelets, but her slender, gentle fingers had touched him too many times for him not to know them instantly.

Had he not given Brenya his vow of silence, he would have still been struck speechless. Endless days of wondering if she was safe—if she was in pain—were finally at an end.

His Grace was alive, and everything inside of him wanted to rejoice.

He gripped the side of the cot he sat on, hoping to prevent himself from sweeping her up in his arms.

He’d told Brenya that he would never do anything to hurt Grace, and he meant every word. No matter how hard it was for him to restrain himself, he would find the strength to pretend he didn’t know her.

She offered him a tentative smile that showed no hint of recognition. “The village hero. I’ll have you patched up in no time. Where do you hurt?”

Torr remained silent and glanced at Brenya.

“He can’t speak, child. His throat was injured. I’ll see to that later. You tend the wounds you can see.”

Grace’s gaze swept over him, taking in his cuts, burns and bruises. Her visual journey slowed as she saw his lifemark, then again as she noticed the crescent-shaped mark Brenya had burned into his skin. She studied his face, brushing his hair away from a shallow wound across his forehead.

Sympathy warmed her brown eyes, and her touch was so gentle it nearly brought tears to his eyes.

He hadn’t been able to feel all those times she’d touched him before, seeing to his care as he lay trapped inside his paralysis. He’d lived for the times she’d shaved his face or trimmed his hair, reveling in even the slightest contact he could actually feel.

Now he was whole, feeling everything, because she had saved him. Surely that had left some kind of mark on her—some connection that even Brenya couldn’t predict.

Torr kept waiting for her to show some sign that she knew who he was—some tiny spark to light her eyes the way it used to whenever she’d come into his suite back at Dabyr—but that sign never came.

Brenya was right. Grace didn’t know him anymore. She’d sacrificed herself to save him, and yet he was no more to her now than a stranger.

She crossed to the far side of the hut and began opening wooden boxes, taking out strips of cloth and other supplies. Something hot and vital shriveled in Torr’s chest. He tried to fight back the swell of grief and rage that rose up within him, but it was a lost cause.

He’d gone through every scenario he could conceive, imagining her whole and healthy, running into his arms, unconscious as he’d last seen her, paralyzed as he’d been. He’d even pictured her dead when he could no longer control himself enough to keep that image away. He’d suffered through countless strings of chaotic emotions that each daydream and nightmare had caused. But never once had he thought that she wouldn’t know him, that he would mean nothing to the woman he loved.

A low, animalistic moan of pain escaped before he could stop it.

Grace dropped what she was doing and rushed to his side. Her warm fingers settled on his bare shoulder, and every fiber of his being rose up in welcome.

He would have known her anywhere. By her touch, by her scent, by the sound of her voice and even by the taste of her lips. She was a part of him that went deeper than anyone else he’d ever known, which made her stranger’s gaze feel like a betrayal.

Torr covered her hand, pinning it in place so she couldn’t move away. He stared into her eyes, silently willing her to see his soul. To see his love for her.

All he got in return was more of her tender concern—the kind she would have given to anyone she met.

“You’re in pain, aren’t you?” she asked. “Let me go and I’ll get you something that will help.”

Nothing could help him now. The Grace who’d loved him was gone, just as Brenya had said, and no painkillers were ever going to make that okay.

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