Excerpt: Willing Sacrifice, Chapter 1

Willing Sacrifice

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.