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As Novo eased back against the brick tenement next to him, he nodded to her.

“Cold tonight,” Peyton said to no one in particular.

“It’s December,” Novo muttered. “You want it to be eighty?”

“Yup, I do.”

Novo had some choice words under her breath for the guy, including “arrogant” and “fucker,” but nobody paid any attention to it. The pair of them had turned into conversational snipers, but only at each other, and hey, popcorn-and-Coke’ing the show passed the time.

A blast of wind shot down the alley like it was being pursued by an enemy, and Axe flared his nostrils, testing the rush for scents of Brothers or humans … or their enemy, the Lessening Society.

Nada. And that frustrated him.

After seven weeks of intensive training, that had covered everything from hand-to-hand combat skills and firearms to poisons, bombs, and stalking techniques, Axe wasn’t alone in thinking they were ready for something other than fighting in the gym with themselves and studying hypotheticals. Each of them had their own reasons for wanting to get in the war, but the common denominator was they were all chomping at the bit to light some shit up.

And come on. They had been going in to the Black Dagger Brotherhood’s hidden training center six nights a week, for six to eight, sometimes ten, hours at a time. And it hadn’t been a case of a couple of seminars in classrooms and a paper typed up on your laptop. It had been hard, grueling work, and none of them had failed—which proved the brutal tryouts, that had weeded the applicant pool from like sixty to the six of them, had picked the right half dozen to go through the program.

Axe tested the air again. Still nothing. He’d been stoked when, for the first time, they’d been instructed to meet not at wherever the bus was going to pick them up to drive them in, but rather here in the field.

Maybe they were finally getting a chance to fight for real.

Ten minutes later, the checking of the watches started, the wrists popping up at first on the down-low, and later with increasing annoyance.

Axe didn’t bother checking his. They were in the right place. They’d gotten here at the right time. The Brothers would show when they were good and goddamn ready.

Fucking hell, this shit was making him twitchy, though.

He looked down the alley. Snow was starting to fall on the serious from all that cloud cover, but the currents of wind that topped these tightly packed four-and five-story deserted cages for humans meant that nothing penetrated the maze of alleys between the abandoned buildings. Off in the distance, sirens continued to echo back and forth across the city like the ambulance drivers and the cops were playing hide-and-seek blindfolded. No humans were walking anywhere in this area, as there was nothing to come here for, not even a crack house.

Those were a little to the west. About three blocks.

He knew because he’d used them—

The gunshots came from all directions.

Up above. Down in front. From behind.

Axe dived away from the bullets that whizzed by his ears and his ass, and instantly regretted that he hadn’t thought to have guns in his hands already. They’d been taught that. Goddamn it.

As he rolled across the pitted pavement, he fumbled to get his forties against his palms, but it was like trying to catch tennis balls while you were falling down a crevasse: His coat was flapping around, getting tangled in his arms and slapping him in the face, and his limbs were sloppy and uncoordinated as he tried to find a way to save himself from getting killed.

Somehow he made it to a shallow doorway in the wall, got his guns up, and then he was assessing whether the fire was a test or the actual enemy. He couldn’t tell. He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t scent much. People were running everywhere. Bullets were still flying. He had no idea who to make a target out of, or what he should do, or what the fuck was going on.

The chaos was unexpected. So was the grind-to-a-halt-while-faster-than-the-speed-of-light dichotomy: His brain couldn’t seem to decide whether things were in slow motion or going at a dead run—

And then a bullet came so close to his face that the tip of his nose felt the burn.

Fuck this, he thought as he pivoted.

With a violent thrust, Axe smashed his shoulder into the door, splintering the rotten wood. Just as he was falling inward, Novo streaked by, and he caught her arm, yanking her in with him. Together, the pair of them landed on concrete that had all the give of a morgue slab, arms and legs tangling, a split second of oh-fuck freezing them both.

Right away, they were back up on the vertical, and just as they had been taught, they went spine-to-spine with guns raised, forming the best defensive unit they could. Axe’s eyes burned as they strained to see something, anything, but the darkness was too thick to penetrate. His ears stepped into the sensory void, however, isolating and droning out the sounds of bullets and bodies moving in the alley, focusing on …

There was something dripping over to the left. Novo was breathing as hard as he was. And he could hear the beat of his own heart.

Wherever they were smelled like old air and twelve kinds of mold, suggesting that the place hadn’t been opened up in a—

“Click, you’re dead.”

As the soft words were spoken, a gun muzzle made contact with his temple. And given the way Novo gasped, he was pretty sure that she had a forty pressed up tight to her chrome dome, too.

“Motherfucker,” Axe muttered.

“Yup,” the Brother Rhage said without censure. “Neither of you are coming down for First Meal tomorrow morning. You failed your first field test.”

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