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Meanwhile, Elise was trying to live her own life in the morass, trapped between sorrow and a yearning for independence.

What a mess.

On that note …

She picked up a black blouse that was held together by safety pins and not much else and put it on a vacant hanger. And then she did the same with a flannel shirt that was mostly shredded. And a bodysuit that was black and had a blood-splatter pattern on the front like its wearer had been shot in the chest.

She wasn’t sure why she was cleaning up—actually, that was bullcrap, she knew precisely why. She wanted to help her family and she could think of no other way to make even a marginal improvement. Her father couldn’t stand her even offering him a hug. Her uncle would not look at her. Her aunt wasn’t getting out of that bed of hers … not unless it was into her early grave.

This was all she had.

At some point—later this year, maybe next year, maybe a decade from now—someone was going to come in and box up these things, relegating them perhaps to the basement or the attic, as, in aristocratic families, nothing was ever given away or resold. It was considered bad luck.

Maybe they would burn it all somewhere on the property.

But at least if she did this, whoever it was wasn’t going to see the mess.

Thinking back to what Peyton had said, she could only shake her head. Her father had always made it seem as if a human had killed Allishon. But to find out it was another vampire?

What the hell had happened?

TWENTY-EIGHT

With Novo’s and Boone’s arrivals in the fairly well-lit alley, the training class was complete—and shortly thereafter, a vehicle the size of a bank turned in at the far end. It was the Brotherhood’s mobile surgical unit, and as it came to a stop, Axe assumed that this was it. Playtime was over.

The Brother Butch, a.k.a. the Dhestroyer, stepped out from the front passenger side. “No more training runs.”

Yup.

“This is not a trial or a test.” The Brother reached back in and brought out a duffel that was nearly the size of a bodyguard. “I’m going to be swapping out your ammo. These are hollow-tipped bullets with a little extra kick to them.”

Boone, the class hand popper, naturally couldn’t let that go. “What is it?”

“Water from the Scribe Virgin’s Sanctuary. Or what had been her Sanctuary.” Butch shut the door, banged his fist into the RV, and the thing trundled off. When it was out of sight, he dropped the bag and unzipped it. “Come on, move it.”

Boone was first in line, kicking both clips out of the butts of his forties and exchanging them for new slides.

“Gimme what’s on your belt, too,” Butch demanded.

More swapping. And then Craeg, Paradise, Novo … Axe was the last one to do it, getting his new bullets and falling in line with the others. There were no humans around, not walking, stumbling, or even driving by in cars; whether that was on account of that holiday with the holly and the candy canes or the frigid temperatures, Axe didn’t know. Didn’t care.

But that didn’t mean they were alone.

Zsadist was standing about ten feet away, his scarred face and pit-black eyes the kind of thing that made even Axe’s bowels get a little loose. Tohrment was beside the Brother. And so were John Matthew, Blaylock, and Qhuinn.

Holy shit, Axe thought. They weren’t fucking kidding about this.

Butch spoke up again. “We’re getting close to the end of the war. That means lessers are becoming hard to find and easier to kill because the only ones left are brand-new recruits. Last field session for you all, things went tits up, so we are pairing you up with a Brother or a fighter. In concert with your mentor, you will go out in a grid pattern running west to east. Do not vary unless you engage, and then only as necessary. You and your mentor will both signal everyone else upon engagement. When a signal is received, we all will converge, returning to our search patterns only after an assessment of the engaged situation occurs. Do not go rogue. Do not think on your own. Do not get dead. Any questions? And may I remind you bunch of idiots that this is not a drill. Now is the time to back off and get the fuck out if you’re going to. Any moment after this will be considered desertion and reason for dismissal from the program. I’d rather you bail now, not fuck us in the middle of a mission.”

No one flaked. No one wasted any time with dumb-ass questions.

They were as prepared as much as any bunch of newbs could be.

And each one of them had known this night was coming.

“Axe,” Butch said, “you’re with me. Paradise, you go with Tohr. Z gets Boone. Craeg is with John Matthew. Peyton, you’re with Qhuinn. Blay is functioning as a scout for this mission, going out on the rooftops ahead of us all. Keep your guns up, your eyes peeled, and your phones live.”

Nobody said anything as the pairs linked up, with him falling in line with Butch as each team got assigned a street. The plan was for everyone to proceed through their given territory until the neighborhood started to improve, approximately thirty blocks up. Then the entire system would move six streets to the north, away from downtown—because the war tended to steer clear from the skyscrapers due to the exterior security cameras and internal security teams in all that expensive real estate.

Security shit meant humans potentially all over the fuck, and nobody needed that.

It was the only rule of engagement that both the Brotherhood and the Lessening Society adhered to: no human interaction, if at all possible. And if you did interact? You cleaned that up quick.

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