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Then he scrambled to get to the last one. Scrambled so hard.

It had a knife. A long, serrated blade that could do a lot of damage, especially to a Brother who was clearly on the verge of losing consciousness: Rhage’s hands were flopping and slapping instead of strategically hitting, his balance all wonky, his skin as white as the snow.

Axe slipped and fell. Went down hard. Landed badly.

As he snowplowed, his leathers protected him from dermabrasion … but did nothing to save him from another gunshot wound—which arrived in a now-familiar strip of pain on one of his shoulders. And something stabbed him, too, maybe?

But then Rhage collapsed and nothing else mattered. The mighty Brother went down first on one palm, then the next, and the math was tragic as Axe made the assessment that the slayer with the knife was going to hop around, come at Rhage from behind, and slit his throat, finishing the job.

No roar this time. Axe was losing strength of his own.

Instead, Axe just got the fuck up, even though his vision flickered again, and he bolted forward, not so much running as falling and scrambling—

Something was buzzing around his head—why were there flies out at the end of December? What the fuck?

And God, his body suddenly weighed twice as much.

Fuck, he smelled so much blood.

He didn’t care. Reaching Rhage, he grabbed the Brother’s hair, and put every ounce of power left in him into wrenching Rhage out of the way of the arc of that swinging lesser blade—

Axe was the one who took the knife.

And it went deep into him. Right between his ribs on the side.

He gasped, his eyes lifting to the sky. And then suddenly everything went slo-mo and numb. The world was falling—no, it was probably him, wasn’t it?

What was with the flies?

Boom! He landed hard again—not that he felt it through the numb-blanket he was wrapped in; he just assumed he did because he bounced, the buildings around him going up and down until gravity won against the laws of basketballs and falling bodies that offered no resistance.

Exhale.

He tasted copper. Gurgling. He heard a horrible gurgling … and figured it meant he was drowning in his own blood.

The last thing he saw as he passed out was Rhage rolling over and staring at him, as if the Brother was as surprised as Axe was.

Rhage opened his mouth and said something, his bloodied hand reaching out for Axe as if offering him something to hold on to.

Axe tried to move his arm in response.

But it was too late.

He was gone.

THIRTY

The heart of a warrior.

Rhage had never seen anything like it. Or certainly never expected it out of a trainee. He himself had been going down, the reality of war reminding him that battles were like Mother Nature: No matter how strong and well-trained and well-equipped you were, every once in a while, the tide could turn against you, and if it did, you could get in over your head in a heartbeat.

And that was what had happened.

Too much blood loss. Too many opponents. Too arrogant in assuming he could handle his shit when half of his mind was back home with Bitty and Mary, and the entirety of his soul was in pain.

And he should have used his fucking weapons.

The tide had turned so quick, too. His legs had started to go jelly, and then he’d realized he was going to go to ground—and soon thereafter it was over, a father’s promise of safety to his daughter turned into a lie: He was going to get swarmed and they were going to kill him—and even the beast couldn’t help him. He’d expected the great dragon to come out, and it nearly did—but just as the transformation was about to happen, he’d gotten the arterial wound and his blood pressure had started to tank, and all bets had been off.

Still, the beast had saved him once in that condition, though … not tonight, however.

Not tonight.

But then Axe had come from out of nowhere, attacking the first of too many lessers by daggering it in the chest. The trainee had then gone for the next, stabbing its skull into the asphalt—only to get counterattacked from behind, a huge slayer leaping onto his back and lashing Axe’s face and shoulders with a length of chain.

There had been no stopping the trainee, though. Hell, Axe hadn’t seemed to even notice what was on top of him: Even bleeding, stabbed in places, shot in the leg, and with a lesser riding him like a horse, the male had been unrelenting, lurching to Rhage and ultimately taking the knife that had been meant for Rhage’s throat in his own side.

Down the male had gone, like a great oak in the forest.

And now Rhage was reaching for the trainee, extending a hand across the pavement as the snow started to fall on both of their bleeding bodies.

So brave.

Axe’s unfocused eyes shifted in his direction, their stares meeting. Blood was coming out of Axe’s mouth and was all over his chest.

Thank you, son …, Rhage mouthed. Thank you …

All at once, people came running, all kinds of Brothers and then Manny with the surgical RV and still other folks. There was immediate surgical intervention, right on the ground, for both him and Axe, and Rhage refused to lose consciousness. Just wasn’t going to.

In spite of the fact that his body was cold and numb and his eyesight was blurry and his heart was square dancing behind his sternum, he refused to let go of reality.

He was afraid he wasn’t going to come back.

The view of what they were doing to Axe got blocked as Manny started to work on the bleed on Rhage’s shoulder, and Rhage looked up to the sky. The snow that was coming down from the heavens landed on his lashes and melted, and he pictured Mary and Bitty, their heads together, the pair of them smiling at him as if they were in a snow globe.

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