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As broadswords were unholstered and raised high, Sahvage forced his cousin behind him and prepared to engage. In his years of combat, he had killed more than this lot by himself, and for his cousin, he would see their blood run as a river ’cross the meadow.

“Why must you be so stubborn!” he barked at his charge.

Before he could look back at her again, the first of the arrows whistled by his ear. The second went between his braced legs. The third? Hit him in the shoulder.

And they came not from those setting upon him with those broadswords.

’Twere from the east. From . . . behind the trees that offered stout protection: The archers had stayed hidden and waited for their assistance to arrive upon those thundering hooves and with those frothing torches—

The arrow that killed him was the fourth that was sent his way, its steel tip and honed shaft penetrating his heart, the leather layers meant to protect him in the event of a knife or punch offering no resistance to the deadly rush of the sleek projectile. And even after that mortal strike, brethren of his conqueror continued to strike through his torso, the muscles of his legs, his back.

There had to be more than one archer, for the bows were reloaded too fast for merely a singleton.

“Go!” he cried as he fell to his knees. “You must take care of yourself!”

As Sahvage fell upon his side, his vision departed him, though his wits stayed live at least for a moment. In truth, he had always prayed unto the Scribe Virgin that he would be taken in battle, a cloak of honor and bravery the funereal draping that covered his body as it grew gray and cold.

He did not want to go like this. Failing in his service unto his charge, knowing that they would set no arrows upon her, for she would be taken alive unto Zxysis and given over to him.

For pain. Degradation. The pits of fire from which she believed she would surface, a phoenix rising out of suffering unto a seat of power.

“Do not hurt him!” Rahvyn screamed from up above, as if she were shielding him with her body. “You mustn’t kill him!”

As her voice registered in his ears, pure terror nearly animated him. But his failing heart was too far gone, and the resurgence in power and awareness lasted not nearly long enough.

Goddamn it, she was still with him . . .

That was the last mortal thought that came upon him prior to Sahvage finding himself in a vast white landscape, the door unto the Fade rushing up to him, as if he’d had an assignation with it that was long, long overdue.

Lo, his heart was done. And not merely in the mortal sense. For that which was going to be done to his beloved cousin . . . he was broken as he died.

It wasn’t lightning.”

As Nate, adopted son of the Black Dagger Brother Murhder, continued to hammer at the framing board in front of him, his buddy leaned forward and spoke louder, like maybe he hadn’t been heard.

“Not lightning.” Arcshuli, son of Arcshuliae the Younger, shoved his phone in Nate’s face. “See?”

After one more hammer strike, Nate lowered his weapon of construction and took the nails out of his mouth. “Okay. That flash wasn’t lightning. So?”

“So what was it.” Shuli popped his arching brows. “Doncha wanna know?”

In his khaki cargo shorts and his t-shirt, Shuli looked like just another member of the construction crew—as long as you ignored his bone structure, the Hublot on his wrist, and the rumors that his sire was the head of the underground glymera.

“Come on, don’t you want to know?” he repeated.

“No, I want to finish framing this out. Then I want you to help me with the Sheetrock. After that, we can—”

“But you saw that thing. It lit up the whole sky. And my brother says it wasn’t lightning.”

“Now he’s a meteorologist? I thought he was a Ph.D. candidate in a human chemical engineering program.”

Shuli disappeared his iPhone into his ass pocket. “Exactly. He’s the smart one, I’m the pretty one. And FYI, he’s better-brained than the two of us put together.”

Wait for it. Just . . . wait for it—

“Of course, I’m better looking than all three of us.”

Bingo. “That makes no sense.”

“Have you seen this face?” Shuli made a circle around his puss. “Seriously. I’m hot—”

“You are ridiculous.”

A rhythmic chirping had Shuli re-outing his cell. “Oh, my God, it’s break time.” He flashed the phone again, like the alarm going off might be subject to misinterpretation if there wasn’t a visual confirmation. “Guess we have to put our hammer and nails down and—jeez, I don’t know. Go for a walk in the woods over thataway?”

“Break time,” came the foreman’s voice from inside the farmhouse they were remodeling. “Take thirty!”

Nate looked out of the open garage in the direction Shuli was pointing. The two of them had been assigned the work in here because they were newbies, and if the holes left by the windows’ removal weren’t patched with total perfection, who was really going to care?

Well, Nate cared. Shuli? Not so much.

“Come on.” Shuli took Nate’s Black+Decker and put it down on a table saw. “Let’s go for walkies.”

Nate shrugged and played follow-the-leader, the pair of them heading across the driveway and onto the lawn. When they got to the fence, they each threw a leg over the bottom two rails while they ducked under the top one. After that, it was all open field, although given that it was only late April, there wasn’t much grass growth. Little bit of mud, though—their steel-toed boots mucking through the slop.

With a frown, Nate glanced at his friend. “Why are you wearing shorts?”

“I’m hot-blooded, my friend.”

“You’re a virgin.”

“So are you. And do not conflate my lack of experience with a paucity of enthusiasm.”

“Big words,” Nate said with a laugh.

“Dad’s a psychiatrist, remmy.”

“And that relates to you how?”

“I know all about conflation.” Shuli leaned in and lowered his voice. “As well as other things that end in ‘-ation.’ And start with the letter M. And have a ‘bruh’ without the R in the middle—”

“What’s that smell?”

Shuli jumped ahead and walked backward. “So . . . have you?”

To avoid a sneeze, Nate rubbed his nose like he was buffing its end to a high shine. “Can you smell that?”

“Stop avoiding the question. You’re three months out of your transition, and a fully functioning male. Which means—”

Nate looked past the other male’s shoulders. “It smells like burned . . . iron.”

Shuli stopped dead in the path of progress. “Have you made yourself come yet.”

“None of your business.” Nate stepped around the living, breathing, incredibly classy but horny obstacle. “There’s smoke, too.”

“I don’t see what the big deal is. I’d tell you.”

“You already have.” Nate shot a dry look at the guy. “Many times. Don’t you have hairy palms and blindness by now?”

“That’s just for humans, and I’m trying to inspire you by leading through example.”