She’d been sure she would last at least a year or two.

As soon as Peyton saw that slayer sit up, he knew there was trouble. And then there was the flash of the dagger blade over the undead’s shoulder, that grotesque, gape-mouthed face stretching into a crazy grin of hatred.

It was forever and an instant at the same time.

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He did not need precise arc measurements to extrapolate where that razor-sharp point was going to end up, and there was no stopping the inevitable. The weapon did its duty, impaling Novo in the chest, going right through her bulletproof vest, finding home in a horrible way—

The sound of a gun going off at point-blank range rang loudly in his ears and he jumped back. But it wasn’t the enemy. It was Paradise, standing strong and sure, doing her job: Her precisely put bullet blew apart the back of the slayer’s head, bits and pieces of it falling like confetti, the black blood becoming a fine rain that landed like soot on the white snow.

Except the fucking lesser fell forward, instead of back, going limp on top of Novo—and the dagger.

As the blade penetrated even deeper, she jerked, her hands flopping, her legs kicking. And then nothing about her moved at all.

“Call Manny!” Phury said as he lunged forward and pulled the lesser off. “Call the fucking—”

“I have him now!” Craeg cut in.

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Peyton weaved on his boots as he saw the hilt of the dagger down tight to Novo’s leather jacket. The blade was in so deep, none of the steel showed. She was going to die—if she wasn’t dead already.

And this was all his fault. Thanks to him, Paradise had disabled that enemy way too late.

As his legs went out from under him, he was only aware of the structural failure of his lower body because his vantage point changed from high to ground level. Nothing in him registered—no physical sensations, that was. Emotionally…he was in a firestorm.

Meanwhile, Zsadist jumped over and stabbed the remains of the lesser back to the Omega, and as the pop! and flash of light faded, everyone else got in close to Novo, crouching down, settling on one knee or both in the bloodstained snow. Peyton couldn’t see much of her now, with Paradise and Craeg each taking one of her hands while Phury checked for a pulse and Boone settled in at her boots.

Oh, God, that dagger. Sticking right out of her chest.

Peyton swallowed through a dry throat. “Novo? Is she alive?”

Stupid fucking thing to say. Then again, anything from him was a waste—

Thundering footfalls. Coming up behind him.

Wrenching around, he looked to the source of the fresh attack. Except, no, there was no one there; it was his heart beating in his chest, the panicked rhythm rebounding in his ears with pressure.

Peyton raked his hand across his mouth and jerked open his leather jacket in the vain hope it would ease the suffocation in his lungs. Where was the fucking surgical unit?

Standing up, he leaned in to see over the heads of the other fighters…and nearly wished he hadn’t. Novo was as white as the snow, her eyes open and fixed on something in the middle distance above her. Was she seeing the Fade?

Come back to us, he wanted to scream. Look away from the other side…stay here!

And goddamn it, he hated the slayer blood on her face. He wanted to wipe it off her too-pale skin, cleaning her of the war, of his mistake, of these consequences.

With a curse, he paced around, gripping his hair, pulling, pulling, pulling at it. His brain told him that if he could just think clearly enough, and picture himself exactly where he’d been standing when he’d made the bad call, he could somehow implant himself earlier in time—and undo this outcome by not trying to protect Paradise.

And then they could all be still fighting—or maybe, with the skirmish having been won, they could be standing around in a flush of buzzy, trippy victory, preparing to find the next battle.

“Is she alive,” he said roughly. “Is she…”

Novo started to cough, and the red blood that came out made him so dizzy, he went down to the snowy ground again. Lowering his head, he braced both hands in front of himself and got ready to vomit. But nauseous as he was, he didn’t throw up.

The rumble of the mobile surgical unit coming around the corner was like a choir of angels singing, and to make way, Peyton pushed himself across the snowpack until his back hit the wall of the nearest building. As the RV punched to a stop, Manny Manello burst out from behind the wheel, a duffel bag in his hand, a stethoscope around his neck.

“Don’t move her,” the human barked.

Instantly, everyone went hands-off, as if they didn’t want to be the person who fucked shit up. And then they moved back to give the doctor room.

Peyton stayed where he was, his hands locking on either side of his head so he could hold the deadweight of his skull up. When he blinked from time to time, it was the only way he changed position.

He wasn’t even breathing.

A minute later, Ehlena materialized in the alley with a backpack of supplies. And then Doc Jane arrived. And more Brothers.

From time to time, he could feel eyes passing over him, and there were whispers that he knew were all about what he had done. He didn’t care about any of that. He just wanted to know Novo was going to live.

A pair of shitkickers marched across and stopped in front of him.

As Peyton looked up, the Brother Rhage said, “You didn’t mean it, I know.”

“Is she still alive?” Holy shit, that didn’t even sound like his voice. “Please…tell me.”

“I don’t know. But we need to get you out of here.”

“I swear I didn’t mean for this to happen.” He closed his eyes and pressed the heels of his palms into them, hard. “I don’t want this.”

“I know, son. We gotta go back now, you and I.”

“What about her?” He dropped his hands. “What’s going to happen to her?”

“Manny, Ehlena, and Jane are doing what they can. But we want all trainees back to home base. The bus is here.”

Shit, he hadn’t even noticed it.

As he struggled to get up, Rhage’s big hand was there to help—and when he was on the level, the Brother started to pat him down.

“What are you doing?” he asked his teacher.

“Removing your weapons.”

“Am I under arrest?”

Rhage shook his head. “No, you’re looking really fucking suicidal.”

Peyton had no idea how long it took to get back to the training center. Time had ceased to be something that could be measured in any kind of unit—it was more like the vastness of space, never ending, incalculable, larger than himself and anyone else. He also wasn’t exactly sure how he came to be underground and in the Brotherhood’s facility. He had no memory of the bus ride in, or of entering the facility, and he didn’t recall how he’d ended up in the break room, sitting in a chair.

There must have been some ambulation involved. He sure as shit hadn’t dematerialized down the corridor or been carried here. His brain was flatlined—

Oh, God, he didn’t want to use that word.

Lifting his arms, he discovered that there was a bottle of booze in one of his hands—gin, this time, Beefeater. And the cap was off. And someone had had a quarter of what was in there.

With the resignation of a prisoner with a life sentence, he looked around the break room. He was alone, and the clock over there read that a couple of hours had passed.

How much longer would Novo be in surgery? he thought. Rhage had at one point come in and told him that she had been stabilized out in the alley, but that she needed more time in the OR here at the clinic.

Was she alive—

The door to the break room swung open, and when he saw who it was, he focused on the gin bottle. Ordering his arm to bring that open neck back to his mouth, he got frustrated when his limb refused to obey.

Interesting. It appeared that he had become paralyzed.

“How are…you doing?” Paradise asked from just inside the room.

As things could hardly get worse, he figured, what the fuck, and looked up at her. Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen from crying, her cheeks bright red from her having brushed away tears in the cold, and her hands were shaking as she zipped and unzipped and re-zipped her black fleece.

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