Maybe another way would work better.

Things certainly couldn’t get worse.

“My Lord,” the butler started with condescension.

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“Shut up.” He glared over at the doggen as he strode for the door. “I’m armed and I now know how to shoot—and you cannot outrun a bullet, I promise you.”

As his father’s servant started to sputter like an old car engine, Peyton let himself out and kept right on going.

Please let me find a fight tonight, he thought. If only so I don’t come back at dawn still wanting to kill someone.

As Novo materialized on the rooftop of a walk-up on Sixteenth and Trade, she had a gun on her right hip, one at the small of her back, two daggers on the front of her chest, and a length of chain inside her leather jacket. Her feet were locked in a set of shitkickers, and her leathers were tight across her thighs and calves. A set of tinted goggles were strapped on her face and their purpose was twofold: keep the cold wind out of her eyes to prevent tearing, and also dim the headlights and streetlights, which could blind as they flashed across white snow or jumped into your line of sight as you engaged.

As a gust came prowling across the urban landscape of walk-up apartment buildings and grungy little shops, her legs registered the chill, but that wouldn’t last. Soon as she got moving, she wasn’t going to feel a thing—and on that note, where the fuck was everyone else? Allowing her instincts to roam, she prayed for movement, the scent of baby powder…hell, even a human with a dumb idea—although all that was premature. She wasn’t permitted to engage with anything until the Brothers and the other trainees arrived.

When a hand tapped her on the shoulder, she wheeled around—and outed one of her knives—

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“John Matthew.” She lowered the weapon. “Jesus. I didn’t hear you.”

The male moved his hands in the positions of American Sign Language, and she frowned as she deciphered the words. Good thing he was cutting a rookie some slack and going slowly, letter by letter.

“I know. I need to check my six. You’re right.”

She bowed to him, something she rarely did. But John Matthew was not just an expert in all kinds of fighting; he was also one of the few males she had ever trusted right from the onset. There was just a quality about him, a quiet calmness where he looked you right in the eye and yet didn’t threaten you. To her, this equated to safety, something she was not used to.

He started to sign again, and she nodded. “Yes, I’d like to be paired with you tonight—wait…can you do that again? Oh…yeah, right, got it. Yes, I have extra clips, four of them.” She patted the front of the jacket. “Here and here.” She nodded again. “And a chain. What? Well, I think of it as the only kind of bracelet a female like me will ever wear.”

John Matthew smiled, flashing his fangs. And as he put out his fist, she pounded it.

One by one, the others materialized at the position, Axe, Boone, Paradise, and Craeg showing up first, followed by Phury and Zsadist, and then Vishous, Rhage, and Payne.

“Where’s the golden boy?” the Brother Vishous demanded as he lit a hand-rolled cigarette. “Peyton not gracing us with his damn presence tonight?”

To make it look like she didn’t care one way or the other, Novo re-ran the same check of weapons and supplies she had just done for John Matthew—

The blast of heat that went through her body told her down to the split second when Peyton appeared from out of thin air.

But it was just awkwardness, she told herself. Just garden-variety awkwardness, based on hostility and resentment with maybe the smallest dash of embarrassed thrown in—because, hello, she had allowed herself to be vulnerable last night.

Even if Peyton didn’t know it, she sure as shit did.

In retrospect, she shouldn’t have used him like that. Not because it had hurt him. Hell, he didn’t really give a shit; she knew that from the way he behaved with those bimbos at the clubs. No, it had been bad for her, ultimately.

Yeah, even twenty-four hours later, her body still wanted what it had been denied.

But whatever. No reason to think about it anymore—and what do you know, going out in the field and trying not to get killed while she attacked the enemy? Exactly the kind of imperative she needed to wipe everything else out of her mind.

Even Sophy and Oskar, too.

There was a brief review of positions and a reminder of engagement protocol and then an opportunity for questions, which none of the trainees took—everybody was clear on what was expected because it had been drilled into their heads in the classroom.

Hopefully, tonight they would take down a few lessers.

There were not many slayers left now, and she could tell the Brotherhood was getting focused on finally ending the war: There was a twitchiness to the warriors, a prickly awareness that seemed to be growing ever more intense—and that, coupled with some overheard conversations about the Omega, led her to believe that things were coming to a head.

What would the world be like without the Lessening Society? It was almost inconceivable…and it did make her wonder about what the trainees’ role would be if there was no more fighting. Sure, you had to worry about humans, but that was a coexistence issue, not a head-to-head battle for survival.

Assuming those rats without tails never learned about the race.

If they did? That was game-on in a bad way for sure.

“Let’s do this,” the Brother Phury announced.

In pairs, they dematerialized to their quadrants, and as soon as she and John Matthew resumed corporeal form, they started off at a steady march in the road. Thanks to the storm, the sidewalks were impassable, nothing but deep footprints frozen into the snowpack like fossils in old stone.

Even though she and John Matthew had been assigned a grid ten or fifteen blocks to the west, the neighborhood was the same, all older walk-ups, the four- and five-story buildings narrow and housing some eight to ten rent-frozen units under their roofs. Cars were parallel parked with barely inches to spare, and as a result of the massive snowfall from the storm, the bumper-to-bumper line of vehicles was like one contiguous snowbank, only the brief flashes of the door handles and hints of body paint showing on the sides. Plowing had utterly impacted them all; it would be days of sunshine or hours of shoveling before the owners could move them.

As Novo swept her eyes around, she took note of the streetlamps. Most of them were dark, sometimes because a bulb was out…others because the glass headers had been knocked or shot off. What light there was came from the occasional glow from a window, either because the drapes were flimsy enough to let illumination pass or because the shade that had been pulled down had so many holes, it was basically an indoor shutter.

No humans were out, anywhere.

And as she measured the trampled trail that led into one of the walk-ups’ front entrances, she tried to imagine what it was like for the people to be moving around in the daylight. Strange, that Caldwell had this other half, this alter ego of activity that none of them ever saw firsthand. Reflections of it filtered through in the form of news, and these tracks in the snow, and these buried cars, and the vague evidence of holed-up, closed-up, currently-going-nowhere apartment dwellers. But during their nightly sweeps they didn’t get a true flavor of it, because the law abiders tended to head for cover and stay there after ten p.m.—

She and John Matthew both stopped at the same time.

Up ahead three blocks, a pair of figures rounded the corner. One was a little ahead of the second, and they were big enough so that they had to be males. Whoever it was, they were likewise walking in the road—and they also stopped as soon as they saw they were not alone.

Novo reached to her hip and palmed her gun, but she left her arm down with the nine at her thigh. In her peripheral vision, she noted that John Matthew did the same.

The wind was coming from behind them, and that was a disadvantage: If those were lessers, they would recognize the scents, but she and JM had no idea whether they were facing off with human thugs or slayers.

Either way, the rush of adrenaline and surge of inner power that went through her made her feel blissfully alive, her mind swept sparkly clean, her emotions flatlining like schoolchildren admonished by a teacher.

Her fighting instincts took over, her body becoming a tuning fork for information that could improve her attack.

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