Excerpt for Assassin's Soul by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Noella Royce has been writing romance casually for about a decade, but she came up with the idea for the Angel Crusades and decided to fling herself into the self-publishing world whole hog and with bells on. She loves mixing metaphors, having about ten different books in ten different genres going at any given time, sewing, reading manga, and annoying her cats and husband in equal measure.

If you'd like to keep up to date with Noella's latest releases and what she's up to, please check out her webpage at www.noellaroyce.com and sign up for her newsletter!

Also by Noella Royce

Empath's Curse (Angel Crusades - Book 2) - Coming May 2018

Nothing sucks more than when that crazy hot guy in the club you just hooked up with is

1. is incredibly arrogant,

2. ignores your opinions, and

3. just might be damn divine being.

Betrayer's Knife (Angel Crusades - Book 3) - Coming May 2018

He betrayed them all and broke her heart.

Now he and his perfect smile are back, pulling her into the shadowy world of demons and angels that is New Chicago.

Can she and those she loves survive her traitorous passion?


Copyright © 2018 Noella Royce

All rights reserved.

Published by Sixth Toe Press

Baltimore, MD, United States

No parts of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. Under no circumstances may any part of this book be photocopied for resale.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the characters and situations within its pages and places or persons, living or dead, is unintentional and co-incidental.

Cover Art by Natasha Snow (www.natashasnow.com)


Noella Royce


Andie was being tracked in a high school gym by a stupidly beautiful killer with eyes like marble pools, and she was caught between wanting to kiss him and needing to kick his ass.

"Dante! Dante! Dante!" called his assassin teammates in support. Her squad of empaths was far quieter in comparison, but they were sending Andie waves of mental encouragement that allowed her to button up her fear and concentrate on the fight.

Colonel Merit stood to her left, his hawkish eyes bright as he watched his best assassin circle her like a predator assessing his prey. If she didn't win this, Merit was going to continue to humiliate and mock her team while letting his squad of asshole killers do the same, and she refused to see this outcome as an option. Her team's pride was at stake here, and kicking ass unfortunately had to come before kissing.

She concentrated on Dante's form and his smooth movements. The pattern was disconcerting to watch, as he was moving in a fluid, catlike manner that suggested he could strike fast; possibly faster than her eye could see. This would be mesmerizing in any other situation, but for its target, her, it was terrifying.

Andie would have to be ready to push him back if he got closer, but not to the point where she killed or wounded him. As control was not Andie's strong suit, she was a bit doubtful she could pull it off.

How the hell had she gotten into this stupid pissing contest, and how could she finish it so they both left that gym alive?

This question was important because Dante had a knife, still sheathed, but an easy pull away; she had no doubt that he'd use it in a heartbeat. This man was built to kill, and his leader had told him to take her down.

Was her feeble shield strong enough to keep out someone trained to overcome demon magic? She wasn't sure, and she certainly didn't want to find out.

Her knowledge of the legendary Redbacks was little more than most people's, regardless of the fact they worked for the same organization; she knew they had crimson occult tattoos and legendary fighting prowess, and that they were deemed to be the right partners to her team of empaths on the mission to take Chicago back from the demons.

She'd hoped to find out more about the famous assassins she'd be fighting with through training and bonding, not this exercise in gladiatorial dick-swinging.

That she had to fight this guy was downright tragic, considering how attractive Andie found him. The way his dark hair fell around his face and framed those kissable, rich masculine lips made her toes tingle. His skin was smooth and tan, and there was an intriguing scar down the right side of his face. Why was she so attracted to a stranger? Was it because he looked a bit like her first love?

Wonderful, she was possibly about to get smacked down by a man who reminded her of the only man she'd ever truly cared for.

"Go, Andie, and don't be afraid to show 'em what you've got and kick his ass! Don't let them put us down!" That was her good friend Caleb, and she folded his encouragement into her anger and fear.

She thought about how goddamn stupid this seemed to her, and her hands burst into blue flames that flared almost to the ceiling. It was satisfying to hear the other Redbacks' surprised gasps in response, and to feel their shock through her empathetic senses.

Her opponent simply watched her and continued his circuit, which made her even angrier.

"Dante's your name, huh?" She was now walking in a circle that mirrored his own and kept her at a consistent safe distance from his knives. "Ready for the inferno?"

She then spun her fire to create a dramatic figure eight above their heads, and someone on the sidelines said 'oh, fuck!' in a most gratifying way.

"Don't let the psycho scare you, Dante!" a woman's voice called out. So the Redbacks had a female member, huh? How interesting. "That fire's probably just an illusion -- it can't hurt you!" Dante narrowed his eyes at her, and did he just flash a smile? How dare he laugh at her! How dare he thi--

Obviously sensing her distraction, the assassin surged forward, and Andie was stunned at his speed, to the point where she almost didn't react in time. At the last moment, she managed to jump to the side, flinging her blue fire in an arc. She heard him hiss in pain as the wave of sapphire light hit him, and she felt a stab of guilt that she ignored.

"Not so illusionary now, huh?" she teased as he stepped backward, reestablishing the distance between them.

He curled his lip but said nothing as he reentered his pattern of slow, almost lazy stalking. She really liked that lip, and hated herself for letting sex distract her at such a critical moment.

"Use your knife, Dante," Merit ordered from the sidelines, his voice a bark, "and demonstrate how she's not the only one with bite."

At that, Dante was moving again, his knife at the ready, and Andie cursed herself for letting the peanut gallery throw her off. The large assassin appeared to be a master of choosing his moments and she rolled away from his strike, leaving a floor filled with blue flames in her wake.

And damn the bastard: he rushed right through the conflagration, and Andie wrinkled her nose at the smell of burned leather as the Redbacks hooted in appreciation.

He was on her, and as he leapt forward, their eyes locked. She reached forward with her mind to read his emotions, and once again she found nothing but the void. Even this close he was a blank slate, and Andie was so surprised that she lost her concentration. There was a flash of metal in his hand, and as she jumped to the side, she felt burning pain at her forearm.

"Fuck," she heard him snarl, and she felt gratitude that he hadn't been trying to hurt her. Well, she'd been trying to hurt him, so maybe that wasn't fair. And what the hell was he doing stabbing a knife in her direction, anyways?

As the pain rose, Andie felt her vision go dark with rage and she struggled against the impulse of her own body to lash out -- and lost. The area around her erupted into a blue blaze that crackled with heat, and she heard the voices of the assassins as they swore and scrambled backwards. From behind the shimmering color, she saw Dante staring through the flames with a startled expression.

Yeah, take that, you jerk.

"Andie!" someone yelled. It sounded like Caleb, and her name snapped her out of her rage-fueled reverie. "Turn it off!"

With a deep breath, she found her center and reminded herself that this was a training exercise, nothing more. Following the path of her power, she drew it inward and then roped the fire back to her until nothing remained and the flames died with a sizzling hiss.

Unfortunately, she'd used too much and exhaustion swept over Andie so quickly her legs gave way and the floor rushed towards her.

Two astoundingly strong arms were suddenly around her waist, and she went from falling to being lifted. Warmth ran through her body and down her legs as she sunk into Dante and felt his skin on hers, and her hands inadvertently clutched at his forearms.

His smell was so effortlessly masculine, an earthy cologne that combined with the feeling of his body to make her suddenly feel oddly, inexplicably nostalgic on top of her embarrassment and furtive lust. He was staring at her with those dark, singular eyes, and she had the realization that she wanted to stare into them for at least several hours longer.

With a deep breath, she reminded herself that this was a man who had cut her and treated her like prey, and with a muttered 'thanks', she clambered out of his arms gracelessly. He stepped back, and that safe distance allowed her to normalize her breathing and regain her energy.

"You okay, Firestarter?" Caleb asked, coming forward and touching her arm. His bright blue eyes flashed to Dante angrily.

"Yeah, I'll live, thanks."

"Very impressive, Miss..." Colonel Merit said, walking up to them.


"Oster." There was some genuine grudging respect in his voice. "I didn't know the Alliance had sent us an elementalist. That'll come in hAndie, as long as you don't blow your own mind. You can control that fire of yours, can't you, princess?"

"Completely," Andie said. Luckily Caleb's face remained impassive. She ignored the colonel calling her 'princess', as she much preferred it to 'fry'. "I knew what I was doing. And you have two elementalists, not one." She indicated Caleb.

Not for the first time, she was relieved the Bureau of Empath Affairs, the quasi-governmental organization that oversaw all American psychics, was loath to share specifics on its operatives with the Department of Arcane Defense. The two groups had merged just that year into the Alliance, an influential organization that saw to all supernatural matters in the US. Despite this new connection, both Empath Affairs and Arcane defense were loath to share their secrets and gave them up only under duress.

This was good for Andie, because she suspected if Merit knew the details of her control issues, she'd be benched and removed from the mission faster than she could blink.

"Good. Playtime's over, kids. Time to talk about how the next month is going down!" He walked further down the court and his assassins followed him, a couple giving Andie appraising glances as they passed.

Dante, who had hovered nearby as Merit had spoken, stepped forward.

"Are you hurt?" His voice was gruff, and Andie wasn't sure she really believed he cared. A medic had come into the room and was walking towards them, supplies in hand.

Using her hand to cover up the cut, she looked up to glower at him. "I'm fine. It's a scratch. How's your burn?" She looked pointedly at his shoulder, and then blinked in shock.

The leather was scorched, as she knew it would be. But underneath was not the raw, second-degree burned mess she was expecting. His skin was red, but only to the extent of a bad sunburn, no more. Andie knew how hot her fire was, as well as exactly how much damage it inflicted on human flesh, and a light toasting was not the usual outcome.

As her mouth opened to ask him why he wasn't burned to hell, Dante abruptly turned away and strode towards the muttering cluster of Redbacks. At first, she was distracted by how good his ass looked in his black military cargo pants, but then his rudeness hit her.

"I hate that guy," she snarled as Tina and the medic approached her. The medic quirked a smile but said nothing and began to staple and bandage her cut. Andie winced at the pain.

"Understandable. He's kinda terrifying, and really rude. Also," Tina said with a wide grin as the medic carefully placed gauze over the wound, "insanely attractive. Sorry about that, by the way."

"Sorry about what?"

"For the fact that the guy you'd really like to screw is a shady ninja asshat." She laughed at Andie's expression.

Tina was so lovely it was ridiculous, with warm cocoa skin, curly hair tied back from her face, and a laugh that was known to attract men from miles away. She was also deeply intelligent and resourceful, and despite being two years younger than Andie, she had a wisdom beyond her years. Just being in Tina's company was calming.

"Was I really that obvious?"

Tina stopped laughing and patted her shoulder. "Yup. Sorry, girl. But you radiated lust that whole time, even when you were trying to kill him. I'm sure Hazel and Jason could tell as well."

"Shit. Well, can I hate someone I want to fuck?"

"Of course. Sometimes that results in the most amazing sex. But I thought you didn't believe in relationships in the field?"

"I don't!" Andie was embarrassed at how petulant she sounded and took a deep breath. "Just because I'm attracted to the guy doesn't mean I'd let myself sleep with him. I've resisted hooking up with attractive men during training before, you know."

"Oh, I do know, and I still don't understand why." Tina threw a significant glance at Caleb, who'd stepped away to talk to Lucy and Dave. "Come on, Colonel Merit wants to kick this bullshit off with something more official than 'now try to kill each other'. Hopefully it'll be more in the vein of 'we're supposed to work together to take down the big bad head demon and take back Chicago, so maybe treat each other with respect for the next few weeks, thanks guys'."

"And then we'll do trust-building exercises and finish with a campfire where we get to eat s'mores, right?" Andie smiled. "I'd be down with that."

"Especially if your 'trust-building' partner is Dante the Dangerous, hmmm? I expect the only trust exercises our dear leader likes involve blindfolds and knife throws and the possibility of permanent disfigurement."

"Are you ready yet, ladies?" Merit's voice was contemptuous. "It'd be nice to get started; get your rumps over here."

Tina and Andie exchanged a glance and did as they were told, Andie ensuring she was as far away from 'Dangerous Dante' as humanly possible. Her curiosity about him wasn't all lust-based: she had some questions now, like why her fire hadn't burned him. That was even more abnormal than the fact he was a psychic black hole.

She couldn't exactly focus on him, however, because there were several more important issues to deal with. First, she had to survive working with the dangerous men and women who were ostensibly supposed to be her teammates, and then make it through this insane suicide mission they'd all signed up for.

Andie had been so ready to start the day out on the right foot. But already she'd lost her temper, almost flambéed a teammate, and found out one of her squad members was as dickish as he was hot. This wasn't an auspicious start, and as the leader of the empaths she had to do better.

Hopefully things would improve from here on out. No matter what, she had to stay as far away from Dante as possible.


Earlier that day

Andie barely remembered a time when she wasn't running or fighting.

As she stepped out of the house, she looked around the once-thriving suburb in which they were staying and took a moment to reflect. They were surrounded by rolling, green hills covered with tall, wild grasses and looming houses that had seen better days.

She wondered what these lawns and homes had looked like before the Demon Invasion and the mass exodus of Americans from the greater Midwest. Most likely, they resembled her hometown before it'd been wiped off the face of the earth by the demon scum that now held court in Chicago.

She smiled up at the sun and then closed her eyes, giving into nostalgia for the first time in years. She remembered her family, and her friends, and, of course, Micah. He'd been the beautiful senior who had said he loved her and had promised to wait for her as she spent the summer in Europe.

She shivered as she pictured him and the bright green eyes that blazed from his lean, impossibly handsome face. He'd looked like a movie star in general, but those eyes of his had been next-level beautiful. They'd held a special shine she'd never been able to put words to but had her whole body tingling when he'd look her way. Micah had been her crush since she'd started high school, and for one magical semester, he'd been hers.

And then he'd been taken from the world, in the same sudden, violent series of events that had destroyed almost everything dear to her.

Andie sighed, then froze as she had the faint sense of being watched. She threw out her psychic sense as she whirled, but found nothing except several trees and her approaching teammates.

Was she finally going crazy, as so many empaths in stressful situations did?

"You alright there, Firestarter?" a playful male voice teased.

Her eyes snapped open and she smiled as Caleb and Tina walked towards her.

"I'm okay. Just thinking about home." She brushed her auburn hair over her shoulder and scanned the houses, as well as the street, as she spoke. There didn't seem to be anyone else in their immediate vicinity and she concluded she was just stressed-out and jumping at shadows. "This place is a lot like the town where I grew up, and that's pretty disconcerting."

In the house across the street, she could sense children, small ones, and wondered why they weren't outside on such a beautiful day.

The answer was obvious and came to her easily: because they were there, and the other inhabitants of this makeshift town didn't trust the paranormal strangers in their midst. Who would blame them? They were forces of death and destruction, and no one wanted their kids around killers and magical freaks.

"This must be hard for you," Tina said, her expression sympathetic. "We're so close to Evanstown. I'm sure a lot of things will look familiar while we're here."

"Is this place really that unique?" Caleb asked, lifting his blond eyebrows and turning his head to glance at the houses. The midday sun glinted off his shimmering blue eyes. "This could really be most anywhere in mid-America." He stretched and yawned. "I'm bored already, honestly."

Tina snorted at him and put an arm around Andie's waist affectionately. Andie leaned into her friend.

"You're always bored, Caleb," Tina said. "We could be in the middle of a two-hundred-thousand-person rave in the heart of Berlin and you'd be asking where the party's at. You're kinda fucked-up that way."

He grinned, his perfect white teeth gleaming in a way that was almost predatory. "That would be a completely valid question. No rave is worth the name until it's up to three hundred thousand, let's be honest."

"Weirdo." Tina shook her head. "As always, I get the distinct feeling you can't wait until our first real battle with the Slicks. Which is sick, because there's a not-insignificant chance we'll be slaughtered."

"She's right," Andie said. "You seem to always be a little too excited at the chance to get yourself killed."

"Hey, isn't that why we're all here? To fight, perhaps to die, and, at the least, get a rush out of being a badass?" Caleb was unrepentant, per usual. "I didn't sign up for duty to sit around all day pushing boulders with my mind, my dears. I'm in it for the action." He gave 'action' a zesty little verbal twist, and both Andie and Tina rolled their eyes.

"Speaking of action, where are the others?" Andie asked. "I don't get the sense our new commander is the most patient of men."

"Coming!" Their remaining teammates tumbled out of the house, Lucy's blonde hair flying every which way as she tried to tie it up and walk at the same time. Hazel, her brother Jason, and Dave, at the back, followed; Hazel had her nose in a book, and yet, despite that, didn't miss a step as she walked down the stairs. Caleb fell in next to the raven beauty and looked over her shoulder with a teasing smile.

"Whatcha reading?"

Hazel narrowed her eyes. "Nonfiction."

"About what?"


"I like history! What type of history? Medieval? Renaissance? Alternative?" He was obviously teasing her, and Hazel sighed in annoyance.

"Caleb," Jason said, his tone a warning. Andie fought down a smile. Caleb was always trying to get a rise out of Hazel, and the harder he tried, the more she ignored him.

"Think we're ready for this?" Lucy asked cheerfully, putting her hands on her hips. She was tough and stubborn, a powerful defensive empath, and yet unerringly sunny. Andie was incredibly grateful for her presence.

"No idea, but we're about to find out. Hopefully, the Redbacks are more friendly than they look."

They headed down the hill to the school building where they were now headquartered, and Andie thought, again, how much she'd give to have that now destroyed town, those 'old, boring friends', and, of course, Micah, back from the dead and in her life again.


They entered the squat, sprawling brick building through the double glass doors and Andie was hit with déjà vu again, this time square in the gut. This boring, aging building could have been her own high school.

Footsteps echoed through the hallways, and their instincts, honed taut over the last year of intensive training, made them peer into every classroom they passed.

Not all of these rooms were empty: in many, stood clusters of blue-uniformed professionals who were talking over computers, medical equipment, and weaponry. Some of these staff members looked up as they passed, their expressions so openly curious and wary that it wouldn't have taken empaths to guess what they were thinking. They ignored the stares; they were used to people being afraid.

Also distracting was the unique psychic challenge of entering an abandoned school, their senses bombarded by the history and teenage emotion that had embedded itself in every atom of the place. There were stories here, crushes and friendships and anguish and even rage radiating from the walls. The feedback was not too intense for Andie, as reading the past in physical things was not one of her strengths. This was one of Hazel's, however, and Andie could feel her friend's anxiety. The woman was masterful at dulling her senses so she didn't go crazy from the sensory input she received from every person and thing she encountered, but Andie knew it was a constant struggle. She reached out and gave Hazel's hand a squeeze, and her friend squeezed back gratefully.

The Redbacks were supposedly meeting them in the gym, so they followed the faded signs around multiple corners and several squeaking swing doors.

"Man, I hope the assassins themselves are nicer than their staff," Dave said, as if he had heard her thoughts. With his skill for sensing the mood and feelings of others, he very possibly had. "The guy who woke us up this morning was a prick."

"I wouldn't hold your breath," said Lucy, wrinkling her nose. "From what I've heard, they're the biggest assholes around. Although I suppose they've earned it, what with the crazy things they're expected to do. Did you hear about the demon sorcerers they killed in New York, and how they caught them after some sort of epic roof chase? They really are like ninjas."

"They also tend to die in crazy ways," Caleb noted.

"I thought you liked a good and gory dispatching," Andie said. "Doesn't death by demon count?"

"Definitely. I'm just pointing out that the slicks can be... creative, especially when killing people. The Alliance goes through Redbacks faster than it can make 'em."

Their mood further subdued, the empaths found the gym and pushed through the large aluminum doors. They walked to the middle of a scuffed basketball court that had seen better days and looked around. The solar-powered lights were low, and Andie noted the whole atmosphere was creepy and nothing less than menacing.

"Ninjas incoming," Jason said, looking at the doors near the bleachers. "Brace yourselves -- everything I'm getting from two of them screams violence. The third one is really well-shielded." He furrowed his brows. "Weird. I didn't know they taught Redbacks how to protect themselves like that. He's like a blank space, and there's zero emotional output."

"Yay," Tina said with false cheer and heavy sarcasm. "I can't wait to meet our new best friends!"

Three black-clad muscular men entered then, wearing the cargo pants, long-sleeved shirts and red-lined leather jackets of their profession. Two of them headed right towards the empaths, their steps eerily silent on the court floor, and Andie got a psychic whiff of the masculine turmoil that Jason had mentioned.

Damn it. This was not going to go well, not at all. Well, she could at least try to start things off on the right foot.

"Hi!" She smiled and stepped forward with her hand outstretched. "We're..."

"Oh, hey, it's the frys," the front man said; a tall guy with slicked ash blond hair and a small smirk that screamed arrogance. He was blatantly ignoring her, and Andie thought that he'd be handsome if he wasn't so obviously a jerk. "Blow any minds on the way here?"

Andie held in a swear and the desire to punch him with her power. 'Fry' was an insult that suggested empaths were nothing more than mind fryers and ticking time bombs, and incredibly offensive to all of them.

"No, no blowing planned," Caleb said in his cheerful way. "Who'd want to blow you?"

Everyone except Hazel snorted, and the man's eyes narrowed as he stepped forward. "You're the funny one in the group, huh? The psycho clown?"

Caleb watched him silently, his glittering eyes taking on a dangerous gleam. Andie tensed, cursing her friend's love of conflict. Whatever the men saw in Caleb's face was exactly what they were looking for, and a pissing contest was now inevitable.

"So this is how it's gonna go, huh?" This was the second Redback, a leaner Asian man with an aquiline nose and a psychically palpable rage in his aura that put them all on edge. Suddenly he was holding a large, serrated knife, and he started flipping it between his hands. "Wanna play, little frys? Shall we see who can move faster? Psychics or assassins?"

All of them except for Caleb took a step back. The blond man's grin widened, and en masse, the psychics began to gather their power. The Redbacks didn't know it yet, but they were seriously outgunned by the collective power of Andie's group. With knives drawn and eyes glinting, they approached Caleb.

"Stop." Something about that deep, masculine voice sent shivers down Andie's spine.

It came from the third member of the Redbacks' group. The man had been next to the bleachers, but in mere seconds he was between the two men and the empaths like a tall, muscular wall. She had seen movement from the corner of her eye, but her mind couldn't process any human moving that fast.

"Come on, Dante," the blond's voice was now less cocky and had become pleading. "These freaks think they're so special with all their goddamn powers; we just want to make sure they understand we're not afraid of their voodoo bullshit. You know Merit would agree."

"Yeah," the other guy said, his still-belligerent tone belying the fact his knife had conveniently disappeared into its sheath. "They were mocking us."

"We were not," Andie said, glaring at them, "and you know it. You came out making fun of us, and you wanted a fight from the get-go." She looked up at the tall Redback who'd stepped between them. "I don't know what your problem is, but -- oh." And then she stopped talking, because he was staring at her.

Andie was speechless.

Was it his looks and presence that stopped her short, or was it his intense expression? Either was possible. Regardless, something about him struck Andie dumb, and she couldn't remember what she was saying.

He had a face sculpted from marble, with marvelous cheekbones and a strong tapered chin beneath a wide, generous mouth; it flowed together as if from an artist's pen. His eyes were dark, black as pitch, even, and his thick brows were knitted above them. Dark, wavy hair fell around his face in a way that showed he didn't much care for what it looked like, a carelessness you could only pull off with a face like his. He reminded her of Micah, but only if Micah had been next-level fit. He also had dark, fathomless eyes instead of bright green ones.

Every inch of Andie was attracted to him, and she was shocked at her own desire to reach out, touch his arm, and take the conversation to a flirtatious and downright physical level.

What kept her from making a move was this Dante's gaze as their eyes met. He was looking at her with an intensity to match her own, his gaze thoughtful and searching all in one. And yet he looked almost angry, because the tightness of his cheekbones and lips spoke of high, almost explosive, tension. What were those full, angry lips like to kiss? She'd love to find out.

In an attempt to focus, Andie pushed her mind out towards him and found that Jason was not wrong -- there was nothing there but void. Trying to read him was like attempting to climb a glass wall. And, damn it all to hell, this made him even more attractive to her. Hormones really were the worst.

As this angry Adonis was staring down at her with that unreadable expression, Andie rallied herself and tried to shake off the fact that she found the impressive width of his shoulders distracting.

"Look, we honestly don't want trouble, especially since we're going to be fighting together. If you could please just keep your men under control, as well as tell them to stop calling us 'frys', we --"

Suddenly, with an unnaturally smooth motion, Dante turned and started to walk towards the other side of the court. The other Redbacks scrambled behind him, the fight with the empaths apparently tabled for another time.

"What the fuck?!" Lucy said, her face scrunched up angrily. "It's like you weren't even talking!"

"This is going well," Dave said, sighing.

"I was so look forward to breaking their little pea brains open like ripe melons," Caleb said with a lip curl.

"He shouldn't have ignored you like that," Tina said, now standing next to Andie, "but I must note he got his shitty friends to leave us alone. That's got to count for something."

Andie took a deep breath and steadied herself. He's just a stupid, brutish assassin, she told herself sternly, and you're just easily turned on because you haven't had a playmate in forever.

"You're right," she said with more equanimity than she felt. "He did us a solid. If we could just get them to stop calling us 'frys', we might make our way out of these next few weeks without doing the demons a favor and killing each other first."

"That shouldn't be too hard," Lucy said hopefully. "There's no way Colonel Merit is going to let them get away with derogatory bullshit like that."

The aluminum doors behind them slammed open, and a tall, rangy man wearing a black military uniform stalked in, followed by several more Redbacks. He walked up to their group, stopped to assess them with narrowed eyes, and gave a wide grin that Andie would at best describe as mocking. He could have been anywhere from forty to seventy years old.

"Hello there, little frys. Are we ready to start teaching you how not to get yourselves killed?"

Andie stepped forward, fists clenched.

"Colonel," Andie said through gritted teeth, refusing to let his glare quell her, "before we proceed, on behalf of my teammates and myself, I would like to ask you and your squad to stop calling us 'frys', or 'psychos'. We prefer empaths, and we're used to 'psychics'. Calling us derogatory names is distracting and affects our ability to connect with your Redbacks, and this disconnect will make us all less effective in the field."

Bringing up the practical reasons to keep them happy had been Andie's attempt to speak Merit's military language. Judging by his face, it didn't work.

"I will call you whatever I want to call you, fry. I was in the Battle of St. Louis, and I saw what your kind is capable of. You don't just fry your own minds; you take as many people as possible with you."

He leaned forward, and Andie could smell chewing tobacco on his breath and sense hot rage from his emotions. Both made her very uncomfortable, and she heard the Redbacks chuckling in approval behind him. "Have you seen the pictures from that day, fry? Do you know what it was like to watch a dozen of my comrades' brains leave their heads in a fine bloody fucking mist, or what it felt like to feel the pressure inside my own skull and to know how close those goddamn psychos came to taking me with them?"

He leaned back and indicated his men. "That's why I'm here. That's why we're all here. Because we've all been trained to deal with your psycho bullshit, and it's a lot harder for you to take us with you when you snap."

Andie fought down the desire to smack Merit and focused on staying calm. Her team had made it clear they saw her as their leader, and she'd promised them, and herself, that she'd live up to their expectations.

"We're trained as well, Colonel. The empaths at St. Louis didn't know what could happen to them when they pushed their powers to the limit. We do, and we were chosen by the Bureau for that very reason."

"The BEA is a bullshit organization that only cares about protecting you precious snowflakes and couldn't give a shit about the rest of us, and we're all better off that your little empath party now reports directly to the Alliance. I repeat, fry: I don't care what you think about what I call you. This is the military, and I'm in charge. Got that?" He leaned towards her again, snarling.

Andie came forward as well, glad she was almost as tall as him. "You might be the military," she said, and pointed a finger at herself, "but we're civilian volunteers, and we're here because we want to be; no more, no less. As long as you refuse to respect us, we'll refuse to respect you, and this mission is going to suffer."

"You tell him, Andie!" Caleb said, and Andie felt proud for standing up to the colonel. This was for her friends, and goddamn if she was going to let these violent pricks bully them.

"Is that right?" Merit straightened and, to her surprise and relief, seemed to soften and even smile. His next words, however, snapped her back to attention. "Well, we're not going to respect you psychos -- since we're talking about respect, here -- until we've got proof you can hold your own without killing yourselves. Care for a little wager?"

"Bring it," Andie said, crossing her arms. She didn't care what it was. All she knew was that she had to win.

His grin widened. "You beat my man and I never call any of you 'fry' or 'psycho' ever again, and I will beat the shit out of any of my guys who do. Deal?"


"Great. Dante -- come show this here fry how we roll." With that he stepped back.

As the tall, dark-haired guy who had ignored her earlier came forward, his movements so fluid as to be inhuman, Andie cursed her mouth for getting her into something she wasn't sure she could win.


After the fight between Dante and Andie, and the agreement that Merit and the Redbacks would treat the empaths with some respect, everyone seemed ready to concentrate on the mission.

They were sitting in a classroom and Merit was going over the days ahead, including their training schedule and planning sessions for the Chicago mission. Andie was trying to concentrate, but she was spending most of her mental energy keeping her eyes off Dante.

Something about him, aside from his impressive good looks and physicality, was magnetic, but she couldn't put her finger on what particular quality was so appealing. Was she just horny? It was certainly possible, given how he was exactly her type.

The fact that he seemed to glance her way occasionally didn't help her focus any, although she could have been imagining it. Because he was on the other side of the circle from her, he could have been looking at her the whole time, but she couldn't be sure without meeting his eyes.

What was she thinking? Why couldn't she get a read on him at all?

Usually she could tell a guy was fixated on her by the psychic perception of his energy and lust, but she couldn't depend on that with Dante. What she could sense was dark and different, and was neither quantifiable nor identifiable. And since she'd been able to read the general emotional makeup of people ever since her psychic powers appeared ten years before, this made him both fascinating and frustrating.

She told herself to forget about the man and pay attention because she had no doubt that any mistake on her part would be a triumph for Colonel Merit.

"Starting now," he was saying, "we're going to test everyone's instincts. Empaths," he said the word with a special sardonic twist, as if to make sure they noticed his word choice, "my Redbacks will be throwing projectiles at you. I want to see what you do, and which of your shitty habits we have to fix before we're ready to approach our enemies.

"Albertson," he looked at the Redback with the ash blond hair who'd been harassing them earlier, "go tell Rob in the armory to meet us in the field with the equipment I told him to pull together."

"Told you," Tina whispered to Andie. "Trust via knife throwing."

Andie snorted and lifted her arm to get Merit's attention. "Will we get to go next, Colonel? Would love to see what your Redbacks do in response to our attacks."

He rolled his eyes and curled his lip. "Yes, Princess -- y'all can go next. Let's go outside and get started, you lazy assholes! Daylight's a'wastin'."

As they walked outside, the female Redback fell into step with her. She was a woman almost as tall as Andie and with long, inky black hair that cascaded down her back.

"Hey," the woman said, her voice alto and melodious.

"Hey," Andie answered, letting the assassin lead the conversation. She couldn't help but admire her beautiful, sharp nose and curved lips. There was a graceful toughness to her, and she gave off a unique aura of sophistication and carefully controlled violence, like a high-fashion model who'd decided to become a deadly killer. Even the scar that split her lip made her more striking, not less.

"Nice handling of the colonel back there."

Andie was startled. "Really? I was pretty sure I'd made an enemy for life with all that."

The woman laughed. "No, not at all. His world is ordered completely on a hierarchy of dominance, and the only way to gain his respect is to show you can hold your own. He's also a great tactician, and not so bad once you get used to his style. I'm Saanvi. You're Andie, right? What's that short for? Andrea?"

"Andela," Andie said. "It's a Czech name; my grandma was from Prague. Means "heavenly messenger"."

"That's quite a name," Saanvi said. "I like it."

"Thanks. And thank you for telling me I didn't completely fuck things up back there, seriously. I can lose my temper, and I'd rather he didn't make me a target for the next few weeks."

"Really? The woman who almost toasted Dante with blue fire gets angry? I'm shocked. Seriously, I saw the look in your eyes when that happened; I have the feeling we're lucky you didn't roast us all."

Andie laughed a bit sheepishly at the sardonic note in Saanvi's voice. "Yeah, well, I'm glad he got out okay. What's his deal, anyway?"

"Merit's? Like I said, he's a macho bastard, but he's usually a fair one. Empaths just set his teeth on edge, and for good reason, after what he saw in St. Louis. Once all of you prove yourselves, he'll lay off."

"Thank you, but I wasn't asking about Merit -- I meant Dante. What's his story? He seems different from the rest of you."

The look Saanvi shot Andie out of the corner of her eye made it obvious she wasn't the only one who was interested in Dante. It wasn't just the look, however, as Andie could sense the tinge of lust, and even a bit of jealousy that came up at the thought of the striking male assassin.

"Dante's... Dante." Saanvi shrugged, and the tension that was coming through Andie's extra senses was at odds with Saanvi's casual body language and tone. "He's the best Redback alive by a mile -- he can move quicker, run faster, and kill demons better than the rest of us combined. He talks more than you'd think, and he'd take a bullet, or a claw, for any of us. Don't tell Merit, but we'd turn on him in a second if Dante told us to."

"Huh. Know where he came from?"

"Nope. He doesn't like to talk about it." They were approaching the rest of the group on the edge of an old football field, and Saanvi turned to Andie with a knowing glance and a quirked smile. "And he's not particularly receptive to getting down and rolling around, although you're welcome to try. Didn't work for me, but you never know."

Andie blinked, and Saanvi laughed at her expression before turning to walk towards the other Redbacks. "Good luck!" she said with a wave.

"I like her," Andie said to Tina and Caleb as they approached. "She's refreshingly blunt."

"I do, too," Caleb said admiringly. "She's like a Greek goddess in black leather, which is not a bad look for a goddess."

"Indian goddess, not Greek," Tina corrected.

"It was an analogy, Tina; not literal. The point is she's insanely hot. Introduce me to her when you've got a chance, Andie."

Andie looked over to where the assassins were setting up and taking weapons from the armory staff. "I think you're going to get to know all of them real well real soon, buddy. Or at the very least, their knives."

Hours later, after they'd gone through several rounds of things flying across the field, the two groups had learned a great deal about each other. Certain camaraderies had been tentatively formed, and even Antonio, the guy who had been giving them a hard time alongside Albertson, had struck up a wary friendship with Jason and Caleb.

Albertson, however, obviously wasn't having any of it. He refused to do anything but grunt in response when an empath spoke to him.

He'd also nearly sent a knife flying into Hazel's thigh. She'd been alert and had flung her shields up in time, but the event had thrown off their new sense of mutual bonding, and mistrust still lingered in the air. Caleb had threatened to murder the Redback with the power of his mind, and the assassin had pulled out his knife and made some threatening gestures before his teammates had stopped him.

She'd also tried to not stare too closely at Dante as his turn came up, but that was really damn hard. Everything he did was so fluid and graceful, and the contemplation of the planes of his body made her shiver.

She had to get over her fixation soon because it was likely to drive her mad if she didn't.


After the exercises were completed and the group walked off the field together, Andie hurried to catch up with Caleb.

"Hey," he said in greeting, his expression tight.

"Hey yourself. Something wrong?"

He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and gave a small smile. "You know exactly what's wrong. I'm going to kill that insulting, dangerous bastard. Did you see what he almost did to Hazel? He's got it out for us."

"There's nothing worse than insulting, dangerous bastards, especially when they have tendencies of attempting to murder people they're supposed to be working with." Her tone made it clear that Albertson was not the insulting bastard she was talking about, and Caleb had the grace to look sheepish.

"Hey, at least I'm charming on top of insulting and dangerous; from what I can tell, that guy has no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. Also, his hair is greasy."

He mock-winced at the glare Andie shot him. "Okay okay, I get it, we talked about this; no creating enemies with our allies." He grinned. "Although you're the one who poked the Merit bear, not me, and you're the only one who's officially tangled with a Redback. So while you're giving me a hard time for theoretical fights, you might want to remember your real one."

"I know, trust me, I know." Andie shook her head. "That turned out better than I had hoped, but the thing here is do as I say, not as I do, Caleb. I'm a better leader in theory than in practice."

"Nah, you're not so bad," he said, patting her on the arm, "and I think we'd all rather have a badass than a wimp. And on that note, I've got a badass goddess to talk to. See ya'!" With that, he fell back to talk to Saanvi with his best lady-killer grin in place.

Andie rolled her eyes and looked over to find herself next to Dante. She felt her face flush and her body tingle, and told herself to calm the hell down.

What was wrong with her? She hadn't felt giddy at being around a good-looking man since high school, and here she was, practically offering herself up on a plate. Was she turned on by a guy just because he was tall, dark, and mysterious? What was she, twelve?

Her indignation at her own weakness kicked her rudeness into full gear, and she whirled on Dante.

"You let me win earlier, didn't you?"

There was a moment's pause before he turned his head. She suspected he had considered ignoring her, and that angered her even more.

"I don't know if I let you win. I just decided to not hurt you any more than necessary." They entered the building, their feet noisily clattering and squeaking down the high school halls.

"What's the difference? If you had struck me again, you would have won. And if my fire didn't hurt you that much, and it doesn't appear to, you definitely could have gotten another hit in."

"As in I could have stabbed you again? Definitely." His voice was so casual and nonchalant, as well as deep and sexy. Andie was very mad at him for all those things. "But as you were pointing out to the colonel beforehand, we are teammates in this mission, and things will go much better if we proceed as such. It would not be a good precedent for me to hurt you. And your fire did hurt me. It hurt a great deal, but it's nothing compared to what I usually put up with. I also know that if you really wanted to damage me, you could have, if you're as strong an elementalist as you seem. Why didn't you engulf me in your fire, which would have done much more damage but also given you a clear win?

"You were fighting only as hard as the situation allowed, and I was doing the same. That is all."

Well, she couldn't argue with that, could she? Andie made a harrumphing sound and flung her hair over her shoulder. "Why do I think you'd still have come at me and won even if I'd tried to toast you to a crisp? I don't know whether to thank you for not embarrassing me in front of my teammates or curse you for throwing the match."

She wondered what he meant by 'the pain I'm usually in'? Andie then remembered they were supposed to be teammates, and she should probably apologize for snapping at him again. Rudeness wasn't going to help.

Before she could start her "I'm sorry" and ask him a question or ten, Dante suddenly made a rumbling, masculine sound, one that could have been a laugh or a noise of contempt. She'd kill to find out which.

It was astounding how lazy being an empath had made her. Having to actually read someone's physical cues was maddening, especially when they didn't have many.

Dante tensed visibly. "You don't have to do either. I need neither your thanks nor your curses."

With that, he turned on his heel and took off down an empty corridor, slamming open the doors between wings with such force they bounced against the wall and clattered as they closed.

"What'd you say?" Antonio asked Andie, his voice awestruck. "He never gets that upset."

"Nothing!" Andie turned to everyone. What had just happened? "I was actually about to apologize!"

"Is he always this sensitive?" Lucy asked Saanvi.

"No, he's not." Saanvi lifted an eyebrow at Andie. "Honestly, this is the first time I've seen him react like that. You'll have to tell us what happened."

Andie shook her head. "I didn't do anything, I swear. The guy is nuts."

Merit materialized by her side. "Stop pissing off my best soldier, Princess. I promise you, you're not as valuable to this mission as he is, and if I have to choose between you two..."

The end to that sentence was obvious, and Andie bit back a retort and sighed.

"Don't worry, I get it. I seriously didn't say anything, but I'll leave him alone."

Andie was lying. For whatever reason, she didn't want to leave Dante alone at all. Quite the opposite: she wanted to figure out who he was, what was behind that wall, and what he tasted like from top to bottom.

She flushed at that last thought and caught Tina's eye; her friend flashed a grin that showed she knew exactly what Andie was thinking. Goddamn, she was going to have to work on that. If she didn't, her empathic friends were going to get awfully sick of being privy to the shape of her dirty little fantasies. Also, it was going to be hard to get a bite in if he was going to avoid her, which seemed likely.

"Yeah, you better behave, or your ass is out of here." Merit raised his voice. "Get some food in the cafeteria, everyone, and then we'll meet up to discuss tactics. The Chicago slicks are smart bastards, and we've got to work out how we're going to get into the city without getting picked off."

As soon as they entered the cafeteria, the friendly, middle-aged medic who had bandaged her arm approached Andie with a smile.

"How's that cut doing?" she asked, holding out her hands. Andie obediently lifted her arm for inspection, and the woman unwrapped the bandage and nodded. "Good, it's healing cleanly. With all the running around you're doing in the next few days, you're at high risk for infection."

"Thanks for checking on me," Andie said and held out her hand once the medic was done. "I'm Andela, by the way. You can call me Andie."

"Hi, Andie, I'm Eleanor." Eleanor gave her hand a strong shake and grinned, revealing two dimples. She had glasses and a round, pretty face that reminded Andie of home, and for some reason, Andie wanted this woman to like her.

"Have you been with this team for a while, Eleanor?"

"Actually, no, I'm local. My family and I live in this community. I was an emergency room nurse back before the Invasion, and I've been more or less running our local attempt at a clinic the past few years. When this bunch arrived, they asked if any of us had medical training, and I stepped forward." She gave a wry smile. "I never thought I'd miss the madness of the OR, but it's a lot harder to save lives and keep people healthy when your supplies are permanently low. But we get by, and the colonel has promised us more funding for our assistance."

Andie nodded; she could only imagine how difficult it was to live in what had become the new wild west. "Have you considered moving to the sanctuary cities?"

After the demon invasion and the subsequent panic in the surrounding areas, the towns and cities that sat on the edge of the 200-mile radius 'invasion zone' had become federally funded refugee cities, and thousands of hastily constructed housing projects had gone up in a matter of weeks and months.

"Ugh, no, thank you." Eleanor shook her head. "Those communities are a mess, and everyone I know who lives in them is miserable. Being here is risky, yes, but it's our home, and we think it's a risk worth taking. It's also been quiet for years, so we're not too concerned." She smiled. "And now we have you all to defend us."

Andie laughed. "It's true, you do. And I don't blame you -- I'm from Evanstown, and this reminds me so much of home. I'd want to stay here too."

"Oh, my poor child," Eleanor's face filled with compassion. "I'm so sorry. How'd you survive? I thought no one made it out."

"I'd just left a couple of days before for Europe." Andie gave a small smile. It was an uncomfortable topic for her, and she wished she'd kept her mouth shut. "I was just lucky, I guess."

"Yes, and unlucky as well. I'm sorry again." Eleanor squeezed Andie's upper arm and then leaned in conspiratorially. "Hey, if you and your people aren't too tired tonight, we have a little 'bar' we've set up in town, at the green house on the corner of Carriage Way and Wisteria. My eldest tends bar, and she does a really good job in turning the crappy booze we get into delicious drinks. I wasn't sure what to think of Merit and his scary bunch, but you all seem alright, and they're being a bit more human today. Bring the crew."

Andie smiled with gratitude, both at the change of subject and at the thought of an honest-to-goodness drink. "Thanks, Eleanor. If we're allowed, we'll be there."



Six hours later, both assassins and empaths were exhausted from talking about the mission and their planned approach of the Demon stronghold, and they shambled out of the classroom with glazed eyes. They'd eaten unsatisfying sandwiches for dinner, and the assassins, who weren't accustomed to hours of mental exercise, looked especially drained and grumpy.

Dante, who'd sat on the other side of the room from Andie in a corner during the meeting, and had stayed completely silent throughout, was already heading towards the exit.

Sighing internally, Andie decided there was nothing she could do but let it go. Obviously, he couldn't stand her, and with where they were headed and what they were planning to do, the sex she'd never have with him was the least of her worries. She'd just have to find a way to ignore how crazy attractive she found him and keep her dirty thoughts about that delicious body to herself.

It seemed like as good a time as any to bring up drinking.

"Hey, guys -- there's a bar down in the town, at Wisteria and Carriage; one of the locals invited us. Who's coming with?"

"Oh, hell yeah, I am," Antonio said cheerfully, and everyone expressed their agreement. Merit, following behind them, lifted an eyebrow at Andie. She wondered if she had done something wrong.

"Is it okay if we go, Colonel? If you think it's best that--"

"Fuck, no, we need to unwind. Lead the way, Princess."

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