Ruby's first thought was: Okay, that is one badass motorcycle.

Sleek and black, and super tough-looking. The engine was a smooth purr that made the ground vibrate, hence why it took her so long to notice it. The rider was dressed in form-fitting black and a leather jacket, with a helmet that obscured her features. She looked just as tough as her bike.

"It's just one person," said Ruby, drawing her handguns. "I'll shoot her. I'm assuming this is a ninja?"

"Yeah, but... She's different." Keelin watched with narrowed eyes as the motorcycle approached. "Run. This is my fight."

"If she attacks you, I'm shooting her" was what Ruby muttered (after a long litany of curse words) as she dragged Aidan and Olivia off the highway and behind a copse of scraggly trees where they were sufficiently hidden. She leaned around the clump of branches, lining up the woman in her rifle scope. Keelin will kick her ass, just like those other three. But it's good to be safe, right?

Making up her mind, Ruby decided to move closer. Aidan had his arms wrapped around Olivia (Ruby wanted to coo), and he gave her literal laser eyes when Ruby slunk out of their hiding spot, stepping as lightly as she could. She slipped under the overpass and peeked over the edge, eavesdropping.

"Redback," said Keelin coolly, holding herself with the sure grace of a cat. Her katana was at her side, poised to spring.

The woman on the bike, however, seemed to exude lazy confidence. "Keelin," she said in a voice that was low and dark, like chocolate and caramel. "Must we use these formalities? You know my real name."

Her voice was lilting with an accent that wasn't Chinese, but more... Arabic, or something. Ruby scowled and made sure her rifle was loaded.

"There's no point in using real names." Keelin twirled her katana, a silver blur in the air. "How's the family?"

"Boring without you." She pulled off her helmet, shaking out long silky licorice-colored hair. Her skin was the color of hot chocolate, and she had different-colored eyes—one warm brown, one dark green. Both flashed with the same danger that was in Keelin's. Though other than that, they couldn't have looked more different. While Keelin was small and slender, this woman was tall and muscular, her hips and chest curving dangerously under that black suit. Ruby hated her already.

The woman tilted her head, her dark locks spilling over her shoulder. She turned, and Ruby noticed a vibrant red stripe on the back of her black leather jacket. "You should come back."

"Why?" asked Keelin, voice cold and emotionless. Her goggles and mask were down, but her hood was up, casting her eyes in shadow. "There's nothing for me back there."

"There's me." The woman—Redback? Wasn't that a type of spider?—got off her bike and took a step closer. Ruby tried to gauge her age. Her powerful vibe and curves indicated at least twenty, though her face was youthful, suggesting maybe seventeen or eighteen.

Ruby inconspicuously raised the barrel of the rifle over the overpass and lined up her shot. Make a move and you'll get a new hole in your side.

"I hate you." Keelin Fang, blunt as always. "Go away."

"It's not the same without you. Come back with me."

"I don't want to."

"Stop being a baby."


Redback arched one eyebrow, and Ruby almost shot her right then and there. "You know the drill in the Order. Succeed or die. I can't and won't return without you."

"You can't fight me." Keelin sounded a bit uncertain, though. "I'm better than all of you."

"We'll see about that, then." Redback drew a short sword and moved forward, and Ruby shot her.

Or tried to. The woman's head shot to the side and she easily dodged, rolling sideways mid-lunge. Ruby blinked. That shouldn't be possible. She fired again, aiming for the head this time. Redback ducked, and the bullet streaked through empty air. Ruby stared. "What the fuck?"

"I see you've made some new friends," said the woman, smirking. "Guns, really? Come out so I can see you."

"Ari," said Keelin, and she turned, looking surprised. Keelin had taken off her hood, and looked surprisingly sad. "Just leave me alone."

Redback, Ari, whatever, started to say something, then frowned. "What's that noise?"

Keelin seemed to hear it too, tensing up. "Truck."

Ruby looked up as she heard it—an engine, much louder than that motorcycle. One 4-by-4 was rapidly approaching. She swore under her breath, made sure her guns had enough bullets, and stepped out of her hiding place, keeping one eye on the assassin, who just offered her another infuriating smirk. Ruby flipped her off.

"Well, your friend definitely has more personality than the boring windbags back at the compound," said Redback, cool amusement in her eyes. Ruby felt like firing a rocket at her. Though a rocket would probably be even easier to dodge, she thought grouchily.

"We'll talk and then fight later." Keelin cracked her knuckles. "Deal with this first."

As the truck got closer, Ruby strained to make out who was in it. She couldn't see the driver, but several men were in the back, and they didn't have black veins.

Regular people can be even more dangerous than infected. If there was one thing she'd learned from people-watching on the streets downtown, it was that.

Ruby paused her fidgeting—she felt uncomfortable just standing there waiting—and glanced sideways at Keelin. Her hood was back up. Both she and the other assassin stood still without moving, coolness radiating off them. Ruby tried to imitate the look on Redback's face, kind of tough but chill at the same time, totally in control of the situation. That's me. Absolutely not outclassed by two cute ninjas.

The truck came to a stop in front of them and stopped its engine. Four men jumped out of the flatbed, and two more came out of the front. All of them had a firearm, and three had bulletproof vests. So it'll be slightly harder to kill you three, thought Ruby, her hands on the twin handguns holstered around her hips.

"Well, well, well." The tallest one sneered at them. He had a five-o-clock shadow and thinning greasy hair. Your typical clumsy goon. "Three pretty little girls all alone. How 'bout that, fellas?"

His lackeys sniggered, and Dumbbell Ultima crossed his arms. "As it happens, we haven't seen a single woman on our little road trip. What luck this is!"

"Enough with the mindless chatter," Redback cut in coldly, and Ruby almost jumped at how scary she sounded, compared to the playful bantering from before. "State your business."

Dumbbell's sneer was replaced by a slightly angrier one. "Don't be gettin' smart with me now, little bitch." His hand strayed to the rifle strapped across his back. "We might have to give you a spanking, right after you suck my dick."

Redback's eyes flashed, brown and green, and Ruby saw the resemblance between her and Keelin. "Put your dick anywhere near my mouth and you won't live long enough to regret it."

Dumbbell growled. "Get out the rope," he barked, and Ruby cocked her guns. Does he even notice that we're armed?

Ruby aimed at the heads of the two biggest guys, and all of them pointed their rifles at her. "Try anything and we'll have to fuck your dead body," yelled a guy with several skull tattoos and long hair, and the corner of Ruby's lip curled up in a smirk. I won't be the only dead body around h

"Stop!" Keelin's voice cut through the angry tension like a knife. "No one dies tonight."

Ruby pouted. "Not even a little?"

"Not a lot of people left who aren't dead or infected," said Keelin. "No more death."

Redback frowned. "I had to beat off some of those black-veins people on my way here, but I think the world would benefit more from them than these idiots."

"No more death," repeated Keelin.

The taller assassin sighed. "What would Mother say?"

"Mother can go cliff-jumping off of Mount Everest for all I care."

Ruby stared at them, surprised. "Wait, are you guys sisters?"

"Same mother, different father." Redback smirked. "My father was another assassin lord, but Keelin... is a mystery."

"Fuck you." Keelin let out a long breath through her nose. "Let's just get this over with."

And then both assassins were alive, ducking and twisting through the air, disarming all of the goons within a few seconds.

Redback tossed the guns over her shoulders and made a come-at-me gesture.

"You really are stupid" was what Keelin said as the men frowned at each other and continued their approach, holding out the rope like the three girls were wild animals.

Which, in a sense, they were. Ruby fired two perfect clean shots at the same time, one punching into the leader's crotch, the other hitting the closest rope-wielding guy in the knee. Dumbbell Ultima screamed in pain and fell to the ground, blood seeping through his pants so it looked like he was on his period. (You know, if he was a girl.) As for the other guy, he buckled and went down, the leg almost coming apart at the knee.

"Ruby," snapped Keelin.

"What? No one dies. Those were non-lethal shots. I mean, they'll hurt, but yeah."

Keelin rolled her eyes, muttered "smartass", and threw a cross at the closest man's eye with half of her usual power, still making him stumble back. Her voice took on a frosty chill as she addressed the would-be rapists. "Go away."

They did the smart thing and ran, the two shot men leaving a blood trail as they clambered into the truck and roared off.

Ruby assumed Aidan was still hiding through all of this.

"Messy, but not entirely terrible," approved Redback, dusting off her hands. "Maybe your gun-loving friend isn't so bad... Though anyone could shoot those men easily."

"Are all the assassins bitches?" asked Ruby, pointedly ignoring her. "If so, I'm surprised you turned out the way you did, Keelin."

Redback regarded her with a haughty aloofness, and Ruby decided to leave the conversation. She cast one last glare at Redback and left to patrol around them, guns loaded and continuing to listen in on the rest of Keelin and the assassin woman's talk.

"Yes, back to our previous conversation." Keelin jabbed a finger at the assassin. "You've always been loyal to Mother. In the compound it's all survive or die, kill or be killed. Why can't you do what I did and leave it behind?"

Redback laughed humorlessly. "You ran away. You're a coward and a disgrace to the Order."

Keelin didn't stand down, though Ruby cast a glimpse backwards and caught a flash of pain on her face. "I'd rather be my own person than one of the Order's emotionless grunts."

"You're not a grunt. You're an elite. One of the Inner Circle, hello? You're the daughter of the—"

"What, so I'm special because my mom is?" Keelin interrupted her, green eyes blazing. "You and I both know the only reason I got the training I did was because of my parentage. All the spiders in the Order are well-trained, yes, but why are we chosen as the ones who make themselves known? Only the Inner Circle get fancy code names and go on the real missions."

"Mother clawed her way up from a peasant child to one of the best fighters in the Order," Redback replied coolly. "And the members of the Inner Circle showed potential. You think Wolf was born without his size? Or Recluse with her speed?"

And then Keelin muttered something that sounded like "fucking Recluse" and continued in a quieter tone, making Ruby strain her ears to hear. "Look, this isn't the point. How long do you have to bring me back before the Order sends more?"

"I got here a day ago. I presume Huntsman is already on his way here."

Silence. Ruby risked another glance back and saw that Keelin's face had turned downcast. "I don't have time for this, Ari. I have to go to France."

Redback's voice was suddenly venomous. "Why? Is it that Vieux girl?"

"Fuck you. I've said enough."

Ruby's ears pricked. Sounded like a fight. The insufferable assassin had already proved bullets were useless against her, but if Ruby hid and used a quieter sniper rifle... The blonde carefully made her way under the overpass on the other side and peeked over, silently bringing out her rifle. She was suddenly regretting her combat boots-they could be loud.

"I'm not leaving without you." The leather-clad assassin stepped closer, and Ruby lined up her shot. Don't shoot at her, shoot at where she's going to be.

"You can't beat me in a fight." Keelin's green eyes blazed dangerously under her hood. "I'm the best hand-to-hand fighter in the Order."

"Who said this was going to be a hand-to-hand fight?" Redback held up a fist, and two sharp blades slowly slid out from the sheaths on her forearm, Wolverine-style. She lunged forward in a flash, and a bullet tore through her shoulder.

Ruby stood up like an avenging angel, blowing off the barrel of her rifle.

"You hit me," said the assassin, disbelief evident in her voice. Blood dripped from the wound, and her hand automatically went to press against it, stifling the flow of red. "No one has managed to draw my blood in years."

"And that is what happens when you fuck with guns." Ruby smirked. "You're lucky I didn't aim for your neck."

Redback's face took on a defiant tone. She palmed a vial of something and drank it all. "Succeed. Or die. And this one time, I don't want to succeed."

Keelin looked up. "Poison," she rasped, staring at the empty vial as it clattered to the ground. "No."

The assassin was dead before she hit the ground.

And then Keelin was stumbling, the slash wound in her stomach gushing blood.