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Prey (Shifters #4)(4)

By:Rachel Vincent

Marc’s head swiveled to face me, eyebrows high in surprise. “Into cat form? Is that possible?”
“We’re not sure. In theory, it shouldn’t be much different from forcing someone into human form.” Which we had to do occasionally, in order to question uncooperative strays, or stop them from shredding anyone who came near. “But in practice…well, no one’s ever tried it. I hate to experiment on a child, but she’s really leaving us no choice.” 
“Have you told her?”
“Yeah.” I rubbed my forehead, fighting off frustration. I hadn’t seen Marc in months, and I wanted these few hours together to pass pleasantly. “But she doesn’t think we’ll do it. She says she’d rather be tired for the rest of her life than risk hurting someone in cat form.”
“Yeah, but would she rather be dead?”
I closed my eyes and let my head fall against the headrest. “Honestly, I think she would. She’s horrified by what happened last time, and we still can’t get her to talk about it. But I’m hoping that if I can—”
My eyes flew open as Marc’s car jerked beneath us and started to sputter.
“What’s that?” I sat straight in my seat, staring out the windshield at nothing but darkness, broken by two overlapping cones of light from the headlights.
He didn’t answer, but his hands tightened around the already misshapen wheel—a casualty of many past temper fits—and his frown deepened.
The car sputtered again, then began to shake, like it was trying to die. Steam rolled from beneath the hood, white as snow against the cold, black night.
Marc veered slowly onto the right shoulder, glancing back and forth between the windshield and the rearview mirror. I twisted to watch as Vic came to a stop behind us. We got out, crunching on a layer of ice, and Vic joined us at the front of the car, where Marc pulled a penlight from his pocket and popped the hood. He shined the light on parts I didn’t recognize, grunting in frustration. Then he knelt and shimmied under the car, in spite of the frigid concrete at his back.
Seconds later he emerged, scowling. “My radiator hose is slashed.”
“Son of a bitch!” Vic muttered, as Ethan stepped out of the SUV, followed by Manx, clutching the bundled baby to her chest. “You can’t drive long like that. No more than ten, fifteen miles. Had to’ve happened at the gas station.”
Marc nodded in agreement, then his eyes met mine, his face lit unevenly by the headlights. “We’ll pile into Vic’s SUV with everyone else, and I’ll have mine towed.”
Obviously, that wasn’t how I’d intended our reunion   to go, but it could have been much worse, especially considering that some asshole had sabotaged Marc’s car. What if they’d cut the brake line instead?
Pissed now, I jerked open the passenger-side door and leaned in to grab the sodas Marc had bought at the Conoco. And that’s when I saw them. Two pinpoints of red light in the trees across the street. Those lights went out, then appeared again a second later.
Eyes. Cat eyes, reflecting the little available light. Someone was blinking, and whoever it was, he wasn’t alone. Several more sets of eyes appeared in the trees, each pair at least ten feet from the next.
My stomach twisted in on itself, churning around my road-trip munchies in fear. We hadn’t just been sabotaged. We’d been fucking ambushed.
Straightening slowly, I sniffed, wincing when the frigid air pierced my nose, throat, and lungs with a thousand microscopic shards of ice. Fortunately, one good whiff was enough.
“Um…guys?” I hissed as the first dark form slunk out of the woods and into the moonlit night, uncommon confidence in each silent step.
“We see them,” Marc whispered, and I glanced over the roof to find him backing slowly toward the trunk of his car.
“Three strays at your six o’clock, Faythe,” Vic said, anger threading a cord of danger through his voice as he stared over my shoulder. “No, make that four.”At my back, too? Damn it! “Five more straight ahead.” I nodded at the trees across the street and stepped to the side so I could close the car door.
Gravel crunched on my left, and my brother spoke from his position near the passenger side of the Suburban. “This makes no sense. Strays are loners.”
Yet several had united to fight us in Montana two months earlier. This new trend made me nervous. As did the cats creeping slowly toward us—from all directions. Each in cat form. At a glance I counted eleven of them now, and there were only five of us, even if Manx could fight holding a baby. Which she could not.
“Manx, get in the car with Des,” Marc ordered. Manx climbed through Vic’s rear driver-side door without a word and shoved it closed.
Okay, make that four of us.
“Faythe?” Marc had his trunk open now, and he held something out to me. I inched toward him with my arm extended, sliding for a moment before I could steady myself on the thin layer of ice beneath my boots. Something long, cold and hard hit my palm—a shovel, still caked with dried dirt.
I arched one eyebrow at him in question, and he gave me a grim smile. “We don’t stand a chance unarmed.” And there was clearly no time to Shift. I shivered from the cold, but knew I’d soon be sweating from exertion.
Marc tossed a second shovel to Vic, who caught it one-handed, then he pulled a small ax from the trunk and wrapped both hands around the twelve-inch rubber grip. He hefted it briefly, as if considering, then handed it to Ethan, who’d come to a stop on his left.
“You ready for this?” Marc asked, pulling a crowbar from the trunk for himself before slamming it shut.
“Looking forward to it.” Ethan removed his earphones from around his neck with his free hand. He wound them around his MP3 player and slid both into his front pocket, then gave the ax an experimental swing. “What, no samurai?” He swung the ax again, then shrugged, green eyes glinting in bleak humor. “I guess this’ll do.”
“Okay, let’s go.” Marc stalked toward the SUV and stopped at the driver-side door. “Manx?” He tapped on the window, and her head appeared between the seats. “Don’t come out, no matter what.”
She nodded.
Marc checked to make sure the keys were still in the ignition—they were—then turned to me, his features severe in the harsh, reddish glare of his own taillights. “If this goes bad, get them out of here. Don’t look back, just drive straight to the ranch.” I started to protest, but he ignored me. “I’m serious, Faythe. Get them back safely. I’ll haunt your ass till the day you die if you let something happen to that baby.”
I nodded, more alarmed by the tone of his voice than by the cats, the nearest of which was now only a couple of feet away, slinking across the near lane eight feet to my right. Two serpentine puffs of air floated from his nostrils with each breath. Moonlight shone on his glossy fur. Rage glinted in the reflective surface of his eyes. 
Marc stepped closer to the hood and tossed his head, telling me to scoot toward the rear door. “Keep your backs to the vehicle and make them come to you.”
And that’s when the first cat pounced.
The furry bastard flew at Marc, claws bared, hissing through a mouthful of pointy feline teeth. He ripped four jagged slashes in the sleeve of Marc’s jacket. Marc slammed the rounded corner of the crowbar into the side of the cat’s head on the upswing. I swung my shovel like a golf club and hit the stray’s right flank. A hideous yowl splintered the frigid night. An instant later, Marc buried the short end of the crowbar in the top of the cat’s skull.
The body hit the ground at Marc’s feet. He wrenched the crowbar free with a wet sucking sound and was already swinging again when the next cat approached, screeching in the back of his throat, fur standing on end.
Another stray leapt at me head-on. My shovel met him in midair. His skull rang the metal blade like a cymbal, and he scampered back to regroup, whimpering, claws scraping the ice-slick concrete with each step.
A series of grunts, growls, and hisses on my left told me Ethan was holding his own, and from the rear of the Suburban came the crunch of a shovel hitting pavement, as Vic kept two more strays occupied.
After the initial surge, none of us had a chance to help anyone else. The cats had us outnumbered three-to-one, and only the car at our backs kept us from being surrounded and dispatched in short order—right there on the side of the road, in plain sight, should anyone happen upon us.
And no sooner had that thought passed through my head than two broad beams of white light appeared on the road, in the direction we’d come from. Headlights. Humans were coming. The fight was about to get unbelievably, irreversibly bad.
But instead of racing past—which I assume most humans would do when confronted with a pack of big black cats attacking a group of stranded motorists—the car slowed as it approached, nearly blinding us with the glare from its headlights.
I blinked and swung wildly as my eyes watered, missing my target completely. Sharp teeth sank into my left arm, and I kicked out blindly. My steel-toed boots connected with an underbelly, bouncing off what could only have been a rib. I clenched my jaw to keep from screaming as the cat tried to back away without letting go of my arm.
Grunting with effort, I swung the shovel one-handed. It thunked into something hard, and the stray released my arm. A secondary dose of relief came when the car pulled forward, removing his high beams from my retinas. But he didn’t take off. Instead, the driver pulled onto the shoulder in front of Marc’s car and killed his engine.