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Prey (Shifters #4)(5)

By:Rachel Vincent

What kind of dumbass human is this? I thought, batting at the next cat, though my hands were so cold I could barely grip the shovel. The stranger would either come out with a gun and start shooting, or he’d get himself killed. Maybe both. Either way, those of us who survived would have one hell of a mess to clean up.
A car door slammed, and footsteps crunched into ice and loose rocks on the side of the road. “What the fuck is this?” Dan Painter shouted over the cacophony of yowls, hisses, and snarls. He stomped toward us carrying the biggest hammer I’d ever seen, and suddenly I understood: Marc’s sidekick had followed us. And for once I didn’t mind being tracked.
“Where’s Manx and the kid?” Painter demanded as he passed the trunk of Marc’s car, thus far completely unmolested by the other strays.“In the Suburban.” Marc grunted, swinging the crowbar hard enough to sink the business end into the side of an unfortunate stray, just below his rib cage. “You just gonna stand there?” He ripped the metal free and the cat snarled, lashing out with a paw full of unsheathed claws.
“Just figurin’ how best to jump in.” An instant later Painter exploded into motion, swinging the hammer like a baseball bat. His first blow hit the rump of the cat Marc was fighting, and sent him sprawling. His second shot knocked the legs out from under the cat who’d replaced the first one. Then two more strays jumped Painter, and he was fighting alongside us, full force.
“What the hell kind of hammer is that?” I asked, panting from exertion as I swung for another blow.
“FatMax Xtreme framing hammer,” Painter said, posing for a moment like a salesman in an infomercial, as the cat in front of him collapsed. “Precision balanced—feel the difference.” With that, he took aim at another stray’s leg. Bone crunched and the unfortunate knee bent backward. The cat collapsed, screeching nonstop on the slick pavement.
I swung my shovel again and again, but no sooner had I knocked one cat back than another stepped up, snarling and slashing at me. Three cats lay unmoving on the side of the road by then, but more had replaced them—there were at least fifteen strays still up and slashing. Where the hell were they coming from, and why were they working together? I’d never heard of such a large band of strays, and a unified attack against Pride cats was completely unprecedented.
Well, except for that time in the Montana mountains…
I braced my feet for another blow and sent one cat sprawling. Another pounced at me before I could reset my swing, and his claws tore through denim and into my thigh, just above my right knee.
Pain ripped through my leg, and I knew from the powerful scent and the disturbing warmth that my blood was flowing freely. I kicked instinctively with my left leg, and followed that with another blow from the shovel, this one powered by anger, as well as fear. And to my extreme satisfaction, that bastard hobbled away from me with a dislocated shoulder, mewling like a newborn kitten.
Meow, meow, motherfucker.
But then the previous cat was back. I swung my shovel. He ducked, plastering himself to the concrete. I heaved the shovel over my head, preparing to use the blade like a giant ice pick. But he lunged forward before I could bring it down. His jaw snapped closed over my right ankle, and he pulled. I fell on my ass, and my teeth clacked together. The cat tugged again, and I slid several inches across the icy asphalt. I screamed, shock and pain momentarily washing not only logic, but training from my mind.
Then Des screeched from inside the car, and my focus came roaring back. I sucked in a deep, painfully cold breath and fumbled over my head for the driver-side door handle with my empty fist, praying Manx had locked it. She had. My new grip halted my slide across the concrete. 
Finally stable, I kicked the cat’s skull with my free foot. Then I smacked him with the shovel. The stray released my leg, and I scrambled to my feet using the shovel as a crutch. I kicked him again, this time in the jaw, already caked with my blood. Then I settled my weight onto my good leg and resumed fighting, ignoring the pain as best I could. On my left, Ethan dropped to one knee, swinging his ax up. The blade caught a stray beneath his jaw, and almost cleaved the cat’s head from his neck. The body hit the ground with a nauseating two-part thud—first the torso, then the nearly detached skull—and Ethan was in motion again. I would have been impressed, if I’d had time to think about it.
But I didn’t, because Vic screamed on my brother’s other side, near the end of the car. Then he stumbled into view and fell to the gravel on his rump. The cat he’d been fighting pounced, driving his shoulders to the ground.
“Ethan!” I shouted in midswing, because my brother was closest. He glanced at me, then followed my gaze to Vic.
“I’m on it.” He lunged to the left, swinging even as he dove for Vic’s shovel. His blow glanced off the nearest cat, but he came up with a weapon in each hand. Swinging wildly now, Ethan knocked the cat off Vic with the shovel, then threw the ax end over end so fast I could hardly trace it. The blade thunked into the side of another cat, who dropped to the ground, chest heaving and pouring blood.
Ethan picked Vic up and nearly tore open the rear door of the Suburban—that one was unlocked, thankfully. Then he shoved Vic into the cargo compartment and slammed the door. As soon as he turned, another stray was on him.
“Marc!” I shouted, aiming my shovel at an anonymous feline torso. “Vic’s hurt.”
“I know.” He knocked his opponent out with a blow to the head, then kicked a cat about to charge me. There were only half a dozen strays left standing now, and most of those were hurt. We’d won, even outnumbered and in human form. Or so I thought.
A deep bleating roar from the woods across the road caught my attention. Reinforcements. We were exhausted, and the fucking strays had backup. From the sound of it, the troops were still a mile away or so, but when they arrived, we’d be screwed. Or worse—dead.
Determined to take my break while I could, I set my shovel on the ground and leaned against the side of the car, frigid against my back, even through my jacket. My sore arms hung at my sides and I took several deep breaths, letting the cold reinvigorate me. The air smelled like blood and pine, an oddly festive combination.
My arm throbbed where that bastard had bit me, and though frozen blood crusted the rip in my pants, my leg had stopped bleeding. But it hurt with every move I made.
Marc watched me inspect my wounds, his eyes shining in the glare from the Suburban’s headlights. He glanced from me to the woods, where the reinforcements presumably raced toward us. “Faythe, get in the car,” he said over the disharmonious yowls of the injured cats. His eyes never left the trees, though he was breathing hard and bleeding from countless gashes. “With you and Manx gone, they’ll have no reason to keep fighting. Ethan, get them out of here. Painter and I will clean up, and I’ll call you when we leave.”
“I’m not leaving you behind!” I shouted, and only when my breath puffed up in front of my eyes did I realize I could no longer feel my fingers. Or my nose. I’d cooled down too quickly after that first round and was now getting stiff.
Marc nodded to Ethan, who sidestepped an injured but still hissing cat and pulled open the driver-side door. He shoved me inside before I could protest, then climbed in after me.“Buckle up,” he ordered, already sliding the gearshift into Drive. “If you go through the windshield, I’m not stopping for you.” He swerved around several motionless feline forms glinting with moonlight and blood. We slid for a moment on ice, and I whacked my head on the window, then gravel crunched when we pulled off the shoulder and back onto the road. As we drove away, I saw Marc and Painter walking backward toward the trees on our side of the road, each pulling two dead cats by the tails.
“We can’t just leave them,” I insisted, as Manx crouched over Des in the car seat behind me.
Ethan sighed, eyes on the rearview mirror. “They’re moving bodies, not storming the Bastille. They’ll be on the road in a couple of minutes.”
“We should have helped,” I snapped, turning to stare through the rear window as Marc went back for another corpse. How many had we killed? “And what the hell do you know about the Bastille?”
He shrugged, squinting into the patch of road illuminated by the headlights. “Angela wrote a paper on the French Revolution.”
“And you read it?” My tone conveyed more than adequate skepticism. Angela, his girlfriend, was a college senior. It was an odd pairing, to say the least, but their “relationship” had outlasted my most conservative estimate by nearly three months.
No one had won the office pool.
“I am literate. And no, we should not have helped Marc and Painter. We should get Manx and the baby to safety.” Ethan wiped a dark smear from his forehead with the back of one palm. “Not to mention Vic. He’s bleeding pretty badly.”
Oh yeah.
The crinkle of plastic drew my eyes to the third row, where Vic was spreading black plastic sheeting across the seat, to catch his own blood. Even injured, he was trying to protect his upholstery. Must have been a guy thing.
But my brother was right—a decidedly odd turn of events. So I took one last look at Marc and Painter and made my way to the back of the vehicle to see what I could do for Vic. Then we did what I couldn’t remember any Pride cat ever doing before: we ran from the strays.