“So to answer your questions,” Jo’s voice cut in on my thoughts, “it’s a big problem if one is working with them. I mean, a techno vampire helping Hunters would have the potential to be able to identify hundreds of supernaturals for them, easily. And they could doubtless follow their prey anywhere it went, regardless of any precautions taken. That said, one helping them is unlikely at best. If someone tried to force a techno vampire to cooperate, it’d be far too easy for them to send out a message secretly to get help – they could practically summon all the supernaturals in the area by announcing there were Hunters there and how to find them. The only way to prevent that would be to entirely block the techno vampire from electronics, yet that clearly wouldn’t work if the vampire is also tracking the prey down. So if they’re helping, it’s willingly, but, well, it seems unlikely. Techno vampires know they have short lives, so they like to live free, from what Chelsea found out. Could one be curious about what it’d be like to help Hunters or somehow decided they enjoy the thrill of the Hunt? Maybe, but I think you’d see a lot more supernatural deaths around if a techno vampire was helping Hunters. Like I said, they could identify a lot of supernaturals easily.”
“But this clan is looking for specific marks it wants,” I pointed out. “It already could be killing other supernaturals, but it’s taking weeks and even months to hunt down a single target – that it could kill faster if it didn’t want to terrorize the target first. I don’t think they’re interested in quantity. They just care about quality.”
“Okay, true,” Jo agreed, frowning deeply. “But that – that might lean more towards a techno vampire helping them. Which is bad. Honestly, if one is, it could have tracked Ian here, it could figure out what we do, and it could turn over our identities to other Hunters. Not saying it would, necessarily, but it could. Not to mention they’d then realize we’re after them, and while this clan might see it as more of a game and enjoy the added difficulty level, as it were, we’d be at a distinct disadvantage because we don’t know who we’re up against. And from what it sounds like, they cover their tracks too well for someone else to find them.”
“Even a techno vampire?” I could almost feel the doubt in my tone. “Jean clearly knows about this clan and is keeping tabs on reports of them, which is how she found Ian. But if she can’t track them down…doesn’t that read a lot more like another techno vampire? Maybe that’s even why she sent him to us – she knows these people need to be stopped and if they have a techno vampire on their side, it’ll only get worse.”
Jo chewed on her lower lip, clearly disturbed. “I mean – maybe, but it’d be nice if she just told us that directly if so. This one worries me no matter what,” she admitted abruptly. “I mean, even without a potential techno vampire, we’re looking at an outright confrontation. Our normal method isn’t going to work here, Cynthia’s right about that, much as I hate to admit it. And there’s only three of us. Cynthia – I mean, we could bring her, but I don’t know how much of a help she’d be. She’s apparently been in combat before, but it’s been decades, and she hasn’t fought against Hunters directly. And Ian, well, he might have some cool tricks but can we count on him to deliver when we need it? Don’t know, but kind of doubt it.”
To be honest, this entire conversation was more than I’d heard Jo say, maybe ever, but I kind of liked it. Now that she wasn’t being all angry and was relaxing some, I could see better how her mind worked. I kind of regretted that we hadn’t involved her more in the planning process until now – she clearly was much more analytical than any of us realized before.
“They doubtless have more than three,” she continued, “though I think not a lot for them to have gone unnoticed. Maybe a dozen max? But they’ve taken on some powerful things here. A dragon?” She pointed to one of the names, shaking her head in disbelief. “Dragons are insanely powerful. Taking out a dragon is no small feat. These people are careful and we can’t underestimate them or we’ll all end up dead.”
I didn’t disagree with her, but I also had no real ideas for how to counter that. “Would a techno vampire be able to bypass Ian’s securities?”
Jo considered that, then shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Techno vampires only have control over electronics. Hearth magic is, well, magic. And humans can’t counter magic. Unless,” her eyes fell on where Lynn was sitting, listening to us with rapt attention, “unless they have some kind of special Hunter anti-magic weapon. Even then, I don’t think they can bypass the protections entirely, probably just a small amount of it? Like, super small, so the protections don’t even realize they’ve been breached, and it could then be retracted.” Her brows furrowed in thought. “Maybe they use a drone or something to get inside? Seems iffy, because necromancer powers are known to have negative effects on electronics, and some sort of tiny robot or drone could end up getting fried by accident. A living thing would more likely survive, but a dog would be too large to get in and Ian would notice it, so it’d have to be something super small but smart enough to be trained.” She frowned, clearly confused by the idea.
“Why not a trained rat?” Lynn volunteered. “I saw them sometimes when I was held prisoner. They’re reasonably smart and can be trained. I got a couple of them to help steal food and bring it back to me. I probably wouldn’t have survived without those rats.”
I blinked in surprise – both at her suggestion and the comment about her past. I kind of wanted to ask about both, but decided to keep focused on our current problem. “Rats can be trained to do some tricks and things, and once inside, I bet the rat could move around easily. Maybe it’s been trained to leave the cards on specific pieces of furniture – like a table or a bed, for instance?”
Jo was nodding, the idea clearly appealing to her. “Small, alive, smart enough to know what to do – yeah, that could work. And it would be small enough they could use anti-magic tube, maybe. Something the rat could run through to get to the other side of the hearth magic but it wouldn’t alert the magic that it was breached. And there’d be no hint afterwards, at least not anything people would normally notice. Even if Ian did see rat prints, he probably wouldn’t put two and two together.” She pulled out her phone and began texting, I assumed to tell George and Cynthia to look for signs of rats or some other small animal inside Ian’s house.
“Good news, though,” she added out loud as she typed, “is that means Ian really is probably safe in his house. A rat could in theory be trained to poison him, I guess, but otherwise it’s not like a rat could kill him, I’d think? So with proper precautions he could stay pretty safe in his house, at least while we’re figuring out what to do. Sure, the rat might still get in, but the Hunters wouldn’t. I bet that’s part of the idea of terrorizing them – they want to make sure they get so frazzled that they run to somewhere where they aren’t protected. It’s part of the game, but also part of how they carry out their goal.”
“So,” I mused, “all we have to do is figure out how to engage in an open confrontation with a particularly nasty Hunter clan that’s smart, that may use rats to help them, and that may have a techno vampire on their side?”
I was honestly feeling a little overwhelmed at the idea – because our plan had always involved stealth, not open war – but when I looked over at Lynn, she gave me a smile full of confidence.
“I believe in you,” she said quietly, so Jo wouldn’t overhear as she was wrapped up in her phone. “I know you’ll find a way.”
I really hoped she was right. I didn’t want to let her down, but it also sounded like she needed to be right.
This was one Hunter clan that had to be stopped.
I was all out of ideas for how to make this work. Maybe I’d exhausted my mental abilities by coming up with a sort of retirement plan, but right now, I was entirely stumped.
Thankfully, the others weren’t. George, as it turned out, had had pet rats for his son and was pretty sure Lynn’s idea was correct based on things he saw at Ian’s house. He had set to work immediately trying to come up with a humane trap that could contain a rat with unknown tricks up its sleeves. Meanwhile, Cynthia listened to our theories that it sounded likely that a techno vampire might be involved – as much as we all disliked the idea of a supernatural helping any sort of Hunters – and apparently called her daughter, who must not have given her an answer she wanted because she came back after that call looking frustrated and annoyed.
“I have no solution for facing these,” Jo told Cynthia bluntly. “We need more people, minimum. But we have to act under the assumption that they have a techno vampire helping them, so we have to be super careful whom we contact and what we tell them in advance – not to mention, we’ve been kind of isolated from supernaturals deliberately for over a decade, how is that going to work out for suddenly asking people for help against an unknown target? It just – it’s a mess.”
Cynthia sighed as she plopped down at the table with us. “Well, I guess it’s time to call in my secret weapon.” She got an amused look on her face at all our expressions, George even pausing in his work to stare at her.
“Oh come on, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make August’s plan happen, and part of that involved how to deal with Hunters when supernaturals find some in the area. We can’t be called on to help them with that, it’s not feasible, plus we’re trying to move away from that. So, I came up with another alternative. Several years ago, I crossed paths with a witch whose coven had been wiped out, like mine. At first I thought it was from Hunters, but it turned out no, it’d been destroyed by its own coven master’s foolishness – in attacking a phoenix.”
Jo, George, and Lynn all clearly got it, Jo and George exchanging almost excited looks, while I was left in the dark.
Thankfully, Cynthia took pity on me and enlightened me. “When someone kills a phoenix, they basically explode into a burst of fire so powerful it’ll take out anyone nearby. There’s very few supernaturals that can survive phoenix fire, if any. Essentially, if you kill a phoenix, you die in the aftermath, but meanwhile the phoenix is reborn.” She tapped her fingertips together thoughtfully. “It made me think. If we were able to find and recruit a phoenix, then basically, they could take out Hunter clans. Let the Hunters attack them until they kill them – actually, phoenix only have defensive magic anyway, so they can’t outright kill Hunters. Essentially, the Hunters would end up killing themselves by killing a supernatural who isn’t fighting back. That seems…fair, to me. Obviously, we’d have to take some precautions because phoenix fire isn’t something you exactly want to experience, and we’d have to find a phoenix willing to die over and over again, so it’s not exactly the easiest thing.”
I felt uneasy for another reason, though. “But doesn’t that ignore the second chances? They’d get caught in the blast too, right?”
Cynthia’s expression turned into a bit of a smirk. “Ah, well, that’s where the beauty of my particular plan comes in. See, I was able to track down the phoenix who took out that particular witch’s coven, and it turns out she’s partners with a ghost. Humans can’t see ghosts, so her ghost partner could easily hang out with the clan and figure out who is worthy of a second chance, all without the danger of being caught that you risked. Now, we still have to work out a plan for how to separate the second chances from the rest of the Hunters before the phoenix dies, but I’m confident we can come up with something.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I reached out to them and they’ve agreed to talk to us. I was planning to schedule it for later, but I’ll see if they’re willing to come help us with this clan to begin with. Or maybe just this clan, we’ll have to see how things go.”
I thought about that and was about to point out that if this clan did indeed have a techno vampire helping them, then the vampire might be able to see the ghost if she showed up, but…maybe that wasn’t an issue. This clan didn’t seem like the type to have second chances, to be honest. It seemed to be an elite group of people interested in mentally torturing their prey, and that didn’t equal any of the criteria we usually had for second chances.
I glanced over at Lynn to find her looking eagerly at me.
“This means your retirement could work, right? You can help supernaturals protect themselves better, but supernaturals could still take out Hunter clans when they find them – with even less risk to you or to supernatural police or whomever. If the phoenix and ghost agree, that is. But if they do, then…that’s the best solution, right?”
I nodded slowly. “It sounds like it,” I admitted. Truth was, the idea really appealed to me. The people who would get killed by phoenix fire would be those who deserved it, and there would be a lot less risk to others involved. Granted, we were basically asking someone else to take over the job we’d been handling for years, and I didn’t know if it was painful for a phoenix to die and whether she’d be okay with that, but if she was? This honestly sounded like the best possible outcome.
But first, this other Hunter clan targeting Ian. First we had to deal with them. Then we could figure out long-term plans and whether this phoenix and ghost were the answers we needed.