Which ended up being why we got only seconds of a warning on the day they struck. Most of us were outside, with the exception of Cynthia and Ian, working on George’s idea of setting up traps when the others all paused and looked in the direction of the road approaching the house.
By the alarm on their face, I assumed that meant Cassie was telling them something – or yelling it – but we didn’t even have time to fully respond before we saw their cars appear on the road, one of them perched with their upper body out the top of the Jeep and a freaking machine gun leveled at us.
We had planned for regular Hunter weapons. Not a machine gun. I had no idea how they even got their hands on one but we immediately scattered, mostly running for the house. The phoenix was still attempting to stand between us and them as we bolted, and Jo – who was less likely to die when injured anyway thanks to demon healing powers – was also attempting to physically block us as the gun started to roar and bullets flared around us.
But George shifted instantly and charged them, building up a lot of speed in a surprisingly short amount of time. I nearly yelled at him not to do it because rhinos weren’t bulletproof, especially against a gun like that, but there was no time as I was trying to get me and Lynn to the house before we got hit.
The Hunter on the gun saw him, turned the gun to face him – and then George hit the Jeep, hard, slamming his horn into it and, much to my surprise, sending the Jeep tumbling over onto its side. He hit it again, knocking it upside down, the hit it a couple more times for good measure before the Hunters in their second vehicle got out and started firing regular handguns at him. He immediately ran back in our direction, shifting back to human at the last second so he could fit inside the front door without destroying the house.
“You’re bleeding,” I observed, worried. He’d been hit by some of the bullets, which I couldn’t imagine would be good. None of us were exactly doctors.
George shook his head, breathing heavily. “It’s not too bad. I think. They got me in the shoulder and when I shifted, I think the bullet got trapped in the muscle. It’s usually not a good idea to shift with an injury but this is an exception. It’s not life-threatening – don’t worry about it for now.” He winced as he started to peek through a window, only to jerk back as it shattered from gunfire.
Then Jo jerked the door open, raced inside, and slammed it shut behind her. She’d been hit a couple of times, too, but her eyes were lit up with excitement.
“Ian, your turn. Get your minions up and help keep the Hunters out of the house and focused on Cyra. And Lynn? Time to start turning things to gold.”
I moved to where I could slide the curtain aside just enough to see out. The phoenix was standing in front of the door as intended, holding her hands out in front of her as what appeared to be an invisible shield took the brunt of their bullets – but not all. Then one of them whipped out some throwing stars, which went right through her shield, and I saw her flinch as they buried themselves just below her collarbone.
Lynn pulled off her gloves and placed her hands on the door, then, as her magic began to turn the door and slowly the walls gold, she glanced at me. “Cassie says not to watch. It’s not fun watching someone you care about die, even if you know they’re going to be reborn afterwards. It’s not pretty, so just focus on what we need to do instead.”
Cynthia nodded immediately. “August, help me get something over this window so it’ll have a full panel of gold when Lynn gets to it. We don’t want holes in the window when Cyra dies.”
I moved to obey her, but just as we carefully got a table in place, in the last glance out the window at the fight, I saw what appeared to be stumbling skeletons arriving from the forest. Oddly, not humans like I’d expected, but animals. What looked like some elk and at least one bear, anything large enough to actually cause some serious damage to people. I just hoped that would be enough to keep the Hunters out.
Speaking of, as soon as I finished with the window, I bolted to the back door. We generally kept it locked, but someone was trying to pick the lock. Cynthia had followed me, and without a word, pulled me back from the door and tipped a potion over right in front of the door. For a moment it just looked like some green liquid, then it seeped under the door and I could see smoke start to billow.
“Get the rest of the windows,” she ordered.
We could still hear them outside, yelling, firing bullets, and a sound I distinctly recognized as that of a whip. I felt terrible that we were basically letting the phoenix get murdered out there, but that was the plan, right? I assumed Ian’s summons were helping, too, or them and Cynthia’s potion, because no one attempted to get in the back door or the side windows again, even though I’d moved furniture in front of them just in case.
Lynn finished with the front door and front windows and was moving to the other door, making sure they were solid gold and heavy enough Hunters wouldn’t be able to open them by normal methods.
“The Hunters probably think we’re trapped and making a last stand,” Jo stated a little grimly, but with the tiniest of fiendish smiles, too. “They’re yelling something at her about how we abandoned her because she got shot in the leg and couldn’t get into the house fast enough.”
My fingers tightened into a fist. “I suppose it looks like that.”
George briefly rested his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Don’t worry, she knows it’s not the truth. This was the plan. Ian?” He turned to our client. “How are the minions?”
Ian was sweating lightly. He’d been standing still during this, presumably channeling his magic into the skeletons outside.
“One of the elk is down, but they’re having trouble with the bear. It ripped into one of them pretty badly. Even if they didn’t die today, the guy would lose his leg to gangrene at minimum. Dead attackers tend to come with a lot of bad germs.”
I was nearly flabbergasted when he spoke. Not just because he wasn’t stuttering or sounding fearful like normal, but right now, when channeling his necromancer powers, Ian literally sounded like another person. A powerful, firm voice, deeper than his normal one, and ever so slightly echoing. It was honestly a little creepy. I suddenly understood why Cynthia said not to underestimate him – Ian might appear to be a trembling mouse, but when he was truly using his magic? He was confident, strong, capable, and genuinely scary.
The others, with the exception of Cynthia, seemed startled by his voice change as well, but George managed a nod after a few surprised blinks.
“Good. I’m guessing they weren’t expecting animal skeletons. They’re used to dealing with supernaturals, and a lot of shifters won’t necessarily shift to fight Hunters unless we’re a species that actually stands a chance. Animals in general probably aren’t their forte, but animal skeletons with no hearts brains to aim at? I’m guessing they’re floundering a bit.”
“That’s fair,” Ian responded in his creepy voice. “They only took down one elk because they used their weapons on it and managed to knock it down, where its bones disconnected. It’s harder to hold them together when they disconnect like that, but I’m keeping them further away from the whip – oh, nice. The bear just caught one of the whips and bit the end of it off. That should help.”
I wasn’t sure if I was more creeped out by his voice or by the fact that he seemed to be seeing through the dead animals outside, but decided I should probably just roll with it since he was helping us and all.
Then Jo took a sharp breath. “Cyra – she’s almost dead. I really hope this works, but if not, it was nice working with you all.”
George glanced at her, Cynthia, and me, and nodded once. “Likewise.”
I didn’t say anything, just looked over at Lynn where she was biting her lower lip and looking worried, her eyes darting around to all the gold bits of the house – and then it happened.
Outside, it went quiet for a moment, and then the Hunters started to cheer. It wasn’t even a full second later, though, when the heat began to build.
I’d worked around fire before – we’d used it sometimes to destroy Hunter compounds. This, though, was different. Even inside the house, the heat felt almost searingly high and I could hear a roar and crackle outside like an explosion. Then it was gone, almost as quickly as it had started, and for a moment I just stood there, frozen, my ears ringing as I slowly took in how all the gold bits of house Lynn had just made were beginning to melt into pools of golden liquid.
We all stood there, no one moving as the door and windows finished melting, and then the phoenix poked her head inside.
She looked different. Refreshed, like she’d gotten a really good night’s sleep – not just been murdered by Hunters. Oh, and the giant fiery wings sprouting from her back were new, too.
“They’re all gone,” she announced. “Sorry about your summons, Ian.”
He had been standing there, gaping, but now he blinked and focused on her. “I never thought I c-could see a phoenix fire and survive! That was majestic!”
Curious, we all stumbled outside to find only charred ground. There was nothing left of the Hunters except for half of the Jeep, mostly melted, that had apparently been on the edge of the blast. Several trees close to the house were gone, too, as if they had never existed at all. We all stared about in wonder. It was one thing to know this would happen theoretically. To see it? It was still almost unfathomable.
“Why animals?” I managed to ask Ian as he passed by me. “For convenience? I guess there wouldn’t be too many people up here.”
He shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t l-like summoning people if I can help it. Ethics and w-willpower and all. Animals are simpler. I call asking to b-borrow them for a bit, and the w-willing ones come. People are…complicated. If willing to c-come, it’s not always for good reasons and they w-won’t always let go when it’s time. P-plus animals can come with antlers and claws and teeth. The combination works b-best for me.”
That made sense, plus I had to admit, I probably would have found it creepier to see a bunch of human skeletons running in our direction. Maybe the creep factor was useful sometimes, but the natural tools the animals Ian had summoned had also turned out to be useful.
“It worked out well,” I agreed out loud. “Thank you for helping.”
He gave me a curious look. “You’re not l-like most humans,” he observed. “M-most wouldn’t want to talk to me again after s-seeing that. Let alone thank me.”
I shrugged. “What can I say? I’m not most humans.”
And then I headed over to rejoin the others.
“The house is kind of messed up,” Lynn was frowning as she looked at the melted gold where the door and window had been. “Um, is that going to be an issue?”
“Nope!” Cynthia smiled broadly. “The place is owned by some supernaturals and I warned them in advance that there was going to be a confrontation with Hunters and their house might come away a little worse for wear. They were okay with it, they don’t care much for Hunters. But they’ve got several hundred pounds of gold out if it, I’m guessing – based on the size of the doors – so chances are any remodeling they have to do will be more than paid for. Now,” she snapped her fingers in the others’ direction to draw their attention, “let’s get George and Jo to Gil to patch them up, and then we’ll have a talk with Jean about the other techno vampire. Now that the clan is gone, she has no reason to keep quiet. At least I hope so,” she muttered under her breath as the rest of us all started towards our cars – which were thankfully parked further away and had avoided taking damage.
I hoped so, too. We still needed to deal with that techno vampire, and Cynthia’s daughter looked like the only possible link to them.