Seemingly satisfied with that, Keenan kept his silence as they continued the climb. When Ashaya took a seat on a branch a couple of meters from their previous position, he nodded. Handing her Keenan, he jumped up beside her, shifting so his back formed a protective wall. "Makes it harder for them to rush us." From here, he could pick them off one by one. Even the best human climber wasn't leopard-fast.
He could hear Ashaya's heart thudding behind him, the scent of her sweat fresh and clean. She leaned onto his back and, to his surprise, pressed a kiss to his nape, tucking the spare gun into the waistband of his jeans at the same time. "After this is over," she whispered, her confidence in him a vibrant beat in his heart, "I'll lie in the sun for you." Grinning despite the danger, he leaped lightly onto the branch below theirs and began hunting again. This time, he moved after each shot, scattering their attackers' defenses.
The scent of blood and flesh drifted up. Then the gunshots started. Every time he made a hit, that position was riddled seconds later. They were reacting quicker and, with the fifth kill, he was nicked in the arm. Swearing lightly, he told himself to move faster. It would be at least seven more minutes until backup arrived.
He checked his ammo again and realized he'd have to stop shooting if he wanted to keep something in reserve. Teeth bared, he crawled along the branches until he was in prime position to protect Ashaya and Keenan. The hunters began moving faster the instant they realized he wasn't picking them off anymore. Probably thought he was down.
The first ones who attempted to climb the tree found their faces shot off. The others drew back and he heard low-voiced conversation. Not low enough. A mistake at last.
"Can't have much more ammo."
"Who's gonna volunteer to find out?"
"Shoot into the tree."
"And kill the target? Genius."
"Why the f**k didn't anyone know we were dealing with a sniper? He's supposed be fighting with claws and teeth."
"Shut up, all of you." A furious voice. "Maintain silence. He's a cat."
The men obeyed. Resisting the urge to swear, Dorian spread out his senses again and waited for their next move. Several shots were fired into the trunk.
"We want Ashaya Aleine alive," a male voice said. "That's all. We don't want to harm her."
Then you f**king shouldn't have shot at her and our child. Dorian used the speaker's voice to get a lock on his position without the benefit of a sightline.
"Give her to us and we'll let you - "
The voice cut off as Dorian shot through the tree and hit his target. The sound of bullet meeting flesh was close. They'd surrounded the tree.
"Fuck this," someone said. "Shoot!"
And suddenly the tree was a war zone. Dorian moved swiftly up. They weren't aiming high enough yet but sooner or later they'd figure it out. He put his body in front of Ashaya's, intending to tell her that they'd need to move. There was a possibility he could jump them to another tree. But before he could get to that, he caught a familiar scent on the breeze. His leopard snarled, but the man grinned. "Damn wolves."
Ashaya made a questioning face. "Wolves?"
"Wolves." Knowing backup was on the way, he leaped back down to a lower branch and began to pick off the attackers once more. They were close to getting a fix on him when the first scream sounded. He hoped to hell Ashaya had Keenan's ears blocked, because the wolves were being noisy about their work. Then the cats arrived.
In spite of the fact that the fight was now over, Dorian didn't lower his guard. It was a good thing he didn't. One of the human hunters had evaded everyone. Dorian caught the man's scent from his left, and realized he'd climbed over from a neighboring tree. Not wanting to chance a shot going haywire, he stalked the man with quiet leopard focus. A whisper of air was the last thing the man heard as Dorian snapped his neck. The body crashed through the branches and to the ground.
A few minutes later, a whistle rang out. "All clear, Boy Genius."
"Ice-fucking-cold water," he muttered. "I've got Keenan up here."
"Give us a couple of minutes."
When he climbed up to Ashaya, she said, "Is Boy Genius another nickname?"
"No. It's a way to get my temper going."
Her lips curved slightly, despite the white-knuckled grip she had on Keenan. The kid gave him a pleading look. Dorian kissed Shaya and reached for him. "We're safe. Give the K-Man to me."
Keenan came without hesitation. "I want a big gun like yours."
Trying not to smile, Dorian dropped an absent kiss on Keenan's hair. "Did he...?"
"No. I shielded him." She looked down, eyes worried. "Will there be anything down there... to see?"
"They're tidying up." The bodies would be hidden away, the blood covered up, by the time he came down with Keenan. Since the boy didn't have changeling senses, he wouldn't smell the carnage.
Ashaya touched his cheek. "You protected us."
He wondered how she'd known to say exactly what he needed to hear. "It was my own stupid - "
"Shh." A feminine finger on his lips. "If it was your fault, it was mine as well. No ifs, no buts. You did good."
Strangely, that simple sentence did more to soothe him than a thousand flowery words. "Come on, beautiful. Let's go home."
But it took a while for that to happen. After stashing Ashaya and Keenan in the Tank, the large vehicle Clay had driven to the location, he left them under Rina and Barker's careful eyes, and returned to the scene of the kills.
The instant he saw the wolves, he realized the reason for the amount of noise - the boys weren't juveniles, but only by a year or two. "Tai, what were you doing down here?"