The seedy little bar wasn't much more than a hole in the wall dive on the outskirts of some no name town in the middle of the woods. Not great for attracting a crowd. Not great for a clandestine meeting, either. People would remember seeing someone like him in the bar. But it couldn't be helped. There was no place else to meet that was open after dark in the podunk town they were using as their temporary base. And it was only slightly less dangerous to talk inside than it was to talk on the streets. Besides. He couldn't get a cold beer on the streets.
He settled into the booth in the back, very carefully positioning himself so that he'd be hard to see in the dim interior. His contact hadn't shown up yet, so he contented himself with taking occasional sips off the long neck he'd ordered at the bar on his way in. One beer. Enough to take the edge off but not enough to leave him impaired. Being impaired after the sun set was a damn fine way to get yourself killed.
Soon enough, he felt a cold chill brush across his hands and face, letting him know that his contact had finally shown. "What's the word?" he asked, voice low. Never once did he look to his left, where he knew his contact had taken a seat.
"Small nest," the other man reported.
A small nest? He could deal with a small nest. After their last hunting expedition, he would welcome a small nest with open arms. It had taken every last one of them to fight their way free of that mess. "How small?"
"Twenty. None of them older than fifty."
He blinked at that. That was unusual. "You're sure? I've never heard of a nest that small without an elder to help guide it."
"I'm sure. They're young and stupid. They think that they can survive without an elder. Which is why they're getting sloppy." There was more than a touch of distaste in the other man's voice. It was obvious what his opinion was on the matter.
"How organized are they?" he questioned before taking a sip of his beer.
"We could hit them tonight then." He wasn't sure if they would, but he liked the idea that they could. The other man hesitated, bringing his gaze fully to his contact. Jasper Sitwell looked uncomfortable. And given that he'd been a vampire the entire time they'd known one another, that was saying something. He sighed. "Tell me."
"They know you're here. They're expecting a hit. They've taken... precautions." The tone of Sitwell's voice made warning bells go off in his head.
"What kind of precautions?"
"They grabbed Clint and Natasha this morning, just before sun up. They're waiting for you to storm the camp." Jasper didn't add that the nest would rip Clint and Natasha apart the minute they saw his team.
"Well, isn't that just damn inconvenient?" The night just got far more complicated. He sighed and picked up his beer, swallowed the last of it down before sliding from the booth. He left the empty on the table, along with a decent tip. No reason for the bartender to think he was cheap. Jasper's hand curled around his wrist, his hold loose. It did nothing to disguise the strength in his fingers.
"Nick, what are you going to do?"
He turned to look at Jasper so that the other man could see the fire burning in his eyes. "What am I going to do? I'm going to get my people back and then I'm going to destroy that nest. That's what I'm going to do."
Jasper stared at him a moment, then nodded and let him go. "Let me know if you need anything, Nick. And I mean anything."
Nick stared at Jasper a moment. "Pack up and get out of town, Jasper. Before they realize you sold them out."
"I can help."
"You're my inside man, Jasper. I can't risk your anonymity or your safety," Nick replied. He walked off before Jasper could say any more. There was no time to argue with the other man. Two members of his team were in need. If he didn't get them away from the vampires before the night was out, he'd be lucky if he woke up to a pair of body bags. If any one of the blood suckers had brains in their head, Nick would find himself going up against two of his own. He did not want to be forced to take their heads. And he wasn't sure it was a fight he'd be able to win.
It was time to do what he'd come here to do.
He let his gaze sweep the open area, as it always did when he got back from a meeting with an ally. In the corner, surrounded by brilliant green potted plants of all shapes and sizes, flickering candles, and a small, bubbling fountain, were Melinda and Victoria. They were partners in every sense of the word. They'd been together for several years when Nick had found them, the only two surviving members of their coven. Before dark practitioners had killed the others, the coven had been thirteen strong. But all of their fellow witches had fallen in the magical battle. Victoria and Melinda had been the only two left standing, ready to face their deaths at the hands of the dark coven and their vampire leaders. Nick and his crew had arrived in time to dispatch the vamps while Melinda and Victoria had dealt death to the remaining practitioners. They'd joined up with him on the spot. He hadn't even needed to ask.
He watched for a moment as the two of them worked through a flowing series of moves that looked effortless. As near as he could tell, it was perhaps Tai Chi with a touch of something else added in. As they shifted from one motion into the next, faint streamers of soft colors flowed between them. Ribbons of searing red and soothing blue made complex patterns on the air. Once upon a time, there had been a third color in the mix. According to Victoria, it had been a warm, muddy brown and it had acted as a grounding and guiding force for her own water magic and Melinda's fire. That color had belonged to a woman named Isabelle Hartley, a member of the coven and their third in every way. Each time either of them spoke of her, there was physical pain in their words and a lasting ache that came with losing someone who had been deeply loved. Every kill made was to honor their lost companion.
Nick's attention shifted to another section of the warehouse floor, where his weapons design team were located. Mack and Fitz were huddled together over some piece of equipment, whispering quietly to themselves. They had one entire corner to themselves, their spot brightly lit, filled with tools and supplies that went toward making almost anything under the sun that the team used in their fight against the darkness. To an outsider, it would seem like Leo Fitz, who had breezed through school because of his massive intellect, was the brains and Alphonso Mackenzie, tall and muscular and mechanically inclined, was the brawn. Which was mostly true. The brains and brawn image only extended to the weapons they created and the repair work done on the entire team's equipment.
That image didn't extend to fighting, though. Mack, as big as he was, generally disliked violence and only fought when he found it absolutely necessary. As for Fitz... When Fitz was in his human form, he was a very small, very non-violent person. But when he grew fur and claws and teeth, there were few people who could stand up to him and walk away.
Nick had brought them in one at a time. Mack had seen first hand what a rogue pack of shifters could do. He'd had a family once. Then the attack had happened. Mack didn't talk about them much, went stone faced and silent if anyone even asked. As for Fitz... He'd been mauled by a werewolf who had thought it was funny to infect him with lycanthropy and then leave him to fend for himself. Nick hadn't expected Mack to adopt Fitz, given what had happened to his family. But he'd been pleasantly surprised when Mack had not only befriended Fitz, but had partnered with him to design and build the deadly weapons that would aid them in their fight against any preternatural creatures who dared take advantage of mortals. Only recently had their partnership progressed from platonic to romantic. Not that they'd told everyone about it, but there wasn't anything that happened in Nick's group of hunters that he didn't know about.
Soft grunts drew his gaze to their work out area. Sam and Maria were on the mats, sparring to stay ready and in shape. Sweat beaded on their foreheads, darkened the light grey of their t-shirts. Sam was stockier than Maria, more muscle mass in his arms and chest giving the appearance that he could soundly trounce her. But Maria Hill was made of sterner stuff. Before walking into Nick's camp and announcing that she wanted to help him hunt vampires, she'd been in the military, part of an elite force that had been trained in hunting down and destroying shifters and vamps. She'd been damn good at her job, too. Until her entire squad had been wiped out and she'd been the only one to survive. Her superiors had subtly accused her of leading the squad into a trap, had suggested that she'd struck a deal with the undead. She had not so subtly told them to go fuck themselves and left the service.
Sam Wilson had come on her recommendation. He'd been serving as a pararescue at the same time Maria had been part of the supernatural squad. She'd told Nick that he'd patched her team up a time or two and that he'd had a gift for it. As soon as Nick knew he'd gotten discharged, he'd made his offer. It wasn't surprising that Sam had agreed almost immediately. Nick knew Sam's partner had been killed by a ghoul on a night mission and though Sam never said why he'd agreed, Nick suspected it was so that he could ensure that every family who had a loved one fighting the undead and shifters never got that phone call ever again.
Nick watched the two of them fight for a while, taking note of each movement they made. He could almost see the next punch or kick come before it happened, the fight playing out in his mind in slow motion. Maria was ruthless out in the field, never underestimating her opponents. That kind of ruthlessness carried over onto the practice mat, her lean figure driving forward with every blow. Sam was no slouch in hand to hand, but he didn't have the same level of finesse that Maria had. He was more healer than fighter. Which was why Maria pushed him so hard. He needed the skills in order to survive in the field. He couldn't use his healing abilities on anyone if he got himself hurt or killed.
Even though he knew it would be empty, he let his gaze drift to the last corner of the warehouse. Lights were out there, hiding the make shift shooting range that was set up there. When Clint and Natasha weren't out on patrol, or captured, they could be found in their corner. Clint spent hours every day firing arrows at a target covered hay bale resting near the wall. It was a little archaic that the guy used a bow and arrow, but he was as accomplished with the bow and arrow as he was with a gun and a throwing knife. He'd learned to use a gun after Nick had picked him up, had taken to it quickly and easily. The explanation for that was rolled up and tucked away in a poster tube in the trunk that held Clint's things.
Carson's Carnival of Traveling Wonders had been an honest to God circus. As the name implied, it traveled from town to town and it enticed hardworking townies to come spend their money on its games and shows. Clint had been one of the attractions, a fresh young kid dressed in bright clothes who shot a bow and arrow at all manner of targets before the wide-eyed crowds. He never missed. He'd even been dubbed 'The Amazing Hawkeye' for both his keen eyesight and his home state of Iowa. The guy never missed.
And then one night, the vampires had crept into the circus' camp. They'd slaughtered everyone they'd come across. Clint had been woken by the screams of the acrobat family's young daughter. He'd left his trailer with arrows flying and had barely escaped with his bow, an empty quiver, and his life. Going back during daylight hours had revealed the grisly remains of his friends and adopted family. Some had been missing. Most had been torn apart by the undead. Clint had spent the rest of the day making promises to the dead before burying them. That night, he'd gone after the rogue vamps. Nick had found Barton standing outside the shuttered house, liberally covered in blood and stone faced as he'd watched the abandoned structure succumb to the hungry, flickering flames.
Natasha's story was the same, yet not. She'd come to the US from Russia on the trail of a vampire who had killed her former partner, Alexei Shostakov. She'd crossed paths with Nick not long after arriving, showing up at one of his hunts to make a deal with him. She'd help him clear the nest in return for one vampire in particular. He'd agreed, because he and his people had been outnumbered at least five to one. And then he'd seen her hunt.
Nick had recognized her style immediately. In the beginning, there hadn't been many vampires. So almost anyone with a weapon and a lick of sense could take down one of the undead. But then their numbers had started growing. And they'd gotten smarter. Fast. It had become harder and harder for the common man to fend off the vampires. So it had been that each country had established its own school to train people to hunt and kill the undead. Not just the undead, either. Anything supernatural. The Russians had created a program called the Red Room and it had produced some of the most disciplined hunters in the world. Natasha's moves were text book Red Room training.
She'd gotten her vampire. And she'd gotten information out of him, something not many people were capable of doing. When she'd finished, he'd been begging her to kill him. She had, not an ounce of emotion on her face. But when the body had turned to ash and there was no one left to kill, he'd seen her hands shake. Nick had won the story from her with help of a bottle of good vodka and a lot of persuasion.
Shostakov hadn't just been her hunting partner, he'd been her husband. And he'd put himself between her and a blood crazed vampire. Because their hunt had been a set up. Shostakov had sacrificed himself to save and she'd vowed that she wouldn't rest until she found the vampire responsible for the set up and she'd made him pay. It was her vow that had brought her to the US. And it was the memory of her dead husband that had kept her here, working with Nick's team.
She'd been the one to pair off with Barton and the two had become fast friends. They always trained together, sparring long, hard hours until they could move in unison. Until they could communicate without words. Until it seemed as if they shared one mind. They always worked together in the field. Usually with deadly results. Which left him worried about them. How had the vampires gotten past them? How had they captured Clint and Natasha? He wasn't going to think about what the undead might be doing to his people right that very moment.
Nick sighed. He had to rescue his people. He had to walk into the trap they'd set and hope that they could save Clint and Natasha before the vampires could harm them. The odds were stacked against them. Even young vampires with no leadership were dangerous and deadly. He'd have an easier time walking into Hell. But there was nothing for it. He wasn't going to leave his people to die at the hands of the monsters. Or worse. "People. We have a situation."
His voice echoed out across the warehouse, filling the large space until it felt as if he stood in every corner. As he'd expected, his words brought everyone's actions to a halt and every eye in the place turned his way.
"What kind of a situation?" It was Phil who asked the question for them all. He came down from the upper level, where Nick had set up what he liked to call his war room. It was where he kept maps and other essential papers to be used when planning their assaults. No war room for this hunt. There wasn't enough time. They were going to have to wing this one and hope to any god that chose to listen that they didn't screw it all up.
Nick let his gaze linger for a time on Phil as the other man descended the stairs. Once upon a time, Phil had been armored in suits and ties and sunglasses, standard issue for any one of the lettered government organizations. But Phil had left the agency, and the suits, behind. These days, he favored jeans and t-shirts. Dark clothes for hunts. To the general public and the hunted, Phil gave the impression of being less than what he was. But Nick had known him a very long time. It was because people underestimated him that made Phil so dangerous.
Nick had gotten damn lucky with Phil. In so many ways. They'd met once upon a time, when the world hadn't quite been so bad, and the supernatural threat was still relatively young. Nick had been hunting a particularly bad vampire. The same one that the government had sent Phil and a few others out to find. They'd found the vampire. And dispatched it. Phil had agreed to working with Nick in order to put a stop to the vamp's reign of terror, had seen the value in working with someone who knew what they were doing. It had been a good thing, too, because the vampire hadn't been the only thing on the hunt that night.
The werewolf had come racing out of the shadows, snarling and growling and moving faster than Nick had ever seen a lycanthrope move. It had been on Phil before the he'd had a chance to defend himself. If not for Nick and his training, the werewolf would have killed the other man. As it was, two of the six man team he'd brought with him had gotten torn apart. And the other four had been frozen with fear for all of ten seconds before they'd run away in absolute terror. Nick had hung around long enough to ensure that Phil would be okay, then he'd cut out and headed back to the store front he and his small group of hunters had been using as base that week.
Five days later, Phil had shown up at his new location in a pair of tight jeans and a button up shirt with a black go back and a silver suitcase housing several weapons. He'd smiled at Nick, told him that he'd quit his job because his close encounter with the werewolf had given him a thrill he hadn't felt since his first case on his previous job, and that he was ready to take on all those things that went bump in the night. Nick had taken him on without another word. That night, Phil had sweet talked his way into Nick's pants. They'd been together ever since.
"The vampires have Clint and Natasha," he told them, shaking off memories of the past. He watched as a frown settled on every face in the warehouse. They'd all moved closer as he'd taken his brief stroll down memory lane. Any other time, such an action would have proven deadly. But Nick knew he wasn't in any danger from any of them. He trusted them completely. With his life.
Silence ruled as each member of his team absorbed that news. A chorus of swear words rose up from the group, a verbal expression of what they thought of Nick's news. Nick remained silent, allowed them the opportunity to vent their frustrations. He knew they knew exactly what this meant. "Its a trap," Melinda said, stating the obvious. Nick nodded his head.
"This won't end well for them, no matter what we do," Victoria added.
"That's why I don't expect any of you to join in on this hunt and put your lives on the line." He didn't want anyone to have to face an old friend. That kind of hunt left scars on the soul and Nick refused to put anyone in that position. There was no telling what they'd find when they got to the camp. Nick was prepared for the worst. He was sure they were, too. They were all well aware of what kind of cruelty the undead was capable of doing to the living. Chances were good that they'd be going up against their friends. Chances were better that they'd find corpses. "You don't want to go out on this hunt, just say so."
"All due respect, sir, but I don't think there's anyone here who plans on sitting this one out." The seriousness in Mack's voice deepened it. Nick nodded his head at the other man.
"They'll smell us coming, Nick," Maria intoned. "That will give them more than enough time to kill Barton and Romanova before coming after us."
"Then we need a diversion," Phil said. Nick turned to look at him, wondering what kind of diversion he thought they could come up with that would keep them all from getting killed.
"I'll do it," Fitz offered. Nick gave him a frown. But before he could voice his opinion on that idea, Fitz was pushing on. "I'm the only one here who can create the diversion we need, sir. We all know it. If we're going to get Clint and Natasha out of that nest, alive and unharmed, we're going to have to make use of every single one of our assets. I can get in and create a diversion before the vampires know I'm there."
Nick would never admit that he enjoyed listening to the cadence and lilt of Fitz's voice when he spoke. The young man had grown up in Scotland, which was plain to hear anytime he had something to say. He'd miss that lilt if anything happened to Fitz. "I don't want to risk you getting injured. Or worse. You don't have much experience with hunting. Not in fur."
"We don't have any choice. No one else here is a match for the nest."
"If Fitz can draw the vamps away from Clint and Natasha for a minute or two, Victoria and I can cast a circle of protection. We just need to be able to see them," Melinda told him.
"We'll need to remember to take something of theirs with to help guide the spell," Victoria added. Melinda nodded, her expression suggesting she was already making plans.
"I can draw them away for a minute or two," Fitz assured them. Nick didn't want to tell him no, but he knew just how Fitz felt about his other nature. The kid only shifted when he absolutely had to, and never where anyone could see him. He lived with a real fear that the team would see his furry self and find him too horrible to acknowledge. That they'd shun him. He didn't want to see anything bad happen to Fitz, but Nick knew he couldn't protect Fitz for the rest of his life. If he wanted to get Clint and Natasha back alive and in one piece, he was going to have to give Fitz a chance. There really was no other option.
"Fine. Fitz will be our distraction," Nick said. He didn't give the young man time to celebrate his win, just kept right on with the plan that was forming even as he talked about it. "He goes in and pulls the vamps away long enough to give Victoria and Melinda a view of the camp and the chance to cast a circle. Once we know our people are safe, the rest of us go in with everything we've got. Clean the entire nest out. No one survives. I want them all in ashes before we leave. Understood?"
The answer came from everyone at once, in unison. Nick let his gaze slide around the group again. "I don't have to remind you that there is a very good possibility that we could be going up against our friends. If that happens, if we have to fight against them, that means they're lost to us and it will be in our best interests to stake them as quickly as possible. There's nothing more dangerous than a hunter that's been turned and goes dark side. Do not let personal feelings get in the way of doing your jobs." He really hoped that it didn't come to that. "We leave in half an hour. I suggest you go get ready."
Phil waited until everyone had dispersed before he approached Nick. Neither of them was big on public displays of affection, so Phil didn't touch him. But he stopped close enough to Nick to let him feel the other man's body heat. "We'll get them out of there, Nick. You've got a good team."
"You always were far too optimistic for my tastes," Nick grumbled. Phil didn't take offense. He just smiled and motioned around the warehouse to indicate all of the people present. It was his way of silently making his point. Each one of them had been with Nick for years now, and each one of them had come through each hunt with little more than scratches and cuts. They were a close unit, friends that had become a family.
"You've got a good team, Nick. You've taught them everything you know. You've taught me every thing you know. We'll get Clint and Natasha back. And Fitz?" Phil paused, giving Nick the opportunity to slide his gaze toward the young man in question. "Fitz will be fine. You trained him. He can do this."
"He's so young, Phil." Nick couldn't help the note of frustration and worry. How had this become his life? How had he become the keeper of so many damaged souls?
"He is young. But he has a strong heart and he has every ounce of training you could give him. He'll be fine. Just you wait and see. Every one of us will come back safe and sound." Phil paused and looked him up and down, his eyes serious and intent. "And when we do, once we're assured everyone is just fine, I'm going to drag you upstairs and spend the rest of the night relieving all of the tension that's got your shoulders pulled tight."
Nick couldn't miss the meaning and the heat in Phil's words. That brought a smile to his face. "You think you're up to it, old man?"
Phil laughed, a sound that was warm and rich and full of honest joy. Hearing it warmed Nick down to his toes. "I'll show you who the old man is. When I'm done with you, you won't be able to walk straight for a week. And now I have to go get ready." Phil walked off without another word, leaving Nick with very pleasant images crowding his brain. Damn the man for knowing exactly how to calm him down. Nick gave a short laugh, then followed after Phil to make ready.
There was family to save and there was a hunt boiling under his skin.
Mack stood by the back end of their vehicle. Waited for him impatiently, still hurt because he thought that Fitz didn't trust him enough to let him witness the transformation. Nick knew it wasn't because Fitz didn't trust Mack. It was because Fitz didn't trust himself and he'd never forgive himself if he shifted and immediately harmed the man he loved so very deeply.
Melinda and Victoria stood off to the side, eyes closed and palms pressed together as they worked to ground themselves in preparation for the coming hunt. They grounded better when they were so close to nature so they were just at the edge of the forest, branches heavy with thick leaves hanging over their heads like a living awning. Sam and Maria were going through a last minute check list, every single word spoken heavily laced with unspoken emotions. Threats and promises. "Come back to me in one piece or I'll beat you into the mats. I love you and I need you."
Phil stood silently at Nick's side, knowing after so many years and hunts together that words were unwanted and unnecessary. Nick let his gaze slide over the man next to him, taking in the black of his ensemble. Long sleeved shirt, cargo pants, and well worn combat boots all in black. That even included his gun in its holster, painted a matte black to prevent the reflection of any light. The rest of them were dressed similarly, all black clothes and dull black weapons meant to keep them invisible and safe for a moment or two longer. Hopefully long enough to give them an edge over the vampires.
His thoughts were cut short by a faint rustling of leaves off to the left. A moment later. Fitz glided out of the bushes, light glinting off the rich brown hue of his fur. He was on all fours, tongue lolling out as he trotted over to the group. Nick knew from experience that Fitz had another form, a sort of half and half form that he could shift into. But Fitz tried not to use that form much because it was still too much a mix of man and beast for the young man. Nick figured that he'd be more comfortable with that form when he became more comfortable with the lycanthropy that had been forced on him.
The wolf stopped when he reached Nick's side, sitting at his feet silently. To anyone else, it would look as if the animal was showing his loyalty. Nick knew that Fitz was waiting his final orders before the hunt started. He let his gaze skim the group around him, making sure that they were ready to begin. When he finally brought it back to Fitz, he gave the wolf a scowl. "Now don't go thinking that you need to prove that you're some kind of hero. Your job is to distract the vampires. Nothing else. I don't want you to get hurt."
The wolf's thick tail thumped the ground once.
"Do not let them get their fangs into you. Draw them off, keep them occupied for two minutes, then get the hell out of there."
The tail thumped again. Nick took it for an affirmative. He nodded and glanced up at everyone else again. "We need to move through the trees as silently as possible. We need to get close enough for Melinda and Victoria to start their spell. Once Fitz has the vampires drawn off, they'll cast their spell. Wait until they confirm that the magic is working as its intended before you charge into the fight. I want Clint and Natasha protected before we let them see us. I don't want to see them bitten because we were sloppy."
Everyone was silent as Nick spoke. They knew, just as he did, that not everyone who was turned into the undead or a shape shifter went bad. There were quite a few who didn't. Fitz and Jasper were proof of that. But the good were few and far between. And many of the good didn't want to get involved with the hunts to take down the bad. And the bad only got badder as they got older. Hunting was a tiring, thankless, never ending job, which was why there were so few hunters in the game. If you weren't good enough to hunt, you didn't last long. And not many hunters got old.
"The minute that spell is up, every last one of the undead is fair game. Use whatever means necessary to end them. Do not let even one of them get away."
"Yes, sir," the group chorused.
"Then let's get this hunt started," Nick replied, one hand motioning toward the trees. Fitz gave him a look, then trotted toward the foliage. One by one, Nick and his people fell in line behind him. Mack was left to bring up the rear. They moved as silently as possible, following Fitz as he lead them deeper into the forest.
It was odd that a nest had taken up residence in the trees. Odd, but not unheard of. If they made a nest in the forest, the vamps usually had a cave nearby that they used to sleep in. Or they would bury themselves in the dirt and sleep the way the undead used to in the old days. It didn't matter where they slept, so long as they weren't in direct sunlight. Nick had found some sleeping in the trees of an old forest once, balanced on tree limbs or spread out on the forest floor as if they hadn't a care in the world. It hadn't taken much work or time to wipe that nest out.
Fitz halted, bringing the rest of them to a stop. That furry face looked back over his shoulder to give them a look, then he drifted off into the undergrowth with nary a sound. Nick motioned to Victoria and Melinda, urging them to start their spell crafting. The two of them moved forward until they were even with him and focused their attention on the vampires they could see up ahead. Melinda took hold of Victoria's hand, her other curled around one of Clint's practice arrows. Victoria held one of Natasha's throwing knives. They began mouthing the words to their spell, built the energy between them.
It didn't take long for the first hints of the spell to climb up their arms. Nick could see the faint glimmer of it pooling in their fingertips. He knew, if they'd been wearing short sleeves, that he'd be able to see the magic as it worked its way toward their hands and its release. Melinda's favored element was fire, so flames of bright reddish-orange always burned their way from her center to her fingers and toes. Melinda was attuned to water, so soft waves of deepest ocean blue washed along her arms and legs until it pooled in her hands and feet. Nick had seen earth and wind witches work before, had seen vines and leaves of richest green twine and climb along limbs and had seen puffs of clouds gust along under the skin until they came to rest in the tips of fingers and toes. And when the spells released...
He was pulled from his thoughts by a long, low howl. There were a few exclamations, then what sounded like a barking laugh. A glance through the trees showed him that Fitz had drawn off several of the vamps and they now had a clear view of the center of the camp. A cage on the other side of the fire held Clint and Natasha and while neither one seemed to be paying attention, Nick knew they were paying close attention. He turned and nodded at Melinda and Victoria, giving them the go ahead.
Each woman breathed out a single word in unison, barely a whisper of sound passing their lips. Magic burst forth from their fingertips. Silent flames erupted from Melinda's hands, moving like wildfire through the air toward their destination. At the same time, thick vines of green ivy crept and crawled from Victoria's hands. In seconds, trees sprang up around the cage, growing tall and strong and full in the span of a heartbeat. The next heartbeat saw those same trees going up in a wall of flames. "The spell will hold for five minutes. We need to get busy," Melinda informed him.
Before Nick could say anything, an agonized yelp filled the night air. It sounded like Fitz was in trouble. His team flew into action without being told, Mack heading in the direction that the yelp had come from while Sam and Maria headed around the left side of the nest's camp. Nick spared a glance for Melinda and Victoria, then he looked at Phil and motioned with his head toward the right side of the camp. Phil nodded, drew his weapon, and slipped off into the dark. Nick took one more look at the nest's camp, then unholstered his own gun and followed in Phil's footsteps.
The clearing was a mass of confusion. Several of the undead were trying to find a way through the spell while several others were clustered around what he assumed was Fitz, trying to pull him to the ground. Fitz was doing his best to remain standing, claws and teeth slashing. There was blood around his muzzle, making Nick worry for a moment that the young man had been injured. Then he saw the body on the ground, throat ripped out and glistening wetly.
Mack charged toward the cluster of vamps with an axe in his hands. Nick knew that the sharpened edge of the axe head had been blessed by a priest and dipped in holy water. Damn thing would slice through undead flesh like a heated knife through butter. Mack was deadly and accurate with the axe. But the fight between the vamps and Fitz was taking place in close quarters. Nick would have to take it on faith that Mack wouldn't accidentally hit Fitz in his attempt to help him. Which meant he could turn his attention to the rest of the nest.
He caught brief glimpses of Maria and Sam closing in on his left side. Maria had a shotgun in hand, one she used as a club when the barrels were spent. Nick had seen her shove the barrel into one vamp's mouth and completely explode his head before whirling and slamming the stock into the head of another approaching vamp. Maria could take care of herself. And she had Sam there to watch her back. Sam mirrored her steps, each hand wrapped around a hand gun. Each of the weapons barked loudly with rapid, staccato fire every time he pulled the trigger.
To his other side, Victoria and Melinda had already engaged with the undead. Victoria had a gun bare in her hand, something large and menacing. It made a lot of noise when it was fired, and a huge mess when it hit its target. She also wore a belt stocked with old fashioned wooden stakes. Melinda carried a sword, a jian that she had been in her family for years. The blade was etched with Chinese characters meant to protect the weapon and its master and to deal a permanent death to the undead. She'd told him once that it had been blessed by a holy man. Melinda never went on a hunt without it. For this hunt, she'd cast a spell over the blade that saw magical fire licking at the blade. Any vamp that it touched would be ash in seconds.
"Incoming. On your left, Nick," Phil told him before turning away to engage a young looking vamp headed their way. Nick turned, gun coming up as he did so. The end of the muzzle met the vamp's forehead straight on. If it had been alive, the force of the impact would have left a bruise behind. But it was undead and there would be no bruises. A second later, that didn't matter as Nick pulled the trigger and put a round through the vamp's head. The special ammunition that Fitz had engineered exploded the moment it hit grey matter and blew the back of the undead's head off in a spray of bone, blood, and brains.
Three more vamps came at Nick before he realized that something was wrong. Eyes on the vamp trying to rip his throat out, Nick let his senses stretch and explore the clearing around him. Each member of his team presented as a flare of red warmth against a background of shadows. The spots he knew to be Melinda and Victoria burned bright red, as did the ring of magic that surrounded the cage holding Clint and Natasha. Fitz's red was muddied and muted because of his dual nature. The vamp before him was a dark black nothing in his expanded vision. And there were dozens more of the black nothings before and beside and behind him.
He muttered a curse as he pulled the trigger, already turning toward the blur of nothing speeding up on him from behind. His free hand pulled one of his hunting swords so that it was there to drive into the vampire's skull the moment he got close enough to Nick. The vamp gave a brief scream before exploding into a cloud of ash. Even before he started turning, there was another vampire to take the last one's place.
The gun was returned to its holster, useless against such large numbers. Ammunition didn't last forever and reloading took too long. There was no time for such luxuries when a vampire could cover the distance of a football field in the blink of an eye. Swords didn't jam and they didn't need reloading. The second blade cleared its sheath in time for Nick to bury it in a vampire's gut. He pulled the blade up, split the undead in two up to the chin before bringing his other blade around to slice his opponent's head off.
The next few minutes became an endless circle of stab and slice and skewer as he went from one vampire to the next. He could hear his team around him, grunt and groans as they battled on. The gunfire had ceased some time ago. Nick was sure everyone had gone to their bladed weapons against the seemingly unending tide of vampires.
Each time he turned to face down a new foe, he caught a glimpse of one of his people. Sam and Maria had closed the distance between one another and fought back to back. Sam's gladius flashed in the bright light provided by streamers of Melinda and Victoria's magic. Maria was down to her saber, slicing at anything that got close enough to her. Mack's axe still swung like crazy, the light reflecting off the thick layer of blood and gore that clung to it. There was a swirling mass only feet from Mack that Nick figured had to be Fitz.
It felt like the vampires kept coming, like they waited before breaking over the group of hunters in fresh waves. Nick knew a trap when he saw one. And he could only think of one vampire who was capable of setting up such a trap. Would the centuries old vampire show his face tonight? Or would he slip off into the shadows when the tides turned. Because they would turn. Nick had been hunting a very long time and he had yet to be bested by a group of undead.
He was mid-turn, blade on a direct course with another vampire's neck, when a body slammed into him and threw him to the ground. The vampire was old. Older than any here that he'd dealt with so far. It bared its fangs, hands wrapped around his head to pull it to the side. Its knees rested on Nick's arms, pinning them to the ground so that he couldn't use them. He was reaching deep inside for the power required to end the vamp when he felt the ground under him shake. Second later, the vamp pinning him was gone, followed by a high pitched scream that ended on a wet gurgle.
Nick came to his feet in a single fluid motion, weapons ready to deal more death. He found that very few vampires were left. Most had turned to ash with the help of a blade or a spell or a gun. Some were running in fear of their unnatural lives. A moment after Nick got up, Jasper was at his side, face and hands red with the blood of the vampire he'd torn apart. "I'm sorry, Nick. I didn't know."
"There's no reason to apologize, Jasper. I know you wouldn't lead us into a trap." Nick paused long enough to grab a piece of cloth from the ground, a shirt one of the ash piles had been wearing, and used it to wipe his blades clean. Then he focused a hard stare on Jasper. "I thought I told you to get out of town."
"I was on my way when I stumbled across a conversation between two young vamps. They were bragging about how they were going to take down the infamous Nick Fury and his team. They mentioned Pierce. I had to come back to offer my help." Jasper let his gaze slide around the clearing, taking in the many ash piles and the group of hunters who were still standing at the ready.
Mack was by Fitz, who had shifted back to his human form, the taller man whispering intently in the shorter man's ear. Melinda and Victoria were already working on a cleansing incantation that would take the lingering spots of evil from the clearing. Phil was working on the cage's lock, the magic protecting it and its inhabitants gone the moment the threat had been neutralized. Sam was checking over Maria, who was swearing at him loudly while telling him she was fine. And there was a young woman several feet behind Jasper, crouched down on one knee with both hands resting on the ground. Jasper's stare followed Nick's. "I brought help. Skye, this is Nick Fury. Nick, this is Skye. Thank her for saving your ass."
Nick cut a look to Jasper that told him they'd talk about this later. Then he sheathed his blades and crossed to the cage. Phil had released the lock, allowing Natasha and Clint to stumble from their prison. "Sorry, boss. I don't know how they got the drop on us," Clint started.
Nick held up a hand. "There was no way you could have avoided this. This was a set up from the very beginning."
Natasha had moved over to a small pile of ash and kicked it over in order to retrieve the weapons that she and Clint had been carried when they'd been taken. When she returned, there was a look of disgust on her face. "Pierce."
It wasn't a question. Nick still nodded his head.
"I want to skin him before I pull his head off," Natasha said, not an ounce of emotion in her voice. She handed Clint his bow and the quiver filled with arrows before strapping her sidearm back on.
"We have to catch him first," Nick replied. "Even when we do, you have to get in line."
By then, the rest of his team had moved in until they all stood in a circle. Mack had one arm wrapped around Fitz, obviously supporting the other man's weight. Fitz had donned a pair of ash coated pants and he had one hand pressed to his side. His fingers were crimson. His gaze shifted, landed on each member of the team to check for injuries. He saw some bloody scratches and the beginning of some bruises, but no one else seemed hurt. "How bad?"
"It can wait until we get back to the warehouse," Fitz replied. Nick flicked his gaze from Fitz to Sam, then back again. Sam nodded wordlessly and headed toward Fitz. Nick watched as Sam lifted his hands until they hovered in the air just over Fitz's hand and a pale silver glow surrounded them. Everyone collectively held their breath as Sam used his healing gifts to determine the extent of Fitz's injuries. After several moments, the glow faded and Sam turned his attention to Nick.
"I've done some minor healing, mostly smaller parts that would have to heal on their own with conventional medicine. But he's right. The rest of it can wait until we get back to base."
Nick nodded. "Let's move. The longer we stand out in the open, the more we're inviting trouble to come knocking."
"They won't be back," the girl, Skye, told him confidently. She finally rose from her crouch and let her focus shift to the trees surrounding their position. Something flashed in them a moment before she brought her attention back to him. "I've made sure of it."
Nick nodded. "Clint and Natasha, I want you on point. Jasper, you've got the rear. Single file, people. And pay attention. We don't know what might be lurking in the woods."
Skye smiled and shook her head. "Nothing that will hurt you. The woods are safe. But I can't guarantee your safety once we're out in the wide open spaces."
"Don't worry. We've got some equipment in the vehicles that will more than guarantee our safety," Phil interjected. Skye glanced at him for a moment or two, then shrugged and nodded. As if she was going to simply take his word on it.
Nick took one last look at the clearing, his senses expanded to search for any pockets of nothing that meant a vampire was lurking. There were none. But there was a faint glimmer of magic covering the entire area that had a feeling of something familiar and old. He cut his gaze to Skye and found her watching him intently. That look was familiar and it gave him the sensation that the girl knew. He nodded at her, then cut his look to the rest of his team. "Let's go home."
His gaze cut to the newest member of his family. Skye fit in with everyone, almost as if she'd always been one of them. She was young, but he could sense power swirling under the surface of her skin. Magic borne of the very earth. He had his suspicions as to who and what she really was, but he was keeping those to himself. Just like she seemed content to ignore who and what Nick really was.
It had been Phil who'd suggested that Skye join their team. Jasper had seconded the idea. Nick had left it up to her, telling her she was welcome to join them and hunt the undead if she wanted. She'd spent all of five seconds staring at each team member's face, then she'd nodded and agreed. Much cheering had gone up and she'd been inducted to the family with hugs, back slapping, and a cold beer. For the moment, each one of them was telling Skye about one of their more amusing hunts. Making her welcome.
"You should be down there with them," Phil said as he moved up beside Nick. The man settled his arms on the railing, mirroring almost exactly Nick's stance, and stared down at the group below. If his elbow touched more of Nick's elbow than normal, neither one of them said anything about it.
"Not tonight. They don't need me looking over their shoulders tonight. Tomorrow is soon enough to start driving them again. They deserve a chance to relax."
Phil was silent a moment, absorbing Nick's words. Then he sighed and let his gaze shift to the windows. The sky was already starting to lighten, telling them that the fight was over for a few hours. "You know Pierce won't stop. He's determined to put you down, however he possibly can. We're lucky he didn't try turning Clint and Natasha."
Nick's gaze drifted to the two of them, watched them for a few beats of his heart. To be honest, now that he knew the whole thing had been orchestrated by Pierce, he had to admit he was surprised to find that no one had tried to turn the two of them. Even if they hadn't gone over to the dark side, it would have been a knife to the heart to make them both into something they hated so much. Of course, that might be exactly why Pierce hadn't taken that step. Because there was no guarantee that turning them would have put them on his side. The change didn't automatically make someone dark and evil. And if neither of them had gone dark and evil, they'd have been that much more intent on taking Pierce apart.
Nick had been alive a long time. A very long time. He'd seen the best and worst that humanity had to offer. It was seeing that that had set him on the path he was on now. And, over the years, he'd gotten to be a pretty good judge of character. Clint and Natasha would have never bent to Pierce's will. They were strong and resilient, just like every last member of the team, and they would have fought with the same fierce sense of right and wrong that had pushed them into hunting in the first place.
No. Pierce had had no plans to turn them. In fact, Nick was sure he hadn't really planned on seeing Nick killed in that battle with his lackeys. No. There was something else going on. Something more sinister. Something that Pierce thought would break Nick. He let his gaze shift to Phil at his side. Turning Phil, or just plain killing him... That felt more like the kind of evil thing Pierce would do. Yes. Tomorrow would be a good time to start driving them all again.
"Pierce didn't want them turned. He's after something else. For now, we've thwarted him. He's going to have to find a place to hide and rebuild his little vampire army. Come up with a new plan," Nick shook his head and glanced toward the windows again. The sun was almost up. "We won this night. Today is for living it up a little. Tomorrow is soon enough to start training again."
"Well, then. Since they don't need you tonight, there's no reason you and I can't go to bed now." Phil's voice was soft and his touch was even softer. He reached out and laid a hand on Nick's face, turning it to look at him. There was something in Phil's eyes that told Nick he knew exactly what Pierce's new plan would be. Nick didn't want to see that look there, didn't want Phil to think about his mortality.
Tonight was a night about friends and family. Nick had gone without family for many, many years. And then he'd stumbled into one, one person at a time. He'd found himself a family that filled in the loneliness, that kept him grounded in the here and now. A family that worked hard and played harder. A family that cared about one another, even though none of them had any blood in common. A family held together by bonds of love and respect and friendship. He'd lost so much over the course of his long life. Lost much and gained so very much more.
He stared at Phil, the man to whom he had given the tattered remains of his heart. There was emotion swimming in his eyes, too vast and complex to break down into a single word. Or even two. He had his hand held out to Nick, an offer of intimacy. And of hot, sweaty sex. Pierce would wait for one more day. Nick could afford to cut loose and get naked with Phil. After all, tonight was a night for celebrating.