Archive for month: May, 2008

Badmoon Rising – Chapter One: Pay Attention, There’s a Lot of Stuff You Need to Know

08 May
May 8, 2008

If you have read this far, then you probably have guessed what I am. You may have even figured out that my name is Ranger, but that isn’t fully accurate. All lycanthropes, or werewolves as human stories call us, have three names. The first is called the hiding name. It’s the name given by the parents at birth. The second is the true name given to a lycanthrope at Initiation by the lord of the county. The third is the pack name. My hiding name was Marcus Edward Graven, III, but it’s been a long time since anyone used that name. My true name is Marcus Phoenix Badmoon. True names have specific meanings. By tradition, my first name is the same as my hiding name. My middle name was given to me because I played dead during a harsh training in tysach, and “came back to life” at a rather opportune time (i.e., ambush). Badmoon, now that’s the name that has given me trouble for my entire life as a lycanthrope. I am the first lycanthrope in Florida not to have any known lycanthrope roots. Usually one or both of the parents of a lycanthrope are also a lycanthrope. Occasionally, it comes down from a grandparent. Rarely, it comes from a great-grandparent. Then there’s me. I have no known family that are lycanthropes. The shaman have searched the Ancestors, but none claim me. To a society that values its close family connections, I am an intruder. There have been few like me through out the known history of the packs. We are known as Badmoon. My pack name was given to me after I joined the Hunters Guild. To my Guild brothers, I am known as Ranger. I don’t know why I was given that name, but it seemed to suit me.

There are a few misconceptions that need to be cleared up before the story may continue. Lycanthropes are surrounded in human myth and imagination for centuries. Some of what the stories say is true. A great deal is not. For example, lycanthropes are vulnerable to silver, but not wolfsbane; in fact, wolfsbane is actually a medicine. It is painful for us and after the first couple of applications, most lycanthropes flinch from it the way a human child would flinch rubbing alcohol. Lycanthropes do shape-shift to three distinct forms, but we do not shed our forms because of a full moon. Lycanthropes revere the moon. We are a nocturnal race, and as early humans worshiped the sun, the moon is a sacred presence in our own culture. We don’t worship it – worship is reserved for the Ancestors – but we do use the moon to track time between rites. A lycanthrope is born, not created by a bite. That myth probably came from how lycanthropes implant the need to go to the nearest cravex to a new pup.

The truth is lycanthropes are a race that, for reasons still not completely understood, were granted supernatural powers. We were given the ability to blend in with our prey and hunt from within. We are not the humans we appear to be as we walk down the concrete sidewalks. We are not the wolves running through the forests and plains. We are the lycanthrope, the creature of wolf and man that has hunted the humans from the beginning of our time. We do not look for a place to fit in between the two camouflages and their societies, as human literature often depicts us. We are not torn. We know what we are every time we look at each other in true form, feel the world open up to us through our supernatural senses, and continue the hunt. It is the hunt, the true hunt, that defines us and makes us what we are.

The lycanthropes live in a world beyond human vision. We are not alone in this world either. The vampires, the pathwalkers, the witch hunters, the ghosts, the wizards, and the alien Turak all live in the realm of the unseen. Humans, with their shielded vision, interact with us on a daily basis, but never realize it. They see the results of our fighting, but explain it away as natural phenomena, or have a rational explanation. The conflicts within this community of the supernatural have repercussions on the seen world, but rarely the other way around. How do normal humans compete with the supernatural elements? Simple, normal humans have one power that they rarely realize – the ability to create. Technology and its related areas are humanity’s true power, and one, at least until relatively recently, they have been lax in utilizing.

My story is not about the searching the mysteries of the supernatural. It is not looking for my kind’s past or its place in the great scheme of things. My story is about power, pure and simple. Most of the participants in my story just happen to be creatures of the supernatural. My story begins during an escalation in tensions between the Tampa Council of the Vampire, or the TCV, and the Lord of Hillsborough, ruler of all the lycanthrope packs within the county of Hillsborough County in the state of Florida. Since the two races met each other back during that Blood Moon so long ago, there was always war. In the beginning, it was over the humans. The exact reasons changed over time, but the conflict remained. It wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century the lycanthropes and vampires realized that human technology was beginning to defeat our supernatural advantages. With the new weapons that were developed at the time, both the lycanthropes and the vampires decided that the centuries-long feud would end in mutual destruction if nothing was done. Assuming, of course, that one of the other factions didn’t finish us both off first. The aloof and god-like pathwalkers threatened our races with such a fate before when the fighting got out of hand. The older generations didn’t believe the truth. Until the First World War. The way humans killed each other with reckless abandon convinced all doubters that the standing open war between the lycanthropes and the vampires was no longer acceptable if either race was to survive. So, the Peace was forged during hard negotiations between the Emperor of the Lycanthropes and the Great Nosferatu Convention. The Peace ruled out the open fighting, but left the door open for covert operations. With that, the Hunters Guild took on their new role as the aristocracy’s weapons. We became the enforcers of the aristocracy’s edicts. My story really begins with enforcing one of those edicts.

I straddled the big Yamaha cruiser I recently “acquired.” The engine rumbled beneath me as I remembered the look of sheer terror on the former owner’s face before I ended his pathetic life. He thought he was some sort of super-thug rider, and he actually attacked me when I asked if I could walk with his group. I gave him my cover story, but something offended him, and he tried to cut me with a fairly decent sized blade. That ended when I used his own blade on him. Humans were fucking stupid sometimes. I couldn’t complain too much. I had a bike which completed my disguise for my job. According to the file that the Guildmaster gave to me, a young-looking vampire was stalking in the lycanthrope section of Ybor City. In the heart of downtown Tampa, Ybor City was originally where the Cuban and Italian immigrants came and worked in the cigar factories that gave Tampa its nickname of “The Cigar City”. Now, it was entertainment district with a strong Spanish flavor. Lycanthropes tended to stay out of Tampaproper, but we secured sections in Ybor City, Channelside, and Westshore. Most of the time, the sections are run like Free Berlin was during the Cold War. They are guarded zealously on both sides of the borders, and leeches are only allowed in to do small amounts of business. Usually it was diplomatic work or something involving the others that populate our unseen world. Leeches did not come onto our territory without permission.  For a leech to be hunting on our grounds was a slap across the face of lycanthrope society by the Tampa Council. A few appeals were made by Lord Stephen Vollen, the Lord of Hillsborough, but the TCV refused to sanction or stop the brazen leech. So, I was given the job to sanction him for the TCV.

I started the job by tracking the leech for the previous few nights. He was a member in one of the local weekend biker gangs that frequent the lively downtown district. As I observed him, I figured he was a young and uneducated leech. Smart leeches congregate among their own kind and on their own territory. They did not venture into enemy-held parts of the city. It was safer that way, both for the leech, and for the two societies as a whole. I followed him the previous night as he charmed three young ladies and fed on them in the darkened corners of Ybor. I knew his patterns, and I knew I could detect his voice when he used his supernatural abilities. This night, I was going to rid the lycanthropes of this insulting pest.

The first part of any hunting job is to blend into the environment, which is why I was in my limited human form. My colleagues in the Guild found some clothing favored by the human bikers. A pair of denim jeans and a black t-shirt was covered with leather leggings and a black leather jacket. Dark work boots completed my outfit. For the kill, I was armed with some of my normal weapons. Under the jacket, in a shoulder holster, was my sidearm, a Heckler & Koch USP in .45 ACP. It was loaded with an advanced type of silver bullet based on the Federal HST design. Hunters called them Silver Shoks, and some kin out in the Midwest made them for the Guild. Two spare magazines loaded with Silver Shok ammunition hung under the other shoulder. A small Ruger SP101 .357 Magnum snub-nosed revolver, also loaded with Silver Shoks, fit inside of my left leg in a boot holster. A silver-plated throwing knife was sheathed in the other boot. To complete my ensemble, I carried a long silver dagger in a small of the back sheath. I was actually carrying less than I normally would have, but this was supposed to be a “quiet” job.

I slowly rode through the streets searching for my prey. The old Cuban architecture of Ybor“> cigar factories melded with the more modern look of Centro Ybor, the large entertainment complex housing clubs, shops, and a movie theater. It was developed in the early nineties in order revitalize the historic neighborhood. A great deal of the complex was within lycanthrope territory. The air was filled with a mixture of smells ranging from alcohol and human perspiration to car fumes and the odd ozone smell created by the streetcar. I stopped as I heard the distinctive harmonics of the vampire’s supernatural voice. The words were indistinguishable, but the tainted tones reached right into my waiting ears.

I followed the supernatural tones to a small restaurant just beyond the lights and glitz of the complex. It was a smaller upscale restaurant, catering to the higher-class of people that came down to Ybor on the weekends. This was a departure from the way he hunted his previous prey. This was why I didn’t plan my jobs down to the tiniest detail, like some of the other hunters. I expected variations and tried to anticipate any opportunities for Mr. Murphy and his infamous law to fuck things up. One thing I didn’t anticipate was a radical shift in the leech’s hunting grounds. Usually, leeches were very finicky about the kind of humans they hunted. A lot of it had to do with their obsession about appearances. As I stood outside the restaurant, I had to make the decision if the sudden shift in the leech’s behavior was enough to make the job too difficult to complete tonight.  The Guildmaster made it abundantly clear this situation needed to be resolved tonight unless there was no other option. The change in the leech was annoying, but it could be overcome. I quickly removed the leather leggings and tried to slick back my hair. It wasn’t perfect, but it should give me some concealment among the humans. At least long enough to spot my prey.

I entered the restaurant, listening for my prey’s voice. Next to the main dining room was a raised bar and lounge. I had my first glimpse of my prey that night. He appeared to be in his early twenties, with sleek black hair that he brushed straight back. His normally pale skin was brightened with his previous kills and the judicious use of cosmetics. The biker clothing was gone, replaced by a casual suit favored by the young men of the business world. His long fingers caressed the shoulder of an attractive young brunette. She certainly looked like his type. Her long brown hair was exquisitely styled, matching with the high-priced red dress she was wearing. From the intelligence I could see in her blue eyes, she wasn’t a bar bimbo, more than likely a professional of some type hoping to meet one of her own class and stature.

Disappointment flushed through me as I stepped into the lounge. Several patrons noticed my out-of-place look, which they acknowledged with either a disgusted glare or an amused glance. The vampire didn’t notice me at all. I crossed the lounge, staring several of the more disapproving looks down, and sat at the table behind him and his intended. Much of the last-minute anxiety disappeared when I walked behind him. An experienced vampire would have immediately noticed a lycanthrope walking in, or at least shown more observance around him. If he simply looked around once, he would’ve noticed me, and known what was going to happen. Those who live in our realm are able to see other members and recognize them for what they are. As I lowered myself into the chair, I allowed myself a small sigh. My hopes for a good hunt ended. Now all there was to do was to end his pathetic existence – violently.

The woman was strong-willed and tried to resist the supernatural voice the leech applied, but I knew that her resistance wouldn’t last for much longer. After a couple minutes of watching him work his charms, I scanned the lounge. I didn’t see any other supernatural creatures in the bar. The humans were enjoying their drinks and the insignificant chatter of their fellow humans. After my original novelty wore off, they promptly forgot about me. None of them noticed me slowly drawing the pistol from under my jacket. I lowered the pistol under the table and flicked the safety off. The damned fool didn’t even hear the mechanical snap. Even without the supernatural hearing of my true form, I know I would’ve heard it, even over the din of the bar. It was too unique a sound for someone in my line of work. Too bad. His mistake.

I silently rose from my table and leveled the pistol at the leech. I double-tapped the USP, sending two Silver Shok bullets into the back of my target. Humans screamed at the deafening sound of the pistol and the sight of the leech’s chest exploding in a mass of bone and black fluid. The bar patrons stampeded for the exit. I ignored them as I grabbed the still-twitching body of the leech off the floor and threw it on the bar. The woman he had been talking to was in shock. She didn’t move at all as I shed my human body for that of the true lycanthrope. I picked up a bar stool and smashed it against the bar itself, liberating a leg. There are very few things that can kill a vampire. Fire, silver, and wood are the most common. The famous staking death of the movies is a fearful and painful reality for the leeches. The trick, however, is getting close enough to do the dirty deed. Both lycanthropes and leeches deal archanal wounds, or wounds that cannot be healed with the supernatural speed of other wounds. So any fight the damned things put up take forever to heal. Most hunters wouldn’t even bother staking a vampire if they’d just put two rounds of silver into it. So why was I going through the trouble? Vampires fear staking. The Guildmaster expressly wanted a staking to properly convey the depths of the lord’s displeasure. After two hits of high-powered silver bullets, the vampire wasn’t putting up any fight as I slammed the wooden leg through his torn chest. The few twitches of his body ceased instantly. His staking was not enough. Not according to my boss, the Guildmaster. The lycanthropes needed to show the leeches we were serious about the vampire’s intrusion into our territory. The Guildmaster foolishly left me in charge of making the statement. It was time to become creative.

I hefted the dead vampire onto my shoulder. It was changing to true form in its final death. All lycanthropes and vampires revert to true form at the time of death. It was a small quirk of the supernatural. The leech’s intended victim was completely still as I put the body over my shoulder. I looked into her eyes. They were vacant, almost death-like. She had seen too much, too fast. Since the rise of reason and the denial of magic and the supernatural by human culture, humans reactively deny the visible consequences of the supernatural. If they see lycanthropes and vampires fighting, humans discount what they see and rationalize. However, if a person who has not been properly introduced to the supernatural sees too much, too close, their mind can’t quite handle it. All of them become catatonic. A few come out of their catatonia and become witch-hunters. The witch-hunter’s fanatical belief in the extermination of the supernatural gives them the ability to cause archanal wounds. Without hesitation, I put a single round into her head, killing her instantly. I didn’t want the possibility of another witch-hunter being born by the night’s fun and games. If the first reaction to this act is disgust and revulsion by the senseless violence, then an encounter with a witch-hunter is recommended. They are a zealous lot with absolutely no moral compunctions when dealing with our kind. They possess a righteous savagery that makes everything I do pale by comparison.

The body of the vampire, now seven feet tall and much heavier than when I first lifted him up, fit nicely over the handlebars of the motorcycle. I kicked the motorcycle to life and sped out the area. Police cars flew by me, racing to the scene, but they didn’t concern me in the least. I knew no police would pull me over, not while I was in true form. As far as their minds were concerned, I was another motorcyclist carrying an extremely large package on my bike. It was how the human mind worked when it came to casual dealings with my world. I drove into a small garage that I rented several days ago when the Guildmaster first gave me the job. Inside was a van and some materials I was going to use for my “statement.” A grin flittered across my muzzle as I placed the vampire’s body into position, finishing my artistic “expression.”

The drive to the Tampa Council Hall was slow and uneventful. The Hall, where the TCV convened its meetings, was one of the more spectacular houses gracing Bayshore Boulevard. It was a small mansion, with white painted walls coordinating with a well-manicured lawn of flowers and natural grass. I parked the van on the street, and lugged the “statement” up onto the lawn. Planting it firmly into the ground, I pulled out a cheap lighter I bought earlier in the night. Out of my jacket pocket came the job file. The file going up in flame caught the attention of the door guards. Ancestors, they were sloppy. They began to walk towards me as I pulled off the cover of my “statement.” They stopped for a moment at the sight of the “statement,” long enough for me to drop the lit file at its base. It went up in flames with a whooshing sound. The intruding leech was hung in front of the house, on a burning cross. I stifled a laugh as the flames enveloped the cross and body. I entered the van as the door guards regained their senses and pursued me. As I drove off, I discouraged that notion with an aimless burst of gunfire from my pistol.


The next morning began with a loud electronic tone sounding, waking me from the warm darkness of sleep. I groggily looked around the room for the source of the noise. It wasn’t the alarm clock. The clock had an unfortunate accident the last time it woke me up while I was in true form. It now sat shattered in the remains of my bed stand. I reminded myself to clean up the splintered wood fragments, which I promptly forgot again. I rose out of the bed and searched out the noise. Several seconds later, I reached the source of the irritation and recognized it as the phone. Stifling thoughts of shattering it, I tapped the receive button. After mumbling some form of greeting into the phone, the Guildmaster’s voice rumbled out.

“Marcus, we need to talk about last night’s activities. Come down to my office promptly.” His gruff voice betrayed an anger I’d heard before. Someone outside the Guild complained, and the Guildmaster was upset that they put their muzzles into Guild business. I mumbled an acknowledgment and set the phone back down on the chest of drawers. I looked back up into the mirror. My brown hair was still tousled from just waking up, and was a bit longer than the normally short style I usually wore. The stubble I neglected for the past four days was now a scruffy-looking splotch of light brown beard. I rubbed at the short, stiff, light brown whiskers. My gray eyes were bloodshot, a result from almost constant activity and very little sleep for the past several days. The rest of my face was pale and looked like it was slightly sagged. I needed a vacation.

A stop in the bathroom to shower, shave, and attend other hygiene problems, and I went to clothe myself. The Guildmaster said promptly, not immediately, which meant he wanted me presentable. Whoever called my Guildmaster was definitely someone powerful enough for him to call me in to “review” what happened. Someone in the aristocracy or the Order. My first suspicion was the Order. They were always looking for opportunities to discredit the Hunters Guild. The fact the Guildmaster didn’t discuss it on the phone leaned more to gave some credence to aristocracy. It was a well-known secret the lord’s security force tried to tap the phones of everyone they felt constituted a possible threat, including the Guildmaster. It annoyed the Guildmaster he couldn’t talk freely on his own office telephone. I ruffled through the closet in my bedroom and found a presentable light gray suit. It was a little wrinkled, but I didn’t think the Guildmaster would mind too much. He knew me too well to expect otherwise. As I rummaged back in my closet for some footwear, I disregarded the dress shoes for a pair of well-worn work boots. The boots didn’t match the semi-professional look of the suit, but they did make it easier for me to wear my ankle holster. The small Ruger SP101 revolver went into the ankle holster. My freshly-cleaned USP went into an inside the waistband holster on my right hip. A couple of spare magazines of Silver Shok went on my left hip, and a few throwing knives were sprinkled throughout. There are several cardinal sins all hunters know and avoid at all costs. Among the top five is that a hunter is never unarmed – or armed with only one weapon.

I walked out of my bedroom and into my living room where I flipped on the television. The morning anchorwoman was describing the horror of last night’s incident. According to the news, there had been early reports of a body on the cross, but no confirmation by the Tampa Police. I grinned as I contemplated the long night that the TCV’s ghouls in the TPD pulled to hide the burned remains of the leech. I walked across the living room into the kitchen and pulled a can of soda from the fridge. I found some deviled ham and some bread and threw together a quick sandwich as I continued to listen to the morning television reports. I relied on them to gather information that the Guild’s intelligence group missed. Guild intel specialists were always too focused on the lycanthrope society and the others in the unseen world, and occasionally missed important information in the human world. Once they missed the fact that the human president was coming into town and a job had to be scrapped at the last minute. Unfortunately, the intel group just chalked it up to an anomaly, so they didn’t bother changing their methods. So, I was left to comb through a bunch of useless information to find the few nuggets of joy. The work required a lot of patience, and that particular virtue and I weren’t exactly on speaking terms.

My computer toned to let me know I had a new message. I flipped on the monitor and punched in my password. The computer automatically entered the website the lycanthropes set up for their use. I clicked on the icon for new messages and the screen went blank. Puzzled, I watched as red, block letters began appearing on my screen. There are wolves who fear what the past may hold. Beware of these. Then the screen went back to the messages menu. There was only the same messages in the queue as last night. What the fucking hell? I rubbed my freshly shaved face as I pondered the message for a minute. I glanced at my watch. There was just enough time to meet the Guildmaster’s demands without pissing him off too much. I climbed into my nice, non-descript silver sedan and drove out to the Guildmaster’s office. The Guildmaster has his office on one of the business parks that grace the sides of the main north-south highway, Dale Mabry. At one time, the building was a mansion. Now it housed several lawyers and CPA’s – and the leader of the deadliest group of lycanthropes in the area. The Guildmaster leased out a sizable office on the third floor. Hunters didn’t like the packs knowing exactly where the Guild, itself, was located, and in the majority of cases, the pack leaders just wanted to speak to the Guildmaster anyway. I walked through the large double doors and into the building’s waiting room. The building’s owners sparsely decorated this area with a matching pair of beige, cloth-covered couches, a small wooden coffee table, and a few paintings. A pair of brightly covered rugs kept the furniture off of the polished hardwood floors. At the far end of the waiting room was a secretary behind a large oak desk. A modern computer and a bank of telephones graced the aged, wooden desk. The whine of the cooling fan was the only artificial sound I heard.

“I’m here to see Mr. Werstand,” I told the young woman behind the desk. I mentioned to my boss that the Guild should have placed one of its own, or at least a kin, in the position, when the previous one left but he rebuffed my idea. This one was new. The young lady smiled pleasantly as she pulled a leather-bound appointment book from below her desk. It was archaic, but the building’s occupants liked the touch. She flipped the pages and found her place.

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked as she scanned the Guildmaster’s schedule.

“I don’t think so. He called me this morning and told me to come here. The name is Marcus Smith,” I answered, using my cover name. Most lycanthropes continued using their hiding names when dealing with human society, but I couldn’t use my hiding name anymore. As far as the humans were concerned, Marcus Graven was murdered almost twenty years ago. Using Badmoon would have raised suspicions, so I became a Smith. Blindingly normal. The secretary continued to scan her appointment book. She motioned for me to take a seat as she lifted one of the receivers and dialed the Guildmaster’s office.

“Mr. Werstand, there is a Marcus Smith here to see you.” I watched her face contort into confusion as she listened to the response. “All of your morning appointments? But you have an appointment with Mr. Vollen in twenty minutes. Yes, sir.” She looked down at her appointment book and began to write in it. She looked up at me, almost as an afterthought, and said, “You may go up now. Mr. Werstand is waiting for you.” I thanked her as she went back to rearranging the Guildmaster’s schedule, and climbed the old antebellum spiral staircase that led up to the third floor. The floor was sparsely populated compared to the two floors below it. Only two other individuals had their offices on this floor – a mid-level personal injury attorney and a financial planner – neither of whom ever seemed to ever be out of their offices. I walked over to the Guildmaster’s office and knocked on the oaken door.

“Get in here,” a deep voice boomed through the door. Without hesitating, I walked into the office. The Guildmaster’s office was a mixture of the opulent and the Spartan. A lush green carpet covered the floor and complemented the ivory walls. To my sides was a pair of dark wooden bookcases that were lined with books of various subjects, ranging from finance and law to demolitions and assassination techniques. On the left hand wall was an antique liquor cabinet, its crystal decanters no doubt filled with cheap whiskey. Unlike his predecessor, the current Guildmaster never developed the taste for fine wines and liquors. He preferred rotgut for some odd reason or another. The Guildmaster was sitting at his desk, a smaller version of the secretary’s desk, also made of oak. The desk was only occupied by a laptop, phone, and the morning newspaper. Its bold headline about last night’s activites seemed to glare up at me. The Guildmaster was sitting in his maroon leather chair, staring out the large picture window behind the desk. He whirled his chair around as I shut the door behind me. Erik Werstand was one of the youngest lycanthropes ever to lead a Hunters Guild chapter, which said a great deal about not only his skill at hunting, but also his political ability. In his mid-forties, his human form was of an average height and build. Neatly trimmed black hair topped off a stern face. His dark eyes flashed with anger as I collapsed into one of the chairs irreverently in front of his desk. His long fingers tapped the newspaper.

“Do you know what you did?” he asked, using the same tone he used when calling me to come to his office. Someone else was angry with me, and laid it down on him. After all, I was not just one of his hunters, I was his personal hitter – the hunter he assigned jobs he didn’t trust to one of the hit packs or regular lone wolves in our chapter. I was an unusual choice for the position, both due to the fact that I was very young for the post, and for the fact that the position normally went to a veteran hunter who had close, personal ties to the Guildmaster. My predecessor had been the previous Guildmaster’s mentor. Before Erik Werstand became the Guildmaster, he was the deputy leader of the lone wolves. I only knew him as a somewhat decent boss, but beyond that, we didn’t have a close relationship. Then out of the blue, he asked me if I would like the job. I accepted it, and over the past five years, the Guildmaster and I formed a mentor-student relationship. At least enough of one that I could tell when he was the one pissed off at me, and when I managed to piss someone else enough that they complained to the Guildmaster. I saw recognition in his eye when he looked at my nonchalant face.

“Who’s angry at me? Lord Vollen or the shamans?” I asked, with an almost bored indifference. I’d worked directly for him long enough that I could be a bit irreverent. At least, I hoped so. Why else had he kept me as his personal hitter?

“Lord Vollen will be here in less than half-an-hour to ream you out for that little stunt you pulled,” the Guildmaster said. He slammed both hands down on the desk and rose to his feet. “Dammit, I even got calls from the TCV’s ghouls protesting your action. A statement does not mean lighting a damned bonfire in front of the fucking vampires’ Hall. Especially with their attitude to fire.” I rolled my eyes at that comment. That was kind of the point. Vampires have an instinctual fear of fire, mostly due to the fact that their bodies are as flammable as three-week-old dried wood that had been soaked in gasoline. I wanted the leeches afraid of letting their overzealous members go out unattended.

“You said find him, sanction him, and make it look good for the leeches. If you wanted to put some constraints on the job, then you should have laid them down when you gave it to me. It’s not like you haven’t done it with me before. Don’t get pissed off at me if I do a better job than you expected.” At this point, I could see the anger rise in him. A small wave of fear passed over me as I saw his eyes flash with a killing intent. One does not become the Guildmaster without being able to fight and kill with the best of them. The Guildmaster had proven his hunting abilities many times over. I backed down, and sat down with an emotionless mask – my signal that I would behave.

“What you did was endanger the Peace in Hillsborough. Your actions look more like a personal challenge from the lord to the TCV instead of just showing extreme disapproval. That is dangerous. I know you haven’t been paying attention to the pack politics, so let me explain this. Vollen is having a hell of a time keeping the Order of Spirits in line. They keep speaking out against the Peace in front of the pack leaders, and Lord Vollen looks weaker in the packs’ eyes because he can’t make them shut up because that damned Spiritmaster knows how to dance right up to the line of propriety and not cross it. That undermines the lord’s power in this county. If the Inner Council of the TCV decides to retaliate in kind to your little statement, Lord Vollen will have no choice but to escalate this conflict to keep the packs in line. That kind of tit-for-tat escalation can quickly lead to open warfare and the fall of the Peace.” This revelation was something new. Vollen had been in power for about eight years. I knew he’d been losing some support from the packs because of his steadfast support of the Peace while the new factions in the TCV became more hostile. However, the constant and vocal backing from the Hunters Guild ensured that Vollen’s power base was still the largest in the county. The Guild strongly supported Vollen because he saved the Guild from one of its most deadly enemies – his father. The first Lord Vollen thought he could be a Guildmaster as well as a lord, and appointed a weak Guildmaster that implemented the first Lord Vollen’s stupid decisions. There was only emphasis on results, not on the necessary ground work areas of intel gathering and coordination between the hit packs and the lone wolves. When the current Lord Vollen came to power, he appointed the current Guildmaster with the instructions to revitalize the Hillsborough chapter and have it take back its position as one of the most feared chapters in the state of Florida. The idea of open war with the vampires being so close to the surface meant that the power was being forced more over to the Order’s side. While the lord is the supreme leader of the county, there have been numerous times where either the Guildmaster or the Spiritmaster has taken covert control. If one or the other become more powerful than the aristocracy in the eyes of the packs, the lord becomes little more than a figurehead whose decrees are spoon-fed to him. The reason for this is simple; the packs follow the strongest leader, whether or not he is part of the aristocracy. The aristocracy is just better at playing the strongest and undermining their competitors. Of course, their own powers help them a great deal. I’d never dealt with such a situation, but I’d seen it in neighboring counties. It was not a good situation for the packs in those counties.

A sharp knock on the door interrupted us. The Guildmaster’s face drew into an expressionless mask.  He motioned for me to open the door. From under the desk came the mechanical snap of a safety on a gun being released. I took that as a cue, and I drew my pistol and moved to the door. Paranoia was a way of life in the Guild. All hunters remembered the lessons of the New York Gang War when a small faction of hunters betrayed the Guild and its leadership to the witch-hunters. They thought they were going to take control in the aftermath, but instead were also killed by the witch-hunters. Consequently, the leeches wrested control of New York City from the lord forcing the Prince of New York to intervene personally. It was not considered a happy time by the lycanthropes. I opened the door with an easy, fluid motion, but made sure to keep the USP at my side. Standing in the doorway was a shorter, wiry lycanthrope with a cool, detached expression on his narrow face. I recognized him as David Bonner, one of Vollen’s Red Knights, the lord’s personal bodyguards and elite warriors. The Knights were good, but they still weren’t as devious and malicious as hunters. There was an uneasy understanding between the Knights and us. They didn’t try to disarm us every time a hunter came in the lord’s presence, and we didn’t do anything that looked threatening. It generally worked, but for some reason, the Knights didn’t seem to think the agreement covered me. Badmoons were supposed to be untrustworthy, and the Knights went nearly pathological anytime I went near Lord Vollen. It was bad enough when I was just a normal hunter, but their unease intensified when the Guildmaster tapped me to become his personal hitter. Unfortunately for the Knights, Lord Vollen refused their carefully worded “requests” to have me away on jobs when the Guildmaster came to the Manor. The lord treated me as he would any other hunter that was the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. With that, Lord Vollen gained my personal respect, not just the proforma respect I gave to the aristocracy. Bonner stared at me, then at the pistol in my hand. Neither of us trusted the other with the safety of our respective bosses. The Guildmaster ended the standoff as he reset the safety on his weapon. I took the cue and holstered my pistol. I stepped back from the doorway. Bonner strode into the office and swept it with his eyes for threats. It wasn’t a casual sweep either. Relatively satisfied, Bonner took a step to the side. 

Lord Vollen stormed into the office under the watchful eyes of two more Red Knights. Those two I didn’t know, but I easily recognized their expressions. They were not happy that Lord Vollen was in the office – with me. Stephen Strongeye Swordfang, Stephen Klaus Vollen, Lord of Hillsborough County, second of the Vollen line, was an impressive sight. Standing a tad over six feet, he was well built, which showed through the tailor-fit dark charcoal suit. His stern, lantern jaw was softened with the recent addition of a beard of dark brown that matched his neatly trimmed hair. Black eyes smoldered as he regally strode into the office. The rest of the Red Knight escort team entered the room behind him and fanned out along the walls. The Guildmaster stood and bowed his head as our leader stood in front of his desk. I stayed at the door, bowing my head as custom dictated. I raised my head as Vollen’s deep voice filled the room.

“What in the Ancestors’ names are you doing here Erik? I’ve been on the phone with the Inner Council’s lackeys all morning, trying to keep this county from going to war. According to Councilman Silanti’s ghoul, the Bleeders want your hitter’s hide nailed to the outside of the Hall. Where is he?” Vollen demanded. The Guildmaster, clearly taken aback by the lord’s early arrival, silently nodded towards me as I stood ramrod straight. Vollen whirled on his heel and moved towards me. His presence wrapped around me. His eyes bored directly into mine. I’d heard of the lord’s psychic powers granted to him by the Ancestors when he was coronated, but I’d never seen them in action. From the descriptions, the lord could reduce any wolf into a blob of babbling jelly. However, I was not gripped by the overwhelming fear described to me by the others who felt Lord Vollen’s powers. I felt their icy touch in my mind, but was not chilled. Vollen stopped about two feet in front of where I was standing.

“Come forward, Badmoon,” Vollen commanded, using his unique variation of the Wolf’s Growl. Anger rose in me as I slowly walked over to face the Lord of Hillsborough.

“Do you realize the consequences of your actions, you foolish pup?” he asked. Invisible tendrils lashed against my mind. I felt the pressure, but it was like they were pushing through a cushion. I couldn’t explain it; I felt his psychic powers, but they weren’t affecting me. I didn’t feel the fear I should have felt, just anger that Vollen was questioning my actions. After all, he wasn’t a hunter. He had no idea how we were trained. He never performed a job. All he did was order us into action, and then had the audacity to question us when we did what he told us to do.

“I did my job. A job that was given to this Guild by you,” I answered, letting my anger leak out in my voice, “If the fucking leeches don’t like it, they’d better keep better control of their people.” I saw a flash of confusion in Vollen’s eyes. He didn’t understand what was happening either. I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or worse. I felt his psychic presence wash over me again, stronger than before. Again, I felt nothing other than some pressure from its presence. The pressure just stopped. Vollen may not know why he couldn’t affect me, but he was an aristocrat. He knew when to use a different tack.

“You are a fool, Badmoon. The purpose of the mission was not to bring our two races closer to war. It was to show our displeasure with the TCV’s lack of control of its younger members. Instead, we showed them the aristocracy has no more control over our own Hunters Guild than they have over one of their wayward vampires. The whole purpose of the mission was lost. Perhaps you better think that over before shooting off your mouth.” I knew my anger was going to get the better of me if I opened my mouth. I took a mental step back, just like the Guildmaster had been beating into my head for the past several years. I could see the lord’s reasoning, especially with what the Guildmaster told me earlier. Unsure of whether this was another of the lord’s psychic powers or my own logic stepping in, I decided not to continue to press the issue.

“My lord is right,” I responded in a respectful tone, hanging my head down, “I apologize, and assure my lord I will take a more cautious interpretation of my instructions.” The lord’s breathing slowed, and the smoldering in his eyes cooled slightly.

“Your apology is accepted, Badmoon,” Lord Vollen said. His head turned away from me briefly as his eldest son, Jason walked in. Jason looked like a younger version of his father. It was rumored that he shared his father’s temperament as well. In that I took confidence, as Jason was the heir-apparent and would succeed his father to become the next lord.

“Guildmaster, I have another meeting to deal with about this incident, with the Order. Confer with Badmoon, here, and make sure he understands the truth about his actions.” The Guildmaster nodded solemnly at the command. “As for you Badmoon, I don’t expect to hear anything like this from Erik again. I see promise in you, but you need to control these impulses of yours. Remember, as a member of the Guild, your actions reflect on me as well as Erik.” With that statement, Vollen strode out of the office. His Red Knights silently followed him and shut the door, almost all glowering at me. The next few moments were dominated by an overpowering silence. The Guildmaster spoke first.

“How did you do that?” he asked. I turned to face him. His face betrayed an amazement I didn’t understand.

“Do what?” I was confused by his question. Maybe the Guildmaster was surprised I actually submitted. I couldn’t understand why that would be, considering how many lectures I endured from him on the subject. Even I can learn if the lessons are beat into me enough times.

“Resist Vollen’s influence like that. I could feel his powers radiating from where I was sitting, but you didn’t seem to be affected at all.” A look of genuine wonder came on his face.

“I don’t know, although I wish I did,” I said. Maybe there was something to those stories. “Why did he tell you to make me understand?”

The Guildmaster’s face sagged upon returning to grim news, and he sighed slightly. “The winds are changing, Marcus. The Peace has held continuously for over seventy years, ever since the Great Fatherland War. Now, it’s breaking down. Not just in the Disputed Territories. Other places in America where there’s open war between lycanthropes and leeches. It’s been only in the lordships, but everyone is wondering when a state will fall into open warfare. The State Guildmaster warned us he may call all of the Guildmasters back to Tallahassee to give us orders. The ramifications of the Peace falling are tremendous.”

“So we go to war with the vampire. I’ve been hunting them since just after Initiation anyway. What’s the big deal about the Peace falling? Here, I can understand that it could cause the fall of Lord Vollen, since he’s supported the Peace so heavily, and a few of the pack leaders could translate that to his station, but truthfully, where’s the danger to the county and state at large?”

“Because you arrogant young pup, it would be the downfall of the Prince of Florida. He’s too old and passive to convene a war council and establish himself as a strong leader. He has no heir to take his place on a war council, and there are several power hungry lords that would try to take advantage of the situation. He used up all of his political capital with that damned fool mistake with not responding to the Disputed Territories. The fall of the prince could lead to a lycanthrope civil war, in addition to a war with the vampire. All of that conflict could damn well bring in the Pathwalkers, who will make Florida’s supernatural world a desert and call it balance. Next time, just fucking leave the body in an obvious place on leech territory because, if Hillsborough plunges into war, the rest of Florida will probably follow it.”

“What would you like me to do now?” I asked. The Guildmaster turned to face me. He shook his head and sat back down.

“Go back home. If I have a job for you, I’ll call you.” I stood up and left the office. I walked down the staircase back into the lower portion of the building. The secretary was hard at work and did not spare me a look as I left through the front door. I made my way through the oppressive heat and humidity to my car. I smiled as my senses picked up the myriad of smells and sounds of the late morning day. Not quite the way the world opened up when I was in true form, but stronger than what any normal human would perceive. Then I detected a familiar scent as I approached my car. Old rubber? I stopped as I tried to place where I’d smelled that before. My mind made the connection as my car exploded about twenty yards in front of me.

The shock wave picked me up and threw me into the car behind me. Pain flashed as I was slammed back. It quickly subsided as my back healed itself with the speed that my race was endowed. I stood up and looked at the burning wreckage. The smells of the burning car permeated the air. I walked toward the remains of my car as sirens screamed in the distance. They must have been close-by when the explosion erupted. The Guildmaster rushed out of the building as several county sheriff deputies roared into the parking lot. One of the deputies walked over to me as more police and fire vehicles joined on the burning mass. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember from where. It wasn’t important.

“Are you okay?” the deputy asked. I nodded absently as I stared at the twisted wreck of my car. I moved towards what was once my car until the deputy’s hand came down on my shoulder. I was not in the mood to talk to him. I whirled around, about to rip his arm off when the Guildmaster reached me. He explained to the deputy I was a private investigator for him and took over answering the deputy’s questions as I walked over to the explosion site. My first thought was the Bleeders retaliating. A look at the crater formation under the car and the blast effect told me differently. The blast appeared to have been centered somewhere near the gas tank. That was definitely not their MO. I gathered mental notes as I walked around the wreckage, ignoring the stares of the deputies and firefighters alike. After I did a quick circle, I walked back to where the Guildmaster was talking to the deputy. Apparently, the Guildmaster made arrangements because the deputy walked off as the two of us moved off to the side, watching a group of unmarked police vehicles enter the parking lot.

“It wasn’t the Bleeders, boss. The charge wasn’t their handiwork.” He merely nodded his understanding, his face showing he already figured that much out. We walked back to his car, a large black Mercedes. As he stood back, I checked the car for more explosives. There were none. He opened the driver’s side door and got in. I joined him in the front seat.

“Don’t we have to stay for the rest of the police and the medical folks?” I asked as he started the car.

“No. The deputy is kin. He’ll cover for us.” In other words, he was related to a lycanthrope and knew it. Kin were the human family members of lycanthropes. They were our contacts and infiltrators into the normal human society. It was through them we established our “shadow empire.” There would be no disturbances for us from the humans. Our kin would deal with all of the repercussions and lull humanity back away from awakening to the supernatural in its presence. The drive back to my house went silently. The Guildmaster solemnly guided the car through the highway until we turned into my suburb. His first words were as we drove into my driveway.

“Do not talk to anyone but me about what happened.” His eyes flashed with authority.

“You have an idea about who did this?” I asked as I opened the car door and smelled the air. Nothing unusual was detectable.

“Yes and no. Until I can find more out, do not speak about this to anyone, including other hunters. The human authorities will be diverted my way by our kin in their service,” he answered. I got out of the car and was about to go inside.

“What about the media?” I asked, popping my head back in the car. He pondered this for a moment.

“Direct them to the authorities, or to me. Say that you have been ordered not to talk about it. Lay low for a few days.” He put the car in reverse as I shut the door. I watched him back out into the street and drive off. I filed the Guildmaster’s instructions in my mind and went into my house. As I changed out of the suit into more normal clothes, I reviewed my short list of suspects. The Bleeders couldn’t be involved. The explosives weren’t set in their fashion. It also went off in my face, not while I was getting into the car. Bleeders kill hunters, not give them a scare. The TCV was a possibility. One of their more zealous members may have tried to off me, but I doubted that possibility. The TCV didn’t know who I was in the Guild. Definitely not enough to perform that kind of attack. I considered those on the lycanthrope side. The Hunters Guild was off the list for the same reasons as the Bleeders; they didn’t use a bomb to scare their members, they just eliminated hunters that they felt were endangering other hunters’ lives. Plus, if the Guildmaster thought I needed to be put down, he’d do it himself. As for the aristocracy, they were another unlikely suspect. Vollen’s political power requires the backing of the Hunters Guild, and killing one of our numbers, even after the incident I caused, would have angered enough hunters the Guild would withdraw their public support. Plus, the lord himself just dressed me down, which was enough for most of the pack leaders and the Order of Spirits. The Red Knights? They hated me, but they never took that kind of pre-emptive action without Vollen’s approval. I discounted the shaman because simply, a bomb was not their style. They would have made it look like I died of natural causes. I couldn’t think of another faction or individual that I pissed off enough that they would want to kill me. At least recently. Long term grudges? As I wracked my brain, the telephone sang out a specific ringtone. Well now, that was very odd.

“Yeah?” I said into the phone.

“Same place, half hour,” a raspy voice whispered. I hung the phone up as I heard the click from the other end. I checked my watch. It was just after two in the afternoon. Something strange was going on. I grabbed a leather jacket out of the foyer and walked into the garage. Under a dirty black cloth sat my latest toy. Harley- Davidson motorcycles have a formidable reputation, even amongst lycanthropes. So when I received a rather large kill bonus in my paycheck – yes, hunters are paid for their work – I decided to buy one of their Fat Boy cruisers. Wizard, the Guild’s resident techno-specialist, heard my interest and offered to sell me one he’d been working on for a rather attractive price. Never buy a motorcycle from someone whose job was the real world application of advanced technology to espionage and paramilitary matters. The only original Harley-Davidson part on the bike was the massive and loud motor. Everything was replaced with newer materials and electronics, including multi-function display gauge dials, radar and laser detector, automatic transmission, and some sort of improved muffler to tone down that distinctive throaty roar on command. Everything was either wrapped in high-impact polymers or reinforced for combat driving. For all practical purposes, it was a hunter’s dream motorcycle. The down side was that instead of an American classic, it looked like it belonged in a sci-fi movie. Wizard called the machine “Akira.”

I climbed onto the bike and started it up. As the two MFD’s lit up and the engine growled to life, I reached over to the wall and hit the button to open the garage door. A small electric motor whined to life above my head, pulling up the garage door. Pulling up the kickstand, I rolled out of the garage and down my driveway. Putting the motorcycle in gear, I raced out into the street to meet my contact. The Cuban café was nestled in one of the many aging strip malls that grace the sides of Tampa’s streets. Poppa Gus’s was a family-owned operation in business for three generations. It was started by a family of Cuban immigrants, and has been the hunters’ eating-place for the last forty years. We also like using it for clandestine meetings, like this one. I roared my bike into the parking lot and set the kickstand down. I walked to the restaurant, enjoying the heat. It was September, and soon the coolness of the dry season would be coming. I opened the door and walked in, momentarily blinded by the sudden shift of bright light to darkened room. My eyes took a brief moment to adjust to the familiar surroundings.

The matriarch of the family was standing at the greeting podium. Mama Sanchez, as her regulars called her, was an aging Spanish woman, with shoulder-length black hair, streaked with gray. She was a bit heavier than her doctors liked, but she wore the extra weight well. It added to her maternal disposition. Her wrinkles increased as she smiled when I approached the greeting podium. When I got within arm reach, she came out from behind the podium and hugged me ferociously. Mama Sanchez considered most of her regulars like family, which included most of the Hunters Guild. That meant that Mama Sanchez was one of the safest women in Tampa. We are very protective of those we consider our own.

Hola, Mr. Mark,” she greeted in her heavily-accented English, “Mr. Bradon called ahead. We have your table set up.” With that, Mama Sanchez led me through the cramped dining area to a corner table. I ordered a glass of iced tea while I waited for one of Bradon’s flunkies. I knew Bradon wouldn’t be meeting me today. It was almost three o’clock in the afternoon, and Bradon was a vampire.

During the centuries of fighting between lycanthropes and vampires, there have always been informal contacts between the vampire and lycanthrope leaderships. Until the Peace, the aristocracy kept informal channels with their counterparts in the vampire councils. Since the Peace formalized diplomacy, hunters and Bleeders maintained contacts in each other’s organizations. Although not officially approved, these contacts are important for the maintenance of the Peace. After all, who better to work the back channel than the best of spies? I met Bradon during a hit job at a party hosted by the TCV for a visiting Turaki noble.  Ancestors, I hate those little aliens. Bradon made me for a hunter almost immediately, figured out my target, and pointed me in the right direction. He even helped me escape quietly after I bagged my target. I discovered later that my target was his political rival, and using a hunter to take out the rival earned Bradon a lot of respect in the Inner Council of the TCV. Since that night, we’ve been semi-friendly acquaintances and contacts. Mama Sanchez came over to check on me, and brought me another glass of iced tea. I thanked her and leaned back in my chair, sipping the cool drink.

The sound of the door opening caught my attention. I looked towards the entrance. A rather statuesque young woman walked in with that unique high-class sway. Bradon always had a penchant for “recruiting” those from the upper crust of society. Mama Sanchez greeted her. I could have picked out their voices over the low din of the other customers, but I was relaxed and there wasn’t any real reason to eavesdrop. Bradon’s ghoul wasn’t going to tell Mama Sanchez anything. Mama Sanchez led Bradon’s ghoul over to my table with a pleasantly neutral face. To those who knew the matriarch, that faced screamed how much the older woman despised the ghoul. As they came closer, I examined my lunch date. Tall for a woman, almost six feet, with long, tanned legs showing under a short business suit. The cream colored cloth set off her brown eyes. Long blond hair stylishly flowed down onto her back. I stood up as she approached my table, at least pretending to be polite. I shook the offered hand. She introduced herself as Rachael Bradon in a confident alto. We both sat down, cautiously smiling at one another. Mama Sanchez collected our orders. I decided on the chicken and yellow rice, while Ms. Bradon ordered a salad. She took a sip of the glass of water in front of her as I waited for her to start.

“Surprised?” she asked as she sat the water glass back down on the table.

“That Bradon knows something? No. That he contacted me this fast? Yes,” I answered. One of the rules was that Bradon and I always told the truth to each other. I extended that to his minions as a courtesy.

“Philip decided that this meeting was rather time-sensitive,” Rachael said.

“Really? I wouldn’t have thought Bradon was aware of time during the day,” I answered glibly. I’d never met this ghoul before, and the jibe was to see how close she was to Bradon,

“He has his methods,” she replied coolly. Her eyes gave me an evil stare as I took a sip of my tea. Ghouls were always zealously loyal to their masters. Some might compare it to the fanaticism of a witch-hunter. Bradon trained his ghouls to tone down that zealotry so they could operate in our murky part of the unseen world. From the barely contained fury in Rachael’s eyes, she was a newer recruit.

“Okay, what does Bradon have for me today?” I asked, getting down to business.

“We heard you had some ‘car trouble’ today. We know who didn’t do it,” she began. Her head came up as Mama Sanchez brought out our food. We thanked her for her quick service and waited for her to get out of earshot. Mama was used to conversations stopping around her. Dealing with the Guild for pretty much all of her life, Mama Sanchez almost expected covert conversation. Of course, she thought we were all spies to overthrow the Cuban government.

“So what about my ‘car trouble?'” I asked, returning to the business at hand.

“The Bleeders were not involved.”

“Thanks, but I already figured that out. Too amateurish to be a Bleeder hit. And how the hell did you know about it so fast?”

“Did you think any incident with your name isn’t immediately sent to Philip? The minute the report hit the police network, we knew. Not only was it not Bleeders, but it wasn’t the work of any vampire.” Her eyes held a look of what could be called triumph or victory. What the hell did she think she was victorious about?

“Oh really.  How does Bradon know that?” I asked.

“The explosion was a result of a timed thermite charge near your fuel tank. No vampire uses that,” she stated. I smiled at her stern face. Of course no vampire would use it. Thermite is an incendiary explosive that burns at two thousand degrees and can cause certain metals to catch on fire. And vampires are deathly afraid of fire. It’s a natural phobia for creatures that are easily immolated. The slight chance of an accident ensured thermite was almost never used by the leeches.

“How did you know what the bomb was made of?” I asked. She smiled in answer. I knew the truth, of course. Just as the lycanthropes had its kin, the vampires had their ghouls. Ghouls were creatures that drank the black vampire blood. It granted them a mind-meld with their master, along with enhanced strength and healing. Although not as strong as the truly supernatural, their ability to hide in the corners of the human world made the ghouls a force to be dealt with. Some of them were liable to be part of the police force. An explosion would have been important enough to report to the TCV and the Bleeders. I still wondered how Bradon got that information so damned fast. I would have to ask Bradon at our next face-to-face. Assuming he was willing to reveal his tricks.

“Do you have any idea as to who did set that thing off?” I asked, probing my food. She shook her head slightly. We ate in silence for the next twenty minutes. I couldn’t read her expressions, but my mind was racing. She was right. No vampire would use that kind of bomb. What was worse, that type of package was not an amateur job as I had implied. Whoever did set that thing in my car was a professional who made a mistake. Amateurs don’t use thermite.

“Philip also has one other bit of information to give to you,” she said, as we were picking at the last remains of our food.

“Oh, what?” I asked, interested. Bradon was stingy with information, but it was always good information.

“This one is a trade. We need the name of the werewolf that lit the fire in front of the Hall.” I almost started to laugh, but caught myself when I saw her tight-lipped expression. She was serious. This meeting was starting to get very interesting.

“Bradon doesn’t know who did it?” I asked, with barely suppressed amusement. I was worried she could see the smile I was trying hard to hide. If she did, though, she didn’t say anything. It was nice to see my work was being appreciated. Even though both Lord Vollen and the Guildmaster dressed me down for it, I was happy that my statement gathered interest in the vampire community.

“Philip knows it was a hunter, but not which hunter. The TCV is asking him to find out. Your Vollen has been extremely protective of him for some reason.”

“Lord Vollen. Always refer to him as Lord Vollen,” I told her with a dangerously serious tone, “And what if I give you this little bit of data? Do you know what is going to be done?”

“No, but I think the Bleeders want to have a ‘talk’ with him.” I nodded my head at that comment. If the Bleeders wanted me, then they probably accepted Vollen’s explanation of the event. They just wanted some retribution. Of course, the idea of having the Bleeders “talk” with me wasn’t very appealing. I respected their capabilities enough. On the other hand, I was pretty sure Bradon wasn’t going to burn me for last night’s fun and games. I pulled a paper napkin off of the table next to us. I wrote down my name and folded it over. I slid the folded napkin to her. She began to pick it up. I grasped her hand.

“Here’s the deal; you tell me your information. I’ll pay for lunch and walk on out of here. When I am out the door, you can open that and read the name. Take it or leave it.” I stared directly into her eyes. I could see the frustration rise.

“Why don’t you let me read it now?” she asked, angrily. I half-smiled at her. She hadn’t been expecting any trouble on this. Ghouls always seemed to have trouble with the unexpected.

“What does it matter? Call it a condition of the trade. You’ll still get the name of the hunter. Although I doubt that you will want to talk to him.”

“Alright. Deal,” she muttered. I had no doubts she wished she had the strength of her master right now, so she could rip me to shreds. I also had no doubts that if this bitch tried to double cross me in any way, I would rip her to shreds. “Okay here’s the information. Something has the hierarchy of the Order of Spirits in an uproar. None of the lower members or their political supporters know what it is. Philip thinks it has something to do with Vollen, but whatever it is, the shamans have been all over the county looking at old records.” Strange, but I was pretty sure the Guildmaster would better understand it.

I thanked her for lunch and stood up from the table. I looked at the bill. I left a couple of twenties on the table, which covered lunch and a healthy tip for Mama Sanchez. I walked through the door and stopped for a moment as the heat of the afternoon enveloped me. The cool, air-conditioned, environment faded as I walked to my motorcycle. As the engine revved up, I heard the door to the cafe open. Rachael ran out of the cafe, looking intently at me. I smiled and sped out of the parking lot and into the traffic. I had things to do.

I roared into my garage and cut the bike off. Without bothering to put its cover on, I closed the garage door and walked into my townhouse. I picked up the phone as I walked into the kitchen. I dialed the Guildmaster’s phone number. “Carrollwood Business Associates, may I help you?” asked the secretary.

“Mr. Werstand, please, it’s urgent,” I answered gruffly.

“Mr. Werstand is unavailable right now. May I take a message?” she asked pleasantly.

“Where is he?” I asked. He didn’t say anything about going anywhere in case I needed to contact him. But, with the explosion right outside his office, I wondered if the aristocracy or a human agency had called him off.

“He’s in a meeting right now, may I take a message, sir?” she asked again. Her voice became more commanding.

“Patch me through right now,” I ordered, using the Wolf Growl. The Wolf Growl is similar to the vampire’s rhythmic charm voice, but it uses fear instead of pleasantry. Some of our more radical scholars have called it flip sides of the same coin. The shaman almost crucified some of the more vocal proponents of that particular theory.

“Yes sir,” she said quickly as the line clicked up to the Guildmaster’s office. Humans are so malleable sometimes.

“I said I did not want to be disturbed!” yelled a voice into the phone. Oh, he was very pissed.

“Sorry boss, but it’s important,” I said calmly. I could hear him slow his breathing down, trying hard not to scream at me.

“Marcus, I am talking to some very important people right now. Can you call me back later?” he asked, using his I-am-trying-to-be-patient-with-you-asshole voice. It was a tone that I heard often enough.

“Hot tip. Something’s really up with the Order. Something that really has a tick up their ass. Call me back if you want more. Bye.” I hung up the phone. I walked out of the kitchen and into the living room. Lying out on the couch, I picked up the remote control for the television. I flicked through the television channels until I passed out.

Chapter 2: I Always Call Him Nick

Badmoon Rising – Prologue: Why I Hate Camping

01 May
May 1, 2008

For the pups of the pack, this was tysach, the time of learning between the Rites of Discovery and Initiation. Tradition decreed that the pups needed to be secluded from the packs during tysach. It was the time for them to learn our traditions as well as the skills they would need in order to survive in our world in an environment away from the politics of the packs. Tradition also said that the three other lycanthropes and I standing guard should not have be there. Necessity changed that part of the tradition. During this seclusion from the packs, the pups and one of the pack’s elder members of the Order of Spirits, or shaman as they were more commonly known, were to come together to learn how to survive the dangers in our world while camouflaging within the human, and indoctrinate the pups into the ways of the packs through the telling the great stories and legends of the Ancestors. The shaman would use their mystical powers from the Ancestors to create small pictures of the past from the flames of the campfire to help in their teaching. The flames were dying down as one of the shamans was finishing another tale to his pupils.

The black, starless sky domed over the campsite, a clearing in the middle of a mangrove marsh on the north end of Old Tampa Bay. The humidity, so common in Florida, made an already hot summer evening into a sweltering one. Sweat laced my pelt. Drops fell from my brow and muzzle. Senses made acute by the supernatural forces that created my race, smelled the salt in the perspiration, and the texture of the sweat as it rolled between the hairs of my pelt. I shifted my weight from one leg to the other and chided myself for even the silent complaining. The pups and the shaman were much worse with the added heat of the fire.  I glanced behind me, watching the orange flames peek out of the pit. I shook my head and went back to my post. This was a good group of pups. The older ones were helping the newer pups. That was always a good sign. It meant fewer deaths. My eyes scanned the tree line. The enemy could blend itself into the darkness, but the darkness was not so black and concealing to my eyes. I knew how to use the full extent of my abilities to find the enemy and destroy it. The enemy wasn’t there, only the small scrub animals were rustling about in the night. I crept back toward my gear bag several feet behind my post. I was careful to move silently, so as to not disturb the pups and their shaman mentor. As I came up on my gear bag, the murmur of voices from the camp floated toward me. The first voice that became understandable came from one of the pups that came into tysach in the last Rite of Discovery.

“Sir, why do we fight the leeches?” the pup asked the shaman. I glanced back at the camp, watching the old lycanthrope prepare for his answer. A grin appeared on the scarred muzzle, the snow-white whiskers ruffling ever so slightly in anticipation. This was probably the most important story in our known history. The members of the Order of Spirits loved telling it, and for the most part, lycanthropes loved hearing it. The shaman’s clawed hands pushed the loose cloth of his black robes up his thin arms as he mystically urged the fire to rise up out of the pit and accompany his words. The first image to arise out of the flames was a globe, slowly rotating. Before the shaman started, the globe’s rotation slowed over the Fatherland and the image zoomed into the territories.

“The war between the leeches and the packs began hundreds of years ago, in the Fatherland, what the humans call Central Europe. As the packs expanded our territories, the kings of the Fatherland placed control of large swaths of territory under their sons, the princes. The princes, in turn, placed sections of their princedoms into the hands of their sons and sons-in-law, the lords.” The fiery image shifted as the Fatherland split up into the first princeships and further into the first lordships. The maps dissolved into the peaceful images of different packs roaming through the Fatherland and blending in with the humans. The next part of the story began.

“During the times the humans call the middle ages, the lycanthropes flourished under King Joseph Strongclaw. Until humans began to mysteriously disappear. At first the numbers were small, and nothing unusual was noticed. This was the time the Black Death was making its way across the Fatherland, and many humans were dying. The humans quickly realized that this was something new. Humans dying of sickness was understandable. Humans just disappearing into thin air was terrifying. Things began to deteriorate rapidly. Fighting over the remaining humans broke out between lords. Soon the princes were drawn into the fighting. The fighting grew to a civil war between the lycanthropes of the Fatherland. Packs that had been friendly with each other for generations were now attacking and actually killing each other.” The packs in the fire changed from scenes of peace to evil scenes of lycanthropes striking each other down with fangs and claws. The repulsive images of such infighting gratefully melted away as a fiery image of a lycanthrope in true form emerged.

“King Joseph, seeing the packs fall into the chaos, turned to his mystic – as the shamans were called during that time – for help. The mystic prayed to the Ancestors for days. According to the mystic’s writings, a raven came to him. Although the raven still chirped in its normal voice, the mystic could understand him. The black bird told the mystic that all the mystics in the Fatherland must come together at one of the great cravexes, or mystic places, and pray to the Ancestors. ‘During this time, answers will reveal themselves,’ the raven sang to the mystic. This stunned the mystic. He raced to the king and related what the raven told him. Deciding that the Ancestors made themselves known in strange ways, King Joseph commanded that all the mystics in the Fatherland to travel to the Russian city of St. Petersburg, where the largest cravex was located, to convene and pray to the Ancestors.

“The princes were so full of hatred and blood-lust that they convinced themselves that the king was siding with one of the others. In addition to the mystics, each prince sent a group of their warriors to prevent such an alliance. The mystics, contacting each other through their powers, concluded that a bloodbath would ensue at St. Petersburg if the warriors came to the city. To preserve their holy mission, the mystics met secretly at Vrasick, a small village about fifty miles south of St. Petersburg. There the mystics decided that the princes would not listen to any revelations while they were fighting amongst themselves. It was decided then that only the Great Rite would provide the answers. That, my pups, was the founding night of the Order of Spirits.” The shaman paused from his oratory to take a sip of his canteen as the images faded back into the fire. The newer pups seemed disappointed. One of the braver – or more foolish – decided to speak up.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything? We asked about the leeches, not the damned Order!” the pup demanded. Anger flashed in the eyes of the shaman and the fire shot up in a spire some ten feet high. The offending pup crumpled to the ground, his hands clamped to his throat.

“I was not finished fool. Be quiet, lest I seal your throat permanently.” A cough rose from the stricken pup, followed by several gasps for air, signaling that he survived the shaman’s punishment. I remembered one of my “classmates” not being so lucky. Tysach was a brutal time for the pups. It needed to be. The world beyond the relative safety of tysach was even more brutal, and very deadly to an uninitiated lycanthrope. The actions of the shaman were not a petty display of power against an insolent pup, but an important lesson for all of the pups. A lesson the older pups had seen before and hopefully would hammer into the younger ones before one of them died. Do not challenge someone more powerful than you. The fire spire died and a depiction of a forest clearing emerged in the flames. The shaman continued his story, “The Great Rite is a very powerful rite. It summons the First Ancestor, the lycanthrope who led our people out of our forgotten Motherland and into the Fatherland. It is almost never done, because to come into the physical world the spirit of the First Ancestor must consume lycanthrope flesh. It was decided by the newly founded Order that their accompanying warriors would be the sacrifice. A fitting use for their worthless pelts.” The shaman grinned maliciously, the institutional memory remembering the cruel joke of the shaman. Personally, I never found the humor in it. Still, I never understood most of what passes for humor among the shaman.

“The Rite engulfed St. Petersburg in colors only the spirits have words to describe. The First Ancestor came down and laid waste to the cravex, killing most of the lycanthropes inside. Only a few mystics survived to make their way back to the king with the message that the First Ancestor bestowed upon them before destroying everything in sight. ‘Soon, the Blood Moon shall rise. On that night, the lycanthropes must go forth into the human cities and slaughter one third of the populace as offering to me. For this gift of blood and flesh, the answers will come forth. Prepare yourselves, my children. ENEMIES!’” With this ending sentence, the flames in front of the shaman roared into the sky once again. A hole opened in the flames. Wisps of fire danced in and around the hole, and within it, a picture appeared. Not the pictures of flame that had accompanied the telling of the story, but a clear image was fading into the hole. A forest appeared and I saw the wolf.

The wolf reached down and retrieved the sword from the ground. Its previous human owner was face down in a pool of his own blood. The human was foolish, trying to kill a lycanthrope with a steel sword instead of a silver one. Well, the human paid for his foolishness with his life. The wolf grinned inwardly at the memory of the sound of tearing of flesh and escaping air as he ripped this foolish human’s throat out. The wolf balanced the sword in his clawed hand. The red moonlight reflected into the wolf’s eyes. The cold steel sliced through the cool night air smoothly. It was definitely a prize. He remembered one of the older members of his pack teaching him a few sword-fighting techniques. Humans may not have our claws and our fangs, but their minds make such useful replacements, the warrior told the young wolf after the exhausting session. The young wolf’s series of practice thrusts and parries were interrupted by the silent emergence of the twenty lycanthropes that constituted the rest of his pack’s warriors from the forest. His pack leader came to him and laid his hand on the young wolf’s shoulder. He smiled down at the young wolf. The pack leader was proud of the young warrior’s demonstrated skill in tracking and dispatching of the human.

The leader motioned for his warriors to leave the dirt road and creep back into the forest. They were needed at the cravex where the rest of the packs would meet with the lord. As the pack silently moved through the underbrush, the leader quickly reflected on the young wolf’s fight with the human. The wolf showed the instincts of a proven warrior during that fight. Instincts like that were too good to be wasted on the traditional position of young wolves in the pack. The young wolf, the leader decided, would take the lead position. Some of the older wolves in the pack would object, but they were not going to do anything more than grumble. More than one learned the hard way what happens to those who disobeyed the orders of the pack leader. The war brought on such harsh measures. As the pack entered the cravex, a rise above the largest human village in the lordship, the leader pulled the young wolf aside and told him of his decision. The young wolf’s eyes lit up with pride and glee. Only the solemn attitude of the cravex prevented the wolf from howling with joy into the night. He joined the rest of the pack in their portion of the cravex, called their entre, while the pack leader met with the lord and the other pack leaders.

As the other pack members swapped war stories and small talismans, the young wolf glanced back to where the lord and the pack leaders were meeting in the center of the cravex. The lord’s mystic created a small replica of the village out of the flames of the fire. The lord was telling his pack leaders how each pack was to go through the village. Unfortunately, the young wolf was too far away to hear anything than a low murmur from the meeting. Slightly disappointed, the wolf turned his head back to his packmates and listened to the oldest warrior talking about a battle with the packs of one of the northern lords.

The pack leader rejoined his pack warriors in the entre and told them that they were going to be the first group to attack the village. The pack would attack by going north through the forest that lay next to the main road. When the forest stopped, the pack would then launch a fast and savage attack on the village. The other packs would be hitting the village soon after from other directions.  The pack leader gave each warrior a position and reminded them of the responsibility that the position entailed. He confirmed what he had told the young wolf earlier by naming him to the point position. As expected, a few heads turned a that announcement, but their faces fell back to neutrality and fell back into line as the leader glared at each of them.

The pack warriors stood up as one and turned to face their lord who had taken his traditional place in the center of the cravex. Instead of the expected rousing speech, the lord simply told his packs, “The First Ancestor has given us a mission, a crusade as the humans would call it. We will do it. Kill every third human you see and any that dare get in our way. No mercy.” With that, the lord drew his ancient silver sword from the scabbard at his side, the odd Roman lettering etched into the blade glittering in the red moonlight. He pointed towards the village. The warriors in the cravex melted silently into the tree line with their lord’s silent command.

The pack moved silently through the forest, staying near the edges of the dirt road. After about an hour of careful movement the pack approached the dark town. The young wolf smelled the dank and musty odors of the village long before he saw the first few buildings on the horizon. He signaled the pack that the village was in sight.  The pack slowed and then stopped as the forest died away, a few hundred feet short of the village. The pack leader wanted to make sure there were no surprises waiting for them, so he moved up next to the young wolf. Although only a few torches were outside of the wood buildings, the two wolves’ eyes easily picked out the few humans that were walking about in the night. Some of them were gazing up at the red Blood Moon in amazement and fear. The young wolf grinned at his pack leader. A low growling signal from his pack leader launched the young wolf into a racing attack. Speeding on his hind legs, the young wolf closed the distance in a matter of seconds.

The first to fall to the young wolf’s blazing attack was a young female. Her heart was split open when the wolf thrust his sword through her chest. The blood gushed out of the human’s chest and onto the wolf’s arms. A group of five men saw the attack from across the dirt street and attacked the wolf with pitchforks as the body of the young woman slid off of his blade and crumpled to the ground. The wolf launched himself into the air. One of the village men was decapitated as the wolf landed amidst the group. Another, recovering quickly from shock at the wolf’s speed, charged  with his pitchfork. The wolf sidestepped the attack and grabbed the man’s throat with his claws. A quick yank tore through the man. The wolf heard the man fall into the soft dirt behind him. He threw the flesh and gore that had been the human’s throat down with slight disgust. The sound of gurgling came from behind him. The wolf whirled to face the other three to find them cut down by the pack leader and another member of his pack. A short bark from his leader reminded the young wolf of his mission. The pack leader shook his head slightly at the wolf in anger. The young wolf made his first mistake of the mission, and the pack leader hoped it would be his last.

The pack continued up the dirt street. They mercilessly raided the houses and shops that stood alongside it. Screams of fear and pain from the humans became commonplace, as did the red blood on the claws, fangs, and scattered weapons of the wolves. The few humans who attempted to resist the pack’s carnage were immediately slaughtered. At the north end of the village, the pack came upon a small house that almost stood by itself, away from the other buildings. No light came from inside, making the whole house darker. The smell of death and blood drifted out to where the pack gathered in front. The wolf read his leader’s expression. They were the only lycanthropes in this part of the village. Why were these smells coming from this house? The leader ordered his pack to stay in front of the house while he investigated. A few of the pack looked as they were going to object, but the leader’s scowl made them reconsider. The pack leader leapt over the log fence that surrounded the house and quickly moved up to the front of the house, using the darkness and shadows to cover his movement from anyone inside the house.

With a swift kick, the leader broke down the door and entered the darkened house as the pack watched. The pack members were already using the time to rest from their night of killing. A short moment later, the pack leader’s piercing howl of pain startled the pack. The young wolf was the first to respond. He jumped over the log fence and made a direct run for the doorway of the house. Leaping through the darkened doorway, the young wolf’s eyes turned the darkness into visibility. What he saw stopped him dead in his tracks. The pack leader was on the floor in a crumpled heap, a bloody stump where his right arm should have been. Lying next to him were two broken human bodies. Standing above them were two creatures the likes of which the young wolf had never seen before.

Both of the creatures were well above seven feet high, fully covered in matty, brown fur. Both had flat faces, accented with mouths full of sharp teeth and particularly long fangs. The hands and feet looked human, except for the sharp claws ending each digit. Under each arm was a flap of what looked like the leather. They smelled musky, like a rat or a mouse, but mixed with the familiar scent of blood. As the wolf stared in shock at these two monstrosities, the larger one leapt at him. Awakening to the attack, the wolf jumped to the side. He swung his sword as the brown-black thing flew past him. The wolf was ecstatic as he felt the sword bite into the creature’s side and slice through it. He landed a few yards away and turned toward the howling creature. The wolf’s eyes went wide as the deep gash made by the sword sealed itself quickly.

Ancestors, these creatures could heal themselves like lycanthropes! the young wolf thought. The creature again took advantage of the wolf’s surprise to launch another attack. This time the young wolf wasn’t fast enough to protect himself from the attack. The wolf’s body flashed in pain as the creature’s clawed fist picked him up off the floor and threw him against the far wall. As the wolf slowly picked himself up from the floor, he felt the hot, sticky flow of blood spread across his chest. He waited momentarily allowing his body to quickly recuperate from the attack, like the wolf’s pack members had taught him. Although his back healed at the supernatural rate with which he was accustomed, the gashes on his chest stayed open, releasing more of the wolf’s blood onto his body and the wood floor. His head began to swim slightly as the creature charged him yet again. The wolf barely managed to throw up his arm to defend himself from the vicious blow. He howled as his arm cracked under the strike and the claws bit deep into his flesh.

The intense pain of the strike cleared the haze from the young wolf’s head and threw him back into the fight. Finding a reserve of strength, the wolf attacked. His uninjured arm shot out into the creature’s stomach. His claws pierced the skin and sunk deep into the creature’s innards. Satisfied that they were going as deep as possible, the wolf yanked his arm upward, slicing open large sections of the creature’s front. The creature stumbled back, grasping its stomach, trying desperately to keep its entrails inside of it, and howling in pain. Thick, black fluid oozed between its fingers. It seemed an eternity before the creature gave a final cry and slumped to the floor. Black fluid leaked from the body out onto the floor. The wolf rose to his feet, the wounds on his chest punishing him for every inch that he moved. He began to slowly stagger toward the other creature. Smiling at the young wolf, it turned away from him and ran for the window. The wolf stood transfixed as it transformed into a bat and smashed through the glass.

A shot of pain from his chest awoke him from his shock. The wolf stumbled over to his pack leader. The older lycanthrope was dead. The creatures not only cut off his arm, but they also removed his heart. Silently mourning, the wolf grabbed the leader’s remaining arm and dragged his body outside, ignoring his own pain. There he saw his pack engaged in a fight with several more of the bizarre creatures. Anger made the pain of his wounds and grief over his pack leader’s death melt away. He gripped at his side. The sword wasn’t there, having been knocked away from him during the fight with the strange creature. The wolf bent down and grabbed the leader’s silver dagger, given to the leader by the King himself. Armed now, he turned and joined his packmates in the fray.

The picture suddenly vanished and the flames died down. The shaman began his oratory again, finishing the story.

“Encounters like what you have seen happened all over the Fatherland. From what we have learned since, the leeches saw the Blood Moon and smelled the blood of the slaughtered humans. They followed their hunger for the blood into the villages and towns where the lycanthrope packs were carrying out their sacred mission. The two races clashed for the first time.  As it turned out, the Blood Moon fulfilled its name. Many lycanthropes and vampires died during that first night. Many packs were completely destroyed by the leeches. However, the fight and the shock of a new enemy in their midst united the princes and lords behind their king. From the ensuing wars between our two races, we learned the leeches’ true nature as supernatural creatures – and their weaknesses. With that knowledge, we learned to kill the vampires. We even created a special group of lycanthropes that specialize in the extermination of the vampires. You may have heard of the hunters from your packs already. Our guards here at this campsite are hunters. These are highly trained vampire-killers, much as my brethren and I in the Order are skilled in the use of the magicks.”

I turned back toward my post as the shaman continued. His mention of the hunters reminded me of my job. I cursed at myself for lapsing, even for a moment. To hunters, when a job is given, it becomes the most important part of our lives. We live – and die – to complete the jobs that the aristocracy hands down to us. The top cardinal sin of the hunters is to fail the job, especially because of carelessness or incompetence. I quickly looked around, relieved because there were no leeches around, and more so, because none of the other hunters around the marsh noticed my lapse.

In the structure of lycanthrope society, the hunters belong to the Hunters Guild. In the Kingdom of the United States, the Guild has chapters at the national, state, and county levels. Like the Order of Spirits, we are outside the packs, sworn to the aristocracy. The Guild takes pups from all over the nation that have shown promise during tysach and sends them to a preliminary training camp. Those who don’t die during the preliminary training are then taken for extensive training in a secluded camp. Not even the King of the United States knows where it is, although past kings have tried to find out. The end result of it is a lean mass of lycanthrope that is dedicated to the eradication of the vampire.

Which was why the other hunters and I were in the swamp. The vampires in Florida recently began trying to take out our pups in tysach. Of course, the vampire councils blamed the attacks on rogue vampires coming up out of the open war between the vampires and the lycanthropes that in the Disputed Territories in southern Florida. Neither side wanted that to spread across the state, and there was never enough evidence to point to one of the councils. Still, since the lycanthropes were currently the dominant power in the state, Guild intelligence believed the vampires wanted to change the equation in their normal slow and long-term style. So, the Hunters Guild decided to provide protection for the pups in tysach. A job, as the missions are called in-house, we were more than happy to fulfill. Pups are one of the most sacred parts of our society, and we take any threats to them with the deadly seriousness that any mother would have for her child.  This explained what I was doing in the middle of a lost campground, armed with a stubby Colt Commando carbine, and, strangely for me, hoping to avoid combat tonight. I didn’t think these pups would know what to do if an attack came, and hunters do not trust the magicks of the shaman. Okay, that was an institutional bias due to the political infighting between the shaman and the hunters. I knew that it had no actual grounds. Especially considering the number of times that the Order and the Guild cooperated to deal with various threats that the vampire and others brought to the packs. That didn’t stop me from feeling wary of the old shaman’s powers.

As I returned to my original position, I noticed a small flock of birds settle into a nearby tree. My instincts roared warnings. Something was wrong with this flock.  I could feel it, almost taste it. The wind blew across my face. Now, I was sure. I put the butt of the carbine to my shoulder, flipping the selector switch from SAFE to AUTO. I was going to have to hose the entire tree, which wasn’t going to be easy with only a thirty-round magazines. However, luck was in my favor. The leeches hiding in the treemust have no longer felt safe in the tree, because they launched themselves at me, shedding their bat form for true form.

The campsite exploded in sound as I emptied the magazine of my Commando into the lead vampire. Thirty silver bullets slammed into the vampire’s head and torso. It looked like the leech stopped in midair as the impact of the burst forced it backward. The body made a soft thump into the mud below as it fell from the air. Its two companions landed in front of me about thirty feet away. Both stood in true form, a strange mix of bat and human. I didn’t feel I had time to switch magazines in the Commando, so I dropped it and opted for my Glock 17.

One of the damned things decided not to let me get my pistol. The leech launched at me with surprising speed. It tackled me just as I got my pistol out of its holster, crossing the distance between us in a second. I heard my Glock land in the mud as my attacker and I sailed through the air. The soft, muddy ground cushioned me slightly as the vampire plowed me into the ground. My attacker kneeled above me, his white claws gleaming in the moonlight. This action told me a good deal about my attacker. First, it wasn’t a Bleeder – the vampire counterpart to Hunters Guild. They have an older, more Gothic name, but only a handful of the modern Bleeders remember it. They did keep some of the traditions from the original Bleeders, one of which was painting their claws a matte black or blue color. So now I knew that my opponent, whose claws were unpainted, was probably some lowlife vampire trying to make a good impression with the Tampa Council. Second, the way its claws glinted in the moonlight telegraphed its next attack. Hunters are extremely proficient in the lycanthropes’ variation of akijitsu for just this sort of occasion when our normal weapons of choice – guns and knives – were unavailable. I waited as the vampire thrust its claws at me. I grasped its arm at the last second, and forced it into the ground next to me. While it was momentarily off balance, I shot my other arm up into its throat. I was rewarded with a scream as it tried to jump back to avoid my counterstrike. Unfortunately for the leech, I still held its arm firmly in the ground – and I was much stronger in my true form than it was. There was a sickening, popping noise as its shoulder dislocated. The leech fell to the ground as I rolled away. I scrambled to my feet and faced the leech. As it tried to get up, I attacked savagely. Both of my arms reached out and cut out the front of its neck. The black fluid that had once been human blood coated my claws.

I felt claws rip into my back. I somersaulted forward, silently berating myself for forgetting the other leech. That and not wearing my Kevlar vest because it was going to be too hot. Sometimes I’m a fucking idiot. My back burned as the salt-laden marsh mud ground into the open wounds. I tried to face it, but this leech was smart enough to press the attack. A blow to my left side forced me back into the mud. I felt my right arm crack as I landed on my side. Unlike the claw cuts on my back, the broken arm reset itself and healed right away with the supernatural speed I was accustomed to. Then, the leech did something foolish.

Instead of continuing to press the attack, it stood to its full height and cackled. I almost smiled. Fucking amateurs. I straightened my right arm out along the ground. In one fluid motion, my left hand reached to my right shoulder and flung the small silver throwing knife into the leech’s chest. It howled as I scampered up to my feet. My right hand hit something as I stood up. My Glock. I greedily snatched the pistol off the ground and leveled the muzzle at the vampire, who was too preoccupied with removing the knife protruding from its chest too notice. I half-grinned at the leech’s pain. Silver wounds burn like hell; I know from experience. I also know from experience not to lose track of what your opponent is doing, such as when this bastard caught me off guard. Oh well, its mistake. I squeezed the trigger and the pistol roared five times. The leech crumpled to the ground.

By this time, the other hunters, the shaman, and the pups came into the area. To me, the battle felt like it lasted for a half-hour. Really, it lasted only about forty-five seconds. As the other hunters sorted out the scene, one of them inspected my wounds for a moment, and then pulled out his medicinal pack. He treated my back with an herbal mixture that enhanced the healing of archanal wounds, or supernatural wounds that can’t be healed as fast as normal ones. I tried to calm down, ejecting the magazine out of my pistol and inserting a fresh one.

“Jeez Ranger, when you get sliced up, you don’t fuck around!” he said. I turned to face him, remembering at the last second that he was still green. He joined the Guild only a few months ago.

“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, Christian,” I murmured as I gritted back the burning pain of the herbal cleansing solution. Wolfsbane was good for a lot of things, but it burned with an intensity that I was almost willing to risk infection instead of treating my wounds with it. Trying to block out the pain, I looked out at the recent battlefield. The pups were probing the bodies of the three vampires.

“Bleeders come to take our young!” declared the shaman dramatically. The other hunters and I rolled our eyes at that comment. Shamans were always trying to rouse the packs against the vampire, even when there were no packs to rouse. The Order of Spirits hated the Peace since its inception. They claim because the Peace reeks of apostasy against the Ancestors. A lot of lycanthropes suspect the Order opposes it for more political reasons. When the Peace came into effect, the Hunters Guild was elevated from just above common pack warriors to the equal of the Order. After all, if your warriors can’t openly fight the leeches, then the assassins and spies that do it quietly become more valuable. Because of this, over the years, the Hunters Guild has become more politically involved. Many Guildmasters have skillfully manipulated themselves into becoming the power behind the throne. Positions that the Order of Spirits previously dominated.

“Not Bleeders. Just some amateur leeches. The TCV probably ‘suggested’ that they should see if they could find some young pelts to prove themselves.” I needed to make this point clear in front of the pups. They may be secluded during tysach, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some messages back to the packs. If the Bleeders were responsible for the attack on the pups, the packs would consider it a personal challenge to my Guildmaster from the leader of the Bleeders. The Bleeders knew hunters guarded the pups and to try us on our most sacred job was such an insult that retaliation would have to be swift, violent, and very well ending whatever support for the Peace the Guild held.

“Are you sure?” asked the shaman, “After all, they did attack us in a place we that is secret.” His eyes held mine as the contest waged. I hated this political infighting, but I was damned if I was going to lose to a fucking shaman. I walked over to the leech bodies, still holding his gaze. Grasping the nearest’s wrists, I raised the hands so that the white claws gleamed in the moonlight.

“Bleeders paint their claws so they don’t reflect light. Besides, Bleeders are smart enough not to land upwind of a hunter. Furthermore, if this spot was totally secure, me and the others would not be here doing guard work. I know. This is my job.” I raised my voice during the last sentence, challenging the shaman to continue. I noticed the other hunters and the pups backing up. Hunters are the best fighters around. Shaman, however, can manipulate the mystic forces of the Ancestors. Fights between members of the Hunters Guild and the Order of Spirits are always nasty. Most of the time, it was whoever struck first. This shaman decided not to take up the gauntlet. He quietly motioned for his pupils to return to the fire. He shot an evil glare over his shoulder. I embarrassed him slightly in front of the pups. Lycanthropes followed the leader we perceived as the strongest, and he knew that some of the pups might begin to wonder who was stronger, him or me?

“Ranger, would you not pick a fight with the shaman we gotta guard for the rest of the night?” asked one of the other hunters. The others murmured their agreement. I could see by their expressions where I stood. After all, I was not a member of this hit pack. I came up from the lone wolves. The quiet rivalry between our factions in the Guild chilled the air. The only reason I was here was to replace the last member who came down with a severe case of silver poisoning. He took a full burst during a skirmish with some vamps. The others were not all that comfortable with having me with them on what they considered their most important job. I backed down and returned to my post, picking up my carbine along the way. As I changed its magazine and cleaned it up a little, I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.

Chapter One: Pay Attention, There’s a Lot Of Stuff You Need to Know