Archive for month: October, 2011

Badmoon Rising – Chapter Three: Dealing with Others

30 Oct
October 30, 2011

Cafe Verona was a small Italian place nestled in the heart of Soho, or South Howard Avenue, one of the trendy urban neighborhoods. It was also in the middle of leech territory. I moved fast after the raid on the harem – or whatever that place was – to get down to the restaurant. There was barely enough time to change into more casual clothes from the tactical rig I was using for the assault. I needed to get into leech territory before dusk. I didn’t want the bother of dealing with any of the younger vampires prowling the streets. I was here for business, not brawling.

Cafe Verona was like Poppa Gus’s, but for Bleeders instead of hunters. The maître’d of Cafe Verona knew me on sight. It wasn’t the first time I’d met Bradon here. Cafe Verona and Poppa Gus’s were considered neutral ground between the hunters and Bleeders. You don’t pick a fight in the other guy’s drinking hole. Even with the heightened tensions between the lycanthropes and the vampires, I knew I was completely safe in Cafe Verona. Which didn’t mean I wasn’t getting all sorts of nasty looks from some of the other patrons. I was eating a very nice concoction of pasta and Italian sausage tossed in white wine sauce when Bradon finally arrived around nine. Bradon rarely ate during our meetings, not that he actually needed to eat. Rather than having him wait patiently while I ate, we came to an agreement that I was to go ahead and start on my food before he arrived. Bradon was a tall vampire, topping at around six-three. He wore his black hair stylishly long. He probably spent more on his hair than I did on a pair of pants. His dark eyes were animated with amusement. It made me a bit uneasy. Bradon’s idea of amusement rarely matched mine. He was immaculately dressed in an Armani suit of dark blue. I knew it was Armani, because Bradon told me the first time he wore it to one of our meetings. I can identify pretty much any gun at fifty paces and list the manufacture specs and known problems, but before Bradon and I began our “arrangement” I wouldn’t know one suit from another even if I was shown the labels. It just wasn’t part of my world. With vampires, it was all about appearance, both the physical and the political. Byzantine was the mildest word used to describe the vampires’ internal politics. Bradon spent a lot of time teaching me the bare minimum of fashion, if for no other reason than to make sure that I could properly appreciate his wardrobe. I stopped eating long enough for him to take a seat and order a wine.

“I don’t know whether to send my Bleeders after you or buy you that new pistol you’ve been talking about,” Bradon said, watching me with definite amusement.

“Oh?” I asked in response. Bradon was well aware that verbal sparring was not one of my strengths. He never said anything where he didn’t want me to respond. “I kind of figured you’d want to nail my pelt to the wall.”

“Some of the Inner Council would love to do just that,” Bradon answered, taking the proffered wine from the waiter, “The same individuals you just horribly embarrassed. Silanti was most displeased that you attacked our facility.”

“My heart bleeds for Silanti,” I replied sarcastically.

“Don’t tease him if you’re not willing to put out,” Bradon chided playfully. I bit down a snort of laughter. Bradon’s wit was one of the few things that made our meetings more or less enjoyable.

“The alchemists should have known better than to put their harem on our territory,” I continued, trying to keep my tone severe, “Didn’t matter, though. We would have hit the harem if it was two doors down from the Council’s home.”

“First of all, that was not the harem,” Bradon said. I froze in shock for a split second. I hoped I kept my face neutral at the revelation. Intelligence being wrong was not unusual. Intelligence being wrong on this magnitude was very unusual, especially considering all of the hours that went into confirming it. If Bradon noticed my surprise, he didn’t show it. He just continued, “That was an alchemists’ lab. One of their little experiments. Still, it was quite clear to the Inner Council you believed that it was the harem.”

“Really,” I replied, “So why do you want to give me an early Christmas present?”

“Oh, because your little raid allowed me to swat down one of my annoying subordinates,” Bradon said, fully enjoying himself. Of course, he was happy. Bradon was a master game player. The first time we met, Bradon used me to kill his superior and then to ascend to the head of the Bleeders. I knew of at least two other times he used me to take out political rivals. I suspected there were more he hadn’t bothered to brag about. I was willing to play the pawn for two reasons. First, because Bradon gave me good intelligence. Second, because Bradon was aligned with the faction of the TCV that wanted to maintain the Peace. If Bradon pointed out a particular leech, it was probably someone that would threaten the Peace.

“Exactly how did you manage this little coup?” I asked.

“Do you believe that I will let you into Bleeders’ politics?” he countered with a mock severity.

“Yes,” I answered flatly, “Because you can’t refuse a chance to brag when one of your convoluted schemes comes together. Particularly when I’m the one who you used as a cat’s paw. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me. This time, though, a pup was threatened. I know you Bradon. That’s not your normal style.”

“It wasn’t,” Bradon answered, some of his amusement vanishing, “I know it comes as no surprise to you that Silanti is encouraging younger members of the Council to be more aggressive towards the werewolves. One of Silanti’s newest ideas is to have his minions attack the pups when and where they could find them. I was keeping the Bleeders out of that disaster, but Devon disagreed with my decision.” I recognized the name. Devon was a rising star in the Bleeders, and he was aligned with Silanti’s anti-Peace faction. The Guildmaster pegged Devon for removal after the first time Bradon told me about him, but the leech was a careful bastard. “After your little bonfire in front of the Council House, Silanti argued for a strong retribution, and Devon lent his support – and a pair of Bleeders loyal to him.”

“The TCV didn’t ask you about this?” I asked, slightly incredulous. Bradon’s iron-clad control over the Bleeders was well-known, even amongst the lycanthropes.

“I didn’t let them,” he answered.

“You gave Devon enough rope to hang himself,” I supplied, “You knew the Guildmaster wouldn’t let the Bleeders’ presence go without retribution.”

“Of course,” Bradon replied, “So I arranged for him to have two of my most worthless Bleeders. Ones I knew your hunters would have no problem killing. It was a bit of a gamble, but your Guildmaster has been much more ruthless in culling your underperforming hunters than I can with my Bleeders. Then, I waited for the retribution. To be fair, I didn’t anticipate your choice of target. The Bleeders were well aware your people thought that alchemists’ lab was the harem. Do you know how hard I had to work on that bit of disinformation? Now I have to come up with something else.”

“You planted that information for us to find,” I said, still amazed at how Bradon operated so flawlessly. Bradon was a bit of a braggart, but I couldn’t deny his skills. Bradon was, quite possibly, the most dangerous vampire in Hillsborough. He knew how to manipulate events better than anyone I knew. Bradon basked in my quiet admiration for a moment and then continued with his bragging.

“So, when it was reported that you not only wiped out the lab, but then called in shaman to eradicate any trace of us, that shook the Inner Council. Devon reassured them that your Guildmaster would never attack such a high-value target as the harem. Not just because we went after one pup.”

“So, is the Inner Council going to back down?” I asked, finally able to get to the point of the meeting. Talks with Bradon reminded me of a Japanese tea ceremony – hours of build-up for a fifteen second event. It was annoying, but I was willing to endure it for the sake of the job. Plus, Bradon is a charming and entertaining vampire. Although, I’d never admit that to anyone.

“Your lord should be receiving our missive asking for a consultation on neutral ground for the purpose of reducing the tensions and reaffirming the Peace,” Bradon answered, “All in the name of avoiding the wrath of the Pathwalkers, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed, mimicking his tone. With that part of the conversation concluded, I did a little digging. “So you didn’t think we’d hit the ha-, ah alchemists’ lab?”

“Honestly, no,” Bradon answered, “Something of value, but not quite of that high value. Still, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This little raid has your fingerprints all over it.” Bradon chuckled at the surprise on my face. Bradon was too damned good.

“Well, I did assist on the attack,” I admitted, trying to regroup.

“No, you planted that particular target in your Guildmaster’s ear,” Bradon countered, “It’s your style. Straight for the jugular. No shading or manipulation. Your Guildmaster is far more subtle in terms of operations. It was one of the reasons he hadn’t rid me of Devon before I needed to take matters in my own hands. In this case, it worked. You can inform the Guildmaster that such ‘straight-forwardness’ may not be so effective the next time.”

“Don’t involve the pups the next time you play your fucking games,” I retorted, unable to keep my anger out of my voice.

“There’s that vulgar language again,” Bradon said, his voice dripping with sweet condescension, “It really isn’t becoming. Especially in such a nice restaurant.” That signaled the end of the business talk. I remained to finish my meal and to discuss less serious things with Bradon. He was my enemy, but he was always willing to have an interesting conversation, be it art, literature, religion, or even new weapons the humans were producing. Sometimes my relationship with Bradon worried me.

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The following morning I waited patiently in the Guildmaster’s office as he finished his morning reports. It amazed me the amount of paper and electronic crap the Guildmaster was forced to sift through every morning. Between going over intelligence and readiness reports, he also dealt with all of the money matters and other miscellaneous stuff that came with running a covert organization without arousing the humans’ suspicion. I checked my e-mail on my phone as I waited. There weren’t any more mysterious messages.

“Well, you’ll be glad to know that Cannon will be back within a week or two,” the Guildmaster said, not looking up from his reports, “The shaman cured him of whatever the alchemists did to him.”

“He’s good, at least from Whisper tells me,” I said, looking up from my phone. “What did you want from me today?”

“Your contact in the Bleeders told you the attack on the pup was an internal power play?” the Guildmaster asked with a slightly suspicious tone, “What makes you think that’s true?”

“He’s always given me good info before,” I answered, holding up my hand to fend off the coming retort, “I know, I know that’s not a good reason, but it checks out with other things. Plus, the leeches did offer to back down.”

“Your source informed you of this?” the Guildmaster asked, his eyebrow arched. I nodded in response. “This isn’t like the leeches. Usually they are far more unified when dealing with us. What is the odd factor?”

“I’ll bet it’s Silanti,” I mused, “From everything I’m hearing, he’s the one causing most of the trouble.”

“All of the Guild is hearing the same thing from their contacts,” the Guildmaster agreed, “Marcus, I want you to get together with James and Kurt. The three of you need to come up with options to remove Silanti. One needs to be covert and with complete deniability for Lord Vollen.”

“Why me?” I asked, “This sounds like something that should be just left to Deadeye and Sneller.” I wasn’t trying to shirk a job. I was trying not to insult the two highest hunters in the chapter. I didn’t work for them, but I didn’t want any bad blood between us. It would just make it difficult if I did need their help on a job.

“I want a strong set of plans for dealing with Silanti,” the Guildmaster answered, his tone conveying he had anticipated my objection, “You have a completely different way of doing things than Kurt or James. Plus, I figure you’ll actually follow a plan if you helped develop it.”

“You’re a funny guy, boss,” I replied with a sour look. He just smirked in response. “Any other jobs for me?”

“Actually yes,” the Guildmaster answered, holding up one of the reports on his desk. “The Sirens have reappeared. The Pinellas Guild is going after them. They want some Hillsborough hunters with them in case they have to cross into our territory during the job. Select two or three other hunters and meet up with their group in the Carrillon Park by the clock tower. I don’t know how much assistance they’ll need from us, but do me a favor and just play nice.”

“I’ll play nice with the Pinellas folks, but definitely not with The Sirens,” I said. The Sirens were a group of wizards that popped up now and again. They could best be described as eco-terrorists with magic. Their leaders spewed something about maintaining the pristine nature of the environment that humans were defiling. The Sirens wreaked havoc on shipping and fishing boats moving through Tampa Bay. Within the unseen world, lycanthropes usually only dealt with the vampire and the occasional Turak noble that came visiting. Wizards, witches, and other human magic-slingers generally kept to themselves, and we were more than happy to let them. The Sirens were a different matter. They had absolutely no problem with throwing too much mystical power around to accomplish their goals. That kind of callous disregard could bring the Pathwalkers, and no sane individual wanted that to happen. Sometimes the demi-gods of the unseen world were very surgical in taking out a problem. Sometimes, they were a nuclear bomb to the supernatural. You never knew which option the Pathwalkers would take if they came to town. For some reason, the local mystic groups refused to put a stop to the Sirens. If they weren’t going to step up, the lycanthropes. We didn’t want the Pathwalkers anywhere near us, and we weren’t willing to wait for one of the other factions to step up to the job.

The Sirens, as their name suggested, worked in and around the bay. I needed a hunter with maritime experience. I’ve used boats in the past, but I’m nowhere near an expert. Dealing with magic-wielding humans while on the water would require an expert. I needed Skiff, the Hillsborough chapter’s resident expert on watercraft and maritime assaults. Fortunately, Skiff was one of the hunters who didn’t give a damn if I was a Badmoon. He was a very laid-back individual, usually adopting the persona of a California surfer. Sometimes his manner of speaking drove me nuts, but I’d seen him working under fire. Skiff was unshakable and professional when everything else was going to hell.

In addition to Skiff, I asked Nick to come along. Since most of our operations were temporarily suspended while the aristocracy and the TCV talked things out, Nick quickly agreed. Nick was like me – he was happier better doing a job than doing nothing. The three of us met up at the armory and threw a bunch of gear into Skiff’s SUV, climbed in, and took the Howard Franklin Bridge across the bay to Pinellas County. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were close allies for decades. Many of our packs have familial ties between the two counties. The Guild chapters in both counties constantly shared intelligence and often trained and worked with each other. Our traditional closeness was strengthened over the past decade. First it was the Pinellas hunters helping us retrain after years of the first Lord Vollen’s dismal micromanagement. Then, we repaid the debt when we sent hunters to help rebuild the Pinellas chapter after their disastrous Guildmaster was removed. Like any organization, sometimes a Guildmaster is appointed that turns out to be either incompetent or unstable. That rat bastard did a lot of damage in the short time he was in charge. Fortunately, the hunter that replaced that bastard as Guildmaster in was extremely effective in repairing the damage. He also went a long way to fix our relationship and promoted the cooperation between our two chapters to the point where there was no hesitation for one chapter to call upon the other for assistance.

The Carillon Park was a massive development just off of I-275 in the Feathersound area of Pinellas County. It wasn’t too far from the county line that divided the bay between the two counties. Between St. Petersburg and Largo, Carillon was the home of several financial institutions, apartment and townhouse complexes and a small shopping complex. In the middle was a lake with boardwalk and a clock tower. The tower was the usual meet place when our chapters worked together on the Pinellas side. As we walked up to the clock tower, I saw four lycanthropes waiting for us. They were definitely the hunters for Pinellas. There was no mistaking a hunter’s casual alertness as they came out to meet us.

“Shit, we ask for assistance and they send us the Badmoon,” the leader commented. The lightness in his tone belied the implied insult. I recognized him, but I couldn’t remember his name.

“Jetsam, dude, the Guildmaster knew you’d, like, need someone to watch your weak ass,” Skiff replied, “Ranger might be a Badmoon, but at least he can, like, shoot straight.” Once Skiff said the hunter’s name, I remembered him. Jetsam and his crew was Pinellas’s maritime crew. Considering we were going after the Sirens, I should have realized Jetsam’s hit pack would be rolled out.

“So we hear,” Jetsam answered, “Nice job at the harem. We haven’t found the Clearwater Council’s harem, but we’re still looking.”

“You haven’t heard?” I asked.

“Heard what?” Jetsam asked, confused. Was the Guildmaster withholding information from the Pinellas chapter? That didn’t sound right. More likely, the grapevine was working faster than the intelligence pipeline. It was a dangerous aspect of our business. Rumors always travelled faster and farther than facts. Hunters needed facts, not rumors.

“What we hit wasn’t their harem,” I answered, “It was some sort of alchemists’ lab. Don’t know if the CCV and the TCV’s alchemists are working together, but I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Fuck,” Jetsam’s deputy said, his tone conveying horrified disgust, “As if we don’t have enough problems. We’ve been seeing the alchemists become more active on this side of the bay. I hate to think what they might be cooking up if what I heard about your raid is even slightly true.”

“Are they still hiding among the Scientologists?” asked Nick.

“Yeah, and there’s not much we’re going to do about it,” answered another of the hit pack, “Those Turaki puppets own most of Clearwater. We bitched to the Turaki, but they aren’t going to do anything. They also made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate us putting any of their followers in danger if we decided to take out the alchemists.” I hated the fucking aliens. It wasn’t unusual for members of the unseen world to hide within human religions and secret societies. The Turaki infiltrated the Scientologists in the religion’s early years. The witch-hunters used both the Masons as well as a variety of churches to cover their operations. Wizards and witches usually had their home in non-traditional religions, such as Wicca and Golden Dawn. Most of the time it was simple camouflage, but the Turaki used their organization to spread their own influence and power in the seen and unseen worlds. Their high-handed manner meant they refused to see real dangers and only dealt with what they considered a threat to their power base. Which is how the Clearwater Council’s alchemists could hide within their followers without fear of reprisal.

“Okay, so what’s the plan for the Sirens?” I asked, trying to get the group back on the job.

“They’ve been operating near the Skyway,” Jetsam said, “Intelligence says they’re attacking small craft all over the bay, but they like sticking near the big bridge. We were going to take a bait boat and the tac boat down there and see if we can arouse their ire.” The plan was simple and useful when dealing with a mobile group like the Sirens. The bait boat looked like the Sirens’ current favor target. The tac boat was low-observable and heavily armed with a couple of machine guns and a grenade launcher. It was a joint purchase between our two Guild chapters. It wasn’t used very often, but the Sirens seemed like a damned good time for the additional firepower.

“Do we have an MO for them?” I asked. In my experience, the small extreme groups tended to stay with a single modus operandi, or way of doing things. Usually, it was a matter of sticking with what worked. Even I used a few basic themes when working jobs. The problem with just sticking with what worked was that it gave an observant enemy the chance to find all the nasty little holes and exploit them. Amateurs like the Sirens never noticed the holes until you put a bullet through them.

“From what we’ve seen, they track a ‘suspicious’ boat,” Jetsam said, “When the boat does something that is an ‘affront to Gaea,’ the Sirens strike. They incapacitate the crew, throw them overboard, and then blow the ship with some spectacular displays of magic. This is according to the Coast Guard reports. The humans, of course, are chalking it up to delusions from shock. So far, the Sirens have racked up a dozen ships and killed maybe ten or so humans. The amount of magic they’re throwing around is being noticed by our shaman, which means the Pathwalkers can’t ignore them for too much longer.”

“How so?” I asked, not understanding the connection.

“Something about realms of magic being crossed,” Jetsam answered, “Our Spiritmaster gave us a long explanation, but most of it went over my head. The takeaway is our shaman believe the Pathwalkers are aware of what’s going on. They’ll give us some time to clean up the mess on our own, but we need to get this done.”

“The wizards?” Nick asked.

“Refuse to do anything beyond giving us all the intelligence we need to take care of the Sirens,” Jetsam’s deputy answered, “As long as they don’t have to do it themselves.” Fucking wizards. It was almost enough for me to wish that Ivan the Terrible had been able to forge the wizards into an actual society with hard rules and discipline instead of the loose society with simple guidelines the wizards used these days. Almost. Jetsam gave me a look that he was thinking exactly the same thing.

“From what the wizards gave us, the leader is Betsy Rose,” Jetsam said, showing a picture. Betsy was a lithe woman with a shaved head and a fierce snarl. “She’s strong enough on her own to make things interesting. Apparently, she was one of their little council of wizards, but something happened about fourteen months ago. She completely changed from a loyal councilmember into a radical, left the council, and recreated the Sirens.  She’s got about twelve or so followers. Most of them are minor players. None of them are strong enough to take over for her if she goes down.” The common theme amongst those of us who live in the unseen world is the tendency to follow the strongest. Wizards are no different with the exception they considered a person’s magic prowess as the measure of strength. Just one of the reasons unstable wizards could quickly grab power and cause trouble for the rest of us – like now.

“I asked for a shaman to come along, but the Spiritmaster’s little bitch boy told us we should be able to handle them.” From Jetsam’s expression, he knew the shaman was probably correct. Betsy was probably the biggest threat, but most wizards suffered from the same basic problem. They were enamored with their own power, so they simply forgot things like bullets and knives could kill them just as dead as one of their spells.

“Who’s on the bait boat?” I asked.

“I’m sending Prop and Gutter,” Jetsam answered, pointing to his deputy and what looked like the youngest member of the hit pack, “I would like at least one of you in the bait boat also. I’ll let you decide who to put in there.”

“Skiff, you’re bait,” I told my companion, “Nick, you and me are going to play with the tac boat.” Skiff was the water fighter. If the shit hit the fan, he had the experience to handle himself, whereas Nick and I would’ve been out of our depths, no pun intended. We all climbed into our respective vehicles and drove out to marina. Something about this operation just didn’t sit right with me. The wizards were the closest of the unseen world to the Pathwalkers. While it wasn’t unusual for them to let us deal with their rogues, it was unusual for them to let the matter go this long before stepping in. I filed those thoughts away as we arrived at the marina.

Maritime operations were always a problem because the saltwater tended to fuck up weapons and electronics. My USP was left behind in favor of a Glock 21. As much as I hated to admit it, Glocks stood up to saltwater a lot better than my USP. I brought along my Commando, but I left it in Skiff’s car when I saw the arsenal the tac boat held. The two machine guns were FN M240’s. They fired the heavier 7.62 mm NATO cartridge, which meant the two machine guns could pretty much slice through most other watercraft. Both were stored under the railings of the tac boat, but could be quickly mounted onto two pintle mounts on either side of the boat. Two big ammo boxes held the belts of standard full metal jacket ammunition. Silver ammo was too expensive to be used in machine guns, so the machine guns were used primarily to disable equipment and knock bad guys down. Against the human Sirens, the FMJ rounds would be effective enough – once we got past the magic. The grenade launcher was a Milkor MGL. It held six 40 mm grenades in its revolving cylinder. The Pinellas hunters modified the MGL to mate with a pintle mount or just rest on a railing. Additional small arms were stored in small weapons lockers spaced throughout the tac boat. There were a few MP5’s, a few stainless Mossberg 590 shotguns, and a pair of KAC SR-25 sniper rifles. I was surprised by those two, because like me, the Pinellas Guild preferred anything with a Heckler and Koch stamp on it. When I mentioned it to Jetsam, he told me that the Pinellas Guild took a look at the tests the American Navy did when they chose the SR-25 for their SEALs. For maritime assaults, the SR-25 was just better.  I made a mental note to relate that bit to the Bowmasters. They had a rabid need for all information regarding our weapons. Our electronics had Motorola stamped on them, but it was a rig I hadn’t worked with before. The transmitters were small encrypted devices, and the headsets came in two versions. For those in the bait boat, the headsets were wireless versions that resembled the Bluetooth sets used for cell phones. For us in the tac boat, we had full headsets with boom mikes.

The bait boat set off first, looking every bit the small-time fishing boat. So far, the Sirens attacked only smaller, commercial fishing vessels. Best guess was Rose was still working out the kinks in her followers and slowly increasing the difficulty of their attacks. Jetsam eased the tac boat out of its mooring and followed the bait boat. As Jetsam maintained the five hundred yard interval, Bull, Nick, and I mounted the machine guns, loaded them, and then covered them with small tarps. The last thing we needed was for Mr. Murphy to give the human Coast Guard a peek at the unmistakable profile of a machine gun. Humans tended to get overly jumpy around fully automatic weapons. As the tac boat cruised, I picked out the lights of each of the main bridges. There are four main bridges spanning Tampa Bay. Going north to south is the Courtney Campbell Causeway, then the Howard Franklin (jokingly referred to as the Frankenstein for the insanity of the drivers), followed by the Gandy, and ending with the enormous Sunshine Skyway at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

“Jetsam, what’s your plan for this job?” I asked, “Once we find the Sirens, I mean.” The first incarnation of the Sirens, true to their namesake, lured its enemies out to a secluded cove where they attacked. These Sirens sought out their enemies and attacked out on the open water. Their aggressiveness meant the wizards were in combat mode, rather than in ambush mode. “Who do we have to take down first?”

“One thing we’ve noticed is that these Sirens like chasing their prey,” Jetsam said, “As soon as the Sirens begin their assault, Prop is going to bring his boat north at full speed. We lie quiet, let them go past, and sneak up behind them. Then we’ll take them down with the aimed fire and grenades. Murphy plan if they take out the bait boat – hit the bitches with everything.” It was left unsaid that if the Sirens got the bait boat, we would assume that Skiff, Prop, and Gutter would be dead. The moment the Sirens realized they were dealing with lycanthropes instead of normal humans, all hell would break loose. Wizards were well aware of what it meant when lycanthropes or vampires became involved in their affairs. We tended to bring a lot of death and destruction. Jetsam’s plan was decent, so I just let him drive the boat and scanned the dark waters of the bay with a pair of nightvision binoculars.

We were about a thousand yards south of the Gandy when Nick picked up small boats racing out to the bait boat. As I oriented on Nick’s hushed alert, I saw three small canoes racing out from the Hillsborough side of the bay. The Sirens were using magic to propel the small craft with the sleek swiftness of racing boats. Damn, I was expecting a single, larger target. If Jetsam was surprised, he didn’t let it show in his voice.

“Bait, three targets at 105 degrees. Range is six hundred yards. Speed is about forty knots,” Jetsam reported quietly into the radio. I watched as a long-haired head in the nearest canoe perked up at the same time as Jetsam transmitted. I don’t believe in coincidence. Before I could say anything, all hell broke loose. My nightvision binoculars went white as a brilliant light turned the night to day. One of these days, I’m going to find all of Murphy’s descendants and torture them for long periods of time before killing them. I blinked my eyes to clear the temporary blindness from the sudden light.

“Ranger, one’s coming in,” Nick called. My eyes were still full of stars. I couldn’t see the target, but I had a machine gun and Nick was guiding me.

“Ten o’clock,” Nick called out with that calm assurance I welcomed. I swiveled the machine gun, leaned in, and squeezed the trigger. My eyes cleared enough for me to watch as the red-white tracers lanced out at the canoe. I could make out three figures in the canoe. The front figure was torn apart by the burst of fire, but her companion managed to bring up some form of shield. The bullets smacked against the invisible wall.

“Ranger, Nick, bait!” called out Jetsam, bounding up to the front of the boat with an SR-25. “Bull, give me a distraction!” I swiveled the machine gun to the front of the boat to bear on the two other canoes. From behind me came the distinctive cough of the grenade launcher. Ancestors, it was coming apart fast. Nicky and I opened up on the two other canoes as the initial light began to fade back into darkness. I tracked the rounds to the other canoes, and watched as they ricocheted off invisible shields.

“Bait, targets have shield up,” I said over the radio. Static filled my ears. I looked over to my partner. “Nick, I can’t get the bait boat.”

“Radios are down,” Nick said over the chatter of the machine guns. “EMP hit.” This is why I fucking hate wizards. If I wanted to make an electromagnetic pulse, I’d need a nuke. They can do it magically. With all of our electronics scrapped by the Sirens’ electromagnetic pulse, our lives got a lot more interesting.

“Jetsam, is our target down?” I asked as the machine gun ran dry.

“Nope. Hang on, we’re going to try something else,” Jetsam answered. As I fed a new belt of ammunition into the machine gun, the grenade launcher coughed again. The grenade plopped into the water some five feet ahead of the canoe. There was a small plume of water as the grenade detonated underwater. Jetsam opened fire with his rifle. It was a smart idea. The grenade would rock the boat just enough to move the shield so that Jetsam could get off a decent shot. It took a couple of tries, but Jetsam finally downed the Siren holding up the shield.

“Ranger, I need a machine gun here!” shouted Jetsam. The Siren driving the canoe was turning her boat around. We couldn’t let any of them escape. I swiveled the machine gun at the tiny canoe and opened fire. The tracers merged with the canoe and the boat capsized spectacularly. Bull joined Jetsam up on the front. He snapped off six grenades at the canoes attacking the bait boat. I could hear the weapons fire as Skiff and the other two began opening up. Dammit, we needed to close and engage. The problem was the Sirens’ EMP took out the fucking engines on our boat. Jetsam came bounding off the front of the boat.

“Ranger, Nick follow me!” Jetsam said loudly as he sped past the two of us. We dropped our machine guns and dashed after Jetsam. At the rear of the boat, Jetsam shed for true form and lifted a section off of the back of the boat. The two large engines were now visible. “Both of you, shed and help me manually start these bastards.” The manual starts were simple pull-cords. The extra strength of true form made starting the damn things much easier. The engines coughed and sputtered to life as Jetsam fastened a manual throttle/steering device to the two engines. This is why maritime specialists are needed. When the shit hits the fan, they know the solutions their unique environment requires. Bull shouted directions to Jetsam as Nick and I grabbed weapons from the locker and headed for the front of the boat. It was time to get up close and personal with the Sirens.

The tac boat leapt forward, and it took a bit to keep my feet. I gripped the MP5 tighter and waited as the distance closed. The Sirens were ignoring us. Without the distraction of the grenades or machine gun fire raining down, the Sirens were only paying attention to the threat from the bait boat. I grinned as the tac boat quickly closed the distance. We were less than twenty yards from the Sirens when Bull launched a single flare grenade into the air. The bright magnesium lit the area. The bait boat was listing to its side. Skiff and the others erected some hasty cover and were firing at four Sirens in the two canoes. The wizards were tossing bolts of mystical energy at the hunters. The last two Sirens were busy holding the two canoes steady in the bay’s water. Everyone froze as the flare exploded over them. Nick cut down the two canoe pilots with short bursts from his MP5. Now for me to do my thing.

I launched myself into the air. I was aiming for the canoe closest to us. It wasn’t an easy target as it was about thirty feet from the tac boat. I heard Nick swear as he saw what I was doing. Nick hated when I did something he considered overly flamboyant and slightly insane. I really didn’t care. I knew what I was doing. Mostly. I emptied the MP5’s magazine at the two Sirens in my target canoe. The one in front threw up some a magic barrier. I smiled. They were doing what I wanted. As I slammed down in the canoe, I let the MP5 drop on its sling and pounced towards the two Sirens. The two wizards couldn’t react against the sheer speed of a lycanthrope, much less a hunter. I carried both of them into the black waters. As soon as we hit water, my knives were out. Three slashes and the two Sirens stopped splashing. I dived down below. As I’ve said, I’m not a maritime specialist like Skiff or Jetsam. That doesn’t mean I don’t know how to fight underwater. In true form, I can stay submerged for about a hundred seconds. I swam underneath the other canoe. I’ll admit, this part I didn’t plan out so well. If I had I would have remembered to bring a limpet mine or a grenade and some duct tape. As I ascended under the canoe, I tapped the bottom of the boat. Good, it was just fiberglass. I placed my ear to the bottom of the canoe and listened. Footsteps were right above me. My Glock punched two holes in the bottom of the boat before it stopped working. I felt the splash as the Siren fell out of the boat. Good, my bullets hit their mark. I heard the other body hit the water. With both Sirens down, I surfaced.  The tac boat was over by the bait boat, taking Skiff and the other two hunters off the boat. Nick was at the side of the tac boat, looking right at me as I surfaced. He waited patiently as I swam over to the tac boat and helped me climb over the side. I just laid there for a moment to catch my breath. Nick loomed over me.

“Well that was one of the most outrageously insane things I’ve seen you do in a while,” he commented in that calm tone that was his trademark, “I hope to the Ancestors you learned from that.”

“Yeah,” I answered, sitting up, “Next time I bring a revolver for underwater work. Forgot autos have a bitch of a time cycling underwater.” Nick looked like he wasn’t sure if wanted to strangle me or just laugh.

Some white phosphorous grenades sank the bait boat and the three canoes. With our activities hidden from casual view, our group returned to the marina. This took a bit of time because the Sirens’ EMP knocked out all of the normal navigation aids, and we were left doing nav by hand. Well, Skiff and the Pinellas hit pack were handling the navigation. Nick and I spent our time policing up the massive amount of brass from the machine guns as well as stowing all of the lethal toys. On the plus side, none of us were dead – just slightly worn and torn.


“So this latest incarnation of the Sirens are all dead?” asked the Guildmaster as I entered his office the next morning. I was still a bit tired, but I did things on his schedule. It was one of the joyous parts of being the personal hitter for the Guildmaster.

“The ones that attacked us last night are all dead and at the bottom of the bay,” I answered, slumping into my normal chair, “As to the group as a whole, I couldn’t say for certain. We killed nine wizards, which sounds about right for a small splinter group. I didn’t see their leader last night, but there was a lot going on.”

“So how are we going to find out if we got them all?” the Guildmaster probed. I thought for a few moments about the problem. I hated these analysis problems the Guildmaster threw my way. Most of the damned time he already knew the fucking answers.

“My guess would be to see how much of an outcry the wizards give the lords,” I answered, somewhat cautiously.

“Oh?” the Guildmaster replied, “Why would that tell us if you killed off the Sirens?”

“If they don’t protest or offer weak protest, then the Sirens are dead,” I answered, feeling more confident of my analysis of events, “The wizards don’t like groups like the Sirens any more than we do. The only reason they would offer more than a token protest would be because there are some Sirens – particularly Rose – still out there that could cause problems for the wizards.”

“Very good, Marcus,” the Guildmaster said, his tone radiating pleased approval, “In fact, Lord Vollen received that token protest this morning, along with the thanks of Lady Thames for your assistance in the job.”

“If you already knew the answer, why did you make me do your analysis?” I asked, a little more hotly than I intended.

“Why would I?” he asked in response, throwing another problem at me.

“You’re grooming me for something,” I said. I shot up in the chair as a sudden thought hit me. “You don’t really expect me to take over for you.”

“No,” the Guildmaster said flatly, “You could make a decent Guildmaster, but you have two faults. First, you’re a Badmoon. Secondly, you’re overly arrogant because you’re a Badmoon.” He paused for a moment, almost lost in thought. “No, I have a candidate for my position in mind. He’s going to take a lot of grooming, but he should do well. You, on the other hand, have another destiny.”

“What is that?” I asked, arching my eyebrow in surprise. This was the first I the Guildmaster said anything about my future beyond being his hatchet man.

“Something for which I will have to spend a great deal of time conditioning you to take on,” the Guildmaster answered, unusually cryptically. “Speaking of conditioning, you are to accompany my wife and myself to a little victory celebration.”

“Huh?” He had caught me off-guard with the non-sequitor. “What are you talking about?”

“Lord Vollen met with the Inner Council last night while you were dealing with the Sirens,” the Guildmaster said, “Both parties have agreed to calm their respective sides. More discussions are planned to set down better rules of engagement. So, Vollen has decided to throw one of his rodeo parties.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I retorted. Vollen recently embraced the country-western culture to the point of converting a warehouse into a miniature rodeo ring. I helped guard a couple of his parties, which mostly consisted of the pack leaders poorly riding wild horses and bulls. The only thing that kept the majority of them alive was a lycanthrope’s healing abilities. “What the hell did I do to you to deserve watching that horror show?”

“Now what makes you think is a punishment?” the Guildmaster asked, a malicious gleam in his eye.

“Because I know that look in your eye, boss,” I replied, “It’s the same one you always get when you found something horribly nasty and evil to do to me. Usually for some breach of etiquette in that deranged mind of yours.”

“Actually, your presence is more of public relations,” the Guildmaster said, “Your actions of late have brought you to the attention of some of the pack leaders as well as Lord Vollen. Matric’s also been talking up your most recent exploits.”

“So you’re having me tag along to piss off the Order?” I asked.

“Exactly.”

“Well, that could be fun.”

Chapter 4: Head Shats Are Always a Bitch

Badmoon Rising – Chapter Two: I Always Call Him Nick

01 Oct
October 1, 2011

The next week was a boring. The Guildmaster refused to throw any hunting jobs my way. All I could do was sit in my townhouse and mope. The local media tried to get a hold of me the day after the explosion. After a few hours of “no comments,” the reporters left me alone, thanks to the kin in the local law enforcement agencies letting little juicy bits of “information” leak out. The cover story was the private investigator who owned the car, namely me, probed a little too far into theTampa drug scene. It seemed like a solid story, so I stayed with it. The nice thing about humans was they gave us so much social camouflage to hide in. After seven days of nothing, I decided enough was enough. I called the Guildmaster to demand something to do. I don’t mind a few days of rest after an incident. After a week, I was bouncing off the walls. The secretary told me he did not want to speak with me at the moment and would call me back at a later time. Most days, I would’ve taken the hint. Unfortunately, my annoyance was running high, and my self-control was running low. I decided not to take no for an answer. Hell, I could almost feel the dust collecting on my pelt. I thought about getting into more formal attire, but then dismissed the idea. The Guildmaster wouldn’t chew me out less if I was wearing more than jeans and a t-shirt.  I packed some toys into one of the many duffel bags I kept around for this sort of thing.

I parked the rental car in front of the Guildmaster’s office building. I had a distraction planned for the secretary. I really didn’t want use the Wolf’s Growl on her in person. She would be uneasy around me any time I walked into the building. I watched as my distraction walked into the building. I followed closely behind the man delivering the flowers. For some reason, human females really like flowers, especially when they’re delivered by surprise. Couple those facts with the fact that humans have a natural tendency to focus on the bright, pretty things in front of them, and I had my distraction. I slipped by the ecstatic secretary and up the staircase.

As I neared the Guildmaster’s office, there was an odd scent in the hallway. It was a mixture of incense, wood smoke, nasty cologne, and a hint of swamp. The scent grew a bit stronger as I approached the Guildmaster’s office. The incense, wood smoke, and swamp scents meant a shaman. The nasty cologne meant a high-ranking one. Okay, the nasty cologne didn’t tell me that, but the shaman had to be high ranking to be intruding upon the Guildmaster. As the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, I was one of the few lycanthropes that could barge into his office any time I wanted, but with that privilege also came the responsibility to only do so when it wouldn’t cause the Guildmaster to lose face. One thing I was not going to do was upset my boss by embarrassing him in front of a damned shaman. That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to find out what was going on, especially since I had a feeling it involved me. So, I got out a couple of my toys.

Wizard, the Guild’s techno-geek, designed us some custom listening devices after several hunters bitched that the off-the-shelf ones weren’t worth shit. Called THWHE, pronounced “thaw”, the acronym stood for THe Walls Have Ears, and it was a damned good bug. It was remotely programmed from a smart phone – like the one the Guild issued to all of its hunters – and could be set for either steady stream or burst transmission. The best part was that it looked for the unique harmonics of the human/lycanthrope/vampire speech and amplified those to defeat most counter-bug attempts. I placed the THWHE on the Guildmaster’s door and listened through my ear buds.

“I don’t care what your relationship to the abomination is,” an exasperated voice said. The voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “His actions were inexcusable, and they endangered the Peace in this county. Only the Order can properly sanction the abomination. You must remand him to the Order immediately.”

“Since when has the Order supported anything that maintained the Peace?” the Guildmaster asked, his voice calm, “I don’t know why the Spiritmaster wants my hunter, John, but as far as I’m concerned, this is an internal matter that will be handled within the Guild. I will not hand any of my wolves over to the Order without a direct order from Lord Vollen.” My mind flashed with the voice’s owner. John Yven, the Spiritmaster’s deputy and political hatchet man. Yven was the one covertly spreading dissent amongst the packs in order to discredit Lord Vollen and the Guild. Or at least, that’s what the Guildmaster believed. Fortunately for Yven, the Guildmaster didn’t have good evidence of Yven’s activities. If he did, I would have already been given the job to sanction him.

“Guildmaster, the Order wants the entire state to throw off the Peace as one,” Yven stated, “We all saw what happened in the Disputed Territories and the debacle that followed. The Order supports Lord Vollen, and since we are more visible than the Guild, we think it is more appropriate for the Order to publicly discipline him.”

“Let me be blunt, John,” the Guildmaster said in the firm tone that all hunters knew, “The Guild is not going to hand over any of its members to the Order – ever. The Order’s solidarity line is bullshit. Tell the Spiritmaster that he can maintain the facade of the aloof spiritualist all he wants. I am aware of the Order’s attempts to usurp Lord Vollen’s authority, just like you did with his father. That is not going to happen while I’m Guildmaster.”

“That abomination-” Yven began to protest.

“Is standing outside that door listening to us,” the Guildmaster interrupted, “I will remind you that he’s a highly trained hunter who has killed plenty of vampires – and four lycanthropes. Do you really want to threaten him?” I heard the slight screech of a chair sliding. Yven was leaving. I reached over and grabbed my THWHE before the door opened. Yven and I traded hostile looks, but I could see the tinge of fear in his eyes. Yven was short for a lycanthrope, barely reaching five foot six. He wore his dark brown hair long, bound in a ponytail. He kept a wiry frame, but I doubted there was much muscle on it. The most imposing thing about the little shaman was the intense, but invisible aura that seemed to surround him. I could feel the power of the magicks swirling inside and around Yven. I gave him my best menacing look. He pushed past me and left in a furious stalk down the staircase.

“Marcus, get in here,” the Guildmaster commanded. I strode in and dropped my tactical bag next to the chair that Yven just vacated. The Guildmaster looked angry, but I wasn’t sure if any of that was directed at me. “I told you to stay home. What the hell are you doing here?”

“What the hell are you trying to do to me?” I said, slamming my fists into his desk, “You left me at home for the past week with nothing to do. Dammit, I’m your personal hitter, whether or not I got a little too playful the other night. I’m sorry if my actions got you into trouble with Lord Vollen, but you can’t leave me out of action.”

“Got a little bored, eh?” he asked. My face hit thedesk as he knocked my arms out from under me. I rose up, trying to decide if he challenging me or he was just being playful. I had an odd relationship with my Guildmaster. It was more mentor-student than commander and soldier. “I was wondering when you would show up.”

“Do you have something for me?” I asked, my pride still smarting from landing on the desk. He half-smiled, and turned to face his window. I could tell by his body language that he did. The Guildmaster enjoyed these little games of withholding information from me and seeing when I would bite at the few scraps he let me see.

“One of the packs have a pup outside the normal lines. The pack is going to get her tonight. The pup’s home is inside territory I’m worried is active. I want a couple hunters to guard the pup and the contact team.” Active territory meant there were recent attacks by leeches. While it wasn’t rare for that to happen, it was uncommon. With that bastard Silanti on the Council encouraging vampires to take any pelt they could the attacks were becoming more frequent.

“Why me, and not a hit pack?” I asked.

“First, because this job only needs one or two hunters, and second, because the Order is starting up again about you being an abomination, and that’s never good. Having you associated with bringing in a pup will go a long ways in the eyes of the packs, or at least as much as you can with your surname.” The Order disliked that there was a Badmoon in Hillsborough. They were incensed when the Guild recruited me. I was supposed to be shunned off to some unhabitated corner of the county if I couldn’t be hounded out to infect some other part of the state. Worse, I was the personal hitter for the Guildmaster. Anytime the Order wanted to discredit the Guild, they started publicly calling me an abomination. I really wanted to go find Yven and beat him to a bloody pulp, but vengeance would have to wait. There was a job at hand, and from what I could tell a job I where I needed to be on my best behavior.

“Who’s the contact group?” I asked.

“Local pack warriors, about four or five lycanthropes,” the Guildmaster answered, “In addition, James is sending Nicholas on this job.”

“Nick’s coming too?” I asked. That made the last week more tolerable. I met Nick shortly after I first joined the Guild. He didn’t care about me being a Badmoon. He was only concerned that I could do the job assigned. I proved that during a job with him against some nasty independents. We remained relatively close friends since. It’s hard to be really close with Nick. He’s a little quiet and sullen at times, but he was a fanatical and fantastic hunter. Better yet, Nicky was a kind of outsider in the Guild because of how he came into the Guild.

“Yes, Nicholas is going on this job. You know how he hates to be called Nick, right?” the Guildmaster asked. I nodded, still smiling. The Guildmaster shook his head slightly in amusement. He wrote down an address in Carrollwood, a suburb to the north of Tampa. “Here’s where you will meet the pack. The leader’s name is Peter. You must protect the pup at all costs.”

“Thanks boss. I couldn’t have figured that one out on my own,” I replied with a slight sarcasm.

“Don’t fuck around with this Marcus. Pups are few and far between,” the Guildmaster retorted. I nodded in silent apology.

“Is the TCV really going to go after them?” I asked, “Especially with tensions as high as they are. The TCV spent weeks denying they had nothing to do with the attack on the pups in tysach.

“The TCV is not the only vampire faction in Tampa. There are the independents, and they hate lycanthropes just as much as the TCV.” I nodded my understanding. The TCV did their best to eliminate vampires that didn’t join them, but the independents still persevered. They mainly stayed to themselves, occasionally forming small covens of less than half a dozen. Sometimes one or two of them would go out and make a nuisance of himself. Then hunters would kill them, if the Bleeders didn’t get them first.

“Why does the Order want me?” I asked, referring back to Yven.

“I don’t know. Yven’s line was full of shit. He’s usually a much better political operator than that. Did you do something to upset them and not tell me?” I shook my head emphatically.

“Nope, just been doing my job. In fact, I haven’t crossed any shamans since the attack on the pups.”

“Arguing with one shaman is not enough for them to get that upset at you,” he replied, half to himself. He looked back over to me. “We’ll have to solve this enigma later. Right now, you have to prep for your job. Go to the armory and pick up your gear. I’ll call your authorization over to the brothers. Now get out of here and get to work.” I nodded and left the office without any of my normal retort.  I had a job.

———————-

The armory was a gun shop that the Guild owned and operated. The front was a legitimate business that followed the human laws to the letter. It even turned a small profit for the Guild. Better still, the brothers were going to build a range. The Guild owned some farmland outside of Plant City that was converted to ranges and a shoot house, but I couldn’t always get out that way. Plus, indoor shooting was a big part of my work, and it would help to have a place to work in that unique environment. I entered the store and nodded politely at the kin sales clerk. I showed him my “VIP” card, and he unlocked the entrance to the back.  The back, unlike the front, was far from legit. It housed all the spare firepower hunters needed, but couldn’t keep at their homes. Just inside the door from the front of the shop was a reinforced steel door. It slid open with a hiss out of a science-fiction film when I swiped my card. Twin brothers, John and James Bowmaster, ran the armory. They were recruited by the Guild and placed in with the hit packs. The dynamics of hit packs didn’t suit them, so they were tried out as lone wolves. They complemented each other so well, their separation actually was detrimental to the Guild. After many attempts, the Guildmaster finally found a place to stick the brothers. Both were proficient in their jobs of arming the lycanthropes, especially the Hunters Guild. They carried the packnames of Gunny and Boomer.

Gunny was sitting in the main room of the armory. The main room was dominated by four long tables running through the center. There were three or four workstations on each table for different tasks. By going to the different stations, a hunter could do routine maintenance, minor repair, major repair, or complete overhaul. Gunny was reassembling a pistol that he just finished repairing. Gunny was the mechanic, mostly handling the major repairs and overhauls. Boomer was the creative one of the pair. It was Boomer who came up with new load outs and modifications to our weapons. I looked around, but I didn’t see Boomer anywhere. I figured he was in one of the branch rooms. Each of the branch rooms held a mix of weapons, but each tended to be heavier in one type.

“Hey, Gunny,” I said as I sat down across from him. He nodded to me, coolly. It was nothing personal. Gunny wasn’t one of those who held my Badmoon name against me. It was just when Gunny was involved with a project, he tended to regard everything else as a disruption to be ignored. I could see he was busy and waited for him to finish what he was doing. Instead of watching him go through his delicate motions, I decided to avail myself to the cleaning kit at the next workstation. Another of the cardinal rules for hunters was to always take good care of your weapons. I pulled out my USP and laid it out on the cleaning mat. I field stripped the pistol and brushed out the rough spots. Gunny finished the pistol he was working on as I put the slide back on mine. He gingerly laid the big automatic on the mat beside his kit and waited for me to insert the magazine, rack the slide, decock the hammer, and holster the pistol.

“Ranger, I assume you’re here for the gear the Guildmaster called about.” I nodded. “Boomer’s getting it. He’ll be out in a minute. I’ve got an MP5, accessories, and some pre-loaded ammunition for you. Anything else you will have to procure from your own inventory.” As if on cue, his brother came from the far right door with a gun case and duffel bag. Boomer laid the case in front of me. I opened the case, quickly inspected the weapon and gear, and left smiling. I loved new toys. Even those I’d need to return. Maybe. At some point. Gunny must have been reading my mind, because he gave me a warning look. I nodded in acknowledgment, and walked out of the armory. There was a lot more to do before I met up with Nick.

—————

I was trying to pick out the stars I knew from the few that managed to shine through the haze of the suburban lights. I sat on my motorcycle in the parking lot of the strip mall. Waiting beside me on his motorcycle was Nick. Unlike me, he was an impressive looking lycanthrope. His human figure was a full six foot five and well-muscled. He was considered handsome with blond hair and blue eyes – and had been the object of more than a few female attractions. That was, until they really looked into his eyes. They were cold, hard, and without the hint of humor. Rumors about Nick started when he first came to Tampa. He was from somewhere in the Midwest and spent some time in the prince’s court in Tallahassee before coming to our chapter. One of the rumors were that he killed his lord in a gunfight. Another was Nick was a fallen lord that had been banished for some breach of moral conduct. Another story had him insulting the King of the United States himself and was “hiding out” in Florida until the King’s well-known rage settled down. Whatever the truth was, Nick didn’t talk about it, and the few lycanthropes who did know his past wouldn’t either. I didn’t know his story, and I didn’t press him on it. If he wanted to give me his life story, he would tell me.  If not, then no big deal. It was more important to me that Nick didn’t give a damn that I was a Badmoon. Those were few and far between, even in the Guild.

I looked over at Nick. He was watching the stars as well, staring at them with an intensity I couldn’t understand. I took a sip from a bottle of water. It was hot and humid, even this late in September, and wearing a jacket didn’t make me any cooler. It couldn’t be helped. I needed to cover my submachine gun from the view of curious humans, and the long coat was the only thing that did the job satisfactorily. I shifted my weight and checked over my load for the third time since I met up with Nick in the parking lot. My main weapon was an MP5K submachine gun. I liked this version because of the folding skeleton stock and threaded barrel for mounting silencers. One of those was in a coat pocket. I carried the MP5K with a short fifteen-round magazine in a specialized shoulder holster under my left arm. Under my right arm were a half-dozen thirty-round mags for the MP5K. At my right hip was my USP. A few spare magazines were on my left hip. My long jacket also held a few “distraction devices” that I had thought I had lost, but recently found in my attic. Silver knives of various types were spread about my gear. After making that all my weapons were ready and right where I needed them, I looked back over at Nick.

“Nick, you sure you’ve got everything you need?” I asked. He continued to stare up at the stars. He seemed to ponder something for a few seconds longer before turning his head towards me.

“Yes Ranger, and please call me Nicholas,” he answered with a slight warning in his voice. I ignored the warning with my usual shrug of the shoulders. Slowly, he turned back to his celestial gallery as we waited for the pack members to show up. I knew he was sensitive about his pack name, but I just couldn’t call him Nicholas. Anytime I did, all I could think of was Santa Claus, someone Nick never could be. Santa never gutted a leech before and then showed him the entrails as he was dying. Nick had on several occasions when he was working with me. It was almost a signature move for any extreme sanctions he performed. Nick could be a vicious bastard where the leeches were concerned.

About twenty minutes, and four more equipment checks later, a light blue sedan rolled up next to us. Four lycanthropes got out and approached us. All were in human form and had the Germanic features that were common traits for lycanthropes. Their clothes fit into the upper-middle-class neighborhood. One of them took a step towards us.

“I’m Peter Ringston, the leader for this jaunt. You two all set?” he asked. I nodded. Nick turned to face him and gave him a once over.

“Are you armed?” Nick asked quietly. Peter nodded. The four flashed a bunch of pistols. Nick motioned them to come over to us. As they approached, Peter pulled out a map of the area. He set it down on the ground and began pointing out the important parts.

“Okay, this is where the pup lives. Her uncle was supposed to be here to do the bite, but he was attacked a week ago by the leeches. Normally we don’t have a lot of vampires out this way, so I’m not particularly sure how to use you two. My brother insisted you go along though, especially considering what happened to her uncle.” We looked at his map. Although the Peace dictated no hostile actions between the lycanthropes and the vampires, the centuries’ of war before the Peace meant attacks still happened. They just needed to be deniable by the respective leaderships, or in retribution allowed under the Peace.

“What about her parents?” I asked, “Shouldn’t they be brought in as well?”

“Her parents are only kin,” Ringston answered, “At least her father is. He estranged himself from our pack before he married. I guess he didn’t think he would sire a pup.” I nodded. It was uncommon for a kin to sire a pup on his own. Still, pups were pups. They needed to be brought into the packs, at least to be run through tysach. Even full lycanthrope parents can’t teach a pup everything that a lycanthrope would need to know in order to survive in our world.

“How were you going to approach the house?” I asked Peter. He explained he was going to drive up to a spot about a block from the house. Then, they would shed for true and approach the house. Once they knew where in the house the pup was, they would crash the house and implant into the pup’s mind the need to go to the cravex on the next full moon. Nicky and I traded looks and turned back to face the others.

“We can follow that plan,” I told him, “We’ll follow you to that spot. From there, one of us will take the lead to the pup’s house, while the other covers the rear. I want you to keep your eyes and ears open. Anything, and I mean anything, that seems suspicious, you let one of us know. Don’t try to deal with it yourself. We’re the professionals, so let us handle it. Once we get to the house, we’ll take a look around, and then you can enter. Do you guys know how to use your weapons?” I motioned to their pistols. They all nodded hesitantly, which didn’t reassure me. “Can you hit accurately with them?” To this, they just looked at each other with questioning glances. I shook my head in frustration.

“Alright, don’t shoot anything unless you are damned sure you can hit it. And make sure it’s not one of us,” I told them as I started the motorcycle’s monster engine. I remembered something and caught Peter’s attention. “Oh yeah, one last thing. If you have to shoot, don’t stop firing until your target is on the ground.” They nodded slowly in semi-comprehension and got into their car. As Nicky moved alongside of me, I hoped the four lycanthropes did what I told them. Just in case, Nicky and I intended to go over the plan with each of them once we got near the house.

Our three vehicles raced through the streets of Carrollwood, constantly changing our route and formation to lose any possible tails. Not likely, but hunters were always paranoid. Well, that’s what Nick and I were doing. I wasn’t sure if the sedan was mimicking us or if they thought Nick and I were deliberately trying to lose them. We made the trip to the rally point in just over ten minutes. When we parked in the subdivision, Nick and I pulled each of the four off to the side and made them repeat the instructions I gave them back at the parking lot. When the Nick and I were both reasonably sure the four of them had it down, we continued on into the night.

The six of us shed our human forms for true form, or the famous half-man, half-wolf beast of the horror films. Now, instead of six average height humans, we were six huge creatures of the night. This would also protect us from the occasional glance from one of the residents. Humans tended to dismiss the supernatural out of hand. Humans wouldn’t see prowlers, just odd shadows. I could see a couple of Peter’s lycanthropes fiddling with their handguns. I growled harshly for them to stop and walked over to where Nick was standing.

“Point or rear?” I asked. Nick shrugged. I pulled out a penny. I always carried at least one coin on me. It’s one of those things that comes in handy for any number of situations. I flipped it in the air and caught it. Heads. Since it was my coin, I was to take the point, or lead position. The six of us crept up the street. We hid in the shadows created by the orange light of the sodium-based streetlights.  As we approached the house, I drew the sub-machine gun out from under my jacket. Nick and I crouched in a clump of bushes in front of the house next door to the pup, while the others loitered across the street. I screwed on the suppressor as I scanned the pup’s house. If I needed to kill something quick, I didn’t want to wake up the whole neighborhood. Our kin in law enforcement knew what was happening, but there was no need to cause them extra hassles if it wasn’t necessary. At least that’s what the Guildmaster kept telling me. The house was a single-story split room house, common in the suburbs of Tampa. It was painted in contrasting, conservative colors of white and dark brown, with a manicured lawn surrounding it. It looked like a normal suburban home. Something felt wrong. My instincts were roaring wildly with danger signals.

I glanced back over to Nick, who was crouched a few inches from me. He looked back at me and made a half-circle with his hand. Now what? he asked in the Guild’s hand signals.  I laid the MP5 quietly on the ground and hand signaled back that it felt wrong. Nick went still. He respected my instincts. He walked his claw tipped fingers along the ground. Recon? I nodded in answer.

“Peter, there’s something wrong in the house,” I whispered as the pack warriors huddled around me.

“What?” he stammered, shocked and his mind racing with possibilities. “What do you mean wrong?”

“Don’t know yet,” I answered, willing him to calm down, “Nick and I are going to do a little recon. When we think it’s clear, one of us will come get you.” He nodded and started to draw his pistol. My hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. “Don’t. If we need your warriors to back us up, we’ll let you know. I don’t want you playing with guns while Nick and I are busy. Let us handle this.” Peter nodded, but he was still overly anxious. I hated this hand-holding crap, but the Guildmaster told me to be on my best behavior. I tried to be more reassuring.

“Peter, that pup’s safety is our job. Calm down, Nick and I are not going to let anything bad happen to the pup.” I crept back over to Nick. From Peter’s actions and expressions, I was pretty sure that this was his first time leading warriors in the field. Another possible problem to deal with, but recon wouldn’t wait. There was definitely something wrong in that house. I quietly crawled out of the bushes. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Nick’s shape, following me in. No words were necessary. We both knew what was required. The two of us moved from the bushes to the side of the pup’s house. This type of house had the master bedroom in the front of the house and on the other side of the house than the other bedrooms. The master bedroom had sliding glass doors that led into a little patio shielded from the front lawn by an eight-foot brick wall. We’d make our entrance there. As we slowly made our way around the corner, I smelled for the distinctive scent of ozone. Good, the pup’s parents hadn’t installed lasers or some microwave detection systems. Most people in this area of town weren’t quite that paranoid, but every so often hunters ran into a real security-obsessed freak. At that point, things occasionally got interesting.

I turned around the corner and looked into the glass door. Yeah, there was definitely something wrong. Blood streaked the glass. Just beyond the door lay the broken body of an adult human. From my angle, I couldn’t even tell what sex it was. The bedroom was strewn with debris. The bed was broken in half and the insides were littered along the floor. A small lamp in the remains of what was once a bed stand threw eerie shadows on the blood-streaked walls. A thumping noise from inside the house came through the glass.

“Shit,” I whispered, “It looks like we’ve got intruders.”

“I think there’s a hit pack nearby. Let me call Sneller and get us some back up,” Nick said, reaching for his cell phone.

“Not enough time,” I replied.

“Those warriors are not ready to clear a house. We can’t clear it with just us,” Nick said.

“Not following the normal rules,” I said, slipping into the little patio. Nick cursed, but followed me. I grasped the outside handle of the sliding glass door and pulled. It had been locked, but that really didn’t slow me down. The door was slammed back by the sheer force of my strength. The glass shattered as the metal frame rammed into the doorframe. I shrugged at Nick. He glowered at me about the noise but didn’t say anything as we entered the house. The bedroom was even worse than it looked from outside. The smell of death, blood, and ruptured innards laced the air. The figure on the floor had been a woman. Whoever or whatever attacked her tried to see how far back she could bend backwards. When she failed that test, every joint was violently dislocated. On top of that, the head was facing the wrong direction. On the other side of the destroyed bed was a man. His arms and back were laced up and down with deep slashes. Next to him was a small Ruger LCP. I removed the magazine and pulled back the slide. The stupid human didn’t even have a round chambered. I dropped the pistol and magazine into a pocket. I’d turn it over to the Bowcasters after the job. I turned the man over onto his back as Nick covered the bedroom door with his sub-machine gun. The man’s chest was similarly sliced up and he was missing the front of his neck. Nick glanced over at me. With my free hand I made an upside-down “V,” the hand signal for vampires. He nodded. The sound of wild laughter and off-key singing broke through the silence and brought the two of us back to the job at hand.

We made our way out of the master bedroom and through a darkened foyer. We moved carefully, making sure our boots didn’t tap on the cold tiles of the foyer. The rest of the house was as dark as the outside night, but our eyes let us see just fine. To our left was a large room the owners used as a combination dining room and sitting room. I could make out a pair of vampires standing over an adolescent girl was tied up with duct tape. Her hands and legs were behind her, and she was gagged. Yep, she was definitely the pup. Both vampires were cackling and taunting the struggling pup as Nick and I emerged from the darkened foyer. They didn’t even see us as we placed suppressed short bursts into their heads and chests. The rest of the vampires in the house went silent. Contrary to popular belief, silenced weapons are not silent, just suppressed. The CLACK-CLACK-CLACK of our weapon actions were thunderous to supernatural hearing. Those two vampires down, I did a quick scan of our surroundings. The foyer was connected to a hallway linking the large room to another living room. Beyond that living room were two more bedrooms. On the other side of the hallway wall was the kitchen, if I remembered quickly. Out of the kitchen and into the room emerged another vampire. He spotted Nick and me and tried to pull out a weapon. Nick stopped him cold with another burst of his sub-machine gun.

The vampires on the other side of the house were now acutely aware something deadly was in the house with them. The murmur of whispers floated down the hallway where Nick and I were holed up. I nodded my head over to where the pup was still struggling against her bonds. Nick nodded in agreement. We listened for a moment and were rewarded for our patience. We could hear the carpet rustle as another vampire moved down the hallway. Nick was about to round the corner and hose the leech with silver when I reached an arm out and stopped him. With my free hand, I dug out of my pocket a “distraction device.” Often called a flash-bang, these little canisters of fun were used to stun opponents for a few critical seconds. The version I held in my hand would let out a 210-decibel roar and a 2.5 million-candlepower blast of light. The advertisement on the box claimed it was like “having a rocket go off in your target’s face.” This was just the experience I wanted for our sneaking vampire. I pulled the pin and dropped it out into the hallway in front of our stalker. I shut my eyes in time to hear the deafening roar of the flash-bang. As my ears healed from the auditory damage, I heard the vampire screaming in pain from the bright light and shattering blast. He’d heal up from that quick, but it gave us the crucial moment. Nick turned the corner and placed a single shot into the writhing leech’s forehead. As he finished off our stalker, I looked down the hallway into the other living room. There were no others in the room, but I caught a glimpse of a white face peering out from a recess on the other side of the living room that led into the other two bedrooms. It disappeared back into one of the bedrooms before I could bring my weapon to bear on it. The other leeches were holed up in the two bedrooms. Nick and I retreated back from the hall into the foyer. As we put fresh magazines into our weapons, I laid out my idea.

I would throw another flash-bang into the recess. When it went off, I would move into the hall and cover that area. As I did that, Nick would grab the pup and bring her back to the foyer. In case there were more leeches in the kitchen, I gave Nick my last flash-bang. He nodded silently. I pulled the pin on the flash-bang and tossed it. The canister arched gracefully through the air and landed perfectly into the recess with a quiet thump. As it erupted in brilliant light and sound, I scrambled into the hallway from the foyer, falling to the floor as I reached where the hall opened into other living room. I scanned the room. A couch was set against the wall opposite of me, although it looked like the leeches ripped it up a bit. A small couch and a recliner were on the far wall to my right, along with a sliding glass door to the back yard. On my left was an entertainment console with most of the equipment destroyed. I also discovered a set of double doors in another recess to my left. Oh yeah, that was the last bedroom. Deciding the shut doors may hold something a little more dangerous, I gave myself a generous field of fire in the general direction of the doors. I was ready if anything hostile came out of the room behind the two doors. I heard the suppressed stutter from Nick’s sub-machine gun. He must have found another target in the kitchen. So far, so good. Then, the sliding glass door shattered as four lycanthropes came barreling through.

Fuck! I swore as I instinctively turned towards the noise. Peter and his group of lycanthropes staggered up from the floor as the cuts from the glass sealed themselves. While the noisy entrance distracted me, the double doors flew open and gunshots rang out. Peter and the warrior next to him were thrown back as bullets slammed into their chests. Blood poured out onto the carpet, as the two slumped down dead. Silver, my mind rapidly concluded as I turned myself back to the doors. Two vampires dropped empty magazines from the pistols they were holding. As the remaining two pack warriors groped for their own guns, the two leeches smartly inserted fresh magazines. The vampires didn’t see me. They were tunneling in on their targets. That was good for me, not so good for them. I brought up my MP5K and fired short bursts at both of them. They fell back into the room with black ooze covering the front of them. I heard Nick’s footsteps on the kitchen tile coming up to support me. I didn’t hear the girl come up behind me or behind Nick, so where was she? Out of the recess at the far end of the living room came four more vampires, a couple wielding pistols. Nicky and I cut the group down from our firing positions. It was a beautiful killing field for the two of us from our positions. If you ignored us shooting over the pack warriors. One of the vampires was intelligent enough to use his comrade in front of him to shield himself from our gunfire. He leapt over the twitching corpse of his shield to one of the injured pack warriors. The leech grabbed the lycanthrope by the throat and used him as a shield. He put his pistol to the lycanthrope’s temple and smiled. His white face looked like a porcelain mask, just about to crack.

“Throw down your guns, both of you!” he demanded in a falsetto tone. He was scared and trying to maintain a façade of bravado. I heard Nick’s gun hit the floor. Grudgingly, I threw my sub-machine gun from where I was crouched into the room. The vampire relaxed. Dumb fucker. “Now, I’m going to go out this door, and you two asshole dogs aren’t going to follow me. If you attempt to stop me, dweeb-brain, here, loses his head.” The vampire shook the pack warrior by the neck to emphasize his threat. In the darkness, I reached under my jacket and laid my hand on the grip of my USP. I peered at him from around the corner of the hall. He was focused on Nick. I figured he didn’t think I was carrying any other weapons, or that I wouldn’t try anything. Either way, the leech was fucking stupid. He was moving slowly to the shattered glass door making sure that the lycanthrope was between him and the two of us. I drew my USP. I kept my pistol in Condition One with the hammer cocked and the safety on. All I needed to do was snap off the safety to have that nice light single action trigger. The vampire slowly backed up towards the glass door as the other living pack warrior crawled over to where Nick was in the kitchen. I watched the vampire move and made the calculations in my head. It wasn’t going to be easy. Just for once, I wish it would be easy.

As he was halfway out the glass door, I dashed out of the hall. Startled by my sudden appearance, he quickly turned from Nick to face me. I knelt into a crouch and leveled my pistol at him. I focused as the three green dots on the sights of my pistol lined up across his exposed bone-white face. I gently squeezed the trigger, and the pistol roared. The vampire dropped his gun and his hostage as the Silver Shok bullet struck him dead center in the right eye. The leech dropped his hostage as he screeched in astonished pain. As the leech grasped at his shattered eye, I reoriented the sights to his now-exposed body and fired several more times. The bullets forced him back out of the house and onto the concrete porch, but he just wouldn’t go down. I kept firing, unloading into the leech’s chest. He screamed in pain, but he just wouldn’t fall down. The slide of the pistol locked back as the last round fired. My forefinger instinctively levered the magazine release as my left hand snatched a spare magazine from my belt. I was in the middle of changing magazines when a roar rocked the house. The vampire was violently thrown to the concrete back porch. Nick came out of the kitchen pointing a large revolver at the downed leech. The revolver was Nick’s baby, a Smith & Wesson 629 .44 Magnum. Nick strolled over to the leech and fired twice more for good measure.

I retrieved my MP5 and searched the rest of the house for any remaining vampires. Finding nothing, I walked back over to where Nick was helping the pup and the two injured lycanthropes to the liquor cabinet. It took vast quantities of alcohol to get a lycanthrope drunk because of our supernatural healing, but a drink of something strong usually helped relax the adrenaline system. I examined the pup for injuries. She was about five feet tall, her body in the beginning of puberty. She wore her blond hair long. High cheekbones and an even nose framed her blue eyes. I could tell that she was going to become the object of every young male lycanthropes attention in a couple of years.

“What’s your name?” I asked. She stared at my monster form for a few seconds, and then came out of her trance.

“Jennifer Denton,” she answered as Nick handed her a shot of brandy. She looked me up and down with a wide-eyed stare. “Are you really werewolves?”

“We are called lycanthropes. You’re also a lycanthrope,” I answered, availing myself to a glass of vodka that Nick had set in front of me. She sipped at her drink, and then spat it out. Definitely her first time with the hard stuff.

“If you want to finish that, make it quick. We’ve got to get moving,” I told her.

“But what about Mom and Dad?” she asked, beginning to break down over her ordeal of the past few hours. I swallowed my retort as Nick answered. He was much better at this than I was. Sensitivity wasn’t one of my strong suits.

“They’re dead, Jennifer,” he answered with a gentle tone, “I know that hurts so much, but I need you to focus. There’s nothing you can do for them. You must come with us. We are your only family now.” Jennifer composed herself after a few more moments. I had to admit that I was impressed. Too many pups just fall to pieces when first confronted with the brutality of our existence. That was what tysach was for, to condition the pups to deal with our lives. She seemed to already have made the decision to deal with everything later. She pushed the glass away from her and started towards her room. Nicky gently grasped her by the arm and shook his head.

“You’re going to have to leave your things behind for now,” Nick explained in that same reassuring tone,  “Some of us will come back for them later.  The police are going to be here soon, and we need to be gone. Follow those two back and wait for Ranger and me there.” Jennifer nodded without any further words. The two pack warriors led her out of the house as Nick and I called in a contact report to our respective bosses. The Guild needed to coordinate the clean-up with our kin and the pack. With that task completed, Nick and I collected Peter and the other slain pack warrior and walked out the front door. As we made our way through the shadows back to the rally point, we heard the sirens coming closer. A pair of squad cars raced by us as we crept in the darkness, burdened by our heavy loads. Thank the Ancestors for the humans’ blindness.

When we got back to the vehicles, Nicky and I laid the two bodies gently into the back seat of the sedan. Jennifer was sitting in the front seat with one of the lycanthropes. She was almost unnaturally still as she looked straight ahead. The other lycanthrope met with us back from the car in the shadow of a large tree.

“We’ll take them back to the pack,” he said, “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Keep that pup safe,” I said. “Get her to tysach.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll make sure.” The pack warrior took a few steps back to the car before stopping and turning back to Nick and me. “I was angry with our pack leader when he said the Badmoon would be with us tonight. I’m sorry. We wouldn’t have survived if you didn’t do…” His voice trailed off. Part of me wanted to be angry, but apologies were so rare, I forced myself to stay calm.

“You’re welcome,” I said. The pack warrior nodded and quickly trotted back to the car. explained to us that he would take the bodies and the girl back to his pack. —————

“At that point, Nick and I finished extracting out of the neighborhood,” I finished my verbal report to the Guildmaster. We were joined in his office by two other hunters. The first was the hunter who would have been my superior if the Guildmaster hadn’t selected me for the personal hitter slot. James Surebolt went by the pack name of Deadeye and was responsible for the operations of the lone wolves. Deadeye was unique amongst the majority of lycanthropes in that he was a handsome, medium height, wiry African-American. Lycanthropes were mainly Germanic with brown hair and brown or blue eyes, but in the United States, lycanthropy spread in small numbers to other ethnicities. It really didn’t matter to us, a lycanthrope was a lycanthrope, and it didn’t matter what his human form looked like. It was simply a camouflage to allow us to blend into our natural prey. Deadeye was a hunter with a specialty in the art of sniping. Give him a rifle, and there was very little Deadeye couldn’t hit within effective range. Unfortunately for Deadeye, his knack for organizing jobs was noticed by the Guildmaster. After the Guildmaster was appointed, he sent Deadeye to spend a year learning with the Pasco County Guild. Deadeye was chosen to lead the lone wolves upon his return. He was liked and respected by the lone wolves, and worked well with Sneller, who commanded the hit packs. Deadeye was invited because Nick was his subordinate, and the Guildmaster was the type of leader who believed in open communications between the Guild’s leaders and their subordinates. It made corrections easier.

The other attendee was Dennis Matric, a rat bastard of a hunter. Dennis was one of the few hunters with no pack name, so he was known by his hiding name. He was a medium height, dandily dressed, expertly manicured and coiffed hunter with sandy brown hair and blue eyes. He was the Guild’s liaison to Lord Vollen as well as the political advisor to the Guildmaster. Matric and I despised each other, and were barely civil to each other in the presence of the two senior hunters. I wasn’t sure why Matric was in the meeting, but I trusted the Guildmaster had a damned good reason. He didn’t usually put Matric and I in the same room unless it was necessary.

“Why did Ringston’s warriors jump in?” Deadeye asked, half-rhetorically.

“Best guess is that they heard the first flash-bang go off and decided that it was time to fight,” I answered, “Those warriors were looking for a fight. They were armed, and one of their pack had been taken down shortly before the job. I didn’t see it.” In retrospect, I could clearly see all the little physical signals of warriors hyped up for combat, and I wondered why I missed them. It was something I would have to remedy. “Also, what was with the fucking Bleeders being there?”

“How did you come to that conclusion?” asked the Guildmaster. His calm tone told me he was already aware of the fact.

“The two that gunned down the warriors stayed holed up after the flash-bangs, even though they had weapons and surprise,” I stated, “They waited until they had all of the warriors in one killing field. That’s way too much discipline for average vampires, especially for the idiot ones that were in the house.”

“Damn,” Deadeye murmured, “Do we have confirmation?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” the Guildmaster answered, “George’s hit pack went in to recover the pup’s belongings. He confirmed two of the vampires were Bleeders.”

“When we tell Lord Vollen this, he’ll hit the roof,” Matric said, “The Bleeders went after a pup. There’s no way the TCV can write that off to rogue elements. That’s a major escalation.” I rolled my eyes at the obvious statement. The Guildmaster noticed and vigorously hand-signed for me to behave myself.

“We’re going to hold off telling him,” the Guildmaster said. Deadeye and Matric both began to protest, but the Guildmaster silenced them with a wave of his hand. “We are not going to Lord Vollen with something like this without a plan for retribution. I will not allow the Order of Spirits an opportunity to use this against the lord. Now, do you have any suggestions for a target before I call in Kurt?”

“The harem,” I said flatly. All three turned to look at me with some variation of surprise. I focused on the Guildmaster with same level look I always used when he was picking my brain. “They tried to take away one of our most precious things. Let’s take away one of theirs.”

“Are you insane?” demanded Matric, “Attacking the harem would escalate things beyond anything we could hope to control!” The Guildmaster cleared his throat, and Matric bowed his head in recognition in apology.

“I’m not so sure,” Deadeye replied, “It’s been on our hit list since we found it. Attacking it now would send a message to the Bleeders and maybe a strong enough message to the TCV to make them back down from this latest round. We’ve been playing tit for tat for nearly two months. If we can stop it, and make the TCV ‘reaffirm its commitment to the Peace,’ then we hand a pretty nice win to Lord Vollen.”

“Which would give the shaman a nice kick between the legs,” Matric assented, “I’m still worried such an attack would just push things even farther rather than make the TCV back things down. Silanti is growing in power. This could be just the provocation he needs to push the Inner Council fully into his hands.” The room fell silent as the Guildmaster pondered.

“We’ll present the harem option to the lord,” the Guildmaster said, after several long moments, “I’ll have Kurt get one of his hit packs ready. Matric, sell this to Lord Vollen. As soon as the operation is finished, I want every hunter speaking to their contacts. I want it known the Guild would prefer if both sides agree to cool down, but we are prepared to go to war if the vampire refuse to back down or attempt any further retribution.” Deadeye, Matric, and I simply nodded. As stood to leave, the Guildmaster stopped me, “Marcus, stay back for a bit.”

“I have a feeling I’m going to need you on this job,” the Guildmaster said as soon as the door to his office was closed. I gave him a level look.

“Not that I’m complaining boss, but isn’t this a job for a hit pack?” I asked, “Sneller might get a bit pissed if you just use your personal hitter, even for something of this magnitude. Plus, the harem’s really too big for just me. Even if it’s a slash-and-burn job.”

“I fully intend to have a hit pack doing the majority of the work,” the Guildmaster answered, “Sneller’s hit packs are very good, but on a job of this sensitivity, I want my best on scene. I want you there to advise and back-up whomever Sneller sends.”

“As long as it’s not JB’s team,” I replied, “That wolf’s a fucking asshole.” JB was the leader of one of the better hit packs, but he and I had a bad history. Both of us still held a grudge.

“You do realize that many of the Guild have the same opinion of you,” the Guildmaster chided, “You’re good, but sometimes that chip on your shoulder mentality gets to be a bit much.”

“Sorry boss,” I said, contritely. If the Guildmaster was bringing it to my attention, then it was beginning to be a problem. I knew I had some issues arising from being a Badmoon, as much as I publicly stated otherwise. Sometimes those issues caused some friction between myself and other hunters. I was going to have to watch myself and try not to cause the Guildmaster as many problems. I knew the Guildmaster risked a good deal of his personal honor by appointing me as his personal hitter, both because I was extremely young for the position, and because of my status as a Badmoon. I would sacrifice myself rather than betray that kind of trust. “Let me know what you want me to do.” ————————————————

“Ranger, do you have any movement?” Whisper asked. Whisper, proper name George Ghostwalk, was the leader of the hit pack Sneller selected for the job against the harem. Matric did a hell of a job selling the operation to Lord Vollen, because we were green lit barely four hours after the meeting with the Guildmaster. I met up with Whisper’s pack at the Guild and the five of us worked out the plan for the job. I was glad Sneller chose Whisper and his pack. I worked with them before, and I trusted them. Trust was going to be an essential factor on this kind of job.

There are good reasons why Guild chapters are built with a mix of hit packs and lone wolves. Different jobs require different techniques. Lone wolves work singly and sometimes in pairs. They do jobs like assassinations, infiltrations, and sabotage. Hit packs have at least four members, and they are used for hardened targets, protective details, and surgical attacks. Although lone wolves and hit packs trained together, there isn’t the instinctive integration each section fostered amongst their own members. Add to the normal rift between the factions with the fact I was the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, who trained even less with the hit packs, and it meant an extremely high Murphy factor for the job. Trust between Whisper’s pack and me went a long way to quell the gremlins, both during job planning and execution – especially for a job of this magnitude.

The harem was discovered by accident about a year ago. Nick was sent to sanction a leech snatching women on our territory. Nick snatched the leech off the street and took the leech to a safe house for interrogation. It’s not like we can plant spies into the vampire hierarchy, so any vampire we think might have some intelligence we want, we spend a good deal of time extracting it. Most of what we get is worthless shit, but every so often we manage to discover a real nugget of joy. The harem was one of those nuggets.

The harem was part of the vampires’ quest to produce the ultimate vampire. Vampire society has no religion and no deities. What they have instead is this peculiar crusade, particularly among those few vampires that manage to survive beyond a century of being undead, to create a vampire so powerful, it would lead the entire race to victory over the lycanthropes and such. I know of two attempts since I joined the Guild that almost succeeded, but were destroyed. Not by the lycanthropes. The pathwalkers simply wiped the councils of the cities from existence. Why the vampires continued to court destruction from the demi-gods of our world I will never understand, but they always do. The harem was a breeding program where the TCV attempted to produce a human with all of the physical and mental characteristics they think will translate into the ultimate vampire once the human was transformed. When Nick found out about the harem, most of the lycanthrope leadership didn’t consider it important. At least, not that it might produce some sort of super-vampire for the TCV. We were confident the pathwalkers would obliterate the harem if it actually got to the point of possibly producing the ultimate vampire. Plus, the pathwalkers would most likely wipe out the TCV in the process. That would solve a lot of our problems. No, what was important was that the harem was very important to the TCV. That made it a prime target. The Hunters Guild covertly built up its intelligence on the harem, because we knew it would be one of those high-value targets for a political situation such as we were facing.

The harem was located near the University of South Florida, in an area called Suitcase City for the transient nature of many of the residents. It was a high-crime area and a place easy to hide a couple dozen human slaves. The building itself was a converted warehouse surrounded by a chain-link fence and topped with razor wire. The blue paint was faded and there were rust spots on the metal walls. The disrepair was just camouflage. When the Guild was gathering intelligence on the harem, hunters found low-observable cameras, infra-red beams, and motion detectors. Further probing found the chain link fence as well as the ground just beyond the fence were laced with detection devices that would alert the leeches inside the harem as well as lighting off concealed spotlights. Any type of covert entry attempt would trigger the grid. At that point, the intruder would be caught in a suddenly daylight-bright open area, with no cover, while the leeches from inside could cut him down without ever having to expose themselves. It was euphemistically called in the intelligence report as a “non-optimal entry situation.”

Because of all the security, I wanted to be brazen and just blow through all their little safeguards. Whisper, by his nature, still favored a covert entry and extraction. He was the hit pack leader assigned to the job, so it was decided this would be a quiet, daytime operation. It was kind of funny. When humans thought of covert operations, they thought of people skulking around in the dark. We were just the opposite. Night was when the vampires were active. By operating in the daytime, our opposition was limited to ghouls only. Ghouls would fight to the death, but they rarely had the ability to effectively coordinate beyond set patterns. We also set the operation for two hours before dusk, which in early October meant we would be doing the job around five in the afternoon. Our entrance would be covered by human drivers using the back streets to avoid the rush hour backups on Fletcher and Bearss Avenues.

I accomplished the first part of the job during the morning hours. As part of the Guild’s surveillance of the harem, we rented out apartments and homes on the streets surrounding the warehouse. Starting an hour after sunrise, I took out a chosen group of the surveillance cameras with a suppressed M4. The Bowmasters customized the carbine for damn-near silent precision shooting. The sound of the brass hitting the ground was louder than the report of the carbine. From the view of ghouls, it should have looked like the hunters were randomly knocking out the cameras. It wasn’t the first time we’d done it. Not enough to make it look like we knew what was in the warehouse, but just enough for harassment of a known vampire location. The ghouls, almost following a script, responded to my plinking by doing foot patrols and increasing the number of beams on their infra-red emitters. After I completed the destruction of the selected cameras, I parked across the street in a converted van. A switch on the dashboard made smoke come out of the van’s engine compartment. I faked an attempt to fix the van, pretended to walk off, and then sneaked into the back of the van. The van was equipped with a pair of concealed fiber-optic cameras in the side linked to a large monitor. In addition to those, I could tap into the cameras the Guild rigged in our rented apartments around the harem. I watched as the ghouls maintained their vigilant patrols. As hours stretched towards dusk, the ghouls began to relax. The ghouls knew their masters would be rising soon. It was time for us to strike.

“Two patrollers on my side,” I said to Whisper. His hit pack was rolling up on the other side of the harem. “Negative on your side. Negative movement in the target.”

“Initiate in fifteen seconds,” Whisper replied. My part in this job would be limited. The Guildmaster mainly wanted me on scene in case the shit hit the fan. Well that, and because his own personal honor demanded his personal hitter be part of our retribution. The TCV was about to learn what happened when you fucked with our pups. I picked up the suppressed carbine and braced it in the gun port. I took aim and fired twice. Both of the ghouls patrolling on my side of the harem went down without a word. That would draw some attention towards me, but I wanted all the ghouls looking away from where Whisper and his hit pack were infiltrating. For that I pulled out the Bloop Gun.

I put the muzzle of the grenade launcher through the firing port and fired a single round of white phosphorous at the fence. White phosphorous,often called willey-pete, burned like thermite and could catch metal on fire. Fire was one of those things vampires – or their ghouls – couldn’t ignore. A side effect of vampires being so handily flammable. The willey-pete round hit the chain-link fence and exploded, immolating everything in a ten-foot radius. I reloaded the [M79]](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M79_grenade_launcher) before the first round exploded. A second 40mm grenade hit the northwest corner of the warehouse. The ghouls poured out of the harem. I smiled as I watched the ghouls used huge fire extinguishers on the two chemical blazes. Those would be less than useful.

“Arson accomplished,” I announced, “You’re cleared.” Four lycanthropes in cargo pants and long shirts emerged from one of the nearby houses. As they neared the harem from the southeast, the long shirts were stripped to reveal tactical rigs and stubby, compact assault rifles. I kept the ghouls distracted by a flash-bang round from the Bloop Gun. The hit pack scampered over the fence as the ghouls were stunned by the loud brilliance of the pyrotechnic round. I watched as the hit pack neared the door, shed forms, and entered the harem. This was the most difficult time for me because I would have to watch and wait instead of actually participating in the fun and games. Even worse, I couldn’t see what Whisper and his hit pack were dealing with inside the harem. The Guild always emphasized simplicity of load when doing a job, and the additional burden of proper video monitoring was considered too distracting.

The ghouls realized what was happening as soon as Whisper’s hit pack entered. Some of the ghouls fighting the fires perked up and held their hands to their ears. My first instinct was to land a frag round into their midst, but I caused enough damage with the two incendiaries. Part of jobs was balancing firepower with the need to stay below the pathwalkers’ attention. Using fragmentation grenades would draw unnecessary attention after the fact. [Flash-bangs]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_bang_grenade), on the other hand, were little more than powerful fireworks. So, a second flash-bang round detonated between the ghouls and the harem.

“Whisper, you’ve got company coming,” I said.

“Ranger, kill them all,” Whisper answered. My instincts roared to life. There was something very wrong in Whisper’s voice. “Kill them and then get in here.” There was something about the way he said it that demanded urgency. The precision carbine was left on the floor of the van. I unclipped its nastier brother from the rack behind me. This one was equipped with a shortened M203 40mm grenade launcher attached under the barrel. As I slinked out of the back of the van, I brought the M4 to my shoulder and fired the beehive round from the grenade launcher. The beehive round was a custom load that sent dozens of high-speed flechettes into the mass of ghouls. Several went down screaming. The rest froze in shock at the attack. Before they could react, I reloaded the grenade launcher. I fired another beehive round at the other group of ghouls. The few that could still stand to raise were cut down by precise bursts from the carbine. I shimmied over the fence and ran to the harem.

“Whisper, I’m outside,” I said as I reloaded both the carbine and grenade launcher, “SITREP?”

“Warehouse is an open area. Catwalk on the east side. Multiple alchemists on catwalk reigning hell down on us. Cannon is down. We are pinned down just inside entry.” What the fuck? Alchemists were the leeches’ version of shaman. Magical powers and a bad attitude were their trademarks. Alchemists also had a nasty habit of underestimating opponents that didn’t wield mystical forces. They were also rare enough in vampire society that they generally weren’t allowed into areas that the lycanthropes controlled. I could see one being at the harem, but multiple? I would have to sort that out after the fight.

“Whisper, are any of them oriented towards me?” I asked, changing the round in the grenade launcher. This was going to be damn risky.

“Negative,” Whisper answered, “Plan?”

“Get ready to move,” I replied, “Fire in the hole.” A swift kick knocked down the door. I stuck the muzzle through the door, pointed at where the catwalk should be, and launched the flash-bang. Nice thing about fighting alchemists is they need to maintain concentration to work their magic. Most alchemists could handle some combat distractions like the occasional bullet whizzing by them. Damn few of them can withstand the visual and audio fury of a flash-bang grenade. I was through the door as soon as the grenade detonated, shedding forms as I moved. Shedding on the move is difficult for most lycanthropes because your limbs, strength, and senses are changing between steps. Plus, it just fucking hurts. Sometimes it’s just damn necessary, which is why the Guild trains hunters to shed forms while doing all sorts of fun tasks.

The interior of the harem was dark, almost to the point of being able to defeat even a lycanthrope’s night vision. The main area of the harem was divided by a series of heavy canvas curtains with walkways running between the doors and a central walkway. The catwalk was on the east side of the building. It was essentially a raised viewpoint for supervising. The leech alchemists were slowly recovering from the effects of the flash-bang. Whisper, Patches, and Fencer were up and firing. Between the four of us, the alchemists were cut down within a few seconds.

With the alchemists down, Whisper, Patches, Fencer, and me cleared each individual section. In each partition was a human female on the concrete floor, unconscious, naked, and covered with small cuts that looked like runes of some sort. The whole area made my instincts roar with danger. We methodically cleared the harem. There were about twenty women in the ritualistic poses on the main floor of the harem. On the catwalk were five alchemists. We also found a dead male ghoul with similar rune cuts on his body. All of it confirmed why I hated magicks. It was just too fucking weird. Whisper called me down from the catwalk to meet up with his hit pack near where they entered the harem. They were surrounding their injured member. Cannon was still unconscious and twitching in pain from whatever the alchemists hit him with.

“Let’s burn this place and get home,” Whisper said, looking at his convulsing companion. I could see in his eyes the concern he held for his downed subordinate.

“No,” I replied, shaking my head, “We need to call the shaman out. I don’t know what was going on in here, but I don’t think this was a normal harem. This was something far nastier. We need this place purified, and burning alone isn’t going to do it. We need a shaman to do it right.” I could feel the taint of the place trying to seep into me.

“We do that, and the shaman will take credit for this job,” Patches countered.

“Yeah, I know, but we need to completely eradicate this place. Not only the structure, but all of the nasty stuff they did here. Besides, a good shaman may be able to tell us what the hell was going on here, and what they did to Cannon.” The three murmured agreement, but they were not happy with the situation. In truth, neither was I, but this was why the Guildmaster sent me along for this job. It wasn’t all fun and games being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. I pulled out my phone and called my boss. He might be able to call out a shaman that wasn’t too involved in the political situation.

A pair of shaman arrived roughly ten minutes later. I didn’t know either of them, but Whisper knew the elder one. They talked for a moment as the other hunters and I kept a look out for additional ghouls or human problems. The shaman looked the scene over and frantically began calling other shaman. From what I could overhear, we stumbled into something big and nasty, magically speaking. Within two minutes, four more shaman arrived. Two took Cannon away for healing, while the rest were discussing some ritual or another. Then Jeremy Ghosttalker arrived. Jeremy was just under Yven in the Order’s hierarchy, and while he wasn’t a friend to the Guild, he wasn’t an enemy either.

“I suggest that you vacate,” he told Whisper, visibly ignoring my presence. Jeremy was one of those who considered me an abomination, but as long as the lord tolerated my presence in the county, Jeremy wasn’t going to do anything against me. He was a jackass, but at least he was a tolerable jackass. “We are going to have to do some intense magicks, and I don’t want any problems. Especially from the presence of an abomination.” He nodded his head in my direction. Whisper and the others tensed, readying for a fight. I was pissed, and I would have loved to put a lead bullet in Jeremy’s back. Unfortunately, it was neither time nor place for a throw down between shaman and hunters. There were bigger issues.

“We’ll just leave you to do the tidying up,” I said, walking back to the van, “After all, we’ve already done the hard work. Not that you’d know what the fuck that is.” I ignored Jeremy’s sputtered retort as I casually walked over to the van. It would be dark soon, and there was another part to this job.

Chapter 3: Dealing With Others