After the Rite of Discovery, I didn’t hear from the Guildmaster. What was worse, I didn’t hear anything from Bradon. According to the other hunters, the vampires were laying low. They knew the lycanthropes were out for vengeance. The Bleeders were warning the other leeches to stay in their territory and do nothing to provoke the lycanthropes. Without any jobs coming my way, I busied myself going through my gear. My instincts were telling me I was going to need everything in optimum condition. Hours were needed to go through the mass of electronics, climbing rigs, weapons, and other items I used for jobs. My last tasks were cleaning my primary weapons. With my hands grimy with lubricant, the phone rang. I cursed as I hastily wiped my hands on my t-shirt and picked up the receiver without checking the number.

“Marcus, what are you doing right now?” the Guildmaster asked. I could tell by the sound of his voice something was wrong.

“Putting my Commando back together,” I replied, nonchalantly, “What’s up?”

“The coronation is being held early. The day after tomorrow,” the Guildmaster answered flatly.

“What the fuck?” I asked into the telephone, nearly dropping the upper of my Commando. The coronation was always held on the next Bone Moon after the death of the previous lord. The period between was for the packs to mourn the loss of the lord. For the coronation to be held less than two weeks after the funeral of a lord was unheard of, even during the Discovery War when we first fought the vampires.

“The Spiritmaster approved it. In fact, I believe he came up with the idea,” the Guildmaster said. That didn’t sound right. The Spiritmaster was the most conservative lycanthrope I knew. I couldn’t conceive of him violating tradition.

“What gives you that idea?” I asked.

“Dennis overheard a pair of shaman at the Manor. They were talking about some sort of divine premonition the Spiritmaster received. Two hours later the announcement came down. I don’t believe the two are coincidence,” the Guildmaster explained. As much as I hated to admit it, Dennis could actually produce useful intelligence on occasion.

“Do you think this has anything to do with the package you received after the funeral?” I asked. The Guildmaster let out a dark breath before answering my question.

“Yes, I do. I want you at my office in two hours,” the Guildmaster said, “I’m going to bring in Kurt and James, and maybe a couple of others. I want the Guild to hit the ground running.” He broke the connection abruptly. I set down the phone. As I inserted a magazine into the Commando, my mind raced over the possibilities. I didn’t like any of them.

I roared into the parking lot of the Guildmaster’s office complex an hour and forty-five minutes later. There were a pair of hunters in the parking lot. They looked like they were having a casual conversation, but they were constantly scanning the area around the complex. They made quick eye contact with me and went back to their talking. My instincts were screaming with the tension in the air. I walked in to the reception area. The usual secretary was gone. One of Amber Werstand’s kin employees was manning the front desk. In the lobby were the two more hunters. The kin flashed her eyes up at me and nodded.

I strode up the stairs and entered the Guildmaster’s office. Deadeye and Sneller were sitting in front of the Guildmaster’s desk. Deadeye was reading a sheet of paper. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone else in the room. Turning, I found John Bowmaster availing himself to the Guildmaster’s small wet bar. We did the acknowledgment nod.

“Anyone else joining us?” I asked the Guildmaster.

“Not right now,” he answered. Looking me dead in the eye, the Guildmaster continued, “This county is going to war.” The statement floored me. I tried to keep my face impassive as my mind tried to comprehend what it was just told. Granted, a few weeks ago, I might have relished the opportunity for unrestricted leech hunting, but that was when Stephen Vollen was in the lord.

“Are you sure?” was the only question I could summon.

“Yes,” Deadeye answered. He handed me the paper he was reading. The masthead was from the Lord’s Manor. I read the single sentence. As the vampire infestation is no longer acceptable to the leadership of the lycanthrope society in Hillsborough County, I, the Lord-Apparent, order the Hunters Guild to deploy its strike forces for immediate operations following the coronation. There was only one thing for me to do.

“What are your orders?” I asked, without any trace of my normal flippancy. The aristocracy issued its orders to the Hunters Guild. It was our duty to follow them – whether we thought the orders were sensible or not. The last thing my Guildmaster needed was to try and deal with my normal smart-assedness.

“We will go with Plan Black. John and his brother will be issuing mission weapon packages to the hit packs. They will be at their safehouses until their targets are identified. The lone wolves will also be issued general weapon packages. I want them to act as a back-up measure for the packs in case some of they need additional hands. I’ll also want them available in case some of packs’ targets are missed. Marcus, you and one of Kurt’s hit packs will accompany me to the coronation. Afterwards, you will forego the party and begin your jobs. Any questions?” None of us spoke. The Guildmaster dismissed us with a wave of his hand. I held back as the others left.

“What is it Marcus?” the Guildmaster asked.

“I’m going to exercise one of my roles and privileges of being your personal hitter,” I said. He cocked an eyebrow in surprise. I took that as my cue to continue. “Plan Black? Are you sure you want to go with that?”

“What would you suggest?” the Guildmaster asked. He sounded genuinely curious.

“Plan Orange or Plan Gold,” I said. He gave me an apprising look.

“Of all my immediate subordinates, you were the last one I would’ve expected to recommend I exercise some restraint in our initial strike,” the Guildmaster said. “Could it be that your personal feelings are weighing on your decisions?”

“Of course they are,” I said, “I don’t know why the Lord-Apparent decided to take this county to war. Probably because he believes the TCV was behind his father’s murder. Which we know is not the case, but haven’t told him. I understand your reasons for holding that back. I don’t agree, but I understand. If we find the evidence you want that would implicate another lord in the assassination, we need to be able to stop the war fast. Plan Black would wreak so much havoc in the TCV’s leadership, we couldn’t stop the war quickly enough.” The Guildmaster stood up from his desk and walked over to me. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked at me.

“Marcus, I can’t tell you how proud of you I am right now,” he said. His words caught me off-guard. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say. The Guildmaster broke away from me and sat back down behind his desk. “I considered the same things, but my decision stands. Plan Black will be initiated on the night of the coronation.” I mutely nodded my head in acknowledgement and walked out of the office. I was still trying to figure out what happened as I rode back to my house.

The night of the coronation was crystal clear. The Order’s spells removed much of the haze from the city. I could see more of the night’s stars than I had seen in years. The only marring feature of the night sky was the half-full moon. I wasn’t a particularly religious lycanthrope, but even I couldn’t help feeling the coronation being held so early was perilously close to heresy. I wasn’t the only one. As other lycanthropes passed our small group, I overheard worries of the Ancestors’ displeasure.

I stood in front of the Manor. I felt uncomfortable in my robes. No, that wasn’t quite true. I was uncomfortable with the job I was assigned. I’ve had a few uncomfortable jobs over the years. It’s part of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. Over the years, I built up my own ritual for dealing with the stress. Having to escort the Guildmaster to the coronation threw that ritual out the fucking window. As I waited for the Guildmaster, I checked the security personnel again. I didn’t expect any trouble. I was pretty sure Whoever our mystery assassin was, it was unlikely he would show up here. Professionals of that caliber wouldn’t waste their time on any of the small targets that were going to be here. At least that was my opinion. The Guild was still unsure if the entire operation was completed with Lord Vollen’s assassination. The hunters assigned to the Manor for the evening were our best defensive hunters, and they backed up by a strong force of hunter-trained pack warriors acting as marshals. It helped the current Manor was built to make it easy to defend.

This house had been the Manor for the past five years. It was built in on five acres of rural land in the southwestern corner of the county. Surrounding the property was an eight-foot high wrought iron fence. The black, one-inch thick posts were topped with one-inch silver spikes. The spikes were painted black to match the iron bars – more to discourage thieves than surprise intruders. In addition to the spikes, low-light cameras and motion detectors were scattered along the fence line, disguised as ornaments. At each of the corners, were hardened turrets with concealed machine guns that were remotely controlled from the house. The front gate was the only entrance to the property. Each half of the gate slid through two more turrets. With a flip of a switch, heavy concrete pylons would pop up across the driveway to prevent a vehicle from trying to slam through the gate. The grounds of the Manor were well trimmed with only a few tall evergreen trees dotting the landscape. Patrolling the grounds were three groups of six. They were a mix of hunter-trained pack warriors and shamans. The house, itself, was built into the side of the artificially created hill. Only about half of the house was visible, with the section that housed the Manor proper well buried underneath the hill. A small half-floor sat on top of the hill, hidden by the sloping roof of the house. No doubt a Red Knight crew was in the half-floor covering the rear entrance on top of the hill. That was one of the main advantages of the house’s design. Instead of the entire rear of the house having to be guarded, only the half-floor needed defense. The only rear entrance was the sliding glass door on the half-floor that faced out onto the hill. The house was upscale, but not grandiose. The roof came down from the half-floor to about twelve feet off the ground, disrupted only by a few well-concealed windows. The front of the house was painted in medium grays and featured lightly done wood work. Behind that wood-work was concrete walls that would withstand most explosives short of a large thermo-baric. There was a good reason for all of this security. The Manor was not just the home of the aristocracy. It was the last bastion for Hillsborough County’s packs. Inside its walls, the lycanthropes of our county could fight off any threat. Well except for Pathwalkers. No physical or magick barrier would protect us if they decided to involve themselves. I shook that thought from my mind. I had enough problems without worrying about the Pathwalkers.

I stood on the walk from the horseshoe driveway to the front door of the Manor. Various pack leaders and important lycanthropes from the surrounding counties walked by me without noticing. About five feet from me was Sneller’s chosen hit pack. I often thought Sneller had a twisted sense of humor. The hit pack he assigned to accompany the Guildmaster certainly led credence to my suspicion. The hit pack was very capable and probably was one of the best in the Guild, but the leader of the group and I had strong feelings for each other; feelings of hatred and loathing. The leader, JB, had been a hunter for about as long as me. He was of average height, and wore his dark hair in a crew cut. His dark eyes smoldered as he glanced at me. Unlike me, he was a dedicated hit pack wolf. When we joined the Hillsborough chapter, there was a distinct coolness between us. That was mostly from bravado and arrogance on each of our parts combined with the normal rivalry between hit packs and lone wolves. That coolness was transformed to intense hatred about eight years back. Before the current Guildmaster came to head the Guild, the lone wolves and the hit packs didn’t talk to each other. It wasn’t uncommon for a hit pack and a lone wolf to be assigned the same target. It got to the point that when a job was given, one faction went to the other side of the house to make sure that no one else was doing the same job, and if so, to coordinate action. On the night in question, JB’s group and I were both assigned to sanction a prominent member of the TCV who had been recruiting vampires on our territory. Since the TCV couldn’t rein the vampire in, the Hunters Guild was asked by Bradon to do it for them. I didn’t know that at the time. Bradon told me much later. It was rush job and neither JB nor I bothered to check if anyone else had been given the job. It was a simple straightforward job that was perfect for a young hunter like me – at least on the face of it. In all honesty, the leech went down fast, but I fucked up my extraction and ended up starting a firefight with the leech’s ghouls and minion vampires. As I was fighting for my life, JB’s hit pack at the time pulled up at the front gate of the leech’s home. They planned a covert insertion using a basic bluff. It probably would have worked, but not while the guards and I were busy exchanging gunfire. The now-alerted leech forces and the hit pack met in a bloody and violent firefight. I escaped in the confusion thinking JB’s group extracted themselves. The hit pack and the leeches fought each other for the next two hours in a running gun battle all over Hyde Park. It ended with most of the leech forces killed, but with the leader of the hit pack severely wounded and the rest of the hit pack walking wounded. I’m sure JB would have killed me for that, but the battle earned him and the hit pack a great deal of respect both within the Guild and the lycanthrope community at large. JB’s coolness under fire during the fight resulted in him being promoted to the leader of the hit pack. He continued to rise in status and proficiency ever since. The grudge between the two of us was still there.

I didn’t really know the rest of JB’s hit pack, but apparently JB explained our history beforehand. JB’s deputy was a huge lycanthrope by the name of Farmer. He was a wall of flesh and muscle topping in at just over six and a half feet tall with physique of a professional wrestler in human form. In true form, he was terrifying. The other two were more average looking, but both of them held a wild gleam in their eyes. It slightly worried me until JB introduced them as the Crazy Boys. They were brothers with a reputation as dangerous and slightly off-kilter assassins. They earned their nickname from the wild cackling laugh they both used to signal a particularly interesting or difficult kill. The two started in the Guild as lone wolves, but Deadeye didn’t trust them and asked the Guildmaster to switch them over to the hit packs. Sneller agreed to take the Boys, and promptly handed them over to his resident bad-ass hit pack leader, JB. The Crazy Boys had been with JB for almost a year and thrived as hit pack members. They still made me a little nervous. I could do things on the reckless side, but that was calculated. Those two were just fucking nuts.

The crowd flowed by me as I saw the Guildmaster and his wife walk up to the five of us. Both were dressed in dark robes. The Guildmaster’s robes were adorned with golden runes, depicting his position in the ancient tongue. JB’s hit pack and I fell into position around the Werstands and escorted them into the Manor. As our group approached the front door, the two Red Knights on duty tensed up. They were both dressed in the ceremonial robes and holding deskunas. They may be ceremonial weapons, but they were still effective. The senior Red Knight did a pro-forma check of the Guildmaster’s credentials as the other Knight watched the rest of us suspiciously. Upon going through the door, the nondescript facade of the house faded into regal elegance. The floor was constructed of marble tile, covered only by a wide red carpet. Tapestries depicting famous battles from our history were hung along the walls. The ceiling was dominated by a huge gold and crystal chandelier. Standing on either side of the carpet stood two more Red Knights in ceremonial dress and carrying deskunas. As my eyes scanned the hallway, I noticed a shadow out of my eye. Staring at me, with the gleam of unadulterated hatred in his eyes, was the Red Knight from the night of the assassination, Smythe.

“Does anyone know why Knight Smythe is looking at me like he wants me dead?” I asked. I hadn’t interacted with Smythe since the night of the assassination.

“Because he does,” the Guildmaster and JB said at the same time.

“He’s been very vocal to the rest of the Guid that he blames you for not succeeding in putting down the assassin,” the Guildmaster said.

“So, why am I just finding about this right now?” I asked.

“Exactly what would you have done if you’d known?” the Guildmaster asked. I thought about that for a long moment as we walked past Smythe. “At this particular moment, we don’t need my personal hitter antagonizing the thir—in-command of the Red Knights. Just be on your best behavior tonight, and there’s nothing he can do.”

“Sure thing, boss,” I said. JB’s scoff was just barely audible. I chose to ignore it. I had enough stuff on my mind. I followed the Guildmaster and his wife into the Manor proper and marveled again at the splendor of the ancient room. All the items in the rooms were originals from the founding of the lordship almost two hundred years ago. The Manor proper was a huge room, with a domed ceiling painted with several battles from the early times in the Fatherland. The floor was white marble, shining from the reflected light of the gilded chandeliers. About ten feet from each wall ran two lines of marble columns. Each of the twenty columns, ten on each side, was about a foot in diameter and evenly spaced from the door to the throne. On the six closest columns were the banners of the past families that ruled Hillsborough since the lordship was founded in the mid-1800’s.

All of the banners were decorated with brilliant colors and the crests of their line – except one. The one on the closest column on the right of the throne was a pure white. It bore no decorations or any symbols upon it. I’d seen it on the handful of occasions that I came to the Manor. It belonged to the family that held the throne right before Stephen Vollen’s father claimed it some seventy years ago. That was the banner of the Forgotten Lord. What is known of the Forgotten Lord is that he briefly ruled after the end of the Great Fatherland War, known to the humans as World War II. He apparently served well enough during the Great Fatherland War that when the Lord of Hillsborough was killed during the war, the Forgotten Lord was appointed to take over the county by the Prince. During his short reign, he committed some form of grievous offense to the Prince. It wasn’t known what exactly the offense entailed, but some of the rumors involved the Forgotten Lord taking an undesirable mate or betraying the Prince himself. Whatever it was, it was serious enough that the Prince not only removed the Forgotten Lord from the county lordship, but had the State Spiritmaster remove his identity from the memories of almost all lycanthropes in the State of Florida. Only the Prince knew the Forgotten Lord’s identity.

I could feel the angry glares as we walked across the tile floor. The Guildmaster pointedly looked at me and gave a small shake of his head. Our destination was in front of the throne. The throne was a wooden podium about seven feet tall with a narrow staircase in the back. Many lycanthropes likened it to a church pulpit. Directly in front of the throne were areas about twenty feet square laid out in black marble. These were where the family of the lord, the Order, and the Guild stood in the Manor during formal occasions. The family stood in front of the throne, the Order on the right, and the Guild on the left. The Guild took a perverse pride at sitting at the left hand of the throne, especially since we considered ourselves the shadowy part of the trifecta that existed outside the packs. We stood in our area as the Guildmaster walked to the back of the Manor. A pair of Red Knights stood by a door directly behind the throne that led to the Lord’s Room. The actual coronation was held there. Only the Spiritmaster, the Guildmaster, and the three most powerful pack leaders would witness the coronation of the Lord-Apparent. I have no idea what the ceremony was or what it entailed. Like the rest of the county’s lycanthropes, I waited in the Manor. When they came out of the Lord’s Room, Jason Vollen would possess the powerful psychic powers his father and every other lord possessed. That was considered the true sign of being chosen by the Ancestors to be the lord of the county. Once he ascended and took possession of the throne, Jason – now Lord Vollen – would give a speech outlining whatever he planned for the packs of Hillsborough County“. I remembered Stephen Vollen’s coronation speech. Stephen Vollen spoke of unity and restoration of the glory for the county. I wondered what sort of tone Jason would set, although I feared it was going to be a dark tone. War for vengeance is almost always a dark toned course of action. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. I could feel the tension in the air of the Manor.

The tense mood of the room increased as the door creaked open. The first lycanthrope out of the room was the Guildmaster. Carrying the solemn face custom dictated, he strode swiftly across the floor to the Guild’s square. Following him by about twenty paces was the Spiritmaster. The senior shaman strolled to the Order’s square with a casualness that worried me. Just as the Spiritmaster reached the square, he glanced over to us. I could have been wrong, but I swore I saw a smug grin on his muzzle. The three pack leaders joined their packs with neutral expressions. A few moments, the new Lord of Hillsborough County strode into the Manor with a stern expression on his face. He made his path to the throne. There was a dangerous gleam in his eyes that set my instincts roaring with danger warnings. It wasn’t the psychotic gleam I saw in the Crazy Boys. It was something all the more scary. Fanaticism was the only word that came to mind. The door to the throne was a concealed switch that could only be operated by the psychic touch of the aristocracy. This is the first proof to the packs that the Lord-Apparent was now the Lord of Hillsborough County. Jason Vollen – now Lord Vollen, third of his line – closed his eyes. The door clicked and swung open. He walked up into the throne and closed the door with his new powers. The room was silent with anticipation. A smile graced the lord’s muzzle as he looked out among the gathered packs and the few prominent guests. His voice boomed out in the Manor as he began to speak.

“Loyal lycanthropes of my county, I know many of you have worry the timing of my coronation is ill-placed, even heretical. There is a reason the Ancestors decreed the traditions should be put aside. For far too long, our county has lived with the offspring of the cesspool of degradation. We even made peace treaties with them. Even with all of our accommodation and appeasement, they have shown themselves to be completely untrustworthy time and time again. Now they have committed an act of war against our society as a whole. They must pay. As of this night, the Peace no longer exists in our realm.” Lord Vollen paused for a moment as startled gasps echoed throughout the Manor. I realized that although the Guild was preparing for this, none of the packs realized how tense the situation between the lycanthropes and the vampire had become. I doubted they were even prepared to fight. As the packs regained their composure, Lord Vollen continued.

“Our ancient war resumes now.” With those words, JB’s team and I left the Manor. Several shaman followed us. The Knights at the double doors held them open for us. They looked almost envious. Stupid fuckers, this war wasn’t a good thing. I pushed my annoyance down and kept my face an emotionless mask. The shaman raced down the corridor to the door that led outside. JB and I exchanged knowing glances. As I calmly walked down the hallway, I pulled out my phone and told Skiff to bring the car around. I was sure the night was going to have enough excitement without me getting wound up too early. Skiff waiting for me at the front of the driveway in human form, standing next to his pride and joy, a brand-new Ford Mustang. I stripped out of my robe and shed to human form. I opened Skiff’s trunk and pulled out my hanging bag. I unzipped it and an unexpected flood of emotion hit me as I looked at the tailored gray suit. I made sure everything was immaculate as I dressed. Weapons were tucked away in holsters and sheaths around me. I took a few more minutes to make everything was in place.

“Styling,” Skiff commented as he hung up his phone. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in something like that.”

“No, I don’t normally wear this,” I answered stiffly, “This was a gift. I figured it was appropriate.” Skiff cocked a questioning eyebrow at me. I shook my head. This wasn’t the time to go into deep explanations.

“What did Deadeye say?” I asked. Deadeye was coordinating tonight’s operations while Sneller oversaw the security at the Manor with the Red Knights. My job would start the night’s fun and games off.

“Surf’s up, dude,” Skiff answered. He laughed as I rolled my eyes and got into the car.

We reached our destination about twenty minutes later. It was a plain, two-story house in one of the suburbs in New Tampa,, a developing area in the northern part of Hillsborough. When the City of Tampa annexed it in the late 1990’s, it became an area of contention with both the vampire and lycanthropes claiming it. Who controlled what was usually down to a block by block struggle. This part of New Tampa was vampire territory. Skiff stopped long enough for me to get out, and then sped off to his waiting point. My plan didn’t anticipate me getting in without too many problems. Extraction was where I was going to need Skiff’s help. I strode up to the house. Two vampire guards were lounging on the porch. One was tall and lanky with long dark hair tied back into a ponytail. His partner was about my height with a crew cut. They were both dressed in jeans and brightly colored polos. I’m sure to their human neighbors the two vampires seemed to be two young men just hanging out. Two things made them stand out to me: one, the pistols holstered at their hips just under their shirts, and two, their fingernails painted a matte black. This was the home of the Bleeders’ leader, Phillip Bradon, and both of those young men were Bleeders assigned to guard their master. As I reached a couple of steps short of the front porch, their feigned non-interest in me suddenly changed. The tall one leaped in front of me, while his partner trained his pistol on me. I stood face to face with Long Hair as he spoke in the hot, foul-smelling breath of the leeches.

“What are you doing here, doggie?” Long Hair asked, pitifully trying to fill his voice with menace. I wondered if that worked with other vampires.

“I need to see Bradon, immediately,” I replied, coolly. The two laughed at this and Long Hair dropped back a step. I was relieved. His breath could have floored a tank. They looked at each other jokingly, and then turned back to me.

“Now what makes you think we’re going to let a dog go up to see Bradon?” he asked, barely containing his amusement. I folded my arms across my chest and drew my face into a scowl.

“Tell him that Ranger is here to see him. It’s urgent.” Their laughing faces sobered quickly. My instincts roared danger as I recognition in Long Hair’s eyes. I tucked my hand into my jacket and unsnapped the strap on my shoulder holster. Long Hair took another step back and drew his Glock. I could feel the storm brewing around me. With my hand on my own weapon, I plotted how this dance should unfold.

“You know, there’s a bounty–” That was all I let him get in. I didn’t know about any bounty, but that was the start of something. I dropped to a crouch, drawing my own Glock from under my suit jacket. This was why I drilled so damned hard at snap shooting. I double-tapped the leech in front of me. He was hammered to the ground by the nine millimeter silver rounds. Stupid fucker must not have been wearing a vest. I didn’t pay any further attention to Long Hair. I rolled onto the grass as the leech’s partner fired off three rounds at me. I cursed as the bullets screamed by overhead. Their tiny supersonic hisses told me Crew Cut was getting far too close. I came up into a crouch. I placed three shots into the other leech’s head and body before he collapsed to the porch. I swore silently. A gunfight on the front lawn was not what I wanted. I kept my Glock up as I scanned the area for more Bleeders. Instead, an unarmed male ghoul servant came out onto the porch. I trained my pistol on him, but he stood there emotionlessly.

“Mr. Bradon will see you now,” he said in the monotone voice of a personal servant. As I walked in, a pair of Bleeders stopped me. One motioned for me to hand over my weapons, while the other trained a shotgun on me. I reluctantly handed my pistol to the leech. I expected to be disarmed going in. That was why I brought the Glock rather than my USP. The Bleeder put the pistol onto a side table and then motioned for more. I grimaced. They obviously were going to make sure I was completely disarmed. I gave them my backup piece, and my knives. Thank the Ancestors I’d been carrying stuff I could quickly replace. If they were professional enough to know that I had more than one weapon on me, then there was no point in trying to sneak any through. It would just delay me from my job, and the hunters were waiting for me to finish my job so they could start theirs.

“What is that?” one of the Bleeders asked, pointing to a device on my belt.

“Panic button,” I answered curtly.

“What?” the Bleeder asked.

“In case you decide not to be nice while I’m talking to your boss,” I said. The two Bleeders looked at each other and traded shoulder shrugs. They checked me thoroughly one more time. They lingered at letting me keep my pen and my phone, but handed them back before ushering me upstairs. I walked up the stairs, noticing the lack of any color in the house. The carpet was a dull white, with white walls. The few pieces of furniture I saw were nondescript and lacked any real color except for dull blacks. There were no photographs or pictures along the walls. I was into a large room on the second floor. White double doors marked where the white carpet ended and a luscious hardwood floor began. A large picture window gave a view of the well-cultivated backyard. A modern teak desk was placed in the middle of the room, surrounded by book cases, mostly filled with aging leather-bound books. Bradon sat behind the desk in an antique leather chair, arching his fingers at me as I was motioned to sit by my escort. There didn’t seem to be anything on the table, but I knew there was computer equipment in the room by the smell of ozone and several high pitched wines from cooling fans. Bradon motioned for my escort to leave the office. My escort looked at me, then to Bradon, and then back at me. Bradon motioned for him to leave again, this time angrily. The leech bowed slightly and moved backward out the double doors, closing them as he left. Silence enveloped the room, pierced only by the whine of the computer’s cooling fans. Bradon leaned back in his chair, putting his hands on the desk in front of him. I knew then he wanted me to start our conversation.

“Mark, is that the suit I gave you?” Bradon asked, “What did you do to it?” He sounded almost scandalized.

“Your door guards were less than hospitable,” I answered, “I ended up rolling around to keep one of them from killing me.”

“Even so, that’s no way to treat an Armani. I’m almost insulted,” Bradon chided. “Now, what I should be angry with you for killing two of my Bleeders. Perhaps you could tell me why I shouldn’t.”

“Because those two outside weren’t your real protection,” I answered, “They were the trip wires against really dangerous threats. They sucked, by the way. Although if I know you, both of them belonged to one of your upstart subordinates.” A smile crossed Bradon’s face.

“All that time mentoring you is finally paying off,” Bradon said. “Do you know how incredibly dense you were when we first met?”

“Something tells me I should be insulted,” I said. Bradon let out a bark of laughter.

“Come now, I just taught a wolf to understand the barest part of nosferatu politics. I’m proud of both of us,” Bradon replied.

“I wish lycanthrope politics were just a bit more like yours,” I said, my tone telling Bradon it was time to get down to business. His face went impassive as he motioned for me to continue, “The Lord-Apparent ascended to the Lord of Hillsborough County.”

“A bit early for that, isn’t it?” Bradon asked, half-motioning to the window behind him.

“I’m sure you already knew what was happening tonight,” I answered. Bradon just nodded in acknowledgement. “What you may not know is his first declaration. Lord Vollen declared that the nosferatus continued existence in Hillsborough is intolerable. War is inevitable unless you get the TCV to do something to convince him to back down.”

“Are you wolves out of your minds?” Bradon asked, his calm, melodious voice slipping into annoyance, “Do you actually think we had anything to do with Stephen Vollen’s murder?”

“I don’t know what the Lord is or is not aware of,” I said neutrally.

“I take back what I said earlier,” Bradon said, clearly annoyed and quickly descending into anger. “You’re getting too good at nosferatu-style politics. I think I’ve made a critical mistake.” Something about the way Bradon said that last bit made my instincts scream danger. My hand shot down to the panic button at my belt. Bradon’s eyes flicked to the small device and looked at me with cold dark eyes.

“Why are you bringing me this?” he asked quietly. I could feel the explosive tension building in him. If I wasn’t careful, I would be seeing him coming over his desk for my throat.

“The Guildmaster wants you and the Bleeders to stand down,” I said. Bradon’s cold eyes burned with an intensity I’d never seen before. “Let us conduct a few raids, kill some of your enemies. Tell us who you’d like for us to spare on the Inner Council, and the Guild will make sure we leave them alone. Satisfy the packs’ bloodlust and then we can reinstate the Peace.”

“Not a fucking chance,” Bradon said. The curt vulgarity startled me. “You can’t control your new lord, and even if you could, I’m not sacrificing the Tampa Council’s power at a critical moment. We’d be overrun by the Clearwater within weeks if you managed to get your lord to call off the warpath.”

“You’ll be overrun with lycanthropes if you don’t. Save what you can,” I replied, trying to sound calm and confident. My instincts were still screaming. I hate to admit it, but Bradon fucking scared me. He was too good.

“You’re too confident in your warriors,” Bradon said. Then, his eyes narrowed. “Too confidant.” He repeated the words with a cool suspicion in his voice. In the blink of an eye, I was thrown against the wall with Bradon’s iron grip around my throat. I couldn’t believe how fast he’d moved. As I struggled for breath, I realized I’d let myself forget how old Bradon was – and all the power his age gave him.

“You sound too confident, my little pup,” Bradon whispered into my ear, “You’re trying too hard.” I could feel the vertebrae in my neck pop under the pressure. “Was your offer even real? Or was it some pathetic attempt to put me off-guard?” He loosened his grip a bit to let me answer. I gasped for precious air.

“Yes,” I managed. I was slammed against the wall. I felt the odd duality of archanal and normal wounds. Pain flashed from my skull hitting the wall and quickly subsided as it immediately healed. The pain from Bradon crushing my throat didn’t stop.

“I don’t believe you. I think you’re here to kill me. Decapitation strike. Brutal and efficient, just like a dog,” Bradon whispered. “Why did you play with me? Why didn’t you just kill me like you did the two fools in front of my house? At least you could have done that much.” Bradon sounded honestly offended.

“Needed to get close to be sure,” I said. My hand snaked down and pressed the panic button on my belt. The panic button did two things. First it sent a signal to Skiff to come get me. Second, it opened to drop a two-shot derringer into my waiting hand. Bradon noticed the activity, but to no avail. I jammed the derringer into his side and pressed the trigger. Two muted thunderclaps boomed as two silver bullets slammed tore into Bradon’s torso. Bradon’s eyes went wide with pain. He tossed me over his desk as he grabbed his side. Black fluid poured through his fingers. Two guards kicked open the door. They paused as they saw their wounded leader, giving me a precious moment.

I shed my human form for true. As the guards recovered, I threw Bradon’s heavy desk on its side. As expected, sitting in a desk holster was a Glock 17. Bradon told me he always kept one tucked away there. It was why I used the pretense of trying to stop the war. I knew getting Bradon angry was the only way he’d physically attack me instead of just grabbing the pistol. I grabbed the Glock just as the first Bleeder hosed the desk with his submachine gun. I felt the heavy desk thrum as the stream of bullets embedded into the top of the desk. The firing paused as the submachine gun ran dry. I popped up and placed headshots into both guards. One just dropped while the other screamed in pain and ran out of the office. I heard the mechanical racking of a bolt cycling and ducked back behind the desk an instant before another Bleeder opened up with a machine gun. The heavy rifle bullets lanced through the desk. I felt splinters dig into me. Then, I heard a screeching crash from outside.

I looked through the large window behind me. Skiff was exiting the pickup he’d just crashed through Bradon’s fence. He was trading gunfire with the Bleeders. It wasn’t the extract we’d planned, but it was good enough at the moment. I snatched Bradon’s office chair and whipped it through the window. I jumped out of the office window as the Bleeder guard realized what was happening and opened fire with the machinegun. The ground rushed up at me, and I felt the satisfying crunch of my body hitting the grassy ground. Pain flashed and quickly subsided as I figured which direction I needed to run. Gunshots cracked overhead as I ran crouched towards Skiff.

“Dude, car’s outside,” Skiff said as he casually emptied his submachine gun into a pair of Bleeders. One fell, but the other staggered back to the house. The Bleeder with the machinegun stood in the window and opened up. Skiff and I scampered out of the hole in the fence as bullets rained down on us. Just as he said, the car was idling at the curb. I climbed in and dropped the magazine out of the Glock to check the rounds. Ten rounds of the vampires’ silver bullets. Not as good as Silver Shoks, but they’d do in a pinch. Skiff jumped into the car. Throwing the car in reverse, he punched the gas, nearly running into a tree on the other side of the street. He threw the car in gear and slammed on the gas. I was whipped back into my seat. I holstered the Glock and looked behind us. A large bat was clinging to the spoiler.

“Shit, one of them got a hold of us,” I said to Skiff. He nodded quietly, which was unusual for him. Then I saw what was in front of us. A pair of sedans set a roadblock up at the end of the block.

“Please tell me you have something heavier than a pistol in here Skiff,” I pleaded with him.

“Scattergun in the back, dude.” I could see him calculating his moves through the roadblock. I reached in the back and found the Mossberg. I leveled the shotgun at the bat still clinging to the spoiler. I squeezed the trigger and was momentarily deafened by the roar of the shotgun. Silver buckshot pellets shattered the rear window and shredded the bat. It was thrown back into the street, slowly changing forms in its final death.

I turned to the front as Skiff jerked his car up onto the sidewalk, around the roadblock, and back out onto the street. The vampires opened fire. Bullets punched into the car. Skiff ignored them and punched the accelerator. Then his head exploded in a cloud of red mist. Grabbing the steering wheel, I pulled the car to my side and slammed it into a tree. Skiff managed to get the sports car up to about fifty before avoiding the roadblock, and even with the speed bled from the sharp turns, the collision was shattering. I was thrown into the dashboard, dropping the shotgun. Skiff’s airbag deployed, cushioning his body’s impact into the steering column. I shook off the momentarily disorientation and pushed back the pain of my body resetting all the broken bones and healing them. I picked the shotgun up and looked out the rear. The leeches were walking cautiously towards the Mustang. I could make out about five of them, well-spaced out, centering on a very tall Bleeder. Two of them, the center leech and the one on the far right, carried sub-machine guns. The other three were armed with pistols. Well, at least I had my first two targets.

I pumped the action and made a quick shot at the center Bleeder. He crumpled to the asphalt as his middle was torn apart by the silver buckshot. In response, the other four opened fire. Bullets rained into the car. Three went through my seat. Thankfully, two of those were caught by my vest. The last sliced across my left shoulder before imbedding itself into the dashboard. An eerie quiet fell over the street as the four Bleeders reloaded their weapons. Seizing the opportunity, I jumped up from my crouched position in my seat and shot the other leech carrying a sub-machine gun. He was thrown back by a solid slug of silver. Skiff must have staggered the loads. Another slug hit the vampire’s friend on the right. I quickly put the sights of the shotgun onto the other two, pumping the action as I moved. The closest one finished inserting a fresh magazine into his pistol and was bringing the weapon up. A round of buckshot quelled that notion. The last one turned to run as I fired again. His back was quickly filled with tiny holes. I threw the shotgun down as the leech staggered up. Fucking birdshot. I snarled. Why had Skiff loaded that? Silver birdshot was only good for leeches in bat form. I yanked the Glock out of its holster. Putting the white-green front sight on the Bleeder’s back I squeezed the trigger. The bullet threw him forward, but he caught his balance and kept running. A quick double-tap finished the job.

Silence again filled the suburban street. Moving quickly, I tore the trunk open, reached in, and retrieved my two cases. I pulled Skiff’s body out of the car. It was in true form, with the noticeable lack of a head. I left the shotgun in the car and opened my weapons case and pulled out a small metal block with a digital readout and number pad on it. It was a thermite bomb Gunny made for hunters as a last-resort, go-to-hell weapon. When it detonated, it would melt everything in a twenty foot radius. It was a nasty little toy. I gingerly laid the device in the driver’s seat. Placing the shotgun on top of the device, I set the timer for twenty seconds. The idea of leaving a booby-trap for the leeches was tempting, but I didn’t want to give them a chance to disarm it. Hefting Skiff’s corpse over my shoulder, I picked up my two cases with my free hand. I walked over to one of the houses and threw Skiff’s corpse over the fence. The two cases went next. Then I jumped over the fence. At this point, I needed to wait for daylight. Vampires could not come out in the day. They wouldn’t burst into flame or go all sparkly, but they would lose most, if not all, of their supernatural powers and strength. They might send their ghouls, but I could deal with those. They weren’t nearly as tough as their leech masters. Hell, I didn’t even need silver to kill ghouls. I leaned my head against the wooden fence and took a deep breath. I placed the Glock by my side and called the Guildmaster.

“What the hell is going on over there?” he almost shouted over the phone, “The police are going crazy with calls about a gun fight in your area!” I put my hand on Skiff’s corpse and took a deep breath before answering. Before I could, a loud THUMP erupted behind me as the thermite detonated. Screams of wounded leeches filled the street. Apparently a few managed to get close enough to the blast.

“Boss, the job’s done. Target’s down. Skiff’s dead. I got a bunch of leeches around me, and I’m running low on ammo. There are more Bleeders in the area than I expected.” I had ten rounds in the pistol’s magazine, plus another thirty-four in the two spare magazines in a holder under my shoulder. I could barely make out the Guildmaster’s breathing over the phone.

“The police will be out there in five minutes. From what our people have heard, it’s going to be a huge group. Twenty-five officers plus Tactical Response. Stay where you are and avoid contact with the humans. Kin will be in the group to keep them away from you. I’m going to send help, but I don’t know how I’m going to get you out of there as of right now.”

“Okay boss,” I breathed into my phone and terminated the call. I rolled over and peered through the boards of the fence. The street was devoid of vampires, but I could see several humans out looking at the melted wreckage of Skiff’s Mustang. Two had rifles, holding them in a skyward safe position. I shook my head slightly. Physically, I was fine. My shoulder burned from the glancing gunshot, but the rest of my wounds were already healed. That said, I was fatigued to the point of exhaustion. I didn’t know why. I’d been in worse scrapes. I lay back against the fence. Better to wait for the cavalry to arrive. The world faded out.

My eyes snapped open. Shit, I fell asleep. I grabbed my pistol and leaped to my feet. A large dog was standing next to me. Just behind him stood Ronin in true form. Ronin was a welcome sight. I noticed blood coated his claws and I gave him a questioning look. He growled an answer. Unlike humans where sounds are put together to form words, sounds made by wolves, and to a lesser extent by dogs, are used to form pictures in the mind’s eye. Ronin told me the humans who lived in the house discovered me. When Ronin and his group approached, the eldest male was probing Skiff’s body. Since the human wasn’t catatonic, Ronin assumed the human was becoming a witch hunter. So he and his pack of dogs killed the entire family. I growled in frustration.

“What about the cops?” I asked.

“No cops,” Ronin answered in barely understandable English. He growled the Guildmaster managed to divert the police to another of the Guild’s operations. As far as the humans were concerned it, errant fireworks caused a vehicle fire. It was a shaky story, but they were absorbed with the details from the strike on the Bleeders’ armory. I shook my head to clear some of the haze. I fucked up by passing out. Pain flashed as I moved. My shoulder burned more than it should. There wasn’t time to deal with that. We needed to extract from the area as soon as possible to let the kin clean up before the story fell apart.

I walked over to the house, holstering my pistol. The back entrance was a sliding glass door. Shards of glass were scattered around the door. A small human child was strewn across the door. I pretended not to notice as I searched the house. I didn’t always like all of the killing we did, even when it was necessary. The second floor was torn apart. I made my way to the master bedroom and searched around for the car keys. I found them underneath what I assumed was once a bed stand. As I came out in the hall, Ronin was there, directing the rest of his pack out.

“Do you have any lycanthropes with you?” I asked him. I could see him mentally translating the English into wolf. He shook his head. He growled he only had a small pack of feral dogs with him at the moment. I shook my head slowly. Concentrating, I growled I needed his help loading Skiff’s body into the car. He looked at me strangely, like I said something obscene. Then a look came over him, like what I said finally slipped into place.

“Load body in car?” he asked, his voice straining against the human words. I nodded. He looked relieved. I was confused, until I remembered I was in human form. Humans can’t speak wolf effectively. The vocal cords just won’t make the complete sounds. I wondered just what he thought I said. I decided not to press the issue and lifted the body. The load lightened as Ronin joined me and we walked to the garage. The door to the garage was wide open. I could smell death and human blood wafting out. I set down the body and crept in. The morning sun shone into the garage through a small window on a side door. Most of the stored contents of the family were strewn about. There were two cars sitting in the middle, a red sports car and a silver minivan. We loaded Skiff into the back of the minivan. Ronin reverted to his wolf form and crawled into the passenger seat. I climbed into the driver’s seat after opening the garage door. My wound burned intensely as I put the van into gear and pulled out of the garage. As I moved down the driveway, I noticed a large group of dogs leaving the house and moving down the street. A bark from Ronin and the entire group dispersed.

I ignored my shoulder pain as I made my way back to the Guild. Traffic irritably passed me as I slowly drove through the back streets, my shoulder’s burning increasing with each slight bump or movement. I made it about two blocks from the Guild when the ache from my shoulder became unbearable. I pulled over to the side of the road. Leaning back in the seat, I rested a moment.

The car door opened and I was jerked out of the car. The flurry of activity surged me with renewed energy, but before I could reach my pistol, I was thrown over the shoulder of my assailant. Confused, I looked around. Ronin was out of the car. Two other lycanthropes in human form were removing Skiff’s corpse. Hunters. The lycanthrope carrying me must also be a hunter. As a feeling of safety enveloped me, I succumbed to the burning in my shoulder and passed out.

Chapter 7 – Weird Stuff Just Happens, Even To Me