I woke up in the infirmary of the Guild. The fluorescent lights glared harshly into my eyes. I tried to move my shoulder, but it was bandaged tight. I smelled the wolfsbane mixture used to treat archanal wounds. Moaning from the other stretchers in the room brought me around. The infirmary held twenty beds plus an ICU for five. About fifteen of the beds were filled. Most of the occupants were badly injured and swathed in wolfsbane-soaked bandages. I saw some clothing on the chair next to my bed – a black t-shirt, a pair of jeans, socks, and boots. Putting them on, I walked out of the infirmary. As I moved my shoulder, I could feel the tightening and loosening of stitches. As I stepped out the door, a hand grasped my good shoulder. Wheeling on the heel of my foot, I turned to face the Guild’s doctor, a short stubby lycanthrope called Burn. I gave him a great deal of respect and not just because he patched up some of my more serious wounds. Burn had been attending medical school when he was recruited into the Guild. He somehow managed to graduate both medical school and the training camp at the same time, and that awed me.

"What the bloody fuck do you think you’re doing Ranger?" he asked in his surprisingly quiet voice. Most times, I would’ve stopped. Burn was one of the few hunters I actually respected enough to obey their instructions.

"Going back to work," I answered, tugging my arm free. "There’s a war on, and it looks like we need every hand on deck." I motioned to the others in the infirmary.

"You’re still wounded," he started, drawing his face into a mask of professional authority, "I am not going to let you go back to getting yourself killed before you have had at least some real improvement since your last attempt. That was not just a simple shoulder hit. The bullet nicked one of your main arteries. I don’t know how you didn’t bleed out, but I’m guessing the bullet wasn’t all silver. I’ve cleaned it up a bit and sewn you up, but I can’t just let you walk out half-fixed."

"Unfortunately," a new voice behind me said, "Ranger is needed by the Guildmaster." I recognized the voice. Kurt Sneller, head of the hit packs. I turned to face him, about to ask what was going on, but stopped when I saw him. Kurt was in true form, but his normal eight-foot frame sagged. His normally alert eyes were slightly unfocused, betrayed his fatigue. I wondered exactly how long I was in the infirmary. I must have asked aloud, because Kurt answered.

"You’ve had a nice five hour nap, and now there’s work to be done. Here’s your sidearm." He handed my USP in a paddle holster. In his other hand was a magazine holder with a couple of spare magazines. I put the magazines on my belt as I followed Sneller out of the infirmary to the elevator. As we got in I ejected the magazine out of the pistol and made sure it was fully loaded. Satisfied, I replaced the magazine and holstered the pistol.

"Exactly where are we going, Sneller?" I asked as he hit the button for the second floor. The Guild was a massive facility. It sat underneath a block of suburban houses, each inhabited by kin. Shaman dug out the five floors about thirty years ago. Florida is one of the few places where the ground, or more accurately, the aquifers, make it difficult to have underground facilities – unless you’re using magick to reform the ground. First floor was administrative, communications, and the infirmary. It also housed an entire bank of power generators that helped to run the place without drawing too much notice from the humans. Second floor was the offices for the Guild’s hierarchy, intelligence, and a small armory. Third floor was a giant training facility, including an indoor range. Fourth and fifth floors were designed for barracks for Guild members during emergencies – like, say, a war.

"Deadeye has something he wants us to see. Including you. The Guildmaster, Ronin, Gunny, and Deadeye are waiting for us." Sneller was in a hurry, but there was something that needed to be cleared up first.

"How the fuck did you get my gun?" I asked him hotly. He looked at me questioningly for a moment. He almost looked startled by the question, or maybe by my tone. Sneller was not a lycanthrope who brooked insolence or insubordination from those under him. While that worked well with the structured society of the hit packs, lone wolves, like myself, were a bit more informal and independent. Plus, I wasn’t one of his wolves.

"Nicholas and Hangman went to your house. Your go-bag is down in your quarters. Deadeye and I thought you might like your gun." Okay, that made sense. Nick knew the combination to my gun safe and where I kept my ready gear. I nodded my thanks and waited a moment for my next question. I had a feeling this one might elicit an unwanted response from Kurt.

"How did last night’s jobs go?" I asked cautiously.

"Your hit disrupted the Bleeders, but they still fought hard when we came after them. I have three packs completely down. Deadeye said he was down seven of his wolves, including Skiff. That said, we achieved all but two objectives, and rumors are the shaman picked them up in the second wave. As of right now, the Bleeders are effectively out of the war. The shaman hit the leeches’ alchemy group in their first wave, with both sides taking heavy casualties. Don’t know how many because the Order is being tight lipped, but my pack with them saw at least a dozen badly wounded. The leeches and their ghouls lost more though. The pack warriors are currently attacking some of the known leech strongholds. The humans must be going nuts trying to understand what is going on." Now, I understood Sneller’s attitude a little better now. As tough and unemotional as he tried to appear, he truly cared about the lives of the lycanthropes under him. It was one of the main reasons the Guildmaster made him the leader of the hit packs. Sneller put his hunters’ lives above everything but the jobs. The downing of three full packs, about twelve or so hunters, must have been almost unbearable for him. Hell, it sounded like a fifth of the Guild had been killed or wounded on the first night of the war. I remembered why I respected this lycanthrope, even when he and I disagreed.

The elevator toned, and the two of us silently got off. I followed as he walked to a conference room on the far end of the floor. The intelligence section of the hunters included two full-time specialists and five part-time helpers. All of them were pouring over the steady stream of information coming in from the hunters still out on jobs, as well as reports from the rest of the county’s lycanthropes. I followed Sneller to one of the conference rooms. Inside were the principle members of the Guild’s hierarchy, sitting around a large table. On the screen at the front of the conference room was a house in Forest Hills. Surrounding the house was Tampa Police’s SWAT unit. I could see the human officers’ tenseness and wondered what was going down.

"Hey, Ranger. How’s the shoulder?" asked Deadeye as Sneller and I strode into the room. I sat down at the far end of the table.

"Okay for the most part. Still hurts a bit. What’s up boss?" I asked. The Guildmaster looked as bad as he did after the death of Stephen Vollen. I don’t think he expected this many casualties so quickly. The Bleeders may not have been as professional or as skilled as the Hunters Guild, but they weren’t run-of-the-mill leeches either. By all rights, we probably should have taken more casualties wiping them out. Fortunately we had surprise and good intelligence on our side. The Guildmaster’s eyes told me he was aware of this, but it still bothered him to lose his hunters. The Guildmaster motioned for Deadeye to talk.

"I got a call from one of my contacts in the TCV. He told me to watch this video feed, apparently one of the police’s cameras. They have a pair of ghouls on SWAT. He said it was important, but got cut off by a Council security sweep before he could tell me why. What we do know is the house doesn’t belong to a leech, or one of our people. Intel’s trying to see if one of the independent lycanthropes lives there, but we haven’t been able to get any answers from that community." Deadeye stopped as the leader of the SWAT team motioned for his group to move in. The team moved forward a few yards before the front of the house erupted in gunfire. The lead element of the SWAT was cut down by a hail of automatic weapons fire. The few who managed to survive that first onslaught fell to the ground and returned fire. They were quickly joined by the rest of SWAT. Their effort was in vain, as the officers were pinned down by the volumes of fire from inside the house. Then, one by one, the police officers were taken out with precise shots. The whole episode lasted less than three minutes. The quiet of the television matched the silence around the table.

"What the hell happened?" asked Ronin, with surprisingly clarity.

"I’d say TPD just lost its SWAT team," I answered dryly. The others shot me annoyed looks.

"That much, Marcus, is obvious," the Guildmaster replied with a stern tone. "What is not obvious is why a member of the TCV thought this was important enough to alert James."

"What if it was one of the packs?" asked Kurt.

"And risk the involvement of the pathwalkers by slaughtering human police?" asked the Guildmaster, "No, the packs know better. Someone important was in that house. We need to investigate, especially if the pathwalkers decide to intervene. The last thing this county needs is an invasion by the walking gods. Ronin, get a team together and find out what happened. If you can take action, do so, but make sure I have some evidence to take to the lord. I want to be able to prove to the pathwalkers we are taking action if one of their representatives appear. Matric will try to help the aristocracy somehow lessen this in the human media, or at least keep it off of us." Ronin nodded, stood, and left to do his job. The Guildmaster faced the rest of us. "Kurt, where are those leech alchemists? The ones that got away from the Order."

"The reports I have from my packs and the kin say that a ragged band of leeches holed in one of their holdings in Ybor. Right now, we have no assets in place down there. The pack holding Ybor is busy fighting the leeches in the area. I can get a team there in about three hours, but it leaves some of our other targets exposed."

"No," answered the Guildmaster, "We can’t remove any of the hit packs from their targets. The lord needs those neutralized if we’re to continue to have the initiative. Marcus, feeling up to a job?" There was little questioning in his tone. I was his personal hitter, and it was why I got all the fun jobs. There was only one acceptable answer.

"Yeah, why not? It’s not like I’m doing anything else at the moment," I answered, with my normal irreverent tone, "What do you want me to do?"

"Eliminate the alchemists," the Guildmaster answered, his voice full of lethal solemnity. I recognized that tone. This was something the Guildmaster wanted done quickly, efficiently, and with great emphasis, "I do not want leech mystics showing up anywhere they might endanger other hunters. Get all the hard intelligence from Kurt and take them down. Try to stay alive also." Sneller and I nodded and left. We walked over to the intelligence group. One of the full timers was a hunter called Baser. The pack name was an off-hand reference to a remark the previous Guildmaster made that Baser’s mind was like a giant database running at light speed. He was able to retain gigantic amounts of data and collate them into a useful form. Baser complained he never got to do jobs anymore, but none of the hunters were willing to risk his mind out in the field. He was needed at the intelligence station.

"Ranger, Sneller, what do you need?" Baser asked, his voice conveying how busy he was at the moment.

"The Guildmaster gave me the job to finish off the alchemists," I answered. Baser closed his eyes for a moment as he plumbed his mental depths to pull up the information. He pounded away at his keyboard.

"A kin in TPD saw what he thought were the alchemists enter one of the clubs in Ybor. He didn’t have a chance to confirm. Had to go break up a brawl at another club," Baser said, "I was about to send a request to the local pack to send one of their warriors or a kin to confirm."

"Don’t. If they’re in there, the alchemists will spot a warrior, and they’ll go hide somewhere else," I said. "Can you send me what we have on that club and let the kin know I need to talk to him?" If the alchemists were holed up in that club, they were likely prepared to repel attackers. The leeches controlled most of Ybor for years. The TCV built defenses into many of the clubs.

I decided to do my recon alone and then try to figure out how to take them all out. Since I was going to have to be inconspicuous during my recon, and I would have to take action quickly, heavy weapons wouldn’t be available. Fortunately, Sneller helped me camouflage myself in the casual clothes favored by many of the upscale party people. Slacks and a shirt that almost felt like a blouse, both in bright colors, were covered by a light jacket that coordinated with them. At least, that’s what Sneller said, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him. However, the jacket was roomy enough for me to holster a B+T MP9 submachine gun. The MP9 was an updated version of Steyr’s TMP. The Swiss company Brugger & Thomet, whose import company was based in Tampa, picked up production after Steyr discontinued the line and improved on the weapon by thoughtfully adding a small folding stock, a Picatinny rail along the top, and an improved foregrip that could accommodate an entry light. Normally, if I needed to use a sub guns, I would take an HK MP5. This job was one of the times when even the smallest MP5 was still too big. With a conformal fifteen-round magazine, the MP9 was just a bit larger than my USP. I was carrying the MP9 in a shoulder holster with four thirty-round magazines. On my left was my USP. On my right, I was carrying three spare mags for my pistol as well as an ASP telescoping baton. I was carrying it in case I found trouble I didn’t want to waste a bullet on. Wielding it correctly, the baton would break bones. In true form, I could decapitate someone with it. A pair of small silver knives completed my arsenal.

Sneller dropped me off in Ybor, three blocks away from the club. The streets were full of humans celebrating the weekend. Most of them were annoyingly intoxicated, but I managed to avoid any incidents. I found a police officer, and he directed me to the kin. He was stationed across the street from the club. When I walked up to him, he was dealing with a pair of juveniles stoned out of their minds. I tapped him on the shoulder.

"What the hell do you want?" he asked, angrily.He calmed down the moment he saw I was a lycanthrope.

"The Guildmaster sent me," I answered ignoring his earlier outburst. "Can you talk?" He gave me the once over and then hand-cuffed the two kids to a light pole.

"You two stay here for a minute," he said to them. Turning to me, he said, "We better make this quick. I saw six vampires walk into the club over there. I noticed them because they were stumbling and bleeding. Black blood. They had a couple of others with them, but I don’t know if they’re ghouls or maybe some of the Goth kids they have running around here. My family’s pack told me they noticed the local leeches using the Goths for errand boys and girls." I kept the surprise off my face. Tampa was known for its goth community, but both the leeches and the lycanthropes avoided the misguided human children – until now. For the leeches to be relegated to using the humans, the pack warriors and hunters knocked off a lot more of the leeches’ normal support structure than we thought. This job just paid its first dividend of good intelligence.

"Thanks," I said, "I’d suggest you move away. This is probably going to get violent." The kin nodded and collected his juvenile offenders. As the kin retreated from the area, I sent a quick text message to the Guild about the leeches using goths. I examined the target club. The club was a two-story building with a large balcony filled with human party-goers. They were shouting down to the people on the street. I ignored them and walked up onto the porch. I avoided the drunks lurching on the porch and got into the line that was leading into the club. I could hear and feel the rhythmic beat pulses from the music inside. I kept my face neutral until I reached the door. Two bouncers in "Security" shirts were standing in front of the doors, checking the ID’s of the people trying to get in. As my turn came, I handed them the money for the cover and showed them my driver’s license. The first one, a dark-skinned human bruiser, checked it, and then brought a clipboard out from behind him. The other one, a slightly smaller Caucasian, looked down at me suspiciously. The first one pulled the other over and they looked down at the clipboard in almost shock. I saw recognition in their eyes. Damn, the list was of known lycanthropes, and probably included my name from whatever Bradon kept on me. With his death, all of his secret files would be at the hands whoever was running the remains of the Bleeders. That could mean very bad things for me. My mind began calculating what to do to remove these two and enter the club. I really didn’t want to resort to violence this early in the job. It would force the intervention of human authorities. That would make things extremely problematic.

"Guys, is there a problem?" I said with a deadly calm. I flashed them a predatory look. My hand dropped down to the baton concealed at my hip. The first one shook his head and let me in. The music blasted me into almost deafness. The odd lighting made my recon more frustrating. Clubs were not an environment I spent a lot of time in, and I was paying for my failure for that oversight. It was hard acclimating to the darkness punctuated with strobing lights and blaring, thumping music. I managed to find a small alcove where I could survey most of the dance floor and the bar. I looked around the crowded floor of the club, but I didn’t see any supernatural faces. They were probably in a back room or office. I walked over to the bar and ordered a Jack and Coke. I needed to blend as I tried to find any sign of the alchemists.

As I sipped on the drink, I noticed a pair of young women watching me with an odd intensity. I wouldn’t have noticed them, but they stood out from the rest of the humans in the club. They were wearing tight leather with dyed black hair. Thick black eyeliner and matching lipstick graced abnormally pale faces. These were probably the goth leech helpers. From the way the two girls were watching me, I was betting they’d been sent down to observe me. The door guards must have finally called the alchemists for instructions. Normally, using normal humans as spotters would be considered a smart move. Lycanthropes, even hunters, tend to think of humans in terms of a herd. When was the last time you noticed a specific cow in the midst of a herd. Fortunately for me, these two were sloppy. They were staring too intently and not moving around enough. I quickly downed my drink, left a tip for the bartender, and walked right towards them.

There were very good reasons that the lycanthropes and the vampires didn’t use normal humans in our affairs. These girls were demonstrating exactly why. They stood paralyzed like deer caught in the headlights as I stormed towards them. When I was less than a yard from them, one managed to regain enough courage and bolted through the crowd. The other looked around in terrified confusion before trying to run. Too late. I jerked her close to me, almost yanking her off her feet.

"Don’t try anything," I whispered into her ear as she struggled against my grip, "I will kill you and anyone else that tries to help you if you don’t do exactly what I tell you." She looked up at my face. There was that unique terror in her eyes. She knew I wasn’t boasting or making idle threats. I half-pushed, half-pulled her through the throng of patrons and dancers. She whimpered for a little bit, but stopped when she realized it wasn’t having any effect on me. I pushed her up against a wall and looked her in the eyes with as much malice as I could.

"I want to know where your new masters are hiding. Where are the alchemists?" I asked with an icy tone. She stood there trembling, and I could almost her hear her asking herself how she got herself into this mess. I repeated the question, shaking her for effect.

"They’re in the back. They know that you’re here. Now let me go. Please." The last part came out a whining plea. Humans romanticized both lycanthropes and leeches so much in that when confronted with our true brutal natures they were often shocked beyond comprehension. I would have bet this girl never contemplated that her death would come from an angry lycanthrope instead of a vampire’s "loving" bite.

"Where exactly?" I asked.

"In one of the back rooms behind the bar, upstairs, I swear." She then looked behind me. Her face changed from terror into hope. Someone was behind me, probably a bouncer. This was trouble I didn’t need.

"Buddy, how about letting the girl go?" came a voice from behind in a tone that made it a command, "She’s a friend of mine, and I don’t know you." I let the girl out of my grasp. The girl bolted through the club. I watched her as she ran into a "Private" door that was next to the bar. The bouncer was waiting for me to return my attention back to him.

"I think you had better get out of here."

"I would, but I have something to do first. Would you excuse me?" I began to walk off, but he grabbed me by the arm. I turned to look at him with a look of annoyance.

"I don’t think you understood me," he answered, "I meant for you to leave, now." He tugged at my jacket to emphasize his point.

"Remove your hand," I said, a dangerous edge leaking into my voice. His grip just tightened. This was going to get ugly. My free hand shot down and grabbed the baton. Rather than extending it, I used the collapsed baton as a kubaton. I punched the bouncer in the face. He staggered back as blood flowed from his nose. Another two of the bouncers saw what happened and pushed through the crowd towards me. As they approached, I lowered into a fighting stance. Might as well deal with these fuckers Now. When the first got close, I whipped the baton up, extending it in flight, and caught him in the stomach. Not waiting for him to fall, I cracked him on the head as he doubled over. The other bouncer backed off, but I closed the distance and cracked his kneecap. He fell to the floor, screaming in pain and grasping at his knee. The other bar patrons noticed something bad was going on, and a circle quickly opened around me. I walked towards the door I watched the girl use. Two more bouncers appeared out of the bubble that was forming around me, but they moved back into the crowd when I turned to face them. Their self-preservation instincts were working overtime.

The door was locked, of course. A couple of quick raps with the baton remedied the situation. I looked over at the bartender, who charged me with a cut-off pool cue. I smiled at him and dropped the baton. As it clattered to the floor, I drew the MP9 from under my jacket. I didn’t even have a chance to point it at him before he dropped the cue and fled. With that human dealt with, I kicked the door in – and was nearly sliced in half by a large metal blade. In front of me was a large ghoul holding a fucking broadsword.

"You’ve got to be kidding me," I said as I side-stepped into the corridor. The ghoul launched another lunge. I stripped out of my jacket and shed for true form. The MP9 shrank to tiny in my hand, but I managed to put a three-round burst into the ghoul’s chest. He staggered back, but then charged me, wildly swinging the sword. I slid under the whistling blade and brought up the MP9. Another three-round burst exploded the ghoul’s head.

As the body fell back, I looked around for the first time. I was in a short hallway ending in a staircase. A door was to my right, which led to right behind the bar. More than likely, it was an office or storage room. I opened the door and found a revolver pointed at me. Behind the revolver was a human, quivering into catatonia. Another human that saw too much of the unseen world without proper preparation. I reached over and plucked the gun from the human and dumped the rounds out of the cylinder. I put a single round into the human’s head. I wasn’t about to let a witch-hunter rise from this job. I shut the door and walked down the hallway. The stairs went up about halfway to a small landing with the remaining stairs going directly above me. It was a common enough structure in a building, but it did make assaults a fucking pain. Conventional wisdom required a team of at least four to properly assault a staircase. I didn’t have a team of four – I just had me. I’d make do, like I always did. That was part of the fun of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. As I reached the staircase, I craned my head around to look up beyond the landing. I couldn’t see anyone, but that didn’t make me feel any better. The alchemists were smart enough to know that their swordsman wouldn’t stop me, so where was their sentry on the staircase? They couldn’t be stupid enough not to see that the staircase was a damned good ambush point. I waited, trying to smell or hear the tell-tales of the sentry. Nothing. Maybe they’d been hurt bad enough they weren’t thinking properly. That would certainly explain why the ghoul was using the sword instead of a fucking gun.

I leapt from the floor onto the landing between the floors, twisting in mid-air to land facing the second floor. Bullets rained down. A few connected, but all they managed to do was throw me to the floor. The impacts flashed pain, but the pain quickly faded. The rounds weren’t silver. Okay, I’d made a bad mistake jumping up to the landing, but that was one stupid motherfucker on the second floor. His burst did one thing – let me know where the bastard was. I made out his shape just beyond the top of the staircase. He had an assault rifle pointed skyward as he was desperately trying to change the magazine. He was fumbling the reload because he was moving too fast with fearful energy. I brought the MP9 up and placed a burst into the stupid fucker’s center mass. Okay, bringing the sub-gun I could fire one-handed was smart. Unlike stupid fucker who was on the receiving end of the three nine millimeter rounds. Lesson Five of Gun-fighting according to the Hunters Guild – never empty your entire magazine into one target. Stupid fucker crumpled lifelessly against the banister and dropped the assault rifle. I jumped the remainder steps, coming very close to hitting myself on the ceiling.

A group of about fifteen humans were waiting for me as I landed. Some of them were armed. All of them looked scared. They didn’t expect me to survive thirty rounds fired at me. They watched too much television. There were too many of them for me to cut them down with accurate bursts, so I decided to take full advantage of human herd mentality. I sprayed the MP9 into the group. As the subgun stuttered, the group ran itself down trying to escape. Two tried to make a stand and fight back with their pistols. I shoved the sub-gun back into its holster and moved in close to use my claws. That kind of attack terrified humans and it saved on ammo. What more could a hunter ask for? The first human was cut wide open by a claw swipe across his middle. I grabbed him by the neck and whirled his body in front of his friend, who instinctively fired his pistol into his dead friend. As soon as he ran out of ammunition, I reached around the bullet-ridden corpse and sliced out the kid’s throat. Hand to hand combat wasn’t always effective when fighting most of the supernatural, but humans were another story. They just couldn’t stand up to the pure speed and terror of a lycanthrope.

I stood in the middle of the carnage. Then, I saw them. Six very battered vampires were standing in front of me. None of them were armed, but all had the familiar brand on their foreheads. It was a symbol in an ancient tongue that supposedly bound the alchemists to their magic. Leech alchemists never stood a chance against even a moderately powerful shaman. The shaman were more in touch with the spirits they commanded. That didn’t mean alchemists weren’t dangerous. Even Bradon respected them. They looked at me with fear and shock in their eyes. I drew my USP.

"You fuckers have caused me enough trouble," I told them, raising the pistol at them, "I’m glad I don’t have to search all over for you." They said nothing. The strongest one started waving his hands in intricate motions. Suddenly, it was as if someone put night-vision goggles over my eyes. I saw what looked like green energy pulses surrounding the lead one’s hands. I could see it being fed by smaller energy pulses from the rest of the alchemists. I brought the pistol up and double-tapped the leader. The energy pulses formed a circle in front of the alchemists. My bullets entered the circle of energy and stopped in midair. As the circle moved back to the leader’s hands, the bullets dropped to the ground with an odd clinking sound. I was about to fire again, but the energy shot out at me.

The beam of green energy struck me before I could react. I could feel intense pain as it enveloped my body. It took all of my willpower to keep standing and hold on to my pistol. Ancestors. This was more intense pain than any I had felt before. Just as I was about to fall over from the pain, it was gone. It was as if someone flipped a switch. My gun fell from my hands and a strange calm came over me. I didn’t know what was happening, but I felt like something was surrounding me. It was warm and soothing. I could almost a distinct kindness in the sensation, like someone was nurturing me. The next thing I knew, a giant blast of brilliant white energy, almost nine feet in diameter, ripped through the hallway. As the beam struck the vampires, the lead one disintegrated. The others were picked up and tossed through the building as if the walls were made of paper. As the white light subsided, I fell to the ground, feeling completely drained.

"GET UP!" a voice thundered in my head. "GET UP AND GET OUT!" It sounded like every instructor I’d ever had amplified their voices and used my brain as the speaker. I staggered to my feet and picked up my USP off the floor. The voice boomed in my head, guiding me through the building and up onto the roof. Without pausing, I jumped across one of the streets to the roof of another club. I don’t know how I made the jump. It was easily fifty feet, not a small feat even for a lycanthrope in true form. Deciding I could figure it all later, I ran across the roof while reloading the MP9.

I could have holed up somewhere in the area and waited for daylight, but Ybor was leech territory, and I’d just taken out the leeches’ mystical cadre. I needed to get out to Sulphur Springs, which was a lycanthrope stronghold. Two packs roamed that neighborhood. I didn’t know how they had fared since the war erupted. Still, the area should have been safe enough, and it was the closest to me. I pondered my escape routes. The rooftops ended roughly two blocks from the complex. I would have to get down and walk through the busy complex. As tired as I was, that was a good thing. I wanted to use the crowds for cover long enough to find a means of extraction. Getting down would be easy enough. I made my way to one of the city parking garages.

I jumped across to the roof of the garage. As I landed, I noticed shapes moving between the cars. My first thought was I had run into some human thieves. That assumption was shattered as a young lycanthrope in human form darted out from between a pair of sedans. I got a quick glance of bleeding wounds and a long knife with black blood on it. I had a pretty good idea of what was happening and what I needed to do. With the MP9 firmly in hand, I ran to where the lycanthrope dashed out. As expected, a pair of leeches were chasing him. Both were in human form, although one was noticeably bleeding through his dark shirt. The wounded one clutched a pistol, but the other one didn’t seem to be armed. I didn’t want to use the unsuppressed sub-machine gun in the garage. It would guarantee human intervention. That was a complication I didn’t need while I was trying to get out of the area. I reminded myself to make sure to always bring the suppressors for the guns I carried. I needed to be able to quickly deal with problems like this one without having to worry about the pesky human law enforcement agencies.

I placed the sub-gun on the concrete and drew my two silver knives. Both of them were four-inch-long tantos I carried for Murphy situations – gun jams, bad ammo, etc. They could open up a space for me to either get my hands on working guns or to get the hell out of wherever I was. They were not primary fighting weapons or even decent throwers. Still, they were decent knives, and I had the greatest advantage of all – surprise. I waited silently as the two vampires approached. Their fashionable shoes audibly clicked on the concrete of the parking garage. The two leeches were moving too fast for professionals or even experienced fighters. They knew their prey was on the run and were too busy chasing him to think there might be more lycanthropes. It’s called tunnel-vision, and it can be a deadly mistake. It certainly was for these two.

The uninjured one walked to where I was crouched. His dark eyes went wide as he saw me. His momentary hesitation was all the opening I needed. Knife in each hand, I pounced on the hapless leech. His tall form crashed to the floor under the momentum. Slashes to the leech’s neck and stomach released a torrent of black blood. I didn’t wait to ensure he was down for good and leapt at the wounded vampire. This one recovered from the shock of my appearance, but the scared look in his eyes told me he had no idea how to counter the attack I launched at him. The tackle put him on the floor hard. I heard his pistol clatter out of his hand. A quick stab to his heart with the silver blade and his movements ceased in an instant. I looked back to his partner. The other vampire was thrashing about on the ground, feebly attempting to staunch the waves of black blood flowing out of his body. A savage kick to his head stunned him long enough for me to stab him through his heart.

With the immediate fight over, I looked around cautiously to see if these two had friends following them. The roof of parking garage was quiet with only the faint background sounds drifting up from the streets of Ybor. The bodies of the two vampires changed into their true forms with wide pools of black blood surrounding them. Normally I would have left the bodies for the leeches to clean up, but with what just happened with the alchemists, I didn’t think the TCV would be able to clean up this mess before the humans became involved. If they found dead vampires, there were a damned good chance a few witch-hunters would be born.

"Come out warrior," I called out. I needed help to quietly dispose of the bodies, and the wounded lycanthrope was the only one around. He peeked up cautiously from behind a pair of sports cars. He looked young, maybe late teens. I was willing to bet he was only a year or two out of tysach. His brown hair was cut fashionably short with large brown eyes. His face expressed both hesitancy against leaving his hiding spot and relief of seeing another lycanthrope. He had a lean, wiry build and was dressed in loose-fitting black leather pants and a bright blue silk shirt. His shirt was slashed several times, revealing bright red cuts. The lycanthrope still held the long knife, but he was holding it loosely and without any trace of technique.

"Come here wolf," I repeated, keeping my voice warm and comforting, "Don’t worry. The leeches have been taken care of, but I need your help with the bodies." He staggered over with pain. As I watched him, I saw a couple of the wounds looked deep. The others were mainly quick slashes – a bit of pain and some blood, but not life-threatening. The leeches must have used a silver blade since none of the wounds were healing. The two deep slashes needed some attention. I walked over to him and pulled out a small plastic square out of my pocket. Inside was a cloth soaked in wolfsbane. For most archanal wounds hunters receive, those little squares are our emergency aid kit. I opened the square, and we both immediately recoiled at the stench of the wolfsbane. It was our most effective medicine, but wolfsbane hurt so badly to use it most lycanthropes have an instinctive fear of that unique smell. I gave the pack warrior a knowing smile, which he returned weakly. To his credit, the young lycanthrope never screamed or yelled when the wolfsbane-soaked cloth touched his bloody wound. His eyes went wide with pain and he bared his teeth in a twisted, clenched smile, but low grunts of pain were all he uttered as I washed out the silver’s taint. It was a painful, nasty, and generally unpleasant treatment, but when properly done, it allowed our bodies natural healing to kick in. I finished as fast as I could and watched with satisfaction as the slashes began sealing themselves. This kid wouldn’t even have any scars from them. Maybe from his other cuts, but not those two.

"What’s your name?" I asked as he rested for a moment. His adrenaline dump was finished, and he went from nervous to exhausted in the space of seconds. I could sympathize. I was still feeling the effects of whatever the fuck happened with the alchemists.

"Will, Will Leafdancer," he said with an obvious effort, "I belong to the Livingston pack." I looked at him with a critical eye. The Livingston pack roamed between the University of South Florida and parts of New Tampa at the northeastern part of the county. Why the fuck was this pup so far from his pack’s home territory?

"Well, you’re one lucky wolf. I’m a hunter who just happened onto the scene. You can call me Ranger," I told him, "We’re going to have to dispose of the bodies before the humans stumble on us." Fortunately, Will’s car was in the parking garage. It even had a big enough trunk to stow the corpses. His pack leader would know where to burn them. Will drove us out of Ybor, while I kept scanning for any more leeches. Once we crossed back into lycanthrope-held territory, the last of my energy dissipated. Will panicked a bit when I slumped over. I heard him trying to rouse me, but I just couldn’t make my body move at all. It was like I was trapped in a full body cast – alert, but unable to move. Will floored the gas and sped the remaining distance to his pack’s meeting place, an apartment just north of the university.

Will’s pack leader quickly recovered from the shock of the two vampires in the trunk and the unconcious hunter in the front seat. The pack loaded my limp body into another car and I was driven back to a Guild drop. Most of the lycanthropes don’t know exactly where the Guild is located. The Guild has a number of drops across the county where the packs can leave things for the Guild, including wounded hunters. The drop the pack brought me to was the armory. By the time the car arrived at the armory, I recovered enough from the temporary paralysis that I was able to stand and walk on my own. The two pack members who drove me wanted to stay until one of the Guild arrived to collect me, but I told them it wasn’t necessary. They didn’t seem convinced, but they weren’t about to argue with a hunter. As they left me there, I was met by Skillsaw, one of the young hunters that just joined our Guild chapter right before Vollen’s assassination. He called the Guild for an immediate pick-up. I walked into the back and found a place to lie down. The next thing I knew, a sharp punch to my side startled me awake. It took a moment for me to recognize the smiling face.

"So, this is where you hid yourself. What the fuck did you do last night?" Nick asked. I couldn’t tell if Nick was being sarcastic.

"Why?" I asked, still a little groggy. I stood up and Nick led me outside. The sun was incredibly bright as I climbed into the sedan Nick was using.

"According to reports, that club you raided looked like a bazooka hit it. The top floor was almost carved out like a canoe. Eyewitnesses say that they saw a bright white light, then the top floor exploded. The building was standing, but its insides were torn apart. Now I find you looking like you got hit by a truck. What the hell happened?" I looked at him.

"I don’t know, Nick. I really don’t know." I just really wanted to know.

I rested for a day, using the time to help out in the armory in the Guild. I was busy repairing one of the [Barrett heavy sniper rifles](<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barrett_M82) when Deadeye appeared. Unlike the majority of hunters, he was dressed in a business suit instead of a jumpsuit or "working clothes," such as jeans and t-shirts.

"Subbing for Matric?" I asked slightly joking. Deadeye gave me a disapproving look. He wasn’t happy with what he was doing, which meant he wasn’t doing jobs or planning jobs. It was one of the reasons I didn’t want his or the Guildmaster’s position. I didn’t want to have to deal with the administrative bullshit.

"Fortunately no," Deadeye answered, "The Guildmaster is sending me to meet with representatives from the lords of the surrounding counties."

"Odd they’re only sending representatives," I commented, "Still nothing from the prince?" Deadeye shook his head. For the prince to do nothing was surprising. The harshest criticism of his reign was when he sealed the borders of the Disputed Territories instead of forming an army of warriors and taking Miami-Dade and Broward counties back. Allowing Hillsborough to go to war without any action would bring on even more outrage from the county aristocracies. It could even force the forming of a war council that would be able to remove the prince and offer a nomination for a new prince to the King of the United States to confirm. Since the prince had no heir-apparent, the forming of the war council would be the end of his line ruling the state. From everything I had seen of the aristocracy, this was one of their cardinal sins, like a hunter being unarmed.

"Beyond making earth-shattering revelations," I said, keeping my voice neutral, "What do you need?"

"The Guildmaster said he wanted you to mentor Hangman," Deadeye stated. I nodded in response. "I’ve had him doing some simple jobs providing back up to some of the more experienced packs. I’ve got a job that would be good for him, but I think he needs some supervision."

"All right, that shouldn’t be a problem," I told Deadeye, "Does Hangman have the job already?" Deadeye nodded. "I’ll finish up here and go see the pup." The Barrett wasn’t a particularly difficult rifle to work on, but it took some time to finish up. It was time enough for me to ponder a couple of things. From what Deadeye said, Hangman just needed a more experienced hunter to make sure he didn’t make any stupid mistakes. Most lone wolves had a couple of these kinds of supervised jobs before graduating to running jobs completely solo. I had every intention of being as hands-off as possible. The Guildmaster saw something in the pup he wanted to foster. My job was to guide Hangman and show him some dirty tricks to make his life easier.

I left the armory and walked to Hangman’s room. A gruff voice beckoned me in when I knocked on his door. Hangman was sitting at his desk staring intently at an intelligence report on his computer. Gear, weapons, and maps were strewn on every flat surface of his room. His desk had a manila folder open with a small group of papers and pictures. It looked like the job folder.

"Are we planning on invading the TCV Hall?" I asked lightly as I walked into Hangman’s room. I pushed some of his stuff out of the way so I could sit down.

"Ranger, I’d love to chat, but Deadeye gave me this job and I need to get it done," Hangman said with barely contained impatience. His body was vibrating with barely contained energy.

"Yeah, I know," I said calmly as I cleared out a place to sit down, "Deadeye asked me to help out."

"What?" Hangman asked, startled, "Does he think I need a babysitter?" Hangman was agitated and a little ashamed Deadeye didn’t fully trust him on a fully solo operation. Too bad.

"Yeah, you do, or at least someone to help you out a bit," I answered back firmly, "Look at the mess you have here. You’re trying too hard and you’re going to make some dumb-ass mistakes. This is your job, and it’s going to be your responsibility. I’m just here to help you out a bit and to make sure you don’t make a fatal mistake." He gave me a suspicious look than nearly made me laugh out loud. I understood what he was feeling completely. I had a similar experience when I first joined the Guild. The difference was my mentor could allow me to make some of the stupid mistakes. The worse that would happen back then was I’d get banged up a bit. I didn’t start getting the jobs that would get me killed until much later. With the war on, the Guild didn’t have that luxury. We needed every hunter operating at full capability.

"Calm down," I told him, "Tell me the job and what you think." He took a deep breath and picked up the job folder.

"Okay, a pack leader named Ringston asked for our assistance in shutting down an infiltration route into Carrollwood," Hangman read, "Apparently there were some problems and he’s worried the leeches have some sort of backdoor directly into his territory."

"Alright, that’s the facts, so tell me what you think," I said.

"I think Ringston is being paranoid," Hangman answered, "It’s not like there’s a set number of ways into Carrollwood. Especially for creatures that can fly in one of their forms. If the pack leader is having trouble, then it more has to do with some sort of weakness in the area." Not a bad analysis, but it relied on some assumptions of the basic facts. Hunters learn never to rely on any assumptions. Bad things happen when one of the premises of your planning was suddenly knocked out from under you.

"Ringston isn’t paranoid," I replied, "It was one of his pups that the Bleeders attacked before Vollen’s assassination. Even then, he noticed there were more leeches active in his territory than there should have been."

"How do you know all of that?" Hangman countered, "The intel reports flatly contradict that conclusion." Okay, the pup had the smarts to get the relevant intel. The problem with Guild intel was that it relied far too much on what came out of the transcripts of hunter reports to Sneller, Deadeye, or – in my case – the Guildmaster. That left some gaps, mostly because the Guild expects hunters to talk to each other. Lycanthropes have an orally based tradition of teaching, which spills out to the Guild. Hunters learn to trust what one of their own tells them over a written report.

"Nick and I were the ones that did that job," I answered, "I’ve met Ringston. I think you’re right about the infiltration route, but if there’s an influx of leeches, it’s not because of a weakness of the pack." I waited for Hangman to come up with the proper conclusion.

"There’s a coven hidden in there," he said, "The leeches have been waiting to seize Carrollwood, and they already laid down the groundwork."

"More than likely," I replied, concealing my surprise. The Guildmaster was right. Hangman had some pretty shrewd instincts. He quickly discerned not only the probable cause of the leeches, but their ultimate goal. Carrollwood wasn’t one of the spectacularly wealthy neighborhoods, but it was definitely well-off and well-established. Control of the area would give the leeches access to resources and give the leeches inroads into many other areas in the county the lycanthropes held.

"Okay, so where the hell is the coven?" Hangman asked, bringing up a satellite map. Damn the humans made such wonderful tools.

"That’s going to be the fun part," I told him, "You’re going to need a list of known leech holdings in the neighborhoods. Then, you’ll need to go meet with Ringston and get the on-site data. That part is purely investigative and analysis."

"Guild intel?" Hangman asked, hopefully.

"Maybe," I answered, "I think the pack will have better data for you. Grab your gear and we’ll head down there." I waited patiently as Hangman packed up his stuff. The two of us drove out to the [Carrollwood](<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrollwood,_Florida) pack’s war site. Every pack had a war site. The tradition was as old as our war with the vampire. A war site was a place for a pack’s warriors to plan and conduct operations. It protected our kin by keeping them out of the crossfire and allowed a pack leader better communications with his warriors. It also allowed the lord to talk with his pack leaders without bringing them to the Manor or the cravex. Ringston set up his war site in one of the few remaining orange groves in northwestern Hillsborough. As Hangman and I pulled into the orange grove, we saw where the pack pulled together about a half-dozen camping trailers. As we started walking towards the trailers, we were confronted by a pair of lycanthropes wielding shotguns. Of all firearms, shotguns were the most common amongst the warriors. Shotguns were easier to acquire and a hell of a lot easier to make silver ammunition. The two lycanthropes were holding them in tactical ready positions, butt of the weapon to the shoulder and muzzle pointed down. Ringston must have put his warriors through some training. Not hunter, but definitely some sort of combat training. Maybe from the Guildmaster’s wife’s security shop.

"Who are you two?" the shorter one asked, trying to be menacing. His partner looked at me for a moment longer, and then stood up ramrod straight.

"Show some respect Joe," the taller one said to his partner, "Sorry Ranger, I didn’t recognize you at first." I recognized him from the job, but I couldn’t remember his name. The shorter one, Joe, also stood up.

"Hangman, here, was given the job for your pack," I said, "Would you mind taking him over to Ringston?" The two gave Hangman a look over.

"How come you’re not taking it?" Joe asked.

"The Guildmaster assigns the jobs. Best hunter for the job," I said, "I’m only here because I have history with this pack, and the Guildmaster wanted me to do introductions." It wasn’t quite the full truth, but the pack didn’t need to know that. The pack needed to have confidence in the Guild and our operations.

"Okay, come with us," the unnamed taller one. Hangman and I followed the two into the war site. The pack warriors were grouped around three long tables placed in the middle of the trailers. A map of the county was hung on the outside of one of the trailers, with the pack’s territory outlined in red grease pencil. I just shook my head. The pack had seen too many war movies. A couple of decent laptops with commercially provided satellite photos would have been better and more accurate. The tables were laid out with shotguns, rifles, and ammunition. Ringston came out of one of the trailers. He was wearing jeans, a dark blue long-sleeved shirt with a tactical vest over it. A pistol was holstered at his side. He was smiling as he approached Hangman and me.

"Ranger, it’s good to see you," Ringston said, stepping over to clasp my shoulder, "I see you’ve brought your protege. Good, I think you’ll need him for this job." Hangman looked a little perturbed, and I couldn’t really blame him. Establishing yourself as a hunter can be difficult, especially when your mentor is high-profile.

"I’m not your hunter," I told Ringston. The pack leader looked over at Hangman.

"His assignment?" Ringston asked. When I nodded, Ringson turned to Hangman without missing a beat. "Have you reviewed the information we sent the Guild?"

"Yes, I did," Hangman said, with a bit more confidence, "I understand your concerns, sir, but I don’t think you’re dealing with an infiltration route."

"Oh?" Ringston asked, his voice suspicious, "We’ve seen an increase in vampire attacks, even before Lord Vollen declared war. I lost two more of my pack since the war started. Don’t tell me the TCV isn’t targeting my territory." Ringston was visibly angry. "I needed to hire human combat specialists just to give my warriors a chance." He gave Hangman a very frustrated look. Ringston was probably right to be frustrated, but it wasn’t helping things right now.

"If you’re done with your tirade, sir, I will elaborate," Hangman replied with an even and neutral tone, "I’m fully aware of what has happened to your pack. I think the TCV put a coven in your territory." Ringston stared at Hangman. The possibility must not have occurred to him, but the truth of it suddenly dawned on him.

"I’ll need to go over some things with you and your warriors so that we can start winnowing down the possible locations," Hangman said, unslinging his backpack full of intel.

"Of course," Ringston answered, quickly regaining his composure, "We’ll give you whatever assistance you need."

— – – – – – – – – –

The leech was stumbling and panicked. Hangman was impatient, but he was keeping it in control. The plan was simple, and I only needed to prod Hangman a couple of times to avoid some rookie mistakes. We knew the majority of attacks were centered around the Four Oaks area of Carrollwood. Bordered by South Village Drive to the north and Gunn Highway to the south, the area was a microcosm of Hillsborough as older mobile homes were overshadowed by the more expensive housing developments and growing commercial developments to cater to the newer, more affluent residents. Ringston put out a couple of bait warriors near a park under the watchful eyes of other warriors in the pack as well as Hangman and me. As we expected, a group of vampires took the bait. The leeches obviously felt four to two were good odds. That was, until the rest of us appeared out of the shadows. Then the guns came out. Four pistols to a bunch of shotguns and a couple of sub-machine guns wouldn’t normally be much of a firefight, but we were just trying to wound them, which was a far trickier proposition. The first three were torn apart from just the volume of silver buckshot being fired by the pack. The fourth, fortunately, only took a few hits and tried to slip away. The pack warriors wanted to pursue and kill the leech, but Hangman sent them back to their war site. We would track the leech back to the coven. At this point, the warriors would just get in the way.

The leech staggered along the street talking on a cell phone, bleeding from a half-dozen grazing hits from the shotguns. He was smart enough to take cover when the pack opened fire. Hangman and I patiently stalked him as he made his way to Gunn Highway. At the intersection, the leech climbed into the rear of a waiting van. I smiled because I was right about the direction the leech would flee. The little compact we borrowed from the Guild motor pool was in the parking lot of a small shopping complex not more than fifty feet from where we were standing. Both of us sprinted towards the car as we watched the van head east towards Dale Mabry Highway. Hangman and I followed the van for a quarter-mile as it turned into Plantation, a housing development between Gunn Highway and Linebaugh Avenue. Plantation was a mix of subdivisions that cater every tier of the middle class. The main street of Plantation was a giant loop with subdivisions branching off it. We followed the van as it turned into one of the middling subdivisions. I pulled into the subdivision as Hangman shouldered his MP5 in case we were riding into an ambush. I stopped near the entrance of the subdivision as the van pulled into a driveway about a dozen houses down. The house was a small two-story painted in neutral grays and blues. We watched as two leeches helped their injured friend into the house.

"Well, that’s probably the coven," I stated, "What’s your idea for taking it down?" Hangman continued to look at the house for a few moments.

"We need more information," Hangman said, "We have no idea how many leeches are in the house, how they’re armed, or if they have ghouls. Better to wait for daylight." It was a solid idea. Ghouls would be awake and fighting, but ghouls weren’t nearly the problem leeches were. There was one other thing Hangman needed to address. I watched him for a moment as he continued to watch the house. Ancestors, he was trying to do it himself.

"Hangman, why are we still here?" I asked patiently. The pup had good instincts, but there were still a few things that he needed to learn.

"We’re waiting for daylight," he answered, looking at me in surprise.

"Two people with automatic weapons in a car that doesn’t belong?" I asked in reply. My tone wasn’t harsh, but I wanted him to see the folly of his ways.

"We can’t just stay here like this," he said, shaking his head at his own mistake. This was one of the simple mistakes that could get a hunter into a lot of trouble. "How do we wait for daylight and still keep the house under observation?"

"What resources do we have?" I asked, hoping he got to the answer quickly. We were already at the front of the subdivision longer than we should have been. Pretty soon we would be attracting the wrong attention, either from the leeches in the coven or from nosy neighbors in the subdivision.

"Let me call Ringston and see if he can get someone up here to keep an eye on the house," Hangman said, pulling out his phone. Right answer. The local pack would either have a warrior, or better yet, a kin in Plantation that wouldn’t stick out. I pulled the car back out onto the main loop. While Hangman talked to Ringston, I was watching for either some sign the leeches in the coven knew we were there, or for the yellow lights of the private security firm that patrolled Plantation. The last thing we needed was for the fucking humans to screw things up. Hangman ended his conversation and looked over to me. "We’ll have two kin here in ten minutes to watch the house."

Hangman was right that we didn’t have enough hard intelligence to attack the coven’s house at night. A daytime raid would be both easier and more difficult. It was easier because we wouldn’t have to worry about the vampires in the house, only whatever ghouls guarding them while they slumbered. The difficulty arose in keeping the raid quiet enough from the humans while dealing with the zealous ghouls. Those bastards just didn’t quit until they were dead, and they could take a lot of damage before they went down. The vampire blood they ingested gave them the same kind of immunity to pain humans received from drugs like PCP. One of the ghouls duties was to be bullet catchers, and they were damned good at their job.

"So what do you think?" I asked after Hangman got the last report from the kin. It was dawn, and we were west of Plantation in the parking lot of one of the many shopping complexes that were scattered among the area. We were waiting for the Publix to open so we could go get some decent breakfast stuff from the supermarket’s fantastic bakery. If you lived in Florida, you shopped at Publix.

"According to the kin, the subdivision should be mostly empty by nine," he said. That made a certain amount of sense. The majority of families in the area were two-income families. With the parents at work and the children off in school or daycare, most of the homes should be unoccupied for the majority of the day.

"So, what would be the best plan of attack?" I asked. I wanted to see what was going through Hangman’s mind. So far he was doing pretty damn well. I could see why the Guildmaster thought this pup had potential. Now I needed to see if he could get down and dirty.

"Infiltrate the house," Hangman mused, "Kill everything and get out. The pack can clean up." In terms of a basic plan, it wasn’t bad. In terms of what needed to be done, it was lacking. Most of that was simply Hangman’s lack of real-world experience. He must have picked up my disagreement. "What’s the problem?"

"How did the TCV get that coven in here?" I asked, "More to the point, how do we make sure that they don’t try to establish another coven out here?" Hangman mulled that over. I reminded myself to be patient as the pup thought. There was time before it would be "safe" to launch an assault against the house, and I needed to see exactly how nasty Hangman thought.

"Well, to your first question, we’ll need to toss the coven for intel," he said, obviously unhappy with the prospect. I think he was expecting a quick in-and-out assault. In reality, very few raids are like that. If we have to hit a place, then there’s probably a lot of hard data on site that our intel group would want to see. "As to your second question, I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be anything that would deter the vampires from coming right back. They already perceive Ringston’s pack as weak."

"That’s the key," I replied, "With leeches, it all comes down to perception. To make sure that the bastards don’t come out this way again, we need to make Ringston’s pack look strong and ruthless." Hangman digested that bit of information. One of the problems with the newer hunters was they weren’t taught a lot of leech psychology. Good hunters understood how vampires thought and acted. It was one of the reasons the Guild promoted the use of leech contacts. I learned a lot about the internal politics of the TCV from Bradon, as well as the how and why of vampire politics as a whole. One of the things I needed to teach Hangman was how to use that basic understanding of vampire politics and perceptions against our enemies.

"So, how do we make the leeches think this place impenetrable?" he asked.

"Not so much impenetrable as extremely dangerous to operate," I corrected, "And for that, we are going to need to sow the fields with salt." Hangman’s eyebrow quirked up as he puzzled out the statement. Then, a wide grin spread across his face.

Ringston’s warriors infiltrated the subdivision. Their main task was to keep the humans out of the firefight. We would also need the warriors to cart away anything Hangman and I found in the house. As we approached the house, I was glad Deadeye asked me to come along on this job. Nothing against Hangman – the pup did have operational instincts that bordered on the frightening – but he would have had to go against the coven alone or with the warriors supporting him. I had a bad feeling that either way would have ended with Hangman dead. I liked the pup too much to let that happen if I could reasonably prevent it.

Both of us were wearing jeans, t-shirts, and light jackets – normal clothes as Florida started into its dry season. Kevlar vests were under our shirts and MP5’s were under our jackets. I looked at the pictures of the target on my phone’s display. The kin hadn’t seen any movement in the house. I resisted thinking everything was going well. I knew Murphy and his fucking law too damn well. We parked the car in opposite of the house. Several of warriors were trying to be inconspicuous as they milled around the are. Hangman and I put on our headsets and clipped our phones to our belts. We approached the house. It was a small two-story house with a large picture window looking down at us on the second floor. We couldn’t see anyone peeping out of it. Our entry point would be through the sliding glass door in the back of the house. For entrance, Hangman and I both wielded ASP telescoping batons.

The gate was secure enough to keep out the local kids, but not against a concerted, violent opening. The two of us walked into the back yard. It was a well-manicured yard with a large square of loose gravel in the center. My guess was a fighting ring of some type. The Bleeders were big into hand to hand combat, and we knew that the Bleeders used this coven before. Standing outside the sliding glass door on a small concrete patio was a ghoul. He was smoking a cigarette with his hand on a holstered pistol. His eyes went wide as he saw the two of us come around the corner, but he didn’t react nearly fast enough. Hangman charged the ghoul with his baton out and extended. The short distance between the two evaporated. Hangman delivered a vicious blow to the ghoul’s head. Even without the added strength of true form, the blow was enough to destroy the ghoul’s jaw and send him down to the concrete. Hangman didn’t waste time and quickly brought up his MP5, letting the baton clatter to the ground. As he covered the sliding glass door, I came up behind him and finished the ghoul with a knife.

There wasn’t anyone beyond the glass door. Directly across from where we were standing, we could see a short foyer to the front door of the house. To the left was a couple of bargain leather sofas an entertainment center against the left wall. The right side of the room was a dining room. I could make out the raised bar dividing the great room from the kitchen. In the right corner was the staircase up to the second floor. No one responded to the death of the sentry, so I wasn’t sure if the others in the house were unaware or laying in ambush. Hangman must have been thinking the same thing.

Use furniture for cover, he hand-signed to me, keeping his weapon trained at the staircase and kitchen area. I nodded in response, biting down my retort. I would save the stating of the obvious for the job debrief. Under Hangman’s watchful eye, I slid open the glass door. As I suspected, it wasn’t locked. What sentry is going to lock himself out of his own house when going for a smoke? Keeping the MP5 aimed to the right, I took up a cover position behind one of the couches. Behind me was an entertainment center with some very expensive electronic toys. The vampires must have been in this house for a while, and they expected to use this as a hub for operations in this part of the county. Even the vampires didn’t put in over twenty thousand dollars of electronics unless they expected to get their money’s use out of them. They expected to use this coven for a while. Oh well, if they weren’t too wrecked, I’m sure the pack would get some use out of all those electronics.

The kitchen was a small affair with two doors. The one off to my right led into the garage, while the one directly in front of me opened up into a side patio. I didn’t see a sentry on that patio, but I kept an eye out anyway. The staircase led up to a second floor hallway, but I couldn’t see anything up that way. I waited for a moment, listening for any sound betraying an ambush. Hearing nothing, I motioned for Hangman to enter the house. Hangman strode in, keeping his weapon trained on the second floor. He placed his back up against the wall at the foot of the staircase, giving him a nice field of fire if anything appeared out of the hallway. I moved up behind him, clapping him gently on the shoulder just before I crouched down and to keep the kitchen in view. My instincts were telling me something was wrong. A coven this deep in our territory should have more ghouls guarding it. Bleeders had staged out of this house at least once before, and Bradon would have demanded the extra security to protect his operatives while they slept.

"Clear the first floor," Hangman whispered to me, "Take the point to the kitchen. I’ll cover you." I nodded silently. Truth to be, I would have sent him to the kitchen, but only because I know my shooting skills, and I was pretty sure that I was faster and more accurate than Hangman. This was his job, and Hangman was in tactical control. As I slid out from behind Hangman, a ghoul came into view from the kitchen patio. He was armed and aware there was something deadly in the house. He was either stupid because he didn’t use any of the cover available to him, or he was just panicking at the sight of his dead comrade. Either way, I placed a suppressed burst into him before he could bring his pistol up. The sound of the shattering glass masked the suppressed report of the MP5 and the tinkling of the brass against the wall. The ghouls in the house would have heard the glass breaking, but they would have no idea exactly what they were facing. This gave Hangman and me a very short window for action.

Hangman and I both rushed into the kitchen. I took a quick peek outside and saw no other ghouls. Hangman opened the garage door as I covered him. The garage was clear of ghouls. That just left the second floor. Upstairs would be tight with very bad cover. Ancestors, this was going to be fun. Why the hell did I leave my flash-bangs at home? Oh yeah, I didn’t think they would be needed. I should have known better.

"Well, do you want to go first?" I asked Hangman as the two of us looked up the staircase.

"Yeah, but I’m thinking you might be better for it, Ranger," Hangman responded. "Let’s go." I moved up the stairs cautiously. Hangman followed with his back against the stairwell wall so he could engage anything that came from above or below us. Clearing houses was usually a hit pack job for this reason. You needed the extra bodies to secure the house. Lone wolves usually just did simple raid and assassination jobs. Part of the fun of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter is finding myself into these kinds of situations. The top of the stairs opened up to a narrown hallway with three doors toward the front of the house and another door towards the rear. I motioned for Hangman to come up, hoping like hell we didn’t get attacked from both sides. As Hangman passed me at the top of the stairway, he moved to the room at the rear. It was probably the master bedroom and would be where the majority of the leeches were slumbering. Taking it out was a smart move, because that was the most likely place for any remaining ghouls to be hiding. I walked slowly backward to cover him.

I heard him slam the door open and walk in. I moved to the side of the door, keeping my weapon trained on the hallway. If I heard his MP5, then I would move carefully into the bedroom to assist. If I heard any other weapon, I would enter the room in full assault mode. Hangman emerged a few moments later. Clear, vampires sleeping, his hands flashed quickly. Best to leave the sleeping vampires alone for the moment. It wasn’t as if they were going anywhere. I nodded as the two of us crept down the hall. There were two doors to our left and a single door to the right. One of these days, I was going to force Wizard to hack into county records so that we had instant access to all building floorplans. My guess from the door spacing was the closest door on the left was a bathroom. I was worried it was connected to the other room on the left, which brought on a whole bunch of bad possibilities.

"Let’s do this methodically," Hangman said, "First door on the left, then the next, then the right." I nodded as we approached the door. I would make sure I explained things to him before we entered. I wasn’t sure if he had figured it out by himself yet.

Be careful, next door, I flashed to him, as we neared the door. Hangman gave me a quizzical look and bent towards me. I whispered into his ear, "The two rooms may be connected."

"Okay, I’ll go forward," he said, "You cover the flank." I nodded in response. The door opened and an overpowering wave of incense rolled out into the hall. The smell was enough to make me blink away sudden tears. Hangman made the same instinctual conclusion as me and charged into the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet was the wounded leech from the firefight. The vampire was hooked up to a device feeding him black blood through at least four IV’s. The leech was conscious, but completely powerless. Once the sun rose, the poor bastard lost almost all of his strength. That combined with his wounds meant he barely had enough strength to lift his head at our entrance. Hangman moved in cautiously and inspected the leech and the machine.

"Ranger, what the fuck is this?" Hangman asked, "I’ve never seen this thing before." He walked around the machine. It was about three feet tall and maybe a couple feet around. It was smooth white plastic except for a touchscreen readout and hookups for eight lines. Four of these were going to the leech. The others were leading to the bathtub. I pulled back the shower curtain. Lying in the tub were two emaciated human bodies. The humans were alive, but just barely. They didn’t even register our presence as Hangman checked them for pulses.

"Best guess," Hangman said, "This little machine converts human blood into that nasty stuff so that they can relace what they lost." I didn’t disagree, but why would the vampires have such a machine? From just a cursory inspection, the device required more work than lower vampires were worth in the eyes of the TCV. That sounded like a question for the intelligence section.

"Other rooms?" I asked quietly, trying to curb Hangman’s fascination with the device. He stared at the machine for a moment longer and then turned back to me. He nodded his head.

"Let’s finish this job," he said with a slightly tired tone to his voice. The bathroom was connected to the other room, but the door swung into the bathroom. Entering from that side was going to be difficult. Instead, we moved the machine in front of the door. If anyone in that room tried to flee this way, he would be in for a surprise. The two doors were all that were left. Hangman and I decided to do simultaneous assaults on both doors. It would be a bit more dangerous if we both ran into opposition, but it also prevented bad guys from sneaking from one room to the next. Hangman took the left while I prepped the right. My MP5 ready, I slowly unlatched the door, gave a little force to open it just a bit, and then slammed through. The room was a plain bedroom with two coffins were the bed should be. There was no movement. I made my way through the room, making sure no ghouls were hiding around the room. I walked back into the hallway to find Hangman with a similarly disturbed look on his face.

"What the fuck?" he asked, "There can’t be just two fucking ghouls guarding this place." I silently agreed with Hangman. Even if the vampires in the coffins were just regular TCV members, two ghouls as guards were woefully pathetic. We found a total of eight sleeping vampires and a ninth undergoing a bizarre healing. For this kind of coven, I would have expected at least six ghouls. Part of me being on this job was to help train Hangman how to think, so instead of telling him what I thought, I decided to force his thoughts on the possible reasons.

"Okay, so why aren’t there more ghouls?" I asked.

"TCV thought this place was secure," Hangman said, "We know that they need all of the ghouls they have. We don’t have to limit ourselves to night-time jobs." That was true, which was why the vampires always maintained far more ghouls than was probably necessary. It was also why they were using more human assistants to do the normal gofer work normally reserved for the ghouls since Lord Vollen declared war.

"Could the other ghouls be gone on an errand?" I asked, trying to point out a simple reason for the absence of the vampires.

"Maybe, but why would they leave their vampires with only two guards?" Hangman countered, "Ghouls are so zealous in their protection of the vampires. It doesn’t make sense. If we found a couple more ghouls, then I would think the others had gone off to do errands while leaving enough to protect the leeches from pack warriors. This coven is too far within lycanthrope territory for them not to leave enough protection. Unless they had none to give and were counting on the secrecy of the coven for additional protection." Hangman was getting scary. I came to the same conclusions, but I wouldn’t have at his age. He was thinking far more strategically than I did when I was a brand-new hunter. Now I saw why the Guildmaster wanted me to work with the pup. Few hunters could integrate the tactical and the strategic as easily as Hangman.

"Okay, so what now?" I prompted.

"Fire the house," he said, confidently, "We salt the fucking earth." It was a good answer, and it was the last step we planned for the coven. There was just something else that needed to be done first.

"What about intel?" I asked without reproach. Most of the young hunters simply forgot to toss a place for intel after a job. It just wasn’t taught at the camp to the point it became an almost instinctual thing to do. Interrogations maybe, but looking for written and electronic reports sometimes slipped the mind. Again, it was a curse of our oral tradition.

"Oh yeah," Hangman said, somewhat sheepishly, "Where?" That was a good question. He understood where some of his weaknesses may lay, and he was looking for help in fixing the problem. It had taken a serious mistake for me to start asking help without feeling ashamed.

"Let’s toss the bedrooms first," I said, "Make sure to grab cell phones or tablets. We’ll worry about the desktops later. Any paper, we need to check." Hangman looked at me with an almost pained look, and I could tell what he was thinking. "Yes, this is going to take awhile, but your next time will go faster as you learn what could or could not be intel. Generally, we don’t need the junk mail. Utility bills are only needed to see when service started. Credit card bills are essential. Anything that looks like correspondence or even basic notes we take. Anything that looks like operations planning gets bagged. Once we’ve got everything, then we can burn the house down." We found a few phones, and a pair of laptops. We used the cameras on our phones to send pictures of the wounded leech and the machine to the Guild. The desktop computers were protected. We didn’t have the time to crack them. The few papers were mostly worthless, but there were a few that looked promising. Hangman found a couple of carrying cases for the laptops and we loaded everything into them. We were ready to set the house to burn. As we came down the staircase gunfire erupted.

Before the attack registered, I felt several hits in my vest and the laptop case was jerked out of my hand. I scrambled back up the stairs as a round hit me in the forearm and another slammed into my knee. As Hangman and I collapsed into the hallway, I could see he was bleeding from a hit in his leg. He also had several holes in his shirt that the vest caught. Both of his arms were working properly, so he pulled out his aid kit and began working on me as I drew my pistol and covered the entrance to the hallway. Anything bad rounding that corner would be getting a .45 ACP Silver Shok to the head. Okay, I fucked up and got complacent. We should have extracted with more care. I grunted in pain as Hangman probed the two wounds to remove the silver. Nice thing about the leeches’ silver bullets is they don’t normally fragment. They still hurt like all hell when they’re pulled out. I heard the two bullets hit the carpet, and then came the intense pain as Hangman applied the wolfsbane. I shook off the dizziness from the pain, but I could feel the warm, happy feeling as my wounds – now cleaned of the silver – began to seal up. A moment later, I was healed. I got up to return the favor.

As Hangman covered the hallway with his [MP5](<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MP5), I yanked out the bullet in his leg and cleaned the wound with the wolfsbane. As I holstered my pistol and picked up my MP5, I wondered why our assailants hadn’t pressed the attack. Hangman put a short burst into a ghoul’s head as it popped out of the stairwell. We made our mistake in not being cautious as we left. They made theirs in giving us too long to recuperate. I hit the speed dial on my phone out to one of the warriors who should be sitting outside. I was pissed they didn’t call Hangman or me to let us know ghouls were entering the house, but I needed to know what they saw. I would figure out what went through their heads later.

"Who’s this?" asked the voice on the other side with a confused and excited voice.

"This is Ranger," I said, "What the fuck is going on out there?"

"Shit man, we’ve been trying to call you," the voice said, "About six ghouls just drove up and went into the house."

"Yeah, and now they’re shooting at us," I replied. Hangman looked over quickly at me. Ghouls – five, I hand-signed to him. He nodded and turned back down. "We need a diversion. Quickly. And don’t get yourselves killed."

"Two minutes," answered the welcome voice of Ringston, "Can you hold?" Damn I was glad that he showed up. I looked over at Hangman who was fishing around in his pocket.

"Oh yeah," I replied, "As long as the bastards don’t start chucking grenades at us." I didn’t really expect the ghouls to have that kind of high-end firepower, but this job already had far too many nasty surprises. Granted, some of those were simple fuck-ups and some were oversights by me. It was what we would call a "learning experience" for Hangman. I made my own mental note to make sure I asked Gunny to get me some more flash-bangs. They were quickly becoming part of my AMEX kit – things you don’t leave home without. Hangman pulled out a plastic periscope. It looked like something out of a cereal box, but at least he remembered to bring it along. I had an FBI version, but it was back at my townhouse. It was too heavy to bring along normally, but I would make sure it was in the saddle bags of my motorcycle. I motioned to him before he looked down the staircase.

Warriors – two minutes, I hand-signed to him. He nodded in reply. Hangman let his MP5 rest on its sling as he drew his Sig 1911. He held the pistol in his left hand as he looked through the periscope down the staircase. Pistol shots rang out and I heard the bullets slap into the wall at the top of the staircase. Hangman put away his periscope and holstered his pistol as he moved back towards me.

"Four ghouls are at the bottom of the staircase. Couldn’t see the other one."

"Okay, we’ll deal with that one as soon as we see him," I said, "Go as soon as Ringston sets off the distraction."

"Leave the intel?" Hangman asked like he was trying to confirm what he was thinking.

"Yeah," I answered, "We should we be able to come back for it after we finish clearing the ghouls out. Weapon check." Hangman and I both checked our sub-machine guns. Full magazines, suppressors tightly attached, rounds in the chambers, and selector switches set to three round burst. It was unlikely we would need to provide suppressive fire, so the three round burst would be all we needed to take down the ghouls. Pistols. Full magazines and ready for quick transitions if the submachine guns ran dry. We nodded to each other.

At one minute fifty seconds, the front door slammed open followed by pistol fire being exchanged. Hangman slid into the top of the staircase and let loose a pair of bursts. I was close behind him and fired my own bursts at the two remaining visible ghouls. The four seemed to fall simultaneously. Both of us scanned the house below as for the remaining ghoul. I could see two warriors with pistols in hand at the front door, but not the last bad guy. The warriors were facing towards the kitchen.

"There’s one more guys," Hangman yelled down, "Can you see him?" Neither Hangman nor I wanted to traipse down the stairs until we had a good idea of where the last bastard was hiding. At least enough to make sure he couldn’t ambush on the stairs again.

"I can’t see him, but I think he’s either outside or in that door just inside the kitchen," answered one of the warriors. "What do you want us to do?" I wanted to answer, but I waited for Hangman. It was his job, and I had enough confidence that he could make the right decision. Or ask me if he was unsure.

"Move to the base of the stairs," Hangman said. He sounded confident, but he looked a little unsure. "When I give the signal, move towards the kitchen and fire at anything that moves." It was a simple plan of using the warriors as blockers to cover our descent. I didn’t agree. I hadn’t seen enough to prove to me Ringston’s warriors could handle themselves in a gun fight. I would have gone back outside through one of the bedroom windows and came in either through the front door or the back door. It would be another thing to discuss with Hangman when this job was finished. The two warriors made an almost humorous attempt at stealthily moving towards the front of the stairs. I think they were trying to mimic stuff they saw on television. Hangman looked over at me. I gave him a nod. I was ready.

"Go," Hangman called down to the warriors. They ran the ten feet into the kitchen as Hangman and I scampered down the stairs. As we hit the base of the stairs, the ghoul appeared in the sliding glass door and immediately opened fire. Damn, the ghoul was good. I felt the hammer thuds as four rounds slammed into my chest. Hangman collapsed to the floor beside me. I raised my weapon with one hand and placed a burst into the ghoul. It was quick, dirty, and missed, but the bullets drove the ghoul back and gave me time to regroup. Gripping the MP5, I slipped into the kitchen.

"Go help Hangman," I whispered to the warriors, "Cover him from that bastard." They looked terrified, but they scurried over to where Hangman lay on the floor. I needed to finish this fast. I didn’t know how badly Hangman was hit, and I didn’t have any more wolfsbane. It was time to go outside. I slinked out of the kitchen door, keeping my back to wall and my weapon pointed towards the backyard. I waited for a moment and listened. Nothing, so I crept down the wall. I lowered down as I came to the corner. I wanted to be as low to the ground as possible to peek around the corner. The ghoul jumped out from the back. Bullets cracked over me as the ghoul fired at where he thought I would be. I brought my weapon up and placed a three-round burst into his head. It exploded like an overripe melon from the three nine millimeter rounds. The body toppled to the ground. I took a deep breath and thanked the Ancestors.

I stood up and called the Guild. As the phone rang, I walked into the house and headed to where the warriors were standing guard on Hangman. The pup was still on the floor and wasn’t moving. There was a moment of panic, and then I could see him breathing. Relief flooded through me. I doubted the Guildmaster would be happy with me killing the new pup so early in his career.

"Who is calling?" asked the voice on the phone. I didn’t recognize it immediately, and I didn’t waste time trying to recollect whom the voice belonged to. I had more immediate concerns.

"Ranger," I answered, "Hangman is down and needs immediate medical. We are in the Plantation area near Linebaugh." There was a pause on the line as original voice was replaced by Burn, the Guild doctor.

"Ranger, I can’t get out there, but I’m sending someone from the Lutz pack," he told me, "She’s a pretty good doctor. What are his injuries?" I sat down next to me. Hangman looked dazed almost as if he was surprised he’d been hit. A lot of his blood was on the floor.

"Gunshot at the shoulder, gunshot in the knee, grazing wounds on neck and across face," I reported, as matter-of-factly as I could. "Looks like all wounds went clean through. The wounds are all archanal. He’s lost a bit of blood, and I’m out of wolfsbane packs." I looked up at the warriors. The senior one shook his head gravely. "The pack doesn’t have any on scene."

"Start trying to control the bleeding and keeping him from going into shock," Burn told me. I heard screams in the background. He was advising me while working on someone in much worse shape. Thank the Ancestors Burn was a born multi-tasker. "Penelope should be there in less than fifteen minutes. Try not to let the pup die before she gets there." As Burn went back to his task, I heard the unique sound of the Guild’s computer system getting a GPS fix on me. All of our phones had the capability, but we only used it in emergencies. I waited for ten seconds, and then the phone disconnected. I looked up at the pack warriors.

"You two, go get me bandages and blankets," I ordered. They rushed to get me what I needed. I looked down at Hangman, "You’ve been quiet."

"Didn’t want to disturb you," he grunted out between spasms of pain, "Taking all of my concentration not to scream. Pain is different. Must have been hit in something nasty." Hangman was diagnosing himself. I was surprised he kept the presence of mind to do that. Hunters are trained to keep going, even when badly injured. The vest protected him from immediately fatal hits. His wound at the shoulder looked bad and his knee was much worse. Both joints were probably shattered. That was going to make the cleaning worse. At least once the doctor cleaned his up, those wounds would heal up fine. None of the weeks of rehab humans had to deal with. The face wound didn’t look serious. Head wounds always tended to be bloody. The grazing wound on his neck was my primary concern, because it was too close to major arteries. Any heavy moving could tear the wound further. One of warriors came in with what looked like a first-aid kit.

"Get me gauze and tape," I told the warrior and turned back to Hangman, "How is the pain different?" As he tried to think, I probed the shoulder wound. It looked like the bullet just passed through, but I was worried that the rounds fragmented hitting bone, and there were pieces of silver still stuck in Hangman. The pup yelled out in pain as my fingers desperately searched for the unique feel of metal in his shoulder. No fragments, just the silver residue preventing the wound from healing. The warrior shakily handed me a towel to wipe my bloody hands. As soon as my hands were clean, I bandaged up the neck and face wounds and began trying to plug up both the shoulder and the knee wounds.

"You still with me, Hangman?" I asked.

"Fuck you very much," Hangman replied weakly, "Quit trying to kill me. Pain’s different because so much broken. Felt bullets go through." He was trying to maintain consciousness. He knew as well as I did he couldn’t go out until the doctor arrived with her medicines. "Can you do something useful?"

"Okay, what’s the first rule?" I asked calmly. It was an old trick to focus a hunter’s mind, particularly when he was hurting.

"Never fail a job," Hangman answered, almost annoyed, "Let me guess, what’s the second rule?"

"Come on shithead," I replied, lightly "You know the drill, odd numbers."

"Fucker," was the reply, "Third rule? Never be unarmed." Hangman grunted in pain as he began thinking about the fifth cardinal rule of the hunters. I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked up. The lycanthrope was in human form, a shapely female figure with long black hair and dark eyes. She was dressed in jeans with a cotton blue blouse. She had a large black satchel at her side with a stethoscope peeking out of the flap. Her stance was that of an impatient professional. She had to be the doctor that Burn sent.

"Back up," she ordered in a cool soprano as she not-so-gently pushed me away from Hangman. She knelt down beside him, pulling out a glass bottle and a cloth from her satchel without looking. Definitely a professional. The doctor looked over Hangman as she opened the bottle. The pungent smell of wolfsbane screamed out of the bottle and quickly filled the room. The warriors and I took a step back out of learned fear of the medicine. Lycanthropes may have cognitively understood that wolfsbane would heal us by neutralizing the poisonous touch of silver. Instinctively, we remember the pain of wolfsbane’s touch the moment we smelled its unique odor. Hangman grunted as the odor wafted over him.

"Easy, hunter," she said soothingly, "This is going to hurt. A lot." She began wiping the wolfsbane-laden cloth across Hangman’s wounds on his neck and face. I heard a strong intake of breath from Hangman as he stifled a scream of pain. The pup was strong, and he was tough. The doctor moved to Hangman’s shoulder. As she wiped the wound with the wolfsbane, Hangman let out a stifled yelp. The wound began to seal itself as soon as the wolfsbane began to take effect. I could see the bones move under the skin as they began to reset and heal themselves. Satisfied that Hangman was under the proper care, I moved to the warriors.

"What the fuck happened?" I asked, hotly, "We didn’t get any intel that the ghouls had left the house or any warning when they arrived back at the house." I was supposed to let Hangman handle this part also, since he had to learn to deal with the warriors that made up most of the packs. With Hangman still down, I wanted to make sure that it was either carelessness or just fucking Murphy instead of something far more sinister.

"Fuck you Badmoon," the younger warrior retorted, stepping forward aggressively, "We fucking called you when they were coming in. It’s not our fucking fault you didn’t answer your phone." I walked over and punched him hard enough to drive him the to the floor. As he lay on the floor, I loomed over him with murder in my eyes. I wanted him to think I was on the verge of removing his vital organs. I watched as the anger that lit his eyes faded into cold fear.

"Let me explain something to you," I began with a chill tone, "I am not in the habit of letting idiots walk away unscathed. So, let’s try this again, why weren’t we notified?"

"Ranger, stand down," Ringston ordered from the door, "Unless you have evidence one of my pack conspired against you, I will not allow you to attack one of my pack. Is that clear?" My first reaction was to tell Ringston to fuck himself, but I quickly suppressed the urge. Ringston was just about the only pack leader openly friendly to the hunters since the Vollen assassination. He was also someone who seemed to trust me personally, and that was rare enough for me to give Ringston a lot of slack. He backed his pack, like any good leader, but he also wasn’t foolish enough to immediately discount the fact that there might be a real problem.

"They said they called me, sir," I answered, backing away from the warrior on the floor, "Neither Hangman nor me ever received a phone call. Both of us had our phones set to immediately pick up if your warriors called us. No way it should have gone to voicemail." It wasn’t damning evidence, but the Guild needed to know what went wrong. If it was something simple, then we needed to put in procedures to make sure it didn’t happen again. If it was something evil, then someone was going to be dead very quickly.

"Get me the phone you used to call the hunters," Ringston demanded to one of his warriors, "We’ll solve this little enigma now." Ringston motioned to another lycanthrope and whispered into his ear. "All of you, evacuate immediately. As soon as the hunter is healed up, we will burn this house to the ground." His warriors began moving.

"Excuse me, sir, we have a laptop, some cell phones and other stuff. We need to get those things to the Guild before we burn the house down," I said, "There may be important intelligence on those items. Also, there is an odd device upstairs. I don’t think we can move it, but we need to get as much information on it as possible."

"What kind of device?" Ringston asked, his voice dropping to a neutral tone.

"Looks like some kind of emergency medical device for the leeches," I told him, "It looks like it replaces the black fluid leeches use as blood. For a badly wounded leech, it could keep him alive long enough for medical treatment or to purge silver poisoning." Ringston pondered what I told him for a moment. The doctor looked at me in horror. Ringston turned to the doctor.

"Penelope, if Hangman is stable, I need you to go with Ranger to inspect the device," Ringston ordered, "All of the items Ranger told us about will go to Dietrich." He noticed my hand drop down to the grip of the MP5 slung at my side. "Relax Ranger, we have someone that can crack the laptop and the phones for us."

"With all due respect sir, those need to go to the Guild’s intel section," I protested, "We have the resources." Ringston held up his hand.

"Ranger, I know the Guild’s intelligence group is the best in the county, but they are going to be overloaded with all of the intel sent in by all the packs," Ringston said, "Dietrich is a computer specialist several of the packs use for background searches and such. He’s kin. Better to let him do the hard work and let us send over the data to the Guild." I wasn’t convinced, but what he said made some sense. Enough for me to let my boss make the final call. I called the Guildmaster and gave him a quick brief before handing over the phone. The Guildmaster and Ringston talked for a few minutes as I went with the doctor to look at the device. The poor doctor had no idea what she was walking into. I heard retching quickly followed by the unique sound of vomit hitting the linoleum floor. She composed herself and inspected the device. Her professional face was firmly in place as she began poking and prodding the wounded leech and the device. As she did her thing, I began to get the upstairs set up for arson. The idea was for the house to burn quickly so the humans had no chance to put the fire out before it burned to the ground and immolated anything pointing to the unseen world. We did not want the slightest chance of witch-hunters being created, or worse. Nightmares of the Pathwalkers were constant since this war started.

"Ranger, here’s your phone," Ringston said, handing over the device. He looked in the bathroom and his face paled. "Ancestors, that thing was in my territory?" Regaining his composure, he turned back to me. "We figured out what happened with the phones. My warriors had wrong numbers for you two."

"Fucking Murphy," I snarled. Part of it was our own damn fault. We never had the warriors test the numbers to make sure they were entered correctly. That was going to be part of the debrief. This wasn’t a shining example of how to do a job properly.

"The Guildmaster released the laptop and the phones to my care. Hangman’s up and ambulatory. We’re ready to finish this."

"Very good sir," I said, "Let’s get things moving." I will say one thing about the job. It was a damned fine bonfire.

Chapter 8 – Be Careful What You Wish For