One of the things that took me a long time to get through my skull as I was coming up as a hunter was not all of the jobs were difficult or required an inordinate amount of firepower. Some were very simple. Even important jobs could be very simple and accomplished with minimal equipment. As I grew in experience, I realized that those important and simple jobs were the ones most hunters preferred. Granted, dramatic and harrowing adventures made great stories for the packs, but among professionals, we knew better. The simpler, the better. This was why I was happy when the Guildmaster gave me the job to take out the Bleeders’ armorer.

I knew William "Buddy" Ritchart through Bradon. I actually met the vampire once. Ritchart was tall and rotund with thinning brown hair and deceptively warm brown eyes. The entire time I talked to him, I don’t think he stopped smiling at me with his dazzling white grin. Ritchart played the southern country gentleman, including dressing the part and using an overdone southern accent. None of that affected genteelness fooled me into thinking Richart was harmless. He was not only a Bleeder, but one of those that were as almost as well trained as hunters. Ritchart was also damned good about going to ground when the shit hit the fan. Two hit packs and a lone wolf tried four different times to take out Ritchart since the beginning of the war. Each time was the same. Just when we thought we had Richart cornered, he just vanished. A couple of days after helping Hangman with his job, a kin reported seeing Ritchart in Northdale, in the northern part of the county. The Guildmaster was tired of having Ritchart running around handing weapons out to the TCV members. He asked me to handle the situation.

I knew the troubles the others had with finding Ritchart, and I was pretty sure that I figured out the common factor. All of them did the last bit of reconnaissance themselves. They needed to see him with their own eyes before they would do their jobs. It was one of those things we were taught in camp, and it was hard for hunters to put aside. Ritchart survived because he’d seen the other hunters before they saw him and simply slipped out one of his planned escape routes. To avoid that mistake, I contacted the kin that made the most recent sighting.

The kin was a young housewife who lived in the same subdivision where Ritchart was hiding. It was just by pure accident she saw him coming out of his house. She agreed to keep me updated while I checked the satellite photos to decide on exactly how I was going to take out Ritchart. Getting close was going to be impossible because Ritchart always kept a pair of ghoul helpers/bodyguards. I was going to have to do either a sniper shot or try for a road kill. Road kills were easier in terms of infiltration and extraction, but if anything went wrong, they became the splashy, event-filled affairs the human media loved to bombard all over television, radio, newspapers, and the internet. Considering how close the war was to courting intervention by the Pathwalkers, or maybe some preventative action by Turaki "peacekeepers," I decided on a sniper shot. There was some luck was on my side. Ritchart’s house was across from a cul-de-sac, which gave me a nice wide hundred-yard shooting alley. The fun part was infiltrating the subdivision, covertly getting onto the roof of one of the houses at the end of the cul-de-sac, and then quickly getting the hell out after I took down Ritchart. After a couple of phone calls, I convinced the kin to drive me into the subdivision, which covered infiltration. According to the satellite photos, I could extract by the simple means of running through back yards until I hit one of the numerous strip malls that lined Dale Mabry. Dramatic, yes, but not uncommon. If done in true form, most humans wouldn’t see me as I ran. My senses would give me enough warning so I wouldn’t drop into the middle of someone’s backyard party and chance the creation of witch-hunters. The part of the job I was having trouble with was securing the roof of the house. So, I ran it by Nick and Hangman. Surprisingly, it was the pup who came up with the answer.

"Don’t we have a kin in one of the local ad agencies?" he asked, which resulted in questioning looks from Nick and me. The pup shrugged. "I think I worked with her before." Nick and I just traded confused looks as Hangman went searching through his phone for the kin’s number.

"Okay, I give. What the fuck are you talking about?" I asked.

"Ad agencies always have spare promotional items, including something that will get the family out of the house long enough for you to do your job," explained Hangman. Okay, that was something I would have never considered. I lived way too much in the lycanthrope world. Except for the bare minimum to maintain my camouflage, I just didn’t think about the normal human world. This was the reason we made sure our kin were deeply rooted into human society. Hangman made the call and within six hours, the kin in the ad agency had that side of the job accomplished. Pictures from the kin in the subdivision gave me the front of the house. In a rare stroke of luck for me, the house had a large front window that would make an excellent sniper blind. No shambling up on to roofs.

As the human family left on a grand night out, courtesy of our kin in the ad agency, I slipped into their house and quietly made my way upstairs. The room was the teen-age daughter’s, which made it a little easier for me. Her room was strewn with all sorts of debris, I doubted she’d notice if I moved anything. Even so, I carefully moved a few items so that I could open the window, and then set up the rifle. I wanted a KAC SR-25 for this job, but the Bowmasters didn’t have one available, so they let me use their newest acquisitions. The HK 417 was similar to the SR-25. Both were based on the M16 family of weapons and designed for precision shooting. For this job, the rifle was equipped the with bi-pod, night-vision scope, suppressor, and brass collector. I really didn’t want to rummage around the house looking for spent brass when I needed to be running. I set the bi-pod’s legs on a nightstand and settled in to wait. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait very long. Maybe fifteen minutes after I set up my shooting position, Ritchart walked out of the house. One ghoul was in front screening its master. The other was pulling rear guard. I needed to take Ritchart down with the first shot, which was going to be a cast-iron bitch. Then I’d handle the two ghouls. Best of all, I needed to get all three down in under a minute. Any longer and my extraction would be more problematic. The responders wouldn’t be normal vampires. They’d be Bleeders.

The Ancestors smiled on me because the lead ghoul stumbled and fell to the ground. Simple Murphy on the bad guys. Ritchart just looked down at his servant and laughed at its misfortune. The laughter stopped as the bullet ripped out his throat. Ritchart fell almost silently to the ground. The rear ghoul never came out of his momentary shock before the next bullet slammed through its chest. The front one realized what was happening and took cover behind a tree. I cursed under my breath. The ghoul’s head popped out and looked down the street. It knew where the bullets were coming from. The small radio materialized just in time for the last round to blow apart its head. Job done.

Extraction was simple. No one even messed with my escape car. For all of my concerns about the job, it went remarkably smooth. More smooth than pretty much all of the jobs that I did. As I cruised back to the Guild, I did my normal reflection on the job. Most of the time, it was trying to find out where I made my mistakes, or which of my actions would cause the Guildmaster some grief. This one was different. It went as easy as the instructors promised back when I was young and naïve and believed everything I was told about perfect planning meant perfect missions. If I believed in fate and karma, I might have suspected that the fates were just setting me up for a future cluster-fuck.

As I roared back into one of the garages above the Guild, I saw Gunny glaring at me. I shot him a questioning glance, but he didn’t say anything to me. I wanted to ask him what was going on, but sometimes it was very dangerous to try and pry stuff him when he was pissed. I walked to the back of the car and pulled out my tactical bag. Shutting the trunk, I smiled nicely at Gunny before going down to the second floor to report to the intelligence group that I finished my job and see what happened while I was out. As I got off the elevator, I was almost run over by Smiley. Smiley, so named by his habit of constantly wearing stupid grins on his face, was a part-time member of the intelligence section. Unfortunately, Smiley was also on the hyperactive side, so I often wondered how they got him to do some of the hard work that intelligence required. Smiley looked down at me with that stupid grin on his face and pardoned himself. Then he went back towards the elevator with a single sheet of paper.

"Hey, what’s this?" I asked, pointing to the paper in his hand. Intelligence reports were rarely printed on only one sheet of paper. The intelligence section often tried to cover every possible angle on any data that came in. While it left some of the reports ambiguous, they often made sure that the most probable hypothesis was emphasized.

"It’s a request for assistance from one of the packs," Smiley replied. He seemed torn between staying and talking to me and delivering the request downstairs. Smiley’s hyperactivity often led him to be chatty, something the intelligence group constantly chastised him about. It was also the reason he was a part-time specialist instead of one of the full time operatives. To relieve him of his moral dilemma, I snatched the paper from his hands and read it. According to the request, a high ranking vampire and his minions – lesser vampires, ghouls, and human sycophants – were holed up in a house on the bottom of a cul-de-sac in the Forest Hills area. This leech was a major player of the independents that worked outside of the TCV. The vampire was supposedly rallying the independent vampires in the city and county. It was unknown exactly why he was bringing in all the freelancers, but it unnerved the TCV enough to have a group of Bleeders and their ghouls station themselves in a house on the entrance to the cul-de-sac. The pack leader wanted to take out the independent leech, but the Bleeders were preventing any operation in the area surrounding the cul-de-sac. A daytime raid by several of the pack against the Bleeder house resulted in the deaths of three pack warriors with another dozen injured by gunfire before they even got close enough to the house to see anything. The pack leader was certain the pack warriors could take care of the leech if hunters could remove the Bleeders. I checked it again to see if I missed any important details.

"Hell Smiley," I said, looking back up at him with a grin of my own, "We don’t need to bother Deadeye or Sneller with this. I’ll just take care of this little job myself." Smiley shifted his weight from left to right with barely contained energy. It wasn’t happy energy.

"Ranger," he said, looking at me intently, "This type of operation is better suited for the hit packs. You can’t expect to pull off a raid that twenty pack warriors couldn’t do. Just give me back the request and I’ll take it back down to Sneller."

"I can do this," I responded glibly, deftly avoiding Smiley’s attempt at grabbing back the paper. "Listen, Sneller’s packs are all booked up, and I’m free right now. So let’s go see what the Guildmaster has to say about this." Smiley’s grin vanished as the rest of his face dropped. There was a tinge of fear in the back of his eyes. Most of the Guild saw the Guildmaster only as their leader, a cunning lycanthrope who rated just under the lord. I, on the other hand, have always known him as a mostly strict father figure, who guided me in the Guild since he selected me as his personal hitter. I turned and began to walk to the Guildmaster’s office as Smiley stood rooted in shock at my audacious remark. Aside from the top hierarchy, most hunters would never thought of going to the Guildmaster unbidden. I was part of that top hierarchy, so I often went directly to him if I had a problem or found out about a job that I wanted to take. I did have the common decency to knock. Smiley didn’t react until I was halfway to the Guildmaster’s office, then he sprinted down the corridor and grabbed my arm. I easily shook off his large weight and walked the rest of the way to the Guildmaster’s office. Smiley pleaded with me through a sad look in his eyes, but I just smiled at him and knocked on the office door.

"Come in," came the gruff reply. I opened the door and walked in. Smiley slunk in behind me and looked like he would have rather been inside the TCV Hall. The Guildmaster looked up from a report he was reading, looked me over, and then went back to the report. "This had better be good Marcus. The pack that went in behind you had a hell of a time entering Ritchart’s place. Bleeders were leading a recovery team."

"Ancestors damn it all, I thought I took out all three without them warning the TCV or the Bleeders," I said. "How bad?"

"Two injured, but not serious. The Bleeder armory is still in play though," the Guildmaster growled. "Kurt has JB tracking it down."

"Sorry boss. I know you told me to do that job up close, but there was just no way I could do it. His ghouls were way too good at catching us before we could take him out."

"I’m not going to second guess you," the Guildmaster said. "At least Ritchart is taken care of. He was the last of Bradon’s favored subordinates. So, why did you come to see me?"

"I need you to approve me for this job." I tossed the paper onto his desk. It took me years of practice to pull that off and make it look easy. He snatched it up with an angry glare towards me. The Guildmaster was simultaneously annoyed and amused by that particular stunt. At the moment, he was more pissed than amused, but he decided not to verbally strip a patch of my hide off for it. The Guildmaster scanned the request over, and then looked up at me with a skeptical look.

"You realize that this job is supposed to be done by a hit pack?" he asked me without the normal sarcasm that I usually garnered from him.

"Yeah," I answered, keeping my tone confident, "But they’re busy, and I’m not."

"That’s not a good enough reason, and you know it," he retorted, "You just came off of a day-long job, and I don’t want you burning yourself out, particularly in light of your first couple of jobs. I don’t have a personal hitter to let you put yourself in a bad position simply because you find the job interesting. Now why shouldn’t I wait until one of Kurt’s packs become available?"

"Because if you wait, there’s a damned good chance that independent vampire will either be brought into the TCV or killed by the Bleeders," I answered firmly. If there was one thing I knew about my boss, if I made my request in terms of strategic importance, he would consider it more carefully. "Either way, we lose a damned good opportunity to eliminate or capture the leech and a bunch of Bleeders." I waited as the Guildmaster digested all of this before continuing. "I can take down the Bleeder house, if I get enough data beforehand and plan it out right. I’m not going to be stupid on this. You know me better than that." The Guildmaster thought it over and looked over at Smiley. I couldn’t see Smiley’s expression, but I gathered Smiley was adamantly against my pulling this job. The Guildmaster shook his head and began writing on the request.

"Your job is approved Marcus," the Guildmaster told me seriously. I could almost hear Smiley deflate behind me. The Guildmaster waved him out before continuing. "Marcus, you will eliminate all Bleeders and their associates. Once that is done, you will allow the local packs to take care of the primary objective. If they want your assistance with the take-down of the primary target, feel free to join in. Weapons are fully authorized, but don’t be too extravagant. Is that clear?"

"Yes sir," I responded, "Go in, kill all the bad guys, report back to the pack leader, help them out if they want it, and then leave. Did you want me to fire the house?" Firing the house would ensure the leeches would be completely eliminated, but it tended to draw human notice. The bonfire in Plantation made the evening news on all the major networks. Risking such scrutiny was sometimes necessary, but not it had its own risks. The fear the Pathwalkers would decide to intervene was always in the back of every hunter’s mind.

"No," the Guildmaster replied, his voice conveying no leniency on the issue. "I want to keep the humans out of this as much as possible. Our allies and the leeches’ within the human authorities are doing all they can to keep our war in the unseen. What we can do to help in that regards is absolutely necessary." I nodded, and the Guildmaster handed me the paper. When Smiley and I walked outside the office, the hunter gave me a smoldering glare and stalked back to the intelligence section. I just shook my head in resignation and walked to the armory. I often took for granted my close relationship with the Guildmaster. It annoyed some of the other hunters. I checked the order papers to see which pack I was supposed to meet up with for the operation. I frowned. That couldn’t be right. I checked again. Fuck. What were they doing in that neighborhood. I cursed under my breath. It was my first pack, the one that Discovered me. To say there was some bad blood between the pack and me was a grave understatement. I thought over the operation as I headed to the stairs. The first thing I needed was some sleep. I left the intelligence area and went down to where my quarters were. On the way down, I ran into Nick.

"What are you doing tomorrow?" I asked. He looked at me suspiciously before answering.

"I’m taking down the leech coordinating logistics for the TCV," he answered with a wary tone, "Why, what do you need?"

"I’ve got a little job in Forest Hills tomorrow and I really didn’t want to drive out there." He gave me a suspicious look.

"When were you planning on going?" he asked. I looked down at my watch. It was only about eight in the evening. I thought about loadout time and made some fast time calculations.

"I’d say about ten in the morning," I told him. He thought about that for a moment before answering.

"Yeah, I can probably do that. Hangman and I are running a quickie tonight into the stadium to meet some independent lycanthropes and see if they can provide some support to us. That shouldn’t take too long." I grimaced at Nick’s job. The lycanthropes who left our society and tried to forget who they were were the most bizarre of our kind. It was rare, mostly from those whose grandparents or great-uncles/aunts were the contributing lycanthrope. There were a few in Tampa, maybe a dozen at most. They kept some ties to the packs – you cannot eat human flesh and not have some help in disposing of the bodies – but their involvement in our affairs was practically nonexistent. I didn’t understand them at all. How could anyone give up the completeness of the world in true form? The Guildmaster believed they did at least have the right to be fully informed about what was going on, and given the chance to return to the packs. I wasn’t so sure, but what the Guildmaster ordered, the hunters carried out. Nick didn’t say anything further about his current job, but did tell me to call him in the morning when I was ready.

Leaving Nick, I went down to my room. I stripped out of my clothing and took a quick shower, thinking over the job. For as much confidence as I showed the Guildmaster, I knew this job wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. The opposition was Bleeders. They were going to be trained and nasty, and they had ghouls to protect them during the day. Bleeder ghouls were well-trained, plus they had that nasty zealous streak in them. Some hunters thought that edged the ghouls over their Bleeder masters. At least the leeches knew when to cut and run. I thought on that for a moment. Ghouls were overprotective of their masters, but they were still human. Well mostly human at any rate. Thinking along that track, I concluded the best time for an attack was about an hour before dusk. Ghouls, even Bleeder ghouls, were still going to have some human limitations, including the fatigue factor. If the Bleeders set up shop in that house for a while, then the routine was probably set. An hour before dusk was the critical time for ghouls in a protection mode. At that point, they began to let their guard down. If there was going to be a time to take out the house, then that was it. I was going to have to be on the ball, and not let any fuck-ups happen. I flipped on computer long enough to send Gunny and Boomer an email that I was going to be up in the armory to pick out my gear for the mission in the morning. With that done, I turned the computer off and went to bed.

I woke up the next morning and continued to ponder over my options for the take-down. The Guildmaster specifically said not to fire the house, which meant most of my normal entry mechanisms went out the proverbial window. I decided on waiting to see what data and resources the pack had before I decided on an entry method. I stepped out of the shower and dried myself off. I put on a simple dark t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Although they weren’t as mission oriented as the usual black jumpsuit, they were far more inconspicuous. I placed the USP in its normal position on my right hip and trekked up to the armory. Gunny was in the armory checking over a pair or badly-mangled Uzis. He looked up as I walked in. He put down the remains of the sub-machine guns and walked over to me.

"What’s up with the Uzis?" I asked him. They looked like someone ran several thousand rounds in full-automatic without bothering to even field-strip the pieces. Ancestors, what stupid-ass hunter had taken such poor care of his weapons?

"I’m trying to cannibalize any of the usable parts out of them. The packs haven’t been real careful with the weapons I’ve loaned out," Gunny answered. He sounded even more disgusted than I was. I hoped he wasn’t in such a bad mood I would have a hard time getting the weaponry that I needed. His weapons were his pride and joy, and when someone banged them around too much, Gunny became real reluctant to let the rest out of his sight.

"I’m running low on spare parts," Gunny said, "I’ve talked to some of the pack leaders about it, but they don’t seem to understand that you can’t do all that abuse to a weapon like they do in the movies. So what do you need?"

"I’m taking down a house for a pack. I don’t have a layout on the house, but the Guildmaster ruled out using explosives. I was thinking about an MP5K or maybe an MP 9." Gunny walked over to a rack of rifles as he thought over my request.

"Why not a shotgun?" he asked, picking up a Mossberg and examining the chamber, "Or your Commando."

"Not the shotgun because the house I’m going into is going to have a lot of targets, and I want the SMG’s extra ammo and compactness." Gunny seemed satisfied with that answer and went into one of his chained-off load-out pads. When he came back, he was holding an MP5K with a half dozen spare magazines. Gunny set the weapon and the magazines down on the same table he was working on before I came in.

"Are you going to need leather?" he asked as I began to check over the SMG.

"Yeah," I answered, inspecting the action of the gun. I had a single shoulder holder for the compact MP5K, but it wouldn’t be practical for this operation. Gunny kept plenty of various tactical rigs to hold all of the weapons, ammunition, and electronics in the armory. He didn’t disappoint when he came back with a nice shoulder rig. As I fit the rig over my t-shirt and fiddled with the straps, Gunny produced a few boxes of ammunition for the guns. I verified that the boxes were nine millimeter Silver Shoks. I trusted Gunny, but everyone makes mistakes. Especially with the tempo of wartime operations. It would be annoying to have to trek all the way back to the armory to switch ammunition boxes.

"Are you going to need rounds for that pistol of yours?" Gunny asked as I began to collect everything.

"No," I answered casually, "I’ve still got a thousand rounds on hand." He nodded in acknowledgment and went back to his work on the Uzis. I grabbed everything and headed back down to my room. After settling the MP5K, the spare magazines, and the rig on the bed, I rummaged through my chest of drawers. I pulled out a box of energy bars and munched on one as I pulled out equipment. A Kevlar vest was laid next to the shoulder rig. One of my generic personal radio sets with a throat mike and earpiece were placed on the bed. When dealing with packs, I brought my own comm gear. Too many packs just relied on cell phones. I grabbed a pair of flash-bangs. I damn sure wasn’t going to forget those again. I thought about pulling out my Glock since it was also a nine millimeter, but decided against it. This was against Bleeders and their minions. I felt that I would need the heavier .45 ACP in the close confines of the house. My waist was going to be crowded with spare magazines for the subgun and the USP, so I pulled a thigh holster for the USP. My back up would be my trusted Ruger SP101. My Emerson folding knife would be clipped to my pocket. A pair of silver knives would go in the small of the back. A set of throwing knives, which were little more than oversized silver darts, would go into a shoulder sheath. Those were some last-ditch weapons. The ghouls would have to be decently armed. They fended off the pack’s attack. More than likely they would have assault rifles with shotguns and sub-machine guns to back them up. I needed to see the floor plan of the house to better plan my assault. It was going to be hard and fast so the ghouls no time to react and awaken their masters. With the ghouls down, I could take care of the leeches either with bullets or by driving stakes through their hearts. After the house was secured, I would call the pack down on the independent leech. It was going to be intense, but I was a nasty little fucker. I carefully placed the loaded rig, my Kevlar vest, and the rest of the gear into one of my tactical bags and called over to Nick.

The drive over to the pack’s battle camp was mostly quiet. Nick was going over his own job in his head. Nick was busily thinking through some problem or another and almost missed the battle camp. I wondered if it was such a good idea dragging Nick into my job, but I didn’t want to go into that battle camp alone. There were too many bad memories and I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to react. The battle camp was a motor home park. Several of the packs in and around the Forest Hills and Sulphur Springs areas gathered together and formed a single big camp. It allowed for some cooperation between the packs in missions and skirmishing, but mainly it was a matter of safety in numbers. Maybe a couple dozen motor homes of varying sizes were littered around the park. The big vehicles were covered with antennae and cross connecting cables. A few pack warriors with barely concealed guns patrolled the grounds. I would have hired one of the local kin security firms to provide basic security. Any hunter could have told the pack leaders that, but pack leaders rarely cared what a hunter said until the hunter was doing a job for them. I looked over to Nick and gave him a resigned shrug. He kept his face neutral, but I could read his eyes well enough to know that he’d already done his own estimate of the camp and came to the same conclusions that as me.

I was stopped by a pair of lycanthropes trying hard to look threatening. They were trying too hard, and it took an effort not to laugh out loud. A truly dangerous individual doesn’t have to try to look dangerous. He carries himself with the self-confidence and self-assuredness few can match. More than once, it was how I spotted a Bleeder when I was on a job. We told the two lycanthropes we were hunters and presented my orders. The older one of the two looked over my job orders and then directed the two of us over to where one of the pack leaders and his warriors set up. As we left them, I felt a pang of annoyance. If the Bleeders ever figured out how lax the security was in this camp, they would have the pack leaders’ heads and most of their warriors to boot. If that happened we could lose pretty much everything east of Florida Avenue and south of Fletcher to the vampires. I made a mental note to ask the Guildmaster if he would send a hunter or ask for a Red Knight to help remedy the situation.

The pack who asked for hunter support was near the center of the camp. I didn’t like that one bit. It was bad terrain if a confrontation came down, which was likely. Even with the years behind me, the crushing pain and shame of watching all of the pack warriors stay in their entre when the Spiritmaster asked who stood for me at Discovery flashed through me. Time hadn’t healed the wound as much as built up scars around the wound. The taunts of the other pups in tysach ghosted back up from my memory. I’d made sure that each of the bastards paid – in spades. Still, no matter how sweet the revenge, it did little to fill the hole left over the rejection of my first pack. My first pack wasn’t running around Forest Hills when I was brought in. Back then, the pack roamed the south part of Carrollwood. They watched as their part of Hillsborough rose in affluence only to be eclipsed as newer developments were founded and began the affluence cycle. I never did find out how they knew about me. Because of the close-knit families of lycanthropes and kin, most pups are known well before it is time for them to go to the cravex for the Rite of Discovery. Even pups like Jennifer Denton, whose parents shunned lycanthrope society, were watched to see if they start displaying some signs.

Somehow my first pack found about me and broke into my human parents’ home. They were gone before I awoke from the dream that beckoned me to the cravex. I woke up that night dazed and confused. My entire world changed. It felt more real. It wasn’t until I saw my own reflection that I realized how much my world had changed. As I stared into the mirror to see my true form for the first time, I felt adrift in the sea of what was once reality and lore. Only one thing seemed sure, and that was that I would know more at the cravex. I left my human family that night. I never saw them again. Every so often I wondered what they were like now. How much had they changed because of what happened? Those thoughts came less frequently now. During my first month as a lycanthrope, I thought of nothing else. I staggered into the cravex the next day. It was pretty far away from my human parents’ home, and I didn’t dare get near any "normal" people. Waiting for me was Michael Twisted Knife, the pack leader, and Victor Ghost Dancer, a shaman working with the pack to help collect me. I was tired, hungry, cold, confused, and very susceptible to anything at that point. With a kind voice and a smile, Michael and Victor tried to divine who I was. I didn’t understand what was going on, much less why the two who had been so warm and friendly a few minutes before turned icy cold. I was left in the care of a member of the pack. He was an old lycanthrope who thought I was his personal servant. I hated his grating voice, his demanding and whining personality, and his refusal to treat me as anything but a lowly creature. I did owe him a debt of gratitude. He forced me to forge an iron will and learn not to take anyone else’s crap. Shortly before Discovery, he and I had a little talk. At the end, he was in a corner of the room, shaking in fear. I hadn’t laid a hand on him, but he was the first who realized I could kill other lycanthropes without hesitation. He could see it in my eyes. He died after my Initiation when he heard I was going into the Guild. Whispers among the packs said he was afraid I would return ready to murder him. The truth was that I already proved myself against him. There was no need to do anything further.

My Discovery started normally as any other. I watched as the other pups walked into the circle and shed their forms. When it came time for me, Twisted Knife pushed me into the circle without saying a word. He didn’t say the words dictated in the Rite of Discovery. The Spiritmaster was forced to ask me to shed for true. When I did, the Spiritmaster almost seemed relieved. Then when asked if any would stand for me, none of the pack came forward. I could hear the shocked whispers around the cravex. It was embarrassing and painful to watch the rest of the gathered packs look at me in accusing mystery. It also severed any good emotions I might have had for Twisted Knife and his pack. The Spiritmaster inducted the other pups and me into tysach. The years of the training seemed to fly by as I was busy learning, fighting, and occasionally taking my revenge on some of my enemies. The other pups might have treated me as an outsider, but I was determined not to be defeated by them. The shaman that taught us seemed amused by my antics, but frightened of what I was. The main thing I learned in tysach was just not to give a damn about what the bastards thought. It only mattered what the wolves I respected thought of me. Everyone else could go to hell. If they caused problems for me, there were ways for dealing with them. I finished tysach and was Initiated into the Lordship of Hillsborough County. The night I was Initiated, I was recruited into the Guild by a hunter who died fighting leeches while I was still in Guild training. I never did learn his pack name.

In the years since I joined the Guild, Twisted Knife’s pack had suffered bad fortunes. As the population in their territory grew, so did their pack. Shortly after I returned from the Guild’s training, the pack was large enough some started clamoring for a new pack to be formed. As dictated by law, the first Lord Vollen chose who would belong to the new pack and who would lead the pack. Instead of claiming new territory, the new pack didn’t want to leave the territory of my first pack. It was unusual, but it had happened enough that there were laws and customs to follow. The new pack leader and Twisted Knife faced off in combat. Twisted Knife lost. It was humiliating, and Twisted Knife should have lost his pack leadership. Instead, Twisted Knife managed to regain face by finding the pack a new home in Forest Hills. The actual circumstances were unknown to me, but I heard rumors that it was a political payoff between Twisted Knife and Grant Vollen, the first Lord Vollen. Now, I was face to face with the pack members that forsaken me.

As I approached, the older lycanthropes of the pack recognized me and fell back in silent retreat. The younger lycanthropes watched their elders, and looked at me with hostile looks. They didn’t know or understand what was going on, but they resented a single lycanthrope could make their veterans shirk back. I really didn’t give a damn about what they liked or didn’t like. They requested help from the Guild. I was just there to do the job. One of the younger lycanthropes stood up with a look of challenge in his eyes, but an older lycanthrope I recognized from Discovery put a restraining hand on him. Nick just looked around casually, as if he didn’t notice or was immune to the tension in the camp. Twisted Knife was standing outside an RV serving as his command center and talking to a pack warrior about my age. He either saw me approach or had been warned because he was putting up an effort to ignore me. The warrior looked at me nervously. He was desperately trying to end the conversation and evacuate ground zero. I didn’t blame him. The memories of my past were barely kept in check by the professionalism the Guildmaster beat into me over the years. Other than that, I didn’t feel bound by the normal deference to a pack leader. I spent some time researching Twisted Knife’s war record, or lack thereof. His pack did reasonable well against the few independent vampires in his territory, but their victories were mainly due to Twisted Knife’s able deputies. Twisted Knife was an excellent political fighter, but he hadn’t done so well once the shooting started. As far as I was concerned, that leveled the field between him and me. Finally, he couldn’t ignore me anymore and turned to face me. He didn’t look any different than when I saw him at the Rite of Discovery so long ago. His face and eyes conveyed nothing but utter contempt.

"What are you doing here Badmoon?" he asked as if I was little more than a wayward pup trying to play hunter. The Badmoon came out as a vile curse. A flare of anger passed through me, but I pushed it back down. I had the upper hand, and Twisted Knife knew it.

"Cleaning up your fuck-ups," I responded in a level voice. There were more than a few sharp intakes of air around us. In matters of lycanthrope pack custom, it was considered most unseemly to swear in front of those who were supposed to be your social superiors, especially in public. It was an entirely separate breach of etiquette to lay blame for failures at the feet of your superior in public. That was reserved for private pack meetings, or when one of the pack was challenging for control of the pack. I kept my glee hidden as I watched his face bloom with deep color as he tried to contain his anger at the effrontery.

"I would watch my tone, if I were you," he said through clenched teeth, "It might lead to ugly situations." Ancestors. He was still trying to be intimidating. Either he hadn’t realized I was no longer that scared little pup he first met, or he really thought he was that fearsome. My guess was the latter. It was time to educate him that neither of the assumptions was true.

"My tone didn’t get your warriors killed." Twisted Knife was on the verge of striking me. I could see the decision flickering in his eyes. I wasn’t too worried about that. What did worry me was the restraining hand Nick put on my shoulder. He obviously thought I went too far and needed to be reigned in before I hampered the job. I took a breath before continuing. "I’m going to clean out that house you failed to take down. I expect full cooperation from your pack on this, and so does the Guildmaster." Twisted Knife was now in a bad position. He made the request to the Guild. When the Guild sent a hunter or hit pack out, they were expected to be the best for the job. Refusing my services would constitute telling the Guildmaster the pack leader didn’t have faith in the Guildmaster’s judgement. Long tradition held those who turned away hunters were placed low on the priority list. Furthermore, asking for hunters, and then not giving the support that they required to accomplish their jobs was also considered a rebuke against the Guildmaster. I wondered what Twisted Knife was going to do as the tense, silent moments passed.

"Very well," Twisted Knife said, composed, "If the Guildmaster thinks you’re qualified to take down the house, I guess I have no other choice but to accept his judgment." It was a careful concession. It didn’t sound right coming from him. I was concerned about what was going through his head. Twisted Knife was just too good a political fighter to accept such a public defeat without a scheme for vengeance. He motioned to a young lycanthrope amongst the group that gathered around Twisted Knife and myself. "Paul, here, will provide you with anything that you require from us." Twisted Knife clearly considered the matter closed, because he abruptly turned from me and went into the command vehicle. Paul walked over to us in the gangly stride of a green warrior. Twisted Knife may have decided teaming me up with this pup as an insult, but I had a feeling it was better for me. The pup seemed oblivious to the discomfort of the rest of his pack’s warriors. He was wearing an expression I’d seen many times on pups’ faces. Hunters engendered a certain mystique amongst the packs, and many pups found it exciting to work with us. Most of them, fortunately, could easily be taught to put away whatever stories, rumors, and such they heard about us. The others needed to be beaten around the head and neck a few more times before they understood.

"What can I do for you sir?" he asked, respectfully. I looked him over carefully. He was only a year or two out of tysach, still a teenager by human standards. His eyes held a gleam of excitement and enthusiasm. He was taller than me, standing about six-three or so, with the characteristic dark brown hair and eyes that dominated lycanthrope lineage. His frame was thin, but I could see that it was mostly muscle. He was decked out in jeans and a dark t-shirt with a Ruger P95 holstered at his side. What endeared me most to this pup was his smile. It seemed to make his face complete and gave him the look of complete sincerity and innocence. He just looked like someone’s kid brother.

"First thing we need to do is get together all the information that you have on where the ghouls and leeches are holed up. Now, what do you know about the house?" I asked, keeping my voice level and calm. He thought about it studiously a moment before answering.

"It’s a single story house on the corner of a cul-de-sac. Twisted Knife sent a pack under Jeeves. They all disappeared as they attacked. We didn’t find any bodies when the pack investigated. There also was no gunfire when the pack attacked – from Jeeves group or from inside the house." I stopped him for a moment and asked him to repeat that last part. "Yes sir, there was no gunfire."

"That does not bode well," Nick said, rubbing his chin in bewilderment. "Bleeders are good, and their ghouls aren’t shabby either, but I don’t think they could sneak up on a group of ten lycanthropes prepared for combat, kill them with blades, and drag their bodies away without leaving a sign."

"No, and what bothers me is that I was told there was a gunfight with lots of wounded," I replied, "If I’ve been lied to, then this whole job is going to be a hell of a lot nastier than I thought." I turned to the pup. "What happened to the wounded?"

"A doctor came and saw them," Paul answered, "She said most of the wounds were from friendly fire, but a few of the pack didn’t like that. She just patched them up and sent them back to their packs." If the doctor was the same one that attended to Hangman and me back in Plantation, then I trusted the information. She was good.

"Does Twisted Knife know what happened?" I asked, hoping the pack leader confided in his pack warriors than he told us.

"He isn’t sure," responded Paul, "That was why he called the Hunters Guild for help." The three of us walked back to Nick’s car. Nick was right. I didn’t like the implications. There was something out at the target house I hadn’t dealt with before. I also hadn’t considered being lied to by the pack leader. Considering the pack leader, I should have taken it into account.

"Do we have floor plans for the house, or some kind of internal diagram?" I asked Paul, "It would help to know the layout so I don’t get any nasty surprises." I was really wishing the Guild’s intelligence section had been able to hack their way into the county offices. We were supposed to have a database with the internal schematics of all the buildings in the county, but that had fallen to the wayside with the war.

"No," he answered, almost as if he was ashamed that he didn’t. Then, his face lit up with an idea, "I think I can help with that one. There’s a house that has the same, or at least a similar design to the house that you’ll be going up against. It belongs to a friend of one of the other pack warriors. Jeeves asked Twisted Knife if he and his group could go through the house first before the attack, but Twisted Knife was pressured from the Manor to quickly take care of the house, and then hit Bradon."

"Bradon?" I asked him, my eyes leveling with his. My heart raced at the sound of the name.

"Bradon is the vampire in the house at the end of the cul-de-sac. He’s been organizing some of the independent leeches to work with the TCV. I thought you were told about that." Paul was confused about my question. I paused for a moment as the shock hit me. Could he have survived? I didn’t know of another vampire in Tampa with the name of Bradon. If he did manage to survive my assassination attempt, why was he here gathering up the independents instead of directing the Bleeders? Since the war began, the Bleeders had been disorganized and ineffective. If we found them, they were still fucking dangerous, but they weren’t attacking any of the high-value targets of lycanthropes like the Guild was doing to the TCV. That wouldn’t happen if Bradon was somehow still alive and in charge. The TCV’s internal politics could force Bradon to work with the independents instead of rallying the Bleeders, but the TCV was very good at putting away their disputes when there was an actual threat. A war with the lycanthropes was a big fucking threat. I shook my head. I put two silver bullets into Bradon’s chest. He was dead. This was probably just a coincidence. I’d just make sure I was on the raid on the house and make sure I listened to my instincts.

"Sorry," I told Paul, who looked disconcerted, "The head of the Bleeders before the war started was named Bradon, and the commonality caught me off guard. How quickly can you get us over to the friend’s house?"

"I’ve got to ask Mikey to call his friend and let him know that we’re coming, but that shouldn’t take too long. Twisted Knife said to help you out the best we could. Was there anything else?" He looked much more alive with something to do, almost as if that was what he lived to do. Quite frankly, it startled me a bit. I was often considered a fanatical hunter, but I never looked quite so focused and devoted to a specific job.

"See if there are any photographs or specific data surrounding the house in terms of forces inside," I answered, keeping my voice as neutral as possible, "I need hard information, not any analysis from either the Manor or the packs. It just gets fucked up." He nodded and walked off at a brisk pace. I looked over at Nick. He also looked worried about Paul’s intensity. Twisted Knife might have done a better job at causing me grief than I previously thought. "Are you going to stay here, or do you need to go back to the Guild?"

"I’m going to stay with you for a bit," he answered, "There is something about this job that isn’t quite right. Are you sure you still want to do this?" I nodded. For all of my concerns, which were considerable in light of the new information Paul provided, I still asked for and accepted this job. Personal pride wouldn’t allow me to back off of this job. I was still sure I could pull it off without getting killed. As I was mulling over the problems in my head, Paul returned with a manila envelope in hand.

"Here you go," Paul said in his normal cheery voice, handing me the envelope. I opened it to find some photographs and accompanying documents. The first photograph was a picture of a white single story house. The lawn needed some maintenance and there was a tall shrub wall, about four to five feet tall, surrounding the left part of the house. The shrubbery was dense enough to shield the left side of the house from the main road. The right part of the house held the driveway and a tall tree. Although there were no cars in the driveway in the photograph, there were oil stains that looked fairly recent. The front door was hidden in the photograph by the front porch, which looked like a small indention in the house. I grimaced at the fact that I couldn’t see the door, which in turn made Paul look worried. I was really going to have to settle the pup down before he got one or both of us killed. The second photo was the house where Bradon, the independent vampire leader, was living. The look of the house put my instincts up, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was similar to the house the Bleeders’ house, but lacked the tree and shrubbery. The papers were information on this Bradon and his house. There was no mention if he was related to the Bradon I knew, but it looked like he was as old as my Bradon. My mind flinched as that thought emerged. When did I start becoming possessive of Bradon. I pushed those uncomfortable thoughts aside and concentrated on the scant intelligence. Approximately ten to fifteen known independents were sighted at the house, but conflicting reports made the actual number unknown. This bit came from the lord’s intelligence group run by the Red Knights with assistance from the Guild’s intel section and whatever the shaman could divine. I hoped the data was reliable and not their normal patchwork of rumors and guesses. The last photo was a satellite photograph of the entire cul-de-sac. Well, at least someone in the lord’s intel group was smart enough to download it. Sometimes the aristocracy seemed to forget the human world provided us with useful technologies. Handwritten notes on the photo pointed to Bradon’s house at the apex of the cul-de-sac with the Bleeders’ outpost on the left hand corner. The shrub fence protected the left side of the property from view of the cross street. All of the houses looked similar, with minor size and style differences. I could see signs that the other houses were occupied.

"Before the raid, did Twisted Knife get all of the humans out of the way?" I asked Paul, "The neighborhood looks a little crowded for a raid." It wasn’t unusual for the packs to clear humans out of the area before a raid. Our kin in the human governments helped us a lot in this area.

"No," Paul replied, "Twisted Knife didn’t want to involve any humans at all. Jeeves’ group went in totally covert."

"A bunch of warriors is never covert," I retorted, "Not even in the dark and in true form. They are a fucking beacon to anyone looking for anything out of the ordinary. Was there any human involvement after the group disappeared?"

"No," Paul answered, "The humans in the neighborhood didn’t seem to notice. No alarms or calls to the police. Twisted Knife said the lord’s intelligence was sure Bradon didn’t notice anything either because he hasn’t done anything to indicate that he did notice." I didn’t like the sound of that. Humans could be expected to ignore our actions to a point, but this Bradon should have at least heightened his security around his home. Independents that weren’t slightly paranoid tended to die out quickly, and according to the intelligence I was holding, this Bradon had been around long enough to know better. Unless he was already allied with the TCV. In either case, the Bleeders weren’t watching him. They were his guards. That made taking everyone out very important to the county. If this Bradon allied with the TCV, and he was as influential as his reputation made him out to be, he could bring in a large number of unaligned vampires to fight on the TCV’s side. Independent vampires tended to be better fighters than their TCV brethren because independent vampires didn’t have the Bleeders or the Peace to protect them when they were sighted on our territory. If we killed this Bradon, it would signal to the independents the TCV couldn’t protect them, and they were better off on their own – away from Hillsborough. With vampires, image and perception were everything. This was one of the things that my Bradon stressed with me on more than one occasion. The strategic considerations would have to wait. I still had the initial job to do, and it looked to be a bitch.

"Let’s go take a look at the house layout, then I’ll have a better idea of what we face." Nick and Paul nodded and the three of us climbed into Nick’s car.

Nick held up his hand as we approached the house. The taxi was stolen by a pack warrior in a raid during the beginning of the war. When we returned to the camp, the pack offered it to for the job. Paul wanted to do the driving, but I didn’t think he could keep his head during the job to pull off his part convincingly. Laying on the seat next to Nick was a twenty-four pound sledgehammer and a flash-bang. Nick pulled up to the curb with a roughness only professional cab drivers seemed to master. I staggered out of the back of the cab, trying not to overact the drunk. I leaned into the driver’s side window pretending to pay Nick. He handed me the flash-bang with the pin pulled, careful to make sure the spoon wasn’t accidentally released. Then, he handed over the sledgehammer. I turned sluggishly back towards the house, keeping the hammer out of sight. I mimicked the stagger of a drunk up the lawn towards the front door. There were no signs of activity inside the house. When I was about three yards from the front door, I dropped the charade and charged the house. I was prepping the throw of the flash-bang in my mind. I hit the walkway two yards from the front door and the world went white.

The white faded. I was standing in the middle of a circle of ghouls and a human who smelled of odd herbs. My mind quickly recognized those scents – wizard. The wizarding community withdrew into their covens since the incident with the Sirens. They had all but disappeared since the beginning of the war. They knew better than to be caught in the crossfire between the lycanthropes and the vampires. I was surprised to see one of the wizards in the room.

"What the fuck?" one of the ghouls asked, "He’s still awake–" When in doubt, attack. There wasn’t time to think, and barely enough to act. I dropped the flash-bang and swung the sledgehammer at the wizard. Why he was in the room wasn’t important at that very moment. At that very moment, the wizard was the most dangerous, and most vulnerable, person in the room. Killing him first was imperative. My being conscious was enough of a shock to surprise him. He didn’t even dodge the heavy hammer as it slammed across to his head. His skull broke open like a ripe melon, spilling grey brains out onto the floor. The flash-bang went off. I closed my eyes as soon as I hit the wizard, but the roar of the flash-bang was still deafening. I opened my eyes and saw the ghouls stunned, holding their ears or their eyes. I shook my head for a half-second, trying to get the ringing out of my head. It didn’t fade. I pulled out the MP5K and ignored my throbbing head. I knew my hearing would return on its own accord. There were targets to handle. I thumbed the selector switch to three-round burst and opened fire. Ten ghouls dropped without a fight as nine millimeter bullets destroyed their vitals. Only the last two managed to bring up their weapons. Only one of them actually got a shot off before he was taken down with the last few rounds in the magazine. As soon as I finished with the ghouls, I finally took a look around the room.

The room was a square about twenty feet on the side. The walls were originally off-white, but now streaked with the black-red blood of the ghouls and the grey matter from the dead wizard. The floor was concrete with a pentagram drawn in black. The floor was stained with blood. Some was the blood of the ghouls and the wizard, but some were older blood stains. I wondered if it was the blood of the pack warriors that originally attacked the house. There were no windows or doors I could see. What the hell happened? Where was I? Tinny echoes let me know my hearing was finally healing from the beating from the flash-bang and the unsuppressed fire from my sub-machine gun.

"Garas," said a voice from out of nowhere, "What is going on down there?" I fought down the urge to respond. The voice sounded like an intercom, but I couldn’t see the speaker on the walls or the ceiling. "Garas, what the hell are you doing down there? Is that werewolf dead?" The voice was becoming more insistent. My guess was the next thing they would do would be to send down a response group. At least, that’s what I expected them to do. They didn’t seem to have a working video feed. Whoever they sent down was now my only ticket out of the room. The best bet would be to take them by surprise and commandeer whatever they used to get into the room. The room had nothing that could be used as cover. There was only one way to hide – in plain sight. I loaded a fresh magazine in the sub-machine gun. Then, I laid down amongst the bodies, spreading some of the blood and gore on me. I gripped the MP5K in my left hand and drew my USP with my right. This would only work for a short time. I needed to make each second – and each shot – count. I laid amongst the dead, slowing down my breathing. After a minute or two, a concealed door in the wall to my left opened and four ghouls entered the room. Two were cradling sub-machine guns, one gripped a pistol, and the last was carrying a shotgun. Their stances were that of slacking professionals. That fact made me a bit cautious with the plan I had rapidly thrown together. I stopped my breathing as they entered the room. I watched them through slitted eyes. They were dressed in white t-shirts and jeans. I couldn’t see any of the tell-tale signs of Kevlar vests. They paused in shock at the scene. The one with the pistol was the leader, because he directed the others to search the bodies. He stood over me and turned my head to look at my face. He didn’t notice as my arm rose up, placed the barrel of the USP at his side and fired. His face changed to shock from the pain as he tried to figure out what happened, but it was too late. He slid to the ground as death claimed him. I didn’t even have time to gloat.

The other three turned at the gunshot. They weren’t expecting resistance, and the sudden attack gave me a precious moment as they froze. The shotgun ghoul was the first, a victim of a three-round burst from the MP5K. One of the remaining ghouls fired at me at the same time I double-tapped him with my pistol. He went down. My Kevlar vest absorbed most of the impact – thank the Ancestors for trauma plates – but I still had the wind kicked out of me. I fired the MP5K at the last ghoul as I tried to recover my breath. The rounds went wide. The ghoul ran for the concealed door. He dropped his weapon and pulled out a small device that looked like the remote to a car alarm. I put a round into his back. The impact caused him to stumble and slide across the floor. I walked over to the dead ghoul and pulled the device out of his hand. I pointed the device at where the concealed door was and hit the button. The door slid open to reveal an elevator car big enough to hold nearly a dozen people. I did a quick check of the elevator and saw a video camera mounted above the door. I destroyed it with a three-round burst from the sub-machine gun. Satisfied there were no other security devices in the elevator, I got in and looked at the control panel. There were two buttons, up and down. I pressed the "up" button and replaced the magazines in my pistol and sub-machine gun. The pistol went back into the holster. I gripped the foregrip of the MP5K. I was trying to keep my calm, but I was anxious. Where the fuck was I? Why there was a human wizard in the room? There were too many fucking surprises and too few answers. It wasn’t helping the elevator ride was slower and longer than I was expecting.

When the door opened, I saw a pair of shocked ghouls stood at the door with pistols and medical kits. Without hesitation, I eviscerated the two ghouls with quick bursts. I dashed out of the elevator scanning for more targets. I was in some kind of control room. There were monitors on one wall with a workstation and a microphone on a desk in front of the video bank. The monitors showed various pictures of rooms. Some of the rooms held the caskets of leeches. Some just looked like normal, if well-appointed rooms. None of the rooms looked like the rooms that should be in the target house. So where the fuck was I? I didn’t see another door or any other way out of the control room. I replaced the magazine in the MP5K. Four more remaining. Those would go fast in a protracted gun fight. That didn’t appeal to me. I flipped on my radio and clicked the throat mike.

"Ranger to any Tango or Hotel units on this line, acknowledge please, over," I ordered into the mike. Tango was the call-sign for the pack warriors. Hotel was the hunters. The radio crackled and hissed with static. I was not happy. The radio I was using was designed to penetrate concrete and steel. I holstered the sub-machine gun and sat down at the monitors and console. I played with the keyboard. The workstation monitor turned to a standard operating screen. My computer skills were limited to running applications and a minimum of troubleshooting problems that appeared on my personal computer. This system was in a completely different operating system than the one I normally used. I punched randomly at some keys, hoping to run into something through blind luck. After trying to get it to list options, a door slid open. For a moment, I thought I managed to trigger the door. Then, I saw the ghoul in the elevator car behind the door. He was shocked to see me, and froze in shock. I didn’t waste time. I launched from the chair and across the room. He barely had time to throw up his arms to protect his body as I tackled him. The two of us slammed into the far wall of the elevator car. I picked myself up and pulled out the sub-machine gun. He looked up at me with dazed eyes, and then his eyes locked on the barrel of the MP5K.

"Where the fuck am I?" I asked. His eyes left the weapon pointed at him to look at me.

"Who are you?" he asked. I was pretty sure the question was delaying tactic. He was looking around for a way out. I didn’t give him a chance to think about escaping me. I slapped him across the face with the MP5K. He rocked back with the impact and fell back to the floor. I took a step towards him and then stopped. The ghoul was unconscious. Great, of all the fucking ghouls in this place, I managed to capture the only one with a fucking glass jaw.

"Please step all the way into the elevator, werewolf," said a voice from a speaker on the roof of the elevator. The voice sounded familiar, but the strange harmonic tones of a vampire distorted it enough I couldn’t identify the speaker. I stepped into the elevator car. My instincts were blaring danger. The door closed and the elevator began to rise. I made sure the selector switch on the MP5K was set to full auto. If there was a greeting party, I’d hose them down to open space up. I’d improvise at that point. I was good at improvising. The ghoul on the floor groaned. I kicked him in the face and he went back down with a grunt of pain.

The door opened into what could best be described as a parlor. Maybe a study. A dark wood floor was covered with a Persian rug of greens and yellows. To my left was a wet bar and a pair of dark brown leather chairs. Off to my right was a bookcase with all of its shelves filled with leather-bound books with gold-lettered titles. They looked like reference books of some type. Next to the bookcase was another of those leather chairs. Whoever I was dealing with must have got a deal on the set. Sitting in the chair was a vampire holding an open book in his right hand and a glass of wine limply in his left. In his lap was a pistol. In front of me was a long leather couch. Lounging on the couch was another vampire. His face was buried behind a book. Next to him was an Uzi with a long suppressor attached to the barrel. Standing next to him were two ghouls, one holding a shotgun and the other cradling another suppressed Uzi. It was like a scene out of some modern gothic movie. My instincts were screaming warnings. The vampires were trying too hard to look cultured and civilized. Well, if they were trying to set the scene, then it was my role to fuck it all up.

I leveled the muzzle of the MP5K and caught the two ghouls with a long burst of fire. The vampire in the chair dropped his book and glass as he went for his pistol. He was pretty fast for a vampire, but I went up against Bleeders. The vampire went down with three rounds to the head. The vampire on the couch didn’t react to any of the gunfire. He casually lowered his book and gave me a level look. My mind froze as I saw the familiar pale features of Bradon. It couldn’t be. I put two silver bullets into Bradon’s heart on the first night of the war. Not-Bradon reached for the Uzi. I snapped out of my surprise and put a small burst between him and the weapon. He looked at me in almost an amused way. He stood up, and I knew instantly he wasn’t Bradon. The grace of the movement reminded me of Bradon, but it was slightly different. It wasn’t something I could put into words. It was instinctual. It was like watching an extremely good actor do an uncanny impression of Bradon. I didn’t know who this fucker was, but it was more than a little unnerving. Even knowing it was an imposter, all of my unease over killing Bradon welled up and mixed with a surprising emotion – grief. I firmly slapped the emotions back down. I’d deal with that later. Being distracted while dealing with a vampire was a good way to end up dead. The vampire grinned smugly. I brought the MP5K up and lined the sights on his china face.

"I assume you’re Ranger," he said in an eerily similar voice, "Philip said you were a dangerous little werewolf. He was quite right." He almost sounded entertained by my presence. I was deciding whether or not to crack a smart-ass comment when he continued, "I know what you’re wondering. Go ahead and ask." I kept my face neutral with my weapon trained on him. He wanted to brag. It was easier just to be quiet and not give him anything. He’d keep talking just to fill the silence.

"Please don’t try the silent ploy with me, Ranger," he said, with a bored tone in his voice, "Philip taught me that many years ago. I can talk for hours without actually saying anything that would be useful to you. Can we try this again?" I reevaluated the imposter as a threat. He was way too cool and collected than a vampire should be with a hunter pointing a gun at him.

"Okay, who are you and where am I?" I asked.

"An uninspired pair of questions, if not entirely unexpected," the vampire said, sounding disappointed, "I am Joseph Bradon, leader and mentor of the independent nosferatu in this part of the state. Oh yes, and Philip’s twin. I’m fairly certain you’re sharp enough to figure out where you are from my identity." Well, he was right about that. He also opened a bunch of new questions. The most important was why would Bradon, the head of the TCV’s elite enforcers, allow his twin brother lead the independents in defiance of TCV edicts. I shelved that for later. I needed to deal with my immediate concerns.

"How the fuck did I get into your house?" I asked. Radio chatter suddenly filled my earpiece. I needed to keep this Bradon talking for a bit.

"Phillip said you were vulgar," Joseph commented in an annoyed tone. "Think, Ranger. The wizard. They are so good at doing magic, and they owed me a rather large favor. I was unpleasantly surprised you weren’t rendered unconscious like all of the other werewolves. Then, you managed to take out most of my ghouls. They were well-trained, and that kind of training is expensive." He looked away dramatically. He acted like he was in the middle of some bad television movie. Joseph may have looked like Bradon, but he lacked his brother’s sophistication and subtlety.

"You were robbed. They weren’t that good," I replied quickly. "I’ve dealt with better. Where are the rest of your ghouls and friends?"

"Around the house. Most of my vassals are still asleep, but I suspect you were already aware of that fact." Plans worked through my head as Joseph continued to meander around the room. It suddenly hit me what Joseph was doing. I knew what I needed to do, I needed a bit more information first.

"Okay," I answered, trying to keep a confused tone in my voice, "So are the Bleeders in the house at the corner your allies?"

"There are no Bleeders anywhere near here, my young werewolf," Joseph answered with a satisfied laugh, "Jean-Mark, one of the ghouls you killed in my security room planted that rumor. Too bad you killed him. He was one of my favorites. Paolo will not be happy you killed his ghoul either." Kind of what I expected. When Bradon bragged about one of his successful ploys, I was impressed. Joseph’s little monologue was pathetic.

"What’s your end game here Joseph? You know you can’t walk out of here alive. Or your version of alive anyway." He turned to me with his eyes alight.

"I was worried, and then I saw you arrive on scene. I knew what you did for Phillip. I’m sure you can do the same for me."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I asked. Joseph gave me a quizzical look.

"Oh, it wasn’t you," he said. Silver flashed from Joseph’s wrist and a small pistol was in his hand. I reacted instantly. We both fired at the same time. My burst of gunfire stitched across his chest. I heard the bullet crack over my head. I sprinted over to where Joseph fell. His body was undergoing its final change. That left only one thing to do.

"All Tango units, the word is tortoise," I said into the microphone. The codeword let the warriors know the house was clear, and they could attack the house. Within moments, cars would be pulling into the cul-de-sac and armed warriors would be swamping the house. I waited in the room as the warriors raided the house. I didn’t want to get in the middle of their combat zones. I made sure that all of the weapons in the room were unloaded, as I waited for Twisted Knife and his pack to ransack the house. Finally, a pair of lycanthropes stormed into the room in a very sloppy fashion. I didn’t bother critiquing their performance. I just told them who was who and walked out to meet the rest of the attack crew. There were about twenty warriors in the house. Most of them were busy mopping up the last few ghouls. Those fuckers were fighting to the bitter end. I began searching around the house for Joseph’s office. I needed to search through his files to find any important information for the Guild. In addition to all of the intelligence on the independent vampires, Joseph’s files might have some information on this deal he thought Bradon struck with me. Something about the way he talked about it made my instincts scream.

Paul somehow managed to find me amidst the clean-up. He quickly agreed to help me with intelligence gathering. After about twenty minutes we managed to find the office. It was a small room half-concealed in a corner of the house. There was a desk against the far wall with a computer. There were also a pair of metal filing cabinets and a bookcase filled with books on finance and management. Paul started to open one of the file cabinets, but I grabbed him before he opened the nearest one. He shot a puzzled look at me.

"If this leech was smart, he’ll have booby-trapped the cabinets," I told him calmly. Paul’s eyes went wide as he realized that he could have just gotten himself killed. "Go check the computer while I see if he left us any surprises in the cabinets."

"What am I looking for?" he asked, turning on the computer and sitting down in the leather swivel chair.

"Emails, spreadsheets, intelligence write-ups. Especially anything that looks like it might have to do with him and the TCV. Before I killed him, he told me he had a contact within the Bleeders. I think that linked him to the Council as a whole. It’s a guess, but an educated one. We need to know what kind of contacts the TCV have with the independents, and if the independents were coming into the war." Paul nodded and focused on the computer. I turned back to the filing cabinet. The metal cabinet was a common type. I sniffed around the corners of the filing cabinet, trying to find the "dead rubber" smell of plastic explosive. What I did smell was ozone. Of course it wouldn’t be simple. I found the bolts on the back that were holding the laser. It was a simple design booby-trap. The laser measured the distance between the back of the cabinet to the front of the drawer. If the drawer was pulled before the laser was turned off, the bomb or incendiary device would detonate. I wasn’t sure if turning the laser off would disarm the trap or if there were other back-ups. I didn’t have the luxury of time. I needed to get the files out before Twisted Knife or one of the other pack leaders decided to intervene and do something stupid – like hand over all of the intelligence to the aristocracy rather than the Guild. Quickest way was to destroy the laser. I placed the muzzle of my USP to the laser and squeezed the trigger. The gunshot rang out in a deafening blast. I shook my head to clear the ringing. My ears started healing as I walked to the front of the cabinet. There was smoke coming out from the bullet hole and all of the other crevices. I yanked open the top drawer to see all the hard copies turned to ash. The smoke was full of the scent of the quick-burn liquid. The computer better have the information that I needed. I couldn’t risk opening the second filing cabinet.

I looked to see how Paul was doing. He was staring at me, trying to catch his breath. I mentally knocked myself. I forgot to warn him, and I just scared the hell out of him. I gave him a weak smile and let him get back to work. As he started to pound away at the keyboard, two lycanthropes with shotguns charged into the room. The lead one did the main sweep while his partner did the opposite sweep. It was a standard entrance technique, but these two hadn’t practiced enough. They weren’t supporting each other and left some dangerous gaps. To demonstrate the point, when the second warrior almost had his weapon trained on me, I hit him with a palm strike and pushed him back out in the hall. By the time his partner noticed and tried to react, I had the muzzle of my USP under his chin.

"If I were a Bleeder," I told him in a quiet voice, "You and your partner would be dead. You do a FULL sweep, not half of a sweep. Your partner is there to see if you missed anything, not to cover a full half of your firing arc. You two need to practice together. Solo bullshit is for hunters. Got it?" He swallowed and nodded slowly. I hit the decocker on the USP and holstered it. The two left the room mumbling all sorts of curses and oaths at me. I didn’t care. If they did what I told them to – either from anger, shame, or dawning comprehension – they would live longer in this war. That was the important thing. There had been too many lost already. Far too many.

"Ancestors," Paul breathed, watching me go through the two lycanthropes, "Are hunters always so brutal to other lycanthropes?"

"Sometimes the best way to learn is through brutal demonstration," I answered, "When I was training to become a hunter, one of my instructors let me fall fifty feet to prove a point."

"What point was that?" he asked incredulously.

"That it is very difficult to do a rapid rappel while holding a weapon, and if I wasn’t watching what I was doing I would fall down and hurt myself. It was quite painful, and very humiliating, but I learned not to do that again."

"Yeah, but they aren’t hunters. They’re pack warriors," Paul said. "You can’t expect your level of performance from them."

"In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the vampires don’t make a distinction between a hunter and a pack warrior. All they see is a lycanthrope that they need to kill. Those two made a very bad mistake. I corrected it."

"I still think you handled it badly," Paul said with a wounded tone. I ignored it. The pup needed to stick up for his packmates.

"You find anything?" I asked.

"Yeah," Paul answered. "I think so anyway. He didn’t really secure his computer. I don’t think he expected anyone but him to be on the computer. His personal documents file is full of spreadsheets, documents, PDFs, and emails."

"Great. Now we need to get this to the Guild," I told him. There was too much for the pair of thumbdrives next to the computer. I sat down at the computer and started uploading the data to the Guild’s secure site. That was when Twisted Knife stormed into the room in true form. Rage glinted in his dark eyes. Paul shrank back, but I ignored him.

"What the hell do you think you’re doing Badmoon?" he demanded.

"Sending the files on this computer to Guild intelligence," I answered.

"Stop it now. This is our raid. Everything in the house belongs to my pack. We will decide where it goes," Twisted Knife said. The laws of the kingdom did say the pack leading the raid had first refusal of all treasures. Assuming I was willing to agree to Twisted Knife’s idea of who led the raid. Not likely.

"Fuck off," I shot back. I could hear Paul gulp. Twisted Knife snarled and took a lunging step. He stopped as I brought up my MP5K.

"You dare point a weapon at a pack leader? First you attack two of my warriors, then theft of treasure, and now you’re threatening me with murder. I should have the lord’s marshals down here to arrest you," Twisted Knife said.

"In case you forgot, I killed Joseph Bradon, most of his ghouls, and his pet wizard," I said. "As far as I’m concerned, I can claim anything in this house for the Guild. As to this," I waved the submachine gun, "It’s just to keep you honest while we talk." He snarled in frustration but took a step back. "The Guild gets the files. Everything else your pack can have. Are you going to have a problem with that?"

"Not while you have a gun pointed at me," Twisted Knife said, "I don’t want to be added to the list of lycanthropes you’ve killed." I saw Paul back away in terror. Twisted Knife smiled maliciously, savoring his small victory. Paul followed his pack leader out of the office leaving me alone. The young pack warrior had been fascinated I was a hunter and didn’t seem to care that I was a Badmoon. The fact that I had killed another lycanthrope was enough to send him into a panic. Sometimes I just can’t win.

As soon as I got back to the Guild, I went down to the Guildmaster’s office without bothering to take off my mission gear. The intelligence team was busily pouring over the files I’d sent them. They didn’t even seem to notice me as I walked by. I listened at the Guildmaster’s door to make sure there wasn’t anyone in with him. After hearing him just grumbling about some reports, I knocked and walked in before he answered.

"You’re back?" he asked, seemingly surprised at my appearance. I wondered if he expected the job to take longer, or if he expected me to get banged up doing the job. I hoped it was the first.

"Oh yeah," I replied. I related what happened to the Guildmaster. He listened with his normal blank mask on his face. I could never tell which parts he thought were important until after I was done talking. When I finished, he looked up at the ceiling and let out a long breath.

"You threatened a pack leader?" he asked.

"He deserved it," I answered.

"Whether he did or not, it’s going to make my job harder. It worries me the vampires are using wizards, but I’m not surprised," the Guildmaster said, "They need some defense against the shaman, who have been very good at tearing the leeches apart. Especially since we pretty much wiped out their alchemists. What about this Joseph Bradon’s files?"

"The intelligence group is going through them right now," I answered, and then hesitated. "I want to review some of the personal files." The Guildmaster looked at me for a moment. His gaze was penetrating, and very uncomfortable.

"Philip is dead, Marcus," he said bluntly, "You won’t find anything in his brother’s files that will change that. You’re a shooter, not an analyst. I don’t have the luxury of letting you play analyst. Now take what you borrowed back to the armory and get some rest." I nodded. As I approached the door, the Guildmaster cleared his throat. I turned back to my boss. "If anything interesting is turned up in the files, I’ll have it sent down to you." I gave my boss a tight smile and left.

Questions swirled around my mind. I wondered if the Guildmaster would send anything from the files down to me. I shook my head. Of course he would. He never lied to me before. Still, there was something odd about my boss anytime Bradon’s death came up. As I was walking back to the armory, I heard my name called. I turned around to see a hunter running up to me.

"What do you want Uptown?" I asked him a little sharper than I wanted to. His eyebrows arched at my tone and he looked like he was about to reply with something nasty. I raised my hand to stop him from saying anything. "Sorry, I’ve had a bad day."

"Yeah, we heard you disappeared in Forest Hills today. Nick said you suddenly vanished. I think he was about to call in the entire Guild." Uptown paused for a moment and waited to see if I was going to fill in the details. When I didn’t, he continued, "Listen, do you have any jobs tonight?" Uptown received his pack name because he was very good at blending into the upscale environments and making hits among the vampires that decided to infiltrate the upper crust of human society. His team acted as back-up for him. They were known to have a good reputation for making quick and clean kills.

"No," I answered carefully, "Why, what do you have in mind?"

"I’ve got a job in Channelside tonight. It’s a rescue operation for some lycanthropes that got caught down near the arena. My boys and I could probably handle it, but I would like a sniper to back us up. Interested?" I thought about it. I should go back to my room and get some sleep, but I was still angry and more than a little frustrated with the day. The thought of having to force myself to cool down by acting as a covering sniper for Uptown’s hit pack sounded good to me. I hated the idea of just sitting in my room and having all my questions just haunting me.

"Sure," I told him, "Just let me get a few things."

Chapter 9 – Leeches On The Left, Ghouls On The Right