The Amalie Arena was a massive structure in the Channelside District of Tampa. It was well within leech territory, but many lycanthropes went there to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning play. Hockey in Florida always seemed bizarre to me, but I had to admit that it was fun watching humans bash each other around while speeding around on the ice. While the Peace was in effect, there was a kind of understanding between the TCV and Lord Vollen. The lycanthropes could attend functions at the Arena as long as they left promptly afterward and did nothing that could be construed as hostile to the vampires. By the same token, the TCV took responsibility to ensure that its members didn’t harass the lycanthropes or cause problems. It worked out fairly well during that time. As far as I could remember, there had been only one problem. I resolved that one by removing the leech in a violent and lethal fashion.

Uptown’s team and me infiltrated into Channelside without incident. That was far more difficult than I expected. The streets were flooded with vampires and ghouls. The job was to escort six lycanthropes that came downtown during the day and stayed far too long. What the hell they were doing in leech territory, I didn’t know. Lord Vollen personally asked the Guildmaster to handle the situation, which meant this was probably repayment of a favor. The lycanthropes were in a bar across the street from the Arena. They were staying as visible to the humans as possible. The leeches knew the lycanthropes were stranded and unarmed, but they weren’t about to do something in front of humans. Vampires hated witch-hunters as much as we did. The vampires were waiting for the bar to close, and the lycanthropes were forced out on to the street. Our plan was to get all six lycanthropes out of the bar, into the two SUV’s we were using, and out of Channelside without stirring up the humans too much. Unfortunately, that last bit was a key part of the job. The shaman were being very adamant the war was coming close to spilling out of the unseen world. At that point, the Pathwalkers would come down and remedy the situation. None of us in the unseen world in Hillsborough would survive the Pathwalkers fixing it. Everyone had a vested interest in keeping the Pathwalkers as far from Tampa as possible. The plan was as KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) as we could make it. First, I would create a distraction. Then Uptown and his deputy, Downtown, would infiltrate the bar. As soon as they made contact with the lycanthropes in the bar, Wiseguy and Trent, the last two members of the hit pack, would drive the two SUV’s behind the bar. Uptown, Downtown, and the lycanthropes would come out the back of the bar, load up into the vehicles, come pick me up, and we would all exit the Channelside area. In addition to creating the diversion, it would be up to me to provide any covering fire while the hit pack was loading the lycanthropes into the vehicles. It wasn’t going to be easy. I was just figuring out how to ask the Guildmaster to let me back out, when he called me into his office and gave me the job to help Uptown’s hit pack.

I was riding with Wiseguy in the first SUV. Sitting next to me was an HK416 with a suppressor screwed onto the barrel. The collapsed weapon was compact, but I needed a trench coat to hide it from casual view. Thankfully, it was January and finally cold enough that native Floridians were bundling up. The trench coat was as close to ghillie suit as I could get for the urban environment. I bailed out of the truck a few blocks from the Arena and moved into grassy areas bordering Morgan Street. I found a nice spot in the shadows and brought up the HK416. The first thing to do was to clear out the leeches in front of the bar. I took careful aim and stroked the trigger. The rifle quietly coughed three times. Three leeches on the far end of the block collapsed to the pavement as the 5.56mm Silver Shok rounds tore through their torsos. Head shots are more effective, but with such short ranges and plenty of humans, I needed to keep the risk of over-penetration to a minimum. As I expected, the leeches in front of the bar thought someone was attacking them from the other side of the street. After all, who shoots past the targets in front of them to hit targets on the far side? Bleeders might have realized what was happening they saw the wounds, but none of these leeches wore the distinctive matte black nails. The leader of the leeches ordered his minions to start searching in the opposite direction of where I was crouched. So far, things were going to plan. Without lowering the rifle, I hit the speed dial on my cell phone.

"Yeah," came the waiting voice of Uptown.

"Infil in ten seconds," I reported, placing the reticle of my sight on the thin body of the leech leader. I slowed my breathing down. I stroked the trigger again. The leech was neatly eviscerated by a fourth suppressed shot. Even before the leech hit the ground, Uptown and Downtown emerged from their hiding places and hurried into the bar. Just in time too. The rest of the leeches were returning to the bar. For a moment the half-dozen leeches looked down at their fallen leader in stunned silence. One of the higher leeches came out of his shock first and ordered cleanup. They knew better than to leave a corpse on the street, especially one in true form. I weighed whether or not to just take them all down, but I decided against it, mostly because we did not have the time or resources to quickly clean up ten or so vampire bodies. With some regret, I quietly skulked out and moved up Morgan Street to cover the vehicles when they came for pickup. As I nestled into a copse of palm trees, I scanned down Eunice Street. The area seemed clear, but there was something wrong. My instincts were telling me something bad was in the area, but I couldn’t see anything. My phone vibrated at my waist.

"Ranger," I said into the headset.

"I’ve got the passengers," Uptown said over the substantial background noise, "Are we clear to pick up?" I hesitated. I couldn’t see anything that would prevent the pickup, but I hadn’t survived this long by ignoring when my instincts told me something was wrong. Uptown sensed the pause. He asked me again, this time with a more annoyed tone, "Are we good for pickup?"

"I don’t see anything, but I’ve got a bad feeling," I told him, "I would advise against it until I clear the area." I began to move up Eunice. I needed a better look.

"We can’t wait Ranger," Uptown said, "If you don’t see anything, we’re moving. Wiseguy, get those vehicles in here now." I swore under my breath as the phone disconnected. Uptown was rushing the job. Yes, we needed to get the passengers out of Channelside as fast as possible, but it would take a minimum of another half-hour before the Bleeders showed up to investigate the killing of the vampires. I wasn’t too worried about the regular leeches. The ones milling around out front were alert, but they looked like they were waiting for reinforcements. There was plenty of time for me to do a quick sweep of the area for surprises. I didn’t have time to argue the point because moments after Uptown hung up on me, the two black trucks roared into the parking lot behind the bar. In an almost synchronized motion, the two trucks sped into the lot and quickly stopped directly in front of the back door to the bar. The back door slammed open. An alarm sound filled the empty street. Downtown came out of the door first with his submachine gun was at a low ready. Following behind the young hunter were six lycanthropes in hockey paraphernalia. They’d been at a fucking game in the middle of a fucking war? I thought they got caught up doing an operation. I pushed down my annoyance and focused on the job. I’d vent later. Bringing up the rear was Uptown, also with a submachine gun drawn and ready. They were ten feet from the vehicles when all hell broke loose.

I caught the movement on the roof an instant before four shotguns rained down fire onto the exposed lycanthropes. Damn it, I’d scanned the roof and hadn’t seen a fucking thing. Now I could make out the lines of a couple of targets. They were keeping low and had some sort of covering over them to break up the outlines. Not gillie suits, but something like that. I placed the sight on the one closest to me and gently squeezed the trigger. He went down. The second filled my sight picture. He saw his buddy was down, but assumed the shot came from the two hunters desperately bursting their submachine guns at the ambush team. He never even turned towards me. It was a Darwinian mistake on the vampire’s part. A second shot took the leech out. The last two vampires were smarter and quickly fell back down behind their cover.

"Ranger, we’ve got four critical," Uptown said over my earpiece. I looked back at the parking lot to see the two trucks speed out of the parking lot. Warriors would have gotten pissed off they were left in hostile territory by their comrades. Hunters knew better. Uptown made the right decision. The job was to get the lycanthropes out, and the job came first. The job always came first. With four of the lycanthropes in critical condition, Uptown had no choice but to get the passengers to immediate medical attention, even if that meant he couldn’t wait for me to get to the trucks. I could save recriminations for later. At the moment, I needed to find a way to get the hell out of Channelside.

Normally, I would have just found a nice place to hole up for the next six hours and waited for daylight. After the sun emerged, I would’ve had to deal with a few ghouls, but the vampires would have cleared the streets. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option this time. The two vampires on the roof of the bar knew there was a sniper covering the trucks. They had to be on their radios and cell phones calling in all of their friends. Hunters used snipers, and hunters were big targets for the TCV. Without a doubt, the TCV would flood the area with as many vampires and ghouls as they could scrounge up. Bleeders would definitely be amongst the reinforcements.

Rustling behind me brought me out of my thoughts and back into the situation. My instincts roared danger. I swung the rifle behind me. The ghoul was caught off-guard, and the butt of the rifle caught the ghoul squarely on the nose. There was a muffled crunching noise and the ghoul staggered back. I dropped the ghoul with a shot from the rifle and turned back to my target. The two vampires on the roof were gone. Things had officially gone to shit-fucked. I quickly changed magazines and slung the rifle under the trench coat. I needed to move quickly. Brandishing a rifle on the streets of Tampa after dark was not the best way to remain inconspicuous. Especially considering Tampa police was starting to come onto the scene. Usually the various law enforcement agencies that policed Tampa and Hillsborough County were kept out of our affairs by both our kin and the vampires’ ghouls. Both sides had reason to keep the humans out of our affairs. Everyone feared the Pathwalkers. The problem was the war had created too many incidents for the kin and ghoul infiltrators to misdirect and keep from the attention of the majority of human authorities. The best our kin was able to do was to blame the increased violence at the human organizations known for such bloodletting. The media picked up on the "Second Era of Blood" and had done scathing exposes on the local mob and cartel organizations. The police, responding to the human public, was racing to handle the explosions of violence that occurred between the lycanthropes and the vampires. So, instead of maybe a couple of police officers responding to the gunfight behind the bar, there were maybe a dozen police cars and plenty of police officers on scene. Getting out of the area with all of my gear was going to be tricky. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to kill a police officer – not because of any sentimentality towards the value of human life, but because it would draw even more attention to us.

The trick was to try and look like I belonged in the area and keep the police from searching me. I didn’t want to lose the rifle in case I needed it to fight off Bleeders. I moved slowly through the shadows of the grassy area, trying to avoid the beams of light stabbing through the safety of the darkness. Getting out on foot was looking more and more problematic. I could swipe a car, except I wasn’t very good at hot-wiring and didn’t want to do anything that might catch the attention of the polic. I was going to need help. As much as I hated it, I hit the speed-dial for the Guildmaster.

"This better be good," came the gruff and tired voice of my boss.

"Hi boss, I’m in a bit of a bind," I said, trying to sound light, "I’m, uh, kind of stuck near the Arena."

"How did you get stuck?" the Guildmaster asked.

"We got ambushed as Uptown did the extract," I answered.

"Wait one," the Guildmaster said. There was a long pause. "Kurt just informed me of what happened. I’m assuming that normal procedures are unavailable?"

"I’ve got vampires looking to kill me and human police officers looking to arrest me if they find me with my gear," I said into the phone, "Now, I would like to get out of Channelside without either of them finding me." I ducked through a parking lot to avoid a pair of vampires that suddenly appeared out of the darkness. "Hold one, boss." The vampires weren’t Bleeders, but they would spot me in the darkness. I checked the surrounding area. The police were still searching around the bar, but hadn’t managed to get out to my position. I quickly brought up the rifle, and placed single shots into each of the leeches. Thank the Ancestors the suppressor on the rifle was damn good. "Sorry boss, needed to put a couple down."

"I would expect my personal hitter to be able to extract himself from such a situation," the Guildmaster said with an unusual severity, "So, why are you calling me?"

"Listen boss," I told him, "Normally, I wouldn’t’ve bothered you at all, but I didn’t think that you wanted me to cause even more of an incident." There was a silence on his end that I took for me to continue. "Now, do you have anyone to pick me up?"

"No, but I’ll see what I can do to get the humans off your back," the Guildmaster answered, "Just keep away from the leeches and try to get out of there without causing the aristocracy or me more problems than you’re worth." He quickly hung up the phone. Well, if he could keep the police off of me, I could get myself out of leech territory. I could see the edges of a police cordon. The human police officers looked nervous. I couldn’t blame them. I managed to keep to the shadows. My real concern were the leeches that were walking around. As I scanned the area, I couldn’t see any leeches near me, but that wouldn’t last long. I was going to have to move soon. I watched the cordon hoping that the Guildmaster would be able get the police to back off. When they hadn’t moved after a few minutes, I decided it would be best for me to keep moving. I slinked back into the shadows and headed towards the Selmon Expressway. I wouldn’t be able run on the elevated highway, but the overpass would give me more places to hide. I needed to break the police cordon first, then make my way out of the city proper.

The sudden flash of silver was all the warning I got. It was just barely enough. As the knife slashed out, I turned towards it. I needed to catch it on the trauma plate of my Kevlar vest. The leech’s eyes were wide in shock as I moved into his stab. I felt the thud as the silver blade sliced through the layers of fabric and scraped across the metal plate. I wasted no time and counterattacked. My fist slammed into the bridge of his nose. The leech staggered back. The momentary stun of the blow was all I needed. I rushed the leech, tackling him to the ground. As he struggled against the weight of my body on top of his, my hand found the hilt of my own silver knife. I managed to clamp down his mouth as I stabbed into his side. The pain shocked the leech enough to make him stop fighting. It was a quick matter to stab him through his chest. As the silver punctured the leech’s heart, all movement ceased. I had only a moment to stash the body in the shadows before a light from the police cruiser swept over the area. They might see where the leech bled on the ground, but the black fluid was easily mistaken for spilled oil.

There was a quick way to break the cordon, but it would probably get me in trouble with the Guildmaster. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first time. I brought up the rifle and took aim. Three bullets shattered the light bar above the squad car. The two police officers went diving for cover, screaming into their radios. I wasted no time and ran north as fast as I could. They might get a description of me, but I was pretty sure they were too busy ducking from the sudden fire. They didn’t even have time to get a shot off at me as I ran from shadow to shadow speeding towards the overpass. For the record, it is not easy to run at top speeds while trying to conceal a rifle under your trench coat. That said, I did manage to make it north of the Selmon and across several parking lots before I was forced to find a place to hide. I ducked behind a row of cars as I saw the convoy of cars. Four cars loaded with leeches will make a lycanthrope hide – even a hunter. I kept the rifle ready in case they decided to come out of their cars to do a more thorough search, but some of my luck was still holding. A sweep with their lights was enough to satisfy their curiosity. I waited a few precious moments as the vehicles moved down the street. The sudden sensation of my phone vibrating at my side was almost enough for me to accidentally loose a round at the vampires.

"You have an odd notion of what won’t piss me off," the Guildmaster growled into my ear, "I almost opened a hole for you before you decided to blast one of your own."

"Sorry boss, but I needed to move," I explained, "The leeches were starting to close on me." I heard a familiar grunt from my boss. The Guildmaster knew my position and what I was facing. He didn’t like it, but he was willing to trust me. It was what made him a damned good Guildmaster.

"Where are you?" he asked.

"A few blocks west of the SunTrust building," I answered, using the biggest landmark I could see, "I’m taking cover in one of the parking lots."

"Okay, JB and his hit pack are a couple miles north of you," the Guildmaster said, "I’m sending them into retrieve you." I wanted to groan, but I knew better. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially not in my situation. JB and I hated each other, but I knew he was professional enough not to fuck up an extraction on purpose. The county didn’t have enough hunters as it was.

"Tell him to meet me on the north side of the Suntrust building," I said before ending the call. At this time of night, the streets were mostly deserted. Downtown Tampa was a commercial district. Those who wanted after-hours excitement went to Ybor or Channelside or over to Pinellas. There was enough concealment to make my way to the meet. Police cars passed by, but the officers just made cursory inspections. The police still thought the shooter was within their cordon. I skulked through the shadows and waited for JB.

JB’s van rushed through the streets. It was speeding, but not enough to draw the attention of the police. The side door slid open in front of me and I jumped into the vehicle. I hit the metal floor hard, but I didn’t care. The pain of the HK digging into my side was welcome. With me safely aboard, JB wheeled the van around and headed north back to lycanthrope-held territory. The Crazy Boys ignored me. They were busy watching to make sure that the vampires weren’t pursuing us. Farmer turned to talk to me.

"What the fuck, Ranger?" he asked, "How the hell did you get stranded down here?" I wasn’t sure if Farmer was pissed at having to come get me or actually had some concern for my hide. Or he could have come to the same conclusion that there were far too few hunters for any to be risking themselves needlessly.

"Uptown had a job. I came along. Things got TARFU’d," I replied, with a nonchalant tone. "How was your night?"

"You know you could have infiltrated yourself out if you just ditched the rifle," Farmer commented.

"Do you know how few of these Gunny managed to lay his hands on? Would you want to face his wrath at the moment?" I asked holding up the HK416. Farmer just shook his head. Gunny and Boomer had been working almost continuously since the war began. While Boomer was mostly his normal affable self, Gunny had become far less reasonable. The hunters were very cautious around the armory. The Guildmaster wanted to give Gunny a break, but we really couldn’t afford it. He was too essential in tracking the precious silver rounds and making sure there were enough weapons not only for the Guild, but for the packs as well. Farmer settled back down in his seat while I did the same. Thankfully, the rest of the night went by without any more problems. Murphy must have had his fill for one night.

I was resting in my room, reassembling my USP after cleaning the weapon. Guildmaster gave me another three operations in quick succession after the Arena debacle. Two were assists for prominent pack leaders, while the last one was a try at assassinating Silanti. The Inner Councilmember was probably the TCV’s top war leader, and the Guild’s number one target. I missed him by a whisker and ended up tangling with a pair of experienced Bleeders and about a half-dozen of their new recruits. I killed all of them, but I was a bloody wreck afterwards. The Guildmaster forced me to down-check myself for a few days. He pretty much told me he would permanently take me off active jobs if I didn’t take some time to heal, rest, and repair some of my equipment. I healed up, and now was maintenance time. Most of my stuff was sturdy enough to go for long periods without maintenance during normal times. It had been a long few months since Lord Vollen went to war. I replaced my Kevlar vest, which required breaking the new one in and doing the minor alterations to fit it properly. My knives were cleaned and sharpened. The steel ones just needed some scrubbing with WD-40 and a green pad followed by some time with a whetstone. Silver blades needed an in-house cleaner that was just fucking nasty, and they took forever to sharpen properly. Silver just didn’t hold an edge. It was enough for me to consider just carrying wooden stakes. Each of my personal guns were stripped, cleaned, lubricated, and reassembled. I always left my USP for last. Hunters have a special relationship with their handguns. A hunter’s sidearm was by personal choice and considered to be an extension of ourselves. I may use other pistols, but my sidearm was my USP. With long practiced motions, I inserted the magazine and hit the slide release. The familiar chunk of the slide slamming forward was muted by the phone ringing. I picked up and the Guildmaster’s voice came through clearly.

"Get up to my office please," the gruff voice of the Guildmaster said. I could tell by the tone that it was something important, and immediate.

"On my way," was all I said. I strode out of my room and up the stairs to the second floor. I knocked a couple of hunters out of the way, but I really wasn’t worried about their sore bottoms. I was worried about the tone the Guildmaster used on the phone. If the Guildmaster was bothering me when he had gone to great pains to make me take some time off, then there was something really bad going on. I didn’t bother knocking as I walked into his office. He looked up me with an odd look of relief. That look almost scared me, but I tried not to let it show on my face.

"Okay boss, I’m here," I said, "What do you have for me?"

"I received a call from the Knights," the Guildmaster told me, "They need assistance on a rescue operation. Because of who they are rescuing, I want you to handle this, but you’re going to need help. Take Nicholas and Samuel since you seem to work well with them. Meet with the Knight Smythe at Univeristy Mall. I know how much you dislike him, but don’t start picking fights with the Knights today. There is too much at stake." He waved a hand to dismiss me. I wondered what was so important as I got up and left. Normally the Guildmaster gave me all the information I wanted, but I could tell from his look and body language he wasn’t going to tell me anymore. The only reason he wouldn’t tell me anything was to keep me from over-reacting to what was happening. I’ll admit, I was a bit on the dramatic sometimes. It worried me when the Guildmaster felt he needed to protect me from myself. I left the office to find Nick and Hangman, get a car, and get the three of us out to the mall. Oh, and get some weapons that could handle all of the possibilities that we were facing. Well, that was why I was the Guildmaster’s personal hitter.

From the Guildmaster’s office, I went down to my room on the fourth floor of the Guild’s headquarters. The barracks were designed in a utilitarian fashion, so the rooms weren’t extravagantly furnished. The floors were covered with a light carpet that matched the off-white walls. The bed was little more than a cot with a thin mattress, and was dressed with simple sheets. A small metal desk and chair stood in the corner of the room with a telephone and computer gracing it. Light was provided by a single bright fluorescent fixture. A small closet held a few of my clothes I brought from my townhouse. The hectic pace of the war kept me from getting more of my stuff. There was also a small gun safe for my personal weapons. I was looking up Nick’s phone number when I heard a knock at my door. I opened the door and let Nick and Hangman into my room. I was a little surprised, but I figured the Guildmaster told them to find me. Nick looked as if nothing unusual was going on. He was dressed in a similar fashion as me, jeans and a shirt. I wondered what happened before he came to Tampa, if a full-fledged war didn’t seem to faze him. Hangman now had the confident stance of a veteran hunter. From the rumors, Hangman distinguished himself not only as a lone wolf, but as a leader. Some of the rumors were Hangman was being groomed for Deadeye’s job. Considering that we lost nearly a quarter of the Guild since the beginning of the war, I couldn’t say that was a bad thing. The pup – no, the lone wolf – certainly proved himself to have the right instincts for that kind of a job. With some more seasoning, I had no doubts that Hangman would be able to lead the lone wolves.

"Are you two ready?" I asked the two of them.

"No," Nick said as he walked over to the desk and pulled a thumbdrive out of his pocket. Sitting down, he started up the computer and inserted the drive.

"Ranger, I want you to take a look at this. I intercepted this from a lycanthrope courier on my mission last night. He didn’t identify himself fast enough. He isn’t dead, but he’s not getting out of the infirmary anytime soon. He dropped this during gunfire. I was going to give this to our intel section, but after taking a quick look, I decided this would be more useful to us. I wish Skiff was here for this." Now I knew what he was referring to. That meeting at the rodeo ring to try and piece together Stephen Vollen’s murder. Damn, it seemed like a few years ago, not some months. I popped in the drive. The thumbdrive had quite a few different files.

"This one, "HIST" is a spreadsheet with a compilation of residency files of Hillsborough County going back to the 1950’s. This one is a list of birth records from about forty years ago, with the names of lycanthropes marked," Nick explained as he opened the files. "This one is strange." Nick clicked on the file. The first page of the document was a map of Florida, divided into its sixty-seven counties. Hillsborough, Dade, and Broward counties were colored in black, several were colored in red, and the rest were green. No legend appeared on the page. The second page held a second map of Florida, but this one had Polk and Pinellas counties also colored in black, most of the counties red, a few green, and two blue. Orange County and Hernando County. Nick was right. It was strange.

"Since the counties colored in black are the Disputed Territories and Hillsborough, I think the black are in open war with the leeches. The red ones could be allied with the lord who murdered Vollen and the green one allied with the Prince. The blue I haven’t figured out," Hangman said, his uncertainty showing in his voice. I really had to teach him how to control his tone. Part of being a hunter was keeping your game face in place at all times. The packs needed to believe the hunters always knew what they were doing. It gave them confidence. "I think they may be contenders for the head of the war council that is going to form in Tallahassee if the Prince can’t get control. Again, I’m not sure, and Hernando had a recent change of lords. I don’t think Lord Proset has enough power to challenge Lady MacMurtry or the Prince." My head was swimming with the dark thoughts. How were we going to follow-up on this? The phone rang and Hangman picked it up. After answering he listened for a moment. His face contorted into anger.

"Alright already. We’ll get right on it," he said, slamming down the receiver. He looked directly at me. "Were you supposed to brief us on some job for the Knights?"

"Shit," I said, leading the pair out of the room. "I thought that was why the two of you came down here in the first place. We’re supposed to meet the Knight Smythe over at University Mall. The Guildmaster said it was some sort of rescue job, but he didn’t give me details. We better get outfitted quickly before the Guildmaster comes out and rips the three of us apart." The elevator toned softly as we reached the first floor. Walking to the armory, we were met by Deadeye.

"Your gear has already been loaded. Hurry up. You have no time to fuck off." He threw Nick a set of car keys, and then walked back to his office. The tag on the keys told us where to find the car. Parked in one of the houses’ garage was a plain sedan. We opened the trunk and found our gear. Concealable body armor for each of us. Personal radios equipped with throat mike pieces. We left them in the trunk. The strange gear was the three odd sized weapons cases. They didn’t seem big enough for decent submachine guns, which I would have expected. I pulled them out to inspect the weapons in the car. Nick slid in behind the steering wheel, while Hangman took the shotgun seat. It would take twenty minutes for us to get to the mall, and that was before we tried to find the Knights. As we drove, I opened the cases. The weapon was small, compact, and had HK written all over it. So, this was the MP7. It was a little smaller than the MP5K I normally used and configured more like an Uzi. For stability, the MP7 had a collapsible stock and a fold-up foregrip. A Picatinny rail ran along the top of the weapon. Gunny already mounted a small holographic scope. A suppressor was also in the box. I was surprised Gunny or Boomer would have handed us one of these weapons. The Guild didn’t have much silver ammo in the 4.6mm caliber the MP7 used. Gunny sort of remedied that by stacking the magazines with what looked like a three to one ratio. For every three standard rounds, there would be one silver round. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a workable one. Especially for a full-auto weapon.

"All right, do we know where to meet Smythe?" asked Nick as we neared the mall’s entrance.

"The Guildmaster didn’t say," I answered, "I don’t know if he knew where the Knights were congregating."

"Isn’t that Smythe there?" Hangman asked, pointing to a group of lycanthropes gathered at one of the restaurants built around the mall. Nodding at his question, Nick pulled the car into mall, neatly swerving through two lanes of traffic around several cars. He parked the car next to the growing group of lycanthropes huddled in the parking lot. It was a mixed band of Red Knights, warriors from a few different packs, and a few shaman. We were the only hunters present, which didn’t make me feel any better. Smythe looked slightly disgusted as he caught sight of me, but he motioned us over. Pushing our way through with our gear, we found the layout of the mall spread out on the hood of the car. Smythe was directing a group of Knights to one of the other outlying buildings.

"Can one of you fill us in?" I asked, "Who are we rescuing" Smythe, the arrogant little prick that he was, looked smugly at us as he answered my question.

"A group of leeches kidnapped some of the pups out of tysach. Your hunters apparently didn’t do their job right. From what the shaman said, there were about five or six leeches, and they seized about twenty pups. The leeches took them inside the mall. We are about to go in and retrieve the pups. You are only here because Lord Vollen wanted hunters on-site."

"Leeches? What the fuck? It’s still daylight," I said.

"Leeches took the pups. Their ghouls brought the pups here. We’re not sure why," another Knight said. From what I heard so far, I didn’t like the situation. The pack warriors gathered around us were fiddling with compact sub-machine guns under long coats. These amateurs would cause more trouble than not with gun fire from those SMG’s. Especially if we were dealing with ghouls. They were fanatical loyalty to their masters and would stand and fight in situations where vampires would retreat. If a fire-fight broke out, it was likely the ghouls would fight until they were all dead, the pups were dead, and/or the rescuers were dead. In such a public place, there would be plenty of dead humans to draw the attention of the Pathwalkers. Nick, Hangman, and I shared a look.

"Where are they?" Nick asked, looking down at the map of the layout of the mall.

"We don’t know. None of us has gone inside." My head whipped up. If the Knights knew the pups were in the mall, then they should have sent in one of their own in to eyeball where the pups were being held.

"What kind of clusterfuck is this?" Hangman growled. I doubt Hangman saw the angry glint in Smythe’s eyes, because he continued. "You have almost an entire pack here, and not one of you has gathered any real, hard data. What did you expect, to wade into a mall full of humans with all guns blazing? You’ll kill the pups quicker than the ghouls."

"Listen to me, you little shit. We are doing this by the numbers. First, we secure the outlying areas, then send in a recon team, then we attack once we spot the pups. We will do this the right way., not the half-assed hunter way." Smythe looked at us with a mixture of smug self-confidence and anger. I decided to step in before Hangman, the crazy pup, got us into more trouble than we needed right now.

"Smythe, how about we go do the recon in the mall?" I interjected, "We’ll spot the ghouls for you. Then, your group can extract." I was trying to sound reasonable and conciliatory. It wasn’t something I was good at, but we needed results, not bickering with the Knights. I could tell more than a few of Smythe’s team agreed. This was something hunters were better suited to handle. Smythe nodded rigidly. We broke open our gear bags. The Kevlar vests went on under our shirts. Shoulder harnesses went over our shirts with the MP7s secured. Our personal sidearms went into our personal favorite holsters, mine being at my right hip. The radios went on our backs secured to the straps of the shoulder holsters. Throat mikes were put into place and covered with some donated jewelry from the pack warriors. We finished with the last few weapon placements and special coats going over everything. The coats looked indistinguishable from what most Tampa natives wore in the winter all while concealing our weapons and giving us a free range of movement.

I looked over the length of the mall. Tactically, the ghouls should find a nice secluded place to hole up and let the humans in the mall provide them with cover. Fortunately for us, the pups were going to make that difficult. It would look suspicious to have twenty or so teenagers in a group in a store. So, they were probably somewhere in the main mall. The ghouls needed to stay visible in case we came down on them. Everyone knew that blatantly operating in such a public place was fucking dangerous. To complicate matters, there was an annex with a second floor which was home to the mall’s food court and several stores, including a movie theater. We would have to leave that for last, because getting up to the second floor of the annex would have plenty of problems that could be better ascertained once we were actually on scene. That left the west entrance. There were fewer places advantageous for the ghouls on that side, and it was closer to the center of the mall than the east side.

We strolled through the store, occasionally stopping to pretend to browse over some of the wares. Nick did a quick check of the backrooms as Hangman and I checked the second floor of the department store. Progress was slow, as evidenced by Smythe’s impatient muttering over our radios, but we made it to the entrance of the store before an hour was up. The din of the mall invaded us. Scents from hundreds of humans, food stands, and some of the more exotic materials were both intoxicating and nauseating. Nick moved into the mall blending into the crowds. Hangman and I waited for him as he quietly moved up the stream of humans. When he reached about twenty feet, I nudged Hangman on the arm and motioned or him to go up the other side. He nodded and merged into the traffic of human bodies. I waited for him to get twenty feet before I joined the flows. Nick acted as point and would scout his side. Hangman backed him up and scouted the center of the mall. I protected the rear and scouted the left side of the mall. I was also in position to back up Hangman or Nick. We kept tabs on each other as we carefully scouted the mall. Each store was searched by either Nick or me, while Hangman stood outside and waited in case either of us needed him. There was little chance that the ghouls and the pups were in one of the stores, but it was in our blood and training to be thorough, especially where pups were concerned. We searched the length of the mall with no luck. We walked back to the center of the mall and radioed back to Smythe that we had found nothing in the main mall and we were going to check the annex. He was extremely upset with our "slow" progress and told us to hurry it up. If we couldn’t find them, he would start sending in Knights to back us up. That didn’t make us as upset as our normal rivalry would dictate. With Knights in the mall, we could make up roving teams in case the ghouls were moving the pups around behind our backs. The three of us talked about how we were going to deal with the annex. We scanned the visible rim of the second floor. That’s when I caught a glance of her. It took me a moment to recognize her. It was Jennifer Denton, the young pup that Nick and I rescued about and seen into tysach.

I looked over at Nick. His face told me he saw her too. She was standing with another pup just behind the glass and metal banister at the edge of the second floor in the food court. She didn’t look down. I couldn’t see behind her, but I knew her captors were up there also by her posture. Hand signs flashed between the three of us as we moved towards the escalator. We had to get up there, but we were worried that one of the pups would point us out. When that happened, all hell would break loose. We still needed to get into position before we brought in Smythe and his wolves. We could have gone up through the department store at the end of the annex, but the store was about forty yards from the food court, which gave the pups about two to three minutes to see us. The escalator gave them less than thirty seconds. I went up first. Of the three of us, I was the best shot and had the best chance of taking the ghouls out fast and carefully if everything went down badly. Nick stepped on as I was half way up. Enough distance to cover me if I ran into trouble, but also enough to allow him to sneak in. Hangman was about five steps behind him.

I kept my back to the pups as I came up the escalator, quietly prepping the MP7 under my coat. I moved from the escalator over to an unoccupied table on the far east. As I scanned the food court, I picked out the pups. They were in a central group of four tables, five at a table. The tables were in a square configuration, with Jennifer’s one of the closer ones to the banister. A ghoul sat at each table, with another sitting next to the escalator. I grinned as Nick stepped off and walked by the ghoul without him realizing a lycanthrope was less than a foot away. Hangman got off and looked over at me. I rubbed my throat, cuing the mike. He nodded and walked towards the department store, his back to the pups. I heard him in my earpiece.

"Hunter Three to Knight One. Packages in sight. Twenty total. Handlers total five. Location is the food court. Hunter Group will wait for response. Over." I watched as Hangman walked to the newsstand at the center of the food court and purchased a magazine. He walked over to a false plant behind the ghoul guarding the escalator and pretended to read his magazine. He rubbed his throat in a way to double click his mike telling me he was ready. Two clicks from Nick. After getting off the escalator, he slowly moved to the west corner of the annex’s edge. From there he casually moved from table to table until he was about ten feet behind Jennifer. He was hunched over his table with his hand under his jacket. We were set and ready. That’s when it went all to hell.

One of the pups saw us. Actually he noticed Hangman, and loudly pointed him out for the other two pups. Fucking pups. The ghoul at the table looked at Hangman. He couldn’t see Hangman was a lycanthrope, but he could tell Hangman wasn’t just another shopper. The ghoul stood up from the table and yelled to his companion by the escalator. Hangman dashed to the ghoul and punched him with a concealed blade. The ghoul screamed in pain and staggered back with blood pouring from his neck. There went keeping this operation quiet. Hangman pressed his attack by grabbing the bleeding ghoul and throwing him over the railing surrounding the escalator well. The ghoul fell onto the escalator with the crunch of bones. The humans in the food court panicked at the sudden violence in their midst. Screams filled the food court as the humans stampeded away from Hangman. That was good for Nick and me. As the other ghouls sat stunned, Nick and I drew our weapons and placed suppressed rounds into the ghouls. The ghouls collapsed before they had a chance to react.

"Smythe, things are fucked," I said over the radio, "Get your ass over to the parking garage for pick up of the packages." Smythe began screaming at us over the radio, but I wasn’t listening. We needed to organize and evacuate the pups. Amidst the swirling mass of terrified humans, it wasn’t going to be easy. I looked over to Nick, who was already trying to get the pups into some semblance of order. Most of the pups were scared and confused. Fortunately, the pups could see there were three lycanthropes, and they clung to our presence. That was good because it was going to make it easier for us to move the pups when Smythe finally showed up.

Nick was thrown down as thunder boomed through the food court. Hangman and I spun to find a single ghoul with holding a stainless revolver standing next to the stand-alone box office for the movie theater. The ghoul brought the revolver down on Hangman. I snapped up the MP7 and placed a burst into the ghoul. The ghoul collapsed to the floor. The humans scattered as they realized that the food court was a shooting zone. Two more ghouls emerged from the movie theater entrance. Hangman and I turned to take them down. Before we could fire, two booming gunshots knocked down the two ghouls. Nick must have dropped his submachine gun if he’d switched to his sidearm. I turned to tease him about losing one of the rare weapons. My eyes went wide in shock. Jennifer Denton stood over Nick, who was rubbing his chest where the bullet hit him. In Jennifer’s hands was Nick’s monster S&W 629 .44 Magnum revolver. That’s when I saw it. Maybe I saw it when Nick and I rescued her, but I didn’t recognize it then. She had it. The stance, the look, the complete focus on her target – this pup had the makings of a hunter. Maybe I didn’t recognize it before because female hunters were so rare. Some lycanthropes thought females just didn’t naturally have the instincts hunters needed. Most females, maybe, but definitely not all of them. The female hunters I did know were just as deadly as male hunters. It didn’t matter. Jennifer had the instincts. From the expression on Nick’s face, he saw in Jennifer the same things that I did.

"Hangman, cover the pups!" I yelled, moving back to Nick and Jennifer. Nick staggered to his feet as I moved next to him. Jennifer gingerly handed Nick back his revolver without saying a word. Nick’s face twisted into a half-smile that was kind of eerie – at least to me. He holstered the revolver and put his hand on the pup’s shoulder.

"You did well Jennifer," Nick said quietly, "Now move back with the others. The Knights will be here momentarily. Ranger and I have to secure the area." Her face turned into stony flint of stubbornness.

"I want to fight," she said with a familiar determination, "I can do it." I looked at her. She reminded me of some of the other pups that were later given invitations to the Hunters Guild. She was definitely someone the hunters wanted.

"Jennifer," I said calmly, "You understand that the Nick and I are going hunting for any other ghouls that may have been with this group?" She nodded. There was still that determination in her face. That was good, because she was going to need it. I reached down to my ankle holster and pulled out my backup piece.

"Okay pup," I continued, holding out the revolver, "This is a Ruger SP101 in .357 Magnum. It holds five rounds in the cylinder and has a bit of kick. Not quite as much as Nick’s, but enough it might be uncomfortable for you to shoot. Put the front sight on the bad guy, and then squeeze -squeeze, not pull -the trigger. Do you understand?"

"Front sight, then squeeze. Yes sir," she answered in a calm and confident voice as she took the revolver by the butt. She had the same voice right after her capture and torture by vampires. Then, I thought it was from shock, but now I wasn’t so sure. I looked up at Nick. He nodded – and then was thrown back onto the tiled ground as the sound of a machine pistol stuttered through the annex. I rolled to the side and brought up my MP7. A responding roar came from beside me. I watched as the ghoul’s right shoulder jerked at Jennifer’s shot hit. The machine pistol clattered to the ground as I placed the holographic reticule on the staggering figure. His eyes burned with rage. I put two quick bursts into the ghoul before it finally collapsed. I scampered over to Nick who was coughing, and holding his ribs. The vest saved him from bullet penetration. The bruising and breaking of his ribs would be taken care of by his own healing. I glanced over to Jennifer, who joined us. She looked at Nick with great concern.

"Are you okay?" she asked him, in a soft voice.

"Fine. What the hell just happened?" he asked, a little angry with himself.

"You got shot," I answered in my best Forrest Gump impression.

"Very funny, asshole," he replied, staggering up with the help of a chair. I turned to Jennifer with a bright smile on my face.

"Nice shooting pup," I said to her. "You need a bit more practice, though."

"Sorry," Jennifer said, "Do you want it back?" She held out the revolver.

"Why don’t you hang on to it?" I said, "You seem to be able to handle it." Her blue eyes gleamed as I unstrapped my boot holster and handed it to her. At that moment, Smythe and the other lycanthropes flooded the food court. Smythe didn’t look very happy, but I really didn’t give a flying fuck. The pups came first. Smythe and I could settle any differences between us after the pups were safe. To his credit, Smythe had the same idea. He directed a few of his lycanthropes to surrounding the pups while the Red Knights began opening a path towards the parking garage.

"Ranger, I need your people moving ahead and clear out any of the humans that try to block us off. Lord Vollen asked you keep human deaths to a minimum," Smythe ordered. I nodded, even though his pompous tone grated on my spine. The pups came first, and I knew Lord Vollen would risk even the pathwalkers’ wrath to protect and secure them. Wars were fought over protecting pups. They were almost as sacred to our society as the Ancestors. I looked back to Nick and Hangman, who both nodded in response. I scampered down the escalator. There were a few human security guards, but they fled as soon as they saw three heavily armed individuals. The security guards didn’t worry me. It was the police that worried me. The gun fight took longer than it should have. By now the police heavy forces were either en route or already on scene. With our luck, both the Hillsborough County Tactical Response Team and Tampa Police SWAT were converging on the mall. We needed to make sure that those police forces would be unable to follow the van holding the pups.

"Got any ideas?" Hangman asked as we ran into the parking garage. We were confronted by a dozen or so police officers leveling pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles at us. My mind raced through our options as the police screamed at us to drop our weapons and surrender.

"I’ll do the distraction. Run for the cars," I told them, "Form a barricade to draw the police away from the ramp. We fight for a while and then slip away. We might have to leave our stuff." None of us liked that option, but we would gladly do it to keep the pups safe. I pulled a flash-bang from inside my jacket and tossed it at the police. They opened fire, but we were in motion, and lycanthropes move fast. As the flash-bang detonated, I ran after Nick and Hangman who were behind a line of parked cars. They shifted for true, keeping their true forms out of sight of the police. The last thing we needed was for witch-hunters to emerge from all of this. With the much greater strength of our true form, Nick and Hangman put cars on end to form an impromptu wall between us and the fusillade of police gunfire. The gunfire slackened noticeably as the police tried to figure out what they were dealing with. Fighting people armed with automatic weapons was rare enough. Having to deal with individuals who could upend automobiles was beyond anything the police would normally deal with.

"Smythe, we’ve got the police distracted," I reported as Nick and Hangman finished the fort of cars and shifted back to human form, "Extract with the pups. We’ll find our own way home."

"We’ve already exited the parking garage," Smythe answered, "I don’t anticipate any further problems that the Wolf’s Growl cannot handle." I snarled under my breath. Smythe could have just told us when he got the pups out of the area. That would have opened up my options for our own extraction. Hangman and Nick looked over at me with similarly annoyed expressions.

"Well?" Nick asked, "How are we going to get out of here?"

"I don’t think we can use another flash-bang on them and hope to run," I told them, "My original idea was to fight it out with the cops for a bit and then slip out as a wolf. Gunny will kill us for leaving the MP7’s, and I hate losing my sidearm and gear. Any other ideas?" The three of us looked at each other as bullets spanged off the cars forming our barrier. The police were yelling for our surrender, but that wasn’t going to happen. We couldn’t use the MP7’s on the police. The little bullets were designed to punch right through the body armor the cops were wearing. Good for killing ghouls, bad for not killing police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

"Actually, I think we could drop another flash-bang," Nick said, "Then we run down towards 22nd Avenue. Once we get into one of those apartment complexes, it’s not going to be hard to sneak into the VA hospital, and then across to the university." It was going to be risky and fast, but it might work. On the north end of University Square Mall was 22nd Avenue, which stretched all the way out to Bearss Avenue, the northern-most east-west road for the majority of Tampa. On either side of 22nd were some apartment complexes. The eastern ones backed into the VA hospital. The hospital had a walkway over Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to the University of South Florida. It was constructed so that the students at the university’s medical college wouldn’t have to brave the barrage of insane drivers that frequented Bruce B. The good part was that we could easily lose ourselves on the university’s grounds until we could get a pickup. It was a somewhat risky, but doable plan. It involved a lot of running, and possibly a lot of gunfire, but that was what made our jobs so exciting.

"First things first," Hangman said, looking between the cars, "We’re going to need to knock out some of those cruisers. You think these little bullets will screw up an engine block?" There was only one way to find out. Poking our weapons through the small gaps between the cars, the three of us fired short bursts into the centers of a few police cruisers. There were pleasant sounds of metal being shredded as the tiny bullets punched through the grilles of the cruisers and tore through the components behind. Nick’s leaked liquid. We finished off the magazines in the MP7’s and took out four more police cruisers. If they tried to follow us, it was going to be difficult. We made sure the ones we hit would block off the rest of the cruisers. It would give us a short head start. I pulled out the flash-bang. The little device sailed over the barricade as Nick shoved a car out of our way. The thunderous roar echoed through the concrete parking garage, amplifying the effect on the police officers. Nick, Hangman, and I bolted out of our impromptu fortification and ran as fast as we could through the parking garage and out across the rear parking lot. I could hear the distinctive sounds of police helicopters. Fuck. They must have just gotten over us. Those could really screw us over. The helicopters wouldn’t have any problems tracking the three of us and directing additional forces our way. Damn it all to hell. The three of us made it to a copse of trees on the edge of the mall’s grounds.

"Didn’t think about helos," Nick admitted as we took cover. I looked out as more police cruisers flew towards where we were hiding.

"Guess we shift and ditch," I said.

"Guess so," Nick agreed. We quickly made makeshift harnesses out of our belts. It was one of those things hunters are taught at the camp. Escaping using the wolf form was effective. Humans really didn’t think much about dogs, which was how they saw our wolf form. The trick was carrying out as much gear as possible. The biggest things that needed to be saved for us were the MP7’s. Those couldn’t be quickly replaced. Our phones were smashed and the sim cards swallowed. It sounded disgusting, but we weren’t going to get hurt from a sim card banging around inside of us. No silver. The slings were rigged so we could carry the MP7’s close to our bellies. Everything else was left. As the Tactical Response team prepared to storm our cover, we shifted forms for wolf. As soon as Tac Rep tossed in their own flash-bangs, the three of us trotted up 22nd Avenue. A few blocks north, a nondescript van pulled up to us. The three lycanthropes in the van pretended to herd us into the vehicle. Will Leafdancer, the young pup I extracted out of Ybor a month or so back, saw what was happening on the local news and decided he and his friends were going to try and help out. By sheer luck, he and his crew came across Nick, Hangman, and me. As many times as Murphy fucked me over, it was nice to turn the tables on the bastard.

Leafdancer stopped briefly at a Target to pick up some clothes for the three of us. Once we were dressed in some basic clothing, Leafdance dropped us off at the armory. Very few in the packs knew where the Guild was located. Granted, it was a bit of paranoia on the hunters’ part, but we had a long institutional memory. There had been more than one attempt to disband and destroy the Guild since its inception. The armory’s gun shop front was still operating, but most of the Guild’s weapons were transferred to the armory at the Guild itself. If the packs needed weapons, the hunters would transport the weapons to the armory and distribute them there – but only if Gunny approved. The Guildmaster trusted his head armorer’s judgement. With many thanks of gratitude and praising of the Ancestors, Leafdancer and his crew returned to their pack while the three of us walked into the gun shop. I can’t speak for Nick or Hangman, but I was surprised to see Gunny and Boomer standing behind the counter.

"Well, look what dragged themselves in," Gunny drawled as we stood for a moment in surprise, "I hope my weapons are in good condition being dragged around." We handed I over the small submachine guns.

"What’s the damage?" Nick asked with an almost grim tone to his voice. The job in the mall was successful in that we rescued the pups, but it had been too open and too loud. If it had gone properly, we should have taken the pups out of the mall and removed the ghouls without any humans noticing us. The problem was that ghouls didn’t take things like the pathwalkers into consideration when they were following out their masters’ orders. They did what they were told to do and they just didn’t give a damn if the humans got in their way or not. Bradon told me once it took intensive work with a ghoul to get them to overcome their basic zealousness. The Bleeders had one vampire whose job was just to train their ghouls. At the moment, we were concerned the job caused enough noise our normal covers would be blown.

"Minimal to us," Gunny answered, "The humans managed to convince themselves it was a gang fight that got out of control. All part of the current rise in violence, but completely attributable to normal criminals. We didn’t even need to get too involved beyond disappearing the ghoul bodies." He motioned to a small television in the corner of the gun shop. "Unconfirmed rumors of gun fire, conflicting reports of who was involved, all the good things that keep the humans from looking our way."

"Well that’s good news," Hangman said with a relieved expression on his face. I couldn’t blame him. If the humans were blaming themselves, then the pathwalkers would have little reason to come down and restore the balance. "Anything else going on besides all the fun we’ve been having?"

"What do you mean?" asked Gunny, slightly confused by the Hangman’s tone. Hangman did sound a slightly bit suspicious, which even I found odd. Hangman was a gifted young hunter, but he still did and said things that were a bit off. Still, sometimes Hangman could pick up on small details that escaped the rest of us.

"Well you’re here instead of at the Guild," Hangman answered, "You haven’t been here since the war broke out. If the Guild provides weapons to the packs, the other hunters are the ones that make the deliveries. Yet, here you are." I had to admit, I was surprised to see Gunny in the armory, but I really didn’t think it was an omen of something going on beyond the normal course of the war. Hangman was getting too good. Gunny gave a knowing grin and walked around the counter.

"The Guildmaster was worried I was burning out with all of the work I was doing at the Guild," Gunny said, "So he told me to come out here for a day or two. I’ve got a couple of others working the armory in the Guild." Just getting out of the Guild had done wonders for Gunny. He was smiling with a real amusement, not just his sarcastic grin that he used since the war had started.

"I figured you three lost your sidearms to keep my guns safe," Gunny said, his voice going serious. We nodded solemnly. "I’ve been thinking it might be time to upgrade all of you. So, I have some packages for you."

"And it’s not even my birthday," I replied, dryly. I walked over to the counter where Gunny placed a new pistol on a gun blotter. I picked up the handgun and smiled. The HK45’s lines were reminiscent of my USP, but this was in many ways a whole new pistol. A threaded barrel protruded from the slide. A <a href="">picatinny rail</a> was forward of the trigger guard. After ensuring the weapon was unloaded, I tested the trigger. Much nicer and cleaner than my USP.

"That is nice," I murmured, putting the HK45 back on the counter, "How much?"

"No charge. The Guildmaster wanted you to have this as soon as I got a hold of one," Gunny answered, "It also comes with this nice little kit." A small black plastic box materialized on the counter. I opened it up to find a suppressor and a laser-light module. Ten pre-loaded magazines were also in the box. Gunny turned from me and looked over at Nick.

"Nicholas, the Guildmaster wanted me to see if you wanted to try this," Gunny said, hefting a large pistol case onto the glass counter. The weapon inside was one of the largest handguns that I had ever seen. I heard about the Smith & Wesson Model 500, but this was the first time that I saw it up close. Nick hefted the massive revolver with an appraising eye. The S&W 500 was chambered for the enormous .500 Magnum cartridge. The rounds were designed to take down light to medium game. To me, the Smith was like the Desert Eagle .50 AE – an interesting niche weapon, but with very few real applications for the type of work that hunters do. By the look in his eyes, Nick had a different opinion. He had the gleam of a child with a brand-new toy that he had been praying to Santa for the entire year.

"Boomer finally managed to make up some silver rounds for that caliber," Gunny said, "We made some penetrator rounds so you can take out a leech using cover as well as some anti-personnel rounds that will drop an enormous amount of energy into a target." Gunny handed hand-built speed loaders of various rounds over to Nick. They were gigantic bullets compared to the .45 ACP bullets that I used, and were even larger than the .44 Magnum rounds that Nick normally carried.

"This is going to be fun," Nick answered quietly, almost caressing the monster revolver, "It’s going to require some practice, but I like it." Nick’s fascination with huge, powerful handguns was funny to me. I prefer a larger caliber than most hunters, but Nick didn’t seem like he was satisfied until he had a handgun that would take down a light airplane. Nick placed the revolver back on the counter and waited as Gunny placed it back in a hard pistol case. Nick turned to my smirking face and gave me a nasty look.

"What’s the problem Ranger?" he asked dryly.

"Not a thing Nick," I answered, "After all, there are so many APC’s in the leeches’ inventory. I am so glad that you can now take them down without a problem."

"The name is Nicholas," he answered with a cool tone I knew was mostly faked, "At least I don’t have to worry about car doors anymore." That was a point.

"And for the youngest member of your little group," Gunny said, placing a flat black 1911 with dark wood grips on the counter. I saw manufacturer’s name etched into the side and my eyes went wide.

"Is that?" I asked as Hangman gingerly picked up the pistol.

"Wilson Combat CQB Lightrail Lightweight," Gunny said, almost reverently. Among 1911’s, Wilson Combat was the premium pistol maker. My HK45 was considered a high-end weapon, but the pistol in Hangman’s hand cost enough to buy two of mine. Maybe three if the HK45 was on sale.

"Where did you get one of these?" Hangman asked, pulling back the slide, "Ancestors, I thought mine was smooth. This thing is like glass rails."

"Actually, off of a dead Bleeder," Boomer answered, "We sent it back to Wilson and they rehabbed it. They added the threaded barrel, so it’s within their tolerances." Boomer handed over a case with a suppressor and a laser-light module similar to mine. The Bowmasters spent a good hour getting the three of us fitted with holsters and spare magazine holders. Then it was waiting around for a ride back to the Guild.

"I’m surprised the Guildmaster would have our sidearms upgraded," Hangman said. Nick and I traded a look.

"Hangman, if the boss wants us to have better weapons, exactly what fires is he expecting to drop us in?" I asked.

Chapter 10 – Easy Jobs Are Never Easy