The border between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties was odd in that part of it ran down the middle of Tampa Bay. It made pursuits sometimes interesting, because the laws governing crossing into a neighboring county "uninvited" were very strict. Even amongst friendly counties, the penalties for the offending lycanthrope could be very harsh, up to and including, a silver flogging. Leeches, on the other hand, had no compunctions. Their council system was city-based, not county-based. Their power was more a matter of what each council could grab and hold. So, even though the Pinellas Hunters Guild warned my Guildmaster some TCV vamps were "recruiting" in St. Petersburg across the bay, we couldn’t go over there and wipe out the "press gang." As soon as Lord Vollen repudiated the Peace in Hillsborough, Lady Thames declared Pinellas was neutral, and she wouldn’t tolerate a hint of the fighting on her soil. From what I was told, she tried to stoke the Clearwater Council into attacking their rivals working in St. Pete, but the vampires were either unable or unwilling to find their opponents. At least that was what they told Lady Thames. The Guildmaster of the Pinellas Chapter wasn’t convinced, but he wasn’t able to set his hunters on the interlopers. Lady Thames was being strict on the neutrality issue.

The two Guildmasters conferenced on the problem, and I was dispatched to perform a slightly problematic job. Although I could have infiltrated Pinellas, found the leeches, and wiped them out, it would be too bold of a job for Pinellas to overlook. Instead, it was decided a limited incursion into Pinellas County would be overlooked in order for me to do the actual take-down in Hillsborough. Real-time intelligence would be fed to me from some Pinellas hunters. The mission was skirting the edges of Pinellas neutrality and would have some nasty repercussions if it was discovered exactly how much assistance the Pinellas Chapter was providing. Hence, the job was given to me. It was all part of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter.

From what we learned from the Pinellas Guild – who was shadowing the press gang – the leeches were planning on crossing back into Hillsborough County on the Howard Frankland Bridge. So, I would need to cross the bridge into Pinellas, turn around, and get back on the other span of the bridge – all without the permission of the Pinellas aristocracy. The Pinellas Guild made it very clear that if one of their packs spotted me, I was on my own. Honestly, I didn’t blame them for that. It was just part of the job.

For this job, I was using a customized sedan. On the outside, it looked like a normal car. The customization was the installation of shooting ports on the windows and in the windshield as well as clips to hold weapons. The whole point of the car was to be able to accurately fire a weapon while the car was in motion. The weapon in question was a suppressed M4 carbine. The Howard Frankland was oddly peaceful. The orange sodium streetlights cast a dull pall over the concrete. The muscles in my neck tightened as the large rise of the hump of the bridge approached. Halfway up that hump, I would technically be in Pinellas County, and for the first time, I would be entering the county without an invitation. Despite my reputation among the packs, going against the laws of our society wasn’t something I did lightly. I made sure I wasn’t doing anything that would bring unwarranted attention as the car crossed the invisible barrier separating the counties. I relaxed for a brief moment – then flashing lights filled my rear-view mirror. I didn’t panic, but my anxiety level shot up. I wasn’t speeding or changed lanes aggressively, so why was I being pulled over? It could be something as simple as a broken taillight that I hadn’t noticed when I took the car. The M4 was placed on the floor of the passenger side and covered. The rigging could be explained, but it was going to be interesting to see if the police officer believed me. I slowed and pulled into the emergency lane. The police car pulled in behind me. I found the registration for the car and retrieved my license and insurance card from my wallet. Just as a precaution, I slipped my HK45 from its holster to just under my leg. There was a possibility the police officer behind me was a ghoul or a leech trying to assassinate me. The police officer stepped out of his car, and I could see he wasn’t a leech or a ghoul. Good, I wasn’t going to have a shootout on the Howard Frankland, but my instincts screaming warnings. The police officer stepped up to my window.

"Good evening sir," the police officer said with an almost bored tone, "May I have your license, registration, and insurance please?" I handed over the requested items, keeping the pistol concealed, but ready. The police officer inspected the documents for a brief moment before asking, "Do you know why I pulled you over?"

"Honestly, officer, I have no idea," I answered, "As far as I could tell, I hadn’t done anything." The police officer gave me an almost predatory grin.

"Well, I guess I could pull you in for carting around full automatic weapons," the police officer said, and my instincts screamed furiously. "That wasn’t why I pulled you over, Mr. Ranger." I kept my face neutral while my mind racing. The only ones who called me Ranger were my fellow hunters. There was no mention of it anywhere on any of the documents I just handed the cop. I wanted to go for my pistol, but my experience told me to stay calm. The police officer’s pistol was still holstered and lashed down, which told me that he wasn’t expecting trouble.

"I’m afraid I don’t know whom you’re talking about," I said, keeping my voice calm and slightly confused, "My name is Marcus Smith. I don’t know a Mr. Ranger." The smile on the police officer’s face widened.

"Okay, if that’s how you want to play this," the police officer answered, almost amused by my response, "Just to let you know, Lady Thames is aware you’re infiltrating her county. Needless to say, she is not happy that her Guildmaster and your Guildmaster would come up with this plan without expecting her to become aware of it. It would look very bad, especially considering her declaration of neutrality." There was no point in playing the innocent any further. The police officer knew too many details for him to be just on the outside of the unseen world. He wasn’t a kin, so it was very surprising Lady Thames would use him.

"Are you warning me off?" I asked simply. I needed to find out exactly what was going on. Lady Thames would be fully justified in having me killed on the spot, but I strongly doubted she would have sent a human police officer to assassinate me. There was something else going on.

"Far from it," the police officer answered, "Lady Thames was aware her Guildmaster would assist yours for this kind of an operation. That said, you will never implicate her Guild or her involvement in this. If any other lord, Guildmaster, or Spiritmaster questions this operation, you will fully admit that you broke the law in coming here. Either on your own volition or under the orders of your Guildmaster. Lady Thames doesn’t really care which story you go with. She won’t stop you, but she will not tolerate such shenanigans in her territory." He handed me a paper that looked like a traffic ticket. On the paper was a phone number.

"The number is for the hunters tailing the vampires," the police officer said, "Finish this quickly and do your damndest to make sure that none of the details of the operation ever leave the borders of our two counties." Without another word, the police officer whirled back to his car. I didn’t waste time and rejoined traffic. I had lost time and the phone number wasn’t necessary. The message the police officer gave me disturbed me. Lady Thames had been acting strange since the beginning of the war. There had to be more than what I was seeing. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to deal with Pinellas’s aristocracy or their little games. I needed to take out some leeches. I filed the conversation in the back of my mind and made a point to talk privately with the Guildmaster. The rest of the drive across the bridge was uneventful. I quickly exited on Ninth Street, did a quick u-turn, and drove back onto the bridge. As soon as the car crossed over the Hillsborough line, I pulled the car into the emergency lane on the bridge and waited for my prey to arrive. Normally, it was a bad idea to wait for a car to pass by at seventy miles an hour while you were stationary. The only thing I needed was to be ready to give chase when the leeches came by. I was supposed to wait until the leeches were well into Hillsborough County before I killed them. The bridge was only necessary as a means to locate the leeches and hunt them. If we waited until the leeches were beyond the bridge, they could go to ground before we could fix their location. My phone toned. A text message let me know that my prey was on its way to the bridge. A few moments later, my prey sped past. A green minivan being followed by a silver muscle car. I shook my head. The Pinellas hunters had a thing for "old-school" muscle cars.

I slammed down the accelerator and flew into traffic. I needed to get to my prey before the end of the bridge. The car accelerated smoothly through the traffic as I slipped between the lanes. I might have problems if there were State Troopers out on the bridge, but I didn’t have much choice. There were a lot of cars from people coming home from their entertainment in Pinellas. I came up on the left side of the muscle car. We traded flashlight signals, and the Pinellas hunters backed off. They wouldn’t have any problems coming into Hillsborough, at least not from my side of the bay. The driver of the minivan didn’t notice he was being followed and continued sedately driving towards Tampa.

The hard part was patiently following the minivan. I wanted to just pull up next to it and take it out, but that would have been too spectacular. Especially after the rescue of the pups at the mall. I needed to wait for an opportunity to take down the minivan away from human eyes. We got off the bridge and continued up the interstate. I expected the minivan to exit off on Westshore or even Dale Mabry, but it continued past downtown Tampa towards the infamous Malfunction Junction where I-275 met up with I-4. I wondered what the bloody hell these vampires were doing because they jumped onto I-4 and headed east. There was something odd happening, and it was making my instincts scream bloody murder. I decided it was important enough the job parameters needed to be changed. I hit the speed dial on my phone and waited for my boss to pick up.

"What is it Marcus?" the Guildmaster growled over the phone. He sounded annoyed, but I didn’t think it was at me in particular. The lycanthropes had lowered the tempo of operations after the mall fiasco because of fears that the pathwalkers were going to intervene. The problem was that the operations still needed to be done, just done quietly – such as the job I was doing. Hence, while the packs were doing less, the Guild was doing more. I quickly related the situation to him.

"So, bide your time and take them down. It’s not like you haven’t done this plenty of times." The Guildmaster used his "you’re-overcomplicating" tone.

"That’s not it boss," I replied, "Why are the leeches driving out to the east part of the county with forcibly recruited new vampires. Their strength is in Tampa. They always keep new vampires close for the first year or so. I got a feeling that something else is going on."

"What?" he asked.

"If I knew that, I would’ve told you," I answered sarcastically, "The only ones I can see that might know something are the targets in front of me."

"Can you secure them?" the Guildmaster asked. I looked into the minivan as best I could. From the heads bobbing in the windows, there were probably four full leeches and at least that many recruits. The recruits wouldn’t be full vampires yet, but they could cause me trouble. Recruits were somewhere between ghouls and full vampires. I made a snap judgment.

"Negative boss," I answered, "I need some assistance. Doesn’t matter who – with the glorious exception of Twisted Knife." The Guildmaster chuckled at the comment. He didn’t say anything about my confrontation with Twisted Knife, but all that meant was he felt my performance didn’t warrant a reprimand. The Guildmaster was beyond stingy with his praise where I was concerned. As his personal hitter, the Guildmaster expected an extremely high level of professional aptitude from me. Sometimes I managed to go above it, but it was rare.

"I’ll see what resources I can dig up," the Guildmaster informed me, "I may not be the one calling you back. Get this done quickly." He disconnected, and I watched the minivan. They were continuing sedately down the interstate. They weren’t even going above the speed limit. Either the leeches in the vehicle had absolutely no idea they were being tailed or they were leading me into a very nasty trap. I half-hoped it was the trap. At least that would be a rational answer for the leeches’ irrational acts. My phone toned and I hit the receiver on the earpiece.


"This is Kyle Bloodscent," said the soft voice into my ear, "I’ve got two vehicles coming up behind you with six warriors from Plant City. We’ve got your plate and description. We should be there in the next few minutes. What’s the plan?" I loved modern technology. No need for long, drawn out conversations when all the information could be forwarded to a phone.

"We need to snatch these bastards fast," I replied, "You know this area better than I do. Suggestions on where to force them off the interstate?"

"As quickly as possible," Kyle replied without humor, "We’ll force them into the next exit as soon as we catch up to you. Anywhere between here and the county line is good for us, but we can’t cross the county line." Pinellas might be willing to turn a blind eye, but the other surrounding counties were taking a hard containment approach. They didn’t want the fighting spreading into their own counties with their vampire councils. They continued to provide intelligence and material support. Hence, the strict bar from the lord against combatants entering the other counties. We couldn’t jeopardize what little help we were getting.

"Okay," I replied, placing the M4 into the cradle on the passenger side of the car, "I’m going to put a burst into the van just before the next exit. That should force them to exit. I want you to follow, but not engage. I’ll head back around and join back up with you. We’ll find a nice place to do the take down. Remember, we need to capture these leeches, not kill them." I saw flashing headlights in my rear-view mirror. Kyle and his warriors were ready. Capturing anyone, particularly leeches, is far more difficult than just killing them. I pulled up next to the minivan and slipped the carbine into the clips. The M4 stuttered. The suppressor made the carbine almost quieter than the brass thumping into the passenger seat. The rounds sparked off the body of the minivan. The burst did exactly what I wanted it to do – panicked the driver, sent the minivan off the interstate, and allowed for Kyle and his warriors to slip in behind them unnoticed.

Kyle kept me informed on the minivan as I worked my way back to his two cars. We were in a more rural part of the county. It was a good spot to do an interrogation. Even with Kyle’s warriors, there was little chance of me being able to get the leeches back to the Guild for a proper interrogation. So, I was going to have to perform an impromptu one with the warriors’ help. It was going to be nasty, and I really hoped Kyle’s warriors would be up to the task.

"Kyle, we have to get the minivan off the road so I can interrogate the leeches," I said, "Have one of your cars pass the minivan so we can run a blocking maneuver." I didn’t want to be too complex with warriors I’d never worked with before.

"I thought we were going to capture them so you could take them back to the Guild or some other place," Kyle said, sounding a bit confused.

"Not an option at the moment. No transport," I answered tersely. I needed to get this done and find out if my suspicions were correct. "Get your car going." One of the cars raced in front of the minivan and continued on for about a hundred yards. Whoever was driving had good instincts or good training on laying a road ambush. First and foremost, don’t let your mark suspect he is about to get hit. The operation was relatively simple. The car in front slowed down until the minivan was within a car length. The warrior car at the rear came up behind to the point of tailgating.

"I’m going," I said, and floored the car. The sedan sped past the rear car and came up alongside the minivan. "All cars slow." As the three cars slowed, I saw the driver of the minivan realize what was happening. He was looking more and more panicked as the speed dropped off. I crowded the minivan to the shoulder. The driver of the minivan looked like he was about to ram the lead car to escape. I pointed the carbine at his head. The unspoken command was understood. He was talking rapidly to either the others in the minivan or possibly on some sort of hands-free cell phone. If it was the former, it might make the take-down more interesting. Outside of the Bleeders, I hadn’t run into many vampires that knew how to fight. If the driver was talking on the phone, it could mean reinforcements were on the way, or whatever operation was going on would be folded up quickly. Either way, my time was going to be extremely limited. I hated being rushed during an interrogation.

As soon as we stopped, the two lycanthropes in the front car were out with pistols drawn. They screamed for the occupants of the minivan to slowly get out of the car with hands up. These two watched far too many episodes of Cops. I didn’t bother correcting them. I just climbed out of the car with the M4 cradled in my hands. The leeches in the minivan didn’t look like they were moving, so I placed a burst into the rear of the vehicle. The doors flew open. Stumbling out of the van were four vampires followed by four humans with bite marks on their necks. Ah, the recruits. The driver was a tall, average looking vampire with brown hair and eyes. He followed the instructions the warriors were shouting with a look of resignation. The vampire that had been in the front passenger seat looked shocked. His blue eyes went wide at the pistols of the warriors. The other two vampires were giving me extremely hostile looks. I took a closer look at those two because there was something bothering me. There was a strong hostility, but it wasn’t focused or refined. They were thugs. The driver was probably the leader of the operation and the front passenger was a deputy or some sort of lieutenant. Those two were the important ones. The quick bursts from my M4 into the two thugs caught everyone off-guard. The warriors gave me shocked looks as the two thugs fell to the dirt. That was one of the problems with working with warriors. They weren’t trained to look for the same things that hunters were trained to look for in our enemies. I didn’t have time to explain to the warriors. I only needed to the leader and his lieutenant. Everything else was just complication at this point.

"I need you two to cover the humans," I ordered, pointing at the two warriors from the first car, "The rest of you take these two leeches into the fields. I have questions for them."

"Too late," the driver said, flatly, "I’ve already warned them we were intercepted. By the time you get any information from me, they’ll be long gone." I could tell by his eyes he was telling me the truth. What the leech didn’t realize was that I didn’t need to know the location of whatever was going on. I just needed to know why they were seizing humans in Pinellas just to drive them clear across Hillsborough. If I knew the why, then Guild intelligence could figure out where the vampires behind this would be setting up shop next.

I didn’t say anything. I just motioned for the two vampires to move away from the minivan and into the grassy field beyond the highway. The warriors roughly shoved the two vampires into moving as I sedately followed. I had a nasty feeling that the driver was anticipating me using harsh interrogation techniques against him. He was smart, resourceful, and dedicated. I was glad he was going to be dead before this job was finished. Leeches like that were extremely dangerous. His lieutenant, on the other hand, seemed to be around just to help out. He may have some information, but I was willing to bet it was very limited and may be slightly incorrect. Just enough to screw up any further investigation.

We walked maybe fifty feet from the cars when I motioned for the lycanthropes to halt. The two leeches were placed on their knees. I found putting leeches into a submissive posture helped with interrogations. One of the intel boys tried to explain the psychological reasons for why it worked, but I really didn’t pay attention. All I needed to know was that it did work. The driver was still looking defiantly resigned, but his companion was frightened.

"Are there others coming to get you?" I asked quietly, focusing my attention on the driver.

"What, no threats?" he replied, just a little too glibly, "No. No one is coming to rescue me or my companion. We are expendable." He settled down on his knees into the ground. He was preparing for a long session. I didn’t have the patience for a long session.

"Why did you take those humans from Pinellas?" I asked, looking directly into the driver’s eyes. He was taking too long. No time to play games. The M4 was placed to the driver’s left arm and a single silver round went through his elbow. The screaming from the vampire filled the grassy field. "I can tell when you’re going to lie to me. Lying means that you aren’t going to be useful to me. If you aren’t useful, then you’re dead. And not quick. I will take you one piece at a time to get what I want." He looked me in the eyes. I saw true fear in them for the first time.

"We didn’t think Hillsborough hunters would get involved in us snatching humans from Pinellas," the driver answered. Okay, I scared him, but he had enough wits about him to try and delay me as long as possible.

"Who is ‘we?’" I asked. The players behind this scheme might tell me the nature of the operation and the ultimate goal. Assuming, of course, the driver knew who was his actual patron.

"A group of us deliver humans to some older vampires in Thonotosassa," the vampire answered, "We don’t know who or why. The Inner Council told us to do it, so we do it." The Inner Council was involved? In more peaceful times, I would almost wonder if they were stocking up for a party. Now, it had a more sinister tone to it.

"Where were you to deliver the humans?" I asked.

"Doesn’t matter," the driver answered, "They’ll be long gone by the time you could even hope to get there. Completely gone and no evidence to find them." His delaying tactics were starting to annoy me.

"Where?" I repeated, with a slightly more demanding emphasis in the question. I tried to keep my annoyance out of my tone, but from the fear in the driver’s eyes, I wasn’t sure if I had succeeded.

"It’s on the GPS in the van," the lieutenant answered, frantically, "I saw him input the destination right before we left St. Pete." I looked at the driver. The lieutenant was telling the truth. It’s hard to fake that vitriolic look of unanticipated betrayal. The lieutenant was clinging to the hope I would let him go since he gave me the information I wanted. He should have known better. A year ago, he might have been right, but now his race and mine were at war. There was no way either leech was going to leave this field alive. Or as alive as a leech ever was.

"Kyle, would you have your warriors secure the GPS and confirm?" I asked, keeping my voice as neutral as possible. I needed the two vampires to maintain some hope I would release them in exchange for their cooperation. The moment that hope vanished, the two vampires would become unpredictable. Most likely, they wouldn’t do anything, but they might decide they had nothing to lose and attack. I wasn’t worried about me, but I was concerned about the warriors holding the vampires. Warriors were okay, but they rarely had the situational awareness to warn them something bad was about to happen.

Kyle called his warriors back at the van and related my orders. After a few moments, Kyle looked at me and slowly nodded. I spun back to the vampires. I snapped the M4 to my shoulder and placed a burst into each of the vampires. The warriors looked stunned as the bodies toppled to the ground. Maybe they thought I was going to let the vampires go also. They should have known better as well.

"Kyle, have your people kill the humans and disappear the bodies," I ordered, walking back towards the minivan. Bitten humans could be rehabilitated, but it was a dicey and long endeavor. Even doing it right had a better than even chance of creating a witch-hunter. During peacetime, we would’ve turned them over to the wizards for rehabbing. With the war raging across the county, the wizards were having nothing to do with us, and we just didn’t have the resources to perform the rehabilitation. Those humans just became collateral damage of the war. By the time we reached the minivan, the two warriors were moving the bodies of the humans and the vampires into the minivan. I climbed into the driver’s seat and accessed the GPS. The drop-off point was a small office near the state fairgrounds. I copied the address into my phone and waited for Kyle to rejoin me at the road. I put a fresh magazine in the M4 and checked in with the Guildmaster. He might be able to scrounge up a hunter or two to assist me, but I doubted it. Whatever was going in Sun City Center sounded like one hell of a firefight. I hated missing it, but I the job came first.

"What is it Marcus?" growled the Guildmaster, "I’m a little busy coordinating things here."

"Sorry boss," I answered, "All of the objectives here have been taken care of. I found the drop-off point for these humans. The intelligence I got says this is some major operation for the vampires. I was hoping that you would have some assistance for me."

"To be perfectly blunt Marcus, your job is a side operation right now," the Guildmaster replied, "We’ve managed to find one of the major coven sites for the TCV in Sun City Center. It’s taking all of the spare hunters I have available just to provide enough support for the packs. In fact, I want you back here as soon as possible. I may need to send you out there." I scowled. I could tell from the Guildmaster’s tone the fight was not going how he wanted. Probably a stalemate. Lycanthropes couldn’t afford a stalemate in a battle. Vampires always had the advantage of numbers. Lycanthropes were just better fighters on a one-on-one comparison.

"I need to check out this drop site. I might be able to find out something before they roll up the operation. Then I’ll get back to the Guild," I told my boss, "I’ll see about support from the packs out here." He just grunted approval and hung up. I looked for Kyle. I would need to see if he could get me some more help. The driver was probably right. The vampires would probably be long gone by the time we got there, but if it were me, I would have left a nasty surprise or two in their place. I had to assume that my opponents were at least as nasty and as devious as me. When I didn’t, the bastards proved me wrong. Barely escaping death looks really neat on movies and television, but in reality it was painful and exhausting. I avoided it whenever I possibly could.

The first thing I needed was intelligence. Thankfully, the humans always managed to provide technology that lycanthropes needed. I pulled out my phone and downloaded the satellite images for the address. The target was a barn or a large storage shed on what looked like a farm. According to the property records, the farm was owned by a small agribusiness firm. Getting onto the property wasn’t going to be difficult. That much wide open space would be difficult to secure. The barn, on the other hand, was either a dead drop of some sort with no security or it was completely secure and I could expect a nasty fight. A building that large would hold a lot of nasty things.

"Kyle, can you give me some more support?" I asked the warrior. He nodded without hesitation. "We need to get to this drop site. More than likely, it will be nothing, but there is a damned good chance the leeches might have a trap waiting for us."

"My fiancée belongs to the pack out that way," Kyle said, looking at both the GPS and the satellite picture on my phone’s screen, "She can get some of her packmates out there with some weapons to help us out. What’s the chance that this is a trap?" There was an undercurrent of concern in his voice. I couldn’t blame him. Lycanthropes may have casual flings with humans or kin, but relationships between true lycanthropes are very serious matters. There are too many issues for them to be simple, casual affairs. It was less than a century ago when only arranged marriages were allowed between lycanthropes.

"Maybe four to one," I answered, "I don’t know who was running the operation. If the Bleeders are responsible, then there will be a trap and it will be nasty. If it’s just an operation run by the Inner Council, better than even that the operation just folded up and disappeared." I looked Kyle dead in the eye. "Bottom line, we’re going to have to assume that the bastards are ready and waiting to kill any lycanthrope that shows up anywhere near that barn. Any lycanthrope that comes to this little party better be ready to do exactly what I tell them, and be ready to fight hard. Can your wolves do this?"

"I’ll make sure of it."

The farm was primarily cattle with some fields for growing of hay and sod. Perimeter security was nonexistent. The barn was near the grazing fields. No real concealment from the terrain, but we did have the dark. The twelve warriors with me were spread out as we approached the barn. We were all in true form. Kyle and his five warriors were on my left while his fiancée, Renee, and another five warriors on my right. Renee’s group brought a small mix of shotguns and hunting rifles. All of them seemed to understand my instructions, but I was still a little worried about the Murphy factor on this job. The war made the warriors more proficient than before, but they still weren’t at the level that I was comfortable. Still, a beggar can’t be too choosy.

As we approached the barn, I scanned outline of the barn and surrounding area. I was looking for anything out of the ordinary. Something that would make my instincts scream we were creeping into an ambush. I motioned for the warriors to stop and crouch down. Nothing about this barn seemed to indicate ambush, but my instincts were telling me different. Not the normal screaming warnings, but the kind that reminded someone to look both ways before stepping off a street corner.

"Kyle," I whispered, "I want all of you to slowly spread out and encircle the barn. Just hold at about hundred feet or so. I’m going to go in."

"Are you sure you don’t want a couple of us to go in with you?" Kyle asked, "I know a couple of my boys that could do all right." I shook my head. If a firefight broke out, I didn’t want lycanthropes I hadn’t worked with before in the middle of it. I wouldn’t know how they would react. At least if the warriors were coming in from the outside, I would have a better chance of managing the battle.

"If something goes down, I want your folks to close up the circle around the barn," I told him, "I’ll let you know where I want you to enter. Do your best not to kill me." Kyle smiled at the comment, but he understood the truth of the statement. The chaos of a firefight was intense, and a lot of the times warriors would fire at anything that moved that wasn’t on their side of the battle. Since I would already be in the thick of it, there would be a damned good chance of being caught in a crossfire. This would be what hunters like to refer to as a "bad thing." Kyle moved back to give my instructions to the rest of the warriors as I crept forward.

The barn was actually a long single-story building – more of a large garage or storage shed. It contained the expensive tractors and numerous mechanical implements used on the modern farm. On the north face was a graded concrete slab that led up to two large doors where the tractors entered and exited the barn. From oil and other stains on the ramp, there had been more vehicles here recently. It was the first confirmation this was the drop point for the vampires. The doors were closed and there were no windows on them to peek through. I moved slowly to the east side of the building. On the east side of the barn was an access door and a path that led out to the farm’s main house some three hundred yards off. There weren’t any obvious security features on the access door beyond a basic deadbolt. I didn’t see the glimmer of brass in the slit between the door and the frame. The door was completely open. I slung the M4 and drew my HK45. I pushed the door open and let it swing open on its own inertia. I swiftly slipped through the door and heard the chattering sound of a sub-machine gun open up. Bullets whipped around me. Two rounds slammed into my vest as I dived behind a pile of equipment. A second sub-machine gun opened fire. Uzi, I concluded. There were very few sub-machine guns with that uniquely high rate of fire. Ricochets filled the area around me as the two sub-machine guns emptied. I holstered the pistol and brought up the M4. My turn.

Raising myself just over the farm equipment with carbine at the ready, I spied two ghouls reloading full size Uzis. I placed a burst into the left ghoul. He toppled over as the other ghoul ran for cover, still trying to reload his Uzi. I fired at the ghoul, only to see my bullets deflected by various bits of farm equipment. I crouched back down behind my cover. I listened and heard the ratcheting sound of the Uzi’s cocking handle being roughly yanked back. The ghoul was reloaded and ready to fire. I slipped to my left, looking for the ghoul. I didn’t see the creature, but I didn’t get any fire directed my way. I found new cover and listened again. I couldn’t hear the ghoul’s breathing, but I did hear the sound of his Uzi clanging against the tractor he was hiding behind. I judged the distance, and pulled out a flash-bang. I learned my lesson and always carried the devices on my jobs. I pulled the pin and carefully arched the device behind the tractor.

As the flash-bang rocked the barn, I launched myself towards the ghoul’s position. Flash-bangs gave me two to five seconds before target regained his faculties. The ghoul dropped his weapon and stumbled about. I didn’t waste time and placed a burst into the ghoul’s chest. I wanted to get information, but a ghoul wouldn’t betray its master. The only thing more zealous than a ghoul was a witch-hunter. My only hope for getting information would be to scour the two bodies as well as the barn and hope to come up with something useful. For this, I needed the help of the warriors. I called to Kyle and told him to get his warriors into the barn.

"What are we looking for?" Kyle asked as his warriors filed into the barn. He looked relieved his group didn’t walk into the fire of the ghouls. I didn’t blame him at all. His warriors didn’t have vests or any other kind of protective gear. The two bullet-hoses could have chewed the warriors up before they managed to fire back.

"Anything that will tell us who was responsible for this drop," I answered, "If it looks suspicious, grab it. I’d rather have to look through a bunch of stuff than miss an important piece of intel. Good work by the way." Kyle looked at me with an obvious look of confusion.

"Good work? We didn’t do anything," Kyle said, almost startled.

"Exactly. You did what I told you to do and didn’t risk your warriors coming in trying to rescue me," I answered, "I’ve seen too many times when warriors intrude during a job. Warriors die that way." He nodded, but I couldn’t read the expression on his face. The warriors watched the exchange in silence, and then quietly searched the barn. I was impressed by their discipline, and I made a mental note to tell the Guildmaster. If possible, I wanted to get a hunter or two out here to do some more in-depth training. I had a suspicion this group of warriors would take well to the training. After half an hour of searching, we found a lot of nothing. At least that’s how it seemed from my initial scan. I would turn over all of the stuff to the Guild’s intelligence section to see if they could make anything out of it. I doubted that they would have time with all of the other demands the war placed upon them. Still, they were very good at finding the needles in the haystacks that hunters threw on their desks. Good enough that it was worth taking them out of the field just to do the intelligence analysis. I’d also ask the Guildmaster if he wanted me to send copies to the Lord’s intel group. Not as good, but they weren’t as overworked as our intel section. I collected all of the various pieces of paper, as well as the two Uzis and some of the spent brass, and loaded them into a sack I found in the barn. As I hoisted the sack, Kyle directed two of his warriors to pick up the ghoul bodies. I photographed them and sent the pictures to the Guild to see if we had their faces on file. Satisfied that we were clear, we quietly left the barn.

As we walked back to where our vehicles were waiting, I looked over one piece of paper that kept drawing my attention. The paper had taken some bullet and blood damage, but the part that I could read were instructions to the ghoul from his master. I couldn’t make out where the humans had been taken, but the ghouls were to send some papers and other materials that had been blotted out by blood to an address in Tampa. The address wasn’t complete, so I began trying to fill in the blanks and use my phone to determine where the ghouls might have been going. It didn’t seem right the ghouls would have a hard copy of the instructions unless it was something that they were unlikely to remember on their own. Ghouls weren’t mindless. They had the normal intelligence and reasoning capabilities of their former human selves, and the vampires didn’t choose idiots to be their servants. There had to be a reason that it was written down rather than committed to memory. As I played with various combinations of what the address could be, I kept coming up with destinations that were worthless. I knew it was important, but I was damned if I could figure it out on my own. I was going to need help.

I arrived at the Guild just as the rest of the hunters were coming back from their huge job down in Sun City. From what I gathered talking to my fellow hunters, the job was a marginal success. The coven had been a major stronghold for the TCV outside of the Tampa city limits. Almost all of the packs in southern Hillsborough County were committed to the battle. Wiping it out meant the TCV would be cut off to the south. At least that was the tactical thinking. Initially, the hunters were providing minimal support to the packs doing the attack. The Guild was stretched thin across the county. Of course, the pack leaders grossly underestimated the strength of the vampires holding the coven. The pack leaders also completely dismissed the idea the TCV would have committed any of their Bleeders to the coven. Granted, the Bleeders were disorganized and severely understrength. The Guild’s initial attacks on the Bleeders’ command structure was far more successful than even we expected. That said, there was still a significant number of lower level Bleeders, and the TCV was quickly learning how to properly employ their lycanthrope-fighters. To put it lightly, the initial attack was less than successful. As the casualties mounted, the Guildmaster pulled every hunter he could find and sent them down to Sun City to rescue the packs and press the attack. The shaman also sent down a decent contingent. There were conflicting reports about whether or not Lord Vollen joined the battle, but I doubted it. The Red Knights would have tackled the young lord if Lord Vollen stepped within range of such a fierce battle. By the end of the battle, three hunters were dead and nearly twenty wounded, six of which were serious enough they wouldn’t be doing jobs for some time.

Things were going to have to change soon or simple attrition would destroy the Guild. We started the war with about a hundred active hunters. We’d received maybe ten or so new hunters since the war started from pups we’d sent to the training camp. We’d lost over twenty hunters and another twenty were out of action. We couldn’t expect any more hunters for at least another year. It took a long time to train hunters, and there were damned few lycanthropes that had what it took to become a hunter. Usually there were about six or seven pups a year that were allowed to attend the Rite of Initiation. There was maybe one every other year that could be sent to the Hunters Camp to be trained. None of the pups currently in tysach were close to being ready for the Rite of Initiation. I was musing on this when I walked into the Guildmaster’s office. The Guildmaster was looking at his computer and talking on the phone.

"Hi boss," I said as I slumped into a chair. The Guildmaster motioned for me to sit and be quiet as he continued to work. My Guildmaster would go down in the history of our chapter as one of the best to occupy his position. He managed our scarce resources with an unbelievable efficiency, but it from the way he looked, it probably cost him ten or fifteen years of his life. I wished his wife was at the Guild to help him, but she was running around as a liaison between the Guild and the packs. She was a hunter, but she had not joined the Hillsborough chapter. I knew there was some political reason for it, but the Guildmaster never explained. So I did what I always did. I accepted it and asked no questions. I still wished she was here and helping take care of the Guildmaster. The last thing the county needed was for the Guildmaster to fall over from the strain of the workload he was carrying. I listened as well as I could to the Guildmaster’s end of the telephone conversation.

"We need to take some time and see what the fallout of this battle will be," the Guildmaster cautioned. From his tone, I guessed he was speaking to Lord Vollen, or at least someone over at the Manor. The Guildmaster trusted the coterie of advisors to give the lord useful advice, but they tended to be demanding. It was hard for the lord to understand that although the war was going well for him so far, it didn’t mean that it would continue to do so. Apparently the battle in Sun City was worse for the lycanthropes than I originally thought. The Guildmaster paused as he listened to the lycanthrope on the other end.

"Yes, we won," the Guildmaster said, with a hint of frustration in his voice. I doubted whomever he was talking with would have detected it, but I had been on the receiving end of it too many times. "Unfortunately, my lord it was almost a Pyrrhic victory. I’m looking at the casualties for both the packs and the Guild." The Guildmaster stopped abruptly as Lord Vollen said something. An angered expression crossed the Guildmaster’s face for a brief moment.

"I realize you want to press what you believe is our momentum," the Guildmaster said with an almost forced calm, "However, that is not what we have. What we have is the vampires never having a chance to be fully committed to this war. We’ve managed to keep them off-balance through a combination of speed, ferocity, and just plain luck. That is changing slowly as the vampires regain their footing. They have always had numbers on their side, my lord. They can bolster their numbers faster than we can. The rage amongst the packs over your father’s death have sustained us so far. That rage is fading as we fight and lose lycanthropes." The Guildmaster paused as Lord Vollen said something. "No my lord, I am not making your case for you. I am telling you the war has entered its next phase. This is where both factions will grapple for position. We will fight, but with the depletion of our numbers both in the Guild and the packs, we must prepare to be on the defensive while we regroup." I knew that the lord didn’t like hearing that. I didn’t like hearing it. The thought we wouldn’t continue our string of victories against the leeches went completely against every instinct in my body.

"Thank you my lord," the Guildmaster said, and I could see the relief physically wash over my boss, "I will keep you updated on the Guild’s status. We should be able to try and keep the leeches off balance for the time being." The Guildmaster hung up the phone and looked over at me. I couldn’t read his expression, and that worried me. I was usually really good at reading my boss. "I am fairly certain your job tonight is not going to be important in the long run of this war, with the possible exception of forcing Lady Thames to expressly state her position on helping us during this war."

"Did I lose us some covert help from the Pinellas Guild?" I asked quietly. I knew sometimes the way I did jobs had repercussions that the Guildmaster had to deal with. Since the war started, I tried to keep my normal flamboyance under control so as to not to force the Guildmaster in having to deal with more problems.

"We probably lost their covert help, but not exclusively because of you," the Guildmaster, "Any of the jobs we did in Pinellas to curb the TCV’s incursion into that county would have forced the same result. I knew it was a possibility when I gave you the job. I will say I am glad you were harrying off on some wild guess rather than joining that battle down in Sun City." I wasn’t sure how to take that comment. Part of me was slightly offended that the Guildmaster didn’t want me in a firefight where I could have probably have done some good, but most of me was just uncertain. My uncertainty must have shown on my face because the Guildmaster smiled.

"Relax Marcus, I have no doubt you would have made yourself known during that fight," the Guildmaster said, "Unfortunately, you also have a habit of finding yourself in the middle of the nastiest part of the fighting. In this instance, I have a suspicion you would have been one of my casualties. I can’t afford to have you out of action at the moment." The Guildmaster was pragmatic if nothing else. "What did your investigation turn up?"

"Nothing substantial, but I just dumped a bunch of stuff onto the intel group that we recovered at the site," I answered, "I want permission to release copies to the aristocracy. I don’t think they will come up with anything, but with the overwork we’ve laid on intel, the backup might be necessary. There is something there, whether we can find it or not." The Guildmaster looked at me with a hard look of skepticism. I didn’t care if my boss wasn’t sure of my hunches. I was used to defending my actions to the Guildmaster on a regular basis.

"What’s your guess about what was actually happening with the humans?" the Guildmaster asked. His voice was still skeptical, but at least he was willing to give me a chance to defend my hunch.

"Truthfully, I don’t know. My best guess is they’re stocking up on food so their soldiers don’t have to go out to hunt and get caught by our warriors," I answered, "I wouldn’t be surprised if that was how we caught a lot of the leeches so far. The warriors have been too successful for it not to be stupid decisions on the TCV’s part. I have a partial address that may be where the leeches are taking all of the humans. I was trying to fill in the blanks, but I couldn’t make it work."

"Okay, let’s see what the intel group digs up," the Guildmaster said, "I doubt its quite that complex, but you have a plausible theory. If we find – let’s call it a supply depot – then I will probably need you on the job. Go rack out and get some rest. I will probably have a job for you later." I nodded and left the Guildmaster’s office. With our strength depleted, I could foresee my workload increasing in the near future.

Nick doesn’t ask for my help very often, so when he does, I tend to move heaven and earth in order to help him out. Intel wanted to confirm their suspicions about the location of a leech sleeping hole. Lycanthropes liked knowing where the leeches slept during the day. It was much easier to hit the bastards when they didn’t have a chance to fight back. Plus, the sleeping holes were targets the Guild could reasonably expect one of the packs to deal with, rather than having to detail a hunter to the job. Confirmation, on the other hand, needed to be done by a hunter. We were just better at doing the sneak and peeks than the regular warrior. Deadeye asked Nick to handle the sneak and peek on the target. Usual set of instructions – do enough recon to confirm the intel group’s suspicions and to get a basic feel for the target, and then quickly extract. Engage only for self-defense. Nick wasn’t supposed to go after the leeches by himself, he was just to make sure that they were there. According to what Deadeye told him, there was a pack of warriors ready to do the attack as soon as confirmation was made. With hunters becoming scarce, we needed to do our jobs quickly and get ready for the next one.

"So that’s the basics of the job," Nick concluded after he found me in the training room of the Guild, "Do you have anything on your plate right now?" I was supposed to be on "down-time." The Guildmaster was being more forceful about hunters not doing jobs when they should be resting. He was being especially forceful with me because the Guildmaster knew I really hated inactivity when there were jobs to do.

"Better question is whether I’m supposed to do anything right now," I answered with a half-smirk on my face, "Doesn’t matter. Don’t ask, don’t tell. What do you need me to do?" Nick looked at me skeptically. He knew the restrictions the Guildmaster had me under. He also knew I ignored them when I felt justified, much to the annoyance of the head of our chapter. Nick weighed asking me for a favor he knew I would do without hesitation against whatever backlash he might suffer when the Guildmaster found out I was assisting on a job when I was supposed to be resting. He must have decided I would be the one to suffer the full wrath of the Guildmaster – which I would, considering what happened every other time I ignored my boss.

"The target is in the middle of Tampa, and even during daylight, I would prefer not going in alone," Nick said, "Especially if I’m going after what could be a leech sleeping hole. I just want some backup. Nothing real intensive." While I didn’t mind helping Nick, there was something about this job that was starting to bother me. Nick never asked me to help him on something unless he thought there would be some real problems. Little things, Nick just handled with his normal efficiency. The few times that I had been invited along to one of Nick’s jobs had ended up into heavy fighting.

"What the fuck, Nick?" I asked, "No time have you asked me to help you out unless you think that bad shit is going to erupt. Are you expecting trouble?" He was quiet for a long moment.

"Yes," he answered.

"Okay then," I answered, "I’ll go get some toys."

The target was in West Tampa, a predominantly Hispanic part of Tampa. It was probably best known as the home of Alessi’s, a well-established cafeteria and caterer. It was considered a landmark in the community for its Spanish dishes and strawberry shortcake. The target was a small home off of Himes Avenue, which made the recon a little more difficult. Many of the residents in this neighborhood lived here for decades. They would know if something out of the ordinary came onto the brick-laid streets. So, Nick and I had to be a bit more covert than normal. So, instead of a sedan or our motorcycles, we had borrowed one of the utility vans from the Guild’s motorpool and attached the TECO logo to the side. Masquerading as the local power company wasn’t something hunters did normally, but we had all the gear available when it was necessary.

The van was similar to the one I used when we raided what we thought was the harem before Stephen Vollen’s murder. Ancestors, was it only six months ago? It felt like ages ago. The back was set up with a pair of small cameras and a parabolic mike, all linked to a small computer. In addition to the surveillance gear, there were a couple of firing ports in case I needed to engage enemies. Because Nick would be driving, he was dressed in a TECO uniform. I would be in the back watching over Nick in case something bad happened. Since I wasn’t supposed to be seen unless shit hit the fan, I didn’t bother with the TECO uniform. Instead, I wore jeans and a t-shirt with my new plate carrier. Because I expected to be sitting down for a long time, I had my HK45 in a thigh holster and my Commando carbine clipped to a holder on the inside of the van. A Surefire flashlight was attached to the underside of the Commando. I didn’t need the light if I was in true form, but the powerful light could temporarily blind a target. It was useful in the close-quarters combat I anticipated if Nick ran into trouble. I also had a few knives, and of course, a couple of flash-bangs.

As we pulled up to the target house, Nick rubbed his throat across the concealed mike. I made sure the surveillance gear was working properly. Nick approached the front door with one of the Guild’s custom-made devices in his hands. It looked like one of the over-sized PDAs TECO used for meter readers, but was actually a sensory device that detected various microwave, infrared, and laser emissions from known security systems. I kept watch on both Nick and the area as he continued to sweep for telltales of a security system beyond the basic home alarm system. Nick was being his normal systematic self, which meant the work was slow and tedious to watch, but I couldn’t argue with his results. It didn’t make my part of the job any easier. Guard duty was one of the hardest things for a hunter to do. It required a hunter to be always vigilant under conditions that drained the concentration of even the most conscientious hunter. There were tricks to keep your mind focused on the job at hand. All I needed to do was to constantly remind myself that it was Nick out there, and he had a nasty tendency to attract trouble like a magnet in a scrap yard. The house itself was a single story home with a covered carport. A chain-link fence surrounded the back yard. From what plans we could retrieve from the Guild database, the house had a living room/dining room in the front of the house with a large kitchen behind it. Two small bedrooms were off to the right of the main room with a bathroom in between them. A master bedroom was located off the kitchen. There was a small utility room in the carport, but it had no door into the house. There was a front door, a side door from the carport, and a back door that led out onto the back porch behind the utility room.

Something flickered at the west corner of the building where the carport started. Nick didn’t see anything, or he would have contacted me or stopped what he was doing. I checked the monitor again to see if whatever it was made another appearance. I didn’t see it, so I opened a new window in the monitor to watch the playback while still keeping an eye on Nick. The flicker was a dark spot that could have been any number of things, such as a pet or the local wildlife, but I was sure it was something bad.

"Nick, there’s something on the west corner," I said.

"What?" he asked in response, as he stopped and mimicked looking at the reading on his sensory device. I replayed the image again, but it was a blur the computer couldn’t refine.

"Don’t know," I answered, "Saw something, and I don’t think it’s friendly." Nick looked at the corner of the house. Part of the device was a digital camera that could also be used as a spotting device. Nick zoomed in on the corner, but neither he nor I saw what the flicker.

"Do you want me to come out to back you up?" I asked.

"No. I’ll investigate, but get ready to get out here in a hurry," Nick answered in his normal, calm tone. Nick hung his sensory device at his belt and made his way to the corner. With that monster revolver of his, Nick could take down anything the unseen world could throw at him. Just to be on the safe side, I unclipped my Commando. My instincts were telling me something bad was happening. Nick moved to the corner of the house. He looked like he was doing a casual inspection, but I could see he was ready in case something happened – like a firefight. Nick rounded the corner and saw – nothing. There was no car in the carport and no sign of anything that could have made the flicker that I saw on the monitor. I saw Nick relax, but my instincts were still screaming something was wrong.

"I’m going to check the back," Nick reported as he walked just beyond the view of the cameras of the truck. A small window opened on the computer monitor as Nick turned on his camera. The back porch was empty. The backyard looked like it hadn’t seen a lawn mower in weeks. The grass was easily a foot to a foot and a half tall.

"Watch that grass Nick," I murmured over the radio link, "There might be passives in there." I would have put in either some passive sensors or some passive defenses – like caltrops or small pungee pits – in the tallish grass. Nick double clicked his mike in response. With any other hunter, the double click was simple acknowledgement. With Nick, the unspoken message was more of the I-already-knew-that-dammit-and-call-me-Nicholas. Nick walked around the back of the house and came out from the other side of the home. I felt a little better as Nick came into view of the cameras in the van. I didn’t trust the tiny camera in the sensor device to give me enough warning that something was about to happen to Nick. With my unease about the situation, I really wanted as much warning as possible.

"Okay Ranger, I’m going to infil," Nick said quietly, "I’ll peek through the windows first, then I’ll go through the side door if I can’t find anything." Nick liked to confirm the plan before doing. He was very systematic.

"Do you want me to move up when you go through the door? If something happens while you’re inside, I don’t want to be sitting out here by the curb." I watched as Nick took a moment to think it over.

"That’s…not a bad idea," Nick answered, "If I don’t see anything in the windows, why don’t you move up to the back porch? There’s a door on the back porch to the kitchen. You can do an entry if you need to come and get me." The back door would give me a nice entry point that would allow me to flank anything that was trying to kill my friend.

"Okay, give me a few moments," I said, "If I have to move, I’m going to need to do it very fast." Nick pulled out his cell phone and mimicked talking on the phone as I moved some of the gear around on my body. Most of my gear situated so I could sit in the back of the van for a long period of time. Things were quickly shifted into their normal places. I grabbed more ammunition for the Commando and my HK45. The only times you have too much ammo is if you’re drowning or on fire. I moved to the rear doors of the van and waited for Nick. Using the small camera on his device, Nick peeked into the windows. I grimaced as I saw the picture appear on the monitor. Whoever was inside placed a film on the inside of the windows. It wouldn’t appear as anything out of the ordinary in a casual inspection, but it distorted the windows so no one could see inside the house. Nick looked over at the van with disgust on his face. I agreed with him. This was the first indication something was wrong with this job. Nick casually walked over to the empty carport.

"Ranger, go ahead and move up," Nick murmured into his mike. I slid out of the back of the van, using what little cover was available to dart to the back porch. The back yard looked clear. The back porch was a cement-floored open area. Steps led up to the door to the kitchen. The in the center of the door was a window with the same film applied. The real bad news for me was the door opened outward. I couldn’t just kick the door in unless I shed for true. I gently tried the door knob. Damn, it was locked. Contrary to popular conceptions, shooting out a lock wasn’t a good option. There are specialty loads for doing just that, but most of them were for shotguns, not carbines. My best option would be to break the window and unlock the door. It would be a slow and vulnerable entry, but I might make it better with the judicious use of a flash-bang. It wasn’t a particularly good entry plan, but I would try to keep Murphy’s influence to a bare minimum.

"Nick, if I have to go in, it’s going to be slow and nasty," I told him over, and related the situation with the door.

"Just do it as fast as you can," was Nick’s answer. This was going to get fucked up quickly. To break the window, I was going to use my right arm. My healing would prevent any real damage from the glass. Grasped in my left hand, I held a primed flash-bang. If there was something standing just behind the door, I would drop the flash-bang, let it go off, and continue the entry as fast as I could. I braced myself at the foot of the stairs, ready to race up them if Nick called me to assist.

"I’m going," he said an instant before I heard Nick hammer through the door. An instant later, the door in front of me slammed open. A figure crouched with some sort of small gun in cradled in its hands. Instincts screamed as orange flashes erupted from the gun. I threw the flash-bang directly at the figure. The rounds lanced through my body armor. I felt the sledgehammer blows as the rounds punched through my body. I felt the burn of silver rounds. Blood poured through the half-dozen holes in my gut as mind-tearing pain almost rendered me unconscious. My eyes were closed when I heard the flash-bang detonate. Instincts and training forced me to look at the doorway. I saw the figure grasping at its ears. With what seemed an incredible amount of effort, I raised my pistol and fired several rounds until the figure collapsed onto the kitchen floor. I holstered my HK45 and reached into a pouch at my side. I quickly tore open the packaging to get to the foul-smelling patches. I swabbed out the wounds, doing as best as I could to ignore the intense pain from the wolfsbane. After a few moments, I felt some healing start. There was a small rush of energy as my body worked to save itself. I used that energy to crawl up the stairs and into the house. I heard bursts of gunfire coming from the main room of the house, but none of it seemed to be directed at me. I pulled myself up to the body. It was grasping an FN P90. Well, that explained why it managed to punch through my body armor. As I waited for my body to heal a bit more, I checked the body. It was a human. A normal human with silver bullets? What the fuck? A quick search didn’t turn up any of the usual markings of a vampiric servant. I didn’t have time to figure out what the fuck was happening because three more humans rushed out of the master bedroom directly across the kitchen from me. They skidded to a stop in surprise as I raised the P90. It was nice to see Murphy was fucking with the other side as well. I fired the P90, spraying the three humans with bullets. I liked the P90 because it didn’t climb much on full auto, allowing me to keep the stream of silver aimed directly at the three humans’ midsections. As the three fell, I dropped the P90 and brought my Commando up. Using their dead comrade as cover/shooting rest, I placed accurate bursts into their exposed heads. As the echoes of the gunfire subsided in the kitchen, I heard Nick’s revolver boom three times from the main room. I shakily got to my feet and crept into the main room from the kitchen.

Nick was in the dining room connecting the kitchen and the front room. He was behind an overturned dining room table and was firing at the corner of the room that led back to the two other bedrooms. I could see two bodies in the main room. I collapsed next to him. Nick gave me a quick look, which quickly turned into a worried expression. Bullets splintered through the table. Whoever was firing at us was using a short-barreled M4 clone. Nick raised up slightly. His revolver boomed twice more. Even before he was back down, the cylinder was open and the empty casings spilling out.

"How many did you get?" he asked as he slapped a speed loader of those monster bullets into the cylinder of the revolver. I held up four fingers. I healed quite a bit, but I was leaking a lot of blood out of my back. There must have been some silver poisoning on the exit part of the wounds, so my body couldn’t heal those.

"Means three more witch-hunters," Nick said as he swung the cylinder back into the revolver.

"Oh fuck," I murmured. Of all the fucking things we could run into, Nick and I blundered into a Sword of witch hunters. Witch-hunters organized themselves along military lines. A group of ten witch-hunters was called a Sword. The Sword is the most common group encountered. Usually we ran into a Sword every so often when the witch-hunters were feeling their Wheaties and tried to eradicate the lycanthrope and the vampire. Those fights usually ended bad for everyone involved. Four Swords comprised a Spear, a formation about the size of an Army platoon. Spears were responsible for recruiting and conducting operations over several counties. We’d only dealt with a Spear once in the time I’d been in the Guild. That fight was one of the nastiest in my career. Four Spears were called a Shield and there was thought to be one or two Shields in Florida. More likely two, from our intelligence. This Sword must have been just as surprised by our appearance. It was the only reason Nick and I weren’t dead already. Witch-hunters are not slouches in the killing department.

"Where are they?" I asked, hoping I sounded stronger than I felt. It must not have worked, because Nick gave me that worried look again.

"I think that they are back in the bedrooms," Nick answered, "There were more in the main room when I came in." I lifted my head above the splintered edge of the table. Pain seared from my back, and I almost dropped my weapon. It took more effort than I wanted to admit just to push back the pain and keep my focus.

"Are you going to be able to finish this?" Nick asked.

"Yeah, if we do this fast," I answered, gripping the Commando.Nick nodded and dashed into the main room while I kept him covered with my Commando. There wasn’t any fire as Nick moved. I had a nasty suspicion that we were going to have to dig the bastards out of the rooms. We really didn’t have time for that. At some point, additional witch-hunters would show up. At which point Nick and I would be completely fucked – and probably dead. Nick glanced over at me with a look that told me he understood.

Any more flash-bangs? he hand-signed. I nodded. Throw one, let it go off, and then rush the rooms. The plan made my instincts clang warning klaxons in my head. The witch-hunters weren’t like the leeches. They usually had combat training and experience. They knew how to properly fort up when confronted with real opposition. The first flash-bang caught them by surprise, but now they knew we had them. It was time for something innovative. I raised my free hand and began signing to Nick. He looked surprised by the idea, but nodded in agreement. I tossed the flash-bang in the front of the bedroom. I ducked down behind the table as the flash lit up part of the house and the roar shook the windows. Instead of charging into the doorway, Nick began firing his monster revolver into the wall that separated the main room from the bedroom at about knee level. We heard two distinct screams of pain and surprise. Nick opened the cylinder to reload as I rested the Commando on the edge of the table and let loose a magazine-emptying burst into the wall – right between the holes that Nick had made with his revolver.

A witch-hunter burst out of the room with a shotgun. Nick hadn’t finished reloading and my main weapon was empty. I dropped the Commando and drew my HK45. The witch-hunter shouldered the shotgun at Nick and took a moment to pump a round into the chamber. That was just long enough for me to place two rounds into the bastard’s head. As the witch-hunter fell to the floor, Nick scooped up the shotgun and rushed to the corner of the bedroom. I staggered behind him as he began firing shell after shell into the room. I painfully reloaded my Commando. As Nick ran dry on the scattergun, I pushed him aside and let loose a long burst with the Commando. Nick rushed into the room with his revolver. The two remaining witch-hunters were on the floor bleeding out from hits from either Nick’s Smith or my Commando. Nick dispatched them with single shots to the head. I was starting to get dizzy from blood loss. Nick helped me, half-dragging me, as we staggered out of the house and into the van. I felt the van start and jump as Nick slammed on the accelerator. I slumped down and let the darkness overcome me. This was why Nick didn’t ask me to help him a whole lot. Shit just happened when the two of us did a job together.

Chapter 11 – There’s A Dark Cloud For Every Silver Lining