The blackness faded as I opened my eyes. The world slowly came into focus. I looked around the cell. Something was wrong, out of place. Then, it came to me. Everything was black and white. I shifted to wolf form in my sleep. Damn. I hadn’t done that in years. Shedding forms during sleep was something pups dealt with in the beginning of tysach. I shed my wolf form for true form, feeling my body extend as I emotionally triggered the transformation. My senses became sharper, making the world around me more complete. A scent floated into the cell. I looked at the door, where the Guildmaster stood in human form with one of the marshals.

"Hello Marcus," he said, guardedly, "I assumed I would be one of the three that you would want to see." By the rules of rhiazen, I was allowed to see three and only three lycanthropes before going to see the lord or lady. I could talk to them as many times as I wanted, but only those three. The only other lycanthropes that could talk to me were the lord or lady (in this case it would be the Lady-Apparent), the marshals guarding me, and the lycanthrope who would speak for the opponent, usually the opponent himself. I guessed Smythe in this case. I nodded to the marshal. He slid the door open to allow the Guildmaster inside. As soon as the Guildmaster was in my cell, the marshal slid the door shut and walked back to his post by the staircase. I noticed the the two marshals had leaned their rifles on the wall instead of carrying them. Their guard was relaxed. I placed it on memory, in case I needed it later. One of the things the instructors drilled into me during my training as a hunter was that information was important, because you never knew when you might need it later. I filed that thought away as the Guildmaster sat down in front of me.

"Mark, are you alright?" he asked in a concerned tone. I barely managed to keep the sudden surprise off of my face. In all of the time that I’d known him, the Guildmaster had never called me Mark.

"Yeah, just a little stiff from last night’s fun and games. My side still hurts like hell." I stretched out my arms, trying to work out the kinks in the joints and muscles. The stab wound in my side burned. The wolfsbane was working, but slowly. If my past stabbings were any indication, Smythe’s stab wound would heal in about twelve hours. The Guildmaster didn’t seem to appreciate my attempt at levity.

"Knightfall? What the hell happened? The packs are being told that you had a hand in the lord’s death, and that the Knights are going to also accuse you of complicity in Stephen Vollen’s death as well." I shook my head. When it rained, it fucking poured. I carefully explained, in great detail, exactly what happened during the attack on the TCV Hall. As I led up to the part where I called "Knightfall," the Guild codeword for betrayal by the Knights (I said we were a paranoid lot), the Guildmaster stopped me with a raised hand.

"Surrendering to the Knights was quick thinking. It gives us a chance to find out what the hell is going on. I’ve assigned Matric to be your advocate. He will do everything he can for your defense." I grimaced. The Guildmaster’s face grew grim. "I know how you feel about him, but Matric is well connected in the Manor and even with the shaman. He will do his best, and put aside any differences the two of you have, as long as you reciprocate." I nodded to this. Much to my dismay, if anyone could help me with the political side, it would be Matric.

"I have another problem I need your help with," he said. He opened his briefcase. I heard the M16s come up off the wall. The marshals set their weapons back down when the Guildmaster pulled a stack of papers out of his briefcase. I smiled briefly, then read the papers he handed me. Transcripts of radio reports from last night, as well as some written contact reports by some of the hit packs.

"Two hit packs and four lone wolves never returned last night. All of them did their jobs, but something happened after they reported in. All of the jobs were clustered in the Forest Hills area. One of the lone wolves, Samson, reported seeing one of the hit packs engaged in a firefight with an unknown enemy force. He went to assist and also disappeared." I followed the paper trail as the Guildmaster laid out the facts. Something was gnawing at me. There was a common factor with all of these that made me worry. I knew Samson. He was too good a hunter to just disappear without causing some major damage. The vampires had their hands full last night. The human magic-wielders could have made our hunters vanish, but they wouldn’t have involved themselves in a firefight. Guns were too mundane in their thinking. My mind came up with two possibilities. One was on the outside chance of being probable. The other one did fit all of the evidence, but I was really hoping that I was wrong.

"None of them contacted us after they finished their jobs, with the exception of Samson, and we never heard from him once he reported the firefight," I summarized. The Guildmaster nodded with a worried expression. My gut twisted. I could see it in his eyes. "You’re thinking what I am thinking, aren’t you?"

"Yes, but there is not enough evidence to bring it to the Lady-Apparent. If I bring it to her now, it will look like I’m doing it to free you, and she may dismiss it out of hand. I have Christian’s pack and Samuel investigating now. You will not speak of your suspicions to anyone outside the Guild until I have enough evidence. Since you are one of the few lycanthropes in this county who has dealt with this threat before, I wanted you to confirm it." I nodded and hoped Hangman didn’t find what I thought it was. He was too young to deal with that threat without a lot of backup, say most of the Guild’s best hunters, and most of the armory’s heavy weapons. The Guildmaster took some clothing out of his briefcase and handed them to me. I unfolded them carefully, more to show the marshals there were no weapons concealed in the folds than anything else. Jeans, t-shirt, and the necessary undergarments were almost my unofficial uniform. I slipped them on as the Guildmaster walked out of the cell.

"Is there anything else you need for right now?" he asked.

"Send Nick."

I fell asleep again, hoping to regain my strength. I was awakened by a sharp jab in my side. The stab wound healed up nicely, but it was still a little tender. The second jab really annoyed me. I opened my eyes to slits and saw one of the guards pulling back his rifle. I couldn’t see the face of the lycanthrope standing beside him, but the relaxed stance told me it wasn’t the other guard. I really wasn’t happy at being awakened so rudely. The guard lunged again. I grabbed the barrel and yanked. The guard, caught unaware by the move, held on to the weapon and was pulled into the bars. He slumped down to the concrete floor, bleeding from several gashes from the silver barbs. The rifle clattered to the ground. I scooped up the weapon, released the magazine, and yanked back the charging handle. The single round clinked on the concrete floor.

A light, feminine chuckle focused my attention on my visitor. It took every scrap of control I had not to let my jaw drop in shock. The Lady-Apparent was standing in human form, wearing a simple but elegantly-cut dress in forest green. I silently thanked Bradon for his teachings on the basis of fashion. Her long auburn hair was tied into a single, long braid and draped down one shoulder. Her bright green eyes flashed with amusement. I tossed the unloaded rifle to the ground and stood to face her. I hadn’t seen her since the Rite of Discovery. I’d forgotten just how beautiful she was. I immediately pushed that thought away. Why was she here? After all, this was the lycanthrope who would probably order my execution.

"Impressive," she said, a warm tone to her voice, "You seem to be as dangerous as I was warned." She took a half-step back from the bars. She looked at me for a moment, studying me. My instincts roared with danger, but other parts of my mind were almost enjoying the attention. I didn’t know why, and it unnerved me. There were too many conflicting feelings running through me. I pushed all of that confusion to the back of my mind and concentrated on why the Lady-Apparent was here. That’s when I noticed there were no Red Knights escorting her. Every time I met with a member of the aristocracy, the Knights were always hovering around. What was the Lady-Apparent doing down in the dungeons without her bodyguards and in the presence of a lycanthrope she had already said was dangerous? I decided it was time to cut to the chase. I didn’t have the patience to dance around the courtesies.

"May I ask what you are doing here, milady?" I asked quietly, and hopefully, with a neutral tone. I didn’t want any of the raging conflict within me leaking out into the open. My words must have come out harsher than I wanted, because the other marshal at the end of the hall clenched his teeth at my tone. A wave of the hand from the Lady-Apparent calmed him. She motioned to the still form of the incapacitated marshal and ordered for the marshal to leave the two of us alone. The marshal blinked, surprised by the order. He quickly recovered, picked up his unconscious partner, and hurried out of the dungeon. I sat very still as the Lady-Apparent paced in front of my cell. She seemed pensive, but I couldn’t understand what would cause such caution from her. Everything I saw from her led me to believe that she was an extremely strong and confident lycanthrope.

"I’ve come to see the hunter who caused the deaths of both my father and my brother," she answered, stopping her pacing and turning to face me. Her tone was flat, but her eyes betrayed a raging torrent of emotions within her. I didn’t envy her one bit. She lost her father and older brother within six months of each other, and now she was thrust into leading a county at war. Something deep inside me felt – torn? – for the enormous burden she was carrying.

"I didn’t kill them milady," I answered, barely controlling my temper. Damn it, I knew was a Badmoon, and an outcast amongst the lycanthrope pack, but I served my county faithfully and more diligently than almost any of the wolves in the packs. I protected them from dangers they never knew before the war. I put my life on the line more times than I could remember. Smythe’s allegations attacked my honor as a hunter – the one thing that gave me any sort of real legitimacy within the packs.

"You didn’t prevent them from being killed," the Lady-Apparent answered, "Your accusers are saying that twice isn’t coincidence. It’s conspiracy." An unusual rage blazed me. I know that I have a nasty chip on my shoulder about my treatment as a Badmoon. I deal with it by channeling that anger into my work. I’ve always felt my success was the best revenge against those who hated me just because of me being a Badmoon. Having the Lady-Apparent accuse me of such a serious crime made my blood boil.

"Fuck them," I growled. The Lady-Apparent’s eyes went wide with my blunt profanity. "I thought your grandfather was a damned fool of a lord, but your father was nothing like him. The Guild loved and respected your father, because he let us redeem our professionalism and our honor. I did everything I could to stop his murder, and then to capture or kill the assassin. As for your brother, he made a rash mistake. I didn’t know him well enough to know if it was bad advice or if he was just being too stubborn. Either way, he paid for that mistake with his life and too many of our wolves’ lives. In both cases, bad things happened despite of my actions, not because of them." I bit down on my tongue. My anger was getting the best of me, and I could tell by the Lady-Apparent’s eyes she wasn’t expecting the tirade.

"Then why are the Knights accusing you?" she asked, "Why would Smythe think you need to be put down?" She seemed truly confused. She seemed torn between the idea that the Knights could truly believe something she wasn’t convinced was true.

"Ask Smythe, because I don’t know," I answered.

"Does he think you worked with the leeches to murder my father and brother?" She paced again, working the question in her head. I paused a moment before answering. The Guildmaster was going to kill me when he found out.

"My Lady, someone powerful ordered your father’s murder. Someone powerful in lycanthrope society. The assassin was a hunter." Her eyes widened as I spoke. As I suspected, the Guildmaster hadn’t told her any of our suspicions. "I’m sorry milady, but it’s the only theory that fits the evidence we have. The assassin was too good to be anything but a hunter. He knew too much on how we operate and how to counter. He was damn good."

"Better than you?" the Lady-Apparent asked, with a lilt in her tone that completely baffled me.

"Maybe," I conceded.

"From your reputation, I didn’t think that was possible." She gave me a look that completely unnerved me. My mind just went blank as those green eyes bore into mine. My reprieve came from behind her.

"Trust me milady, that hunter in front of you is much more dangerous than even his reputation makes him out to be," came a deep voice from behind. Nick emerged from the staircase. He was in true form, a jumpsuit stretching itself to hold his huge form. The rifle of the other marshal was slung on his shoulder. "Ranger is quite possibly the best hunter in your county."

"A friend of yours?" the Lady-Apparent asked me with a strange look on her face. Betrayal? Anger? I nodded slowly. "Well then, I’ll leave the two of you to talk." She glided across the floor. Nick stepped out of her way and bowed as the Lady-Apparent climbed the stairs. Nick unslung the rifle from his shoulder and leaned it on the wall. He shed his true form for human as he walked over to me. The tight jumpsuit now sagged off his much smaller human body. His face was its normal blank, but his eyes were curious.

"What was she doing here?" he asked, his voice laced with suspicion.

"Haven’t a fucking clue," I answered, "First she orders the marshals to leave, then she accuses me of being behind the deaths of her father and brother, and then asks me why the Knights are accusing me. There was something about it that seemed very scattered. Fuck me, I don’t know." Nick looked back to the staircase for a moment.

"It doesn’t make sense," Nick said, with a hint of frustration in his voice, "The Lady-Apparent called the Guildmaster first thing this morning for your dossier. Then, she shows up here. Do you think she believes you or Smythe?" From Nick’s tone there was more to that question, but I couldn’t decipher my friend at the moment.

"I don"t know," I answered, "I don’t think she knows. When I told her our suspicions about who assassinated her father, she asks if the assassin is better than me. No fucking clue where that question came from." Nick gave me a knowing smile but didn’t say anything. It made me want to punch him, but I decided on another tack.

"Speaking of Vollen’s assassination, have you found out anything more on our little mystery?" I asked, sitting down. Nothing like open war in your county to interfere with an important investigation.

"No, but I have Hangman searching around today," Nick answered, "The leeches and their ghouls disappeared after the raid on the Hall. The Guildmaster thinks they are regrouping, and I concur. The Knights are claiming victory, which most of the packs consider a Pyrrhic one at best. All of the packs and the Guild are more or less stood down until the Rites are completed. And you are tried by the Lady-Apparent, of course. Hangman and I decided it might be a good time to start looking around. I have him talking around to see what information he can dig up on the lords of the counties on that map. Particularly if they have access to a hunter who isn’t with the Guild."

"When’s the Rite of the Dead?" The way the Spiritmaster had been operating over the past few months made me suspicious. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had performed it while I had been locked up.

"Strange thing about that. The Spiritmaster wants to perform the rites after the Lady-Apparent deals with you. There was a small outrage over that from the packs, but according to Yven, the Spiritmaster’s deputy, the Order of Spirits feels the spirit of Jason Vollen will rest better when his murderer is dealt with. The pack leaders seem to accept that, although the Guildmaster is raising hell. Very careful not to outright accuse the Knights of betrayal, but he’s making the packs nervous. The rumor going around the packs is the Guildmaster is looking to puppet-master the Lady-Apparent." Usually the Guildmaster was a very deliberate and cautious individual. He had me to do the impulsive and insane things. If he was acting this boldly, something was happening I couldn’t see.

"I didn’t kill the lord," I protested to Nick.

"I know. There are enough witnesses to confirm that it was Silanti who actually killed Lord Vollen. The Knights contend your inability to kill either of the assassins proves that you are in league with the leeches. They still think it was a lycanthrope hired by the TCV who killed Stephen Vollen. Although your little admission to the Lady-Apparent may change that. Why did you tell her?"

"I don’t know. It just seemed wrong to keep it from her," I answered. "We did that with her brother, and it led to open war and his death. I just felt she needed to know if she was going to run this county right." Nick looked at me with a contemplative look.

"What do you think?" I asked, after he’d been quiet for a minute.

"I think you’re being royally fucked," Nick said simply, "We know another lord or lady had Stephen Vollen taken down. I still haven’t figured out who, but that’s becoming less and less important in the short run. Smythe, for some reason, stopped you from killing Silanti before Silanti blew Jason Vollen’s brains out. Now he is accusing you of the failure. I wonder if whoever had Vollen assassinated got to Smythe. I’d say you are about to be crucified to lull the packs, and the agenda of whoever had Stephen killed will be accomplished, in as much as this county will be out of whatever political game is being played. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the war council that will have to convene in Tallahassee. What’s worse, Silanti is still out there, but because the aristocracy is dealing with you, we are failing to locate and exterminate him and his remaining followers." There was something else Nick didn’t know about, but the Guildmaster told me not to say anything until he had proof. I wasn’t going to defy the Guildmaster on this, even to Nick.

"What’s the Order doing?" I asked.

"Calling for your head on a platter and trying to console the Lady-Apparent. According to Matric, though, she hasn’t talked much to the Spiritmaster. In fact, she’s been doing a lot of research into the Guild and some of the key individuals, including you." He tilted his head as he thought about what he was telling me.

"I wonder if she is going to try and micro-manage the Guild?" Nick asked. I grimaced at that thought. The first Lord Vollen, Stephen’s father, tried that and wrecked the hunters in Hillsborough. Outsiders rarely understand how we do things – and are usually better off not knowing. Nick cleared his throat.

"Listen, Hangman and I will be there for your hearing. We are going to bring everything we have on this conspiracy. Maybe it will help you. If not, do you want us…?" He let the question trail off. I knew what he was offering. He and Hangman would break me out of the Manor before the Knights had a chance to kill me if I asked. If they did that, we would be pariahs wherever we went, and hunted by every Guild chapter in Florida, including the State Guild. I shook my head no. I would have to die, and the Guild would have to avenge me. With an unhappy resignation in his eyes, Nick walked back up the staircase and never looked back. There was a calm stillness in the air. My life was at its end, so I better go out with a bang. For some reason, a picture of the Lady-Apparent formed in my mind. I pushed it back as I planned the end of my life. So many details.

The Manor was full of lycanthropes. The pack leaders brought as many members of their packs as they could. The packs felt comfortable bringing so many because the leeches did a very good job of going to ground in the wake of the attack on the Hall. All of the lycanthropes were dressed in formal black robes. At the podium stood the Lady-Apparent, Elizabeth Vollen. The Spiritmaster stood in his place at her right with the senior leaders of the Order. The shaman looked unnervingly serene. Matric, Nick, and Hangman stood with the Guildmaster at the left hand of the podium. I half-expected to see Sneller and Deadeye with them, but on further reflection, it made sense that they weren’t there. Every hunter was out searching for the remaining vampires. Sneller and Deadeye would be needed to coordinate the search. Silanti and Razor escaped from the Hall. The Guildmaster wouldn’t be satisfied until he had their heads in his possession. I was led to the throne by a pair of marshals who refused to speak with me as we walked up the staircase from the dungeon and into the Manor. Like the rest of the lycanthropes, I stood in true form, but instead of the black robes, I was forced to wear the white robes of the prisoner. White, the color of weakness and dishonor.

The room went deathly silent as I entered. Most of the lycanthropes crowding the Manor glared at me. I ignored them and focused on the friendly and sympathetic faces of Hangman and Nick. Matric looked uneasy, like he was a rat on a sinking ship. His discomfort made me feel a little better, but the realization was, that unless some form of miracle occurred, I was going to be executed by the end of the night. The marshals, fortunately, honored some of my requests. They knew I was a condemned lycanthrope, even though I was just reaching my "trial." My requests included a small radio patched into their guard frequency – just in case Nick planned something against my wishes – and a small silver knife. I let the marshals think the knife was so I could kill myself rather than be executed. It was one of the many misconceptions that the general lycanthrope populace held about hunters. We didn’t practice honorable suicide. It just loses the Guild a trained operative. Still, it added to our mystique, so we didn’t disabuse the rest of lycanthrope society about it. Myths came in handy. Since I was going to die, I was going to make sure I took Smythe with me. He was a fucking traitor, and I was going to be damned if he walked out of this alive. I damned sure I didn’t want him protecting the Lady-Apparent.

I walked down the middle of the Manor, stopping about ten feet before the black square of the Vollens. Robert and Sarah Vollen, the two youngest children looked at me with a murderous gleam in their eyes. They weren’t alone, as most of the Knights looked at me the same way. The Lady-Apparent might have doubts of my complicity, but her surviving siblings had none. Smythe looked smug from his post at the right hand of the podium. I grinned back at him as my hand brushed against the silver knife concealed in my robes. According to the lessons in tysach, the rite of rhiazen came about in the early days after the lycanthropes settled in the Fatherland as a way of bringing a problem between a pack member and the pack leader to the lord. It evolved over the centuries where anyone could claim rhiazen and be granted a hearing in front of the lord. There were some problems with how the rite evolved. One, the lord set the terms of the hearing, meaning one side may not get a chance to fairly present its side, or even present it at all if the lord feels that the facts are conclusive. The second is in order to avoid giving the lord a long stream of civil disputes to preside over, the only penalty allowed is death. Even if the crime was vandalism, the guilty must receive the death penalty. The aristocracy was there to preside over matters that impact all of the packs in the county, not simple civil matters between individuals. As I’ve said before, the lycanthropes live in a brutal and unforgiving world.

I stood in my place in front of the throne and waited as the Lady-Apparent looked down at me. Something about her gaze disturbed me. I waited patiently for her to set the terms for the rhiazen. She would let the pack leaders know how much evidence and how much testimony she would allow from each side before she made her decision. There were no hard and fast rules for the terms. Each rhiazen was unique, and there was no concept of precedent in the lycanthrope society. We trusted our aristocracy to deal justly with us. There were remedies if the aristocracy failed that trust and most of them ended with the aristocracy dead. It was a great motivator for the aristocracy to maintain the trust.

"The terms for rhiazen will be as follows," the Lady-Apparent began, "First the Red Knights will tell of us the deaths of Lord Stephen Vollen and Lord Jason Vollen and provide evidence as to how Marcus Phoenix Badmoon is responsible for their deaths. Badmoon, or one who will speak for him, will have the time to refute the Knights’ evidence. I will hear from Badmoon before I make my decision." There was some murmur in the crowd. These were very lenient terms, certainly more lenient than most lords would have given me under the circumstances. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Matric smiling. Nick and Hangman still looked grim. They knew better. The Lady-Apparent would not be able to leave me alive and still control the packs. The Knights’ story was spread too wide among the packs. She might allow me time to present my side, just to get out what I told her before into the public arena, but that was it. For some reason, a feeling of gratitude welled up inside of me. A Red Knight came forward and stood about ten feet to my right.

"I am David Long-Knife, my lady" the Red Knight said, "I am honored to present the story for the Red Knights. This one, this Badmoon, is the lycanthrope most responsible for the death of the Second Lord Vollen. He was there that night in the Hall, and could have stopped the lord’s death, but he didn’t…" He continued to throw venom my way, twisting the truth beyond all recognition. It was a diatribe designed to provoke me into fatal action. I ignored Long-Knife. I was listening on the guard frequency just in case Nick planned something. A report grabbed my attention. The group at the front gate dropped off the radio net about five minutes before, and now the contingent sent out to check them just failed to report in. The Knights at the front door were discussing the problem over the radio.

"Roof One, this is Guard One," the leader of the guards at the front door called to the leader of the Knights manning the half-floor on the top of the Manor, "I’m going to tighten things here and move Door One and his boys up the driveway. I don’t think it was leeches, but there’s no good reason for them to drop off the net like that."

"Confirm Guard One," answered Roof One, "Do you want me to send down some people?" There was silence. Roof One tried again. Nothing. I looked over to Smythe. He should have been monitoring the action on the security net. Instead, he was paying attention to Long-Knife, watching as his plan for my death unfolded.

"Door One," called Roof One, "Where the hell is Guard One?" No answer. My instincts went into overdrive. Something just took out all of the security in front of the Manor. I checked the two guards at the back of the Manor. They’d tossed aside their deskunas and unslung the sub-machine guns concealed under their black robes. Smythe was hailed over the net by Roof One, but he was too busy watching my trial.

"All units report in," ordered Roof One. Long-Knife, who also had the radio in his ear, stopped in mid-sentence. He looked over at me, and I nodded. The Lady-Apparent looked down at him, but he and I were trading looks that were asking the same question. What the hell was going on?

"I hope that there is a good reason that the two of you are looking at each other and holding up the rhiazen," the Lady-Apparent said from her podium, annoyed at the two of us. I motioned for Long- Knife to tell her, since Smythe obviously wasn’t able to do it. As he began talking to the Lady-Apparent, I turned to Nick and Hangman.

"Gun," I requested in a calm voice. A holstered pistol and spare magazine holder sailed through the air to my waiting hands. Everything went to hell. First, all the Knights drew their weapons on me, and the Lady-Apparent was surrounded by a ball of translucent blue energy. David Long-Knife shouted at his companions to forget me and cover the door to the Manor. Two shaman began projecting their forces on me. Their powers never reached me. They stopped a good five feet before stopping, as if they were hitting an invisible barrier. Any other time, I would have stopped to reason out why, but there was no time. Smythe was leading the Lady-Apparent, still surrounded in magick energy, into the coronation room at the back of the Manor, with the Spiritmaster and a large following of his shaman in tow. Red Knights in black robes and Steyr TMPs stood in front of the door. The Guild members all had their pistols out. I wrapped the holster straps around my bare thigh and pulled the pistol out, smiling at my HK45. I glanced at Nick, who just gave me a knowing smile. Maybe he thought I would change my mind, but for whatever the reason, the black gun was a comforting weight in my hand. Out of long-ingrained habit, I ejected the magazine. Full of Silver Shoks. A quick press-check showed a round in the chamber. Armed, I braced as we awaited the force that was sieging our Manor.

The Manor shook as a loud, low boom rocked the room. The massive entrance doors were thrown into the Manor with a thunderous roar. The two Knights standing next to them never had a chance. The pack leaders screamed at their warriors, each trying to get their forces into some semblance of order. Some were more successful than others. The Guildmaster didn’t bother with orders. He knew his hunters would already know what to do. A cloud of dark gray smoke and dust obscured the entrance to the Manor. I couldn’t see who was attacking us. Anxiety and fear fell away as the prospect of action dumped adrenaline into my system as my body prepared itself for battle. I brought my pistol up and braced for the attack. Then, I heard the enemies’ cry over the din of the Manor.

"FIRST SPEAR ATTACK! SECOND SPEAR FOLLOW! SECOND SHIELD HOLD!" came the shouted command from dozens of voices.

Ancestors, I swore to myself, Fucking witch-hunters. There are fucking witch-hunters in the Manor. Anxiety swarmed through me as the cloud dispersed with an almost dramatic speed. I glanced back at the Guildmaster, who returned my look with one that confirmed my fears. These were the fuckers who took out our hunters. I quickly turned my attention on the intruders. This was going to be no fun at all. Humans in dark clothing and skull masks, armed with an uneven mixture of pistols, shotguns, and rifles poured into the Manor. The pack leaders screamed battle cries and threw their packs against the invaders. I wanted to scream at them to stop and just hold their ground. The packs were unarmed except for the true form’s strength and claws. They didn’t understand what they were facing. The witch-hunters were invulnerable to physical attacks by our kind. You could knock them around all day with punches and kicks – even hit them across the room with the full strength of a lycanthrope in true form – but they would still get back up and attack you with that nasty single-mindedness. The damned humans were also invulnerable to the magicks of the shaman. The witch-hunters were only vulnerable to edged weapons and bullets, and they cheated by using Kevlar vests. They also were as trained as hunters in unarmed combat and were more zealous than any ghoul. The first packs into the fray were torn apart as they tried to use their claws on the witch-hunters. I checked my side. Nick was standing beside me with his giant Smith in one hand, and his back-up gun in the other. Nick was one of the few pistoleers I knew of that could actually do the two-handed pistol fighting with something approaching effectiveness. Hangman, Wilson Combat in hand, was standing near Matric, his pistol out, and the Guildmaster, who stood waiting for the attack with his Colt 1911. I threw off my prisoner robes and waited for the melee to come into range.

The first group of witch-hunters made it past the slaughter of the packs. The shamans, on the other side of the room, were desperately using their magicks, and finding out the hard way about the witch-hunters invulnerability. Bright beams of energy just faded before they could hit the zealous humans. One of the shaman quickly figured out what was happening, and began mystically picking up strewn items and hurling them at the witch-hunters. My prejudices aside, the shaman weren’t all fucking stupid or useless. One of the witch-hunters coming after the hunters pointed a rifle at me. I dropped him quickly with a single shot to the head. Then the roar of the Smith as Nick fired the big gun into a small tangle of witch-hunters. They all fell down from the hits of the big .500 round, but not all of them were dead. I leapt over Nick, drawing the small silver knife as I came down. Covering myself with sporadic gunfire, I finished the downed witch-hunters with savage slashes. Another came out of a blind spot and caught me with a punch to the stomach. He loomed over me, as I was busy scampering for breath. The witch-hunter’s head exploded into a red cloud. Long-Knife, pistol in hand, stepped over the fallen body and helped me up. The Red Knight’s face held no traces of suspicion or hatred. Fighting a hated common enemy tended to do that.

"You okay?" he asked. Wordlessly, I put a double-tap into the witch-hunter coming up behind him with a wicked looking silver knife. As Long-Knife turned to see what I was firing at, he seemed satisfied with the answer and braced for the next melee. I did a quick scan and saw the two of us were far too forward. We needed to get back to the others. I pulled on his robe sleeve and pointed. He just nodded before killing a witch-hunter with a shotgun. The two of us fought our way back to the Guildmaster and the other hunters. As soon as we came into view, the Guildmaster tossed me a TMP from a fallen Knight. Nick also held one.

"You two, cut us a path to that section over there." I looked to where he was pointing at a blank space of wall. Normally, I would have at least given the Guildmaster a questioning look. During the furious fighting, I didn’t even bother. He was my Guildmaster. I trusted him. I found a small opening in the melee and widened it with a pair of bursts from the small submachine gun. As the bodies fell, our small group dashed into the thick of the fighting. We slowly crossed the open floor of the Manor. It was strewn with lycanthrope and witch-hunter bodies. The packs were figuring out how to kill the witch-hunters. The white marble tile was slightly slick with blood and gore. I kept myself from noticing by killing as many witch-hunters as I could. Nick, who was behind me, was placing short bursts all on my flanks. A witch-hunter fired a burst at us. I threw myself to the floor to dodge the stream of bullets. Long-Knife caught the burst full in the chest. He crumpled down, almost cut in half by the silver bullets. I put a small burst into the witch-hunter’s head, watching as it made a satisfactory explosion. I scampered up off the floor, emptying the TMP into a group of witch-hunters that noticed our little group. I threw the empty machine pistol into the head of another witch-hunter, knocking the bastard off its feet. As soon as the sub-machine gun left my hands, I drew my HK45. I took the point and resumed our way to the section of wall the Guildmaster pointed out. The witch-hunters that came at us went down fast. Most of the witch-hunters were busy swarming the dwindling packs. The warriors figured out that they weren’t having any effect with their claws and started picking up guns from the dead witch-hunters. Even with the weapons, the warriors were having a hard time of it. Our group got to the wall, covering the Guildmaster as he touched one of the bricks. A small door opened in the wall. I saw a dark hallway beyond the concealed door.

"We’re fucking running?" Hangman asked incredulously.

"We are running low on ammo, and Marcus has already taken a gunshot wound," said the Guildmaster. I looked down, and saw a small hole in my leg that was leaking blood. When the fuck did that happen? "This door leads back to the Manor’s armory, where we can get some heavier weapons. I called the Guild. All the hunters in Hillsborough are coming as fast as they can. The first group should be here in about five minutes. We need to get armed and patched if we’re going to be of any use in the fight." He turned to me. "Marcus, are you still capable?"

"Yeah," I answered, feeling the pain of the wound for the first time, "I’ll live." My leg was starting to throb with just enough burning sensation to let me know I’d been hit with silver. I thought my leg wasn’t moving as fast as it should during the last push, but I didn’t have time to figure out what happened. I was too busy killing witch-hunters.

"Good. Nicholas lead off. Samuel, then Dennis. Marcus, you and I will bring up the rear. I want you to cover me as I shut the door behind us." I nodded and hit the magazine release on my pistol. I looked down at the magazine in my hand and grimaced. Two rounds left, plus the one in the chamber. I would have to place my shots carefully. Nick, Hangman, and Matric scampered down the darkened corridor. I turned out to the Manor. The Guildmaster went into the corridor. A witch-hunter aimed a rifle at the Guildmaster. I fired once into its head. It fell down. Another came with a shotgun. Another head-shot threw it down onto the stained marble. A third appeared out of the melee of witch-hunters and the remnants of the packs. I aimed and fired. It fell down to the floor as the slide on my pistol locked back on the empty magazine. I was pulled into the corridor by the Guildmaster as the door slid down shut behind us. The corridor was unlit, using the lycanthropes’ natural night vision as a safety precaution against invaders. It twisted and rose until it reached another concealed door, which the Guildmaster opened for us. We spilled out into the armory, nearly getting shot by the two marshals stationed there.

The Guildmaster quickly defused the situation before our two parties began firing. He talked to the guards as they tried to grasp a hold of the situation. While he did this, Hangman rummaged through the weapons in the armory for useful guns. Nick took a long look at my leg wound. Up until we reached the armory, the wound throbbed and burned, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t ignore. Now, it flared to life with a vengeance. Nick, seeing my pained face, grabbed a medkit. He carefully probed the wound. I grimaced slightly at the pain, letting my breath out as Nick removed his claw from the hole.

"It went clean through. I’m going to flush it with some wolfsbane. That should help restore your healing. Applying," he warned, spilling an amber liquid on the wound. Fire flashed through my body, but quickly subsided. Nick wrapped a cloth bandage around my leg and looked at it skeptically.

"I can walk," I said, getting to my feet, "It just hurts a bit." Nick’s face darkened, but I ignored his concern. There were more important things to do. I walked over to Hangman, who was laying a bunch of firearms on the ground. Most of them were pistols and small sub-machine guns. The Guildmaster walked over to where we were standing with Matric trailing slightly behind.

"The marshals are in contact with the group protecting the Lady-Apparent. They are holed up in the coronation room. They’re holding, but barely. The Red Knights in the rest of the building are regrouping for a push to recapture the Manor and the coronation room. I don’t think they will succeed. The witch-hunters have three full Shields committed to this operation and only the first has actually attacked us." All of us fell silent in shock. They had to have pulled every witch-hunter in Florida to attack us. Why had they decided on Hillsborough and not the rest of the state?

"Several of our hit packs, along with the shaman, have rallied nearby and are planning to attack the reserve Shields. The pups in tysach have been moved to Pinellas to the Guild there. We are going to rescue the Lady-Apparent, then kill every witch-hunter in the Manor." We accepted this quietly. The Guildmaster explained his plan. We nodded. There were no questions. It was a simple enough plan. Arm and armor ourselves, walk back down the corridor, open the door and throw concussion grenades, then fight our way to the coronation room. Then it was a matter of grabbing the Lady-Apparent and fighting our way back to the corridor to the armory, which would be guarded by the two marshals. After the Lady-Apparent was safe, the Guildmaster would let us go back and play.Our bare bodies were covered by light jumpsuits and Kevlar vests. Radios were placed and checked. The others began to load up on the heavy weapons. I reloaded my HK45 and found a couple of spare magazines for it. I grabbed an M4 carbine. It was nice, compact, and the 5.56mm bullets would go through witch-hunter vests. I stuffed as many magazines as I could into all of my pockets. Satisfied, I grabbed a few concussion grenades. We didn’t want fragments flying around with the warriors still fighting, especially since our frag grenades tended to fling silver shards around. The concussion grenades would open up enough space to work in. Nick picked up another M4. Hangman found an HK G36K, another of the compact 5.56mm assault rifles. It was okay, but I preferred variants of the M16, like my Commando and the M4 I was holding. Matric and the Guildmaster were both using Benelli semi-auto shotguns. I was mildly surprised by my boss’s choice in long guns, but it was the marshals who truly shocked me when they hauled out a small cart with a Minigun in 5.56mm mounted on it. I was surprised the armory even had one, but then remembered that the gun defending the half-floor at the top of the Manor was a larger Minigun in 7.62mm. This was probably the back-up. The taller marshal pushed the cart with the gun, while his partner pushed a second cart with the massive amount of ammunition to feed the Minigun. It was a hungry beast of a weapon. Both marshals also carried TMPs for back-up. Suitably armed, we planned what our group would do once we managed to make it back to the Manor. Our group moved back up the corridor in silence. The hunters were focused on the job, and the marshals were too scared to say anything. I didn’t care if they were terrified of going up against the witch-hunters as long as they did their part. As the door neared, Nick and I pulled out the concussion grenades and crept over to the door. The Guildmaster opened the door just a crack. The darkness was pierced by a narrow beam of light. Nick and I pulled the pins on our grenades and rolled them out into the Manor. We both silently counted down the three second fuses on the grenades.

WHUMP!! We half-heard, half-felt the muffled explosions that launched us into action. The Guildmaster swung the door open and stepped to the side. I slid out along the marble floor, letting loose short bursts at the first witch-hunters I saw. Okay, sliding was not generally considered a proper entry technique, but I wanted to make damn sure I was under all of the gunfire crisscrossing the Manor. Nick opened up with his M4 behind me. I scampered to my feet, shooting another two as I came up. The spent magazine clattered to the floor as I slapped a fresh one into the mag well. Nick came up on my right, cutting three witch-hunters down with accurate bursts. Hangman came up on my left, similarly taking down witch-hunters with odd sounding bursts of fire from his German gun. I heard the Guildmaster and Matric follow up behind. I half-worried Matric wouldn’t be able to keep up with us during the firefight, but I had to admit, he had done well so far. I still didn’t like him. Once we formed up about fifteen feet from the door, the Guildmaster ordered us to drop to the floor and signaled the marshals. As we hit the blood-laced marble floor, the marshals opened up with the Minigun.

Unlike most machineguns, Minguns are rotary guns. The gun has six barrels in a circle and spun by an electric motor. As they spin, the barrels are loaded, fired, and reloaded. This allows for a very high firing rate, usually in the two to four thousand rounds per minute range. It also makes a very unique noise when fired. Instead of the chattering sound of a conventional machinegun, a Minigun sounds like an amplified chainsaw. Because it ate up so much ammunition so fast, we didn’t use silver ammunition in it. Just the volume of fire tended to suppress most of the bad things – such as vampires – until others could pick them off regular guns loaded with silver. The witch-hunters had no protection from standard lead rifle rounds other than the body armor they were wearing, which wouldn’t stop the 5.56mm rounds of the Minigun. The witch-hunters around us were torn apart as the Minigun made its deadly arcs. As the Minigun kept firing, the five of us picked off individual witch-hunters. It felt like five minutes for the Minigun to burn through all of the bullets in the massive drum, but in reality, it took less than twenty seconds for the roaring chainsaw to dull down to the whine of the electric motor. No longer covered by the massive fire support of the Minigun, our group launched ourselves into the air. There was a paltry amount of fire from a few witch-hunters, and none of it came close. We landed about ten yards from the door to the coronation room. Nick, Hangman, and I opened up the area around us by hosing down the witch-hunters around up with our full magazines. As our guns ran dry, the Guildmaster and Matric rapidly unloaded double-ought buckshot at the few still standing. Hangman, Nick, and I did quick changes on the magazines. I gave Nick an evil grin and pulled out another concussion grenade. He nodded, mirroring my maliciousness.

The grenade landed about halfway between us and the door to the coronation room. The blast threw a couple of witch-hunters through the air, but most were just knocked down. The result was a small hole in the witch-hunters attacking the coronation room door. The Guildmaster and Matric darted through the hole as the rest of us covered them. Their shotguns were far more lethal in close quarters than our carbines. The two reached the door after a couple of close calls, and went inside. We waited for long minutes, keeping the door area clear with as much fire as we could. Finally, a group of Red Knights, most injured, came out of the door, with their machine pistols blazing away. Nick, Hangman, and I dropped to the floor to avoid being cut in pieces. I was about to scream at the Guildmaster for not warning us, but then found out my earpiece on my radio was unplugged. I cursed Murphy and his fucking law and plugged my earpiece back in.

"Marcus, are you there?" the Guildmaster asked.

"Yeah," I answered, busily firing as the witch-hunters came near us.

"We’re coming out," he reported, "I need you to meet us over here and help us cover the Lady- Apparent. Then–" The Guildmaster was cut off by a loud thunder clap that nearly knocked me off my feet. A new wave of witch-hunters ran into the Manor, joining their brothers in the crowded melee. What the fuck caused them to bring in reinforcements? The Minigun? After a moment, I noticed the new witch-hunters weren’t coming to reinforce the other witch-hunters. They were running from something. The back wall of the Manor collapsed. Blue-white lightning bolts streaked across the room. Tiles along the walls and floors exploded like frag grenades, sending razor-sharp marble shards into the unsuspecting witch-hunters. The sharp cracks of thunder from the lightning mixed with new higher-pitched cracks of assault rifles as I saw the first of the lycanthrope counter-attack. Sneller was visibly in the lead, shouting orders over the roar of the entry as hunters, shaman, and pack warriors swept down on the confused and panicked witch-hunters. We stayed on the marble floor, firing at any witch-hunters who were foolish enough to come within our reach. I lost complete track of time as the battle enveloped me. All I knew was the fight lasted another three mag changes, before Ronin slashed the last witch-hunter with a long silver dagger. There was a deathly silence as I got up off the tile and looked around.

Most of the lycanthropes who came to see my trial were dead, including nearly all of the pack leaders. Their bodies were strewn across the room along with the witch-hunters. Bullet pockmarks marred the walls and columns. The throne was destroyed, splintered in half by bullets. The Guildmaster led the group out of the coronation room, looking out across the room. He kept his face emotionless, but I knew he what he was thinking. He walked over to me and didn’t say anything, which in itself spoke volumes. Sneller walked over to us, a long slash on his muzzle.

"We wanted to warn you, but there wasn’t enough time. A group of the more experienced shaman joined us, and I decided to counterattack." The Guildmaster nodded absently as he told Sneller to gather his forces and secure the perimeter, and then he walked over to the Lady-Apparent. She collapsed where the bodies of the last of her family, her younger brother and sister, were lying. Her two younger siblings died early in the fighting. Their Red Knight protectors laid next to them, nearly torn apart from the intense gunfire. I walked over with the Guildmaster towards her as she wept for her two dead siblings. Smythe was talking with the few surviving Red Knights. The shaman that came with Sneller were carrying out the bodies of the Spiritmaster and Yven, in addition to most of the entourage they brought. Ancestors, was the Guild the only group to keep its leadership?

"My lady," the Guildmaster said, quietly, "I’m afraid we have much work to do right now. Some of it requires your attention." The Lady-Apparent cradled the body of her little sister in her arms, not even showing whether she heard the Guildmaster or not. I don’t know why I did it. I was just acting on instinct. I knelt down beside her, laid my carbine on the ground, and put my hand on her shoulder. My heart was frozen with fear, but my instincts were in full control. The Lady-Apparent wasn’t thinking like a leader of the lycanthropes of her county. She was thinking like a big sister who just lost the last of her family. She needed to be guided back to her duties, or she would be lost. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew what I needed to do.

"Elizabeth," I murmured to her, not sure why I was daring to use her first name, "She isn’t coming back. There’s nothing more you can do for her. You have to leave her and help us, or all of the lycanthropes in Hillsborough are going to die." She looked at me. There was a brief flash of anger, but it quickly disappeared as she remembered her duty. Tears still streamed down her face, but she got up. I rose to my feet with her, my arm protectively circling her shoulders. She continued to sob for a moment, but the tears stopped as she composed herself. My heart yearned for vengeance, and I was frustrated by the fact that all the witch-hunters were dead. I was startled by the feelings, but comforted by her warmth against me.

"What needs to be done?" she asked the Guildmaster after she had regained her composure. I could feel her leaning into me.

"First, we need to gather the remainders of the packs as well as what’s left of both the Order and the Guild and bring them here. We also need the unaligned lycanthropes in Hillsborough. Once we have everyone here, we need to reorganize to finish the war with the vampire. They were almost certainly behind the witch-hunters’ attack. Finally, a detail needs to be formed to gather all the lycanthrope bodies here and take them to the cravex for a mass Rite of the Dead."

"Get the Order to handle that. Preferably their senior member still alive. What about outside help, from the state organizations or from Pinellas or Pasco?" she asked. Her years of tutelage in leadership were coming to the forefront. She suppressed her grief as duty took over. It was much like when I pushed down all of my emotions to do a job. I loosened my arm over her shoulders, allowing her to stand on her own. It was difficult, but I knew it was necessary. Again, the instinct was guiding me what to do, because Ancestors knew I had no fucking clue in the cognitive part of my mind.

"I don’t think they will be able to help," the Guildmaster explained, "The state organizations will be preparing for the war council, and the other counties are too busy playing politics forging alliances before they get to Tallahassee. The Pinellas Guild will guard our pups, and will accept any of our severely wounded, but I doubt Lady Thames will allow anything else."

"NO!" screamed a voice behind the Guildmaster. A battered Smythe emerged from his group of Red Knights. There was a mad glinting in his eyes, and his fingers twitched around the TMP at his side. "The first thing we must do is kill the abomination. He helped kill Stephen and Jason Vollen. He led the witch-hunters here. He must pay for this. He must." The machine pistol jerked up and pointed at me. I planned the moves I would need to reach my carbine and place a burst into the bastard dog’s chest.

"I didn’t kill them, Smythe," I said, trying to keep my voice calm. I tried to slide my arm off of Elizabeth’s shoulders, but she tucked in closer to me. Why was she doing that? She needed to get out of the way.

"You were responsible!" Smythe screamed.

"I tried to stop Stephen’s killer, but he was better than me," I said. "I would have stopped Silanti from killing Jason, but you attacked me." His eyes went wild, and a burst erupted from the gun. I could feel the bullets whistling past my ear. I felt Elizabeth grip me. At that moment, I lost my confidence, and a new fear set in. It was a deeper fear than any I felt before, because it wasn’t for me, but for her. That idiot would probably kill her if he didn’t control that fucking TMP. I tried to get her behind me, but she just wouldn’t move.

"You’re lying, you bastard dog," he said wildly, "You were in league with the killers. I knew you wouldn’t shoot Silanti. You planned to deliver the lord to him in advance. I know all about you. At least, though, I could have killed you." The barrel bobbed up and down, as he staggered towards us. No way to get to my carbine. Elizabeth was tucked in next to my holster, so I couldn’t even get to my pistol. Smythe laughed maniacally as I scoured my brain for what more I could do. Then, the thunder boomed.

I felt no pain, but watched the barrel of the TMP drop. I looked beyond the gun at Smythe and saw his side was blown out. He wobbled on his feet, a look of sheer surprise on his face. Another thunder boom and he was thrown to the ground. Nick stood with his big Smith pointed at the ceiling. He quietly reholstered the revolver and looked over to where the Red Knights were staring at their fallen leader.

"Does anyone else question my friend’s innocence?" Nick asked in a deathly calm and quiet tone. The Red Knights backed up a step, shrinking from the evil look on his face. It was almost as if Death himself possessed Nick. I squeezed Elizabeth protectively until my mind reassured me my friend was still there. The Manor again fell into silence.

The Lady-Apparent released me and strode over to the Guildmaster. It shook me how quickly she left. I was even more confused by the strange look she shot me over her shoulder. It hurt that she didn’t seem to need me anymore as she and the Guildmaster talked over plans. A hand landed on my shoulder. My reflexes took hold and my hand darted for my pistol. Nick stayed calm as I realized who it was and let my arm fall back down. He gave me a warm look, almost like an older brother to a younger, inexperienced sibling.

"Wipe that pained expression off your face Ranger," he said, "She loves you." I turned on him as an unusual anger gripped me.

"What the fuck do you mean?" I asked quickly. Too quickly. Nick just grinned and shook his head. He grabbed my arm and half-pulled me to where Sneller was gathering the surviving hunters. I resisted a little, but Nick was probably as strong as me, and I wasn’t all that determined.

"That look she gave you was transparent," he said, "I realize that this is probably your first time experiencing some of the more refined emotions, having to be the ultimate hunter and all, but trust me on this. She does love you, and that explains a lot of her actions up to now. That said, she, like us, has a lot of work to do. Everything else has got to be put away until later. Come on, I think Sneller got a job for us."

Chapter 13 – Sometimes Even I Think I’m Cursed