"It’s nice to see that you managed to almost get yourself killed. Again," the Guildmaster growled as I walked into his office. As soon as Nick and I returned to the Guild, I was rushed to the infirmary. From what Burn said, there was a moment they were worried about me bleeding out as they scrubbed out the remains of silver in my back, but my body was too stubborn. That was how Burn phrased it. Satisfied I was free of silver contamination, out doc let my body take over. When I woke up, I was informed my boss wanted to see me immediately, so I got dressed and headed to the Guildmaster’s office. I could feel my body still putting itself back together, but I was more or less operational. The Guildmaster’s expression told me he wasn’t happy I went out with Nick, and even less pleased I managed to get banged up even more. I kept my face neutral and sat down in my normal chair.

"What the hell are witch-hunters doing in West Tampa? I asked, completely ignoring the Guildmaster’s chiding remark. Sometimes with my boss, the best defense is to just go on the offense. He growled a bit, but picked up a folder off of his increasingly crowded desk. The anger drained from his face, replaced by a worried expression. That expression disturbed me. I knew that as the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, I was one of the few hunters with whom the Guildmaster could be totally honest and open. It was one of the reasons the personal hitter was usually a close friend of the Guildmaster. Still, it was disconcerting to see my leader look like he didn’t know what to do.

"I don’t know,"the Guildmaster exhaled, "Neither does our intel section or the lord’s intel section. Ronin told me a few weeks ago he was getting information from the feral dogs in the county there were more witch-hunters than normal. I dismissed it at the time. You know why." I nodded in silent agreement. Ronin, the deputy commander of the hit packs, knew many of the packs of feral and stray dogs that roamed the streets of Tampa and the back areas of the county. They were useful sometimes, but most of the information they gave us was so vague as to be useless. Ronin still put his faith in his animal informants. In my experience, the strays were about as useful as retarded two-year-olds.

"You want me to investigate?" I asked, trying to shake my boss out of his momentarily melancholy. I knew the Guildmaster tended to beat himself up when he made a mistake. Sometimes that was good, because it made sure he never made the same mistake again. Mostly, it was just useless.

"No," the Guildmaster answered, visibly shaking himself out of internal reflections, "You’re good at a lot of things Marcus, but this kind of investigation is not one of those. I need someone a little more subtle. I’ll have Baser send one of the intel boys out to see what is going on. I need some hard data. Matric informed me before you came in that the lord’s intelligence section considered the presence of the Sword to be an anomaly rather than a trend indicator."

"What the fuck? They’re ignoring it? Maybe I should go down there and talk to them myself," I said, my anger leaking into my voice. The Guildmaster gave a brief chuckle, but shook his head.

"There’s something going on over at the Manor," the Guildmaster told me, "Something that they haven’t told me. I have a nasty suspicion that Lord Vollen is planning something to take advantage of the aftermath of the Sun City Center battle." He turned his attention to another folder on his desk. "At any rate, I have another job for you. It’s something simple and easy." His eye held a mischievous glint that I knew didn’t bode well for me.

"CEASE FIRE, DAMNIT!" I yelled at the lycanthropes on the firing line. I grabbed the closest lycanthrope, and snatched the carbine out of his hands. "What part of cease fire did you not fucking understand?" The warrior’s face was a mixture of anger and fear. I shoved him away as our altercation finally drew enough attention from the others that they stopped shooting and watched. I took a few deep breaths before beginning again. It also took me a moment to get all of my plans to kill my boss out of my head. I will be the first to admit that my boss has a nasty sense of humor. Moreover, he has an even nastier sense of punishment. Hence, my current job. The Guildmaster still didn’t know what was being planned in the Manor, but he was fairly sure the warriors of the packs would need to be prepared for some heavy fighting. So I was sent to work with several warriors on the basics of marksmanship and fire discipline. Too many of the warriors did little more than spray and pray with the full auto weapons, which wasted valuable silver ammunition. The idea was to get them used to properly using the weapons before giving them the silver ammunition that the Guild controlled. Good idea – until I actually saw the pack warriors using the few assault rifles and submachine guns on the shooting range the Guild maintained in the eastern part of the county.

"All of you, carefully place your weapons on the firing bench in front of you and take a step back," I ordered. As the eight warriors followed my instructions, I walked out to the targets. As I suspected, most of the targets had a few holes that invariably rose to the right or left depending on what weapon the warrior was shooting. I just shook my head in annoyance. I warned each of them about muzzle climb in full auto fire. I reminded them to attempt to counteract the climb by leaning in to the weapon. The warriors then reliably forgotten that tidbit of information. I was beginning to lose what little patience I had. A lack of patience was one of my character flaws the Guildmaster made me painfully aware of over the years I worked with him. Sometimes, he liked to put me in positions where that flaw had to be overcome – or used as punishment, like now.

"All of you are here because you are supposed to be the best shooters of your packs," I began with teeth clenched and my normal rage held firmly in check, "I know some of you have impressive war records, but this is fucking ridiculous." The warriors had the decency to look ashamed at my comment. I walked the firing line, looking back between the atrocious firing cards and the warriors standing with slightly nervous looks on their faces. I needed to come up with a better way to train these warriors before the lord announced his plans. The biggest problem was me, and I knew it. I was not a trainer by temperament. I got easily annoyed when those under my tutelage didn’t progress as quickly as I thought they should. Especially on things I already explained in detail – several times.

"Okay, let’s go over this again," I told them, trying to keep a calm voice, "Some of you are using submachine guns. These things are called bullet hoses for a reason. They have an extremely high rate of fire. Even with a nine millimeter cartridge, these weapons produce an impressive amount of recoil. That causes the barrel to rise, which means +YOU MISS THE FUCKING TARGET!* You will compensate for this by doing one of two things. You will either use short bursts of three to five rounds or you will learn to lean into the weapon to use your mass to control the weapon. Preferably you will limit yourself to short bursts, but I’d be just as happy if you could do just do the leaning. This is even more important for you with assault rifles because they have a stronger recoil."

"Most of these guns have selectors for burst fire," one of the warriors said with an almost snide manner. I really wanted to hit him. "Why aren’t we just putting them on burst and training like that?" The warriors around him nodded with an enthusiasm I chalked up to not wanting to be further embarrassed by their poor performance.

"You think I’m making you do this the hard way for my own entertainment?" I asked with a sarcastic tone, "Of course, I have no ulterior objective, such as making sure you survive if you have to use one of these weapons. I’m not making sure that you can actually be effective if you need to spray a large group, or just attack a single target." I would have continued, but the warriors were saved by the ringing of my phone. I looked at the number flashing on the display. The Guildmaster. It was a simple text message. RTB. Return to base. The lord had announced his plan.

When I returned to the Guild, it looked deserted. Usually there were about twenty or so hunters at the Guild at all times. Mainly these were our intel, medical, and communications specialists, as well as the armorers. That didn’t include hunters waiting for targets of opportunity or for rapid rescue of warriors or shaman that managed to get themselves into a nasty position. As I entered, I only saw Baser and another hunter in the intelligence area. I walked over to Baser. He looked up with a start as I came up to his desk.

"I didn’t see you come in Ranger," he said with surprise in his voice.

"How could you miss me?" I asked in reply, "Where the hell is everyone?"

"Oh, that," Baser said, taking a moment to look around, "Well, Sneller and Deadeye have been sending everyone out to their advance points. I’m getting swamped with intel requests on a whole bunch of sites." He turned to his computer and suddenly stopped in mid-motion.

"Oh yeah, the Guildmaster said he wanted to see you as soon as you came in," Baser said before going back to his work. I walked to the Guildmaster’s office without another word. The advance points were positions around the county where hunters could group before launching a major job. With almost all of the hunters at their advance points, the Guild was about to conduct a series of simultaneous jobs. The lord was planning something massive. Massive usually meant complex. Something was bound to get fucked up, and someone, probably a hunter, would end up dead. Hunters were firm believers in keeping jobs as simple as possible. Less chance of something fucking up.

I walked into the Guildmaster’s inner office. I was surprised to see his wife standing next to him. She was dressed in tactical gear with a worried expression on her face. Something was very wrong if she decided to get back into the hunting game. She acknowledged me with a quick nod and then looked back to her husband. He didn’t look up at me, but held his hand in a silent command to wait quietly until he was done talking on the phone.

"Make sure that all of the packs are clear about their part in this," the Guildmaster said, "This operation is so complex that a minor mistake could unfurl the whole thing. I’ll have Dennis coordinate with the Spiritmaster, but you need to hold things down until I get there." As he set down the phone, he let out a resigned breath. He looked up at me.

"Lord Vollen wants a quick finish to this war," the Guildmaster said, "I think the Spiritmaster or one of his Red Knights got it into his head that he can attack the TCV Hall and eliminate the entire Inner Council. I pleaded with him to reconsider, but he’s young, stubborn, and has victories under his belt. The Lord has decided on a nighttime – nighttime – attack on the TCV Hall with the intent of either forcing the surrender of the Inner Council or wiping them out. The plan is for the Knights and some experienced pack warriors to do a frontal attack with the lord leading them in. According to the Lord Vollen, it would be the last thing the TCV would expect, so they won’t be able to stand against our force. I’m sure that the Knights tried to keep him from leading the assault, but as I said, he’s a stubborn one. The hunters and shaman will provide surgical support. I’ve arranged for you to go in with the main assault force. Your job is to try to keep the lord alive. Take whatever you need. There will be a few hunters also going in on the siege, as well as a few shaman, but the plan has the bulk of the Guild acting in diversionary operations, preparing for mop-up operations and to strike any targets of opportunity. I’ve been ordered to oversee those operations. Since I can’t go with Lord Vollen, I’m sending you. Your secondary job is to locate :the new Bleeder leader and kill him. I may not approve of this plan, but I will be damned if I don’t do my best to try and make it a success. The operation will start tomorrow night, so you have about thirty hours before you are supposed to meet up with Lord Vollen and his force."

I nodded. Sometimes even I knew better than to make a flippant comment. This was going to be a brutal battle even if everything went right. Lord Vollen was acting rashly. It was going to take a small miracle to keep most of the siege force alive. I smoldered over the apparent lack of concern the lord had for his wolves. I let my anger fall to the wayside. There was too much to do. I needed to gather equipment, memorize all the available information on the TCV Hall and the Inner Councilmembers, and somehow try to grab a few hours sleep. I returned to my room, sighing as I flipped on the light switch. I looked longingly at the bed. I stripped out of my clothing, letting it scatter across the floor. I sat down in the chair facing my computer. After booting up, I researched the files concerning the TCV Hall. The building plans were sparse on useful information, and even that little bit was outdated. The TCV Hall was built by a Northerner human who came to Tampa in the late 1890’s. He liked the warm climate and built an expansive mansion next to the bay. When the vampire infestation became virulent in the 1920’s, the elder vampires agreed to the organization of a new council rather than the older coven system that the vampires used throughout their history. According to Bradon, the original council chair found the TCV Hall "quaint" and had his ghouls take the place over. It wasn’t hard, because the current owner of the house overspent himself on illegal booze, and was willing to trade the house for getting the gangsters off his back. It was also about this time the vampires in Florida began their long association with the criminal element of the state. There had been several renovations to make the building more secure, but the external structure had changed very little. The building was split into three wings. The right wing held offices for the Inner Council and their ghouls. Actual floorplans for that wing were not available and the few composite sketches were skimpy at best. By contrast, the central part of the building was well-known. This was where the vampires hosted official events, such as entertaining a Turaki peacekeeper. That was the one time I was allowed past the front door. It was also where the Inner Council officially convened. The large double front doors of the Hall opened into a central foyer dominated by a horseshoe shaped staircase that led up to the second floor. Beyond the foyer on the first floor was a ballroom that where most of the leeches’ social events were held. Connected to the ballroom was a kitchen with a walk-in cooler and freezer. Intelligence estimated there were at least five to twenty humans somewhere on the first floor for feasts. Going up the grand staircase to the second floor led to the Council Room. From what we knew, the room was modular and could be set up any way they desired, from modern to Gothic. From what Bradon told me about meetings of Inner Council, the decor changed almost from month to month depending on what was in fashion at the time. Damn vampires and their obsession with style. I hated hitting a place with no knowledge of where anything would be. It was a good way to give the leeches your pelt. The left wing of the Hall was what really worried me. There was no solid information on that side of the building. Some rumors said that was where the Inner Council had their quarters, but others said it was the headquarters for the alchemists. The Guild was never able to insert any of its spies into the Hall to gather the proper intelligence. Anytime a hunter went to the Hall, they were closely escorted by a number of vampires, with at least one Bleeder in the contingent. Our kin reported being similarly observed. I thought all of the rumors were wrong. I thought the left wing was the Bleeders’ headquarters. The Bleeders were always very good at just disappearing. There were very few places in the county where a vampire could just disappear. The TCV Hall was on the top of the list. Add to the fact that Bradon was always extremely cagey when I broached what was in the TCV Hall. I couldn’t prove it, but that’s what my instincts were telling me. If I was going to sanction the new Bleeder leader, the left wing was where I would look.

After cramming my brain with information on the Hall, I turned to the Inner Council. Technically, all of the vampires within the territory claimed by the TCV belonged to the Tampa Council, but not all of them had a say in how the territory was governed. That power was held by the ruling body of the TCV, the Inner Council. The Inner Council was made up of five elder vampires, who were dangerous all by themselves. Vampires don’t make it to elder status without having either a lot of power, a lot of skill, or both. To make it even more fun, each Inner Councilmember also had one to five ghouls with them at all times. Intelligence said the ghouls were closer to bodyguards with training on par to the Red Knights. The political make-up of the Inner Council was evenly spread, with two activist Councilmembers, two conservative Councilmembers and a Council Chair who was usually a moderate, but tended to lean one way or the other as issues arose. The heads of the Bleeders and the alchemists usually participated in Inner Council meetings and affairs, but they were considered advisers to the Inner Council, not members. Each Councilmember selected his or her own successor, so the political split rarely changed. Outwardly, the Inner Council favored stability and consensus, but the politics were cutthroat amongst the Inner Councilmembers. Consensus was often just a codeword for one faction saying uncle.

The activist faction of the Inner Council was led by Mario Silanti, a vampire of forty years. He despised the Peace and was behind most of the plots to weakened it. He hated lycanthropes with a fiery passion. Silanti was considered by most lycanthropes as the prime suspect behind the murder of Lord Vollen’s father. Hell, if I didn’t know better, he would have been my first suspect. The Guild considered Silanti a major threat, as did the Bleeders. Before the war erupted, it was an open secret that if the hunters managed to assassinate Silanti, there would be no reprisal from the Bleeders. Current intelligence believed Silanti’s influence among the vampires was growing by leaps and bounds. As long as the war raged in Hillsborough County, the younger vampires of the TCV supported Silanti. If Silanti gained enough support, there would be no chance of stopping the war without one side wiping out the other. Or the Pathwalkers wiping out both. Silanti kept two ghouls. One was a female who acted as his secretary. She didn’t have any known combat training, but I suspected she knew some tricks. The other ghoul was a male who kept Silanti tied to the human underworld. The ghoul survived several years in the brutal drug trade before being "recruited" by Silanti. That made him dangerous, and definitely someone to watch. I looked at the most recent photo we had of Silanti. I studied his face, ingraining every feature into my mind. because if Silanti came within range of my weapons, he would become my primary target.

The other activist on the Inner Council was a vampire of eighty years by the name of Richard Crawford. Crawford was a known supporter "the Naturalists." They advocated there was room on the planet for only one race of predator of humans, and that the two races must fight until one – the lycanthropes according to Crawford and his supporters – was exterminated. The Peace prevented that natural competition, and therefore, it must be struck down. Unlike Silanti, Crawford only acted politically against the other Inner Councilmembers. Bradon told me Crawford was more of a shadow player in the twisted politics of the TCV. He didn’t actually get involved in any of the ploys and plots, but Crawford pulled enough strings to get the ball rolling. Bradon called him a "useful danger." Crawford kept four ghouls – one to act as his personal assistant, one bodyguard, and two errand boys. All of them were known to be dangerous in both hand to hand combat and firearms.

The conservative side of the Inner Council was headed by the elder vampire Samuel Davis. He had over a hundred and thirty years as a vampire, with more than forty years as on the Inner Council. Davis was thoroughly convinced that the lycanthrope were an enemy to be destroyed. That said, Davis knew better than to let an unrestricted war erupt between the two races, or else it would become like the humans’ Civil War he fought as a Confederate soldier. He supported the Peace while also supporting and nurturing the Bleeders, under his protégée, Philip Bradon. Davis’s three ghouls came from military backgrounds. One acted as his bodyguard and assistant, while the other two often acted as his personal hit team. All of them were trained by the Bleeders in fighting lycanthropes. Nick ran afoul of the hit team, and he said they were damned good for a pair of ghouls. I committed their faces to memory in case I ran into them. I was looking at enough surprises in this job to let those two ghouls get the drop on me.

Davis’s much younger ally was Harris Montgomery. Montgomery was a vampire of only twenty years, which was considered relatively young in vampire politics. If there was one thing Harris was, he was an outstanding politician. He secured his seat on the Inner Council by posturing himself as an almost clone of his predecessor. As soon as Montgomery assumed his seat from the "retired" elder vampire, Montgomery showed his true colors. Montgomery was of a new philosophy that believed the war between the vampire and the lycanthrope was a futile effort. The two races must coexist or they would wipe each other out. According to Bradon, Montgomery was annoying and embarrassing to the rest of the Inner Council. Unfortunately for the elder Inner Councilmembers, Montgomery represented the views of many of the younger vampires who grew up listening to the ramblings of the human counter-culture movement. As Bradon said more than once, it was an unfortunate case of the rare times humanity affected our part of reality. Although his credibility had taken a hit with the war, Montgomery was still an able caudillo, or boss. He was actually the one Inner Councilmember I would try not to kill on this job. His two ghouls were unknowns. According to reports, they often acted as retro-hippie girls, dressing in the costumes and using the dialect of the culture.

The Council Chair was held by Josephine Razor, a vampire who exploded onto the Tampa political scene. The Guild first took notice of her only about four years ago, but in less than two years she used her political abilities and seductress demeanor to not only gain her place as an Inner Councilmember, but to ascend to the Chair. She was known to be cunning and deadly, politically and physically. Her true politics were unknown, as she tended to bounce between the two factions, often playing one against the other to get what she wanted. Even Bradon couldn’t figure her out. She didn’t have any known ghouls, but I doubted she neglected to make herself a servant or four. It was more likely she kept her ghoul, or ghouls, out of sight until she needed them. I leaned back in my chair and yawned. As I looked behind me, I saw the clock and read the numbers upside-down. The translation slid slowly between my eyes and my brain. Well, that was why I was tired. I was doing this for the past six hours. I never understand why research tired me out almost more than physical activity. I shut the computer down and picked up the phone.

"Yeah, whadda ya want?" came Boomer’s voice over the line. I expected Gunny, but I figured he was busier than hell trying to prep enough gear for the hunters for tomorrow night.

"Boomer, it’s Ranger," I answered in a business tone, "I’m going to be up there in a few minutes to grab weapons and gear. The Guildmaster told you?"

"Yeah, he told us you and the others on the Hall assault had priority. We were expecting you a couple of hours ago. Gunny kept some of your favorites, but I don’t know if we still have much to give you."

"Where is Gunny?" I asked. It wasn’t like him to leave Boomer alone too long with a pile of weapons at his disposal. Odd things tended to happen to weapons left in Boomer’s care. Like configurations no one thought of suddenly appearing in the racks.

"He’s outfitting a couple of the hit packs before they run out of here. I’ll be here when you get your ass up here. What are you planning on?" he asked, casually.

"Tactical nukes would be nice, for all the surprises I expect." Boomer politely chuckled at that comment. "I’ll see what you’ve got left when I get up there. Is ammo good?"

"Not as good as I would like. I can get your supply, but the Silver Shoks are getting shot up pretty damn fast. We were supposed to get a shipment of them today, but they didn’t come in. In a couple of days, we might have to switch to slug bullets." I grimaced at that comment. Modern silver bullets were designed with lead exteriors to grip the barrel’s rifling and silver alloys that kept the bullet weights consistent with modern defensive ammunition. Silver Shoks were the best, although there were a few other lines with comparable performance abilities. Those were used mainly by the pack warriors whose leaders knew enough to buy the good stuff. Silver slug bullets, on the other hand, were standard bullets cast from silver. They were much easier to produce, but the bullets tended to drop or curve depending on the weapon. The only exception was shotguns, since they were smooth bore to begin with. Silver slugs and shot worked just fine in them, up to about seventy yards.

"Thanks, I’ll be finished here in about five minutes, and then I’ll be up. Hold everything until I get there." I hung up the phone and put on a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt that was in my closet. The hallway was empty, as was the elevator up to the armory. The Guild was emptying out for Lord Vollen’s grand attack. Damn him. The elevator toned as I reached the second floor. I felt a little better as I walked by the intelligence section’s crazy sprinting back and forth between their workstations. At least I wasn’t the only one being driven insane by this attack. I made my way to the armory. As I approached, a pair of twelve-foot tall reinforced doors silently slid open. The Guild’s armory was made up of one large room with chain-linked fencing forming sections for different weapon types. Ancestors, it was fucking empty. Racks normally full of assault rifles and sub-machine guns lay naked. Boomer sat at one of the few tables in the room in human form, examining an assault rifle’s trigger assembly. He didn’t look up as I walked across the concrete floor towards him. I stopped five feet from him and waited for about half a minute for him to be finished with what he was doing. It passed and he continued to fiddle with the trigger assembly.

"Hi, Ranger. Your favorites are over in Pad A-1," Boomer said without looking up. Rather than bother him, I walked over to the pad. The pads were sections of the armory with mission specific load-outs and a few extras so a hunter could tailor based on his tastes. I walked over to the pad and opened the gate door. The two benches were sparsely littered with rifles, sub-machine guns, pistols, and grenades. I picked up the first rifle, a Barret M107. I considered it briefly. With a .50 BMG bullet, there was very little that I couldn’t punch holes through. On the downside, it was too long to use indoors, although my strength in true form would have negated the weight problem of the big rifle. I picked up the next weapon and grinned. The Bowmasters thoughtfully left me a KAC Masterkey. The Masterkey was a Colt M4 carbine, but the wonderful folks over at KAC added something extra. It started out as a Remington 870, but KAC removed the stock, shortened the barrel, and mounted the package under the M4’s barrel. The M4’s magazine was used as a grip when firing the shotgun. Just for fun, Boomer mounted a rigid side saddle to the left side of the shotgun’s receiver for carrying an additional five shells. The Masterkey was a bit muzzle heavy, but being able to use either 5.56 mm rounds or specialty shotgun loads without changing weapons was a big advantage. A holographic sight was mounted to the top of the M4. After checking the actions the Masterkey, I put it aside and built the rest of my load-out. I wanted to bring my HK45, but decided on my Glock 17 instead. In our kind of combat, the usual arguments of small bullet versus big bullet didn’t usually apply. The amount of silver punched into the target mattered much more, and both a 9mm and a .45 would put enough silver into the target to be lethal. I normally preferred the .45 because it put more silver into the target. Very useful when you might only have one or two shots. For this raid, I was going to have lots of targets, which meant I needed more rounds. The Glock 17 had the advantage of accepting the bigger +2 magazines for a total of nineteen rounds. Plus, its magazines would work with the smaller Glock 26, which would be my back-up for this job. Custom-built silver throwing knives for quiet kills, and an Emerson folder for cutting things other than vampires. I found two speed loading tubes for the Masterkey. One was loaded with straight double-ought silver buckshot, while the other was loaded with a particularly nasty load of silver flechettes. Flechettes were tiny darts that perforated everything in its firing radius, including through nasty things like Kevlar. The side-saddle on the shotgun was loaded with willie-pete incendiary rounds that Boomer came up with. Great for creatures that were as flammable as dry kindling, but not so great on the gun. Gunny hated issuing them, but they’d come in handy before. Flash-bangs and a small roll of duct tape were added. My final bit of my rig was electronics. Namely a radio and throat mike. Boomer helped me load the mass of weapons, magazines, ammo, and gear into a few bags. With all of my equipment chosen, I went back to my quarters to rack out for a few hours. Sleep came and went way too fast. I was running too close, but I needed to run a few exercises before I joined up with the assault force. I spent the morning running through close-quarters drills with my load-out. I needed to be able to grab what I needed without looking. Another half-hour nap and I geared up. For the record, carrying the equivalent of four guns, several knives, some flash-bangs, a bunch of ammo, and electronics was heavy. That wasn’t even counting the heavier vest and gear. As I walked into the garage, Nick was waiting on his motorcycle with a sly grin on his face.

"Alright, I give," I said as I approached him, "What’s so fucking funny?"

"You, going to protect the lord. With that much gear, you could defend him from an army. At least, knowing the way you fight." His grin slipped as I climbed into one of the Guild’s special sedans.

"Ranger, be careful," Nick said, his voice now devoid of humor, "I know that sounds strange, but I don’t like this."

"You think I do?" I asked, as I clipped the carbine to the dash. "Thanks for the thought, Nick. I’ll watch my ass."

"Good. I don’t have many allies in this town. I don’t want one of my close ones dying foolishly. Ranger, one more thing," he said, his tone so serious it worried me, "My name is Nicholas." Laughing, I revved the sedan’s engine and tore into the emerging night.


As I drove to the meeting point, I noticed the sky. Perhaps I should have looked up earlier, but that was my own mistake. It was also mine for not checking the human news for the past few days. The stars were dimmed by the Blood Moon. Lycanthropes know the red moon is a lunar eclipse, as well as the scientific reasons for its occurrence. None of that diminishes the surge of energy we feel from it. This was the reason Lord Vollen decided to raid the Hall at night. Maybe the lord was not a complete fool, but the lack of intelligence on the Hall still gnawed at me. There were few weapons, short of thermobarics and nukes, that overcame a lack of good intelligence, and even they occasionally suffered from it. The meeting point was a commercial conversion van parked down the street from the TCV Hall. Only the fifty-yard lawn separated us from the front porch. The raised porch was an antebellum fashion with four white columns. It was guarded by five vampires that I could see. I was instructed to leave the car several blocks away, using the darkness to travel the rest of the distance. I reached the far side of the van, emblazoned with TECO’s logo on the side. Behind the van waited the lord and a group of Red Knights, including Smythe. I sneered at him and made the proper gesture of respect Lord Vollen. He allowed me to crowd into the back of the van, which was crammed with surveillance and communication gear. This should have been used days before to conduct reconnaissance, but instead, Lord Vollen rushed things.

I scanned the lawn and the front of the Hall through the low-light cameras installed into the side of the van. A pair of kin were standing outside, mimicking work for the power company. The lawn looked normal. According to the van’s electromagnetic sensors, there were no land mines placed. The stately white facade was normal, although I knew surveillance gear was in place around the Hall. The front porch was guarded by five vampires. There were no other signs of security. My instincts said there had to be more guards around. I mentally doubled the number of guards I could see and figured they were hidden around the front perimeter. I didn’t like this frontal attack shit, Blood Moon or no. First off, there was no current information on the number or displacement of opposition on the grounds or in the Hall. Second, the environment was bad. Tampa Bay air, with its heavy marsh odor, muted our naturally keen sense of smell. The street lighting and the sparse lighting around the Hall made for strange shadows that would draw the untrained eye, like any pack warriors assigned to this job. Third, we were too exposed. I was sure the leeches on the front porch knew who we were and why we were there. If they didn’t, then they were bait in an inviting trap.

"Is there a problem hunter?" said a voice behind me. I expected a Red Knight, but turned to find Lord Vollen facing me. I made it a point never to be intimidated by any lycanthrope’s station if something important needed to be said or done. Respectful maybe, but never intimidated. With this many Red Knights, several of whom partly blamed me for the previous lord’s death, I decided a respectful tone was the best course. The Guildmaster would’ve been proud.

"May I speak candidly, milord?" I asked cautiously. He nodded slightly, so I continued, but firmly keeping my voice respectful and my speech devoid of its normal expletives. "This attack is a bad idea. There is no current data on what our forces can expect upon entering the Hall. Our natural senses are being beaten back by the environment. We don’t even have a full floor plans for the Hall." His face darkened slightly, but I decided to press on, hoping to avoid what could be a bloody fight we could very well lose. "Milord, I suggest we postpone this attack until more information is available, or maybe if we cripple more of the TCV’s forces." Smythe looked about ready to read me the riot act, but the lord silenced him with a wave of his hand.

"I’m glad that I was right in asking Eric for your services," Lord Vollen said, "You are correct – from your stand point. There are a few things you don’t know. First, all the hunters and shaman left out of this attack are now conducting an extensive series of attacks on known leech strongholds and covens. Those should provide us with enough distraction to cover our initial attack. Second, the power to the Hall will be cut fifteen seconds into the attack. I realize the Hall likely has secondary generators, but the switch will give us a few seconds time to advance further. Third, our mission is not to clear the Hall, but simply to get in and plant these." He handed me a thermite block demolition charge. It was similar to the one that I used on the night that I killed Bradon, but it was larger, which meant a bigger blast area. They were also tamper-proof, meaning that once they were set, any attempt to disarm or reset them caused the charge to detonate. Some of my doubts about the attack were alleviated. So, this wasn’t to go in and personally kill every member of the Council, but rather set the Hall on fire and make sure none escaped.

"With all due respect, milord, that’s all fine and dandy, but there’s still the problem of getting into the Hall," I said. "I very much doubt the Council is going to let us waltz into their home and light it up." Lord Vollen smiled as my respectful tone slipped a bit.

"Upon the signal from the Guildmaster that all the diversionary objectives are engaged, snipers will take out the sentries," one of the Red Knights explained, "The doors will be taken care of by our anti-armor rifle." He motioned to a kin assembling a Barrett M107, just like one that I briefly contemplated taking back at the armory. "Once the door was taken down, the first group will rush in and secure the foyer. They place their charges, but not activate. From there, the second group will leapfrog them onto the second floor, while a third group hits the ballroom. At this point, the snipers will join us as a fourth assault team. Then, they and the first team will leapfrog the second and third teams going deeper into the Hall. We continue until all charges are set." I still didn’t like it. Our forces would be awfully thin as we drove deeper into the building. It also didn’t allow for a reserve force. I was to be part of the second group, along with Lord Vollen, Smythe and another half-dozen Red Knights. The plan laid out for everyone, the other lycanthropes went over their gear one last time. My feeling of dread was deepening. This plan was coming dangerously close to drawing the Pathwalkers’ notice. I could see why the Guildmaster wasn’t happy with this. He probably told Lord Vollen about the risk, and from what I’d seen, Lord Vollen probably dismissed his Guildmaster’s concerns out of hand. All I could do was try and salvage what I could. I scanned the target area. My instincts were roaring with warnings. With some difficulty, I shoved all of it to the back of my mind and focused on the job. My instincts have always been inordinately strong, with the downside being that sometimes they threatened to take over. Part of my hunter training was forcing me to hone them so they were useful while being able to shut them out when they threatened the job. Now was the hardest part of my job – waiting for it to begin. Finally, the Guildmaster came on the radio.

"Gaspirilla," the Guildmaster said, curtly. Five muffled shots sounded from the roof of the van. The vampires guarding the front porch slumped down almost simultaneously. As the vampires fell, the first group ran across the lawn. The first group was made up of warriors with a couple of Red Knights to give them some kind of sound tactical support. As the group galloped across the lawn, I saw the lights of their weapons searching for targets. I winced as I watched their formation. It was too loose, too uncoordinated. The warriors had no clue how to scan for targets. They were mimicking what they’d seen on television or movies. It may look cool, but it would be trouble if they ran into any real targets. The first group ran under a pair of large trees about halfway across the lawn with no complications. I was surprised, but tried not to show it. Under the shadows of the trees, the first group paused and scanned the front of the Hall before making the final stretch. What the fuck? They needed to keep moving. Speed was life. Without warning, ten vampires fell out of the trees, shedding their bat form for true form. I didn’t wait for a command. I brought my carbine to my shoulder, watching as the reticle crossed the chest of the largest vampire. A gentle squeeze sent a short burst of three rounds into the leech. He jerked back as the rounds slammed into his chest, then crumpled to the grass. A couple of Knights next to me opened fire, bringing down another two leeches. The ambushed lycanthrope group rallied and let loose with short bursts of automatic fire. The whole encounter lasted less than thirty seconds, but it left one of the Red Knights and a pack warrior dead. The bodies were left with those of the vampires. We would retrieve them after the raid. As the first group reached the door, three distinctive booms rang out into the night. The hinges on the large front door exploded as the big half-inch heavy bullets from the Barrett slammed through the reinforced oak door. The door-kicker for the first group, a largish Knight, shouldered the door, using his momentum to carry him all the way inside. I couldn’t make out what was going on inside, but I guessed by the sound of the firefight they met some stiff resistance. A half-minute later, we went into the fray. As we crossed the lawn, I kept my weapon ready in case of another ambush. We crossed the lawn and made it up the porch without trouble. The gunfire from inside the foyer slacked off considerably. Either the first group was successful, or they had been wiped out. I looked over at Smythe. From the look on his face, he had already reached the same conclusion, and he wasn’t happy. He pointed to two Knights and motioned them inside while the rest of us waited outside. A double-click on the radio told us that it was clear. We entered the TCV Hall.

The first group cleared the foyer and set their charges. Vampire bodies, some still shifting to true form in death, littered the floor. There was no time to sort everything out, so Smythe and another Red Knight sprinted up the staircase to the second floor. A pair of vampires emerged from the Council Room. I brought them both down with a couple of shotgun blasts. I may not have liked Smythe, but I was still a professional, which meant I covered his ass when he needed it. The rest of the group advanced up at a breakneck pace as Smythe and his partner cleared the landing at the top of the stairs. The door into the Council Room was ten feet tall and looked like solid wood. Knowing Bradon, I was sure there was a metal core. One of the Knights produced a shortened shotgun loaded with door breachers. I grasped him by the arm and quickly sketched out an idea. He nodded with a predatory grin on his face. Taking our positions, his shotgun boomed three times, destroying the door hinges and the lock. I pumped the action on my shotgun, releasing the chambered shell. As the door fell in, I loaded one of the willie-pete rounds. A quick squeeze on the trigger sent a small ball of brilliant destruction. The round smacked into a leech just behind the fallen door, exploded, and caught two more leeches standing just behind the first leech. All three leeches lit up like dried out Christmas trees, screaming as their burning forms were consumed by the flames. Smythe didn’t pause to enjoy the view, charging in with his assault rifle chattering. His Knights and Lord Vollen followed his lead into the Council Room. I grimaced, and then followed into the room.

The gallery of the Council Room was two rows of long wooden pews, almost like a church or a courtroom. I ducked behind the back left pew. I rose to a crouch and surveyed the layout. At the end of the gallery, toward the front of the room was a low wooden barricade with a thin gate. Five feet beyond the barricade was a podium and an adjoining table where the vampires could speak to the Inner Council. The Inner Council’s platform was about fifteen feet behind the podium with a long raised barricade the Inner Councilmembers stood behind for their meetings. There were at least a dozen vampires and another dozen of ghouls behind that barricade pouring gunfire at the Knights. The Red Knights were scattered among the pews. Several of them dead or dying from hits from the leeches hiding at the front of the room. I placed a few bursts at white faces peeking out from their positions. I looked for Lord Vollen. I was supposed to be keeping him alive. The lord was crouched behind a pew several yards in front of me with a Knight beside him. Several ghouls were creeping up on them. I unloaded the shotgun, firing several blasts of double-ought buck at them. The ghouls were shredded by the hail of silver balls. The vampires behind the platform responded by firing at me. I ducked back down behind my pew.

"Smythe, this is too hot, we need to extract," I called over the radio. I directed my comments at Smythe, because he could pull Lord Vollen out over the lord’s objections. I hoped that he would put any of our hatreds aside long enough for us to get out of this alive. Two attempts netted no response. He was either dead or too busy to answer me. I cautiously raised my head over the pew and looked over to the lord. He was replacing the magazine in his rifle. The Knight at his side was slumped over dead. We were pinned down, but other teams were having more success. Radio reports came over that reported the deaths of Davis, Crawford, and Montgomery. That left Razor and Silanti. As I scanned the platform, I saw Silanti firing a small machine pistol at the lord’s position. A lycanthrope crashed down next to me. A quick glance revealed it was Smythe. His rifle was gone, but his pistol was drawn.

"Smythe, cover me. I’m going to take down Silanti," I said to him, loud enough to be heard over the crashing gunfire. I rose from my crouch, flipping the M4’s selector switch from AUTO to SEMI. I lined up the holographic reticle on Silanti’s face. He was exchanging gunfire with Lord Vollen. The leech was tunnelling. He never noticed me aiming at him. Beside me, I heard Smythe firing away with his pistol. About damn time he helped. As I squeezed the trigger, a sharp pain blazed in my side. I jerked upward from the sudden pain, sending my bullet into the ceiling. I fell to the floor as Smythe knocked me down. My rifle clattered to the floor. Smythe kicked it out of my reach.

"Now you die, abomination," Smythe growled, holding a bloody silver knife over me. I was confused as hell. What was Smythe doing? We were in a fight for our lives – Lord Vollen’s life – and he decided to stab me? I looked for the glint of madness in his eyes, but only saw the coldness of contemplated murder. I suddenly realized why I was requested to do this job. Smythe wanted to kill me in the chaos of the raid. What I didn’t know was why.

A scream of pain from the lord’s position made Smythe jump off me. Smythe looked over to Vollen. His face contorted into a mixture of shock, fear, and pain. I pulled my pistol out and placed five rounds into Smythe’s chest. The bullets threw him back and gave me enough room to move. I staggered up. The pain from the silver blade blazed again. I looked back to where Silanti was. The leech was running for a small door at the back of the Council room. I fired my Glock several times, but he disappeared through the door. I looked down to my bloody side and cursed. I looked over to Lord Vollen. His head was a mess of blood, bone, and gore. Ancestors, not another one. The shame of a failed job crashed through me.

A force slammed into my face, throwing me a good five feet before crashing into a pew. I tried to shake off the daze, but I took another hit deep into my stomach. I felt my breath pushed out of me. Smythe continued the barrage of fists, striking all my vital parts. My pistol was knocked from my hand. None of my other weapons were within reach. Smythe hit me several more times and I did the only thing I could think of. I crumpled to the ground. He stopped once I fell to the ground. Out of my slitted eyes, I saw him motion to a pair of his subordinates. The two Knights picked me up off the ground by my shoulders. I played unconscious as they dragged my body out of the Council Room. I could smell the blood, burnt flesh, and death of a harsh battle. The two Knights dragged me down the staircase. I summoned all the strength I had left and pushed off one of the stairs. The two Knights were caught off-guard. They were expecting a unconscious subject, not a moving hunter. I landed on the ground below without losing my balance. A quick scan of the area showed I was badly outnumbered. At least a half-dozen Knights plus another dozen or so pack warriors who would believe anything Smythe and his cronies said because they were Red Knights – and I was the abomination.

I ran for the door, pulling my tiny Glock 26 from its holster in the small of my back. The fools hadn’t even taken it away from me. The two Knights at the door braced for close-quarters combat. One drew a knife, as the other stepped back, reaching for a pistol. I could smell the fear emanating from them. Sometimes my reputation came in handy. I fired a few rounds over their heads, sending them crashing to the floor. I leapt over them, gunfire from the pack warriors following me outside the Hall. As I rolled on the grass, I grabbed my radio from its holding place on my back. I finished my roll into a crouch behind one of the trees in the front lawn and switched it to the Guild’s frequency.

"Ranger, Knightfall. Repeat – Ranger, Knightfall." I saw several Knights coming out of the Hall, led by Smythe. I didn’t feel like killing my own people – even if they just tried to kill me. Maybe if it was just Smythe. I stepped out into the lighted area, dropping my pistol on the ground. I slowly raised my arms up as a dozen weapons were aimed at me.

"I call for rhiazen," I said loudly, so all could hear. Smythe was glaring at me, but there was nothing he could do. Once a lycanthrope demands rhiazen, or trial by the lord, no one is allowed to hurt or kill him. The downside of calling for rhiazen was if the lord found against a lycanthrope, the sentence is automatically death, even if the original offense wasn’t a capital matter. At that time, there wasn’t much choice. I needed to buy time. The Guild needed to know Smythe tried to kill me. They needed to know Silanti escaped. Most importantly, the packs needed to know how the lord really died. Then, they could do something about it. I was sure the new lord – lady, actually, since the next in line was his eldest daughter – was going to find me guilty. Better to delay my inevitable demise long enough to get all the pertinent information to the Guild and the packs, and prepare them for what was to come. Perhaps Nick or Hangman might avenge me and kill Smythe. These thoughts comforted me as the Knights walked over to me and stripped me down. I didn’t resist. I called for rhiazen, so I was obligated by honor and law to not resist arrest and confinement, as my captors were obligated to assure I was unharmed until the trial. They led me to a car. Two Knights climbed in the front of the car while I was pushed into the back. I could tell by the way they were holding their weapons on me they were scared of me. I just shook my head. The Guildmaster called me twice on the radio, but I ignored him. The Knights carefully navigated the streets of Tampa to avoid any chance of me meeting with one of the hunter hit packs. I was to be held at the Manor. in its holding area. It would have been called a dungeon in ancient times.

The three of us drove up to the Manor’s gate. As I was pulled out of the car, three warriors serving as the lord’s marshals met us. The marshals were only deputized when the aristocracy needed enforcers outside of the packs. I stopped a couple of yards in front of the marshals and waited for their instructions.

"Hold your arms in front of you," the leader demanded, his voice as calm as a lake on a windless day. I felt a measure of relief. The leader was acting by the laws of the packs. I slowly put my arms out in front of me. The one next to him applied wolfsbane to the slash on my side as the youngest one placed a restraining device on my wrists. It was made of silver, and encompassed both wrists completely. They were joined by a thick metal bar that kept my hands separated by about a foot. The restraints looked intimidating, but I escaped from them before. This time, I was under obligation not to. If I escaped – and there was no way the five lycanthropes around me could have stopped me if I was determined to escape – I would be declared outlaw and ordered killed on sight. That also went for any lycanthrope who gave me sanctuary. I couldn’t return to the Guild without endangering the rest of the hunters. It would defeat the whole reason I called for rhiazen. So, I meekly accepted the restrainers and followed three marshals as they led me across the grounds into the Manor itself. Just inside the door, we were met by another pair of marshals. These two were carrying M16’s. From the menacing looks on the marshals’ faces, they didn’t trust me to carry out my part of the law. I wasn’t going to do anything, but I kept a wary eye on them as the original trio of marshals led me to a concealed door in the foyer. I had a nasty suspicion that one wrong move and the two behind me would hose me with silver bullets. Behind the concealed door was an unlit staircase that winded down into the ground. It opened into a large room, with several empty holding cells constructed of iron bars, lined with silver barbs. I was led to the first one. The door slid open and I walked in. The young marshal who put the restrainers on me removed them. He stepped out of the cell and the door slid shut behind him. The trio of marshals walked to the door as the two with the M16’s took positions by the entrance-way to the staircase. I grimaced at the company, but then studied my furnishings. There was a mat on the floor to serve as my bed. A small stand with a large basin for both my washing and to serve as my water reservoir. The bathroom was a hole in the ground. I stood there for a moment, then laid down on the mat. The cut on my side made it uncomfortable, but I was going to need all the energy I could get. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the floor.

Chapter 12 – There Are Worse Things Than Being On Trial For My Life