I woke up in the back of the Suburban as Nick pulled into a grocery store. I shook the cobwebs from my mind and pushed through the immediate flash of longing pain. If this was what was going to happen every time I woke up, I wasn’t sure how long I could go on. Nick looked back at me with that same disturbing sympathetic look. I shot him a challenging look, but his face didn’t change.
"Let’s go, Ranger, we need provisions," Nick said, nodding to the grocery store.
"If Ranger wants to stay here, I’ll go," Hangman offered with a note of confused sympathy in his voice. I grimaced and started to move. I was getting a vibe that Nick wanted to get me alone for a bit. Usually, it was because Nick wanted me to tone down my tactics. Nick always thought I did things a little too much on the spectacular side. This time, however, there was something else on his mind, and the only clue was that sympathetic look on his face.
"Thanks anyway Hangman," I said, "After that nap, I need to get my muscles stretched a bit." Hangman nodded and settled himself down in his seat. I climbed out of the truck, my hand brushing the grip of my HK45. Touching my pistol was like a Catholic rubbing a saint medallion. It gave me a sense of reassurance and confidence when I was lacking. All I felt like doing was turning around the truck and charging back into the Manor until I found Elizabeth. I was shrouded in emotions completely new to me. I had this profound love encased in a terror I’d never felt before. If this was the horror that was felt when the aristocracy used their psychic powers, I understood the Guildmaster’s amazement at my resistance. All of this was on top of something I had never even considered possible before – a strong and almost overpowering urge to abandon the job. Until that moment, the job was what defined me. All of my interests and all of my beliefs sprouted from being a hunter – being the best damn hunter in Hillsborough – but now was there someone else that had enough power over me that the idea of abandoning my job didn’t feel like heresy. It almost felt like the completing the job was abandoning my duty, not the other way around. Which was why I needed to speak with Nick. The two of us walked into the grocery store. For me, it was kind of a disorienting experience. In less than six hours, I went from the furious and desperate fighting against my race’s ancient enemies to the peace and quiet of suburban commerce. I didn’t say anything as we began meandering through the aisles. Nick remained quiet through the cooler aisles, almost as if he was building to something in his head.
"If you want to leave Hangman and me, we would understand," Nick said quietly, "I know I would at least." I looked at him, feeling almost betrayed, but also relieved. I always maintained a façade of casual superiority among other lycanthropes. It was always a matter of going on the offense about my heritage when dealing with most of them. No one managed to get past that façade, including those who were supposed to be my friends – like Nick. For some reason, I finally felt like I could speak to Nick without fear of losing his respect. We stopped in the middle of the aisle, and I looked Nick directly in the eye. I knew right then and there, I could walk away and try to find Elizabeth, and Nick would not judge me. He might even encourage me.
"I really don’t know what to do Nick," I admitted, finally letting my guard down, "For the first time in my entire life, my professional life and my personal life are completely at odds."
"Considering this is the first time that you’ve actually had a personal life, I suppose that a little confusion is understandable," Nick chided me. He paused and gave me a knowing smile. "You don’t aim low do you?"
"I’ve got all that sniper training," I retorted, "It’s always aim for the top." Nick and I chuckled at the weak joke.
"What are your instincts telling you?" Nick asked. Nick trusted my instincts. Sometimes more than I did. He always asked me that same question when I had a dilemma.
"She’s alive," I answered immediately, "They’re also telling me I need to get to Tallahassee with the two of you. I can’t abandon the job." Nick just nodded, not with approval or disapproval, just understanding. We were hunters once all was said and done. There was a reason hunters generally had a hard time with relationships. Our jobs always came first. Finally, I understood the torment some of my colleagues went through when they had to choose the job over their loves. In the past, I silently admonished them for their "weakness." I would never do that again. Lost in thought, I almost didn’t hear my phone buzzing.
"You’ve got company," Hangman said in a hushed tone, "Five of those weird leeches from the Manor just walked into the store. One is prowling the lot. I think they’re looking for us." Damn, those bastards were moving fast. The fight at the Manor must have finished up. I thought our escape window was good for at least another twelve hours.
"Take down the prowler as quietly as possible," I told Hangman, "Nick and I will deal with the ones in the store." I hand-signed to Nick "vampires incoming." He just nodded. I could see his eyes slide from compassion to killing. Nick continued to push the cart nonchalantly down the aisle as I went to scout for the vampires. For the record, trying to be inconspicuous while looking for a group in a grocery store isn’t always easy. With the early darkness of Florida winter, the vampires could come out while many people were doing their routine shopping. With the store crowded as it was, I didn’t want to use my pistol. Humans did unpredictable things around gunfire. I was left to use the stuff I was carrying – and what was on the shelves. Fortunately, I was pretty good at that. First thing, I needed some wet floor signs.
"Nick meet me at the end of Aisle 12," I said over my phone, "Pick up some toilet paper and some lighter fluid." I had to work fast. I needed to get the humans out of the way. I walked up to the customer service desk. The young girl behind the counter looked up at me with sparkling eyes and a brilliant smile. She was the picture of what a customer service rep should look like. Glaring got rid of some of the humans in front of me. Shoving took care of the last two.
"Get on the intercom and have everyone leave the store," I ordered her with the Wolf’s Growl. Her welcoming eyes immediately darkened with fear. Her manager noticed something wrong and joined us. I told him in the Growl, "Everyone must leave." A stammering voice came over the intercom telling all of the patrons that they were required to leave immediately. The customers looked about with various looks of bewilderment and annoyance as I moved through the throngs. I needed to get the rest of my components before the vampires caught up with us. I ducked between the aisles, narrowly avoiding the vampires. Preparations took a few moments. Then I went out to meet my pursuers.
"Hey, shitheads," I growled as the gang of vampires came into the main aisle. They had that same wild, uncontrolled look many of the vampires in the Manor possessed. There was something different about these vampires. Something feral. I was surprised they managed to walk among the humans without lashing out. The group sprouted twisted smiles as they locked their eyes on me. Oh yeah, they were here for us. I almost reached for my pistol, but I kept my hand away. I had a plan in place for a reason. Seeing their prey, the five vampires sprinted down the aisle at me. I took a sidestep into my trap. I was on the other end of aisle with a waiting Nick, who was holding a lighter. The vampires scrambled into the aisle – and hit the slick of floor polish. The vampires sprawled onto the floor and slid into the waiting pool of lighter fluid. Nick lit the matches in his hand and let them fall into a line of lighter fluid. A whoosh followed the wave of flame. The vampires had less than a second to realize what was happening to them before their bodies were consumed by fire. Primal screams filled the aisle as Nick and I watched the writhing bodies burn. My phone vibrated at my side.
"Humans are on their way," Hangman reported, "You might want to get the hell out of there." I hand-signed what Hangman said to Nick, who nodded silently. The two of us jogged to the front door.
"We’re on our way," I said to Hangman, "Did you take care of the prowler?"
"Yeah, and I’ll never get the stench off my good knife," Hangman replied, "I’ve got the truck running. We can get the hell out of Dodge as soon as the two of you get here." The pup was thinking on his feet. Human involvement was the last thing we needed. Nick and I piled into the Suburban and Hangman pulled the truck out of the parking lot. Less than a minute after we pulled out, a flurry of emergency vehicles screamed into the parking lot. Hangman slammed on the accelerator, but backed off when Nick quietly chided him to drive normally. It was a typical mistake. When fleeing from the scene, it was better to blend in with the surroundings rather than getting out as fast as possible. Running away stood out in bystanders’ minds when questioned. Thwarted from getting some real food, the three of us decided to just head to Tallahassee. The quickest way north would have been either the interstate or up the Suncoast Parkway. the problem was both routes would be under surveillance. The attack at the store wasn’t luck on the vampires’ part. With the Manor secured, the TCV was trying to eliminate what remained of the lycanthropes of Hillsborough County. We had the weapons and the ability to take on pretty much anything the TCV could throw at us, but it would delay us. Time was critical. We’d wasted far too much time dealing with the vampires in the grocery store. So we headed north on Dale Mabry, figuring on using county and state roads to get to our destination.
There was some tension as we crossed the border between Hillsborough County and Pasco County. Fifty years ago, we would have been required to immediate proceed to the Pasco Manor and state our business before Lord Smith. One of the good things the first Lord Vollen did was forge a treaty allowing lycanthropes to cross borders without restraint as long as it didn’t endanger the county. Which was exactly what the three of us were doing. Fleeing into the county could easily be construed by as bringing Pasco into the war with the TCV. Flashing lights blazed behind us. I looked back to see the blue and white lights of the Florida Highway Patrol. My instincts were screaming as Hangman dutifully slowed down and pulled off to the side of the highway. I had a nasty feeling we weren’t being pulled over by a legitimate state trooper. I drew my HK45. Nick looked back at me as he heard the pistol clear my holster.
"What is it Ranger?" he asked, giving me a questioning look.
"I don’t like this," I answered, "Something’s wrong. I can feel it." Nick tensed up. Hangman looked at me through the rear view mirror with a confused look.
"What do I do?" Hangman asked with a forced confidence, "I can punch it." I looked back as our vehicles slowed. It wasn’t the normal cruiser, but one of the handful of sports cars used for pursuit. Outrunning a police sports car in a heavily loaded SUV wasn’t an option. The good news was the sports car could only hold two occupants, max. If it was vampires, it would be two leeches. Even with Bleeders, three on two were good odds. Nick drew his monster revolver.
"Pull over," Nick told Hangman, "As much as I trust Ranger’s instincts, this could be a normal traffic stop. We play this normal until we see different. If it starts to go down Hangman, get out of the truck as fast as you can." There was a wait after our vehicles stopped. If this was a legitimate stop, the trooper was running the Suburban’s plates. If it wasn’t, reinforcements were probably on their way. To make matters worse, I couldn’t make out the car’s occupants beyond the bright lights of the headlights and the spotlight. My instincts were fucking shrieking danger signals, but there wasn’t anything I could do. My instincts were scary good, but they had one problem. They gave me warnings on danger – any danger, including those I could get out of without gunfire.
Two more sets of flashing lights appeared in front of us. These were red and blue of county deputies. If this was an ambush, those deputies were more than likely ghouls. The three of us were about to be in the middle of a nasty crossfire. I wanted to roll out of the truck and start the firefight. I was always more comfortable being on the offensive. The Guildmaster had been trying to break me –. The thought stopped as a wave of pain swept through me as I thought of the Guildmaster. I locked down the pain and focused on the deputies getting out of their cars. I couldn’t see them very well, but I could see the silhouettes of long rifles. More blue lights from behind announced the arrival of another state trooper. A Tahoe this time. The SUV could hold another four to six, which meant we likely had eight to our rear and another four to our front. This was not good. The deputies lowered their rifles. The quiet of the night exploded into sound. I kicked my door open and rolled out onto the asphalt as the muzzles of the deputies’ rifles lit up. I rolled up into a crouch and lined up the nearest deputy with my HK45. As I finally saw the deputy’s face, I quickly lowered my pistol. I nearly shot another lycanthrope. It was then I finally realized that the deputies in front of us weren’t firing at us. They were firing at the state troopers behind us. I swung around to join in the fight, but the lycanthropes had already finished the job.
I crept up to the two FHP vehicles, pistol firmly in front of me. Another lycanthrope came up next to me with an assault rifle and covered my blind side. The lycanthrope was a hunter by his movements. The two of us moved towards the Tahoe. I looked over at the sports car. The ghoul trooper managed to take a step out of the car before a burst of fire cut him down. The front of the Tahoe was shredded from rifle fire. The front two occupants had been slaughtered, but I wanted to make sure there weren’t any others in the back of the vehicle. The hunter at my side tapped me on the shoulder. Hand signs gave suggestions on how to handle the approach. His idea was good, so I agreed. The two of us strode up to the SUV in a low crouch. I shed human for true as we came alongside the truck. The smells of death and gunfight flooded my senses as I left the paleness of the human world behind. As the hunter circled behind me, I holstered my HK45 and grasped the passenger door. I ripped the door off of the truck, holding it as a shield against possible fire, and slid back as the other hunter rushed forward with his rifle. He cleared the Tahoe as I dropped the door. There were only two in the Tahoe – both vampires and both with black-painted claws. Bleeders. I looked over at the hunter, actually seeing him for the first time. The multi-colored hair was the first thing that I noticed. I broke down into an exhausted laugh.
Damned Punk, he’s actually getting good at this. I thought. The last time I worked with this hunter, he was a fucking pup who nearly got us both killed with some stupid mistake. At the moment, I was too happy to see him to give a damn. Punk and I walked back to my truck. Nick and Hangman were standing next to the Suburban with the other hunters. One of the hunters took a couple of steps toward me. I recognized the Guildmaster of Pasco County. I worked with the Pasco Chapter enough times the Guildmaster recognized me. Of the three of us, I was technically the highest ranking member, and Pasco’s chapter was always a bit on the formal side.
"You can tell Erik the debt is paid," the Pasco Guildmaster said with an almost aristocratic formality. I didn’t know what debt he was talking about, but the Guildmaster’s serious tone bespoke of an old and personal debt between the two Guildmasters.
"Get to Tallahassee and try to get some support down here. Something horribly wrong is going on here. Hillsborough should not have fallen," the Pasco Guildmaster told us. His voice had that unique huskiness of a lycanthrope holding back his emotions. My voice had sounded that way as the three of us had been sealing the Guild.
"Watch out for witch-hunters," I said from the backseat, "Three full Shields attacked our Manor. We wiped them out, but there may be more in the area." The veteran hunter’s eyes went wide in the unique horror witch-hunters evoked. "Also somehow the TCV brought in hundreds of new vampires. Didn’t think there were that many vampires in the fucking state. That’s what finished the county. They attacked us just after we’d finished with the witch-hunters."
"We will be careful," the Pasco Guildmaster told us, "You must get this information to the State Guildmaster. Witch-hunters and vampires acting in concert? Something is very wrong here. I’ll seal this border as I’ve been ordered, but if State doesn’t send some folks down here, I’ll find out what happened on my own. Polk will help me, and so will Sarasota."
"Who the hell ordered the border to be sealed so fast?" I asked, "The Manor fell less than eight hours ago." Events were happening way too fast. It had taken nearly a week before the Prince ordered the Disputed Territories sealed. Now Hillsborough was sealed in less than a day. The Pasco Guildmaster studied me a moment before he answered. His face was one of concern and shared worry.
"My lord ordered it," the Pasco Guildmaster answered in a calm tone, "At the time, I didn’t think about it. We just found out about the ghoul following you, and I scrambled to get my people out here. Although I think it’s something that I will look into." We made our good-byes and drove off.
If you traveled by best speed and the most direct routes, Tallahassee was about four hours from Hillsborough. We traveled up to Tallahassee using the back roads and being as covert as possible. We met with our counterparts in other chapters of the Guild. Most of them looked at us as outcasts, but they did give the three of us some help. An associate of Hangman’s from their time together at the Guild’s training camp told us in Perry how to get a hold of the State Guild without alerting anyone else. Which led us to the travel information center the State Guild was using as a checkpoint for all hunters going into Tallahassee about twenty hours after we left the hunters in Pasco. Nick made his way to a pay telephone bank, while Hangman and I checked the hard drives and all of our information on the conspiracy, if that was what it was. After we were satisfied everything was intact, Hangman cleared a green metal park bench while I hit the vending machines for snack foods and soda. Leon County, where Tallahassee resides, is the only county without a lord. By law, it is ruled directly by the Prince of Florida. As such, its Hunters Guild chapter is the known State Guild, and it’s an elite organization. Membership is strictly by invitation, and only the best hunters are invited. Because of this, the most of the State Guild hunters have an aloof attitude to the rest of us. From the few I’d met (including Mrs. Werstandt), they deserved their professional reputation. Because of the unique status of Leon County and the State Guild, regular hunters are not allowed to come into Leon County unless: a) you were invited; b) you were escorting a lord, lady, or Guildmaster; or c) you were cleared for visitation by a member of the State Guild. Nick was working on getting us cleared to visit by the State Guildmaster. I spread out my collection of chips, candy, and cans of soda onto the table as Hangman leaned on his arm and looked drowsily around. I distributed my collection between Hangman and me, leaving some for Nick, as Hangman continued to sweep the perimeter with his eyes. Satisfied that we were "alone," Hangman grabbed at his first soda and popped the tab. As he gulped it down noisily, Nick returned from the phones.
"This was the best you could do for lunch Ranger?" asked Nick, staring down at his allotment of the snacks and soda. I could tell he wasn’t enthused with my choice of entrees.
"You really want some of the MRE’s in the back of the truck?" I asked sourly. Nick gave a thoughtful look and decided not to press the issue. He ripped open a bag of chips. I had managed to push Elizabeth to the back of my mind, focusing hard on the job that the Guildmaster had given us, but I was wearing thin. Nick’s comment angered me far more that it should have. I took a few deep breaths and tried to fortify my mental barriers. The job came first.
"The State Guild is sending someone to ‘fetch’ us," Nick related between chips. His tone told Hangman and me exactly what he thought of that wording. He was definitely insulted by something, but I just wrote it off to the State Guild’s arrogance. They deserved their rep, but the way they carried themselves could be more than a bit annoying. "At any rate, the hunter on the line said they had been expecting to hear from us yesterday, but they figured we were being cautious on the drive up."
"So what are they going to do about Hillsborough?" Hangman asked.
"Do you really think that I told them about Hillsborough over an open line?" Nick responded. Hangman rolled his eyes back and muttered a curse under his breath. Nick continued to brew about the responses he’d gotten from the State Guild as he ate his food. I finished my lunch and picked up the other can of soda I had and got up from the table. I walked back to the Suburban and checked the drives in their box. I wished I had a chance to check them on a computer to make sure all the data was still there. I placed them back in their case and put it back into the truck. I also checked all of our "proof" of the conspiracy again, and swallowed a short burst of anxiety. I didn’t know what the Prince would do to us when we told him what suspected, and what I knew of the Prince was sketchy at best. The Prince of Florida had presided over the state for the past sixty years. His father was killed during the Great Fatherland War, leading Florida’s warriors against the vampires and their ghouls. When he started his reign, the Prince was a strong proponent of the Peace and worked hard to make sure his lords followed the Peace. All of that changed over the past decade. The Lords of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties went missing as open war with the vampires erupted on the southeastern tip of the state. The Prince’s inability to quell the fighting and reestablish the lordships eroded his standing with the lords and his power within the state. Since the Prince had no heir-apparent, some of the more ambitious lords were already jostling to see who would ascend to the throne. With the fall of Hillsborough County to the vampire, the Prince would be forced to convene a war council to keep the lords from challenging him directly and killing him outright. There was some politics there that I didn’t understand, but I could see what was going to happen. The Prince might be able to delay it, but that was all he could do. Once the war council was convened, the Prince would probably be ousted from his throne and one of the lords would become the new Prince. From everything we knew about this conspiracy, that was probably the ultimate goal of whoever ordered Lord Vollen’s assassination. We didn’t have enough hard information to guess who this group would put forth as their candidate. I’m sure Nick had a few good ideas, but without hard evidence, and a strong ally on the council – which the Prince was not, unfortunately – we wouldn’t be able to stop them. At least not politically. To be honest, if I discovered who ordered Vollen’s assassination, I would make damn sure that he was dead by the next Bone Moon. I looked up as a compact car pulled into the spot next to the Suburban. The driver stepped out. He was a smallish lycanthrope, about five and a half feet tall, but his passenger was a giant. The lycanthrope topped at just under seven feet – and that was in human form. He probably nudged ten feet in true form. Both stood by the car in human form, watching me as I put my back up against the truck. I looked back at the car with an incredulous stare, trying to figure out how that behemoth had fit in the tiny seat.
"Hello hunter," the smallish lycanthrope said to me. He was dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt with a yellow smiley face with a bullet hole in the forehead embossed on it. His voice was high-pitched and off-key. It took me a moment to realize the lycanthrope in front of me wasn’t more than eighteen years old. This pup should be in tysach, not playing at being a hunter. What was going on in the State Guild? That was assuming this pup was from the Guild. He could very well be part of the conspiracy looking to tie up loose ends. Did I mention that hunters tend to be paranoid?
"Who are you, pup?" I asked cautiously, my hand sliding back to the butt of my pistol. Nick and Hangman saw the two pull up and were making their way to me. Both of them wore very serious expressions, although Nick’s held a trace of – anger? I had no idea where that was coming from. I turned my attention back to the pup, as soon as I was sure backup was on its way.
"We’re from the State Guild," he said with an arrogant flippancy that made me want to reach out and touch him very harshly. He held up his identification card. It looked like a generic club card, but it had the correct identifying marks on it. I checked the picture on the card to the prick’s face. I didn’t bother reading the name.
"Yippee," I responded, dryly, "What the fuck do you want?"
"You three are required to follow us to the State Guild and wait there for the State Guildmaster to deal with you." The little prick sounded so pompous about the whole thing. Out of habit, and hidden desire, my mind calculated the distance from where I was standing to the pup’s throat. The thought faded as I remembered that one, I badly needed to talk to the State Guildmaster, and two, that behemoth behind the prick was probably his partner. He could and would pick me off before I had a chance to finish anything.
"Get in your plastic car and get moving, we’ll follow in a moment," Nick said as he moved around the compact towards me, never letting his gaze drop from the giant. His voice held a definite warning. What the hell was going on? Nick was usually the steady one of our group. Hangman swiftly moved around Nick and got into the driver’s seat of the truck as the two State hunters lowered themselves into their small car. Nick was angry at the big one for some reason, but I didn’t know why. For that reason, I pushed Nick into the backseat and climbed into the shotgun seat. I had an odd feeling that Nick might use the twelve-gauge under the seat on the tiny car. I had never been to Tallahassee before, so the roundabout route through the city lost me. I finally quit trying to find my way around and just concentrated on looking for threats. Hangman continued to follow the compact car until it reached the parking lot of a four story office complex. The complex was a block of one-way, bluish-tinted glass with an entrance door on the south side that was barely distinguishable. Standing by the door was a hunter wearing the uniform of a private security guard. I climbed out of the Suburban and walked to the front of the truck where Hangman and Nick joined me. The prick and the big guy walked towards the door. The prick motioned for us to follow him into the building. As the two approached the guard, they showed their ID’s to him. After checking them, he looked us over.
"They’re the boys from Hillsborough. The Guildmaster wants to talk to them," the prick explained with a barely contained tone of annoyance in his voice. The guard came over to us with a neutral expression on his face.
"What weapons do you have?" he asked.
"Do we have to be truthful?" asked Hangman, hoping to lighten the mood between Nick, who was still glaring murder at the behemoth, and myself, who was contemplating violent action against the little prick. Both of us looked at our younger companion with quizzical glances. He just smiled back at us in response. I shook my head. Sometimes the pup did the oddest things that came in handy.
"It doesn’t hurt," the guard answered, his tone lightening with Hangman’s remark. We showed the guard the collection of pistols and knives we were carrying. The behemoth actually showed a slight hint of emotion as he saw Nick’s big Smith. The guard nodded and let the five of us in the door. The first two floors of the office complex were an open air courtyard with several Asian-style gardens surrounding the pebbled walkway. Offices lined the walls. A pair of open staircases were on the west and east walls. We walked to an elevator bank was at the north side. We followed the two in silence as we rode up to the fourth floor and then to the State Guildmaster’s office. The State Guildmaster was a sour-faced lycanthrope named Scott Franken. He was in his early fifties, wearing his graying dark hair in a crew cut. Like many lycanthropes, he wore a full beard. It was still mostly dark but there were a few streaks of grey. Dressed in a black suit, he looked up as we walked into his Spartan office. He leaned back into his chair and studied us in silence for a long minute.
"I don’t know what the big deal is about these three," Prick said, breaking the silence. "They lost their county. Hell, one’s a Badmoon." My rage threatened to bubble over. Hangman put a restraining hand on my arm and shook his head. The State Guildmaster gave the pup an appraising look.
"You should be more careful in your appraisals," the State Guildmaster said to Prick, "These three are very good hunters. I doubt that arrogance you wear so proudly on your sleeve impressed them. You might be the youngest hunter accepted by the State Guild, but you are definitely not in these three’s class." Prick’s face fell, and then twisted in anger as the Guildmaster dressed him down in front of us.
"They haven’t even been invited to join the State Guild. How good can they be?" the prick asked the Guildmaster. In response, I flicked a throwing knife at Prick. It whistled by his ear and buried itself in the wall behind him. The Guildmaster laughed heartily as Prick grabbed his ear in panic. The behemoth lurched at me, but stopped suddenly as Nick put the barrel of his Smith to his temple.
"We danced before," Nick stated very quietly, pulling back the hammer on the revolver, "Do you want to go again?" At least that revealed something about Nick’s past in Tallahassee. The two of them were definitely not friendly.
"Nicholas," the Guildmaster said, in a commanding tone, "Put that gun away. We have more important things to do than blow poor John’s brains all over my upholstery." Nick reluctantly holstered his revolver.
"John, please take my nephew down to the training room. I will deal with the two of you later," the State Guildmaster. The two hunters almost fled the room. The State Guildmaster turned to us. His calm eyes were suddenly filled rage.
"Let me make one thing clear. I deal with my hunters. I do not accept anyone’s interference with my hunters. There will be repercussions if that happens again. Do we understand one another?" I felt myself nodding as the rage in the words rolled over me. Satisfied, the calm expression and tone returned like nothing had happened.
"I know Nicholas, so I’m assuming that you’re Ranger. Your other friend isn’t old enough for your file." The State Guildmaster pulled out a manila folder from a desk drawer and plopped into onto the desk. My name was in block letters on the tab. He turned to Nick. "I’m glad you’re here, Nicholas."
"Really?" Nick responded, in a controlled voice, "Why is that?"
"The Prince has need of you. You hold a very unique position right now," the State Guildmaster answered cryptically.
"There is something more important than any position I hold right now," Nick said. I took a sidelong glance at Nick. He looked his normal self, but I could see the faint signs. Nick was very nervous all of the sudden. "We believe that one or more of the lords is plotting against the Prince. They may have been behind the assassination of Lord Vollen." I was surprised by Nick blurting out our suspicions, but he must trust the State Guildmaster. If Nick did, then I would.
"Do you have any proof?" asked the State Guildmaster.
"Nothing concrete," I answered, "I was up on the catwalks when the assassin took his shot. The shooter positioned himself so that the railing would deflect a hunter’s normal kill shot. That kind of familiarity with our tactics tell me the shooter was either a current or former hunter – and a damned good one at that. That was our first clue the assassination of Stephen Vollen was a lycanthrope-instigated assassination, not a vampire action."
"Are you sure it wasn’t just a rogue hunter hired by the vampire?" the State Guildmaster asked me. The look in his eyes and the tone of his voice told me he was probing, but not dismissing, what I was telling him. That worried me even more.
"I talked to the head of the Bleeders at the time," I answered, "He confirmed the Inner Council of the TCV had nothing to do with it. There weren’t any independents vampires at the time with the resources or contacts to bring someone of that caliber in."
"How do you know that?" the State Guildmaster countered, "I imagine a powerful independent would be able to covertly pull something like this off. Even your own Red Knights concluded the TCV was most likely behind it."
"That’s because our Guildmaster was keeping evidence from the Red Knights while running a second, covert, investigation," Nick answered, "The political situation was too tense, and the Guildmaster didn’t want it known to the packs that a hunter assassinated their beloved lord." The State Guildmaster gave Nick a cool look. It wasn’t dislike, but rather a controlled expression.
"That leads us into other evidence," Hangman chimed in, "The weapon recovered at the scene was loaded with Silver Shoks in seven-six-two NATO. I don’t know about the Sate Guild, but we only started getting silver rounds in that caliber just before the war started in our county. No way a vampire would be able to supply those kinds of rounds. That leads us back to lycanthropes who had a ready supply of the ammunition available. Which means a lord."
"Further, during the war with the vampire, I recovered information that appeared to show alliances county-by-county when open war erupted in Hillsborough," Nick continued, "Our analysis is that a lord is making a power play and the information I recovered was a graphical representation of his most probable enemies and allies."
"A power play for what?" the State Guildmaster asked.
"My guess would be the throne," Nick replied coolly. The State Guildmaster cursed under his breath. From his expressions, he didn’t look like he was surprised by what we were telling him. He was hearing unwanted confirmation. What the hell? If the State Guild knew about this, why weren’t they doing anything about it? That’s what the State Guild was supposed to do.
"Well, at least we can use you showing back up in Tallahassee to put your evidence in front of the Prince," the State Guildmaster said. "Follow me, the three of you." The State Guildmaster led us through a maze of corridors to an unmarked elevator. We entered silently and made our way to a subterranean passageway. The State Guildmaster led us over to a dressing room where we were told to take off our clothing. After we shed our human forms for true form, we put on loose-fitting jumpsuits the State Guildmaster handed us. After strapping on our weapons, we put the long, black formal robes lycanthropes wore when the top levels of the aristocracy received them. The passage led us on a twisting route under the city of Tallahassee. According to Nick, who played reluctant tour guide as the State Guildmaster led us down the passageway, this was a relatively new construct. It had been built about twenty years ago when the new State Manor was constructed. There actually were three passageways. One led to the Hunters Guild. The second led to the Order of Spirits’ house. The last led to a hotel used by visiting lords and their delegations. All three tunnels met up at a reception are under the new State Manor, where the Black Knights – kind of like a State Guild of Red Knights – would clear us into the State Manor. The tunnel stood about fifteen feet high, allowing for the size of lycanthropes in true form. The passageway wasn’t lit, making the lycanthropes who traversed it use their supernatural vision. The floor was smoothed limestone. The natural aquifers that provided Florida with a great deal of its fresh water had been mystically altered around the tunnels and acted as a natural cooling system. They also hid the smells from the city’s sewage system. After about fifteen minutes, the darkness brightened as we approached what Nick had referred to as "the landing." Another five minutes passed as the light gradually increased. The end of the tunnel was an arch where a pair of lycanthropes were standing. Both were in true form, standing well into eight feet tall, about average for a lycanthrope. Both wore black jumpsuits with body armor. One of them was holding a ten-foot long metal pole, an inch in diameter. The other was cradling a Steyr TMP. The Knights loved those little subguns. I preferred my MP5’s.
"Don’t look too happy to see us, do they?" I commented to Nick. He just glared at the two, much as he did at the behemoth back at the State Guild. I wondered if Nick was on bad terms with everyone in Tallahassee. That could make this trip even more interesting.
"If you thought your lord’s Red Knights were paranoid, you won’t believe the scrutiny of the Black Knights. They look on everyone as an immediate threat to the Prince, especially hunters," responded the State Guildmaster, who overheard my comment.
"Even paranoids have enemies," Nick stated, coldly. I was about to ask Nick what he meant, but the two Black Knights walked up to us at that point. They escorted us into the landing in silence. Unlike the tunnels, the landing was about twenty feet high, and was lit with an off-white light from a huge overhead fixture. The limestone walls were covered by concrete blocks. There were evenly spaced crevices in the walls. I assumed those were where the Knights placed their shooters when dealing with trouble. At the far end of the landing, about forty feet from the end of the tunnel, was the opening to another tunnel. I could make out the first steps of the staircase inside the tunnel. We were greeted by another six Black Knights in body armor and assault rifles. My first reaction was to place my hand on the butt of my pistol. Nick caught my hand and shook his head. The State Guildmaster, oblivious to the exchange between the two of us, walked over to the Black Knight in charge.
"These three are the hunters from Hillsborough. I am taking them to the Prince so he can talk to them about the situation there." The head Knight looked us over. His eyes locked onto Nick, who returned the gaze with a steady cold glare. Questions about Nick’s shadowed past crossed my mind. The tense moment between them broke quickly. The head of the detail motioned for the pair of Black Knights that brought us out of the tunnel to come over to him. He spoke quietly to them, then sharply turned about, and walked back to the rest of his detail. Our two escorts walked over to the State Guildmaster and introduced themselves.
"I’m Staff," the one with the long metal pole began, "This is Bullie. We’re to escort you into the Manor. Do they know the rules for hunters here?"
"One of them does, but the other two have never been here before," the State Guildmaster answered. Staff walked over to us. His pole was in the feigned relax pose of a master wielder. I recognized the stance from several martial arts demonstrations.
"Okay, the basic simple rule is, don’t make yourself a threat. The Black Knights and the State Guild have an understanding. The Black Knights understand hunters need to have their weapons on them, and the Guild understands we must protect the Prince from all threats. No fast movements around standard weapon positions, namely the waist, small of the back, thighs, and under the arms. You’ll have a good deal of Black Knights pointing guns loaded with silver at you. Are you bringing any packages with you?"
"Nope, we left them in the car," answered Hangman.
"Good. Less work for me. Hunters, if you would follow me," Staff said, leading us to the tunnel at the back of the landing. Bullie came up behind us with his sub-machine gun in a ready position. I took a quick glance back at him and saw the coldness in his eyes. There was no doubt in my mind the Black Knight would hose the four of us with silver if he thought we were about to harm the Prince or Staff. In that order. This tunnel was also unlit, relying on the ambient light of the landing and a lycanthrope’s supernatural vision. The limestone was covered by red brick, which gave this tunnel an almost Victorian feel. It went straight for about thirty feet before ending at a staircase. The stairs were made of the same smoothed limestone as the floor of the tunnels, and extended at least thirty feet up into the darkness. It was steep enough that from the foot of the staircase, I couldn’t make out what waited for us at the top. Staff quietly walked up the staircase, his leather foot coverings making almost no sound on the cold limestone. The four of us, however, sounded like a pack of elephants in comparison. The way the steps were designed, we couldn’t stop the claws on our feet from clicking on the limestone. It had to be a passive alarm system, since no lycanthrope, except the Back Knights who trained here, would make it through here without making enough noise to alert whoever was at the top and bottom. At the top was another open area, but it was not lit up like the last one. Much smaller than the landing, several oak doors lined the walls. Another half-dozen Black Knights were waiting for us. Two were manning an M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun. The heavy machine gun team was flanked by another pair of Black Knights holding KAC Masterkey combos. The last pair of Black Knights were armed with pump shotguns. Oh yeah, this group could fill the area with silver real fucking fast.
"Alpha Bravo seven four," said one of the Black Knights at the top.
"Delta Whiskey eight nine," responded Staff, who was standing at the very top of the staircase, just on the edge of the guarded area. I was about to continue up, but Staff briskly motioned for us to stay put.
"Omaha," said another of the Black Knights in front of us.
"Denver," responded Bullie. Hangman and I traded approving looks. Nick and the State Guildmaster waited for Staff to lead the group through the heavily armed Knights. Staff moved quietly across the floor to the door opposite of the staircase. He opened the door and motioned for the four of us to go in.
"Aren’t you coming the rest of the way?" asked the State Guildmaster. From his tone, this was a change in the normal protocol.
"No sir. Longblade and his team will be escorting you to the Prince. They will meet you at the end of the hall."
"Longblade? James Nightglow?" Nick asked, sounding incredulous. Something was not right with Nick. That alone made it my problem. However, I also had to factor in the fact that we were carrying sensitive information. Anyone Nick didn’t like or trust became a threat.
"Yes, why do you ask?" responded Staff.
"I didn’t think he was still alive. The last time I saw him he was suffering three gunshot wounds to the chest." Staff looked at Nick peculiarly as our group entered the hall. Staff looked like he was about to say something, but decided against it. He shut the door behind us. As soon as the door clicked, a thick steel wall slid down, sealing us in the hall. The hall, unlike the tunnel and the landing, looked like it belonged in a Manor. The walls were the typical off-white color, and decorated with several paintings. All but one of were landscapes of various areas in Florida,, such as Bok Tower in Lake Wales and Miami Beach. The one painting not of Florida was of the King of the United States. Each prince was required to have at least one painting of the King displayed in their State Manor. Where it was displayed was often an indicator of how the prince felt about the King. That was something an instructor told me during my training. He said that it was a bit of knowledge that might prove useful later in our careers. The placing in the entrance hall was neutral. All of the important lycanthropes coming to see the Prince would see it, but the painting was not in the most prominent place, namely the State Manor itself. The door at the end of the hall was oak, but I could smell the iron of the metal plate inside. Iron has a peculiar smell, although it is very hard to detect, and normally I can’t smell it unless I’m in true form. I also smelled anxiety from Nick. This surprised the hell out of me, since as long as I’ve known Nick, he’s never been anxious.
"Okay, so who the fuck is this Longblade?" I asked ws we walked across the thick red carpeting.
"My exit from Tallahassee was less than docile," Nick answered. I was puzzled by his cryptic response, but I could tell by his expression he wasn’t going to say anything more. I looked over to Hangman and shot him a questioning look. He shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention to the State Guildmaster. The State Guildmaster knocked on the hall door. It opened to reveal a somewhat short lycanthrope wearing flowing black robes. Behind him was a team of four other lycanthropes, also in black robes, with their weapons visible. More Black Knights. We walked out of the hall into a large, well-appointed waiting room. The small Black Knight looked each of us over with a cool appraising eye. That coolness faded as soon as Nick came out of the hall. Anger flashed in the small lycanthrope’s eyes, and a growl came from his throat. Nick responded with a similar evil growl, but didn’t move from where he stood. In a lightning blur of motion, the small lycanthrope threw himself at Nick. Nick absorbed the impact, falling down to lessen the blow, as we were taught. The little Black Knight knelt over Nick and snarled. He waved his claws, almost as if he was looking for a place to strike. My hand shot under my robe and whipped out my HK45. I placed the barrel to the small Black Knight’s head.
"Back off doggie," I said, in a dangerously calm voice. His companions, stunned by their leader’s attack, were quickly covered by Hangman. Before they could spray all of us, the State Guildmaster stepped between Hangman and the Black Knights. They took one look at him and took a step back. The small Black Knight calmed fractionally as he felt my pistol press against his head. When he refused to get off of Nick after I asked him nicely, I pulled the metal hammer back with my thumb to wordlessly emphasize my command.
"STOP!" thundered a voice from behind me. I looked at the State Guildmaster, thinking it was him. The State Guildmaster was standing rigid. Hangman had his pistol lowered. I decocked my pistol and turned to face the speaker. He stood in impressive black robes with silver runes printed down the hems. He wasn’t much taller than me, but his presence made him seem another two feet taller. His eyes were pure obsidian, containing both coolness and fire within them. His dark brown pelt was streaked with silver puffs, but he moved across the room towards us with a grace and boldness that belied any show of age. He was Jan Kraven, Jan Talis Silverflash, the Prince of Florida, may the Ancestors long bless his reign.
"You are my guardian, Longblade. You are not my attack dog. We have need of this particular lycanthrope’s services. That comes before any personal vendetta. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?" the Prince boomed, his deep voice echoing slightly off the room’s walls. Longblade took the reprimand stoically, never changing his now emotionless face. The rest of his detail looked about ready to collapse from fear. I could feel the tendrils of psychic fear swirling about. The Prince looked down at Nick, who was still on the floor. Nick’s face remained emotionless as the Prince studied him, but I saw something I’d never seen before in Nick’s eyes. Terror.
"Nicholas, I’m glad you have returned to us," the Prince said in a surprisingly warm tone, "You’ve brought allies?" The Prince looked at Hangman, studying the young hunter as he studied Nick. Hangman looked like he was about to flee, but he held his ground. Then, the Prince looked at me. The Prince’s eyes went wide. He stepped back a moment as he looked at me in wide-eyed wonder.
"Ravage, my word, is that you?" the Prince asked.
"Pardon, your highness?" I asked. I’d never heard of a lycanthrope called Ravage, much less anyone I resembled. Maybe I had a double up in Tallahassee? The Prince shook his head with a hint of what I read as nostalgia.
"I’m sorry. Of course you’re not Ravage. You look very much like an old friend of mine," the Prince explained, "You’re much too young to be him, but the resemblance is very strong. Ancestors, it’s frightening. What’s your name lycanthrope?"
"Marcus Phoenix Badmoon, hunter of the Hillsborough Guild," I answered in a confident voice, which was more than I was feeling. There were so many questions and sub-plots running around Tallahassee that I was almost dizzy trying to keep track of them.
"Badmoon? A Badmoon here? I don’t there’s ever been a Badmoon in the State Manor." Then, the Prince turned to the State Guildmaster as if I didn’t require any other comment. Nick, Hangman, and I shared apprehensive looks. Usually, I get either extreme hostility or, far more rarely, those who are trying very hard to look past the ancient stigma to deal with me. Complete dismissal was something new entirely. The Prince motioned for us to follow him into the State Manor.
"So tell me Scott, why have you brought these hunters to me? We already know about the fall of Hillsborough. What are they going to add to that? Well, besides Nicholas. I know why he’s here." The State Guildmaster stepped up next to the Prince under the watchful eye of the Black Knights.
"Your highness, these three have brought additional evidence –" the State Guildmaster began.
"The Great Overthrow conspiracy again?" the Prince interrupted, the weary tone in his voice conveying his annoyance at the State Guildmaster. My regard for the Prince dropped a couple of notches. First, the Prince’s comment about my home pissed me off. The fall of a county wasn’t supposed to be spoken of in such a casual manner. Secondly, the Prince was not only disregarding a very probable threat to his throne, he was acting as if it was a fantasy. At least the Lords Vollen, all three of them I’d served, listened to the hunters when the Guild said it had important information. Why wasn’t the prince listening to his best source of information, the State Hunters Guild? We followed the Prince into the State Manor without another word being spoken. Unlike the grandeur of the Hillsborough Manor, the State Manor had an elegant Spartan look to it. It was similar to the way the Guildmaster kept his office, just with different appointments. The walls were an off-white plaster, trimmed in wood and gold-leaf. The floor was white marble, with great black swirls. The doors were richly polished oak. At the far end of the State Manor was a dais with a single chair on it. The chair was built to fit the prince, with a high back. It was adorned only with two emeralds on the arms and purple satin cushions on the seat and back. It looked like a traditional human throne, and that made me slightly ill. Why would the prince ape human traditions? We had our own, and I was damned proud of them. The prince took his throne and looked out at us. Longblade and another of his Black Knights stood beside the Prince on the dais. From concealed doors on either side of the platform, ten Black Knights filed into the room, taking evenly spaced positions along the walls.
"Bring in Christopher and that bastard dog from Nebraska," the Prince thundered. The two Black Knights at the double doors rushed outside. I looked over at Nick, who seemed very anxious, all of the sudden.
"What’s going on?" I whispered to him.
"SILENCE," boomed the Prince, "We will wait for the others before the talking begins." I whirled angrily on the Prince. I could feel the Prince’s powers hammering down on me, but I was pissed. I felt something surrounding me. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw my friends shuttering with terror. It was very similar to what happened when Stephen Vollen tried using his powers on me before the war. I knew the Prince’s powers were lashing me, but I didn’t feel the terror’s touch. There was confusion in the Prince’s eyes when he saw I wasn’t quivering in fear. The powers quickly dissipated, but I remained silent. I heard my Guildmaster’s voice in my head. If the Prince was willing to use his powers on me, then it was probably a good idea not to anger him further. I bowed my head in submission. The Prince still looked disturbed, but didn’t say anything further. I stood quietly, waiting for the other lycanthropes that were supposed to be joining us. Hangman just stood rigidly, trying to shake off the after effects of the prince’s psychic lashing. Nick’s eyes bored into me.
What? I hand-signed to him, the sharp movement of my hands punctuating my frustration.
What was that? Nick asked with his hands. At least, that was my interpretation. Nick actually signed What is it? Hunter hand signs were designed to silently ask questions and give directions. It was a more complex version of the tactical hand signs used by military and police forces around the world. It wasn’t designed to hold a prolonged conversation, but hunters being hunters, we managed it.
Don’t know, I answered, Talk about it later. Nick looked a little calmer, but he was uneasy about what he had seen. I didn’t blame him, but it was disturbing to see that uneasy look on his face. Nick was always one of those who always looked at me like I was just another lycanthrope, instead of a Badmoon. After about fifteen minutes, which felt like an hour, the two Black Knights reentered the room, followed by another pair of lycanthropes. Both were standing in true form, with the traditional black robes draping off of them. The taller one, about Hangman’s height, was walking in an arrogant stride, not even bothering to look at the rest of us. Conversely, the shorter one, studied each of us before kneeling to the Prince at the platform. The Prince handled the introductions.
"He is called Bradford," the Prince said, pointing to the tall one, "He is the son of one of the lords in Nebraska, and is the Prince of Nebraska’s emissary." Nick stiffened. The Prince pointed to the other one. "This is Chris Blackhawk, one of my advisers. Among other things." Bradford now felt dignified to look at us. He kept his face impassive until he saw Nick.
"Well, it looks like my job is finally done," Bradford said with a slimy smugness, "How are you, Nicholas? The Prince is very interested in having you back in good shape, as is his daughter." Nick took one step back from the tall lycanthrope. That set me off. I was sick and tired of all these little games. I wasn’t about to let this asshole talk to my best friend – who listened to me cry for Elizabeth’s safety on the way up here and would keep that secret – like he was some prize. All of my pent-up rage and anger was released in one moment. With a quick leap, I was on top of the bastard dog, pinning him. One hand was wrapped around his throat. I was deciding what to slash when I felt like I was hit with a live electrical wire. My heart jumped as the powerful shock threw me off of Bradford. I looked up at the Prince and saw another lycanthrope standing next to him. This one was dressed in the black robes and stood with an almost regal bearing. I didn’t know where the new lycanthrope came from, but I didn’t have time to contemplate that bit. Something invisible threw me back a good ten feet. Whatever force protected me from magicks before wasn’t working at the moment. I really needed to figure that out. The Prince loomed over us.
"I will not tolerate any more foolishness in my Manor," the Prince said, calmly but with the implied threat. "For those of you who don’t know, this is Marshall Yven, the Spiritmaster for Florida." At the mention of his name, I wondered if he was related to John Yven, the deputy Spiritmaster from my county. Shaman did tend to run along family lines.
"What more can you expect from brutes?" asked the Spiritmaster, looking down at us. Damn. He certainly sounded a lot like the Yven I knew, including the condescension. My body was hurt from the lightning bolt. Magick caused archanal wounds, so I wouldn’t be healing that anytime quick. Even if I could, Nick was making sure I didn’t try to fight anymore. Bradford stood up shakily. There was fear in his eyes, although he tried to look angry. Blackhawk looked like he was about to explode into laughter. I wondered exactly who Blackhawk was and what his connection was to the Prince. He didn’t look like the normal advisor that I had seen in the Hillsborough court.
"Nicholas Starson Hellfire," the prince began, "You were granted refuge in Florida from the Prince of Nebraska. After careful reconsideration of your case, that refuge is revoked. You are hereby required to return to your home state and obey the dictates of your Prince. Bradford is empowered as marshal by your Prince. He is to escort you to Nebraska. Do you follow these dictates, or will you resist?" Longblade grinned with anticipation as the ultimatum was thrown down. Nick stood towards the Prince.
"I will go with Bradford willingly, but first I must beg you to listen to my partners and me about the threat that awaits you." The prince nodded, although he looked bored about the whole deal. "Several months ago, Lord Stephen Vollen of Hillsborough was assassinated. The shot could have only been made by a hunter for two reasons. The position he fired from was awkward and difficult to use. Anyone but a skilled hunter could not have made that shot. Furthermore, the assassin used Silver Shok ammunition, an ammunition that is used almost exclusively by the Guild. The conclusion from this is that another lord had Vollen killed."
"The why is simple, Vollen’s death put his son on the throne of Hillsborough County. Moreover, it secured that whoever was behind it would not have to deal with the elder Vollen during the war council. We found documents to that effect. My Prince, there is a group of lords that fomented the fall of Hillsborough, and we believe are hoping to use the war council to force you off your throne." The Prince gave us a bored look.
"I thank you for your testimony, Nicholas Hellfire," the Prince responded with a tired tone that conveyed a slight sarcasm, "But I’m quite sure that you’re mistaken. You will leave my state as soon as reasonable possible."
"May I ask an indulgence to speak with my friends?" Nick ventured, "If I don’t, they may act irrationally. They don’t understand what is going on." The Prince nodded looking directly at me. Okay, I hadn’t exactly acquitted myself well. Nick gathered the two of us around him.
"I know what the two of you are going to ask," Nick said, "I had some trouble with the Prince back home, and a friend of mine here offered to get me out. After his death in Broward, the Black Knights here wanted to send me back home to protect the Prince from any wrath of the Nebraska Prince. What resulted was my coming to Hillsborough after a bad escape. That’s all you need to know right now. You two are going to need to protect each other. You can trust the State Guildmaster, to a point. Everyone else is questionable. Ranger, I don’t know what happened earlier, but you better find out soon. And don’t give up on her. Hangman, find a way back to Hillsborough. The Guildmaster was right. You will be the new Guildmaster. Learn what you can up here, but get back quickly. I don’t know why the Prince just shrugged off the plot against him. Something vile is going on here. Be careful." Nick walked over to Bradford, and the two of them walked out the double doors. Hangman and I stood next to each other without saying a word. The State Guildmaster walked up to the two of us, a sad look on his face.
"I didn’t want that to happen," the State Guildmaster said, as we turned to look at him, "Unfortunately, the Prince is going to need all the external support he can get, and that includes the Prince of Nebraska. I know that doesn’t make you any less angry about this, but there’s nothing you can do. At any rate, the two of you will work for me, now."
"I don’t think so," said Blackhawk, who had silently walked up next to us, "The young one you can take, but I’m afraid the Prince said Ranger could work for me." The State Guildmaster’s face darkened and looked about ready to attack Blackhawk.
"Who the fuck are you? And why isn’t anyone talking about sending a force to Hillsborough?" I asked, pissed off that the two of them were treating me like a piece of equipment.
"Those decisions have already been made. Take a walk with me Ranger," Blackhawk said in response, "I will explain a lot of things. I will also explain to you why it’s important that you work for me." Something about Blackhawk’s response intrigued me. I knew it was a hook, but there was something about this lycanthrope I needed to figure out. Something in the back of my mind told me was important. I hadn’t survived this long by ignoring my instincts. Blackhawk led me through the halls of the Manor to a large open courtyard. The courtyard was a couple hundred square feet, fenced in by ten foot tall hedges. Blackhawk projected an air of secrecy, like a seasoned spy. He knew things that I didn’t, and he knew I wanted them. That, for some reason, gave him confidence. I didn’t know whether that made me want to laugh or be worried.
Blackhawk, himself, was not intimidating. We had shed our true forms for human form somewhere along the way to the courtyard. I suspected we did that to protect him. Even in his lycanthrope form, he wasn’t big or particularly strong-looking. Even if he knew some form of martial arts, I was bigger enough to dominate the fight. In human form, his dark brown hair topped an unimpressive face. It wasn’t handsome or ugly, just average. Blackhawk could be anyone in a crowd. What disturbed me most about him were his eyes. I always looked into the eyes. They told me what the owners were feeling or if they were hiding something. Blackhawk’s eyes were empty, completely vacant of any emotion. Only a faint spark of life told me that they were not dead. That kind of control told me that Blackhawk was more than he pretended to be.
"To answer your earlier question, I am Christopher Blackhawk, or Chris Major to the human world. I head the Society of the Claw and the Fang in Florida. We are hunters, shaman, warriors, and kin. Our job is to act in the name of the King of the United States and to preserve the United States as a kingdom at all costs. We also act as informal advisers and spies for the Princes of the states." Blackhawk leaned on the wall to the Manor and pulled out a cigar. He lit up from a lighter he produced from under his robes and then looked at me again.
"Why do you want me?" I retorted, "I’m just a hunter from one of the counties. I’m not even very good at the subtle stuff." Blackhawk puffed on his cigar for a good thirty seconds before answering.
"You are not ‘just a hunter,’ Ranger," Blackhawk answered, "I’ve seen your file from the State Guild. According to them, you are one of the best hunters in Florida. In addition to being well-versed in the various weapons you’ve employed, the file notes you’re a quick thinker and adjust easily to changing situations. As for the subtle stuff, the Society has plenty of quiet operators. Spies, if you will. What the Florida Society is lacking is lycanthropes who can do wetwork easily and efficiently. Your record in Hillsborough is proof enough of that. Did you or did you not take down three vampires because you smelled them?"
"What? You mean when I was guarding the pups in tysach? Why does everyone make a big deal about that? It’s like everyone forgets how different vampires smell from lycanthropes. Besides, the smell was just confirmation. Bats sound different from birds when they fly, and bats don’t go where we held tysach in Hillsborough."
"It’s more of how fast you put it all together and reacted," Blackhawk said. "That kind of instinct I can’t train into my operatives. Which is why I want you to work for me."
"And why do I want to work for you?" I asked.
"Most importantly, because it’s going to be the Society providing the intel on Hillsborough for when the liberation actually begins. I can’t guarantee you will be working in your home county, but I can guarantee a certain amount of freedom in the execution of your duties. In addition you will always have full material support. You will have to have a partner, but I can also guarantee she will meet the stringent rules the Society has for abilities and physical fitness."
"She?" I asked, incredulously. We had no female hunters in the Hillsborough chapter of the Guild, and the number of female hunters is very low anyhow. The reasons are simple. Females aren’t as physically built for hunting as males are, and they usually can’t handle the intense harassment of the training. This doesn’t mean female hunters are any less capable than male hunters. Quite the contrary. Once they get through the training, female hunters are some of the most devious and cold-hearted hunters in the Guild. It’s just that, as a whole, females are more likely to fail the training then males.
"Yes, she." Blackhawk replied, slightly annoyed, "Put that look away. The partner I have in mind is a kin who has more or less, grown up in black operations. She is a master at compiling and analyzing vast amounts of intelligence. She has been very useful to the Society in the past by coming up with information no one else had pieced together. My problem is, she’s wasted here in Tallahassee. By the time she’s done her analysis, the tactical situation has changed. It’s not her fault, but rather the fact my operatives are better at gathering information than analyzing and acting on it. This is where you come in."
"Let me guess. I’m supposed to protect her as we gather up the data that you want. In addition, I’m supposed to be the one that acts on any of the truly time-sensitive things we find. This doesn’t sound very appealing. Who’s going to cover me during all of this?"
"We have contacts in most of the Guild chapters in Florida, but don’t you have your own network of allies?" he asked, almost in a mocking tone. I leveled a glare at him and crossed my arms, waiting for him to restart the conversation. If he wanted me that badly, he could make the next move.
"At any rate," he said after fifteen seconds of silence, "My offer is firm. Furthermore, where will you better serve in the coming war with the leeches? In the State Guild preparing for missions, or in the Society, actually doing them?" That last line bit into me. I never was one to miss out on action. There were a few nagging doubts – and a very specific job in mind that I still needed to do.
"I’ll meet the kin first, then I’ll give you my decision." I could see the triumph in his eyes. Blackhawk was sure he had me, and I wasn’t sure he was wrong.
"That is a perfectly acceptable answer Ranger," he said, maintaining a level voice, "What say we meet at a coffee house I know in town? It’s called the Java Spear. The Guildmaster will know where it is." With that, he left the courtyard, leaving me alone to think. A great deal occurred in the past few hours. I saw my best friend hauled off to Nebraska, of all places, and a strange lycanthrope offered a position doing what I was good at for an organization I’d never heard of before. There was something else. I was sure Elizabeth was alive, and she was going to need me. We didn’t have a lot of time together, and none of it in private. Well, except when she came down to talk to me in the prison cell. Amongst all the problems of the Florida aristocracy, my personal life fell by the wayside – again. Now, however, there was actually something in my personal life that needed my attention. I wished Nick was with me in the courtyard to bounce off ideas. He was gone, and I was treading unfamiliar ground by myself. I must have sat there for at least a couple of hours, because Hangman joined me. From the mixed relief and satisfaction on his face, he must have been looking me for awhile. He sat down beside me silently and stared at the vegetation. I didn’t think he knew I was aware he was there. Finally he took an audible breath after sitting for a good minute and a half.
"I’ve known you were there since you walked in Hangman, so you can come out and say what you’re going to say." He looked directly at me, as I turned to face him.
"You’re going to go with that Blackhawk, aren’t you?" he asked, though it sounded more as a statement than a question.
"Yes," I answered, finally truly answering the question for myself.
"Well that’s just fucking great. First Nick is shipped off to Nebraska and now you’re leaving the Guild to go play with that fucking dog. Just what in the hell am I supposed to do?" I took a long look at Hangman. His features, even obscured by fur, were strained. I had actually forgotten how young he was compared to Nick and me. We were his mentors, much as the Guildmaster had been mine. We protected him. We continued his training. Now, we were disappearing from his life.
"Hangman, over the short time I’ve known you, you’ve proved yourself countless times as an effective and even a superb hunter," I said. The statement took Hangman aback, but I continued. "What you are going to do is take your ass back to the State Guild and teach those arrogant bastards exactly what a county hunter can do. I know you can beat them, because Nick and I taught you how. As for me, I need the freedom of action Blackhawk is offering me. I need the chance to go back to Hillsborough."
"To look for the Lady-Apparent?" Hangman asked, reading my mind. I nodded my head. "You’re in love with her, aren’t you?"
"Yeah. You know, I always thought love was a damn stupid thing for a hunter to feel, considering what we do. Now, I’m not so sure." Hangman’s sudden bark of laughter startled me.
"Nick was right. This is the first time for you isn’t it?" Hangman asked. Anger flashed through me as the thought of Nick betraying a confidence of mine to Hangman. It subsided as I realized Hangman probably had been extremely worried about me during some of my depressive bouts on the ride up. I guess I would’ve done the same thing.
"Yeah," I answered, nodding my head, "I was taken to the training grounds right after Initiation. My first teacher was a crusty old bastard who loved to drill his students into the ground, either by training or his fists, but he taught us how to think nasty and win by doing so. After training, I came back to Hillsborough. After a couple of embarrassing situations with a couple of the older hunters of the Guild, I made the decision to become the best."
"And you did, neglecting everything else, huh?" I nodded at Hangman’s question. "I know how you feel, sort of. I dated someone during tysach, but she told me after Initiation she wouldn’t become involved with a hunter. It hurt, but I left her and became a hunter. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice."
"You did. You have the knack for this job, and you handle yourself well." I got up, dusting off the robes as I stood. Hangman did the same. "Now, how do we get out of here?"
"We can just walk around the Manor until a Black Knight shows up and escorts us back to the tunnel." Hangman shed his true form for human.
"Sounds like a plan to me. Especially if it involves annoying the Knights."
I awoke the next morning in unfamiliar settings. It took me a moment to remember I was staying in the State Guild. As I sat up in the dimness of the room, I vaguely remembered the roundabout route through the Manor Hangman and I had taken. We had been finally escorted to the tunnel by a pair of unsmiling Black Knights after we made a slight mess in the kitchen. I looked over to the other bunk in the room to see if Hangman was there. He was still sleeping soundly after a long night of training. Hangman told the State Guildmaster that he was going to join when we got to the Guild. So, the State Guildmaster had taken Hangman to the training hunter. The two sparred most of the night. I was barely awake when a very exhausted Hangman swayed into the room and collapsed on his bunk. Satisfied he was still alive, I stood up and walked over to the chest of drawers. I put on a pair of jeans with a simple white t-shirt. I slipped on wy well-worn work boots, and my HK45 slid into its holster. I made myself look somewhat presentable. Much to my relief, a small map of the State Guild was taped to the door. I memorized the directions to the State Guildmaster’s office and left the map for Hangman. As I navigated through the mass of corridors and staircases, I went over what I was going to talk to the State Guildmaster. Nick said I could trust the State Guildmaster. Right now, reliable information was what I needed. I had never heard of the Society of the Claw and the Fang until this Blackhawk wolf told me about them. I was still suspect about what sketchy details that I was given.
I walked right into the Guildmaster’s office like I did with my Guildmaster. It may have been arrogant on my part, but I really didn’t care. Unfamiliar pain ran through me. In less than a week, I lost just about everything and everyone I actually cared about. At that moment, I needed to know if the Society would be able to help me, or if I needed to go back to Hillsborough on my own. The State Guildmaster was sitting behind his desk, pouring over documents. I quietly sat down in one of the chairs in front of his desk and waited. He ignored me, so I was just going to wait him out. It was a technique I perfected with the my Guildmaster. Finally, after about ten minutes, he looked up at me.
"Oh, it’s you," he said, slightly surprised, "I thought you were my nephew. I was wondering why he was waiting so patiently. Usually he begins to become annoying after about five minutes. Okay, Ranger, what do you want to know about the Society?"
"So they are a real organization?" I asked, not exactly surprised he knew why I was in his office. Idiots do not become Guildmasters.
"Yes, but I don’t know to whom they report. They say the King of the United States, but I doubt that."
"Then who do you think they report to?"
"I think they used to report to the King, but now they have their own agenda. They’ve got contacts and operatives throughout the United States. You can always find their leaders near the Princes. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but from what I’ve seen of them, they act much like the power behind the throne of the kingdom."
"What exactly do they do?" I asked the Guildmaster.
"In Florida, they gather information for the Prince as well as conduct limited field operations," the State Guildmaster answered with a very annoyed look on his face, "I’ll be frank. I don’t like them. The Society does many of the same things the State Guild is supposed to do, but the Prince likes Blackhawk and values the intelligence the Society gives him. The Society has more diverse resources than I do, but they are geared more to intelligence gathering. They’ve been doing more operations recently, especially in the Disputed Territories and against lords suspected of disloyalty. I figured Blackhawk wanted you to bolster his operational agents." I nodded, and leaned back into the chair. I pondered what the Guildmaster just told me. It wasn’t making me feel any better about my prospective employer, especially the part about investigating and operating against lords suspected of disloyalty against the Prince. It made a certain amount of sense from the Prince’s standpoint, but the nebulous nature of the Society didn’t sit well with me. I also didn’t like that I never heard of the Society before coming to Tallahassee. I was in the top tier of the Hillsborough county chapter. I should have heard about them. I wasn’t sure if this was something the Guildmaster knew about and didn’t – or couldn’t – talk to me about, or if the Society hid itself from him as well. Either was possible, and both were setting off all sorts of alarms in my head.
"Blackhawk wants me to play the enforcer to one of his analysts," I told the State Guildmaster, "I don’t know if I trust him, but he offered me a free range of action for the data the analyst and I come up with. Do you know anything about a genius kin analyst of theirs?" The State Guildmaster shook his head.
"Their personnel identities are well guarded. The few I do know are former State hunters who left the State Guild to go work with them," the State Guildmaster said. He looked at me with a quizzical look. "What are you going to do?"
"I’m going to meet my prospective partner at this ‘Java Spear’ place in town. Then I’ll decide."
"If you decide not to join the Society, you have a place here with the State Guild," the State Guildmaster said. I blinked. I wasn’t expecting that.
"I’m honored, sir. I truly am," I said. "Still, even if I don’t join the Society, I won’t be joining the State Guild."
"Why?" the State Guildmaster asked, shocked by my statement. He had a right to be. Very few hunters refused the opportunity to join the State Guild. For all the mocking county hunters leveled at the state hunters, we understood the state hunters were the best. A few months ago, I would have jumped at the chance to be part of the State Guild. Now, though, things were vastly different. There was more to it for myself. Lycanthrope society is based on belonging to a pack that belongs to a bigger pack and so on up to the Great Pack. It was the same for hunters. Our county chapter was our pack. For Hangman and myself, our pack was destroyed. Without a Guildmaster, or even a county lord or lady (Ancestors, I hoped she was still alive), Hangman and I technically belonged to the State Guildmaster. My telling the State Guildmaster I would not join the State Guild was a direct challenge to his authority. I needed to walk carefully.
"If I don’t join the Society, I’m going back to Hillsborough," I answered, trying to keep an emotionless mask on my face, "I have to go back." The State Guildmaster’s face flashed with anger, but quickly regained its controlled composure.
"I know you had a very unique relationship with your Guildmaster," the State Guildmaster said in tightly controlled tones, "I hope you are not expecting me to honor that same relationship? If so, I will quickly disabuse you of that. Unless the Society grabs you, you are my hunter. I do not allow my hunters to dictate their orders to me."
"Sir, you’ve been very open with Hangman and me, so I’ll try and do the same for you," I said, leaning forward, "I’m hoping you’ll give me permission to go back in, but there’s something else at stake here."
"Who is so important to you that you would walk into a suicide mission?" he asked in reply. His question caught me off-guard, and he chuckled at my momentary surprise. "I’ve been the State Guildmaster for a while. Most of the time a county hunter refuses an invitation, it’s because of a mate or family. You have no family except for the Guild, and that pained look on your face means your mate is still behind in Hillsborough. We have no information about your personal life, so it must be a new development."
"The Lady-Apparent," I mumbled. It still sounded preposterous to me, so I could imagine how outrageous it sounded to someone who hadn’t been there. The State Guildmaster’s eyes bulged with shock. Then, he threw his head back and laughed. Sudden anger consumed me, and I restrained the impulse to attack the State Guildmaster. The impulse startled me. I occasionally threatened to thrash some of the higher ranking lycanthropes, but it never went beyond the verbal. This was a visceral reaction that sliced through my honed controls, and it scared me a bit. Did I have no control over these no emotions and what they wanted me to do? My reactions did not go unnoticed by the State Guildmaster.
"I’m sorry Ranger," the State Guildmaster said, "That was rude of me. It was just so reminiscent of bad drama – and you have to live with it." He sat quiet for a moment, as if collecting his thoughts. "I know you. I’ve seen your type many times in the State Guild. Hunters so dedicated to the profession that anything outside the Guild catches them off-guard. You aren’t thinking like the professional I need. Is that a fair summary?"
"Yes," I said, thoroughly embarrassed by the State Guildmaster’s skewering assessment. "My professionalism is ashamed, but the rest of me doesn’t give a damn. I’m sorry if that doesn’t make sense."
"Makes plenty of sense," the State Guildmaster answered, "I even remember a certain state hunter that gave up everything to marry a chapter hunter – even though everyone else damn near commanded her not to. Amber was a good friend, and a damned good hunter." The revelation caught me off-guard. Damn, that was happening a lot lately.
"I sent in a hit pack in to reconnoiter Hillsborough," the State Guildmaster said, "Their initial report came in just before you walked in this morning." He looked like he was bracing himself. "The hit pack found no lycanthropes, but more vampires and ghouls than they had seen in any other county – including the Disputed Territories. You and Samuel may have been the only survivors. If you want to go down there, I owe it to Amber and you to let you. Ancestors knows that you would probably have a better chance than any of my wolves, but you have to know that you will probably be walking in to a death trap."
"I kind of figured that out on my own," I replied, my normal sarcasm suddenly reappearing, "I know I’m not thinking clearly. That’s one of the few reasons I’m thinking hard about joining the Society."
"I think this is the first time I actually want someone to work for Blackhawk," the State Guildmaster said, "Let me know when you’re ready. I’ll drive you."