The ride under the stars was refreshing. Hell, just getting out of the Manor was refreshing. It wasn’t the carnage bothering me. It was trying to grasp something completely new to me. The more I looked back on the few interactions between Elizabeth – I couldn’t believe how natural it was to call her by her name instead of the Lady-Apparent – the more I saw, or hoped to see, the early flickers of something between the two of us. At the same time, my mind was also busily slapping down those lofty aspirations with reality. Completely out of character, I reached out to another lycanthrope in need and probably got what was a normal response that I was blowing completely out of proportion. To make matters worse, the two lycanthropes I normally went to for these sort of things weren’t available. The Guildmaster was far too busy helping Elizabeth – the Lady-Apparent, dammit – gather the packs and restore some order to the chaos the witch-hunters wreaked upon our society. Nick, on the other hand, was being far too amused by my blubbering to do anything but give me an almost malicious smile. So, when Sneller asked us to check on the Guildmaster’s wife, I jumped at the job. Almost literally, but I managed to keep some of my normal composure. I don’t think Nick was fooled at all.

I traded the M4 I liberated from the Manor’s armory for the Guildmaster’s Benelli. The Guildmaster just nodded when I told him what I was doing and dismissed me without a thought. Elizabeth gave me a quick look before I left, but I couldn’t decipher it. I just let my mind go into job-mode. Nick tagged along, but he was being cagey about why. It was a lone wolf job. I really didn’t need help, but I wasn’t about to tell Nick he couldn’t come. Besides, I would probably need him to vouch for me if we ran into any straggling lycanthropes. Calling for rhaizen was rare enough that every lycanthrope in Hillsborough County would have heard about it. I would need someone else to verify I hadn’t gone rogue. Fortunately, there weren’t any incidents as we traveled up the interstate to New Tampa. The Guildmaster’s wife ran a very successful security business. About two years ago, the two purchased their dream home. Well, it was Mrs. Werstand’s dream house. The Guildmaster just grumbled about the extravagance of it. He was always more like me when it came to such things. We both wanted just enough to make it comfortable and useful without any of the flourishes just to make it pretty.

The house was one of the new-style small mansions that cropped up during the late nineties. The exterior was designed to resemble a Spanish villa, complete with that odd orangy-beige color stucco walls and curved red clay tile roof. The doorways were recessed behind grand arches. The landscaping was pure Floridian with a wide lawn dotted with palm trees and low flowering plants. A brick driveway curled out to the road, where the house hid behind a tall masonry wall. As Nick and I drove up to the wrought-iron gate protecting the driveway, I knew something was wrong. The property was too dark. Mrs. Werstand was a hunter before becoming a security specialist for the humans. She’d seen to the security precautions herself, including a well-lit perimeter. Especially while there was a war going on with the vampires.

I scanned the driveway and picked out a Tampa Police squad car. I looked over at Nick. He nodded to my unasked question. I pulled the shotgun out of its scabbard. Nick still had his M4 and was aiming it at the police car. I shed my human form, feeling the jumpsuit I was wearing rip and tear as my frame rapidly grew and expanded. I crept towards the police car, cradling the shotgun in my arms. As I neared the car, I smelled blood and fresh death. I knew that smell well enough. A lot of times because I was the cause. As I came up to the driver’s door, I saw the four bullet holes through the windshield. I peered in to check the cop. His face was frozen in death, contorted by pain and shock. Of the four bullets, one hit him in the throat, killing instantly. Another took him in the chest, and the other two destroyed the laptop mounted next to the officer. Aimed shooting, but not very good. I whistled for Nick to come up. As Nick slid up to the car, I reached in and checked the officer’s wallet. He was kin. Sneller or Deadeye probably sent him over to secure the house until Nick and I showed up to collect Mrs. Werstand. The good part was the kin was off-duty, so we wouldn’t be dealing with a bunch of human police screaming down on the area while Nick and I were dealing with whatever killed the kin. Tomorrow would change that, but we couldn’t deal with that now.

"Should we go in the front door, or try to find another way in?" I whispered to Nick as he looked into the car at the dead kin. Nick scanned the yard and surrounding area before he answered.

"Front door," he answered softly, "I doubt the bad guys are still in there. If they are, I doubt they will be expecting hunters." I nodded with his assessment. If the bad guys were still in the house, they would have attacked Nick and me as we made our way up the driveway. I made my way up the last fifty feet, skirting the lawn the entire way. I pulled to the right of the door, while Nick crept up to the left. I checked it quickly. No signs of a forced opening. I twisted the knob. The door was unlocked. That was definitely out of pattern for Mrs. Werstand. She was more paranoid about securing the house than the Guildmaster could ever hope to be. I opened the door carefully, pushing gently enough for it to move under its own inertia. Nick swept the entrance with his carbine and moved in. I followed, doing an opposite sweep with the shotgun and checking behind the door for any surprises.

The interior of the house was black. There was absolutely no light. I could barely pick out objects with my true form’s sight. Even then I only barely recognized the furniture and fixtures from memory. We carefully swept each room for any sign of the bad guys. I assumed the worst. There was no good reason for the house to be that dark. After we swept all the rooms on the first floor, we crept up the stairs, with my shotgun leading the way. The second floor was just as dark as the first, and even more silent. This disturbed me because the Guildmaster and his wife kept their home offices on the second story. They always kept their computers running. I couldn’t hear any of the normal quiet sounds I should have heard, such as the cooling fans of the computers or the slight buzz of monitors turned on. Nick and I swept the office, only to find it torn apart and most of the equipment destroyed. I didn’t waste time to check the files, but moved towards the staircase as fast as I could. My heart was in my throat and adrenaline was rushing through my system. The first two rooms on the third floor were guest rooms. Nothing. We moved down the hall, quickly checking the communal bath and came to the door of the large bedroom suite. Again, I opened the door and Nick did his sweep. I did the opposite sweep.

The Guildmaster’s wife was sitting in true form, looking out her large picture window down onto the front of the house. The smells of death and blood immediately told me the scene was staged. The body of Mrs. Werstand was the centerpiece. It took me a moment to push down my rage as Nick and I stepped into the room. As we looked down on her body, we saw several gunshot wounds in her torso. I covered my eyes and flipped on the light switch. I heard Nick gasp as the light flooded the room. Then I saw what he was staring at. The word "Revenge" was carved into her stomach. I pushed away the fresh flash of anger that arose in me, albeit with great difficulty. Nick looked like he’d already waged his small battle and his reason was returning to him. How had the Bleeders managed to get into the house? The Guildmaster would want answers.

"Nick, let’s have a look around and see if we can figure out what happened," I said, tearing my eyes from Mrs. Werstand’s body.

"I think it’s pretty obvious what happened," Nick answered with a trace of annoyance that sounded very strange coming from him. "The Bleeders took advantage of us being distracted and tried to hit the Guildmaster like you did Bradon." A familiar pang of what almost could be called guilt ran through me. What Nick said did make a certain amount of sense, but there was something that I felt we were missing.

"Nick, I’m with you on what the Bleeders were doing here," I replied, trying to keep any annoyance out of my voice, "What I don’t understand was how a group of Bleeders managed to infiltrate the house and take out Mrs. Werstand – who used to be with the State Guild – and not have any casualties of their own. Did you smell any black blood while we were securing the house? I didn’t."

"Neither did I," Nick said with an ominous look in his eyes. He could see where I was leading, and he didn’t like it one bit.

"I think this might have been the new leader of the Bleeders," I said, "If so, he’s fucking scary. Anything we find here might help us when we deal with him." Nick nodded in silent agreement. Since we were in the bedroom, Nick and I decided to start there. The bedroom didn’t look disturbed with the exception of the body and the shattered glass of the picture window. From the angles, the Bleeders shot the kin police officer from the picture window before departing. Nick stopped suddenly by the side of the bed and picked up a small metallic object off the floor. It was a bullet casing.

"This is bad Ranger," he said as he stood up.

"What else?" I asked as he handed me the casing. It was a Silver Shok. "Our rogue hunter?" If that was the case, then the whole situation just changed.

"No, I don’t think so. I think it was really the Bleeders. Strange they signed their work though." I noticed the detachment in his voice. Nick was very good at removing his feelings from his work and examining the situation clearly.

"Then where did they get the Silver Shoks?" I asked. I wanted Nick to give me a good answer. I didn’t want to believe that the same fucking rogue that killed Stephen Vollen was still operating in Hillsborough.

"I talked to Gunny before the raid on the TCV Hall. He said an expected shipment of Silver Shoks hadn’t arrived." I remembered his brother Boomer mentioning the same thing as I was preparing for the raid. It wasn’t unusual for shipments of silver rounds to be late. It was hard for our kin in the ammunition firms to circumvent the normal security procedures to sneak us our silver bullets. It took longer than it should to confirm whether or not a shipment was merely late or if it was intercepted. "This explains what happened to it. I think we ought to see if this bullet was in one of the lots we were expecting."

"It could have been our rogue," I replied, playing devil’s advocate.

"Maybe. If it was a hunter, why darken the area? He could have infiltrated the area without doing that and arousing suspicion. Why kill the kin? Hunters never complicate things by killing humans unless necessary. You know that. It just brings unwanted attention to our situation. This was a big, bold, and staged affair. The Bleeders wanted to know that they were behind this. I think you were right. The new leader to the Bleeders is fucking scary."

"There’s another question," I said, moving to the door, "How did they know when to strike at her?" Nick gave me a wide eyed look. The possible answers to that question were not good. We needed to talk to the Guildmaster. I called the Manor. It rang six times and then disconnected.

"What the fuck?" I asked, looking at the phone. Nick gave me a questioning look, so I told him what happened. He thought for a moment before answering.

"When the site went down, every lycanthrope on the net probably called the Manor. The phones must be swamped," he answered.

"No, this is something else," I said. I could feel it in my bones. My instincts all said to return to the Manor. At least, I thought it was my instincts. All I kept seeing was Elizabeth, and it didn’t do anything to help me think straight.

"Then, let’a finish up here and get back to the Manor," Nick said.

"What do we do about her?" I asked, nodding my head to the body.

"Call a shaman and tell him to get over here. They know what to do about this." He walked out of the room as I called the shaman. After several calls, I managed to get a hold of a minor member of the Order who said he would come out to the Guildmaster’s house as soon as possible. I thanked the young shaman and went to go find Nick.He was in the offices sorting through the trashed files. A small fire was raging in the trash can.

"What are you doing?" I asked him as I walked in.

"Disposing of a few incriminating files. There’s some stuff in here I’d rather not let the Order have a chance to see." I agreed with that and helped. We needed to get this done as fast as possible and get back to the Manor. As he handed me a file, I lit it with a lighter then threw it into the trash can. I didn’t bother reading any of it, since the files were in sealed manila envelopes with one-word code names written in black marker on them. It took us about fifteen minutes to burn the files. Just as we were finishing up, my phone began vibrating on my side. I looked down to see who was calling me, only to find a three digit code blinking. Ancestors, it was the immediate recall code triggered by the Guildmaster pressing his panic button. He was in trouble, and if he was in trouble so was –

I didn’t let the thought finish itself. I just grabbed my shotgun and flew out of the house. I kicked my motorcycle to life before realized I hadn’t even checked if Nick was still with me. I was relieved when I heard the revving of his bike. I slid the shotgun into its scabbard and opened the throttle. Our two bikes screamed through the roadways, narrowly dodging cars and pedestrians alike. I didn’t care. I had one thought. I had to get to her. I saw the pillar of smoke a mile or so before I saw the Manor. The gate was blown apart, its two columns torn apart. I could see nearly two dozen vampires in true form swarming a few lycanthropes, who were desperately trying to fend the leeches off. I shed for true form, letting the pale view of the human senses sharpen as my true form overtook me. Pulling the shotgun from its scabbard, I launched myself off my motorcycle. It collided with one of the leeches as I landed and let loose three blasts of silver buckshot. Several leeches were caught by the blast and fell to the ground. I checked my six, only to find Nick taking out several more leeches with his M4. I sprinted towards the front door, letting loose shotgun blasts as leeches tried to get in my way. As I entered the door, I put the last shell through a pair of leeches attacking a Red Knight. I picked the semi-conscious lycanthrope off the floor and pulled him over to the wall. Bullets cracked overhead as warriors and leeches exchanged fire around us.

"What happened?" I asked the Knight as I surveyed the battle around me. Warriors filled the hallway, but they were outnumbered by the flood of leeches and ghouls. Nick covered me, neatly cutting a pair of leeches in half with his carbine. He quickly reloaded his M4 as a pair of Red Knights moved past us to set up a crossfire against a pocket of ghouls.

"I don’t know. All of them just appeared," he said, coughing through his injuries, "They broke through us and got into the Manor. Just came out of nowhere." I saw his eyes grow wide in fear. Sensing more than seeing, I picked up the fragment of one of the broken flower tables and drove the improvised stake over my shoulder. I felt the leech stiffen on the wood fragment. The vampire fell to the floor as I let go of the stake. I nodded to the Knight and handed over the empty shotgun and some shells from my pocket. As the wounded Knight loaded the shells into the shotgun, I drew my HK45 and grabbed Nick.

"We’ve got to get into the Manor." I yelled over the din of the surrounding battle. Nick just nodded and quickly emptied the magazine into a group of ghouls fifteen feet from us. They dove to the ground to escape the gunfire. Nick replaced the magazine in his carbine as a pair of shaman joined us. They exploded the ghouls’ heads with an incantation as Nick slapped the bolt release. We leapt through the battle. We pushed, shoved, and shot our way through. When we got to the doors, we saw a pair of ghouls in full body armor wielding very large machine guns. There were pockmarks on the front of their armor from earlier engagements. There were a few wounded lycanthropes in front of the two and plenty of dead. The two ghouls noticed as Nick and I emerged from the throng of the melee. Without a word, the two swept their weapons at us. As they opened up, the Nick and I dove behind the necrotic cover. Bullets kicked up parts of the tile floor in front of us. The two ghouls continued to spray the area until their weapons ran dry. As soon as their firing stopped, Nick and I pounced. Full body armor tends to be weak in one major place – the hands. I double-tapped the closest ghoul and he shrieked. His machine gun clattered to the floor as he grasped at the bleeding hole in his hand. I slammed the ghoul into the wall. I could feel his rib cage snap from the impact. A full strength blow across the face nearly spun the ghoul’s head off. The ghoul stopped breathing. I turned to check on Nick. He just smiled back at me as his ghoul slumped to the ground.

The doors to the Manor had been jury-rigged back up after the witch-hunters blew them down. With the two ghoul guards down, I figured knocking the doors down again would be the easiest entry. Hand signals flew between Nick and me. Simultaneous shoulder hits shoved the right door back down. The falling door caught two leeches throwing knives at pack warriors. Single shots finished them off as Nick and I charged into the Manor proper. The fighting had all the organization of a street brawl. Pockets of lycanthropes were fighting with waves of leeches, while single battles were occurring in the crossfire. Bullets whistled by Nick and me. We returned fire at the leeches while moving deeper into the battle. From the door, we moved to the wall, making sure there was nothing behind us. Through the gunfire, I searched for Elizabeth. I didn’t see her, but I caught sight of Hangman cutting down groups of leeches with a pair of TMPs. It looked like a bad action movie scene, with Hangman keeping the tide of leeches away from him with short bursts of fire. I put a round into the head of a leech that tried to get too close, and then suggested to Nick we go help the pup. He nodded and sprayed a hole into the vampires in front of us. As he exchanged magazines, I dashed into the hole, deepening it with double-taps. As soon as my magazine went dry, Nick leap-frogged me and deepened the hole again as I replaced the magazine in my pistol. We worked our way slowly through the clogged Manor floor, exchanging the point position a few more times before we reached Hangman. Hangman was surprised as we emerged from the mob and almost shot us for our trouble. Then, we saw why he was so determined to hold his ground. At his feet was the Guildmaster, bleeding from several wounds to his chest. Nick bent down to examine him as Hangman and I provided cover fire.

"These are bad. We’ve got to get him to help fast," Nick said. I looked around the Manor, but couldn’t see anywhere we could safely move the Guildmaster. Hell, there wasn’t anyplace safe in the entire Manor.

"Why don’t we get him to that corridor we used during the witch-hunter attack?" Hangman suggested, busily putting a wall of silver between the oncoming leeches and our little group. Nick and I exchanged glances and then nodded simultaneously. It would be dangerous to move him, but we weren’t going to last long out in the middle of the battle. A lycanthrope slammed down next to the Guildmaster, bleeding from a close-range shotgun blast. Hangman quickly disposed of the shotgun-wielding leech and the three of us picked up the Guildmaster. We could hear his grunts of pain as we half-carried, half-dragged him over to the section of wall where the corridor was. The Guildmaster looked up dazedly at what we were doing and had us raise him so that he could unlock the access door. As the door opened, Nick and Hangman threw the Guildmaster into the darkened corridor as I shot off the remaining rounds in the magazine. The door closed solidly and the sounds of the battle muffled down. We began to pick up the Guildmaster to move him back to the armory. There were medical supplies there. We needed to wash out those wounds and let his body heal. Then he could coordinate the fight to take back the Manor while I went after —

"STOP," the Guildmaster yelled, with a sickening tone of agony in his voice. The three of us halted immediately and gently lowered the Guildmaster to the concrete floor. The dark made it hard to see his eyes, but I could hear his pained breathing. I was at a loss for words. This lycanthrope was almost like a father to me, and I could see the precious life draining out of him and onto the floor.

"Marcus, Nicholas, and Samuel," he coughed. He raised himself to a sitting position, leaning back on the wall of the corridor. "I had such hopes for the three of you. You were going to be the future of my Guild. Now, because of this, that is no longer possible. I hate doing this. I could live with dying if we were going to win this battle, but we’re not." All of us were shocked by his words. The Guildmaster never said such things. He was always the one urging us to push on even when the situation was bleak.

"New pack warriors just arrived. They’re regrouping outside the Manor," Nick said, his tone urging the Guildmaster to hold on. The Guildmaster groaned in pain before he began again.

"Too little, too late. The leeches back there in the Manor are just the tip of the iceberg. Silanti has an army of undead like I haven’t seen before. I don’t know where he got them all, but they outnumber us ten to one. The rest of his forces are running through the rest of the Manor. They will kill every lycanthrope in this Manor just by weight of numbers. The witch-hunters must have been to weaken us and get us to gather everyone in an easy killing ground." The Guildmaster made a wet, hacking sound before continuing. "Now, I must ask something of you that will go against everything you have been taught." He wheezed, the pain of his wounds racking his body as his lungs tried to inhale air. The blood already soaked his pelt and was pooling around his body.

"The three of you must leave Hillsborough. Go to Tallahassee and inform the prince and his advisors of our downfall. The war council must know what happened here. Leave the Manor, go to the Guild, gather your things, and leave this county. By nightfall tomorrow, it will be leech territory." He held up a hand to forestall us. "This is not easy for me to ask. You three were going to become pivotal members in the Guild after me. The Guild is gone. Kurt is dead. Ronin and James are missing. Most of our members here were killed in the very first of the fighting." His eyes locked on mine before he continued. "I’m sorry Marcus, but I don’t know what happened to the Lady-Apparent. I saw a few Knights leading her out of the Manor, but there are so many leeches and ghouls in the Manor itself, I don’t know if she made it out alive. You can’t waste time looking for her. Even if you could find her, you couldn’t do anything more for her than her Red Knights are doing now. Marcus, you of most of all, be careful. There are those in Tallahassee who will either manipulate you or try to kill you." He turned his head to Nick. "Nicholas I need you to protect these two. You know why." Nick nodded without a word. Finally, the Guildmaster faced Hangman. "Samuel, I hoped someday you would succeed me. You were the promise of the new generation. Go now, and don’t return until you can win back our county." The Guildmaster didn’t die with his last statement. He continued to gasp and grabbed one of Hangman’s TMPs. I wanted to stay, so the Guildmaster wouldn’t meet the Ancestors alone, but he gave us our job. We were hunters. We completed the job. That would be the best, and final, deed we could ever do for our Guildmaster.

We moved down the hall to the Manor’s armory. If we were going to do our job, we needed more weapons and definitely more ammunition. As we neared the armory, I heard the unique voices of vampires. A predatory grin crossed my face. Our first action would be to clear out those motherfuckers from the armory – and we had the element of surprise. The concealed door opened and the four vampires froze at the sight of us. Well placed fire quickly cut down the first two. The other two snapped out of their momentary panic and tried to fight back, but they were brought down by a pair of shots from Hangman. The pup’s face was an emotionless mask. Whatever he was feeling, Hangman suppressed it deep within himself. Normally I would be happy and proud the pup was becoming more of a professional hunter, but for some reason I was feeling a strange sorrow. I forced my mind to push back these strange emotions and went into full job-mode. I grabbed an MP5 from the weapons rack. The three of us loaded up with extra magazines. A sound came from the doorway, and we pointed our weapons as a pack warrior staggered in bleeding.

"The leeches are completely overrunning us," the pack warrior gasped, "They sent me for weapons and ammo."

"You found them," Nick said, his voice completely devoid of emotion. All three of us shoved back all the pain of seeing our Guildmaster dying on the hallway floor. The job was the only important thing now. Nick looked at the warrior. "Grab as much as you can. We’ll give you a hand." As the pack warrior grabbed weapons and magazines, Hangman, Nick and I put on web gear and festooned them with additional magazines for our weapons. Nick and I exchanged a look. We were thinking the same thing. If we helped with a counterattack, we might be able to push through and get to the Guild. The pack warrior led us out of the armory, through the blood-streaked hallways. Nick yanked the warrior back a couple of times so that the frantic wolf wouldn’t outpace us. We understood his packmates were probably in desperate straits, but it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good if we ran into a vampire ambush or into the field of fire of jittery pack warriors. The gunfire echoing through the halls changed from sporadic to sustained. We were getting close to the action. We turned another corner. The firefight was intense. There were maybe a dozen lycanthropes using hastily assembled furniture as cover. Most of them were firing full-auto at the mass of vampires. As I looked beyond the lycanthropes’ positions, there were piles of dead vampires – and a horde more charging straight into the guns of the warriors. The lycanthropes were probably outnumbered at least thirty to one. As I scanned the hallway more closely, I could pick out where other lycanthrope positions had fallen. The vampires were simply pressing forward with their wave of bodies, trading on their numerical advantage. I’d never in my life seen such a battle tactic used in the conflict between the vampires and the lycanthropes. Neither side ever had the numbers to even attempt it. Where in the Ancestors’ Names did the TCV get all of these vampires?

"Ranger, take the right side. Hangman, the left," Nick ordered. "I’ll help with the warriors." We ducked into doorways, adding to the fusillade of gunfire holding back the waves of vampires. There was something very wrong with the situation. Vampires could do stupid things, but nothing blatantly as stupid as running into the silver bullets of the lycanthropes. Hangman and I thinned the waves by hitting the vampires making progress against the gunfire. It was like firing at targets on the range. The vampires weren’t dodging or taking cover. They were just pushing through their fallen to advance on the lycanthropes with bestial looks on their faces. I hoped Nick had a damn good idea of how to stem the undead tide.

"FIRE IN THE HOLE!" Nicked yell over the din of gunfire. Hangman and I slid into our respective doorways. A small canister sailed over the warriors. The hallway shook with the explosion of the concussion grenade.

"RANGER, HANGMAN, KILL THEM ALL!" Nick bellowed with unmistakable command. This was a new side to Nick, but I didn’t have time to ponder it. I jumped back into the hallway and charged the staggering vampires. Hangman was right beside me, as both of us begin firing at any vampire still upright. My MP5 emptied, and I let the weapon fall on its sling as I drew my pistol out of its holster. Leech after leech went down, but Hangman and I were going to be swallowed whole as soon as the leeches recovered from the shock of the concussion grenade. Suddenly there were three more lycanthropes standing beside Hangman and myself, all firing away with assault rifles. Their appearance allowed for Hangman and me to do quick magazine changes on our primary weapons and return to the slaughter of the leeches. As the five of us pushed, six more lycanthropes came to our side, joining our fusillade with their weapons. Eleven of us continued to push against the leeches, who still hadn’t recovered from the explosion. The momentum shifted to our side. Nick finally came up beside us, with a Red Knight in tow.

"Hangman, Ranger, fall back!" he told us.

"What the fuck Nick?" I asked as we fell back a few yards behind the new lycanthrope push.

"That Red Knight can lead this counterattack," Nick answered, "We have to get out of the Manor." It didn’t make me happy, but Nick was right. Our job was to get to the Guild and then get to Tallahassee. As we watched the warriors continue the fight, we reoriented our location and made our way up through the Manor. We needed to get to the half-floor at the very top of the Manor. We found one of the smaller staircases and carefully crept up the stairs. I took the lead. It took a great deal of restraint not to join in the two battles we passed as the three of us made our way up. The half-floor was only a floor above us. I stopped maybe ten feet from where the stairs stopped at the half-floor. My instincts were roaring with danger. I took a look around the stairwell. It was the bullet holes that told me we were about to be slaughtered. Hangman and Nick were giving me confused looks as I scanned the stairwell. The bullet holes weren’t a splattering of pockmarks. There were several parts where the bullets cut almost straight lines through the dry wall. There was only one weapon that could reliably make lines like that – especially with a half-assed crew serving it. The vampires had control of the Minigun from the half-floor. We would be cut down before we could do anything. I snaked up the remaining stairs and scanned the hallway before letting myself slide back down.

"The leeches turned the Minigun around, but they’ve kept it on its mount," I said to Nick and Hangman, "Some warriors tried to retake the room, and their bodies are splattered all over the hall. I saw three leeches by the Minigun and at least a dozen more. Getting out this way is going to be a mite bit difficult." Okay, it was going to be damn difficult, and my two companions knew it, but there were standards to be upheld.

"The Minigun’s the killer," Hangman stated, "Take it out and we’ve got a fighting chance. How about a grenade?"

"It’s about thirty feet to the Minigun, with a low ceiling," Nick laid out, "No lobbing, so it’d have to be a real weak toss. I’m not that good with throwing a grenade." I shook my head. I wasn’t either.

"Give it to me," Hangman whispered tersely, holding his hand out, "I used to play baseball with some of the other pups during tysach. I can land it right where we want it." Nick handed him the last of the frag grenades. Hangman slid upstairs, poked his head up once, and then tossed the grenade with a practiced ease. A crashing explosion rocked through the room and hallway. The three of us moved in concert. We had maybe two or three seconds before our enemies recovered from the shock of the explosion. It took us that long just to dance around the bodies in the short hallway between the stairs and the entrance to the half-room. As the three of us darted through the entrance to the half-floor, I saw the Minigun, was ripped from its mount by the blast. The impromptu leech gun crew was shredded by the silver fragments from the grenade. A burst from my left let me know Nick started the fight. A form rose in front of me. The MP5 stuttered and the form went back down. Longer burst to my right meant Hangman found more than one target for his weapon. The three of us rushed to the glass doors at the back of the half-floor. We didn’t stop moving. Anything that moved towards us was a target, and we made sure we put rounds on the targets. We had to make it to the outside. Once there, we could engage the bastards. About half-way through the room, Nick took over point position so Hangman and I could reverse step and cover our exit. Precise bursts reduced the leeches to about half of their number, but the remaining leeches were more than enough to swarm us if we backed off for a moment. Intense fire discipline training was the only thing that made crossing the half-floor less than suicidal.

"Ranger, you and Hangman hold them here," Nick yelled as we stepped out of the half-floor and onto the artificial hill around the Manor. I didn’t know what Nick was up to, but I didn’t argue. I trusted Nick to know what he was doing, just as he trusted Hangman and me to keep the vampires and ghouls in the Manor and off his back. About ten yards down the slope from the half-floor, Hangman and I dropped to the grass and laid down fire. Those savage vampires flooding the Manor came out in singles and small groups. Hangman and I were knocking them down with accurate bursts and single shots, but the numbers that were pouring out of the Manor were quickly depleting our ammunition. I dropped the empty magazine out of my MP5 as my hand felt the empty magazine holder. My hand slid down and drew my HK45. Things were going to get interesting if Nick didn’t get back quickly. The Ancestors must have heard my comments, because just as I started taking down vampires with my pistol, Nick came up behind us in true form. He was dragging our motorcycles. I didn’t wait for any small talk or banter. We needed to get the hell out of Dodge. I tapped Hangman on the shoulder. He rose up into a crouch and snaked back to the bottom of the slope. We climbed onto our motorcycles – Hangman climbed onto the back of mine – and tore out of the area. We screamed through the streets to get to the Guild. The human houses on top of the Guild were deserted. The kin evacuated when the Manor was attacked. The Guild itself was eerily empty. After the battle with the witch-hunters, almost all of Hillsborough’s hunters moved from the Guild to the Manor in order to bolster the security forces and to support the Lady-Apparent. Most of them were probably dead now.

"Okay, Hangman and I will start getting supplies for the trip," Nick said. "Ranger, gather up all of the information on the conspiracy."

"What?" I asked, surprised by Nick’s order.

"The witch-hunters and the vampires may have brought this county down, but only because whoever is behind this conspiracy killed Stephen Vollen. We’ll need that evidence in Tallahassee if the prince and the war council will have any hope of stopping them." I nodded and went back to my room as Nick and Hangman rummaged around the garage and armory. I transferred all the data on the conspiracy onto some memory sticks and put them into a manila envelope. Those we would need in Tallahassee. Then came the longest part. The Hillsborough County chapter’s intelligence and resources database had to be dumped into a series of removable hard drives. As I watched the progress bar slowly tick away, the other two readied the Guild to be sealed. The Guild was one facility we could not allow the vampires to acquire. When it was built, there were provisions made so it could be locked down and impenetrable from the outside. When the drives were done, we loaded them into their specially designed case. We placed the case into the back of a Suburban. It was already loaded with some of our personal gear, a lot of weapons, and even more ammo. The three of us knew we wouldn’t be able to ask for help from any of the counties we would be traversing. Anything that we would need, we would have to carry. Each of us made sure we had everything we would need on our travel to Tallahassee. Satisfied, the three of us finished sealing the Guild. Thanks to Mrs. Werstand, the Guild was equipped with heavy steel doors at the entrances to each level. The "blast doors" effectively sealed each level off from the others. Independent climate-controls took over and the main system was shut down. At the top, we closed the access points from each house. As the personal hitter for the Guildmaster, I was authorized to override the set lock codes and put a unique code in place. A small series of electronic beeps signaled the Guild was completely sealed off. It was going to be tough on any lycanthropes who might have survived the fight at the Manor, but I just couldn’t chance the TCV getting their soiled hands on the Guild. Satisfied the Guild was denied to anyone, I sent a coded message to my townhouse. It lock down and my computer would erase itself. Even if the leeches figured out where I lived, they would have a hard time getting in, and all they would find would be some weapons and little else. As I looked up from the confirmation message, I saw Nick and Hangman had just completed similar tasks. There was a momentary silence as each of us made the realization that we just cut our ties to our home. It was a disconcerting feeling that shook me down to my bones. Then my mental block slipped just a bit, and Elizabeth came into my mind. Her face floated in front of my eyes. I could see every detail with a clarity that I didn’t believe possible. The dimples in her smile, the brightness of her green eyes, the slight frizziness of her auburn hair, the small scar above her lip – I could see all of them, and a deep, almost overwhelming pain threatened to overwhelm me. I don’t remember going down to one knee, but I do remember Nick’s hand on my shoulder. As Elizabeth’s face faded back into my mind, Nick helped me back up. There was an unusual look on his face. I had seen Nick happy, mad, and almost every other mood. Sympathetic was one that I had never seen on his face. It looked very strange, but very comforting. I slumped into the back seat as Hangman and Nick climbed into the front. I felt the rumbling of the Suburban’s engine and closed my eyes as we pulled out of the garage. The idea that I might never see Elizabeth again was flashing through my head with enough pain that I just went numb. I closed my eyes and tried to push away the horror in my mind with the blissful numbness of unconsciousness.

Chapter 14 – The Only Constant Is Change