Farmer and I kept the Mexican standoff for a few, long moments as my mind processed the bombshell Farmer just dropped on me. Elizabeth was alive! I looked into Farmer’s eyes, needing to see if there was any deception – and terrified there might be. Farmer kept his eyes steady, almost as if he knew what was going through my mind. There was no deception in him. Elizabeth was alive! All of those emotions I had carefully packed away flooded through my mind. It took most of my reserve to holster my pistol before I dropped to the floor. The pack warrior rushed to try and catch me. All of that deep, dark fear that tormented me crystallized into a relief and joy so strong my mind just could not cope. I had seen others overcome by emotion, but I never truly understood what was happening to them. Now I did, and I would never dismiss them again.
"The Lady-Apparent’s alive?" I managed to force out. Farmer knelt down next to me. There was no emotion on his face, nothing that I could grasp on to see what he was thinking.
"She’s alive," Farmer answered, in an even tone, "She’s alive, and she’s been leading the packs to take back Hillsborough." That statement made me – proud? – of Elizabeth. It was confusing with everything else in me that I quickly slammed it back down. As I did, other emotions reared up. I couldn’t even be sure Elizabeth felt the same way I did. She must have been going through hell fighting against the vampires. A new and vile emotion appeared – guilt. Where the hell had I been when she needed me? Going up to worthless Tallahassee and ending up on a fucking worthless mission?
"Let’s go," I said, finally standing back up, "We need to get to her now." Vanessa stood in front of me. She put a gentle hand on my chest.
"Mark, stop and think for a moment," Vanessa said, "We still have a job to do. That has to take priority. Isn’t that what you’ve always told me. Hunters put the job first."
"This is not a job. You can call it a mission or an operation if you want, but it’s not a fucking job," I retorted, angrier than I should be. I knew it, but I just didn’t care. Vanessa’s face went hard. "What the fuck? We both know the mission is a suicide operation." Vanessa firmly kept her hand on my chest as I tried to move past her.
"You’re losing perspective Mark. Think past what you’re feeling right now. What is the most important thing you can do right now? What is the most important thing you can do to help Hillsborough? To get the State Guild down here?" Vanessa asked with a surgically precise tone. It helped cut through a lot of what was going through my head. I nodded, not trusting my voice at the moment. "Then, we need to finish this."
"What do you mean ‘get the State Guild down here?’"Farmer asked. Vanessa quickly recapped what we were doing in Hillsborough and the agreement I made with the State Guildmaster. I slumped into Vanessa’s vacant chair. Dammit, I knew she was right, but why did she have to be right at this moment? No that wasn’t it. Why was I having such a hard time dealing with this?
"Vanessa, right?" Farmer asked, "You’re right. We need the help. You and Ranger stay here and find that emissary’s report." Farmer pointed at the pack warrior. "Carl, you stay here and help them. As soon as you find it, get them to Safehouse Bravo." Carl nodded with dogged determination.
"Ranger, walk outside with me," Farmer ordered as Vanessa and Carl grabbed up books and began reading. I nodded. The two of us walked out of the stacks and into the stairwell. Half way down the stairs, Farmer turned to me.
"I’m assuming Nick, Hangman, and you went to Tallahassee on the Guildmaster’s orders," Farmer said.
"Do you think anything else would have made us leave Hillsborough?" I asked angrily.
"Nope, but I had to be sure," Farmer said, "Whether you knew it or not, your disappearance was hard on the Lady-Apparent. She works damn hard not to let it show in front of the packs, but she let her guard down in front of me. I don’t know why. Maybe, it’s because I was the only hunter around, and that was a connection to you. Or maybe because she knew I lost my wife in the fighting for the Manor." He paused for a moment as he collected his thoughts. "What this means is that I’m going to need someplace quiet and safe before you show back up. I just don’t know what she’s going to do. I don’t want her seeing you for the first time in front of the packs. Hell, I wasn’t expecting that reaction out of you. The two of you are more alike than you know." I snorted.
"Yeah, well I really haven’t been my normal bad-ass self, lately," I quipped halfheartedly.
"None of us have," Farmer said with an eerily dark tone, "None of us were sure what happened to the three of you. Honestly, I thought you, Nick, and Hangman were dead. I was sure that if any of you were alive, you’d have been there to evac the Lady-Apparent out of the Manor. The Lady-Apparent kept insisting you were alive. If any of the shamans had made it through the battle, I would’ve had them scrye to make sure. Any answer would’ve been good." He paused, momentarily locked in deep thought. Then, his head shot up with a strong look of determination.
"Listen to me Ranger, there are only a hundred or so lycanthropes left in Hillsborough," Farmer said, "I’m the only hunter left in the county. I’ve been working with the few hunter-trained pack warriors who managed to escape the Manor, but we’re hanging on by the tips of our claws. The only thing keeping the lycanthropes going is the Lady-Apparent. Her determination to not only survive, but to take back this county from the TCV. Even with all of her strength, it’s not going to be enough. I need more trained help. I need the State Guild in this county."
"Understood boss," I told him without a trace of sarcasm, "We’ll get you what you need." Farmer was a good choice for the county’s Guildmaster. His words helped me put my head back into the game. As far as I was concerned, he was now my real boss.
"Good. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a nice and secure place for the Lady-Apparent tonight," Farmer said.
"The Guild’s already been compromised? That should’ve been the most defensible stronghold in the county," I said. I was surprised Farmer wasn’t using as the home base for the remaining Hillsborough lycanthropes.
"We can’t get into it," Farmer said, "I lost my phone in the siege and none of the other hunters survived to unlock it."
"I think I can solve that particular problem," I said. The mischievous smile on my face was the first time I felt like my old self since before I left for Tallahassee. Farmer nodded with a hint of an understanding smile on his stoic face. He turned and walked down the steps. I went back upstairs to join Vanessa and Carl. I did have one major question that needed to be answered. Vanessa smiled as I approached. Her expression turned to horror as I yanked Carl out of his seat. I pulled him between two stacks and thrust my pistol into his stomach. Carl tried a few limp strikes, but he was caught off-guard and couldn’t focus enough to remember what he had been taught. Vanessa stood up and shielded us from view. She didn’t know what was going on, but she trusted me. Damn, Hangman was a lucky wolf.
"How the fuck did you know we were here?" I asked with a menacing calm tone, "Too few of you left in the county to risk putting eyes on the campus. You had some help, and I want to know who."
"I don’t know," Carl said, somehow managing to keep his voice steady, "Farmer just rounded up me and my team and told us we were going to USF. I didn’t even know that you were the target until we got here." I watched his eyes. He wasn’t lying. The good news, at least, was it was one of Farmer’s contacts who informed on Vanessa and me. Hunters always keep a coterie of contacts in the various worlds we work in. Most of mine were scattered among the tactical community in the human world, with some kin and some vampire thrown in. Well, I had some in the vampire community, but those centered around Bradon. I was pretty sure my contacts were either dead or would be unwilling to talk to me. Why I was relieved that it was one of Farmer’s contacts? Simple – hunters take great care to vet their contacts. Our lives depend on what those contacts tell us. I was worried one of the pack warriors received a phone call and gotten excited. Anonymous contacts like that was a good way to try and draw out high value targets. Like say, the Guildmaster, or even the Lady-Apparent herself. I holstered my HK45 and gave Carl a slight shove back to the table. Until I figured out the current politics amongst the lycanthropes, I could trust only the few that I knew. Right now, Carl wasn’t one of those I could trust. So, let him think I was an asshole, as long as he was sure I was a dangerous asshole. Sometimes, it was better to be feared than loved. Carl and Vanessa returned to scouring the books on the table. I picked up the one I started with, but I couldn’t focus on the damn thing.
Ancestors, she was alive! Joy and relief still coursed through me. Still, there was a dark fear flowing under my happy thought. It had been nearly two months since I last saw Elizabeth. I didn’t know where I stood with her. Two months of desperate fighting, trying to keep herself and all of the remaining lycanthropes in the county alive. Would she hate me for abandoning the county? Was there anything there in the first place? Farmer seemed to think so, and so did Nick. I trusted them, but there was still an unrealness to the idea that made me think I was just imagining it all.
"Oh bloody hell," Vanessa snarled. The sudden words startled me back to the library. A stab of guilt quickly melted to relief as I realized Vanessa was cursing at a book and not my inattention to the work. She held the book in front of her with an angered look of disbelief.
"What’s the matter Vanessa?" I asked, hoping she wasn’t swearing because of me. It would have been embarrassing, to say the least.
"Well, I found the emissary’s report, but it’s encoded," Vanessa said, turning the book so Carl and I could see. It looked like a standard report of a meeting with one of the Prince’s advisers.
"Are you sure? It doesn’t look encoded," Carl said. Vanessa shot the pack warrior a scathing look. It was the look of an irate professional being questioned by a new amateur.
"Yes, I am quite sure," Vanessa said with a deadly drawl to her words, "The time is of the report matches when the emissary met with the Prince’s court. Plus, see this glyph? That’s the cipher key." She pointed to a Cyrillic looking character in the top right of the first page.
"How do you know?" Carl asked dumbfounded. Actually, I was curious as well.
"Because I developed the system five years ago, for Society reports," Vanessa said, "I had no idea Chris gave it to the Prince. It’s going to take a while to decode this." She began pulling out her laptop. I motioned for her to stop.
"How long is it going to take?" I asked.
"First, I need to figure out how much the court recorders mucked with my encryption program. I don’t recognize this particular glyph, so it’s probably one they dug up from the same source I used," Vanessa explained, "Once I know where the glyph came from, then it’ll be just a matter of adjusting my own program. Then, I can feed the report into the program. For a report this long? At least three hours. Maybe as long as six." Vanessa answered. I looked at the time display on my cell phone and grimaced. This was going to be too long for us to be out in the open.
"I’m sorry Mark, but I devised this system to be extremely secure at the expense of accessibility," Vanessa said, reading my expression.
"No, you did fine. You had no way of knowing five years ago that it’d screw us," I said. "Vanessa, I need you to get a hold of the Williams kid. Get him over here to check out the books you need." I held up my hand to stop the argument before Vanessa could voice it. "Yes, I know it’ll probably send out some kind of flag back to Tallahassee. That may actually be in our favor right now. Carl, did you bring your car?" The pack warrior nodded. "Good. Give me the keys. You’re going to guard Vanessa. I’ve got something that needs to be done right now." As Carl dug out his keys, Vanessa leaned over to me.
"What’s going on, Mark? It’s not like you to foist me off onto someone else. Especially someone you don’t consider good enough." Sometimes Vanessa was just a bit too good at her job.
"I can help the lycanthropes here, but it’s going to take time. I can’t do it if I’m covering you here," I answered, "I need you to get packed up because I don’t want to be out after nightfall. Even three hours would put us out too close for comfort." Vanessa’s expression told me that she didn’t like it, but she understood. "Stay with Carl. I’ll call you as soon as I can to let you know what to do and where to go." Vanessa gave me a quick nod, and then began packing up. Carl told me where and what his car was, and I trotted out of the library as fast as I could.
Carl’s car was a non-descript sedan, which was great for where I was going. When the current Guild was built, there’d been a lot of talk of where to put it. Locating the Guild in the suburbs was risky. Having people coming and going at all hours of the day and night tended to bring unwanted attention from suspicious neighbors. We got around that by burying the Guild under an entire block of homes, instead of the traditional one or two. As I drove up to one of the homes, I noticed most of the homes on the block were vacant. The kin that we recruited to occupy the homes above the Guild weren’t stupid. Most were packing up when Nick, Hangman, and I left and sealed the Guild. A phone call woke up the Guild’s central systems. There was a barely perceptible rumble in the ground. The thick concrete barriers were sliding away from the entrances into the Guild. Procedure said it would take a minimum of an hour for the Guild to vent itself out and bring up all of the necessary control systems. I waited the twenty minutes for the air to be breathable and the electricity to re-engage. I’d like to chalk it up to a desperate need to get the Guild ready to receive Hillsborough’s lycanthropes. That was true to a fault, but the bigger reason was I just couldn’t wait that long to get back in one of the few places I could call home.
The main computer was in the middle of coming up as I walked into the familiar concrete structure. Pangs of sorrow and loss hit me as I faced the cavernous emptiness that used to be the main planning and operations control of the Hunters Guild. I just shook my head as I walked around the first floor to secure some of the more sensitive information. The first floor was always so frenetic during the war with the vampire. Even when Nick, Hangman, and I were sealing the Guild, and no other hunters were in the facility, that same frenetic energy was still there. The other floors were musty, but livable. It was time to bring everyone home. My first call was to Farmer. Of all the lycanthropes, the Lady-Apparent was the one who needed to get to the safety of the Guild first. Farmer just acknowledged the Guild was ready. Sudden jolts of irrational fear shot through me, but I pushed them aside. The Lady-Apparent needed me to be professional, not some kind of sappy, love-struck follower. After I got off the phone with Farmer, I called Vanessa. I gave her a place where I could pick up her and Carl. I trusted the Williams clan because they worked for Mrs. Werstand, but they weren’t kin. They couldn’t know the location of the Guild, both to protect us and to protect them. I picked Vanessa and Carl up in Carl’s car. Everything went well on their end, according to Vanessa. I made sure we weren’t being followed as they talked.
"Mark, where are we going?" Vanessa asked after fifteen minutes.
"The Guild. I figured the Hillsborough lycanthropes could use it," I answered.
"We’re going to the Guild?" Carl blurted out, "The actual Guild?" I nodded in response. Carl fell silent as I finished my last few turns before entering the Guild’s neighborhood. Carl was in awe as I led the two of them down into the Guild. For the pack warriors, the Guild was always kept as a mysterious facility where the county’s trained killers worked and trained. It was an image the Hunters Guild cultivated. I gave Carl the task of patrolling the lower levels of the Guild while I set Vanessa up in one of the conference rooms. In her normal efficient self, Vanessa quickly set up her system and started scanning the encoded report into her system. I texted Farmer to let him know where we were in the Guild. With nothing else to do, I sat down in front one of the monitor stations. At least I would be able to watch when they arrived. All I needed to do was wait patiently for the arrival of the Lady-Apparent. From Vanessa’s expressions, I wasn’t that successful. Thirty endless minutes passed before Farmer led a small convoy to the Guild. My hands began to shake as I watched Elizabeth step out of a sedan. She cut her hair, was the first thought that ran through my mind. The auburn curls that once cascaded halfway down her back were gone. Her hair hung straight and just above her shoulders. I watched her in the security monitor with rapt attention. I didn’t even notice when Vanessa came up behind me and spun me around. The brush was running my hair before I knew what was happening.
"Tuck your shirt in, damn it," Vanessa hissed as she continued to fiddle with my mess of hair, "At least try to make yourself presentable for her. Thank the Ancestors you wore a nice shirt for a change." I followed Vanessa’s stream of instructions as she fiddled with my clothes, hair, and anything else she felt needed attention. The last thing she did was to grab my face in her hands, look me dead in the eye, and give me one last piece of advice.
"Do us all a favor and don’t screw this up," she said solemnly. I didn’t have time to respond before Farmer’s voice was on the other side of the conference room door.
"Yes milady, the lycanthrope responsible for unsealing the Guild is in here," Farmer boomed. It sounded unnatural, but I was grateful for the warning. The door opened and Elizabeth was standing there. For a brief, but almost eternal, moment I was unable to move or speak. I could only look at her. She took a hesitant step into the conference room, and then another. I saw Vanessa leave the room and Farmer shut the door, but they weren’t really important. All that was important was the person standing in front of me. She crossed the room, each step becoming more confident. Her green eyes were questioning, almost as if she didn’t believe what she was seeing. I stifled the urge to swallow nervously and took the few steps to stand in front of her. Her hands danced along my arms, my chest, my shoulders, and came to rest on my face. It took all my strength not to succumb to the dizzy intoxication of her scent. We just stood there looking into each other’s eyes, silently reassuring the other that we were really there.
The room blurred as the heavy slap landed across my face. I turned back to find a fearsome expression on Elizabeth’s face. Surprised and unsure, I stood there paralyzed as a second, and then a third, slap struck me. My senses snapped back into focus. I caught her fourth strike in a gentle, but firm grip. Elizabeth’s entire body went limp and collapsed into mine. The unnerving sound of her sobbing shook me harder than her outburst of violence. All I could do was wrap my arms around her and cradle her.
"Why weren’t you here?" Elizabeth whispered between sobs, "Where did you go?" They were simple questions, devoid of any accusation, but I felt the shame blaze inside of me. I knew intellectually I had been under orders from the Guildmaster to leave Hillsborough, but Elizabeth’s simple pleading questions tore all that from me. I knew I made a mistake. I should have stayed. I should have sent Nick and Hangman up while I went to go find her. I should have done whatever it took to not cause her so much pain. I couldn’t answer her questions, so I just pulled her closer. Elizabeth reacted fiercely by pushing against my chest. I don’t know what I tripped on, but I felt myself falling backwards, with Elizabeth firmly in my grasp. My breath whooshed out of me as I was sandwiched between the lightly carpeted floor and Elizabeth. The door to the room slammed open as Elizabeth’s sole Red Knight charged in at the crashing sound of two lycanthropes hitting the floor. The unfamiliar Knight gave the two of us a look of scandalized horror. I just tilted my head so I could look the Red Knight in the eyes.
"Do you mind? We’re in the middle of a conversation," I told the Red Knight, as deadpan as I could manage. It must have been enough, because the Knight’s expression went from scandalized to indignant. He was young. I was willing to bet the Red Knight wasn’t more than a few years out of tysach. If I had to guess, this one was probably more full of piss, vinegar, and propriety than common sense. Come to think of it, that described most of the Red Knights I dealt with. The Red Knight didn’t say anything, but his hand darted to the pistol holstered at his side. My eyes narrowed and fixed him with a glare of pure menace.
"If you don’t quit touching that pistol, I’m going to come over there, take it from you, shove it up your ass and fire every fucking round in the magazine," I said. The Red Knight blanched, but to his credit, he stood his ground.
"Milady, is this hunter harming you?" the Knight asked, his voice full of forced calm and confidence. Elizabeth squirmed on top of me to look at her bodyguard. It was uncomfortably pleasant. My self-control strained to keep me from breaking into a stupid grin.
"No, I’m fine," Elizabeth answered, "Badmoon just tripped, and unfortunately took me with him. It was a simple accident. Nothing you need to worry about." The Red Knight’s hand came away from his pistol, but he didn’t look convinced. "Gregory, I’m perfectly fine. I know Badmoon’s reputation among the Red Knights, but I swear to you, he won’t let any harm come to me. I’m as safe with him as I would be with you. Now, leave us alone." The last sentence came out with the unmistakable tone of command. The Red Knight shifted his look between Elizabeth and me, clearly torn between his duty to obey the Lady-Apparent and his duty to protect her. Elizabeth looked down at me and slapped my chest.
"Quit scowling at Gregory," she told me with the same commanding tone. My face went to a neutral expression. The Knight must have been satisfied Elizabeth had me under control, because he carefully backed out of the room and carefully closed the door. I looked up into Elizabeth’s waiting eyes. There was amusement in them. The encounter with the Red Knight broke some of the tension between us. Instinct took over, and I reached up to her beautiful face with a trembling hand. She nuzzled against my palm, and some of my confidence returned. I pulled her face down to mine and kissed her. Sort of. Fortunately, Elizabeth knew more of what to do than I did. For the record, it was not my first kiss, but it wasn’t far removed. Very few females would dare dalliances with a Badmoon, even in the crazy times of tysach. I finally figured out what I was supposed to do and kept up with Elizabeth’s frenzied pace. Time stopped and blazed by as the Elizabeth’s hands explored my body, and I returned the favor. My hands found the first button of her blouse and popped it open. Her hands stopped instantly and slammed into my shoulders.
"Stop!" she told me.
"Okay," I said, confused. I let my arms drop to my side, "What did I do wrong?"
"Just stop," Elizabeth said softly. She clamored off of me and sat down in one of the chairs. I sat up and watched her for any signs of what I had done wrong. Elizabeth just gave me the warmest and most loving look any lycanthrope ever gave me. The kind of look that made me think I could just sit there in that room forever.
"Ancestors, I’ve been waiting so long. Damn it," she cursed.
"What’s the matter?" I asked sliding up next to her. She put a soft hand on my face and gave me another of those looks.
"Me," she answered, with a hint of sadness, "I’m the Lady-Apparent. The Lady of Hillsborough for all practical purposes." The warm look evaporated, and one of frustration replaced it. "I can’t allow myself to be soiled by an affair with a lycanthrope who is not my mate. Or going to be my mate." I flinched at the words, but I knew the truth behind them. Lycanthropes were very strict on affairs outside of the mated pair. Some intimacy was expected when lycanthropes dated, and some experimentation during tysach was forgiven. That said, the lines were clearly set out during tysach. Lycanthropes were forced from the packs for crossing those lines. It was even more demanding upon the aristocracy. This wasn’t something I even contemplated in the past two months. I was too busy worrying if Elizabeth was even alive.
"I’m sorry," I ventured, not really sure what I needed to say, "I’ll keep away from you. I’ll be the good hunter for you, and nothing else." I began to stand up, but Elizabeth’s hand fell on my arm.
"No, you don’t understand," she said. She looked deeply into my eyes. "Do you know how long I’ve waited for you?"
"No," I answered, "I’m still having trouble with the whole idea that the Lady-Apparent has a thing for me. It’s not exactly something I’ve had a whole lot of experience with." Elizabeth laughed. It was a deep laugh. The kind that unleashed all of one’s pent-up fears and sorrow.
"Do you remember when we met at your Rite of Initiation?" she asked.
"Ancestors, yes," I answered, "I thought you were the most beautiful person I’d ever seen." For some reason, the words didn’t sound corny or sappy when I said it to her.
"I saw it in your eyes," Elizabeth said, "I’ve seen it in so many of the males, but you were different. You were so intense and calm all at the same time when you looked at me. It was scary and exciting all at once. I think that’s when I fell in love with you for the first time. Then, you disappeared into the Guild before I could find out what was behind those eyes of yours." She paused for a moment. The silence was deafening.
"You know, I don’t think Daddy ever knew how I felt about you," Elizabeth mused, "I know he liked you, but I don’t think he ever connected my pestering him about you to anything more than my being a dutiful daughter making sure he was doing what was best for the family. You weren’t exactly popular among the packs." I was stunned. I didn’t even suspect Lord Vollen took an interest in me beyond me being a Badmoon and the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. Elizabeth smiled as she saw the effect her words had on me.
"Jason knew how I felt though," Elizabeth continued, "He and Bobby used to tease me relentlessly about it. Sissy thought it was like some sort of romantic fairy tale. She didn’t understand the reality. There was no way I was going to marry a hunter, much less a Badmoon." Elizabeth slid out of her chair and snuggled up next to me as she spoke. "Ancestors, I miss them." She collapsed into my arms and cried.
"I’m sorry," Elizabeth said as she fought to get her grief under control, "I try so hard, but then I see their faces almost every night." Elizabeth shook her head and looked at me with a determined look. "Listen to me Marcus, as much as I want to be with you, I can’t ignore what my lycanthropes expect of me. You’re a Badmoon. It’s going to take a lot to overcome that in the eyes of the pack. Giving us back the Guild is going to help, but I don’t know how much. I know I will do what I can, but if I don’t have the support of the packs, then we can’t be together. At the very least, we’ll have to keep this out of the packs’ eyes until the right time. And it means we’ll have to restrain ourselves until the packs accept the idea of us being mated." I could have been bitter about the injustice of being a Badmoon. I could have been infuriated about how the superstitions of the packs were keeping me from being with the one I loved. Truth to tell, though, I was still feeling the warmth of finding out that all of me fears were baseless and she did love me. She. Loved. Me. That washed away a lot of the pain.
"Milady, what if I managed to bring down some help from the State Guild? Say enough to help take back the county?" I asked. Her gorgeous green eyes went wide. In an instant, Elizabeth was kissing me ferociously. As she pulled away, it took me a moment to remember to breathe.
"You only call me Milady in front of the packs, Marcus," she whispered to me, "When we’re alone, it’s Elizabeth." I kind of lost track of time after that.
Vanessa didn’t even try to hide the smug smirk as she strode into the conference room. The embarrassed look on my own face didn’t help. Thankfully, Vanessa made no comment as she casually checked the process on her computer and typed in a few commands. Elizabeth was sitting demurely in one of the other chairs with Farmer sitting next to her. Gregory, the Red Knight, was standing in one corner with a disapproving look on his face. He was careful to keep his hand away from his pistol while doing his best to ignore my presence. I wasn’t sure if the Red Knight was more amusing or annoying. Farmer, Gregory, and Vanessa joined Elizabeth and me in the conference room after we managed to make ourselves somewhat presentable. That took some doing considering how Elizabeth reacted to my mention of the State Guild. It was energetic, to say the least, even if it was kept within the relative boundaries of propriety. Vanessa just strode in with a look that told me she was completely satisfied with herself. Farmer was unfazed. Thank the Ancestors for that stoic hunter. The Red Knight just scowled, but I didn’t give a damn what Gregory thought.
"Milady, Farmer, this kin is Vanessa Hawthorne," I said, finally introducing my partner to the others, "She works with me in the Society of the Claw and the Fang."
"The what?" Farmer asked.
"What is the Society of the Claw and the Fang?" Elizabeth asked.
"That’s a good question, milady," I replied, "The truth is, I’m not really sure what or who the Society really is. From what Vanessa and I can figure out, at the very least, it’s a loose collection of operatives and analysts who work for a lycanthrope named Blackhawk. He’s some kind of adviser to the Prince, and possibly to the King of the United States. Beyond that, his motives get a bit murky." I went into a brief explanation of what happened after the fall of the Manor. I covered Nick being deported to Nebraska, Hangman joining the State Guild, and my own recruitment into the Society. Vanessa took over the explanation at that point and explained to Elizabeth and Farmer about the mission Blackhawk assigned us, and why we had come down to Hillsborough.
"So, if we can make a case that valuable information the war council needs is here in Hillsborough, then the State Guildmaster would have no choice but to send some of his hunters in to Hillsborough to secure the information," I concluded.
"I should have the report decoded in the next few hours," Vanessa chimed in, "The court recorders weren’t very creative in their tinkering with my code. It didn’t take much to get my program set up."
"After that, I intend to be on the phone with the State Guildmaster," I finished, "Knowing the State Guildmaster, we can expect Hangman and other hunters here within the next twelve hours."
"Assuming you find any useful information in that report," Farmer said flatly, "What if you don’t?" Elizabeth and Vanessa traded uncomfortable looks about Farmer’s scathing pragmatism.
"On that very slim chance, I’ll lie," I answered, "The State Guildmaster can hand me over to the war council for deceit after we kick the fucking leeches out of our county, if he feels it’s warranted. I don’t care. We need the help, and I’m willing to risk the small chance the emissary’s report doesn’t have something the State Guildmaster would find interesting." Farmer smiled. Some folks just shouldn’t smile. It was disturbing to look at.
"Okay," Farmer said, "Milady, since this is going to take some time, I think you should get some rest. The packs will be here in a few hours. You may not have the chance later."
"You’re probably right," Elizabeth said resigned, "Ms. Hawthorne, thank you for your efforts. I greatly appreciate it. Badmoon…" She just let her sentence trail off and smiled seductively. Farmer gave a pained sigh and led Elizabeth out of the conference room with the scowling Red Knight trailing behind them. Vanessa waited for the door to shut, and then whirled on me with a mischievous smile.
"Someone got his answer, from the look of things. Maybe a bit more?" Vanessa said, with a teased, but pleased tone in her voice.
"Yeah, I got some answers," I said, smiling. Then my face darkened. "I also got a whole bunch of new problems. Some of those will hopefully be solved once Hangman and the State boys get their asses down here." I flopped down into one of the leather chairs. My mind was clearer now. Elizabeth managed to remove all of the fear and torment that threatened my sanity for the last couple of months. I knew where I stood, and where I wanted to stand. The trick was getting there.
"Mark, what are we going to do once we’ve confirmed the existence of the report to the State Guildmaster, and he sends down Sam and the others?" Vanessa asked as she worked on her laptop. I leaned back in the chair and thought for a few moments.
"I think some of that we’ll figure out once we actually know what’s in that damned report and when we actually talk to the State Guildmaster," I answered, "The war council should be forming. We have some time as the lords jockey for who will be the leader. Talk about a job none of them will want." By law, the leader of the war council can’t succeed the Prince of Florida. Supposedly, it was to prevent coups. I was skeptical of that claim, to say the least. "Once they figure out who’s going to lead them, the first thing the war council will do is formally request the Prince relinquish his throne to the council. Depending on what the Prince does from there, it could be quick, or it could drag out for some time."
"You’re taking the destruction of the state very calmly," Vanessa said, "The Prince is about to be deposed, and a mob of county lords are going to be vying for his crown."
"I really don’t give a flying fuck about the Prince, or his crown," I said, "I’m sitting in a county that should have been flooded with warriors, shaman, and hunters the moment we lost the Manor. Down south are two more counties that should have been taken back the moment their aristocracies went missing. The Prince didn’t do a damn thing to help any of us. This is why that mob of county lords can even legitimately form a war council. At least the council’s a hell of a lot more stable than if one of the lords was required to personally challenge the Prince, like what happens on the local level." Vanessa eyed me appraisingly over the top of her laptop.
"This is new for you," Vanessa said. She slid her chair to the side so that she could look directly at me. "When did you become such a revolutionary?" Her unspoken question was when I lost faith with my Prince.
"I’m not a revolutionary," I told her, "I just want my home back." She gave me what could best be described as a mournful look.
The electronic chime startled me as it broke the two hour silence. A deft move caught the barrel of my HK45 as it slipped from my fingers. Vanessa smiled at my fumble, but didn’t say anything as she perused the now-decrypted report from the emissary. I continued to oil and reassemble the HK45. Vanessa’s eyes widened as she read the report. Her fingers danced across the keyboard as she began making notes.
"Mark, get on the phone right now," Vanessa said, her eyes never leaving the screen, "Tell the State Guildmaster we found what he needs. I need him to send me a courier. He needs to see this immediately, and I don’t want to send it electronically."
"What’s going on Vanessa?" I asked, pulling out my phone. Vanessa looked up to answer me, but was interrupted as Carl barged into the room. The pack warrior was in true form, which was unusual enough.
"Ranger, you need to come with me immediately," Carl pleaded. I arched my eyebrow at the pack warrior, which only increased his frantic motion for me to follow him. My instincts screamed warning signals. Something was wrong. I stood up, unconsciously holstering my pistol. I dialed the State Guildmaster.
"This is Ranger," I said tersely as the State Guildmaster answered his phone, "It’s time to fulfill the bargain." There was no reply. The State Guildmaster simply hung up his phone. Soon, state hunters should be on their way to Hillsborough with Hangman leading the way. I smiled. I managed to accomplish that for Elizabeth. My smile died as Carl led me into the training room on the second floor. In front of me were the hundred or so surviving lycanthropes of Hillsborough County. All were in true form. Across the room from me was Elizabeth, Farmer, and a third lycanthrope I didn’t recognize. The eight foot tall true form was shaking with indignant rage. His white fur, tinged with just a hint of gray, was standing on end. The lycanthrope was loosely holding a silver dagger in his hand. There was something familiar in his stance. Elizabeth’s roan true form was braced to attack, a similar silver dagger in her hand. Farmer looked from the two snarling lycanthropes to me as I walked in behind Carl. Surprise, terror, and relief all mixed together on the normally stoic hunter’s face.
The lycanthropes turned to face me as I stepped in. I shed human for true as I walked, feeling my clothes pop and tear as my form grew and expanded. I welcomed the opening of the lycanthrope senses like a long-lost friend. I had spent far too much time in human form over the last couple of months. From the scents suddenly flooding through me, the lycanthropes of Hillsborough County were still terrified from their long ordeal – and they were enraged. What were they so angry about? The mass of lycanthropes parted, leaving me a clear avenue to Farmer, Elizabeth, and the unknown lycanthrope. Their eyes didn’t leave me.
"Well, since I seem to be the only one who doesn’t know what is going on, would someone be kind enough to explain?" I asked, with a deadly seriousness. "Especially, since someone is holding a silver blade in the presence of the Lady-Apparent."
"Badmoon, please, don’t interrupt this," Elizabeth commanded with no hint of any affection in her voice. The unknown lycanthrope snarled a malicious and triumphant grin. His stance relaxed a bit.
"So, your corrupted lover comes to your rescue," he spit out, "What a pathetic excuse for an aristocrat you are." Events snapped into place. This was a leadership challenge. This challenger was hitting Elizabeth in the one place she might be considered weak – her relationship with me. It was the one subject that would undermine Elizabeth’s hold over the packs. Worse, I could tell by the way Elizabeth was holding her own dagger she knew it as well. She was going to lose if I didn’t do something. I looked over at Farmer. He gave me an almost imperceptible nod.
"Who the fuck are you asshole?" I asked dismissively, striding to the middle of the room, "Because a shithead like you had better be real careful in who you try to insult." Farmer eyes went wide, but then narrowed as he realized my ploy. I flashed hand signs for him to rein Elizabeth in. If she jumped in at the wrong time, this would go sideways, and there would be a nasty power struggle in the county.
"I am Franklin Speartooth," the unknown lycanthrope declared, "I am the son of Lord Jaegar, Lord of Lee County." Oh good, my instincts were right. This was some outsider bastard trying to jump what he thought was a weak county. He gave me a disgusted look. "Even a Badmoon should know better to interfere in a challenge of the aristocracy." He turned his back on me to continue his silent challenge of wills against Elizabeth. He was correct, to a point.
"You’re a fucking carpetbagger," I said, interrupting him again. I could see the flash of pure rage in Speartooth’s eyes. "What, your daddy couldn’t trust you with his piddling county so you’re trying to take ours? And you waited until we’d been badly weakened. You fucking coward." The remarks must have been dead on, because Speartooth ignored Elizabeth and leapt at me. I watched Speartooth’s eyes as he closed the distance. His dagger swung up. I sidestepped his attack at the last instant. I felt the familiar burn of silver as his dagger lightly cut along my upper left arm. Excellent. I needed to be blooded for this to work.
"What’s the matter Speartooth?" I asked, letting the blood course visibly down my arm, "Why are you so afraid of the words of a Badmoon? Shouldn’t a prospective lord be able to ignore a single member of the packs?" I shot a quick look to Elizabeth. Her eyes were wide with understanding. Horrific understanding. I realized at that instant I made one critical misjudgment in my hasty plan. It was too late to try and shift the plan. I needed to play this out. The Hillsborough lycanthropes were starting to shift as Speartooth stabbed with his dagger. My hand hit just above Speartooth’s wrist and shoved the blade to the empty space next to my torso. I looked over to a lycanthrope I knew. Pamela Tailsnatcher was the now-widowed wife of the Oak Grove pack. She despised me as a Badmoon, but the other lycanthropes respected her. She looked upon both Speartooth and me with equal disgust. If a respected lycanthrope felt this aristocrat merited the same respect as a Badmoon, then I accomplished my first goal. It was time to end this before Speartooth managed a miracle and shifted the packs back to him. I caught Farmer’s eye and nodded. As he bent down to speak to Elizabeth, I dodged another two dagger stabs. Speartooth really had no idea how to actually fight with that thing. He must have been used to no one putting up a real fight.
"Speartooth!" Elizabeth’s voice shot clearly through the training room. "You have dared to blood one of my wolves without my permission in my county!" Speartooth stopped and turned to Elizabeth, a look of pure shock in his eyes. A brief moment, and then I could almost see the light bulb turn on above his head as he realized what was happening. The law on lycanthropes, especially aristocrats, abusing the packs of another lord – including hunters and shamans – was very clear. Worse for him, he’d technically withdrawn his challenge against Elizabeth to attack me. He no longer had any standing in the law, or the eyes of the packs. Now, if Elizabeth could just follow through.
"Hunter, deal with him," Elizabeth said, the rage apparent in her voice. I knew what she wanted me to do, but I also knew what she needed me to do. I looked over to Farmer. He nodded at me with closed eyes. I heard the particular ring of silver hitting the concrete floor as Speartooth let go of his dagger. He was outmaneuvered, and he knew it. So, he was playing what he thought was his one move. Speartooth saw that Elizabeth wasn’t a killer of lycanthropes. As I turned to face him, I saw the resigned look of someone whose gambit failed and was now steeling himself for the punishment. He was expecting maybe a beating, or at worst, some new scars. The poor fool.
My HK45 materialized in my hand. Confusion darted across Speartooth’s face. I pointed the pistol at his chest and squeezed the trigger twice. The gunfire was deafening even in the cavernous training room. Blood sprayed across me as bits of Speartooth’s torso splattered the lycanthropes behind him. The packs looked at me in horror. The death of a lycanthrope at the hand of another was firmly ingrained into us as the epitome of evil. It was the strongest of our taboos. Of course, even the packs realized there were some lycanthropes who needed to be removed because they were a danger to the packs. That knowledge didn’t change their bone-deep revulsion against the act or those who did the deed. I could hear the whispers from the packs as I calmly decocked my pistol and holstered it.
"Will anyone else attempt to fill his shoes?" Elizabeth said as the echoes of gunfire subsided. The packs looked at their lady with respect and fear. From the looks on their faces, they saw what Elizabeth needed them to see. Elizabeth used me to manipulate Speartooth into abandoning his challenge and attack me. In their eyes, it was all Elizabeth’s plan. Lycanthropes respect the strongest leader, which wasn’t always the one who was physically stronger. It was the one who walked away from the challenge. Now that was clear to the packs, and would be clear to the state when Speartooth’s body was dumped at the border. Elizabeth Vollen would not tolerate challenges during this war, and all challenges would be ended lethally.
"Hunter, you may return to your duties," Elizabeth said emotionlessly. I wanted to stay, but Farmer’s expression made it very clear I needed to leave. I played my part, and Elizabeth was safe. Now it was time for her to play her part to pick up the pieces of her county and forge them into a single force. I bowed my head and wordlessly left the training room.
Vanessa was still making notes on the emissary’s report as I walked in. Her eyes didn’t even leave the monitor as I took a few steps into the room, shed true for human, and then slumped into one of the chairs. I drew my pistol and stared at the blood-spattered weapon. I hated killing another lycanthrope. Most lycanthropes, even hunters, would be either physically ill or so wracked with guilt they were essentially immobilized. There are even stories of lycanthropes who committed suicide after accidentally killing another lycanthrope. I knew I should be feeling those emotions of guilt and self-hate, but I didn’t. That lack of emotions always worried me. Lycanthropes were monsters to the humans, but even the lycanthropes had things that we considered horrifying. One of those is the lycanthrope who can kill another lycanthrope without remorse. I was one of those. I didn’t even have my Guildmaster to reassure me that I was doing what was best for the packs anymore.
"Ancestors, what happened to you?" Vanessa asked, finally looking over at me. Her chair hit the wall as she rushed over to me.
"Relax, the blood’s not mine," I said as Vanessa examined my bloody and shredded clothing. "I had to deal with a problem. It wasn’t pretty. Did you get anything done on the report?" Vanessa was momentarily mesmerized by my torn and bloody clothes. She cleared her head with a quick shake.
"Um, yeah," Vanessa answered, "Did you call the State Guildmaster?"
"Yeah, but it was real quick," I said, "Just long enough to let him know that we had the report and that it was significant enough to send hunters down. Just, not in that many words." Vanessa nodded absentmindedly and went back to her laptop.
"The report gives us a lot more than we could have expected," Vanessa stated, "Mark, it says–" Vanessa was interrupted by the door slamming open. Farmer stormed in with eyes burning in anger. I motioned for Vanessa to leave. Farmer didn’t say anything as Vanessa scooted out of the room.
"JB always said you were one of the most reckless lycanthropes he ever had the displeasure of meeting," Farmer said in a controlled tone, "I thought he was just exaggerating. I knew your reputation, but I couldn’t believe you’d be that crazy. Until now." He loomed over me, but I wasn’t in the mood to be intimidated.
"What the fuck?" I shot back, "I did what was necessary. Even you saw that."
"Speartooth wasn’t dangerous enough for what you did," Farmer said, "You could have just maimed him and that would have done it. That’s what I thought you were going to do."
"Bullshit," I said before Farmer could continue, "War council’s probably already meeting, Farmer. If Elizabeth doesn’t have an unshakeable grasp of this county when they come down, she’ll lose it. What I did wasn’t pleasant, but there won’t be any doubt who rules Hillsborough’s packs when the time comes."
"You’re playing a dangerous game with this county, Ranger," Farmer said, "I don’t like it. You won’t be doing anymore executions in this county while I’m Guildmaster. Do you understand me?"
"I won’t do any that you don’t order," I said.
"That’s not what I said," Farmer said.
"No, but it’s what you should have said," I replied. "There’s a reason your predecessor kept me as his personal hitter." Farmer thought about that for a long moment.
"I see. You will not committ any further executions without my explicit orders. My orders," Farmer stressed.
"Yes, boss," I said. Farmer was the Guildmaster. If he told me not to kill, I would obey.
"Against my advice, the Lady-Apparent wants to see you," Farmer said.
"Give me a bit to clean up," I said. Farmer nodded and strode out of the room. Vanessa cautiously walked in after Farmer left. I told her I would talk to her about the report, but Elizabeth wanted to talk to me first. I walked out of the conference room and took the stairs down to the quarters. I knew I there was some fresh clothes in my old room. Plus, I needed a shower to wash off Speartooth’s blood. It took me about fifteen minutes to make myself somewhat presentable. My clothes were a bit musty, but they were better than bloody and torn set I had been wearing. Farmer guessed at what I was doing and led me back up to the first floor. One of the first things Farmer did after bringing the lycanthropes into the Guild was put Elizabeth in the Guildmaster’s office. The suite had an office as well as a small bedroom. Elizabeth’s Red Knight stood outside the office. His face twisted into a vicious snarl as I approached. I gave him a cool look and then ignored him.
A sudden burst of grief hit me as I walked through the door. Nothing had changed since the Guildmaster – my Guildmaster – was last in this office. I could almost see his ghost at the desk, chewing me out for some stunt or the other. I blinked and the image was gone. Farmer motioned to the door to the bedroom. I walked into the room and hit the floor as a silver dagger was thrown at my head. I was crouched behind a chair. My pistol was in my hands before I even realized Elizabeth was the one who’d thrown the blade. She was standing behind the bed. I holstered my pistol and rose up from behind the chair.
"What was that?" I asked, somewhere between anger and confusion.
"You fucking bastard!" Elizabeth yelled, snatching a pillow off the bed. She threw it back down as she realized it wouldn’t hurt me. "You fucking dog! You made me murder Speartooth! You didn’t even give me a fucking choice!" She leapt, shedding human for true. The sudden attack caught me off-guard. Her backhand slap slammed me against the door frame.
"How could you do this to me?" she screamed in my face as she picked me up and threw me into the office. The blow across the face was going to leave some bruises, but I could feel everything else healing. I shed for true and caught her next attack.
"I’m sorry Elizabeth, but it had to be done," I said, holding her struggling arm in a tight grip. "For your protection and for the packs." She stopped struggling and looked deep into my eyes. Elizabeth shrank as she shed for human. She yanked her arm out of my hands.
"Ancestors, you’re not even feeling the pain of what you did," she breathed, "You really are the monster they said you are." Her words and tone hit me harder than any physical blow. There was a horror and a revulsion in her eyes that crushed something inside of me.
"Get out of here. I don’t want to see you again," she said. I didn’t say anything. I just shed for human and walked out. I didn’t even react to the smug look on Gregory’s face. My steps came faster as I made my way to the conference room. Vanessa looked up at me as I walked in and blanched. She started talking but I didn’t even hear her words. I held up my hand and she fell quiet.
"Pack up your stuff. We’re leaving." It was all I could say in while my head swam with the tumult of emotions running through it.
"Mark, you do realize it’s night out?"� Vanessa asked, "You know, night, in a county controlled by vampires." Something about hearing my nemesis race cleared my head a bit. Vanessa stepped back in fear at the smile that spread across my face.
"Oh don’t worry Vanessa. I know just the place to go."