Vanessa packed up all of her gear in record time. To her credit, she didn’t say anything as we climbed into one of the Guild’s cars. She just gave me concerned looks as I sat down in the driver’s seat. My professionalism was screaming bloody murder at me for putting my partner in danger, but the rest of me just didn’t give a damn. Plus, the place we were going should be safe. Even if the TCV thought the lycanthropes were almost finished, they wouldn’t dare touch neutral ground. I gunned the car out of the Guild. I looked up into the beginnings of night.
Poppa Gus’s looked the same as it did before the war. Hell, the only change in the entire strip mall was the out-of-business sign on the furniture store that anchored the mall. I looked over the parking lot. No vampires in sight. I made sure to grab the messenger bag with the MP5K and all of my other goodies. I may be acting foolish, but I hadn’t lost all of my sense. Vanessa grabbed her laptop as we exited the car. She looked around nervously as she followed me into the restaurant. Mama Sanchez was at the podium as Vanessa and I walked in. Mama’s dark eyes went wide in surprise as I crossed the threshold. I was savoring the familiar smells and atmosphere when the large Latina crashed into me with a powerful hug. Other members of the family peeked out as Mama went into a liturgy of Spanish thanking God for my safe return.
"Oh, Senor Mark, we all thought you were dead," Mama said in Spanish. It was so rapid-fire, it took me a moment to understand what she was saying.
"What did you hear?" I asked, in the same language. Vanessa gave me a wide-eyed look. Apparently, the Society didn’t require its operatives to know Spanish. That was kind of foolish in Florida.
"Two of those nasty people you deal with came here maybe a month ago," Mama explained, "They said all of you were probably dead. They would leave us alone, but we were supposed to call if any of you showed up. They scared us." I grimaced. Well, the vampires hadn’t broken neutral ground, but they were treading thin.
"We won’t call them Senor Mark. Julio’s people will be coming to help," Mama said, misreading my expression. Mama must have been terrified if she let her thug son call his gang over to watch the place. They wouldn’t be able to do much to the vampires if any did come, but they might work out as an early warning. Anyone else in Mama’s clan, I would have refused the help, but Julio was a dick. At least, he might turn out to be a useful dick.
"Mama, why don’t you sit us in the back, near the kitchen?" I suggested.
"Yes, of course," she answered, her face brightening. Mama led Vanessa and me back to a small table maybe five paces from the door to the kitchen. As Mama sat us down, she finally realized that I wasn’t alone. The vampires had really shaken her.
"I’m sorry senorita, I’ve been rude," Mama Sanchez said, in heavily accented English, "Welcome to Poppa Gus’s. And you are?" The fear was replaced by the warm hospitality that made Poppa Gus’s popular with the Guild. Vanessa couldn’t resist Mama’s smile.
"Vanessa Hawthorne, ma’am," Vanessa said, "I’m Mark’s partner." Mama arched her eyebrow at her and gave me the same expression. I waved my hand to let her know we couldn’t discuss it more. Mama gave me a knowing expression and nodded. She walked away to get our food. Vanessa looked at me with a quizzical look.
"What?" I asked.
"I thought she was going to take our order," Vanessa said.
"We don’t order here," I explained to Vanessa, "Mama takes care of the hunters. She knows what we need and what we like. Keeps things simple." Vanessa was flabbergasted by the arrangement. I just took it for granted. There were reasons Poppa Gus’s was still standing. Farmer would have probably wiped out large sections of the vampires if the leeches touched the restaurant or the Sanchez family. Granted, Farmer probably wouldn’t survive the purging, but that wasn’t the point. The hunters of Hillsborough gave their loyalty to the Sanchezes, and we took that loyalty with deadly seriousness. As we waited for our food, my mind floated back to Elizabeth. One of the younger girls of the family deposited glasses of iced tea onto the table. I think I thanked her, but I wasn’t sure. I was busy staring into the light brown liquid. Maybe the answers to how I fucked up were somewhere amongst the floating ice cubes. It wasn’t been the first time I’d been called monster. It was an open secret amongst the lycanthropes that I killed lycanthropes for the Guild. Someone had to deal with those kinds of problems. That didn’t stop the packs from whispering when I accompanied the Guildmaster or went out to do jobs. Why did it hurt so much when Elizabeth called me a monster? A sudden slap on the table jolted me back from my ruminations. Vanessa looked at me with a look of annoyed sympathy. I tried to remember if Vanessa said something that I was supposed to answer. I couldn’t remember anything but staring at the glass of iced tea. Vanessa let out a resigned sigh.
"I thought we came here to talk about the emissary’s report," Vanessa said, giving me an accusing look.
"Oh. Yeah," I said, sitting up a little in my chair. I waited for her to start.
"Forget it," Vanessa said, "You’re in no shape to do any work." Vanessa looked at me in the way only a friend can. It would look casual to an outsider, but it was an in-depth searching of my emotional damages. Vanessa could pick out all sorts of details from just how I sat and the look on my face.
"Ancestors, what did she do to you?" Vanessa asked after a moment.
"She called me a monster," I said quietly. "She attacked me and called me a monster." As bad as it hurt to think about, it hurt even worse telling Vanessa. Fucking emotions. Why the hell didn’t I put a stop to this before?
"Not to be glib Mark, but aren’t you?" Vanessa asked. If it had been anyone else, I would have snapped. In just the short time I knew her, Vanessa managed to squirm her way into my close circle of friends. In many ways, she was the sister I never had – and needed. Vanessa knew it and took full advantage to comfort me and pound sense into my skull.
"There’s a world of difference to being a monster in human folklore and being a monster to my own kind," I answered.
"Mark, you’ve always been a monster to your own kind," Vanessa said. She sat back for a moment as I floundered with her words. "Before you try to deny it Mark, let me put something out there. You know you’re a monster to lycanthropes. From what I’ve gleaned from talking with Sam, you are the scariest thing to a regular lycanthrope this side of a pathwalker. You can kill another lycanthrope without remorse, going against generations of bred and taught instincts. You even frighten Sam a little, when he thinks about it."
"How did he know all of that?" I demanded, a little more harshly than I intended. Vanessa just ignored my tone.
"Everyone knew. It wasn’t a secret amongst the hunters in your chapter. They knew who the Guildmaster handed those jobs to," Vanessa said, overly calm. Her tone implied I needed to calm down. I knew that look on her face. It was time to face some nasty truths about myself. I wasn’t sure I wanted to explore those truths, but I knew on an instinctual level that I would need to confront them.
"My dad and brother are pack warriors up in Tallahassee," Vanessa said, "I know the stigma associated with the Badmoon. I also know that you worked hard to prove yourself better than any of the lycanthropes around you. You proved it so well, that you just don’t give a damn what they think anymore. If they can’t compete with you, then they’re below your notice. You’re as much an intolerant and arrogant ass as you think they are."
"Bullshit," I shot back at Vanessa. Her little summary was just too callous and removed. She didn’t understand it all. She didn’t have to go through tysach with me. I wasn’t picked on by the other pups. I was fucking shunned! If the shaman weren’t required by decree to teach me something, they wouldn’t. If the law was a little fuzzy on their duties, they ignored me. I learned how to hunt, how to protect myself, and how to kill on my own. When it came time to prove ourselves, what did those bastards who held themselves away from the abomination with sneers of superiority do? They ran from the instructors "hunting" us. I "killed" our pursuers. I protected them from being "caught." Of course I was better than they were.
"Let’s just pretend I’m right for a minute," Vanessa said, dismissing my anger, "There are still lycanthropes whose respect you value. The other hunters and your Guildmaster." Her voice went soft with sympathy. "They put aside your monstrous abilities because you showed them that you were a protector of the packs, not a destroyer. You were among lycanthropes who valued you being a monster, and who you respected as being just as capable as you. That was, until Elizabeth."
"That doesn’t make any sense!" I said, pounding the table. A few of the other customers looked our way, but my glares quickly averted their attention. I focused back on Vanessa. "Nick said Elizabeth has been watching me for years. Studying me. Even Elizabeth said she had been waiting for me." I paused, not sure how to frame the question.
"So why does your monstrosity suddenly terrify her now?" Vanessa asked, ripping the question out of my throat with a casual smile. "You really don’t understand what it means to have a crush on someone, do you?" I shrugged noncommittally, not wanting to admit my ignorance. "More than likely, your young Lady-Apparent idealized you. Probably at first, it was the whole ‘bad boy’ thing to rebel against her father. You said she lost her mother in a vampire attack?"
"Yeah. The TCV were quick to hand over those leeches," I answered, remembering the incident. If we could only have proven Silanti was behind the attack.
"Were you a rising star in the Guild at the time?" Vanessa asked. I thought back.
"Sort of," I answered, "That was a time when I did a few of my more risky jobs. The Guildmaster at the time was trying to kill me." Vanessa stopped her explanation as she digested the matter-of-fact manner I related the last bit.
"Okay," Vanessa said, getting back to the matter of the discussion, "So, you could have represented security to a young woman who just had her mother ripped from her. You could take care of yourself. You could probably protect her if she needed it. Over time, emotions have a way of eroding away the bad truths. What did you do to throw them in her face?"
"Killed some dog trying to usurp her position," I said. Vanessa’s eyes went wide. I knew that look. It was the look of terror when someone realized I was the killer everyone thought. I had grown used to seeing it on those outside the Guild. Vanessa quickly recovered, but her look made me wonder if what she was telling me was the truth. Before we could continue the conversation, a young man stumbled over to our table. It took me a moment to recognize Julio Sanchez. Julio was a physically impressive young man who had the height for basketball and the pure muscle for football. He probably could have gone to college with his talent. Instead, Julio was an enforcer for a local crew. Gang tattoos covered his forearms and neck. He kept his black hair in a fade and his ears decked with dangling silver earrings. The few times I encountered Julio, he tried hard to prove how tough he was compared to the hunters. Not now. His frame was shrunk down, and his eyes darted with fear.
"Mister Mark, you gotta go outside," Julio said, his voice devoid of the normal gang accent and slang, "Two guys outside looking for you. They fucked up Manuel. They just fucked him up." The once-proud gang-banger was shaking with fear. My mind clicked into job mode. All my hurt, confusion, and anger slipped back into its little box as I walked to the front of the restaurant. The house staff shepherded the rest of the patrons, including Vanessa, to the back of the restaurant with a skilled touch. A half-smile touched my lips as I remembered when the Guildmaster brought in one of his wife’s security specialists to train the Sanchezes on what to do in case of something like this. The Guildmaster was one of the best hunters I had ever known. A small pang of grief tried to break my mindset, but my professionalism and combat instincts shoved it back into the little box.
I stepped out of Poppa Gus’s. Standing along the front of the restaurant were members of Julio’s gang. They were trying to protect one of their own who looked like he had gone a few rounds with a grizzly bear. I looked across the parking lot. Two young vampires were standing casually under the orange light of a streetlamp. I almost laughed. They looked like bad caricatures. The two vampires were dressed like they just stepped out of a B-movie. Black leather pants with white blouses and black silk jackets. Their black hair was greased back. Their pale, handsome faces gleamed out at me with matching smug smiles. The only difference between the two vampires was the left one was taller.
"Did you two watch Twilight one too many times?" I asked lightly as I drew my HK45. I kept the pistol behind me. The two vampires straightened up and took a few steps closer. Neither held a weapon, and they didn’t have any visible cues of concealed weapons. The taller one gave a smile that might have been threatening, if I hadn’t seen it a dozen times before from vampires that were actually a threat. These two didn’t even have painted nails.
"So, you are here," the shorter one said, with an odd foreign accent in his voice, "The great Ranger finally reappears. Our master was very happy to hear that." I relaxed a bit. They were just messenger boys. If the two of them were here to kill me, they wouldn’t have announced themselves by roughing up the human gang. It would have either sneak in to attack me or just cut their way through the humans.
"What the hell does Silanti want with me personally?" I asked.
"Silanti?" Shorty sputtered, "We’re not Silanti’s." I kept my face neutral. I needed to keep these two morons talking. It amazed me how much information simple sentences could give away. I now knew Silanti was not only still operating, but so were other elder vampires – and they weren’t getting along. That sort of rivalry always filters down to the thug level in the vampire society. Shorty eyes grew wide as he realized his mistake.
"Our master challenges you to single combat!" Shorty annouced. I responded by putting a double tap through his chest. Damn it. I just made a very serious mistake, and it damn near killed me. The Ancestors must have been smiling on me because Tall One glanced sideways with anticipation. These two weren’t messengers. They were spotters. They had drawn me out of the restaurant perfectly. I heard the bullet crack above me as I placed a double-tap into Tall One. Julio’s gang friends were hollering and yelling as I scooted behind one of their vehicles seconds before a hail of automatic fire punched into it. At least three shooters armed with AK’s. Those weapons had such a distinctive sound. Thank the Ancestors, the ambush was sloppy. I holstered the HK45 and yanked the MP5 out of the messenger bag. More gunfire rocked the car as I quickly screwed on the suppressor. The sound of the gunfire was coming closer. I slid to the ground. I easily picked out the three pairs of black combat boots with black combat fatigues tucked into them. I placed the ring of the front sight on the farthest pair and squeezed the trigger. The suppressed burst of the MP5 was silent compared to the thundering AK’s. The leech collapsed as his ankles were destroyed by the nine millimeter silver rounds. His masked face hit the ground an instant before three more rounds ended him. The other two pairs of feet stopped instantly.
I scrambled to the rear of the car. I brought the MP5 up as I cleared the car. One was sprinting towards some parked cars, while the other twisted to bring his AK to bear on me. He wasn’t even taking cover. I placed a short burst into his torso an instant before he fired at me. My burst didn’t take the vampire down, but it sent his burst scant inches above and right of my head. I could feel the micro sonic booms as his bullets passed over me. I smoothly readjusted my aim and placed the next burst into the vampire’s face. The vampire toppled to the ground as I kept moving after the last vampire. I took cover behind another of the gang’s street racers. The expected burst of gunfire didn’t happen. I rose very cautiously. The last vampire was running from the parked cars toward the closed-up furniture store on the other side of the strip mall from Poppa Gus’s. I shouldered the MP5 and placed a careful burst into the last vampire’s back. He staggered for an instant, but recovered without losing a stride. Hell, it looked like I gave him a needed push. I moved through the parked cars, taking great pains to make sure I was either behind cover or could quickly jump behind some. One ambush a night was enough. The front door on the darkened furniture store opened as the vampire sped through. Damn, there were more in the store. I wanted to shed for true form, but there were too many humans around. I felt naked facing the forbidding darkened structure without the completeness of true form’s senses. It was time to think sneaky. I slinked back through the parked cars. I watched the front of the store as I called Vanessa.
"Mark, are you okay?" Vanessa asked as she picked up.
"For the moment," I said, "I need you to get the car and come pick me up." I gave her some specific instructions as I kept watch on the doors of the furniture store. I fired at some movement in the store. I didn’t expect to hit anything, but it should have kept them focused on me. I heard Vanesssa’s shoes clacking across the asphalt and then the welcoming sound of the car’s engine. Vanessa wheeled in behind me, scraping the paint off a car as she pulled into the tight space. With my MP5 trained on the furniture store, I climbed into the passenger seat and motioned for Vanessa to punch it. I felt the car fish-tail as Vanessa slammed on the gas.
"What’s the fastest way to get back to the Guild?" Vanessa asked as the car slammed onto the road.
"We’re not going back to the Guild," I said as I slapped a new magazine into the MP5. Vanessa shot me a surprised look. I didn’t answer her unspoken question. "At the next corner, turn right. Then another right at the next corner." Vanessa nodded as I reached behind her seat and found the Kevlar. All of the Guild cars carried a spare vest. The vest wouldn’t protect me from the rifle rounds coming out of an AK, but it would keep pistol rounds, fragments, and the odd knife from putting holes in my torso. I stuffed two more magazines for the MP5 in the vest’s pouches. As we rounded the last curve, I spied a dark copse of trees and motioned for Vanessa to pull over. I climbed out of the car. A quick scan made sure there was no one around. I yanked off my shoes and pants and threw them into the passenger seat. I liked those shoes and pants. Vanessa teased me with a murmured catcall. I smiled as I closed my eyes and shed for true form. I welcomed the familiar flash of pain as my body stretched and reformed itself. I relished the new barrage of scents as the world of the true lycanthrope opened up to me. I could hear Vanessa’s quickened breathing. I opened my eyes. The night was no longer dark, merely dim. I could easily see my way through the trees. I looked down to the weapon in my hands. My claw-tipped hand held the MP5 like a child’s toy.
"No matter how many times I see it, it’s still amazing," breathed Vanessa.
"Go back to the hotel and get the truck," I told her, "Then come back here to pick me up. Be careful. This isn’t the best neighborhood."
"What about this car?" she asked, surprised by my instructions.
"Leave the keys in them," I told her, "One of the Pasco lycanthropes will bring it back." They might have questions, but they wouldn’t want the evidence that someone from Hillsborough managed to get out.
"What are you going to do?" she asked.
"I’m going to clear out that store," I said, pointing at the furniture store.
I crept out of the copse of trees and elephant ear plants to the back of the strip mall. Security lights provided some illumination. They also provided me shadows big enough for my eight foot true form to hop across to the back of the furniture store. It was kind of like crossing a river on stepping stones. Vampires in true form would be able to see straight through the shadows, but I wasn’t worried about them. They’d all be dead soon enough. I didn’t want any witch-hunters born tonight. The back of the furniture store was dominated by the two large loading docks. The ground sloped down in front of the docks so that the large delivery trucks would be able to line up evenly with the docks. Just beyond one of the docks, a few large crates stacked up to provide a firing position for a ghoul. It was dressed in black tactical gear and loosely holding an AK. The ghoul’s stance and easy grip on its weapon were too lazy and too confident. A ghoul would never fall into those bad habits, especially after a gunfight in front of the building. They were too zealous in the protection of their leech masters. I kept still in the shadow and inspected further. Another ghoul was about five yards back in a similar position. One bait and one trap. Not a bad plan.
I brought the suppressed MP5 to my shoulder with an agonizingly slow motion. My natural inclination would have just been to attack both with a furious strike. I also knew my natural inclinations weren’t always conducive to keeping me alive. That is where experience came in handy. I lined up the sights and placed a quiet burst into the far ghoul. Against a vampire team that would have bought me a second or two as the bait figured out he wasn’t the one being attacked. Ghouls just responded. I sprinted into the sloping loading dock as the bait ghoul sprayed the area with a long chattering burst. At least they didn’t always respond appropriately. With my silent infiltration blown, I needed to rely on speed and violence. The ghoul stood up from his cover to search for me. The flash of the muzzle destroyed the ghoul’s night vision. He never saw the burst that caught him between the eyes. I slung my submachine gund and snatched the ghoul’s AK. I stuffed a couple of spare magazines into my vest as I stormed into the back of the store. Might as well use their ammo first.
Beyond the loading docks, the store was more like a warehouse. Empty metal and wood shelves went from floor to ceiling. Two double-wide swing doors led out to the showroom. I found some concealment behind some discarded packaging and scanned the area with the AK. I was alone in the cavernous area. My instincts were roaring danger. I heard boots approaching the left-hand door. I placed the AK on the floor and unslung the MP5. The vampire from the parking lot cautiously tread into the stockroom with his AK pointing wildly. I dashed from my position. The vampire turned to the sudden movement just in time to see the muzzle flash of my weapon. I sprinted past the falling corpse through the swing doors. There was a second vampire a few feet beyond the doors. He stood there immobilized as I slammed into him. I felt the thud of the linoleum walkway through him and triggered a burst into his face. I felt something tug at my vest an instant before I was lifted up and casually tossed across the store. I felt the flash of pain as I landed on the floor and slid for a few feet. I scampered to my feet, snarling in anger. Then I was on the floor again, but this time I was dizzy and my face felt like I’d been hit with a metal bat. My head continued to throb as I tried to get up off the floor. I felt the kick as it lifted me off the ground. I was airborne for a couple of seconds. I finally saw the source. My attacker was the biggest vampire I’d ever seen. He was in true form with the tattered remains of tactical clothing hanging from his frame. He also wore the black claws of a Bleeder. This just got more interesting.
As I crashed to the floor, I rolled until I could come up with my HK45 in hand. The vampire was already within arm’s reach and punched me in the side so fast I don’t think I actually saw the strike. I just felt the explosion of archanal pain. I leapt back onto a sofa and rode it as it crashed backwards. I needed to open up space between myself and this monster. I skittered back a step as the sofa collapsed and double-tapped the vampire in the head. His head snapped back from the energy of the two rounds. It was enough to topple him over. Satisfied, I crouched down and looked around for any other targets. If there were any other vampires, they were long gone. I let out a long breath, and then winced as my right side screamed in pain. I ran my hand along my side to see if that big bastard managed to break any bones. Those were a bitch to heal. Something scruffed me, lifted me up, and sent me crashing back to the ground. For the record, the industrial carpet wasn’t any softer than the tile. It actually hurt more as it tore at my pelt. I was tossed on to my back. My mind froze as Big Bastard loomed over me. Wait, I knew – I fucking knew – I had just put two rounds of high-quality silver into this vampire’s head. The same way I had taken down countless leeches since I was a baby hunter. There weren’t any bullet wounds on his face. Big Bastard grabbed me by my neck and held me aloft. His twisted true form was a good foot and a half taller than me and easily a couple hundred pounds on me. I felt the sharp pain as his claws punctured my neck. I did what came naturally. I put the HK45 to his side and fired. And fired. And fired. And fired until the slide locked back on an empty magazine.
Big Bastard never let go, and just smiled as each round slammed through his body with just the tinniest tremor. His black glossy eyes narrowed as my gun ran empty. He gave me a playful shake, opening the punctures on my neck even more. My mind was starting to get cloudy as I continued to lose blood. The leech must have hit one of the big veins. He tossed me through the air, ripping bits of my neck out. I crashed into a pair of dining room chairs, and I felt them break under me. Then he gave out the most evil laugh. I was afraid. Not the low-level "you’re-doing-something-stupid" fear I felt on jobs. Not even the over-powering fear of something threatening Elizabeth. This was the primal "my-internal-three-year-old-just-met-the-boogie-monster" fear. I watched as he slowly stalked across the store, almost as if he was savoring my terror. My instincts were screaming for me to run. They just wanted to get away from this horror. My professional side reminded me that if I didn’t stop this thing here, it would tear right through the remaining Hillsborough lycanthropes. Right through Elizabeth.
Fear was ignited into rage. I was still a little cloudy, but I wasn’t going down yet. This was what I was trained to do. My right hand slipped under my vest. I drew out and snapped open my knife. In my left hand was a nice sharp piece of wood a little less than a foot long. I think it was the leg to something. I stood slowly, trying to keep my weapons concealed. Big Bastard just kept walking with that same slow stride. I made the calculations in my head. As soon as he crossed the invisible line, I sprinted at him. Big Bastard braced as I attacked. He tried to stop me cold with a scary fast punch. It was the same attack I would have done against a frontal hand-to-hand attack. Only I wasn’t doing a frontal attack. I slid to his left, keeping my body crouched to avoid the backhand that whistled as it passed over me. I sprang to full height and gave a light slash to Big Bastard’s chest. The knife blade easily cut the black fabric of his torn shirt and through his fur-covered flesh. His laughter ended abruptly. He countered with a pair of punches. One managed to tag me in the shoulder, but I was moving too fast for it to do anything more than twist me a little – and give me a bit more momentum as I slammed the improvised wooded stake into his chest with all my strength. Big Bastard took a step back from the force of the blow. He looked down at the wood protruding from his chest. My mind locked with terror. He should have just dropped, like a marionette when someone cut the strings. A wood strike was supposed to be instant death for any vampire. He didn’t have anything protecting him. My knife proved that. How was he still up? A sledgehammer blow crashed down on my muzzle. I felt the crack as intense pain bloomed. As I stumbled back trying to clear the sparkles from my eyes, I knew my nose was broken. It may not sound like a serious injury, but that blow effectively took away my biting attacks in true form.
"This is getting to be a very boring fight Ranger," Big Bastard said with a deep, almost melodious voice, "I was expecting so much more, I don’t know, violence out of you." I froze at he spoke my name. This wasn’t a chance incident. What was going on?
"Sorry to disappoint," I growled out between throbs of pain, "How about you let me get some wolfsbane, and we’ll try this again?" I felt through the pouch on my vest. I was sure that I brought it. The leech let out another evil laugh before speaking again.
"At least you’re as flippant as I was told," he said, "Just not that quick on the uptake. How many times are you going to try to kill me before you realize that you can’t?"
"Oh, I don’t know," I answered, finally finding it and sliding it out of my pocket. "My Guildmaster always told me I’ve got a pretty good imagination and a tendency to be foolishly persistent."
"Foolishly persistent," Big Bastard echoed, "Yes, I can give you that." I found the square-shaped metal device. One more thing to try. I kept the distance between us as he lumbered towards me. I kept walking back. He followed obediently. Good, this might just work.
"It’s amusing how the other Bleeders feared you. The dog who killed Bradon and the alchemists. Some even said you had mysterious mystical powers. Now, you’re running away from me, just like I expected. Disappointing, really." I stopped next to the body of a dead vampire. It was already in true form. Excellent.
"You talk too much. Let’s finish this," I said, opening the lighter behind my back.
"Just so you won’t die ignorant Ranger, I am Lothos," the vampire announced as he stanced himself. He waited a bare moment before rushing me. Okay, this vampire had some kind of invulnerability and a lot of physical power, but not a lot of technique. Or a grasp of tactics. I dropped the lighter on the dead vampire. The corpse ignited brilliantly. As the flames lit up behind me, I could see the surprise in his eyes. He was faster than me, but in this case, that was a liability. I slipped forward right and pushed Lothos onto the burning vampire. He screamed. I leapt on his back and pushed him down onto the flames. The heat blistered my skin and embers ignited my pelt. I didn’t care. Burns I could heal. This bastard needed to die. Lothos screamed, kicked, and flailed as the flames crawled across his body. It was getting harder to hold him, but as I told Lothos, I was foolishly persistent. It seemed like hours of nothing but pain, but Lothos finally stopped moving. I fell back from the bonfire and slid back across the linoleum. Pain quickly subsided as my body began to heal the burns. Almost as if to add insult to injury, the store’s fire sprinklers kicked in that moment. Streams of cold water soaked every inch of me in a few seconds. I was too tired to even curse. I retrieved my weapons and headed out the back door. Let the vampires clean up their mess. I shed true form for human. I felt pebbles and glass poke my feet as I trotted out of the store and back to the pick-up point. I heard the wail of sirens behind me as fire trucks raced into the parking lot. I watched as the firefighters worked the building. Patience was never one of my strong suits. I was starting to get twitchy waiting for Vanessa to return. An almost eternity later, my truck’s headlights fell on me. I scampered into the cab.
"Do you always come home bloody? Good God Mark, what happened?" Vanessa exclaimed at my appearance.
"Just drive," I told her. I punched in an address into the GPS. "Follow the bouncing ball."
"Where are we going? That isn’t the Guild," she asked. She was nervous, and I couldn’t blame her.
"We’re going to my house," I told her.
We made a slow pass through my old complex. It looked the same. Sometimes I forget that even when monumental things are happening in the unseen world, the human world just continued along. I don’t think any of my neighbors ever realized there was a supernatural war going on in Tampa, much less they were now in occupied territory. All of the cars were the same. Even the same people were out doing their nightly walks or such. I didn’t think the leeches managed to peg my human identity, but I hadn’t lived this long without a certain level of paranoia. The truck was a tight fit in my one-car garage. It took me a few moments to access and open up the house. There was a stale odor to the townhouse, and the faint hint of dirty dishes. Vanessa took a long look over my townhouse’s great room.
"Did you ever clean this place?" she asked.
"There was a war on. I had better things to do," I grumbled. I wasn’t in the mood for joking around. Vanessa put a comforting arm around me. I smiled weakly. She walked around the debris of my life and sat down on the couch.
"So what are we going to do now?" Vanessa asked.
"Tonight, we’re going to get some sleep," I answered, "In the morning, we’re going to get to work on the actual operation we’re supposed to be doing." Vanessa gave me a concerned look.
"Mark, you really need to talk to Elizabeth before throwing yourself back into an operation," Vanessa said, softly.
"No, I don’t," I shot back, "She made herself fucking clear."
"Mark, you still love her. I can see that on your face. You wouldn’t hurt this much otherwise," Vanessa said. "You need to tell her that before you go traipsing down to the Disputed Territories. What happens if you don’t make it out of there? What do you think she will feel?"
"First, I’m not going to get killed down there. Second, she already thinks I’m a monster. She’ll probably glad she doesn’t have to deal with me." I plopped down on the couch. "My bedroom is upstairs. You can take the bed."
"Ancestors, I forget how new to all of this you are," Vanessa said, looming over me with her fists planted firmly on her hips. "You scared her. I saw the way she looked at you when she saw you at the Guild. Those feelings don’t just go away because you scared her. It just makes everything she’s feeling confused."
"And because she’s confused, that gives her license to do whatever she wants?" I asked, "Sorry, not buying it." Vanessa started to say something, but stopped. She took a deep breath and tried a new tack.
"What if she gets killed before we come back? How would you feel if you left things like this?" she asked. The words felt like a gut punch. At that moment, I hated Vanessa and all her damned logic. For a few minutes, I couldn’t trust my own voice to talk.
"I’ll think about it," I said, making the only concession I could think of at the moment.
"No Mark," Vanessa said, stooping to look at me in the eyes, "This is something you’re going to have to do. You’re a good hunter, but you lose your head where Elizabeth is concerned. If we’re going down to the Disputed Territories, I need you completely in the game."
"Why? Why are you pushing this so damn hard?" I asked, seeing something new in Vanessa’s eyes. She realized she gave something away and retreated into my kitchen. "Vanessa, what’s going on?" She rummaged around my cabinets, found a glass, and took a drink of water from the tap. Her eyes bulged and she spat it out. I suppressed a smile before handing her a bottle of water out of the fridge.
"Sorry, Tampa tap’s not exactly the best," I said. "Now tell me what’s going on? Why are you trying so hard to get me to go talk with Elizabeth?"
"You were right when you said that this mission into the Disputed Territories was a suicide run," Vanessa said. "I read the emissary’s report. It was the Society who betrayed Lord Savik and Lord Kiel to the vampires."
"What the fuck?" I asked, "Why the hell would Blackhawk send us down there?"
"I was thinking on that while I was getting the truck," Vanessa said. "The most generous explanation I could come up with was Blackhawk figured because we were new to the Society, we weren’t ‘tainted’ and could actually succeed in getting Lord Savik and his packs out of there." I gave her a flat look. "Yeah, I really didn’t believe that either. I’m thinking it was a quiet way to get rid of a Badmoon. My death would just be the cost of doing business."
"Assuming I’m the target and not you," I said. The idea surprised Vanessa, but she nodded. "So what does this have to do with my problems with Elizabeth?"
"I hoped once you found out what actually happened in the Disputed Territories, you’d just stay here in Tampa. I’ll admit part of it is I don’t want to die on some bullshit mission. The other is I don’t want to see you get killed before…" She trailed off. She dropped into a recliner and looked up at me with a mixture of guilt and sadness. My first instinct was to hop in the truck, drive to Tallahassee, and kill Blackhawk. I could clearly see what Blackhawk was doing. Either I succeeded and he won, or Vanessa and I disappeared into the Disputed Territories and he won. The missing piece was why he wanted me dead. It could have been just because I was a Badmoon. Surprisingly, I could hear Bradon’s voice in my head telling me it wasn’t that simple. I don’t know why I thought of Bradon at that moment, but some of the old vampire’s lessons were coming back. I walked out onto the back porch and paced. If Blackhawk was willing to send Vanessa and me on a suicide run, then one or both of us were threatening his machinations up in Tallahassee. If we found Lord Savik or Lord Kiel, the moment we said we were from the Society, the lord would tear us apart – and I wouldn’t blame him one bit. So, what was the best way to completely fuck up Blackhawk? Not just kill him, although I did plan on doing that at some point, but make sure whatever he was plotting came unraveled. Just getting the emissary’s report into the hands of the State Guild may not be enough. I’d never heard of the Society before going to Tallahassee. I didn’t know how much behind the scenes influence Blackhawk commanded. Were there any lords I trusted to take Blackhawk down? My head snapped up as I realized there were two. My ruminations stopped as Vanessa came out to the porch. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She flew into my arms crying.
"What’s this about?" I asked confused.
"I really wanted you to be happy. I wasn’t trying to manipulate you just to keep myself safe. That’s why I pushed you so hard. If you were here, you weren’t going to get yourself killed."
"I know Vanessa," I said. She stopped crying and stood up.
"Mark, in the short time I’ve known you, the happiest I’ve seen you was after Elizabeth and you admitted your feelings to each other. She was practically glowing. I can’t believe that kind of emotion was simply stamped out."
"Vanessa, leave it. I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I know how happy you and Hangman have been for the past couple of months. I know you’re trying to help me find that same kind of happiness. You’re just going to have to face that it’s not going to happen for me."
"Only because you’re being stubborn," Vanessa shot back, "You think Hangman and I don’t have to work at it?"
"There’s a difference between having a fight over a restaurant and having the one you love think you’re a monster," I said evenly.
"Ancestors! You are so fucking stupid sometimes," Vanessa said. She stood up and started walking up the stairs. "I’m going to bed. We’ll talk about this more in the morning." I grimaced at the thought of talking even more about this. I just needed to get over the pain and get back on the mission. I opened up the cupboard next to the fridge and pulled out the Serbu Shorty I stashed there. The tiny little shotgun would be perfect in case anything tried coming through the door. With the Shorty on the floor next to me, I laid down on the couch and finally racked out.
Pain greeted me as I woke up the next morning. I could still feel it in my ribs where Lothos pounded me. I staggered into my bathroom. Rummaging through expired toiletries, I finally found the tube of wolfsbane paste. I gingerly applied the paste to my collection of ugly-looking bruises. The pain intensified as the medicine went to work on the archanal wounds. Ancestors, I hated wolfsbane. I hated not being able to move more. Grimacing, I walked into my study. In the far corner sat my gun safe. Like everything else in the house, it was covered in a layer of dust and insect carcasses. Florida doesn’t take long to invade and take back vacant areas. I cracked open the safe and smiled as the whiff of gun oil wafted out. Whatever happened to the rest of the townhouse, my guns and ammunition were still in the same condition I left them. I carefully lifted out my beloved Commando. I dropped the magazine and racked back the charging handle. Lifting the upper receiver, I inspected the Commando’s internals. All looked good. I closed up the weapon, inserted the magazine, and chambered a round. My Glocks were all hanging on the rack inside the door. In the back of the safe was the HK 417. I’d forgotten I left that rifle here. My first thought on seeing the rifle was Gunny was going to kill me for not returning it. I chuckled mirthlessly to myself at the thought. Pain echoed through me as I remembered the dead armorer and his brother. I carefully steered my mind clear before I drudged up the pain from the Guildmaster. I wasn’t quite ready to deal with that yet.
Next to the safe was an old steamer trunk. At least, that’s what it looked like on the outside. In truth, it was a nice portable gun safe. It was a gift from Hangman’s uncle when I took over his position as the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. I opened the trunk and smiled as a rifle rack lifted up like a tackle box. Below the rifle rack was space for ammunition. I loaded the HK 417 and my Commando into the rifle rack. I put in twenty loaded magazines for the Commando and six for the HK. Boxes of ammunition for the two rifles and my HK45 took up the rest of the space. Vanessa walked in as I closed the lid of the trunk.
"Sam texted me. He should be at the Guild in a few hours," she said, her voice a careful neutral.
"That pup needs to have someone beat operational security into his skull," I replied. Vanessa ignored the comment.
"Shouldn’t we meet the State Guild so we can let them know what we found out?" Vanessa asked. I didn’t say anything for a few moments. I could hear the tone in Vanessa’s voice. She was carefully trying to start again about her ideas concerning Elizabeth and me. No, damn it, it was the Lady-Apparent again. I took a deep breath and forced the pain back down.
"We’re going to go meet them. We need to help brief whoever they sent down. Plus, I may want to steal Hangman for our operation down in the Disputed Territories," I said. Vanessa pursed her lips, trying to decide whether or not to continue the discussion.
"Well, then I need to go get ready," Vanessa said flatly. "Would you do me a favor and at least try to dress nicely today?"
"Why?" I asked, eyeing her suspiciously.
"You’d be surprised how much a good appearance can help," she said. I grunted agreement and she went off to get herself cleaned up. She didn’t have to tell me about appearances. I’d learned that from Bradon. Still, I wasn’t going to dress for the Lady-Apparent. Damn it, I was not going to do that. I wasn’t.
A couple of hours later, I was pulling into the Guild. Vanessa left nothing to chance and laid out one of my better suits with shirt and tie while I was in the shower. I hated wearing suits. They were too damn constraining. Vanessa was wearing a tight blue dress. Poor Hangman, the pup wasn’t going to know what to do when he saw her. That thought led me to thinking what I was going to say when I saw the Lady-Apparent. I pushed the sudden thunderbolt of pain to that familiar box in my mind. I needed to concentrate on my mission. Farmer met me in the garage. Standing next to Farmer was a familiar looking lycanthrope. I think I saw him in the State Guild one of the times I spoke with the State Guildmaster and his subordinates. He was maybe six foot and solid built with his brown hair cut military-short. His relaxed but ready stance and examining look screamed hunter. I tried to keep a pleasant look on my face as I stepped out of my truck. The State hunter carefully looked me over. I did the same. He was dressed in jeans and a button-up shirt. A Glock was in a retention holster at his right hip. The cowboy boots looked worn. His dark brown eyes were alert. They flicked over to Vanessa as she stepped around the truck. His sharp features broke into a slightly evil looking smile.
"Damn, I owe Hangman five bucks. He wasn’t kidding about you," the State hunter said to Vanessa. She smiled coyly and her cheeks reddened a bit. The hunter turned back to me.
"Eagle," he said, introducing himself, "I’m heading up the group here." His tone was professional, but I knew the look in his eyes. I’d seen it on countless faces. Eagle was one of those who really didn’t want to work with a Badmoon. At least he was professional enough not to let it show to everyone else.
"I guess you already know who we are," I said, "Let’s get inside. We’ve got a lot to cover, and you’re not going to like any of it." Eagle looked at me suspiciously. Farmer didn’t say anything. He just pointed at the door that led down into the Guild. Eagle and I led the way while Farmer and Vanessa fell in behind us. They were chatting, but it was too low for me to hear.
"I hope you’re not just being overly dramatic," Eagle said cautiously as we walked down the stairs."I’ve heard some stories about some of your stunts."
"Nope," I answered, "Best though if we go over all of this once. Just to give you a head’s up, I may need to steal Hangman."
"This is going to have to be good for me to let you steal my best rookie," Eagle said. I looked over at the hunter. I expected him to tell me no fucking way. I was going to ask what would constitute "good enough," but stopped when I saw a familiar smiling face. From behind me, Vanessa let out a squeal. The woman nearly knocked me to the ground as she launched into Hangman’s waiting arms. Eagle chuckled and a ghost of a smile darted across Farmer’s face as Hangman and Vanessa reunited properly. Farmer led our group to one of the many conference rooms on the first level. As soon as I stepped through the door, my eyes locked onto the scowling face of the Lady-Apparent. She shot a poisonous look at me and then turned back to one of the other lycanthropes already in the room. Vanessa gave me a sympathetic squeeze on the arm as we were ushered to our seats at the table. Hangman sat with us. Across the table was the rest of Eagle’s hit pack. Actually, it was a bit more than a hit pack. The State Guildmaster sent nearly a dozen hunters down. Before the war, that would have been a bit over ten percent of the Hillsborough County Guild. The Lady-Apparent sat at the head of the table. A shaman, the acting Spiritmaster by my guess, was sitting at her right hand. Farmer sat on the left. Three other Hillsborough lycanthropes were there, but I didn’t know any of them. They were trying too hard to look confident, which meant they were probably very new pack leaders.
"Well Ranger, since you like acting out of turn, maybe you’d be so kind as to explain to these State hunters why they are here?" the Lady-Apparent asked. Her voice dripped with sarcasm. I fought to control the flash of anger that shot through me. Her normally melodic voice twisted into a knife that cut open all the barely healing wounds. Vanessa laid a restraining hand on my shoulder.
"Actually, that’s my job," Vanessa said, standing up. The Lady-Apparent and Vanessa locked eyes for a tense moment. I think one of the new pack leaders actually slid his chair back a bit.
"Very well," the Lady-Apparent answered, her voice cold as ice. She waved her hand for Vanessa to continue.
"Mark and I were tasked by the leader of the Society of the Fang and the Claw to infiltrate into the Disputed Territories and extract whatever lycanthropes we could find. Supposedly this was because it was felt that whoever the war council chooses to succeed the Prince would need an experienced warriors to train and lead the state’s warriors against the vampires. Our search for intelligence about the Disputed Territories led us here to Tampa to find a lost report from the last real contact with the lycanthropes still in the Disputed Territories. We also believed this document could have possible ramifications to the deliberations of the war council. We made an agreement with the State Guildmaster if such was the case, then he would provide hunters to secure it. Since they were going to be here in Tampa, they would also help out the lycanthropes of Hillsborough." Eagle and his hit pack nodded as Vanessa recounted the events before we came to Tampa.
"According to the report, the Society set up Lord Savik and Lord Kiev to be slaughtered by the Florida Council of Vampires." Vanessa let the sentence hang in the air as the lycanthropes in the room tried to come to grips with the revelation. Farmer recovered the quickest.
"If you’re working for the Society, then why would they send you down there?" Farmer asked.
"I can think of two scenarios immediately," Vanessa answered, "Both are based on when Mark and I found the Disputed Territories’ packs, and then informed their leadership of who sent us. Either they would kill Mark or Mark would kill them. We don’t have enough information to know why the Society originally betrayed them, or why it decided to attempt some other mission within the Disputed Territories."
"What do you know of the Society?" the Lady-Apparent asked Eagle, plainly ignoring Vanessa and me. The State hunter leaned back in his chair and let out a long breath.
"Not much beyond the fact that it exists," Eagle answered, "Some of our hunters have been recruited into the Society, and then they fall off the face of the earth. Rumors are that they answer to the King of the United States."
"So why haven’t we heard about it before?" Farmer asked.
"I couldn’t tell you," Eagle answered, "They’re a secretive bunch."
"Sitting right here," I said, annoyed. I felt as all of the eyes turned to me.
"Go on Badmoon," the Lady-Apparent said, almost spitting out the name.
"From what I’ve seen since Blackhawk recruited me, the Society operates on a cell basis. No cell knows what the others are doing. The only one who probably knows everything is Blackhawk," I said, doing my best to ignore the Lady-Apparent’s barbs. "He keeps his motives close to his chest. Most of the people working for him probably don’t even understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. They just trust him to know what needs doing."
"Well that’s nice, but that doesn’t explain what the Society is for," Farmer said calmly.
"It may simply exist to provide Blackhawk a power base. When he recruited me, he dangled the chance for me to be in the forefront of the forces that would take back Hillsborough. That’s not something he could promise if he didn’t have the influence to make it happen." The State boys were looking at me intently. The Hillsborough lycanthropes weren’t as impressed. Farmer voiced their concerns.
"I’m not following you. How does his Society translate to power?" asked Farmer.
"If you had a bunch of hunters and smart kin working for you, how many dirty secrets could you uncover or dirty jobs could you do for some of the lords, or the Prince?" I asked in reply. "Blackhawk’s probably got a lot more pull than he lets on."
"Holy shit, that would explain it," Vanessa said. Then she fell quiet as her mind crunched through her hypothesis. The other lycanthropes grew frustrated as she just stood there silently.
"Vanessa, you mind letting us in on what you’re thinking?" I prodded her.
"Oh yeah," she said, startled. "Assume for a moment Blackhawk has enough pull because of the Society that he can play king maker on the war council. Maybe even get himself into the position of puppet master for the war council. He’s got two loose warheads rolling around that could explode all of that. First is an embattled group of lycanthropes who know what Blackhawk did to them. Second is Mark."
"What?" Eagle said, not following Vanessa’s logic, "He’s a Badmoon, but he’s just a hunter. Who the hell would listen to him?"
"He’s a Badmoon who has nothing to lose. Uncontrollable, unpredictable, and with a need to liberate his county. Would you want someone like that near the war council if you were trying to subvert it?" Vanessa asked. Eagle nodded and sat back.
"You have an interesting theory Ms. Hawthorne," the Lady-Apparent said stiffly, "So how does all of this help me get my county back?" The pack leaders nodded in agreement.
"Not at all, at first," Vanessa said meeting the Lady-Apparent’s eyes, "Lord Savik’s the key. The emissary said he was leading the packs down there. Assuming he’s still alive, we need him if we’re going to stop Blackhawk."
"Agreed," Farmer said, "The question becomes how does Savik stop Blackhawk?"
"Savik and the Lady-Apparent making an entrance into the war council?" Eagle asked, "It’ll shatter all of the deal-making that’s going on."
"Will the State Guildmaster let you assist here until I can get to Savik?" I asked Eagle.
"I didn’t say this, but the State Guildmaster would be very disappointed if my team came back without some record kills. You can believe that we’ll keep things good here."
"And just how in the Ancestors’ names do you hope to accomplish this?" the Lady-Apparent asked.
"Vanessa, me, and Hangman, if I can steal him, will go to the Disputed Territories, find Savik, and extract him to Hillsborough with as many of his packs as we can," I answered. The room was deathly quiet.
"You are insane," Eagle said. "Why bring them all here?"
"Why does everyone keep questioning my sanity?" I asked rhetorically. I looked directly at Eagle, "We can’t take Savik to the capital. I’m pretty sure Blackhawk has taken pains to make sure Savik dies before reporting to the war council. Probably Society shooters, which means former hunters. As strange as it sounds, he’s safer here."
"We could stash him in another county," another of the State hunters suggested, "There’s a lot of empty space in Hendry and Collier counties. You’re talking about dragging him across half of the state."
"That’s a good point, but the only lycanthropes I trust right now are either here, across the bay, or a few up in Tallahassee. Blackhawk couldn’t be pulling this off unless he had the support of lords. Who and how many I have no idea."
"Plus, bringing in any lycanthropes out of the Disputed Territories would be a force multiplier for the lycanthropes here in Hillsborough," Eagle said flatly. His face was an expressionless mask. The other state hunters, with the notable exception of Hangman, looked unconvinced. The pup was nodding in agreement.
"I’ll be honest Ranger. I don’t give a damn if you want to go get yourself killed in the Disputed Territories," Eagle said, "You’re reckless and crazy enough you might actually succeed in finding Savik and survive the encounter. I’m not letting you take Hangman, and because he’s not going, I can’t let you take Ms. Hawthorne either. With her in the Disputed Territories, Hangman would be useless." The leader of the State hunters turned to Hangman. "Sorry pup, but it’s true. I can see the signs of it. Maybe if you’d been married for a couple of years, but not at this point in your relationship." Some of the older hunters grunted in agreement.
"Eagle, I work for the Society, not you," Vanessa said coldly, "If Mark goes down to the Disputed Territories, then I go with him. He’s my partner."
"You’re a data analyst and a kin," Eagle shot back, "Not the kind of person I’d want sneaking about in the Disputed Territories. We can use you better here."
"Enough," the Lady-Apparent said. Everyone went quiet at the command in her voice. She looked over at Eagle. "My understanding of your orders was that you were serving under my authority." The State hunter grudgingly nodded. "Then I will decide who goes where." She turned and faced me with cold eyes.
"Ranger, you may take your partner and Hangman to try this gambit," the Lady-Apparent said. "Please go see to it while we discuss other plans." The dismissal was clear. I stood up and strode out of the room before my temper got the better of me. I heard as the Lady-Apparent continued the meeting. As soon as I was out in the hallway, Vanessa and Hangman met up with me.
"Now you see what I mean?" I asked Vanessa, waving my hand at the door of the conference room. "There is no chance of salvaging that relationship."
"Maybe," Vanessa answered. There was an uncertainty in her tone. "There’s something else going on there." Hangman and I traded a look. We didn’t know what Vanessa was talking about. She waved it off. "Let me worry about it for now."
"Sounds good. Now, exactly how are we going to do this?" Hangman asked, changing the subject.
"If you had to find someone who’s gone to ground and not likely to surface because they don’t trust anyone, how would you do it?" I asked the two.
"Was that a trick question?" Hangman asked.
"No. We’re not going to find Savik unless he wants us to find him. The Disputed Territories are just too damned big. We have to get him to want to find us," I explained.
"Just how did you plan on achieving that goal?" Vanessa asked.
"By doing what we do best. Kill bunches and bunches of vampires," I answered.