“How the hell are you here?” I asked, keeping the HK45 trained on Bradon. I was pretty sure it was Bradon. The elegantly cut dark suit and calm demeanor was definitely Bradon’s style, but I’d been fooled before.
“A simple question that covers a lot of complex territory,” Bradon said. “Ranger, could you please put that pistol down? I used to wonder if you could shoot me, but you proved that. I’d rather you not prove it again. I don’t want to see all of my work destroyed. Neither do you, unless you’d rather see Tampa and the surrounding counties in Lothos’s control.”
“None of which answers the question,” I said, keeping the glowing green dot on Bradon’s forehead.
“Ranger put the gun down,” Nick said, appearing out of the doorway. I looked back at my friend and back to the vampire. Neither Bradon nor Nicky were surprised by the others’ presence, which meant these two were working together. Betrayal and rage flared through me before I clamped down on my emotions. I almost shot Nick right there, but I knew there was more going on.
“Okay, one of you better start explaining, or I’m going to kill you both,” I said. The two traded resigned looks. Nicky motioned for Bradon to speak.
“Ranger, you were not the only lycanthrope I cultivated a relationship,” Bradon said, “I will admit you were my personal favorite, but I had others. Most were in your packs. With one exception.”
“You,” I said at Nick, who silently nodded.
“Nicholas is a very useful lycanthrope to know. He is so much more than the hunter he appears to be. Much like you. So, I recruited him for intelligence and his perspective as a non-Florida lycanthrope. He also was helping me with you,” Bradon said, “Whether you know this or not, your presence in Tampa was very useful to the Peace. Which, in turn, was useful to my faction within the Inner Council. If outside forces hadn’t forced the issue, Nick and I would still be grooming you.”
“For what?” I asked.
“Legacy hitter for the Guildmaster and his successor,” Nick answered, “Although, if I’d known how strongly the Lady-Apparent felt about you, I would’ve groomed you more to court her.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that,” I said. Nick gave me a quizzical look. I waved it off. It wasn’t a subject I wanted to go into, and I needed to get back to what was actually going on. I looked back at Bradon.
“I knew you were trying to make me more, civilized. I knew that fit into your plans, somehow. The idea of you working with another of your contacts to make that happen doesn’t surprise me. Who you chose does surprise me. If anything, it makes too much sense. Enough for a good cover story. I put two bullets into Bradon. I saw enough black blood pour out of your body that there was no way for your abilities to save you. I’ve already killed one leech with Bradon’s face. So, you better have an answer as to how you survived or I’m going to assume you’re not Bradon and deal with you accordingly.”
“I was alerted the moment Jason Vollen declared war against us. Not Nicholas, but from one of the packs. I knew you would be sent to kill me. Decapitating the Bleeders would be essential in the first shots of a war,” Bradon said, “Our alchemists were never as good as your shaman, but they could do some very good magic on occasion. Like enchanting my clothes to become as strong as armor and just enough glamour to make it look like I suffered a mortal blow. All I received were a few broken ribs that healed up quickly.”
“That would be plausible except that the Bleeders were never effective as they should’ve been after I shot you,” I said, “Bradon would never have let his operatives be that sloppy.”
“If I had been leading the Bleeders during the war, that would be true,” Bradon said, “Do you think you were the only ones who noticed how the werewolves were being manipulated into a war against the TCV? Moreover, did you think your werewolves were the only ones being manipulated? There was pressure on the Inner Council as well. It was more subtle, but definitely from outside our borders. Among other actions, these outsiders were the ones who suggested Silanti start attacking your pups in tysach. At first I thought it was the Turaki trying to foment a war to provide causus belli to take control of the entire region. When I found out those aliens had no idea what was happening, I realized this was something new. Something I haven’t seen in my almost century and a half of being a nosferatu. Then, you came to kill me. My apparent death gave me the opportunity to investigate on my own without interference from the Inner Council. Just like you, I was overtaken by events. Your county fell faster than I expected. The only good to come of that was I happened to be in Tallahassee when Nick, you, and that young hunter of yours showed up.”
“Bradon rescued me from those Nebraska dogs,” Nick said, taking over the story. “After that, we went to Orange County to see what we could dig up. We found FCV vampires working the Orlando Council. They also sent some cryptic emails to both the FCV and the Society. We came to the Disputed Territories so Bradon could find out more about the connection between the Society and the FCV.” My eyes shot over to Bradon, but the vampire was too busy giving Nick an annoyed look.
“What connection between the Society and the FCV?” I asked.
“That’s something I would like to know,” Lady Anna said out of the doorway. Damn, she was quiet. “I would also like to know why there’s a vampire sitting in my safehouse talking with two hunters who should have already killed him.” Her pistol was pointed at Bradon.
“Because the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Bradon said, “Or at least, a temporary ally. You want to see the FCV and the Society destroyed. So would I.”
“Why?” Lady Anna asked.
“Because I want to see the Peace restored in Florida. That can’t happen with the FCV and the Society working to subvert it. They have too much combined power in this state,” Bradon answered. “The only chance to stop them is for your Lord Savik and the Lady-Apparent in Hillsborough to stop the war before it gets out of hand. The only way that would happen was for me to take a more active hand in events.”
“We can’t stop the war,” Lady Anna said, “The war council has already convened. Once the new prince is selected, an army will be raised and the vampires will be wiped out of Florida.”
“My lady, you are too smart and have lived in FCV territory too long to think it will any war between our races would be that easy,” Bradon answered, sounding disappointed. “That kind of war will be the end of both of our races. For your lycanthropes to eliminate our kind, you would have to turn most of Florida into free-fire war zones. The pathwalkers would never allow that. They would eliminate every vampire and lycanthrope in Florida if that happened. Have you ever seen what happens when one of them take action to “restore balance?” Let me assure you, if you do, it will only be because you are the one the pathwalkers allowed to live to warn others. That horror will haunt you for the rest of your days. So, open warfare is off the table. The question then becomes do we want a long, protracted war of attrition between us until the vampires grind your race down?”
“What’s the other option?” demanded Lady Anna.
“A short, limited war to restore the status quo, the restoration of the Peace, and possibly formal relations to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Bradon said.
“Do you know what will happen if your so-called leaders decide to attack all of the nosferatu councils in the state? We will be forced to unleash those automatons you found in that warehouse. If the various councils manage to keep those savages on a short-leash, we will overwhelm every county like we did in Hillsborough. If not, we face the pathwalkers. This is why the Peace was forged. To prevent our races going to mutually assured destruction, to borrow the human phrase. Although, to be fair, the pathwalkers are far more terrible than any human nuclear weapon.” Lady Anna holstered her pistol. She gave Bradon a long examining look.
“I can’t make that decision on my own,” Lady Anna said. “You’ll have to make your case to Uncle Erik. For that, you’ll have to be bound with silver.” Bradon nodded, as if he expected the condition.
“Ranger, if you’re strong enough, I’d like a word outside,” Lady Anna said, “You two stay here. I want all of your weapons. Consider yourselves prisoners until I say otherwise.”
“Of course, milady,” Bradon said, handing over a Glock 19. Nick handed over his S&W 500, his back-up piece, and several knives. I gathered the assorted weapons, picked up my own pistol, and followed Lady Anna out of the room.
“Who is this Bradon leech?” Lady Anna asked in a hushed tone.
“He was the leader of the Bleeders in Hillsborough,” I answered, “He was also my contact in the Bleeders. I don’t know why, but he’s always liked me. He admitted he was grooming for something.”
“What’s his game?” she asked, “He can’t really want to restore the Peace and formalize relations.”
“Actually, I believe him,” I said. Lady Anna shot me a suspicious glare. “Look, everything he did in Hillsborough against the lycanthropes was done with the goal of increasing the power of his faction on the Tampa Inner Council without disrupting the Peace. Bradon is most likely using us as pieces in his own game with the other vampire councils, but his end goal will be the Peace. I thought it was because he’d seen what happened back in the Great War, but now I’m wondering if he was the survivor of a Pathwalker intervention. Just another mystery to add to the pile.” I gave her a searching look. “Why didn’t you just kill all of us? I never even heard you come in.”
“I think I know you Ranger. If you and your friend hadn’t killed him, then you trusted that vampire for some reason,” Lady Anna said, “It’s more than that, isn’t it?”
“Trust wouldn’t be the right word,” I said, “I respect Bradon. I respect his abilities even more. Past experience tells me that Bradon’s goals are currently in sync with ours, but I don’t know if those are his end goals, or just steps to something bigger. He’s used me before to win a conflict in vampire politics. I think he’s doing that with us now.”
“So why shouldn’t I go back up there and kill him?” Lady Anna asked.
“Because I’m not sure you could,” I answered. She gave me an angry glare. “Listen, the only vampire I know that is more dangerous than Bradon is Lothos. Believe me when I tell you, I don’t think you would be able to kill him. He’s too smart to come here without a way out. That said, it’s in his interest for us to succeed. Moreover, Bradon thinks long-term. Very long-term. It isn’t in his interest to use us and kill us. More likely, he’ll want to cultivate a relationship.”
“Does he have anything on you?” she asked, “Something he could use to manipulate you against us?”
“I don’t think so,” I answered, “Bradon has some plan for me. I don’t think it’s the same plan he has for Lord Savik and Elizabeth. Something else.” Lady Anna gave me a look I just couldn’t read.
“We are going to have to do something about that,” Lady Anna said softly as she reached up and placed her hand on my cheek. Her hand was warm and soft. A voice called Lady Anna from downstairs.
“I will talk to my uncle about this, but I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Lady Anna said, “He may have all three of you killed, or he may listen to this Bradon. Until then, I want your weapon as well.” She gave me a sad smile. I reluctantly handed her all of the weapons, including my own. She turned and walked back downstairs. I walked back into my room.
“My poor fool of a lycanthrope,” Bradon said as I laid back down on the bed. He gave me an odd smile of contentment.
“Are you going to explain that remark, or do you just want to be cryptic?” I asked.
“For the moment, I want to be cryptic,” Bradon said, smiling, “It’s more fun. Plus, you’re going to have enough to worry about without me burdening you further.” Nick just gave me a mournful look.
“I swear Ranger, I think you really are cursed,” Nicky said, “I wish I knew how you do it.”
“Do what?” I asked, confused.
“That’s not important right now,” Bradon interrupted, quieting Nick with a look, “What is important is what you have to do. None of this is going to work unless you can accomplish one thing.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You have to kill Lothos,” Bradon answered. The words hung in the silent room. I waited a long moment before breaking the silence.
“Tell me Bradon,” I said, looking at the vampire, “What the fuck is Lothos, and why is it I’m the one who has to kill him?” Bradon didn’t say anything for a long moment. It was one of the few times I’d seen Bradon without a ready response. That was a little worrisome by itself.
“Lothos is what the nosferatu have spent over a millenia attempting to create,” Bradon said, clearly uncomfortable with the subject, “A nosferatu without any of those pesky weaknesses to silver, wood, or fire. Strong enough to wipe out the lycanthropes, but not bring the pathwalkers’ attention.”
“What about sunlight?” Nick asked. “Does he still get weak during the day?”
“Lothos is still a nosferatu,” Bradon answered, as if that was enough.
“How in the Ancestor’s name did the Tampa Council make something like that?” I asked. “Why not one of the European councils, or even one of the larger American ones?”
“Because when Jacqueline Razor appeared in Tampa, she brought the project with her from Europe. How else do you think she managed to gather so much power in a short time?” Bradon asked.
“Blackmail and seduction,” I answered. Nick nodded. Bradon gave us both a look of frustrated patience.
“There are days when I wonder if I invested my time in the wrong hunters,” Bradon said, with aggravated patience, “Those are tools to bring down an enemy, not build the power base a true nosferatu would need to gain control of the Inner Council. Could a werewolf sleep her way into a pack leader position? No, of course not. Then, why would you think that would happen in our more sophisticated politics?”
“Careful Bradon, your prejudices are showing,” I chided, “Sorry, but your politics look so much like the humans’ from our perspective. Perhaps more deadly. Why wouldn’t we think those would be part of your council games?”
“If we get out of this relatively unscathed, I am going to recruit that pup the two of you found in Carrollwood,” Bradon said, “Maybe if I start early enough, she’ll learn enough to be useful.” Twin growls erupted from Nick and me. Not even Bradon could make those kind of remarks about a pup.
“Grow up, you two,” Bradon said, flashing his canines, “I didn’t reach my position by not knowing what rules I could and could not ignore. Why wouldn’t I want to recruit her like I did the two of you, after she joined the Guild? All of which is beside the point. We were talking about Lothos.” Nick and I settled down. Jennifer Denton was probably still in tysach in Pinellas County. Bradon wasn’t going to be talking to her anytime soon.
“Razor brought a team of alchemists with her from Europe that spent decades trying to create Lothos,” Bradon continued, “Their belief was that they would draw less attention in a smaller city. That was true, as far as the other vampire councils were concerned. They set up a laboratory to create Lothos and succeeded. Then, Ranger destroyed it before any more could be made.” I flashed back to that odd warehouse back in Hillsborough that I helped a hit pack take out before the war erupted.
“Wait, you said that wasn’t a harem,” I said, “Isn’t that the point of a harem, to create something like Lothos?”
“Not quite,” Bradon said, “A harem is trying to re-create Itjawy, the Pure Nosferatu. Imagine your First Ancestor walking around in a werewolf body. All that power, none of the weaknesses of our bodies. Lothos was an attempt to create a lesser version of Itjawy. Something that could be used to defeat the werewolves, but not draw the ire of the pathwalkers. They have made it clear to us that if we manage to re-create Itjawy, they will wipe out our entire species.”
“Then why would the vampires continue to even try to re-create Itjawy?” Nick asked.
“Do you believe your First Ancestor is more powerful than the pathwalkers?” Bradon asked. We both fell silent. The First Ancestor was supposed to be have the power of a god, but he was just one werewolf. Even the most junior pathwalker could manipulate the elemental forces of our world with ease. The senior ones were as scary as gods. Still, the First Ancestor would have the backing of all the Ancestors. I shrugged my shoulders. This was getting way too philosophical for me.
“So why didn’t Lothos do more in the war?” I asked, “Something like him could have torn any lycanthrope force apart.”
“I don’t know. The alchemists never trusted the Bleeders, or more to the point, me. I only found out about their success well after the fall of the Inner Council and Silanti taking control of the Tampa Council. Of course, I was underground at that time, which freed up my methods a bit.” He gave us a cryptic smile. “I do know Ranger’s slaughter of the alchemists slowed down awakening Lothos. Since his awakening, Lothos has been the leader of the Bleeders under Silanti.”
“So why do I have to kill him?” I asked. “And for the record, how do I kill a vampire that’s immune to silver, wood, and fire?”
“I don’t know, but you’ve obviously been chosen for the task,” Bradon answered, “As to how, I would imagine those extraordinary powers of yours should do the trick. It looked like you could have killed Lothos in the warehouse. If you hadn’t gone back for that pretty female aristocrat.” I couldn’t keep the surprise off my face. Bradon had seen that fight? Had he heard the voice as well?
“Why didn’t you kill Lothos?” Bradon asked.
“He had the entire warehouse rigged with silver frags. He was going to kill all of the lycanthropes in the attacking force if I didn’t back off. Plus, I had to help Lady Anna. She’d been hurt badly.” I answered.
“I see,” Bradon said. I could almost see the calculations going on behind his dark eyes.
“What?” I demanded.
“It’s not important right now,” Bradon said. I scrutinized his tone and posture. He was lying. He wouldn’t be thinking that hard on something that wasn’t important. Getting it out of him would be impossible, so I stayed quiet. Bradon watched my internal frustration with a passive face until he saw that I wasn’t going to ask further. Then another of his cryptic smiles spread across his face. I had a feeling that Bradon was enjoying some kind of victory.
“Here is what is important for the two of you,” Bradon said, “I will tell Lord Savik about what is going on in Florida at the moment. I will not tell him about Lothos. First, he can’t waste werewolves going after Lothos. They’ll just be slaughtered. Secondly, that vampire is Ranger’s responsibility. Neither of you should speak about this to any of the other werewolves, except for maybe that young hunter from your county, the kin following Ranger around, and Lady Anna.”
“Lady Anna?” I asked, confused. Nick just nodded, as if he understood Bradon’s logic.
“Yes, Lady Anna,” Bradon said, “She can provide you the cover with these werewolves you’ll need to go after Lothos.” It sounded logical enough, but there was something in Bradon’s eyes that made me think that wasn’t the real reason he included her.
Hangman bounded up the stairs. Vanessa was running to keep up with him. The two crashed into the room. Bradon, Nick, and I looked up from our poker game on the floor. Here is what I learned during that game. Never play cards with Bradon. The bastard is a fucking shark. I was already down two hundred bucks, and that was because Bradon was being nice. Or he was just drawing out the pain.
“Ancestors, it is true,” Hangman said, looking at Bradon. Then, he turned his gaze on Nick and me. “How could you bring a leech here?”
“Could you not refer to me as a leech?” Bradon asked, “It’s offensive.”
“It’s supposed to be,” Hangman shot back at Bradon. He turned back to Nick and me. “Well?”
“Hangman, it’s not as cut and dried as you think,” Nick said, motioning for Hangman and Vanessa to sit down on the bed. Hangman just continued to give the three of us a betrayed glare.
“Sit the fuck down, pup, and put the damned look away,” I snapped at him, “This is part of being a hunter that you still need to learn.” At Vanessa’s quiet urging, Hangman sat down on the bed. Vanessa was scared to be this close to a vampire, and she tightly gripped Hangman’s arm. I glared back at Hangman until he finally managed to bring his face to a scowl.
“Better,” I said, “Now, Bradon’s been a contact of mine longer than you’ve been a hunter. He’s proven time after time that his interests lay in keeping the Peace between the lycanthropes and the vampires. Now, he’s using his considerable talents in assisting us because that is the best option he has for achieving his goals.”
“How can you trust him?” Hangman asked with barely contained rage, “He’s a lee–, um, vampire.” Bradon nodded to acknowledge Hangman moderating his speech. Hangman’s scowl deepened in response.
“I don’t trust him, per se. Not because he’s a vampire, but because he’s very dangerous. What I do trust is for Bradon to look out for his own interests, and to use anything and anybody in furtherance of those goals,” I answered, “I trust that Bradon is still working the long game instead of just trying to get quick wins that would sour a long-standing relationship.”
“Didn’t your killing him sort of sour the relationship?” Vanessa asked, neutrally. Bradon let out a melodic laugh.
“Taking out the leader of the most significant threat to werewolf operations at the beginning of a war?” Bradon asked in an all too familiar tone of the barest condescension. “I would have been professionally insulted if Ranger or one of the other hunters didn’t try to assassinate me. If the Inner Council had been the ones to start the war, the Guildmaster would’ve been the first werewolf I sent my Bleeders after. Then, maybe Ranger.” That brought Hangman up short.
“Ranger? Not Sneller or Deadeye?” Hangman asked. I looked back at Bradon with a questioning look. His comment surprised me as well. Nick, on the other hand, just nodded in agreement.
“Ranger has always been the most unpredictable member of your Guild,” Bradon answered, looking at Hangman, “I could never be sure if he would follow orders or take action on his own. He settled down demonstrably under the tutelage of your Guildmaster, but there was always that glint of chaos in him. If the Guildmaster was killed, there was an equal chance he’d become the leader of the lone wolves, or just try to exterminate every Bleeder in Tampa on his own. Given his capabilities, there would have been a fair chance he would have done significant damage before I could hope to stop him.”
“So, why not kill me first?” I asked, intrigued by this turn in the conversation.
“Two reasons. First, the Guildmaster was always the more dangerous werewolf of you two,” Bradon answered, enjoying the discussion. “Oh, you were probably the more technically proficient hunter, but the Guildmaster was a much better tactician and strategist. Not my equal, of course, but a truly gifted opponent. Second, there would need to be the element of surprise. Assassinating you would have forced the Guildmaster to take stronger security protocols making any operation against him significantly more difficult.”
“That is fascinating, in a morbid kind of way,” Vanessa said, clearly impressed by Bradon’s reasoning. Bradon acknowledged the comment with a sitting half-bow. I looked back over to Hangman.
“Those are the kind of calculations you’re going to have to make,” I told him. His head snapped up in surprise.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The Guildmaster, our Guildmaster, thought you had the potential to succeed him at some point,” I said, “It’s why he had you training with the different sections of the Guild before the war broke out. He never did that with any of the other rookies that came in. By the time they came back from camp, the Guildmaster already knew where he was going to put them. Except for you. He wanted you to learn the big picture. Part of being the Guildmaster is learning what he called ‘strategic calculus.’ Being able to take into account all the costs and benefits, decide which are more important, and make the call on whether or not to take action.”
“Do you think I could be a Guildmaster?” Hangman asked me, trying to hide the hope and excitement in his voice, “I know what the Guildmaster said when he died, but I thought he was just trying to soften his death.” He squeezed Vanessa’s hand. So, the pup had ambitions. Good.
“There was a reason that the Guildmaster had you work with Ranger,” Nick said, “You needed to see Guild operations at the highest, and most sensitive, level. You needed to see what a Guildmaster could only trust to his personal hitter. If the war hadn’t broken out, you would have learned the need of having vampire contacts.” Bradon was eyeing Hangman with considerable interest. I’d have to keep an eye on that.
“So, right now, you’re willing to trust Bradon’s using you for his own ends, and that those ends mirror your own?” Vanessa asked, suspiciously.
“That is a remarkably succinct statement of our situation, young lady,” Bradon said, clearly amused.
“So, if we’re so important to your goals, why did you steal all the information from the computers in the warehouse before our raid?” Vanessa asked. All of us looked at Vanessa with surprised looks. All except for Bradon. He gave Vanessa an appraising look.
“How do you know that I did it?” Bradon asked, his voice a cool neutral. “It could have been some enterprising member of the FCV.”
“The FCV would have cleared out the entire warehouse, not just erased the the computers’ hard drives,” Vanessa answered, matching Bradon’s tone. “If what you’ve said is true, then you had the most to gain by leaving the evidence of the FCV’s sleeping vampires for us to find, but taking all of the data out of the computers before we could retrieve it.” Bradon said nothing for a long moment. Then he turned to Hangman.
“You’ve chosen your mate well,” Bradon told Hangman, “Listen to her, and you’ll be one of the most dangerous Guildmasters this state has seen in some time.” Then he turned back to Vanessa.
“I secured the information to make sure that it wasn’t lost in your raid,” Bradon said, “You thought you were gong after the FCV’s sliver ammunition store. I needed you to understand what the true stakes were.”
“And so you could make sure we didn’t get our hands on some of the information, such as the process by which those vampires were created?” Vanessa asked with a silky smooth voice.
“I make it a point never to lie to those who work for me,” Bradon said, “So, yes, I removed that information. That secret shall remain with the nosferatu.”
“Why?” Nick asked.
“Call it detente,” Bradon answered, “Something for us to bring to the table. Do you think your war council will simply stop at liberating three counties if there isn’t something stopping them? The nosferatu need something to make sure that you will hold up your end of the Peace.”
“Detente requires both parties have the means of destroying the other,” Vanessa said, “Exactly what do the lycanthropes have that equate to the ability to mass-produce vampires?”
“By the end of these events, I fully expect the new prince of Florida to have a standing army of werewolves sworn to him. A battle-tested army of veteran warriors, shaman, and hunters. That kind of professional force will be a very big stick in the hands of the Prince of Florida.”
“The county lords will never allow the Prince to keep a standing army,” I said, “Part of the reason they can call a war council to replace the Prince or name his successor is because the Prince has no warriors except for those in his own county.”
“That was true,” Bradon said, “I have a feeling that when all of the intrigues are resolved, the idea of the new Prince having his own army will be considered a very good idea.”
“One you intend to push?” Nick asked. Bradon didn’t say anything, but the sly smile across his face was all the answer we needed. The problem was I couldn’t see how Bradon benefited from the Prince having his own army. Bradon didn’t do anything that didn’t offer him some benefit. Of course, part of the danger with dealing with Bradon was that he was able to make things that seemed like setbacks turn out in his favor. That vampire played the long game better than anyone else in the state.
“This conversation has been most enlightening, but have you asked all of your questions regarding me?” Bradon asked Hangman and Vanessa, “I would dearly like to get back to taking all of Ranger’s and Nick’s money.”
“For the moment. I think I’ll put any of my other questions to Lord Savik,” Hangman said, standing up, “I’ll let him ask them of you.” Bradon let out a bark of laughter.
“You are going to be a very dangerous Guildmaster someday,” Bradon said, “I fear for the lord who has to deal with you.” Hangman and Vanessa walked out of the room. Bradon watched them leave with an almost predatory gleam in his eye.
“Your lords are going to need werewolves like that,” Bradon said as Nick dealt out the cards, “Especially to rebuild from the destruction.” Nick and I exchanged glances. Neither of us wanted Bradon to go into detail about that. We had enough to worry about at the moment.
Lady Anna walked into the bedroom in at dusk the next day. Bradon was waking from his day’s sleep. Being in the same room as a sleeping vampire is creepy. They don’t breathe or move, and there is none of the normal sounds I expect to hear from a sleeping person. It was like being in the same room with a corpse, but without the smell of decomposition. Then about ten minutes before Lady Anna walked in, Bradon just sat up, looked around, and asked us if we’d heard anything from Lord Savik.
“Lord Savik will be here in half an hour,” Lady Anna announced. “We will be escorting the three of you downstairs. You will stay in human form and you will be shackled. Any attempt to escape by any of you will result in the execution of all three of you. Is that understood?”
“Yes milady,” I answered.
“Yes milady,” Nick said.
“I give you my word that I will comply,” Bradon said. At the looks Nick and me shot at him, Bradon quickly amended, “Yes milady.”
“If you fail to convince Lord Savik that your actions weren’t treasonous, all three of you will be executed. Is that understood?” Lady Anna asked.
“Yes, milady,” the three of us chorused. She nodded in acknowledgment.
“There are guards outside that will take you downstairs,” Lady Anna said, “You will be brought down one by one. The vampire first.” Bradon stood up gracefully, and followed Lady Anna outside.
“What do you think the likelihood is we’ll see dawn?” I asked Nick.
“That may depend on how much influence your Lady Anna has with Lord Savik,” Nick answered.
“Huh?” I asked, confused.
“Never mind. There’s no point in confusing you more right now,” Nick said. “Bradon probably has enough information, but I don’t know if Lord Savik will believe anything a vampire tells him. He doesn’t know me enough for my vouching him. Your vouching for Bradon? That might be the factor that swings things.” We both fell silent until Lady Anna came back into the room for Nick. At that point, I was left alone with my thoughts. It wasn’t like this was the first time I’d been threatened with execution. That part didn’t frighten me. What consumed my thoughts was this destiny I was supposed to fulfill. That and Elizabeth. Damn it, why should she intrude into my thoughts now? She told me she didn’t want me in her life. That should have been the end of it, but no, her face and even her smell was vividly dancing in my mind.
“Ranger,” Lady Anna said as she came back into the room. I shook my head to clear out those bothersome thoughts. Lady Anna looked oddly hesitant, like she wanted to say more. I stood up and walked over. She didn’t move.
“Do you really believe this vampire is going to tell us the truth? Or is he going to tell us what he needs to in order for us to do what he wants?” she asked. Her voice was so quiet I almost couldn’t hear her.
“Yes,” I answered. She shot a confused look at me. “He will tell us the truth because he’s sure that it will get us to do what he wants. That’s how Bradon operates. You might want to let Lord Savik know to make his questions as specific as possible. Bradon won’t lie to us, but he may not tell us the whole truth.”
“Why are you so willing to vouch for him?” she asked. “For a damned leech?”
“Because Bradon would have never allowed himself to be at your mercy if he wasn’t willing to invest his time in Lord Savik. Bradon never invests time in tools he’s expecting to expend quickly. He wants a long relationship with Lord Savik. He never outright lies to those he has a relationship. It’s the quickest way to destroy his work.”
“I dearly hope you’re right,” Lady Anna said, caressing my cheek. “Uncle is willing to listen to the vampire, but he better have some damned good information. He doesn’t want to have you killed, but that was the only arrangement that the packleaders would accept.”
“I understand,” I said, “If I do end up being killed, would you tell Lord Savik thank you for listening to us and I understand?” Lady Anna whirled around at my words. She took a few deep breaths before speaking.
“I will,” she said, stiffly, “Follow me please.” Just outside the door, two guards clamped my hands my back with silver manacles. The familiar burn of the silver caused me to pause for a moment. The guards understood and let me take a few deep breaths before they ushered me downstairs. They brought me into a large room, probably the living room of the house, and sat me down on the last of three stools. The room was mostly empty. It reminded me of the room that Fangbearer interrogated Hangman, Vanessa, and me when we first came to the Disputed Territories. Except there were a hell of a lot more guards this time. Lord Savik and Lady Anna sat on leather chairs across the room from the three of us. Six pack warriors serving as guards surrounded them. Eight more were around Bradon, Nick, and me. Those were staggered so that none were in the firing arc of another. From their expressions, the guards were ready to hose us with whatever silver the packs managed to scrape up if we posed the tiniest threat to Lord Savik and Lady Anna. Off to the side, Hangman stood next to Vanessa. I wondered why they were there, but realized that Lord Savik probably wanted Vanessa’s mind ready to jump on any inconsistencies from Bradon. He’d certainly taken to the kin.
“Lady Anna warned you of the penalties, so my instructions are simple. Do not lie by deception or omission. Answer my questions and at the end, I will make my decision about whether or not to kill you and execute your lycanthrope supporters. Is that clear, vampire?” Lord Savik asked.
“Lord Savik, I will answer to the best of my abilities. I will tell you when I know something and when I suspect something. There may be somethings that I won’t answer right now, and I will tell you so,” Bradon answered.
“That you won’t answer?” Lord Savik asked, incredulously, “Tell me why I shouldn’t just kill you know for the fact that you won’t answer all of my questions.”
“Because then you won’t have the ally you need to keep the coming war under control and beneath the pathwalkers’ attention,” Bradon said, “There are somethings you can’t know if I’m going to have a stable vampire community after the war. A stable community who will be willing to accept the return of the Peace after the FCV and its allies are destroyed.” Lord Savik thought that over for a long moment before his eyes fixed back on Bradon.
“You need?” Lord Savik asked, “Do you expect to be the first vampire prince of Florida?”
“The nosferatu would never accept a prince ruling over them,” Bradon answered, “We’re too conniving. If I tried, I would be deposed and destroyed within a year. No, I will return to Tampa and rebuild the Inner Council.”
“Then how can you expect to force the other councils to accept the return of the Peace?” Lady Anna asked.
“A fair question, and one of those I won’t answer,” Bradon said, “Suffice to say, I will have enough influence and with the resources of the Tampa Council, I can ensure no other council in Florida will allow the Peace to fall again.”
“Do those resources include those vampires we found in the warehouse?” Lord Savik asked. Bradon paused a moment before answering.
“They are called them ‘dervishes’ by the FCV. I have no idea why the FCV decided on that name,” Bradon said, “Once the FCV is destroyed and the Peace is restored, none of the councils will create any dervishes unless the lycanthropes start a war. I’m sure the kin explained to you the reasons.” Bradon gave the two aristocrats a hard look. “I don’t think either of you comprehend how different this state is going to be for you werewolves after our war. This isn’t like anything that has happened before, including the Great Council War.”
“What do you mean? Explain why.” Lord Savik ordered.
“We have two forces outside our normal power structures colluding to bring about a war for the express purpose of changing their own political dynamics. Unfortunately, both of them are under the impression that they will be able to destroy the other in the war.” Bradon was always good at hooking someone’s interest by dropping these cryptic bombs. He’d done it enough to me over the course of our working relationship.
“The Society and the FCV?” Lord Savik asked. Bradon nodded, looking pleased. “I understand how the Society is outside the normal lycanthrope structure of the prince and the lords, but how is the FCV outside the normal vampire structure?”
“One of the lessons from the Great Council War, what you call the Great Fatherland War, was the nosferatu should never try to control human nations. Influence maybe, but never outright control. Our internal politics will always cause instability both inside the nation and with those nations around it. The kind of instability that brings the pathwalkers. The FCV is under the impression they can take over the human state of Florida and not fall to the same fate. That is why they call themselves the Florida Council instead of the Miamihttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miami Council or the Fort Lauderdale Council.”
“Why would they collude to start a war?” Lady Anna asked, “That goes against all tradition. On both sides.”
“Really?” Bradon asked, crooking up his eyebrow ironically. Lady Anna scowled as she caught Bradon’s meaning.
“We aren’t colluding with you, we’re interrogating you,” Lady Anna retorted, “You didn’t answer the question. Why were they colluding?”
“Why? To gain power in their respective worlds, of course. Anything else, they could procure on their own,” Bradon answered. “They would be the flags upon which our races would rally. An interesting, but horribly wasteful means to quickly gain power and destroy internal opposition.”
“Stop. When was this pact formed?” Lord Savik asked. Bradon gave the lord a wide smile.
“Shortly before the Society betrayed you to the FCV,” Bradon answered, “Your death was supposed to seal the pact. The FCV’s failure to kill you soured the relationship a bit, but there’s been regular correspondence as both factions have adjusted their plans.”
“You have this correspondence?” Lord Savik asked.
“They were part of the data I stole from the FCV before you raided the warehouse. I doubt they even know it has been copied,” Bradon said, “Not like they would warn their co-conspirator. A werewolf civil war would do quite nicely to give the FCV time to form a new Inner Council. Assuming there isn’t a nosferatu strong enough right now to forge a new council.” Bradon shot a meaningful look to me. If Lothos recovered, he might just be strong enough to do something like that.
“I want my own eyes on this data,” Lord Savik said, “Will your stolen information tell me why the Society decided to betray me?”
“Possibly,” Bradon answered, “I looked just enough to confirm what I’d learned about the FCV from other contacts around the state.”
“Where is it? We need to get it into a secure location so that we can analyze and make sure you’re telling the truth, or you didn’t make a mistake,” Lord Savik said.
“Well, you’re in luck then,” Bradon said, “The data is on two hard drives. I have them in a locked case and stored in your Guild. I thought that was safe enough. Pad 221, I believe.” The silence in the room was deafening. Lord Savik and Lady Anna just stared at the vampire with shocked looks. The guards tried to hide expressions that ranged from shock to terror. My expression mirrored the aristocrats. I knew Bradon was good, but how the hell did he manage to ferret out the location of the Disputed Territories’ Guild?
“Was there a reason you hid them there?” Lord Savik asked, recovering quickly from the shock.
“Reasons, plural,” Bradon answered. “First was to show you that I am just as dangerous as Ranger warned you. Second, to prove to you that even if I am dangerous, I want to work with you towards common goals. I could have revealed the existence of not just the Guild, but several of your safehouses to the FCV. I would have been generously rewarded, believe me. They fear you more than you realize. Instead, I would rather work with you to cripple the FCV and its lycanthrope allies.” Bradon waited just long enough for Lord Savik to swallow what he’d said before dropping his next bomb.
“Although, if you want to analyze the data, you need to hurry. You need to be in Hillsborough in no more five days, if my calculations are correct,” Bradon said.
“Why do you say that?” Lord Savik demanded.
“Because a new prince will most likely be selected in ten days’ time, and you will need Elizabeth Vollen and her wolves if you’re going to stop the Society from ruling Florida’s werewolves. Once that happens, the war truly begins, and both races will be destroyed.”
“I’m supposed to leave my counties to the FCV to go fight in Tallahassee?” Lord Savik asked.
“Lord Savik, I’ve fought political battles longer than you’ve been alive,” Bradon said, “I knew when Stephen Vollen was assassinated there was something strange going on in this state. Something pushing our races to war. So, I let the council I spent decades shaping fall into the hand of my nemesis for the purpose of finding exactly what was happening. Believe me, right now, you are the only lord who can stop your war council from handing the throne to Blackhawk.”
“That makes no fucking sense. Blackhawk’s a puppet master. Why would he want the throne?” I asked.
“Why indeed?” Bradon asked in response.
“Blackhawk is not a lord. He’s not even of an aristocratic line. He’s not eligible to become the next prince,” Lord Savik said, flatly.
“Are you so sure?” Bradon asked, “How much do you really know about Blackhawk? Believe me, not even the FCV knew anything about him before he showed up as the head of the Society. I couldn’t even find out anything except unconfirmed rumors little more than stories.”
“If we do this, what assistance are you going to provide us?” Lord Savik asked, eyeing the vampire.
“I gave you the information, didn’t I?” Bradon said.
“Which keeps me from killing you, and keeps Ranger and Nicholas alive as well,” Lord Savik said, “I need more to accept you as an ally or not mark you out for death later.”
“I like this lord of yours a great deal,” Bradon said, looking back at me. Then he turned back to Lord Savik, “I will keep the TCV away from you while you’re in Hillsborough. We’ll be busy forming a new Inner Council under my auspices anyway. Shortly after, I will begin convincing the other councils to stay out of the battles to liberate your counties. As soon as the new prince is selected, the TCV will sign a reaffirmation of the Peace at status quo ante bellum. The rest of the councils will follow suit shortly after.”
“You think we would accept that after you sent the witch hunters after us? And those dervishes?” I demanded. Bradon looked back and gave me the coldest look I’d ever seen on his face. I shrunk back from his visage. I’ll admit it. Bradon scared me.
“Your lord started the war because your Guild didn’t tell him that his father’s assassin was a hunter, not a nosferatu-controlled werewolf,” Bradon answered with a quiet, neutral voice, “Further, we didn’t send the witch hunters after you. I would suggest you look at who murdered Stephen Vollen, and you will find who sent the witch hunters into your Manor.”
“That will be dealt with later, and with the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough,” Lord Savik said with an air of finality. Lord Savik turned to Vanessa. “You have twenty-four hours to confirm what the vampire has said. If you can’t find anything that disproves what he’s told us, we will leave for Hillsborough.” Even the guards couldn’t contain their surprise.
“Uncle?” Lady Anna asked. Lord Savik held up his hand and gave Bradon a hard look.
“Ranger warned Lady Anna that you are using us for your long-term plans. Very long term plans,” Lord Savik said to Bradon, “It made me realize that I’ve been looking at the short term for too long. If what you’ve been telling me is true, then we can no longer ignore the rest of the state. My packs will be the first to die in the new war if Blackhawk gains the throne. You’re also right I will need all the wolves I can trust, which means the lycanthropes in Hillsborough.” Lord Savik thought for a moment. “What will you do if I release you?”
“Leave immediately for Tampa,” Bradon answered, “With Silanti dead, and myself returning from the dead, there won’t be a better opportunity to take control of the Inner Council. It will also take time for me to contain the dervishes in Tampa. You should be free to conduct business while that is happening.”
“Ranger, you will release Bradon and Nick one hour after we have departed,” Lord Savik said, and motioned for one of the guards to unshackle me. “Anything less than that, you will end up dead. I don’t want to kill you. After that, I will expect you to join us at the Guild. We have much to plan, and I’m going to need your specific skills.” Lord Savik gave me a sad smile. The lycanthropes left the house. I didn’t watch them leave. I focused on Bradon. The vampire was busy staring up at the ceiling as if everything was going to plan, and he had to be patient just a bit longer. Considering Bradon, that was probably the truth.
“What about Lothos?” I asked, “Won’t he try to stop you from taking over the TCV?”
“He would, if he was going back to Tampa,” Bradon said, still looking at the ceiling.
“If he’s not going back to Tampa, then where is he going?” I asked.
“He’ll stay with the FCV,” Bradon said. He finally looked at me. “I’ve been monitoring him since he emerged on the Tampa scene. Lothos is convinced of his superiority to all vampires and all lycanthropes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he believed he could challenge the pathwalkers. The FCV will give him a better change at seizing control of all the councils, which is why he’ll stay here.”
“Then I should stay as well,” I said, “To hunt him down and finish him.”
“I don’t think you need to hunt him,” Nick said. Bradon and I looked over at our quiet companion. “Lothos will hunt you down Ranger. He can’t leave you out there as a constant threat.”
“All the better to kill him now before he can threaten the others,” I said. Nick just shook his head.
“He’s going to be fixated on you,” Nick said, “Just you. Everything and everyone else doesn’t matter. If he comes back, expect a challenge. He needs to defeat you, and to do it with his own abilities to prove to himself that he is truly the vampire he thinks he is. Believe me, I’ve seen his kind before.” Nick’s voice got that tight tone when he was approaching his past. He didn’t look like he wanted to explain further. There was going to be a time Nick was going to have to tell me everything, but now wasn’t the time. We spent the hour reminiscing about past escapades in Hillsborough. It was comforting to think about the times before the assassination of Stephen Vollen. Before the deaths of so many lycanthropes who were closer to me than any family. I excused myself for a few moments. For the first time in a very long, I spoke to the Ancestors. I told them I hoped my friends were doing well with them and asked for their guidance over the next ten days.
“So, this is why we will be leaving our home counties for Hillsborough,” Lord Savik told the wolves of his collected packs, the Order of Spirits, and the Guild. “In twenty-four hours, we will be gone from these lands. Hopefully, once we’ve dealt with Blackhawk and the Society, we will return with the reinforcements we need to destroy the FCV.” The cravex was eerily quiet. No one moved or spoke. I could see a range of expressions on the wolves. Everything from shock to rage to terror to reluctant acceptance.
“We are doing all of this on the word of a leech, vouched by the abomination?” the Spiritmaster asked, through clenched fangs. Lord Savik and Lady Anna told me that no matter what anyone said, I was to sit firmly on my temper. As the Spiritmaster looked at me with deadly accusation, I found it easy to look back with a neutral look. These wolves were going to help my county and save my state. It was worth dealing with some of their vitriol.
“No, we are doing this based on verified evidence that the Society made an alliance with the FCV and betrayed us, and are now doing the same thing to the entire state,” Lord Savik said calmly.
“Evidence provided by the leech,” one of the pack leaders countered.
“The initial data was provided by Bradon,” Vanessa interjected, “Using information on the drives, I was able to hack into an FCV network known to the Guild. I was able to find corroboration for the major items on their network before their security shut me down.”
“You are Society and an ally of the abomination,” the Spiritmaster, “How we can trust anything you tell us?” Vanessa blanched at the accusation. Hangman, on the other hand, gave the Spiritmaster a murderous look that made me proud. Fortunately, the Guildmaster stepped in before the pup could do anything.
“Because I supervised, and I’m willing to vouch for what she said,” the Guildmaster said, “Are you going to call me a liar or a fool? If so, we’ll deal with that right here in the old way.” Gasps erupted from the packs and more than one of the shaman.
“Enough!” Lord Savik’s voice boomed through the cravex. “Every lycanthrope in this cravex swore to me personally that you would follow me. I swore to you that I would do whatever it took to restore our counties to us. This is what needs to be done to restore our counties.”
“Lord Savik, at least let one of the packs stay here,” the pack leader from earlier said, “For reconnaissance, if nothing else.”
“I thought hard on that,” Lord Savik said, “We are going to need every wolf when we confront the Society. I can’t spare any of you. This is the same sacrifice I am going to be asking of the Hillsborough lycanthropes. We all go. We all fight.” The pack leaders traded looks. For the briefest of moments, I expected one of them step up to challenge Lord Savik. None did. The pack leaders gave their lord resigned nods. Lord Savik turned his glare on the Spiritmaster.
“Where you go, my shaman and I will follow,” the Spiritmaster said, the look in his eyes clearly telling he disagreed with the lord.
“That’s not going to be enough this time,” Lord Savik told his Spiritmaster, “We need to present a unified front in Hillsborough, and when we finally deal with the Society. If you or any of your shaman hint at any discord among my wolves, Fangbearer or Ranger will express my displeasure. Is that clear?” The Spiritmaster was paralyzed with shock. Even the Guildmaster’s cool neutrality slipped with the briefest expression of horror.
“Is that clear?” Lord Savik said, growling.
“Yes, milord,” the Spiritmaster said, bowing low in submission. At their leader’s insistence motioning, the rest of the shaman followed suit.
“Lord Savik, how are we going to make it to Hillsborough? We know the Society would see us leaving and have one of the surrounding counties’ packs on us the moment we crossed the borders,” another pack leader said, “Especially for a convoy of our size.”
“I have a plan for that,” Lord Savik said, an evil predatory smile spreading across his face, “By the time we are ready to leave, the Society’s eyes won’t be an issue. Now, go my lycanthropes. We will meet here at six o’clock tomorrow. Anything you can’t pack by that time will be left. Bring all the weapons, ammunition, and combat gear first.” The Disputed Territories’ packs and shaman left the cravex talking among themselves. In about fifteen minutes, the only ones who remained were Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Fangberarer, the two Red Knights, the Guildmaster, Cracker, Vanessa, Hangman, Nicky, and myself.
“Jan, I need your wolves to quickly pack up what you have at the Guild and then get back here,” Lord Savik said, “I have a feeling I will need you to help coordinate our leaving. Anna, go with them. Ranger, you and your tall friend need to stay.” Nick and I traded a look before nodding. As the hunters, Anna, and Vanessa left, Lord Savik gave Nick and me a job.
“You know where the Society’s listening post is?” Savik asked.
“Yeah, Vanessa and I had to go there before we came down here,” I answered.
“Wipe it off the face of this earth,” Lord Savik said, “Under no circumstances can anyone there alert any county or the capital. You have full authority to take whatever you need to get this done. From what you’ve told me, we can rearm in Hillsborough. Do you understand?”
“We’re hunters, milord,” Nick said in his familiar calm tone. Ancestors, I missed that.
“First off, I need everything your wolves took from my truck that hasn’t been broken or used up,” I said.
“Fangbearer will see to it,” Lord Savik said, “Just make sure to be back here in time to leave with the rest of the Guild.” With that the lord left, his two Red Knights trailing their principle.
“Give me a list, and I’ll have it here in a few hours,” Fangbearer said, “Oh, and Ranger, please exercise some caution or my little sister will kill you.”
It was times like these that I realized how much I relied on the support of the Hillsborough Guild. In Hillsborough, as soon as I got the job, I had building plans, specific tools, and an intelligence briefing on likely opposition. For this job, all Nick and I had were Fangbearer’s promise to try and get our list and my memory of what I saw when Vanessa and I went to the Society’s listening post. We really didn’t have the time to do proper recon either. My reputation to the contrary, I don’t like going into a job this blind. I sketched out what I could remember. My first instinct was to do a controlled drop of the office park. Nick kindly pointed out that demolishing the whole building was not likely to work because glass and steel wouldn’t give the lycanthropes inside archanal wounds. I swore. From what I remembered, there was Raven and six kin. Taking out seven targets wasn’t hard for two hunters. Taking them out before they had a chance to send an alert was another thing entirely. We also didn’t know if there were more Society operatives that I couldn’t see previously.
“We’re thinking about this wrong,” Nick said, “We need to make sure they can’t communicate out first, and then we can take them down.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” I said, mentally slapping myself. Sometimes you start going down one path and completely lose sight of the job’s goals.
“Going back to your earlier suggestion, we can take out the entire building’s telecom with some judicious explosive use,” Nick said. “A small charge to the telephone exchange should do the trick. Then breach, flash-bang, kill. Not as flashy as some of your jobs, but it should do the trick.” I gave him a level look.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about Nick,” I said evenly.
“My name is Nicholas, Ranger,” Nick replied, just as evenly.
From the cravex to the office park was a little over two hours. It took Fangbearer about four hours to get the items we requested. So, we were on-site about two in the morning. We parked in a strip mall some three hundred yards away from the office park. All of our gear fit into two over-sized gym bags. So, it was a quick hike to the fence surrounding the office park. As we kneeled down next to the decorative black iron fence, my phone buzzed. That was unusual. I pulled it out. An email from Vanessa? I tapped the message and a map of the office park popped open in my screen. A quick scan told me our initial mistake.
“Nick, take a look,” I said, holding up my phone, “It looks like the communications exchanged isn’t that box, but inside the Society listening post itself.” Nick scooted closer and peered at the map.
“Where the hell did that come from?” Nick asked.
“Vanessa. She found it on those drives from Bradon. It looks like the FCV spent some time mapping out this area in case they needed to take out the listening post.” I sat back on my haunches and thought about that for a moment.
“Ranger, what’s going through that mind of yours?” Nick asked, warily.
“The FCV,” I answered, “What if the Society thought the FCV was responsible for taking out their listening post?” Nick gave me that level look that told me he thought I was going off the deep end – again.
“Our job is to take out that post and and everyone working in it,” Nick reminded me.
“Actually, our job is to silence this listening post. Savik wanted us to make it vanish, but if the Society is scrambling to find out why the FCV killed their listening post? That would give us a hell of a window.” To his credit, Nick thought it over.
“I have a feeling we’re going to regret this, but I can see what you’re getting at,” Nick conceded. “Still, how are you going to make this look like an FCV raid? It’s not like the FCV would just spray paint ‘The FCV was here’ on the walls.” That was definitely a point. How would I make this raid point to the FCV?
“I’ll think on that as we sanitize the post,” I answered, “Worse comes to worse, we can always just do what Savik wanted.”
“Do you know how much I hate changing the plan in the middle of a job?” Nick asked.
“Almost as much as when I call you Nick,” I replied.
“I don’t know whether to punch you or just be glad to be working with you,” Nick said, “Let’s do this.” Both of us shed for true form. We bounded over the fence. As soon as my feet touched the ground, I darted into the shadows. True form would keep us hidden from the human guards’ occasional glances, but seeing us out in the open might make one of them into a witch-hunter. Better to stay to the shadows as much as possible.
I tasted the wind as we neared the Society listening post. The scents of the humans and kin were hours old. The place was deserted. I motioned for Nick to move up to the entrance. I fell in behind him as we stood beside the glass door. Nick slung the HK417 and drew his revolver. I smiled as the stainless S&W glinted in the faint moonlight. I kept my Commando at the low ready. Nick ripped the door open. I slipped in and swept the room. Monitors gave the room an eerie illumination. My instincts started screaming danger. I paused and Nick nearly collided with me as he came through the door. He gave me a quizzical look. I hand-signed that something was wrong. Nick nodded, unslung the 417, and moved in behind me. Ancestors, I missed working with Nick. He never questioned my instincts.
The two of us crept through the room, looking for whatever was setting off my instincts. The main room was as I remembered. Nothing seemed unusual. We both focused on the door at the back. According to the plans, the communications closet for the office park was behind that door. Nick and I spread out and cautiously approached the door. It wouldn’t surprise me to find the damn thing booby-trapped. I took deep breaths, tasting the air for the tell-tale scents of dead rubber or ozone. Even the slightly rusty scent of thermite. Nothing. I held up my hand as it clicked in my head. Nick froze. I wasn’t smelling anything, not even the normal smells of a small room filled with hardware. The blinding flash and deafening roar came an instant after I realized the trap. Something hard and heavy clubbed me across my muzzle. I spun to the ground. The pain wasn’t going away, which meant archanal. I heard Nick grunt, then glass shatter. As my eyes recovered, I saw a lycanthrope in true form standing where Nick had been standing.
“Hello Raven,” I said as I leapt to my feet. I brought the carbine up. The holographic reticle floated over his face. Raven darted faster than I thought possible and knocked my Commando out of my hands before hitting me hard enough to launch me into one of the workstations.
“How did you know it was me?” Raven asked.
“I didn’t until you just told me. Although, it wasn’t hard to guess. Where’d your limp go?” I asked, standing. We both fell into fighting stances.
“Where do you think?” he sneered. “It’s been a while since I took apart a hunter. Now, I get two to play with.” He dashed at me. I drew my HK45 as I crouched down. His fist sailed where my head should have been. I fired twice before Raven spun and kicked me to the ground.
“Hunters and their toys,” Raven said as he held his side. Blood dripped onto the floor. “You’ve forgotten what it truly means to be a lycanthrope. You’re too human.”
“Whatever it takes,” I said, getting to my feet. Raven was suddenly in front of me. A fury of blows shot out. I blocked some, but others snuck through. How the hell was Raven so fucking fast? This wasn’t like Cracker. This was more like fighting Lothos. Except no weird voice was talking to me and no super powers to help me out. A gut punch doubled me over and I fell to my knees.
“I don’t know why Blackhawk was so worried about you,” Raven said as he loomed over me. I didn’t look up. I just gripped my middle and gauged the distance. Barely close enough. I lunged at his legs, my own claws bared. Raven tried to dodge, but he was too close and, more importantly, wasn’t expecting the tackle. I sunk my claws deep into his calves and yanked. Raven howled with pain as my claws came back meaty and dripping. Pain flared as I felt one of his claws rip across the back of my head. As soon as we hit the ground, I rolled. As soon as I opened the distance, I grabbed my small Glock 26 from its ankle holster. Raven snarled as I fired. Brains and blood splattered across the wall and floor.
“I hope you realize you just killed one of the Prince’s sons,” a familiar voice came from Raven’s workstation. I looked around for the video cameras. “Don’t bother Ranger, they’re pinhole cameras. You won’t be able to find them before the local pack comes to kill you for breaking the boundary, and killing Society personnel.”
“Well Blackhawk, it didn’t go the way I thought it would, but your little team here is destroyed,” I told him.
“For what reason?” Blackhawk asked, calmly.
“To give the remaining lycanthropes in the Disputed Territories a fighting chance,” I answered. “I know you’ve been trading favors with the FCV, you traitorous dog.”
“You’re a small minded monster of a lycanthrope,” Blackhawk said, condescendingly. “All you knew was your county. You have no idea of how things stand on the state level. What did you think you were accomplishing with your little raids across the Territories? Did you think Savik might actually win now that you killed so many of the FCV leadership?”
“I owed it to them after –” I stopped suddenly. “It doesn’t matter now. I’m almost done with what I came to do. Then, you can find me in Hillsborough.”
“What did you owe the lycanthropes in the Disputed Territories, I wonder?” Blackhawk mused, an almost delighted tone in his voice. “I know you, Ranger. If a lycanthrope earns your respect, you become almost slavishly loyal to them. Your Guildmaster, Lord Vollen, and now Lord Savik.” He paused and gave a low chuckle. “That’s it. He’s dead. Probably his little heir bitch as well. That was a bloody raid from what I understand.” I glared around the room.
“Whether you like it or not, you’ve done what I wanted you to do,” Blackhawk said, “Go back to your county, Ranger. I’ll call off the packs. The human police, on the other hand, you will have to deal with.”
“Just like that?” I asked. “All is forgiven?”
“Of course not,” Blackhawk said. “We are not fools, Ranger. I will make you this offer, though. Behave and I won’t kill your precious Lady-Apparent.” A low snarl of rage escaped my throat. I managed to force my face into neutrality. Damn it, why did she have that effect on me? Still?
“Who do you think sent me here, Blackhawk?” I asked, “She wants nothing to do with me.”
“Perhaps. Young females often grow out of their adolescent infatuations,” Blackhawk said confidently, “You on the other hand? You still love her. That slavish devotion. If you don’t interfere, I’ll just marry her off to another lord. If you attempt any foolishness in Tallahassee, I will kill her. I may have to kill you as well, but she will die first.” I let my anger flow. I stalked back to the closet. This had gone far enough. I started yanking out wires and boxes.
“I’ll leave you to your destruction, but don’t forget what I said,” Blackhawk warned. There was an audible click, like a phone being disconnected. Well, we were going to have to torch the place now. Speaking of “we,” where the hell was Nick? Almost as if my thoughts summoned him, Nick walked into the listening post, reloading his S&W 500.
“Oh good, you killed him,” Nick said. “I’ve got four dead kin outside. Bastards tried to ambush me. It fell apart when I killed the first one.” My anger dissipated, and I nearly fell back down as a wave of vertigo hit. Nick was next to me as the vertigo faded. He looked at the back of my head. “I’ll wipe that. That should at least stop you from bleeding all over the place.” The familiar odor wafted up an instant before my head was bathed in brilliant pain. Thankfully, the pain vanished as quickly as it hit. I could feel my wound healing.
“You said you killed four kin?” I asked Nick.
“Yeah,” he answered. I scowled.
“There were six kin working here when Vanessa and I came here,” I said, “What’s the likelihood that those last two are snug in their beds?” Nick’s scowl matched mine.
“This job’s already blown,” Nick said, “All we can do is burn this place and the bodies before the humans or one of the local packs comes around.”
“We don’t have to worry about the local packs,” I told him. He gave me a quizzical look. “Blackhawk is going to call them off. I’ll explain later. We do have to deal with the human authorities.” Nick just nodded. I helped him drag the four kin from outside. Nick produced the small explosives we’d brought for destroying the listening post. Those were quickly set. Ten minutes later, we were outside the fence as the block of offices were blown apart with an explosion that lit the area up like daylight.
“P for plenty, Nick?” I asked as debris landed around us.
“No sense in chancing that they wouldn’t do the job,” Nick said. He gave me a weary look as we quick-timed to the truck. “Would it even matter for me to remind you that my name is Nicholas?”
“Has it ever?” I replied as we dashed across the highway. My ears picked up the faint sounds of sirens. We needed to speed this up. I wanted to be at least a few miles down the road before the humans cordoned off the area. Nick must have heard them also and come to the same conclusions. As fast as we scrambled into the truck, I had to remember to drive sedately as I pulled out onto the highway. I saw the tiny speckle of flashing lights as we drove back into the Disputed Territories.
“Now would you please explain why Blackhawk called off the local packs?” Nick asked. I gave him a brief recount of my conversation.
“I think I have him convinced Lord Savik and Lady Anna are dead,” I finished, “We may not have wiped out all of the Society personnel, but I think we managed to get the job done.”
“More to the point, we’ve managed to achieve what the job needed,” Nick agreed, “I hope Lord Savik will take that victory and be happy. He’s going to be upset enough when we tell him that he has a traitor in his packs,” Nick said. I nearly swerved the truck off the road.
“Traitor? Who?” I asked, getting my truck back on the road.
“I don’t know, but that ambush was laid too neatly. They knew we were coming,” Nick answered.
“Maybe they detected us coming up,” I suggested. I could see Nick’s logic. It wouldn’t be the first time the Disputed Territories’ lycanthroeps had been betrayed by one of their own. Still, it was my job to poke holes in his theory. “If it was a traitor, why did they let us get that close? Why not intercept us away from their listening post?”
“They were warned too late?” Nick offered, “Or maybe that lycanthrope you killed was overconfident in his powers. He was incredibly strong and fast. I’ve only see one other lycanthrope do that.” He gave me a significant look.
“Blackhawk said that Raven was the Prince’s son. Maybe that gave him those powers. It wasn’t whatever’s been happening to me,” I replied.
“How do you know that?” he asked.
“Gut feeling. I can’t explain it better than that,” I answered.
“Instinct?” Nick asked.
“Maybe,” I conceded. Nick sat back in his seat. He was so sure my instincts were tied to me being a Badmoon. I wasn’t so sure, but with so many odd things happening around me, I wasn’t going to discount his theory. Not yet, at least.
“Let’s hold off on saying there’s a traitor,” I said, “Let’s just tell Lord Savik what happened. He may know about something we don’t.”
“You advising caution?” Nick asked, “You have changed.”
“Savik has seen enough betrayal. If we tell him what happened, he’s going to come to the same conclusions,” I said. “Although I’ll agree that the possibility is there. Keep an eye out for something odd.”
“You know Savik will blame Bradon or me,” Nick said, “If he doesn’t, his packs certainly will.”
“The packs might, assuming Lord Savik tells them,” I said, “For some reason, he trusts me enough that I can vouch for you.”
“No, he trusts Lady Anna, and she trusts you,” Nick said, “Speaking of whom, are you going to tell her about Blackhawk’s threat to Lady Elizabeth?”
“She’ll find out when I tell Lord Savik,” I said. Nick’s question confused me.
“Ranger, do me a favor,” Nick said in that solemn voice he used when things were grave, “Pull her to the side and let her know. Answer any questions as honestly as possible. If he asks why you’re telling her, just say you thought she ought to know. Do not say I told you to tell her.”
“Okay,” I agreed, “Can you tell me why?”
“I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. You’re going to have to trust me on this,” Nick said.
“Nick, I always trust you,” I told him. We drove the rest of the way in silence. He didn’t even correct me on his name.
When the two of us drove into the Disputed Territories’ cravex, I was surprised to find Lady Anna waiting for us. I was even more startled to see her in a dress. Since my time in the Disputed Territories, I’d only seen her in jeans and blouses or tactical gear. This was the first time I’d seen her in something that made her look, well, feminine. She really was a pretty female. She was going to make some aristocrat very happy someday. Assuming she survived all of this. As we approached, I could see her pacing in the grass. She looked worried or apprehensive. I gave a warning look to Nick, but he kept a neutral look on his face.
“Lady Anna, has something happened?” I asked as we came to where she was pacing. She looked at my expression.
“Oh no. Nothing like that,” she quickly answered. Then, she looked me over and her expression changed to something I couldn’t decipher.
“Do you always come back from jobs covered in blood and bruises?” she asked softly, as she walked to me. She ran her hands around my head and torso. I grunted as she touched some of the bruises. Those were going to need a rub of wolfsbane to heal normally.
“Not normally, but some jobs are more fun than others,” I answered. Another one of those undecipherable looks, but I got the distinct impression there was some anger behind that one.
“Ranger, I’m going to get the gear out of your truck and clean it up,” Nick said. He handsigned You know what to do. He walked back to the truck, leaving Lady Anna and me alone.
“What did he mean, ‘you know what to do’?” Lady Anna asked, reading the hunter’s handsigns.
“Blackhawk was watching me when I killed Raven,” I said. I grimaced as Lady Anna clenched my arm right where I deflected some of Raven’s blows.
“I’m sorry, Ranger,” Lady Anna said as she saw my face contort, “Let’s get that gear off you and those injuries rubbed down.” She led me over to a stone bench. I pulled off my gear and shirt. She plucked the wolfsbane-soaked cloth out of my hands and started to rub the bruises on my chest. I don’t know what was more uncomfortable, the burning of the wolfsbane or having Lady Anna tending to my injuries. It felt wrong.
“So Blackhawk knows we’re leaving?” Lady Anna asked.
“Actually, he thinks you’re dead,” I answered.
“I’ll explain everything when Lord Savik gets here,” I said, “Easier to do it once and get all the questions out of the way. There is something I need to tell you. Blackhawk promised to kill Elizabeth if I interfered with his plans in Tallahassee.” Lady Anna stopped rubbing. She gave me a neutral look.
“He did? What did he promise if you kept out of his plans?” she asked.
“He said he would marry her off to another aristocrat. Essentially, she’d be a permanent hostage for my good behavior,” I answered. She silently started rubbing one of my arm bruises. I tried to grab the cloth from her, but she deftly avoided my hands.
“What are you going to do?” Lady Anna asked.
“Even though he’s offered not to harm Lady Elizabeth?” she asked.
“She’ll never be safe as long as that bastard is alive,” I answered, “Even if I took Blackhawk up on his offer, she still won’t be safe. The only way to make sure Elizabeth is safe is to stop Blackhawk. The best way to stop Blackhawk is to kill him.”
“And her safety is that important to you?” Lady Anna asked. My instincts were blaring danger, but Nick told me to answer Lady Anna’s questions honestly.
“Yes,” I answered, “She is the Lady-Apparent of my home.” I paused for a moment.
“And?” Lady Anna asked, sensing my hesitation.
“And I still love her,” I answered.
“Even after everything she’s done to you?” Lady Anna asked, her voice almost a whisper.
“I don’t know why, but yes,” I answered, “When Blackhawk threatened her, everything came flooding back through me. She may hate me, but I still love her. Maybe that will fade in time. I don’t know. I kind of hope so, because it’s going to hurt worse when I see her with someone else. When Blackhawk said he was going to marry her off, it hurt almost as much as the thought of her being killed.” Lady Anna said nothing for a while. She looked like she was thinking hard on something, so I just let her work it out. I had some questions of my own. The biggest was why did Nick want me to tell Lady Anna about Blackhawk’s threat to Elizabeth? It made no sense at all. My guess was Nick thought Lady Anna could help me work out my feelings for Elizabeth. She certainly seemed sympathetic. Something told me that wasn’t it, but I had no other explanation. I would’ve asked Vanessa, but I’d done something to piss her off, and neither her nor Hangman would tell me what it was.
“She doesn’t deserve you,” Lady Anna finally said, “The sooner you realize that, the better.” She handed me the cloth. “I’ve got to call Uncle Erik and let him know you’ve returned.” She walked to across the cravex with a cellphone to her ear. As I rubbed the last few bruises, I thought about what Lady Anna said. Maybe she was right, but I was having a hard time convincing myself. Maybe when we made it to Hillsborough and I saw Elizabeth again, Lady Anna’s advice would be more effective. Right now, all I could do was try and repack my emotions. We still had a lot of work to do.
Lord Savik and his normal entourage showed up a couple of hours later. From the snarl on his face, I suspected that Lady Anna briefed him on how the job turned out. I waited patiently as the lord stormed across the cravex.
“I give you free access to our supplies, and you still fail to complete the job?” Lord Savik asked with a controlled voice.
“Not necessarily,” I answered, “That depends on what the ultimate goals of the job were for you.” That stopped Lord Savik in his tracks. He gave me a questioning look.
“I thought my goals were clear in the instructions of the job,” Lord Savik said.
“Why were Nick and I sent to wipe out the Society’s listening post?” I asked in return. “Were we there to send a message from you, or to hide our leaving the counties?”
“Both,” Lord Savik answered.
“Then we half-succeeded,” I said.
“If you didn’t completely succeed, then why isn’t that a failure?” Fangbearer asked.
“Because as far as the Society is concerned, Lord Savik and Lady Anna are dead, and I’m going back to Hillsborough,” I answered. “Blackhawk got what he wanted from my little trek down here.”
“Assuming Blackhawk believed you,” Fangbearer said. I nodded, reluctantly conceding the point. Lord Savik held up his hand.
“Start from the beginning, Ranger,” Lord Savik said, “Tell me exactly what happened.” I spent the next half-hour relating Nick’s and mine adventure. As I finished, Lord Savik silently mulled over my report.
“What I haven’t figured out is how Raven was so damned powerful,” I said, breaking the silence. “I’ve never seen a lycanthrope move that fast.”
“Blackhawk said Raven was a bastard son of the Prince?” Lord Savik asked.
“Yes,” I answered, cautiously.
“It’s not something we discuss outside the highest levels of the aristocracy, but there’s always been a danger of mixing blood lines. It’s part of the reason we have such strong rules for female purity and sex outside the mated pair. It’s also partially why Badmoons are…” He seemed groping for a word that wouldn’t infuriate me.
“Considered abominations?” I supplied. Lord Savik gave a resigned nod.
“What kind of mixing would cause something like Raven?” Nick asked, “This is far different than lycanthropes being born deformed or afflicted.” Lord Savik gave Nick a long, hard look. Something about what Nick said piqued the lord’s curiosity. Nick didn’t quite shrink from the look, but he was clearly not going to say more.
“I have my suspicions,” Lord Savik said, before turning to face me, “Ranger, walk with me.” I followed Lord Savik as he moved deeper int the cravex.
“What do you know about your friend?” Lord Savik asked.
“I trust him,” I answered, “He stood by me when few would.”
“Which he could have been doing at the behest of the vampire,” Lord Savik countered.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, “Bradon may have pointed me out to Nick, but his friendship is real. He’s helped me deal with things. He’s never given me bad advice.”
“All of which still doesn’t answer my original question,” Lord Savik said, “What do you know about him?”
“He’s from Nebraska, and had some trouble there. The Prince gave him asylum in Florida, but Nick ran into some trouble in the capital and ended up in our county. That’s when I ran into him about four years ago. He was well respected in the Guild and my Guildmaster trusted him.”
“So, not much,” Lord Savik said, and then held up his hand, “I’m sure he didn’t talk much about his past and you chose not to pry. That’s very admirable – as a hunter. We don’t have that luxury. His actions have made me very suspicious.”
“You don’t think he’s working for Blackhawk?” I asked.
“No, but I don’t know who he is working for or what he is trying to accomplish,” Lord Savik answered.
“Exactly how are you going to get your answers?” I asked.
“I’m not. You are,” Lord Savik said, “He’s your friend. You will make sure he’s no threat to my packs.”
“No.” My response astonished Lord Savik.
“What?” he asked, as if he couldn’t believe what I’d just said.
“No,” I repeated, “I’m not going to interrogate my friend. You want to know why he’s here? He’s here to help me fulfill my destiny. To make sure that I can do what I’m supposed to do.”
“And what is that?” Lord Savik asked, clearly not sure if I was sane.
“I don’t know all of it, but it starts with killing Lothos,” I answered. Lord Savik gave me a cool look.
“That vampire you tangled with during the warehouse raid?” the lord asked. “Anna told me some of it. What she could remember clearly. That vampire survived silver, fire, and staking. How are you supposed to kill it?”
“Because I’m the Badmoon,” I answered.