"Well, this just became interesting," Nick said quietly. I chuckled as the large force of lycanthropes sneaking up on our encampment was now caught in the glare of several spotlights. They scattered like cockroaches, sprinting for what little cover could be found in the parking lot. The smarter ones sprinted across the street to a small wooded area. Shouts of alarm echoed up and down our encampment as sleeping warriors, hunters, and shaman were rousted.

"Always with the understatement," I replied to Nick. I pointed to one of the warriors we’d picked up from Hernando County. "Get more lights along the perimeter. Make sure some of them are aimed at that forest." The warrior nodded and darted away. Lord Savik, Fangbearer, Devon Thames, and one of the Disputed Territories Red Knights crouched down next to Nick and me behind a sedan. Fangbearer, Devon, and the Knight were in tactical gear and cradling P90’s. Lord Savik was dressed in his ceremonial robes. At least he had a pistol holstered at his side. Like Nick and me, the quartet were all in true form. Lord Savik ignored the questioning looks I traded with his companions. No one in the leadership of our force was happy with Lord Savik’s casual disregard of the danger. It was one thing when we were talking with the county packs and leaderships, but we were now in Leon County, where Tallahassee resided. Those forces across from us were under the direct control of Blackhawk. Or at least, that’s how we had to treat them.

"How many?" Lord Savik asked with the nonchalance he’d been using during our trek north.

"From what I saw, probably a couple hundred," I answered, "From the way they moved once the lights came on, it’s a mix of hunters and warriors. Probably a few Society operatives as well since we’re in Blackhawk’s home turf. Don’t know about shaman, but I kind of doubt it. They usually don’t tag along on combined ops unless they’re needed for something specific."

"Do they know we have them outnumbered?" Devon asked, with a cocky smile spreading across his face. The hundred lycanthropes who left Hillsborough had almost quadrupled in number as we were joined by contingents of hunters and warriors from Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, and Levy counties. We now had nearly four hundred warriors, hunters, and shaman under Lord Savik – including four young aristocrats. They were all the sons of lords from Hernando, Citrus, and surprisingly, Devon Thames of Pinellas. He caught up with us in Levy County and announced he was there to show Pinellas’s support for its long-time ally. I would have preferred some of their hunters instead.

"That depends on your definition of outnumbered," I said to the young aristocrat. Devon’s smile disappeared as he gave me a quizzical look. Since joining, Devon never seemed comfortable around me, but he wasn’t about to say anything with my apparent closeness to Lord Savik.

"What do you mean, Ranger?" asked Lord Savik.

"Out of our wolves, I’d say there’s fifty of us that I know will fight other lycanthropes. Those are your wolves who came out of Broward and Dade, as well as some of the hunters I’ve worked with in the past. There’s maybe another fifty I’m pretty sure will fight, based on reputation," I answered. "So, that gives us a hundred I’m confident to rely on compared to the two hundred that just tried to sneak up on us."

"I think you’re being overly pessimistic about our forces. Besides, aren’t you assuming all of those out there are capable of fighting other lycanthropes?" Devon asked with a noticeable bite. I gave him a level look. The young aristocrat was trying too damned hard in my opinion. He should be spending that time learning.

"Of course I’m making that assumption," I said, trying very hard not to sound condescending. From the look on Devon’s face, I wasn’t succeeding. "Blackhawk is a treacherous, murdering, bastard of a dog, but he’s not stupid. We have to assume any force he sends at us is capable of fighting and killing other lycanthropes. Otherwise, why send them?"

"We selected this strip mall as our stopping place, for a reason," Nick continued, while giving me a look that said I was getting a bit overbearing. "It lets us put all of our good fighters to the front behind a palisade of cars, while giving us choke points if the bastards try to come in the back." Devon didn’t look convinced, but he stayed quiet. Thank the Ancestors for small favors. At that point, Hangman joined our small group and knelt down. He was carrying the HK 417 and was tasked as part of our overwatch element.

"Lady Anna and Grinder have the backdoors shut tight with some of the county hunters," Hangman reported. Grinder was one of the State hunters. "Eagle and Farmer are coordinating the forces on our flanks while your Guildmaster and Cracker motivate the rest. Vanessa’s on channel four for coordination." Trust our intelligence kin to find out that the strip mall still had a working security camera system and hack into the server before we’d even unloaded. I wasn’t about to complain. It gave us eyes around the building.

"I still think Badmoon’s being overly pessimistic about our warriors," Devon declared. Lord Savik gave me a stern look before I could tell Devon where he could shove his ideas.

"Hopefully, we won’t have to find out," Lord Savik said. More lights flashed out into the darkness. In true form, we didn’t need the lights to see in the darkness. Big bright lights did a wonderful job of degrading our opponents’ vision. To the lycanthropes out beyond our circle of vehicles, the lights were brilliant balls of light that made it damn near impossible to see how many lycanthropes manning our impromptu palisade.

"LORD SAVIK, BY ORDER OF THE WAR COUNCIL, LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND SURRENDER!" one of the lycanthropes commanded. That was a surprise. As far as we knew, Blackhawk wasn’t aware that Lord Savik was leading the force. To be fair, it was just a matter of time before that secret leaked out. I should have been glad it lasted all the way to Leon County. I rose up and located the speaker standing at the edge of the forest across the road from our strip mall. He was a tall lycanthrope, some eight and a half feet in true form. From the way his gear was rigged and how he was holding his M4, I suspected he was a hunter or a Society operative. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun.

"May I ask who I’m addressing?" Lord Savik said as he stood up. I saw the Red Knight slide behind Lord Savik. We’d practiced this multiple times since leaving Pasco County. If I signaled danger, the Knight would yank Lord Savik behind cover, and propriety be damned. Of course, that was great when we were only facing ten or twenty county lycanthropes. With the couple hundred we were facing, I wasn’t so sure.

"I am Robert Hardclaw, from Orange County," answered the hunter after a pause. "I have been charged by the war council to arrest you and all of those who follow you for treason against the state of Florida and hold you for judgment until the new Prince is ascended."

"Hardclaw, my lycanthropes do not want a fight with you and yours here," Lord Savik said, his voice booming through the night. "We are not here to fight against the war council. We are only here to prevent the council from elevating the real traitor to Florida."

"Your allegations do not change my duty, Lord Savik," Hardclaw replied, "My orders are clear. You and your followers are to surrender yourselves and your weapons to my marshals, upon which you will be detained until the new Prince judges your actions."

"You are a hunter," Lord Savik said, "Your duty is to protect your county and your state. How can you be protecting your state when your lord is being manipulated by Blackhawk? How can you follow a war council who is not the independent body of the lords, but the pawn of a traitor?" Hardclaw paused as he pondered Lord Savik’s words. Contrary to what many in the packs think, hunters are not mindless killing machines or slavishly devoted to our jobs. We have to think. We have to be able to react, adapt, and overcome. We have to be able to evaluate new intelligence and determine how it fits into not just the job at hand, but to the mission to protect the county and the state.

"I know my duty, Lord Savik," Hardclaw said, after a brief pause, "If your allegations about the war council were true, I would not be here. I have not seen anything to cast doubt on the independence of the war council, nor have you given me any hard evidence of such."

"Would you be willing to come to my camp under flag of truce and let us show you hard evidence?" Lord Savik asked. "If I can’t convince you the war council is not fulfilling its obligations, I will surrender myself to you." From the look of surprise on Hardclaw’s face, that brought him up short. He wasn’t the only one. Fangbearer and I traded a look of disbelief. I really wish Lord Savik would warn us before he pulled these kinds of stunts.

"Target," Hangman said over the radio a moment before the suppressed crack of his rifle echoed through the night. A lycanthrope in tactical gear and loosely holding a scoped rifle fell out of a tree in the forest. There was the barest instant where time seemed to stop and everyone just looked around with shocked faces. Time rushed back, and both sides flew into the action. The Red Knight grabbed Lord Savik and yanked him to the ground as both sides opened fire.

"Ranger, ten o’clock," Hangman said. I twisted and saw a lycanthrope holding an MP5. He was yelling at several other enemy lycanthropes to get into the fight. I placed a burst into the lycanthrope and he went down. The lycanthropes he was screaming at scattered away to find what cover they could.

"Hangman, what the fuck is going on?" I asked, trading bursts with the lycanthropes in the tree line.

"The Society operatives out there are stirring up trouble," Hangman answered, calmly. "We’ve got to take them down if we’re going to get this fight under control."

"Yeah, but you took the first shot," I replied, ducking down behind a car to reload my Commando.

"Society sniper was about to take out Lord Savik," Hangman answered, with that same steady calm. Okay, I guess that made a little bit of sense. Hangman brought me back into the fight. "Ranger, you’ve got another Society dog trying to sneak up to you. Nick, take out that one at your eleven." I dropped to the pavement to see the barrel of a submachine gun pointed at me. I triggered a burst and rolled, half-expecting to feel the familiar burning sledgehammer blows of silver bullets. As I lined back up on the Society operative, I saw the shocked look on his face and dead eyes. Every so often, Murphy was a bitch to the other side as well.

"Ranger, if you’re done playing with that one, there’s a pair of Society at your seven leading a push against the line," Hangman said. I picked myself up off the asphalt and sprinted. It was at times like this I wished our clothes and gear changed with us when we shed for wolf. Running low while in true form was not one of my favorite things to do, especially while under fire. Two of our hunters led ten warriors against probably thirty or so enemies. The enemies were pushing a trio of parked cars as mobile cover. Cars, contrary to what many think, are actually not great cover against bullets unless you managed to get the engine block between you and the bullets. The cars were being pushed head-on to our lines by most of the enemy lycanthropes while the rest provided covering fire. I could see the pair of Society operatives encouraging the enemy group a few yards behind the cars. Those two were my targets.

"Hose them! I need covering fire!" I shouted to one of the hunter giving directions to the rest.

"What the fuck?" was all he could say as I bounded towards him. I let my Commando fall on its sling as I drew my HK45 and plucked a flash-bang from the front of my MOLLE gear. My mind flew through mental calculations as I closed towards our line of cars. One to two seconds while our lycanthropes dumped their magazines on full auto. Maybe another second from the flash-bang. That should be enough.

Twelve assault rifles and submachine guns opened up as one on the attacking lycanthropes. I leapt to the top of a parked sedan and used it as a springboard. At the same time, I threw the flash-bang at the lycanthropes pushing the cars. As its supernova detonation lit up the night, I emptied my pistol at the lycanthropes running alongside the cars. That kept their fucking heads down. I landed on one of the cars just long enough to coil and spring off to the side. My pistol went back to its holster and I grabbed my Commando. The two Society operatives were still trying to sort out what was happening. They barely managed to bring their weapons to bear on me before I put them both down with short bursts. I twisted and placed the floating holographic reticle on the lycanthrope trying to cajole the others in moving the cars again. Three rounds into his head dropped him. The remaining lycanthropes abandoned the cars and sprinted across the parking lot. Without the Society operatives encouraging them, it seemed the opposition forces lacked the real will to fight us. Damn it, maybe Devon was right. I needed to confirm first. I charged across the parking lot into the wooded area. As I crouched in a small copse of trees, I changed magazines in my HK45 and Commando. It was time to see if my theory was right. I crept through the woods looking for my first victim. Angry whispers floated out from my right that sounded like what I was hunting. I snuck through the trees to where I’d heard the whispers. We earned the name hunters for a reason.

"We need to call our warriors back," said the first voice, in a harsh whisper. It was Hardclaw, the leader of the enemies. Ancestors, he was a hunter. He should know whispers could carry further than just speaking in low tones. Hell, he should have been using hand signs. His mistake. I crept closer, bringing my Commando up.

"Lord Blackhawk was very clear," the second voice said. He spoke in a commanding tone. It sounded like he was the actual leader of this force. Something about the voice tickled my memory. I’d heard that voice before, but I just could not drudge it up. "Savik must be dead before we withdraw."

"That was not part of our orders!" Hardclaw said. "We are supposed to be serving a warrant for Lord Savik’s surrender on the orders of the war council, not acting as a fucking execution squad for Blackhawk."

"Lord Blackhawk is the war council, you dumb fuck. The sooner you understand that, the better," the second voice replied, his voice ringing with annoyance. "If you can’t remember who is the really in charge, then you’ll become a casualty, and I’ll find someone who can follow orders."

"How about I just kill you?" Hardclaw seethed, "I’m sure you were very good at taking down the State Guild when you caught them by surprise, but I’m ready for you." My memory clicked. The second voice was one of the Society operatives that were with Blackhawk when he killed the State Guildmaster. That settled it. He wasn’t going to be alive by the end of this night. I’d make sure of that myself.

"If you bring that weapon up, my partner will put a bullet through your head. As far as anyone else will be concerned, you’ll be just another victim of that damned sniper of Savik’s." From the way the Society dog was talking, his partner wasn’t in the clearing with him. I looked up in the trees. The dog’s partner was in a tree some fifteen yards behind us. His rifle was pointed right where Hardclaw and the Society dog were talking. The dumb bastard was tunneling so hard, he never even heard me sneak into the area. Well, that kind of inattention should be rewarded – violently. I placed the reticle on the dog’s head. I stroked the Commando’s trigger. The headless corpse fell out of the tree. There was a stutter of gunfire from Hardclaw’s position. I slinked over to where Hardclaw and the Society dog had been talking. I expected to find Hardclaw’s corpse and then play a deadly game of hide-and-seek with the Society dog. No such luck. The Society dog was holding a suppressed M4 on Hardclaw. He smiled as I emerged from the trees, my Commando trained on him. Hardclaw was holding his ruined and bleeding right hand. His own M4 was laying on the ground in front of him.

"You must be Ranger," the Society dog said, "From everything Lord Blackhawk said, you’d be the only lycanthrope crazy enough to try and pull a stunt like this."

"He can call me Ranger," I said, nodding at Hardclaw, "He’s a hunter. You are one of Blackhawk’s pretend hunters, so you get to call me Badmoon like any other pack warrior." I needed the bastard focusing on me and not Hardclaw.

"I am a hunter, abomination," the dog said angrily, "I went to the camp. I served with the Collier chapter for fifteen years! I was the best damn hunter in that chapter before Lord Blackhawk recruited me. Now, I’m better than you could hope to be, no matter what Lord Blackhawk says." Well, that was an interesting tidbit, but I saved it for later.

"You’re a fucking traitor," I said, with cold contempt, "You murder real hunters because you follow the bastard son of a weakling prince." His eyes narrowed. I tensed, waiting for his muzzle to swing towards me. Then his head gave an almost imperceptible shake.

"Nice try, Ranger, but that’s not going to work," the dog said, an evil grin spreading across his face. "You can say whatever you want, try whatever stunt you want, and it’s not going to stop us from killing Savik tonight." I looked deep into his eyes and saw solid determination in them. Nope, this one wasn’t going to be dissuaded or tricked. So, how was I going to kill him before he killed Hardclaw? As my mind raced, a rifle cracked. Blood splurted across the trees surrounding us. Hardclaw and I stared at each other as the Society dog fell lifeless to the ground.

"Ranger, would you please get Hardclaw to order a fallback?" Hangman asked over the radio. "We’ve almost got this under control." Damn, that hunter was fucking scary sometimes.

"Here," I said to Hardclaw, tossing a wolfsbane-soaked bandage. "Do you want to call off your wolves before they all get slaughtered?"

"You are the Badmoon?" he asked.

"Yes. Now will you please stop this before more of your lycanthropes and mine get killed?" I asked, impatiently.

"The Society–" Hardclaw started to protest, but I cut him off.

"Will be dealt with," I said. "Tell your lycanthropes to stop fighting or any still fighting will be killed quickly. You can point out the Society ones if you want, and we’ll take them down first." Hardclaw considered this as he rubbed the wolfsbane bandage into his wounds. Finally, he nodded and walked out of the trees.

"CEASE FIRE!" Hardclaw bellowed at his wolves, "ALL COUNCIL MARSHALS, CEASE FIRE!" I heard the order repeated up and down both sides of the line. Two of the council lycanthropes spun back towards Hardclaw with their weapons up. Society dogs, most likely. I took one down with a quick burst. The other’s chest exploded as Nick fired his Smith into the dog’s back. The revolver roared twice more, and two more Society went down as they attempted to restart the fight. One look at Nick’s emotionless face as he swept the rest with his revolver and almost all of the council lycanthropes dropped their weapons. One tried to bring his rifle up at Nick. Hangman dropped him with surgical precision. The last few weapons clattered to the ground. Our wolves darted forward to secure the council lycanthropes.

"Ranger, bring Hardclaw over so we can talk," Lord Savik called. Lord Savik turned his attention to the council lycanthropes. "If any of you are wounded, we will have healers out in a few minutes. Any attempt to harm them will be met with immediate lethal force. I do not wish to see any more death today." I could feel the warm tendrils of Lord Savik’s power reaching out even to where Hardclaw and I stood.

"Light of the First," Hardclaw swore, "He’s that strong?" His stance was notably more relaxed.

"Yeah. Let’s get over there so you two can talk," I said. Hardclaw gave me a suspicious look.

"You’re still alert," Hardclaw said, "I know I should be, but I just can’t summon the presence of mind with your Lord Savik’s touch on me. So, can he choose who to affect?" I just gave him a mirthless smile. Let him guess. We walked to the strip mall in silence.

"Hunter Hardclaw, thank you for meeting with me," Lord Savik said as we met him inside one of the storefronts. In addition to Lord Savik, Fangbearer, the Knights, the other aristocrats we’d picked up were waiting for us. Surprisingly, Elizabeth and Lady Anna weren’t anywhere around Lord Savik. For some reason, that struck me as ominous. Lord Savik looked over at me. "Thank you Ranger. Anna and Elizabeth are talking with Vanessa. I believe they want to speak with you as well." There was an odd twinkle in Lord Savik’s eyes. I kept my face emotionless as I nodded, but my instincts started blaring danger.

I walked two doors down to the storefront where Vanessa set up shop. The lycanthropes gathered around the storefront parted as I walked to the back. I heard some muttering as I passed, but that wasn’t exactly something new for me. What surprised me was some of the muttering sounded respectful. As I approached Vanessa’s computer station, the three females looked up at me. Three pairs of eyes blazed at me. My instincts went into high gear. I was tempted to just turn around and walk back out. It was probably safer out in the parking lot with the council lycanthropes. Lady Anna stepped around Vanessa’s desk and snagged me by the front of my gear. With Elizabeth close behind, Lady Anna dragged me into a back office. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun.

"Are you insane?" the pair chorused as soon as the door was shut. Contrary to evidence, there are times I do remember to just keep my fucking mouth shut. After a firefight, however, isn’t one of those times.

"Did you two rehearse that?" I quipped. Their stern expressions darkened.

"Completely disregarding our current feud over a certain hunter, we were both wondering if you forgot what you’re supposed to be doing?" Lady Anna asked. I stopped myself from saying the first thing that popped into my head and looked at both of them. Lady Anna’s posture and eyes blazed with anger, but Elizabeth’s had a streak of fear in her anger. I just wasn’t sure what was the cause of the fear.

"Do you think I should be kept in glass box with a label that reads ‘Open Only In Case of Lothos’?" I asked, working hard to keep my voice neutral.

"No," Elizabeth said softly .

"What we need is for you to act less like the wild pup and more the restrained professional," Lady Anna said. "I need you to act more like you did in Broward and Dade. Not what we were forced to watch you do out there tonight." I looked up at Lady Anna, and she took a step back from the anger in my eyes.

"Lady Anna, I have a great deal of respect for your abilities and your intelligence," I said, "That said, you still have a great deal to learn about hunters. You saw what you thought was an insane stunt. What I was actually doing was running a calculated risk. One based on a lot more years’ experience doing jobs than you have." I stopped talking for a moment before my mouth got away from me. This was considered progress in my book. "Have either of you even asked one of the Guildmasters what they thought of my actions?" I could see a scored a direct hit from their sudden guilty expressions. I took a deep breath before continuing.

"Look, I know that both of you were worried about me, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me," I said, "That said, I’m not about to stand back when Lord Savik needs me to be a hunter. You’re just going to have to trust me to know what I’m doing." Much to my surprise, it was Lady Anna who stormed out of the room. Elizabeth sat down on the dust-covered desk.

"Do you know how hard it is to love you?" Elizabeth asked.

"I still don’t understand why you love me," I said, walking over to Elizabeth. She gently pushed me back with a serious look on her face.

"I’m being serious Mark," Elizabeth said, the hint of iron in her voice. I groaned.

"Ancestors, Elizabeth, I’m just coming down from a battle, and you want to have a serious discussion now?" I asked, venting a bit of my frustration.

"Consider this an after-action debrief," she said. I gave her a surprised look at her use of the terminology. She just shrugged. "The Guildmaster made us go through them after a mission or a skirmish with the TCV."

"That’s something Farmer would do," I said, "So, what in my actions during tonight’s battle would give me an indication of how hard it is for you to love me? Killing other lycanthropes?"

"That bothers me, but it’s not what I was talking about tonight," Elizabeth answered, "It’s certainly not what bothered Anna."

"Then what? Honestly, I don’t understand," I said. Elizabeth gave me a sad smile.

"We watched you go into battle and there was nothing we could do to help you. It’s worse for Anna because she’s used to being out there working with her hunters. Then you go and do something that looks insane to anyone except for you and possibly a handful of others, and all we can do is watch helplessly. It’s one thing when it’s one of our warriors or hunters, it’s another thing entirely when it’s your catshen." That rocked me back on my heels. None of that even crossed my mind. Elizabeth stood up and gave me a soft kiss on the cheek.

"There’s another thing you need to start thinking about," Elizabeth said, "Whatever happens, you can’t think or act like any other hunter anymore. If anything, you need to start thinking like a Guildmaster."

"Thinking about replacing Farmer with me?" I asked, startled by her words.

"No, but the skill sets for being a Guildmaster and my mate are similar," she said before kissing me again.

Lady Anna pointedly ignored me as I joined the aristocrats, the Spiritmaster, the two Guildmasters, and Eagle, who was acting as de facto Guildmaster for the State hunters. Lord Savik called the meeting after his talk with Hardclaw. The hunter was standing off to the side of the meeting under the watchful eye of Nick and his Smith. From what I’d picked up, Nick’s revolver held a certain aura amongst our opponents. As in, they were fucking terrified of it. Elizabeth stood next to me. Our recently acquired aristocrats were under the impression I was her special bodyguard. We didn’t disabuse them of that notion, mostly because, as Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Elizabeth stressed, it wasn’t worth the fight right now. That didn’t make it any easier seeing the looks on the aristocrats’ eyes when they watched her. Particularly when they thought she wasn’t watching. Devon Thames was probably the worst of them. He looked at Elizabeth as if she was already his fiancee. Just to be on the safe side, Vanessa, Hangman, and Nick were keeping an eye on the lot of them for me. It would be a bad thing if I was forced to gut one of them before we finished our business in Tallahassee.

"Marshal Hardclaw has been most reasonable," Lord Savik began, bringing the meeting to order. "We showed him some of our evidence, and he’s agreed that we need to present it to the war council, at the very least. He also made it clear Blackhawk is now using his Society operators openly as his enforcers in Leon County."

"Does that mean we’re going to do elimination jobs before heading in?" the Disputed Territories Guildmaster asked.

"We have neither the time nor the resources to do that effectively," Lord Savik answered. "Hardclaw agreed to escort our convoy to the state cravex. Many of his council lycanthropes agreed to assist after Hardclaw assured them that we really did have evidence the war council needed to see before they let Blackhawk have the state. The remainder will need to be guarded here, both for our protection and theirs. The Society made it clear to them that failure to kill or capture us would result in severe punishments for them when they returned. Plus, I’m sure there are a few among the council lycanthropes still convinced we are traitors."

"Who are we going to leave here for that detail?" asked Michael Durang, the aristocrat from Hernando. The acquired aristocrats traded glances between themselves. All looked afraid they were going to be left out of the confrontation with the war council. Personally, I would’ve left all of them to guard the council lycanthropes. Except for Devon Thames, as much as that annoyed me to admit. He, at least, proved he could fight during the skirmish with the council lycanthropes. If Lord Savik noticed the acquired aristocrats political maneuvering, he didn’t give any outward appearance of it.

"We will leave our most severely injured here, and about fifty more of our number to guard them. Fangbearer agreed to be in charge of the wolves we leave here, with Vanessa assisting him," Lord Savik said. That made sense. As a kin, Vanessa wasn’t even supposed to step foot on cravex grounds.

"How many of the council lycanthropes are coming with us?" asked Robert Connor, the Citrus County aristocrat.

"Thirty agreed to escort you," Hardclaw answered. "Well, thirty who I trust to escort you." I did some mental calculation. We lost twenty-three warriors, and another sixty or so were injured badly enough they shouldn’t go with us. That left us between 270 and 280 of our own wolves. Add in the lycanthropes Hardclaw vouched for, and that gave us around three hundred to confront Blackhawk and whatever forces he had at his disposal. It sounded pitifully small, but it was still probably the largest "army" of lycanthropes assembled in Florida since the Great Fatherland War.

"What are we going to do with the Society operatives we captured?" asked Devon Thames. "We really don’t have time to try them for their crimes if we’re going to make it to the war council in time. That means, we’ll have to leave some of our strongest warriors and hunters here just to make sure they don’t escape." Lord Savik looked at the Guildmasters and nodded.

"They won’t be a problem," Farmer said, flatly.

"If what you’ve told all of us about Blackhawk is true, and I believe it is, then of course they will be a problem," Devon said, not understanding what Farmer meant.

"For fuck’s sake," I growled, and then backed down as Elizabeth put her hand on my arm.

"No, let him speak, Lady Elizabeth" Devon said, motioning to me, "Obviously the Badmoon has decided it is his job to educate me on the finer points of dealing with prisoners." His cold tone could be called condescending at best, and contemptuous at worst. Lord Savik and Elizabeth traded looks of apprehension before Elizabeth nodded for me to continue.

"The reason we are not going to have to worry about those Society dogs is because each of them will have a bullet in their head before we leave," I said. To his credit, Devon’s face didn’t pale like his fellow aristocrats.

"Lord Savik, it’s one thing to kill in battle, but another thing entirely to murder prisoners in cold blood," Michael Durange protested.

"This is why you were all sent to me," Lord Savik said, "Not just to declare your parents’ support for my cause, but because all of you need to learn some hard lessons before you ascend to your own lordships. One of those lessons is ordering the death of another lycanthrope because you deem that he or she is a danger to the packs under your protection. Do any of you think any of those Society dogs we captured is not a clear threat to our packs?" Lord Savik waited a bare moment for any of the aristocrats to disagree. "So yes, they will be executed before we proceed to the cravex." His hard eyes swept over the aristocrats. "And each of you will look them in the eye and order their executions." The aristocrats paled even further, but none of them balked.

As the convoy prepared to leave, the ten captured Society operatives were marched into the woods by the aristocrats and fifteen hunters. Nick and I were part of the group, but Hangman was left behind to assist in preparing those who would stay behind. Lady Anna led the group with Cracker acting as her bodyguard and assistant. She was still studiously avoiding me. Part of me was grateful for the temporary relief from having to deal with her attempts to remind me how she was superior to Elizabeth. Another part wanted to apologize to her. Then, there was the part that was extremely irritated with the just barely correct looks Lady Anna was getting from the acquired aristocrats. The rest of me was busy telling the other parts to shut the fuck up and deal with the job at hand. I swear, dealing with females was threatening to turn me into a schizophrenic. The aristocrat meeting broke up and Devon Thames walked over to where Nick and I stood.

"If you two would follow me," the young aristocrat said, woodenly. Nick and I wordlessly followed him to where the Society prisoners were being guarded.

"Stand," Devon said to two of the prisoners.

"Fuck you," answered one of them. "You can slaughter unarmed prisoners all you like. I’m damn sure not going to make it easy on you." Devon didn’t flinch or waver. He just looked down on the two Society dogs with an impassive face.

"I don’t really care. I was going to give you some dignity by standing instead of being shot while sitting on the ground," Devon said, "Badmoon, Nicholas, I have deemed these two are a threat to the packs. Under my authority, I order you to kill the both of them." I traded a look with Nick. He drew his big S&W 500 while I drew my HK45. The loudmouth Society prisoner glared at us defiantly, but his companion looked terrified. More to the point, he looked at Nick in terror. I chuckled darkly. Usually, I was considered scarier because I was a Badmoon. I guess Nick’s revolver was earning him points.

"Nick, make sure you get a good down angle with that thing," I said, casually, "We don’t want you taking someone else’s fun because those bullets of yours over-penetrated." Nick nodded solemnly.

"Stop! I’ll tell you anything you want to know about the Society," the scared Society prisoner almost screamed. His companion gave him a contemptuous glare. "I know pass signs, places, lycanthropes." Nick and I paused.

"Lord Devon, it’s your call," I said to the aristocrat, "If you think this one has some value to Lord Savik, you can spare him." Devon didn’t say anything. His head snapped up as two pistols barked as one of the other aristocrats ordered the deaths of the Society prisoners. The noise pulled Devon out of his thoughts.

"No. Badmoon, Nicholas, carry out my orders," Devon said quietly. Nick whipped his revolver at the defiant prisoner and fired. The prisoner’s scream of pain was muted by the deafening boom of Nick’s Smith. The prisoner feebly grabbed at the half-inch hole in his stomach, although most of his innards were spread out behind him. The other Society prisoner’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly. He never noticed as I leveled my pistol at his head and fired. He slumped over with an almost peaceful look. Well, peaceful compared to the screaming mess of lycanthrope next to him. The screams mercifully quieted and stopped as the Society dog bled out. Devon took two steps back and noisily vomited. Nick and I pretended to ignore him as we surveyed the others. Pistol shots were cracking up and down the line as hunters carried out aristocrat orders. Devon wasn’t the only of the acquired aristocrats to retch after their prisoners were executed. Devon cautiously walked back over.

"That was far more difficult than I expected," Devon said.

"Try to remember that when you order your hunters to do the same," Lady Anna said, joining us. "They have to do the killing, and it’s just as hard for them." Devon nodded in understanding. He was probably the only of the acquired aristocrats who didn’t ogle Lady Anna, but that was only because he was certain he had Elizabeth’s hand secured.

"Nicholas, will you take Devon back to the convoy? I need to speak with Ranger alone for a moment," Lady Anna said. She waited silently as the two walked out of earshot.

"I talked with Cracker. He said that you were fucking insane, but not out of line," Lady Anna said when we were alone. "Of course, he was wondering how your Guildmaster dealt with you if that was how you normally operated."

"To tell you the truth, it’s been awhile since I let myself cut loose like that," I admitted. "My dramatics, as Nick calls them, used to drive my Guildmaster nuts when he led the lone wolves. On the subject of our discussion last night, I do owe you an apology. I shouldn’t have gone off on you. I never thought what it would be like for you watching me do something like that."

"Would you have still done it?" Lady Anna asked, with a quizzical look on her face.

"Yeah. I’d’ve just handled the fallout differently," I answered.

"She explained it to you, didn’t she?" Lady Anna asked, a sadness spreading across her face.

"Yes, she did. She also made it clear that I owed you an apology," I said. Her face became unreadable. I was starting to hate it when she did that.

"I’ll have to thank her," Lady Anna said, stiffly, "Let’s get back to the convoy so that Cracker can get this mess cleaned up before we leave."

The Florida cravex was located in a thickly wooded area in the northern part of the Leon County, just south of the Princedom of Georgia’s border. It was technically a private hunting preserve owned by the Prince, which I found to be amusing for some reason. Unlike in the counties where the lords ascended to their thrones in their Manors, the ritual for the Prince to ascend had to be done at the cravex. Our group arrived at the very edge of the preserve under the cover of darkness. Hardclaw was riding in the lead vehicle’s shotgun seat with Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Elizabeth, Devon Thames, myself, and the Red Knights in the back of the SUV.

"The gate’s guarded by Society," Hardclaw said.

"For fuck’s sake, how many of those bastards does Blackhawk have?" I asked. Lord Savik chuckled.

"Didn’t he tell you while you worked for him?" Lord Savik asked.

"I don’t think he trusted me with that information," I answered, innocently. The other aristocrats chuckled darkly. "Do you want me to take care of them?"

"We need for them to clear us, or we’ll have a force waiting for us before we can even reach the cravex," Hardclaw warned.

"Hardclaw will go forward to meet them. Kevin will accompany him, in case things go badly," Lord Savik ordered. Lady Anna gave her uncle a wary look, which he answered with a confident smile. "I think it’s past time we stopped trying to play nice. Kevin will make sure that we are able to pass." Hardclaw and I traded uneasy looks. Hunters tended to get nervous when the aristocracy started talking cryptically. As we neared the gate, the two Society operatives walked out from their hidey-holes. Both were in true form and dressed in digital camouflage and tactical gear. One carried an FN SCAR with a grenade launcher mounted under the barrel. His partner carried a belt-fed machine gun, with a large ammo box hooked up under the machine gun. Plenty of ammo to rip apart our lead vehicles and everyone inside them. Both of the Society guards leveled their weapons at our SUV. Well, that just looked like a bunch of fun. Still, something wasn’t right.

"Is that all, two guards?" I asked.

"Yeah," Hardclaw answered, seeing my suspicions, "These two are just the tripwire. There’s easily another fifty Society out there reinforced by another hundred or so hunters from across the state. We were summoned after Blackhawk disbanded the State Guild and the Society was put in charge. Now, if you’ll excuse, my lords and ladies, I’ll see if I can get you past them without tripping the alarm."

"That’s what Kevin’s going to help you with," Lord Savik said, motioning to the lycanthrope standing outside the SUV. Kevin was one of the Disputed Territories shaman. This was about to get interesting. Hardclaw just nodded and stepped out of the SUV. The pair approached the two Society guards. SCAR Boy tracked the pair as Mr. Belt-Fed kept his weapon on our vehicle. Hardclaw said something to SCAR Boy, who answered back harshly. The two Society guards and Hardclaw tensed, but then Kevin spoke. I couldn’t hear what the shaman said, but after he finished speaking, both guards laid their weapons on the ground. One held his hand to his head and spoke into a radio. Both stood off to the side while Kevin spoke again. Without hesitation, the two guards drew their sidearms, attached suppressors, and shot themselves in the head. I sat back in my chair dumbfounded as Hardclaw climbed back in and we continued down the path. In fact, I think the only ones not shocked by what just happened were Lord Savik and Lady Anna. Ancestors, I knew shamans could be scary bastards, but I’d never seen any of them do something like that. Maybe I shouldn’t have antagonized Lord Savik’s Spiritmaster as much as I did. Or at least I should have made sure that I had a claymore pointed at him when I did. With my hand on a deadman’s switch.

Our convoy stopped about three hundred yards from the edge of the cravex. The state hunters spread out in pairs along our outer edges as pickets. The main force, under the Disputed Territories Guildmaster surrounded "the pocket" of the aristocrats, the shaman, the Red Knights, Farmer, Hardclaw, Hangman, Nick, and me. Once arrayed, Lord Savik nodded at his Spiritmaster. The five shaman started a low chant. I shuddered at the odd sensation of being surrounded by unseen individuals. My instincts were not happy, but they weren’t screaming danger. The Spiritmaster spoke in the Old Tongue of the Ancestors. Energy pulsed around our group, and I had the distinct feeling that the unseen individuals were not happy. Out of the clear dark sky, a lightning bolt struck into the center of the cravex. The Spiritmaster said another phrase and then the energy and the unseen were gone.

"It is done, my lord," the Spiritmaster said, "Much to the dismay of the State Spiritmaster. They will wait for our arrival." There are very few things that will stop the war council from ascending a new Prince. The Ancestors themselves showing up and telling them to wait until Lord Savik showed up was probably the most effective. It also made damn sure Blackhawk would stand down his rovers. He wasn’t about to contradict a demand from the Ancestors. At least, I didn’t think he would. As we walked, my instincts started screaming warnings. I looked around. Nothing but trees and our lycanthropes. My sudden alertness was noted by the Knights, who stepped closer to their principals. Elizabeth also noticed. She stepped closer to me.

"What is it?" she asked, quietly.

"I’m not sure. Something out in the forest over there," I answered, nodding to our right.

"Perhaps it’s the Society force Hardclaw mentioned," offered Gregory, Elizabeth’s lead Red Knight. He didn’t like me, he hated the fact I was involved with Elizabeth, but he respected my instincts. "They could be shadowing our group in case they have the opportunity to kill us."

"It could be, but it just doesn’t feel right," I answered. Gregory gave me a flat look. This was why I hated trying to explain what my instincts told me.

"Farmer, ask Eagle to have one of his teams sweep out further," Elizabeth ordered, "Mark’s getting one of his twitches." Farmer nodded and spoke into his radio. Then as quickly as they started up, my instincts quieted down. Something very odd was happening out there. I needed to trust Eagle’s hunters, but I really wanted to be out there myself. A hand gently gripped my arm. I looked back to find Elizabeth giving me a knowing look. She gave me a slight shake of her head. I gave her a confident smirk, to which she just rolled her eyes.

"If there’s something out here, we’re not seeing it," Eagle reported back to us after a few minutes. Both Farmer and Elizabeth looked over at me with expectant looks.

"I don’t know," I said, "It just felt like something was out there waiting for us. Then it disappeared."

"Eagle, tell them to keep an eye out, but keep up with the group," Farmer said. Eagle snorted derisively over the radio and confirmed the order. The fun part of having instincts like mine is that you stop giving a damn if others think you’re fucking nuts. Staying alive will always trump the chance of looking foolish in front of others. Especially if it means keeping alive those that I actually give a damn about. Then our group was at the edge of the Florida cravex proper. The Florida cravex was laid out like the Hillsborough cravex, but much bigger. It had to be. Instead of entri for the maybe two dozen packs in a county, the Florida cravex had entri for each of Florida’s sixty-seven counties, plus one each for the prince, the Spiritmaster of Florida, and the Guildmaster of Florida. The maksen, the obsidian cube that dominated the center of any cravex was also larger, easily ten feet on a side. The Spiritmaster and several shaman surrounded the black glass cube. Light blue energies surrounded each of the shaman.

Nine of the entri were occupied by the lords selected to form the war council, along with their retinues. All told, there was maybe a hundred and fifty lycanthropes in the cravex. I didn’t recognize the lords, but then again, I didn’t know most of the lords outside of those that surrounded Hillsborough and Lord Savik. Blackhawk stood in the Guildmaster’s entre. It took a lot of self-control not to sprint over there and toss him out. I expected the Prince to be in his entre, but it was completely empty. I wasn’t sure if that was expected or ominous, but it wasn’t the time for questions. It was the time to stop Blackhawk. The tension was thick enough to be a physical presence as our group entered the cravex. Rather than going to the entri for our counties, our group of three hundred lycanthropes walked into the center of the cravex and stood there facing the Prince’s entre. Black and Red Knights, Society operatives, and hunters were trading nervous looks as they saw we were still armed, but they kept their positions. Our wolves were warned to make damn sure they kept their fucking fingers off the fucking triggers unless one of the leadership fucking told them to do otherwise. What do we call a negligent discharge in a tense environment with lots of open area and damn near no cover for anyone? We call that a recipe for a fucking bloodbath and a failed mission.

"The blasphemers arrive!" the Florida Spiritmaster announced as we approached. I didn’t think the tension could have ratcheted up any further without gunfire. I was wrong. Surprisingly, it was not Lord Savik who answered the challenge, but his Spiritmaster. The short lycanthrope stood in front of his lord and stared contemptuously at his supposed superior shaman.

"Blasphemy? Exactly what have we done to have that charge leveled at those under my guidance?" the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster said, his voice at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, but loud enough for the entire cravex to hear.

"You dare to manipulate the Ancestors to be your messengers! You fail to show them the reverence demanded of any lycanthrope who is granted the privilege of speaking with them. You use your gifts against the very rules of the Order of the Spirits." The Florida Spiritmaster sounded outraged, but there was something else in his tone. It sounded like fear, but why was the Spiritmaster afraid?

"Have you ever talked to the Ancestors outside of ritual?" the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster asked. "My shaman and I were forced to turn to them for assistance after you abandoned us. I can tell you, they were more than happy to help us since our brothers and sisters in the Order failed to do so."

"We were following the dictates of the Prince," the Florida Spiritmaster objected, but his words were stiff, like he was reading from a script.

"Really?" thundered the Disptuted Territories Spiritmaster, "You dare accuse me of breaking the rules of our beloved Order, while you have broken the most sacred commandment within the Order?" Blue ghosts of lycanthropes in true form floated around the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster. The Florida shaman stepped back in horror.

"You arrogant fools!" the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster shouted at the Florida shaman, "You failed to listen to the Ancestors. You failed to heed their advice or take their help. You let yourselves be bound to the decrepit and corrupt corpse of the Florida Prince’s reign. Stand aside and be quiet, or there will be more than one challenge for leadership here tonight." The blue ghosts surrounded the cravex. The pure rage on the faces of the ghosts terrified me. The blue halos of energy surrounding the Florida Spiritmaster and his shaman winked out. The ghosts faded into the blackness of the night sky.

"Now that’s been decided, perhaps the war council will deal with me," Lord Savik announced and stepped out into the full view of the cravex. Nine lycanthropes stepped from their entri and stood in front of the Prince’s entre. The eldest lord stood in front of the group. This one must have been nearly nine feet in his prime and was still a good eight and a half even stooped from age. His black fur was liberally streaked with silver. A quick whisper from Elizabeth told me this was Lord Dornier, the lord of Escambia County. Well, the northern counties were always tightly bound to the Prince. They could be expected to be tightly bound to Blackhawk as well.

"Erik, while I am glad you survived the troubles in the Disputed Territories, the war council cannot and will not suffer challenges to its authority," Lord Dornier said with a rich tenor. Some of the Disputed Territories lycanthropes snarled at the dismissal of their fight in their home counties. Lord Savik waved them for them to be calm before turning to the war council.

"I have not come to challenge the war council’s authority," Lord Savik countered, "I have nothing but the deepest respect for the war council and its mandate. So deep a respect, that I cannot stand by and let it be manipulated into installing such an unworthy dog as the new Prince of Florida."

"Do you have something other than base slanders to present?" one of the other lords sneered. "Something more than the slaughter of a nearly hundred of our wolves?" The other lords tensed as their faces darkened.

"What slaughter, MacMurtry? Are you talking about that little group you sent to try and assassinate my followers and me last night?" Lord Savik asked. "Rest assured, most of them are still alive. Less than twenty of your hunters or warriors were killed during the fighting. MacMurtry, your own hunter, Hardclaw, can confirm that. My lords, I deeply regret those who were killed, and I will try to make amends with each of your packs after our business is concluded here tonight." Lord Savik turned slightly to look at Blackhawk. "I’m afraid the Society’s losses, on the other hand, were total." Blackhawk’s face didn’t change, but there was a flash of anger in his dark eyes. Lord MacMurtry, the lord of Orange County, glared at Hardclaw. Lord Savik didn’t seem to notice as he looked back at the members of the war council.

"I have come here to formally accuse Christopher Blackhawk of treason against the Princedom of Florida as well as the murders of Scott Franken, Stephen Vollen, and my family, in addition to countless others in the course of his scheming to gain the throne. I demand his death." The cravex was silent. I don’t think I heard anyone even breathe. Finally, Lord Dornier broke the silence.

"If you do not have the evidence to support these allegations, this war council will have you executed for sedition," the old lycanthrope hissed.

"I have evidence," Lord Savik answered, "I have the records of his treason from his co-conspirators in the Florida Council of the Vampire. I have evidence of his murders of Scott Franklin and Stephen Vollen from his own mouth. The murders of my family are a bit more circumstantial, but I’m sure I can offer enough evidence to support that accusation as well." The lords traded looks that ranged from annoyed to horrified shock. From the reactions, I suspected at least six, including Lord Dornier, were Blackhawk’s. The other three I wasn’t so sure about, but one of the lords was clearly not a part of Blackhawk’s cabal. Lord Dornier turned to Blackhawk.

"Would you care to answer these accusations?" Lord Dornier asked, in an almost pleading voice. Blackhawk stood silently for nearly a minute staring at Lord Savik with an emotionless face. Then, almost as if he remembered that Lord Dornier asked him something, Blackhawk turned to the senior member of the war council.

"I call for rhaizen. I request for the war council to allow this issue be settled by blood," Blackhawk said, without emotion, like he was commenting on the weather. If I thought the silence was deafening before, the collective shock following Blackhawk’s words made the cravex as silent as a grave.

"I will assent to Blackhawk’s request for the issue to be settled by blood," Lord MacMurtry answered, quickly. A little too quickly. "Will the rest of the war council stand with me?" Slowly, the others nodded, except for that one grizzled lord.

"You are letting someone accused of collaborating with our mortal enemies againstfellow lords to escape judgement by having him engage in combat against a lycanthrope twenty years his senior?" the lord asked, outraged. "The same lycnathrope the eight of you have been convincing me since this war council convened is the best choice to rule the state? Ancestors protect us! The eight of you are doing far more damage to the authority of this war council than Erik could ever do!"

"It doesn’t matter Robert," Lord Dornier said, "The rules for a rhaizen brought before the war council are very clear. We only need a simple majority to decide on the course. With our eight to your one, the war council has made its decision. The matter will be settled by blood." Blackhawk smiled maliciously as he stepped out of the Guild’s entre.

"Uncle, don’t do this," Lady Anna pleaded quietly, "We can make them stop this insanity with the lycanthropes we have here. We don’t have to play their games." Lord Savik looked down at his niece and smiled warmly.

"Yes, we do," Lord Savik said, "Or the next war council will have no power. We have war councils to prevent civil wars, not to instigate them. This is my fault. I misjudged Blackhawk. Calling for a rhaizen to invalidate my charges wasn’t a possibility that even entered my mind. I honestly expected him to take your route, Anna, and try to force the issue through force of arms."

"If we have to do it this way, then demand a champion," Lady Anna countered, then looked over at me, "Blackhawk made the challenge. You could demand Ranger be allowed to fight for you. You know he would take Blackhawk apart." My heart quickened at the thought of going into single combat with Blackhawk. It also didn’t hurt my ego Lady Anna’s first thought of a capable lycanthrope to fight for Lord Savik was me. Even better, Elizabeth nodded in agreement with Lady Anna’s assessment. Before I could say anything, Lord Savik waved us down.

"No, this is something I must do, or they will figure out a way to prevent our evidence from being heard," Lord Savik said, "We can’t let them do that. Don’t worry, Anna. It’s not like I don’t have plenty of tricks of my own." Lord Savik gave his niece a mischievous smile before walking to the waiting Blackhawk. As required by pack tradition, the two combatants stripped off their robes and clothes, leaving two piles at the edge of the fighting circle. Settling by blood demanded the combatants brought nothing into the fight, except their own bodies. The fight would only end when one of those bodies were dead. In other circumstances, either Blackhawk or Lord Savik could surrender and end the fight, but this was rhaizen. The loser always died in rhaizen.

The Spiritmaster made a circling motion with his index finger and a circle of blue light some fifty feet in diameter appeared on the ground around Lord Savik and Blackhawk. Lady Anna was the first to step up to the line. I stood next to her. Elizabeth was on my other side. Soon, the circle was surrounded by lycanthropes. By tradition, we were there to make sure that the rules of the battle were not broken. In reality, we were just there to cheer for Lord Savik or Blackhawk. With the circle set and guarded, the fight could begin. Lord Savik and Blackhawk circled each other around the perimeter. Neither looked the least concerned they were in a fight to the death. Stress rode up my spine. Dammit, I would have already been tearing Blackhawk apart, not playing some bullshit mind games with the bastard. What the fuck was Lord Savik doing? As if in answer to my unspoken question, Lord Savik stopped.

Tendrils of cold psychic power came from Lord Savik. The lycanthropes standing on the edge of the circle shrank back from whatever Lord Savik was throwing. All except for me – and Blackhawk. The younger lycanthrope’s evil smile deepened. He stood casually as if he didn’t even notice Lord Savik’s power. Lord Savik gritted his teeth and the power increased. Two of the lycanthropes guarding the circle sprinted away to their entri. I felt Elizabeth’s hand slip into mine and squeeze it hard enough to stop blood flow. She looked up at me with stark terror in her eyes. I wanted so bad to reassure her, but I needed to keep my eyes on the fight. Something was wrong. Lord Savik’s confident face was gone, hiding behind an emotionless mask, but I could see the confusion in his eyes. I’d seen it before when he tried to use his powers on me.

"You were listening the last time I talked with Ranger, weren’t you? I told him that I was a taboo son," Blackhawk said quietly. "Didn’t you think on what that might mean if you had to fight me?" Blackhawk took a step towards Lord Savik. The power coming from Lord Savik increased even more. Several more lycanthropes fled the circle. Elizabeth’s grip tightened further. Blackhawk just laughed. "For the love of the Ancestors, can’t you see that won’t work? Good thing, too. You must be one of the most powerful aristocrats I’ve come up against from what I see." Blackhawk motioned to the quavering lycanthropes along the circle. We locked eyes for the briefest instant. There was amusement in his dark eyes. Then, Blackhawk attacked with blinding speed. Ancestors, he was as fast as Raven. Blackhawk batted aside Lord Savik’s hasty defenses and stabbed Lord Savik’s torso with his claws. Lord Savik grunted as blood poured down his chest and side. My hunter’s mind quickly evaluated the hits. Critical, but not immediately fatal. From the joy on Blackhawk’s face, those hits weren’t mistakes. Blackhawk was playing with Lord Savik. Elizabeth must have seen something on my face because she yanked me back hard before I could step into the circle.

"Did you think all taboo sons were like poor Raven? All power with no real ability?" Blackhawk said, "I’ll give you credit for stepping in here with me if that’s what you thought. In some ways, you were really more dangerous than I’d originally thought." Lord Savik lunged at Blackhawk, but the younger lycanthrope easily slid out of the way and hammered Lord Savik down to the dirt. Blackhawk just laughed, but I watched Lord Savik. There was something odd about the way Lord Savik hit the ground. Something about the technique. Then it hit me, and I smiled. Hunter hand sign wasn’t the only thing that Lord Savik learned during his years fighting the FCV in the Disputed Territories.

Lord Savik rolled towards Blackhawk and kicked out. The blow slammed into Blackhawk’s knee with a wet crunch. Blackhawk screamed in pain and tried to leap back. Lord Savik was already back on his feet. He was in close with Blackhawk. When dealing with someone faster than you, get the fuck in close and stay there. Best yet, get the bastard on the ground where his speed means nothing. Lord Savik was thinking the same thing, because he kicked Blackhawk’s legs out from under him. As Blackhawk fell, Lord Savik pounced on him and pummeled Blackhawk. Blackhawk managed to block a lot of the incoming strikes, as well as deliver a few nasty hits of his own, but they did nothing to stop the fury of Lord Savik’s attack. The older lycanthrope’s arms blurred with the rapidity of his attacks. Like any proper fight, it seemed to last minutes, but was over in seconds. Blackhawk laid limply in the dirt. I was surprised and disappointed to see his chest rise and fall with breath.

"I am more dangerous than you thought," Lord Savik said at the unconscious Blackhawk. "You made me this way when you killed my family and my wolves. Did you think I wouldn’t learn how to fight when you gave my county to the leeches? Reap the whirlwind you fucking dog." Lord Savik turned to the war council. The dissenting lord looked almost smug, but the others stood impassively.

"That dog is no longer capable of fighting," Lord Savik said coldly, "Declare blood is satisfied and fulfill the rhaizen." I knew Lord Savik was doing it this way for some reason, but I was fucking enraged. I would have torn open Blackhawk’s neck and been done with it, not given his fate over to the war council. From the look on Elizabeth’s face, she would have as well.

"You did not kill him, so the issue is not settled yet," Lord MacMurtry said, "Perhaps we should judge you as failing to satisfy the rhaizen and have you killed." The war council erupted into fast and bitter arguing. Lord Savik waited patiently as the arguments went back and forth. I quit listening. It was all so much political bullshit. It would be so simple to solve. A nice long burst of fire from my Commando and this farce would be ended. Then we could finish this bullshit with Blackhawk, and go home to figure out how to deal with Lothos. I looked down at Blackhawk. This dog was the cause of so much trouble. Would anyone care if I just ended him? My instincts flared with warnings. I looked back up at the war council. Had they decided to kill us? No, it was Blackhawk. He was conscious. He was moving. He was moving fast. I leapt after him. I don’t know why I just didn’t shoot him. My Commando was hanging on its sling on my chest, but all I could think to do was to grab that bastard and tear him apart.

Blackhawk moved with a speed I hadn’t seen since my fight with Raven. Was this part of being a taboo son? His hands darted into his discarded clothing and came back with a silver blade. Why the hell was no one else reacting? Blackhawk’s eyes locked onto where Lord Savik was standing. His body braced for a throw just as I reached him. His arm came down. I was too late to stop him from throwing the silver blade, but maybe not to stop him from killing Lord Savik. My left hand snaked out to deflect the thrown knife. I felt the strong burn of silver as the knife sliced deep into my hand. I could feel the blood pour down my arm. Blackhawk looked stunned when he realized what I’d done. He didn’t even put up a defense as I hit him in the chest with a palm strike. There was screaming behind me, but I didn’t dare turn my back on Blackhawk. Not until I finished tearing this bastard limb from limb. Blackhawk smirked as he fell into a fighting stance. I guess I would get to end this after all. I lunged and he easily deflected the shot. Good, I needed to close with the bastard. I stepped in and raked his sides with my claws. Blackhawk grunted before slashing me across the face.

"Have you figured it out yet, Badmoon?" Blackhawk said in a low voice, as we traded blows and blocks. Blackhawk was actually scary good. "I saw you standing there when Lord Savik was throwing around his power. Have you figured out what you are? Such a shame for you. Taboo sons are always put to death. Even if you manage to pound me down like your precious Lord Savik, he’s going to have to put you down like the dog you are. Unless you help me. I can protect you. I can give you what you want. I can keep what you are a secret." He gave me a smug smile.

"Blackhawk, you talk too fucking much," I said, finally landing a solid blow to his kidney. "You don’t fucking get it. You never could because you’ve never been a hunter. Trade my life for the chance to kill some dog who threatens my loved ones and my county? Gladly." Blackhawk’s expression hardened. Then, he stood up straight and smiled as he looked behind me.

"Mark, enough," Elizabeth said, as she placed a warm hand on my shoulder. She stepped in front of me. She leveled her pistol at Blackhawk. He just gave her a smug look.

"You have him trained well, Lady Elizabeth," Blackhawk said, "It’s a shame that the two of you will never be together. I’m sure even you realize that now. Unless of course, you help me."

"Blackhawk, you murdered my father," Elizabeth said in a cool, controlled voice, "I heard you admit it with your own tongue. I’m not going to wait for the war council to finish their bickering. I’m going to claim your life now." She kept the pistol trained on Blackhawk, but I could see it quavering.

"You?" Blackhawk asked incredulously, "If you claim my life right now, in this place, at this time, then you will have to be the one to end it. Not your pet monster. You." He took a step closer to us. I growled, but Blackhawk ignored me. He was focused on Elizabeth. "Put that gun down Lady Elizabeth. We both know you aren’t a killer. That’s fine. Not all of us can be. I know you couldn’t kill Speartooth. Badmoon had to do that for you. You can wave that pistol around all you want, but we both know you’re not capable of killing me."

"How did you know about Speartooth?" Elizabeth asked, lowering her pistol. I wanted to scream at her to keep her weapon up, but I dared not speak.

"How do you think I knew?" Blackhawk asked.

"You sent him. You sent him to keep me from killing you," Elizabeth said.

"I did send him, but not because I was scared of your retribution. Speartooth was supposed to take you as his bride once he secured Hillsborough. I didn’t want your line dying out. The succession fights would have been a distraction I didn’t need. I’ll admit, you turned out to be stronger than I expected." Blackhawk said, "I also underestimated Badmoon’s ruthlessness." He shot me an evil look before turning back to Elizabeth. "Now, you have every reason to want me dead. I appreciate that. If you kill me, though, I can’t help you rebuild your county. I can’t protect your precious Badmoon from being executed for being a taboo son. You know what he is. I can see it on your face." Elizabeth was crying, her pistol loose in her hands. Blackhawk cautiously took another step, his arms outstretched in submission. All of my instincts were telling me to shoot the bastard, but Blackhawk was right about one thing. This was something Elizabeth had to do on her own as the leader of Hillsborough County. Blackhawk took another hesitant step.

Elizabeth’s hands blurred as the pistol came up. Blackhawk looked shocked as she pulled the trigger. The gun barked once, twice, three times and continued to roar. Gouts of blood erupted from Blackhawk’s chest as the silver rounds tore fatal archanal tunnels through his body. Silence enveloped the cravex as Elizabeth’s pistol locked back on an empty magazine. She was still pulling uselessly on the trigger. I stepped next to her and gently pulled the still-warm pistol out of her hands. I heard Blackhawk’s body fall to the ground. I reached out to bring Elizabeth into my arms, but she darted away. I heard the cravex erupting in screams and yelling, but I didn’t care. All I could focus on was the running form of Elizabeth. As soon as she reached the edge of the cravex, Elizabeth collapsed. I heard the distinctive sounds of Elizabeth retching. I knelt down and gently brushed her fur. Deep sobs intermingled with dry heaves. Once she managed to settle down, I pulled her close and stroked her.

"It hurts so much," Elizabeth said between sobs.

"It’s supposed to," I told her.

"It doesn’t for you," she said, without any heat. More wistful than anything else.

"Because I’m a Badmoon, and a hunter," I said, although I wasn’t sure if that was the truth. Elizabeth looked up at me and I could see in her eyes that she didn’t believe me, either.

"What about what Blackhawk said about you?" Elizabeth said, her voice tight with fear. It was oddly comforting that she was scared for me, not about me. I pulled her in tighter.

"Blackhawk’s a fucking liar," I said, "That’s all there was to it. He was lying to us to keep us from killing him. The desperate ramblings of a condemned dog."

"Mark, he could do the same things you can do," Elizabeth said, with a quiet desperation. "If he’s right…" I placed my finger on her muzzle.

"What are you talking about? Did you see how fast he moved? I can’t do that. I’m a Badmoon, not a taboo son," I told her, "That’s all you have to remember. Well that, and the fact that I will always stand beside you. I will always be here to protect you." She gripped me tighter. I don’t know if she really believed me, but she was willing to let herself believe it for the moment. A shadow loomed over us. I looked up and bit off the snarling growl growing in my throat. Lady Anna looked down at us with a mixture of hurt and envy. Then her face went still in an emotionless mask. She cleared her throat and Elizabeth also looked up.

"You two better come back," Lady Anna said, "Something’s been decided by the war council, and we may need the two of you." She was looking hard at me when she spoke.

"Thank you, Anna," Elizabeth said, standing up. "I guess we caused a bit of trouble." Lady Anna’s hard expression softened.

"You did fine, Elizabeth," Lady Anna said, with what sounded like genuine compassion. Then she stepped in and put her arm around Elizabeth. "The pain fades faster than you’d think. Hopefully, you don’t have to do that again."

Everyone was watching us as we walked back to where Lord Savik was standing in front of the war council. Blackhawk’s body was gone. There was tension in the air, but it was different. I looked over to the war council. Lord MacMurtry and Lord Dornier looked like they wanted us dead, but the others looked almost hopeful. Lord Savik gave Elizabeth a brief hug while giving me a warm smile. He motioned for us to take our places behind him. Then he turned back to the war council. The lord who protested earlier stepped to the front.

"Lord Savik, we find you have successfully defended your claim of rhaizen," the lord said. From the looks of the other lords, this was the new leader of the war council. We must have missed the really interesting part of the arguments. Well, we were busy killing a traitor.

"Thank you, Lord Klaven," Lord Savik said. "I must demand that all of Lady Elizabeth’s actions are under that same rhaizen. None should dare attempt anything against her."

"With the Badmoon standing by her side? Not likely," Lord Klaven answered, "Still Erik, you present us with another problem. Blackhawk was this war council’s selection as Prince of Florida. By tradition, once the selection is made, the war council is to be considered disbanded for all intents and purposes. Lord Dornier forcefully argued that in a previous situation where the lycanthrope selected by the wat council died before assuming the throne, a new war council was forced to assemble and deliberate." Lord Klaven paused as he looked over at our group. "Given the current tensions in this state, the majority of this war council has decided such a course of action would be, to put it mildly, inadvisable." Lord Dornier looked like he was about to say something, but sharp looks from the other lords made him stay quiet. Lord Klaven turned back to Lord Savik with a strangely intent look.

"Lord Savik, the war council has decided it is the best interest of the Princedom of Florida to select you as the next Prince of Florida, and if you agree, immediately ascend you to the throne." Everything was still. Lord Savik couldn’t keep the shock off of his face. Long moments passed as everyone in the cravex waited with trepidation for Lord Savik to say something.

"Of course I will," Lord Savik said softly. The cravex erupted in a mix of cheers from our side and screams of protests from some of the entri. Lord Klavin bellowed for silence. It took a few minutes before order was restored in the cravex.

"I will serve as the Prince of Florida until all of our counties are restored and the Florida Council of Vampire is eradicated," Lord Savik said. "After that, I will call for a new War Council to either confirm my rule or select another." Some of the protests died away with his words. That was unexpected to say the least. If the members of the war council were surprised, they didn’t show it.

"Step forward and join us in the Prince’s entre for the ascension," Lord Klaven said. Lord Savik and his Spiritmaster walked into the entre with the war council. As soon as they stepped into the entre, sheets of thick, black energy crackled to life and surrounded the entre. Damned aristocrats. Always hiding the real interesting parts. Elizabeth’s hand found mine. As I gripped her soft hand, I felt relief flood through me. We’d done it, and we’d survived. Okay, Lord Savik becoming the next Prince of Florida hadn’t been part of our plans, but I considered it an acceptable outcome in my book. I looked at Elizabeth. I could see the hope in her eyes. A few days in Tallahassee to help get Lord – no – Prince Savik settled, and then we could take our wolves home and work at rebuilding Hillsborough. Maybe we could think about getting married before I had to go hunting Lothos. For the longest time, we could only smile wordlessly at each other.

The black energy disappeared. Prince Savik stood in the middle of the War Council. Black robes were draped over him. He was flanked by the two Spiritmasters. The War Council was standing behind him. Prince Savik strode out of his entre and looked out over the lycanthropes in the cravex. The lycanthrope aristocrat who’d been so good with words on our trip up to Tallahassee seemed to need a few minutes to figure out what to say the gathered lycanthropes. My instincts flared a split instant before the crack of the rifle rang out through the cravex. My first reaction was to throw Elizabeth to the ground. I brought up my Commando and started searching for the shooter. I shot a look back at Prince Savik. The still-spinning bullet was held nearly a foot from his head, surrounded by swirling blue and black energy fields. Guns from all sides were out and directed at each faction. Something about the bullet still hanging in the air drew my attention. It was a .338 Lapua round. It wasn’t even silver. None of the lycanthropes in the cravex was holdinh a weapon that fired that round, and any Society operative wouldn’t have used a standard bullet to bring down Prince Savik. What the fuck was going on? I didn’t have to wait long for the answer.

"LYCANTHROPES OF FLORIDA! THE ANCIENT ENEMY APPROACHES! FIGHT AS ONE PACK!" intoned every shaman in the cravex as one. Everyone looked at each other in shock. What the hell was going on? Then, out of the darkness, vampires in true form emerged at the edge of the cravex. Not a small group either. There had to be more than five hundred of the leeches. They were dressed in full tactical gear and holding a mix of assault rifles, submachine guns, and shotguns. More than half of them had the crazed look of dervishes. The lycanthropes immediately trained their weapons at the vampires, but we were surrounded. How in the fucking hell had they managed to get that fucking close?

"THE ABOMINATION AND HIS HORDE APPROACH THE HOLY GROUND!" the shaman spoke as one. A cold chill ran up my spine. "LET THE BLOODCLAW STEP FORWARD AND FULFILL HIS DESTINY!" An evil laugh echoed through the cravex. Lothos strode to the edge of the cravex. He was easily a foot taller than any of the leeches surrounding him. Dark eyes glittered with evil amusement from his flame-twisted features. I looked over at Elizabeth. Terror filled her eyes. I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. It didn’t seem to help. If anything, her fear was now squarely directed at me. Damn.

"Congratulations on becoming the new Prince of Florida, Savik," Lothos said, his voice booming through the cravex. "Honestly, you’re a much stronger lycanthrope than that weasel Blackhawk. I’m sure you would have made a much better Prince. Unfortunately, I could work with Blackhawk. I very much doubt I could work with you."

"You dare attack us on our holy ground?" Prince Savik bellowed back, "You’re more of a fool than I thought Lothos. The Ancestors will ensure your destruction."

"You think I’m scared of your ghosts?" Lothos countered, "I am Lothos. I am the invincible nosferatu. Nothing any of you can do can hurt me."

"Fuck you Lothos, I can make you hurt," I said, stepping out into his view. Lothos looked over at me, and his eyes flared in anger.

"Kill them!" Lothos shouted. Everything seemed to slow down as gunfire erupted from all sides. I wanted to grab Elizabeth and drag her behind some cover, but my instincts were telling me something else. Lothos needed to be dealt with. It was time for me to finish this. I had to trust my friends would protect Elizabeth. I sprinted towards Lothos. I felt bullets zip by me. My Commando chattered as I cut down the leeches who were stupid enough to get in front of me. Lothos just smiled at my charge before sprinting away from the cravex. Snarling, I followed him into the trees. My instincts were screaming danger. Also, where were the fucking powers that were supposed to help me? I didn’t even hear the voice from before. I was really hoping I didn’t have to get beat nearly to death again before the powers activated.

As soon as I stepped outside the cravex, the familiar warmth of the power filled me. All of the cuts from my fight with Blackhawk healed in an instant. I could hear the raging gunfight in the cravex and smell the mix of burnt gunpowder and blood. I wanted so badly to take this new power and lay waste to all the leeches that dared attack the cravex, but I knew what needed to be done. Somehow, I knew that if I killed Lothos, the leeches would break and run. It didn’t make any tactical or strategic sense, but I felt it as strong as my instincts. If I wanted to save Elizabeth and the others, I needed to finish this quickly. With the power coursing through me, I stepped into the wooded area that Lotho chose for our battle.

I felt more than saw the attack. Instinctively, I spun to bring the Commando up. A long silver blade sheared the holographic sight off the top of the Commando and dug into the Picatinny rail. I felt the carbine actually flex from the blow. I triggered a burst, but Lothos was already dancing away. I pivoted and pulled the trigger again. The Commando fired once and jammed. I let the carbine fall on its sling as Lothos laughed. Lothos was dancing between the trees making taunting sounds that echoed through the forest. I slid among the thin tree trunks. He was opening up the range. That made no fucking sense. From our last dance, that was probably the worst thing he could do. Lothos was many things. Stupid wasn’t one of them. I felt the power pulse angrily in me. It wanted Lothos finished – right the fuck now. So did I, but I needed to find him first.

Lothos slid in front of me. I reacted by stepping towards him and punching as hard as I could. As the blow landed on Lothos’s chest, I felt an odd wave of heat pass over me. Then, there was intense pain. I looked down and saw Lothos withdrawing a silver dagger coated in my blood. I stumbled back. Lothos staggered back behind a tree. What the fuck? With the power behind that punch, it should have crushed his chest. Lothos just looked a little bruised and annoyed. I waited for a moment to give the power time to heal up the wound in my side. Instead, the blood continued to ooze down my side. Burning pain radiated as I moved. I didn’t even have time to curse. Lothos was suddenly at my side, that red-stained silver blade flashing down at me. I brought up my hand and a brilliant beam of white light lanced out at Lothos. This time the leech was tossed back ten feet and slammed into a tree. He just laughed and stood back up.

I wasn’t sure what I did, but maybe I could do it again. I raised my hand. Another beam of energy fired from my hand. It hit Lothos in the chest. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. Most of the was drawn away by five glowing points on Lothos’s chest and then ejected out into the air. Only a small amount of the energy made it through to singe his black fur. The leech saw the startled look on my face and laughed. In an instant he was next to me. His arm darted under my feeble block and he drove the dagger deep into my lung. I placed both hands on Lothos’s chest and focused all the power I could into him. The blast was strong enough to shoot Lothos through several trees to land some fifty feet away. I fell to one knee as the pain nearly swallowed me.

"GET UP!" demanded the familiar voice in my head. "DESTROY THE ABOMINATION!"

"In case you haven’t noticed, he’s managed to develop a resistance to the power you’ve given me," I said, "It might help if you would fix me up before I bleed out or suffocate from a collapsed lung." I stumbled over to a tree. I needed the support. It was getting harder to breathe.

"THE ABOMINATION’S ARTIFACT PREVENTS THE HEALING!" the voice said, "DESTROY THE ABOMINATION AND YOUR BODY CAN BE HEALED!" I wasted precious oxygen swearing at the voice in my head. Lothos walked casually back to where I was struggling with standing.

"Did I manage to hurt you badly?" Lothos taunted, pointing at my bleeding wounds with the dagger. Not wanting to waste breath, I gave him the bird. Lothos found that amusing and smirked.

"As much pain as you’ve caused me Badmoon, I still have to thank you," Lothos said. "Every time we fought, you’ve shown me a weakness I had. Now, I am completely invulnerable to anything that you could hope to throw at me." He took a step closer and pointed at something on his chest. It looked like an intricate tattoo placed right where I’d seen one of those glowing points.

"After tonight, there will be no argument as to whether the nosfertus’ alchemy is stronger than you werewolves’ pathetic magicks," Lothos said. That struck something in my mind. He continued to spout off, but I ignored him as new thoughts ran through my head. Lothos was not a natural vampire. He was a creation of that lab I helped destroy back in Hillsborough. That meant those new protection points were alchemical in order for them to work and attached to an alchemically created body. Lycanthrope magicks were based on having the Ancestors using their power to influence the world. Alchemy was strictly relegated to manipulating what magic there was in the natural world. Alchemy was always weaker because it could be disrupted by the objects in the natural world.

I need a low power blast, I thought to the voice in my head, hoping it would hear me. Nothing that will send him flying. I need him standing where he his. Then, I’ll need everything you can give me. It was a gamble, but at this point, everything was a fucking gamble. I brought my hand up and a barely visible beam lanced out. It struck Lothos dead center.

"What the hell was that?" Lothos said, before laughing maniacally, "Are you so weak that you can’t even properly use that fearsome power of yours?" Thankfully, he didn’t topple over in his fit of laughter. I needed him upright for a few seconds more. My hand slid down and gripped the butt of my HK45. I wasn’t the fastest draw in the Guild, but I’ve always been pretty fucking quick with my shot placement. My HK45 snapped up. The green glowing dots lined up. Lothos’s eyes widened in horror as he realized what I was doing. Five shots rang out so fast, they almost sounded like a burst from a submachine gun. I dropped the pistol as Lothos hurled the dagger. I felt the silver blade pierce into my chest. I ignored the fresh blossom of pain. I needed just a second more. I raised my hands.

The darkness of the forest turned to daylight from the intensity of the blast. The beam struck Lothos perfectly. The five glowing points flickered furiously and then blinked out. Lothos howled in pain as his black flesh started to melt. More power poured through me into Lothos. His screams cut off as he erupted in flame. For the briefest second, his body was illuminated, then it was reduced to black ash. The energy beam winked out. I looked down at the pile of ash that had been Lothos. A wind scattered the ash into the forest. It seemed so peaceful. Then, the pain came crashing down on me. I looked down and saw the dagger buried hilt-deep in my chest. I crumpled to the ground. All of the power evaporated from me, along with any strength I had. I couldn’t breathe. All I could feel was pain, flowing blood, and the slowing of my heart. As my body started to shut down, I thought of Elizabeth. I didn’t know why, but I was sure she was safe. It just felt like the truth. Lady Anna as well. I didn’t have the same certainty with the rest of my friends. I would just have to trust that fulfilling my destiny against Lothos meant that they were safe. I grabbed the dagger and yanked it out. More of my precious blood spilled out on to the growing pool under me.

IT IS DONE. the voice said.

I thought you were going to heal me when I killed Lothos, I thought as a new wave of pain wracked my body. I could really use some healing right about now.

THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS. the voice responded. Then the blackness consumed me.

Chapter 25 – A Very Long Conversation, A Decision, and An Ending