My eyes flicked open. The pain was gone. All of my pain was gone. As I stood up, I looked down. I was in true form and naked, but where were my wounds? Lothos savaged me damn good before I managed to put him down, but my pelt was unmarred. There was no blood on me. There wasn’t any blood around me. I couldn’t even smell any blood. That’s when I realized I couldn’t smell any of the normal scents of the forest or hear the normal sounds around me. Experience told me something was wrong, but my instincts were eerily quiet. That disturbed me more than anything else.

I needed to move. I needed to find out what happened with the others. I needed to find Elizabeth. I skulked down the path back to the cravex. The forest was quiet and still. As I emerged from the treeline, I froze in shock. It wasn’t the Florida cravex in front of me. It was the Hillsborough cravex. The cravex was empty and quiet, except for a lycanthrope sitting on top of the maksen. He was in true form and humming an unfamiliar tune. He stopped and looked over at me as I walked out of the treeline.

“It’s okay, Ranger,” the lycanthrope said in a tantalizing familiar voice, “I’ve been waiting for you.” I walked down into the cravex. My instincts were still quiet, but that didn’t make me feel any easier. The lycanthrope hopped down off of the maksen and walked to meet me. He motioned to the cravex with his arms.

“This place looks a lot different than the last time I was here,” the lycanthrope said. “Bigger, more formal. Not sure if I like it or not.”

“Why are we here? Why aren’t we in Leon?” I asked. The lycanthrope smiled cryptically.

“Because a decision has to be made. I thought it would be easier for you to make that decision in familiar surroundings,” the lycanthrope said.

“Who the fuck are you?” I asked. His eyebrow quirked up in surprise before he let out a hearty laugh.

“Let’s see if this helps,” he said, and shed for human. He was about my height, with the same dark brown hair and blue eyes. He looked achingly familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He motioned for me to join him in human form. Almost instinctively, I shed for human. He grinned broadly.

“I still have no idea who you are,” I told the lycanthrope. His smile faltered with a hint of disappointment. Then he shook his head as if he was reproaching himself.

“I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised,” the lycanthrope said. “The last time I saw you, you were still an infant.”

“And you expect me to remember you?” I shot back. Then I thought back. An infant? I was still in Idaho. My human family hadn’t moved to Florida yet. The questions running through my head must have been showing on my face, because the lycanthrope gave me a resigned smile.

“Well, I was hoping you had at least seen my picture,” the lycanthrope said, “I guess your father was serious.”

“Enough with the cryptic bullshit,” I said, feeling my frustration feed my rage. “Just tell me who you are.”

“I’m your grandfather, Ranger. Marcus Edward Graven, Sr,” he said, with a dramatic flourish. “Or as I was known when I walked these grounds, Marcus Phoenix Bloodsword. The Hillsborough Guild knew me as Ravage.” I stared dumbfounded at the lycanthrope. It was impossible. My grandfather died back in Idaho, before my first birthday. He’d been some sort of businessman. He wasn’t a lycanthrope.

“What the fuck are you talking about? I’m a Badmoon. I have no lycanthrope lineage,” I said, heatedly.

“You’re not a Badmoon. You’re a Bloodclaw,” the lycanthrope answered, and then his voice turned darker. “You’re just like I was – and like all Bloodclaws, you’re a tool for the Ancestors in the world.”

“No, I stood there during the Rite of Discovery,” I said, pointing at the center of the cravex. “I heard the Spiritmaster tell me he could not see any lycanthropes of my line in the Ancestors or among the living. I am a Badmoon.”

“No, Ranger, you’re not,” he said, putting his arms on my shoulders, “Look at me. We have the same eyes, the same nose. You are my grandson, and for my sins, you’ve inherited our family’s curse.” He was right. We did look similar. I could see my features in his face once he pointed them out. Still, that didn’t mean anything. Lycanthropes aren’t exactly a genetically diverse population.

“So, if my grandfather was a fucking lycanthrope, why the hell was I proclaimed a Badmoon. Why have I been a fucking outcast my whole life?” I said, pushing him away. My grandfather gave me a compassionate look.

“Because my existence – our whole family’s existence – was erased from the lycanthropes,” my grandfather said. “I didn’t know at the time, but that set events in motion leading you to this point.”

“If you don’t stop talking like a fortune cookie, I’m going to start hitting,” I said.

“Ranger, you’re a very good hunter, but your hand-to-hand sucks,” my grandfather said, “I watched you fight that hunter from Broward. I would take you apart.” Ancestors, was that what I looked like when I said those things? He took a deep breath. “You’re right, though. I do need to tell you what I can. You need to know before you can decide.”

“Decide what?” I asked, testily.

“Listen first,” my grandfather said. He was quiet for a long moment. I cleared my throat. He chuckled. “It’s funny. There’s so much you need to know. I don’t know where to start.”

“Why don’t you start with telling me why everyone thinks I’m a Badmoon,” I suggested.

“What banner was the closest to the throne in the Hillsborough Manor?” my grandfather asked.

“The Forgotten Lord’s,” I answered, and my eyes went wide. “Are you trying to tell me that was you? How? You said you were a hunter.”

“I started my life with the Hillsborough packs as a hunter,” my grandfather said. “The Peace was still young in those days. Barely a generation for the lycanthropes, and much shorter for the leeches. Hunters were more enforcers of the lord’s law than what you do now. Hell, the Tampa Council probably had less then a hundred members in Hillsborough at that time. Then, the Great Fatherland War erupted, and I was called to fulfill my destiny.”

“What?” I asked, confused.

“I told you we were Bloodclaws. That’s not a family name, but it does run in our family. You saw in the fire vision, during tysach, the first of the Bloodclaws at the very beginning of the War of Discovery. Do you know why the leeches chose that night to attack the humans?”

“I always thought they were having some political fight. It’s always about politics when it comes to leeches,” I answered.

“Good hypothesis, but wrong. That night, they were gathering blood to resurrect their god. It was why the Bloodclaws emerged. We were chosen to be the Ancestors’ weapons against the leeches attempts to resurrect their god. My turn to stop them was during the Great Fatherland War. Yours was now.”

“Wait, Bradon said Lothos wasn’t an attempt to resurrect their god, but to find something else that wouldn’t draw the Pathfinders,” I said.

“Knowing Bradon, he was lying, either to you or possibly to himself,” my grandfather said.

“You knew Bradon?” I asked, flabbergasted.

“Of course I did,” my grandfather answered, “That vampire was one of the top Bleeders when I was working in the Guild. We were drawn together. Even then, the lycanthropes and the vampires knew we needed back-channel contacts if this Peace was going to survive more than a generation or two. Why do you think he chose to become your contact?”

“He remembered you?” I asked, “I thought all traces of you were wiped out.”

“Yes and no,” my grandfather answered, then raised his hands as my eyes burned with frustration, “It’s kind of like when you met me. You didn’t know who I was, but I was familiar to you. We’re alike enough that you echoed something in the back of Bradon’s mind. Our magicks are sometimes unpredictable with the vampires. Now, if we can get back to the matter at hand?” I nodded.

“During the Great Fatherland War, I was pulled to a leech harem in Dresden. I stopped the leeches’ creature. And without getting as banged up nearly as badly as you did. Although getting out of the city was something of an adventure.”

“How the hell did you do that?” I asked, “Lothos was impervious to anything I threw at him.”

“This has been an ongoing project for the leeches for centuries. Lothos was probably the closest they’ve managed, unfortunately for you,” my grandfather answered, “I didn’t need to have the Ancestors step in to help me. Chaining the bastard down during the firebombing did the trick, right nicely.” My grandfather and I traded identical malicious smiles. That, more than anything up to that point, convinced me the lycanthrope standing in front of me was indeed my grandfather.

“After the war, the American lycanthropes returned home,” my grandfather said, “The lord of Hillsborough and both of his sons had been killed during the war. The new Prince of Florida chose me to take over the county.”

“Why? You’re not an aristocrat. How could he let you to take over a county?” I asked.

“Here’s where we stop walking down my road and start walking down the road that was built for you,” my grandfather answered. “Florida lost a lot of its aristocrats in the war. I don’t think the Ancestors had a hand in that, but I’m sure they were the ones who reminded the new Prince about a hunter from his state to whom he owed a great debt when it came time to fill county lordships.”

“The Prince owed you? What did you do?” I asked. My grandfather’s expression grew hard.

“I made the mistake of saving his life instead of his brother’s,” my grandfather said. “I could only save one of them, and I chose the wrong brother. Hindsight’s a bitch.” He worked to keep the rage off of his face, but it was slipping through.

“So how did you become the Forgotten Lord?” I asked.

“I made a mistake and fell in love,” my grandfather answered, “Although to be honest, the Ancestors were behind that as well.”

“What do you mean? Were they behind who you fell in love with?” I demanded.

“They knew what events needed to happen for you to be born,” my grandfather asked, “Because they knew the road you would need to travel in order to be ready to fight Lothos.”

“So that’s all we are? Fucking puppets for the Ancestors?” I asked, infuriated.

“Most lycanthropes, no. For us Bloodclaws, unfortunately, the answer is yes,” my grandfather answered. I screamed in frustration. I punched the maksen, but felt none of the jarring pain. It was like punching a stiff pillow.

“What the fuck?” I asked, staring at my fist. I looked back at my grandfather.

“That comes into where we are,” my grandfather answered. I quirked an eyebrow. “We are standing between the living and the dead.”

“So which am I?” I asked.

“That’s the decision you’re going to have to make,” my grandfather answered. “Your destiny is complete. You could choose to succumb to your wounds and come with me to join the Ancestors. You have certainly earned it, and there are many who would love for you to join us. Including all of your family. Or you can choose to live and go back. At that point, you’d be helping pave the way for the next Bloodclaw. Your life will never be truly your own.”

“Like you?” I asked, with sharp sarcasm.

“Like me,” my grandfather agreed. “Although to be fair, I wasn’t offered the choice after I completed the destruction of Kamon. Honestly, I didn’t even know that my life was being guided by the Ancestors. I’m not sure if that would have made what happened easier or harder.”

“Yeah, getting back to that,” I said, “You said you became the Forgotten Lord because you fell in love. How the hell does that work?”

“I fell in love with the daughter of my Spiritmaster,” my grandfather answered. I nearly choked. “I knew there were taboos against it, but since I hadn’t grown up as an aristocrat, they weren’t as bone deep with me as my other fellow lords. When the other lords found out, of course they immediately demanded I cease the relationship and send your grandmother to another county. I told them to go fuck themselves. I married your grandmother and made her my lady. The other lords were so scared of what would happen, that they managed to convince the Prince to banish us. He even ordered the state Spiritmaster to call all shamans to erase our very existence in the minds of the packs. So, your grandmother and I went as far as we could from Florida.”

“So I am a taboo son,” I said, slightly crestfallen. I didn’t want to think I was like Blackhawk and Raven. My grandfather shook his head violently.

“No, you are a Bloodclaw,” my grandfather answered, firmly. “Your father, had he been a lycanthrope, would have been a taboo son. Since he was only kin, that particular curse was not passed down on to you. You are not a taboo son.”

“What about my ability to resist aristocracy powers just like that bastard Blackhawk?” I shot back, “Wasn’t that because he was a taboo son?”

“Did you notice you don’t have the extra speed and power both Blackhawk and Raven possessed?” my grandfather asked. I nodded. “They were both taboo sons. Your manifestation of your powers all came from me. When a hunter is elevated to the aristocracy, our powers act more as a shield rather than a spear. I could never do anything like what a traditional lord could do.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Only the First Ancestor knows, and he isn’t talking to anyone, including the other Ancestors,” my grandfather answered. “Which bothers the hell out of the elder Ancestors.” We walked to the Guild’s entre. I remembered standing at this spot during the Rite of Discovery for Jennifer Denton. It felt like years before, but it had only been barely a year. I remembered seeing Elizabeth attending the Rite, and her comment afterwards. It was the first hint Elizabeth thought more of me than just a simple hunter.

“So, I can die or go back, marry Elizabeth, and live whatever life the Ancestors dictate until the next Bloodclaw shows up?” I asked, summing up. My grandfather gave me a disconcerted look.

“It’s not a bad life,” my grandfather answered, “It wasn’t the life I originally asked for you. It will be a harder life than you expect, but it would be a good life.”

“What was the life you asked for?” I asked.

“The spell surrounding our line to be broken enough for you to claim Hillsborough, which would have given you more of a claim on Elizabeth. Now, you will have to continue being the Badmoon, and all the hardship that entails.”

“Who the fuck decided that?” I asked.

“It was the decision of the Ancestors,” my grandfather said. I sat down on the cool ground of the Guild’s entre. Silence enveloped the cravex as I thought on what my grandfather said. He didn’t say anything, but gave me a compassionate look. Of course, he was allowed to marry and live with the love of his life – even if they were forced to move across the Kingdom in order to do it. Every time I’d been to Rites, the shaman told us how the Ancestors were there to guide, advise, and occasionally assist us. Instead, they’d been behind making my life hell from the very start. Then, something dawned on me.

“Did the Ancestors decide who I was going to fall in love with?” I asked. The look my grandfather was a mix of pride, sorrow, and anger.

“Maybe. I’m sure they were behind Elizabeth’s feelings for you. I don’t doubt she may have fallen in love with you on her own, but your path needed those feelings tipped in the correct direction,” my grandfather said. It was infuriating to find out I was just a piece they moved around the board, but what made me truly incensed was the casual way my grandfather talked of Elizabeth being given to me as if she was a treat for a being a good dog. Play our game and get to fuck the female we choose for you. I stopped in mid-thought. What if I decided not to play their game anymore?

“No,” I said, looking up at my grandfather. He gave me a confused look.

“No, you’re not going back to live with Elizabeth?” he asked.

“No, I’m not going to make this decision,” I answered.

“You have to make the decision,” my grandfather said, suddenly nervous.

“Why? Why the fuck should I do anything those bastards demand?” I asked.

“Because they are the Ancestors, Ranger, and you are the Bloodclaw,” my grandfather answered, shocked at my words. “You owe your very existence to them.”

“Really? I owe them for making me an outcast and then setting me up to fight a living version of the vampire god? How the hell does that make sense?” I asked, standing up, “Fuck the Ancestors. They decided it was better to screw over those whose help they needed. They decided to make me fight Lothos and then punish me for making the same damn decision any lycanthrope should have made according to the laws and traditions they gave us! If that’s how the Ancestors want to play, then they can go fuck themselves. I’m done playing their game. I’ll just stay here.” My grandfather had a look of extreme horror, but with a touch of incredible pride on his face. The cravex shuddered. It didn’t feel like an earthquake. It was more like a – reality-quake? A circle of brilliant light appeared in midair in the aristocracy’s entre and two lycanthropes stepped out. I recognized both of them. The first was Stephen Vollen, in human form and dressed in a black suit. His companion I’d never seen in real life, but I’d seen him several times in the fires of tysach – first as a pup, then later as a hunter guarding pups. The lycanthrope who encountered the vampires on the first night of the Discovery War. So, this was the first Bloodclaw. Vollen and the First Bloodclaw strode over to us. The First Bloodclaw was incensed, but I just glared right back at him. Lord Vollen gave me a warm smile. I couldn’t make myself meet Lord Vollen’s eyes. Not after what happened between his daughter and me before leaving for Tallahassee. Furtive looks told me he was still smiling, which I didn’t understand. He should have been ready to tear my head off.

“Still causing problems, Marcus?” Lord Vollen asked, with a light tone that belied his words. “You don’t mind if I call you Marcus?”

“No, my lord,” I answered, quickly, “Um, to both questions.” Lord Vollen chuckled. The First Bloodclaw barked out a long string of what sounded like German.

“Either speak English or get the fuck out,” I snarled at the First Bloodclaw. I was betting he was supposed to be the bad cop to Lord Vollen’s good cop. I’d played that game enough times in my line of work.

“He said that you must make the decision, or others will suffer,” my grandfather translated. I shed for true and walked up to the First Bloodclaw. We glared at each other for a few seconds. He lips curled into a snarl. I punched him in the gut. As he doubled over, I laid another punch on his snout. My grandfather gasped in shock, but Lord Vollen looked unsurprised, almost resigned.

“Do you think you can still emotionally blackmail me?” I screamed at the First Bloodclaw, “You created me, you gave me this life that I was forced to live, and now you’re upset because I’m not reacting how you want? Did you ever think this might be your own fucking fault?” I looked up at the night sky. The stars were twinkling furiously.

“Did any of you ever think that maybe if you had let me know what the fuck you wanted me to do, I might have ended Lothos before he was even born in that fucking lab?” I shouted at the sky.

“I told you he would react like this,” Lord Vollen said to the First Bloodclaw. The First Bloodclaw glared at Lord Vollen and barked out another string of German. Lord Vollen stood straighter and glared back at the First Bloodclaw. “He may be your descendant, but he is my daughter’s catshen. I have been watching this one more intently than you have for quite a long time.” Lord Vollen turned to me and motioned for me to shed for human. I did as he asked and stepped over to him.

“What exactly is your plan here Marcus?” Lord Vollen asked, “Stay in this place for eternity? I know you. As nice and peaceful as this is, you’d be bored within an hour. Bad things happen when you get bored. We both know that.”

“My lord, in all the times I’ve listened to the shaman speak about what happens when we leave the world of the living to go to the Ancestors, I’ve never once heard about this place. Some place between life and death where we are judged,” I answered.

“Your point?” Lord Vollen asked, curiously. He looked pleasantly surprised by my reasoning.

“There’s a reason the Ancestors decided to give me a choice between living and dying,” I answered, “They’ve never shirked from jerking me around my entire life. So why now? Why do I suddenly have a choice now?”

“Because the Ancestors decided to be generous,” the First Bloodclaw answered in heavily accented English. So, he could speak it.

“Bullshit,” I replied flatly. “They need me to make a choice. They need that little bit of freewill that the First Ancestor gave all lycanthropes in order to make their next move. Well, I don’t see any reason why I should help them out in any way, so I’m not going to make this decision.” The three lycanthropes traded silent looks. Then my grandfather went rigid. As he relaxed, his expressions and stance were different, like someone else was using his body.

“How do you expect the Ancestors to protect the packs from the leeches’ attempts to resurrect their god?” my grandfather asked, but his voice was different. From the respectful look on the First Bloodclaw’s face, I suspected that this was one of the elder Ancestors. “We can see the paths laid out in front of our packs. We can pick the path that will allow our chosen to defeat them.”

“How about trusting us?” I answered. “How about actually talking with the shaman, like you do with those from the Disputed Territories to let us know what needs to be done? Trust us to stop the leeches.”

“Trust you? We trusted you to discover the enemy in your midst. Instead, you slaughtered each other until we forced the Bloodclaw to come forward,” the elder Ancestor answered through my grandfather.

“That was a thousand years ago!” I shot back.

“A thousand years to you are meaningless to us,” the elder Ancestor said, smugly. “We can see through the hundreds of thousands of years our race has walked this world.”

“Well, maybe that’s the fucking problem,” I retorted, “You are so mired in the past, you haven’t figured out that we learned from it. That we learned from our mistakes and taught our descendants how to not make the same mistakes. We are not the same lycanthropes we were a millennia ago. Hell, we’re not the same lycanthropes we were when my grandfather was still alive.”

YOU WILL DECIDE! YOU WILL DECIDE OR ALL WILL SUFFER!” the elder Ancestor bellowed with the fury of a cannon.

“The FUCK I will!” I screamed right back, “I am not going to allow myself to be punished for your fucking lack of trust. I’m not going to be manipulated because lycanthropes who died before gunpowder was invented can’t deal with the reality of the present.” The elder Ancestor glared at me through my grandfather’s eyes for a long moment. Then, he collapsed like a puppet whose strings were cut.

“Well, that was unexpected,” Lord Vollen said. He looked off into the distance, like he was listening to someone unseen. After a few minutes, his eyes snapped down to meet mine.

“It looks like your gambit paid off,” Lord Vollen said, “The Ancestors have decided to offer you a new deal. Choose to live. You will be given my daughter as your wife. Your family’s curse will be lifted, so you will no longer be considered a Badmoon. You will have just claim to both Elizabeth and to Hillsborough. This little discussion not be counted as part of your judgement to join the Ancestors when you die. Finally, the Ancestors will stay out of your life. You will get the full freewill that any other lycanthrope would have.”

“No,” I answered. Lord Vollen looked at me in surprise.

“Isn’t that what you wanted? To live your life as your own with my daughter at your side?” Lord Vollen asked.

“More than anything, my lord, but I don’t want Elizabeth forced to love me. Even if she wasn’t aware of it,” I answered. “I want her to make her own choices. I’m not going to doom her to the same slavery that the Ancestors put me through.”

“What if she decides she doesn’t love you?” Lord Vollen asked, neutrally.

“It will hurt worse than anything Lothos ever did to me,” I answered. “I’d still prefer that to knowing Elizabeth was forced to love me because of the Ancestors.” Lord Vollen looked off into the distance again, and then his face broke into a warm smile.

“Would you rather free Elizabeth or have the Badmoon curse lifted from you?” asked the elder Ancestor.

“You are still trying to make me accept your fuckups? Why can’t you just fix what you’ve done?” I asked.

“You will not be the last Bloodclaw to arise. The Great Pack will still need one in the next generation. The paths that lead to the next one are rooted in that decision,” the First Bloodclaw said.

“Marcus, think before speaking again,” Lord Vollen cautioned. “You are a hunter. Would you truly threaten the lives of the packs when the Ancestors are willing to give you what they can?” Damn, the lord knew what buttons to press.

“Fine. Then, I want Elizabeth free,” I said. Thunder boomed through the cravex.

“They accepted your terms, although they’re confused why you chose the terms as you did,” Lord Vollen said. He walked up to me and embraced me. The move caught me off guard, and I was stiff as Lord Vollen hugged me. Fortunately, he found it amusing instead of insulting. “I don’t know if my daughter will still be in love with you once the Ancestors’ influence is gone, but I want you to know that I’m grateful for what you’ve given up. If she does decide to marry you, I will be happy for the both of you. You’ve proven that you are worthy of her, at least in my eyes.” My grandfather, recovered from his possession, walked over to me.

“You’ve done good, Ranger,” he said, also embracing me. “Your grandmother and I are proud of you.”

“Make the choice,” the First Bloodclaw said, impatiently.

“A moment, Bloodclaw,” Lord Vollen said, “There is one more message to deliver before we cast him back to the world.” Lord Vollen looked at me. “Tell my daughter that her mother and I are proud of how our little firecracker held our county together, and that the rest of the family is waiting for her when it is her time to join us.” I blinked back sudden tears.

“Are you done?” the First Bloodclaw asked, impatiently.

“Yes, we’re done,” I answered, my voice hoarse.

“Then say the words and make the choice,” the First Bloodclaw replied.

“I choose to live,” I said, and the Hillsborough cravex vanished.

——–—

My existence was pain. Unbelievable pain. Pain that lasted for years. After about a decade, I heard voices screaming around me, but they were indistinct against the background noise of the crushing intensity of the pain. Then, there were more voices. I focused on them, hoping to block out some of my suffering. The voices were yelling at each other. Something cold was pressed on my body. The pain was lessened, but it was like lava being taken down a single degree. The cold spread along my body. The pain lessened more. The voices became distinct, if not the words. Prince Savik and Lady Anna. The Spiritmasters. They were yelling and screaming about something. Where was Elizabeth? I couldn’t hear her voice. Panic surged through my body. Sudden movement made the pain roar back to fullness. More screaming and yelling. The cold was replaced with heat. It felt hot enough to cause burns, but honestly, I couldn’t feel any more pain. The heat flashed through me and everything went mercifully dark.

As the darkness receded, the pain was down to a dull, aching throb. I kept my eyes closed as I focused on breathing. Scents danced through the air. It was an odd blend of antiseptics and wolfsbane. I felt soft fabric below me. I was in a bed, but where? With more effort than I expected, I forced my eyes open. The room was incredibly bright. I blinked furiously as my eyes adjusted. I moved my head and waves of dormant pain swept through me. I tried again, but much slower. I was in a bedroom of some kind. There was a chest of drawers to my left and a large picture window to my right. The blinds were tilted to allow the barest amount of light. At the foot of the bed, someone was sleeping in a chair. I was in human form, and I couldn’t make out who it was. I hoped it was Elizabeth. It was nice to think she’d been watching over me.

I closed my eyes and sank back into the bed. Even that small amount of movement exhausted me. Well, at least I was alive, not in so much pain, and being cared for. I fell back asleep before I could take another look.

—-—

Quiet, urgent voices woke me. I wasn’t blinded this time as I opened my eyes. Two lycanthropes were talking in low voices in the corner of the room. From their postures and tone of their low voices, they were arguing about something. One looked female.

“Elizabeth?” I asked. Or at least, I tried to ask. It’s hard to speak clearly when your mouth is as dry as the desert. Both lycanthropes spun around at the sound of my garbled voice. The female sprinted over to the chest of drawers before coming next to my bed. As she came nearer, I could see it was Lady Anna.

“Here, drink,” Lady Anna said, pushing a straw into my mouth. I sucked in the cool water. Had simple water always tasted so wonderful? The straw was yanked away from me. I looked up into Lady Anna’s brown eyes and glared. She just smiled down at me. I could just make out the tears at the corners of her eyes.

“Where’s Elizabeth?” I asked. Lady Anna shook her head in resignation.

“Why am I not surprised that’s the first question out of your mouth?” she asked, but her voice was warm. “She’s recovering.” I felt my heart spasm. Lady Anna gripped my hand. “Ranger, she’s recovering. She was hurt in the fight with the dervishes, but she’s been patched up and she’s recovering. She’ll be just fine.” There was something she wasn’t telling me. I could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice.

“Excuse me, my lady, I need to see him,” said the other lycanthrope. He gently pushed her aside. He was probably my height with a slim build. Long black hair was tied back. I grunted and growled as his hands danced around my body. His obsidian eyes revealed nothing as he completed his examination.

“Hunter Badmoon, I’m Dr. Talon,” the lycanthrope said, “How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being no pain?”

“Five or six, I’d guess,” I answered, thinking about the pain when I first awakened.

“Is that a hunter’s five or six?” Dr. Talon asked. His delivery was so clinical, I couldn’t tell if he was joking.

“Is there any other kind?” I asked in response. A quick smile flitted across the doctor’s lips.

“Where does it hurt?” Dr. Talon asked.

“Everywhere,” I answered. He nodded and consulted a small tablet. “What’s going on?”

“You suffered grievous injuries,” Dr. Talon answered, in a detached voice, “Somehow the Spiritmaster was able to keep you together long enough for the more shaman to get your body healing again. I don’t know how they managed to clear that much archanal from you without you dying on them.” He made some notes on the tablet and looked back up. “I’m still not sure if you’ll have any residual injuries once your body stops healing. You should have been crippled, but your body keeps healing. The good news, is that you will live.” He looked over to Lady Anna. “The Prince asked me to inform him as soon as Badmoon awakened. If you will excuse me, my lady?” Lady Anna nodded. The doctor bowed slightly, turned neatly, and walked out the door.

“So, how are you really, Ranger?” Lady Anna asked, once the door was shut.

“I think I died for a little bit,” I answered, and Lady Anna softly chuckled. Then she saw that I wasn’t being my normal smart-ass self. Her happy expression vanished.

“What happened?” she asked, concerned.

“I found out a lot,” I answered. She frowned at my cryptic tone. “I’ll explain later. It’s still a bit confusing.” Her flat look made it clear she knew I was holding back, but she didn’t press the issue. I tried to change the subject. “What happened after I went after Lothos?”

“About that, you’re going to have to explain that fight. The shaman are going absolutely apeshit over the ‘magickal echoes’ in that part of the forest. They won’t let anyone go near it,” Lady Anna said, as she pulled over a chair next to the bed. “As for what happened at the cravex? It was probably the nastiest fight I’ve ever been in. Nicholas said it was as bad as the battle at the Hillsborough Manor.” I winced. Lady Anna’s face softened.

“Yeah, it was pretty bad, but don’t think for an instant you should have been there to fight with us,” Lady Anna said, her soft tone holding a strong flavor of sternness. “You needed to finish Lothos. Everyone knows that now. Uncle Erik was very firm on that point to the lords.” Lady Anna stared off at the wall as she remembered the battle at the Florida cravex. “The leeches were smart. They sent in the dervishes first to soak up whatever ammunition we’d brought with us while the rest of them stayed in the trees and rained fire down on us. We lost a lot of Blackhawk’s packs in that first rush. They just didn’t have anywhere to hide, and no real weapons. The dervishes just swarmed them and tore them apart. Literally, tore their bodies apart. The Guildmaster started bellowing orders for our lycanthropes. Some leech sniper took him down. One shot to the head.” Lady Anna paused to wipe away sudden tears. I reached out and took her hand. The hurt in her eyes echoed my pain from losing my Guildmaster. She squeezed my hand gently and gave me a sad smile in thanks.

“Farmer took over from there,” Lady Anna continued, “He managed to get the lords behind the maksen and protected by the Spiritmasters. He ordered the unarmed lycanthropes shift to wolf and start digging firing pits.” I quirked an eyebrow up in surprise at the idea. “Yeah, everyone was so caught off-guard, that they just followed orders. Hunters were taking command of small groups of warriors and returning fire. Some of the fire let up when Farmer ordered our shaman to attack the treeline. They called down an impressive lightning barrage. It gave us a minute or two to get organized. I still think we lost a quarter of the lycanthropes we brought with us. Some of us still out in the open were piling up our own dead for cover. Then, the last of Blackhawk’s allies fell, and the remaining dervishes came down on us.” She paused and shook as a horrific memory emerged in her mind.

“Blackhawk’s packs managed to kill about the third of the dervishes, but there were still so many of them. I think we killed another third of them in the ten seconds it took for them to cross the cravex to where we were dug in, but they still swarmed us. We were fighting the dervishes hand-to-hand while the fucking leeches in the forest were still shooting at us. That was when Farmer went down. He was swarmed by three dervishes before some leech stitched him with a burst.” My mind reeled. Farmer was dead? Ancestors, how many of my few friends managed to make it out of that fight alive?

“I’m sorry, Ranger, I know he was a friend of yours,” Lady Anna said.

“I wouldn’t say he was a friend,” I said, “More like a friendly ally. Still, thanks. Who else died?” I was scared of what names she would speak.

“All of the packleaders from my home,” Lady Anna said, keeping her voice even as she tried to make it through the bad news. “Two of the packleaders from your county. Devon Thames. Eagle and most of his hunters died pulling wounded into a new perimeter around the maksen. Hardclaw died with them as well. Probably about thirty of our warriors. I honestly thought we were about to get wiped out.” Lady Anna looked down at her hands with haunted eyes.

“What happened?” I asked, when she didn’t pick back up.

“The Society, strangely enough,” Lady Anna said, “There were teams of hunters and Society operators out patrolling the grounds. As soon as the battle started, they formed up into one large group and charged. All of the sudden, probably a hundred or so heavily armed hunters were attacking the leeches in the forest. It gave us the time to push back and destroy the dervishes. Then it was over. All of the leeches just broke and ran.” That must have been when I finally killed Lothos. So, the entire fight at the cravex lasted less than twenty minutes.

“So how was Elizabeth hurt?” I asked. Lady Anna looked reluctant to tell me. My eyes narrowed, and she relented.

“A fucking stupid accident,” Lady Anna said. “Elizabeth slipped in between two dervishes attacking some of her warriors. Nicholas never saw her and fired at one of the dervishes. She took two rounds from Nicholas’s revolver. She probably would have died too if Nicholas hadn’t realized what happened and immediately went to work on the pulling out the bullets. One was lodged deep in her, which is why she’s still recovering.” My heart dropped when I heard how Elizabeth had been injured, but it started back up as Lady Anna reassured me that Elizabeth was still alive and mending.

“So what happened after the fight?” I asked. “Did the Society try anything?”

“Uncle Erik convinced them it wasn’t in their best interest to try and avenge Blackhawk,” Lady Anna said, “In return for their restraint, they wouldn’t be branded wholesale as traitors to the state. Most accepted positions with the new army.” I wanted to ask about the army, but a wave of fatigue hit me at that moment, and I fell back to into the bed. Lady Anna stood over me with a compassionate smile.

“There’s more we need to talk about, but we can do that later. Get some sleep,” Lady Anna said, brushing my forehead with her lips. I wanted to protest. I needed to find out more, but the blackness swallowed me before I could say anything.

–—

My strength was returning, but slowly. Over the last couple of days, I managed to finally get out of bed and move around my room. Not as much as I wanted to, but my body screamed at me. Pain was making me short-tempered, which wasn’t helped by the fact that I hadn’t seen any of my friends since Lady Anna spoke to me. I was visited regularly by Dr. Talon, who reminded me constantly I should be dead and that I shouldn’t push myself. I was bored, and I knew that wasn’t a good thing. I was in the middle of seriously contemplating breaking the room’s single window and taking my chances when my door opened. I expected to see Dr. Talon striding in with that condescending look on his face. Instead, Fangbearer strode into the room. He was wearing a charcoal suit, and I could see the bulge of a weapon under his arm. It was too big for a pistol. Submachine gun maybe? I was so busy guessing what Fangbearer was carrying, I didn’t notice the two Black Knights walking in followed by Prince Savik. When my eyes flicked over at the movement, I straightened in my bed. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t recovered enough to escape. Yet. Prince Savik looked weary and almost grateful to sit down. His blue suit, although well-tailored, still looked wrinkled and worn. I thought I could see new wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth as well as more silver in his hair. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. For an instant, I thought he had fallen asleep in the chair. Then his eyes flicked open and focused on me. A warm smile broke across his face.

“You don’t know how glad I am to see you alive,” Prince Savik said. “I’m sorry I haven’t come by sooner.”

“Your highness, I’m sure you’ve been a bit busy,” I said, feeling awkward having Prince Savik apologizing to me. Prince Savik gave a humorless chuckle.

“Busy. Yes, that’s certainly one word I think we could use to describe the last fortnight since the battle at the cravex,” Prince Savik said. “Every lord in Florida is in Tallahassee, not to mention a representative of the King and several of my new brother princes. Then, just to throw some fuel on the fire, Bradon sent a pair of ghouls to represent the TCV and the councils who have aligned with him. Oh, and planning for the extermination of the Florida Council.”

“Ancestors, now I’m feeling guilty just sitting here,” I said. The Prince and Fangbearer both laughed. The two Black Knights smirked, which was just as good as a laugh for them.

“You took down Lothos on your own and he damn near killed you for it,” Prince Savik said, “If I had to choose between a fight with Lothos and dealing with state politics, I’ll take the politics.”

“Of course you would. You’re an aristocrat,” I said before I could shut my trap. Fortunately, the Prince and Fangbearer looked more amused than offended.

“How are you doing Ranger? Honestly,” the Prince asked.

“Everything hurts, I don’t quite have my endurance back yet, and I’m going stir-crazy,” I answered. “I’m also worried about Elizabeth.” The Prince and Fangbearer exchanged glances, and my blood ran cold.

“Elizabeth has been elevated to the Lady of Hillsborough, with the Rite to be performed once our business here in the capital has been concluded,” Prince Savik said, “She’s been told that you were awake, and she was very happy to hear about that. She also told me that she doesn’t want to see you right now. I think she’s getting used to her new responsibilities. She and Anna have been working together around the clock for the last few days.” Prince Savik chuckled at my worried expression. “I don’t know what happened between them, but they’ve concluded their feud. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what that bodes for you. They’ve been rather cryptic about that.” I didn’t know what to say. My instincts were strangely quiet. I decided to change the subject rather than dwelling on that.

“So, you recruited the remaining Society into your new army?” I asked.

“Anna told you?” Prince Savik asked. I nodded. “We are building the largest army of lycanthropes this continent has seen since the Great Fatherland War. The State Guild is a shadow of it’s former self. Even the packs we brought to Tallahassee have been decimated. I needed the Society’s experience. Plus, there’s been enough killing between us. So, they serve in my army against the FCV, and I will pardon them after we’ve won.”

“I still don’t see how you can trust them, your highness,” I said.

“I’m willing to forgive, but I assure you, I’m not liable to forget what the Society did to me and mine,” Prince Savik said. “Of course, we’ll need someone as the new leader of the Society of the Fang and the Claw. Someone who can keep an eye on them.”

“So, you’re keeping the Society intact?” I asked, not keeping my shock out of my voice.

“At least for the duration of the war,” Fangbearer answered. “Blackhawk managed to accumulate quite a group of intelligence experts as well as trained operators. It’s not a force we want to get rid of at the moment. Change it’s focus, yes, but not dispose of.” Fangbearer looked at my skeptical look and smiled. “Not all of them knew Blackhawk’s ultimate plans. Most of them thought they were serving the state, much like Vanessa. Those we could prove were collaborators with Blackhawk have been dealt with.”

“So you recruited Vanessa?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, she turned down my offer,” Fangbearer said, “She’s going to be busy helping her husband with his new position.” Prince Savik and Fangbearer both laughed at my shocked expression. I would have been more resentful, but the two of them both looked like they needed the levity.

“Vanessa and Hangman got married?” I asked. “How the hell did that happen?”

“I can say it was the first pleasant act I did upon assuming this accursed throne,” Prince Savik said. “Vanessa was most insistent that the two of them would be married as soon as she found Hangman among the wounded. A rare light of joy in a very dark time. We almost lost that hunter.” Terror and relief rushed through me.

“When Lady Elizabeth found out what happened, she immediately tapped Hangman to be her new Guildmaster, with the caveat that Vanessa was to be his co-Guildmaster,” Fangbearer said.

“So are you going to head up the Society?” I asked Fangbearer.

“Temporarily,” he answered, “It will need a full time leader before operations begin.”

“You’d be a good commander. You did well on our trek up here,” I said. He smiled in thanks.

“Steven is going be one of my generals,” Prince Savik announced. “I have too few qualified lycanthropes for those positions to let one play with the Society. I have a couple of lycanthropes in mind to lead the Society,” the prince said. I wasn’t sure if it was my fatigue returning or all the news, but my head started to swim.

“Are you alright?” Prince Savik asked.

“Yeah, just that endurance thing I was telling you about,” I said, “I’ll be fine.”

“Well then, we’ll let you get some rest,” Prince Savik said, standing up.

“You don’t have to do that, your highness,” I protested.

“Ranger, I need you recovered as fast as possible,” Prince Savik said, “Do you think I could let a hunter with your experience just sit on the sidelines during a war? I have plans for you, but they require that you are healed and recuperated.” The two Black Knights flowed out of the room to clear the way for Prince Savik. The Prince stopped at the door.

“Is there anything that I can do for you right now?” he asked.

“If you see Elizabeth, could you give her my love, and let her know-” I stopped, unsure of what I needed to tell Elizabeth. So much was flowing through my mind, it was confused. Prince Savik seemed to understand the intent behind my words.

“Of course,” Prince Savik said. He looked like he wanted to say more, but decided against it and left.

—–—

I was eating a bowl of thick stew when the door to my room opened and Nick walked in. His face was drawn and he looked apprehensive as he stepped into my room. My face split into a huge grin, and I nearly threw the stew to the floor as I bounded out of bed. Nick shot me a concerned look as I gripped his hand.

“Should you be getting out of bed like that?” Nick asked, as I motioned for him to sit. He tossed me a small satchel bag. I snagged it out of the air. It was heavier than I expected and pain lanced down my side. I grimaced as I got back into bed.

“Sorry,” Nick said, “Just some things I thought you’d want.”

“Relax, I’m healing,” I replied, “It’s just pain. Compared to the pain when I first woke up, this is nothing.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Nick said, “I was one of those who found you. Lothos destroyed you. There was a heated argument as to whether you could be saved or not.”

“I think I remember that,” I said, and Nick’s eyebrows raised in surprise, “Nothing too specific, just that there were voices yelling at each other. I was pretty sure I heard Prince Savik and Lady Anna. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember hearing you.”

“Let’s just say, I was the one ordered to end you,” Nick said flatly, “Fortunately for you, I was waiting to see who would prevail. The shaman were sure you were too savaged from your fight with Lothos to be saved, and that we should put you at peace. Lady Anna and Fangbearer were screaming at them that we should be doing anything we could to save you.”

“Well, I’m glad Prince Savik decided to spare me. I’ll have to thank Lady Anna and Fangbearer for convincing him the next time I see them,” I said.

“They didn’t convince the Prince,” Nick said. “You did.”

“What?”

“While we were arguing, you said, ‘I choose life,'” Nick answered, “Clear as day. I don’t think I’d ever felt so relieved.”

“Even compared to finding out Elizabeth survived you shooting her?” I asked, with mock severity. Nick’s normally blank face contorted to a mix of anger and shame. His reaction took me by surprise, and I quickly held up a hand to stave off his retort. “Sorry, Nick. That was a cheap shot.”

“We’re hunters. We know accidents happen in combat,” Nick said, “Then, I make that mistake. I knew she was fighting in that area, but I just tunneled on that vampire. She tells me that she understands, but it’s still uneasy between us.”

“You’ve actually seen her?” I asked. Nick nodded cautiously. “I haven’t seen her or even heard anything from her. I sent a message to her when Prince Savik came to visit me, but I haven’t heard anything back.”

“Well, she is very busy,” Nick said, “There’s only about fifty Hillsborough lycanthropes left, not counting our pups in Pinellas. She’s working with some of the other counties who have some packs that might want to move to Hillsborough – including some offers of marriage. Maybe she just can’t deal with you right now. You do tend to be a handful.” My heart dropped when Nick mentioned the other marriage offers. I knew that it was a possibility. She was the Lady of Hillsborough. Of course there would be other aristocrats that would want to join their lines to hers.

“I guess that shouldn’t surprise me,” I said, crestfallen, “I’m just a Badmoon. I couldn’t help her county as much as an aristocrat.”

“I thought you were the Bloodclaw,” Nick said, and my head snapped up fast enough for it to swim for a moment. He took one look at my face and chuckled. “Ah, so it is true. That certainly explains a lot.”

“How the fuck did you know?” I said, when I finally found my voice, “I haven’t even told the Prince that.”

“Well, the shaman were chanting for the Bloodclaw to come forward and claim his destiny,” Nick answered, “Then you go harrying after Lothos. That, combined with what I’ve seen you do, are pretty strong clues that you’re the current Bloodclaw.”

“How do you know any of this?” I asked.

“My grandfather served with the Bloodclaw during the Great Fatherland War,” Nick explained. “My line has always been drawn to the Bloodclaws. We’ve ended up as friends, allies, even lovers of the Bloodclaws. It certainly explains why I was drawn to Florida when I left Nebraska. I feel like an idiot that I never put it together before that fight in the cravex. All of the evidence was certainly there.” I sat back in the bed stunned. I thought I was shocked when I found out that Nick had been working with Bradon on “improving” me, but that was nothing compared to this. Just how much of my life had been directed by the fucking Ancestors.

“So, if you’re the Bloodclaw, how can you still be a Badmoon?” Nick asked, “You come from a long and distinguished line. Why would you still claim to be a Badmoon?”

“I made a deal with the Ancestors,” I said, and the cautious tone in my voice made Nick’s eyes narrow. He knew me too well.

“What the fuck did you do Ranger?” Nick asked.

“I might have told the Ancestors to go fuck themselves, and then made a deal that required me to stay known as a Badmoon,” I answered. Nick leaned back in his chair and gave me a look like he wasn’t sure if he should be surprised or not. He didn’t say anything for several minutes. I just looked down at my cooling stew.

“Could you please explain to me where in that twisted logic of yours it made sense to insult the Ancestors?” Nick asked, with exaggerated patience. I related to him what had happened in the world between life and death. Nick kept his face a steady blank as I related my story. When I finished, he stood up and paced around the room.

“I think the scariest thing is that I can see why you reacted the way you did,” Nick said, “I’m not sure if I agree with what you did, but I know you well enough to see you doing that. It might also explain why Elizabeth hasn’t been to see you.”

“To be honest, that’s what’s scaring me,” I said. “I know I did the right thing by not demanding that she become my wife, but…” I let my voice trail off, not wanting to give voice to the words floating in my head. It was stupid, but I was scared that if I said it, then it would become true. Nick nodded in understanding.

“Well, there’s something to keep you occupied until you’re well enough to get back to work,” Nick said, motioning to the satchel he’d brought me. I opened the flap. On top was my HK45 in a holster. Next to it was two spare magazines loaded with a new type of silver ammunition. I popped out a round and examined it. The brass case was polished to a mirror finish. The bullet itself was a hollow point, but the cavity was filled with a silver gelatin substance. I looked up at Nick with a questioning look.

“Something new that the Duval hunters brought,” Nick said, “It’s based on a Hornady Critical Defense load, but the normal polymer inset has been replaced by a silver impregnated gelatin. There’s also some silver dust sintered into the cavity. Easier to make than the Silver Shoks, and it runs better in the subguns and pistols. Better penetration too.” I put the pistol and magazines on the bedstand and pulled out the black plastic box at the bottom of the satchel. Opening the lid, I saw what looked like the slide to my HK45 and a pair of magazines laying in the foam.

“What the fuck?” I asked picking up one of the magazines.

“Training tool,” Nick explained. “The slide replaces the one on your HK45. It’ll send a laser beam out when you pull the trigger. The magazines are the batteries. They can also be set so that they will only fire twelve times before you need to switch them out. Just like your real magazines. It’ll help you build your pistol skills back up. Plus, it’s something to do.” Nick’s phone chirped, and he looked at the message on the screen.

“I have to go meet with the Guildmaster,” Nick said, “Since you and I are the only other hunters in the Hillsborough Guild right now, I’ve been asked to handle a lot of the details to get it back up and running. That pup keeps trying to make me leader of the lone wolves. You need to quit lying in bed and get back to work.”

“Believe me Nick, I’d love to,” I replied. “Until they tell me I’m good to go, however, I’ll just have to lay here and play with my new laser gun.” Nick smiled and walked to the door. He paused and turned back to me.

“Ranger, one more thing,” he said, “My name is Nicholas.”

—–—

My normal compatriots were all busy with their new duties, so I didn’t see them much. I still hadn’t seen Elizabeth. The others kept reassuring me that she was just too busy with her duties. They all seemed to understand my growing anxiety. Then, Lady Anna stopped coming to see me. In my mind, that confirmed that without the Ancestors forcing the issue, Elizabeth realized she was no longer in love with me and was avoiding me. I spent a lot of time shooting lasers around my room. Dr. Talon finally judged me strong enough to leave my room a few days later. A new state hunter was assigned to make sure I didn’t go somewhere the Prince didn’t want me. Apparently, I was still something of a wild card to all of the Red Knights escorting the lords to meet with the new Prince. My guard, Icepick, used to work with the Escambia chapter before being recruited for the State Guild. He was a decent enough hunter who didn’t seem to be bothered he was walking around with a Badmoon. Actually, he didn’t say enough for me to figure out if I bothered him or not. Icepick was definitely in the strong, silent camp of hunter.

Vanessa popped up the day after Talon released me and took Icepick and me for lunch at one of those quickie Mexican places. Vanessa needed an excuse to get out of the Manor for a couple of hours. In addition to being Hangman’s deputy as they worked to re-organize the Hillsborough chapter, Fangbearer managed to extort some help from her with the Society. She looked tired, harried, and supremely happy.

“And we finally managed to crack Blackhawk’s internal files,” Vanessa explained as she chewed on a burrito, “It was a nasty little cypher, but we’ve got personnel files on all the Society operatives. Including a few moles in various packs and Guild chapters throughout the state. As well as all the nasty dirt Blackhawk was using on some of the lords to keep them in line.”

“Would that have anything to do with the Lord of Orange County stepping down?” I asked. That news had shaken the capital. County lords generally didn’t step down unless they were crippled – physically or mentally. A county lord just stepping down without explanation brought out whispered accusations of treason or some other scandal.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Vanessa said with mocking innocence. Icepick raised an eyebrow, which for him was as good as a startled gasp. “Anyways, I turned all of those records over to Fangbearer. Sam needs more of my time now that we have a cadre.”

“How many?” I asked.

“Thirty hunters have agreed to join the Hillsborough Guild,” Vanessa answered. “About half of them are coming either from Duval or Pinellas.” I sat back in my chair and gave Vanessa an astonished look. From the rumblings around the capital, the Prince’s army was sucking up any hunter it could pry loose from the counties. Not including the ones the State Guild was recruiting to fill out its depleted ranks. Vanessa grinned at my expression. “Yeah, Sam was surprised as well, but those are probably the only hunters Hillsborough will see until we grow our own. Nick mentioned a pup that he was hoping to recruit when she completes tysach.”

“Jennifer Denton. She still has my SP101,” I said, remembering the blond pup. Hopefully, in another few weeks, she and the other pups in tysach would return to Hillsborough.

“You gave a pup a snub-nosed .357 Magnum?” Icepick asked, incredulously.

“She earned it. She drilled a fucking ghoul with it when we were rescuing her and the other pups during the war with the TCV,” I answered.

“Well, in that case, if she doesn’t like your chapter, I’m sure my Guildmaster would be more than happy to offer her a place,” Icepick said.

“No poaching,” I said. We all laughed. Probably more than the comment should have caused, but we needed to laugh.

“Anyways, Lady Vollen was pleased–” Vanessa’s mouth snapped shut as she saw the pained look on my face. Vanessa got that “concerned big sister” look on her face as she carefully set her food down and stared into my eyes.

“She’s still not talking to you, is she?” Vanessa asked. Not trusting my voice, I shook my head and took another bite of nachos. Vanessa’s mouth took a hard set and I could see frustration flicker through her eyes.

“Finish up,” Vanessa ordered, “I’ve got to talk with someone.” I knew that determined look in her eyes.

“Vanessa, just leave it,” I said, but Vanessa forcefully held up a single finger to silence me.

“Don’t Mark, just don’t,” Vanessa said, “I’m not the only one who’s tired of the little soap opera between Lady Vollen and you.” I started to ask who else was involved, but Vanessa’s glare cut me off. Even Icepick looked slightly intimidated by the black-haired kin.

—–—

Cracker was now the Guildmaster for Broward County. He was also the only hunter in the Broward Guild. That left him a lot of time between meetings with the other Guildmasters. I managed to snag him to help me get back into fighting trim. A lot of that was Cracker throwing me around the Manor’s gym during hand-to-hand combat bouts. Icepick wisely stayed on the sidelines as Cracker proved over and over how much better he was at the hands-on techniques. After a couple of hard throws, I started wondering if Cracker agreed so readily so he could work out his frustrations on me. It had been a couple of hours since my lunch with Vanessa, and I was really regretting the nachos after Cracker threw me into wall. I laid still on the ground with my eyes closed as my body knitted itself. That part wasn’t fully recovered, yet. It was a floral scent above me that made me open my eyes. Staring down at me with an angry expression was Lady Anna.

“Get up and follow me,” Lady Anna said in a low, controlled voice. I had no idea what I did to piss her off, but it didn’t seem like the time to ask. She spun on her heel and walked out of the Manor’s gym. I nodded to Cracker, who looked as confused as I was, and chased after Lady Anna with Icepick in tow. She strode through the Manor’s maze of corridors without once looking back at me. Finally, she stopped at a set of double doors. Two Black Knights were standing at either side. I was guessing these were Prince Savik’s quarters.

“You stay here,” Lady Anna said to Icepick, before opening one of the doors. “You come with me.” I followed her into a large sitting room with a pair of couches flanking an overstuffed leather chair. A glass coffee table was sat between the couches. Prince Savik sat in the chair, while Elizabeth sat on one of the couches. I froze as I saw her for the first time since the battle at the cravex. She was wearing a gray dress suit, with the jacket sitting next to her. Her auburn hair hid her face as she looked at the carpet. I could see battle scars crisscrossing her arms. My heart ached at her injuries, but I was also strangely proud that she’d come out of the battle scarred, but alive.

“Ranger, would you be so kind to join us?” Prince Savik said. It was then I realized that Lady Anna seated herself next to Elizabeth on the couch. Prince Savik motioned for me to sit on the other couch. As I sat down, Elizabeth finally looked up. I was struck by how pale she looked. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. I could see the cosmetic tracks where tears had streamed down her cheeks. I wanted to go to her. I wanted to flee. I wanted to tear apart the couch.

“I think it is time for us to decide on the fates of you three, and the two counties you represent,” Prince Savik said. “I have had several requests from lords to inquire as to whether either Anna or Elizabeth would entertain offers of marriage.” The two females looked at Prince Savik with trepidation. As the Prince of Florida, Prince Savik had the power to order their marriages as part of their oaths of fealty to him.

“I haven’t committed to do anything, because quite frankly, I was hoping the three of you would work out this little triangle on your own,” Prince Savik said. “Or at least between the two of you considering how much the two of you have talked with me and between yourselves.” The Prince looked at Lady Anna and Elizabeth. Then he looked over at me.

“I think it’s time that you told them who you really are, Bloodclaw,” Prince Savik said. I stared at him dumbfounded. “I have everything from the previous Prince’s records. Including who you are and where you really come from. Then Nicholas was kind enough to fill in some of the details that were still sketchy.” Lady Anna looked at her uncle and me with frustration. Elizabeth just looked like she was scared about what I was going to say.

“I am the Bloodclaw,” I said, a mixture of fear and relief filling me as I spoke the words. “I was the tool of the Ancestors to stop the vampires attempt to resurrect their god.” I looked up into Elizabeth’s eyes. Some of the fear was gone, replaced with curiosity. “I am the grandson of the previous Bloodclaw, who we know as the Forgotten Lord of Hillsborough.” Both Lady Anna and Elizabeth gasped. I plowed on with my story. I told them about meeting my grandfather after Lothos nearly killed me. They sat perfectly still as I related my conversations with my grandfather, the First Bloodclaw, Lord Vollen, and the Ancestors. Tears streamed down Elizabeth’s face as I talked about her father. Their eyes went wild when I told them of my conditions about them in the deal I made with the Ancestors. I didn’t know what else to tell them, so I fell silent.

“Does this answer some of your questions?” Prince Savik asked the two females. The two nodded slowly as I just looked at the Prince confused. What questions?

“Why?” Elizabeth demanded, “Why would you not demand to make me your mate? Didn’t you want that?”

“You shouldn’t be forced into something you don’t want, even if your feelings are being manipulated to think otherwise,” I said, “I couldn’t do that to you. I wanted to make sure you were happy because of what you wanted, not because the Ancestors forced you into it.” Elizabeth grabbed the front of my shirt and yanked me to her. Pain filled her eyes.

“Do you know what that decision did to me?” Elizabeth asked. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up and find all of your feelings changed? I thought I was going insane. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and now, I find out the real reason.” She collapsed into my arms crying and hitting me. Then, she pulled my face down to hers and kissed me. Gently. On the cheek. As she pulled back, I looked deep into her green eyes.

“You don’t love me anymore,” I said. It wasn’t a question. I could see it in her eyes.

“Not the way you want me to,” she answered. “I have affection for you, but it’s not the love of a catshen.” I thought I steeled myself to hear those words. I was wrong. I don’t remember going to the ground. The next thing I remember is Lady Anna helping me back to my feet. Elizabeth – no, Lady Elizabeth – looked at me with a sorrowful expression.

“Mark, I don’t think I will ever be able to repay you for what you have done for me,” Lady Elizabeth said. Her tone was tender, but formal. “You’ve saved my life in so many ways. This is a horrible way to repay you.”

“I knew this might happen,” I said, trying my best to be the perfect stoic hunter, “I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t hurt, but I understand.” She nodded and traded looks with Lady Anna. All I wanted was to get out of the room.

“We are not quite done here,” Prince Savik said. The three of us looked at the Prince. “I don’t think we’ll be able to tell all of Florida about you Ranger. Something about the spell that was cast. I mean, I know the truth, but I’m still having a hard time believing it. So, for as the rest of the lycanthrope community will know, you will remain the Badmoon. You deserve better Ranger, but this is just part of the price you’re paying for your deal. So, we need to figure out how to deal with what you two did back in Hillsborough.”

“Uncle, please,” Lady Anna pleaded. “They both just had their hearts ripped out.”

“And any other time, I would give them time to heal a bit. Time is not a resource I can afford to spend with these two,” Prince Savik said. “From the standpoint of the Prince of Florida, I should make both Elizabeth and Anna marry aristocrats who would help bind some of my more independent counties to me.” He gave the two females serious looks. I barely stopped myself from wincing as Lady Anna crushed my arm in her grip.

“You, my young hunter have completely fucked that up,” the Prince snarled.

“How?” I asked before I could stop myself.

“If I ordered Elizabeth’s marriage, I would be forced to guarantee her. Which I cannot do,” Prince Savik said, through clenched teeth. “As for Anna, there are other complications.”

“It was my mistake, let me deal with it,” Lady Elizabeth said. Prince Savik gave her a fatherly look.

“You would be strong enough to do so,” the Prince said, “Our tenuous peace with the lords and Bradon may not.”

“Let me deal with Bradon,” I said.

“Are you going to tell him everything?” the Prince asked.

“I’m going to do to him what he’s done to me for so long,” I said, “I’m going to tell him what he needs to know.”

“That still doesn’t fix our problems with the lords,” the Prince said.

“I think that’s going to be less of a problem than you think,” Lady Anna said. “While you’ve been dealing with the lords, I’ve been talking to their sons. Let’s just say, the sons are more forgiving.”

“Even if it was a Badmoon?” Lady Elizabeth asked.

“You mean the Killer Of Lothos?” Lady Anna countered. I could hear the capital letters in how she said the words.

“Is there some reason they can’t choose on their own?” I asked. “I mean, that’s why I pissed off the Ancestors after all.” All three stared at me in shock.

“Ranger, you cause me so much trouble,” the Prince said, but the smile belied his frustrated tone. Lady Elizabeth gave me a sad smile.

“The truth is Mark, I need to find a suitable mate sooner than later,” she said. “Not only does Prince Savik need allies, so does Hillsborough.”

”It feels like you’re still being forced to marry someone against your will,” I growled. Lady Elizabeth smiled at me.

“I’m choosing to put my county first,” Lady Elizabeth said. She shot a look at Lady Anna. I was getting s little frustrated with all the silent communication between those two. Lady Anna stared defiantly back. Okay, so it wasn’t all sunshine and roses between the two of them.

“I hate giving contradictory orders, but take your time and make a decision relatively quickly,” Prince Savik said. Lady Elizabeth nodded.

“What about Lady Anna?” I asked.

“There is still a complication there,” Prince Savik. “More so, I would hazard with your revelations today. Anna, would you please take Ranger back to his room. Elizabeth and I need to talk without him in the room.”

“Wait, I need to say something to Lady Elizabeth first,” I said. Prince Savik nodded. I walked over to Lady Elizabeth, and took her hands in mine. “Your father asked me to tell you that your mother and he are very proud of their little firecracker.” Lady Elizabeth’s eyes went wide in shock, like I had slapped her across the face.

“Ranger, I think you best come with me,” Lady Anna said, tugging at my arm. I obediently followed Lady Anna out of the room. We walked wordlessly through the halls. Lady Anna kept her face a careful neutral as we passed other arisocrats, Knights, hunters, warriors, and shaman. As soon as we walked into my room, Lady Anna’s mask dropped. She looked pensive as she sat down in the room’s chair. I sat down on the bed. Several long moments passed in silence.

“So, do you want to tell me what the Prince was talking about?” I asked.

“Uncle Erik is hesitant to marry me off,” Lady Anna said.

“Why?” I asked.

“He’s worried that I’m going to scare off all the potential suitors,” Lady Anna said.

“Why? I asked.

“Do you remember when I told you I wasn’t going to be a consolation prize?” Lady Anna asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, confused by the non sequitor.

“I won’t settle for being someone’s second choice, and I won’t settle for my second choice either,” Lady Anna said. “Elizabeth may no longer be in love with you Ranger, but I still am, and I just won’t accept any aristocrat who wouldn’t measure up to you.” Anger flashed through me.

“What do you want from me?” I asked. “Because right now, I’m dealing with Elizabeth ripping my heart out as gently as she could. And you told me that you wanted me to choose you over Elizabeth, not because Elizabeth rejected me.” Lady Anna walked over and placed her hand on my cheek.

“Ranger, for someone who is so fearsome as a hunter, you are remarkably easy to manipulate,” Lady Anna said, “They gave you everything you wanted. Love, acceptance, and status all wrapped up in a pretty package. How could you not fall for that?” She sighed. “One of the things I love about you is your stubborn devotion. Do you know it wasn’t until you told us about what happened that so much of this made sense. That night in Hillsborough, I could tell there was part of you that was interested in me, but your devotion to Elizabeth stomped it down before you could really think about it.” I thought back to that night when Lady Anna and I were by the pool.

“What if there was?” I asked.

“I want to know if there’s still a chance of something between us before I let Uncle Erik marry me off,” Lady Anna said.

“You want me to tell you right now?” I asked, “After what just happened to me?” Lady Anna gave me a sad smile.

“Like Uncle Erik said, take your time, but make a decision quickly,” Lady Anna said. She walked out of my room, pausing just long enough at the door to give me an undecipherable look.

——————————

I avoided both of the ladies and Prince Savik for the next couple of days. I needed to clear my head. Medicating with gunpowder and lead was always helpful. Hangman, Vanessa, Nick and me were down in the State Guild’s range. With everything going on, I was pleasantly surprised that we had the place to ourselves. The disgusted looks from other lycanthropes was something I was used to. The looks of awe and respect were disturbing. Maybe because I just couldn’t believe that any of the county lycanthropes really did respect me. I was concentrating on transition drills. I lined up the holographic reticle on the cardboard target and fired a short burst from my Commando. I let the carbine drop on its sling as I drew my HK45 and double tapped the targets on either side. Next to me, Nick was doing the same thing with an M4 and his Smith. The room seemed to rock with the reverberations from his big Smith firing.

“Looks like you’re getting your edge back Ranger,” Hangman said, inspecting our work. The first few times we ran this drill, the pistol targets each had two holes in the head. Now, each were sporting one ragged hole.

“About fucking time,” I growled. The center burst from the Commando wasn’t as tight as I wanted. We walked back to the bench to top off our magazines.

“We have company,” Nick said. I looked up and saw Fangbearer walk in with two other lycanthropes. They moved like hunters, and I saw the bulges from concealed pistols. Society operatives I was willing to bet.

“What the fuck is he doing here?” Hangman said.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, surprised by Hangman’s hostility.

“Fangbearer’s snatched a few recruits from us for the new Society,” Vanessa answered. Fangbearer and his two flunkies walked over to us.

“Ranger, can I speak to you for a moment?” Fangbearer asked.

“Sure,” I said, continuing to load magazines.

“Alone?” he asked. I was about to give him an angry retort, but Vanessa stopped me with a sharp gesture.

“Mark, you better go talk with him,” Vanessa said. I gave her a questioning look, but she didn’t say anything else. Hangman and Nick both shrugged. I laid my Commando on the bench, holstered my HK45, and walked outside the range with Fangbearer. His two flunkies didn’t follow us out. We walked into the State Guild’s armory. Fangbearer wordlessly paced the barren room. The silence stretched out as Fangbearer walked back and forth. My small amount of patience evaporated.

“You want to tell me why you dragged me out here?” I asked.

“Not really,” Fangbearer said. “The Prince, Elizabeth, and Anna told me what happened the other day. And Anna told me what she asked you.”

“Why?” I asked, “Why tell you that?”

“A couple of reasons. Probably most important is that Elizabeth asked me to marry her,” Fangbearer said, in a neutral voice. The words were an unexpected gut punch.

“Why you?” I asked, as my mind grappled with the revelation.

“Anna and Elizabeth were a bit too optimistic about how the other lords would react to finding out about what happened between Elizabeth and you before we came up to Tallahassee,” Fangbearer explained. “Marrying her gives the Prince the opportunity to rehabilitate both of us in the eyes of the aristocracy and the packs. And to be honest, I don’t care about what happened between the two of you. I saw it too much back home.” Fangbearer stared off into space for a long moment.

“You said a couple of reasons,” I said, bringing him back to the conversation.

“Well, that depends on how you answer Anna’s question,” Fangbearer said.

“What the fuck does that have to do with you marrying Elizabeth?” I asked, annoyed at Fangbearer bringing that up.

“First, because my fiancee, wants you to be happy. She still cares about you, if not as a lover, then certainly as friend. She thinks, as I do, that Anna would make you happy,” Fangbearer said. “And second, because I would prefer you not return to the Hillsborough Guild.” He must have seen the flash of pure rage in my eyes, because he held up his hands in supplication. “I do not think you would act dishonorably towards your lady, but it would be best for all three of us if there were not even the hint of further scandal.

“So, you’d rather me go down and be Lady Anna’s mate in Dade?” I asked. “Far away from my home and all of my few remaining friends?”

“Sort of,” Fangbearer said.

“Being cryptic isn’t helping,” I said.

“Anna renounced her claim to Dade,” Fangbearer said.

“What? Why would she do that?” I asked.

“Because, as of right now, she’s the Prince’s heir-apparent,” Fangbearer answered. “I know what you’re going to say. If the lords would have a hard with you as the mate of a county lady, they would have never accept you as the mate of the Prince’s heir-apparent.”

“That thought occurred to me,” I said.

“Continuing to be blunt, seeing what you did in Dade and Broward in the short time you were there, I suspect your reputation will only grow during the war with the FCV. More than enough to compensate for you being a Badmoon.” He paused for a moment to let that thought sink in. “Now, just for a moment assume that I’m right. Do you think you could love Anna?” I pondered the question for a long moment. Nick made some good points on how Lady Anna was a better match for me than Elizabeth. Plus, I knew that Lady Anna wasn’t being manipulated by the Ancestors, or that she was using me to rebel against the Prince or something.

“I’m not ready now, but I think I would like to find out,” I said.

“Thank you,” Fangbearer said. Genuine gratitude shone in his eyes. He retrieved his two flunkies and left the range. I paced up and down as I went back over my conversation with Fangbearer. Apparently I’d been gone a bit too long because Nick found me in the armory.

“Made your decision?” Nick asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Good. Took you long enough,” Nick said. “You were thinking too much and not listening to your instincts.” That stopped me flat. Nick was right. Damn. After learning what I was and what I was born to do, I’d stopped trusting my instincts.

“I’m not going back to Hillsborough,” I said. Saying the words hurt so much more than I thought they would.

“Yeah, I thought that might happen,” Nick said.

“Because of what happened to you back in Nebraska?” I asked. He was quiet for a long time. It wouldn’t have been the first time that Nick just ignored a question about his past.

“Yes,” Nick said. I could see in his eyes that the answer cost something inside of him. “Maybe it’s time for me to tell you about what happened to me.”

“Nope,” I said. “Not unless you think those dogs that came for you once are coming again.” Nick’s eyebrows crooked up in surprise. “Nick, if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine with me. Am I curious? Fuck yes, because I’m sure it’s one hell of a story. Maybe someday you’ll feel comfortable enough to tell me. Maybe you’ll never feel ready to tell that story. Just don’t let your past fuck over Hangman and Vanessa. They’re going to need all the help you can give them.” Nick’s slap caught me off-guard.

“Don’t you remember what I told you when I came and saw you the first time?” Nick asked. “Our lines are bonded. You may have fulfilled your destiny. Something tells me that the Ancestors still have plans for you. I can’t leave the Bloodclaw while those ancient bastards are still plotting against you.” I’ll admit, I was scandalized by Nick’s blasphemous words. Then I thought about what they did to all of us. Bastards was a good term for most of them.

“What about Hangman? What about Hillsborough?” I asked.

“We’ve groomed them well,” Nick said. “The Guildmaster. And the Lady.” We both smiled. It was the first genuine smile for me in what felt like a very long time.

“Right again, Nick,” I said.

“My name is Nicholas.”

Epilogue