Archive for category: Badmoon Rising

Monday Fiction – Getting the Job Done

08 Aug
August 8, 2016

Yeah, I know. I’ve been mostly ignoring the blog lately. Mostly because life’s been hectic and kicking me around for the past few months. Not sure yet if that’s going to change. Anyways, this is the short story I submitted to Baen’s Fantasy short story contest. Since I didn’t win, I figured I’d post it up here for y’all to enjoy.

This story takes place in the Badmoon universe, but in Kentucky. Things are a little different there.

–Getting the Job Done–

Tysach. The learning time in the Ancestors Tongue. For the pups of Louisville-Jefferson County, it’s when the pups learn of pack traditions, history, and how to survive in the harsh world of the supernatural. Tysach is a hard time for the pups, and sometimes pups don’t survive. Longeye and his hit pack are there to make sure death isn’t from an outside attack. That is the job, and hunters never fail the job.

Longeye looks back at the shaman teaching pups not much younger than her. She must be strong and smart if the Spiritmaster trusts her with tysach, Longeye thinks. At least she doesn’t treat my hit pack like we’re her servants, unlike other shaman. A cold wind blows through the camp. In true form – the man-wolf of human legend – Longeye’s senses are much sharper. His pelt is also warmer than any jacket.

“CONTACT!” screams Mountain, Longeye’s second. The ripsaw sound of Mountain’s M240 fills the small hill valley. Blue light from behind draws Longeye’s gaze from his second. The shaman formed a cerulean shield in front of the pups. Longeye’s heard the stories when shaman fought, but Longeye has never seen such a powerful use of the magicks. An unnatural roar focuses Longeye back on the combat. He sprints to join his hit pack.

In between two hills are a half-dozen creatures unlike anything Longeye’s heard about. The creatures are fifteen feet tall with wide, round bodies and spindly arms and legs. A wide face protrudes from just below the shoulders. The monsters are mottled grays, like they’re made of rock. Following Mountain’s lead, Longeye brings his stubby AK74U up and fires a short burst into the closest monster. The bullets spang off the creature’s hide like they hit concrete. The monster turns and opens a mouth as wide as its head and filled with jagged teeth that look more like stalactites.

“What the fuck are those?” Thumper asks, sliding in the snow behind Longeye.

“No idea,” Longeye answers his hit pack’s last member, “Silver and lead don’t seem to have any effect. Bring the fire!” Thumper smiles and unlimbers his Milkor grenade launcher. The bulky weapon coughs four times. The first two grenades knock a pair of monsters to the ground. The third showers another monster with fragments. The final grenade pops and hisses as the white phosphorus melts into the monster’s body.

“Well, that seemed to–” Thumper is cut off as the fifth and sixth monster charge the hit pack.

How could those huge forms move so fast through the snow? Longeye thinks as he leaps to the side. Thumper fires his last two grenades, but the two charging forms shrug off the high explosive. Longeye aims at the small dot eyes and fires. The bullets do little more than draw the monster’s attention. The monster looms over Longeye and brings down its arm. Longeye leaps out of the way, but the damn thing manages to tag him in the leg. Pain flashes through Longeye as he rolls in the snow. The leg’s broken. He waits for a second for the wound to heal. Fear flushes through him when the pain doesn’t subside like it should.

“They’re archanal!” Longeye warns his hit pack. Archanal wounds defeat the lycanthropes’ natural healing. Longeye needs to shift his tactics, but the monster is back on him too fast. A stone backhand sends Longeye flying for a few yards before slamming into a tree. His back heals instantly, but his muzzle and jaw aren’t working. Blood pours down his pelt as Longeye gasps for air. In the mix of pain, cold, and oxygen deprivation, an idea emerges. Longeye gathers his strength and waits as the monster thunders to finish him. Longeye’s mind barely registers that he doesn’t hear Mountain’s machinegun or Thumper’s grenades. Longeye focuses only on the monster’s wide mouth. The monster looms over Longeye with that mouth wide open. Longeye yanks the pin off the thermite grenade and jumps. The metal cylinder grates against the monster’s teeth before bouncing into its maw. An instant later, Longeye’s side erupts in pain as the monster slaps him out of the air. Longeye’s conscious long enough to hear the grenade detonate inside the monster. What looks like lava pours out of its mouth before the monster sinks to the ground. In moments, the monster melts into a heap of stone.

Well, at least I got one of the bastards, Longeye thinks before darkness consumes him.

Pain and stink bring Longeye back to the world. The first things he sees are yellow eyes and rust color fur. That shaman. The one who made the shield when the fight broke out. From the stench, she’s smearing wolfsbane in all of his wounds. The foul medicine burns, but it expels archanal magic to let his body heal with its normal speed. With a grunt of pain, Longeye sits up. The entire county’s Order of Spirits is in the hollow. A dozen of shaman are casting wards around the hollow, while the rest are standing over the huddled pups. Longeye looks around. He can’t see Mountain or Thumper.

“I’m sorry, hunter. Your friends didn’t make it,” the shaman says, sympathetically. “You probably shouldn’t see them right now. The Order will prepare them for travel to the cravex after the hollow is secured.”

“I appreciate your concern, but those two were my hit pack. I need to see them,” Longeye says. To her credit, the shaman helps Longeye stand and walks him to the bodies of his friends. Or what’s left of his friends. Longeye’s seen hunters shot, sliced, burned, and mutilated. Torn apart is a new one for Longeye. The pile of body parts that had been Mountain and Thumper makes his stomach churn. He doesn’t even hear the Guildmaster walk up. The leader of the hunters puts a comforting hand on Longeye’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Steven,” the Guildmaster says, using Longeye’s cover name, “From what the shaman and the pups said, the three of you fought hard against those creatures.”

“Do you know what they were?” Longeye asks. The old wolf shakes his head.

“No. Neither does the Order. The Spiritmaster is communing with the Ancestors at the cravex,” the Guildmaster answers.

“Why didn’t they kill the pups?” Longeye asks. The Guildmaster looks uncomfortable at the question. Longeye’s stomach plummets. “Who did they kill?”

“It’s not who they killed,” a new voice says from behind Longeye. All three lycanthropes instinctively drop to one knee. Karl Silverbane, Lord of Jefferson County, radiates fury. The two Red Knights standing at his side look like hunters who failed a mission.

“Melanie?” Longeye asks the Guildmaster. By tradition, a pup in tysach, is treated by their family as if dead until he or she returns to the packs after the Rite of Initiation.

“We can’t find her,” the Guildmaster answers. “We did find a pup’s body. One of the other pups identified him as Melanie’s current paramour.” The Guildmaster gives the lord a sidelong look. “Everything points to Melanie being kidnapped.”

“Who would be insane enough to kidnap Lord Silverbane’s daughter?” Longeye asks. “Not even the LCV would sanction that. They would never endanger The Peace.” The Louisville Council of Vampire controls almost all of the vampires in Louisville and the surrounding area. Their Inner Council is very careful to follow the tenets of The Peace after Florida erupted in open war a few years ago. Neither the lycanthropes nor the vampires want that particular fire to spread to Kentucky.

“They are the natural suspects,” the shaman says, “Our races have been at war for centuries.” Longeye and the Guildmaster trade knowing looks.

“I know you just lost Michael and Kevin, but you’re my best investigator. I need you to find out who did this and get Melanie back,” the Guildmaster says.

“I’ll take the job, but I’m going to need help if whoever’s behind this has more of those monsters,” Longeye answers.

“What do you need?” the Guildmaster asks. From the look in his eyes, the old wolf is willing to sign off on damn near anything. Usually, only the Guildmaster’s personal hitter got such carte blanch.

“You will take her,” the Deputy Spiritmaster says as he walks up to join the small group. He points at the young shaman. The Deputy Spiritmaster glares, and the shaman looks down.

“Exactly why would my hunter take her with him?” the Guildmaster asks in his most polite voice. Longeye steps away from his boss. When the Guildmaster is that solicitous, someone’s going to spend the next few weeks with wolfsbane smeared over their entire body. One does not become the leader of the hunters without having the ability to back it up.

“The Ancestors command it,” the Deputy Spiritmaster answers. “They have told the Spiritmaster the pup will only be returned if both that hunter and this one are the searchers. They must begin by speaking with the scarred leech.” The Deputy Spiritmaster looks like the words leave a foul taste in his mouth. Longeye signals the Guildmaster, who motions for Longeye to speak. It’s that trust that endears the Guildmaster to his hunters.

“She can come. I know who the Ancestors are talking about,” Longeye says. The Deputy Spiritmaster looks revolted, but the shaman looks intrigued. That’s a hopeful sign if the two are going to work together, especially considering the normal rivalry between hunters and shaman. Longeye looks over to the Guildmaster. “Boss, I’m going to need some stuff from the armory and $100,000 in cash.”

That’s who your contact is in the LCV?” the Guildmaster exclaims. “I’ll need a couple of hours to pull together the cash. Take her with you to the armory. I’ll have the money delivered to you there.” The Guildmster walks off, issuing orders into a cellphone. The Deputy Spiritmaster storms back to the rest of the shaman leaving Longeye alone with the shaman. He holds out his hand.

“You can call me Steve,” Longeye says, using his cover name. She tentatively takes the proffered hand. Her grip is firm with the barest hint of uncertainty.

“I’m Jen.”

Jen is annoyed as she steps out of Steve’s car. Okay, hunters are supposed to be mysterious. They’re the lord’s assassins after all. Still, Steve didn’t have to ask her to go sit in the car while he talked with the scarred leech. Okay, the scarred leech is the leader of the Bleeders, the vampire counterpart of the hunters. And yes, Jen had growled at the leech guarding the door before Steve asked her nicely to wait for him in the car. It’s just frustrating. The Ancestors said that she needs to help. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t know all of this cloak-and-dagger shit.

The address the $100,000 bought is a small antiques shop in Jeffersontown. Even in her human form, Jen can smell the stench of leech. There’s an unusual scent, but it’s so faint, Jen dismisses it. Whatever left that scent is long gone. Steve gets out of his car and scans the area. The streets are mostly deserted at this time of night. Orange sodium lights reflect off the dirty snow on the curbs.

CRACK! The sound comes from inside the shop. Jen opens her mind and soul to the Ancestors. They fill her with their magick. Steve moves to the door with a small machine gun in his hands. He shoves the door open and storms into the darkness. Jen follows behind him, preparing a pair of rites in her mind. Her eyes attenuate to the darkness inside the shop, as she nearly gags from the intense stench of leech.

In the middle of the shop is a leech changing to true form in death. The black fluid that had once been human blood is pooling beneath the body. Behind the counter is another leech holding a smoking pistol. Steve keeps his machine gun aimed at the vampire behind the counter as he moves to the body and kicks away a pistol.

“Well, it’s not often I see your kind in my shop,” the vampire says with a pleasant smile on his face. His heavy German accent turns the “w’s” to “v’s”. The vampire puts the small pistol away. Steve lowers his machine gun.

“Porthos sent us your way,” Steve says, “He thought you might be able to identify something for us.”

“I am always happy to do a favor for a friend of Porthos,” the vampire says. There’s something in the vampire’s tone that sounds like the vampire is repaying a favor. The vampire holds out his hand. “Klaus.”

“Steve, and this is Jen,” Steve says, taking his hand. Jen warily shakes the proffered hand.

“What happened here?” Steve asks, motioning to the body on the floor.

Ach, that damned television show,” the vampire says, disgusted. “Every new independent in Kentucky thinks he’s the lawman or the criminal from that show. Some of them are dumb enough to see if they are faster than me. It’s almost to the point I shoot any young nosferatu that walks in here wearing one of those stupid hats.” Klaus looks back. “Bruno! Get out here!” A large ghoul strides out from the back room. He snarls at Jen and Steve, but Klaus shushes his servant. The vampire wordlessly motions to the body.

“So, what did Porthos think I could identify for you?” Klaus asks as Bruno hauls the humanoid bat form of the dead leech out of the front of the shop.

“Could you tell us what this is?” Jen asks. She silently casts the rite, and an image of the monster appears above her hand. A warm sensation runs through Jen when Steve looks suitably impressed. The vampire stares at the image for a long moment.

Mein Gott,” the vampire murmurs, “I hoped I would never see those again.” The vampire’s eyes flick to Jen. “Why do you want to know about these?”

“Six of them attacked the pups during tysach,” Jen answers.

Unmöglich!” Klaus exclaims, “Those are Russian earth monsters! They cannot be here. Not on this continent’s soil!”

“Well, they are!” Jen snaps, “I watched them tear apart two hunters. I barely held them back.”

“How did you do such a thing?” Klaus demands. Jen looks to Steve, unsure if she should tell the vampire. The hunter nods.

“With a shield,” Jen answers.

“You held six of these at bay with a shield?” Klaus asks. “Our best wizards on the Ostfront barely held them back when they attacked us, and they needed to combine their strength in order to do that much.” Klaus gives Jen an amazed look. Then, an arrow is sticking out of the vampire’s chest and black fluid is spilling out onto the counter.

Steve spins, crouches, and brings up his machine gun in one graceful movement. Jen tries to mimic the hunter as she turns back to the door. The doorway is filled by – a were-ram? It’s humanoid, and easily eight feet tall from the top of its curled ram horns down to its cloven feet. Light tan fur covers the body. The face is more human than sheep-like. The ram-man takes a step into the shop and nocks another arrow in its polished wood bow.

Steven’s machine gun stutters. Jen is surprised how much more quiet it is than the ones the hunters used in the hollow. A half-dozen red holes bloom in the ram-man’s chest. The ram-man takes a step back from the gunfire, but looks more annoyed than injured. Steven kicks over a table, sending ceramic knick-knacks crashing to the floor. Jen crouches down behind a shelf of metal trinkets. There’s a hard thunk as the ram-man sinks its arrow into the table Steven is hiding behind. The hunter raises up and fires his machine gun again. The bullets just seem to piss off the ram-man. Well, if bullets don’t work, maybe it was time for something else.

STORMAYRE!” Jen shouts. She’s nearly deafened and blinded as lightning bolts arch from her outstretched hands to the ram-man. Cooked meat smells and smoke fill the shop as the ram-man is reduced to a charred heap. Jen falls to one knee, panting like she’d just run a marathon.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks, suddenly at her side. His voice is kind of tinny as her ears heal.

“Yeah, that rite just took a bit out of me,” Jen answers.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a shaman throw around that kind of magick,” Steve says. Jen shrugs.

“It’s not something we do on a regular basis,” she says. Steve just nods. Then he shoves her to the floor as the store’s frosted windows shatter from a fusillade of arrows. Jen pushes the hunter aside and peers around the shelves. Five more of the ram-men stand on the street pointing arrows into the shop. Jen prays to the Ancestors that the street are deserted. This is too blatant. If too many humans see what the attack, the pathwalkers will come and restore balance. Their definition of restoring balance favored wiping out entire supernatural populations.

Jaegar!” Klaus shouts. The vampire’s laying down at the end of the counter. He tosses Steve a worn assault rifle. “That will stop those bastard dusios.” Steve brings up the assault rifle to his shoulder and fires. The gunfire deafens Jen again. A ram-man crumples to the ground. The four remaining ram-men – dusios? – bellow deep howls of rage as they loose their arrows.

DENMANT!” Jen snarls. A translucent blue shield appears. The arrows flash into embers as they strike it.

“Can you lower that shield long enough for me to get another burst off?” Steve asks. Jen grits her teeth in concentration as she silently asks the Ancestors.

“No,” Jen answers.

“We can escape out the back,” Klaus says.

“We can’t leave those things out there,” Jen says. A steady stream of arrows pelt the shield as the ram-men advance on the shop.

“Jen’s right,” Steve says. “How do I get up on the roof?”

“Follow me,” Klaus says.

“Hold them here,” Steve says, gripping Jen’s shoulder. “I’m going to take them out.” Steve follows the vampire into the back room. Jen musters up her strength and focuses the magick into the rite.

He’d better hurry up.

Longeye and Klaus go out the back door into a narrow alley. Klaus motions to a metal ladder just to the right of the door. Longeye quickly strips and sheds human form for true. The world becomes more real as his senses sharpen. Longeye leaps up to the roof and sprints across the roof. He sheds back for human. Longeye doesn’t know where Klaus got an MP44, but he needs to be in human form to aim the seventy-year-old weapon. Firing human-sized guns while in the nine-foot tall true form takes a lot of practice. Longeye aims at the biggest of the ram-men. The MP44 stutters with a short burst. The creature slumps to the ground as rust-red blood pools on the street.

Much to Longeye’s surprise, the ram-men don’t scatter. They just stop in the street and aim up at the roof. Steve manages to take down a second ram-man before ducking down. Three arrows sail over the building. Longeye crab-walks a few yards to the right before rising up. A ram-man guessed almost right as the hunter pops back up. Pain blossoms across Longeye’s scalp. The hunter’s aim is better, and the third ram-man goes down. Longeye crouches back down. He smiles as he feels the wound seal. At least the arrows aren’t archanal.

There’s another bellow, but it’s cut off in the middle of the roar. Longeye rises up and looks down at the last ram-man. The hunter’s eyes go wide. The ram-man is encased in ice. The Ancestors must really like Jen to let her throw around those kinds of spells – or we are really fucked. I hope that Bruno ghoul can clean up those bodies. Longeye walks back to the alley side and jumps down. Hitting the asphalt, he rolls up into a crouch and waits the few seconds it takes for his legs to heal from the drop.

“I come here to kill the vampire my babushka hates, and look what I find,” says a new voice. Longeye looks up to see a tall, dark-haired human standing at the mouth of the alley. “You’re the werewolf who killed my elemental.” Longeye snatches his pistol from his discarded clothing and brings it up just in time to see Klaus bouncing off a shimmering shield in front of the wizard. At that instant, Jen sprints out of the shop. The wizard gives Jen an appraising look.

“And you’re the one throwing around all of that werewolf magic,” the wizard says. “So, we now have the three heroes who will try to stop me. How appropriate.”

“Who are you?” Jen demands.

“I’m not going to make it that simple,” the wizard answers, “I’m required by the ritual to give you a chance to try and stop me. If you don’t, then the girl werewolf will be sacrificed for the ritual.” The wizard smiles. “I will tell you one thing in the name of being sporting. You have until midnight tomorrow to stop me from sacrificing your precious girl werewolf.” Longeye snaps his pistol up and fires three rounds. The bullets ricochet off the shield.

“No!” the wizard snaps, “You will abide by the rules of the ritual, hero. You three will confront me tomorrow night. If you do not, then not only will the girl die, but every living thing in a hundred mile circle.” The alley goes dark for an instant. When Longeye can see again, the wizard is gone.

“So, let me get this straight,” Jen says, “You, me, and the Nazi vampire are supposed to stop a ritual before midnight or not only do we lose Melanie, but a bunch more people get killed?”

“That sounds about right,” Longeye confirms.

“To be fair, I was never that good a Nazi,” Klaus says, “My lieutenant always complained I lacked sufficient Nationalist Socialist ardor. It was such a shame when he fell on that land mine outside Stalingrad.” Jen and Longeye trade wary looks.

“So, how do we do this?” Jen asks.

“If you’re hunting lycanthropes, follow the packs. For vampires, follow the power,” Longeye answers, “For humans, you follow the money.”

Klaus pulls his battered Volkswagen Beetle up next to the fence. The vampire gets out and walks over to the two lycanthropes. Longeye stifles another yawn. Finding this place took all night and most of the day. Jen surprised him how good she was in things he’d always assumed were hunter specialties. He thought about how much of his old prejudices were still valid on the drive up to the property.

“I thought all of you hunters drove those big, black SUV’s with tinted windows,” Klaus says, walking over to Longeye’s beloved Subaru WRX. The vampire is dressed only in a flannel shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. “Is your boot able to hold all of your gear?” The vampire’s words bring a momentary pang of grief. Mountain always complained that he barely fit in the front seat of the compact. It’d been a running joke between Longeye and his second.

“I prefer nimble over mass,” Longeye says. The vampire nods as if Longeye said something profound.

“Now, if only you didn’t drive it like my grandpa,” Jen says, climbing out of the passenger seat. The teasing tone is welcome after the long night and day of work.

“If I drive like a bat out of hell, then it’s because everything’s gone to hell,” Longeye replies. He gives Klaus a sober look. “You’re here much later than we agreed.”

“It took more time and resources to fulfill my part of our arrangement,” Klaus answers, “Now, what did you find about our wizard? Besides this compound.” Jen smiles as she hands a tablet to Klaus.

“Michael Kursk,” she says, pointing at the picture of the dark haired man with a dour look on his gaunt face. “Came to America from Russia when he was a toddler. Orphaned shortly after. Made a ton of money in Silicon Valley before selling everything and coming east. He just bought this large swath of undeveloped land. According to the Ancestors, this area is magically significant. For humans, anyway.”

“You have been busy since I last saw you,” Klaus says. The vampire scrolls to the next page and grunts.

“That’s his grandmother,” Jen says, pointing to the photograph of an old Russian woman in traditional dress including the kerchief over the gray hair. “Kursk found her a few years ago and brought her over from Russia.”

“That’s not his grandmother,” Klaus says, with a growling tone that puts up both lycanthropes’ hackles. “That’s a fucking Baba Yaga.” Jen gasps.

“Are you sure?” Jen asks.

“Yes. Saw the Dämon on the battlefield,” Klaus says, then chuckles. “Bitch’s minions wounded me enough to bring me to attention of Great Council. I’m a nosferatu because of that monster.” There’s a quiet moment as Longeye looks between Jen and Klaus.

“What the fuck is a Baba Yaga?” Longeye asks.

“Nasty Russian demon,” Klaus answers. “Does some bad magic on her own as well as controlling other spirits from Slavic lands.”

“That’s one way of describing them,” Jen says, giving Klaus a skeptical look.”Ivan, another shaman, says they were once human wizards that let themselves be possessed by a spirit of destruction. I hadn’t heard they could control other spirits, though.”

“How do we kill her?” Longeye asks, before Klaus and Jen could start an argument. The two trade unsure looks. “Can we kill her?” The two both wore uneasy faces.

“I don’t know,” Klaus says. Jen shrugs her shoulders.

“Have you found out what the ritual is?” Klaus asks.

“There are a few possibilities,” Jen says, “They range from very bad to cataclysmic. Best guess is that they are trying to raise Zmey Gorynych.”

“That name sounds familiar,” Klaus says, “Who is that?”

“Not who. What. A three-headed dragon,” Jen answers. “It’s similar to the Greek hydra. No one has seen one in over a millenia. The stories about it are contradictory, but all say the Zmey is very bad news.”

“So, we have no hard information about what’s going on up there, but we have to stop it,” Klaus says.

“That sounds about right,” Longeye says.

“Well, then we might as well get on with it,” Klaus says. The vampire starts toward the chain link fence topped with razor wire that runs the perimeter of Kursk’s property.

“Do you have snips?” Klaus asks.

“We had something else in mind,” Jen says. The two lycanthropes walk a few feet away, disrobe, and shed their human forms for true. Jen pulls on the black formal robes of the shaman. She picks up the sling bag Longeye prepped for her and tosses it over her shoulder. The hunter pulls out a rig designed for hunters working in true form. Kevlar and steel to protect the torso, and pouches stuffed with spare magazines, knives, and other assorted toys of destruction. Finally, Longeye pulls out the RPK.

“You are full of surprises, hunter,” Klaus says, as he joins the two lycanthropes. Klaus is carrying the old MP44 and now wearing modern body armor with more magazines for the rifle in pouches on his side and front. Much to Longeye’s surprise, Klaus is wearing an old German stahlhelm instead of a more modern helmet.

“I’m full of surprises?” Longeye asks, pointing at the World War II-vintage helmet and rifle.

“These kept me alive on the Ostfront against Stalin’s soldiers and monsters,” Klaus says, “I just thought all hunters used those M16s, not dolled up AK-47’s.”

“Give me a break, it’s not like I slapped a bunch of Tapco on this,” Longeye replies, hefting the weapon. “Besides, this will lay down a ton of fire.” As if to emphasize the point, Longeye rocks in a 75-round drum and pulls the charging handle.

“Never mind, then,” Klaus says, “Shall we go find something for you to use all those bullets on?” Longeye slings the RPK before tossing the vampire over the fence. As Klaus covers the forest, Jen and Longeye leap over the eight-foot tall fence. Satisfied that no one is waiting to ambush them, Longeye leads the trio through the forest.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Klaus whispers.

“Satellite photos showed there are recently constructed buildings about two miles inside the property. Five pre-fab buildings forming a pentagon around a paved area with a gravel path leading back down to the main highway,” Longeye answers.

“According to my superiors, the buildings are in the middle of some kind of mystical convergence, but they couldn’t say more because it’s human magic,” Jen supplies.

“I would call that a good guess,” Klaus muses. Longeye pointed into the forest. Through the forest and snow, the two miles takes almost an hour for the trio. It would’ve been less, but Klaus isn’t as good at moving through the snow as the lycanthropes. The vampire grumbles, but otherwise they are almost silent as they move to the buildings.

Finding the site isn’t hard. Giant floodlights light up the entire area like it’s daytime – including the new structure in the center of the buildings. It’s forty feet of steel, concrete, and rock. Scaffolding wraps around three sides with more floodlights attached to the metal framework. A pathway winds up the structure from the ground to the top. Small outcroppings – almost like balconies – sprout out every ten feet up. Longeye pulls out binoculars and scans the buildings. A couple dozen humans walk around the site. Most are dressed in jeans and jackets. He doesn’t seen any unusual bulges that might be concealed weapons.

“There’s Kursk,” Longeye says, pointing to a figure walking up the tower. Kursk walks out onto an outcrop about halfway up that juts over the courtyard. Longeye fights down the temptation to just shoot the bastard, but he needs to finish his original job.

“I don’t see the Baba Yaga or Melanie anywhere,” Longeye says.

“Melanie’s in that building,” Jen says, pointing at the building across the compound from the trio.

“How do you know?” Klaus asks.

“She was a pup in my charge,” Jen answers. Longeye always wondered if the shaman put trackers on the pups during tysach. It would certainly explain how the shaman found his groups when they “wandered off.” Klaus accepts the explanation.

“I don’t know where the Baba Yaga is, but I can feel strong magic,” Jen says. Suddenly, Jen whirls around. Longeye doesn’t ask any questions and swings the big RPK back to the forest. Two ram-men emerge from the trees leveling bows. Longeye places the holographic dot on the chest of the closer one and squeezes the trigger. Five splotches of red appear on the ram-man’s chest before it stumbles back. Longeye swivels to the second one. Jen grunts as an arrow sinks into her chest. A second burst takes down the second ram-man. Longeye looks back to Jen. She’s already pulled out the arrow and her body is healing the bloody hole. The two ram-men stand back up – and are joined by a half-dozen more.

“MOVE!” Longeye shouts. The trio sprints out of the forest. At full speed, they reach the buildings in a few seconds. The three leap on top of the nearest roof and bound into the courtyard on the other side. Dozens of weapons are pointed at them by humans and ram-men. Six of those rock creatures are standing in front of the structure like sentinels.

“Hold them!” orders Kursk from his pulpit two stories above the ground. “I was expecting so much more from the three heroes. I am very disappointed. Still, two werewolves and a vampire will make a nice snack for Zmey Gorynych.” Jen hisses as she sees Melanie – unconscious, bound and gagged – dragged into view by an old woman in shabby clothes and kerchief tied over her hair. Longeye clicks his mike and hears two clicks in response.

“Send it,” Longeye says quietly.

“What was that werewolf?” Kursk asks. As if in answer, a rocket streaks across the courtyard and slams into one of the rock monsters.

Jen throws up the shield as the rock monster explodes. Some of Kursk’s human followers are pulped by the stone shrapnel. The ram-men are knocked down by the blast, but they get to their feet looking unhurt. Then, bullets start whipping into Kursk’s followers. Jen’s surprised she only hears the zips as the bullets pass by. Steve doesn’t look concerned, so Jen keeps a determined look on her face. She has her own tasks to complete. Jen focuses on Melanie and the Baba Yaga.

“It’s time,” Steve says. Jen touches the Steve’s gun and ammo pouches as she casts the rite. The power of the Ancestors flows through her to the hunter’s weapons. The Ancestors are angry, and the power tastes of their rage. At Steve’s nod, Jen drops the shield. Seven of the ram-men are right in front of them. Steve sprays gunfire into the group to open up ground for the trio. Almost as if on cue, the Bleeders join the fray with the entire Hunters Guild right behind them. The courtyard devolves into a mass of bodies, blood, and gunfire. Jen pushes all of that aside as she sprints towards Melanie and the Baba Yaga with the vampire at her side. Steve leaps up onto the structure to kill Kursk.

“Damn you werewolf!” Kursk sputters as Longeye charges up the tower. “I said only you three heroes could challenge me! You’re violating the ritual!”

“I hate dealing with fucking amateurs,” Longeye shouts back. “You think combat is like what you see on television. Since you’re going to die tonight, let me tell you a professional secret. Always bring backup.” Enraged, the human wizard hurls a fireball at Longeye. The hunter ducks, but his back explodes with pain from the near miss. Longeye snarls as he fires back at Kursk. The air in front of the wizard shimmers. Bullets ricochet as if they hit a wall. Longeye plays his hunch about the shield and empties the drum of the RPK as he runs sprints up the stairs. Kursk is blurred behind the shimmering. As the gun runs empty, Longeye lets the RPK fall on its sling and lowers his shoulder. His full mass slams into the invisible shield. Pain flashes as his shoulder and collarbone shatter under the impact, but Longeye didn’t rebound off of the shield. The invisible barrier is shoved back. Kursk is suddenly airborne. Unfortunately, Kursk smirks as he casts a hovering spell.

“That was inventive, if futile,” Kursk says. The wizard raises his hand and the concrete around Longeye shatters into dozens of stinging shards. “My followers will prevent any of your pathetic attempts to stop me.”

“You might want to take a look at your followers,” Longeye replies. His wounds are healed, so Longeye rocks a new drum into the RPK. Kursk looks down and blanches as he watches hunters and Bleeders slaughtering his ram-men. Even his stone monsters aren’t able to withstand the high-explosives both sides brought to the party.

“How could you defeat my dusios with mere guns?” Kursk demands.

“Did you think the Ancestors were going to let you sacrifice our pup if they could do anything to prevent it?” Longeye asks. “They remember those monsters you’ve unleashed, and they knew how to make our weapons work against them.” Kursk’s face twists in fury, but then smiles as a woman’s voice booms across the courtyard. Longeye follows his gaze down to where Jen and the Baba Yaga are dueling on the ground below.

Thank the Ancestors everyone’s keeping clear of us, Jen thinks as she sends another lightning bolt at the Russian demon. Jen knew going into the fight that the Baba Yaga is dangerous, but if any of Jen’s attacks hurt the Baba Yaga, she couldn’t see. By contrast, Jen’s auburn coat is slashed where the fur and skin was burned away. The Russian demon stands over Melanie and waves her long, thin hands in intricate motions. Jen casts the protection rite as lights of unearthly colors sparkle between and around the two.

Then, there’s an odd pulse in Jen’s magick, as if the Ancestors regret something. Before Jen can decipher the pulse, her shield vanishes. The Baba Yaga’s curse crackles through Jen. Every pain receptor in Jen’s body fires off simultaneously. Jen realizes it’s her own screaming she’s hearing. Her strength disintegrates and Jen crumples to the ground.

Why? Jen asks, Why did the shield fail? What did I do wrong?

NOTHING, the Ancestors answer in her head. If Jen wasn’t in so much pain, she’d marvel that the Ancestors are speaking to her. WE CANNOT DEFEAT THAT ONE’S POWER YET. Jen feels cold hands clamp down on her.

Kursk bellows a triumphant laugh as Jen falls. Longeye spins back to the wizard and rips off a burst. Kursk’s shield easily deflects the bullets. Before Longeye fires again, hooves clomped up the path behind him. The hunter whirls just as a dozen arrows are loosed at him. Longeye drops to the ground, but not fast enough. Pain flashes as three arrows sink deep into his shoulders and back. Longeye opens up. The enchanted bullets scythe down the ram-men. In a few seconds, all of them are dead or dying. Longeye turns, but Kursk is gone. Longeye catches sight of Kursk and the Baba Yaga pulling Melanie on to the top of the structure. From the looks on their faces, Longeye is sure that the ritual is about to begin.

“Well, that’s a clusterfuck, isn’t it?” Klaus says, startling Longeye. Klaus is supporting a battered Jen with one arm while holding a Walther P-38 with the other. Longeye recoils at the stench of wolfsbane that is smeared all over the shaman’s wounds. Jen’s breathing hard, but determination glows in her yellow eyes.

“Are you good?” Longeye asks Jen, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.

“Yeah, are you?” she asks in return, with a hint of anger.

“Yeah, everything’s healed back up,” Longeye answers, “What happened down there?”

“The Ancestors,” Jen answers.

“Why would they do that to you?” Longeye asks, confused.

“I have an idea, but we need to get up there now,” Jen says, with a note of command in her voice. Longeye grins as he rocks in a new drum. One more left.

“That looks like the best pathway,” Klaus says, motioning to the scaffolding with his pistol. “If you will clear the way, I will carry our young hexen.”

“I am not a witch,” Jen protests as she climbs onto the proffered back.

“Well, that’s not what you call yourself,” Klaus quips. Longeye chuckles as Jen playfully slaps the vampire. Longeye hops onto the scaffolding. Two humans pop up from the upper levels and rain down fire with machine pistols. Longeye grunts as two bullets hit, but they aren’t silver. Longeye’s body heals the wounds almost as fast as the humans make them. He aims at the wooden planks above him and opens fire. Blood pours down from the holes.

Longeye swings up to the next level. Satisfied that nothing is attacking, he motions for Klaus to follow. In the blink of an eye, Klaus is standing next to Longeye. The damned Kraut leech doesn’t even looked strained by Jen’s weight.

“I hear more above us,” Klaus says. Longeye plucks a small cylinder from the front of his rig, pulls the pin, and arches it up onto the planks above us. Klaus’s eyes go wide in horror. Longeye just smirks at the vampire.

Granata!” someone screams above. Longeye scampers up as the scaffolding gently shakes with the explosion. The hunter lands on the planks as the two humans blink furiously. Longeye doubts they hear the twin bursts that end their lives. Having a flash-bang go off in your face will do that to you. Klaus doesn’t look amused as he joins the hunter.

“Next up is the prize,” Longeye says, pointing at the planks above them.

“Are you going to use more of your firecrackers?” Klaus asks.

“I’ve got an idea,” Jen says, and quickly sketches out a plan. Longeye doesn’t like the plan, but he’s learned to trust the shaman’s instincts. Klaus looks skeptical, but nods. As Klaus blurs into motion, Longeye pulls himself up just enough to bring the RPK onto the next level. The Baba Yaga holds Melaine over a stone tub while Kursk puts a silver blade to the pup’s throat. Both are chanting something that sounds Russian.

Two ram-men guards see Longeye and loose arrows. The hunter grunts in pain as one digs into his right arm while the other punches through his ear. Longeye places the holographic reticle on a guard and fires a short burst. He doesn’t even watch it fall before swinging the light machine gun to the other ram-man. They fire at the same time. Longeye nearly lets go of the scaffolding as the most intense pain he’s ever felt explodes through his head. It takes him a moment to realize what’s happened. That bastard shot my eye out!

Longeye forces himself onto the top of the structure as his body works to heal him. Dammit, where did that bastard get an archanal arrow? At least Longeye killed the ram-man. Longeye crawls towards Kursk and the Baba Yaga. Kursk sees the hunter and scowls, but doesn’t stop chanting. Kursk hands the blade to the Baba Yaga before storming towards the crawling hunter.

Longeye yanks the arrow and feels his eyeball tear out of the socket. It’s a sensation Longeye never wants to feel again. He slaps a wolfsbane patch in the hole and grunts as the pain flares with the wolfsbane’s burn. Kursk kicks Longeye’s RPK out of his hands. The wizard moves faster than Longeye expects. The hunter slashes with his claws, but Kursk jumps out of the way. With the space opened up, Longeye draws his pistol and flicks on the flashlight. Kursk’s nifty shield doesn’t stop the brilliant 200-lumen light. The wizard shrinks back as he rubs at his eyes. To the wizard’s credit, he never stops the chanting. Longeye lines up the M&P’s sights and squeezes the trigger. The air in front of Kursk shimmers as his shield deflects the nine millimeter rounds. Longeye looks over and sees a malicious smile on the Baba Yaga’s face. As the demon pulls the knife back to cut Melanie’s neck, Longeye looks behind the Baba Yaga. Jen is mouthing words to the Ancestors as she casts.

“NOW!” Longeye screams. Melanie vanishes from the stunned Baba Yaga’s hands as Klaus darts in to rescue the pup. Then, the stone tub explodes like a landmine. Longeye is deafened by a screeching roar that shakes the tower. Four brilliant green tendrils lash out from where the stone tub had been. One tendril wraps around Kursk. He screams in Russian as the tendril pulls him into the ground. There’s an audible pop as the tendril and Kursk vanish. The Baba Yaga dodges two other tendrils with surprising deftness. Then, she points at Jen and chants in Russian. The three remaining tendrils lash out at Jen.

“Fuck no you don’t,” Jen snarls, “QVARE DOMA SCARTH!” The tendrils quaver as the Ancestors’ power stops them cold. First one, and then another tendril dissipate as Jen and the Baba Yaga battle. The remaining tendril pulsates as it whips between Jen and the Baba Yaga.

Brilliant turquoise light surrounds Jen’s forearms. Longeye smells burning flesh and fur. Jen shoves her arms in front of her and screams in pain and fury. The green tendril sways for a moment before it lances through the Baba Yaga. The Russian demon looks down at the glowing green tendril with a startled expression. Then, the entire top of the stone tower explodes.

Longeye recognizes the familiar scents of the Guild infirmary as he regains consciousness. Longeye opens his eyes. Relief flushes through him as he sees through both eyes. Thank you Ancestors! I’m not going to be expelled from the Guild. It’s a fear all hunters have, even if they pretend otherwise. Longeye looks over as the door opens. The Guildmaster and Jen walk into the infirmary in human form.

“I have something for you,” the Guildmaster says, handing Longeye an envelope. Inside is a business card for Klaus’s antique shop.

“I got that too,” Jen says. “I’m not sure what the card means.”

“Klaus is willing to continue talking to us,” Longeye answers. “You’ve scored your first contact in the vampire world.”

“Is it bad that I don’t think that’s a bad thing?” Jen asks. The Guildmaster barks a laugh.

“You may wish to refrain from bringing that to the Spiritmaster’s attention,” the Guildmsters says. Then, the Guildmaster looks back at Longeye. “Steven, you did good work. Albert wants you to rest for a few more days, and I think you should take the doctor’s advice. You will be out in time for the funerals.” The Guildmaster’s face grows dark. “We lost seventeen. After the funerals, I need you to take over Brian’s slot.” Longeye’s eyes go wide. Brian McKellan, better known as Bladesmith, is – or had been – the leader of the hit packs. The Guildmaster gives a short nod at Longeye’s unanswered question. Then, the Guildmaster abruptly turns and walks out of the infirmary.

“How’d you come out?” Longeye asks Jen. She purses her lips before sliding up the sleeves of her sweater. Her forearms and hands are covered in twisted burn scars.

“It was all archanal, and I didn’t get wolfsbane on them in time,” Jen says, clearly embarrassed by her scars. “Even taking on the Baba Yaga while she was distracted, I still needed to handle so much magic that I did this to myself.” She looks to be on the verge of tears. Longeye reaches out and puts a hand on her arm.

“Stop. You did the job,” Longeye says, “You paid a nasty price, but you did the job, and in the end, that’s all that matters. Anyone who tells you different is a fucking idiot. If anyone gives you grief for your scars, you put them in their fucking place. If you ever need it, the entire damned Guild will back you. We know the price of getting the job done.” Jen cocks her head and gives the hunter a smile.

“Thank you,” she says, standing up, “I didn’t mean to talk about that. I just wanted to make sure you were okay before I have to go out to the cravex to prepare for the Rites for the Dead.” The cravex is the lycanthropes’ holy site where all the rituals are performed. Her smile turns sad. “My first duty as caretaker is to handle the most funeral our packs have seen since the Great Fatherland War.”

“Caretaker?” Longeye asks, not sure he heard correctly. Jen nods.

“I’m now the third highest in the Order of the Spirits,” Jen says, “Right behind the Spiritmaster and Deputy Spiritmaster.” She leans over Longeye. “Can I tell you that it scares the hell out of me?”

“I’m not worried. You’ll get the job done.”

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising – Epilogue

14 Jul
July 14, 2014

I’ve felt fear enough in my work that it’s almost become a familiar companion. Something that tells me that I’m about to do something stupid. Anxiety, on the other hand, is just fucking annoying. Unfortunately, it’s the emotion that’s managing to dominate me at the moment. Nick can see it on my face and in my posture. He puts a steadying hand on my shoulder. The anxiety lessens, but doesn’t go away. Ancestors damn it to hell.

The Hillsborough cravex is filled with lycanthropes. There’s a low murmur as the packs talk among themselves. There’s a few of our own packs, including the three new packs that agreed to move to Hillsborough. The rest of the entri are filled with representatives from the other counties. One, much to the barely-hidden disgust of the other lycanthropes, is occupied by Bradon and the rest of the Tampa Council. If he notices their disdain, Bradon doesn’t show it. I chuckle lowly as I remember Bradon’s annoyance that I would be married in my ceremonial robes instead of a tuxedo, or at least, a decent suit. I think Bradon was looking forward to dressing me. Read more →

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising Chapter 25 – A Very Long Conversation, A Decision, and An Ending

14 Jul
July 14, 2014

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 had 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 that something was wrong, but my instincts were eerily quiet. I think that disturbed me more than anything else. Read more →

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising Double Feature!

14 Jul
July 14, 2014

For this week’s Monday Fiction, we’re wrapping up Badmoon Rising with Chapter 25, plus an Epilogue. This has been one of my longest on-going writing projects, and I’m happy/sad to see it finally concluded. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising – Chapter 24 – Time For The Last Dance

12 May
May 12, 2014

“Well, this has just become interesting,” Nick said to me quietly. I chuckled as we watched the large force of lycanthropes that had been sneaking up on our encampment was now caught in the glare of several spotlights. They scattered like cockroaches as they sprinted for the little cover that 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 to the emerging fight.

“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, and make sure some of them are aimed at that forest.” He 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 the 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. Read more →

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising Chapter 23 – Where’s This Calm Before The Storm They Keep Telling Me About?

17 Mar
March 17, 2014

After talking with the others, I was sure I needed to talk with Elizabeth. I was also sure that it was probably a good idea to get cleaned up first. Our relationship was shaky enough without the chance of her picking up Lady Anna’s scent on me. Elizabeth might get the wrong idea, or worse, the right one. The last thing we all needed was for Elizabeth and Lady Anna to get into a nasty fight. I let out a tired laugh as I stepped into my room. Any other time, it would’ve been the height of scandal to have two beautiful aristocrat females fighting over the affections of a lowly Badmoon. Now, it could destroy the alliance before we even got to Tallahassee. Read more →

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising Chapter 22 – Treaties and Complications

06 Jan
January 6, 2014

“Well, that is an interesting sight,” Fangbearer said from the front seat of the van. “The border is completely unguarded.” The convoy of about a dozen vans, trucks, and cars that carried all of the lycanthropes out of the Disputed Territories were now in the second day of the journey to Hillsborough. Getting out of the Disputed Territories was disturbingly easy. It didn’t seem like there were any of the normal guards on the border between Broward and Collier, nor did anyone shadow us. Best guess was that everyone was looking north. To keep us off everyone’s radar, we stayed off the main roads and navigated through the back roads. For the final stretch into Hillsborough, Lord Savik ordered something bold. Our full convoy was driving into Hillsborough up I-75 in broad daylight. Lord Savik had been friendly with the Lord of Manatee County for many years prior to the fall of the Disputed Territories. He was convinced that Lord Kant would help rally the southern aristocracy to our side in the coming fight. Or at least, Lord Kant could help keep them the hell out of our way.

“Well, that is very interesting,” Lord Savik said, walking up to the front of the van. “Paul was always very conscientious about his duty. So why would he pull his guards off the border?”

“Could they be hidden?” Lady Anna asked.

“We’re less than two miles from the border,” Lord Savik said, “If they wanted a chance of stopping us without attracting undue attention, I very much doubt they’d be hidden at this point. There aren’t even any unmarked police cars around.”

“They were pulled off,” Nick said quietly. The others in the van turned back to look at the tall hunter. “The quarantine is not being enforced. Just like the quarantine of your counties wasn’t being enforced when we left. Why else do you think we had such an easy time of leaving?”

“That makes no sense,” Lady Anna said, “Why would the prince tell his lords not to enforce his own quarantines? Especially after pushing it so hard?”

“Because the prince is not in charge anymore,” I said, following Nick’s logic. “He’s surrendered his throne to the War Council. That’s always the first step isn’t it? It’s not like any of the counties surrounding ours were ever happy about the quarantines. The moment they wouldn’t have to enforce them, they wouldn’t.” The others in the van didn’t answer me, but the cold looks on Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Fangbearer were all the confirmation I needed. Read more →

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising – Chapter 21 – Things Become Clearer….I Think.

11 Nov
November 11, 2013

“How the hell are you here?” I asked, keeping the HK45 trained on Bradon. I was pretty sure it was Bradon. The elegantly cut dark suit and calm demeanor was definitely Bradon’s style, but I’d been fooled before.

“A simple question that covers a lot of complex territory,” Bradon said. “Ranger, could you please put that pistol down? I used to wonder if you could shoot me, but you proved that. I’d rather you not prove it again. I don’t want to see all of my work destroyed. Neither do you, unless you’d rather see Tampa and the surrounding counties in Lothos’s control.”

“None of which answers the question,” I said, keeping the glowing green dot on Bradon’s forehead.

“Ranger put the gun down,” Nick said, appearing out of the doorway. I looked back at my friend and back to the vampire. Neither Bradon nor Nicky were surprised by the others presence, which meant that these two were working together. Betrayal and rage flared through me before I clamped down on my emotions. I almost shot Nick right there, but I knew there was more going on. Read more →

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 20 – Oh, Look What Followed Us Here

30 Sep
September 30, 2013

Hangman and Vanessa looked at me in stunned silence. Then, their faces melted into concerned looks. I knew what was going through their minds. The idea of Nick being in the Disputed Territories was ludicrous. Hangman and I had watched as he was expelled from Florida by the prince and led away by a lycanthrope from Nebraska. Even if Nick managed to escape, Hangman would’ve heard something from the State Guild before we’d left Tallahassee.

“Yes, I know it’s crazy,” I said, preempting the pair,”I know that the simplest explanation based on all the evidence was that I simply imagined Nick being this mysterious savior.”

“But you still believe you saw him on the street,” Hangman said, flatly. “Does that gut feeling come from the same place as your instincts?”

“What do you mean, Sam?” Vanessa asked, confused. He held up a hand to let me think. Where was that certainty coming from?

“Maybe, but I honestly don’t know. It happened so fast, I can’t remember clearly,” I answered.

Read more →

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 19 – New Town, New Rules, Same Old Killin’

05 Jul
July 5, 2013

The Society’s listening post for the Disputed Territories was outside Boca Raton, just north of the Broward county line. It was located in a small office park off A1A that catered to clients who valued anonymity and relative ease of access. The gate guard examined our ID’s before stepping in to the guardhouse to call the Society contact and clear us. After a few words, the guard handed back our ID’s and motioned for us to continue into the office park. Vanessa scowled as I pulled the truck through the gate.

“Can I say again that I think this is a bad idea?” she asked.

“I don’t see how I can stop you this time anymore than I could the dozen times before,” I answered sarcastically. She gave me an even look. I pulled the truck up to a row of office suites. They were joined, but the facades made each suite look like individual offices. I confirmed which of the offices we wanted, and we stepped out of the truck. Beyond the tinted glass door the façade of being an office stopped. The single room was lined with workstations. There were six kin spread out, each focusing on their monitor. In the center was a short lycanthrope sitting at a command post. From the look of the set-up, I revised my opinion of Blackhawk and the Society. This wasn’t a jury-rigged lash-up thrown together at the last minute. This looked like a professional intel shop. Maybe the Society was as big and powerful as Blackhawk implied. If so, this operation just became much more interesting.

The lycanthrope looked up as we walked in. He didn’t look like the normal lycanthrope. He was barely five and a half feet tall as a human with a shock of brilliant orange hair. His round face and speckling of freckles made him look young, like he was in late teens. His eyes were much older. They looked over me with a cold pragmatism that I’d seen in hunters and Knights, not pack warriors. He looked over at Vanessa. There was something in his long look that set off my instincts. From her reaction, Vanessa didn’t like it either. She gripped her bag tighter as her hand slipped inside to grab the butt of her pistol. The lycanthrope didn’t seem to notice, which meant he wasn’t a hunter or a Knight. Even if he was trying to maintain a neutral look, his eyes should have tracked the motion. There was too many contradictions with this lycanthrope, kind of like Blackhawk. Were all of the Society’s lycanthropes like this? The lycanthrope smiled unpleasantly as he walked out from behind his desk to us. His gait was staggered, but not quite a limp.

“You’re late,” he said in a flat tone, “Blackhawk was wondering if you’d gone against orders.” He directed his words at Vanessa, as if he was trying to intimidate her.

“If you mean, did we end up going to Tampa, yeah we did that,” I admitted, watching the lycanthrope. He looked over at me, clearly annoyed that Vanessa wasn’t the one talking. I returned his look with a flat stare. “Who the hell are you? Since you didn’t bother introducing yourself.”

“Raven,” the lycanthrope answered. “So, why did you disobey our leader?”

“There was a report we thought might be of use, but we couldn’t find it. So, we went and got some things I’d left at my house and came down here. What are you going to do about it?” I wanted to see how much authority this Raven thought he had.

“Not my problem. If Blackhawk wants to do something about it, that’s up to him,” Raven said, dismissing the challenge. He tried to play it off, but I could see the nervousness in his eyes. He was expecting us to lie, not throw the truth in his face. He motioned for Vanessa and me to follow him over to a table set behind his little command station. As we approached, I saw it was one of those huge touch-screen displays. Another indication the Society had a bit more support behind it than I originally thought. Those things weren’t cheap. The table was displaying a map of the Disputed Territories. It was littered with icons.

“What are we looking at?” I asked.

“A map of all the activity we can positively attribute to Savik and his lycanthropes, as well as those we suspect for the last six months,” Raven answered.

“So Savik is alive and still in charge?” I asked.

“From the little bit we’ve managed to hear, he’s still in command,” Raven said as if that were a minor point. Vanessa an I traded looks. That wasn’t included in our briefing materials. Raven tapped the screen and most of the icons disappeared. He pointed at one icon at the southeast corner of the Disputed Territories.

“A force of lycanthropes attacked warehouses at the Port of Miami last night,” Raven said, “From other attacks on the FCV across the city, I think it was the culmination of one of Savik’s campaigns against the FCV. Whatever was in those containers, it stirred up the vampires. They’ve had their Bleeders scouring for Savik’s forces, and they weren’t being too subtle about it.”

“You know this how?” Vanessa asked.

“The FCV Bleeders are led by a vampire called Glenn. One name, that’s all. He’s got some covert work in his background. He has his Bleeder teams using some pretty heavy encryption. We snagged the key a few weeks ago, so we’ve been able to eavesdrop on them. Thank the Ancestors, the Bleeders lapsed from using basic radio discipline. Probably, because they think no one else can crack their encryption. Don’t ask how we got the encryption key.” Raven’s tone made it clear we didn’t have the need to know.

“Why are you guessing the attack at the port was the culmination?” Vanessa asked, completely into analyst role.

“Ms. Hawthorne, over the years we’ve gotten a feel for how Savik and his lycanthropes do things. Small little raids to gather intelligence that lead to larger raids to eliminate specific targets. After a while you get a feel for the ebb and flow. We know when they’re on to something new.”

“Anything on the radar now?” I asked.

“We have a few things we aren’t sure about. They look like the kind of small incidents, but we don’t know what Savik is after,” Raven answered. He zoomed in on what looked like one of the more affluent areas of Fort Lauderdale. “This neighborhood was one of those that tanked after the real estate crash. Lots of empty houses. Five were vandalized last week. There were also reports of a pack of coyotes in the same area, so we took a closer look.” The map shrunk and a new window appeared displaying pictures of the interiors of the houses.

“Were there vampire targets in those houses?” I asked, examining the damage. Bullet holes were clearly visible in the walls. Doors were off the hinges, like something heavy slammed into them. Like a battering ram or charging lycanthrope.

“Not that we are we aware of, and there weren’t any signs of vampire corpses,” Raven answered.

“Then those are shoot houses,” I said.

“What’s a shoot house?” Vanessa asked.

“It’s a building used to practice fighting inside a house or building. Usually it has modular walls so the user can configure it to the floor plan of a specific target. Plus it helps when you need to replace shot-up walls. These look like they were used as improvised versions.” Vanessa stared intently at the photos. Her head snapped up and looked at Raven.

“I need all the information you have on this development,” she said, “The builder, when this was completed, and anything else that you have in your files. We need this now.” Raven was taken aback by Vanessa’s sudden forcefulness.

“Why?” he asked.

“Are you going to provide the support Blackhawk ordered you to?” Vanessa asked, “Our operational orders said you would give us anything we asked for to accomplish our mission.” Raven gave Vanessa a nonchalant shrug and went back to his desk.

“You want to tell me what’s going on in that head of yours?” I asked, quietly.

“Not here,” she answered. Vanessa turned away from Raven’s desk to look out the front. “I don’t like the way Raven is looking at me. The sooner we leave, the better.”

“You’d like it less now,” I said, quietly. “It’s a good thing Hangman isn’t with us.” Raven was openly leering at Vanessa. I had to restrain the urge to do immediate and severe violence to the lycanthrope.

“Let him look,” Vanessa shot back, “As long as it gets us out of here.” I gave Raven a warning look. He shrugged it off, but stopped openly leering. I still wanted to thrash him. Maybe that explained why Raven walked so strange. I hoped it was because he’d crossed the wrong lycanthrope. After about an hour, Raven handed me a USB stick. Vanessa was visibly relieved as we walked back to the truck.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked.

“Find out what Savik’s wolves were training for and then get there before them,” Vanessa answered. “Oh, and Mark, we don’t tell Sam a thing about what happened there.”

“Why? He’s a professional,” I said. “As much as I hate to admit it, the pup’s more of a professional than I am sometimes.”

“Which is being strained right now because you brought me here,” Vanessa answered. “Just trust me.” With that, Vanessa dived into the data as I drove back to the hotel.

I kept still as a statue as the three vampires strode up to the house. This far into the Disputed Territories, the leeches felt secure and safe. They didn’t even bother doing the most basic of security sweeps. Damn it, taking them down would be so easy. Just three strokes of the trigger would be all I needed. Of course, doing that would reveal my position and blow the operation Vanessa, Hangman, and I had spent hours planning. So, I continued crouching in the mud with the rain pouring down on me. I kept my Commando trained on the three vampires. My real quarry better show up. The three vampires laughed as they entered the house. It felt like they were laughing at me.

“Patience Mark,” Vanessa said over the radio. Damn, I must have let out a grumble or something.

“Keep the radio clear,” I whispered back, trying to keep my annoyance out of my voice. I knew Vanessa wasn’t trained for this kind of thing. I knew she was trying to help. Hell, she’d worked a minor miracle finding this place. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t a little envious that she got to keep warm and dry in the truck’s cab while Hangman and I tromped around the target in the mud and the rain.

My instincts went from their normal dull buzzing to a sudden roar. I could feel new eyes boring into my back. I silently cursed being in my human form. I knew someone was behind me, but I couldn’t hear or smell them. Only one thing to do about that. I clicked my mike three times and waited patiently. Whoever was sneaking up on me managed to get pretty close before I picked them up, and they hadn’t put a bullet in me. That ruled out vampire security. They would’ve learned the hard way about sneaking up on a lycanthrope from Savik’s packs.

“That’s close enough,” I said quietly to my stalker. I heard the faint misstep as my words caught the lycanthrope off-guard. I slowly turned around. A short female lycanthrope in true form was standing a few yards behind me. She pointed a suppressed pistol at me. I kept my Commando in a low ready. Her gold eyes glared at me.

“Could you lower that weapon?” I asked. She stood there silently. The pistol never wavered. I fought the urge to grin. This one was good, but not good enough. She didn’t hear as Hangman in true form emerged from behind her. He took two steps and clamped an iron hand on the female’s wrist. She yelped in surprise and dropped the pistol. She attempted to throw Hangman. He managed to turn the move into a full grapple. The pair fell into the mud. To her credit, the female was pretty good in close quarters. Hangman was just bigger, stronger, and better trained. A few moments of ferocious violence ended with Hangman pinning the female face down with her arms behind her back.

“Quit fighting, we’re here to help,” Hangman whispered into the female’s ear. She gave him a murderous look, but stopped fighting.

“Mark, I think the attack’s started,” Vanessa said. I turned back to the house. Several forms were creeping towards the house.

“What do you want to do?” Hangman asked me, motioning to the female pinned to the ground. Before I could answer, gunfire erupted from the house. I brought my weapon up and slid back into my original position. The lycanthrope attack had just turned into a vampire ambush. The attacking lycanthropes were pinned down on the lawn with almost no cover. Two lycanthropes were sprawled out on the lawn with bloody chest wounds. I couldn’t tell if they were still alive. Another four or five were trying to hide behind trees and garden statues. I swept my Commando across the front of the house, looking for targets, but I was too far to the side of the house.

“Get her back to the truck and wait there,” I told Hangman. “If the police show up, get out and I’ll meet you back at the hotel.” Hangman didn’t look happy with the command, but he lifted the female up and dragged her back into the small wooded area. I focused on the house. I couldn’t run out into the lawn without getting torn to pieces by the gunfire. It was just too well-controlled. That didn’t mean I couldn’t cause some problems. The gunfire was coming from two large windows at the front of the house. I place the holographic reticle on the frame of the nearest window and fired a short burst. The gunfire from the window fell silent as my rounds ricocheted off the metal frame. The lycanthropes on the lawn didn’t hesitate. They immediately sprinted from cover and grabbed the two out in the open. They pulled the injured lycanthropes back to the street. I fired another burst at the near window, followed quickly by a burst to the far window. No sense in letting the leeches regain their balance.

A vampire in tactical gear jumped out of the near window. I didn’t have to see his painted claws to know this one was a Bleeder. He quickly figured out where I was. He aimed a stubby P90 submachine gun at me. I fired a heartbeat before him. My rounds stitched across his front while his burst smacked into the trees above me. I took a quick look and saw the lycanthropes had managed to retreat. It was time for me to go. I changed magazines in my Commando as I shuffled back into the wooded area. My truck was parked just outside of the wooded area. Vanessa was sitting in the driver’s seat, but where was Hangman and the female? My instincts screamed warnings an instant before two lycanthropes in human form stood up from behind my truck. Both leveled M4’s at me. This was going to be fun. My mental calculations came to a screeching halt as I heard the mechanical snap of a safety coming off behind me. What the hell? I didn’t even hear the bastard.

“Very carefully stranger, lay that rifle on the deck,” ordered the lycanthrope behind me. He spoke with an odd accent with hints of both Southern and Spanish. He must have wanted me alive, or he’d have just shot me in the back of the head. I unslung my Commando and carefully placed it on the asphalt.

“We are taking you into custody to determine who you are and what you’re doing here,” the lycanthrope behind me explained in a calm, confidant tone, “This information is not as important as the safety of my pack. If you do anything that I think endangers any of my pack, I will kill all three of you. Do you understand me? Say yes.”

“Yes,” I said, matching his calm tone. Well, it wasn’t our plan, but it seemed to be achieving our objectives. The two lycanthropes in front of me slung their weapons and walked over to me. One held a set of silver manacles like the ones the marshals used back in Hillsborough. Ancestors, that felt like a lifetime ago. The other held a black cloth sack. I didn’t resist as the two shackled me and placed the sack over my head. They removed my HK45 from its holster and then proceeded to methodically remove the rest of my weapons. To their credit, they were thorough. I heard the truck door open. Vanessa yelped as one of them yanked her out. I bit down the sudden flash of rage at my partner’s fear and pain. The lycanthropes weren’t being more forceful than necessary. This was just how the game had to be played out.

“Hey, could you be careful with my Commando?” I asked, channeling my anger into smart-assery, “I put a lot of work into that weapon.” I was hoping for at least a polite chuckle, but there was no answer from any of the lycanthropes. I was forced into the back of a car. Vanessa was quietly whimpering next to me. Hangman was softly murmuring, trying to comfort her. We drove around for nearly an hour by my internal clock. The two lycanthropes in the front were silent for the entire time. I was surprised they didn’t even tell Hangman and Vanessa to be quiet. The car stopped, and the three of us were roughly pulled out. From the smells, we were near the ocean. That didn’t exactly narrow down the area. We were led into either a house or a small commercial building. A couple of turns, and we were sat down on stools. The dim light seemed brilliant after our hoods were removed. I did a quick scan. We were in a house. One that had been vacant for a while, by the looks of the walls and carpet. Four lycanthropes in human form stood in front of us. One was a female who glared at me with dark, flashing eyes. I was betting she was the female who snuck up on me at the vampire house. She looked to be in her mid-twenties and definitely some Spanish blood in her background. Her black hair was tied back. She was dressed in jeans and t-shirt with a tactical rig draped oveon The other three were males dressed similarly to the female with causal clothes draped with MOLLE gear and vests. The two at the corners were the two I’d seen coming up from behind my truck. They were still cradling M4’s. The last male was different. He was studying the three of us with his brown eyes. His lanky form was relaxed, but his posture screamed “hunter.” From the look on his face, he wasn’t sure what to do with the three of us.

“So, let’s get down to basics,” he said, breaking the silence, “Who are you and what are you doing screwing up my operation?” Hangman and I looked at each other with puzzled looks. From the look on his face, Hangman knew our questioner was a hunter, also. So why did he call the attack on the house an “operation” instead of a “job?” Or was he talking about something else?

“Answer him!” snarled the female, “Before we put silver rounds to the back of your heads and dump your corpses in the swamps.” She was trembling visibly with anger. That wasn’t a good thing when she was armed.

“Easy Anna,” the male cautioned. He turned back to us. “Please answer the questions.”

“We’re from Hillsborough County. We’re here to recruit your people to help us with the war council,” Vanessa blurted out. She sounded terrified.

Hillsborough?” the male asked, his voice too smooth, “Not from Tallahassee?” His voice was neutral, but I could sense the trap.

“I was recently recruited by the State Guild, but I’m originally from Hillsborough,” Hangman said, “I was sent back to Hillsborough to help the lycanthropes still fighting there. The Lady-Apparent sent the three of us here.” Damn the pup. He was skirting the truth. That was fine when explaining to your Guildmaster why your job went a little sideways. It wasn’t a good idea when dealing with lycanthropes whose trust you needed.

“So why does he own a truck registered in Tallahassee?” our questioner asked, pointing at me. Hangman’s mouth shut with an audible click. Yeah, that was why it was better just to shut the fuck up than trying to play games.

“Because that’s where those motherfucking traitors in the Society bought it for me,” I said, matching my questioner’s neutral tone. The two guards brought their weapons up. The female, Anna, drew her pistol and leveled it at me. The lycanthrope questioning us held up a hand before anyone fired.

“You’d best explain that last remark,” he said, his voice tight. His eyes flashed with anger.

“We know what the Society did to you,” Vanessa said, quickly, apparently trying to defuse the situation. If anything, the tension rose in the room. I silently swore at myself. I knew she wasn’t ready for field work. I should have made her stay in Hillsborough and come here alone. On second thought, if I’d done that, I probably would’ve never found them.

“Are you Savik?” I asked casually. He didn’t look like the picture in the file Blackhawk had given us, but maybe that Lord Savik was dead and this was his successor.

“No,” the questioner answered, caught off-guard. Damn.

“Do you think we’re stupid enough to let assassins close enough to Lord Savik?” Anna asked, heatedly.

“No, but assassinating Lord Savik is not the job the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough gave me. Talking to him is,” I answered her. She didn’t look convinced, but she lowered her pistol. I looked back at the questioner, “As to screwing up your operation, I didn’t do anything but cover your warriors’ asses when the shit hit the fan.” Anna darted forward and pistol-whipped me across the face. I felt the familiar flash of intense pain of a cracked cheekbone before my body started to heal. I noticed she used the top of her Glock to smack me. Someone taught her right. Most people used the butt or the side of the gun. Using those could cause the weapon to malfunction, which wasn’t something you wanted in a fight.

“You stopped me from doing my part,” Anna almost screamed at me, “I would have noticed that we were walking into a trap and aborted the operation. Because of your interference, we have two badly wounded warriors.”

“Really? Because from where I was sitting your target was just sitting there nice and happy. Not a fucking thing indicated that your wolves were walking into machine gun fire,” I replied.

“What makes you think you’d see something I couldn’t?” Anna fired back.

“Maybe because he was the Hillsborough Guildmaster’s personal hitter?” Hangman retorted. A protective rage filled his voice and flashed in his eyes. Anna started to say something, but the questioner held up a hand to stop her.

“So you’re the infamous Badmoon,” he said. The two guards nearly dropped their weapons and looked like they wanted to get as far away from me as possible. Even Anna took a step back from me with a look of shock on her face. Not revulsion, but more like I threw her a curveball. The questioner looked at me as if I was some sort of curiosity. Well that was the normal gamut of reactions my name garnered.

“How’d you figure that one out?” I asked.

“The only Badmoon in Florida?” he asked in response.

“Bullshit. I may be the only Badmoon in Florida, but that’s all most lycanthropes know about me. Hunters are the ones who know what I do. So were you with Broward’s or Dade’s chapter before the fall?” I asked.

“Neither,” he answered, “Like most of the lycanthropes of our packs, I’ve been forced to learn quite a bit in order to survive. I knew about your position because of my position before the betrayal by the Society.”

“And what was that?” I asked.

“No, I’m asking you the questions. Not the other way around,” he replied, “However, you seem to be the most rational. What about him?” He nodded his head at Hangman.

“He was part of the Hillsborough chapter. Then he went up to State, after the fall,” I answered.

“And her?” he asked, eyeing Vanessa suspiciously. “Who are you, little kin?” Vanessa looked back and forth between our interrogator, Hangman, and me. She was terrified and knew it. She didn’t want to say anything that would get us killed. Anna growled at Vanessa’s hesitation, but our interrogator just sat there. This one was fucking good.

“She’s my fiancee,” Hangman said, trying hard to sound like it was a grudging admission. It was a good ploy, but he didn’t quite pull it off. Vanessa didn’t help matters by staring at the floor.

“You brought your kin fiancee on a job?” Anna asked incredulously, “Why would you endanger her like that?” I perked up at her word choice. Anna didn’t act like a hunter, but was she one of the local hunters’ proteges? It wasn’t like they could get wolves up to the training camp. If she was some kind of super hunter-trained warrior, she still had a ways to go. From the look on her face, Anna bought that Vanessa was simply Hangman’s fiancee. The interrogator didn’t. I could see it in his eyes. My instincts screamed warning.

“She’s Society,” the interrogator said with a scary finality. The two guards brought up their carbines. Anna gave me a predatory smile. The interrogator turned to Anna. “Do what you have to, but make it fast.” The interrogator walked out of the room without giving us another look. Anna strolled behind me humming what sounded like a happy pop tune. I felt the cold muzzle of her pistol press into the back of my skull. She should have just pulled the trigger. Now, I knew where she was.

“Forward!” I shouted as I pushed off the stool. I shed for true form. Intense burning pain shot through me as the silver manacles bit deep into my expanding arms. Pain I could deal with. I could recover from pain. Death was another matter. I kicked the stool back into Anna, and then swept Vanessa’s out from under her. Gunfire erupted over us from the two guards. Hangman, also in true form, barreled into the guard closest to him. I winced as slid the manacles under my legs to bring my hands in front of me. I found the emergency release and the manacles fell off. So many lycanthropes were completely unaware that the manacles were a hunter design for just that reason. A similar thunk told me Hangman ditched his as well. I spun back towards Anna. Hangman could handle the guards. Anna was standing up from being knocked down by the stool. I pounced. I was momentarily deafened by her gunshot.I felt the bullet pass over my shoulder. I grabbed her gun hand and drove her to the floor. I didn’t need her shooting me if I was going to get this job done. She grunted as we slid across the carpeted floor. Vanessa screamed as I heard new voices shouting. I could smell more lycanthropes storming in on us. I ripped the pistol out of Anna’s hand. I jerked her up and faced the newcomers using Anna as a shield. Hangman was behind me with a liberated M4.

The lycanthrope in front of me was in true form. He was about my height, but far more powerfully built. His black pelt was only marred by a completely white muzzle. His gold eyes flashed with rage. The lycanthrope leveled a 1911 at my head. Three heavily armed lycanthropes in human form flanked the lycanthrope. Something about the way they moved clicked in my head. Those weren’t hunters. They were Red Knights. So that meant the lycanthrope I was facing down was Lord Savik. Okay, this wasn’t exactly how I hoped to meet the lord.

“Milord, could you lower that pistol?” I asked calmly.

“A Society assassin holds a gun on my niece and expects me to lower my weapon? How amusing,” Savik answered with a deadly calm. I felt waves of psychic energy lash at me. What should have been a painful torrent felt little more than warm water splashing on me. I was really going to have to figure out why the aristocracy’s powers didn’t work on me. Savik’s pistol dipped. Rage softened to confusion when I wasn’t reduced to a quivering puddle.

“I stopped working for the Society the moment I learned what they did to your packs,” I said calmly, ignoring as he tried another attack. “I’m here as an emissary from the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough.” The room was filled with a tense silence.

“You’re using that ruse?” Savik snarled, “Doesn’t the Society inform its assassins of failed attempts?” I kept my face neutral as my instincts blared warning at Savik’s words. My mind raced as I tried to put the pieces together. Vanessa was faster.

“Mark, they used you as a scout,” Vanessa said.

“Oh shit,” I swore. I released Anna and dropped the pistol. “Hangman drop your gun. My lord, you need to get out of here right now.” So, that’s why Blackhawk sent me down here. He’d lost too many of his good assassins trying to take out Savik. I was a completely expendable asset he used to locate Lord Savik. The Society could detonate a nuke in this house and Blackhawk wouldn’t have lost anything of value to him. Savik must have thought this was a new ploy because his weapon didn’t waver. His Knights, for some reason, believed me. The one closest to Savik reached out and grabbed the lord’s handgun.

“My lord, we need to go,” he said in a forceful, but respectful, tone. The Knight’s partners were already falling back to clear an escape route. Savik looked surprised and confused, but he didn’t argue with his protectors. Savik barely took four steps before the doorway exploded. The blast threw everyone to the ground. Hangman and I were back on our feet before anyone else. He tossed me the other guard’s carbine.

“Stay down,” I hissed to Anna as I crouched next to her, pointing the carbine at the doorway. Savik’s Knights managed to crawl on top of the lord. Two metal balls sailed into the room. Grenades, my mind quickly realized. Anna screamed bloody murder as I shoved her down and covered her. Two explosions ripped through the room. I felt fragments rip through my clothing. Pain lanced up my arms and then went away almost instantly as my body healed. Not silver frags. The assassin was using them as distraction devices. I’d done the same thing a few times. I scampered off the floor with the carbine up as the assassin strode into the room. He didn’t even look in my direction as he fired an entire magazine from his submachine gun into the Red Knights covering Lord Savik. Hangman and I fired at the same time. That’s when I realized I was holding a semi-automatic AR-15 instead of a full-auto M4. Hangman must have known, because his torrent of bullets ripped through the assassin’s head. He dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.

“Here,” I said to the still-shaken Anna as I handed her the carbine. I wanted the assassin’s submachine gun. I snaked over to the corpse. It was changing to true form in death. I took the weapon from his dead hands. It was unfamiliar, blocky, and had the look of something Russian. I dropped the magazine out and reloaded with the spare stored in the wire stock. Weird, but that explained a lot of Russian-produced guns. I looked back the way we were brought in. The door opened into a short hallway with the garage just beyond. Someone rose up from behind the parked sedan. I shoved the assassin’s corpse on its side as the new assailant opened fire. I lost the submachine gun, but fortunately the dead assassin was carrying a pistol in chest rig. I whispered thanks to the Ancestors for sending an idiot in first and yanked the handgun out. I fired twice and heard the bullets slap the car’s panels. That should keep the bastard’s head down. I leapt from behind the corpse to land next to the doorway. Damn, I should have grabbed the submachine gun. Anna slid next to me gripping the guard’s weapon. I looked over to her. The rage and fury was gone from her. She had the cool look of a veteran. I looked over to where Savik was lying under his guards. One of the Knights was clearly dead, having soaked up most of the burst. The others were wounded and doing their level best to play dead. I needed to finish this up before they bled out.

“Cover me,” I told Anna. I ran crouched into the hallway as Anna pumped round after round over me. The bullets kept the other lycanthrope behind the car down. Hitting the garage, I shed for true form and bounded over the car. The lycanthrope froze as he saw my shadow over him. I dug my claws into his throat as I landed. He gurgled and grabbed at his throat as he tried to breathe through a severed trachea. I picked up his submachine gun off the floor and scanned outside. The lycanthrope interrogating me scant moments before was lying on the driveway. Blood was leaking from somewhere. I crab-walked over to him, searching for targets with the submachine gun. He was still conscious, but smart enough not to draw attention with movement.

“How bad?” I asked.

“I need wolfsbane. The bastards shot me in the hip,” he answered.

“Okay. This is going to hurt,” I told him. I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back into the garage. He let out strangled cries of pain. I pulled him next to the now-dead second assassin. His eyes went wide as he saw the corpse. I ignored his reaction as my hands danced across the assassin’s gear. I found the bottle of wolfsbane and dumped the contents on the interrogator’s wound. He screamed as the foul-smelling liquid splashed onto the bloody torn wound.

“Sit here,” I told him. I dropped the submachine gun in his lap. “Shoot any fucker who tries to come through here.” He nodded. I sprinted back to Savik. Anna was standing protectively over her uncle. Her expression softened as she saw me walk through the door. Vanessa was busily trying to treat the two wounded Knights. Hangman stood over her with a murderous expression on his face. I grabbed Anna and yanked her back into the garage.

“What the hell?” she demanded, “I need to stay with my uncle.”

“Hangman’s got that just fine. Now, I’ve been nice and answered your questions,” I said, “Now it’s your turn.” I shoved her around the car. The interrogator snarled as he saw us.

“Get her back into the house,” he told me. “Those bastards might come back.”

“With their two hitters dead? If they do, they’re fucking stupid, and I don’t think they’re fucking stupid,” I retorted, “Now, who are you exactly?”

“Steven Fangbearer,” he answered.

“Okay, Steven Fangbearer, what do you do for Lord Savik?” I asked.

“I serve Lord Savik in a similiar capacity as you served your Guildmaster,” Fangbearer answered. “I’m his troubleshooter. Now, would you please get her back inside?”

“Why? From what I’ve seen, she can handle herself just fine,” I said, looking back at Anna. She actually looked ashamed.

“She’s the Lady-Apparent of Broward County,” Fangbearer answered flatly. I looked back at Anna. No, it was Lady Anna. What the hell was she doing working operations? I decided to push that concern to the back of my mind.

“Who’s the body?” I asked, pointing at the dead assassin.

“Mako,” Fangbearer answered, “He was supposed to be in Okeechobee on a supply run. He was the last wolf I would’ve expected to betray us.” There was a resigned undertone in his voice that caught me off-guard. My response to such a betrayal would’ve been a burning rage leading to a lethal encounter for the responsible dog. It would not be accepting betrayal as a cost of business. Even Lady Anna didn’t looked outraged at one of their own trying to kill Savik. What the bloody fuck was going on?

“Can we move?” Fangbearer asked Lady Anna. With a grunt from lingering pain, he gingerly rose from the concrete floor.

“Difficult, but doable. The car is trashed, and I don’t know what vehicles Uncle Erik brought,” Lady Anna answered. “What about him and the other two?” She nodded at me. Fangbearer looked me over.

“We bring them with us,” Fangbearer answered. A ghost of a smile flitted across Anna’s face. Fangbearer looked over at me. “I’ll be blunt. I don’t know if I can trust you, or if you’re a plant from the Society. For all I know, this was just an elaborate false flag operation to insert the three of you. I can’t let you or your companions out of our control until we figure that out.”

“Alright, so let us help you,” I said, taking a chance, “That would give you two more hunters and a trained intel specialist. You can’t have many of those.”

“Oh I fully expect you be of some use to us,” Fangbearer said, “If nothing else, you’ll make good bait. For right now, we need you to help evac this house.”

“Can I have my sidearm back?” I asked. I knew I was pushing my luck. The expression on Fangbearer’s face made it clear he was sketchy about me holding a submachine gun.

“Of course,” Lady Anna said. Fangbearer shot her an angry glare, but she ignored it. “Steve, can you get uncle’s car while we get him ready to move?” Fangbearer scowled, but didn’t say anything as he walked out of the garage. I followed Lady Anna as she walked back into the house. The stench of wolfsbane hung in the air. Lord Savik was sitting on the floor, but he looked better. The two Knights were moaning as Vanessa and the two guards swabbed their wounds with wolfsbane-soaked bandages. Someone had thrown a jacket over the dead Knight. Lady Anna walked to another room and came back with Hangman’s and my sidearms. She handed them over with a smile. Hangman’s scowl didn’t change as he holstered his pistol. I hand-signed for him to calm down. He nodded before storming back to Vanessa’s side.

“Thank you, by the way,” Lady Anna said quietly, “For saving my uncle and me.”

“It’s my job, milady,” I replied, formally. She leaned in closer.

“You could just say ‘you’re welcome,'” she said, with an odd tone in her voice. It sounded annoyed, but there was an undercurrent I didn’t understand.

“You’re welcome, milady,” I said. A warm smile crossed her face.

“Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” she asked.

“You have no idea, milady,” I replied. She let out a short chuckle.

“You’re really the Badmoon?” she asked, looking me over.

“Yes, milady,” I answered, taking a deep breath. “Does that frighten you?”

“A bit,” she answered, “We heard all the stories in tysach about Badmoons. Still, you’re not what I expected.” I didn’t have a good answer to that, so I stayed quiet. Lady Anna still kept shooting me sidelong glances as we waited. Something about her looks made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t like I didn’t get all sorts of looks from lycanthropes once they found out I was a Badmoon.

“Jack’s pack will be here in fifteen,” Fangbearer reported as he walked back into the house. “They’re bringing some vans to transport the Knights. The bastards wrecked the lord’s car before coming in.”

“Damn, I liked that car,” Lord Savik said, standing up. He looked weary, but determined. “Steven, let them know we’ll be going to the Maple house.” Fangbearer nodded and pulled out his phone. Lord Savik turned to Vanessa. “Thank you for your help, young kin.”

“You’re welcome, milord,” Vanessa answered, her cheeks turning a deep pink. Lord Savik gave her a paternal smile before looking up to Hangman.

“Thank you as well, hunter,” Lord Savik. “You put down that bastard, so I’ll forgive you for roughing up my wolves.”

“You’re welcome, milord,” Hangman said, with just a hint of nervousness in his voice. Lord Savik then rounded on me.

“You, on the other hand, I need to deal with,” Lord Savik said, giving me a cautious look.

“Uncle, he saved our lives,” Lady Anna protested. “If you can forgive his friend for roughing up Patrick and Don, then surely you can forgive him.”

“Anna, that’s not what I’m talking about,” Lord Savik said. He turned to me and read my expression. “Please go help the others get Robert and Kevin ready to move.” Lady Anna gave Lord Savik a frustrated look before storming over to the others.

“You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” Lord Savik asked, his eyes suspicious. I just nodded. Well, maybe Lord Savik had some ideas about why his powers didn’t work on me. Ancestors knew I didn’t have a fucking clue.

As soon as the small convoy of minivans parked in front of the house, the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes went into action. Pack warriors from the minivans strode into the house. Collapsible stretchers were unloaded and the two wounded Knights were loaded. The dead Knight was sealed in a bag. All three were hustled out of the house to a waiting van. Lady Anna, Hangman, Vanessa, and the two guards were directed to a second minivan. Fangbearer motioned for me to follow Lord Savik into a third. I was pushed to the back of the cab with a hard-looking lycanthrope. He wasn’t a hunter, but had the look of an experienced warrior. Lord Savik and Fangbearer sat in front of me in the middle of the cab. The driver and another warrior climbed in. As soon as we were loaded, the convoy sped off. The whole evolution took less than two minutes. As we left, other lycanthropes were stripping the cars and cleaning up the scene.

We were almost out of the housing development when our minivan broke from the convoy. Lord Savik and Fangbearer were talking quietly to each other, but neither looked back at me. The lycanthrope sitting next to me gave me a glare that was clear I was to remain silent. That was fine. It wasn’t the first time someone had given me that look. So, I tried to listen in to what Lord Savik and Fangbearer were saying. Even though I was maybe two feet from them, their words were indistinct. That sparked my curiosity. I should have been able to pick up a stray word or two, at the very least. Instead, all I could hear was a low garble. After a few moments, I leaned back in my seat. I didn’t know where I was going, how long it was going to take, or what would happen when I got there. I did the best thing I could do in this situation. I dozed. My eyes opened as I felt the minivan pull into a driveway. We were in front of a modern two-story house. The minivan pulled into the garage. I was ushered into a room on the second floor. It was empty except for about a half-dozen metal folding chairs. I was sat down in one. Lord Savik sat across from me, his dark eyes boring at me. Fangbearer placed another chair down to my left and leaned on it. My escort and the lycanthrope that was riding shotgun stood at the door of the room. The only sound in the room was from the ceiling fan. I felt tendrils of invisible power snake around me. They weren’t strong, just enough for me to feel rippling across my skin like cool air drafts. I continued to meet Lord Savik’s eyes. His brow furrowed, and the tendrils pulsed with new strength. They were uncomfortable, like standing underneath an air return, but that was it. A second set of tendrils wrapped around me, but these weren’t coming from Lord Savik. My eyes flickered over to Fangbearer, who looked like he was straining with effort.

“You’re an aristocrat?” I blurted out at Fangbearer. Both sets of tendrils vanished. Lord Savik and Fangbearer traded a silent look.

“So, it’s not just you, milord,” Fangbearer said, ignoring my question, “Between the two of us, this one should have been reduced to little more than a mewling pup.” Both turned their looks on me.

“Are you really a Badmoon, or was Vollen hiding a bastard son?” Lord Savik demanded.

“Fuck you, milord,” I said, rage coursing through me, “I’m a Badmoon, and if you ever disparage Stephen Vollen in front of me again, I will show how little your mind powers work on me.” Fangbearer and the two guards looked shocked at my effrontery, but Lord Savik looked somewhere between amused and curious.

“That was not the reaction I expected,” Lord Savik said, “What did Stephen Vollen do that earned him such loyalty from a Badmoon?”

“He treated me like the hunter I am, and not just a Badmoon,” I answered curtly, “Moreover, he appointed my Guildmaster to fix the mistakes of his father.” Lord Savik pondered this for a long moment.

“Did Stephen Vollen know about your resistance to our powers?” Lord Savik asked.

“He was the first lord who tried them on me,” I answered.

“He knew you were a Badmoon, knew you could resist his powers, and he still let you stay in the Guild?” Lord Savik asked. I nodded, not trusting my words at the moment. There was another long moment of silence.

“Do you know why you can resist our powers?” asked Lord Savik.

“No, my lord,” I answered, “I was hoping you were going to tell me. Since you don’t seem to understand it either, I suspect it has something to do with being a Badmoon. I’ve only known about this ability for less than a year.” Lord Savik mulled that over. From Fangbearer’s expression, this had not gone the way they expected. Suddenly, Lord Savik stood up and walked to the door.

“Stephen Vollen was very good at knowing which lycanthropes he could trust,” Lord Savik said, “He was also perfectly willing to eliminate any lycanthrope who threatened the safety of his packs.”

“I know. I was the one who got the jobs, milord,” I said. The two guards traded a brief, but nervous look.

“I see,” Lord Savik said, “Well, that makes me even more certain Stephen Vollen trusted you. He would have had you killed otherwise. If he was willing to trust you, then so am I. Fangbearer told me what you told him. I will put you and your friends to work for me.”

“What about the war council?” I asked before he left. Lord Savik paused.

“I will not leave my county while it’s still being occupied by the FCV,” Lord Savik said, “Going to Tallahassee does nothing for that.”

“If Blackhawk and the Society control the war council?” I asked. “Do you really think that is good for the lycanthropes of this state?”

“My fellow lords know the Society is pulling the strings, and they’ve done nothing,” Lord Savik said, his eyes flashing with anger. “They knew the Society betrayed my packs to the FCV. Yet, Blackhawk is still alive, and my counties are still under the Prince’s blockade. I understand you are trying to help your Lady-Apparent. The best way you can do that is helping me. I swear to you Badmoon, by the Ancestors, that if you help restore our counties, I will send my warriors to aid your Lady-Apparent. The rest of the state can burn as far as I care.” With that, Lord Savik left the room.

“For someone who is supposed to be treated as an outcast, you have managed to gain the trust of some very powerful lycanthropes,” Fangbearer commented. I looked over at him questioningly. “The one that most surprised me was Anna. She never trusts lycanthropes outside of our packs.”

“Do you trust me?” I asked, half in jest.

“No, but not because you’re a Badmoon,” Fangbearer answered, “It’s my job not to trust anyone except for Lord Savik and Anna.”

“Who are you?” I asked. “Why do you have the powers of an aristocrat?”

“Who do you think I am?” Fangbearer asked. I sat quietly as I thought through the evidence.

“You’re Lady Anna’s illegitimate half-brother,” I said. Fangbearer froze with a surprised look on his face.

“How did you come to that conclusion?” Fangbearer asked, neutrally.

“First, because the first thing Lord Savik accused me of when he discovered I could resist your powers was of being a bastard child of a lord,” I answered, matching Fangbearer’s neutral tone, “I expect his mind would go there because of personal experience.”

“So why am I Lady Anna’s half-brother and not Lord Savik’s son?” Fangbearer asked.

“Because you treat Lord Savik as a lord, but not Lady Anna,” I answered, “You don’t even call her Lady Anna. There’s none of the deference one would give a Lady-Apparent. There was the protectiveness of an older brother. I’m not sure if she knows or not. If she does, she hides it well.”

“Based on the evidence you’ve seen, I can certainly see how you came to your conclusion,” Fangbearer said, and then chuckled. “The answer is far less scandalous. I simply have enough aristocrat blood in me that Lord Savik was able to unlock my powers. They’ve been necessary in my position.”

“I didn’t know that could be done,” I said. “I thought those could only be unlocked when an aristocrat became a lord.”

“We’ve pushed a lot of the traditional boundaries and found they were little more than legend,” Fangbearer said. “Lord Savik is willing to put his trust in you. Now, we are going to have to ask something from you.”

“What? I already said that we’d help you,” I said suspiciously.

“My powers aren’t well known outside of a select few. Lord Savik and I thought it was best to keep that secret. I must ask that you don’t mention this at all,” Fangbearer said. “If anyone asks, we wanted to talk with you because you’re a Badmoon.”

“Sure. I can do that,” I said. Fangbearer nodded.

“Good. Probably tomorrow, we’ll take you to meet with the rest of the packs,” Fangbearer said, “At that time, we’ll tell them why you’re here and that you’ll be working with us. For now, you can rest in the room across the hall. The bathroom is two doors down on the left, it you want to clean up.” I nodded. Fangbearer and the two guards left me alone. Well, this didn’t turn out like I hoped. Still, I did secure a pledge of assistance for Hillsborough. All I needed to do was find a way to take down the most powerful vampire council in the United States. I walked over to my bedroom for the night. Maybe this was what I needed. A chance to be just a hunter again. No politics, no confusing relationships. Just me doing what I do best. As I laid down on the bed and closed my eyes, Elizabeth’s face haunted me.

My fingers flexed as my mind calculated the odds. I could probably draw my HK45 faster than the shaman in front of me could whip up some of his magicks. Unfortunately, with shaman “probably” wasn’t good enough. If this shaman was good and managed to pull off some mystical attack before I could shoot him, it would be a lethal misjudgment for me, as well as Hangman and Vanessa. Then there was the whole issue with killing Savik’s Spiritmaster in front of what looked like the collected leadership of the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes. Also, I was pretty sure killing the Spiritmaster would give his rantings about my being an “abomination” and accusations of evil intent some weight in the pack leaders’ eyes. Not that some needed much convincing.

“I can’t believe you’re allowing this horrible monster in your presence, much less the Lady Anna’s,” the former Broward Spiritmaster repeated. It was the third, no fourth, iteration of that sentence since the meeting began. The Spiritmaster was a short lycanthrope, only standing about five foot four as a human. Close-cropped white hair and a lined face gave the Spiritmaster an aged look. It didn’t help he was wearing khakis and a pastel pink polo shirt. He looked more like an aging executive instead of the most powerful spellcaster in the Disputed Territories. Lady Anna shot me a sympathetic look as the Spiritmaster paced back and forth for dramatic effect. I noticed his pacing never came within ten feet of me.

The meeting was being held in a large conference room that was part of a vacant office suite. In addition to Lord Savik, Anna, Fangbearer, and the two remaining Red Knights, there were also the leaders of the four remaining packs, their deputies, a pair of hunters, and the Spiritmaster escorted by four shaman. Lord Savik called the meeting to introduce Hangman, Vanessa, and me to his top lycanthropes. Lord Savik didn’t even have the chance for the full introduction. As soon as Lord Savik said my name, the Spiritmaster started into his tirade about the folly of letting a Badmoon get near any of them. The hunters didn’t seem to be paying attention to the Spiritmaster, but the others were giving Lord Savik and Lady Anna questioning looks. Some of it was probably because we were from outside the Disputed Territories, but I wondered how much was from the Spiritmaster’s haranguing.

“My lord, you should ask Fangbearer to exterminate this abomination before the Ancestors curse us more than they already have. Look what his presence in Hillsborough caused for that county,” the Spiritmaster commented smugly. Okay, that was the last straw. I could withstand the verbal abuse, but I wasn’t about to let anyone from this county threaten my life. The old lycanthrope noticeably paled as my neutral mask slipped into rage. He visibly flinched as I took a step towards him. The four shaman behind the Spiritmaster fell into what looked like video game fighting stances. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I felt the shaman drawing magicks. Fangbearer stood in front of Lord Savik and Lady Anna. The pack leaders and their deputies backed as far as they could against the wall. No one wanted to be a part of this fight. Well, no one except Hangman. The pup fell in beside me. That gave me an unusually large sense of relief. At least someone had my back.

“Renn, I wonder how you managed to survive this long,” the older of the hunters said in a bored tone. Everyone’s heads turned to him, except for me and Lord Savik. Well, that was interesting. Someone taught the lord not to be distracted from the real threat.

“What?” was all the Spiritmaster could manage. The comment clearly caught him off-guard. I saw my chance. My HK45 was almost clear of its holster when Hangman put a hand on my shoulder. When I looked back, he pointed over to Lord Savik, whose hands began to flick with hunter hand-signs. Put your weapon away. I will deal with him. Stunned by the revelation, I managed to holster my pistol by muscle-memory alone. Hunters weren’t supposed to teach hand-sign to anyone outside of the Guild.

“You’ve just asked for a lycanthrope to be executed in front of Lord Savik and Lady Anna,” the older hunter said, drawing me away from the lord. “A lycanthrope who is a hunter and in the course of his hunting duties has killed other lycanthropes. Moreover, according to you, he can’t fear the wrath of the Ancestors because they’ve already damned him. Didn’t your primal survival instinct at least warn you that it might not be a good idea to corner such a lycanthrope?” The hunter’s words broke the tension in the room. There were muffled chuckles around the room as the Spiritmaster’s fair skin reddened.

“This argument has gone far enough,” Lord Savik said with a tone of finality. The Spiritmaster motioned for his shaman to stop their summonings. “I called this meeting to tell you we have three new allies. Not for you to question me in front of my pack leaders in a disrespectful manner. Especially not to demand one of their deaths after I accepted their generous offers of service in our cause.” Lord Savik gave the Spiritmaster a hard look. The Spiritmaster bowed his head in submission. Apparently that was all the contrition Lord Savik needed. I still wanted to rip the bastard’s head off.

“That’s all fine and good my lord, but just who are they?” one of the packleaders asked, eyeing us suspiciously. “Suddenly two hunters and a kin appear in our county to help us?”

“They saved Uncle and me from an assassination attempt by Mako,” Lady Anna said, her voice almost challenging.

“Which could just be a false flag,” the older hunter retorted. Lady Anna glared at him, but he wasn’t fazed. He turned to me. “No offense, but we have a reason to be a bit on the paranoid side around here. Lady Anna vouching for you helps, but it’s not enough.”

“No offense taken. After what happened here, you wouldn’t have survived without building a healthy sense of paranoia against all outsiders. Truthfully, we didn’t come here to help you, at least not directly,” Hangman said, “We’re here because you might be able to help Hillsborough.” The Disputed Territories lycanthropes exchanged looks.

“What exactly do you think we could do to help Hillsborough?” another of the packleaders asked.

Hillsborough is now under vampire control, much like the Disputed Territories,” Hangman said. He paused as all of the lycanthropes in the room snarled.

“I would suggest you avoid the use of that term, pup,” Lord Savik almost hissed, “We are the wolves of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. That weakling prince is the one who bestowed that title on our territories. After he and his pets caused it.”

“I apologize my lord,” Hangman said, bowing his head, “The war council is forming in Tallahassee or has already formed. If the combined forces of the three counties under vampire control are at the council, we can force it to elect a new prince who will help our counties.”

“A naive sentiment,” the Spiritmaster smirked. At least two of the pack leaders seemed to be in agreement with him.

“If Lord Savik wasn’t a threat to the powers orchestrating the fall of our counties, then why do they keep trying to assassinate him?” Vanessa asked. “It would just be easier to keep you bottled up here and let the vampires kill you than waste the resources. Something about you personally is a threat, my lord.”

“I’m not discounting what you say, but I can’t leave my county. Not with it under the control of the vampire,” Lord Savik said. It was the same thing he’d told me at the safe house.

“Then maybe we should do something about that,” I said, drawing all eyes on me. A ghost of a smile danced across Lord Savik’s face. He was expecting me to say this. I was fairly certain how this was supposed to go.

“Easier said than done, abomination,” the Spiritmaster sneered, “What do you think we’ve been doing these past years?” I really wanted to hit him, preferably in the face. Multiple times. It must have shown on my face because Lord Savik was hand-signing for me to remain calm.

“Surviving, and doing it well from what I can see,” I answered. I wasn’t speaking to the Spiritmaster. I was talking to the pack leaders. They were the ones I needed.

“You are going to deliver us like the humans’ Messiah?” asked the first packleader with a pointed tone. “That would fit into so much of their literature. The outcast come to lead the unwashed from harm.”

“I’m no savior. I’m a hunter. So’s he,” I said pointing at Hangman. I pointed at Vanessa “She’s a data analyst, and a damned good one. All of us are willing to do whatever we can to help the lycanthropes of these two counties. Let us help you find the leeches’ weak points and slaughter them.”

“What wonderful rhetoric from a Badmoon,” the Spiritmaster said, “Just the kind of thing to lead our few wolves into a suicidal spiral against the vampires.” Exactly how mad would Lord Savik be if I beat his Spiritmaster to bleeding pulp? From the glare on her face, I had the feeling Lady Anna wouldn’t be too upset with me.

“Isn’t taking back our counties what we’ve been fighting for?” demanded the Lady-Apparent. “Or have you settled for being a hunted dog?” There were sharp intakes of breath from some of the lycanthropes. The Spiritmaster looked like he’d just been slapped. It took everything I had to keep from laughing.

“That is enough!” Lord Savik thundered. His powers filled the room, and I watched as the other lycanthropes fell back in psychic-caused fear. I tried looking fearful to hide that the lord’s powers weren’t doing a thing to me.

“All of you, and all of the wolves you lead have sworn to fight under me until the vampires are destroyed and our counties restored. That has not changed, nor will I accept any aspersions on any of the wolves under my leadership without evidence. That includes three who have sworn to serve me recently. As they have generously offered their services, we will offer ours to them, once our counties are restored.” He looked over to the older hunter. “For now, they will work in the Guild. That makes the most sense considering their talents.”

“Well, that triples my hunters, then,” the older hunter said. “Plus, I get a support kin. I can live with that. If you don’t need me further, my lord, I’ll take them with me back to the Guild. The sooner I get them integrated into the Guild, the sooner we can use them in the field.” Lord Savik nodded. The pack leaders and the shaman didn’t look particularly happy as Hangman, Vanessa, and I followed the two hunters out of the office. I was surprised when Lady Anna joined us. The two hunters didn’t seen to think it was unusual, so I kept quiet. There would be time to ask questions later.

“In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m the Guildmaster for the remaining Broward and Dade county lycanthropes,” the older hunter said as our group boarded the elevator. “That’s Cracker. He’s my sole surviving hunter.” Cracker was about my height, but much thicker. I swear, I could take cover behind him. His face was an expressionless mask.

“I let Lady Anna tag along with us because she’s got some talent,” the Guildmaster said.

“I noticed,” I said, and then grunted as Vanessa jabbed an elbow into my side. She just glared at my questioning look. If the others noticed, they didn’t say anything. Lady Anna just smiled at me.

“What about Fangbearer?” Hangman asked, “Does he work with you?” The Guildmaster and Lady Anna traded a look.

“He works for Lord Savik,” the Guildmaster answered. The flat tone told me there was something odd about going on there. Vanessa caught my eye and gave a small shake of her head. I trusted her instincts and let the matter drop. There would be time to figure that out later. An uncomfortable silence filled the elevator car. The Guildmaster broke it as the elevator opened.

“What I want is for Vanessa to take a look at our current intelligence,” the Guildmaster said as we exited the building. “We have a bunch, but no one’s been able to make it work for us.”

“Is that what happened at the house last night?” Vanessa asked.

“I honestly don’t know,” the Guildmaster answered. “That was just a clusterfuck. I thought we had good intel on one of the leeches’ stash of silver ammunition. Now I’m wondering if the leeches were just laying out bait to trap us.”

“Perhaps,” Vanessa said as we left the building. They’d left my truck in the parking lot next to an older muscle car. Hangman’s eyes went wide at the car, so I guessed it was something impressive. Cars weren’t really my thing. They were just something I used.

“Lady Anna, would you mind showing them the way to the Guild?” the Guildmaster asked as he and Cracker slid into the car. Lady Anna climbed into the back of my truck’s cab as the door opened.

“Hey, I’ve got gear back there,” I protested.

“No, we removed it while we were searching your car last night,” Lady Anna answered. “You might want to hurry. Robert’s not well known for his patience.” Vanessa gave me a level look as she climbed in next to Lady Anna. As soon as Hangman was in, the Guildmaster peeled out of the parking lot. I slammed the truck into gear and followed. I didn’t bother paying attention to where we were going as much as just trying to keep up with the muscle car as it swerved through traffic. I swore as I sped through an intersection as the light turned red and nearly took the front end off of a sedan.

“Is there some reason your Guildmaster is driving like a bat out of hell?” Hangman asked.

“Leeches control the traffic cameras,” Lady Anna answered, “They have roving patrols of ghouls that try and ambush us when we’re out on the roads. It’s actually safer for us to move at night.”

“What about the cops?” I asked.

“Easier to use the Wolf’s Growl on humans than get into a firefight with ghouls,” Lady Anna answered casually. Hangman looked back at her. The Wolf’s Growl was supposed to be used in rare occasions, not to get out of traffic tickets. The more it was used on humans, the less effective it became. Worse, humans were so tribal, that using it on one policeman would bolster the resistance of all the police that officer regularly worked with. I don’t know why. The shaman say they know, but I didn’t really believe them. Lady Anna didn’t comment further, so I just concentrated on driving.

“So where is all my gear?” I asked.

“Most of it went to the packs,” Lady Anna answered, “We needed the guns. The silver bullets went to the Knights.”

“Even my Commando?” I asked, choking back a sudden rage. After my HK45, that was my favorite gun.

“You’re hunters, you won’t need them,” Lady Anna said, clearly perplexed by our dark mood. Before any of us could answer, the Guildmaster pulled into a private storage building. I damn near fishtailed the truck as I screeched into the lot. I parked next to the muscle car, half-wondering if I made the right decision.

“Good, you managed to keep up,” the Guildmaster said cheerfully, “I was wondering if that truck would do it.”

“So did I,” I retorted. The Guildmaster chuckled.

“Welcome to the Guild,” the Guildmaster said. “It isn’t nearly as good as our old one, but it’ll do.” There was a hint of sadness as he mentioned the old Guild. The Guildmaster opened the front door and led us inside. I was surprised to see there was a human male sitting at the customer service desk. Completely human, not even kin. He looked in his late teens or early twenties.

“This is Tyler,” the Guildmaster introduced, “He handles the customers and makes sure that no one bothers us.” Tyler nodded and went back to working on his computer. The Guildmaster led our little group through a door into the storage area.

“You have customers here?” Vanessa asked quietly.

“A business that has no customers looks suspicious,” Lady Anna answered.

“That was one of those lessons we learned the hard way,” the Guildmaster said. “We have half of the first and all of the third floor to ourselves. Under a variety of names, of course. The rest is rented out by humans. The shaman were nice enough to whip up some protections that if a leech or a ghoul comes in, all of those in the Guild will get a warning. The first floor we actually use for storage. We have a lot of paper records and some specialty gear.”

“Weapons?” I asked.

“Not really,” the Guildmaster answered, “Too chancy of an accidental discovery by human authorities. Besides, you two are hunters. You shouldn’t need more than what you’ve got on you.”

“That’s the second time that’s been mentioned,” Hangman said, looking over at Lady Anna. “I’ve always been taught to bring the proper tools for the job, not just what tools I happen to have.”

“Must be nice,” Cracker said, sarcastically. The Guildmaster waved us down before Hangman or I replied.

“I’m sorry. I should have thought of that. Both of you are used to working with better equipped chapters. It’s best if we discuss this on the third floor. It’s more secure.” Hangman and I traded glances, but nodded. As we got onto the elevator, I noticed Lady Anna giving me an appraising look. My instincts were going off as I looked at her, but they were soft, like danger, but not immediate danger. Why did they wait until now to start going off? The Guildmaster led us to a large storage bay and opened up the door. Inside was laid out like an office with four workstations.

“This is our intel section,” the Guildmaster said, motioning to the workstations. “More to the point, our intel section whenever any of the three of us has a chance to do some actual research and analysis of what we get.” Vanessa immediately slipped into her professional role as she sat down at a proffered desk.

“How are you indexing?” she asked as she started clicking on icons.

“Indexing?” Lady Anna asked, confused. Vanessa’s head shot up to meet the Guildmaster’s eyes. He shrugged.

“We haven’t really been doing all of the front-end work,” the Guildmaster said, “Like I said, it’s been more fast and loose than structured around here.” Vanessa let out a disapproving sniff before focusing back on the computer. Lady Anna looked slightly offended, but the Guildmaster and Cracker just chuckled.

“Now perhaps you want to explain why I don’t have my Commando?” I asked.

“The packs and the Knights need it more than you do,” Cracker said, “Real hunters don’t need all of that fancy gear to do a job.”

“Fuck you, dickhead,” I shot back, “We do the job with the best tools we have. I’m not going to let Murphy fuck something up because I don’t have the tools. Our jobs are dangerous enough as is.”

“If you can’t do the job with what you have available, then you’re not really being a hunter. Any warrior can do a job if they just rely on tech.” Cracker gave us a look of haughty superiority. I’d seen that look far too often from lycanthropes who thought they were better than me because I was a Badmoon. Buried rage welled up inside of me. My instincts screamed warnings, but I ignored them. Damn it, I was one of the best hunters in Hillsborough. My hand shot out to shove Cracker against the wall. Pain blossomed across my face and through my arm. It took me a moment to realize Cracker had me in an arm lock and shoved up against concrete wall. How the fuck did someone that size move that fucking fast? The pain in my shoulder increased as he tightened his hold.

“Are you done?” Lady Anna asked with an annoyed tone. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. Cracker let go and slid away from me with a scary grace. Lady Anna walked over to me.

”I expected better of you,” she said in an angry whisper.

“Ranger, if you expect to work with us, you’re going to have to do things our way,” the Guildmaster said with a warning tone in his voice. “One thing you’d better get through that skull of yours is most of the pack warriors here have more combat experience than most hunters in the state. What they don’t have is our training, so they get what special weapons we can get our hands on. As hunters, we have the skills to operate on a bare minimum, which is good, because that’s usually all we have. Forget about having racks and racks of the latest weapons and gear. Forget about having all the silver ammunition you can shoot. The ammunition you brought with you was the most we’ve had on hand for months.”

“We need you’re help, but not if you end up getting us killed because you can’t operate within our constraints,” Lady Anna said, her dark eyes flashing. Hangman put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head. If the pup thought I was overreacting, then it was probably time to stand down. I relaxed a bit and the tension in the room lessened.

“I still want my Commando back when we leave,” I told the Guildmaster. The Guildmaster simply nodded. From the look in his eyes, he was humoring me. Cracker rolled his eyes. I really wanted to beat the hell out of the other hunter, but not until I figured out how he moved that fucking fast.

“So how do you operate, exactly?” Hangman asked. Trust the pup to act rationally. I knew I wasn’t, but I wasn’t sure yet if I cared.

“Most of our jobs are to support a larger operation by one or more of the packs. On those, we borrow weapons from the packs’ arsenals,” the Guildmaster answered. “Sometimes we’ll do recon or assassination jobs. Those are built around what we have and what we can expect to pick up in the field. I know that’s not how we trained at the camp, but we do it this way for a reason. Everything we use can’t be traced back to where it might endanger the packs. The FCV is unbelievably good at using the humans’ data systems to track us down. Some of their ghouls are scary good investigators. We have some kin still in the area, but not the network most counties have built up over the generations.”

“Think about your precious Commando Ranger,” Lady Anna said, taking over from the Guildmaster, “It’s yours, but I bet according to the humans, it’s technically owned by a kin in some kind of cover business. Everything done properly to keep the humans out of our business. You have kin in the local police forces to keep investigations of you using a full-auto weapon from coming to the notice of the human authorities and media. We have none of that. If a full-auto weapon gets used here, the FCV will bring everything they can to bear and ferret us out faster than you could believe. It’s how we lost so much of our equipment, money, and not a few of my wolves.” There was a defiant flash in her eyes. She was not going to go through that again.

“That’s not including the Society,” the Guildmaster continued, “They have many of the same resources as the FCV, and they use them just as ruthlessly. Not as well as the FCV, thank the Ancestors. If so, Lord Savik would be dead by now, and maybe Lady Anna as well.”

“Ancestors, Elizabeth,” I whispered to myself. My mind raced. I ignored the suspicious look on Lady Anna’s face. What the Guildmaster and Lady Anna were saying suddenly clicked in my mind. If the TCV managed to do the same in Hillsborough as the FCV did in the Disputed Territories, then Elizabeth and the rest of the Hillsborough lycanthropes were in extreme danger. Technically, most of the Guild’s weapons and gear were under Mrs. Werstand’s security firm. Her employees had gone to ground as soon as everything went to hell. So did most of our kin. What was Elizabeth and the Hillsborough lycanthropes doing now that would get them killed? As bad as Elizabeth hurt me, the thought of her dead hurt more.

“Who is Elizabeth?” Lady Anna asked, her eyes narrowed. My instincts were screaming warnings at her cool tone.

“She’s the Lady-Apparent in Hillsborough,” Hangman answered.

“Why do you call her Elizabeth and not Lady Vollen, or at least Lady Elizabeth?” Lady Anna asked. Hangman’s hands flashed with danger signals. I may not understand females all that well, but I knew well enough to listen to my instincts. Most of the time, at least.

“Because she asked me to,” I answered. From the cold look on Lady Anna’s face, that wasn’t the answer she wanted. An uncomfortable silence fell over us that seemed to stretch for hours.

“I see,” Lady Anna said, finally breaking the silence. The Guildmaster and Cracker both gave the her questioning looks. She waved them off.

“Well, now that’s settled, we can get to work,” the Guildmaster said. “I’m going to work with Vanessa and see if we can dig up anything we can use. Cracker, would you mind working with Ranger and Hangman?” The big hunter smiled malevolently. “Lady Anna, you can stay here with us unless Lord Savik has something else for you.”

“I think I’d better help Cracker with these two,” Lady Anna said, “I think it’s past time we acquainted them with our methods.”

“Not bad Ranger,” Cracker said, barely breathing hard, “That one almost hurt.” I gave the massive hunter an evil glare. I was covered in bruises and mostly-healed cuts. Part of me wanted to just sit down and let Hangman try his luck. Most of me, on the other hand, wanted to kick the smirking bastard’s ass into next week. I was sure I’d seen a small hole in his defenses. It wasn’t much, but I should be able to jab the point of the steel fighting knife into his lung. Since it wasn’t silver, it’d just hurt, but I intended to follow it up with some hand strikes that would let this asshole know I wasn’t some fucking rookie pup just out of camp. We both fell into fighting stances with knives outstretched. I waited patiently for him to make the first move. This was always the hardest part of sparring. It felt like minutes passed as we watched each other. Cracker figured out that I was not going to strike first. He slid to the side and leapt at me. Not the attack I was expecting, but it should do. I blocked his knife strike, twisted to his side and punched at his face. Cracker always seemed to need to protect his face. As his arm went to block my strike, my knife darted towards his exposed side. Then I was on the mat with a ringing head. How the hell had he done that? From the pain across the side of my face, he’d punched with the pommel of his knife. I didn’t even see the blow coming.

“You’re done,” Cracker said flatly.

“I can still fight,” I shot back as I picked myself up off the mat and recovered my blade.

“No doubt, but you’re still done. You’re too focused on trying to hurt me that you’re not thinking straight. Go sit down and let me practice on the pup. Maybe you’ll figure out why I’ve been routinely putting you down,” Cracker said. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to gut Cracker. Hangman walked over and nodded back to the chair he’d vacated. I don’t know why, but the expression on Hangman’s face was enough to bring some modicum of reason back in my head. Cracker was right. I wasn’t fighting, I was just brawling. I handed over the training knife and sat down next to Lady Anna.

“If it makes you feel any better, Cracker’s full packname is Bone Cracker,” Lady Anna said with a ghost of a smile dancing across her face. “He was the Guild’s best hand to hand fighter.”

“No, milady, that doesn’t make me feel better,” I replied.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I’ve gone up against enough hand to hand fighters and held my own. This was something completely different,” I said as Cracker and Hangman settled into fighting stances. The pup’s was looser than mine. I watched as the two circled each other. Lady Anna eyed me speculatively as I sat quietly. Hangman tried a feint to get in close with Cracker and landed face first in the mat. The pup sprang back up and shook off the pain. The second bout ended little better with Hangman gasping from a stab into his lungs. Three more bouts all ended with Hangman picking himself up and Cracker not so much as scratched. This was getting pointless. I sat back as a thought ran through my mind.

“What is it?” Lady Anna asked, deciphering my expression.

“Okay, I get it. You’re not teaching us how things are done here,” I answered. I looked over at Cracker. “You’re teaching us that we need to forget how we did things back home. Prove to us that we can’t handle things like we used to.” Cracker stopped the fight and reluctantly smiled.

“Hate to admit it, but you picked that up faster than any of the others. You think you’re the first hunters we’ve had come in offering assistance?” Cracker asked when he saw our surprised expressions, “Most were Society moles. We killed those. Some more were glory seekers, and a few were actually just trying to help. But they couldn’t get the idea that the pack warriors were warriors again. Hunters are now support for the warriors, not the other way around. Those that didn’t get themselves killed were mind-wiped by the shaman and dropped at the border.”

“Mind-wiped?” Hangman asked incredulous.

“The Prince may have abandoned us, but the Ancestors have not,” Lady Anna answered, “The Spiritmaster and his shaman are very scary with their magicks. Just like the warriors, the hunters, and even the aristocracy, the shaman were forced to become harder and stronger. If we had more than just five, we could tear the FCV apart.”

“That and the pathwalkers would show up,” I said. I don’t care how good the shaman were supposed to be. I didn’t trust anyone who was calling for my execution. Lady Anna just gave me a sad smile.

“I suppose there is that,” was all she said.

“So, how are you going to show us how to help you?” Hangman asked.

“We survive by stealth with occasional bursts of violence,” Lady Anna answered. “Not only stealth like when you snuck up behind me at the house. Completely blending into the background of humans so when it’s time to spring our occasional violence, the FCV never sees us coming.”

“It also helps when the Society sends the occasional assassins after us,” the Guildmaster said, walking into the room. Vanessa trailed behind him. “Thankfully, they no longer have your services. I’d hate to think what they could do if this young kin was still in their employ.” He nodded to Vanessa who was standing next to Hangman inspecting his injuries.

“Not the first time they managed to figure out where we were hiding,” Cracker said. “What makes her so impressive?” Hangman gave the hunter an evil look. The Guildmaster laughed at the two of them.

“How long have you been here sparring?” the Guildmaster asked.

“Long enough,” Cracker answered. The Guildmaster just nodded at the answer.

“Good, because this young kin has already managed to put enough strings together that we have a job. Ranger, take a couple of hours to heal up, and then we’ll see if you are up to working in our counties.”

I followed Lady Anna to the table while scanning for our target. I hated this part of a job. I’m not a patient lycanthrope by nature. I’ve learned patience through years of working jobs, but it never comes easy for me. It’s worse when I feel exposed. Such as watching for a vampire courier from inside a coffeehouse. It felt like I was in a bad spy movie. I would have been much happier sitting on a rooftop with a pair of binoculars or in a surveillance van.

“Would you relax?” Lady Anna said as she sat down. “You’re going to draw attention.”

“I am relaxed,” I lied, sitting down next to her. We were at a table next to the large plate glass window. From what Vanessa managed to compile from the hunters’ intelligence, we should be seeing the vampire courier as he made his rounds. Those rounds included dropping off payment and instructions to the security firm guarding the FCV’s ammunition cache. It was so fucking Old-World of the vampires that they needed to use a courier instead of the Internet.

“No, you’re looking around for threats,” Lady Anna chided me as she settled herself, “In this neighborhood, it makes you look a cop or a criminal. Both draw the wrong kind of notice. Any trouble with the humans will screw this up almost worse than getting spotted by a vampire. So relax, and just pretend we’re two people out on a casual date.”

“Yeah, because I have so much experience with that too,” I murmured sarcastically into my tea. Lady Anna quirked an eyebrow up.

“I guess being a Badmoon would scare off most females,” Lady Anna said after a moment. “Then, there’s the small issue of being a hunter. What respectable female would dare the scandal among the packs?”

“Thank you for that enlightening observation,” I said, using sarcasm to prevent my anger from showing.

“Now an aristocrat could. If she was powerful enough or secure enough,” Lady Anna said. The words dug in like a knife. Did she know about Elizabeth and me? How could she? Then there was the way she said those words. I didn’t understand her light tone. Her eyes were alight with playfulness, but it didn’t look like malovelont playing.

“Maybe you should concentrate on looking for the courier,” I said, not wanting to discuss it any further. This job was going to be tricky enough without having to dredge up feelings I just buried in the back of my mind. Lady Anna leaned back in her chair without another word. I was thankful for that. I tried to be more discreet in my scans of the coffeehouse and the street. I don’t know how successful I was, but Lady Anna didn’t make any further comments.

About an hour later, a vampire turned the corner and started walking down other side of the street. He looked about thirty years old with stylish brown hair and a suit that would have made Bradon jealous. He stood out, and the locals avoided looking at him. I checked him against the photo on my phone. He looked pretty close.

“Looks like our guy’s here,” I said. She studied the vampire against the photo.

“Looks like it,” Lady Anna said as she stood up. We walked to the back of the coffeehouse. We could still see the vampire, but it would have been hard for him to see us if he looked our way. Except he wasn’t looking around. My instincts started going off. Why wasn’t the courier checking his surroundings? Even vampires weren’t that causal with their security if they were doing a job for their superiors. The courier passed the coffeehouse without even looking our way. Lady Anna started for the door, but I grabbed her arm.

“Wait,” I said quietly. She gave me a frustrated look.

“Why? He’s moving fast,” Lady Anna said, “We need to snatch him before he gets off this block.”

“He’s not acting right,” I said, “He isn’t even checking to see if he’s being tailed.”

“The leeches don’t,” Lady Anna said, “Except for their Bleeders, most of the FCV just don’t believe we could target them. They act like the mob. Who would dare go against the mob?” She pulled out of my grasp. I hesitated for a moment and then followed her, but not before checking my HK45. As soon as I stepped outside the door, my instincts went into overdrive. Lady Anna was already across the street and about thirty feet behind the courier. She was maybe fifty feet from me and walking away. I needed to back her up, but I hadn’t lived this long by ignoring my instincts. Lady Anna turned back and furiously mouthed for me to catch up. I couldn’t see any threats. Maybe she was right. My instincts were honed on the streets of Tampa. This was an entirely different operating environment. I jogged across the street and up until I was about five feet behind Lady Anna.

The plan was relatively simple. The second from the last shop on the street was vacant and boarded. We would intercept and “escort” the courier into the vacated sandwich shop with the prospect that if he didn’t fight, we wouldn’t kill him. Apparently, that still worked in the Disputed Territories. Before the fall of the Peace, that kind of ultimatum was expected. Killing vampires or lycanthropes without provocation was frowned on by both sides. It was as if the vampires here didn’t realize they were still in a war with the lycanthropes. As soon as we forced the leech in the building, we were to take the leech into the cooler, shoot him, steal everything he had on him, and walk out the back. A car would be waiting for extract. According to Lady Anna, this was one of the most basic jobs the Guild did. They had used this plan successfully dozens of times. My instincts were still screaming. There was just something wrong.

Lady Anna sped up to intercept the courier. I shook my head in appreciation. She was moving faster, but somehow she made it look so fucking casual. Oh, she was good. I admired her technique. I barely managed to keep up. She grabbed the courier’s shoulder. He turned around angrily and looked like he was about to say something, then his dark eyes went wide and his mouth snapped shut as he saw her. She smiled warmly and spoke too low for me to hear. It was some variation of “cooperate and live, or my friend will execute you.” The courier went from outraged to pleasant in nothing flat. He knew the deal. He almost seemed jubilant as Lady Anna escorted him over to the vacant storefront. She opened the previously lock-picked door and gave the vampire a slight push before following him in. I slipped in and locked the door behind us. Lady Anna turned on the lights. The shop was musty, but it looked like almost every sandwich shop I’d been in. Tiled serving area with a few scattered tables. A long counter for making sandwiches protected with plexiglass sneeze shields. I went back to the door to make sure some random human didn’t wander into our murder house. When I came back, the courier was seated at one of the tables. He was setting out documents under Lady Anna’s watchful guise.

“I must say, you dogs have balls,” the courier said in an affected New York accent, “I don’t think anyone would’ve thought you’d hit me. You know I don’t carry cash right?” My instincts went from screaming to klaxon. The courier was too fucking calm, and the jibe about the cash didn’t seem right.

“That’s okay, I’m sure you have things on you that are even more useful,” Lady Anna said, ignoring the jibe.

“Strip him,” I commanded. Lady Anna looked back at me with shocked surprise. I pushed her aside and started ripping open the courier’s pockets. He made a rude comment about needing to buy him dinner first. I found the alert button an instant before we heard the screech of tires outside. I snarled as the courier backhanded me. He overturned the table with one hand and tossed a chair at Lady Anna with the other. She rolled out of the way and came up with her Glock 19. A stainless pistol materialized in the courier’s hand. He fired first. The courier was fast, but not accurate. The bullet whipped past an inch from Lady Anna’s head. She instinctively ducked, and her first shot went into the ceiling. They were bringing their pistols down on each other. Both were tunneling and had forgot about me. I drew my HK45 and placed two rounds into the courier. He went down hard onto the table.

“Time to go,” I said loudly. Guns are fucking loud indoors. Our hearing would heal fast, but it wasn’t instantaneous.

“Let me get the documents,” Lady Anna answered as she started stuffing the courier’s papers into her purse.

“No time,” I said, grabbing her. She slipped out of my grasp and gave me a look like she was about to tell me exactly how important the documents were. She didn’t have the chance. The door to the sandwich shop slammed open. Two small metal canisters were tossed in. I recognized them instantly as flash-bangs and pushed Lady Anna to the ground. I closed my eyes and waited for the abuse my ears were about to endure. I heard about a microsecond of the blast before it all went to a high-pitched ringing. I rolled off Lady Anna and brought up my HK45 as the first vampire stormed in. He was wearing black tactical gear with POLICE emblazoned in bright white letters. I gave him the second to turn before putting two rounds in the head. He fell back into his teammates, which gave me seconds I desperately needed. I yanked Lady Anna off the floor. I fired off an un-aimed burst of gunfire into the doorway as I pulled her behind the counter. We hid behind two large ovens under the counter as I reloaded.

The leeches recovered far too quickly for my tastes. Four M4’s were emptied at us. Bullets puched through the thin sheet metal of the counter. I felt the bullets hit the heavier steel of the ovens, but 5.56mm bullets coming out of those short barrels just didn’t have the umph to punch through industrial grade equipment. At least the ringing in my ears was gone. Now, it just sounded like I was listening to the battle through water. Maybe I should just get some of those electronic hearing protection humans used. When the leeches’ carbines ran dry, I rose up to take a shot. I ducked back down just in time as a fifth vampire fired a burst. Okay, they weren’t as stupid as I hoped.

“Shit, we need to leave,” Lady Anna said. She turned to crawl to the back door. I yanked her back behind the oven before a burst of fire punched through right where she had been crawling. Fuck this. Two could play at this game. I turned and fired at that vampires through the now perforated steel. One screamed as I shot his legs out from under him. I still couldn’t get a good count on how many leeches we were dealing with. They looked like a solid wall of black legs. Lady Anna took her cue from me and fired her Glock at the vampires. They weren’t falling for that again. They had us localized. Now it was time for them to fire and maneuver. Christ on a crutch, if I just had some of the cooking supplies normally found under a counter, I could really do some nifty shit to get us out of this mess. Of course, the shelves were empty except for the odd spider or cockroach. I loaded a fresh magazine into the HK45. I reached down and pulled out my Glock 26 from my boot holster.

“I’m going to spray enough fire to keep their heads down. You get into the back of the store,” I told Lady Anna.

“I’m not going to leave you behind,” she said, an unfamiliar iron in her voice.

“I hope the fuck not,” I said, “Once you’re back there, pull one of those rolling fridges over here and drop it on its side. That should give me enough cover to join you.”

“Oh. That makes sense,” she said. She looked embarrassed, but I didn’t know why, so I ignored it. A couple of bursts were sent to remind us that the vampires really did want us dead. I readied myself and looked over at Anna. She held out her hand and silently counted down. Five, four, three two–

The first booming thunderclap startled both of us. Then came a second, and a third. A pause and two more in quick succession. No fucking way, I thought as my mind remembered something else that made that kind of noise. I peered up and saw the seven leeches. Five had gaping holes in them. The last was almost decapitated from a machete still stuck in its neck and a stake driven through its chest. The last one was the unlucky bastard I’d shot first. I rushed to the door. I saw a lycanthrope turn the corner. I knew what my eyes were seeing, but my mind refused to believe it. It just wasn’t possible.

“Ranger, help me get these bodies inside!” Lady Anna yelled. I’d have time for dealing with the mystery later. I dragged the first vampire inside. Lady Anna was in true form and tossed the courier into the cooler at the back of the store. I agreed with her. No sense in being delicate. I stripped the dead leeches of weapons, ammo, and anything else that looked useful and tossed the lot into a bag the vampires had thoughtfully brought for us. As soon as I was done, Lady Anna pitched them into back of the store. We were done in under four minutes. We exited out the back with Lady Anna shedding for human. She quickly dressed as we walked around the back of the buildings. Well, this was why we had a “go-to-hell” plan. The small alley behind the store was used for deliveries. Across the way was the rear to another store. The warriors picking us up made sure the door was unlocked. We walked through the stocking area of the mattress shop. The employees stared at us, but were too shocked by our blatant attitude to say anything. We ignored them and walked out the front to the waiting car. We entered the car like nothing was wrong. The warriors drove us a couple of blocks and the four of us switched to the back up car. We saw dozens of police cars as we drove back to the safehouse we would use for the debrief.

“Why did she send you here?” Lady Anna asked quietly. The question caught me completely off-guard.

“What? Who?” I blurted out as my mind tried to keep up.

“Your Lady-Apparent. Why did she send you here?” Lady Anna asked.

“I already told you,” I answered.

“No, you told me the official reason for sending you down here,” Lady Anna said, looking up at me. Her brown eyes were filled with concern and something else I couldn’t figure out. Her voice lowered to barely above a whisper.

“Why did your lover send you down here instead of keeping you by her side? Where she needed you,” Lady Anna asked.

“I’m not her lover,” I snapped back. Lady Anna gave me a knowing look. “Listen, Elizabeth hates me, and she wasn’t going to use me properly in Hillsborough. We were already tasked to go down here for the Society, so I thought I could at least try and get your wolves back up to help her. I mean, Hillsborough.” My mouth snapped shut. I felt like I’d said too much. Lady Anna gave me an appraising look, but didn’t say anything. I hoped she’d just let the matter drop like she had back in the coffeehouse. I wasn’t that lucky a second time.

“What did you do to make her hate you?” Lady Anna asked. “She did love you, didn’t she?”

“What the fuck, do you have a file on her and me?” I asked exasperated.

“No, I’m just good at reading people. I can tell from the way you talk about her,” Lady Anna explained. “So what did you do to make her hate you?”

“I killed a lycanthrope who was challenging her. In front of her and the rest of the Hillsborough lycanthropes,” I said flatly. I expected Lady Anna to recoil. She surprised me and put her arm around my shoulders.

“She wasn’t ready to see that side of you,” Lady Anna said, soothingly. “And you still love her. Poor fool.”

“Thanks,” I said angrily and jerked back. There was enough pain without Lady Anna rubbing silver into the wound.

“No, I’m sorry,” she said, pulling me back. “I meant her, not you. I imagine you were protecting her from having to do that nasty deed herself. That’s what hunters are for, after all.” The comment didn’t sound flippant. It sounded like someone who understood the burden hunters were asked to undertake for the packs. She sounded so much older than she looked at that moment. I don’t know why, but I felt I had to tell Lady Anna the last bit.

“It doesn’t bother me. Killing other lycanthropes, I mean,” I said. I waited for her to look at me in horror. I waited for the warm arm to recoil in revulsion. Instead, Lady Anna just gave me a sad smile.

“Some don’t,” she said. We rode the rest of the way in silence.

The four other members of the Guild were waiting for us at the safehouse. The weapons and ammo were left with the warriors, but all of the intel came with us. The Guildmaster wasn’t happy with how things went down. It was too loud, and it would remind the FCV the lycanthropes were still dangerous. At least that was how he explained it. He was happy we managed to get out without getting too banged up. Somewhere during the debrief, Lord Savik called and demanded his own explanation for what happened. Lady Anna, the Guildmaster, and Cracker went to talk with the lord. I was glad because I really wanted to be alone with Vanessa and Hangman. At least, I thought I did until I saw the venomous looks Vanessa was giving me.

“What?” I asked.

“I thought more of you Mark,” was all she had to say on the matter. I shot a questioning look at Hangman. He just shrugged his shoulders. Hand signs told me he knew as much as I did, but I should be careful.

“Listen, about the mysterious savior,” I started, referring to the lycanthrope who killed all of our attackers before vanishing.

“Yeah, about that. Do you think he’s another Society operative?” Hangman asked.

“It could be, but why would he save you?” Vanessa commented, “It’s pretty clear we’ve gone off mission.”

“I don’t think it was a Society operative. Ancestors, I hope it wasn’t,” I said.

“Why?” the two asked simultaneously.

“Because I think it was Nick.”

Chapter 20 – Oh Look What Followed Us Here