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 these two were working together. Betrayal and rage flared through me before I clamped down on my emotions. I almost shot Nick right there, but I knew there was more going on.

“Okay, one of you better start explaining, or I’m going to kill you both,” I said. The two traded resigned looks. Nicky motioned for Bradon to speak.

“Ranger, you were not the only lycanthrope I cultivated a relationship,” Bradon said, “I will admit you were my personal favorite, but I had others. Most were in your packs. With one exception.”

“You,” I said at Nick, who silently nodded.

“Nicholas is a very useful lycanthrope to know. He is so much more than the hunter he appears to be. Much like you. So, I recruited him for intelligence and his perspective as a non-Florida lycanthrope. He also was helping me with you,” Bradon said, “Whether you know this or not, your presence in Tampa was very useful to the Peace. Which, in turn, was useful to my faction within the Inner Council. If outside forces hadn’t forced the issue, Nick and I would still be grooming you.”

“For what?” I asked.

“Legacy hitter for the Guildmaster and his successor,” Nick answered, “Although, if I’d known how strongly the Lady-Apparent felt about you, I would’ve groomed you more to court her.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry about that,” I said. Nick gave me a quizzical look. I waved it off. It wasn’t a subject I wanted to go into, and I needed to get back to what was actually going on. I looked back at Bradon.

“I knew you were trying to make me more, civilized. I knew that fit into your plans, somehow. The idea of you working with another of your contacts to make that happen doesn’t surprise me. Who you chose does surprise me. If anything, it makes too much sense. Enough for a good cover story. I put two bullets into Bradon. I saw enough black blood pour out of your body that there was no way for your abilities to save you. I’ve already killed one leech with Bradon’s face. So, you better have an answer as to how you survived or I’m going to assume you’re not Bradon and deal with you accordingly.”

“I was alerted the moment Jason Vollen declared war against us. Not Nicholas, but from one of the packs. I knew you would be sent to kill me. Decapitating the Bleeders would be essential in the first shots of a war,” Bradon said, “Our alchemists were never as good as your shaman, but they could do some very good magic on occasion. Like enchanting my clothes to become as strong as armor and just enough glamour to make it look like I suffered a mortal blow. All I received were a few broken ribs that healed up quickly.”

“That would be plausible except that the Bleeders were never effective as they should’ve been after I shot you,” I said, “Bradon would never have let his operatives be that sloppy.”

“If I had been leading the Bleeders during the war, that would be true,” Bradon said, “Do you think you were the only ones who noticed how the werewolves were being manipulated into a war against the TCV? Moreover, did you think your werewolves were the only ones being manipulated? There was pressure on the Inner Council as well. It was more subtle, but definitely from outside our borders. Among other actions, these outsiders were the ones who suggested Silanti start attacking your pups in tysach. At first I thought it was the Turaki trying to foment a war to provide causus belli to take control of the entire region. When I found out those aliens had no idea what was happening, I realized this was something new. Something I haven’t seen in my almost century and a half of being a nosferatu. Then, you came to kill me. My apparent death gave me the opportunity to investigate on my own without interference from the Inner Council. Just like you, I was overtaken by events. Your county fell faster than I expected. The only good to come of that was I happened to be in Tallahassee when Nick, you, and that young hunter of yours showed up.”

“Bradon rescued me from those Nebraska dogs,” Nick said, taking over the story. “After that, we went to Orange County to see what we could dig up. We found FCV vampires working the Orlando Council. They also sent some cryptic emails to both the FCV and the Society. We came to the Disputed Territories so Bradon could find out more about the connection between the Society and the FCV.” My eyes shot over to Bradon, but the vampire was too busy giving Nick an annoyed look.

“What connection between the Society and the FCV?” I asked.

“That’s something I would like to know,” Lady Anna said out of the doorway. Damn, she was quiet. “I would also like to know why there’s a vampire sitting in my safehouse talking with two hunters who should have already killed him.” Her pistol was pointed at Bradon.

“Because the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Bradon said, “Or at least, a temporary ally. You want to see the FCV and the Society destroyed. So would I.”

“Why?” Lady Anna asked.

“Because I want to see the Peace restored in Florida. That can’t happen with the FCV and the Society working to subvert it. They have too much combined power in this state,” Bradon answered. “The only chance to stop them is for your Lord Savik and the Lady-Apparent in Hillsborough to stop the war before it gets out of hand. The only way that would happen was for me to take a more active hand in events.”

“We can’t stop the war,” Lady Anna said, “The war council has already convened. Once the new prince is selected, an army will be raised and the vampires will be wiped out of Florida.”

“My lady, you are too smart and have lived in FCV territory too long to think it will any war between our races would be that easy,” Bradon answered, sounding disappointed. “That kind of war will be the end of both of our races. For your lycanthropes to eliminate our kind, you would have to turn most of Florida into free-fire war zones. The pathwalkers would never allow that. They would eliminate every vampire and lycanthrope in Florida if that happened. Have you ever seen what happens when one of them take action to “restore balance?” Let me assure you, if you do, it will only be because you are the one the pathwalkers allowed to live to warn others. That horror will haunt you for the rest of your days. So, open warfare is off the table. The question then becomes do we want a long, protracted war of attrition between us until the vampires grind your race down?”

“What’s the other option?” demanded Lady Anna.

“A short, limited war to restore the status quo, the restoration of the Peace, and possibly formal relations to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Bradon said.

“The war council will never accept those terms. Not with the provocations of Dade, Broward, Hillsborough counties,” Lady Anna said.

“Do you know what will happen if your so-called leaders decide to attack all of the nosferatu councils in the state? We will be forced to unleash those automatons you found in that warehouse. If the various councils manage to keep those savages on a short-leash, we will overwhelm every county like we did in Hillsborough. If not, we face the pathwalkers. This is why the Peace was forged. To prevent our races going to mutually assured destruction, to borrow the human phrase. Although, to be fair, the pathwalkers are far more terrible than any human nuclear weapon.” Lady Anna holstered her pistol. She gave Bradon a long examining look.

“I can’t make that decision on my own,” Lady Anna said. “You’ll have to make your case to Uncle Erik. For that, you’ll have to be bound with silver.” Bradon nodded, as if he expected the condition.

“Ranger, if you’re strong enough, I’d like a word outside,” Lady Anna said, “You two stay here. I want all of your weapons. Consider yourselves prisoners until I say otherwise.”

“Of course, milady,” Bradon said, handing over a Glock 19. Nick handed over his S&W 500, his back-up piece, and several knives. I gathered the assorted weapons, picked up my own pistol, and followed Lady Anna out of the room.

“Who is this Bradon leech?” Lady Anna asked in a hushed tone.

“He was the leader of the Bleeders in Hillsborough,” I answered, “He was also my contact in the Bleeders. I don’t know why, but he’s always liked me. He admitted he was grooming for something.”

“What’s his game?” she asked, “He can’t really want to restore the Peace and formalize relations.”

“Actually, I believe him,” I said. Lady Anna shot me a suspicious glare. “Look, everything he did in Hillsborough against the lycanthropes was done with the goal of increasing the power of his faction on the Tampa Inner Council without disrupting the Peace. Bradon is most likely using us as pieces in his own game with the other vampire councils, but his end goal will be the Peace. I thought it was because he’d seen what happened back in the Great War, but now I’m wondering if he was the survivor of a Pathwalker intervention. Just another mystery to add to the pile.” I gave her a searching look. “Why didn’t you just kill all of us? I never even heard you come in.”

“I think I know you Ranger. If you and your friend hadn’t killed him, then you trusted that vampire for some reason,” Lady Anna said, “It’s more than that, isn’t it?”

“Trust wouldn’t be the right word,” I said, “I respect Bradon. I respect his abilities even more. Past experience tells me that Bradon’s goals are currently in sync with ours, but I don’t know if those are his end goals, or just steps to something bigger. He’s used me before to win a conflict in vampire politics. I think he’s doing that with us now.”

“So why shouldn’t I go back up there and kill him?” Lady Anna asked.

“Because I’m not sure you could,” I answered. She gave me an angry glare. “Listen, the only vampire I know that is more dangerous than Bradon is Lothos. Believe me when I tell you, I don’t think you would be able to kill him. He’s too smart to come here without a way out. That said, it’s in his interest for us to succeed. Moreover, Bradon thinks long-term. Very long-term. It isn’t in his interest to use us and kill us. More likely, he’ll want to cultivate a relationship.”

“Does he have anything on you?” she asked, “Something he could use to manipulate you against us?”

“I don’t think so,” I answered, “Bradon has some plan for me. I don’t think it’s the same plan he has for Lord Savik and Elizabeth. Something else.” Lady Anna gave me a look I just couldn’t read.

“We are going to have to do something about that,” Lady Anna said softly as she reached up and placed her hand on my cheek. Her hand was warm and soft. A voice called Lady Anna from downstairs.

“I will talk to my uncle about this, but I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Lady Anna said, “He may have all three of you killed, or he may listen to this Bradon. Until then, I want your weapon as well.” She gave me a sad smile. I reluctantly handed her all of the weapons, including my own. She turned and walked back downstairs. I walked back into my room.

“My poor fool of a lycanthrope,” Bradon said as I laid back down on the bed. He gave me an odd smile of contentment.

“Are you going to explain that remark, or do you just want to be cryptic?” I asked.

“For the moment, I want to be cryptic,” Bradon said, smiling, “It’s more fun. Plus, you’re going to have enough to worry about without me burdening you further.” Nick just gave me a mournful look.

“I swear Ranger, I think you really are cursed,” Nicky said, “I wish I knew how you do it.”

“Do what?” I asked, confused.

“That’s not important right now,” Bradon interrupted, quieting Nick with a look, “What is important is what you have to do. None of this is going to work unless you can accomplish one thing.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You have to kill Lothos,” Bradon answered. The words hung in the silent room. I waited a long moment before breaking the silence.

“Tell me Bradon,” I said, looking at the vampire, “What the fuck is Lothos, and why is it I’m the one who has to kill him?” Bradon didn’t say anything for a long moment. It was one of the few times I’d seen Bradon without a ready response. That was a little worrisome by itself.

“Lothos is what the nosferatu have spent over a millenia attempting to create,” Bradon said, clearly uncomfortable with the subject, “A nosferatu without any of those pesky weaknesses to silver, wood, or fire. Strong enough to wipe out the lycanthropes, but not bring the pathwalkers’ attention.”

“What about sunlight?” Nick asked. “Does he still get weak during the day?”

“Lothos is still a nosferatu,” Bradon answered, as if that was enough.

“How in the Ancestor’s name did the Tampa Council make something like that?” I asked. “Why not one of the European councils, or even one of the larger American ones?”

“Because when Jacqueline Razor appeared in Tampa, she brought the project with her from Europe. How else do you think she managed to gather so much power in a short time?” Bradon asked.

“Blackmail and seduction,” I answered. Nick nodded. Bradon gave us both a look of frustrated patience.

“There are days when I wonder if I invested my time in the wrong hunters,” Bradon said, with aggravated patience, “Those are tools to bring down an enemy, not build the power base a true nosferatu would need to gain control of the Inner Council. Could a werewolf sleep her way into a pack leader position? No, of course not. Then, why would you think that would happen in our more sophisticated politics?”

“Careful Bradon, your prejudices are showing,” I chided, “Sorry, but your politics look so much like the humans’ from our perspective. Perhaps more deadly. Why wouldn’t we think those would be part of your council games?”

“If we get out of this relatively unscathed, I am going to recruit that pup the two of you found in Carrollwood,” Bradon said, “Maybe if I start early enough, she’ll learn enough to be useful.” Twin growls erupted from Nick and me. Not even Bradon could make those kind of remarks about a pup.

“Grow up, you two,” Bradon said, flashing his canines, “I didn’t reach my position by not knowing what rules I could and could not ignore. Why wouldn’t I want to recruit her like I did the two of you, after she joined the Guild? All of which is beside the point. We were talking about Lothos.” Nick and I settled down. Jennifer Denton was probably still in tysach in Pinellas County. Bradon wasn’t going to be talking to her anytime soon.

“Razor brought a team of alchemists with her from Europe that spent decades trying to create Lothos,” Bradon continued, “Their belief was that they would draw less attention in a smaller city. That was true, as far as the other vampire councils were concerned. They set up a laboratory to create Lothos and succeeded. Then, Ranger destroyed it before any more could be made.” I flashed back to that odd warehouse back in Hillsborough that I helped a hit pack take out before the war erupted.

“Wait, you said that wasn’t a harem,” I said, “Isn’t that the point of a harem, to create something like Lothos?”

“Not quite,” Bradon said, “A harem is trying to re-create Itjawy, the Pure Nosferatu. Imagine your First Ancestor walking around in a werewolf body. All that power, none of the weaknesses of our bodies. Lothos was an attempt to create a lesser version of Itjawy. Something that could be used to defeat the werewolves, but not draw the ire of the pathwalkers. They have made it clear to us that if we manage to re-create Itjawy, they will wipe out our entire species.”

“Then why would the vampires continue to even try to re-create Itjawy?” Nick asked.

“Do you believe your First Ancestor is more powerful than the pathwalkers?” Bradon asked. We both fell silent. The First Ancestor was supposed to be have the power of a god, but he was just one werewolf. Even the most junior pathwalker could manipulate the elemental forces of our world with ease. The senior ones were as scary as gods. Still, the First Ancestor would have the backing of all the Ancestors. I shrugged my shoulders. This was getting way too philosophical for me.

“So why didn’t Lothos do more in the war?” I asked, “Something like him could have torn any lycanthrope force apart.”

“I don’t know. The alchemists never trusted the Bleeders, or more to the point, me. I only found out about their success well after the fall of the Inner Council and Silanti taking control of the Tampa Council. Of course, I was underground at that time, which freed up my methods a bit.” He gave us a cryptic smile. “I do know Ranger’s slaughter of the alchemists slowed down awakening Lothos. Since his awakening, Lothos has been the leader of the Bleeders under Silanti.”

“So why do I have to kill him?” I asked. “And for the record, how do I kill a vampire that’s immune to silver, wood, and fire?”

“I don’t know, but you’ve obviously been chosen for the task,” Bradon answered, “As to how, I would imagine those extraordinary powers of yours should do the trick. It looked like you could have killed Lothos in the warehouse. If you hadn’t gone back for that pretty female aristocrat.” I couldn’t keep the surprise off my face. Bradon had seen that fight? Had he heard the voice as well?

“Why didn’t you kill Lothos?” Bradon asked.

“He had the entire warehouse rigged with silver frags. He was going to kill all of the lycanthropes in the attacking force if I didn’t back off. Plus, I had to help Lady Anna. She’d been hurt badly.” I answered.

“I see,” Bradon said. I could almost see the calculations going on behind his dark eyes.

“What?” I demanded.

“It’s not important right now,” Bradon said. I scrutinized his tone and posture. He was lying. He wouldn’t be thinking that hard on something that wasn’t important. Getting it out of him would be impossible, so I stayed quiet. Bradon watched my internal frustration with a passive face until he saw that I wasn’t going to ask further. Then another of his cryptic smiles spread across his face. I had a feeling that Bradon was enjoying some kind of victory.

“Here is what is important for the two of you,” Bradon said, “I will tell Lord Savik about what is going on in Florida at the moment. I will not tell him about Lothos. First, he can’t waste werewolves going after Lothos. They’ll just be slaughtered. Secondly, that vampire is Ranger’s responsibility. Neither of you should speak about this to any of the other werewolves, except for maybe that young hunter from your county, the kin following Ranger around, and Lady Anna.”

“Lady Anna?” I asked, confused. Nick just nodded, as if he understood Bradon’s logic.

“Yes, Lady Anna,” Bradon said, “She can provide you the cover with these werewolves you’ll need to go after Lothos.” It sounded logical enough, but there was something in Bradon’s eyes that made me think that wasn’t the real reason he included her.

Hangman bounded up the stairs. Vanessa was running to keep up with him. The two crashed into the room. Bradon, Nick, and I looked up from our poker game on the floor. Here is what I learned during that game. Never play cards with Bradon. The bastard is a fucking shark. I was already down two hundred bucks, and that was because Bradon was being nice. Or he was just drawing out the pain.

“Ancestors, it is true,” Hangman said, looking at Bradon. Then, he turned his gaze on Nick and me. “How could you bring a leech here?”

“Could you not refer to me as a leech?” Bradon asked, “It’s offensive.”

“It’s supposed to be,” Hangman shot back at Bradon. He turned back to Nick and me. “Well?”

“Hangman, it’s not as cut and dried as you think,” Nick said, motioning for Hangman and Vanessa to sit down on the bed. Hangman just continued to give the three of us a betrayed glare.

“Sit the fuck down, pup, and put the damned look away,” I snapped at him, “This is part of being a hunter that you still need to learn.” At Vanessa’s quiet urging, Hangman sat down on the bed. Vanessa was scared to be this close to a vampire, and she tightly gripped Hangman’s arm. I glared back at Hangman until he finally managed to bring his face to a scowl.

“Better,” I said, “Now, Bradon’s been a contact of mine longer than you’ve been a hunter. He’s proven time after time that his interests lay in keeping the Peace between the lycanthropes and the vampires. Now, he’s using his considerable talents in assisting us because that is the best option he has for achieving his goals.”

“How can you trust him?” Hangman asked with barely contained rage, “He’s a lee–, um, vampire.” Bradon nodded to acknowledge Hangman moderating his speech. Hangman’s scowl deepened in response.

“I don’t trust him, per se. Not because he’s a vampire, but because he’s very dangerous. What I do trust is for Bradon to look out for his own interests, and to use anything and anybody in furtherance of those goals,” I answered, “I trust that Bradon is still working the long game instead of just trying to get quick wins that would sour a long-standing relationship.”

“Didn’t your killing him sort of sour the relationship?” Vanessa asked, neutrally. Bradon let out a melodic laugh.

“Taking out the leader of the most significant threat to werewolf operations at the beginning of a war?” Bradon asked in an all too familiar tone of the barest condescension. “I would have been professionally insulted if Ranger or one of the other hunters didn’t try to assassinate me. If the Inner Council had been the ones to start the war, the Guildmaster would’ve been the first werewolf I sent my Bleeders after. Then, maybe Ranger.” That brought Hangman up short.

“Ranger? Not Sneller or Deadeye?” Hangman asked. I looked back at Bradon with a questioning look. His comment surprised me as well. Nick, on the other hand, just nodded in agreement.

“Ranger has always been the most unpredictable member of your Guild,” Bradon answered, looking at Hangman, “I could never be sure if he would follow orders or take action on his own. He settled down demonstrably under the tutelage of your Guildmaster, but there was always that glint of chaos in him. If the Guildmaster was killed, there was an equal chance he’d become the leader of the lone wolves, or just try to exterminate every Bleeder in Tampa on his own. Given his capabilities, there would have been a fair chance he would have done significant damage before I could hope to stop him.”

“So, why not kill me first?” I asked, intrigued by this turn in the conversation.

“Two reasons. First, the Guildmaster was always the more dangerous werewolf of you two,” Bradon answered, enjoying the discussion. “Oh, you were probably the more technically proficient hunter, but the Guildmaster was a much better tactician and strategist. Not my equal, of course, but a truly gifted opponent. Second, there would need to be the element of surprise. Assassinating you would have forced the Guildmaster to take stronger security protocols making any operation against him significantly more difficult.”

“That is fascinating, in a morbid kind of way,” Vanessa said, clearly impressed by Bradon’s reasoning. Bradon acknowledged the comment with a sitting half-bow. I looked back over to Hangman.

“Those are the kind of calculations you’re going to have to make,” I told him. His head snapped up in surprise.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“The Guildmaster, our Guildmaster, thought you had the potential to succeed him at some point,” I said, “It’s why he had you training with the different sections of the Guild before the war broke out. He never did that with any of the other rookies that came in. By the time they came back from camp, the Guildmaster already knew where he was going to put them. Except for you. He wanted you to learn the big picture. Part of being the Guildmaster is learning what he called ‘strategic calculus.’ Being able to take into account all the costs and benefits, decide which are more important, and make the call on whether or not to take action.”

“Do you think I could be a Guildmaster?” Hangman asked me, trying to hide the hope and excitement in his voice, “I know what the Guildmaster said when he died, but I thought he was just trying to soften his death.” He squeezed Vanessa’s hand. So, the pup had ambitions. Good.

“There was a reason that the Guildmaster had you work with Ranger,” Nick said, “You needed to see Guild operations at the highest, and most sensitive, level. You needed to see what a Guildmaster could only trust to his personal hitter. If the war hadn’t broken out, you would have learned the need of having vampire contacts.” Bradon was eyeing Hangman with considerable interest. I’d have to keep an eye on that.

“So, right now, you’re willing to trust Bradon’s using you for his own ends, and that those ends mirror your own?” Vanessa asked, suspiciously.

“That is a remarkably succinct statement of our situation, young lady,” Bradon said, clearly amused.

“So, if we’re so important to your goals, why did you steal all the information from the computers in the warehouse before our raid?” Vanessa asked. All of us looked at Vanessa with surprised looks. All except for Bradon. He gave Vanessa an appraising look.

“How do you know that I did it?” Bradon asked, his voice a cool neutral. “It could have been some enterprising member of the FCV.”

“The FCV would have cleared out the entire warehouse, not just erased the the computers’ hard drives,” Vanessa answered, matching Bradon’s tone. “If what you’ve said is true, then you had the most to gain by leaving the evidence of the FCV’s sleeping vampires for us to find, but taking all of the data out of the computers before we could retrieve it.” Bradon said nothing for a long moment. Then he turned to Hangman.

“You’ve chosen your mate well,” Bradon told Hangman, “Listen to her, and you’ll be one of the most dangerous Guildmasters this state has seen in some time.” Then he turned back to Vanessa.

“I secured the information to make sure that it wasn’t lost in your raid,” Bradon said, “You thought you were gong after the FCV’s sliver ammunition store. I needed you to understand what the true stakes were.”

“And so you could make sure we didn’t get our hands on some of the information, such as the process by which those vampires were created?” Vanessa asked with a silky smooth voice.

“I make it a point never to lie to those who work for me,” Bradon said, “So, yes, I removed that information. That secret shall remain with the nosferatu.”

“Why?” Nick asked.

“Call it detente,” Bradon answered, “Something for us to bring to the table. Do you think your war council will simply stop at liberating three counties if there isn’t something stopping them? The nosferatu need something to make sure that you will hold up your end of the Peace.”

“Detente requires both parties have the means of destroying the other,” Vanessa said, “Exactly what do the lycanthropes have that equate to the ability to mass-produce vampires?”

“By the end of these events, I fully expect the new prince of Florida to have a standing army of werewolves sworn to him. A battle-tested army of veteran warriors, shaman, and hunters. That kind of professional force will be a very big stick in the hands of the Prince of Florida.”

“The county lords will never allow the Prince to keep a standing army,” I said, “Part of the reason they can call a war council to replace the Prince or name his successor is because the Prince has no warriors except for those in his own county.”

“That was true,” Bradon said, “I have a feeling that when all of the intrigues are resolved, the idea of the new Prince having his own army will be considered a very good idea.”

“One you intend to push?” Nick asked. Bradon didn’t say anything, but the sly smile across his face was all the answer we needed. The problem was I couldn’t see how Bradon benefited from the Prince having his own army. Bradon didn’t do anything that didn’t offer him some benefit. Of course, part of the danger with dealing with Bradon was that he was able to make things that seemed like setbacks turn out in his favor. That vampire played the long game better than anyone else in the state.

“This conversation has been most enlightening, but have you asked all of your questions regarding me?” Bradon asked Hangman and Vanessa, “I would dearly like to get back to taking all of Ranger’s and Nick’s money.”

“For the moment. I think I’ll put any of my other questions to Lord Savik,” Hangman said, standing up, “I’ll let him ask them of you.” Bradon let out a bark of laughter.

“You are going to be a very dangerous Guildmaster someday,” Bradon said, “I fear for the lord who has to deal with you.” Hangman and Vanessa walked out of the room. Bradon watched them leave with an almost predatory gleam in his eye.

“Your lords are going to need werewolves like that,” Bradon said as Nick dealt out the cards, “Especially to rebuild from the destruction.” Nick and I exchanged glances. Neither of us wanted Bradon to go into detail about that. We had enough to worry about at the moment.

Lady Anna walked into the bedroom in at dusk the next day. Bradon was waking from his day’s sleep. Being in the same room as a sleeping vampire is creepy. They don’t breathe or move, and there is none of the normal sounds I expect to hear from a sleeping person. It was like being in the same room with a corpse, but without the smell of decomposition. Then about ten minutes before Lady Anna walked in, Bradon just sat up, looked around, and asked us if we’d heard anything from Lord Savik.

“Lord Savik will be here in half an hour,” Lady Anna announced. “We will be escorting the three of you downstairs. You will stay in human form and you will be shackled. Any attempt to escape by any of you will result in the execution of all three of you. Is that understood?”

“Yes milady,” I answered.

“Yes milady,” Nick said.

“I give you my word that I will comply,” Bradon said. At the looks Nick and me shot at him, Bradon quickly amended, “Yes milady.”

“If you fail to convince Lord Savik that your actions weren’t treasonous, all three of you will be executed. Is that understood?” Lady Anna asked.

“Yes, milady,” the three of us chorused. She nodded in acknowledgment.

“There are guards outside that will take you downstairs,” Lady Anna said, “You will be brought down one by one. The vampire first.” Bradon stood up gracefully, and followed Lady Anna outside.

“What do you think the likelihood is we’ll see dawn?” I asked Nick.

“That may depend on how much influence your Lady Anna has with Lord Savik,” Nick answered.

“Huh?” I asked, confused.

“Never mind. There’s no point in confusing you more right now,” Nick said. “Bradon probably has enough information, but I don’t know if Lord Savik will believe anything a vampire tells him. He doesn’t know me enough for my vouching him. Your vouching for Bradon? That might be the factor that swings things.” We both fell silent until Lady Anna came back into the room for Nick. At that point, I was left alone with my thoughts. It wasn’t like this was the first time I’d been threatened with execution. That part didn’t frighten me. What consumed my thoughts was this destiny I was supposed to fulfill. That and Elizabeth. Damn it, why should she intrude into my thoughts now? She told me she didn’t want me in her life. That should have been the end of it, but no, her face and even her smell was vividly dancing in my mind.

“Ranger,” Lady Anna said as she came back into the room. I shook my head to clear out those bothersome thoughts. Lady Anna looked oddly hesitant, like she wanted to say more. I stood up and walked over. She didn’t move.

“Do you really believe this vampire is going to tell us the truth? Or is he going to tell us what he needs to in order for us to do what he wants?” she asked. Her voice was so quiet I almost couldn’t hear her.

“Yes,” I answered. She shot a confused look at me. “He will tell us the truth because he’s sure that it will get us to do what he wants. That’s how Bradon operates. You might want to let Lord Savik know to make his questions as specific as possible. Bradon won’t lie to us, but he may not tell us the whole truth.”

“Why are you so willing to vouch for him?” she asked. “For a damned leech?”

“Because Bradon would have never allowed himself to be at your mercy if he wasn’t willing to invest his time in Lord Savik. Bradon never invests time in tools he’s expecting to expend quickly. He wants a long relationship with Lord Savik. He never outright lies to those he has a relationship. It’s the quickest way to destroy his work.”

“I dearly hope you’re right,” Lady Anna said, caressing my cheek. “Uncle is willing to listen to the vampire, but he better have some damned good information. He doesn’t want to have you killed, but that was the only arrangement that the packleaders would accept.”

“I understand,” I said, “If I do end up being killed, would you tell Lord Savik thank you for listening to us and I understand?” Lady Anna whirled around at my words. She took a few deep breaths before speaking.

“I will,” she said, stiffly, “Follow me please.” Just outside the door, two guards clamped my hands my back with silver manacles. The familiar burn of the silver caused me to pause for a moment. The guards understood and let me take a few deep breaths before they ushered me downstairs. They brought me into a large room, probably the living room of the house, and sat me down on the last of three stools. The room was mostly empty. It reminded me of the room that Fangbearer interrogated Hangman, Vanessa, and me when we first came to the Disputed Territories. Except there were a hell of a lot more guards this time. Lord Savik and Lady Anna sat on leather chairs across the room from the three of us. Six pack warriors serving as guards surrounded them. Eight more were around Bradon, Nick, and me. Those were staggered so that none were in the firing arc of another. From their expressions, the guards were ready to hose us with whatever silver the packs managed to scrape up if we posed the tiniest threat to Lord Savik and Lady Anna. Off to the side, Hangman stood next to Vanessa. I wondered why they were there, but realized that Lord Savik probably wanted Vanessa’s mind ready to jump on any inconsistencies from Bradon. He’d certainly taken to the kin.

“Lady Anna warned you of the penalties, so my instructions are simple. Do not lie by deception or omission. Answer my questions and at the end, I will make my decision about whether or not to kill you and execute your lycanthrope supporters. Is that clear, vampire?” Lord Savik asked.

“Lord Savik, I will answer to the best of my abilities. I will tell you when I know something and when I suspect something. There may be somethings that I won’t answer right now, and I will tell you so,” Bradon answered.

“That you won’t answer?” Lord Savik asked, incredulously, “Tell me why I shouldn’t just kill you know for the fact that you won’t answer all of my questions.”

“Because then you won’t have the ally you need to keep the coming war under control and beneath the pathwalkers’ attention,” Bradon said, “There are somethings you can’t know if I’m going to have a stable vampire community after the war. A stable community who will be willing to accept the return of the Peace after the FCV and its allies are destroyed.” Lord Savik thought that over for a long moment before his eyes fixed back on Bradon.

You need?” Lord Savik asked, “Do you expect to be the first vampire prince of Florida?”

“The nosferatu would never accept a prince ruling over them,” Bradon answered, “We’re too conniving. If I tried, I would be deposed and destroyed within a year. No, I will return to Tampa and rebuild the Inner Council.”

“Then how can you expect to force the other councils to accept the return of the Peace?” Lady Anna asked.

“A fair question, and one of those I won’t answer,” Bradon said, “Suffice to say, I will have enough influence and with the resources of the Tampa Council, I can ensure no other council in Florida will allow the Peace to fall again.”

“Do those resources include those vampires we found in the warehouse?” Lord Savik asked. Bradon paused a moment before answering.

“They are called them ‘dervishes’ by the FCV. I have no idea why the FCV decided on that name,” Bradon said, “Once the FCV is destroyed and the Peace is restored, none of the councils will create any dervishes unless the lycanthropes start a war. I’m sure the kin explained to you the reasons.” Bradon gave the two aristocrats a hard look. “I don’t think either of you comprehend how different this state is going to be for you werewolves after our war. This isn’t like anything that has happened before, including the Great Council War.”

“What do you mean? Explain why.” Lord Savik ordered.

“We have two forces outside our normal power structures colluding to bring about a war for the express purpose of changing their own political dynamics. Unfortunately, both of them are under the impression that they will be able to destroy the other in the war.” Bradon was always good at hooking someone’s interest by dropping these cryptic bombs. He’d done it enough to me over the course of our working relationship.

“The Society and the FCV?” Lord Savik asked. Bradon nodded, looking pleased. “I understand how the Society is outside the normal lycanthrope structure of the prince and the lords, but how is the FCV outside the normal vampire structure?”

“One of the lessons from the Great Council War, what you call the Great Fatherland War, was the nosferatu should never try to control human nations. Influence maybe, but never outright control. Our internal politics will always cause instability both inside the nation and with those nations around it. The kind of instability that brings the pathwalkers. The FCV is under the impression they can take over the human state of Florida and not fall to the same fate. That is why they call themselves the Florida Council instead of the Miami Council or the Fort Lauderdale Council.”

“Why would they collude to start a war?” Lady Anna asked, “That goes against all tradition. On both sides.”

“Really?” Bradon asked, crooking up his eyebrow ironically. Lady Anna scowled as she caught Bradon’s meaning.

“We aren’t colluding with you, we’re interrogating you,” Lady Anna retorted, “You didn’t answer the question. Why were they colluding?”

“Why? To gain power in their respective worlds, of course. Anything else, they could procure on their own,” Bradon answered. “They would be the flags upon which our races would rally. An interesting, but horribly wasteful means to quickly gain power and destroy internal opposition.”

“Stop. When was this pact formed?” Lord Savik asked. Bradon gave the lord a wide smile.

“Shortly before the Society betrayed you to the FCV,” Bradon answered, “Your death was supposed to seal the pact. The FCV’s failure to kill you soured the relationship a bit, but there’s been regular correspondence as both factions have adjusted their plans.”

“You have this correspondence?” Lord Savik asked.

“They were part of the data I stole from the FCV before you raided the warehouse. I doubt they even know it has been copied,” Bradon said, “Not like they would warn their co-conspirator. A werewolf civil war would do quite nicely to give the FCV time to form a new Inner Council. Assuming there isn’t a nosferatu strong enough right now to forge a new council.” Bradon shot a meaningful look to me. If Lothos recovered, he might just be strong enough to do something like that.

“I want my own eyes on this data,” Lord Savik said, “Will your stolen information tell me why the Society decided to betray me?”

“Possibly,” Bradon answered, “I looked just enough to confirm what I’d learned about the FCV from other contacts around the state.”

“Where is it? We need to get it into a secure location so that we can analyze and make sure you’re telling the truth, or you didn’t make a mistake,” Lord Savik said.

“Well, you’re in luck then,” Bradon said, “The data is on two hard drives. I have them in a locked case and stored in your Guild. I thought that was safe enough. Pad 221, I believe.” The silence in the room was deafening. Lord Savik and Lady Anna just stared at the vampire with shocked looks. The guards tried to hide expressions that ranged from shock to terror. My expression mirrored the aristocrats. I knew Bradon was good, but how the hell did he manage to ferret out the location of the Disputed Territories’ Guild?

“Was there a reason you hid them there?” Lord Savik asked, recovering quickly from the shock.

“Reasons, plural,” Bradon answered. “First was to show you that I am just as dangerous as Ranger warned you. Second, to prove to you that even if I am dangerous, I want to work with you towards common goals. I could have revealed the existence of not just the Guild, but several of your safehouses to the FCV. I would have been generously rewarded, believe me. They fear you more than you realize. Instead, I would rather work with you to cripple the FCV and its lycanthrope allies.” Bradon waited just long enough for Lord Savik to swallow what he’d said before dropping his next bomb.

“Although, if you want to analyze the data, you need to hurry. You need to be in Hillsborough in no more five days, if my calculations are correct,” Bradon said.

“Why do you say that?” Lord Savik demanded.

“Because a new prince will most likely be selected in ten days’ time, and you will need Elizabeth Vollen and her wolves if you’re going to stop the Society from ruling Florida’s werewolves. Once that happens, the war truly begins, and both races will be destroyed.”

“I’m supposed to leave my counties to the FCV to go fight in Tallahassee?” Lord Savik asked.

“Lord Savik, I’ve fought political battles longer than you’ve been alive,” Bradon said, “I knew when Stephen Vollen was assassinated there was something strange going on in this state. Something pushing our races to war. So, I let the council I spent decades shaping fall into the hand of my nemesis for the purpose of finding exactly what was happening. Believe me, right now, you are the only lord who can stop your war council from handing the throne to Blackhawk.”

“That makes no fucking sense. Blackhawk’s a puppet master. Why would he want the throne?” I asked.

“Why indeed?” Bradon asked in response.

“Blackhawk is not a lord. He’s not even of an aristocratic line. He’s not eligible to become the next prince,” Lord Savik said, flatly.

“Are you so sure?” Bradon asked, “How much do you really know about Blackhawk? Believe me, not even the FCV knew anything about him before he showed up as the head of the Society. I couldn’t even find out anything except unconfirmed rumors little more than stories.”

“If we do this, what assistance are you going to provide us?” Lord Savik asked, eyeing the vampire.

“I gave you the information, didn’t I?” Bradon said.

“Which keeps me from killing you, and keeps Ranger and Nicholas alive as well,” Lord Savik said, “I need more to accept you as an ally or not mark you out for death later.”

“I like this lord of yours a great deal,” Bradon said, looking back at me. Then he turned back to Lord Savik, “I will keep the TCV away from you while you’re in Hillsborough. We’ll be busy forming a new Inner Council under my auspices anyway. Shortly after, I will begin convincing the other councils to stay out of the battles to liberate your counties. As soon as the new prince is selected, the TCV will sign a reaffirmation of the Peace at status quo ante bellum. The rest of the councils will follow suit shortly after.”

“You think we would accept that after you sent the witch hunters after us? And those dervishes?” I demanded. Bradon looked back and gave me the coldest look I’d ever seen on his face. I shrunk back from his visage. I’ll admit it. Bradon scared me.

“Your lord started the war because your Guild didn’t tell him that his father’s assassin was a hunter, not a nosferatu-controlled werewolf,” Bradon answered with a quiet, neutral voice, “Further, we didn’t send the witch hunters after you. I would suggest you look at who murdered Stephen Vollen, and you will find who sent the witch hunters into your Manor.”

“That will be dealt with later, and with the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough,” Lord Savik said with an air of finality. Lord Savik turned to Vanessa. “You have twenty-four hours to confirm what the vampire has said. If you can’t find anything that disproves what he’s told us, we will leave for Hillsborough.” Even the guards couldn’t contain their surprise.

“Uncle?” Lady Anna asked. Lord Savik held up his hand and gave Bradon a hard look.

“Ranger warned Lady Anna that you are using us for your long-term plans. Very long term plans,” Lord Savik said to Bradon, “It made me realize that I’ve been looking at the short term for too long. If what you’ve been telling me is true, then we can no longer ignore the rest of the state. My packs will be the first to die in the new war if Blackhawk gains the throne. You’re also right I will need all the wolves I can trust, which means the lycanthropes in Hillsborough.” Lord Savik thought for a moment. “What will you do if I release you?”

“Leave immediately for Tampa,” Bradon answered, “With Silanti dead, and myself returning from the dead, there won’t be a better opportunity to take control of the Inner Council. It will also take time for me to contain the dervishes in Tampa. You should be free to conduct business while that is happening.”

“Ranger, you will release Bradon and Nick one hour after we have departed,” Lord Savik said, and motioned for one of the guards to unshackle me. “Anything less than that, you will end up dead. I don’t want to kill you. After that, I will expect you to join us at the Guild. We have much to plan, and I’m going to need your specific skills.” Lord Savik gave me a sad smile. The lycanthropes left the house. I didn’t watch them leave. I focused on Bradon. The vampire was busy staring up at the ceiling as if everything was going to plan, and he had to be patient just a bit longer. Considering Bradon, that was probably the truth.

“What about Lothos?” I asked, “Won’t he try to stop you from taking over the TCV?”

“He would, if he was going back to Tampa,” Bradon said, still looking at the ceiling.

“If he’s not going back to Tampa, then where is he going?” I asked.

“He’ll stay with the FCV,” Bradon said. He finally looked at me. “I’ve been monitoring him since he emerged on the Tampa scene. Lothos is convinced of his superiority to all vampires and all lycanthropes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he believed he could challenge the pathwalkers. The FCV will give him a better change at seizing control of all the councils, which is why he’ll stay here.”

“Then I should stay as well,” I said, “To hunt him down and finish him.”

“I don’t think you need to hunt him,” Nick said. Bradon and I looked over at our quiet companion. “Lothos will hunt you down Ranger. He can’t leave you out there as a constant threat.”

“All the better to kill him now before he can threaten the others,” I said. Nick just shook his head.

“He’s going to be fixated on you,” Nick said, “Just you. Everything and everyone else doesn’t matter. If he comes back, expect a challenge. He needs to defeat you, and to do it with his own abilities to prove to himself that he is truly the vampire he thinks he is. Believe me, I’ve seen his kind before.” Nick’s voice got that tight tone when he was approaching his past. He didn’t look like he wanted to explain further. There was going to be a time Nick was going to have to tell me everything, but now wasn’t the time. We spent the hour reminiscing about past escapades in Hillsborough. It was comforting to think about the times before the assassination of Stephen Vollen. Before the deaths of so many lycanthropes who were closer to me than any family. I excused myself for a few moments. For the first time in a very long, I spoke to the Ancestors. I told them I hoped my friends were doing well with them and asked for their guidance over the next ten days.

“So, this is why we will be leaving our home counties for Hillsborough,” Lord Savik told the wolves of his collected packs, the Order of Spirits, and the Guild. “In twenty-four hours, we will be gone from these lands. Hopefully, once we’ve dealt with Blackhawk and the Society, we will return with the reinforcements we need to destroy the FCV.” The cravex was eerily quiet. No one moved or spoke. I could see a range of expressions on the wolves. Everything from shock to rage to terror to reluctant acceptance.

“We are doing all of this on the word of a leech, vouched by the abomination?” the Spiritmaster asked, through clenched fangs. Lord Savik and Lady Anna told me that no matter what anyone said, I was to sit firmly on my temper. As the Spiritmaster looked at me with deadly accusation, I found it easy to look back with a neutral look. These wolves were going to help my county and save my state. It was worth dealing with some of their vitriol.

“No, we are doing this based on verified evidence that the Society made an alliance with the FCV and betrayed us, and are now doing the same thing to the entire state,” Lord Savik said calmly.

“Evidence provided by the leech,” one of the pack leaders countered.

“The initial data was provided by Bradon,” Vanessa interjected, “Using information on the drives, I was able to hack into an FCV network known to the Guild. I was able to find corroboration for the major items on their network before their security shut me down.”

“You are Society and an ally of the abomination,” the Spiritmaster, “How we can trust anything you tell us?” Vanessa blanched at the accusation. Hangman, on the other hand, gave the Spiritmaster a murderous look that made me proud. Fortunately, the Guildmaster stepped in before the pup could do anything.

“Because I supervised, and I’m willing to vouch for what she said,” the Guildmaster said, “Are you going to call me a liar or a fool? If so, we’ll deal with that right here in the old way.” Gasps erupted from the packs and more than one of the shaman.

“Enough!” Lord Savik’s voice boomed through the cravex. “Every lycanthrope in this cravex swore to me personally that you would follow me. I swore to you that I would do whatever it took to restore our counties to us. This is what needs to be done to restore our counties.”

“Lord Savik, at least let one of the packs stay here,” the pack leader from earlier said, “For reconnaissance, if nothing else.”

“I thought hard on that,” Lord Savik said, “We are going to need every wolf when we confront the Society. I can’t spare any of you. This is the same sacrifice I am going to be asking of the Hillsborough lycanthropes. We all go. We all fight.” The pack leaders traded looks. For the briefest of moments, I expected one of them step up to challenge Lord Savik. None did. The pack leaders gave their lord resigned nods. Lord Savik turned his glare on the Spiritmaster.

“Where you go, my shaman and I will follow,” the Spiritmaster said, the look in his eyes clearly telling he disagreed with the lord.

“That’s not going to be enough this time,” Lord Savik told his Spiritmaster, “We need to present a unified front in Hillsborough, and when we finally deal with the Society. If you or any of your shaman hint at any discord among my wolves, Fangbearer or Ranger will express my displeasure. Is that clear?” The Spiritmaster was paralyzed with shock. Even the Guildmaster’s cool neutrality slipped with the briefest expression of horror.

“Is that clear?” Lord Savik said, growling.

“Yes, milord,” the Spiritmaster said, bowing low in submission. At their leader’s insistence motioning, the rest of the shaman followed suit.

“Lord Savik, how are we going to make it to Hillsborough? We know the Society would see us leaving and have one of the surrounding counties’ packs on us the moment we crossed the borders,” another pack leader said, “Especially for a convoy of our size.”

“I have a plan for that,” Lord Savik said, an evil predatory smile spreading across his face, “By the time we are ready to leave, the Society’s eyes won’t be an issue. Now, go my lycanthropes. We will meet here at six o’clock tomorrow. Anything you can’t pack by that time will be left. Bring all the weapons, ammunition, and combat gear first.” The Disputed Territories’ packs and shaman left the cravex talking among themselves. In about fifteen minutes, the only ones who remained were Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Fangberarer, the two Red Knights, the Guildmaster, Cracker, Vanessa, Hangman, Nicky, and myself.

“Jan, I need your wolves to quickly pack up what you have at the Guild and then get back here,” Lord Savik said, “I have a feeling I will need you to help coordinate our leaving. Anna, go with them. Ranger, you and your tall friend need to stay.” Nick and I traded a look before nodding. As the hunters, Anna, and Vanessa left, Lord Savik gave Nick and me a job.

“You know where the Society’s listening post is?” Savik asked.

“Yeah, Vanessa and I had to go there before we came down here,” I answered.

“Wipe it off the face of this earth,” Lord Savik said, “Under no circumstances can anyone there alert any county or the capital. You have full authority to take whatever you need to get this done. From what you’ve told me, we can rearm in Hillsborough. Do you understand?”

“We’re hunters, milord,” Nick said in his familiar calm tone. Ancestors, I missed that.

“First off, I need everything your wolves took from my truck that hasn’t been broken or used up,” I said.

“Fangbearer will see to it,” Lord Savik said, “Just make sure to be back here in time to leave with the rest of the Guild.” With that the lord left, his two Red Knights trailing their principle.

“Give me a list, and I’ll have it here in a few hours,” Fangbearer said, “Oh, and Ranger, please exercise some caution or my little sister will kill you.”

It was times like these that I realized how much I relied on the support of the Hillsborough Guild. In Hillsborough, as soon as I got the job, I had building plans, specific tools, and an intelligence briefing on likely opposition. For this job, all Nick and I had were Fangbearer’s promise to try and get our list and my memory of what I saw when Vanessa and I went to the Society’s listening post. We really didn’t have the time to do proper recon either. My reputation to the contrary, I don’t like going into a job this blind. I sketched out what I could remember. My first instinct was to do a controlled drop of the office park. Nick kindly pointed out that demolishing the whole building was not likely to work because glass and steel wouldn’t give the lycanthropes inside archanal wounds. I swore. From what I remembered, there was Raven and six kin. Taking out seven targets wasn’t hard for two hunters. Taking them out before they had a chance to send an alert was another thing entirely. We also didn’t know if there were more Society operatives that I couldn’t see previously.

“We’re thinking about this wrong,” Nick said, “We need to make sure they can’t communicate out first, and then we can take them down.”

“Okay, that makes sense,” I said, mentally slapping myself. Sometimes you start going down one path and completely lose sight of the job’s goals.

“Going back to your earlier suggestion, we can take out the entire building’s telecom with some judicious explosive use,” Nick said. “A small charge to the telephone exchange should do the trick. Then breach, flash-bang, kill. Not as flashy as some of your jobs, but it should do the trick.” I gave him a level look.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about Nick,” I said evenly.

“My name is Nicholas, Ranger,” Nick replied, just as evenly.

From the cravex to the office park was a little over two hours. It took Fangbearer about four hours to get the items we requested. So, we were on-site about two in the morning. We parked in a strip mall some three hundred yards away from the office park. All of our gear fit into two over-sized gym bags. So, it was a quick hike to the fence surrounding the office park. As we kneeled down next to the decorative black iron fence, my phone buzzed. That was unusual. I pulled it out. An email from Vanessa? I tapped the message and a map of the office park popped open in my screen. A quick scan told me our initial mistake.

“Nick, take a look,” I said, holding up my phone, “It looks like the communications exchanged isn’t that box, but inside the Society listening post itself.” Nick scooted closer and peered at the map.

“Where the hell did that come from?” Nick asked.

“Vanessa. She found it on those drives from Bradon. It looks like the FCV spent some time mapping out this area in case they needed to take out the listening post.” I sat back on my haunches and thought about that for a moment.

“Ranger, what’s going through that mind of yours?” Nick asked, warily.

“The FCV,” I answered, “What if the Society thought the FCV was responsible for taking out their listening post?” Nick gave me that level look that told me he thought I was going off the deep end – again.

“Our job is to take out that post and and everyone working in it,” Nick reminded me.

“Actually, our job is to silence this listening post. Savik wanted us to make it vanish, but if the Society is scrambling to find out why the FCV killed their listening post? That would give us a hell of a window.” To his credit, Nick thought it over.

“I have a feeling we’re going to regret this, but I can see what you’re getting at,” Nick conceded. “Still, how are you going to make this look like an FCV raid? It’s not like the FCV would just spray paint ‘The FCV was here’ on the walls.” That was definitely a point. How would I make this raid point to the FCV?

“I’ll think on that as we sanitize the post,” I answered, “Worse comes to worse, we can always just do what Savik wanted.”

“Do you know how much I hate changing the plan in the middle of a job?” Nick asked.

“Almost as much as when I call you Nick,” I replied.

“I don’t know whether to punch you or just be glad to be working with you,” Nick said, “Let’s do this.” Both of us shed for true form. We bounded over the fence. As soon as my feet touched the ground, I darted into the shadows. True form would keep us hidden from the human guards’ occasional glances, but seeing us out in the open might make one of them into a witch-hunter. Better to stay to the shadows as much as possible.

I tasted the wind as we neared the Society listening post. The scents of the humans and kin were hours old. The place was deserted. I motioned for Nick to move up to the entrance. I fell in behind him as we stood beside the glass door. Nick slung the HK417 and drew his revolver. I smiled as the stainless S&W glinted in the faint moonlight. I kept my Commando at the low ready. Nick ripped the door open. I slipped in and swept the room. Monitors gave the room an eerie illumination. My instincts started screaming danger. I paused and Nick nearly collided with me as he came through the door. He gave me a quizzical look. I hand-signed that something was wrong. Nick nodded, unslung the 417, and moved in behind me. Ancestors, I missed working with Nick. He never questioned my instincts.

The two of us crept through the room, looking for whatever was setting off my instincts. The main room was as I remembered. Nothing seemed unusual. We both focused on the door at the back. According to the plans, the communications closet for the office park was behind that door. Nick and I spread out and cautiously approached the door. It wouldn’t surprise me to find the damn thing booby-trapped. I took deep breaths, tasting the air for the tell-tale scents of dead rubber or ozone. Even the slightly rusty scent of thermite. Nothing. I held up my hand as it clicked in my head. Nick froze. I wasn’t smelling anything, not even the normal smells of a small room filled with hardware. The blinding flash and deafening roar came an instant after I realized the trap. Something hard and heavy clubbed me across my muzzle. I spun to the ground. The pain wasn’t going away, which meant archanal. I heard Nick grunt, then glass shatter. As my eyes recovered, I saw a lycanthrope in true form standing where Nick had been standing.

“Hello Raven,” I said as I leapt to my feet. I brought the carbine up. The holographic reticle floated over his face. Raven darted faster than I thought possible and knocked my Commando out of my hands before hitting me hard enough to launch me into one of the workstations.

“How did you know it was me?” Raven asked.

“I didn’t until you just told me. Although, it wasn’t hard to guess. Where’d your limp go?” I asked, standing. We both fell into fighting stances.

“Where do you think?” he sneered. “It’s been a while since I took apart a hunter. Now, I get two to play with.” He dashed at me. I drew my HK45 as I crouched down. His fist sailed where my head should have been. I fired twice before Raven spun and kicked me to the ground.

“Hunters and their toys,” Raven said as he held his side. Blood dripped onto the floor. “You’ve forgotten what it truly means to be a lycanthrope. You’re too human.”

“Whatever it takes,” I said, getting to my feet. Raven was suddenly in front of me. A fury of blows shot out. I blocked some, but others snuck through. How the hell was Raven so fucking fast? This wasn’t like Cracker. This was more like fighting Lothos. Except no weird voice was talking to me and no super powers to help me out. A gut punch doubled me over and I fell to my knees.

“I don’t know why Blackhawk was so worried about you,” Raven said as he loomed over me. I didn’t look up. I just gripped my middle and gauged the distance. Barely close enough. I lunged at his legs, my own claws bared. Raven tried to dodge, but he was too close and, more importantly, wasn’t expecting the tackle. I sunk my claws deep into his calves and yanked. Raven howled with pain as my claws came back meaty and dripping. Pain flared as I felt one of his claws rip across the back of my head. As soon as we hit the ground, I rolled. As soon as I opened the distance, I grabbed my small Glock 26 from its ankle holster. Raven snarled as I fired. Brains and blood splattered across the wall and floor.

“I hope you realize you just killed one of the Prince’s sons,” a familiar voice came from Raven’s workstation. I looked around for the video cameras. “Don’t bother Ranger, they’re pinhole cameras. You won’t be able to find them before the local pack comes to kill you for breaking the boundary, and killing Society personnel.”

“Well Blackhawk, it didn’t go the way I thought it would, but your little team here is destroyed,” I told him.

“For what reason?” Blackhawk asked, calmly.

“To give the remaining lycanthropes in the Disputed Territories a fighting chance,” I answered. “I know you’ve been trading favors with the FCV, you traitorous dog.”

“You’re a small minded monster of a lycanthrope,” Blackhawk said, condescendingly. “All you knew was your county. You have no idea of how things stand on the state level. What did you think you were accomplishing with your little raids across the Territories? Did you think Savik might actually win now that you killed so many of the FCV leadership?”

“I owed it to them after –” I stopped suddenly. “It doesn’t matter now. I’m almost done with what I came to do. Then, you can find me in Hillsborough.”

“What did you owe the lycanthropes in the Disputed Territories, I wonder?” Blackhawk mused, an almost delighted tone in his voice. “I know you, Ranger. If a lycanthrope earns your respect, you become almost slavishly loyal to them. Your Guildmaster, Lord Vollen, and now Lord Savik.” He paused and gave a low chuckle. “That’s it. He’s dead. Probably his little heir bitch as well. That was a bloody raid from what I understand.” I glared around the room.

“Whether you like it or not, you’ve done what I wanted you to do,” Blackhawk said, “Go back to your county, Ranger. I’ll call off the packs. The human police, on the other hand, you will have to deal with.”

“Just like that?” I asked. “All is forgiven?”

“Of course not,” Blackhawk said. “We are not fools, Ranger. I will make you this offer, though. Behave and I won’t kill your precious Lady-Apparent.” A low snarl of rage escaped my throat. I managed to force my face into neutrality. Damn it, why did she have that effect on me? Still?

“Who do you think sent me here, Blackhawk?” I asked, “She wants nothing to do with me.”

“Perhaps. Young females often grow out of their adolescent infatuations,” Blackhawk said confidently, “You on the other hand? You still love her. That slavish devotion. If you don’t interfere, I’ll just marry her off to another lord. If you attempt any foolishness in Tallahassee, I will kill her. I may have to kill you as well, but she will die first.” I let my anger flow. I stalked back to the closet. This had gone far enough. I started yanking out wires and boxes.

“I’ll leave you to your destruction, but don’t forget what I said,” Blackhawk warned. There was an audible click, like a phone being disconnected. Well, we were going to have to torch the place now. Speaking of “we,” where the hell was Nick? Almost as if my thoughts summoned him, Nick walked into the listening post, reloading his S&W 500.

“Oh good, you killed him,” Nick said. “I’ve got four dead kin outside. Bastards tried to ambush me. It fell apart when I killed the first one.” My anger dissipated, and I nearly fell back down as a wave of vertigo hit. Nick was next to me as the vertigo faded. He looked at the back of my head. “I’ll wipe that. That should at least stop you from bleeding all over the place.” The familiar odor wafted up an instant before my head was bathed in brilliant pain. Thankfully, the pain vanished as quickly as it hit. I could feel my wound healing.

“You said you killed four kin?” I asked Nick.

“Yeah,” he answered. I scowled.

“There were six kin working here when Vanessa and I came here,” I said, “What’s the likelihood that those last two are snug in their beds?” Nick’s scowl matched mine.

“This job’s already blown,” Nick said, “All we can do is burn this place and the bodies before the humans or one of the local packs comes around.”

“We don’t have to worry about the local packs,” I told him. He gave me a quizzical look. “Blackhawk is going to call them off. I’ll explain later. We do have to deal with the human authorities.” Nick just nodded. I helped him drag the four kin from outside. Nick produced the small explosives we’d brought for destroying the listening post. Those were quickly set. Ten minutes later, we were outside the fence as the block of offices were blown apart with an explosion that lit the area up like daylight.

“P for plenty, Nick?” I asked as debris landed around us.

“No sense in chancing that they wouldn’t do the job,” Nick said. He gave me a weary look as we quick-timed to the truck. “Would it even matter for me to remind you that my name is Nicholas?”

“Has it ever?” I replied as we dashed across the highway. My ears picked up the faint sounds of sirens. We needed to speed this up. I wanted to be at least a few miles down the road before the humans cordoned off the area. Nick must have heard them also and come to the same conclusions. As fast as we scrambled into the truck, I had to remember to drive sedately as I pulled out onto the highway. I saw the tiny speckle of flashing lights as we drove back into the Disputed Territories.

“Now would you please explain why Blackhawk called off the local packs?” Nick asked. I gave him a brief recount of my conversation.

“I think I have him convinced Lord Savik and Lady Anna are dead,” I finished, “We may not have wiped out all of the Society personnel, but I think we managed to get the job done.”

“More to the point, we’ve managed to achieve what the job needed,” Nick agreed, “I hope Lord Savik will take that victory and be happy. He’s going to be upset enough when we tell him that he has a traitor in his packs,” Nick said. I nearly swerved the truck off the road.

“Traitor? Who?” I asked, getting my truck back on the road.

“I don’t know, but that ambush was laid too neatly. They knew we were coming,” Nick answered.

“Maybe they detected us coming up,” I suggested. I could see Nick’s logic. It wouldn’t be the first time the Disputed Territories’ lycanthroeps had been betrayed by one of their own. Still, it was my job to poke holes in his theory. “If it was a traitor, why did they let us get that close? Why not intercept us away from their listening post?”

“They were warned too late?” Nick offered, “Or maybe that lycanthrope you killed was overconfident in his powers. He was incredibly strong and fast. I’ve only see one other lycanthrope do that.” He gave me a significant look.

“Blackhawk said that Raven was the Prince’s son. Maybe that gave him those powers. It wasn’t whatever’s been happening to me,” I replied.

“How do you know that?” he asked.

“Gut feeling. I can’t explain it better than that,” I answered.

“Instinct?” Nick asked.

“Maybe,” I conceded. Nick sat back in his seat. He was so sure my instincts were tied to me being a Badmoon. I wasn’t so sure, but with so many odd things happening around me, I wasn’t going to discount his theory. Not yet, at least.

“Let’s hold off on saying there’s a traitor,” I said, “Let’s just tell Lord Savik what happened. He may know about something we don’t.”

“You advising caution?” Nick asked, “You have changed.”

“Savik has seen enough betrayal. If we tell him what happened, he’s going to come to the same conclusions,” I said. “Although I’ll agree that the possibility is there. Keep an eye out for something odd.”

“You know Savik will blame Bradon or me,” Nick said, “If he doesn’t, his packs certainly will.”

“The packs might, assuming Lord Savik tells them,” I said, “For some reason, he trusts me enough that I can vouch for you.”

“No, he trusts Lady Anna, and she trusts you,” Nick said, “Speaking of whom, are you going to tell her about Blackhawk’s threat to Lady Elizabeth?”

“She’ll find out when I tell Lord Savik,” I said. Nick’s question confused me.

“Ranger, do me a favor,” Nick said in that solemn voice he used when things were grave, “Pull her to the side and let her know. Answer any questions as honestly as possible. If he asks why you’re telling her, just say you thought she ought to know. Do not say I told you to tell her.”

“Okay,” I agreed, “Can you tell me why?”

“I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. You’re going to have to trust me on this,” Nick said.

“Nick, I always trust you,” I told him. We drove the rest of the way in silence. He didn’t even correct me on his name.

When the two of us drove into the Disputed Territories’ cravex, I was surprised to find Lady Anna waiting for us. I was even more startled to see her in a dress. Since my time in the Disputed Territories, I’d only seen her in jeans and blouses or tactical gear. This was the first time I’d seen her in something that made her look, well, feminine. She really was a pretty female. She was going to make some aristocrat very happy someday. Assuming she survived all of this. As we approached, I could see her pacing in the grass. She looked worried or apprehensive. I gave a warning look to Nick, but he kept a neutral look on his face.

“Lady Anna, has something happened?” I asked as we came to where she was pacing. She looked at my expression.

“Oh no. Nothing like that,” she quickly answered. Then, she looked me over and her expression changed to something I couldn’t decipher.

“Do you always come back from jobs covered in blood and bruises?” she asked softly, as she walked to me. She ran her hands around my head and torso. I grunted as she touched some of the bruises. Those were going to need a rub of wolfsbane to heal normally.

“Not normally, but some jobs are more fun than others,” I answered. Another one of those undecipherable looks, but I got the distinct impression there was some anger behind that one.

“Ranger, I’m going to get the gear out of your truck and clean it up,” Nick said. He handsigned You know what to do. He walked back to the truck, leaving Lady Anna and me alone.

“What did he mean, ‘you know what to do’?” Lady Anna asked, reading the hunter’s handsigns.

“Blackhawk was watching me when I killed Raven,” I said. I grimaced as Lady Anna clenched my arm right where I deflected some of Raven’s blows.

“I’m sorry, Ranger,” Lady Anna said as she saw my face contort, “Let’s get that gear off you and those injuries rubbed down.” She led me over to a stone bench. I pulled off my gear and shirt. She plucked the wolfsbane-soaked cloth out of my hands and started to rub the bruises on my chest. I don’t know what was more uncomfortable, the burning of the wolfsbane or having Lady Anna tending to my injuries. It felt wrong.

“So Blackhawk knows we’re leaving?” Lady Anna asked.

“Actually, he thinks you’re dead,” I answered.


“I’ll explain everything when Lord Savik gets here,” I said, “Easier to do it once and get all the questions out of the way. There is something I need to tell you. Blackhawk promised to kill Elizabeth if I interfered with his plans in Tallahassee.” Lady Anna stopped rubbing. She gave me a neutral look.

“He did? What did he promise if you kept out of his plans?” she asked.

“He said he would marry her off to another aristocrat. Essentially, she’d be a permanent hostage for my good behavior,” I answered. She silently started rubbing one of my arm bruises. I tried to grab the cloth from her, but she deftly avoided my hands.

“What are you going to do?” Lady Anna asked.

“I’m going to help get your packs to Hillsborough, and then up to Tallahassee,” I said, “Blackhawk needs to be killed.”

“Even though he’s offered not to harm Lady Elizabeth?” she asked.

“She’ll never be safe as long as that bastard is alive,” I answered, “Even if I took Blackhawk up on his offer, she still won’t be safe. The only way to make sure Elizabeth is safe is to stop Blackhawk. The best way to stop Blackhawk is to kill him.”

“And her safety is that important to you?” Lady Anna asked. My instincts were blaring danger, but Nick told me to answer Lady Anna’s questions honestly.

“Yes,” I answered, “She is the Lady-Apparent of my home.” I paused for a moment.

“And?” Lady Anna asked, sensing my hesitation.

“And I still love her,” I answered.

“Even after everything she’s done to you?” Lady Anna asked, her voice almost a whisper.

“I don’t know why, but yes,” I answered, “When Blackhawk threatened her, everything came flooding back through me. She may hate me, but I still love her. Maybe that will fade in time. I don’t know. I kind of hope so, because it’s going to hurt worse when I see her with someone else. When Blackhawk said he was going to marry her off, it hurt almost as much as the thought of her being killed.” Lady Anna said nothing for a while. She looked like she was thinking hard on something, so I just let her work it out. I had some questions of my own. The biggest was why did Nick want me to tell Lady Anna about Blackhawk’s threat to Elizabeth? It made no sense at all. My guess was Nick thought Lady Anna could help me work out my feelings for Elizabeth. She certainly seemed sympathetic. Something told me that wasn’t it, but I had no other explanation. I would’ve asked Vanessa, but I’d done something to piss her off, and neither her nor Hangman would tell me what it was.

“She doesn’t deserve you,” Lady Anna finally said, “The sooner you realize that, the better.” She handed me the cloth. “I’ve got to call Uncle Erik and let him know you’ve returned.” She walked to across the cravex with a cellphone to her ear. As I rubbed the last few bruises, I thought about what Lady Anna said. Maybe she was right, but I was having a hard time convincing myself. Maybe when we made it to Hillsborough and I saw Elizabeth again, Lady Anna’s advice would be more effective. Right now, all I could do was try and repack my emotions. We still had a lot of work to do.

Lord Savik and his normal entourage showed up a couple of hours later. From the snarl on his face, I suspected that Lady Anna briefed him on how the job turned out. I waited patiently as the lord stormed across the cravex.

“I give you free access to our supplies, and you still fail to complete the job?” Lord Savik asked with a controlled voice.

“Not necessarily,” I answered, “That depends on what the ultimate goals of the job were for you.” That stopped Lord Savik in his tracks. He gave me a questioning look.

“I thought my goals were clear in the instructions of the job,” Lord Savik said.

“Why were Nick and I sent to wipe out the Society’s listening post?” I asked in return. “Were we there to send a message from you, or to hide our leaving the counties?”

“Both,” Lord Savik answered.

“Then we half-succeeded,” I said.

“If you didn’t completely succeed, then why isn’t that a failure?” Fangbearer asked.

“Because as far as the Society is concerned, Lord Savik and Lady Anna are dead, and I’m going back to Hillsborough,” I answered. “Blackhawk got what he wanted from my little trek down here.”

“Assuming Blackhawk believed you,” Fangbearer said. I nodded, reluctantly conceding the point. Lord Savik held up his hand.

“Start from the beginning, Ranger,” Lord Savik said, “Tell me exactly what happened.” I spent the next half-hour relating Nick’s and mine adventure. As I finished, Lord Savik silently mulled over my report.

“What I haven’t figured out is how Raven was so damned powerful,” I said, breaking the silence. “I’ve never seen a lycanthrope move that fast.”

“Blackhawk said Raven was a bastard son of the Prince?” Lord Savik asked.

“Yes,” I answered, cautiously.

“It’s not something we discuss outside the highest levels of the aristocracy, but there’s always been a danger of mixing blood lines. It’s part of the reason we have such strong rules for female purity and sex outside the mated pair. It’s also partially why Badmoons are…” He seemed groping for a word that wouldn’t infuriate me.

“Considered abominations?” I supplied. Lord Savik gave a resigned nod.

“What kind of mixing would cause something like Raven?” Nick asked, “This is far different than lycanthropes being born deformed or afflicted.” Lord Savik gave Nick a long, hard look. Something about what Nick said piqued the lord’s curiosity. Nick didn’t quite shrink from the look, but he was clearly not going to say more.

“I have my suspicions,” Lord Savik said, before turning to face me, “Ranger, walk with me.” I followed Lord Savik as he moved deeper int the cravex.

“What do you know about your friend?” Lord Savik asked.

“I trust him,” I answered, “He stood by me when few would.”

“Which he could have been doing at the behest of the vampire,” Lord Savik countered.

“I don’t think so,” I replied, “Bradon may have pointed me out to Nick, but his friendship is real. He’s helped me deal with things. He’s never given me bad advice.”

“All of which still doesn’t answer my original question,” Lord Savik said, “What do you know about him?”

“He’s from Nebraska, and had some trouble there. The Prince gave him asylum in Florida, but Nick ran into some trouble in the capital and ended up in our county. That’s when I ran into him about four years ago. He was well respected in the Guild and my Guildmaster trusted him.”

“So, not much,” Lord Savik said, and then held up his hand, “I’m sure he didn’t talk much about his past and you chose not to pry. That’s very admirable – as a hunter. We don’t have that luxury. His actions have made me very suspicious.”

“You don’t think he’s working for Blackhawk?” I asked.

“No, but I don’t know who he is working for or what he is trying to accomplish,” Lord Savik answered.

“Exactly how are you going to get your answers?” I asked.

“I’m not. You are,” Lord Savik said, “He’s your friend. You will make sure he’s no threat to my packs.”

“No.” My response astonished Lord Savik.

“What?” he asked, as if he couldn’t believe what I’d just said.

“No,” I repeated, “I’m not going to interrogate my friend. You want to know why he’s here? He’s here to help me fulfill my destiny. To make sure that I can do what I’m supposed to do.”

“And what is that?” Lord Savik asked, clearly not sure if I was sane.

“I don’t know all of it, but it starts with killing Lothos,” I answered. Lord Savik gave me a cool look.

“That vampire you tangled with during the warehouse raid?” the lord asked. “Anna told me some of it. What she could remember clearly. That vampire survived silver, fire, and staking. How are you supposed to kill it?”

“Because I’m the Badmoon,” I answered.

Chapter 22 – Treaties and Complications

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 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 left Tallahassee.

“Yes, I know it’s crazy,” I said, preempting the pair,”I know the simplest explanation is 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.

“Would you explain what that’s supposed to mean?” Vanessa asked, shooting Hangman an annoyed look. At least I wasn’t the only one she was pissed off with anymore.

“Sorry babe. It’s something I’ve heard about Ranger. From Nick, of all wolves,” Hangman apologized, “It’s kind of an open secret among the Hillsborough hunters that Ranger’s instincts are sharp enough almost to the point of prescience.” It was my turn to ask a question.

“What the fuck was that word?” I asked.

“Prescience? It’s like a psychic alarm bell,” Hangman said. Vanessa’s expression told me that wasn’t a precise answer, but it would serve for this conversation. I would have to look it up later. Damn, I hated looking up words that didn’t have to do with jobs.

“So you think Mark has psychic instincts?” asked Vanessa.

“He’s a Badmoon,” Hangman answered, “We always hear about how they are abominations. How they go against the Ancestors because they aren’t from the true lycanthrope blood. Maybe there’s more to being a Badmoon. It’s not like we have a bunch of other Badmoons to test against.”

“Not a bad theory dear, but you’re overlooking one big thing,” Vanessa said, “Even if Mark is somehow psychic, how did Nick get down here? You told me he was dragged back to his home state.” She turned to me, her face with that familiar concerned look she gave me. At least when she wasn’t looking at me like I’d done something indefensible.

“Mark, I think we have to agree it wasn’t Nick. So that leaves the question of who did come to your rescue?” Vanessa asked, “Considering everything we’ve learned since coming into the Disputed Territories, whoever it was, I don’t think we can trust him.”

“Society?” I asked.

“They are the most likely,” Vanessa answered. I just nodded.

“Why would the Society want to save Ranger?” Hangman asked. “They have to know by now you’re not working for them anymore.”

“Probably because they think they can still salvage some use out of me. Blackhawk probably has something in mind that he thinks will forc4 me to assassinate Lord Savik,” I said. Hangman and Vanessa nodded glumly.

“Vanessa, could you go out to my truck?” I asked, “Under the back seat should be a box of .45 silver ammo that I don’t think the lycanthropes here managed to swipe. It’s in that little smuggling compartment. I nearly shot myself out during that little skirmish.”

“Oh yeah, sure,” she said, before grabbing my keys and heading out of the safe house.

“What do you think?” I asked Hangman once Vanessa left the room.

“I’m like you. My intellect is telling me Vanessa’s right, but then we know some strange shit has been happening to you for awhile now. Plus you’re the only lycanthrope I know that can resist an aristocrat’s psychic powers,” Hangman said. “Of course, I could very well be wanting to see Nick enough that I’m wanting to believe you enough to rationalize what you’ve told me.” He continued to think about it.

“Hangman, you need to marry her,” I said after a few moments of silence. He bolted upright.

“Where the fuck did that come from?” he asked.

“The Guildmaster, our Guildmaster, expected you to succeed him at some point. I can kind of see why,” I told him. A deep crimson bloomed on the young hunter’s face. “He wanted me to teach you the dirty side of hunting. I think so you’d know how to use your personal hitter. One thing I’ve noticed is you have a very similar relationship to Vanessa that the Guildmaster had with his wife. They always seemed to help one another with problems. Always giving another perspective. I don’t know how many times the Guildmaster told me he’d been stumped on a problem until he ran it by his wife. When we get Hillsborough back, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you get the chapter pretty quick. You’re going to want that kin by your side when you do.” Hangman just sat there stunned for a few moments. The opening of the door snapped him out of it. Vanessa strode in and dropped the box of ammo in front of me.

“Next time you want to get rid of me, don’t send me to root around in the nasty parts of your truck,” Vanessa said. I couldn’t tell if she was amused or mad. “Do you ever clean out that cab?”

“Isn’t that your job as the junior Society analyst?” I asked with a false severity on my face. Vanessa hit me for my trouble, but she gave me that frustrated grin I’d come to know. Well, at least she wasn’t mad at me. I contemplated whether or not it would be worth the peace to find out exactly how I’d managed to piss her off. No, there would be enough to do than opening that up again.

I kept the vampire in sight. This one, unlike the courier, was trying to stay aware of what was going on around him. He was doing a good job of it too. Enough I couldn’t tail him alone. When I reported it to the Disputed Territories Guildmaster, he asked one of the packs to send someone to assist. I was glad I’d been paired off with a pack warrior. From what Lady Anna and the Guildmaster told me, the pack warriors in the Disputed Territories had built up an impressive skill set in their war against the FCV. I just wish pack had sent a different warrior. Firebug was professional enough, but I saw the flash in his eyes when we introduced. Firebug was one of those wonderful lycanthropes who knew Badmoons were abominations. I’d learned a long time ago how to deal with lycanthropes like Firebug. As long as he at least acted professionally, I would keep my annoyance under control.

We’d traded off tailing the vampire for the past few blocks. Stalking vampires was both easier and more difficult than a ghoul or human. We can’t just blend into the crowd. The moment the vampire looked our way, the fact that we were lycanthropes would blaze like a beacon. To counter that, we put humans between us and only stepped out behind from them to make sure we were still on his trail. On the easier side of the equation, even with a vampire trying to maintain situational awareness, the FCV vampires knew they were on home territory. That made them more careless which made them more apt to make mistakes. This vampires’s mistake was being predictable. About every half-block, he’d sweep the street by pretending to look in a store window or some other casual movement. Even better for us, his exaggerated movements meant Firebug and I had plenty of time to duck in behind some cover before the vampire did his sweep. I just wished this leech would hurry up and meet with his superior. As soon as we identified the superior, we would be able to tail him or her to the silver cache. At least that was Vanessa’s theory from the information we got from the courier. Well, this vampire was one of three possibilities to be exact. Two other hunter/warrior teams were following two other vampires.

I hated this job. I felt naked walking down the streets of occupied territory with just a couple of handguns, a few knives, and not much ammo. My instincts were currently being quiet, but after the run-in with the vampire kill-team in the sandwich shop, I wanted the safety of a carbine or shotgun. I wanted to do a snatch and grab like we did on the courier, not this quiet tailing shit. The Guildmaster and Cracker explained they didn’t want to tip off the vampires about what we were going after until we were breaking down the doors on the silver cache. That meant doing reconnaissance in a way that the leeches wouldn’t know we were working our way up the food chain. I understood the concept, and I even agreed. I just didn’t like it.

“Fall back, I think he’s turning at the corner,” Firebug said tersely into my headset. In the Disputed Territories disposable cellphones with bluetooth headsets took the place of radios. They were easier to procure and harder to track. I walked into an antique store as the vampire reached the street corner. I feigned interest in a couple of desks as I waited for the clear signal.

“Clear,” Firebug said, “Wait. Hold. He’s meeting another leech.” Of course he would be meeting his superior when I was out of position. I walked out of the antique store as fast I could and not draw attention from the humans. It was always when you wanted them to ignore you that you drew their attention.

“Can you get the shot?” I asked, striding up the street. Pedestrian traffic wasn’t much, but it was enough to slow me down. One thing Cracker kept pounding in my head was the need to blend in with the background. The Disputed Territories lycanthropes didn’t have the protective layer of kin to keep our activities quiet.

“Yes,” Firebug said, condescendingly. “Back off before you cause a problem.” I swallowed my retort. I knew Firebug was experienced, but I should be up there at another angle. Rather than start a fight during a job, I ducked into a convenience store and texted the Guildmaster our vampire made contact and Firebug was taking video of the meet.

EXTRACT AFTER,” the Guildmaster texted back. Damn. I would’ve tailed the new vampire after the meet. The Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes were much more cautious. Of course, that was a patience learned after losing more than a few of their own. I loitered around the convenience store as long as I could before buying a soda and walking out. Firebug was walking down the street with a neutral expression.

“Got everything?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered, his tone as neutral as his face.

“Then let’s get it back to the Guild,” I said.

“Where else would we take it?” he asked, the sarcasm dripping from his words. With Lady Anna’s warning to play nice ringing in my ear, I restrained the urge to punch Firebug in the throat.

Firebug and I were the last team back. As soon as we walked off the elevator onto the third floor of the Guild, Firebug handed Vanessa the small video recorder and strode off to join his packmates. She gave me a questioning look silently asking me what I did this time to piss someone off. I just shook my head and followed Vanessa into storage area turned conference room. The siding walls were covered with gym mats to give us some jury-rigged sound-proofing. A laptop was connected to a fifty inch LCD television so all of us could watch the feeds. From what the Guildmaster told us, they’d found the whole set-up in one of the delinquent storage areas. Vanessa loaded Firebug’s recording on the computer and queued it up. In the center of the room was a couple of folding tables put together. On one side was Firebug, his pack leader, and the other two warriors from the night’s jobs. I sat down on the hunter side of the tables. Lady Anna, as Lord Savik’s representative, sat at the head.

“Here’s the video from Hangman and Burn,” Vanessa said as she brought up the video. Hangman’s vampire met with an older female vampire in a restaurant. None of the warriors or hunters recognized the older vampire, which meant she wasn’t a part of the top tiers of the FCV. The Guildmaster ordered Hangman and Burn to follow the older vampire at the next meet a few days away. Cracker’s video also showed a meet with an unknown vampire. Cracker received the same orders as Hangman. Then Firebug’s video came up. Our vampire met with another vampire in a polo shirt and slacks. This one they knew.

“That’s an alchemist,” Cracker said, “He’s not in their leadership, but I’ve run into him before. They use him for field ops.” The two vampires talked for a moment before a third vampire walked out of the shadows.

“What the fuck Firebug?” I asked the warrior, “Why didn’t you tell me he was meeting two others?” The warrior gave me a contemptuous look.

“Why would I need to tell you?” he asked. “I had everything under control.” The others warriors nodded in agreement.

“Oh I don’t know. Maybe in case I needed to back you up or extract you,” I shot back. “At the very least, so I could report it back up the line in case the Guildmaster wanted us to follow the third vampire.”

“I’ve done this enough times. The operation was simple. Why would I need the help of a Badmoon?” Firebug asked, offended by the very notion.

“Because that’s what he was there for,” the Guildmaster said, his voice cold. “You’ve done good work on other operations Firebug, so I’m a little annoyed with your attitude. Ranger was your back-up. You can’t leave him out of the loop. You know that.”

“Lord Savik and Lady Anna may trust your pet Badmoon, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to,” the packleader said, not happy the Guildmaster reprimanded one of his wolves. “We only have to work with the abomination when ordered.” Lady Anna and the Guildmaster were about to respond when Hangman cut them off.

“Ranger, you better take a look at the screen,” Hangman said, as if he didn’t believe what he was seeing. I turned back and saw the gleaming face in the orange light of the streetlight. No fucking way. There was no fucking way.

“What in the Ancestors’ name is he doing in the Disputed Territories?” I asked. The room fell silent as the others looked at Hangman and me in consternation.

“Perhaps you’d like to tell us what is so important,” Lady Anna said, coolly.

“That’s Silanti,” Hangman breathed. “Damn. I was hoping he was dead.”

“Who?” the packleader asked.

“Mario Silanti,” I answered, “Inner member of the Tampa Council. Suspected to be the current leader of the Tampa vampires after we wiped out most of the Inner Council about a couple months back. Before the war, he was a known opponent of the Peace. He was suspected to be behind most of the trouble we had before the war in Hillsborough. He’s been on our hit list for years.” I looked back to Lady Anna. “We need to kill him. He’s too dangerous to be walking around.”

“We need to find out why he’s down here. If he’s as bad as your telling us, then he’s just become a top-tier target,” the Guildmaster said. “We need to take this to Lord Savik. This is the first time we’ve seen a high-level vampire from outside Broward or Dade talking to the FCV. We’re going to need more wolves to do this right.”

“Agreed,” the packleader said, “I can have my pack trace back and see if we can put this Silanti under observation now.”

“What the fuck?” I blurted out, “You don’t trust me to work with your pack unless forced by Lord Savik, but you’ll trust that I’m telling you the truth about Silanti?” The packleader looked at me like I was a young pup in tysach who just asked the shaman a dumb question.

“Just because you’re an abomination in the eyes of the Ancestors doesn’t mean you are actively trying to destroy the packs,” the packleader answered, almost as if he were quoting from a written statement. “Your friends have certainly proved their worth to us. So, if you are telling me this vampire was as big a threat back in Hillsborough, then I’m going to believe you. I just don’t want to be out in the field where the Ancestors’ wrath will get us killed.”

“Oh, yeah, because that makes perfect sense,” Vanessa said, with biting sarcasm. The packleader didn’t even turn to her.

“It does, kin, when you aren’t blinded by foolish affection for the abomination,” one of the pack warriors – Burn, I think – replied.

“Let’s stop with calling Ranger an abomination before someone gets hurt,” the Guildmaster said, seeing my building rage. I really wanted to reach across the table and beat the bloody shit out of the warriors. Their contemptuous looks did nothing to soothe my anger.

“Go ahead and get your pack out there,” the Guildmaster told the packleader, “Keep us fully informed while we brief Lord Savik.” The packleader nodded. With a quick jerk of his head, the pack stood and followed him out of the Guild. As soon as they were gone, the Guildmaster turned back to me.

“I know they piss you off, but you need to keep control of that anger. It just feeds their beliefs that you are an abomination,” the Guildmaster said.

“I didn’t do anything to them,” I protested.

“You also looked like the only reason you didn’t come across the table was because Lady Anna and I were here,” the Guildmaster said. “Silanti showing up here can’t be good for any of us. If we’re going to find out why, the packs are going to have to be involved. They haven’t seen a Badmoon before, so they’re going to believe what the Spiritmaster says about you. It’s not fair, but that’s life. If you aren’t going to learn to control those emotions, at least learn a better poker face. That I know you can do.” I nodded reluctantly.

“Can you work with someone calling you an abomination without looking like you want tear his heart out?” Lady Anna asked, her doubt clear on her face.

“Do I have a choice?” I asked.

“Yes. You can act like the professional hunter that you’re reputed to be, or you can act the petulant werewolf whose feelings just got hurt,” the Guildmaster said. His blunt words reminded me of my Guildmaster. A pang of long-buried hurt welled up. I pushed it down as quickly as it surfaced. I didn’t have time to deal with that wound. I smiled in response to the Guildmaster’s question.

“As long as we can kill Silanti, I can put up with them calling me an abomination,” I answered. “I may have to go a few rounds with Cracker, but I can deal with it.”

“Excellent,” the Guildmaster said. Cracker just grinned.

“I think we’ve got something,” Vanessa said from her workstation. It had been a long two days. Not because of the packs. Evn before Lady Anna and the Guildmaster met with Lord Savik, the packs had Silanti under observation. In less than ten minutes after Lord Savik was briefed on Silanti’s presence in the Disputed Territories, all other operations were dropped. The only operation for the wolves of the Disputed Territories was finding out why Silanti was there. Even the shaman were using magicks to find where Silanti was residing while in the Disputed Territories. The packs were doing the legwork with the Guild acting as the information clearinghouse. During the past two days, Silanti was observed talking to different vampires all over the FCV spectrum. Most were mid-level members of the FCV. The few snatches of captured conversation yielded nothing but basic chitchat. Vanessa finally managed to pull something out of the noise.

“What have you got?” Lord Savik asked. For the last twelve hours, Lord Savik and his small entourage had been camped at the Guild.

“I think Silanti is meeting with the higher-ups in the FCV tonight,” Vanessa said, “He’s talking about having ‘the discussion’ with several of the vampires he’s meeting. Last night, the last vampire Silanti talked to made the comment, ‘Well, just bring it up with them tonight.’ No idea what the context of this ‘discussion’ is about, but from the body language of the vampire, he’s talking about individuals higher than himself.”

“Thin,” commented Fangbearer.

“Maybe, but it’s the best we have right now,” Lord Savik replied, “We need everyone working this one. We’ll observe this discussion and see if we can find out why he’s here. After that, we will decide how to properly deal with this Silanti.”

“Okay we have him in sight,” the pack leader radioed. “He’s talking to one of the lower bosses. Maybe Reuben.” Lady Anna flashed me a picture of Reuben from her phone. I nodded. This was the hardest part for me on this particular job. I can force myself to be patient if I’m waiting for a target – if it’s one of my jobs. Having to sit on the sidelines while this pack did all of the work strained my nerves. I hated having no control of events.

“They’re getting into a black Mercedes,” the packleader reported. “We’re following.” At least the packs in the Disputed Territories knew how to follow a target without being spotted. At least, not by the FCV. We still had no idea if Silanti had any of his own security around, but the packs hadn’t see any other Tampa vampires. I was skeptical, but the packs swore a vampire from outside the FCV would stand out clear as a leech in a crowd of humans. As the pack followed, our truck started it’s own path through the streets. Lord Savik wanted his own team available. Just in case.

“Where are they going?” Lord Savik mused as he watched the display on Vanessa’s laptop.

“If they go to the mansion, we’re not getting any answers from this Silanti,” Lady Anna said. The mansion was the FCV’s Hall. It was considered impregnable, and was guarded heavily enough lycanthropes couldn’t get within three blocks without being seen.

“They’re not going to the mansion,” Lord Savik said, “Even if all of the Inner Council was involved with this Silanti, this ‘discussion’ is not something they would want their rank-and-file involved with.” The Guildmaster and Lady Anna just nodded at the lord’s words.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said, “Why wouldn’t they want to do this in their heavily-guarded lair? Why would they expose themselves, especially after the increase in your operational tempo?”

“You were mentored in vampire politics by a rival of this Silanti?” Lord Savik asked. I knew he’d set Fangbearer to research me. Apparently, Fangbearer did a better job questioning Hangman and Vanessa than I thought.

“You could say that,” I answered, cautiously. I wasn’t sure what Lord Savik was driving at.

“Then you know how central perception is to vampire politics. Probably even more than ours, if just more subtle,” Lord Savik said, “Silanti is the first vampire we’ve seen from outside the FCV’s borders since the fall of our counties. They’re not treating him like one of their lesser vampires who have to come crawling to the Inner Council for a favor. This is much more like when I dealt with other lords.”

“So, having Silanti come into their Hall would look like they think of him as a lesser vampire. At best, their vassal,” I said, following Savik’s logic. He smiled approvingly. “So, they’ll want to meet someplace the FCV clearly controls, but could be considered more intimate. Someplace that the FCV leaders would take someone they consider an equal. Or at least someone they wanted to believe they considered an equal.” The Guildmaster and Lady Anna were both giving me hard looks while Lord Savik just nodded.

“Would one of these condominiums do?” Vanessa asked as a series of dots appeared on her map. “These are all owned by the Inner Council, or at least the property companies they’re using.”

“Where the hell did you get that?” the Guildmaster asked, looking amazed at the screen.

“You already had information on the property shell companies,” Vanessa said, “They never changed them, even after you did a raid. So, I had a data-mining bot go out and search for all of the properties those companies owned. I just narrowed down on those nearby.”

“That could be traced back to you, and to us,” the Guildmaster said, “They know when public records are pulled on their assets.”

“They can track it back all they want,” Vanessa said with a smile, “It’ll look like a finance student’s project since everything is technically coming under licenses used by Florida State University. Technically, their College of Business. They’re going to complain to FSU because their students are pulling public records?”

“Well, never mind then,” the Guildmaster said. The aristocrats chuckled. The Guildmaster took a closer look at the map. “They’re probably going there. It matches their normal evasion pattern. That was supposed to be one of those luxury condo towers before the real estate crash. It would be a perfect cover for them.”

“Then let’s get there before they do. I want my wolves in position so we get everything,” Lord Savik said. He keyed his radio’s mike, “Robert, stay with the Mercedes, but I want the rest of your pack to join me. I want you following just enough to confirm our suspicions.”

“Normal surveillance?” Lady Anna asked. Lord Savik nodded. “Vanessa, which condo is theirs?” Vanessa pulled up the five-story building’s plans and highlighted the FCV’s condo. It was on the corner of the building on the fourth floor. Just looking at the floor plans, I could tell that one wasn’t going to be a fun to assault. There was only one door into the condo, and it opened into a tight foyer with the guest bathroom attached. It was a beauty of a bottleneck. One hallway went straight to the condo’s kitchen and large great room. The other kind of wrapped around with bedrooms coming off. The great room and the master bedroom both opened onto large balconies.

“We’re here to find out what’s going on between the FCV and Silanti,” Lord Savik stated as he read my expression. “It would take something very urgent before I ordered my packs into the condo.”

“Force of habit,” I replied. Lord Savik and the Guildmaster chuckled at the comment.

“Good, then you can plan the assault on the very slim chance we actually need to do something that crazy,” Lord Savik said. “In the meantime, we’ll be doing what we’ve become very good at.” He clapped Vanessa on the shoulder. “Very good work, kin, very good work.” Vanessa gave the lord a shy smile and turned back to her computer.

“Not to sound like an asshole, but how in the hell are we going to get close enough to bug that room?” Hangman asked, “If that’s one of the Inner Council’s private hidey-hole, then they’ve got to have some top notch security, including electronic counter-measures.”

“That’s where I come in,” the shaman said, breaking his silence, “Another one of those unusual tasks where we’ve been forced to find a magick solution for lost technological solutions.” The shaman turned to Savik. “My lord, the Ancestors will do as I ask, but we will need to guide them. They’ve asked for us to illuminate the room. The usual laser should do.”

“The Ancestors are laser-guided?” I blurted before I could stop myself. Lord Savik and Lady Anna burst out in laughter, but the shaman gave me a withering look.

“Abominations like you may not understand the true nature of the Ancestors’ gifts, but they learn and adapt just like any other lycanthrope. Our Ancestors who have agreed to guide and assist our packs have learned how to blend their gifts with our technology.” The interior of the truck became noticeably quieter as the shaman and I locked gazes.

“That’s enough,” Lord Savik growled, “I need all of you working together to make this operation successful. Are we going to have problems?” The warning was clear in his tone.

“I don’t know about shaman, but for hunters the job is the most important thing,” I said, “Part of the job is working with your shaman. I’ll do whatever I have to do in order to complete the job.” The shaman didn’t say anything. He just went back to doing whatever they do when they talk to the Ancestors.

“So you can control that temper of yours,” Lady Anna said, sitting down next to me.

“I can. I just forget to sometimes,” I said. She gave me one of those odd smiles, like I answered an unspoken question. I concentrated on the plans of the condo Vanessa sent to my phone. I needed to devise assault plans in case shit hit the fan. I was going to make sure each version included killing Silanti. I didn’t know why he was here, but it couldn’t be good for Hillsborough. That bastard leech couldn’t leave the Disputed Territories still moving.

Most of us were ensconced in an apartment across the street from the FCV’s condo. The apartment building went into foreclosure before opening for tenants, which meant it was unoccupied and available for our use. Well, after we broke in and set ourselves up. Unfortunately, the building was only a three-story, which meant we didn’t have direct line of sight. On the plus side, the building’s parking and entrances were opposite of the condo building. The FCV had vampires covertly guarding the front of their building. If we had to approach from that side, we’d been spotted immediately. So far, Vanessa’s intel gathering saved us more than once. All we needed to do now was be patient and collect intel.

I was on the roof with the shaman and Cracker. Cracker set up a small laser on a tripod. We couldn’t see into the condo, but we could hit the top of the balcony’s glass door with the laser. My part of the job was protecting the other two, which was why I was carrying a scoped AR-15. I was willing to bet the magazine full of silver ammunition came from what the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes stole from me. Hell, if they were going to use my stuff, they could have at least given me the HK417. I preferred the longer reach and heavier weight of the 7.62.

“Okay, we’re goo,” Cracker said. Technically, Cracker was there to operate the laser. I suspected the real reason was to make sure I didn’t push the shaman off the roof after we got the intel. That was a tempting thought, but Lord Savik made it clear I wasn’t to start beating up his lycanthropes. At least, not unless he specifically ordered me to do so. The shaman sat down and placed his hand on the laser designator. A coolness fell over the rooftop as the shaman murmurred in the Old Tongue. I was uneasy as the air prickled around me with unnatural energy. The Ancestors were coming into our realm at the direction of the shaman. I felt their unseen bodies as the spirits swirled around us. I spared a quick glance to Cracker. The other hunter just kept his gaze on the window. The shaman said a few forceful words, and the sensations stopped. I guessed the spirits followed the laser up. The shaman’s head snapped up. I gave Cracker a questioning look.

“You guys in Hillsborough never used anything like this?” Cracker asked, nodding to the shaman.

“No, we used actual surveillance gear,” I answered, scanning for threats.

“Oh, you’re in for a show,” Cracker replied. I gave him another questioning look, but he didn’t say anything further.

“I must say Mario, your deputy is quite formidable,” a new voice said. “The scars give him extra, I don’t know, presence.” I whirled around, scanning the roof. Cracker chuckled and pointed to the shaman. As I watched, the shaman spoke again, this time in an all-too familiar voice.

“I was originally put-out with him when he showed back up with those scars. Now, I agree with you,” Silanti’s voice said from the shaman’s mouth. I wasn’t sure if I thought it was cool or disturbing.

“Well, at least we know that particular experiment worked. Shame we won’t be able to duplicate it anytime soon,” a different male voice said. From Cracker’s tight expression, he knew who owned that silken male voice.

“The fortunes of war,” Silanti replied. I could almost hear him shrugging his shoulders. “Those kinds of blunders are why there are no others on the Tampa Council for you to deal with.”

“It must be so lonely, ruling that county alone,” purred a female voice.

“I didn’t come here to take up that particular offer,” Silanti said, his voice tight. “As much as I’ve enjoyed the sightseeing, I’ve seen nothing that would make me want to bind my territory to yours.” The FCV asked Silanti to merge the TCV with them? I rethought my plan to kill Silanti for a brief moment then discarded the idea. No, he might keep the FCV out of Hillsborough, but Elizabeth would never be able to deal with him.

“That is disappointing,” the female voice said, with an unmistakable coolness.

“If you’re not here to join us, then why should we give you any more of the merchandise?” a fourth voice asked. This one was commanding. It reminded me of Lord Savik.

“Did I ask you to give me the merchandise?” Silanti asked with feigned indignation, “Do you think me some kind of beggar?”

“What could you offer us that we don’t already have?” asked the commanding voice. “A vampire with nothing to offer is a beggar, Mario.” This one was blunt for a vampire, which meant he was powerful. Only the powerful could afford to ignore the normal word games and subtle politics that dominated the vampire leadership.

“David, your coup here is universally regarded as one of the most brilliant and ruthless maneuvers against the dogs, but did you ever wonder why the other councils failed to flock to your banner?” Silanti asked.

“Because the Prince of Florida failed to attack. There was no united enemy for our people to rally against,” David answered.

“That was part of it,” Silanti said, “It was also because you were so open about your desire to control the entire state.” There were murmurs of agreement from the other vampires. “I control the Tampa Council. What your merchandise allowed me to do against the dogs has frightened the Clearwater and Sarasota Councils enough that they are willing to be my vassals, as long as I include them in a new Inner Council. What does that mean for you? Another powerful council in this state.”

“You’re bold Mario, but not bold enough to partake of our hospitality and then threaten us,” the first vampire said.

“On the contrary, Victor. I would never threaten you,” Silanti said, “I have nothing but gratitude to you for allowing me to field-test your merchandise. The lessons we both learned from their deployment was valuable enough, but the effect on the dogs in Tallahassee was even better. We now have the war we want.”

“Which is why we need united leadership,” David said, with the cadence of an often repeated statement.

“I agree David, but we’ll never get that if the only choice is your council,” Silanti said. There was a long stretch of silence. That was the problem with only having listening devices. Vampires communicated so much with looks and body language, you only got maybe half of the full conversation with just the audio.

“How are you going to overcome your own reputation?” the female voice asked, breaking the silence. “You may not have the megalomania that infects David, but you’re not exactly moderate where the dogs are concerned.” Silanti let out a bark of laughter.

“I will be by the time the siege of Tampa concludes,” Silanti said. “Or at least that will be the public image among the other councils. Which is why I need more of the merchandise.”

“What siege?” the second vampire asked, his silken voice suddenly rough.

“Did you think that the werewolf army would attack here first?” Silanti asked. “No. As soon as they manage to conclude their own politics, they will send their army against Tampa. A strong defense, aided by your merchandise will do much to rally the other councils.”

“I see,” David said. From the vampire’s tone, some sort of agreement was just made.

“Well, I think we’ll leave you to your comforts, Mario,” the female voice said. “We have some stockpile of merchandise, but not nearly enough for what you described. We’ll need to start production immediately if we are going to meet your request.”

“I’m most grateful for your hospitality,” Silanti said, with a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

“The Florida Council is leaving,” the shaman said. After listening to him act like a microphone for the magick bug, hearing him speak in his own voice was startling.

“Ranger, what is this ‘merchandise?'” asked Lord Savik, “Silanti said he deployed it in Tampa.”

“I have no idea, milord,” I said, “The vampires never used any special weapons against us. They just suddenly had a lot of vampires at the end.” I thought about that for a moment. “Could they have shipped vampires up to Hillsborough?”

“Not in the numbers you described attacking your Manor,” the Guildmaster answered. “We’d notice that many soldiers gone.”

“Besides, the other councils are nervous enough about the FCV that any significant decrease in the FCV’s numbers here would be an invitation for one of them to try to take territory,” Lady Anna said.

“All of which makes me very curious what this merchandise is,” Lord Savik said. “I’d like to find out before they unleash it on our packs here. Anna, gather what we have here and go get this Silanti leech before he leaves.” There was silence on the radios at the order. I was waiting for someone to remind Lord Savik we didn’t have enough intel to attempt a snatch. No one said anything.

“Hangman, Cracker, go with her,” the Guildmaster said. “Ranger, stay on overwatch.” There was a warning in his voice. Damn it, this was a bad idea. My instincts were going insane with warnings.

“Everyone meet up with me at the ground floor,” Lady Anna said. “We’ll infiltrate as soon as the FCV leave the area. Ranger, you might want to find a better perch. I’d like some decent overwatch.” I was already searching the area. Two buildings over was a crane. That should get me into a perfect spot.

“Ranger is relocating,” I reported. The shaman looked almost relieved as I slung the rifle and sprinted down the stairs. The quickest way was to go out the back of our building, sprint down the block, and then shimmy up the crane. A barbed-wire topped fence was the only security I ran into. Like I hadn’t dealt with those enough times. Barbed wire is far less intimidating when you can heal as fast as a lycanthrope. The crane went up about eight stories before I hit the arm. I snaked out onto the arm until I could see into the FCV’s condo. Unslinging the rifle, I settled down into a prone position. Maybe a hundred or hundred-twenty yards. I was really missing the HK417 as I gauged the wind. Just enough to make things interesting.

“Ranger in position,” I said, peering into the rifle scope, “I can see the main room. Silanti’s occupied with a female leech. I don’t see anyone else.” My instincts were screaming danger. Why the hell couldn’t the Guildmaster have sent me instead of Hangman with the assault team? I had more experience with this kind of operation. Maybe he was worried I’d kill Silanti instead of snatching him. It was tempting as I kept the damned leech’s head in my crosshairs.

“FCV leaving,” Lady Anna reported. “We’re moving.” Several lycanthropes crossed the street and dashed into the building. They staggered their approach to look less like an assault team and more like just a group of people who happened to be arriving at the same time. I whipped my head around as I felt a sudden sensation of being watched. I wanted to shed for true and scan with enhanced eyes. What stopped me was my instincts weren’t telling me I was in danger. If there was someone out there, it was friendly. At least, that was what my instincts were telling me, and they weren’t often wrong. I heard Lady Anna reporting her team was in the building. It bothered me to have someone out there that I couldn’t see, but Lady Anna needed me to cover her.

“We’re in position,” Lady Anna said. “Going now.” I heard the slamming of a sledgehammer against the door. In the hands of a lycanthrope in true form, the hammer would blow a door in with the force of a breaching charge. Silanti and the female vampire leapt at the sound. Neither of them moved from the main room. I kept Silanti’s head in my sights.

“Contact!” announced one of the pack. What the hell? They weren’t even in the main room yet. “We’ve got contact!” Gunfire popped over the radio. Silanti and the female vampire dragged the couch from the wall and crouched behind it. Each drew a pistol.

“Cousin’s down!” Firebug called, “Leeches and ghouls here are controlling the main hall. Oh shit!” More gunfire came over the radio.

“They’ve got us in a crossfire,” Hangman calmly reported. “There’s at least a dozen ghouls here and maybe another five leeches.” Gunfire. “Make that four leeches and ten ghouls.”

“Ranger, has Silanti moved?” Lady Anna asked.

“No. He’s waiting for you with that female,” I answered. “He’s using a couch as cover.”

“Resistance is heavier than we thought, but we’re going to push,” Lady Anna said. “Ranger, when you see any of us coming into that room, take out the female.” Damn it. Why was she pushing instead of retreating? Okay, maybe if I was over there, I would be doing the same thing. Maybe. I moved the scope over to the female. I would take her out, but I was going to put Silanti down as well. Not kill him, but definitely take him out of the fight. Then, a dozen more vampires came into the main room. Five of them radiated command. I knew that kind of command presence.

“The Inner Council is still in there!” I nearly yelled over the radio. “There’s fourteen vampires in the main room. Repeat, one-four leeches waiting for you. You need to get the hell out of there now!” Just after I spoke, the first pack warrior stumbled into the main room. He was torn apart by gunfire. Without hesitating, I aimed at the biggest vampire in the room and fired. The sliding glass door knocked the bullet off of my target, but another vampire went down. The joys of having your enemies close together.

“We need extract,” Cracker said, “Exit is cut off.” I picked one of the Inner Council and fired. The slim male went down. They realized someone was shooting from the window. The lights went out as the vampires scrambled to get away from the glass.

“We’re moving in to get you out of there,” Lord Savik told Lady Anna. “Ranger get in there and take some of the pressure off.” I was moving as soon as Lord Savik spoke my name. I knew what to do. I leapt off the crane, shedding for true form. I hit the roof of the building diagonal from the condo. A few bounds and I leapt across the street. I felt the cold metal of the balcony rail under my hands and yanked myself over before dropping to the concrete floor. As expected, gunfire shattered the glass door. Idiots. They were in the dark and hadn’t even shed for true. I came up into a crouch with my HK45 up. To my eyes, the darkened room was little more than shaded. Four shots and two of the vampire soldiers went down. I was already moving as a vampire fired at the muzzle flashes. That vampire was smart. Smart vampires needed to die quickly. I rolled up and found a vampire with a stubby subgun pointed at me. I twisted to bring my pistol around, but his head exploded into a mist. Damned lucky shot from the entry team. I didn’t even have time to reflect on my luck. I needed to kill vampires.

“Get out of here, into the halls,” the smart vampire yelled to the others. I moved behind the couch, crawling over the body of the female vampire, changed to true form in death. The couch wasn’t going to protect me from gunfire, but it was the best I could do at the moment. It gave me time to holster my pistol and unsling the AR-15. I slid back the way I came. As I emerged from behind the couch, three vampires looked at me in surprise. I wasn’t where they’d expected. The first two went down with shots to the chest. The third fell backwards as he tried to get out of the way. He ended up taking a silver bullet in the leg for his effort. I pounced on him before he could get up and put a single shot into his head. Two more vampires emerged from hallway, but they were cut down before they managed three steps. Wait a fucking second. Those shots came from behind me. I twisted back to the balcony and saw a lycanthrope on the crane with a rifle. Savik must have ordered one of his Knights take overwatch. That was quick thinking. I gave a quick salute to the sniper and moved to the edge of the hallway.

I could hear the gun battle between Lady Anna’s force and the FCV. They needed me to pull off more leeches. The best way to do that was to make myself more dangerous than Lady Anna’s group. A quick look down the hallway showed I had maybe ten feet before a hard right. Four vampires in human form stood in the dimly lit corridor. They were armed with pistols and looked nervous. This shouldn’t be too hard. I slung the AR and grabbed one of the vampire bodies in the main room. Holding the body like a shield, I drew my HK45 and charged into the hallway. The four leeches hesitated a bare moment before they opened fire. Most of the bullets thunked into the dead vampire, although a few sliced into my legs. I only felt one with the familiar burn of silver. That was fucking stupid of them. I rushed the quartet while firing my pistol. Vampire number one went down from three hits to the chest. Number two fell against the wall, but he stood back up just in time for me to shove the vampire’s body into him. Vampire number three was desperately trying to track me and ended up putting nearly a full magazine into vampire number four. I thanked him by drawing a silver blade and plunging it into his heart. I spun low just as vampire number two managed to throw off the corpse. He was free just long enough to take two rounds to the chest. Holstering my own pistol, I picked up number one’s and two’s pistols. Oh good, they were Glocks with those big 33-round magazines. I dashed to the end of the hall and pointed the Glocks around the corner. I emptied both down the hallway and heard screams. I dropped the pistols. I fell back down the hall and yanked a couple of the bodies together.

Bullets cracked over me. I kept the rifle pointed down the hallway. Anything that came around that corner was going to get a 5.56 mm silver bullet for his trouble. No, they couldn’t be nice and charge into the hallway. A small canister rolled into the hall. I ducked behind the vampire corpses an instant before the hallway was filled with a brilliant flash and thunderous roar. Flash-bang, my mind concluded as I came back up. Not the first time I’d been on the receiving end of that particular present. The trick was keeping my sight protected. My hearing would come back on its own as my ears healed.

“How many of you fuckers are there?” I growled as four screaming vampires rushed me. I fired a quick pair of rounds into the lead vampire. The others stopped as the vampire fell to the ground. Surprise was clear in their face. They expected to find me stunned by the flash-bang. Fucking amateurs. Never pause when there is an enemy in your midst. Another two shots claimed a second of the quartet. The last two fled and only managed to make it around the corner because the AR-15 went dry. Damn it, I only had the one magazine. No point keeping more if I couldn’t load it with silver. I slung the weapon and drew my pistol. I guessed the HK45 was about half-full. I had another spare magazine full of Silver-Shoks. After that, I was down to silver blades and my claws. Well, that and whatever I scrounged from the vampires. I came around the corner and was nearly shot by a startled Silanti. Oh, this was getting better and better. I grabbed Silanti’s outstretched arms and yanked hard. He wasn’t expecting me to physically attack him and stumbled. He recovered quickly and rebounded off the wall. He stopped and looked at me with startled eyes.

“You’re the Badmoon,” Silanti said. All of the gunfire ceased. Several other vampires turned to face me, their faces a mix of surprise and fear.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I replied, “Are you surrendering, because I have some friends who have some questions for you.” Silanti snarled as he dropped the pistol to the ground. He shed for true form and drew a long silver knife. The knife whistled as it slashed at me. I slid to the side and was nearly skewered by a thrust. Silanti wasn’t as good as a Bleeder at knife-fighting, but he was good enough to force me to take him seriously. The vampire fell into a fighting stance with an expectant look. Did he expect me to drop my pistol and knife-fight him? Fuck that. I brought up the HK45 and fired twice into Silanti’s hip. The vampire screamed in pain and fell to the ground. I spun back to find several more vampires attacking with silver blades. The first two went down from gunfire before my slide locked back on an empty magazine. I blocked one knife slash with the empty pistol before yanking out the vampire’s throat with my claws. I used the vampire’s body to block one of his comrade’s attacks as I dropped the empty magazine out of my pistol. I wasn’t about to go blade-to-blade with these idiots when I had a perfectly good magazine full of silver bullets available.

THOOM! The whole condo shook with a violent thunder that deafened me. I found myself on the floor with all of the vampires. Strangely, my hearing didn’t come back as it normally did. All I could hear was a high-pitched whistle. I fed my last magazine of silver ammunition into the handgun and hit the slide release. Four lycanthropes emerged from around the corner with shotguns. They moved efficiently among the vampires, loosing a blast of silver buck into each of the undead. I finally recognized the leader as the Guildmaster.

Your hearing should come back in fifteen minutes, the Guildmaster hand-signed to me, Magick force blast. Well that explained why my hearing wasn’t healing. Shaman magicks always caused archanal injuries. The Guildmaster slung his shotgun and helped me up. I turned back to stop one of the other lycanthropes before they blasted Silanti. There was no need. Silanti was lying flat on his back with a silver blade in his chest. He was well and truly dead.

Your work? the Guildmaster asked in hand-sign. I shook my head. Was it luck, or had Silanti suicided to prevent capture? I knelt down next to the vampire. This was the one I wanted to kill for as long as I’d been a hunter. The one I’d begged to be allowed to assassinate. Now, as I looked at his corpse, I was strangely annoyed Silanti was dead. Maybe it was because Lord Savik and Lady Anna wanted him alive. Or because I wanted to be the one to plunge the blade into his chest. For whatever reason, I let the Guildmaster lead me out of the apartment. I joined Lady Anna and the pack back in the van. The pack suffered two dead, two critically injured, and the rest were injured to some degree or another. They ignored me as I climbed into the van. Lady Anna gave me a sad smile as she sat down next to me. There was a bloody bandage taped to her right temple where a bullet managed to crease her.

Thank you, Lady Anna hand-signed to me. Surprised, I stared at the young female. She smiled amused. The Guildmaster said you were still recovering from the blast. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me. Lady Anna worked enough with the Guildmaster and Cracker, she would have picked up hunters’ hand language, if they just didn’t teach it to her. Surprisingly, I wasn’t offended. Lady Anna proved herself enough times to me. I suspected if she hadn’t been born an aristocrat, she would have made a pretty decent hunter.

You mind if I rest a bit? I asked in hand sign. She nodded. I leaned back and closed my eyes. Damn, I hated when jobs went sideways. The Guildmaster said they were going to toss the place and light it up. From what I gathered, all of the vampires were dead. Fire would slow down the identification process and give the lycanthropes a window before the FCV realized its Inner Council was dead. Not long, maybe twenty-four to thirty-six hours before the FCV managed to form a temporary Inner Council. All of the lycanthropes were hoping something important was found. If not, the lycanthropes would need to go into hiding until the FCV’s little leadership battle wrapped up. I wondered if maybe I could convince Lord Savik and Lady Anna that Hillsborough would be a good place to hide out.

The condo battle yielded two laptops and a bunch of paper records. Vanessa downed three energy drinks and plowed into them. She screamed at Hangman and me to leave her alone the moment we took a step towards her workstation. We were smart enough to leave her to her work and head over to the conference room where Lord Savik and Lady Anna were waiting with the Guildmaster, Cracker, Fangbearer, and the two remaining Red Knights. If she needed our help, she knew to ask for it.

“Kicked you out?” the Guildmaster asked Hangman.

“Yeah,” Hangman conceded. The Guildmaster chuckled.

“Don’t feel too bad. She did the same thing to me after I showed her our data,” the Guildmaster said, “She is an absolute terror when she works.” Hangman shrugged noncommittally.

“My lord, shouldn’t we be out there causing havoc with the FCV?” I asked. “Maybe try extending this window of operations.”

“Who should we be attacking?” Lord Savik asked, patiently.

“The next level of leaders, maybe some of their runners to screw up communications,” I suggested.

“Do you know how large that target pool is?” the Guildmaster asked.

“Fifteen or twenty?” I answered.

“Try fifty to a hundred,” the Guildmaster said, “The FCV learned to distribute their middle management. Harder for us to cripple and a better pool of talent to be promoted.”

“And if we start taking out those leaders, they’ll band together to hunt us down instead of their normal infighting,” Lady Anna continued. “The window would actually contract instead of opening up.”

“Damn. Okay, scratch my earlier suggestion,” I said.

“Your instincts weren’t bad, just uninformed of how things are here,” Lady Anna said, giving me one of those strange smiles. I really wanted to know what questions were getting answered in her head. “You’re just going to have to exercise your patience while we wait for Vanessa to come up with a target. Given her previous performance, I’d expect her to come up with something in a few hours.” With nothing else to do, I found my cleaning kit and stripped my HK45 down. Hangman joined me and pulled out his Wilson. As I watched him finagle the bushing wrench, I let out a low chuckle. He looked up as I slid the slide off the frame of my pistol. He gave me a look that clearly told me not to say anything. I liked shooting 1911’s, but damn I hated taking them down. Any pistol I couldn’t field strip in less than ten seconds took too damn long. I removed the recoil spring and then the barrel. I wasn’t going to do an in-depth cleaning. Just enough to clear out the excess carbon and grease down the moving parts.

“What is that you’re smearing on your gun?” Lady Anna asked as she sat down next to me.

“Silicone grease,” I answered simply, handing over the small container. She gave me a skeptical look. “I use it mainly on the slide rails. It works better than oil.”

“Why don’t we use it?” Lady Anna asked the Guildmaster.

“We do more jobs in sand,” the Guildmaster answered, “Oil doesn’t gum up as fast as grease in a sandy environment.” I shrugged my shoulders.

“I’ve never heard of that particular problem, but the Guildmanster may have a point,” I said, noncomittally. The Guildmaster erupted in laughter. I quirked my eyebrow up in a silent question.

“I’ve gotten so used to you being this loud, brash hunter that I never thought you could do respectful disagreement so perfectly,” the Guildmaster said. He took one look at my quizzical look and then laughed harder. “Sorry, you just reminded me of a couple hunters. They could say so much with a tone or facial expressions. It’s just too uncanny.” His face fell as the Guildmaster remembered his lost wolves. Then, his smiling face was back. It was just a moment, but I could see the depths of his sorrow. It brought me a remembered pain. My Guildmaster was much the same way. Just with a look, I could tell exactly how much I could get away with in explaining some of my escapades. I remembered hearing him use the same respectful tone when talking to Lord Vollen. I looked across the table to Hangman. The mournful look in his eyes told me he was thinking on similar things.

“Don’t get too wrapped up in grief,” the Guildmaster said, watching the pair of us. “It will consume you, make you question yourself, and ultimately get you killed. Especially here.” I continued to think about the Guildmaster’s words for a few minutes. Then Vanessa came charging in.

“Found it,” Vanessa announced to the room, shaking a sheaf of papers. “I found where they’re stashing their silver bullets.” Before anyone could say a word, she stormed over to the Guildmaster and thrusted the papers into his hands.

“Now, I’m going to take a nap,” Vanessa said as she left the room as quickly as she’d come. Hangman quickly reassembled his pistol and ran after her. The rest of us just traded stunned looks.

The briefing for the raid on the FCV’s silver stash was not like any other briefing I attended. I expected Lord Savik to find another vacant office building, so the location was a surprise. It was held at the cravex. Both of the original cravexes were eradicated by the FCV alchemists shortly after the ambush on the lycanthropes. The current cravex was on a farm in the rural part of Broward. The farm was owned by Savik through several shell companies. If there was one thing the Disputed Territories lycanthropes knew, it was how to live covertly. I thought I was paranoid, but the more I dealt with Savik and his wolves, I realized how much I trusted Hillsborough’s network of kin to keep my activities from prying eyes. I felt like a rank amateur compared to these wolves. With the exception of a pair of warriors on guard duty, every one of Savik’s lycanthropes were in their entri. It was odd holding something other than one of the Rites in the cravex, but it also felt right. This was how the packs had done this back in the Fatherland before the War of Discovery against the vampire. It was also nice not to be in formal robes. Most of the pack warriors looked at me askance, but there wasn’t the revulsion from earlier. My actions during the fight at the FCV condo seemed to have won me some points with the pack warriors. The shaman were following the Spiritmaster’s lead and pointedly ignoring me.

Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and the remaining two Red Knights stood at the head of the cravex. Lady Anna looked over at me and gave me a quick smile. Vanessa harrumphed behind me. I turned back to her, but Vanessa just gave me a blank look. Damn it, after this, I was going to find out what was behind Vanessa’s attitude lately. The murmuring of the packs ceased as Lady Anna walked into the middle of the cravex with one of the shaman in tow. This cravex didn’t have a maksen, the large cube of obsidian that acted as altar and magical focus, so Lady Anna could stand in the very center of the cravex. She motioned to the shaman, who created what looked like a hologram of the warehouse in the air above her.

“All of you know what this is,” Lady Anna said, pointing at the floating image, “We have a narrow window to attack the warehouse, seize what we can, and destroy the rest before the FCV can recover from last night. If what we learned is right, there’s not only silver there, but information on all of the FCV’s activities and holdings. Once we hit this, we are going to have every vampire actively hunting for us. That’s fine, because with what we get here, we should be able to finally take down the FCV piece by piece.” An approving rumble of growls erupted at the statement.

“To do this, we’re going to need everyone familiar with the operation and ready to jump in if one of us falls,” Lady Anna said after the growls subsided. “That’s why we’re all here. We need to go over this quickly because this operation will commence tomorrow night.”

“Why not during the day?” asked one of the pack warriors.

“We need to minimize human interference,” Lady Anna said, “During the day, this area is flooded with humans. It’s deserted during our attack window. We should only have to deal with vampires and ghouls.” The question answered, the pack warrior nodded and stepped back among his packmates.

“The raid will use two groups, Silver and Gold. The Silver group will infiltrate and secure the warehouse. After that has been accomplished, Gold group will come in for loading of the silver and data and cover exfiltration. Gold will also act as a reserve if Silver runs into unexpected resistance.” I expected some of the pack warriors to raise an objection, but they just stood silently listening to Lady Anna.

“The Silver will consist of the hunters, George’s and Bob’s packs, two shaman, and myself,” Lady Anna said. “Silver will be breaking into two teams. Ranger, Hangman, Cracker, and myself will be Alpha team. It’s our job to infiltrate into the loading docks and begin the assault. Once we have their attention, Bravo team consisting of the the Guildmaster, the pack warriors, and the shaman will attack the front entrance. Their objective is to seize the offices to prevent the destruction of the FCV’s data. Once that is done, both teams will link up and secure the facility.” As she talked, small figures appeared in the hovering diagram and conducted the assault. Bravo would be in a Trojan Horse. More specifically, inside a panel truck that would “break down” in the warehouse’s parking lot. I was wondering how they were going to pass that off, but the Guildmaster said that he’d set up dozens of “sleepers” for various kinds of operations, including this. If the warehouse security checked, the company and the driver would be perfectly legit with records going back years. It would have been impressive even for Bradon. My team’s job, on the other hand, would be more what I was used to – breaking and entering, and then killing leeches and ghouls.

“Once the warehouse is secure, Gold will come up to the loading docks. This is where we are going to use the vans,” Lady Anna said. The vans were another of the Guildmaster’s long-term “quiet” plans. Big trucks or even U-Hauls would be easily recognizable on the streets. The vans looked like any of the dozens of service vans that crowded the city streets. Even better, they were equipped to quickly change paint jobs and company logos. In five minutes, they could look completely different.

“Both Gold and Silver will load. The hunters will provide overwatch,” Lady Anna said, “As soon as the vans are loaded, everyone except the hunters extracts. Standard pursuit rules. The rally point is the bakery.” The Guildmaster was using up a lot of his long-held assets on this operation. “The hunters destroy the warehouse and exfiltrate on their own. Once everyone meets up, we’ll split the take and go dark for at least a month. That should give the FCV time for their normal infighting to resume. Questions?”

“What if there’s more guards there than you’re estimating?” asked George, one of the pack leaders.

“That’s up to me,” Lady Anna answered. “If I think security is too strong, I’ll call off the operation. If I’m killed before I can call it off, then Cracker will make that decision.” It was eerie to hear one of the aristocracy talk so casually about the possibility of being killed in a raid. Even during the war in Hillsborough, Jason Vollen never spoke once about the chance he might be killed. It would’ve disheartened the packs. The rest of the Disputed Territories’ wolves didn’t even blink at the comment.

“Once Silver is engaged, if we find more resistance than we expected, Gold will have to pull them out,” Lord Savik said. “I will make that decision. If that happens, then the goal will be to destroy the warehouse instead of seizing its contents. Are there any other questions?” The cravex was quiet. Lord Savik and the Spiritmaster walked into the center of the cravex, joining Lady Anna. The Spiritmaster uttered something in the ancient tongue and a ball of blue energy appeared in his hand. Lord Savik and Lady Anna stood on either side of the senior shaman. The blue globe shot beams into the two aristocrats, who lit up with a blue auras. They closed their eyes and dozens of energy beams lit up the cravex. Each beam touched a lycanthrope, who in turn began to glow with an aura. A beam from Lady Anna struck me. As it enveloped me, I could feel all of the other lycanthropes around me in my mind. I think something went wrong with the magick, because the connection felt muddled. Lady Anna shot me a quick surprised look before she closed her eyes again. She wasn’t the only one. Most of the lycanthropes looked over at me, either in revulsion or pure shock. The Spiritmaster gave me a look of smug condescension, like I just failed some sort of test and he was happy about it.

When all of the lycanthropes were lit with blue, the beams intensified. The feeling of the other lycanthropes in my head grew stronger, but so did the – feedback? It felt like something was trying into force its way in, painfully. I stood as stoically as I could with just the barest hint of pain leaking out onto my face. I would be damned to give the Spiritmaster the pleasure of seeing me in pain. I’d fall dead first. The pain increased even more and then vanished. The feeling of the other lycanthropes was still there, but it was like looking at all of them through a pane of glass. Whatever happened wiped that look off the Spiritmaster’s face, so it must have been good. The beams disappeared and the cravex felt dimmer.

“We are bound as one,” Lord Savik said, his deep voice almost rumbling through the cravex. “We are one pack, one force, one claw. Let our enemy know fear as our strength is unleashed upon him.” The words felt familiar, with the cadence of a Rite, but this was no Rite I’d ever attended. On the other side of the pane of glass in my mind, a brilliant fire burned. From the looks on the others’ faces, Lord Savik was using his powers. With a wave of his hands, the lycanthropes of the Disputed Territories melted out of the cravex. I started to follow the rest of the Guild when a hand fell on my arm. I whirled to find Lady Anna standing next to me. Damn, I didn’t even hear her get that close. She didn’t say anything, but led me out of the cravex on a little used path. There was only the slightest rustle as the two of us walked. After a few minutes, we were at her car. She abruptly turned. There was an odd light in her dark eyes. My instincts lit off with warnings. She lifted her hand. I was sure she was going to claw me and demand I go back to Hillsborough or throw myself into the fire or something. I wasn’t expecting her to just lay her hand on my muzzle.

“What are you?” she asked quietly. The same words that Elizabeth hurled me as an accusation, almost sounded as a wonder in Lady Anna’s.

“A Badmoon,” I answered, still waiting for the tirade and expulsion.

“So this is what it means to be a Badmoon,” she said, “This is your curse. To be apart from us. You should be bound to every lycanthrope in that cravex, but you’re not. There’s something keeping you from me.” Her head cocked to the side and a smile appeared on her face.

“From that look on your face, you must have thought I was about to banish you,” she said.

“The thought did cross my mind, milady,” I answered. She did laugh at that comment.

“Actually, I had another reason for bringing you out here,” Lady Anna said, “I was just shocked about what happened.”

“What did just happen? What was that at the cravex?” I asked.

“A long, forgotten Rite,” she answered. “One of the Ancestors told the Spiritmaster about it. The Rite binds the participants together. Right now, I can tell where each of the others are and what they’re feeling. As we get into combat, I’ll know even more. All except for you. I can feel your presence in my mind, and that’s it.”

“That’s kind of how the rest of you are to me,” I said. “I wonder why we don’t use that Rite anymore. I mean, besides what happened with me, it sounds pretty damn powerful.”

“I’m not sure,” Lady Anna said, walking to the trunk of her car. “The Spiritmaster thinks it’s because it mixes the aristocracy’s powers with his.” She pulled a case out of the trunk.

“Maybe that’s why it doesn’t work on me. Aristocracy powers have never worked on me,” I said. She arched her eyebrow in surprise.

“Possibly, but this is the real reason I brought you out here,” Lady Anna said. “You’re going to need this for our raid.” She handed me the case. I popped it open and smiled. The familiar lines of my Commando gleamed in the moonlight.

“Well, fuck,” Cracker said in a low tone as he looked up at the chain-link fence. “When the hell was that put in?” The big hunter was crouched next to the fence as the rest of us emerged from the darkness. All of us were in true form. Our nightvision was better than any human device. Plus, it kept us away the casual human scrutiny.

“What?” Lady Anna asked as she crouched next to Cracker. I was next to her, watching for the warehouse’s ghouls doing security patrols. Hangman was next to me, watching our backs. Cracker motioned at the top of the fence. The concertina wire was gone. In the darkness, I could just make out the three faint lines. Ancestors damn them, the vampires put in either laser or IR beams. From their faintness, I guessed IR beams. Lasers would have been easier to pick up.

“Jump, then,” I said. Cracker grimaced, but nodded. Lady Anna went first. With her usual grace, she stepped lightly into Cracker’s waiting hand and easily sailed over the fence. She rolled as she landed, coming up into a crouch with her stubby P90 covering the warehouse. Cracker was next. He landed with an audible thump before moving slowly out of the way. Hangman was the more athletic of the two of us, so he helped me jump the fence. Much like Lady Anna, I rolled up into a firing crouch with my Commando trained on the warehouse. Hangman, the fucking pup, quietly landed behind me. He didn’t even sound like he strained himself leaping over the fence.

“Hold up,” I whispered to Lady Anna as she started toward the warehouse. My instincts were screaming warnings. The building was too dark, and I didn’t see any guards around the area.

“What is it?” Lady Anna asked, looking back at me.

“Something feels wrong,” I answered.

“What the fuck?” Cracker asked, exasperated, “You’re stopping us because you’ve got a feeling?” He turned to Lady Anna. “Milady, we need to move. If he can’t put what’s wrong into words, we need to move up. The others are depending on us.”

“Should I call this off?” Lady Anna asked me. I could see in her eyes that she would do it if I told her to. I looked back up at the building. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d done something when everything told me not to. Getting the silver and the information was too important to these lycanthropes. It was worth the risk.

“Let’s go, but everyone keep extra sharp,” I said. Lady Anna just nodded. Cracker made an ugly sound, but he continued towards the loading docks. Hangman clapped me on the back as we jogged forward. The loading docks were raised off the ground with an incline in front to allow trucks to back up and have their cargo sections level with the platform. Behind the loading platform was a large rolling metal door leading into the warehouse itself. The plan had Cracker and Hangman moving up to the door with Lady Anna and me using the incline and platform to cover them. We’d just hit the edge of the incline when the metal door snapped up.

“Into the pit!” I ordered, shoving Lady Anna forward before bringing up my Commando. Gunfire erupted with the blinks of muzzle flashes coming inside the warehouse. I felt the bullets whipping around me. Hangman and I both fired long bursts into the darkness as we ran behind our teammates. The four of us huddled up against the platform wall as bullets tore at the concrete above our heads. Well, this just turned into a sub-optimal position.

“Call off the operation,” Cracker said to Lady Anna. “We’ve completely lost the element of surprise.”

“Don’t. We can salvage this,” I countered. Lady Anna and Cracker looked at me with incredulous looks. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this position. We can do this. Hangman?”

“Oh, this is going to be fun,” Hangman said, smiling. “You’re going to have to cover me.” Good, he was thinking along my lines. “Whatever happens, don’t tell Vanessa I did this.”

“As soon as the grenade goes off, we need to lay down cover fire,” I told Lady Anna and Cracker. The hunter started to object, but Lady Anna silenced him with a gesture. She searched my eyes for a brief moment and nodded. Hangman lobbed the small cylinder without hesitation. There was a metallic clank as it bounced off the concrete floor and into the warehouse. Then came the familiar crash as the grenade detonated. Hangman was up onto the platform before the grenade exploded. In the second between the bounce and the explosion, Hangman was at the side of the warehouse door. The pup was fast. I poured a full magazine of fire into the warehouse as Hangman took aim inside. He fired twice before he motioned us up. I snaked up the platform and into the warehouse. As soon as I entered the room, the darkness faded to my eyes. True vision was so much better than the humans’ nightvision devices. Four ghouls crouched behind stacks of crates. They were using submachine guns by the sound. Three other ghouls were lying unmoving on the floor. I didn’t care if it was the grenade or our fire that killed them, as long as they were out of the fight. I slipped behind another stack of crates and replaced the magazine in my Commando. Those bastards never expected us to use grenades, and now, they were playing catch-up. Their mistake. I felt bullets crack into the wood of the crate, but those were followed by the odd sound of bullets hitting flesh. I did a quick inspection. No, I wasn’t hit. What the fuck? I pushed the question to the side as more bullets hit my cover. I focused on killing ghouls. I came around the side and lined up a ghoul in the holographic sight. A quick burst and that one went down. His buddy turned to fire at me and slumped as Hangman took him down. The last two went silent. I could finally start hearing again as my ears healed from the constant gunfire. Hangman hand-signed that our teammates would cover the door as he took the opposite side of the warehouse. I nodded and started creeping over to the left wall. Time to flush out the prey.

One ghoul panicked. When ghouls panic, they don’t run. They go into what could charitably called a berzerker rage. This one ran down the center of the warehouse, emptying his gun at Lady Anna and Cracker. The two lycanthropes quickly put the ghoul down with a pair of bursts. The last ghoul, on the other hand, was smarter. I could hear him shuffling around the warehouse, but he was gone the moment I tried pouncing on him. The building shook with an explosion. That was Bravo starting their attack. The ghoul proved exactly how smart he was. I expected him to miss a step from the sudden assault, but he vanished again. Something glinted out of the corner of my eye. I turned and saw the ghoul on top of a stack. He was aiming at Lady Anna, who was oblivious to the threat. I brought my Commando up, but I knew I wasn’t going to get the shot off in time. The warehouse rocked with a booming gunshot. The ghoul fell dead to the floor. I didn’t even notice the sound of the body falling to the ground. I was looking at the shooter.

Standing in the doorway, holding a smoking revolver was Nick. Hangman and I stood dumbfounded. Cracker and Lady Anna, on the other hand, trained their weapons on Nick. If Nick noticed the weapons trained on him, he didn’t show it. He simply holstered his monster revolver as he walked into the warehouse like he was part of the operation. My mind was reeling. Where had Nick come from? Was he the one that saved Lady Anna and me when we’d been ambushed?

“Ranger, Hangman, stop gaping. This place isn’t secure,” Nick said in that same even voice.

“Who the hell are you?” Cracker demanded. Nick turned an appraising gaze on the big hunter. Cracker’s face tightened into rage.

“He’s from Hillsborough,” I answered, trying to defuse the situation. Lady Anna shot me a questioning look. “He’s a hunter.”

“And you’re just showing up now?” Lady Anna asked, turning back to Nick.

“Yes,” he answered simply. Before she could say anything else, Nick pointed to one of the stacks of crates. “Look at that.” I couldn’t see what he was pointing at. The crates were just like the others, including the bullet holes. Then, I noticed the black fluid leaking out onto the floor. My eyes widened as I realized what I was seeing. I pushed away the scents of burnt gunpowder and found the particular scent I was hunting. I walked over to a single crate. I shoved my claws under the lid and tore it off with a single motion. Inside was a vampire in true form. It didn’t look dead. It looked more like they did when they were day-sleeping, but it was night out. Vampires never slept during the night. My pistol materialized in my hand, but the vampire never stirred. What the hell was this? Lady Anna peered in and was similarly baffled.

“Check the other crates,” she ordered. Hangman, Cracker, and I pulled more apart and found more sleeping vampires. Well, some were dead from gunfire, but most were only in the odd sleep.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Lady Anna asked Nick. He just shook his head. Lady Anna gritted her teeth and stormed to a corner to contact the other team. As she talked, I approached Nick.

“How the hell are you here?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you after we finish this job,” he answered, “This isn’t nearly the security I saw coming into this place earlier. There had to be forty or so vampires including some huge leech. Damn thing was covered in burn scars.” The comment tickled my memory. I knew I should be remembering something, but my mind just wasn’t accessing.

“Glad to see you’re okay,” Hangman said as he joined us. Before Nick could answer, the building shook again. All of us perked up. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Bravo must have run into the vampires Nick mentioned. Lady Anna pulled Cracker over to our little group. Her face was grim.

“George said they just ran into some heavy resistance. One of the shaman was killed. That was his death blast we just heard. Uncle is concerned about these vampires in the crates. He wants us to get into the office and see what we can find out while Bravo deals with the defenders.” I traded looks with Cracker. I understood why Lord Savik wanted us up in the offices, but if those vampires were behind prepared defenses, Bravo was about to be slaughtered. Cracker saw what I was thinking and nodded in agreement.

“Ranger, go with Lady Anna up into the offices,” Cracker said, “I’ll take your friends and see about flanking those bastards.” I nodded and dragged Lady Anna towards the office before she could object. After a few steps, she yanked her arm away.

“What the hell was that about?” she demanded.

“You were getting that muley face, milady,” I answered. Her eyes lit with anger. “Cracker needed to lead the assault team because the others will feel his presence thanks to that funny spell. You need to be raiding the office because you know what to look for. I was the logical choice to guard you while you ransacked for data.”

“So why not Hangman?” she asked as we climbed up a metal staircase to the second floor.

“Because you trust me more than you trust him,” I answered. She was quiet for a long moment as we moved towards the office door.

“Well, yes, but it’s more than that,” she whispered as we lined up at the door to the office. Something in her voice made me shoot her a quick glance. She looked like she was trying to decide what to say.

“Let’s talk later,” I said, “Job comes first.” She nodded uncomfortably and gripped her P90. I kicked the flimsy door. It slammed open and Lady Anna charged through the open door before I could stop her. Her sudden scream cut off my curses. I charged in behind her and froze as my eyes locked on the vampire inside. The memory came flashing back as I looked at the seven-foot tall vampire covered in twisted scars. So, Lothos apparently could survive fire as well as silver and staking. The monster leech held Lady Anna by her throat with one of his over-sized fists.

“This one isn’t nearly as pretty as your other bitch, Ranger,” Lothos chuckled, shaking Lady Anna like a rag doll. “Considering your pedigree, I have to wonder how you manage to attract these werewolf princesses. Must be the bad-boy thing.” I didn’t say anything. I emptied the Commando’s magazine into Lothos’ chest. He screamed in pain and threw Lady Anna through a cubicle.

“You can cause me pain, but you’ll never kill me,” Lothos said, as his chest expelled the silver bullets and sealed. “Our last fight strengthened my powers, even if it did leave me with some disfigurement.” He motioned at his twisted face.

“What the hell are you doing down here Lothos?” I asked, making calculations for my next attack. Maybe the silver bullets didn’t work because they didn’t have enough silver individually. Time to try some big silver dumps.

“Escorting Silanti,” Lothos said with disgust. A bizarre smile spread across his face. “You keep doing me favors Ranger. First, you take out Bradon, which makes me the new head of the Bleeders. Then, you kill Silanti. Now, I control the Tampa Council. Maybe I should do you some favor?”

“How about dying?” I asked. His head tilted back and let out a laugh of true mirth. I lunged at him, drawing a silver knife. I was going to carve that bastard’s black heart out and see if he could recover from that. His hand clamped down on my wrist faster than I could see. Before my mind could comprehend that he stopped my attack, I was slammed into the wall. A crashing blow across my face knocked me to the industrial carpet. At least the rug burns healed normally. My muzzle felt like it was broken and I was having trouble breathing through my nose. Damn, this was like last time we tangled.

Pistol fire dotted across Lothos. The vampire actually looked surprised as he turned to Lady Anna. She staggered to her feet as she slapped a new magazine into her Glock. Lothos was on her before her thumb hit the slide release. He backhanded her hard enough to send her flying into another wall. She whimpered as she tried to stand. He just casually strode over to her.

“Maybe you are more his style,” Lothos said to Lady Anna. “I doubt that Vollen bitch would have the courage to face me.” Rage coursed through me at Lothos’ words. The pain lessened. I leapt off the floor and sunk my claws into Lothos’ back. He snagged me by the drag handle on my MOLLE gear and flung me at Lady Anna. She barely manged to move out of the way as I hit the wall. Good, he wasn’t thinking. Throwing us into walls didn’t cause archanal wounds. It might knock our breath out, but that was it. I rolled closer, feeling as his punch whistled over my head. My pistol was in my hand. New tactic. I placed the muzzle of the HK45 to Lothos’ knee and fired. He fell to the ground with a scream. I put hot muzzle to his eye and fired again. More pain blossomed and I realized I was lying on the ground. My mind tried to grasp with what just happened. Ancestors, had he moved that fast? How was I going to kill this bastard before he ripped me to shreds? Lothos rolled me over and ripped off the front of my MOLLE. My silver knife was in hand. His eyes lit with rage. There wasn’t even a scar from my shot into his face. Lady Anna valiantly leapt at Lothos, but he battered her away with contemptuous ease. I heard her crash into a desk. She went silent. I tried to attack, but my mind swam with pain when I tried to move.

“Bradon should have killed you years ago,” Lothos said with a cold rage in his voice. “You’re far too dangerous to be walking around. I’m bored with this fight. I’m going to carve you up, and then the little bitch. Then, I’ll just kill the rest of the dogs in this building. Maybe we can salvage some of the units.” I felt the familiar intense burning as the silver knife was thrust into my chest. I felt my lung deflate as the blade mercilessly sliced through.

DESTROY THE ABOMINATION! a deep voice echoed in my head. It was the same voice that talked to me when I fought the alchemists back in Ybor. Right before all of that weird stuff happened and the top of that nightclub was destroyed.

I would love to, but I don’t know how to kill him. Plus, he’s a little busy carving me up, I thought back to the voice.

THIS IS WHAT YOU WERE BORN TO DO! CLAIM YOUR BIRTHRIGHT AND DESTROY THE ABOMINATION! the voice boomed back. I felt my ribs snap as Lothos jerked the knife down. Intense pain wracked my body. I felt my blood pouring out of me.

What birthright? I asked, hazily. Suddenly, I could see a ball of bright light hovering in front of my eyes. It blinked warmly at me. With the last spark of strength, I reached out to the light. Lothos chuckled darkly at my fumbling.

NO! REACH WITH YOUR SOUL! the voice ordered.

You could have said that to begin with, I shot back. How do you reach with your soul? Then, my mind unlocked, and I understood what the voice was telling me. I visualized a hand grasping the floating ball. Blinding hot power filled me. All of my pain went off like a switch. I held up my hand to Lothos. The gesture amused him and he cackled. The beam of brilliant white energy shot out from my palm and threw him through the wall of the office and down into the warehouse. I staggered to the hole in the wall. I could feel my wounds sealing. I was still a lightheaded from the blood loss, but somehow I knew my body would be fixed in a few moments. Lothos looked up at me in shock. He stumbled slowly to his feet. From his jerky movements, Lothos must have been in some major pain. Maybe I’d actually done some real damage to the bastard.

DESTROY THE ABOMINATION! the voice bellowed in my head, almost greedy for victory. I leapt down to the floor of the warehouse. There wasn’t even the normal flash of pain from the twenty foot drop. Lothos looked at me with a mix of rage and fear. That made me smile.

“What the hell are you?” Lothos gasped, managing to fall into a fighting stance.

“Badmoon,” I answered. I examined his pose and launched my attack. Lothos saw what I was doing and tried a counter. Actually, it was a good counter, but he was just too damned slow. I changed my attack. My fist snaked under and struck hard in Lothos’ chest. The twisted vampire was lifted off of his feet and tossed a good ten feet back. He crawled along the ground as I casually stalked him. This is what he must have been feeling when he ambushed Lady Anna and me. This sense of unstoppable power. Damn it felt good. Lothos climbed up an open crate. He reached in and spoke a few words under his breath. The sleeping vampire awoke. It launched out of the crate and landed in true form. What caught me were its eyes. I’d seen that kind of mad look before. Those were the eyes of the vampires that attacked the Manor when it fell. The vampire attacked with the ferocity of a ghoul. Two blows merely scratched my arms. There was barely any pain. I backhanded the vampire. It crashed into a stack of crates and was still. Screeches brought my attention back to Lothos. He’d managed to awaken a few more of the vampires.

“Kill him!” Lothos commanded in a gasping wheeze. The vampires sprinted at me with claws extended. I really wished I remembered to bring my guns. These leeches would’ve been much easier to put down with gunfire. I grabbed the lead vampire by the head and neck and wrenched until it stopped moving. I used the corpse to knock down the next two. These two kicked back up and attacked. A gunshot rang out and one of the vampires fell. I grabbed the other ripped its throat apart with my claws. As it fell, I shot a look back over my shoulder. Lady Anna was kneeling at the hole in the side of the office with my Commando in her hands. I turned back to see Lothos materialize in front of me. Using a crate like a giant club, he smacked me across the warehouse. My breath whooshed out of me as I slammed into the concrete wall. I fell to a crouch. The pain was already gone. I was going to tear Lothos limb from limb. I was unstoppable. From the look of terror in the twisted vampire’s eyes, he knew it also.

Surprisingly, Lothos didn’t flee. Instead, the vampire pulled out a smartphone. He pressed something on the screen and the office exploded. Lady Anna was thrown to the floor of the warehouse. She wasn’t moving. Snarling a curse, I sprinted at Lothos. Even with all of the power coursing through me, I wasn’t fast enough. More explosions ripped through the warehouse. I heard the screams of the packs echoing through the new holes. Lothos was already at the door to the warehouse. He held up a hand.


“I don’t know what you are. You are probably the only one I can say this about. You can kill me Ranger. If you do, the rest of your lycanthropes will die in this warehouse. Believe me, there are more bombs set to go off,” Lothos told me. As if to punctuate his point, another explosion rumbled through the building.

THE ABOMINATION MUST BE DESTROYED AT ALL COSTS! the voice commanded. I looked at Lady Anna. She was moving, but I could see the silver shards lacing her arms and legs. Blood was pouring out of her wounds. Lothos cackled when I realized the bombs were silver frags. Damn it all to hell. That fucking vampire was right. I sprinted to Lady Anna’s side. I could hear Lothos cackle as he fled into the night.

NO! YOU MUST NOT LET THE ABOMINATION ESCAPE! the voice screamed as pain flashed through my head.

“I’m not going to sacrifice my packs for a vampire I can deal with later,” I told the voice. As soon as I touched Lady Anna, the power coursed through me. The silver fragments shot out from her like bullets. With the poison gone, her own body took over. I was about to pick her up when all of the power left me. I collapsed to the ground. Pain and exhaustion tore every scrap of energy from my body. I couldn’t move anything. I don’t remember having the strength to blink. I honestly don’t know how I was breathing.

“Ranger!” Lady Anna screamed. She rolled me over. Relief crossed her face as she realized I was alive. She held her hand to her throat mike. “All elements, evacuate! Evacuate! Evacuate! This place is coming down on us.” She knelt down next to me.

“This might hurt,” she told me, gently, “I’m sorry.” Grunting, she lifted me up into a fireman’s carry. She was right. It hurt. A lot. Lady Anna sprinted out of the warehouse. Two other lycanthropes were waiting for us as she ran for the fence. They were yelling something at Lady Anna, but I couldn’t hear it. All I could do was feel the pain.

YOU HAVE FAILED YOUR BIRTHRIGHT, the voice rumbled, momentarily clearing the haze, YOU WILL BE PUNISHED FOR YOUR FAILURE. DO NOT FAIL AGAIN. The voice must have decided to be merciful, because at that point, I lost consciousness.

I woke up staring into Lady Anna’s brown eyes. She was in human form, but her face was pale. Her face lit up as I groaned into consciousness. The intense pain was gone, but I was still exhausted. I could barely move. I tried to get up, but Lady Anna placed a hand on my chest and gently pushed me back down. Ancestors, I was too weak to overcome even that little bit of resistance. Lady Anna gave me a warm smile.

“Just rest,” Lady Anna told me, “You’re safe. We’re in one of the Guild’s safehouses.” Using what little strength I could muster, I looked around. I was in a generic bedroom. It looked like someone transplanted one of those setups in a furniture store into an actual house. I was in the bed covered with a sheet. From the feel of the cloth on my skin, I guessed I wasn’t wearing much underneath. The scent of wolfsbane was strong in the air.

“Stop,” Lady Anna commanded with a soft voice. “I don’t know what happened back at the warehouse. None of the others know about what you did. I haven’t even told Uncle Erik about it.” Her hand stroked my hair. “Whatever it was, it knocked you out for the last two days. When you’ve got a little more strength, we’ll figure it out. I don’t know what birthright a Badmoon has, but if you have to go up against that vampire again…” Her words startled. I tried to talk. My voice didn’t want to work.

“Shh,” Lady Anna said, holding her finger to my lips, “Rest. Get your strength back. I’ve got to see if Vanessa’s managed to decrypt the hard drives we recovered from the warehouse. I’ll bring you up some food in a bit.” She gave me a small smile and walked out of the door. I didn’t even have time to guess how Lady Anna had heard the voice before blackness consumed me again.


I was standing in the Hillsborough Guild. As I looked around, I realized I was standing in the Guildmaster’s office. Elizabeth was sitting at the desk. Her eyes were blood-shot, her auburn hair disarrayed, and her body was slumped with fatigue. She was still the most beautiful lycanthrope I had ever seen. Just looking at her tore away all of the defenses I’d built up. Buried pain flooded through me. Why did it hurt this much even when I was just dreaming about her? Then she looked up at me.

“Why did you not destroy the abomination?” she asked. I stepped back in shock.

“What the hell kind of dream did I step into this time?” I murmured.

“Why did you fail to do what you were born to do?” Elizabeth asked, coldly. She stood up from the desk and walked over to me. Ancestors, even her scents were strong in this dream.

“I couldn’t leave the others to be killed,” I told her, “We need them to take back Hillsborough.

“They were not important. Destroying the abomination was why you were there,” Elizabeth said, her voice cold, almost alien.

“I was there trying to get allies for you!” I yelled back at her, my rage rising. “I’ll kill Lothos, but you and this county are the most important things in my life.”

“That is not why you were born. Destroying the abomination was why you were born. You have failed, and your life can no longer go on the course set for you,” Elizabeth said.

“What the hell are you talking about? What course?” I asked.

“Do not fail the second time, Bloodclaw,” Elizabeth said.

“Bloodclaw? Who the hell is Bloodclaw?” I asked. She cocked her head at me quizzically.

“Do not fail the second time. A third meeting cannot be forced between the two of you,” Elizabeth said. “You will not find the life that was planned for you, but another may be created. You must destroy the abomination.” She leaned in close. Her green eyes sparkled. I couldn’t help myself. I leaned in to kiss her. There was a blinding flash.


I was staring at a dark room. I was awake. Elizabeth’s words echoed in my mind. What the hell just happened? As my mind grappled with the sudden readjustment to reality, I noticed a couple of things. First, the weakness and pain was gone. Better than gone. I felt restored. That was critical, because the second thing I noticed was there was a vampire sitting in the chair across from me. Either Hangman or Nick thoughtfully left my HK45 on the bedstand. I snatched the pistol and pointed it at the vampire. His face coalesced beyond the pale glowing green dots of my sights. I almost dropped the pistol.

“You can put that pistol down, Ranger,” Bradon said, “We have a lot of work to do.”

Chapter 21 – Things Become Clearer…I Think

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