Zombie Strike Part 6 Chapter 52

26 Nov
November 26, 2012

In Chapter 52, Slim, Quentin, and the soldiers fight the minion in the maze. Chief Stahl proves to use unconventional methods to deal with the minion. In DC, Mateo and Collin face off.

Narrator: Kenn Blanchard

Story: Derek Ward

This episode was originally broadcast on the Urban Shooter podcast.

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Friday Quote – 11/23/12

23 Nov
November 23, 2012
Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — *”No, you move.”*

Captain America, in Amazing Spider-Man 537, written by J. Michael Straczynski

I first read this quote and felt inspired. When writing about topics that are not popular with large segments of the population, sometimes it feels like I’m standing alone against a wave of ignorance. Of course, every other person fighting for their beliefs are doing the same thing. To them, they are also fighting against those dark forces of ignorance and malevolence. So, it’s up to me to make damn sure that my armor of ideals have been tempered in the cauldron of research and introspection.

Zombie Strike Part 6 Chapter 51

23 Nov
November 23, 2012

In Chapter 51, Slim, Sport, and Quentin are joined by members of the U.S. Army’s Task Force 11, the American military’s anti-zombie force, to go after the minion. In DC, Mateo gets a bad feeling as the FBI SWAT begins their attack to capture the minion, Ted. When it goes sideways, Mateo joins the fight.

Narrator: Kenn Blanchard

Story: Derek Ward

This episode was originally broadcast on the Urban Shooter podcast.

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Communism Marketing?

21 Nov
November 21, 2012

Yesterday, my brother, a couple of his co-workers, and I went out to lunch at Q’doba. We likes the nachos. Like most places during this part of the year, they had their sign out advertising gift cards.

20121121-071036.jpg

I don’t know if I was just tired from a couple of intense weeks at work or what, but my mind sees that sign and says “Hammer and Sickle? Is this the new Che? What the fuck? Oh wait, that’s just a stylized Q.”

I’m not casting any aspersions on the graphic designer. I have no reason to believe that he/she/they were trying to harken back to the Soviet Union with their little Q. I just found it amazing how old symbols from my childhood still can evoke visceral responses.

And for those of you who bought Che merchandising, fuck you very much.

Reality Smack in the Face – Child Rearing

21 Nov
November 21, 2012

My niece and nephew are being raised steeped in geek culture. It’s a natural outgrowth considering that many of the adult influences surrounding them are familiar to rabid with the geek culture. We even speak to them using geek references and things we find amusing, because we are geeks. Every so often, during the children’s interaction with mainstream society, we remember that we do not necessarily live int the same culture as most people. Hence the interaction between my five-year-old niece and her kindergarten teacher.

Setting: Niece is in front of the teacher after biting a classmate on the playground.

Teacher: Do you have anything to say?

Niece: I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again because cannibalism is wrong.

Both children had been informed of this fact after biting one another. I don’t think any of us expected her to extrapolate that out to the rest of the world. I swear those kids are going to get us pulled in front of a shrink one day.

Zombie Strike Part 6 Chapter 50

21 Nov
November 21, 2012

In Chapter 50, retreating from the zombie horde, Slim leads his teammates into an old maze on Skull Island, hoping to funnel the horde into killable bite-sizes. Except, it’s not nearly as safe as he was hoping. In DC, Mateo tells Jess that Collin is the assassin and tells her to guard Kenn and Mercedes while he hunts Collin down. Surprisingly, Tredegar might be able to help with that.

Narrator: Kenn Blanchard

Story: Derek Ward

This episode was originally broadcast on the Urban Shooter podcast.

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Machine Gun Jet Pack

20 Nov
November 20, 2012

Every Tuesday on What If the creator of XKCD answers a hypothetical physics question. This week’s comes from Rob B.

Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward firing machine guns?

The simple answer is yes, depending on the machinegun’s thrust (recoil) to weight ratio.

Then comes the hypothetical lift-pack (it’s not really a jet pack at this point) using 300 AK-47’s.

Then, in true Mythbusters style, the article ramps up. You should RTWT. Especially mounting an A-10’s gun to a Volkswagen. That’s enough there to keep me giggling all day.

Zombie Strike Part 6 Chapter 49

19 Nov
November 19, 2012

In Chapter 49, Slim, Sport, and Quentin fight to escape from the middle of the zombie horde attacking Skull Island’s command center. In DC, Mateo waits impatiently for news about Kenn and Mercedes. Robyn Adams gives Mateo advice.

Narrator: Kenn Blanchard

Story: Derek Ward

This episode was originally broadcast on the Urban Shooter podcast.

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Badmoon Rising – Chapter 12 – There Are Worse Things Than Being On Trial For My Life

17 Nov
November 17, 2012

The blackness faded as I opened my eyes. The world slowly came into focus. I looked around the cell. Something was wrong, out of place. Then, it came to me. Everything was black and white. I shifted to wolf form in my sleep. Damn. I hadn’t done that in years. Shedding forms during sleep was something pups dealt with in the beginning of tysach. I shed my wolf form for true form, feeling my body extend as I emotionally triggered the transformation. My senses became sharper, making the world around me more complete. A scent floated into the cell. I looked at the door, where the Guildmaster stood in human form with one of the marshals.

“Hello Marcus,” he said, guardedly, “I assumed I would be one of the three that you would want to see.” By the rules of rhiazen, I was allowed to see three and only three lycanthropes before going to see the lord or lady. I could talk to them as many times as I wanted, but only those three. The only other lycanthropes that could talk to me were the lord or lady (in this case it would be the Lady-Apparent), the marshals guarding me, and the lycanthrope who would speak for the opponent, usually the opponent himself. I guessed Smythe in this case. I nodded to the marshal. He slid the door open to allow the Guildmaster inside. As soon as the Guildmaster was in my cell, the marshal slid the door shut and walked back to his post by the staircase. I noticed the the two marshals had leaned their rifles on the wall instead of carrying them. Their guard was relaxed. I placed it on memory, in case I needed it later. One of the things the instructors drilled into me during my training as a hunter was that information was important, because you never knew when you might need it later. I filed that thought away as the Guildmaster sat down in front of me.

“Mark, are you alright?” he asked in a concerned tone. I barely managed to keep the sudden surprise off of my face. In all of the time that I’d known him, the Guildmaster had never called me Mark.

“Yeah, just a little stiff from last night’s fun and games. My side still hurts like hell.” I stretched out my arms, trying to work out the kinks in the joints and muscles. The stab wound in my side burned. The wolfsbane was working, but slowly. If my past stabbings were any indication, Smythe’s stab wound would heal in about twelve hours. The Guildmaster didn’t seem to appreciate my attempt at levity.

“Knightfall? What the hell happened? The packs are being told that you had a hand in the lord’s death, and that the Knights are going to also accuse you of complicity in Stephen Vollen’s death as well.” I shook my head. When it rained, it fucking poured. I carefully explained, in great detail, exactly what happened during the attack on the TCV Hall. As I led up to the part where I called “Knightfall,” the Guild codeword for betrayal by the Knights (I said we were a paranoid lot), the Guildmaster stopped me with a raised hand.

“Surrendering to the Knights was quick thinking. It gives us a chance to find out what the hell is going on. I’ve assigned Matric to be your advocate. He will do everything he can for your defense.” I grimaced. The Guildmaster’s face grew grim. “I know how you feel about him, but Matric is well connected in the Manor and even with the shaman. He will do his best, and put aside any differences the two of you have, as long as you reciprocate.” I nodded to this. Much to my dismay, if anyone could help me with the political side, it would be Matric.

“I have another problem I need your help with,” he said. He opened his briefcase. I heard the M16s come up off the wall. The marshals set their weapons back down when the Guildmaster pulled a stack of papers out of his briefcase. I smiled briefly, then read the papers he handed me. Transcripts of radio reports from last night, as well as some written contact reports by some of the hit packs.

“Two hit packs and four lone wolves never returned last night. All of them did their jobs, but something happened after they reported in. All of the jobs were clustered in the Forest Hills area. One of the lone wolves, Samson, reported seeing one of the hit packs engaged in a firefight with an unknown enemy force. He went to assist and also disappeared.” I followed the paper trail as the Guildmaster laid out the facts. Something was gnawing at me. There was a common factor with all of these that made me worry. I knew Samson. He was too good a hunter to just disappear without causing some major damage. The vampires had their hands full last night. The human magic-wielders could have made our hunters vanish, but they wouldn’t have involved themselves in a firefight. Guns were too mundane in their thinking. My mind came up with two possibilities. One was on the outside chance of being probable. The other one did fit all of the evidence, but I was really hoping that I was wrong.

“None of them contacted us after they finished their jobs, with the exception of Samson, and we never heard from him once he reported the firefight,” I summarized. The Guildmaster nodded with a worried expression. My gut twisted. I could see it in his eyes. “You’re thinking what I am thinking, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but there is not enough evidence to bring it to the Lady-Apparent. If I bring it to her now, it will look like I’m doing it to free you, and she may dismiss it out of hand. I have Christian’s pack and Samuel investigating now. You will not speak of your suspicions to anyone outside the Guild until I have enough evidence. Since you are one of the few lycanthropes in this county who has dealt with this threat before, I wanted you to confirm it.” I nodded and hoped Hangman didn’t find what I thought it was. He was too young to deal with that threat without a lot of backup, say most of the Guild’s best hunters, and most of the armory’s heavy weapons. The Guildmaster took some clothing out of his briefcase and handed them to me. I unfolded them carefully, more to show the marshals there were no weapons concealed in the folds than anything else. Jeans, t-shirt, and the necessary undergarments were almost my unofficial uniform. I slipped them on as the Guildmaster walked out of the cell.

“Is there anything else you need for right now?” he asked.

“Send Nick.”


I fell asleep again, hoping to regain my strength. I was awakened by a sharp jab in my side. The stab wound healed up nicely, but it was still a little tender. The second jab really annoyed me. I opened my eyes to slits and saw one of the guards pulling back his rifle. I couldn’t see the face of the lycanthrope standing beside him, but the relaxed stance told me it wasn’t the other guard. I really wasn’t happy at being awakened so rudely. The guard lunged again. I grabbed the barrel and yanked. The guard, caught unaware by the move, held on to the weapon and was pulled into the bars. He slumped down to the concrete floor, bleeding from several gashes from the silver barbs. The rifle clattered to the ground. I scooped up the weapon, released the magazine, and yanked back the charging handle. The single round clinked on the concrete floor.

A light, feminine chuckle focused my attention on my visitor. It took every scrap of control I had not to let my jaw drop in shock. The Lady-Apparent was standing in human form, wearing a simple but elegantly-cut dress in forest green. I silently thanked Bradon for his teachings on the basis of fashion. Her long auburn hair was tied into a single, long braid and draped down one shoulder. Her bright green eyes flashed with amusement. I tossed the unloaded rifle to the ground and stood to face her. I hadn’t seen her since the Rite of Discovery. I’d forgotten just how beautiful she was. I immediately pushed that thought away. Why was she here? After all, this was the lycanthrope who would probably order my execution.

“Impressive,” she said, a warm tone to her voice, “You seem to be as dangerous as I was warned.” She took a half-step back from the bars. She looked at me for a moment, studying me. My instincts roared with danger, but other parts of my mind were almost enjoying the attention. I didn’t know why, and it unnerved me. There were too many conflicting feelings running through me. I pushed all of that confusion to the back of my mind and concentrated on why the Lady-Apparent was here. That’s when I noticed there were no Red Knights escorting her. Every time I met with a member of the aristocracy, the Knights were always hovering around. What was the Lady-Apparent doing down in the dungeons without her bodyguards and in the presence of a lycanthrope she had already said was dangerous? I decided it was time to cut to the chase. I didn’t have the patience to dance around the courtesies.

“May I ask what you are doing here, milady?” I asked quietly, and hopefully, with a neutral tone. I didn’t want any of the raging conflict within me leaking out into the open. My words must have come out harsher than I wanted, because the other marshal at the end of the hall clenched his teeth at my tone. A wave of the hand from the Lady-Apparent calmed him. She motioned to the still form of the incapacitated marshal and ordered for the marshal to leave the two of us alone. The marshal blinked, surprised by the order. He quickly recovered, picked up his unconscious partner, and hurried out of the dungeon. I sat very still as the Lady-Apparent paced in front of my cell. She seemed pensive, but I couldn’t understand what would cause such caution from her. Everything I saw from her led me to believe that she was an extremely strong and confident lycanthrope.

“I’ve come to see the hunter who caused the deaths of both my father and my brother,” she answered, stopping her pacing and turning to face me. Her tone was flat, but her eyes betrayed a raging torrent of emotions within her. I didn’t envy her one bit. She lost her father and older brother within six months of each other, and now she was thrust into leading a county at war. Something deep inside me felt – torn? – for the enormous burden she was carrying.

“I didn’t kill them milady,” I answered, barely controlling my temper. Damn it, I knew was a Badmoon, and an outcast amongst the lycanthrope pack, but I served my county faithfully and more diligently than almost any of the wolves in the packs. I protected them from dangers they never knew before the war. I put my life on the line more times than I could remember. Smythe’s allegations attacked my honor as a hunter – the one thing that gave me any sort of real legitimacy within the packs.

“You didn’t prevent them from being killed,” the Lady-Apparent answered, “Your accusers are saying that twice isn’t coincidence. It’s conspiracy.” An unusual rage blazed me. I know that I have a nasty chip on my shoulder about my treatment as a Badmoon. I deal with it by channeling that anger into my work. I’ve always felt my success was the best revenge against those who hated me just because of me being a Badmoon. Having the Lady-Apparent accuse me of such a serious crime made my blood boil.

“Fuck them,” I growled. The Lady-Apparent’s eyes went wide with my blunt profanity. “I thought your grandfather was a damned fool of a lord, but your father was nothing like him. The Guild loved and respected your father, because he let us redeem our professionalism and our honor. I did everything I could to stop his murder, and then to capture or kill the assassin. As for your brother, he made a rash mistake. I didn’t know him well enough to know if it was bad advice or if he was just being too stubborn. Either way, he paid for that mistake with his life and too many of our wolves’ lives. In both cases, bad things happened despite of my actions, not because of them.” I bit down on my tongue. My anger was getting the best of me, and I could tell by the Lady-Apparent’s eyes she wasn’t expecting the tirade.

“Then why are the Knights accusing you?” she asked, “Why would Smythe think you need to be put down?” She seemed truly confused. She seemed torn between the idea that the Knights could truly believe something she wasn’t convinced was true.

“Ask Smythe, because I don’t know,” I answered.

“Does he think you worked with the leeches to murder my father and brother?” She paced again, working the question in her head. I paused a moment before answering. The Guildmaster was going to kill me when he found out.

“My Lady, someone powerful ordered your father’s murder. Someone powerful in lycanthrope society. The assassin was a hunter.” Her eyes widened as I spoke. As I suspected, the Guildmaster hadn’t told her any of our suspicions. “I’m sorry milady, but it’s the only theory that fits the evidence we have. The assassin was too good to be anything but a hunter. He knew too much on how we operate and how to counter. He was damn good.”

“Better than you?” the Lady-Apparent asked, with a lilt in her tone that completely baffled me.

“Maybe,” I conceded.

“From your reputation, I didn’t think that was possible.” She gave me a look that completely unnerved me. My mind just went blank as those green eyes bore into mine. My reprieve came from behind her.

“Trust me milady, that hunter in front of you is much more dangerous than even his reputation makes him out to be,” came a deep voice from behind. Nick emerged from the staircase. He was in true form, a jumpsuit stretching itself to hold his huge form. The rifle of the other marshal was slung on his shoulder. “Ranger is quite possibly the best hunter in your county.”

“A friend of yours?” the Lady-Apparent asked me with a strange look on her face. Betrayal? Anger? I nodded slowly. “Well then, I’ll leave the two of you to talk.” She glided across the floor. Nick stepped out of her way and bowed as the Lady-Apparent climbed the stairs. Nick unslung the rifle from his shoulder and leaned it on the wall. He shed his true form for human as he walked over to me. The tight jumpsuit now sagged off his much smaller human body. His face was its normal blank, but his eyes were curious.

“What was she doing here?” he asked, his voice laced with suspicion.

“Haven’t a fucking clue,” I answered, “First she orders the marshals to leave, then she accuses me of being behind the deaths of her father and brother, and then asks me why the Knights are accusing me. There was something about it that seemed very scattered. Fuck me, I don’t know.” Nick looked back to the staircase for a moment.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Nick said, with a hint of frustration in his voice, “The Lady-Apparent called the Guildmaster first thing this morning for your dossier. Then, she shows up here. Do you think she believes you or Smythe?” From Nick’s tone there was more to that question, but I couldn’t decipher my friend at the moment.

“I don”t know,” I answered, “I don’t think she knows. When I told her our suspicions about who assassinated her father, she asks if the assassin is better than me. No fucking clue where that question came from.” Nick gave me a knowing smile but didn’t say anything. It made me want to punch him, but I decided on another tack.

“Speaking of Vollen’s assassination, have you found out anything more on our little mystery?” I asked, sitting down. Nothing like open war in your county to interfere with an important investigation.

“No, but I have Hangman searching around today,” Nick answered, “The leeches and their ghouls disappeared after the raid on the Hall. The Guildmaster thinks they are regrouping, and I concur. The Knights are claiming victory, which most of the packs consider a Pyrrhic one at best. All of the packs and the Guild are more or less stood down until the Rites are completed. And you are tried by the Lady-Apparent, of course. Hangman and I decided it might be a good time to start looking around. I have him talking around to see what information he can dig up on the lords of the counties on that map. Particularly if they have access to a hunter who isn’t with the Guild.”

“When’s the Rite of the Dead?” The way the Spiritmaster had been operating over the past few months made me suspicious. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had performed it while I had been locked up.

“Strange thing about that. The Spiritmaster wants to perform the rites after the Lady-Apparent deals with you. There was a small outrage over that from the packs, but according to Yven, the Spiritmaster’s deputy, the Order of Spirits feels the spirit of Jason Vollen will rest better when his murderer is dealt with. The pack leaders seem to accept that, although the Guildmaster is raising hell. Very careful not to outright accuse the Knights of betrayal, but he’s making the packs nervous. The rumor going around the packs is the Guildmaster is looking to puppet-master the Lady-Apparent.” Usually the Guildmaster was a very deliberate and cautious individual. He had me to do the impulsive and insane things. If he was acting this boldly, something was happening I couldn’t see.

“I didn’t kill the lord,” I protested to Nick.

“I know. There are enough witnesses to confirm that it was Silanti who actually killed Lord Vollen. The Knights contend your inability to kill either of the assassins proves that you are in league with the leeches. They still think it was a lycanthrope hired by the TCV who killed Stephen Vollen. Although your little admission to the Lady-Apparent may change that. Why did you tell her?”

“I don’t know. It just seemed wrong to keep it from her,” I answered. “We did that with her brother, and it led to open war and his death. I just felt she needed to know if she was going to run this county right.” Nick looked at me with a contemplative look.

“What do you think?” I asked, after he’d been quiet for a minute.

“I think you’re being royally fucked,” Nick said simply, “We know another lord or lady had Stephen Vollen taken down. I still haven’t figured out who, but that’s becoming less and less important in the short run. Smythe, for some reason, stopped you from killing Silanti before Silanti blew Jason Vollen’s brains out. Now he is accusing you of the failure. I wonder if whoever had Vollen assassinated got to Smythe. I’d say you are about to be crucified to lull the packs, and the agenda of whoever had Stephen killed will be accomplished, in as much as this county will be out of whatever political game is being played. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the war council that will have to convene in Tallahassee. What’s worse, Silanti is still out there, but because the aristocracy is dealing with you, we are failing to locate and exterminate him and his remaining followers.” There was something else Nick didn’t know about, but the Guildmaster told me not to say anything until he had proof. I wasn’t going to defy the Guildmaster on this, even to Nick.

“What’s the Order doing?” I asked.

“Calling for your head on a platter and trying to console the Lady-Apparent. According to Matric, though, she hasn’t talked much to the Spiritmaster. In fact, she’s been doing a lot of research into the Guild and some of the key individuals, including you.” He tilted his head as he thought about what he was telling me.

“I wonder if she is going to try and micro-manage the Guild?” Nick asked. I grimaced at that thought. The first Lord Vollen, Stephen’s father, tried that and wrecked the hunters in Hillsborough. Outsiders rarely understand how we do things – and are usually better off not knowing. Nick cleared his throat.

“Listen, Hangman and I will be there for your hearing. We are going to bring everything we have on this conspiracy. Maybe it will help you. If not, do you want us…?” He let the question trail off. I knew what he was offering. He and Hangman would break me out of the Manor before the Knights had a chance to kill me if I asked. If they did that, we would be pariahs wherever we went, and hunted by every Guild chapter in Florida, including the State Guild. I shook my head no. I would have to die, and the Guild would have to avenge me. With an unhappy resignation in his eyes, Nick walked back up the staircase and never looked back. There was a calm stillness in the air. My life was at its end, so I better go out with a bang. For some reason, a picture of the Lady-Apparent formed in my mind. I pushed it back as I planned the end of my life. So many details.


The Manor was full of lycanthropes. The pack leaders brought as many members of their packs as they could. The packs felt comfortable bringing so many because the leeches did a very good job of going to ground in the wake of the attack on the Hall. All of the lycanthropes were dressed in formal black robes. At the podium stood the Lady-Apparent, Elizabeth Vollen. The Spiritmaster stood in his place at her right with the senior leaders of the Order. The shaman looked unnervingly serene. Matric, Nick, and Hangman stood with the Guildmaster at the left hand of the podium. I half-expected to see Sneller and Deadeye with them, but on further reflection, it made sense that they weren’t there. Every hunter was out searching for the remaining vampires. Sneller and Deadeye would be needed to coordinate the search. Silanti and Razor escaped from the Hall. The Guildmaster wouldn’t be satisfied until he had their heads in his possession. I was led to the throne by a pair of marshals who refused to speak with me as we walked up the staircase from the dungeon and into the Manor. Like the rest of the lycanthropes, I stood in true form, but instead of the black robes, I was forced to wear the white robes of the prisoner. White, the color of weakness and dishonor.

The room went deathly silent as I entered. Most of the lycanthropes crowding the Manor glared at me. I ignored them and focused on the friendly and sympathetic faces of Hangman and Nick. Matric looked uneasy, like he was a rat on a sinking ship. His discomfort made me feel a little better, but the realization was, that unless some form of miracle occurred, I was going to be executed by the end of the night. The marshals, fortunately, honored some of my requests. They knew I was a condemned lycanthrope, even though I was just reaching my “trial.” My requests included a small radio patched into their guard frequency – just in case Nick planned something against my wishes – and a small silver knife. I let the marshals think the knife was so I could kill myself rather than be executed. It was one of the many misconceptions that the general lycanthrope populace held about hunters. We didn’t practice honorable suicide. It just loses the Guild a trained operative. Still, it added to our mystique, so we didn’t disabuse the rest of lycanthrope society about it. Myths came in handy. Since I was going to die, I was going to make sure I took Smythe with me. He was a fucking traitor, and I was going to be damned if he walked out of this alive. I damned sure I didn’t want him protecting the Lady-Apparent.

I walked down the middle of the Manor, stopping about ten feet before the black square of the Vollens. Robert and Sarah Vollen, the two youngest children looked at me with a murderous gleam in their eyes. They weren’t alone, as most of the Knights looked at me the same way. The Lady-Apparent might have doubts of my complicity, but her surviving siblings had none. Smythe looked smug from his post at the right hand of the podium. I grinned back at him as my hand brushed against the silver knife concealed in my robes. According to the lessons in tysach, the rite of rhiazen came about in the early days after the lycanthropes settled in the Fatherland as a way of bringing a problem between a pack member and the pack leader to the lord. It evolved over the centuries where anyone could claim rhiazen and be granted a hearing in front of the lord. There were some problems with how the rite evolved. One, the lord set the terms of the hearing, meaning one side may not get a chance to fairly present its side, or even present it at all if the lord feels that the facts are conclusive. The second is in order to avoid giving the lord a long stream of civil disputes to preside over, the only penalty allowed is death. Even if the crime was vandalism, the guilty must receive the death penalty. The aristocracy was there to preside over matters that impact all of the packs in the county, not simple civil matters between individuals. As I’ve said before, the lycanthropes live in a brutal and unforgiving world.

I stood in my place in front of the throne and waited as the Lady-Apparent looked down at me. Something about her gaze disturbed me. I waited patiently for her to set the terms for the rhiazen. She would let the pack leaders know how much evidence and how much testimony she would allow from each side before she made her decision. There were no hard and fast rules for the terms. Each rhiazen was unique, and there was no concept of precedent in the lycanthrope society. We trusted our aristocracy to deal justly with us. There were remedies if the aristocracy failed that trust and most of them ended with the aristocracy dead. It was a great motivator for the aristocracy to maintain the trust.

“The terms for rhiazen will be as follows,” the Lady-Apparent began, “First the Red Knights will tell of us the deaths of Lord Stephen Vollen and Lord Jason Vollen and provide evidence as to how Marcus Phoenix Badmoon is responsible for their deaths. Badmoon, or one who will speak for him, will have the time to refute the Knights’ evidence. I will hear from Badmoon before I make my decision.” There was some murmur in the crowd. These were very lenient terms, certainly more lenient than most lords would have given me under the circumstances. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Matric smiling. Nick and Hangman still looked grim. They knew better. The Lady-Apparent would not be able to leave me alive and still control the packs. The Knights’ story was spread too wide among the packs. She might allow me time to present my side, just to get out what I told her before into the public arena, but that was it. For some reason, a feeling of gratitude welled up inside of me. A Red Knight came forward and stood about ten feet to my right.

“I am David Long-Knife, my lady” the Red Knight said, “I am honored to present the story for the Red Knights. This one, this Badmoon, is the lycanthrope most responsible for the death of the Second Lord Vollen. He was there that night in the Hall, and could have stopped the lord’s death, but he didn’t…” He continued to throw venom my way, twisting the truth beyond all recognition. It was a diatribe designed to provoke me into fatal action. I ignored Long-Knife. I was listening on the guard frequency just in case Nick planned something. A report grabbed my attention. The group at the front gate dropped off the radio net about five minutes before, and now the contingent sent out to check them just failed to report in. The Knights at the front door were discussing the problem over the radio.

“Roof One, this is Guard One,” the leader of the guards at the front door called to the leader of the Knights manning the half-floor on the top of the Manor, “I’m going to tighten things here and move Door One and his boys up the driveway. I don’t think it was leeches, but there’s no good reason for them to drop off the net like that.”

“Confirm Guard One,” answered Roof One, “Do you want me to send down some people?” There was silence. Roof One tried again. Nothing. I looked over to Smythe. He should have been monitoring the action on the security net. Instead, he was paying attention to Long-Knife, watching as his plan for my death unfolded.

“Door One,” called Roof One, “Where the hell is Guard One?” No answer. My instincts went into overdrive. Something just took out all of the security in front of the Manor. I checked the two guards at the back of the Manor. They’d tossed aside their deskunas and unslung the sub-machine guns concealed under their black robes. Smythe was hailed over the net by Roof One, but he was too busy watching my trial.

“All units report in,” ordered Roof One. Long-Knife, who also had the radio in his ear, stopped in mid-sentence. He looked over at me, and I nodded. The Lady-Apparent looked down at him, but he and I were trading looks that were asking the same question. What the hell was going on?

“I hope that there is a good reason that the two of you are looking at each other and holding up the rhiazen,” the Lady-Apparent said from her podium, annoyed at the two of us. I motioned for Long- Knife to tell her, since Smythe obviously wasn’t able to do it. As he began talking to the Lady-Apparent, I turned to Nick and Hangman.

“Gun,” I requested in a calm voice. A holstered pistol and spare magazine holder sailed through the air to my waiting hands. Everything went to hell. First, all the Knights drew their weapons on me, and the Lady-Apparent was surrounded by a ball of translucent blue energy. David Long-Knife shouted at his companions to forget me and cover the door to the Manor. Two shaman began projecting their forces on me. Their powers never reached me. They stopped a good five feet before stopping, as if they were hitting an invisible barrier. Any other time, I would have stopped to reason out why, but there was no time. Smythe was leading the Lady-Apparent, still surrounded in magick energy, into the coronation room at the back of the Manor, with the Spiritmaster and a large following of his shaman in tow. Red Knights in black robes and Steyr TMPs stood in front of the door. The Guild members all had their pistols out. I wrapped the holster straps around my bare thigh and pulled the pistol out, smiling at my HK45. I glanced at Nick, who just gave me a knowing smile. Maybe he thought I would change my mind, but for whatever the reason, the black gun was a comforting weight in my hand. Out of long-ingrained habit, I ejected the magazine. Full of Silver Shoks. A quick press-check showed a round in the chamber. Armed, I braced as we awaited the force that was sieging our Manor.

The Manor shook as a loud, low boom rocked the room. The massive entrance doors were thrown into the Manor with a thunderous roar. The two Knights standing next to them never had a chance. The pack leaders screamed at their warriors, each trying to get their forces into some semblance of order. Some were more successful than others. The Guildmaster didn’t bother with orders. He knew his hunters would already know what to do. A cloud of dark gray smoke and dust obscured the entrance to the Manor. I couldn’t see who was attacking us. Anxiety and fear fell away as the prospect of action dumped adrenaline into my system as my body prepared itself for battle. I brought my pistol up and braced for the attack. Then, I heard the enemies’ cry over the din of the Manor.

FIRST SPEAR ATTACK! SECOND SPEAR FOLLOW! SECOND SHIELD HOLD!” came the shouted command from dozens of voices.

Ancestors, I swore to myself, Fucking witch-hunters. There are fucking witch-hunters in the Manor. Anxiety swarmed through me as the cloud dispersed with an almost dramatic speed. I glanced back at the Guildmaster, who returned my look with one that confirmed my fears. These were the fuckers who took out our hunters. I quickly turned my attention on the intruders. This was going to be no fun at all. Humans in dark clothing and skull masks, armed with an uneven mixture of pistols, shotguns, and rifles poured into the Manor. The pack leaders screamed battle cries and threw their packs against the invaders. I wanted to scream at them to stop and just hold their ground. The packs were unarmed except for the true form’s strength and claws. They didn’t understand what they were facing. The witch-hunters were invulnerable to physical attacks by our kind. You could knock them around all day with punches and kicks – even hit them across the room with the full strength of a lycanthrope in true form – but they would still get back up and attack you with that nasty single-mindedness. The damned humans were also invulnerable to the magicks of the shaman. The witch-hunters were only vulnerable to edged weapons and bullets, and they cheated by using Kevlar vests. They also were as trained as hunters in unarmed combat and were more zealous than any ghoul. The first packs into the fray were torn apart as they tried to use their claws on the witch-hunters. I checked my side. Nick was standing beside me with his giant Smith in one hand, and his back-up gun in the other. Nick was one of the few pistoleers I knew of that could actually do the two-handed pistol fighting with something approaching effectiveness. Hangman, Wilson Combat in hand, was standing near Matric, his pistol out, and the Guildmaster, who stood waiting for the attack with his Colt 1911. I threw off my prisoner robes and waited for the melee to come into range.

The first group of witch-hunters made it past the slaughter of the packs. The shamans, on the other side of the room, were desperately using their magicks, and finding out the hard way about the witch-hunters invulnerability. Bright beams of energy just faded before they could hit the zealous humans. One of the shaman quickly figured out what was happening, and began mystically picking up strewn items and hurling them at the witch-hunters. My prejudices aside, the shaman weren’t all fucking stupid or useless. One of the witch-hunters coming after the hunters pointed a rifle at me. I dropped him quickly with a single shot to the head. Then the roar of the Smith as Nick fired the big gun into a small tangle of witch-hunters. They all fell down from the hits of the big .500 round, but not all of them were dead. I leapt over Nick, drawing the small silver knife as I came down. Covering myself with sporadic gunfire, I finished the downed witch-hunters with savage slashes. Another came out of a blind spot and caught me with a punch to the stomach. He loomed over me, as I was busy scampering for breath. The witch-hunter’s head exploded into a red cloud. Long-Knife, pistol in hand, stepped over the fallen body and helped me up. The Red Knight’s face held no traces of suspicion or hatred. Fighting a hated common enemy tended to do that.

“You okay?” he asked. Wordlessly, I put a double-tap into the witch-hunter coming up behind him with a wicked looking silver knife. As Long-Knife turned to see what I was firing at, he seemed satisfied with the answer and braced for the next melee. I did a quick scan and saw the two of us were far too forward. We needed to get back to the others. I pulled on his robe sleeve and pointed. He just nodded before killing a witch-hunter with a shotgun. The two of us fought our way back to the Guildmaster and the other hunters. As soon as we came into view, the Guildmaster tossed me a TMP from a fallen Knight. Nick also held one.

“You two, cut us a path to that section over there.” I looked to where he was pointing at a blank space of wall. Normally, I would have at least given the Guildmaster a questioning look. During the furious fighting, I didn’t even bother. He was my Guildmaster. I trusted him. I found a small opening in the melee and widened it with a pair of bursts from the small submachine gun. As the bodies fell, our small group dashed into the thick of the fighting. We slowly crossed the open floor of the Manor. It was strewn with lycanthrope and witch-hunter bodies. The packs were figuring out how to kill the witch-hunters. The white marble tile was slightly slick with blood and gore. I kept myself from noticing by killing as many witch-hunters as I could. Nick, who was behind me, was placing short bursts all on my flanks. A witch-hunter fired a burst at us. I threw myself to the floor to dodge the stream of bullets. Long-Knife caught the burst full in the chest. He crumpled down, almost cut in half by the silver bullets. I put a small burst into the witch-hunter’s head, watching as it made a satisfactory explosion. I scampered up off the floor, emptying the TMP into a group of witch-hunters that noticed our little group. I threw the empty machine pistol into the head of another witch-hunter, knocking the bastard off its feet. As soon as the sub-machine gun left my hands, I drew my HK45. I took the point and resumed our way to the section of wall the Guildmaster pointed out. The witch-hunters that came at us went down fast. Most of the witch-hunters were busy swarming the dwindling packs. The warriors figured out that they weren’t having any effect with their claws and started picking up guns from the dead witch-hunters. Even with the weapons, the warriors were having a hard time of it. Our group got to the wall, covering the Guildmaster as he touched one of the bricks. A small door opened in the wall. I saw a dark hallway beyond the concealed door.

“We’re fucking running?” Hangman asked incredulously.

“We are running low on ammo, and Marcus has already taken a gunshot wound,” said the Guildmaster. I looked down, and saw a small hole in my leg that was leaking blood. When the fuck did that happen? “This door leads back to the Manor’s armory, where we can get some heavier weapons. I called the Guild. All the hunters in Hillsborough are coming as fast as they can. The first group should be here in about five minutes. We need to get armed and patched if we’re going to be of any use in the fight.” He turned to me. “Marcus, are you still capable?”

“Yeah,” I answered, feeling the pain of the wound for the first time, “I’ll live.” My leg was starting to throb with just enough burning sensation to let me know I’d been hit with silver. I thought my leg wasn’t moving as fast as it should during the last push, but I didn’t have time to figure out what happened. I was too busy killing witch-hunters.

“Good. Nicholas lead off. Samuel, then Dennis. Marcus, you and I will bring up the rear. I want you to cover me as I shut the door behind us.” I nodded and hit the magazine release on my pistol. I looked down at the magazine in my hand and grimaced. Two rounds left, plus the one in the chamber. I would have to place my shots carefully. Nick, Hangman, and Matric scampered down the darkened corridor. I turned out to the Manor. The Guildmaster went into the corridor. A witch-hunter aimed a rifle at the Guildmaster. I fired once into its head. It fell down. Another came with a shotgun. Another head-shot threw it down onto the stained marble. A third appeared out of the melee of witch-hunters and the remnants of the packs. I aimed and fired. It fell down to the floor as the slide on my pistol locked back on the empty magazine. I was pulled into the corridor by the Guildmaster as the door slid down shut behind us. The corridor was unlit, using the lycanthropes’ natural night vision as a safety precaution against invaders. It twisted and rose until it reached another concealed door, which the Guildmaster opened for us. We spilled out into the armory, nearly getting shot by the two marshals stationed there.

The Guildmaster quickly defused the situation before our two parties began firing. He talked to the guards as they tried to grasp a hold of the situation. While he did this, Hangman rummaged through the weapons in the armory for useful guns. Nick took a long look at my leg wound. Up until we reached the armory, the wound throbbed and burned, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t ignore. Now, it flared to life with a vengeance. Nick, seeing my pained face, grabbed a medkit. He carefully probed the wound. I grimaced slightly at the pain, letting my breath out as Nick removed his claw from the hole.

“It went clean through. I’m going to flush it with some wolfsbane. That should help restore your healing. Applying,” he warned, spilling an amber liquid on the wound. Fire flashed through my body, but quickly subsided. Nick wrapped a cloth bandage around my leg and looked at it skeptically.

“I can walk,” I said, getting to my feet, “It just hurts a bit.” Nick’s face darkened, but I ignored his concern. There were more important things to do. I walked over to Hangman, who was laying a bunch of firearms on the ground. Most of them were pistols and small sub-machine guns. The Guildmaster walked over to where we were standing with Matric trailing slightly behind.

“The marshals are in contact with the group protecting the Lady-Apparent. They are holed up in the coronation room. They’re holding, but barely. The Red Knights in the rest of the building are regrouping for a push to recapture the Manor and the coronation room. I don’t think they will succeed. The witch-hunters have three full Shields committed to this operation and only the first has actually attacked us.” All of us fell silent in shock. They had to have pulled every witch-hunter in Florida to attack us. Why had they decided on Hillsborough and not the rest of the state?

“Several of our hit packs, along with the shaman, have rallied nearby and are planning to attack the reserve Shields. The pups in tysach have been moved to Pinellas to the Guild there. We are going to rescue the Lady-Apparent, then kill every witch-hunter in the Manor.” We accepted this quietly. The Guildmaster explained his plan. We nodded. There were no questions. It was a simple enough plan. Arm and armor ourselves, walk back down the corridor, open the door and throw concussion grenades, then fight our way to the coronation room. Then it was a matter of grabbing the Lady-Apparent and fighting our way back to the corridor to the armory, which would be guarded by the two marshals. After the Lady-Apparent was safe, the Guildmaster would let us go back and play.Our bare bodies were covered by light jumpsuits and Kevlar vests. Radios were placed and checked. The others began to load up on the heavy weapons. I reloaded my HK45 and found a couple of spare magazines for it. I grabbed an M4 carbine. It was nice, compact, and the 5.56mm bullets would go through witch-hunter vests. I stuffed as many magazines as I could into all of my pockets. Satisfied, I grabbed a few concussion grenades. We didn’t want fragments flying around with the warriors still fighting, especially since our frag grenades tended to fling silver shards around. The concussion grenades would open up enough space to work in. Nick picked up another M4. Hangman found an HK G36K, another of the compact 5.56mm assault rifles. It was okay, but I preferred variants of the M16, like my Commando and the M4 I was holding. Matric and the Guildmaster were both using Benelli semi-auto shotguns. I was mildly surprised by my boss’s choice in long guns, but it was the marshals who truly shocked me when they hauled out a small cart with a Minigun in 5.56mm mounted on it. I was surprised the armory even had one, but then remembered that the gun defending the half-floor at the top of the Manor was a larger Minigun in 7.62mm. This was probably the back-up. The taller marshal pushed the cart with the gun, while his partner pushed a second cart with the massive amount of ammunition to feed the Minigun. It was a hungry beast of a weapon. Both marshals also carried TMPs for back-up. Suitably armed, we planned what our group would do once we managed to make it back to the Manor. Our group moved back up the corridor in silence. The hunters were focused on the job, and the marshals were too scared to say anything. I didn’t care if they were terrified of going up against the witch-hunters as long as they did their part. As the door neared, Nick and I pulled out the concussion grenades and crept over to the door. The Guildmaster opened the door just a crack. The darkness was pierced by a narrow beam of light. Nick and I pulled the pins on our grenades and rolled them out into the Manor. We both silently counted down the three second fuses on the grenades.

WHUMP!! We half-heard, half-felt the muffled explosions that launched us into action. The Guildmaster swung the door open and stepped to the side. I slid out along the marble floor, letting loose short bursts at the first witch-hunters I saw. Okay, sliding was not generally considered a proper entry technique, but I wanted to make damn sure I was under all of the gunfire crisscrossing the Manor. Nick opened up with his M4 behind me. I scampered to my feet, shooting another two as I came up. The spent magazine clattered to the floor as I slapped a fresh one into the mag well. Nick came up on my right, cutting three witch-hunters down with accurate bursts. Hangman came up on my left, similarly taking down witch-hunters with odd sounding bursts of fire from his German gun. I heard the Guildmaster and Matric follow up behind. I half-worried Matric wouldn’t be able to keep up with us during the firefight, but I had to admit, he had done well so far. I still didn’t like him. Once we formed up about fifteen feet from the door, the Guildmaster ordered us to drop to the floor and signaled the marshals. As we hit the blood-laced marble floor, the marshals opened up with the Minigun.

Unlike most machineguns, Minguns are rotary guns. The gun has six barrels in a circle and spun by an electric motor. As they spin, the barrels are loaded, fired, and reloaded. This allows for a very high firing rate, usually in the two to four thousand rounds per minute range. It also makes a very unique noise when fired. Instead of the chattering sound of a conventional machinegun, a Minigun sounds like an amplified chainsaw. Because it ate up so much ammunition so fast, we didn’t use silver ammunition in it. Just the volume of fire tended to suppress most of the bad things – such as vampires – until others could pick them off regular guns loaded with silver. The witch-hunters had no protection from standard lead rifle rounds other than the body armor they were wearing, which wouldn’t stop the 5.56mm rounds of the Minigun. The witch-hunters around us were torn apart as the Minigun made its deadly arcs. As the Minigun kept firing, the five of us picked off individual witch-hunters. It felt like five minutes for the Minigun to burn through all of the bullets in the massive drum, but in reality, it took less than twenty seconds for the roaring chainsaw to dull down to the whine of the electric motor. No longer covered by the massive fire support of the Minigun, our group launched ourselves into the air. There was a paltry amount of fire from a few witch-hunters, and none of it came close. We landed about ten yards from the door to the coronation room. Nick, Hangman, and I opened up the area around us by hosing down the witch-hunters around up with our full magazines. As our guns ran dry, the Guildmaster and Matric rapidly unloaded double-ought buckshot at the few still standing. Hangman, Nick, and I did quick changes on the magazines. I gave Nick an evil grin and pulled out another concussion grenade. He nodded, mirroring my maliciousness.

The grenade landed about halfway between us and the door to the coronation room. The blast threw a couple of witch-hunters through the air, but most were just knocked down. The result was a small hole in the witch-hunters attacking the coronation room door. The Guildmaster and Matric darted through the hole as the rest of us covered them. Their shotguns were far more lethal in close quarters than our carbines. The two reached the door after a couple of close calls, and went inside. We waited for long minutes, keeping the door area clear with as much fire as we could. Finally, a group of Red Knights, most injured, came out of the door, with their machine pistols blazing away. Nick, Hangman, and I dropped to the floor to avoid being cut in pieces. I was about to scream at the Guildmaster for not warning us, but then found out my earpiece on my radio was unplugged. I cursed Murphy and his fucking law and plugged my earpiece back in.

“Marcus, are you there?” the Guildmaster asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, busily firing as the witch-hunters came near us.

“We’re coming out,” he reported, “I need you to meet us over here and help us cover the Lady- Apparent. Then–” The Guildmaster was cut off by a loud thunder clap that nearly knocked me off my feet. A new wave of witch-hunters ran into the Manor, joining their brothers in the crowded melee. What the fuck caused them to bring in reinforcements? The Minigun? After a moment, I noticed the new witch-hunters weren’t coming to reinforce the other witch-hunters. They were running from something. The back wall of the Manor collapsed. Blue-white lightning bolts streaked across the room. Tiles along the walls and floors exploded like frag grenades, sending razor-sharp marble shards into the unsuspecting witch-hunters. The sharp cracks of thunder from the lightning mixed with new higher-pitched cracks of assault rifles as I saw the first of the lycanthrope counter-attack. Sneller was visibly in the lead, shouting orders over the roar of the entry as hunters, shaman, and pack warriors swept down on the confused and panicked witch-hunters. We stayed on the marble floor, firing at any witch-hunters who were foolish enough to come within our reach. I lost complete track of time as the battle enveloped me. All I knew was the fight lasted another three mag changes, before Ronin slashed the last witch-hunter with a long silver dagger. There was a deathly silence as I got up off the tile and looked around.

Most of the lycanthropes who came to see my trial were dead, including nearly all of the pack leaders. Their bodies were strewn across the room along with the witch-hunters. Bullet pockmarks marred the walls and columns. The throne was destroyed, splintered in half by bullets. The Guildmaster led the group out of the coronation room, looking out across the room. He kept his face emotionless, but I knew he what he was thinking. He walked over to me and didn’t say anything, which in itself spoke volumes. Sneller walked over to us, a long slash on his muzzle.

“We wanted to warn you, but there wasn’t enough time. A group of the more experienced shaman joined us, and I decided to counterattack.” The Guildmaster nodded absently as he told Sneller to gather his forces and secure the perimeter, and then he walked over to the Lady-Apparent. She collapsed where the bodies of the last of her family, her younger brother and sister, were lying. Her two younger siblings died early in the fighting. Their Red Knight protectors laid next to them, nearly torn apart from the intense gunfire. I walked over with the Guildmaster towards her as she wept for her two dead siblings. Smythe was talking with the few surviving Red Knights. The shaman that came with Sneller were carrying out the bodies of the Spiritmaster and Yven, in addition to most of the entourage they brought. Ancestors, was the Guild the only group to keep its leadership?

“My lady,” the Guildmaster said, quietly, “I’m afraid we have much work to do right now. Some of it requires your attention.” The Lady-Apparent cradled the body of her little sister in her arms, not even showing whether she heard the Guildmaster or not. I don’t know why I did it. I was just acting on instinct. I knelt down beside her, laid my carbine on the ground, and put my hand on her shoulder. My heart was frozen with fear, but my instincts were in full control. The Lady-Apparent wasn’t thinking like a leader of the lycanthropes of her county. She was thinking like a big sister who just lost the last of her family. She needed to be guided back to her duties, or she would be lost. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew what I needed to do.

“Elizabeth,” I murmured to her, not sure why I was daring to use her first name, “She isn’t coming back. There’s nothing more you can do for her. You have to leave her and help us, or all of the lycanthropes in Hillsborough are going to die.” She looked at me. There was a brief flash of anger, but it quickly disappeared as she remembered her duty. Tears still streamed down her face, but she got up. I rose to my feet with her, my arm protectively circling her shoulders. She continued to sob for a moment, but the tears stopped as she composed herself. My heart yearned for vengeance, and I was frustrated by the fact that all the witch-hunters were dead. I was startled by the feelings, but comforted by her warmth against me.

“What needs to be done?” she asked the Guildmaster after she had regained her composure. I could feel her leaning into me.

“First, we need to gather the remainders of the packs as well as what’s left of both the Order and the Guild and bring them here. We also need the unaligned lycanthropes in Hillsborough. Once we have everyone here, we need to reorganize to finish the war with the vampire. They were almost certainly behind the witch-hunters’ attack. Finally, a detail needs to be formed to gather all the lycanthrope bodies here and take them to the cravex for a mass Rite of the Dead.”

“Get the Order to handle that. Preferably their senior member still alive. What about outside help, from the state organizations or from Pinellas or Pasco?” she asked. Her years of tutelage in leadership were coming to the forefront. She suppressed her grief as duty took over. It was much like when I pushed down all of my emotions to do a job. I loosened my arm over her shoulders, allowing her to stand on her own. It was difficult, but I knew it was necessary. Again, the instinct was guiding me what to do, because Ancestors knew I had no fucking clue in the cognitive part of my mind.

“I don’t think they will be able to help,” the Guildmaster explained, “The state organizations will be preparing for the war council, and the other counties are too busy playing politics forging alliances before they get to Tallahassee. The Pinellas Guild will guard our pups, and will accept any of our severely wounded, but I doubt Lady Thames will allow anything else.”

“NO!” screamed a voice behind the Guildmaster. A battered Smythe emerged from his group of Red Knights. There was a mad glinting in his eyes, and his fingers twitched around the TMP at his side. “The first thing we must do is kill the abomination. He helped kill Stephen and Jason Vollen. He led the witch-hunters here. He must pay for this. He must.” The machine pistol jerked up and pointed at me. I planned the moves I would need to reach my carbine and place a burst into the bastard dog’s chest.

“I didn’t kill them, Smythe,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. I tried to slide my arm off of Elizabeth’s shoulders, but she tucked in closer to me. Why was she doing that? She needed to get out of the way.

“You were responsible!” Smythe screamed.

“I tried to stop Stephen’s killer, but he was better than me,” I said. “I would have stopped Silanti from killing Jason, but you attacked me.” His eyes went wild, and a burst erupted from the gun. I could feel the bullets whistling past my ear. I felt Elizabeth grip me. At that moment, I lost my confidence, and a new fear set in. It was a deeper fear than any I felt before, because it wasn’t for me, but for her. That idiot would probably kill her if he didn’t control that fucking TMP. I tried to get her behind me, but she just wouldn’t move.

“You’re lying, you bastard dog,” he said wildly, “You were in league with the killers. I knew you wouldn’t shoot Silanti. You planned to deliver the lord to him in advance. I know all about you. At least, though, I could have killed you.” The barrel bobbed up and down, as he staggered towards us. No way to get to my carbine. Elizabeth was tucked in next to my holster, so I couldn’t even get to my pistol. Smythe laughed maniacally as I scoured my brain for what more I could do. Then, the thunder boomed.

I felt no pain, but watched the barrel of the TMP drop. I looked beyond the gun at Smythe and saw his side was blown out. He wobbled on his feet, a look of sheer surprise on his face. Another thunder boom and he was thrown to the ground. Nick stood with his big Smith pointed at the ceiling. He quietly reholstered the revolver and looked over to where the Red Knights were staring at their fallen leader.

“Does anyone else question my friend’s innocence?” Nick asked in a deathly calm and quiet tone. The Red Knights backed up a step, shrinking from the evil look on his face. It was almost as if Death himself possessed Nick. I squeezed Elizabeth protectively until my mind reassured me my friend was still there. The Manor again fell into silence.

The Lady-Apparent released me and strode over to the Guildmaster. It shook me how quickly she left. I was even more confused by the strange look she shot me over her shoulder. It hurt that she didn’t seem to need me anymore as she and the Guildmaster talked over plans. A hand landed on my shoulder. My reflexes took hold and my hand darted for my pistol. Nick stayed calm as I realized who it was and let my arm fall back down. He gave me a warm look, almost like an older brother to a younger, inexperienced sibling.

“Wipe that pained expression off your face Ranger,” he said, “She loves you.” I turned on him as an unusual anger gripped me.

“What the fuck do you mean?” I asked quickly. Too quickly. Nick just grinned and shook his head. He grabbed my arm and half-pulled me to where Sneller was gathering the surviving hunters. I resisted a little, but Nick was probably as strong as me, and I wasn’t all that determined.

“That look she gave you was transparent,” he said, “I realize that this is probably your first time experiencing some of the more refined emotions, having to be the ultimate hunter and all, but trust me on this. She does love you, and that explains a lot of her actions up to now. That said, she, like us, has a lot of work to do. Everything else has got to be put away until later. Come on, I think Sneller got a job for us.”

Chapter 13 – Sometimes Even I Think I’m Cursed

Badmoon Rising Chapter 11 – There’s a Dark Cloud For Every Silver Lining

17 Nov
November 17, 2012

“It’s nice to see that you managed to almost get yourself killed. Again,” the Guildmaster growled as I walked into his office. As soon as Nick and I returned to the Guild, I was rushed to the infirmary. From what Burn said, there was a moment they were worried about me bleeding out as they scrubbed out the remains of silver in my back, but my body was too stubborn. That was how Burn phrased it. Satisfied I was free of silver contamination, out doc let my body take over. When I woke up, I was informed my boss wanted to see me immediately, so I got dressed and headed to the Guildmaster’s office. I could feel my body still putting itself back together, but I was more or less operational. The Guildmaster’s expression told me he wasn’t happy I went out with Nick, and even less pleased I managed to get banged up even more. I kept my face neutral and sat down in my normal chair.

“What the hell are witch-hunters doing in West Tampa? I asked, completely ignoring the Guildmaster’s chiding remark. Sometimes with my boss, the best defense is to just go on the offense. He growled a bit, but picked up a folder off of his increasingly crowded desk. The anger drained from his face, replaced by a worried expression. That expression disturbed me. I knew that as the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, I was one of the few hunters with whom the Guildmaster could be totally honest and open. It was one of the reasons the personal hitter was usually a close friend of the Guildmaster. Still, it was disconcerting to see my leader look like he didn’t know what to do.

“I don’t know,”the Guildmaster exhaled, “Neither does our intel section or the lord’s intel section. Ronin told me a few weeks ago he was getting information from the feral dogs in the county there were more witch-hunters than normal. I dismissed it at the time. You know why.” I nodded in silent agreement. Ronin, the deputy commander of the hit packs, knew many of the packs of feral and stray dogs that roamed the streets of Tampa and the back areas of the county. They were useful sometimes, but most of the information they gave us was so vague as to be useless. Ronin still put his faith in his animal informants. In my experience, the strays were about as useful as retarded two-year-olds.

“You want me to investigate?” I asked, trying to shake my boss out of his momentarily melancholy. I knew the Guildmaster tended to beat himself up when he made a mistake. Sometimes that was good, because it made sure he never made the same mistake again. Mostly, it was just useless.

“No,” the Guildmaster answered, visibly shaking himself out of internal reflections, “You’re good at a lot of things Marcus, but this kind of investigation is not one of those. I need someone a little more subtle. I’ll have Baser send one of the intel boys out to see what is going on. I need some hard data. Matric informed me before you came in that the lord’s intelligence section considered the presence of the Sword to be an anomaly rather than a trend indicator.”

“What the fuck? They’re ignoring it? Maybe I should go down there and talk to them myself,” I said, my anger leaking into my voice. The Guildmaster gave a brief chuckle, but shook his head.

“There’s something going on over at the Manor,” the Guildmaster told me, “Something that they haven’t told me. I have a nasty suspicion that Lord Vollen is planning something to take advantage of the aftermath of the Sun City Center battle.” He turned his attention to another folder on his desk. “At any rate, I have another job for you. It’s something simple and easy.” His eye held a mischievous glint that I knew didn’t bode well for me.


“CEASE FIRE, DAMNIT!” I yelled at the lycanthropes on the firing line. I grabbed the closest lycanthrope, and snatched the carbine out of his hands. “What part of cease fire did you not fucking understand?” The warrior’s face was a mixture of anger and fear. I shoved him away as our altercation finally drew enough attention from the others that they stopped shooting and watched. I took a few deep breaths before beginning again. It also took me a moment to get all of my plans to kill my boss out of my head. I will be the first to admit that my boss has a nasty sense of humor. Moreover, he has an even nastier sense of punishment. Hence, my current job. The Guildmaster still didn’t know what was being planned in the Manor, but he was fairly sure the warriors of the packs would need to be prepared for some heavy fighting. So I was sent to work with several warriors on the basics of marksmanship and fire discipline. Too many of the warriors did little more than spray and pray with the full auto weapons, which wasted valuable silver ammunition. The idea was to get them used to properly using the weapons before giving them the silver ammunition that the Guild controlled. Good idea – until I actually saw the pack warriors using the few assault rifles and submachine guns on the shooting range the Guild maintained in the eastern part of the county.

“All of you, carefully place your weapons on the firing bench in front of you and take a step back,” I ordered. As the eight warriors followed my instructions, I walked out to the targets. As I suspected, most of the targets had a few holes that invariably rose to the right or left depending on what weapon the warrior was shooting. I just shook my head in annoyance. I warned each of them about muzzle climb in full auto fire. I reminded them to attempt to counteract the climb by leaning in to the weapon. The warriors then reliably forgotten that tidbit of information. I was beginning to lose what little patience I had. A lack of patience was one of my character flaws the Guildmaster made me painfully aware of over the years I worked with him. Sometimes, he liked to put me in positions where that flaw had to be overcome – or used as punishment, like now.

“All of you are here because you are supposed to be the best shooters of your packs,” I began with teeth clenched and my normal rage held firmly in check, “I know some of you have impressive war records, but this is fucking ridiculous.” The warriors had the decency to look ashamed at my comment. I walked the firing line, looking back between the atrocious firing cards and the warriors standing with slightly nervous looks on their faces. I needed to come up with a better way to train these warriors before the lord announced his plans. The biggest problem was me, and I knew it. I was not a trainer by temperament. I got easily annoyed when those under my tutelage didn’t progress as quickly as I thought they should. Especially on things I already explained in detail – several times.

“Okay, let’s go over this again,” I told them, trying to keep a calm voice, “Some of you are using submachine guns. These things are called bullet hoses for a reason. They have an extremely high rate of fire. Even with a nine millimeter cartridge, these weapons produce an impressive amount of recoil. That causes the barrel to rise, which means +YOU MISS THE FUCKING TARGET!* You will compensate for this by doing one of two things. You will either use short bursts of three to five rounds or you will learn to lean into the weapon to use your mass to control the weapon. Preferably you will limit yourself to short bursts, but I’d be just as happy if you could do just do the leaning. This is even more important for you with assault rifles because they have a stronger recoil.”

“Most of these guns have selectors for burst fire,” one of the warriors said with an almost snide manner. I really wanted to hit him. “Why aren’t we just putting them on burst and training like that?” The warriors around him nodded with an enthusiasm I chalked up to not wanting to be further embarrassed by their poor performance.

“You think I’m making you do this the hard way for my own entertainment?” I asked with a sarcastic tone, “Of course, I have no ulterior objective, such as making sure you survive if you have to use one of these weapons. I’m not making sure that you can actually be effective if you need to spray a large group, or just attack a single target.” I would have continued, but the warriors were saved by the ringing of my phone. I looked at the number flashing on the display. The Guildmaster. It was a simple text message. RTB. Return to base. The lord had announced his plan.


When I returned to the Guild, it looked deserted. Usually there were about twenty or so hunters at the Guild at all times. Mainly these were our intel, medical, and communications specialists, as well as the armorers. That didn’t include hunters waiting for targets of opportunity or for rapid rescue of warriors or shaman that managed to get themselves into a nasty position. As I entered, I only saw Baser and another hunter in the intelligence area. I walked over to Baser. He looked up with a start as I came up to his desk.

“I didn’t see you come in Ranger,” he said with surprise in his voice.

“How could you miss me?” I asked in reply, “Where the hell is everyone?”

“Oh, that,” Baser said, taking a moment to look around, “Well, Sneller and Deadeye have been sending everyone out to their advance points. I’m getting swamped with intel requests on a whole bunch of sites.” He turned to his computer and suddenly stopped in mid-motion.

“Oh yeah, the Guildmaster said he wanted to see you as soon as you came in,” Baser said before going back to his work. I walked to the Guildmaster’s office without another word. The advance points were positions around the county where hunters could group before launching a major job. With almost all of the hunters at their advance points, the Guild was about to conduct a series of simultaneous jobs. The lord was planning something massive. Massive usually meant complex. Something was bound to get fucked up, and someone, probably a hunter, would end up dead. Hunters were firm believers in keeping jobs as simple as possible. Less chance of something fucking up.

I walked into the Guildmaster’s inner office. I was surprised to see his wife standing next to him. She was dressed in tactical gear with a worried expression on her face. Something was very wrong if she decided to get back into the hunting game. She acknowledged me with a quick nod and then looked back to her husband. He didn’t look up at me, but held his hand in a silent command to wait quietly until he was done talking on the phone.

“Make sure that all of the packs are clear about their part in this,” the Guildmaster said, “This operation is so complex that a minor mistake could unfurl the whole thing. I’ll have Dennis coordinate with the Spiritmaster, but you need to hold things down until I get there.” As he set down the phone, he let out a resigned breath. He looked up at me.

“Lord Vollen wants a quick finish to this war,” the Guildmaster said, “I think the Spiritmaster or one of his Red Knights got it into his head that he can attack the TCV Hall and eliminate the entire Inner Council. I pleaded with him to reconsider, but he’s young, stubborn, and has victories under his belt. The Lord has decided on a nighttime – nighttime – attack on the TCV Hall with the intent of either forcing the surrender of the Inner Council or wiping them out. The plan is for the Knights and some experienced pack warriors to do a frontal attack with the lord leading them in. According to the Lord Vollen, it would be the last thing the TCV would expect, so they won’t be able to stand against our force. I’m sure that the Knights tried to keep him from leading the assault, but as I said, he’s a stubborn one. The hunters and shaman will provide surgical support. I’ve arranged for you to go in with the main assault force. Your job is to try to keep the lord alive. Take whatever you need. There will be a few hunters also going in on the siege, as well as a few shaman, but the plan has the bulk of the Guild acting in diversionary operations, preparing for mop-up operations and to strike any targets of opportunity. I’ve been ordered to oversee those operations. Since I can’t go with Lord Vollen, I’m sending you. Your secondary job is to locate :the new Bleeder leader and kill him. I may not approve of this plan, but I will be damned if I don’t do my best to try and make it a success. The operation will start tomorrow night, so you have about thirty hours before you are supposed to meet up with Lord Vollen and his force.”

I nodded. Sometimes even I knew better than to make a flippant comment. This was going to be a brutal battle even if everything went right. Lord Vollen was acting rashly. It was going to take a small miracle to keep most of the siege force alive. I smoldered over the apparent lack of concern the lord had for his wolves. I let my anger fall to the wayside. There was too much to do. I needed to gather equipment, memorize all the available information on the TCV Hall and the Inner Councilmembers, and somehow try to grab a few hours sleep. I returned to my room, sighing as I flipped on the light switch. I looked longingly at the bed. I stripped out of my clothing, letting it scatter across the floor. I sat down in the chair facing my computer. After booting up, I researched the files concerning the TCV Hall. The building plans were sparse on useful information, and even that little bit was outdated. The TCV Hall was built by a Northerner human who came to Tampa in the late 1890’s. He liked the warm climate and built an expansive mansion next to the bay. When the vampire infestation became virulent in the 1920’s, the elder vampires agreed to the organization of a new council rather than the older coven system that the vampires used throughout their history. According to Bradon, the original council chair found the TCV Hall “quaint” and had his ghouls take the place over. It wasn’t hard, because the current owner of the house overspent himself on illegal booze, and was willing to trade the house for getting the gangsters off his back. It was also about this time the vampires in Florida began their long association with the criminal element of the state. There had been several renovations to make the building more secure, but the external structure had changed very little. The building was split into three wings. The right wing held offices for the Inner Council and their ghouls. Actual floorplans for that wing were not available and the few composite sketches were skimpy at best. By contrast, the central part of the building was well-known. This was where the vampires hosted official events, such as entertaining a Turaki peacekeeper. That was the one time I was allowed past the front door. It was also where the Inner Council officially convened. The large double front doors of the Hall opened into a central foyer dominated by a horseshoe shaped staircase that led up to the second floor. Beyond the foyer on the first floor was a ballroom that where most of the leeches’ social events were held. Connected to the ballroom was a kitchen with a walk-in cooler and freezer. Intelligence estimated there were at least five to twenty humans somewhere on the first floor for feasts. Going up the grand staircase to the second floor led to the Council Room. From what we knew, the room was modular and could be set up any way they desired, from modern to Gothic. From what Bradon told me about meetings of Inner Council, the decor changed almost from month to month depending on what was in fashion at the time. Damn vampires and their obsession with style. I hated hitting a place with no knowledge of where anything would be. It was a good way to give the leeches your pelt. The left wing of the Hall was what really worried me. There was no solid information on that side of the building. Some rumors said that was where the Inner Council had their quarters, but others said it was the headquarters for the alchemists. The Guild was never able to insert any of its spies into the Hall to gather the proper intelligence. Anytime a hunter went to the Hall, they were closely escorted by a number of vampires, with at least one Bleeder in the contingent. Our kin reported being similarly observed. I thought all of the rumors were wrong. I thought the left wing was the Bleeders’ headquarters. The Bleeders were always very good at just disappearing. There were very few places in the county where a vampire could just disappear. The TCV Hall was on the top of the list. Add to the fact that Bradon was always extremely cagey when I broached what was in the TCV Hall. I couldn’t prove it, but that’s what my instincts were telling me. If I was going to sanction the new Bleeder leader, the left wing was where I would look.

After cramming my brain with information on the Hall, I turned to the Inner Council. Technically, all of the vampires within the territory claimed by the TCV belonged to the Tampa Council, but not all of them had a say in how the territory was governed. That power was held by the ruling body of the TCV, the Inner Council. The Inner Council was made up of five elder vampires, who were dangerous all by themselves. Vampires don’t make it to elder status without having either a lot of power, a lot of skill, or both. To make it even more fun, each Inner Councilmember also had one to five ghouls with them at all times. Intelligence said the ghouls were closer to bodyguards with training on par to the Red Knights. The political make-up of the Inner Council was evenly spread, with two activist Councilmembers, two conservative Councilmembers and a Council Chair who was usually a moderate, but tended to lean one way or the other as issues arose. The heads of the Bleeders and the alchemists usually participated in Inner Council meetings and affairs, but they were considered advisers to the Inner Council, not members. Each Councilmember selected his or her own successor, so the political split rarely changed. Outwardly, the Inner Council favored stability and consensus, but the politics were cutthroat amongst the Inner Councilmembers. Consensus was often just a codeword for one faction saying uncle.

The activist faction of the Inner Council was led by Mario Silanti, a vampire of forty years. He despised the Peace and was behind most of the plots to weakened it. He hated lycanthropes with a fiery passion. Silanti was considered by most lycanthropes as the prime suspect behind the murder of Lord Vollen’s father. Hell, if I didn’t know better, he would have been my first suspect. The Guild considered Silanti a major threat, as did the Bleeders. Before the war erupted, it was an open secret that if the hunters managed to assassinate Silanti, there would be no reprisal from the Bleeders. Current intelligence believed Silanti’s influence among the vampires was growing by leaps and bounds. As long as the war raged in Hillsborough County, the younger vampires of the TCV supported Silanti. If Silanti gained enough support, there would be no chance of stopping the war without one side wiping out the other. Or the Pathwalkers wiping out both. Silanti kept two ghouls. One was a female who acted as his secretary. She didn’t have any known combat training, but I suspected she knew some tricks. The other ghoul was a male who kept Silanti tied to the human underworld. The ghoul survived several years in the brutal drug trade before being “recruited” by Silanti. That made him dangerous, and definitely someone to watch. I looked at the most recent photo we had of Silanti. I studied his face, ingraining every feature into my mind. because if Silanti came within range of my weapons, he would become my primary target.

The other activist on the Inner Council was a vampire of eighty years by the name of Richard Crawford. Crawford was a known supporter “the Naturalists.” They advocated there was room on the planet for only one race of predator of humans, and that the two races must fight until one – the lycanthropes according to Crawford and his supporters – was exterminated. The Peace prevented that natural competition, and therefore, it must be struck down. Unlike Silanti, Crawford only acted politically against the other Inner Councilmembers. Bradon told me Crawford was more of a shadow player in the twisted politics of the TCV. He didn’t actually get involved in any of the ploys and plots, but Crawford pulled enough strings to get the ball rolling. Bradon called him a “useful danger.” Crawford kept four ghouls – one to act as his personal assistant, one bodyguard, and two errand boys. All of them were known to be dangerous in both hand to hand combat and firearms.

The conservative side of the Inner Council was headed by the elder vampire Samuel Davis. He had over a hundred and thirty years as a vampire, with more than forty years as on the Inner Council. Davis was thoroughly convinced that the lycanthrope were an enemy to be destroyed. That said, Davis knew better than to let an unrestricted war erupt between the two races, or else it would become like the humans’ Civil War he fought as a Confederate soldier. He supported the Peace while also supporting and nurturing the Bleeders, under his protégée, Philip Bradon. Davis’s three ghouls came from military backgrounds. One acted as his bodyguard and assistant, while the other two often acted as his personal hit team. All of them were trained by the Bleeders in fighting lycanthropes. Nick ran afoul of the hit team, and he said they were damned good for a pair of ghouls. I committed their faces to memory in case I ran into them. I was looking at enough surprises in this job to let those two ghouls get the drop on me.

Davis’s much younger ally was Harris Montgomery. Montgomery was a vampire of only twenty years, which was considered relatively young in vampire politics. If there was one thing Harris was, he was an outstanding politician. He secured his seat on the Inner Council by posturing himself as an almost clone of his predecessor. As soon as Montgomery assumed his seat from the “retired” elder vampire, Montgomery showed his true colors. Montgomery was of a new philosophy that believed the war between the vampire and the lycanthrope was a futile effort. The two races must coexist or they would wipe each other out. According to Bradon, Montgomery was annoying and embarrassing to the rest of the Inner Council. Unfortunately for the elder Inner Councilmembers, Montgomery represented the views of many of the younger vampires who grew up listening to the ramblings of the human counter-culture movement. As Bradon said more than once, it was an unfortunate case of the rare times humanity affected our part of reality. Although his credibility had taken a hit with the war, Montgomery was still an able caudillo, or boss. He was actually the one Inner Councilmember I would try not to kill on this job. His two ghouls were unknowns. According to reports, they often acted as retro-hippie girls, dressing in the costumes and using the dialect of the culture.

The Council Chair was held by Josephine Razor, a vampire who exploded onto the Tampa political scene. The Guild first took notice of her only about four years ago, but in less than two years she used her political abilities and seductress demeanor to not only gain her place as an Inner Councilmember, but to ascend to the Chair. She was known to be cunning and deadly, politically and physically. Her true politics were unknown, as she tended to bounce between the two factions, often playing one against the other to get what she wanted. Even Bradon couldn’t figure her out. She didn’t have any known ghouls, but I doubted she neglected to make herself a servant or four. It was more likely she kept her ghoul, or ghouls, out of sight until she needed them. I leaned back in my chair and yawned. As I looked behind me, I saw the clock and read the numbers upside-down. The translation slid slowly between my eyes and my brain. Well, that was why I was tired. I was doing this for the past six hours. I never understand why research tired me out almost more than physical activity. I shut the computer down and picked up the phone.

“Yeah, whadda ya want?” came Boomer’s voice over the line. I expected Gunny, but I figured he was busier than hell trying to prep enough gear for the hunters for tomorrow night.

“Boomer, it’s Ranger,” I answered in a business tone, “I’m going to be up there in a few minutes to grab weapons and gear. The Guildmaster told you?”

“Yeah, he told us you and the others on the Hall assault had priority. We were expecting you a couple of hours ago. Gunny kept some of your favorites, but I don’t know if we still have much to give you.”

“Where is Gunny?” I asked. It wasn’t like him to leave Boomer alone too long with a pile of weapons at his disposal. Odd things tended to happen to weapons left in Boomer’s care. Like configurations no one thought of suddenly appearing in the racks.

“He’s outfitting a couple of the hit packs before they run out of here. I’ll be here when you get your ass up here. What are you planning on?” he asked, casually.

“Tactical nukes would be nice, for all the surprises I expect.” Boomer politely chuckled at that comment. “I’ll see what you’ve got left when I get up there. Is ammo good?”

“Not as good as I would like. I can get your supply, but the Silver Shoks are getting shot up pretty damn fast. We were supposed to get a shipment of them today, but they didn’t come in. In a couple of days, we might have to switch to slug bullets.” I grimaced at that comment. Modern silver bullets were designed with lead exteriors to grip the barrel’s rifling and silver alloys that kept the bullet weights consistent with modern defensive ammunition. Silver Shoks were the best, although there were a few other lines with comparable performance abilities. Those were used mainly by the pack warriors whose leaders knew enough to buy the good stuff. Silver slug bullets, on the other hand, were standard bullets cast from silver. They were much easier to produce, but the bullets tended to drop or curve depending on the weapon. The only exception was shotguns, since they were smooth bore to begin with. Silver slugs and shot worked just fine in them, up to about seventy yards.

“Thanks, I’ll be finished here in about five minutes, and then I’ll be up. Hold everything until I get there.” I hung up the phone and put on a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt that was in my closet. The hallway was empty, as was the elevator up to the armory. The Guild was emptying out for Lord Vollen’s grand attack. Damn him. The elevator toned as I reached the second floor. I felt a little better as I walked by the intelligence section’s crazy sprinting back and forth between their workstations. At least I wasn’t the only one being driven insane by this attack. I made my way to the armory. As I approached, a pair of twelve-foot tall reinforced doors silently slid open. The Guild’s armory was made up of one large room with chain-linked fencing forming sections for different weapon types. Ancestors, it was fucking empty. Racks normally full of assault rifles and sub-machine guns lay naked. Boomer sat at one of the few tables in the room in human form, examining an assault rifle’s trigger assembly. He didn’t look up as I walked across the concrete floor towards him. I stopped five feet from him and waited for about half a minute for him to be finished with what he was doing. It passed and he continued to fiddle with the trigger assembly.

“Hi, Ranger. Your favorites are over in Pad A-1,” Boomer said without looking up. Rather than bother him, I walked over to the pad. The pads were sections of the armory with mission specific load-outs and a few extras so a hunter could tailor based on his tastes. I walked over to the pad and opened the gate door. The two benches were sparsely littered with rifles, sub-machine guns, pistols, and grenades. I picked up the first rifle, a Barret M107. I considered it briefly. With a .50 BMG bullet, there was very little that I couldn’t punch holes through. On the downside, it was too long to use indoors, although my strength in true form would have negated the weight problem of the big rifle. I picked up the next weapon and grinned. The Bowmasters thoughtfully left me a KAC Masterkey. The Masterkey was a Colt M4 carbine, but the wonderful folks over at KAC added something extra. It started out as a Remington 870, but KAC removed the stock, shortened the barrel, and mounted the package under the M4’s barrel. The M4’s magazine was used as a grip when firing the shotgun. Just for fun, Boomer mounted a rigid side saddle to the left side of the shotgun’s receiver for carrying an additional five shells. The Masterkey was a bit muzzle heavy, but being able to use either 5.56 mm rounds or specialty shotgun loads without changing weapons was a big advantage. A holographic sight was mounted to the top of the M4. After checking the actions the Masterkey, I put it aside and built the rest of my load-out. I wanted to bring my HK45, but decided on my Glock 17 instead. In our kind of combat, the usual arguments of small bullet versus big bullet didn’t usually apply. The amount of silver punched into the target mattered much more, and both a 9mm and a .45 would put enough silver into the target to be lethal. I normally preferred the .45 because it put more silver into the target. Very useful when you might only have one or two shots. For this raid, I was going to have lots of targets, which meant I needed more rounds. The Glock 17 had the advantage of accepting the bigger +2 magazines for a total of nineteen rounds. Plus, its magazines would work with the smaller Glock 26, which would be my back-up for this job. Custom-built silver throwing knives for quiet kills, and an Emerson folder for cutting things other than vampires. I found two speed loading tubes for the Masterkey. One was loaded with straight double-ought silver buckshot, while the other was loaded with a particularly nasty load of silver flechettes. Flechettes were tiny darts that perforated everything in its firing radius, including through nasty things like Kevlar. The side-saddle on the shotgun was loaded with willie-pete incendiary rounds that Boomer came up with. Great for creatures that were as flammable as dry kindling, but not so great on the gun. Gunny hated issuing them, but they’d come in handy before. Flash-bangs and a small roll of duct tape were added. My final bit of my rig was electronics. Namely a radio and throat mike. Boomer helped me load the mass of weapons, magazines, ammo, and gear into a few bags. With all of my equipment chosen, I went back to my quarters to rack out for a few hours. Sleep came and went way too fast. I was running too close, but I needed to run a few exercises before I joined up with the assault force. I spent the morning running through close-quarters drills with my load-out. I needed to be able to grab what I needed without looking. Another half-hour nap and I geared up. For the record, carrying the equivalent of four guns, several knives, some flash-bangs, a bunch of ammo, and electronics was heavy. That wasn’t even counting the heavier vest and gear. As I walked into the garage, Nick was waiting on his motorcycle with a sly grin on his face.

“Alright, I give,” I said as I approached him, “What’s so fucking funny?”

“You, going to protect the lord. With that much gear, you could defend him from an army. At least, knowing the way you fight.” His grin slipped as I climbed into one of the Guild’s special sedans.

“Ranger, be careful,” Nick said, his voice now devoid of humor, “I know that sounds strange, but I don’t like this.”

“You think I do?” I asked, as I clipped the carbine to the dash. “Thanks for the thought, Nick. I’ll watch my ass.”

“Good. I don’t have many allies in this town. I don’t want one of my close ones dying foolishly. Ranger, one more thing,” he said, his tone so serious it worried me, “My name is Nicholas.” Laughing, I revved the sedan’s engine and tore into the emerging night.

——

As I drove to the meeting point, I noticed the sky. Perhaps I should have looked up earlier, but that was my own mistake. It was also mine for not checking the human news for the past few days. The stars were dimmed by the Blood Moon. Lycanthropes know the red moon is a lunar eclipse, as well as the scientific reasons for its occurrence. None of that diminishes the surge of energy we feel from it. This was the reason Lord Vollen decided to raid the Hall at night. Maybe the lord was not a complete fool, but the lack of intelligence on the Hall still gnawed at me. There were few weapons, short of thermobarics and nukes, that overcame a lack of good intelligence, and even they occasionally suffered from it. The meeting point was a commercial conversion van parked down the street from the TCV Hall. Only the fifty-yard lawn separated us from the front porch. The raised porch was an antebellum fashion with four white columns. It was guarded by five vampires that I could see. I was instructed to leave the car several blocks away, using the darkness to travel the rest of the distance. I reached the far side of the van, emblazoned with TECO’s logo on the side. Behind the van waited the lord and a group of Red Knights, including Smythe. I sneered at him and made the proper gesture of respect Lord Vollen. He allowed me to crowd into the back of the van, which was crammed with surveillance and communication gear. This should have been used days before to conduct reconnaissance, but instead, Lord Vollen rushed things.

I scanned the lawn and the front of the Hall through the low-light cameras installed into the side of the van. A pair of kin were standing outside, mimicking work for the power company. The lawn looked normal. According to the van’s electromagnetic sensors, there were no land mines placed. The stately white facade was normal, although I knew surveillance gear was in place around the Hall. The front porch was guarded by five vampires. There were no other signs of security. My instincts said there had to be more guards around. I mentally doubled the number of guards I could see and figured they were hidden around the front perimeter. I didn’t like this frontal attack shit, Blood Moon or no. First off, there was no current information on the number or displacement of opposition on the grounds or in the Hall. Second, the environment was bad. Tampa Bay air, with its heavy marsh odor, muted our naturally keen sense of smell. The street lighting and the sparse lighting around the Hall made for strange shadows that would draw the untrained eye, like any pack warriors assigned to this job. Third, we were too exposed. I was sure the leeches on the front porch knew who we were and why we were there. If they didn’t, then they were bait in an inviting trap.

“Is there a problem hunter?” said a voice behind me. I expected a Red Knight, but turned to find Lord Vollen facing me. I made it a point never to be intimidated by any lycanthrope’s station if something important needed to be said or done. Respectful maybe, but never intimidated. With this many Red Knights, several of whom partly blamed me for the previous lord’s death, I decided a respectful tone was the best course. The Guildmaster would’ve been proud.

“May I speak candidly, milord?” I asked cautiously. He nodded slightly, so I continued, but firmly keeping my voice respectful and my speech devoid of its normal expletives. “This attack is a bad idea. There is no current data on what our forces can expect upon entering the Hall. Our natural senses are being beaten back by the environment. We don’t even have a full floor plans for the Hall.” His face darkened slightly, but I decided to press on, hoping to avoid what could be a bloody fight we could very well lose. “Milord, I suggest we postpone this attack until more information is available, or maybe if we cripple more of the TCV’s forces.” Smythe looked about ready to read me the riot act, but the lord silenced him with a wave of his hand.

“I’m glad that I was right in asking Eric for your services,” Lord Vollen said, “You are correct – from your stand point. There are a few things you don’t know. First, all the hunters and shaman left out of this attack are now conducting an extensive series of attacks on known leech strongholds and covens. Those should provide us with enough distraction to cover our initial attack. Second, the power to the Hall will be cut fifteen seconds into the attack. I realize the Hall likely has secondary generators, but the switch will give us a few seconds time to advance further. Third, our mission is not to clear the Hall, but simply to get in and plant these.” He handed me a thermite block demolition charge. It was similar to the one that I used on the night that I killed Bradon, but it was larger, which meant a bigger blast area. They were also tamper-proof, meaning that once they were set, any attempt to disarm or reset them caused the charge to detonate. Some of my doubts about the attack were alleviated. So, this wasn’t to go in and personally kill every member of the Council, but rather set the Hall on fire and make sure none escaped.

“With all due respect, milord, that’s all fine and dandy, but there’s still the problem of getting into the Hall,” I said. “I very much doubt the Council is going to let us waltz into their home and light it up.” Lord Vollen smiled as my respectful tone slipped a bit.

“Upon the signal from the Guildmaster that all the diversionary objectives are engaged, snipers will take out the sentries,” one of the Red Knights explained, “The doors will be taken care of by our anti-armor rifle.” He motioned to a kin assembling a Barrett M107, just like one that I briefly contemplated taking back at the armory. “Once the door was taken down, the first group will rush in and secure the foyer. They place their charges, but not activate. From there, the second group will leapfrog them onto the second floor, while a third group hits the ballroom. At this point, the snipers will join us as a fourth assault team. Then, they and the first team will leapfrog the second and third teams going deeper into the Hall. We continue until all charges are set.” I still didn’t like it. Our forces would be awfully thin as we drove deeper into the building. It also didn’t allow for a reserve force. I was to be part of the second group, along with Lord Vollen, Smythe and another half-dozen Red Knights. The plan laid out for everyone, the other lycanthropes went over their gear one last time. My feeling of dread was deepening. This plan was coming dangerously close to drawing the Pathwalkers’ notice. I could see why the Guildmaster wasn’t happy with this. He probably told Lord Vollen about the risk, and from what I’d seen, Lord Vollen probably dismissed his Guildmaster’s concerns out of hand. All I could do was try and salvage what I could. I scanned the target area. My instincts were roaring with warnings. With some difficulty, I shoved all of it to the back of my mind and focused on the job. My instincts have always been inordinately strong, with the downside being that sometimes they threatened to take over. Part of my hunter training was forcing me to hone them so they were useful while being able to shut them out when they threatened the job. Now was the hardest part of my job – waiting for it to begin. Finally, the Guildmaster came on the radio.

“Gaspirilla,” the Guildmaster said, curtly. Five muffled shots sounded from the roof of the van. The vampires guarding the front porch slumped down almost simultaneously. As the vampires fell, the first group ran across the lawn. The first group was made up of warriors with a couple of Red Knights to give them some kind of sound tactical support. As the group galloped across the lawn, I saw the lights of their weapons searching for targets. I winced as I watched their formation. It was too loose, too uncoordinated. The warriors had no clue how to scan for targets. They were mimicking what they’d seen on television or movies. It may look cool, but it would be trouble if they ran into any real targets. The first group ran under a pair of large trees about halfway across the lawn with no complications. I was surprised, but tried not to show it. Under the shadows of the trees, the first group paused and scanned the front of the Hall before making the final stretch. What the fuck? They needed to keep moving. Speed was life. Without warning, ten vampires fell out of the trees, shedding their bat form for true form. I didn’t wait for a command. I brought my carbine to my shoulder, watching as the reticle crossed the chest of the largest vampire. A gentle squeeze sent a short burst of three rounds into the leech. He jerked back as the rounds slammed into his chest, then crumpled to the grass. A couple of Knights next to me opened fire, bringing down another two leeches. The ambushed lycanthrope group rallied and let loose with short bursts of automatic fire. The whole encounter lasted less than thirty seconds, but it left one of the Red Knights and a pack warrior dead. The bodies were left with those of the vampires. We would retrieve them after the raid. As the first group reached the door, three distinctive booms rang out into the night. The hinges on the large front door exploded as the big half-inch heavy bullets from the Barrett slammed through the reinforced oak door. The door-kicker for the first group, a largish Knight, shouldered the door, using his momentum to carry him all the way inside. I couldn’t make out what was going on inside, but I guessed by the sound of the firefight they met some stiff resistance. A half-minute later, we went into the fray. As we crossed the lawn, I kept my weapon ready in case of another ambush. We crossed the lawn and made it up the porch without trouble. The gunfire from inside the foyer slacked off considerably. Either the first group was successful, or they had been wiped out. I looked over at Smythe. From the look on his face, he had already reached the same conclusion, and he wasn’t happy. He pointed to two Knights and motioned them inside while the rest of us waited outside. A double-click on the radio told us that it was clear. We entered the TCV Hall.

The first group cleared the foyer and set their charges. Vampire bodies, some still shifting to true form in death, littered the floor. There was no time to sort everything out, so Smythe and another Red Knight sprinted up the staircase to the second floor. A pair of vampires emerged from the Council Room. I brought them both down with a couple of shotgun blasts. I may not have liked Smythe, but I was still a professional, which meant I covered his ass when he needed it. The rest of the group advanced up at a breakneck pace as Smythe and his partner cleared the landing at the top of the stairs. The door into the Council Room was ten feet tall and looked like solid wood. Knowing Bradon, I was sure there was a metal core. One of the Knights produced a shortened shotgun loaded with door breachers. I grasped him by the arm and quickly sketched out an idea. He nodded with a predatory grin on his face. Taking our positions, his shotgun boomed three times, destroying the door hinges and the lock. I pumped the action on my shotgun, releasing the chambered shell. As the door fell in, I loaded one of the willie-pete rounds. A quick squeeze on the trigger sent a small ball of brilliant destruction. The round smacked into a leech just behind the fallen door, exploded, and caught two more leeches standing just behind the first leech. All three leeches lit up like dried out Christmas trees, screaming as their burning forms were consumed by the flames. Smythe didn’t pause to enjoy the view, charging in with his assault rifle chattering. His Knights and Lord Vollen followed his lead into the Council Room. I grimaced, and then followed into the room.

The gallery of the Council Room was two rows of long wooden pews, almost like a church or a courtroom. I ducked behind the back left pew. I rose to a crouch and surveyed the layout. At the end of the gallery, toward the front of the room was a low wooden barricade with a thin gate. Five feet beyond the barricade was a podium and an adjoining table where the vampires could speak to the Inner Council. The Inner Council’s platform was about fifteen feet behind the podium with a long raised barricade the Inner Councilmembers stood behind for their meetings. There were at least a dozen vampires and another dozen of ghouls behind that barricade pouring gunfire at the Knights. The Red Knights were scattered among the pews. Several of them dead or dying from hits from the leeches hiding at the front of the room. I placed a few bursts at white faces peeking out from their positions. I looked for Lord Vollen. I was supposed to be keeping him alive. The lord was crouched behind a pew several yards in front of me with a Knight beside him. Several ghouls were creeping up on them. I unloaded the shotgun, firing several blasts of double-ought buck at them. The ghouls were shredded by the hail of silver balls. The vampires behind the platform responded by firing at me. I ducked back down behind my pew.

“Smythe, this is too hot, we need to extract,” I called over the radio. I directed my comments at Smythe, because he could pull Lord Vollen out over the lord’s objections. I hoped that he would put any of our hatreds aside long enough for us to get out of this alive. Two attempts netted no response. He was either dead or too busy to answer me. I cautiously raised my head over the pew and looked over to the lord. He was replacing the magazine in his rifle. The Knight at his side was slumped over dead. We were pinned down, but other teams were having more success. Radio reports came over that reported the deaths of Davis, Crawford, and Montgomery. That left Razor and Silanti. As I scanned the platform, I saw Silanti firing a small machine pistol at the lord’s position. A lycanthrope crashed down next to me. A quick glance revealed it was Smythe. His rifle was gone, but his pistol was drawn.

“Smythe, cover me. I’m going to take down Silanti,” I said to him, loud enough to be heard over the crashing gunfire. I rose from my crouch, flipping the M4’s selector switch from AUTO to SEMI. I lined up the holographic reticle on Silanti’s face. He was exchanging gunfire with Lord Vollen. The leech was tunnelling. He never noticed me aiming at him. Beside me, I heard Smythe firing away with his pistol. About damn time he helped. As I squeezed the trigger, a sharp pain blazed in my side. I jerked upward from the sudden pain, sending my bullet into the ceiling. I fell to the floor as Smythe knocked me down. My rifle clattered to the floor. Smythe kicked it out of my reach.

“Now you die, abomination,” Smythe growled, holding a bloody silver knife over me. I was confused as hell. What was Smythe doing? We were in a fight for our lives – Lord Vollen’s life – and he decided to stab me? I looked for the glint of madness in his eyes, but only saw the coldness of contemplated murder. I suddenly realized why I was requested to do this job. Smythe wanted to kill me in the chaos of the raid. What I didn’t know was why.

A scream of pain from the lord’s position made Smythe jump off me. Smythe looked over to Vollen. His face contorted into a mixture of shock, fear, and pain. I pulled my pistol out and placed five rounds into Smythe’s chest. The bullets threw him back and gave me enough room to move. I staggered up. The pain from the silver blade blazed again. I looked back to where Silanti was. The leech was running for a small door at the back of the Council room. I fired my Glock several times, but he disappeared through the door. I looked down to my bloody side and cursed. I looked over to Lord Vollen. His head was a mess of blood, bone, and gore. Ancestors, not another one. The shame of a failed job crashed through me.

A force slammed into my face, throwing me a good five feet before crashing into a pew. I tried to shake off the daze, but I took another hit deep into my stomach. I felt my breath pushed out of me. Smythe continued the barrage of fists, striking all my vital parts. My pistol was knocked from my hand. None of my other weapons were within reach. Smythe hit me several more times and I did the only thing I could think of. I crumpled to the ground. He stopped once I fell to the ground. Out of my slitted eyes, I saw him motion to a pair of his subordinates. The two Knights picked me up off the ground by my shoulders. I played unconscious as they dragged my body out of the Council Room. I could smell the blood, burnt flesh, and death of a harsh battle. The two Knights dragged me down the staircase. I summoned all the strength I had left and pushed off one of the stairs. The two Knights were caught off-guard. They were expecting a unconscious subject, not a moving hunter. I landed on the ground below without losing my balance. A quick scan of the area showed I was badly outnumbered. At least a half-dozen Knights plus another dozen or so pack warriors who would believe anything Smythe and his cronies said because they were Red Knights – and I was the abomination.

I ran for the door, pulling my tiny Glock 26 from its holster in the small of my back. The fools hadn’t even taken it away from me. The two Knights at the door braced for close-quarters combat. One drew a knife, as the other stepped back, reaching for a pistol. I could smell the fear emanating from them. Sometimes my reputation came in handy. I fired a few rounds over their heads, sending them crashing to the floor. I leapt over them, gunfire from the pack warriors following me outside the Hall. As I rolled on the grass, I grabbed my radio from its holding place on my back. I finished my roll into a crouch behind one of the trees in the front lawn and switched it to the Guild’s frequency.

“Ranger, Knightfall. Repeat – Ranger, Knightfall.” I saw several Knights coming out of the Hall, led by Smythe. I didn’t feel like killing my own people – even if they just tried to kill me. Maybe if it was just Smythe. I stepped out into the lighted area, dropping my pistol on the ground. I slowly raised my arms up as a dozen weapons were aimed at me.

“I call for rhiazen,” I said loudly, so all could hear. Smythe was glaring at me, but there was nothing he could do. Once a lycanthrope demands rhiazen, or trial by the lord, no one is allowed to hurt or kill him. The downside of calling for rhiazen was if the lord found against a lycanthrope, the sentence is automatically death, even if the original offense wasn’t a capital matter. At that time, there wasn’t much choice. I needed to buy time. The Guild needed to know Smythe tried to kill me. They needed to know Silanti escaped. Most importantly, the packs needed to know how the lord really died. Then, they could do something about it. I was sure the new lord – lady, actually, since the next in line was his eldest daughter – was going to find me guilty. Better to delay my inevitable demise long enough to get all the pertinent information to the Guild and the packs, and prepare them for what was to come. Perhaps Nick or Hangman might avenge me and kill Smythe. These thoughts comforted me as the Knights walked over to me and stripped me down. I didn’t resist. I called for rhiazen, so I was obligated by honor and law to not resist arrest and confinement, as my captors were obligated to assure I was unharmed until the trial. They led me to a car. Two Knights climbed in the front of the car while I was pushed into the back. I could tell by the way they were holding their weapons on me they were scared of me. I just shook my head. The Guildmaster called me twice on the radio, but I ignored him. The Knights carefully navigated the streets of Tampa to avoid any chance of me meeting with one of the hunter hit packs. I was to be held at the Manor. in its holding area. It would have been called a dungeon in ancient times.

The three of us drove up to the Manor’s gate. As I was pulled out of the car, three warriors serving as the lord’s marshals met us. The marshals were only deputized when the aristocracy needed enforcers outside of the packs. I stopped a couple of yards in front of the marshals and waited for their instructions.

“Hold your arms in front of you,” the leader demanded, his voice as calm as a lake on a windless day. I felt a measure of relief. The leader was acting by the laws of the packs. I slowly put my arms out in front of me. The one next to him applied wolfsbane to the slash on my side as the youngest one placed a restraining device on my wrists. It was made of silver, and encompassed both wrists completely. They were joined by a thick metal bar that kept my hands separated by about a foot. The restraints looked intimidating, but I escaped from them before. This time, I was under obligation not to. If I escaped – and there was no way the five lycanthropes around me could have stopped me if I was determined to escape – I would be declared outlaw and ordered killed on sight. That also went for any lycanthrope who gave me sanctuary. I couldn’t return to the Guild without endangering the rest of the hunters. It would defeat the whole reason I called for rhiazen. So, I meekly accepted the restrainers and followed three marshals as they led me across the grounds into the Manor itself. Just inside the door, we were met by another pair of marshals. These two were carrying M16’s. From the menacing looks on the marshals’ faces, they didn’t trust me to carry out my part of the law. I wasn’t going to do anything, but I kept a wary eye on them as the original trio of marshals led me to a concealed door in the foyer. I had a nasty suspicion that one wrong move and the two behind me would hose me with silver bullets. Behind the concealed door was an unlit staircase that winded down into the ground. It opened into a large room, with several empty holding cells constructed of iron bars, lined with silver barbs. I was led to the first one. The door slid open and I walked in. The young marshal who put the restrainers on me removed them. He stepped out of the cell and the door slid shut behind him. The trio of marshals walked to the door as the two with the M16’s took positions by the entrance-way to the staircase. I grimaced at the company, but then studied my furnishings. There was a mat on the floor to serve as my bed. A small stand with a large basin for both my washing and to serve as my water reservoir. The bathroom was a hole in the ground. I stood there for a moment, then laid down on the mat. The cut on my side made it uncomfortable, but I was going to need all the energy I could get. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the floor.

Chapter 12 – There Are Worse Things Than Being On Trial For My Life