For the pups of the pack, this was tysach, the time of learning between the Rites of Discovery and Initiation. Tradition decreed that the pups needed to be secluded from the packs during tysach. It was the time for them to learn our traditions as well as the skills they would need in order to survive in our world in an environment away from the politics of the packs. Tradition also said that the three other lycanthropes and I standing guard should not have be there. Necessity changed that part of the tradition. During this seclusion from the packs, the pups and one of the pack’s elder members of the Order of Spirits, or shaman as they were more commonly known, were to come together to learn how to survive the dangers in our world while camouflaging within the human, and indoctrinate the pups into the ways of the packs through the telling the great stories and legends of the Ancestors. The shaman would use their mystical powers from the Ancestors to create small pictures of the past from the flames of the campfire to help in their teaching. The flames were dying down as one of the shamans was finishing another tale to his pupils.

The black, starless sky domed over the campsite, a clearing in the middle of a mangrove marsh on the north end of Old Tampa Bay. The humidity, so common in Florida, made an already hot summer evening into a sweltering one. Sweat laced my pelt. Drops fell from my brow and muzzle. Senses made acute by the supernatural forces that created my race, smelled the salt in the perspiration, and the texture of the sweat as it rolled between the hairs of my pelt. I shifted my weight from one leg to the other and chided myself for even the silent complaining. The pups and the shaman were much worse with the added heat of the fire.  I glanced behind me, watching the orange flames peek out of the pit. I shook my head and went back to my post. This was a good group of pups. The older ones were helping the newer pups. That was always a good sign. It meant fewer deaths. My eyes scanned the tree line. The enemy could blend itself into the darkness, but the darkness was not so black and concealing to my eyes. I knew how to use the full extent of my abilities to find the enemy and destroy it. The enemy wasn’t there, only the small scrub animals were rustling about in the night. I crept back toward my gear bag several feet behind my post. I was careful to move silently, so as to not disturb the pups and their shaman mentor. As I came up on my gear bag, the murmur of voices from the camp floated toward me. The first voice that became understandable came from one of the pups that came into tysach in the last Rite of Discovery.

“Sir, why do we fight the leeches?” the pup asked the shaman. I glanced back at the camp, watching the old lycanthrope prepare for his answer. A grin appeared on the scarred muzzle, the snow-white whiskers ruffling ever so slightly in anticipation. This was probably the most important story in our known history. The members of the Order of Spirits loved telling it, and for the most part, lycanthropes loved hearing it. The shaman’s clawed hands pushed the loose cloth of his black robes up his thin arms as he mystically urged the fire to rise up out of the pit and accompany his words. The first image to arise out of the flames was a globe, slowly rotating. Before the shaman started, the globe’s rotation slowed over the Fatherland and the image zoomed into the territories.

“The war between the leeches and the packs began hundreds of years ago, in the Fatherland, what the humans call Central Europe. As the packs expanded our territories, the kings of the Fatherland placed control of large swaths of territory under their sons, the princes. The princes, in turn, placed sections of their princedoms into the hands of their sons and sons-in-law, the lords.” The fiery image shifted as the Fatherland split up into the first princeships and further into the first lordships. The maps dissolved into the peaceful images of different packs roaming through the Fatherland and blending in with the humans. The next part of the story began.

“During the times the humans call the middle ages, the lycanthropes flourished under King Joseph Strongclaw. Until humans began to mysteriously disappear. At first the numbers were small, and nothing unusual was noticed. This was the time the Black Death was making its way across the Fatherland, and many humans were dying. The humans quickly realized that this was something new. Humans dying of sickness was understandable. Humans just disappearing into thin air was terrifying. Things began to deteriorate rapidly. Fighting over the remaining humans broke out between lords. Soon the princes were drawn into the fighting. The fighting grew to a civil war between the lycanthropes of the Fatherland. Packs that had been friendly with each other for generations were now attacking and actually killing each other.” The packs in the fire changed from scenes of peace to evil scenes of lycanthropes striking each other down with fangs and claws. The repulsive images of such infighting gratefully melted away as a fiery image of a lycanthrope in true form emerged.

“King Joseph, seeing the packs fall into the chaos, turned to his mystic – as the shamans were called during that time – for help. The mystic prayed to the Ancestors for days. According to the mystic’s writings, a raven came to him. Although the raven still chirped in its normal voice, the mystic could understand him. The black bird told the mystic that all the mystics in the Fatherland must come together at one of the great cravexes, or mystic places, and pray to the Ancestors. ‘During this time, answers will reveal themselves,’ the raven sang to the mystic. This stunned the mystic. He raced to the king and related what the raven told him. Deciding that the Ancestors made themselves known in strange ways, King Joseph commanded that all the mystics in the Fatherland to travel to the Russian city of St. Petersburg, where the largest cravex was located, to convene and pray to the Ancestors.

“The princes were so full of hatred and blood-lust that they convinced themselves that the king was siding with one of the others. In addition to the mystics, each prince sent a group of their warriors to prevent such an alliance. The mystics, contacting each other through their powers, concluded that a bloodbath would ensue at St. Petersburg if the warriors came to the city. To preserve their holy mission, the mystics met secretly at Vrasick, a small village about fifty miles south of St. Petersburg. There the mystics decided that the princes would not listen to any revelations while they were fighting amongst themselves. It was decided then that only the Great Rite would provide the answers. That, my pups, was the founding night of the Order of Spirits.” The shaman paused from his oratory to take a sip of his canteen as the images faded back into the fire. The newer pups seemed disappointed. One of the braver – or more foolish – decided to speak up.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything? We asked about the leeches, not the damned Order!” the pup demanded. Anger flashed in the eyes of the shaman and the fire shot up in a spire some ten feet high. The offending pup crumpled to the ground, his hands clamped to his throat.

“I was not finished fool. Be quiet, lest I seal your throat permanently.” A cough rose from the stricken pup, followed by several gasps for air, signaling that he survived the shaman’s punishment. I remembered one of my “classmates” not being so lucky. Tysach was a brutal time for the pups. It needed to be. The world beyond the relative safety of tysach was even more brutal, and very deadly to an uninitiated lycanthrope. The actions of the shaman were not a petty display of power against an insolent pup, but an important lesson for all of the pups. A lesson the older pups had seen before and hopefully would hammer into the younger ones before one of them died. Do not challenge someone more powerful than you. The fire spire died and a depiction of a forest clearing emerged in the flames. The shaman continued his story, “The Great Rite is a very powerful rite. It summons the First Ancestor, the lycanthrope who led our people out of our forgotten Motherland and into the Fatherland. It is almost never done, because to come into the physical world the spirit of the First Ancestor must consume lycanthrope flesh. It was decided by the newly founded Order that their accompanying warriors would be the sacrifice. A fitting use for their worthless pelts.” The shaman grinned maliciously, the institutional memory remembering the cruel joke of the shaman. Personally, I never found the humor in it. Still, I never understood most of what passes for humor among the shaman.

“The Rite engulfed St. Petersburg in colors only the spirits have words to describe. The First Ancestor came down and laid waste to the cravex, killing most of the lycanthropes inside. Only a few mystics survived to make their way back to the king with the message that the First Ancestor bestowed upon them before destroying everything in sight. ‘Soon, the Blood Moon shall rise. On that night, the lycanthropes must go forth into the human cities and slaughter one third of the populace as offering to me. For this gift of blood and flesh, the answers will come forth. Prepare yourselves, my children. ENEMIES!’” With this ending sentence, the flames in front of the shaman roared into the sky once again. A hole opened in the flames. Wisps of fire danced in and around the hole, and within it, a picture appeared. Not the pictures of flame that had accompanied the telling of the story, but a clear image was fading into the hole. A forest appeared and I saw the wolf.

The wolf reached down and retrieved the sword from the ground. Its previous human owner was face down in a pool of his own blood. The human was foolish, trying to kill a lycanthrope with a steel sword instead of a silver one. Well, the human paid for his foolishness with his life. The wolf grinned inwardly at the memory of the sound of tearing of flesh and escaping air as he ripped this foolish human’s throat out. The wolf balanced the sword in his clawed hand. The red moonlight reflected into the wolf’s eyes. The cold steel sliced through the cool night air smoothly. It was definitely a prize. He remembered one of the older members of his pack teaching him a few sword-fighting techniques. Humans may not have our claws and our fangs, but their minds make such useful replacements, the warrior told the young wolf after the exhausting session. The young wolf’s series of practice thrusts and parries were interrupted by the silent emergence of the twenty lycanthropes that constituted the rest of his pack’s warriors from the forest. His pack leader came to him and laid his hand on the young wolf’s shoulder. He smiled down at the young wolf. The pack leader was proud of the young warrior’s demonstrated skill in tracking and dispatching of the human.

The leader motioned for his warriors to leave the dirt road and creep back into the forest. They were needed at the cravex where the rest of the packs would meet with the lord. As the pack silently moved through the underbrush, the leader quickly reflected on the young wolf’s fight with the human. The wolf showed the instincts of a proven warrior during that fight. Instincts like that were too good to be wasted on the traditional position of young wolves in the pack. The young wolf, the leader decided, would take the lead position. Some of the older wolves in the pack would object, but they were not going to do anything more than grumble. More than one learned the hard way what happens to those who disobeyed the orders of the pack leader. The war brought on such harsh measures. As the pack entered the cravex, a rise above the largest human village in the lordship, the leader pulled the young wolf aside and told him of his decision. The young wolf’s eyes lit up with pride and glee. Only the solemn attitude of the cravex prevented the wolf from howling with joy into the night. He joined the rest of the pack in their portion of the cravex, called their entre, while the pack leader met with the lord and the other pack leaders.

As the other pack members swapped war stories and small talismans, the young wolf glanced back to where the lord and the pack leaders were meeting in the center of the cravex. The lord’s mystic created a small replica of the village out of the flames of the fire. The lord was telling his pack leaders how each pack was to go through the village. Unfortunately, the young wolf was too far away to hear anything than a low murmur from the meeting. Slightly disappointed, the wolf turned his head back to his packmates and listened to the oldest warrior talking about a battle with the packs of one of the northern lords.

The pack leader rejoined his pack warriors in the entre and told them that they were going to be the first group to attack the village. The pack would attack by going north through the forest that lay next to the main road. When the forest stopped, the pack would then launch a fast and savage attack on the village. The other packs would be hitting the village soon after from other directions.  The pack leader gave each warrior a position and reminded them of the responsibility that the position entailed. He confirmed what he had told the young wolf earlier by naming him to the point position. As expected, a few heads turned a that announcement, but their faces fell back to neutrality and fell back into line as the leader glared at each of them.

The pack warriors stood up as one and turned to face their lord who had taken his traditional place in the center of the cravex. Instead of the expected rousing speech, the lord simply told his packs, “The First Ancestor has given us a mission, a crusade as the humans would call it. We will do it. Kill every third human you see and any that dare get in our way. No mercy.” With that, the lord drew his ancient silver sword from the scabbard at his side, the odd Roman lettering etched into the blade glittering in the red moonlight. He pointed towards the village. The warriors in the cravex melted silently into the tree line with their lord’s silent command.

The pack moved silently through the forest, staying near the edges of the dirt road. After about an hour of careful movement the pack approached the dark town. The young wolf smelled the dank and musty odors of the village long before he saw the first few buildings on the horizon. He signaled the pack that the village was in sight.  The pack slowed and then stopped as the forest died away, a few hundred feet short of the village. The pack leader wanted to make sure there were no surprises waiting for them, so he moved up next to the young wolf. Although only a few torches were outside of the wood buildings, the two wolves’ eyes easily picked out the few humans that were walking about in the night. Some of them were gazing up at the red Blood Moon in amazement and fear. The young wolf grinned at his pack leader. A low growling signal from his pack leader launched the young wolf into a racing attack. Speeding on his hind legs, the young wolf closed the distance in a matter of seconds.

The first to fall to the young wolf’s blazing attack was a young female. Her heart was split open when the wolf thrust his sword through her chest. The blood gushed out of the human’s chest and onto the wolf’s arms. A group of five men saw the attack from across the dirt street and attacked the wolf with pitchforks as the body of the young woman slid off of his blade and crumpled to the ground. The wolf launched himself into the air. One of the village men was decapitated as the wolf landed amidst the group. Another, recovering quickly from shock at the wolf’s speed, charged  with his pitchfork. The wolf sidestepped the attack and grabbed the man’s throat with his claws. A quick yank tore through the man. The wolf heard the man fall into the soft dirt behind him. He threw the flesh and gore that had been the human’s throat down with slight disgust. The sound of gurgling came from behind him. The wolf whirled to face the other three to find them cut down by the pack leader and another member of his pack. A short bark from his leader reminded the young wolf of his mission. The pack leader shook his head slightly at the wolf in anger. The young wolf made his first mistake of the mission, and the pack leader hoped it would be his last.

The pack continued up the dirt street. They mercilessly raided the houses and shops that stood alongside it. Screams of fear and pain from the humans became commonplace, as did the red blood on the claws, fangs, and scattered weapons of the wolves. The few humans who attempted to resist the pack’s carnage were immediately slaughtered. At the north end of the village, the pack came upon a small house that almost stood by itself, away from the other buildings. No light came from inside, making the whole house darker. The smell of death and blood drifted out to where the pack gathered in front. The wolf read his leader’s expression. They were the only lycanthropes in this part of the village. Why were these smells coming from this house? The leader ordered his pack to stay in front of the house while he investigated. A few of the pack looked as they were going to object, but the leader’s scowl made them reconsider. The pack leader leapt over the log fence that surrounded the house and quickly moved up to the front of the house, using the darkness and shadows to cover his movement from anyone inside the house.

With a swift kick, the leader broke down the door and entered the darkened house as the pack watched. The pack members were already using the time to rest from their night of killing. A short moment later, the pack leader’s piercing howl of pain startled the pack. The young wolf was the first to respond. He jumped over the log fence and made a direct run for the doorway of the house. Leaping through the darkened doorway, the young wolf’s eyes turned the darkness into visibility. What he saw stopped him dead in his tracks. The pack leader was on the floor in a crumpled heap, a bloody stump where his right arm should have been. Lying next to him were two broken human bodies. Standing above them were two creatures the likes of which the young wolf had never seen before.

Both of the creatures were well above seven feet high, fully covered in matty, brown fur. Both had flat faces, accented with mouths full of sharp teeth and particularly long fangs. The hands and feet looked human, except for the sharp claws ending each digit. Under each arm was a flap of what looked like the leather. They smelled musky, like a rat or a mouse, but mixed with the familiar scent of blood. As the wolf stared in shock at these two monstrosities, the larger one leapt at him. Awakening to the attack, the wolf jumped to the side. He swung his sword as the brown-black thing flew past him. The wolf was ecstatic as he felt the sword bite into the creature’s side and slice through it. He landed a few yards away and turned toward the howling creature. The wolf’s eyes went wide as the deep gash made by the sword sealed itself quickly.

Ancestors, these creatures could heal themselves like lycanthropes! the young wolf thought. The creature again took advantage of the wolf’s surprise to launch another attack. This time the young wolf wasn’t fast enough to protect himself from the attack. The wolf’s body flashed in pain as the creature’s clawed fist picked him up off the floor and threw him against the far wall. As the wolf slowly picked himself up from the floor, he felt the hot, sticky flow of blood spread across his chest. He waited momentarily allowing his body to quickly recuperate from the attack, like the wolf’s pack members had taught him. Although his back healed at the supernatural rate with which he was accustomed, the gashes on his chest stayed open, releasing more of the wolf’s blood onto his body and the wood floor. His head began to swim slightly as the creature charged him yet again. The wolf barely managed to throw up his arm to defend himself from the vicious blow. He howled as his arm cracked under the strike and the claws bit deep into his flesh.

The intense pain of the strike cleared the haze from the young wolf’s head and threw him back into the fight. Finding a reserve of strength, the wolf attacked. His uninjured arm shot out into the creature’s stomach. His claws pierced the skin and sunk deep into the creature’s innards. Satisfied that they were going as deep as possible, the wolf yanked his arm upward, slicing open large sections of the creature’s front. The creature stumbled back, grasping its stomach, trying desperately to keep its entrails inside of it, and howling in pain. Thick, black fluid oozed between its fingers. It seemed an eternity before the creature gave a final cry and slumped to the floor. Black fluid leaked from the body out onto the floor. The wolf rose to his feet, the wounds on his chest punishing him for every inch that he moved. He began to slowly stagger toward the other creature. Smiling at the young wolf, it turned away from him and ran for the window. The wolf stood transfixed as it transformed into a bat and smashed through the glass.

A shot of pain from his chest awoke him from his shock. The wolf stumbled over to his pack leader. The older lycanthrope was dead. The creatures not only cut off his arm, but they also removed his heart. Silently mourning, the wolf grabbed the leader’s remaining arm and dragged his body outside, ignoring his own pain. There he saw his pack engaged in a fight with several more of the bizarre creatures. Anger made the pain of his wounds and grief over his pack leader’s death melt away. He gripped at his side. The sword wasn’t there, having been knocked away from him during the fight with the strange creature. The wolf bent down and grabbed the leader’s silver dagger, given to the leader by the King himself. Armed now, he turned and joined his packmates in the fray.

The picture suddenly vanished and the flames died down. The shaman began his oratory again, finishing the story.

“Encounters like what you have seen happened all over the Fatherland. From what we have learned since, the leeches saw the Blood Moon and smelled the blood of the slaughtered humans. They followed their hunger for the blood into the villages and towns where the lycanthrope packs were carrying out their sacred mission. The two races clashed for the first time.  As it turned out, the Blood Moon fulfilled its name. Many lycanthropes and vampires died during that first night. Many packs were completely destroyed by the leeches. However, the fight and the shock of a new enemy in their midst united the princes and lords behind their king. From the ensuing wars between our two races, we learned the leeches’ true nature as supernatural creatures – and their weaknesses. With that knowledge, we learned to kill the vampires. We even created a special group of lycanthropes that specialize in the extermination of the vampires. You may have heard of the hunters from your packs already. Our guards here at this campsite are hunters. These are highly trained vampire-killers, much as my brethren and I in the Order are skilled in the use of the magicks.”

I turned back toward my post as the shaman continued. His mention of the hunters reminded me of my job. I cursed at myself for lapsing, even for a moment. To hunters, when a job is given, it becomes the most important part of our lives. We live – and die – to complete the jobs that the aristocracy hands down to us. The top cardinal sin of the hunters is to fail the job, especially because of carelessness or incompetence. I quickly looked around, relieved because there were no leeches around, and more so, because none of the other hunters around the marsh noticed my lapse.

In the structure of lycanthrope society, the hunters belong to the Hunters Guild. In the Kingdom of the United States, the Guild has chapters at the national, state, and county levels. Like the Order of Spirits, we are outside the packs, sworn to the aristocracy. The Guild takes pups from all over the nation that have shown promise during tysach and sends them to a preliminary training camp. Those who don’t die during the preliminary training are then taken for extensive training in a secluded camp. Not even the King of the United States knows where it is, although past kings have tried to find out. The end result of it is a lean mass of lycanthrope that is dedicated to the eradication of the vampire.

Which was why the other hunters and I were in the swamp. The vampires in Florida recently began trying to take out our pups in tysach. Of course, the vampire councils blamed the attacks on rogue vampires coming up out of the open war between the vampires and the lycanthropes that in the Disputed Territories in southern Florida. Neither side wanted that to spread across the state, and there was never enough evidence to point to one of the councils. Still, since the lycanthropes were currently the dominant power in the state, Guild intelligence believed the vampires wanted to change the equation in their normal slow and long-term style. So, the Hunters Guild decided to provide protection for the pups in tysach. A job, as the missions are called in-house, we were more than happy to fulfill. Pups are one of the most sacred parts of our society, and we take any threats to them with the deadly seriousness that any mother would have for her child.  This explained what I was doing in the middle of a lost campground, armed with a stubby Colt Commando carbine, and, strangely for me, hoping to avoid combat tonight. I didn’t think these pups would know what to do if an attack came, and hunters do not trust the magicks of the shaman. Okay, that was an institutional bias due to the political infighting between the shaman and the hunters. I knew that it had no actual grounds. Especially considering the number of times that the Order and the Guild cooperated to deal with various threats that the vampire and others brought to the packs. That didn’t stop me from feeling wary of the old shaman’s powers.

As I returned to my original position, I noticed a small flock of birds settle into a nearby tree. My instincts roared warnings. Something was wrong with this flock.  I could feel it, almost taste it. The wind blew across my face. Now, I was sure. I put the butt of the carbine to my shoulder, flipping the selector switch from SAFE to AUTO. I was going to have to hose the entire tree, which wasn’t going to be easy with only a thirty-round magazines. However, luck was in my favor. The leeches hiding in the treemust have no longer felt safe in the tree, because they launched themselves at me, shedding their bat form for true form.

The campsite exploded in sound as I emptied the magazine of my Commando into the lead vampire. Thirty silver bullets slammed into the vampire’s head and torso. It looked like the leech stopped in midair as the impact of the burst forced it backward. The body made a soft thump into the mud below as it fell from the air. Its two companions landed in front of me about thirty feet away. Both stood in true form, a strange mix of bat and human. I didn’t feel I had time to switch magazines in the Commando, so I dropped it and opted for my Glock 17.

One of the damned things decided not to let me get my pistol. The leech launched at me with surprising speed. It tackled me just as I got my pistol out of its holster, crossing the distance between us in a second. I heard my Glock land in the mud as my attacker and I sailed through the air. The soft, muddy ground cushioned me slightly as the vampire plowed me into the ground. My attacker kneeled above me, his white claws gleaming in the moonlight. This action told me a good deal about my attacker. First, it wasn’t a Bleeder – the vampire counterpart to Hunters Guild. They have an older, more Gothic name, but only a handful of the modern Bleeders remember it. They did keep some of the traditions from the original Bleeders, one of which was painting their claws a matte black or blue color. So now I knew that my opponent, whose claws were unpainted, was probably some lowlife vampire trying to make a good impression with the Tampa Council. Second, the way its claws glinted in the moonlight telegraphed its next attack. Hunters are extremely proficient in the lycanthropes’ variation of akijitsu for just this sort of occasion when our normal weapons of choice – guns and knives – were unavailable. I waited as the vampire thrust its claws at me. I grasped its arm at the last second, and forced it into the ground next to me. While it was momentarily off balance, I shot my other arm up into its throat. I was rewarded with a scream as it tried to jump back to avoid my counterstrike. Unfortunately for the leech, I still held its arm firmly in the ground – and I was much stronger in my true form than it was. There was a sickening, popping noise as its shoulder dislocated. The leech fell to the ground as I rolled away. I scrambled to my feet and faced the leech. As it tried to get up, I attacked savagely. Both of my arms reached out and cut out the front of its neck. The black fluid that had once been human blood coated my claws.

I felt claws rip into my back. I somersaulted forward, silently berating myself for forgetting the other leech. That and not wearing my Kevlar vest because it was going to be too hot. Sometimes I’m a fucking idiot. My back burned as the salt-laden marsh mud ground into the open wounds. I tried to face it, but this leech was smart enough to press the attack. A blow to my left side forced me back into the mud. I felt my right arm crack as I landed on my side. Unlike the claw cuts on my back, the broken arm reset itself and healed right away with the supernatural speed I was accustomed to. Then, the leech did something foolish.

Instead of continuing to press the attack, it stood to its full height and cackled. I almost smiled. Fucking amateurs. I straightened my right arm out along the ground. In one fluid motion, my left hand reached to my right shoulder and flung the small silver throwing knife into the leech’s chest. It howled as I scampered up to my feet. My right hand hit something as I stood up. My Glock. I greedily snatched the pistol off the ground and leveled the muzzle at the vampire, who was too preoccupied with removing the knife protruding from its chest too notice. I half-grinned at the leech’s pain. Silver wounds burn like hell; I know from experience. I also know from experience not to lose track of what your opponent is doing, such as when this bastard caught me off guard. Oh well, its mistake. I squeezed the trigger and the pistol roared five times. The leech crumpled to the ground.

By this time, the other hunters, the shaman, and the pups came into the area. To me, the battle felt like it lasted for a half-hour. Really, it lasted only about forty-five seconds. As the other hunters sorted out the scene, one of them inspected my wounds for a moment, and then pulled out his medicinal pack. He treated my back with an herbal mixture that enhanced the healing of archanal wounds, or supernatural wounds that can’t be healed as fast as normal ones. I tried to calm down, ejecting the magazine out of my pistol and inserting a fresh one.

“Jeez Ranger, when you get sliced up, you don’t fuck around!” he said. I turned to face him, remembering at the last second that he was still green. He joined the Guild only a few months ago.

“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, Christian,” I murmured as I gritted back the burning pain of the herbal cleansing solution. Wolfsbane was good for a lot of things, but it burned with an intensity that I was almost willing to risk infection instead of treating my wounds with it. Trying to block out the pain, I looked out at the recent battlefield. The pups were probing the bodies of the three vampires.

“Bleeders come to take our young!” declared the shaman dramatically. The other hunters and I rolled our eyes at that comment. Shamans were always trying to rouse the packs against the vampire, even when there were no packs to rouse. The Order of Spirits hated the Peace since its inception. They claim because the Peace reeks of apostasy against the Ancestors. A lot of lycanthropes suspect the Order opposes it for more political reasons. When the Peace came into effect, the Hunters Guild was elevated from just above common pack warriors to the equal of the Order. After all, if your warriors can’t openly fight the leeches, then the assassins and spies that do it quietly become more valuable. Because of this, over the years, the Hunters Guild has become more politically involved. Many Guildmasters have skillfully manipulated themselves into becoming the power behind the throne. Positions that the Order of Spirits previously dominated.

“Not Bleeders. Just some amateur leeches. The TCV probably ‘suggested’ that they should see if they could find some young pelts to prove themselves.” I needed to make this point clear in front of the pups. They may be secluded during tysach, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some messages back to the packs. If the Bleeders were responsible for the attack on the pups, the packs would consider it a personal challenge to my Guildmaster from the leader of the Bleeders. The Bleeders knew hunters guarded the pups and to try us on our most sacred job was such an insult that retaliation would have to be swift, violent, and very well ending whatever support for the Peace the Guild held.

“Are you sure?” asked the shaman, “After all, they did attack us in a place we that is secret.” His eyes held mine as the contest waged. I hated this political infighting, but I was damned if I was going to lose to a fucking shaman. I walked over to the leech bodies, still holding his gaze. Grasping the nearest’s wrists, I raised the hands so that the white claws gleamed in the moonlight.

“Bleeders paint their claws so they don’t reflect light. Besides, Bleeders are smart enough not to land upwind of a hunter. Furthermore, if this spot was totally secure, me and the others would not be here doing guard work. I know. This is my job.” I raised my voice during the last sentence, challenging the shaman to continue. I noticed the other hunters and the pups backing up. Hunters are the best fighters around. Shaman, however, can manipulate the mystic forces of the Ancestors. Fights between members of the Hunters Guild and the Order of Spirits are always nasty. Most of the time, it was whoever struck first. This shaman decided not to take up the gauntlet. He quietly motioned for his pupils to return to the fire. He shot an evil glare over his shoulder. I embarrassed him slightly in front of the pups. Lycanthropes followed the leader we perceived as the strongest, and he knew that some of the pups might begin to wonder who was stronger, him or me?

“Ranger, would you not pick a fight with the shaman we gotta guard for the rest of the night?” asked one of the other hunters. The others murmured their agreement. I could see by their expressions where I stood. After all, I was not a member of this hit pack. I came up from the lone wolves. The quiet rivalry between our factions in the Guild chilled the air. The only reason I was here was to replace the last member who came down with a severe case of silver poisoning. He took a full burst during a skirmish with some vamps. The others were not all that comfortable with having me with them on what they considered their most important job. I backed down and returned to my post, picking up my carbine along the way. As I changed its magazine and cleaned it up a little, I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.

Chapter One: Pay Attention, There’s a Lot Of Stuff You Need to Know