Cafe Verona was a small Italian place nestled in the heart of Soho, or South Howard Avenue, one of the trendy urban neighborhoods. It was also in the middle of leech territory. I moved fast after the raid on the harem – or whatever that place was – to get down to the restaurant. There was barely enough time to change into more casual clothes from the tactical rig I was using for the assault. I needed to get into leech territory before dusk. I didn’t want the bother of dealing with any of the younger vampires prowling the streets. I was here for business, not brawling.

Cafe Verona was like Poppa Gus’s, but for Bleeders instead of hunters. The maître’d of Cafe Verona knew me on sight. It wasn’t the first time I’d met Bradon here. Cafe Verona and Poppa Gus’s were considered neutral ground between the hunters and Bleeders. You don’t pick a fight in the other guy’s drinking hole. Even with the heightened tensions between the lycanthropes and the vampires, I knew I was completely safe in Cafe Verona. Which didn’t mean I wasn’t getting all sorts of nasty looks from some of the other patrons. I was eating a very nice concoction of pasta and Italian sausage tossed in white wine sauce when Bradon finally arrived around nine. Bradon rarely ate during our meetings, not that he actually needed to eat. Rather than having him wait patiently while I ate, we came to an agreement that I was to go ahead and start on my food before he arrived. Bradon was a tall vampire, topping at around six-three. He wore his black hair stylishly long. He probably spent more on his hair than I did on a pair of pants. His dark eyes were animated with amusement. It made me a bit uneasy. Bradon’s idea of amusement rarely matched mine. He was immaculately dressed in an Armani suit of dark blue. I knew it was Armani, because Bradon told me the first time he wore it to one of our meetings. I can identify pretty much any gun at fifty paces and list the manufacture specs and known problems, but before Bradon and I began our “arrangement” I wouldn’t know one suit from another even if I was shown the labels. It just wasn’t part of my world. With vampires, it was all about appearance, both the physical and the political. Byzantine was the mildest word used to describe the vampires’ internal politics. Bradon spent a lot of time teaching me the bare minimum of fashion, if for no other reason than to make sure that I could properly appreciate his wardrobe. I stopped eating long enough for him to take a seat and order a wine.

“I don’t know whether to send my Bleeders after you or buy you that new pistol you’ve been talking about,” Bradon said, watching me with definite amusement.

“Oh?” I asked in response. Bradon was well aware that verbal sparring was not one of my strengths. He never said anything where he didn’t want me to respond. “I kind of figured you’d want to nail my pelt to the wall.”

“Some of the Inner Council would love to do just that,” Bradon answered, taking the proffered wine from the waiter, “The same individuals you just horribly embarrassed. Silanti was most displeased that you attacked our facility.”

“My heart bleeds for Silanti,” I replied sarcastically.

“Don’t tease him if you’re not willing to put out,” Bradon chided playfully. I bit down a snort of laughter. Bradon’s wit was one of the few things that made our meetings more or less enjoyable.

“The alchemists should have known better than to put their harem on our territory,” I continued, trying to keep my tone severe, “Didn’t matter, though. We would have hit the harem if it was two doors down from the Council’s home.”

“First of all, that was not the harem,” Bradon said. I froze in shock for a split second. I hoped I kept my face neutral at the revelation. Intelligence being wrong was not unusual. Intelligence being wrong on this magnitude was very unusual, especially considering all of the hours that went into confirming it. If Bradon noticed my surprise, he didn’t show it. He just continued, “That was an alchemists’ lab. One of their little experiments. Still, it was quite clear to the Inner Council you believed that it was the harem.”

“Really,” I replied, “So why do you want to give me an early Christmas present?”

“Oh, because your little raid allowed me to swat down one of my annoying subordinates,” Bradon said, fully enjoying himself. Of course, he was happy. Bradon was a master game player. The first time we met, Bradon used me to kill his superior and then to ascend to the head of the Bleeders. I knew of at least two other times he used me to take out political rivals. I suspected there were more he hadn’t bothered to brag about. I was willing to play the pawn for two reasons. First, because Bradon gave me good intelligence. Second, because Bradon was aligned with the faction of the TCV that wanted to maintain the Peace. If Bradon pointed out a particular leech, it was probably someone that would threaten the Peace.

“Exactly how did you manage this little coup?” I asked.

“Do you believe that I will let you into Bleeders’ politics?” he countered with a mock severity.

“Yes,” I answered flatly, “Because you can’t refuse a chance to brag when one of your convoluted schemes comes together. Particularly when I’m the one who you used as a cat’s paw. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me. This time, though, a pup was threatened. I know you Bradon. That’s not your normal style.”

“It wasn’t,” Bradon answered, some of his amusement vanishing, “I know it comes as no surprise to you that Silanti is encouraging younger members of the Council to be more aggressive towards the werewolves. One of Silanti’s newest ideas is to have his minions attack the pups when and where they could find them. I was keeping the Bleeders out of that disaster, but Devon disagreed with my decision.” I recognized the name. Devon was a rising star in the Bleeders, and he was aligned with Silanti’s anti-Peace faction. The Guildmaster pegged Devon for removal after the first time Bradon told me about him, but the leech was a careful bastard. “After your little bonfire in front of the Council House, Silanti argued for a strong retribution, and Devon lent his support – and a pair of Bleeders loyal to him.”

“The TCV didn’t ask you about this?” I asked, slightly incredulous. Bradon’s iron-clad control over the Bleeders was well-known, even amongst the lycanthropes.

“I didn’t let them,” he answered.

“You gave Devon enough rope to hang himself,” I supplied, “You knew the Guildmaster wouldn’t let the Bleeders’ presence go without retribution.”

“Of course,” Bradon replied, “So I arranged for him to have two of my most worthless Bleeders. Ones I knew your hunters would have no problem killing. It was a bit of a gamble, but your Guildmaster has been much more ruthless in culling your underperforming hunters than I can with my Bleeders. Then, I waited for the retribution. To be fair, I didn’t anticipate your choice of target. The Bleeders were well aware your people thought that alchemists’ lab was the harem. Do you know how hard I had to work on that bit of disinformation? Now I have to come up with something else.”

“You planted that information for us to find,” I said, still amazed at how Bradon operated so flawlessly. Bradon was a bit of a braggart, but I couldn’t deny his skills. Bradon was, quite possibly, the most dangerous vampire in Hillsborough. He knew how to manipulate events better than anyone I knew. Bradon basked in my quiet admiration for a moment and then continued with his bragging.

“So, when it was reported that you not only wiped out the lab, but then called in shaman to eradicate any trace of us, that shook the Inner Council. Devon reassured them that your Guildmaster would never attack such a high-value target as the harem. Not just because we went after one pup.”

“So, is the Inner Council going to back down?” I asked, finally able to get to the point of the meeting. Talks with Bradon reminded me of a Japanese tea ceremony – hours of build-up for a fifteen second event. It was annoying, but I was willing to endure it for the sake of the job. Plus, Bradon is a charming and entertaining vampire. Although, I’d never admit that to anyone.

“Your lord should be receiving our missive asking for a consultation on neutral ground for the purpose of reducing the tensions and reaffirming the Peace,” Bradon answered, “All in the name of avoiding the wrath of the Pathwalkers, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed, mimicking his tone. With that part of the conversation concluded, I did a little digging. “So you didn’t think we’d hit the ha-, ah alchemists’ lab?”

“Honestly, no,” Bradon answered, “Something of value, but not quite of that high value. Still, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This little raid has your fingerprints all over it.” Bradon chuckled at the surprise on my face. Bradon was too damned good.

“Well, I did assist on the attack,” I admitted, trying to regroup.

“No, you planted that particular target in your Guildmaster’s ear,” Bradon countered, “It’s your style. Straight for the jugular. No shading or manipulation. Your Guildmaster is far more subtle in terms of operations. It was one of the reasons he hadn’t rid me of Devon before I needed to take matters in my own hands. In this case, it worked. You can inform the Guildmaster that such ‘straight-forwardness’ may not be so effective the next time.”

“Don’t involve the pups the next time you play your fucking games,” I retorted, unable to keep my anger out of my voice.

“There’s that vulgar language again,” Bradon said, his voice dripping with sweet condescension, “It really isn’t becoming. Especially in such a nice restaurant.” That signaled the end of the business talk. I remained to finish my meal and to discuss less serious things with Bradon. He was my enemy, but he was always willing to have an interesting conversation, be it art, literature, religion, or even new weapons the humans were producing. Sometimes my relationship with Bradon worried me.

————————

The following morning I waited patiently in the Guildmaster’s office as he finished his morning reports. It amazed me the amount of paper and electronic crap the Guildmaster was forced to sift through every morning. Between going over intelligence and readiness reports, he also dealt with all of the money matters and other miscellaneous stuff that came with running a covert organization without arousing the humans’ suspicion. I checked my e-mail on my phone as I waited. There weren’t any more mysterious messages.

“Well, you’ll be glad to know that Cannon will be back within a week or two,” the Guildmaster said, not looking up from his reports, “The shaman cured him of whatever the alchemists did to him.”

“He’s good, at least from Whisper tells me,” I said, looking up from my phone. “What did you want from me today?”

“Your contact in the Bleeders told you the attack on the pup was an internal power play?” the Guildmaster asked with a slightly suspicious tone, “What makes you think that’s true?”

“He’s always given me good info before,” I answered, holding up my hand to fend off the coming retort, “I know, I know that’s not a good reason, but it checks out with other things. Plus, the leeches did offer to back down.”

“Your source informed you of this?” the Guildmaster asked, his eyebrow arched. I nodded in response. “This isn’t like the leeches. Usually they are far more unified when dealing with us. What is the odd factor?”

“I’ll bet it’s Silanti,” I mused, “From everything I’m hearing, he’s the one causing most of the trouble.”

“All of the Guild is hearing the same thing from their contacts,” the Guildmaster agreed, “Marcus, I want you to get together with James and Kurt. The three of you need to come up with options to remove Silanti. One needs to be covert and with complete deniability for Lord Vollen.”

“Why me?” I asked, “This sounds like something that should be just left to Deadeye and Sneller.” I wasn’t trying to shirk a job. I was trying not to insult the two highest hunters in the chapter. I didn’t work for them, but I didn’t want any bad blood between us. It would just make it difficult if I did need their help on a job.

“I want a strong set of plans for dealing with Silanti,” the Guildmaster answered, his tone conveying he had anticipated my objection, “You have a completely different way of doing things than Kurt or James. Plus, I figure you’ll actually follow a plan if you helped develop it.”

“You’re a funny guy, boss,” I replied with a sour look. He just smirked in response. “Any other jobs for me?”

“Actually yes,” the Guildmaster answered, holding up one of the reports on his desk. “The Sirens have reappeared. The Pinellas Guild is going after them. They want some Hillsborough hunters with them in case they have to cross into our territory during the job. Select two or three other hunters and meet up with their group in the Carrillon Park by the clock tower. I don’t know how much assistance they’ll need from us, but do me a favor and just play nice.”

“I’ll play nice with the Pinellas folks, but definitely not with The Sirens,” I said. The Sirens were a group of wizards that popped up now and again. They could best be described as eco-terrorists with magic. Their leaders spewed something about maintaining the pristine nature of the environment that humans were defiling. The Sirens wreaked havoc on shipping and fishing boats moving through Tampa Bay. Within the unseen world, lycanthropes usually only dealt with the vampire and the occasional Turak noble that came visiting. Wizards, witches, and other human magic-slingers generally kept to themselves, and we were more than happy to let them. The Sirens were a different matter. They had absolutely no problem with throwing too much mystical power around to accomplish their goals. That kind of callous disregard could bring the Pathwalkers, and no sane individual wanted that to happen. Sometimes the demi-gods of the unseen world were very surgical in taking out a problem. Sometimes, they were a nuclear bomb to the supernatural. You never knew which option the Pathwalkers would take if they came to town. For some reason, the local mystic groups refused to put a stop to the Sirens. If they weren’t going to step up, the lycanthropes. We didn’t want the Pathwalkers anywhere near us, and we weren’t willing to wait for one of the other factions to step up to the job.

The Sirens, as their name suggested, worked in and around the bay. I needed a hunter with maritime experience. I’ve used boats in the past, but I’m nowhere near an expert. Dealing with magic-wielding humans while on the water would require an expert. I needed Skiff, the Hillsborough chapter’s resident expert on watercraft and maritime assaults. Fortunately, Skiff was one of the hunters who didn’t give a damn if I was a Badmoon. He was a very laid-back individual, usually adopting the persona of a California surfer. Sometimes his manner of speaking drove me nuts, but I’d seen him working under fire. Skiff was unshakable and professional when everything else was going to hell.

In addition to Skiff, I asked Nick to come along. Since most of our operations were temporarily suspended while the aristocracy and the TCV talked things out, Nick quickly agreed. Nick was like me – he was happier better doing a job than doing nothing. The three of us met up at the armory and threw a bunch of gear into Skiff’s SUV, climbed in, and took the Howard Franklin Bridge across the bay to Pinellas County. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were close allies for decades. Many of our packs have familial ties between the two counties. The Guild chapters in both counties constantly shared intelligence and often trained and worked with each other. Our traditional closeness was strengthened over the past decade. First it was the Pinellas hunters helping us retrain after years of the first Lord Vollen’s dismal micromanagement. Then, we repaid the debt when we sent hunters to help rebuild the Pinellas chapter after their disastrous Guildmaster was removed. Like any organization, sometimes a Guildmaster is appointed that turns out to be either incompetent or unstable. That rat bastard did a lot of damage in the short time he was in charge. Fortunately, the hunter that replaced that bastard as Guildmaster in was extremely effective in repairing the damage. He also went a long way to fix our relationship and promoted the cooperation between our two chapters to the point where there was no hesitation for one chapter to call upon the other for assistance.

The Carillon Park was a massive development just off of I-275 in the Feathersound area of Pinellas County. It wasn’t too far from the county line that divided the bay between the two counties. Between St. Petersburg and Largo, Carillon was the home of several financial institutions, apartment and townhouse complexes and a small shopping complex. In the middle was a lake with boardwalk and a clock tower. The tower was the usual meet place when our chapters worked together on the Pinellas side. As we walked up to the clock tower, I saw four lycanthropes waiting for us. They were definitely the hunters for Pinellas. There was no mistaking a hunter’s casual alertness as they came out to meet us.

“Shit, we ask for assistance and they send us the Badmoon,” the leader commented. The lightness in his tone belied the implied insult. I recognized him, but I couldn’t remember his name.

“Jetsam, dude, the Guildmaster knew you’d, like, need someone to watch your weak ass,” Skiff replied, “Ranger might be a Badmoon, but at least he can, like, shoot straight.” Once Skiff said the hunter’s name, I remembered him. Jetsam and his crew was Pinellas’s maritime crew. Considering we were going after the Sirens, I should have realized Jetsam’s hit pack would be rolled out.

“So we hear,” Jetsam answered, “Nice job at the harem. We haven’t found the Clearwater Council’s harem, but we’re still looking.”

“You haven’t heard?” I asked.

“Heard what?” Jetsam asked, confused. Was the Guildmaster withholding information from the Pinellas chapter? That didn’t sound right. More likely, the grapevine was working faster than the intelligence pipeline. It was a dangerous aspect of our business. Rumors always travelled faster and farther than facts. Hunters needed facts, not rumors.

“What we hit wasn’t their harem,” I answered, “It was some sort of alchemists’ lab. Don’t know if the CCV and the TCV’s alchemists are working together, but I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Fuck,” Jetsam’s deputy said, his tone conveying horrified disgust, “As if we don’t have enough problems. We’ve been seeing the alchemists become more active on this side of the bay. I hate to think what they might be cooking up if what I heard about your raid is even slightly true.”

“Are they still hiding among the Scientologists?” asked Nick.

“Yeah, and there’s not much we’re going to do about it,” answered another of the hit pack, “Those Turaki puppets own most of Clearwater. We bitched to the Turaki, but they aren’t going to do anything. They also made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate us putting any of their followers in danger if we decided to take out the alchemists.” I hated the fucking aliens. It wasn’t unusual for members of the unseen world to hide within human religions and secret societies. The Turaki infiltrated the Scientologists in the religion’s early years. The witch-hunters used both the Masons as well as a variety of churches to cover their operations. Wizards and witches usually had their home in non-traditional religions, such as Wicca and Golden Dawn. Most of the time it was simple camouflage, but the Turaki used their organization to spread their own influence and power in the seen and unseen worlds. Their high-handed manner meant they refused to see real dangers and only dealt with what they considered a threat to their power base. Which is how the Clearwater Council’s alchemists could hide within their followers without fear of reprisal.

“Okay, so what’s the plan for the Sirens?” I asked, trying to get the group back on the job.

“They’ve been operating near the Skyway,” Jetsam said, “Intelligence says they’re attacking small craft all over the bay, but they like sticking near the big bridge. We were going to take a bait boat and the tac boat down there and see if we can arouse their ire.” The plan was simple and useful when dealing with a mobile group like the Sirens. The bait boat looked like the Sirens’ current favor target. The tac boat was low-observable and heavily armed with a couple of machine guns and a grenade launcher. It was a joint purchase between our two Guild chapters. It wasn’t used very often, but the Sirens seemed like a damned good time for the additional firepower.

“Do we have an MO for them?” I asked. In my experience, the small extreme groups tended to stay with a single modus operandi, or way of doing things. Usually, it was a matter of sticking with what worked. Even I used a few basic themes when working jobs. The problem with just sticking with what worked was that it gave an observant enemy the chance to find all the nasty little holes and exploit them. Amateurs like the Sirens never noticed the holes until you put a bullet through them.

“From what we’ve seen, they track a ‘suspicious’ boat,” Jetsam said, “When the boat does something that is an ‘affront to Gaea,’ the Sirens strike. They incapacitate the crew, throw them overboard, and then blow the ship with some spectacular displays of magic. This is according to the Coast Guard reports. The humans, of course, are chalking it up to delusions from shock. So far, the Sirens have racked up a dozen ships and killed maybe ten or so humans. The amount of magic they’re throwing around is being noticed by our shaman, which means the Pathwalkers can’t ignore them for too much longer.”

“How so?” I asked, not understanding the connection.

“Something about realms of magic being crossed,” Jetsam answered, “Our Spiritmaster gave us a long explanation, but most of it went over my head. The takeaway is our shaman believe the Pathwalkers are aware of what’s going on. They’ll give us some time to clean up the mess on our own, but we need to get this done.”

“The wizards?” Nick asked.

“Refuse to do anything beyond giving us all the intelligence we need to take care of the Sirens,” Jetsam’s deputy answered, “As long as they don’t have to do it themselves.” Fucking wizards. It was almost enough for me to wish that Ivan the Terrible had been able to forge the wizards into an actual society with hard rules and discipline instead of the loose society with simple guidelines the wizards used these days. Almost. Jetsam gave me a look that he was thinking exactly the same thing.

“From what the wizards gave us, the leader is Betsy Rose,” Jetsam said, showing a picture. Betsy was a lithe woman with a shaved head and a fierce snarl. “She’s strong enough on her own to make things interesting. Apparently, she was one of their little council of wizards, but something happened about fourteen months ago. She completely changed from a loyal councilmember into a radical, left the council, and recreated the Sirens.  She’s got about twelve or so followers. Most of them are minor players. None of them are strong enough to take over for her if she goes down.” The common theme amongst those of us who live in the unseen world is the tendency to follow the strongest. Wizards are no different with the exception they considered a person’s magic prowess as the measure of strength. Just one of the reasons unstable wizards could quickly grab power and cause trouble for the rest of us – like now.

“I asked for a shaman to come along, but the Spiritmaster’s little bitch boy told us we should be able to handle them.” From Jetsam’s expression, he knew the shaman was probably correct. Betsy was probably the biggest threat, but most wizards suffered from the same basic problem. They were enamored with their own power, so they simply forgot things like bullets and knives could kill them just as dead as one of their spells.

“Who’s on the bait boat?” I asked.

“I’m sending Prop and Gutter,” Jetsam answered, pointing to his deputy and what looked like the youngest member of the hit pack, “I would like at least one of you in the bait boat also. I’ll let you decide who to put in there.”

“Skiff, you’re bait,” I told my companion, “Nick, you and me are going to play with the tac boat.” Skiff was the water fighter. If the shit hit the fan, he had the experience to handle himself, whereas Nick and I would’ve been out of our depths, no pun intended. We all climbed into our respective vehicles and drove out to marina. Something about this operation just didn’t sit right with me. The wizards were the closest of the unseen world to the Pathwalkers. While it wasn’t unusual for them to let us deal with their rogues, it was unusual for them to let the matter go this long before stepping in. I filed those thoughts away as we arrived at the marina.

Maritime operations were always a problem because the saltwater tended to fuck up weapons and electronics. My USP was left behind in favor of a Glock 21. As much as I hated to admit it, Glocks stood up to saltwater a lot better than my USP. I brought along my Commando, but I left it in Skiff’s car when I saw the arsenal the tac boat held. The two machine guns were FN M240’s. They fired the heavier 7.62 mm NATO cartridge, which meant the two machine guns could pretty much slice through most other watercraft. Both were stored under the railings of the tac boat, but could be quickly mounted onto two pintle mounts on either side of the boat. Two big ammo boxes held the belts of standard full metal jacket ammunition. Silver ammo was too expensive to be used in machine guns, so the machine guns were used primarily to disable equipment and knock bad guys down. Against the human Sirens, the FMJ rounds would be effective enough – once we got past the magic. The grenade launcher was a Milkor MGL. It held six 40 mm grenades in its revolving cylinder. The Pinellas hunters modified the MGL to mate with a pintle mount or just rest on a railing. Additional small arms were stored in small weapons lockers spaced throughout the tac boat. There were a few MP5’s, a few stainless Mossberg 590 shotguns, and a pair of KAC SR-25 sniper rifles. I was surprised by those two, because like me, the Pinellas Guild preferred anything with a Heckler and Koch stamp on it. When I mentioned it to Jetsam, he told me that the Pinellas Guild took a look at the tests the American Navy did when they chose the SR-25 for their SEALs. For maritime assaults, the SR-25 was just better.  I made a mental note to relate that bit to the Bowmasters. They had a rabid need for all information regarding our weapons. Our electronics had Motorola stamped on them, but it was a rig I hadn’t worked with before. The transmitters were small encrypted devices, and the headsets came in two versions. For those in the bait boat, the headsets were wireless versions that resembled the Bluetooth sets used for cell phones. For us in the tac boat, we had full headsets with boom mikes.

The bait boat set off first, looking every bit the small-time fishing boat. So far, the Sirens attacked only smaller, commercial fishing vessels. Best guess was Rose was still working out the kinks in her followers and slowly increasing the difficulty of their attacks. Jetsam eased the tac boat out of its mooring and followed the bait boat. As Jetsam maintained the five hundred yard interval, Bull, Nick, and I mounted the machine guns, loaded them, and then covered them with small tarps. The last thing we needed was for Mr. Murphy to give the human Coast Guard a peek at the unmistakable profile of a machine gun. Humans tended to get overly jumpy around fully automatic weapons. As the tac boat cruised, I picked out the lights of each of the main bridges. There are four main bridges spanning Tampa Bay. Going north to south is the Courtney Campbell Causeway, then the Howard Franklin (jokingly referred to as the Frankenstein for the insanity of the drivers), followed by the Gandy, and ending with the enormous Sunshine Skyway at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

“Jetsam, what’s your plan for this job?” I asked, “Once we find the Sirens, I mean.” The first incarnation of the Sirens, true to their namesake, lured its enemies out to a secluded cove where they attacked. These Sirens sought out their enemies and attacked out on the open water. Their aggressiveness meant the wizards were in combat mode, rather than in ambush mode. “Who do we have to take down first?”

“One thing we’ve noticed is that these Sirens like chasing their prey,” Jetsam said, “As soon as the Sirens begin their assault, Prop is going to bring his boat north at full speed. We lie quiet, let them go past, and sneak up behind them. Then we’ll take them down with the aimed fire and grenades. Murphy plan if they take out the bait boat – hit the bitches with everything.” It was left unsaid that if the Sirens got the bait boat, we would assume that Skiff, Prop, and Gutter would be dead. The moment the Sirens realized they were dealing with lycanthropes instead of normal humans, all hell would break loose. Wizards were well aware of what it meant when lycanthropes or vampires became involved in their affairs. We tended to bring a lot of death and destruction. Jetsam’s plan was decent, so I just let him drive the boat and scanned the dark waters of the bay with a pair of nightvision binoculars.

We were about a thousand yards south of the Gandy when Nick picked up small boats racing out to the bait boat. As I oriented on Nick’s hushed alert, I saw three small canoes racing out from the Hillsborough side of the bay. The Sirens were using magic to propel the small craft with the sleek swiftness of racing boats. Damn, I was expecting a single, larger target. If Jetsam was surprised, he didn’t let it show in his voice.

“Bait, three targets at 105 degrees. Range is six hundred yards. Speed is about forty knots,” Jetsam reported quietly into the radio. I watched as a long-haired head in the nearest canoe perked up at the same time as Jetsam transmitted. I don’t believe in coincidence. Before I could say anything, all hell broke loose. My nightvision binoculars went white as a brilliant light turned the night to day. One of these days, I’m going to find all of Murphy’s descendants and torture them for long periods of time before killing them. I blinked my eyes to clear the temporary blindness from the sudden light.

“Ranger, one’s coming in,” Nick called. My eyes were still full of stars. I couldn’t see the target, but I had a machine gun and Nick was guiding me.

“Ten o’clock,” Nick called out with that calm assurance I welcomed. I swiveled the machine gun, leaned in, and squeezed the trigger. My eyes cleared enough for me to watch as the red-white tracers lanced out at the canoe. I could make out three figures in the canoe. The front figure was torn apart by the burst of fire, but her companion managed to bring up some form of shield. The bullets smacked against the invisible wall.

“Ranger, Nick, bait!” called out Jetsam, bounding up to the front of the boat with an SR-25. “Bull, give me a distraction!” I swiveled the machine gun to the front of the boat to bear on the two other canoes. From behind me came the distinctive cough of the grenade launcher. Ancestors, it was coming apart fast. Nicky and I opened up on the two other canoes as the initial light began to fade back into darkness. I tracked the rounds to the other canoes, and watched as they ricocheted off invisible shields.

“Bait, targets have shield up,” I said over the radio. Static filled my ears. I looked over to my partner. “Nick, I can’t get the bait boat.”

“Radios are down,” Nick said over the chatter of the machine guns. “EMP hit.” This is why I fucking hate wizards. If I wanted to make an electromagnetic pulse, I’d need a nuke. They can do it magically. With all of our electronics scrapped by the Sirens’ electromagnetic pulse, our lives got a lot more interesting.

“Jetsam, is our target down?” I asked as the machine gun ran dry.

“Nope. Hang on, we’re going to try something else,” Jetsam answered. As I fed a new belt of ammunition into the machine gun, the grenade launcher coughed again. The grenade plopped into the water some five feet ahead of the canoe. There was a small plume of water as the grenade detonated underwater. Jetsam opened fire with his rifle. It was a smart idea. The grenade would rock the boat just enough to move the shield so that Jetsam could get off a decent shot. It took a couple of tries, but Jetsam finally downed the Siren holding up the shield.

“Ranger, I need a machine gun here!” shouted Jetsam. The Siren driving the canoe was turning her boat around. We couldn’t let any of them escape. I swiveled the machine gun at the tiny canoe and opened fire. The tracers merged with the canoe and the boat capsized spectacularly. Bull joined Jetsam up on the front. He snapped off six grenades at the canoes attacking the bait boat. I could hear the weapons fire as Skiff and the other two began opening up. Dammit, we needed to close and engage. The problem was the Sirens’ EMP took out the fucking engines on our boat. Jetsam came bounding off the front of the boat.

“Ranger, Nick follow me!” Jetsam said loudly as he sped past the two of us. We dropped our machine guns and dashed after Jetsam. At the rear of the boat, Jetsam shed for true form and lifted a section off of the back of the boat. The two large engines were now visible. “Both of you, shed and help me manually start these bastards.” The manual starts were simple pull-cords. The extra strength of true form made starting the damn things much easier. The engines coughed and sputtered to life as Jetsam fastened a manual throttle/steering device to the two engines. This is why maritime specialists are needed. When the shit hits the fan, they know the solutions their unique environment requires. Bull shouted directions to Jetsam as Nick and I grabbed weapons from the locker and headed for the front of the boat. It was time to get up close and personal with the Sirens.

The tac boat leapt forward, and it took a bit to keep my feet. I gripped the MP5 tighter and waited as the distance closed. The Sirens were ignoring us. Without the distraction of the grenades or machine gun fire raining down, the Sirens were only paying attention to the threat from the bait boat. I grinned as the tac boat quickly closed the distance. We were less than twenty yards from the Sirens when Bull launched a single flare grenade into the air. The bright magnesium lit the area. The bait boat was listing to its side. Skiff and the others erected some hasty cover and were firing at four Sirens in the two canoes. The wizards were tossing bolts of mystical energy at the hunters. The last two Sirens were busy holding the two canoes steady in the bay’s water. Everyone froze as the flare exploded over them. Nick cut down the two canoe pilots with short bursts from his MP5. Now for me to do my thing.

I launched myself into the air. I was aiming for the canoe closest to us. It wasn’t an easy target as it was about thirty feet from the tac boat. I heard Nick swear as he saw what I was doing. Nick hated when I did something he considered overly flamboyant and slightly insane. I really didn’t care. I knew what I was doing. Mostly. I emptied the MP5’s magazine at the two Sirens in my target canoe. The one in front threw up some a magic barrier. I smiled. They were doing what I wanted. As I slammed down in the canoe, I let the MP5 drop on its sling and pounced towards the two Sirens. The two wizards couldn’t react against the sheer speed of a lycanthrope, much less a hunter. I carried both of them into the black waters. As soon as we hit water, my knives were out. Three slashes and the two Sirens stopped splashing. I dived down below. As I’ve said, I’m not a maritime specialist like Skiff or Jetsam. That doesn’t mean I don’t know how to fight underwater. In true form, I can stay submerged for about a hundred seconds. I swam underneath the other canoe. I’ll admit, this part I didn’t plan out so well. If I had I would have remembered to bring a limpet mine or a grenade and some duct tape. As I ascended under the canoe, I tapped the bottom of the boat. Good, it was just fiberglass. I placed my ear to the bottom of the canoe and listened. Footsteps were right above me. My Glock punched two holes in the bottom of the boat before it stopped working. I felt the splash as the Siren fell out of the boat. Good, my bullets hit their mark. I heard the other body hit the water. With both Sirens down, I surfaced.  The tac boat was over by the bait boat, taking Skiff and the other two hunters off the boat. Nick was at the side of the tac boat, looking right at me as I surfaced. He waited patiently as I swam over to the tac boat and helped me climb over the side. I just laid there for a moment to catch my breath. Nick loomed over me.

“Well that was one of the most outrageously insane things I’ve seen you do in a while,” he commented in that calm tone that was his trademark, “I hope to the Ancestors you learned from that.”

“Yeah,” I answered, sitting up, “Next time I bring a revolver for underwater work. Forgot autos have a bitch of a time cycling underwater.” Nick looked like he wasn’t sure if wanted to strangle me or just laugh.

Some white phosphorous grenades sank the bait boat and the three canoes. With our activities hidden from casual view, our group returned to the marina. This took a bit of time because the Sirens’ EMP knocked out all of the normal navigation aids, and we were left doing nav by hand. Well, Skiff and the Pinellas hit pack were handling the navigation. Nick and I spent our time policing up the massive amount of brass from the machine guns as well as stowing all of the lethal toys. On the plus side, none of us were dead – just slightly worn and torn.


“So this latest incarnation of the Sirens are all dead?” asked the Guildmaster as I entered his office the next morning. I was still a bit tired, but I did things on his schedule. It was one of the joyous parts of being the personal hitter for the Guildmaster.

“The ones that attacked us last night are all dead and at the bottom of the bay,” I answered, slumping into my normal chair, “As to the group as a whole, I couldn’t say for certain. We killed nine wizards, which sounds about right for a small splinter group. I didn’t see their leader last night, but there was a lot going on.”

“So how are we going to find out if we got them all?” the Guildmaster probed. I thought for a few moments about the problem. I hated these analysis problems the Guildmaster threw my way. Most of the damned time he already knew the fucking answers.

“My guess would be to see how much of an outcry the wizards give the lords,” I answered, somewhat cautiously.

“Oh?” the Guildmaster replied, “Why would that tell us if you killed off the Sirens?”

“If they don’t protest or offer weak protest, then the Sirens are dead,” I answered, feeling more confident of my analysis of events, “The wizards don’t like groups like the Sirens any more than we do. The only reason they would offer more than a token protest would be because there are some Sirens – particularly Rose – still out there that could cause problems for the wizards.”

“Very good, Marcus,” the Guildmaster said, his tone radiating pleased approval, “In fact, Lord Vollen received that token protest this morning, along with the thanks of Lady Thames for your assistance in the job.”

“If you already knew the answer, why did you make me do your analysis?” I asked, a little more hotly than I intended.

“Why would I?” he asked in response, throwing another problem at me.

“You’re grooming me for something,” I said. I shot up in the chair as a sudden thought hit me. “You don’t really expect me to take over for you.”

“No,” the Guildmaster said flatly, “You could make a decent Guildmaster, but you have two faults. First, you’re a Badmoon. Secondly, you’re overly arrogant because you’re a Badmoon.” He paused for a moment, almost lost in thought. “No, I have a candidate for my position in mind. He’s going to take a lot of grooming, but he should do well. You, on the other hand, have another destiny.”

“What is that?” I asked, arching my eyebrow in surprise. This was the first I the Guildmaster said anything about my future beyond being his hatchet man.

“Something for which I will have to spend a great deal of time conditioning you to take on,” the Guildmaster answered, unusually cryptically. “Speaking of conditioning, you are to accompany my wife and myself to a little victory celebration.”

“Huh?” He had caught me off-guard with the non-sequitor. “What are you talking about?”

“Lord Vollen met with the Inner Council last night while you were dealing with the Sirens,” the Guildmaster said, “Both parties have agreed to calm their respective sides. More discussions are planned to set down better rules of engagement. So, Vollen has decided to throw one of his rodeo parties.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I retorted. Vollen recently embraced the country-western culture to the point of converting a warehouse into a miniature rodeo ring. I helped guard a couple of his parties, which mostly consisted of the pack leaders poorly riding wild horses and bulls. The only thing that kept the majority of them alive was a lycanthrope’s healing abilities. “What the hell did I do to you to deserve watching that horror show?”

“Now what makes you think is a punishment?” the Guildmaster asked, a malicious gleam in his eye.

“Because I know that look in your eye, boss,” I replied, “It’s the same one you always get when you found something horribly nasty and evil to do to me. Usually for some breach of etiquette in that deranged mind of yours.”

“Actually, your presence is more of public relations,” the Guildmaster said, “Your actions of late have brought you to the attention of some of the pack leaders as well as Lord Vollen. Matric’s also been talking up your most recent exploits.”

“So you’re having me tag along to piss off the Order?” I asked.

“Exactly.”

“Well, that could be fun.”

Chapter 4: Head Shats Are Always a Bitch