Lord Vollen’s rodeo parties were held at an old warehouse in Thonotosassa, a small town/suburb of Tampa. It was near the Florida State Fairgrounds, which was actually helpful. After Lord Vollen purchased the warehouse a couple of years ago, he turned it into a full rodeo ring, complete with chutes, bleachers, and scoreboard. What resulted was the only full-time indoor rodeo ring in Hillsborough, even if only the unseen world knew about it. Vollen used it exclusively for his “rodeo parties.” The aristocracy was expected to host some form of social event every couple of months or so. These events allowed the pack leaders to meet with one another in a “politic-free”setting. So, of course, the parties were almost all politics, just the quiet sort. More importantly, to most of the county’s lycanthropes, these kinds of parties gave Vollen a chance to enjoy his latest hobby. Most of the lycanthropes of the county were just happy to see their lord enjoying himself with something since the death of his wife several years ago; enough so that they were willing to subject themselves to the humiliation of trying their hand at rodeo. The rural packs could handle the events just fine, but most of the packs were urban and suburban areas. If lycanthropes didn’t heal so quickly, some of the attendees would have been killed, either from falls, stompings, and more than one goring. For this night at least, Vollen imported a demonstration team instead of the normal fun and games. I really didn’t want to watch the pack leaders play cowboys and cowgirls.

The Guildmaster, his wife, and I got out of the Guildmaster’s car and walked towards the warehouse. Amber Werstand was about the same age as the Guildmaster, late thirties or early forties. She didn’t say, and I knew better than to ask. As was expected by protocol, she was in her human form, with her long strawberry-red hair flowing down her back. Her large blue eyes and bright smile made any marks of aging disappear when one looked at her. She talked with a charm and tone that seemed to come from years as a member of the aristocracy’s “societiers,” or those lycanthropes that moved within the leadership circles. Her real role in lycanthrope society was as the Guild’s unofficial ambassador to the packs. The Guildmaster sent her out to soothe certain pack leaders’ egos when one of his hunters stepped on the packs’ collective toes. I thought it was an unusual role for someone of her talents to play. Amber Werstand was a former member of the State Hunters Guild, the Prince’s own hunters. Up in Tallahassee, Amber was considered to be one of the best in the State Guild – a great accomplishment for any hunter, but even more because of Amber’s gender. Lycanthropes generally don’t have the uneasiness over gender issues that seemed to preoccupy humans. We follow strength. We don’t care whether it comes from a male or a female. We are also completely uncompromising when it comes to maintaining the integrity of the societies that protect the packs. If a female wants to be a hunter, she better damn well be able to do everything that a male can do, and at a male’s level of proficiency, or she won’t make it. As a result, there just aren’t that many female hunters. With the exception of Amber Werstand, there were none in Hillsborough. I liked and respected Amber. She was as still as good a hunter as she was when she came to Tampa and made the mistake of falling in love with a local hunter. She gave up her life in the State Guild to help her catshen – “beloved” in the almost forgotten language of the lycanthropes. She did some jobs for the Guildmaster since he took over the Guild, but outside of playing nice for the pack leaders Amber’s prime concern was maintaining the private security company that acted as the Guild’s camouflage in the human world. She was obviously happy with her life, but I don’t think I could ever give up hunting for any reason. Not even for a catshen.

The outside of the warehouse was kept dark with only the few lights at the entrance. Darkness was the lycanthropes’ friend. It kept the warehouse from the casual eyes of the humans. The somber concrete walls belied the lively festival inside. On top of the ridged steel roof, I picked out the distorted silhouettes of the hunter guards. Their ghillie suits broke up their outlines, making them almost invisible to the untrained eye. In front of the glass doors of the entrance were a pair of pack warriors acting as the lord’s marshals for the night. They were checking the invitations of the pack leaders, along with a shaman who was acting as a leader for the door. Occasionally a pack warrior would try to challenge for the leadership of his or her pack in a dramatic fashion. Lord Vollen’s parties were a tempting stage for such an attempt. The marshals at the door were there to prevent that. Those chosen to act as the lord’s marshals had to law enforcement-trained or hunter-trained individuals. While still not as good as the hunters, they were a step above most pack warriors. As we neared the entrance, there was a small disturbance between the marshals and a unfamiliar lycanthrope. I didn’t know every lycanthrope in the county, but I knew the pack leaders and their normal entourages. The lycanthrope was in human form and holding a large case attached to his wrist by a handcuff. He was shorter than me, with long blond hair obscuring his face from my view. He was wearing an expensive suit. At least it looked like some of the suits Bradon wore to our meetings. The lycanthrope was speaking to the marshals in a low, angry tone. I couldn’t hear the words, but it was easy to tell the lycanthrope was more than annoyed at being stopped by the marshals. After a few exchanges of hushed angry words, the shaman stepped in. The four whispered angrily among themselves. The lycanthrope was granted entrance, although neither of the marhals seemed very happy about it.

“Boss, something about that wolf is bothering me,” I said. The Guildmaster made it clear during our working times that he expected to hear anytime something set off my instincts. Right now, they were going full blast about the strange lycanthrope. The Guildmaster gave me a nod, but didn’t say anything. Amber gave the Guildmaster a hesitant look. He didn’t say anything, but they were doing that silent communication that came from being in a long-term relationship.

“Good evening. I am the Guildmaster of the Hunters Guild,” the Guildmaster said, presenting the invitation card to the lead marshal. The two marshals straightened in respect as the title was spoken. The shaman sort of straightened, but it was obvious sloppy and just barely within the boundaries of etiquette. The Guildmaster ignored the shaman, but I gave the asshole a look to tell him I noticed. To his credit, the shaman didn’t flinch. He just gave me a similarly evil look. If the Guildmaster noticed our silent sparring, he ignored it.

“What was the problem?” the Guildmaster asked the marshals, motioning to where the unknown lycanthrope went in to the warehouse.

“The lycanthrope said he was from Orange County. Some kind of a messenger from Lady MacMurtry,” the lead marshal answered. His tone made it clear he thought it was a lie. “He said he had some important documents to deliver to Lord Vollen that had to be dealt with tonight.” The marshal’s tone made it clear he wasn’t happy with letting the lycanthrope in and did so only because of the intervention of the shaman.

“Maybe we should demand hunters command the doors instead of leaving it to the shaman,” I muttered as we entered the warehouse. The main foyer spanned the width of the warehouse and was brightly decorated with a tan masonry floor and several large floral displays. A few of the pack leaders and their entourages were making small talk. A pair of hunters was circulating around to keep the peace. One of them I knew. Judge was one of the top tier lone wolves. The other was a rookie that came in with the latest batch from the hunters’ training camp. I suspected that Deadeye and Sneller were using this as a chance for the rookies to get in some work time under the supervision of more experienced hunters. Red velvet ropes marked the entrance to the wide, curling stairway that led into the main ring. The Guildmaster fended off a few attempts to draw him into one of the conversations and strode to the stairs with his wife and me hurrying to follow him.

“Marcus, for this moment, I do not want to talk about another fight with the Order,” he said, “I’ll have to discuss enough of that with Lord Vollen and his supporters tonight. Right now, the three of us will go in, watch the show Lord Vollen has imported for tonight, and enjoy the momentary peace.” The look he gave me was enough for me to drop the issue. It wasn’t that important compared to some of the other fights the Guildmaster was preparing to fight with the pack leaders and the Order. As the three of us finished climbing the stairs, we stepped into a semi-large landing where several of the pack leaders and assorted guests were mingling before entering the arena proper. All of them were dressed in western wear, mostly jeans and sequined shirts. A few of them sported Stetson hats or some version thereof. As the Guildmaster and his wife talked to some of the gathered guests, I heard a lycanthrope coming up behind me. I could tell he wasn’t in a cheerful mood by the rhythm of his breathing. Whoever he was, he was primed for a fight. This was almost becoming a common occurrence for me when I came to these things. I turned around and found one of Vollen’s Red Knights half-glaring at me. I gave him a quick inspection. He wasn’t one of the Knights I dealt with before. He was young and had that overly-prepared look of a rookie. This was probably his first time out as a Knight. He motioned to the side and I nodded.

“I need to check your sidearm,” he told me, when we found a small space of privacy.

“I’m a hunter,” I protested, “My weapon stays put.” Under the letter of the laws, the Knight did have the right to demand my weapon as a means to protect the lord. By tradition though, the Knights let hunters hang onto their weapons with the understanding if we did anything that merely looked threatening towards the lord, the Knights could and would kill us without warning. It was a good compromise in that no one was happy with it.

“Listen, my job is to protect Lord Vollen, and that means disarming you for the night. You’re not on security detail, so you don’t need a gun tonight. Now hand it over,” he demanded in a far more arrogant tone than he had any right to use. I was the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, and part of the role was acting as his bodyguard. This Knight should know that. I was pretty sure this was just a bullshit harassment. Probably because I was a Badmoon. I felt like giving him one of my knives rather violently in one of his vital organs. The Guildmaster caught my eye from across the room. His face read plainly not to make any trouble. So, rather than continue the action I was planning, I reached down into my boot and pulled out my SP101 revolver. The Red Knight swung open the cylinder and looked down at the rounds. Satisfied, he closed the cylinder and put the revolver into a small plastic bag he pulled from his back pocket. He tore off a small tab on the bag and handed it to me.

“This tag will get your pistol back after the party. It will be at the front door. Thank you for your cooperation.” The young Knight smiled smugly and walked out through the crowd. It took everything I had to suppress the laughter building up inside of me. I leaned up against the wall. My USP, concealed in a small of the back holster, pressed into my skin. Damn, that Knight was green as grass to be satisfied with getting only one firearm from a hunter. More experienced Knights knew better. Then I suddenly realized what was really going on. I wasn’t being harassed. Well, not exactly. I’m sure who I was a part of why I was chosen. This was an object lesson for the young Knight. I would have done something in reverse to teach a hunter not to carry only one weapon, no matter the situation. I made a mental note to speak the head of the Knights. I didn’t mind, but I would’ve appreciated a heads-up. The Guildmaster waved to me, and I walked over to where the Guildmaster and his wife were talking to one of the pack leaders. I didn’t know him, but he looked vaguely familiar. As I approached the three of them, the Guildmaster noticed me and introduced me.

“Marcus, this is Christopher Ringston. Christopher, this is Marcus Badmoon, my personal hitter.” Christopher stood puzzled a moment as I shook his hand. It seemed as though he was trying to place my name or my face. I was doing the same. Then recognition came into his eyes.

“You’re the hunter who brought my brother back,” he exclaimed. I was confused at this statement, and it had apparently shown on my face. “You brought my brother, Peter, back to us.”

“This is Peter’s elder brother,” the Guildmaster explained, “Christopher leads the Old Carrollwood pack.” The light clicked in my head. This was the brother of the lycanthrope who led the pack warriors that accompanied Nick and me when we retrieved the pup, Jennifer Denton. When Nick and I made sure to bring back the bodies of Peter and the other pack warrior, we fulfilled an important obligation in pack society – especially where the Rites of the Dead were concerned. I nodded slowly at Christopher.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t bring him home alive, sir,” I answered solemnly. I was truly sorry. Hunters are expected to risk their lives on jobs. We knew how to deal with the death of one of our own. Those who accompanied us were supposed to be under our protection. It was terrible to see any lycanthrope die, but I carried the personal guilt of seeing someone under my protection die. I would have accepted any outburst or recrimination from the pack leader that he could level at me and done so without flinching. Christopher’s smile disappeared and he nodded sadly.

“It was a big loss for the pack,” he replied without a hint of recrimination or accusation. I was grateful for that, but I could see the bone-deep sadness that permeated the pack leader. “My brother was dearly loved by the pack. Our younger sister was extremely heart-broken. Our only consolation is the pup not only survived, but seems to be flourishing with my pack. We will want retribution soon, though.” The sorrow of the pack was slowly turning into rage.

“There’s no need,” the Guildmaster said, “Badmoon made sure the vampire responsible for the attack paid for it.” It took all of my effort to keep my face neutral as the words came out. What the fuck was the Guildmaster playing at?

“Thank you, Badmoon,” Chris said, “You’ve done your fighting for my pack. Now, I have to do my fighting for my pack.” He motioned to another lycanthrope coming up to our group. I got the distinct impression the intruding lycanthrope was not a friendly person. The Guildmaster motioned for me to follow him further into the main ring area.

“What the hell was that all about?” I growled at the Guildmaster.

“We need to spin this to make sure that the pack leaders will support Lord Vollen’s maintenance of the Peace instead of further retribution,” Amber answered with the ferocious defensiveness of a wife, “Your actions allowed the Bleeders to purge some of their extreme element. Isn’t that what your contact told you?” She gave me a look that told me the question was rhetorical. “We, as the Hunters Guild, need to make it appear that the Guild has taken appropriate retribution. As Erik’s personal hitter, your involvement in the raid on the harem, or whatever that was, brings it closer to his hand.” This was one of the reasons I hated politics. It was all in making yourself appear stronger than your opponents. In this case, the appearance was the Guildmaster was strong enough to take direct action – if once removed – to deal with the vampires that threatened one of our pups. If the pack leaders believed that, they would follow the Guildmaster’s support of Lord Vollen with their own support. If not, they would follow the Spiritmaster’s campaign of quiet disobedience, or in the extreme, find one of their own to challenge Lord Vollen’s position. A big part of tonight’s activities was making it perfectly clear to the pack leaders Lord Vollen and the Guild made the TCV stop their current campaign of escalation and the vampires responsible for the attack on the pup had been suitably dealt with. Most importantly, that Lord Vollen was still strong enough to keep events in Hillsborough County firmly in hand. I kept my retort to myself and dutifully followed my boss and his wife into the arena.

The smell of dirt and manure filled the air as the bright overhead lights turned the inside of the warehouse bright as day. White steel fences lined the dirt floor of the arena. The colorful advertisements that would have lined them in a more public rodeo were absent, giving the gleaming white metal fences a colder appearance. At the south end were the animal holding pens and the release chutes. The lycanthropes performers for tonight were sitting around, talking to each other, and doing whatever they did to prepare. The sides of the arena were split in half horizontally by a gray concrete walkway about ten feet wide that extended from the foyer on the southeast corner of the arena to the north end where it ended into a raised concrete platform. Extending up and down off the walkway were the personal boxes of the fifty-eight pack leaders of Hillsborough County. Lycanthropes were continuing their socializing on the stairways separating the boxes. The Guildmaster, his wife, and I continued to move up to the platform on the north end of the arena. The platform was guarded by about twenty lycanthropes, a mix of hunters, shamans, and Red Knights. Behind the platform were three nondescript doors, each guarded by a pair of lycanthropes. Behind the doors were stairs that led up to the personal suites of the Hunters Guild, the Order of Spirits, and the Lord of Hillsborough. The three suites were connected by a large balcony which allowed for the occupants to mingle. Usually only Lord Vollen, his son and heir-apparent Jason, the Guildmaster and his wife, and the Spiritmaster were allowed on the balcony. It was supposed to be a great honor to be allowed onto the balcony. I just found it annoying the few times I joined my boss.

That’s when I heard it. At first, I thought it was just normal background sounds, but my instincts were going wild. I listened and heard it again. Slide- snap. It was a metallic noise I was very familiar with. Someone was assembling a weapon. I looked for a moment, unable to pin down where the sound was coming from. I looked over at my boss. He didn’t look like he’d heard it. I looked at the hunters on the north platform, but they didn’t seem to have heard it. Slide-snap. My instincts were screaming it was real.

“Boss,” I said, grabbing the Guildmaster’s shoulder, “Someone’s trying to put a gun together. Quiet like.”

“Where?” he asked, his face immediately crunching into concern. To his credit, he never challenged me. I should have asked him why, but at the time, the thought never entered my head. I was too busy trying to figure out where the shooter was.

“I’m not sure, I can’t pinpoint the noise.” I looked around for suspicious movement, but there was nothing I could see.

“You heard a weapon being assembled?” his wife asked, “Over this background?” She was skeptical, which surprised me at the time. I figured she was out of practice. I, on the other hand, was fresh from combat, more or less. My instincts and senses were still on overdrive. At least, that’s what I told myself. I needed some explanation that made sense for what I was hearing. It was too disturbing otherwise.

“Ma’am, trust me. I can hear it. It’s a sliding sound, followed by a locking noise.” She stopped for a moment and listened to the arena. Slide-snap. Whoever it was, he was using a custom piece with a lot of gadgets. Amber still looked as if she didn’t hear it, but I was certain. The Guildmaster decided to trust my hearing.

The Guildmaster reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, credit card sized radio. Tapping the preset-set frequency on the back, he called to the hunter guard detachment. “Richard, this is the Guildmaster. Marcus heard what he thinks is a weapon being assembled. No, I don’t think he is wrong, and I don’t think it’s friendly. Have your roving teams sweep the arena thoroughly.” He stopped for a moment as the radio crackled into his ear. He shook his head as he answered the person. “No, don’t go after the courier. Couriers are protected under the prince. We can’t afford an incident. Alert the Red Knights and get your teams moving quickly.” His wife and I stood there, both of us waiting for our orders.

“I assume Marcus that Knight did not fully disarm you earlier,” he said. It was a statement, not a question. I simply smiled deviously in response. “Good. Find that damned courier and make sure he isn’t our troublemaker.” I nodded in response. That was the fun part about being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. I got all the fun jobs. I shoved my way through the semi-crowded walkway to the north platform. A few pack leaders looked at me dangerously, until they saw my eyes. I was on a job, and no one was going to stop me. I was stopped at the platform by the lead hunter. Fortunately for me, it was someone I knew quite well. I had no idea why Skiff was on guard duty. He seemed an odd choice, but I was silently grateful to the Ancestors.

“What’s up, dude?” he asked in that annoying Valley accent. I let it slide without my normal sarcasm. There was a job to do.

“Skiff, was there a courier here for Vollen?” I asked.

“Nah, ‘fraid not dude. Why ya askin’?” he asked casually as the Red Knight leader walked over to where we were talking. I didn’t recognize him as I watched him approach us. He looked dangerous enough though.

“Who’s our friend?” I asked Skiff, nodding at the Red Knight.

“Smythe.” I nodded at the answer. I’d never met him, but Smythe had a reputation as a ruthless bodyguard and sometimes fanatic. Many of the Knights considered him the ideal of what a Red Knight should be. Most of the hunters thought he was an obnoxious, overly arrogant asshole whose sole redeeming quality was that he was extremely good at his job. He was Jason Vollen’s lead bodyguard, which was why his path and mine hadn’t crossed. From the look on his face, that was probably a good thing.

“Skiff, I need a headset on the guard frequency, and a sub gun if you have one available.” Skiff grinned for a second and walked up the stairs to a small locker mounted on the platform. As he reached in and retrieved the headset, Smythe joined me on the stairs.

“What are you doing here Badmoon?” Smythe demanded with a tone of perfect professional coolness. I wasn’t really in the mood to deal with him, but there were some things more important than my own personal antipathy to the Red Knights. Protecting Lord Vollen was a good example.

“I heard a weapon being assembled, and I think whoever is doing it is planning something bad,” I explained to Smythe, “The Guildmaster asked all of the hunters to sweep the arena and find the bad guy.” Smythe gave me a very skeptical look. He didn’t believe me. In retrospect, neither would I if someone else told me the same story. Fortunately for me, since I was the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, there was very little he could do.

“You just ‘heard’ a gun being assembled. How exactly can you be so sure?” he asked, rather self-righteously. I wasn’t in the mood to be interrogated by this arrogant bastard. Skiff rejoined us and whispered something into Smythe’s ear. Smythe’s eyes went wide as Skiff threw me the headset.

“Listen I don’t have time to argue with you,” I said as I clipped the walkie-talkie transceiver to my belt, “Is the courier up with Lord Vollen?”

“No, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he met someone down in the foyer and stopped to talk. Especially if he was one of the aristocrats. Lady MacMurtry likes to use her family as envoys.” I was puzzled. I attached the throat microphone in place and inserted the earpiece.

“The documents he’s delivering seemed to be important. Enough that he almost started a fight at the entrance with the marshals. I don’t think he would have stopped to chat.”

“We don’t use lycanthrope couriers for documents. Only for gifts and objects that can’t be delivered by the human courier companies.” Both of us were beginning to click the pieces into place, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. I switched on the radio. Smythe didn’t say anything as he rushed back, talking on his own radio.

“-ee anything in Whiskey Lima One?” asked a young voice over the radio.

“Negative Hangman. I was just over there and didn’t see anything. Am searching Whiskey Delta Three.”

“All hunters, this is Ranger, has anyone seen the courier?” I asked over the radio.

“Ranger, this is Hangman. We have orders to stay away from the courier,” Hangman said. I grimaced. Most of the younger hunters came from a newer school of thought that emphasized the use of hit packs and a de-emphasis of lone wolf tactics. They tended to be more lethal, but at the cost of a lack of creativity and an even larger lack of willingness to bend or break the rules.

“I know what the Guildmaster said!” I almost yelled into the radio, “Answer the fucking question or I’ll fucking rip you a new fucking throat!” There was a brief silence on the net. I was probably harsher than necessary, but the lord’s life was on the line.

“Ranger, this is Judge at the front. We had the courier at the entrance, but no one has seen him since.” I didn’t have time to waste and ran back towards the entrance. A path opened up in the lycanthropes on the walkway after I shoved the first few aside. The attendees may be annoyed, but they weren’t stupid. I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t have a very good reason. I looked at the stairwell and made a quick calculation. The curling stairs would slow me down too much.

“Front, this is Ranger. I’m coming down the hard way. Better clear the area.” As I reached the overhang of the second floor, I placed my hand on the wooden railing and leapt over the side. As I fell, I saw the lycanthropes below me pushed out of the way by an invisible force. I let out a small grunt of pain as my legs crunched when they hit the tiled floor. I waited a moment for them to heal, and staggered to my feet. I saw the door guards running up to me. The shaman looked exhausted from his magical effort.

“Where did you guys see the courier?” I asked the five lycanthropes assigned to guarding the entrance, cutting off the obvious question of my sanity. They stood there for a second, surprised by my question.

“Over there,” Judge said, pointing at the southeastern corner of the foyer. Concentrating on the area, I made out the lines of a door. Whoever designed it did a damned good job. Without looking for the door, it seemed invisible, almost completely blending into the wall. I got up and walked over to the door. Placing my hands on its cold metal surface, I searched for the lock. What I found was an access panel with a keypad behind.

“Where does this door lead?” I asked.

“That leads up to the catwalks above the arena,” Judge answered, “I don’t think he’s up there. After all, the door is locked with an electronic keypad lock, and it doesn’t look like it was forced open.” I looked over at Judge. I couldn’t believe an experienced hunter could be that stupid. If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to find the courier, I probably would’ve let him know in no uncertain terms about it.

“Do you have the access number?” I asked, looking over the door.

“No. Building management does,” answered one of the marshals. I should’ve figured that would be the case. Murphy was laughing his fucking ass off.

“All hunters, this is Ranger,” I said over to the radio, “Courier is in the catwalks. I am moving to intercept. Any available assistance needed.” I turned to Judge and the other hunter. “I need you two to stay here and keep the crowd away. Send up any other hunters.” As I began looking at how to open the access door, I spied out of the corner of my eye a Knight walking to me. He looked familiar, so I stopped what I was doing to talk to him. Red Knights could be useful. As he came closer, I recognized the rookie Red Knight who took my revolver from me. He wouldn’t be any use to me.

“Hunter, we would prefer if you left this to the Knights,” he said imperiously as he joined us. I was not in the mood to be disturbed by this rookie son of a bitch. In one fluid motion, I closed the short distance between us. My pistol materialized under his chin, and the hammer cocked back. I snapped the safety off for the extra dramatic effect. He flinched at the mechanical sound.

“I’m going up there to see if my new playmate is up in the catwalks. If you want to help, find your boys and group them here. Got it?” I asked, an evil glint in my eye. He nodded and then slunk back into the foyer as I thumbed safety on my pistol and holstered it. I walked back to the door and shed for true form. I slammed the door into its wall recess with my shoulder. The screeching of the metal as I broke down the door filled the air. My quarry must have heard that. Speed was of the essence.

“All hunter units in the arena, this is the Guildmaster. Lord Vollen will not back down. Command expedite now.” Ancestors damn it all to hell. If Lord Vollen was the target of whoever was putting that weapon together, then he was putting himself directly into the line of fire. Some might admire such determination. I considered it stupid. If someone was attempting to assassinate a lord, they were either very crazy or very good. Whichever the case, it was not a position you wanted your lord to walk into willingly. Lord Vollen didn’t seem to understand this, didn’t believe the threat was real, or he was playing politics. In any case, it was damned foolish.

Behind the door was a blued metal ladder up to the catwalks that covered the top of the arena. I bounded up the ladder, its metal rungs singing out to whoever could hear them of impending danger. Sometimes, you just have to risk it. I leapt from the ladder well onto the catwalks with a muffled thump. The entire ceiling was a maze of hanging wooden catwalks. They were connected around the huge floodlights that lit the arena. Light leaked from the floodlights, and made the catwalks a contrast of bright areas and shadows. Steel handrails lined the catwalks. The smell of gun oil permeated the air, but it was too general for me to smell him out. I scanned the catwalks, but something was keeping me from seeing with my preternatural sight. Who or what the fuck was this courier?

I crept along the walks, hoping that even if my quarry heard me coming up, I could sneak up on him by being quiet up here. It was slim chance, but it was the only one I had. I shifted forms to human. The smaller frame gave me a better chance of stealth. I heard the unique sound of a rifle’s bolt action being worked. The courier – the assassin – just chambered the kill round.

I slunk to where I heard the sound, staying in the shadows. Sitting in the shadows was a humanoid form. It was about the right size to be the courier, but I didn’t see the long blond hair. His face was masked by shadows. In his arms was a rifle with a large scope mounted. The assassin was in between two sets of floodlights with his back facing one of the large floodlights as he pointed the rifle into the crack between them in front of him. I drew my pistol, flicking off the safety, as I moved as close as I dared. The crowd below me applauded. Lord Vollen was coming out onto the balcony for his normal speech to begin the night’s activities. I heard the courier slow down his breathing, preparing for his shot. If I heard him stop breathing, it was over. When I was close enough, about thirty feet, I leveled my pistol at where his head should be. I had to guess, because the shadows covered his head, protecting it from my view. As the three white-green dots of the tritium sights lined up, I gently squeezed the trigger. The hammer snapped forward and slammed into the firing pin. A .45 caliber Silver Shok bullet exploded out of the barrel.

CLANG!! That was the wrong fucking sound. The fucking bullet ricocheted off of something metal just in front of his head and buried itself in the wood of the catwalk. What the bloody fuck? The assassin didn’t even flinch. His breathing stopped for a second, then his form rocked back as he fired. I reacquired his form as it moved and double-tapped. Both bullets sliced harmlessly through the air as he used the momentum of the rifle recoil to rock backwards and down one of the gaps between the catwalk and the floodlights. The shadows distorted him just enough to make it difficult to aim. As his body slid through the opening, the rifle clattered to the plank. I ran to the opening and hung my torso out. I reacquired him as he began swinging on the metal rafters of the ceiling like a fucking monkey. He was swinging to one of the windows that lined the arena. I rapid fired my pistol, sending as many bullets as I could into him. Something was keeping me from seeing where he truly was. Bullets clanged around his form, and I saw some blood fly. It wasn’t enough to stop him. He swung himself into the window, his momentum carrying him through the glass. That shouldn’t be possible. Those windows were fucking bulletproof.

I swore to myself as I pulled myself up. I spent hours training with my USP. There was no damned good reason for me to have missed all those shots. For a brief moment I sat there, looking at the slide of my pistol locked back on an empty chamber. I heard the yelling and commotion from below. I wondered why I wasn’t hearing anything over the radio and examined the set. The headset’s cord popped out of the transceiver at some point. Angered at my run of bad luck, I tore the headset off and threw it down onto the wood in disgust. Still fuming, I ejected the empty magazine out of my pistol and inserted a fresh one. I holstered the USP and looked around the catwalk area. I stood up and walked over to the railing near where the assassin took his shot. Looking at the side from where I fired, I found a large gouge in the railing. I whispered another string of swear words. About that time, a group of six hunters in black jumpsuits festooned with tactical gear and cradling MP5’s emerged from the shadows and stepped out onto the catwalk. The lead one, a young hunter I didn’t recognize, walked over to where I was leaning on the railing.

“You,” he commanded, pointing a thin finger at me, “Hold it. I need your ID.” I handed over my wallet. The young hunter grabbed my outstretched wallet. He ordered one of his team to retrieve the rifle. After examining my face to the one on my Hunters Guild card, he stepped back and stood up straight.

“Sorry, Ranger. Didn’t know it was you,” he answered, “I’m Hangman.” I recognized his voice as the one over the radio earlier. I examined him closely for a second. The dark hair and dark eyes of most lycanthropes were there, his hair being on the darker side of brown. His young face held the Germanic features that told of our ancestry in the Fatherland. His slight frame was vibrating slightly. I couldn’t tell if it was from adrenaline or simply the jitters. Hangman was one of our newest hunters. He just joined the chapter a few months ago, and the rumors already pegged him as one of the rising stars.

“What’s the story-” I started to ask before I was cut off.

NO ONE MOVE!” yelled a voice from behind us. Of course, all of us on the plank turned and faced the speaker. Some of us, myself included, leveled weapons at the interlopers. Fortunately, the speaker was smart enough not to do anything stupid. The leader of the Red Knight team motioned for his team to remain calm. Seeing no threat, the other hunters and I did the same.

“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Hangman asked, anger rising in his voice. I smiled at his tone. The kid had some fire in him, which was a rare commodity with younger hunters. They were too afraid of making waves. That was another problem with the current emphasis on pack operations in my opinion.

“We are the Red Knights,” the lead Knight declared, “We have jurisdiction over this attack and this area. The lot of you are ordered to leave immediately and report to the Guildmaster so we can get your names from him later.”

“No. We got here first. I want to examine the area,” Hangman countered, his face contorted with almost outrage at the Knight in question.

“This is not your jurisdiction, hunter,” the Red Knight countered.

“I don’t give a bloody fuck,” Hangman retorted, “We were here first, and we have the rifle.”

“That is easily remedied,” the Red Knight said with an arrogant smugness. He motioned to one of his team. The Knight walked to the hunter holding the rifle. I will give the Red Knight credit. He did his best to wrest the rifle away from the hunter. Against Knuckles, one of our hand-to-hand specialists, that Knight wasn’t going to have a chance. As the two struggled, the bolt came loose and ejected the spent casing from the rifle where it clanked down onto the plank. As the casing rolled over to my direction, I snatched it up and read the bottom of it. SVR SHK 095 – FED, was etched across the top of the dirty brass plate. The caliber, .308 Winchester, was etched across the bottom. I started to put the casing into one of my pockets, but the lead Red Knight objected.

“Hunter, I need that casing,” he demanded. I looked at him and looked at Hangman. Tensions were riding high. I made a decision.

“Fine, but I need one of the bullets out of the rifle,” I told him, handing over the spent casing. There were more important things happening. I didn’t have the time to properly thrash the shit out of this Knight.

“Why?” he asked indignantly. I just looked at him before I answered.

“Because it’s our right to claim this area, Knight,” answered Hangman before I could say anything. I could tell by his eyes that he was expecting me to kick them off the platform. He was going to be disappointed.

“Fine, but after your hunter hands over the rifle,” the lead Knight demanded. I nodded to the hunter holding the assassin’s rifle. Knuckles reluctantly handed the weapon to one of the Knights. The Knight removed the magazine from the rifle and removed one bullet. He tossed the round over.

“Hangman, get your team and follow me.” I saw his proud face melt into confusion. He looked about ready to defy orders, but apparently thought better of it. Motioning his team to follow, Hangman moved off the plank towards the ladder. Quietly, the seven of us came down from the catwalks and walked over to where Skiff and the group of hunters from the platform where helping the shaman direct the pack leaders and their followers out of the warehouse. Pulling Skiff aside, I asked him what was going on.

“Dude, there is like, major panic. It’s takin’ all we got just to get ’em out of here,” he answered.

“Alright, Skiff, take these five with you,” I said, motioning to Hangman’s team, “The pup and I need to see the Guildmaster. Where is he?”

“In his suite. I’ll radio the buds at the door that you’re going on up.” I thanked Skiff and set him and his new assistants off. I scanned the foyer and watched the stream of lycanthropes flow down the staircase and out the front door. Seeing no way up the staircase, I pulled Hangman over to the second-floor overhang.

“Follow me,” I told Hangman. I shed my human form for true. Leaping up, I grabbed hold of the wood railing and swung myself onto the tile floor. A second later, Hangman joined me. The two of us shed for human. I wanted to quietly move back towards the Guildmaster. I motioned for Hangman to follow me.

“Ranger, what is going on?” the pup asked me as we pushed ourselves through the exodus of lycanthropes and kin. “Why did we leave the Knights up there? We had every reason to claim jurisdiction.”

“Hangman, they’re the Red Knights,” I answered, “They get paranoid about anything involving the aristocracy. Staying there would have resulted in a throw down. Normally, I have no problem with taking a Red Knight down a peg or two, but this isn’t the time for it. Besides, we have everything we need from the scene. The Knights will be rooting around up there for a week without finding anything useful. I already know who did it.” I could feel him wanting to ask the question, but he had the presence of mind to restrain himself. That was good, because it was going to be bad enough telling the Guildmaster. Most of the crowd had already left, but there were enough left to make it difficult to get to the suites. Hangman and I silently made our way through the crowd, steadily moving towards the north platform. Upon reaching it, we were greeted by a pair of hunters. They recognized me and ushered us up to the Guildmaster’s suite. The Guildmaster was sitting at the picture window, sipping a glass of some liquor in his hands. His wife was quietly sobbing on the couch.

“Boss, I’ve got some bad news for you,” I said. His head came up slowly from his glass to look at me.

“More bad news? What the hell else has gone wrong?” he asked, his voice increasing in volume. His glass slammed down on the bar and shattered. I stayed calm. The Guildmaster just saw his lord and friend assassinated when his hunters were guarding the area. We failed our job, the top cardinal sin of any hunter. It didn’t matter if it was a reasonable guilt or not, we still felt it. Hangman silently got a towel and cleaned up the glass and spilled liquor. I walked over to the bar, got a new glass, and poured the Guildmaster another drink.

“The Guild needs to find the shooter first,” I told the Guildmaster. I steeled myself before I said the rest. “He’s a hunter.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, astonishment and rage lighting his eyes. I pulled the bullet out of my pocket and tossed it over to him. I watched as he read the bottom of the casing.

“It’s a Silver Shock bullet in .308. Who else in the lycanthrope community uses those bullets? Just us.” I said. The Guildmaster looked up at me and slumped down further into his chair. Red Knights used their own brand of silver bullets, while the pack warriors usually made do with silver slugs, or whatever was left over from the Red Knights. More often, the warriors were forced to use standard rounds to knock down vampires long enough to stake them or cut them down with silver blades.

“Lord Vollen is dead, and a hunter did it. Just fucking perfect,” the Guildmaster said. His eyes showed the strain on him. “Marcus, you will escort my wife to the car. Samuel, find David and form search parties for the assassin. I’ll mobilize the rest of the Guild into action.” Hangman left to find Skiff as I waited for Amber to stand up.

“Erik, I should be here, with you,” she protested. Even I could hear her heart wasn’t in the protest. She was drained. The Guildmaster smiled and walked over to her. Whispering something into her ear, he kissed her on the cheek and dismissed the both of us. As we departed, I looked up onto the balcony and saw a group of Red Knights and shaman crowding the area. Some of the shaman looked like they were praying. The body was still there. The Order was preparing it for movement to the cravex for the Rite of the Dead. Amber didn’t even look up at the balcony.

As the two of us walked down to the foyer, I played back in my mind what happened up on the catwalk. The assassin had to be a hunter. Claiming to be a courier for Orange County was fucking ingenious. No one was going to fuck with a courier. He knew that someone was coming, and that it would probably also be a hunter, or at the very least a Red Knight. The assassin knew Guild training was to go for a headshot under those conditions. Headshots killed quickly and avoided the chance of the target wearing body armor. He moved his head behind the metal railing to deflect the shot, giving him another half-second or so to take his shot. Whoever the assassin was had balls of silver. He was willing to kill one of the more popular lords in Florida. This was someone I wanted bad, and dead, but not before I had wrung every little bit of information from him, preferably by using a long dull knife, or maybe a spoon. Spoons could be very entertaining.

Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t to get him that night. A pack of hunters found the assassin near the warehouse and chased him on foot for about two miles with periodic exchanges of gunfire. The running battle spilled into the fairgrounds. I listened with the Guildmaster’s wife as the hit pack chased the assassin. That bastard picked them off one by one. The leader of the hit pack, injured but still moving, finally reported the assassin had sped away in a stashed car. Additional packs tried to intercept, but the assassin vanished into the night. He was damned good, but I didn’t have time to speculate on his proficiency. The bastard just created a crisis in Hillsborough, and it looked like I was going to be a part of helping dig the packs out of it.

— – – – – – –

I was called to the Guildmaster’s office. For the past week, the Guild had been trying to find the assassin. In truth, the Guild was running two investigations. The hit packs were assisting the Red Knights with the official investigation. Meanwhile, the lone wolves were quietly conducting the Guild-only investigation. The Guildmaster told the Red Knights the assassin may be hunter-trained, but that wasn’t the same thing as being a hunter. Pack warriors who showed some promise could receive additional training from the Guild, and were referred to as hunter-trained. Among the three thousand or so lycanthropes in Hillsborough, some two hundred were hunter-trained pack warriors. There was just one small problem with what the Guildmaster told the Knights. The assassin wasn’t hunter-trained. He was a fucking hunter.

I didn’t agree with the Guildmaster’s decision to withhold the information from the Knights, and I told him as much. That was part of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. The Guildmaster understood my stance, but he had an ulterior reason for the two investigations. The Guildmaster had his eye on a much bigger target, namely who ordered the assassination. The Guildmaster didn’t trust the Red Knights to look beyond the identity of the assassin, so the lone wolves were trying to find out who had access to a possible rogue hunter – or if a lord used one of his own. The Guildmaster knew a division of resources could result in the lone wolves finding something the hit packs needed and vice versa. That was why the Guildmaster called a meeting between the leadership of the lone wolves and the hit packs to clear up any such problems. I wasn’t sure why my presence was needed, but I obeyed the Guildmaster. At least most of the time.

The meeting was in one of the conference rooms at the Guildmaster’s office building. It was a rather plain room, stark white walls complementing a conservatively dark carpet. A long table with wooden tones was set center to the room, with plastic chairs of various colors surrounding it. The impression was one of utilitarian need. There were no luxuries to distract its occupants from their purpose for meeting. At the head of the table was the Guildmaster. The past week had worn him down. I knew he hadn’t gone home except for a few hours when his wife forced him to sleep. The rest of his time was either in his office meeting with the pack leaders or Red Knights, or he was at the Guild working on coordinating the investigations. The Guildmaster’s face sagged, with new lines etched into the skin. The normal, ramrod-straight posture was gone, replaced by a slumped-over position. Everything screamed fatigue, except the look in his eyes. They still held the grim determination to find the assassin and to do unnamable things to him before he died. I hoped the Guildmaster didn’t collapse first.

To his right was Kurt Sneller, the leader of the hit packs. Sneller was tall for a lycanthrope, with his human form towering at six and a half feet and his true form almost nine feet tall. Dark hair and eyes accented a strong face. The loose-fitting suit hid his well-muscled body. Sneller was about the same age as the Guildmaster, but hadn’t progressed as rapidly in the Guild heirarchy. The Guildmaster placed Sneller in charge of the hit packs shortly after taking over the Guild. Rumor was that Sneller was a demanding leader with a strictness and attention to detail that his predecessor hadn’t possessed. Sneller was a firm believer in the taking care of small issues so that larger ones would fall into place. From the effectiveness of his hit packs, it was a philosophy that worked for Sneller.

Next to Sneller was his deputy. With an average height and build, as well as a shock of white-blond hair, he looked almost the exact opposite of Sneller. He also had about an inch of dirt and grime covering him, with the odor to match. The hunter was known only by his pack name of Ronin. I didn’t know any of his other names, and Ronin didn’t speak much at all. Ronin was among the minority of lycanthropes that favored their wolf form almost exclusively. He was often wandering the streets of Hillsborough with a mixed pack of lycanthrope outcasts and stray dogs. Ronin was the Guild’s main source of intelligence on the few lycanthropes estranged from the packs. He was the one hunter all independent lycanthropes knew they could go to him for help. Ronin didn’t seem to spend much time with the hit packs, which I thought made his position as Sneller’s deputy unusual at least. That said, no matter how feral he was, Ronin was widely recognized as an excellent small-unit tactician. I just wish Sneller made Ronin bathe before coming into the office.

On the Guildmaster’s left was Deadeye. Of the hundred or so hunters in the Hillsborough chapter, only about a quarter were lone wolves. With such a small group, Deadeye didn’t feel the need for a deputy. He occasionally rotated some of his lone wolves in a sort of temporary deputy position so he kept a good base of subordinates familiar with the leadership demands of lone wolves. No one wanted the chaos that came after the shake-up of the Guild following Lord Vollen’s ascension when the new lord summarily dismissed almost all of the Guild’s leadership. The only leader left became the Guildmaster.

“Ah, Marcus,” the Guildmaster said as I stepped into the room, “Nice of you to join us so quickly.” I nodded to him respectfully and took a seat beside Deadeye. “Where do we stand?”

“Whoever our boy was, he’s disappeared,” I answered. As the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, I could state the unpleasant facts without any loss of face, unlike the other three. Technically, if they said the same thing, it would be admitting their own fault. Even years after the previous Guildmaster had been removed, some of his hooks were still in the chapter. “I doubt we’ll find him. Not with what we have to work with. Maybe the Order could ask the Ancestors.” The others around the table nodded grimly.

“The Order is unusually quiet,” the Guildmaster said, “Especially since they are supposed to be busy consoling the Lord-Apparent and his family. I don’t think they’ll be contributing anything to finding the assassin.” I thought about the Lord-Apparent and his eldest sister. A pang of sorrow echoed through me. It startled me a little bit, but I concealed it from the others.

“I don’t think we’ll hear from them until after the Lord-Apparent’s coronation,” Deadeye agreed, “After all, they have to do all the necessary running around to get the details for the Rite set up correctly.”

“Good. Me no want to deal with Order,” Ronin growled, the words formed with difficulty. He barked out a conclusion in the wolf tongue derogatory to the Order as a whole. None of us around the table trusted the Order – either its magicks nor its intentions. There were just too many political battles between us.

“Whatever we think of them, something is going right for us,” the Guildmaster stated, “Dennis is over there now, trying to update the Lord-Apparent on our discoveries, or lack thereof.”

“So, that’s his job,” I said, a little on the hostile side. I had little respect for the rat-faced little lycanthrope. I always considered him a weather vane, changing his opinions with the political winds. It didn’t help that my personal history with him wasn’t very good. I’m the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, and was a lone wolf before that. Matric hadn’t done jobs in over ten years. The only reason he made it to his current position was he was a very skilled political combatant. He made sure to make the Guild look good to the aristocracy, and to the lycanthrope population in general. This led to one memorable instance where Matric, to make the Guild look good in front of a pack leader, tried to discipline me. I shot a leech off the shoulder of the pack leader’s wife, not exactly most the certain of shots. The pack leader was incensed with me taking what he thought was an unnecessary chance. So Matric picked up on it and tried to make the Guild look good by yelling at me about how irresponsibly I acted. I let him go for about a minute before I responded. All I did was walk up to him calmly and beat the bloody hell out of him. From then on, Matric and I stayed as far away from each other as possible. I did my part of being as civil as possible on the few occasions that our paths crossed. The Guildmaster made it perfectly clear to me that he considered Matric indispensible to the Guild, which meant I wasn’t supposed to do anything to him.

“The Lord-Apparent won’t see Matric,” the Guildmaster said, “According to the aristocrats he talked to at the Manor, the Lord-Apparent believes it was a vampire or vampire-instigated incident. That will hopefully get his damned Knights off of our collective back for a while.”

“Speaking of which, have we heard anything from the TCV?” asked Sneller.

“I met with my contacts,” I answered, remembering the meeting with Bradon the previous night, “The word is that the TCV is in an uproar, particularly the Inner Council. They know the Knights and most of the packs think it was their doing, and they are in damage-control mode. My sources say that they will present some form of alibi or excuse after the Rite of the Dead to the Lord-Apparent.” I told Bradon the TCV needed to do something immediately and do everything they could to help us with our investigation, but Bradon told me that it was impossible. The Inner Council barely agreed to the minimal concessions with Lord Vollen. Anythng further would be considered capitulation to the lycanthropes by the moderates, and Silanti’s faction was already clamoring to use Lord Vollen’s death to press the TCV’s interests. According to Bradon, Silanti was demanding the TCV begin first strikes before the lycanthropes attacked. Sneller and Ronin eyed me suspiciously.

“My informants tell me the same thing,” Deadeye said, “A couple of my other boys talked to their sources. The Inner Council has their ghouls working overtime to gather anything on the Lord-Apparent. The best bet is Lord Vollen’s assassination threw what little balance there was between the packs and the TCV out the window.”

“Agreed, if a little understated. Now, what do we do to return a little balance to the situation?” asked the Guildmaster. Sneller leaned onto the table. The glint in his eyes projected his ideas.

“We need to take action. Take out at least two members of the Inner Council. If we do it, then we’ll kill two birds with one stone. We restore the honor of the Guild and we take reparations from the TCV.”

“But the TCV wasn’t responsible for Lord Vollen’s assassination. They don’t have access to any rogue hunters that fucking good,” I countered, “The only ones who would have been able to find a rogue lycanthrope on that caliber would be the State Guild or another lord.” That was a bit on the inflammatory side, but correct.

“No, the State Guild wasn’t involved in this, nor was a rogue hunter,” the Guildmaster answered, “This was an internal power play from another lord. However, we can’t let that out yet to the packs. So, if you can convince your contact in the Bleeders to give us two names they oppose on the Inner Council, maybe we can pull this off.”

“Erik, you just said you were aware it’s another lord,” Deadeye protested, “How is assassinating Inner Council members going to help us?”

“We need to buy time,” the Guildmaster answered, his tone firm, “If the true perpetrators think we’re satisfied with believing this was a vampire plot, then they will relax. James, you and your lone wolves will continue to run the investigation. Marcus, you will ask your contact to furnish you the names of Inner Councilmembers, or their key supporters, the more moderate members wouldn’t mind seeing destroyed.”

“And what makes you think my contact will give me that?” I asked. I protected the identity of my main contact vigorously. It was expected of me by the Guild’s code of ethics.

“Because I know my Bleeder counterpart. He has his enemies in the Inner Council. Moreover, I know how much he would value having me owe him a favor of this magnitude. He will give you the names.” I stared at the Guildmaster in shock. Contacts between the Hunters Guild and the vampires were kept in the highest confidentiality. Now the Guildmaster just revealed it to everyone at the table. I didn’t think he even knew who my contact was.

“Relax Marcus, no one here is going to reveal that little bit of information to anyone else.” The Guildmaster smiled. I fumed for a moment, then saw that the Guildmaster was about to give final orders.

“Kurt, I need you to pull some of your hit packs off the investigation. We will need them to do the jobs once we get the names. James, continue running your investigation, but primarily focus on what lord could have ordered the assassination. I will speak with the Lord-Apparent to get the authorization for the jobs. Any questions before we dismiss?”

“Yes,” Deadeye said, “What about Orange
? Should I be sending one or two of my wolves over there? The courier said he was from there and I know that they have some hunters that are good enough.”

“I’ve talked to the Guildmaster of Orange,” the Guildmaster answered, “He informed me that all of his hunters have been accounted for on the night of the assassination.”

“You don’t sound convinced,” Sneller commented.

“I believe his hunters weren’t involved,” the Guildmaster replied, “Still, there’s something he isn’t telling me. I would suggest you look into it James, but tread carefully. I have reason to believe that what the Guildmaster was carefully not saying was most likely not related to the assassination, but something to do with state politics. Anything else?” Sneller and Deadeye shared a look with each other and then shook their heads. They left to attend to their jobs. I waited patiently as they left. The Guildmaster saw I wanted to speak with him and motioned for me to follow him back to his office.

“What the fuck, boss?” I asked as the door to his office shut, “Tensions between us and the leeches were just starting to settle down and now you want to blow away two Inner Council members. If there is some game being played between you and Bradon – thanks for revealing that secret, by the way – then I better fucking know it before I try talking to him.”

“Are you done?” the Guildmaster asked, his tone making it clear I’d overstepped even my generous bounds. I shrank back in deference to my boss. “This is realpolitik at its finest. I spent a great deal of resources getting you and Bradon together – for just this kind of situation. Bradon is aligned with the faction of the Inner Council who understands the need for the Peace, but who also understand the need to placate the general populace of our races. You know as well as I do we are not going to find the assassin or any direct evidence linking him to his employer. Not anytime soon. Bradon’s faction knows the aristocracy and the Knights suspect the TCV, and that we – the lycanthropes – will want retribution sooner rather than later. His faction will use our need for retribution to clean their own house and bring it more in-line with their own goals. Then, we and the vampire begin slowly backing down the tension.”

“To be blunt, boss, that sounds like a lot of conjecture. If anything goes wrong, it sounds like we’re going to be starting a war,” I said, more contritely, “Moreover, Bradon’s not the easiest person to get information from. You know my skills at haggling. I don’t want to force things and then everything go to hell.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” the Guildmaster said, “The vampires are more pragmatic than the packs are, especially when it comes to politics.”

“Why don’t we just kill Silanti and be done with it?” I asked, slightly joking.

“As rabid as that leech is, he might not be the most dangerous Inner Councilmember to the Peace,” the Guildmaster answered, deadly serious, “We have to find out which ones are.”

“And when we find out which lord had Stephen Vollen killed?”

“I’ll have a job for you.”

— – – – – – –

I walked into the restaurant, the dark street giving way to a dimly lit room. The atmosphere of upscale trendiness was stifling as I made my way through the human patrons. The off-orange stucco walls were dancing with the shadows of the humans. The shadows wavered as the flames on the table candles flickered. This was one of those small restaurants that well-off couples discovered and spent their romance. Unfortunately for me, it was full of these couples, who were being annoyingly sweet with each other. I held the disgust off my face until I made my way to the table where Philip Bradon waited for me. The vampire’s normally china skin was now a pinkish tone. He’d eaten before he came. I shook my head in slight disbelief, and then sat down into the chair opposite of him. He grinned at me, his fangs protruding slightly.

“Two meetings in two days,” Bradon said, with an amused lilt to his voice, “One might think we were having one of those odd romances the humans imagine in their books.” Bradon was an elder vampire, having lived well over a hundred years as a vampire. The age showed in his eyes. The ignorance and arrogance of the vampire youth had been replaced years before by a confidence that few vampires held. Bradon was dressed in a black-on-black formal suit that complemented his slicked-back dark hair. My guess was he did this to make himself look more business-oriented and less of a threat. Against others it might have worked, but I knew Bradon too well for that mistake. I knew what his black-painted fingernails meant. “I find those tales ridiculous. What happened to the great works of literature the humans were so adept at producing?”

“I didn’t ask to meet with you to discuss human culture,” I said, a little tersely. Bradon’s relaxed face flowed into neutrality, “I came here for retribution.” He tensed for a moment and then relaxed.

“I assume you are not about to take retribution on me,” Bradon said, “You wouldn’t have announced it. You would have just done it. So what kind of retribution do the lycanthropes want?” His seeming amusement at my statement disturbed me. Bradon was way too calm.

“The TCV killed our lord,” I said. Bradon looked annoyed.

“You know better than that,” Bradon said. “We discussed that last night. I don’t even believe that Silanti’s faction would have murdered Vollen.”

“What I believe or don’t believe doesn’t matter,” I said.

“You’re the Guildmaster’s personal hitter,” Bradon said, “I would imagine you have a unique voice with him.” When I didn’t say anything, Bradon’s eyes narrowed. Then he surprised me with a bark of laughter.

“Your Guildmaster is a devious wolf,” Bradon said, clearly amused, “Trying to get me to white-wash his fence, eh?” Mark Twain was one of Bradon’s favorite authors. I was used to the analogies, although they were so incongruous to Bradon’s normal outward persona. “He doesn’t believe the council had Lord Vollen assassinated? Tell me, who does he suspect?” I didn’t answer. Bradon was too good at taking the slightest hints and putting critical truths together. The silence stretched out between us.

“So, what does your Guildmaster expect I will do for his retribution?” Bradon asked, snarling the last word.

“Names,” I answered. “Inner Council. Preferably two.” Bradon looked at me for a long moment.

“Why would I essentially green light two assassinations for something we didn’t do?” Bradon asked. “As fractious as the Council can be, I’m still a loyal member. What do you think your Guildmaster would do if I asked to take out a pair of pack leaders because one of my allies was murdered? And I knew it was the Clearwater Council?” I didn’t say anything for a moment. Bradon was right, and I knew it.

“Would you do it if it kept the Peace?” I asked.

“Unlike any of your precious werewolves, I remember what it was like before the Peace,” Bradon answered, with a calm coolness that was all the more disturbing for its lack of anger. “Particularly when your dogs began using those Thompsons filled with silver bullets. I know what you’ve been taught. The Peace wasn’t formed to keep the pathwalkers from destroying both the nosferatu and the werewolves. It was so our races wouldn’t destroy each other, because that is what we nearly did during the Great War. You know how each side hates each other now, with just the small skirmishes between our races. How many had to die to force us to make the Peace?” The thought rocked me back a bit. The Great War was talked about a bit in tysach, but it was just a footnote to the Peace. I don’t think the shaman ever talked about how many died. Bradon’s face cracked with a cold smile.

“I will have to discuss this with my allies. Retribution may be arranged,” Bradon said. “Whether we decide to or not, tell your Guildmaster that this changes things between us. ” He motioned for me to sit down, and then walked away without another word. With no other ideas on what to do, I sat and ate.

I pondered Bradon’s parting statement. I knew it was hunters that had brought modern weapons into the conflict between the races. I knew that the pathwalkers had more or less forced the lycanthropes and the vampire to forge the Peace. From what I had learned in tysach, before the Peace it was pretty much open warfare between the two races. Pack warriors were actually warriors because they would fight and kill any leech in their territory. Hunters were called in when the packs found leeches too strong for the packs to handle. There were no set boundaries for each race, no rules for engaging, and no generally accepted rules for retribution. It was why it was rare to meet a vampire more than eighty years dead, as the vampires called it. Only the strongest, canniest, and most ruthless vampires survived the constant fighting between the races.

The Peace changed all that. Our races now had territories, rules for establishing and taking territories, and rules of engagement for intrusions on territory and for retribution. The consequences of the Peace were the rising population of both races and the growing “humanization” of our cultures. Pack politics were more of the verbal sparring and less of the actual, physical violence that was so characteristic of pack disputes. Although there was always a certain level of violence, mostly when vampires and lycanthropes met in outright combat, it was much less than that of the years before the Peace. The Order and many other lycanthropes believed that the Peace had left the lycanthrope a weaker race. I never believed that. The Hunters Guild is far more lethal and far more professional than it was in its days before the Peace, although I will grant that is mostly due to our rising status and changing role from shock trooper to spy/assassin. The average pack lycanthrope may not be as combat-ready as his ancestor, but he is far more able to manipulate human society to hide and hunt from within. The lycanthropes have gone from living only on the fringes of human society to becoming more mainstream. This has given the packs more affluence, which in turn, has been able us to camouflage our existence even better.

With the assassination of Vollen, the Peace was at risk. Open warfare was risky. Not for me, because I had plenty of experience in fighting and killing leeches. The packs, on the other hand, didn’t have that same level of knowledge or experience. Holding their own in a simple territory battle wasn’t the same as hunting and killing the leeches in an unrestricted environment. The most killing the normal pack warrior did was the monthly human hunt, which was nothing like hunting and killing leeches. Lessons from tysach had long fallen by the wayside for most of these warriors. Many would fall as the packs relearned those lessons in a Darwinian fashion. Hunters would die having to protect them from their own carelessness. Then, there was the threat of the pathwalkers. If open warfare upset the balance of things (as the pathwalkers saw things) or threatened to reveal our world, the pathwalkers would enter the fray. That would be the end of every lycanthrope and vampire not only in Hillsborough, but probably in most of central Florida. The pathwalkers didn’t fuck around. They just destroyed all participants. Needless to say, everyone was terrified of the pathwalkers, myself included. I finished my meal, uncertain about the future.

Chapter Five – Rites and Sidekicks