The next morning I was back in the Guildmaster’s office. As soon as I stepped into the office, I was hit by the smells of stale sweat and old food. The Guildmaster was sitting at his desk reading reports.

“Have you been home yet, boss?” I asked. His normal meticulous appearance was even more haggard than the last time I’d seen him. I was worried that my boss was driving himself too hard. Usually, the Guildmaster’s personal hitter was a close friend and could talk to him when the personal hitter thought the Guildmaster was acting poorly. This was one of the times that my mentor-student relationship instead of the more normal relationship hampered some of my duties.

“There hasn’t been time. There’s been precious little new information since our little meeting. I’ve also been trying to get someone at the Manor to talk with me, and it’s been quiet,” the Guildmaster said. He sounded exhausted, but still determined. Maybe I needed to talk to his wife. Maybe she could do something about the Guildmaster wrecking himself.

“My wife’s firm confirmed our assassin fled the county after murdering Lord Vollen,” the Guildmaster said, waving the report in his hand. He sounded tired, but not dulled, “The bastard dog jumped the fucking interstate, then Veterans Expressway, and up the Suncoast Parkway. Got off in New Port Richey. We have traffic and toll camera imaging of his car. We still can’t get a good image of the assassin himself. Anyway, that’s where the trail goes cold. None of the lycanthropes in Pasco saw him. James is sending Little William up to the Pasco chapter to do some poking around.” Little William, whose packname was Shadow, was a lone wolf with a good reputation for subtle intelligence gathering as well as close-quarters assassinations. I was willing to respect his talents, but that was it. He was one of the few hunters who thought I was an abomination because I was a Badmoon. There was some bad history there.

“Is Pasco involved?” I asked, somewhat incredulous. We didn’t have the same close-knit relationship with Pasco County that we did with Pinellas. Our chapters worked well with theirs, as long as I was not involved. Pasco’s Lord Hauser was far more traditional than Lord Vollen. Lord Hauser didn’t understand why I wasn’t burned years ago. His Guildmaster wasn’t much better. Still, I found it hard to believe that any wolf in Pasco’s packs could have been behind Vollen’s assassination.

“Not really,” the Guildmaster answered, “That said, I am not willing to allow any possibility slip through. If the assassin is in Pasco, Little William will be able to pick up the assassin’s trail again. Ancestors willing, he will.”

“And the Red Knights?” I asked, referring back to the public investigation that the hit packs were supposedly assisting. “Are they aware of what we’re doing?”

“They know we are investigating a lead in the assassin’s location. I promised to hand over any hard information if the lead pans out. According to Sneller, the Knights are now busily investigating the leeches’ known finances. They are looking for evidence the TCV paid or authorized the assassination. Since you didn’t hand over the names as soon as you walked in, am I to assume that Bradon wanted time to speak with his council allies?”

“How do you know he didn’t just flat out refuse to give me the names?” I asked, letting my annoyance fill my tone. I was pissed about the Guildmaster violating the confidentiality of my contact. I was pissed that the Guildmaster asked me to demand the names from Bradon. I was pissed with a lot of things recently.

“Because I know Bradon,” the Guildmaster answered, “That leech is pragmatic and ruthless. Those two qualities make him dangerous, but also somewhat predictable. Removing two enemies to his faction while keeping the Peace are too much of a prize for him to ignore.”

“I don’t think that’s how he would phrase it,” I said, my voice clearly telling the Guildmaster I disagreed. “He told me he would get back to me as soon as possible. I don’t think I can rush him on this. He’s playing just as dangerous game as we are. More if you consider that some of the leeches would use it to remove Bradon if they found out about it, and there’d be precious little Bradon could do about it.”

“Agreed,” the Guildmaster assented. He returned to his paperwork. He didn’t dismiss me, so I assumed there was something else for me to handle. As I waited for the Guildmaster to get around to whatever task he had in mind for me, I pulled out my phone and checked my email. There were no messages from Bradon or his ghouls. Nick sent me a message to see if I had any free time. Deadeye tasked Nick with looking into the origin of the Silver Shok bullets in the assassin’s rifle, but Nick hit some sort of obstacle. He was asking for my assistance. I had no idea what I could do for him, but sometimes just having someone with a fresh perspective was enough to come up with a solution. Before I could shoot back a response, the Guildmaster spoke.

“What did you think of Samuel?” the Guildmaster asked without looking up from his paperwork.

“Who?” I asked. I didn’t know all of the hunters’ true names, mostly because I didn’t work with that many of them. I knew all of their pack names, but that was due to the fact that most had pack names that reflected their specialty or personality. It made it easier to remember them in combat.

“Hangman,” the Guildmaster answered, slightly annoyed. By tradition, the Guildmaster only referred to the hunters by their pack names only when necessary. For the most part, the Guildmaster referred to his hunters by their proper name. It didn’t make much sense, but the tradition dated back to nearly the founding of the Hunters Guild.

“Smart pup,” I answered, “He reacts well and seems to know when to ask questions and when to just shut up and follow. I was surprised someone so young was leading a security team the night Lord Vollen was murdered, but now that I think about it, it makes sense.”

“It seemed like a good time to let him learn,” the Guildmaster replied, “The reason I asked was because I would like for you to take the pup under your wing. Kurt taught him a great deal about team tactics, but I need him to learn about lone wolf operations.”

“So why not ask Deadeye?” I asked. Most of the jobs I did for the Guildmaster were strictly solo operations, so I wasn’t sure if the Guildmaster was trying to punish me or he had something else in mind.

“James is a good leader and an excellent instructor, but you have that nasty tendency to think differently than even the lone wolves and take action that few others would. I need the pup to learn that kind of thinking and action.” I looked at the Guildmaster for a moment. There was something in his voice. The Guildmaster was leaving something out. Considering everything else that was going on, I didn’t want a new surprise exploding in my face like bad demo work.

“What’s up boss?” I asked, “Is there something you’re not telling me about the pup?”

“Yes, but it’s a little too early to tell anyone else. Will you do it, or do I have to find someone else?” His voice was gruff.

“Who else are you going to get to teach the pup the down and dirty side of hunting?” I asked rhetorically.

“Well then, I suggest you get started.”

I found Hangman at Poppa Gus’s. Since joining the Hillsborough chapter a few months prior, Hangman had been used by Sneller as free-floater to fill in for a hit pack who was a member shy – pretty much what I was doing the night the vampires attacked the pups in tysach. Sneller was aware that the Guildmaster had plans for the brand-new hunter, because Sneller used him to replace a hunter whose wife was expecting and would be back in a few days. It was a learning slot, so Hangman could see how hit packs operated in the real world. Under ideal circumstances, each member of a hit pack should have strengths that compensate for another’s weakness, so the hit pack as a whole was stronger than its members. Each member should be able to trust and depend on the others. That was the theory at any rate. In the real world, such ideal placements were not always possible. Sneller’s predecessor never realized this, and made a hash of the teams with his constant reorganizations trying to get that optimum balance. What made Sneller a damned good leader for the hit packs was that he focused on creating hit packs with good chemistry between the members. In Sneller’s world, if the packmembers worked well together, then the strength-weakness angle could be handled by intense training. As a result of Sneller’s far more pragmatic approach, the hit packs showed a marked increase in effectiveness. The hit packs were now almost small families within the Guild and worked hard to overcome any weaknesses that their pack possessed.

“May I join you?” I asked, walking up to Hangman’s table. He was sitting alone, probing the ropas viejo Mama Sanchez served him. He looked at me in surprise.

“Sure,” he slightly stammered out, “What are you doing, here?”

“Most hunters come here to eat,” I said, with a slight sarcasm. The words came out a little harsher than I expected. Hangman’s face went crimson in embarrassment. I decided a more tactful approach. “The truth is I came here looking for you.”

“Me? Why?” he asked, regaining some of his composure.

“How have you been doing with Tank’s crew?” I asked. He took the sudden change in topic in stride. Good.

“Okay, I guess,” he answered, slightly crestfallen, “It’s been difficult, in a way. They’ve treated me decent, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m not a part of the group.”

“The question is how much have you learned?” I asked, stealing a bite of his food.

“About what?” he asked in reply, “I’m still too new a hunter to say what exactly I’ve learned and how much I still have to learn.”

“Well that’s a start,” I said, pleasantly surprised. Most rookie hunters are so full of piss and vinegar once they graduate, they don’t understand that camp only gives a hunter the basic skills needed to do hunting. I was that way in spades before some of the more experienced hunters stomped my ass down. Hangman was far more aware that he had a lot to learn, even if he was unsure as to what exactly he needed to learn.

“How was Tank’s group different from how you were taught about hit packs?” I asked.

“There wasn’t any of that strength-weakness complement bullshit that we were taught,” Hangman said, catching me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting him to pick up on that so quickly. He saw that he surprised me, and gave me a quick grin. “My uncle was Backstabber. I spent a lot of time with him learning about hunting. I also learned a lot about what had been going on in the chapter before the Guildmaster took over.”

I’ll admit I was a bit dumbstruck by the revelation. Backstabber was the Guild’s liaison to the aristocracy under the previous Guildmaster. Unlike Matric, who spent most of his time at the Manor, Backstabber spent most of his time at the Guild. The first Lord Vollen played Guildmaster, and the Guildmaster at the time didn’t have the backbone to stand up to him. This left the Guild internally divided between those who were trying to actually do our jobs, and those that were busy trying to play the patronage game with the lord and the Guildmaster. Backstabber did his best to shield hunters like me who were a little too vocal about the condition of the Guild. He was a good mentor to me while I was still a rookie. He didn’t care I was a Badmoon and made sure his fellow veterans knew it. It helped with my acceptance within the Guild. Backstabber was also one of those who so nicely stomped my ass when I was getting too uppity. When the old Guildmaster “left,” Backstabber became the new Guildmaster’s personal hitter and helped in the reorganization. I could never prove it, but I know it was Backstabber who suggested me to the Guildmaster for his personal hitter when Backstabber decided to “semi-retire.” He was killed during a raid on a group of independent vampires that had set up shop in Apollo Beach barely a week after the Guildmaster offered me the position. Now I understood why the Guildmaster wanted me to take Hangman under my wing. It would satisfy the personal and professional debt the two of us owed a damned fine hunter.

“Well then you’ve learned what the Guildmaster wanted you to learn,” I replied, “Now he wants you to learn some new stuff.”

“From you?” Hangman asked an incredulous tone in his voice.

“Sort of. It’s less formal teaching and more me mentoring you,” I answered, “See, there’s the down and dirty side of hunting. Something the boss considers me somewhat decent at. He wants me to show you some tricks of the trade.”

“Like how to set a bonfire in front of the TCV Hall?” Hangman asked with a hint of sarcasm.

“Yeah, something like that,” I answered, my tone neutral, “Is there a problem I should know about?”

“The Guildmaster is shuffling me about a lot,” Hangman answered with a frustrated tone in his voice, “The others that came in with me are already with a pack. I don’t know what he wants me to do, or what my job is supposed to be.” I chuckled, which brought an indignant glare from the pup. Good, there was some fight in him.

“Don’t worry about that,” I reassured him, “Sometimes it takes a while for a hunter to settle down into a role. Take the Bowmasters. It took quite a while before the Guildmaster found the proper niche for them. During that whole time, the twins felt like you do now. It hurt their personal pride. Then, they were assigned to take over the armory and everything was right in the world. The best thing you can do right now is learn everything you can and find out what you do well and what you don’t do well.” The pup looked down at his food, trying to hide his frustration by not looking at me. I was fortunate. I was put into the lone wolves when I first joined the Hillsborough chapter. On top of that, I was mentored by a hunter who pushed me to be the best. His name was Backstabber.

“Maybe,” Hangman said, sounding unconvinced, “So what exactly are you going to teach me?”

“For the moment, you’re going to stay with Tank’s crew,” I told him, “Jawbreaker won’t be back until the Rite of the Dead anyway. Depending on what’s going on then, we’ll figure out what to do.”

— – – – – – – – – –

The sky over the cravex was appropriate for the occasion. The night sky was hidden behind ominous black clouds. The normal humidity was almost entirely gone. A cold wind whipped through the grassy flatland. It was a day of the purest Florida winter. The human weathermen must have been going insane trying to figure out what was happening. The lycanthropes knew. The Order of Spirits was convening the Rite of the Dead.

The cravex was filled with lycanthropes – all in true form. There was no need for our camouflage in the cravex. Every pack was in its entre, its part of the cravex. Even those lycanthropes who long ago refuted the ways of the Ancestors were here, kneeling in the tall grass to the center of the holy place. In the center of the cravex was a circle of shamans. All of the shamans wore the black robes of death, the hoods hiding the white “skull” paint on their faces They were chanting a death hymn in the ancient tongue of the lycanthrope. Behind the ring of shamans was the maksen. The word roughly translated into “altar,” but with more reverence in it. The old tongue lost a lot of its nuance in translation. The maksen was a cube of pure obsidian, about eight feet on the side, shaped and placed into the cravex by the first Spiritmaster of the county. Only the top half of the maksen was above the ground. Silver runes were etched into the sides of the maksen, denoting the important events in the history of the lycanthropes. It was always odd to me that the one substance known to be able to cause harm to our kind often decorated our sacred objects.

The Guildmaster led the members of the Hunters Guild into its entre. All of the hunters were in attendance in the entre. There was no need for perimeter guards tonight. None of our enemies were suicidal enough to send its members into the middle of the entire Hillsborough County Lordship. Even humans stayed away due to a mystical protection ward the first Spiritmaster of Hillsborough cast on the cravex when the land was first consecrated. The Guildmaster, Sneller, and Deadeye wore the traditional mourning robes. They were similar to the ones worn by the shamans, but of a lesser quality. The rest of the hunters were dressed in a mix of formal suits, robes, and jumpsuits. The Guild’s mood was uniform. We were all seething with anger.

To the right of our entre was the aristocracy’s entre, staked out by four, twelve-foot high, four-inch thick, wood poles, covered in similar ancient runes to those that lined the maksen. By each pole stood two Red Knights. The Red Knights blamed the Guild for failing to stop the assassin. They carefully didn’t say it aloud, but it showed every time they looked at us. I think they were also starting to catch on that we weren’t giving them all of our information. We, of course, returned their enmity. We were doing our damndest to find the party responsible for Lord Vollen’s death. It would be the Guild, not the Knights, who would be called upon to sanction the assassin and whoever sent him to murder our lord. Most likely, the hunter sent to do the actual job would be me. Especially if the Guildmaster’s suspicions were correct.

To our front, on the other side of the maksen were the entri of the packs. As I looked over the growing crowd of lycanthropes, I felt very uncomfortable. The Guild’s position in lycanthrope society was always kind of ambiguous. We were respected because we protected the packs from the vampire, but we were also feared. The hunters were the ones called on by the aristocracy to kill other lycanthropes. Death was something the lycanthropes accepted as part of life. Because of the brutal nature of the life we were born into, we often saw death more than humans. Even with that intimate relationship with death, or because of it, the murder of a lycanthrope by another was abhorrent to our kind. The hunters were used to the packs looking at us with a wary respect. As I looked out amongst the pack warriors, that wary respect was replaced by rage.

My thoughts were interrupted as I was blinded by a blue-white bolt of lightning. The bolt struck the maksen with a thundering crash. I could feel the shockwave of the thunderclap shake my body. The black obsidian absorbed the light of the bolt. As the thunder echoed through the cravex, the runes on the maksen glowed an eerie red. The top of the obsidian monolith suddenly turned bright white and a beam of the purest white arched into the night sky like a spotlight.

From the south, the torches of the marchers came out of the tree line toward the center of the cravex. The torches threw shadows across the first rank of lycanthropes in the March of the Dead. As the Guild members turned to face the marchers, the first rank came into the torchlight of the outer perimeter of the entri. Their black robes were similar to the shamans around the maksen. Held ramrod-straight were long pole arms as traditional to the lycanthropes as katanas were to Japanese samurai. Deskunas, or death poles, were eight-foot long poles, topped with a silver double-headed war axe. On the other end was a six-inch silver spike. Its real utility laid in the ability to separate the deskuna at the middle, forming an easily wielded battle axe and a short spear. In modern times, it was a ceremonial weapon, but the deskuna proved itself on the battlefields of the fatherland during much of our history. For the Rite, in the middle of the two axe heads sat a burning torch. Behind the first rank of four lycanthropes were two more rows of four lycanthropes each. Behind the honor guard, were two high-ranking shaman. Black robes draped over them with only ancient symbols in silver providing any relief. In their hands, as if in offering, were thick, oversized Books of the Rites. Turned to the pages of the Rite of the Dead, the two were chanting the ancient hymns for the dead. Their low voices rumbled through the cravex like drum beats. As they raised their heads from their tomes, their pale white skull face paints gleamed in the torchlight.

Directly behind the shaman was the body of Lord Vollen. The body lay on the traditional carrying cot made of leather and wooden poles. Lord Vollen’s body was in true form, as all supernatural creatures are when they die, and bore no clothing save the guide cloth. The guide cloth was a strip of light blue with gold runes. These were supposed to help the spirit of the deceased find the Ancestors. Blue-white light shone out from underneath the cot, a visible sign of the magick holding the cot aloft. The Rite declared none may touch the deceased from the time the guide cloth is placed on the deceased’s forehead until his spirit is ready to join the Ancestors. Touching could ground the soul in this world and make it unable to join the Ancestors. Flanking the body on either side were the six most senior Red Knights. Their traditional red robes were adorned with long vertical stripes of black along the sleeves. The stripes were not for mourning, but as a measure of rank. Only the most experienced Red Knights were allowed to wear the black stripe, and hunters always respected those that did. Wicked-looking silver daggers in well-worn leather sheaths hung from their belts. They did not touch the cot, but guarded it, as the Rite demanded of the Lord’s personal bodyguards.

Following the procession of the body was the family of the deceased lord. The four children of Lord Vollen walked in two rows. Vollen’s wife was killed several years ago during an assassination attempt by a team of independent vampires. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, took her mother’s place at the front left side. Even with her face strained by sorrow, she was easily one of the most beautiful lycanthropes I’d ever seen. Even more than just her beauty, there was something about her – something I sensed the very few times I’d been allowed within her presence. Maybe it was like the powers the now deceased Lord Vollen tried to use on me in the Guildmaster’s office. I put those thoughts away and tried to concentrate on the Rite. Walking next to his sister was the Lord-Apparent, Jason Vollen. The hood of his robe hid his face from the packs. Behind the two of them were their younger brother, Maxwell, and sister, Kelly, who were reluctantly following their elder siblings. Neither had reached the age of Discovery, so they were often sheltered from the dealings of lycanthrope society. I had only seen them a handful of times before. All of the family members were dressed in similar red robes as the Red Knights, but with a different cut. Behind the lord’s family at the end of the procession was the Spiritmaster. In robes similar to the shaman in front of the cot, but more ornate, he used his power to hold the cot aloft.

As the precession made its way to the maksen, the honor guard divided and encircled the obsidian altar. The cot, balanced on its mystical support, lifted up and sailed silently through the middle of the honor guard to land gently down on the maksen. The runes on the black obsidian gleamed with a blinding blue-white light. More than a few heads turned away. The family walked on the inside the honor guard’s circle to their entre. The Spiritmaster stood at the head of the maksen and raised his arms toward the dark sky. The Rite of the Dead began.

“Lycanthropes, your lord has been slain. Grandfather Death visits us once again. He takes a warrior’s body from the land of the living. Do not fear His coming. Our lord was a valiant leader, and the Ancestors give much respect to the valiant.” I was surprised at the reaction of the entire crowd, including the members of the Guild. I could see the emotions rising in them in their body language and expressions. Even some of the coolest individuals in the Guild were suddenly letting their facades slip. Vollen was a great leader, but I didn’t think he was great enough to invoke this kind of response to his death. Even the lord’s political enemies were swayed by the Spiritmaster’s tone. So why wasn’t I?

“Bring forth the Keeper. Declare our lord’s acts for the Ancestors,” the Spiritmaster said.

The Keeper emerged from the crowd. His true form sagged with age, his once-powerful form hunched over from many years on the earth. His black fur showed more than a few puffs of gray. The honor guard parted respectfully for the elder lycanthrope. The Keeper was the official historian of the packs in Hillsborough, but he was much more than a simple recorder of events. The Keeper acted as the counsel to the lord in matters of pack law and our heritage. It would be the Keeper who told of the one’s accomplishments at the Rite of the Dead. Many feared what would be said when it was their turn to lie on the maksen. The Keeper swept the packs with his eyes before beginning his part of the ceremony. I thought his eyes locked onto my eyes for a moment. It went by so fast I wasn’t sure. The Keeper always made me uneasy. He didn’t look at me as if I was an abomination, but more like I was some sort of unusual relic. I stayed away from him as much as possible. I wasn’t afraid of what he was going to say at my Rite. The old lycanthrope moved to the south end of the maksen. As he was raising his head to the sky, the clouds covering the cravex cleared and the Bone Moon shone down.

“Oh great Ancestors of the lycanthropes. Hear my declaration. Judge the deceased. Take his soul if the judgment is fair,” the Keeper asked of the stars and moon. At first, the Keeper’s declaration sounded like a series of low growls. Then it rose in tempo, pitch, and volume. I couldn’t understand the words, as they were in the old tongue. Most of the modern lycanthropes in the Kingdom of the United States only spoke English, and maybe one or two other languages if they were lucky. Very few of us could speak the old tongue beyond a few words. It was kind of like Latin for humans. The harmonic vibrations of the Song of Declaration were unmistakably powerful. I could actually feel the song telling me Vollen’s life. Pictures of various events resolved in my mind. It was a lot like the wolf tongue. As the song continued for the next half-hour, I saw all of the events that shaped and focused Stephen Vollen into the lycanthrope he had become. I saw him confronted his father and make the elder Vollen relinquish the lordship. I saw his happiness as he married his wife, and as his children were born. I saw his triumphs as he forged the county into what he wanted. The song ended on the same series of low growls it began with. It was sort of an ashes to ashes, dust to dust type of thing. The Keeper, his task finished, melted silently back into the packs.

“Great Ancestors, you have heard in your tongue the life of our lord,” the Spiritmaster intoned, “We beg of you to accept his soul. Take the valiant lord to the final resting place.” There was a deafening silence for a moment. Then, the maksen exploded in brilliant light. When the light dimmed, a pale blue mass of swirling energy floated over the body. I stood in awe. I had never seen this happen during a Rite of the Dead. From the astonished gasps coming from the packs, none of them witnessed anything like it either. The Spiritmaster maintained his calm and dignified posture. “Lycanthropes of Hillsborough do not fear the specter in front of you! Our lord’s soul is being judged by the Ancestors. It is his powerful abilities that allow his soul to be seen.”

“FATHER!” screamed Kelly Vollen. Her younger brother and sister held her from running to the maksen. The Lord-Apparent just stared at the apparition. His face was impassive, almost indifferent. I wondered if the Spiritmaster warned him this might happen during judgment. If so, why didn’t the Spiritmaster warn the other children? Before I could answer my own question, the final phase of the Rite began. The Bone Moon’s light intensified. It was like having a giant spotlight shine down on the cravex. The light slowly dissolved the specter, and then the moon dimmed back to its normal light.

“It is done. Our lord has been taken by the Ancestors. The new lord will be chosen on the next Bone Moon.” With that, the honor guard stepped to the maksen. They lowered their deskunas until the torches met the lord’s body. At the mere touch of the fire, the body ignited in flames, like it had been doused in lighter fluid. Truth to be told, once the soul is out of a lycanthrope, the body becomes as flammable as a vampire. As the flames consumed the body, the packs left the cravex. Only a few shaman were to remain. They would gather whatever ashes were left over to place in the Manor to rest with those of all other dead aristocracy.

The Rite of the Dead was a private affair for the lycanthropes of the county only. The kanthsle held after the Rite was the time for the other lords, or their proxies, to express their sympathies with the Lord-Apparent, his family, and the pack leaders. The Guildmaster offered to let me go with him, but we both knew that it probably wasn’t the best idea. It would already be a tense enough affair to throw me into the mix. Besides, I had other plans.

I gathered a small group of hunters, namely myself, Skiff, Hangman, and Nick. We were in the warehouse where Vollen had been murdered. A pair of security guards were still there, but since they worked for Amber Werstand, they didn’t bother us as we entered the building. The four of us walked into the foyer and turned on the electricity. As the lights warmed up, I walked over to the door I had torn apart to get up to the catwalks.

“What are we doing here, Ranger?” asked Nick. Of the other three, Nick was the most hesitant to attend my little gathering. Nick felt guilty about not being at the warehouse when Vollen was killed. I saw it clearly on his face and in his actions. He intellectually understood that it wasn’t his fault and that he couldn’t have done anything, but the emotional response was hitting hard. I didn’t know why, and Nick didn’t volunteer anything. I wasn’t willing to jeopardize our friendship by pushing any further, especially since it wasn’t affected his work. Still, I wanted him for this.

“We’re going to go over everything we have on this,” I answered, climbing the ladder to the catwalks. I didn’t have to say what “this” was. The others followed reluctantly. The darkness enveloped us as we gathered on the catwalks. Slowly, as I led them over to the place where the assassin fired from, the glow from the arena’s lights brightened the area.

“Why are we doing that? I mean, it isn’t as if half the Guild hasn’t done it themselves. Even the Guildmaster went over it with the top hunters,” Hangman commented. Yellow tape sealed off the area, but came down with claws. The Knights tried to be so much like their human counterparts in the Secret Service. Any other time and place, it might have been amusing.

“I was in on that meeting. The problem is no one is looking at the murder clearly. Not the Knights and certainly not the Guild. Hell, the shaman aren’t even looking into it at all, which bothers the hell out of me. The Knights are sure it was the leeches. The Guild knows differently, but they haven’t been sharing that or any information along those lines, so the Knights aren’t even looking in the right places.”

“And the Guild is so busy trying to hide the fact that it wasn’t the leeches from the Knights and the Order that options we would normally explore are no longer available to us. They would tip our hand, so to speak.” Nick always picked this stuff up fast. It was why I pressed hard for him to be at this little session. Of the three, Nick thought the most like I did, and had a lot more patience in explaining it.

“So what are we going to do up here?” asked Hangman, “We could’ve done this at one of the meeting rooms.” Hangman did have potential, and I wanted his fresher prospective. Plus, I told the Guildmaster I would mentor the pup in the dirty side of hunting. What we were doing definitely fell into the dirty side of hunting. Hangman was clearly uncomfortable with Nick and me daring to criticize the Guildmaster and his handling of the assassination. I needed to knock that naivety out of his head as fast as I could if I was going to get his mind working where I needed it. I walked over to where the assassin had crouched while taking aim at Vollen.

“It’s easier to visualize the facts when we have the scene before us.” I rapped my claws on the metal railing that deflected my first shot at the assassin. “For example, how many of us in this Guild chapter could have pulled off this shot?”

“Like, half the lone wolves, dude,” answered Skiff, “Snipering from a concealed position? Dude, the range to the balcony is less than a hundred meters.” I winced slightly at his dialect, but it was how he normally talked. I wasn’t even sure if he could rid himself of that Valley accent if he tried. I invited Skiff because he was one of the few “normal” hunters that were actually comfortable around me. Most of the hunters in our chapter were professional in their dealings with me, but they were still leery of working with a Badmoon. Old stigmas die hard, but to give my fellow hunters credit, they did try to hide their unease when working with me. Most of them anyway. Nick shook his head, staring at the catwalk.

“I don’t think so. Our shooter not only had the accuracy to hit a target in varying light and sound, but also managed to keep his head in a position that made a kill shot from Ranger impossible. The kill shot we were all taught at the camp to use under these unique circumstances. Remember, he kept his head in front of the railing. Now Deadeye could have done it, without a doubt. Ranger, you could, but I very much doubt you would have had the foresight to use the railing.” I simply nodded in agreement. I needed to be as brutally honest about myself as I was asking everyone to be about how the Guildmaster was handling the situation. “There may be a one or two more in this chapter that could perform at this level, but I doubt it.” Nick walked around the spotlight, looking like he was deep in thought. “This hunter is one of the best snipers I’ve ever seen. Not for his shooting skills, but how he positioned himself in his environment. He planned this out and took into account the most likely contingencies.”

“Alright, so we know that the dog is good. Now where does that lead us?” asked Hangman. The pup’s aggressive instincts were showing. Those were the instincts I wanted to foster.

“What we’re talking about is not some hunter-trained lycanthrope, but a camp-graduated hunter. A damned good one. A hunter that proficient isn’t a rogue,” I laid out, “No chapter would let one of their own with that level of proficiency go rogue. They would put him down. Moreover, a rogue hunter wouldn’t have access to the Silver Shoks, at least not in seven-six-two. That caliber just started coming off the production line. Plus, the assassin had specific information. How to get up on the catwalks, where Vollen was, etc. That kind of data is not readily available to our own packs. Only the Knights and the Guild really know their way around this building. The assassin had some pretty significant intelligence.” The others all agreed with this. Then Skiff asked the most obvious question.

“Does that mean, like, a traitor in our midst?” he asked cautiously.

“No, all the hunters in our chapter were accounted for that night. Another lord sent the assassin,” I answered, “That’s the focus of the Guildmaster’s independent investigation. I hate to say it aloud, but I agree with his conclusion.” Hangman and Skiff shifted uncomfortably. Political squabbles were common amongst the lords of Florida, but the idea one would have another assassinated was beyond reprehensible. It was almost inconceivable.

“Who then?” asked Hangman. I was about to voice my ideas when Nick interrupted me.

“Perhaps the reason behind the assassination will lead us to the conspirator. We can guess the lord all we want, but unless there is a solid motive, all our suspicions are for naught.” We agreed with him. I went through the possibilities in my head.

“The reason could be rather simple,” I began, “Put an untried and unknown lycanthrope on the throne of the county. The political possibilities are endless.” I was about to continue when my phone rang. I rolled my eyes and fished the hand-held device out of my pocket.

“Ranger,” I spoke into the phone. Only a few people had this number. All belonged to the Guild.

“Marcus, this is the Guildmaster,” came the gruff voice of my boss, “Dennis just gave me sealed documents from the Lord-Apparent.” He sounded strange. There was a tone I hadn’t heard before. It was almost like fear.

“Is it a job?” I asked. The others looked at me intently. Then, all of their phones pinged with text messages. Nick held his up to me so that I could see the immediate recall notice.

“No. A general recall notice for all warriors, hunters, and shamans has been issued. I want you here in case there is something that needs to be handled immediately. How soon can you get to the office?” he asked.

“Thirty minutes if the traffic is cooperating,” I answered. I ended the call without saying anything further. It was better if he didn’t know what I was up to at the moment. I’d just tell him the call dropped. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Care to tell us why we got the recall?” asked Nick.

“Something from the Lord-Apparent was delivered to the Guildmaster,” I answered. Sealed orders from the Lord-Apparent were not unusual. They were a way to make sure any plans the Lord-Apparent was making would be set into motion shortly after his coronation, as in seconds after he assumed the lordship. What worried me was that the Guildmaster was taking this specific packet so seriously. It was almost as if he knew what was in it and was afraid of it. Anything that scared my Guildmaster was something that scared me.

“So, what does that have to do with us?” asked Hangman.

“I don’t know, but there was a general recall to all of the packs.” The others looked at me solemnly. All sorts of bad images were coming into our minds.

“Okay, get back to your homes. Don’t speak of our meeting here to anyone. Not to the Guildmaster, Deadeye, Sneller, anyone. Got it?” I asked. Nick and Skiff nodded. Hangman hesitated for a moment, but nodded also. I was going to have to work overtime on him to break all those “proper” habits that they’d drummed into him during training. We climbed down from the catwalks and rapidly made our way to our vehicles. Outside, Nick stopped me as the other two drove off.

“Do you know what is going on Ranger?” he asked. He must have known that I had held something back. I looked him straight in the eye before answering.

“Whatever the Lord-Apparent sent the Guildmaster has him spooked. Need I say more?” I asked. Nick shook his head before donning his helmet. He flipped down the tinted visor and kicked his motorcycle to life. I watched for a moment as he roared away. Honestly, I was scared. Not the normal anxiety I felt before a job went down, but a heart-wrenching fear of the future. I wasn’t sure what it held for me or my kind, but I was sure that it wasn’t good.

The next few days passed without incident, so I felt safe enough to take Hangman to the armory. The pup was still using the Glock 17 given to him at the hunter training camp. Now, I like the Glock, and I know a few hunters who use it as their primary sidearm. That said there is something special in finding that one pistol you feel most comfortable with. For me, the first time I picked up HK’s USP, I knew I’d found my weapon of choice. Hangman played with several different pistols before he settled down on a Sig Sauer 1911. Not my preference, but Hangman’s face lit up as he picked up the weapon. It wasn’t hard to recognize that look.

I heard someone walking up behind me. I knew the lycanthrope was somewhat friendly, otherwise the kin in the store would have already tripped the alarm. I turned and found Chris Ringston approaching me. The pack leader still looked a little shaken. That wasn’t surprising, between his brother’s recent demise and the murder of Lord Vollen. He was doing his best, but I could see that he was getting a bit ragged around the edges.

“Hello Ranger,” he said, surprised at my rapid turn. “I’d almost expect to find a gun pointed at me with a spin like that.” He smiled, but it was a tired grin. He was looking for anything to find humor in.

“Afternoon sir,” I said calmly, “What can I do for you?”

“Actually, it is what you can do for a young pup in our custody,” he said. Ah yes, Jennifer Denton. The pup we rescued with his brother.

“Of course, sir. How can I help?” I asked.

“As I’m sure you’re aware of, it is customary to have the lycanthropes that found a pup to stand with her during the Rite of Discovery. I’ve come to formally invite you to the Rite and ask that you fulfill your duties as one of the Discoverers. I know that the hunters aren’t as popular right now with the packs, but I can assure you that the solemnness of the Rite will be observed.”

“What about Nick?” I asked, “He did more for her during that little fight than I did.”

“I’ve already asked him. He said he would attend if you did. So, I asked the Guildmaster where you were, and he told me you were here with one of the younger hunters.” He nodded over to Hangman, who was watching the exchange with some interest.

“My new protégée,” I said nonchalantly, “He did well during the assassination. So to speak. As to your invitation, I humbly accept your invitation and thank you for your brave commitment to upholding the sanctity of the Rite during these tense times. May the Ancestors have mercy on your line.” It was a formal acceptance the Guildmaster drilled into me a few years back. What a surprise, I actually found a use for it. The Guildmaster was going to be insufferable when I told him. Ringston nodded his head in acceptance and left the armory. I watched him walk out of the store into a better than average sedan and drive off. Hangman joined me at the counter.

“What was that about?” Hangman asked.

“A formal invitation,” I answered, “Now, get your new toy and let’s get over to the Guild. I need to get a hold of Nick and find out what he is doing about something.” I walked out of the store with Hangman trailing behind me.

“That was very vague,” he said, catching up to me. His car was parked next to my motorcycle, so he threw the box and case into the back of the car as I straddled the big machine. His new pistol was already in inside-the-waistband holster on his hip.

“You’re not supposed to understand Hangman,” I told him, “It’s a private matter. If it was relevant to your training, I would’ve told you about it in the shop. Go home and get your gear in order. I’ve got a nasty feeling. If you see Nick, tell him that I’m looking for him.” I started the motorcycle, letting the multi-function displays kick in and light up. Hangman nodded as I put up the kick stand revved the throttle. A quick throw of the gear and I roared out of the parking lot.

Nick wasn’t at the Guild when I got there, and no one knew where he was. I left messages on his phone, then decided to go back to my place and get my own gear in order. Proper preparation prevents piss poor performance. That little ditty was drilled into hunters’ heads from the first day at training camp. I already checked most of my carry rigs and was in the middle of cleaning my weapons when the phone rang.

“Smith,” I answered into the receiver.

“What did you want?” Nick asked. He sounded like he just finished up a workout, or the Guildmaster had him running an errand.

“Did you want to meet before the Rite and go in together?” I asked into the phone, “Or did you want to just come when you’re ready?” I was a little concerned about the packs at the moment. I trusted Ringston, but I didn’t trust the pack warriors. Most of them were even more suspicious of the hunters than normal. Nick didn’t say anything for a moment as he thought on that.

“Meet you at the armory at ten o’clock.” I agreed and hung up the phone. The Rite would be performed at midnight. The Rite of Discovery was normally done on the Bone Moon, but with the Rite of the Dead, the ritual was pushed back the required three days. Because we were two of the lycanthropes that found Jennifer Denton, Nick and I would stand up for her at the Rite. It was an unusual part of the lycanthrope beliefs. For lycanthropes outside of the packs, most of what they remember from being found is the dream implanted into them by the team and a sudden, overpowering urge to go to the cravex at the Bone Moon. That’s when they first really meet the packs. During the Rite of Discovery, the pups are brought into the cravex and forced to shed their human form for true. For some of the pups, it’s the first shedding. For others, like me, it was to affirm I was a lycanthrope to the packs. The reason the lycanthropes who found the pup are asked to stand up during the rite is that they are asked to take responsibility for the pup while the pup learn the ways of the lycanthropes in tysach. To not have anyone stand up for you at Discovery is a great dishonor. I would know, after all. When the leader of the pack that discovered me found out I had no lycanthrope roots, that none of my family was lycanthropes, he took it as a bad omen. I never understood why, but he ordered that none of the pack would stand for me, not even those who found me. It was a fact that several of the other pups threw in my face as I went through tysach. Most of them didn’t do it very long after I took them to task over it. The shaman who was teaching my group would just sit there and laugh as I tore through the clique of pups that thought they were superior because of their lineage. Because of my own experiences, I knew it would be better for Jennifer if even “disreputable” lycanthropes – like Nick and me – stood up for her at the rite.

Around eight, I holstered the USP and made sure the spare magazines were in their holders. I took a brief shower and changed into a black jumpsuit. There was no point in getting out one of my suits, since I would be changing into my formal robes when I got to the cravex. My robes were neatly packed into a saddle bag. One of my silver daggers went into a thigh sheath. Properly attired and equipped, I drove out to meet Nick. I wanted to make sure we went in together. Any other time, I would fully expect the sanctity of the cravex to be respected, but these were unusual times. Lord Vollen’s assassination was still a fresh pain for the lycanthropes of Hillsborough. For most of the lycanthropes of the packs, they decided the Hunters Guild were the ones who failed to protect the lord. The hunters knew some of that was justified, which drove us mercilessly in our investigations. I knew the Guildmaster spent precious time and energy fighting some of the more vocal pack leaders who wanted my hide. He had some help from pack leaders I worked with in the past, but the old respectful unease that existed between the packs and the Hunters Guild was turning into a grumbling anger.

Nick was waiting for me at the armory when I roared into the parking lot at a quarter of ten. The armory was only a few miles from the cravex, which was why we chose the armory rather than the Guild itself to meet. Nick was similarly attired in a black jumpsuit, but I could see the grip of his monster revolver on his thigh. The Bowmasters were also outside. Gunny was involved in a conversation with Nick while Boomer was polishing a small folding knife that gleamed with the particular hue of true silver.

“What have you got there?” I asked Boomer as I walked up. His eyes gleamed like a child with a new toy. With another flick of his wrist, the blade unfolded out of the handle and snapped into place.

“It’s a folding knife I’ve been working on,” Boomer explained with untold amounts of enthusiasm in his voice. He handed over the knife for my inspection. The blade was a tad over four inches long with a tanto point to the blade. A raised set of ridges towards the folding joint gave it a stronger grip for fighting, and I could feel the improvement on the handle. I checked the locking system. Boomer used a linear lock, which would allow one-handed opening and closing. It looked to be a nice piece of work. I liked the idea of a silver blade I could carry in my pocket. Especially when I was in deep cover.

“When will you have more of these?” I asked, weighing the balance of the knife in my hand. Boomer did good work, no doubt about it.

“Not sure,” Boomer answered as I handed the folder back to him, “It was just an idea that I began fooling with. Gunny’s still a little on edge about the idea. Mostly because Gunny’s a traditionalist when it comes to knife-fighting.”

“Damn right,” Gunny retorted. He and Nick joined us as Boomer was talking. “A folder like that will close on you at the wrong fucking moment. Hunters should use a fucking straight blade, like the one Ranger’s wearing. There’s nothing wrong with using proven techniques and tools.” This was a running argument between the twins. Boomer was usually on the cutting edge of technology, while Gunny preferred using proven equipment. The brothers listened to each other’s arguments and often ended up blending their two styles in the custom jobs they built for hunters. It sounded odd and arduous, but it worked.

“Ranger,” Gunny said as Boomer put away his folder, “Do you know what is going on with the Guildmaster?”

“Why?” I asked, cautiously. Sometimes being a Badmoon and the Guildmaster’s personal hitter meant I wasn’t up on all of the scuttlebutt going around the chapter.

“Since all of us got the recall message, some of the hunters are stocking up on their ammunition. In addition to that, Boomer and I’ve been getting a slew of customizing orders. Everyone is getting tense, like they can smell a fight coming, but the Guildmaster’s been unusually quiet.”

“I don’t know Gunny,” I told him, “The Guildmaster hasn’t said to me about any jobs beyond what we’re doing on the investigation. Although, I understand what’s happening. I’ve gone through all my stuff and started looking to see if I need to upgrade any of it.”

“Well, you’ve always been good at keeping your equipment current and in shape. The problem is some of the boys have been pondering a switch in their normal load-outs, and this business is causing a lot of them to ask for the new stuff. Most of which, I don’t have in sellable inventory. What were you thinking about?”

“I was thinking about trading in my Commando for one of those short HK 416’s. Mine is pretty good, but with everything, I was just thinking about upgrading.” Gunny thought about it for a moment.

“No,” he answered, “I don’t think you should need to get a new carbine. Didn’t you just put a new barrel on that gun?”

“Yeah, just after that little fight in the swamp. And a new bolt assembly also.”

“Then that Commando should be good for a while. Plus, since most of the jobs you do are in urban situations, you need to save those extra inches of barrel. Plus, the Commando’s a nice proven system.”

“Is that why you bullied Hangman into getting the 1911?” I prodded in jest.

“Hell,” Gunny said, drawing himself into his veteran gunslinger caricature, “You young pups keep wanting to make a gun out of plastic. It’s about damned time one of y’all figured out that a gun’s got to be made with metal.” The three of us grinned as Gunny went into a tirade over the lack of respect we had for the venerable 1911 and its myriad of successors. It was funny watching him carry on like that, especially considering he was only a few years older than Nick and me. Plus there was the small fact that Nick and I could shoot the 1911 better than Gunny. I just never liked the feel of the pistol. It was just a personal thing on my part. When Gunny finished his act, Nick and I bade our farewells and walked back to our waiting motorcycles.

“What about you, Nick? Thinking about switching to an auto instead of that revolver?” Nick wasn’t as much of a traditionalist as Gunny, but he did tend to stay with the proven rather work with newer techniques and equipment.

“The name is Nicholas, Ranger,” Nick replied with his normal amused annoyance at my refusal to use his proper pack name, “I don’t actually dislike autos, it’s just that I’m not really all that interested in them. My Smith is too reliable. From what I gathered from Gunny, a lot of the hunters are upgrading.”

“‘When the battle nears, a warrior flashes his claws, a mystic proclaims the Ancestors’ will, and the hunter sharpens his knife,'” I quoted from one of the sayings of the Guild. Originally, it meant lycanthropes were never caught unprepared. Nowadays, the meaning changed to mean that while the rest of the lycanthropes beat their chests when a fight seemed imminent, the hunters made sure that they were ready.

“Probably,” he remarked, a faint smile on his lips, “What about you?”

“Same way,” I answered, “I helped Hangman get his new sidearm. He was still using the Glock from training camp. It seemed like a good idea to find him a pistol he was really comfortable. If I thought we had time, I would have seen about setting him up with a personal carbine, but anything he’ll need in the near future will probably be issued to him by the Bowmasters.”

“Yeah, I saw him before I called you this afternoon,” Nick said. He paused for a moment, “What do you think about him?”

“Young, but definitely a lot of potential,” I answered, “He’s Backstabber’s nephew. I suspect the Guildmaster thinks Hangman has the potential to be as good as his uncle.” Nick nodded at that remark. I briefly related the conversation between the Guildmaster and myself about Hangman. “What I’m afraid of is that Hangman is going to get a trial by fire. I don’t think that we have a lot of time before something bad happens.”

“Your instincts?” Nick asked. I nodded in answer. “Your instincts are probably the sharpest I’ve ever seen. In fact, I don’t think there has been a hunter with your level of instinctual awareness that hadn’t pretty much surrendered his true nature for that of the wolf.” I thought about what Nick said for a moment. Lycanthropes, as a rule, do not question their existence between our two forms. We are neither human nor wolf, but the predator of predators using these forms as camouflage to hunt our prey. There are some of the lycanthropes that will surrender to either the human or the wolf and reject their heritage. I personally find the thought revolting. It meant giving up the completeness of the world a lycanthrope feels and perceives when in true form. However, when lycanthropes do reject who they are, they gain a better understanding of their chosen form and many of the natural instincts and abilities that we, as lycanthropes, do not have in those forms. Since I began living in the lycanthrope society, I was understanding human society less and less. I could still walk within it without suspicion, but some of the social fascinations completely escaped me.

“I personally think it’s because of what I am,” I told Nick, “I think I’m a Badmoon because I’m not that far removed from whatever created us. I don’t care what the fucking shaman say, I don’t think the First Ancestor created us. It had to be something else.” Nick gave me a bored look.

“Religion and philosophy were never my forte. I wouldn’t worry about it.” Nick looked up at the stars. “I think it’s time that we got ourselves to the cravex. I don’t know about you, but I would rather be there early enough to get into the Guild’s entre without too much trouble.” I smiled and kicked the Harley to life. Nick did the same for his motorcycle, and the two of us raced out of the lot.

By the time Nick and I arrived, most of the pack entri were occupied by several lycanthropes and usually more than one pup. Damn, there were more pups at this rite than I’d seen before. I could see Ringston and his pack talking together. Jennifer was crouched down with another pup, the two of them chatting away with happy and animated tones. She saw Nick and me and immediately sprang up from her friend and dashed over to us. She was wearing formal black robes similar to the ones that Nick and I were putting on over our jumpsuits. The hood of hers was down and we could see the ponytail of blonde hair bounce as she half-ran to the two of us. Nick smiled warmly at her, and I managed a grin also. I didn’t actually have a whole lot of experience dealing with pups since I’d joined the ranks of the hunters, but I knew she would be looking for familiar faces. Ancestors knew that I had been before my Rite of Discovery.

“How are you doing?” asked Nick, as he climbed off his bike.

“Pretty good,” she answered, but there was a note of sorrow in her voice. I could tell by her eyes that she was still grieving for her parents. That would go away soon enough during tysach. The demands on her time wouldn’t give her enough time to grieve. If that sounds brutal, it is. Our world is brutal, and we have to make sure our pups can survive the unseen world. Hopefully the shaman teaching Jennifer will have time to help her if her pain became too much. I saw it during my own tysach. Not my own of course, but Jennifer wasn’t a Badmoon. I stopped my own sulkiness before it could reach my face. I wasn’t here for myself. I was here for the pup.

“Are you two here to stand for me?” she asked. There was a disturbing sentiment behind her words. Nick shot me a quick look out of the corner of his eye before answering.

“Yes,” Nick answered warmly, “We knew that you would need us tonight.” Nick was much better at keeping his own emotions under control and showing the face that someone needed to see. It made him scary when he was doing close-quarters assassinations. Nick could pretend to be your best friend before putting the silver into you, be it blade or bullets. With the pup, it was more of calming the pup on what is normally a very nervous occasion.

“Oh good,” Jennifer sighed, “Some of the other kids said that hunters couldn’t do what they were supposed to. Mr. Ringston said that you would come, but with what all of the older people were saying, I wasn’t sure. The other kids were saying all sorts of things about hunters.” She ran back to where Ringston and his pack were waiting. I looked at Nick with a knowing glance. It was an ominous warning.

We walked over to the Guild’s entre. The Spiritmaster was standing in the Order’s entre with a few shaman. The lower shaman openly sneered at Nick and me as we stood at our entre. Nick laid a restraining hand on my shoulder. I wouldn’t have started a fight, but Nick knew how even a verbal confrontation would look to the packs. Jennifer looked confused when she saw where Nick and I were standing. Ringston bent down and whispered something into her ear and she nodded in understanding.

The maksen was much brighter than at the beginning of Lord Vollen’s Rite. A line in the dirt circled the maksen, about five yards in radius. The line was sprinkled with wolfsbane and other herbs and incense. This was where the pups would stand during their part of the ceremony. The rest of the lycanthropes, except for the shaman, could not enter the circle for any reason. I wasn’t actually sure about the reasons for this, but then again the last Rite of Discovery I attended was my own. Nick was busy watching the various pack leaders mingle and talk with each other. There was a streak of political animal in Nick that I didn’t understand. My idea of politics was doing what the Guildmaster told me.

I was surprised the aristocracy’s entre remained unoccupied. Someone from the lord’s family always attended the Rite of Discovery. Then, with only two minutes before the closing of the cravex, the Lord-Apparent’s sister, Elizabeth Vollen, strode into the cravex, followed by two grim-faced Red Knights. They flashed Nick and me dangerous looks. I almost laughed at their attempt at intimidation, but Nick silenced me with a gesture. He really knew me far too well. Then my mind went into a blank as I focused on Elizabeth Vollen. I didn’t understand it, but it always took me a moment too long to take my eyes away from her every damn time I saw her. I heard Nick quietly snicker, and it brought me out of my momentary mental paralysis. Elizabeth Vollen also wore the black robes, but they had a more regal cut to them. They also had an unnatural tendency to show off her extremely feminine figure. Her hood was down, allowing her auburn hair to flow down her back. Her green eyes flashed over Nick and me, alone in the Guild’s entre. She looked slightly disappointed, and I felt a flush of embarrassment. I forced my emotions back under control. It wasn’t as if it was my fault the rest of the Guild was busy trying to find who killed her father. As Elizabeth Vollen took her place, the rest of the packs quieted down. It was deathly silent as the Spiritmaster began the Rite.

The Spiritmaster raised his arms above his head. As he did, a bluish-white aura surrounded him. As the aura grew, a strong wind ripped across the cravex. As the wind blew across the cravex, the tension and harsh emotion was stripped from the other lycanthropes. The shaman called it the “Calming Wind.” As the serenity passed over the packs, the Spiritmaster stepped forward into the circle around the maksen. Positioning himself at the head of the maksen, he looked at each of the entri. His dark eyes stared into each of the pack leaders’ eyes, weighing each of them with a cold, judging stare. That coldness lasted only until he reached the Guild’s entre. As the Spiritmaster looked at Nick and me, the coldness in his eyes flared into a white-hot anger. It only stayed in the Spiritmaster’s eyes, and an insincere smile graced the old lycanthrope’s lips. He didn’t look at Elizabeth Vollen, but just bowed.

With a flourish, the Spiritmaster turned back to the maksen. As he did, the other shaman took their places on the circle. There was one shaman standing in front of each of the packs that brought pups for the ceremony. The shaman on the line bowed their heads and the maksen glowed in the same bluish-white nimbus that surrounded the Spiritmaster earlier. At first the nimbus was a dim light, but it steadily grew brighter until it lit up the entire cravex. Suddenly, the nimbus transformed into a beam of pure white light shot out from the top of the maksen, piercing the dark night sky. The beam lasted for a few seconds, and then slowly vanished. As the beam subsided, the Spiritmaster addressed the cravex in his normal booming voice.

“The Ancestors are now aware that we bring forth the next generation to the Great Pack of the lycanthropes. They will observe the Rite and will show their acceptance of the pups. May the first pack come forth.” The first pack was traditionally the pack with the most senior pack leader, but the honor was often “gifted” for favors. The first pack for this Rite was my pack before I became a hunter. The one that found me and then abandoned me. Michael Twisted Knife still led the pack, but he was much older than I remembered him. His human form was still the average build and height, but his face was lined heavily and there was more gray than black in his hair. He’d avoided looking at me since Nick and I arrived at the cravex, but now that was impossible. Although the Rite did not demand it, tradition required every pack leader to look each of his fellow pack leaders in the eyes before he could claim his pups, including the Guildmaster – or his representative. The aristocracy was never looked in the eye, but the head was bowed to whoever was representing the lord. Twisted Knife looked at each of the pack leaders with his normal friendly look, but that warmth vanished as his eyes fell on me. I was standing in the Guildmaster’s spot in our entre, so he had to look at me. There was no friendliness, only contempt and a slight fear from my presence. I kept a level stare at him until he bowed his head to Elizabeth Vollen.

“I bring before the Ancestors two pups. Both have shed their shells for the true form.” Up until a lycanthrope sheds for true form for the first time, he or she is living in a shell. Once you shed the shell, or had your first change, you are considered a lycanthrope, but not part of the packs. “They are willing to shed in the Ancestors’ light, so that they will show their true nature to the rest of the Great Pack.” The Great Pack was the term for all the lycanthropes. It was used in similar fashion as a human speaking in terms of all humanity. As Twisted Knife finished speaking, two young pups came forward into the circle. As they entered the circle, the pack shed their forms for that of the true. The two pups looked slightly unsure of themselves, but they both shed their human forms for that of the true form. The circle and the maksen glowed with the bluish-white light, and Twisted Knife grinned widely.

“The Ancestors have accepted these pups. Who stands for these pups, and asks for their acceptance into the Great Pack?” As the Spiritmaster finished the question, several of the other pack members stood behind the shaman standing in front of the pack’s entre. The Spiritmaster looked at each of the pack members with a level look, judging if each one was worthy to stand for the pups. “I declare that these two pups are worthy for tysach. Only through tysach may these pups join the Great Pack and receive their true names. Stand with the Order, pups, for they will teach you what you need to truly become one of the Great Pack.” The two pups left the circle and were guided to the Order’s entre by the shaman.

The other packs continued through the same process. Most had one or two pups. One pack brought three. It was fewere than were at my Rite of Discovery. Pups were becoming scarcer in these times. The high mortality rate in tysach didn’t help the situation – we always lost at least two pups a year in tysach. There were some who argued to lighten tysach, but I was firmly against that. To make tysach easier would put more pups into the packs, but the survivability of those lycanthropes would be far less. Today, even the lycanthropes who live outside the packs in either the human or wolf worlds, can at the very least defend themselves against a vampire or Turaki “peacekeeper” long enough to get help. Easing tysach would mean that capability would disappear, and in the long run, cost us more of our race. Especially among the hunters who are called out to do the rescuing. Finally, Ringston answered the Spiritmaster.

“I bring forth a single pup. She has not shed her shell yet, preferring to let the Ancestors behold it as she does, for the first time.” She wasn’t the first who hadn’t shed their shell before the Rite. With a slight tap, Ringston moved Jennifer into the circle. She stepped into the circle and looked nervously at Nick and me. Nick nodded reassuringly, much to the Spiritmaster’s disappointment. As she prepared, Nick, me, and Ringston’s pack shed our human forms for true. She did as Ringston taught her. Her body relaxed, and her breathing slowed down noticeably. I could almost see as she touched that spot in her mind that started the transformation. With a howl that pierced the night, Jennifer shed her human form for true form. She stood much taller, almost seven feet tall, which would increase even more as she matured. The blond hair was gone, replaced by a thick coat of tan fur. Her blue eyes had a different look in them. I recognized it from experience. She was past her initial fright of her true form and was now looking at her body in amazement. Quickly, she remembered where she was, and looked back up at the Spiritmaster. He smiled gently at her, reassuring her that she had actually done it. The maksen and the circle beamed the light.

“The Ancestors have accepted the pup. Who stands for this pup, and asks for her acceptance into the Great Pack?” asked the Spiritmaster, in the same voice he used for the other packs, but everyone could feel the tension level rise. The other lycanthropes knew that Nick and I would be standing for Jennifer, but no one knew how the Order was going to react. They’d been silent on the political front since the assassination. As the other pack members with us that night stood behind the shaman in front of Ringston’s entre, Nick and I moved from the Guild’s entre to join them. The shaman looked at us with contempt as Nick and I joined the others. We took our places silently, keeping our faces neutral. I may not have cared a fucking whit about the Order or their feelings about me, but I wanted to avoid any of our mutual animosity falling onto Jennifer as she entered tysach. She was going to have a tough enough time as it was. The Spiritmaster gave all of us that same level look. He showed none of the contempt he’d shown when forced to look at Nick and me earlier.

“I declare this pup is worthy for tysach,” the Spiritmaster said, “Only through tysach may this pup join the Great Pack and receive her true name. Stand with the Order, pup, for they will teach you what you need to truly become one of the Great Pack.” Jennifer followed the shaman to the Order’s entre. When she joined the other pups, Nick and I returned to the Guild’s entre. We stood there in true form as the last two packs presented their pups and they were accepted into tysach. When the final pup joined the rest of the pups, the Spiritmaster spoke to the packs again.

“The pups have proven that they are lycanthropes, but they do not yet belong to the Great Pack. As the speaker to the Ancestors, I command that none may speak of the pups. These pups will learn in tysach, and until their Initiation, they will have no identity within this realm.” By realm, he meant the county. “Go forth into the night, and know the next generation has been accepted. Pray to the Ancestors that they will all join us at the Rite of Initiation.” With that, the Spiritmaster motioned for his shamans to usher the pups to the waiting vehicles which would take them to the first of many training places. Most looked confused and afraid, but none of them spoke. That part of the tradition was drilled into them before the Rite, much as it had for every generation previous.

None of the lycanthropes in the cravex looked at the pups as they departed. Until the time the pups “graduated” from tysach at the Rite of Initiation, the packs would not acknowledge the existence of the pups. The Guild would, but only because it was our hunters enlisted to guard the pups. I waited in the Guild’s entre as the packs left the cravex. Ringston walked up to the Guild’s entre.

“Are you sure you don’t want to join the pack for the reception?” he asked Nick and me. Pack leaders always hosted a social after the Rite of Discovery. It was partly celebration for the pups, and part consolation for the parents who might not see their children again.

“It’s probably best if we didn’t,” I answered. I was tempted, more because I knew Ringston was inviting us because he wanted to, not just because he felt obligated to. Nick and I knew better than to jeopardize the position of a friendly pack leader.

“Well, you have the address if you decide otherwise,” Ringston said, resigned. He appeared to understand, although he didn’t seem any happier about it. As Ringston left, I saw Elizabeth Vollen leave the aristocracy’s entre and walk over to Nick and me. My instincts roared warnings, but it was not the usual warnings of danger.

“Please convey to Erik that I am displeased with him tonight,” she told the two of us, her almond-shaped green eyes flashing peculiarly. Normally, I was pretty good at reading other lycanthropes, but this time I couldn’t get a good feel of what was going on in her mind. “I understand why he couldn’t attend, but I expected at the very least one of his deputies.”

“If you want to get technical, milady, I am one of his deputies,” I replied. Sometimes my mouth shot itself off before I could catch up with it. Particularly if I thought someone was impinging upon the Guild’s honor.

“I know.” With that, she turned sharply and left at a stately pace. The mind paralysis returned in full force and all I could do was watch her as she left until Nick slapped me across the back of the head.

“Careful what you wish for Ranger,” he said in a warning tone. I was about to ask him what he meant by that, but he just began to walk to the motorcycles. Rather than continue the discussion, I followed him and the two of us left the cravex.

Chapter Six – All’s Fair In War