Hangman and Vanessa looked at me in stunned silence. Then, their faces melted into concerned looks. I knew what was going through their minds. The idea of Nick being in the Disputed Territories was ludicrous. Hangman and I watched as he was expelled from Florida by the Prince and led away by a lycanthrope from Nebraska. Even if Nick managed to escape, Hangman would’ve heard something from the State Guild before we left Tallahassee.

"Yes, I know it’s crazy," I said, preempting the pair, "I know the simplest explanation is I simply imagined Nick being this mysterious savior."

"But you still believe you saw him on the street," Hangman said, flatly. "Does that gut feeling come from the same place as your instincts?"

"What do you mean, Sam?" Vanessa asked, confused. He held up a hand to let me think. Where was that certainty coming from?

"Maybe, but I honestly don’t know. It happened so fast, I can’t remember clearly," I answered.

"Would you explain what that’s supposed to mean?" Vanessa asked, shooting Hangman an annoyed look. At least I wasn’t the only one she was pissed off with anymore.

"Sorry babe. It’s something I’ve heard about Ranger. From Nick, of all wolves," Hangman apologized, "It’s kind of an open secret among the Hillsborough hunters that Ranger’s instincts are sharp enough almost to the point of prescience." It was my turn to ask a question.

"What the fuck was that word?" I asked.

"Prescience? It’s like a psychic alarm bell," Hangman said. Vanessa’s expression told me that wasn’t a precise answer, but it would serve for this conversation. I would have to look it up later. Damn, I hated looking up words that didn’t have to do with jobs.

"So you think Mark has psychic instincts?" asked Vanessa.

"He’s a Badmoon," Hangman answered, "We always hear about how they are abominations. How they go against the Ancestors because they aren’t from the true lycanthrope blood. Maybe there’s more to being a Badmoon. It’s not like we have a bunch of other Badmoons to test against."

"Not a bad theory dear, but you’re overlooking one big thing," Vanessa said, "Even if Mark is somehow psychic, how did Nick get down here? You told me he was dragged back to his home state." She turned to me, her face with that familiar concerned look she gave me. At least when she wasn’t looking at me like I’d done something indefensible.

"Mark, I think we have to agree it wasn’t Nick. So that leaves the question of who did come to your rescue?" Vanessa asked, "Considering everything we’ve learned since coming into the Disputed Territories, whoever it was, I don’t think we can trust him."

"Society?" I asked.

"They are the most likely," Vanessa answered. I just nodded.

"Why would the Society want to save Ranger?" Hangman asked. "They have to know by now you’re not working for them anymore."

"Probably because they think they can still salvage some use out of me. Blackhawk probably has something in mind that he thinks will forc4 me to assassinate Lord Savik," I said. Hangman and Vanessa nodded glumly.

"Vanessa, could you go out to my truck?" I asked, "Under the back seat should be a box of .45 silver ammo that I don’t think the lycanthropes here managed to swipe. It’s in that little smuggling compartment. I nearly shot myself out during that little skirmish."

"Oh yeah, sure," she said, before grabbing my keys and heading out of the safe house.

"What do you think?" I asked Hangman once Vanessa left the room.

"I’m like you. My intellect is telling me Vanessa’s right, but then we know some strange shit has been happening to you for awhile now. Plus you’re the only lycanthrope I know that can resist an aristocrat’s psychic powers," Hangman said. "Of course, I could very well be wanting to see Nick enough that I’m wanting to believe you enough to rationalize what you’ve told me." He continued to think about it.

"Hangman, you need to marry her," I said after a few moments of silence. He bolted upright.

"Where the fuck did that come from?" he asked.

"The Guildmaster, our Guildmaster, expected you to succeed him at some point. I can kind of see why," I told him. A deep crimson bloomed on the young hunter’s face. "He wanted me to teach you the dirty side of hunting. I think so you’d know how to use your personal hitter. One thing I’ve noticed is you have a very similar relationship to Vanessa that the Guildmaster had with his wife. They always seemed to help one another with problems. Always giving another perspective. I don’t know how many times the Guildmaster told me he’d been stumped on a problem until he ran it by his wife. When we get Hillsborough back, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if you get the chapter pretty quick. You’re going to want that kin by your side when you do." Hangman just sat there stunned for a few moments. The opening of the door snapped him out of it. Vanessa strode in and dropped the box of ammo in front of me.

"Next time you want to get rid of me, don’t send me to root around in the nasty parts of your truck," Vanessa said. I couldn’t tell if she was amused or mad. "Do you ever clean out that cab?"

"Isn’t that your job as the junior Society analyst?" I asked with a false severity on my face. Vanessa hit me for my trouble, but she gave me that frustrated grin I’d come to know. Well, at least she wasn’t mad at me. I contemplated whether or not it would be worth the peace to find out exactly how I’d managed to piss her off. No, there would be enough to do than opening that up again.

I kept the vampire in sight. This one, unlike the courier, was trying to stay aware of what was going on around him. He was doing a good job of it too. Enough I couldn’t tail him alone. When I reported it to the Disputed Territories Guildmaster, he asked one of the packs to send someone to assist. I was glad I’d been paired off with a pack warrior. From what Lady Anna and the Guildmaster told me, the pack warriors in the Disputed Territories had built up an impressive skill set in their war against the FCV. I just wish pack had sent a different warrior. Firebug was professional enough, but I saw the flash in his eyes when we introduced. Firebug was one of those wonderful lycanthropes who knew Badmoons were abominations. I’d learned a long time ago how to deal with lycanthropes like Firebug. As long as he at least acted professionally, I would keep my annoyance under control.

We’d traded off tailing the vampire for the past few blocks. Stalking vampires was both easier and more difficult than a ghoul or human. We can’t just blend into the crowd. The moment the vampire looked our way, the fact that we were lycanthropes would blaze like a beacon. To counter that, we put humans between us and only stepped out behind from them to make sure we were still on his trail. On the easier side of the equation, even with a vampire trying to maintain situational awareness, the FCV vampires knew they were on home territory. That made them more careless which made them more apt to make mistakes. This vampires’s mistake was being predictable. About every half-block, he’d sweep the street by pretending to look in a store window or some other casual movement. Even better for us, his exaggerated movements meant Firebug and I had plenty of time to duck in behind some cover before the vampire did his sweep. I just wished this leech would hurry up and meet with his superior. As soon as we identified the superior, we would be able to tail him or her to the silver cache. At least that was Vanessa’s theory from the information we got from the courier. Well, this vampire was one of three possibilities to be exact. Two other hunter/warrior teams were following two other vampires.

I hated this job. I felt naked walking down the streets of occupied territory with just a couple of handguns, a few knives, and not much ammo. My instincts were currently being quiet, but after the run-in with the vampire kill-team in the sandwich shop, I wanted the safety of a carbine or shotgun. I wanted to do a snatch and grab like we did on the courier, not this quiet tailing shit. The Guildmaster and Cracker explained they didn’t want to tip off the vampires about what we were going after until we were breaking down the doors on the silver cache. That meant doing reconnaissance in a way that the leeches wouldn’t know we were working our way up the food chain. I understood the concept, and I even agreed. I just didn’t like it.

"Fall back, I think he’s turning at the corner," Firebug said tersely into my headset. In the Disputed Territories disposable cellphones with bluetooth headsets took the place of radios. They were easier to procure and harder to track. I walked into an antique store as the vampire reached the street corner. I feigned interest in a couple of desks as I waited for the clear signal.

"Clear," Firebug said, "Wait. Hold. He’s meeting another leech." Of course he would be meeting his superior when I was out of position. I walked out of the antique store as fast I could and not draw attention from the humans. It was always when you wanted them to ignore you that you drew their attention.

"Can you get the shot?" I asked, striding up the street. Pedestrian traffic wasn’t much, but it was enough to slow me down. One thing Cracker kept pounding in my head was the need to blend in with the background. The Disputed Territories lycanthropes didn’t have the protective layer of kin to keep our activities quiet.

"Yes," Firebug said, condescendingly. "Back off before you cause a problem." I swallowed my retort. I knew Firebug was experienced, but I should be up there at another angle. Rather than start a fight during a job, I ducked into a convenience store and texted the Guildmaster our vampire made contact and Firebug was taking video of the meet.

"EXTRACT AFTER," the Guildmaster texted back. Damn. I would’ve tailed the new vampire after the meet. The Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes were much more cautious. Of course, that was a patience learned after losing more than a few of their own. I loitered around the convenience store as long as I could before buying a soda and walking out. Firebug was walking down the street with a neutral expression.

"Got everything?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered, his tone as neutral as his face.

"Then let’s get it back to the Guild," I said.

"Where else would we take it?" he asked, the sarcasm dripping from his words. With Lady Anna’s warning to play nice ringing in my ear, I restrained the urge to punch Firebug in the throat.

Firebug and I were the last team back. As soon as we walked off the elevator onto the third floor of the Guild, Firebug handed Vanessa the small video recorder and strode off to join his packmates. She gave me a questioning look silently asking me what I did this time to piss someone off. I just shook my head and followed Vanessa into storage area turned conference room. The siding walls were covered with gym mats to give us some jury-rigged sound-proofing. A laptop was connected to a fifty inch LCD television so all of us could watch the feeds. From what the Guildmaster told us, they’d found the whole set-up in one of the delinquent storage areas. Vanessa loaded Firebug’s recording on the computer and queued it up. In the center of the room was a couple of folding tables put together. On one side was Firebug, his pack leader, and the other two warriors from the night’s jobs. I sat down on the hunter side of the tables. Lady Anna, as Lord Savik’s representative, sat at the head.

"Here’s the video from Hangman and Burn," Vanessa said as she brought up the video. Hangman’s vampire met with an older female vampire in a restaurant. None of the warriors or hunters recognized the older vampire, which meant she wasn’t a part of the top tiers of the FCV. The Guildmaster ordered Hangman and Burn to follow the older vampire at the next meet a few days away. Cracker’s video also showed a meet with an unknown vampire. Cracker received the same orders as Hangman. Then Firebug’s video came up. Our vampire met with another vampire in a polo shirt and slacks. This one they knew.

"That’s an alchemist," Cracker said, "He’s not in their leadership, but I’ve run into him before. They use him for field ops." The two vampires talked for a moment before a third vampire walked out of the shadows.

"What the fuck Firebug?" I asked the warrior, "Why didn’t you tell me he was meeting two others?" The warrior gave me a contemptuous look.

"Why would I need to tell you?" he asked. "I had everything under control." The others warriors nodded in agreement.

"Oh I don’t know. Maybe in case I needed to back you up or extract you," I shot back. "At the very least, so I could report it back up the line in case the Guildmaster wanted us to follow the third vampire."

"I’ve done this enough times. The operation was simple. Why would I need the help of a Badmoon?" Firebug asked, offended by the very notion.

"Because that’s what he was there for," the Guildmaster said, his voice cold. "You’ve done good work on other operations Firebug, so I’m a little annoyed with your attitude. Ranger was your back-up. You can’t leave him out of the loop. You know that."

"Lord Savik and Lady Anna may trust your pet Badmoon, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to," the packleader said, not happy the Guildmaster reprimanded one of his wolves. "We only have to work with the abomination when ordered." Lady Anna and the Guildmaster were about to respond when Hangman cut them off.

"Ranger, you better take a look at the screen," Hangman said, as if he didn’t believe what he was seeing. I turned back and saw the gleaming face in the orange light of the streetlight. No fucking way. There was no fucking way.

"What in the Ancestors’ name is he doing in the Disputed Territories?" I asked. The room fell silent as the others looked at Hangman and me in consternation.

"Perhaps you’d like to tell us what is so important," Lady Anna said, coolly.

"That’s Silanti," Hangman breathed. "Damn. I was hoping he was dead."

"Who?" the packleader asked.

"Mario Silanti," I answered, "Inner member of the Tampa Council. Suspected to be the current leader of the Tampa vampires after we wiped out most of the Inner Council about a couple months back. Before the war, he was a known opponent of the Peace. He was suspected to be behind most of the trouble we had before the war in Hillsborough. He’s been on our hit list for years." I looked back to Lady Anna. "We need to kill him. He’s too dangerous to be walking around."

"We need to find out why he’s down here. If he’s as bad as your telling us, then he’s just become a top-tier target," the Guildmaster said. "We need to take this to Lord Savik. This is the first time we’ve seen a high-level vampire from outside Broward or Dade talking to the FCV. We’re going to need more wolves to do this right."

"Agreed," the packleader said, "I can have my pack trace back and see if we can put this Silanti under observation now."

"What the fuck?" I blurted out, "You don’t trust me to work with your pack unless forced by Lord Savik, but you’ll trust that I’m telling you the truth about Silanti?" The packleader looked at me like I was a young pup in tysach who just asked the shaman a dumb question.

"Just because you’re an abomination in the eyes of the Ancestors doesn’t mean you are actively trying to destroy the packs," the packleader answered, almost as if he were quoting from a written statement. "Your friends have certainly proved their worth to us. So, if you are telling me this vampire was as big a threat back in Hillsborough, then I’m going to believe you. I just don’t want to be out in the field where the Ancestors’ wrath will get us killed."

"Oh, yeah, because that makes perfect sense," Vanessa said, with biting sarcasm. The packleader didn’t even turn to her.

"It does, kin, when you aren’t blinded by foolish affection for the abomination," one of the pack warriors – Burn, I think – replied.

"Let’s stop with calling Ranger an abomination before someone gets hurt," the Guildmaster said, seeing my building rage. I really wanted to reach across the table and beat the bloody shit out of the warriors. Their contemptuous looks did nothing to soothe my anger.

"Go ahead and get your pack out there," the Guildmaster told the packleader, "Keep us fully informed while we brief Lord Savik." The packleader nodded. With a quick jerk of his head, the pack stood and followed him out of the Guild. As soon as they were gone, the Guildmaster turned back to me.

"I know they piss you off, but you need to keep control of that anger. It just feeds their beliefs that you are an abomination," the Guildmaster said.

"I didn’t do anything to them," I protested.

"You also looked like the only reason you didn’t come across the table was because Lady Anna and I were here," the Guildmaster said. "Silanti showing up here can’t be good for any of us. If we’re going to find out why, the packs are going to have to be involved. They haven’t seen a Badmoon before, so they’re going to believe what the Spiritmaster says about you. It’s not fair, but that’s life. If you aren’t going to learn to control those emotions, at least learn a better poker face. That I know you can do." I nodded reluctantly.

"Can you work with someone calling you an abomination without looking like you want tear his heart out?" Lady Anna asked, her doubt clear on her face.

"Do I have a choice?" I asked.

"Yes. You can act like the professional hunter that you’re reputed to be, or you can act the petulant werewolf whose feelings just got hurt," the Guildmaster said. His blunt words reminded me of my Guildmaster. A pang of long-buried hurt welled up. I pushed it down as quickly as it surfaced. I didn’t have time to deal with that wound. I smiled in response to the Guildmaster’s question.

"As long as we can kill Silanti, I can put up with them calling me an abomination," I answered. "I may have to go a few rounds with Cracker, but I can deal with it."

"Excellent," the Guildmaster said. Cracker just grinned.

"I think we’ve got something," Vanessa said from her workstation. It had been a long two days. Not because of the packs. Evn before Lady Anna and the Guildmaster met with Lord Savik, the packs had Silanti under observation. In less than ten minutes after Lord Savik was briefed on Silanti’s presence in the Disputed Territories, all other operations were dropped. The only operation for the wolves of the Disputed Territories was finding out why Silanti was there. Even the shaman were using magicks to find where Silanti was residing while in the Disputed Territories. The packs were doing the legwork with the Guild acting as the information clearinghouse. During the past two days, Silanti was observed talking to different vampires all over the FCV spectrum. Most were mid-level members of the FCV. The few snatches of captured conversation yielded nothing but basic chitchat. Vanessa finally managed to pull something out of the noise.

"What have you got?" Lord Savik asked. For the last twelve hours, Lord Savik and his small entourage had been camped at the Guild.

"I think Silanti is meeting with the higher-ups in the FCV tonight," Vanessa said, "He’s talking about having ‘the discussion’ with several of the vampires he’s meeting. Last night, the last vampire Silanti talked to made the comment, ‘Well, just bring it up with them tonight.’ No idea what the context of this ‘discussion’ is about, but from the body language of the vampire, he’s talking about individuals higher than himself."

"Thin," commented Fangbearer.

"Maybe, but it’s the best we have right now," Lord Savik replied, "We need everyone working this one. We’ll observe this discussion and see if we can find out why he’s here. After that, we will decide how to properly deal with this Silanti."

"Okay we have him in sight," the pack leader radioed. "He’s talking to one of the lower bosses. Maybe Reuben." Lady Anna flashed me a picture of Reuben from her phone. I nodded. This was the hardest part for me on this particular job. I can force myself to be patient if I’m waiting for a target – if it’s one of my jobs. Having to sit on the sidelines while this pack did all of the work strained my nerves. I hated having no control of events.

"They’re getting into a black Mercedes," the packleader reported. "We’re following." At least the packs in the Disputed Territories knew how to follow a target without being spotted. At least, not by the FCV. We still had no idea if Silanti had any of his own security around, but the packs hadn’t see any other Tampa vampires. I was skeptical, but the packs swore a vampire from outside the FCV would stand out clear as a leech in a crowd of humans. As the pack followed, our truck started it’s own path through the streets. Lord Savik wanted his own team available. Just in case.

"Where are they going?" Lord Savik mused as he watched the display on Vanessa’s laptop.

"If they go to the mansion, we’re not getting any answers from this Silanti," Lady Anna said. The mansion was the FCV’s Hall. It was considered impregnable, and was guarded heavily enough lycanthropes couldn’t get within three blocks without being seen.

"They’re not going to the mansion," Lord Savik said, "Even if all of the Inner Council was involved with this Silanti, this ‘discussion’ is not something they would want their rank-and-file involved with." The Guildmaster and Lady Anna just nodded at the lord’s words.

"That doesn’t make sense," I said, "Why wouldn’t they want to do this in their heavily-guarded lair? Why would they expose themselves, especially after the increase in your operational tempo?"

"You were mentored in vampire politics by a rival of this Silanti?" Lord Savik asked. I knew he’d set Fangbearer to research me. Apparently, Fangbearer did a better job questioning Hangman and Vanessa than I thought.

"You could say that," I answered, cautiously. I wasn’t sure what Lord Savik was driving at.

"Then you know how central perception is to vampire politics. Probably even more than ours, if just more subtle," Lord Savik said, "Silanti is the first vampire we’ve seen from outside the FCV’s borders since the fall of our counties. They’re not treating him like one of their lesser vampires who have to come crawling to the Inner Council for a favor. This is much more like when I dealt with other lords."

"So, having Silanti come into their Hall would look like they think of him as a lesser vampire. At best, their vassal," I said, following Savik’s logic. He smiled approvingly. "So, they’ll want to meet someplace the FCV clearly controls, but could be considered more intimate. Someplace that the FCV leaders would take someone they consider an equal. Or at least someone they wanted to believe they considered an equal." The Guildmaster and Lady Anna were both giving me hard looks while Lord Savik just nodded.

"Would one of these condominiums do?" Vanessa asked as a series of dots appeared on her map. "These are all owned by the Inner Council, or at least the property companies they’re using."

"Where the hell did you get that?" the Guildmaster asked, looking amazed at the screen.

"You already had information on the property shell companies," Vanessa said, "They never changed them, even after you did a raid. So, I had a data-mining bot go out and search for all of the properties those companies owned. I just narrowed down on those nearby."

"That could be traced back to you, and to us," the Guildmaster said, "They know when public records are pulled on their assets."

"They can track it back all they want," Vanessa said with a smile, "It’ll look like a finance student’s project since everything is technically coming under licenses used by Florida State University. Technically, their College of Business. They’re going to complain to FSU because their students are pulling public records?"

"Well, never mind then," the Guildmaster said. The aristocrats chuckled. The Guildmaster took a closer look at the map. "They’re probably going there. It matches their normal evasion pattern. That was supposed to be one of those luxury condo towers before the real estate crash. It would be a perfect cover for them."

"Then let’s get there before they do. I want my wolves in position so we get everything," Lord Savik said. He keyed his radio’s mike, "Robert, stay with the Mercedes, but I want the rest of your pack to join me. I want you following just enough to confirm our suspicions."

"Normal surveillance?" Lady Anna asked. Lord Savik nodded. "Vanessa, which condo is theirs?" Vanessa pulled up the five-story building’s plans and highlighted the FCV’s condo. It was on the corner of the building on the fourth floor. Just looking at the floor plans, I could tell that one wasn’t going to be a fun to assault. There was only one door into the condo, and it opened into a tight foyer with the guest bathroom attached. It was a beauty of a bottleneck. One hallway went straight to the condo’s kitchen and large great room. The other kind of wrapped around with bedrooms coming off. The great room and the master bedroom both opened onto large balconies.

"We’re here to find out what’s going on between the FCV and Silanti," Lord Savik stated as he read my expression. "It would take something very urgent before I ordered my packs into the condo."

"Force of habit," I replied. Lord Savik and the Guildmaster chuckled at the comment.

"Good, then you can plan the assault on the very slim chance we actually need to do something that crazy," Lord Savik said. "In the meantime, we’ll be doing what we’ve become very good at." He clapped Vanessa on the shoulder. "Very good work, kin, very good work." Vanessa gave the lord a shy smile and turned back to her computer.

"Not to sound like an asshole, but how in the hell are we going to get close enough to bug that room?" Hangman asked, "If that’s one of the Inner Council’s private hidey-hole, then they’ve got to have some top notch security, including electronic counter-measures."

"That’s where I come in," the shaman said, breaking his silence, "Another one of those unusual tasks where we’ve been forced to find a magick solution for lost technological solutions." The shaman turned to Savik. "My lord, the Ancestors will do as I ask, but we will need to guide them. They’ve asked for us to illuminate the room. The usual laser should do."

"The Ancestors are laser-guided?" I blurted before I could stop myself. Lord Savik and Lady Anna burst out in laughter, but the shaman gave me a withering look.

"Abominations like you may not understand the true nature of the Ancestors’ gifts, but they learn and adapt just like any other lycanthrope. Our Ancestors who have agreed to guide and assist our packs have learned how to blend their gifts with our technology." The interior of the truck became noticeably quieter as the shaman and I locked gazes.

"That’s enough," Lord Savik growled, "I need all of you working together to make this operation successful. Are we going to have problems?" The warning was clear in his tone.

"I don’t know about shaman, but for hunters the job is the most important thing," I said, "Part of the job is working with your shaman. I’ll do whatever I have to do in order to complete the job." The shaman didn’t say anything. He just went back to doing whatever they do when they talk to the Ancestors.

"So you can control that temper of yours," Lady Anna said, sitting down next to me.

"I can. I just forget to sometimes," I said. She gave me one of those odd smiles, like I answered an unspoken question. I concentrated on the plans of the condo Vanessa sent to my phone. I needed to devise assault plans in case shit hit the fan. I was going to make sure each version included killing Silanti. I didn’t know why he was here, but it couldn’t be good for Hillsborough. That bastard leech couldn’t leave the Disputed Territories still moving.

Most of us were ensconced in an apartment across the street from the FCV’s condo. The apartment building went into foreclosure before opening for tenants, which meant it was unoccupied and available for our use. Well, after we broke in and set ourselves up. Unfortunately, the building was only a three-story, which meant we didn’t have direct line of sight. On the plus side, the building’s parking and entrances were opposite of the condo building. The FCV had vampires covertly guarding the front of their building. If we had to approach from that side, we’d been spotted immediately. So far, Vanessa’s intel gathering saved us more than once. All we needed to do now was be patient and collect intel.

I was on the roof with the shaman and Cracker. Cracker set up a small laser on a tripod. We couldn’t see into the condo, but we could hit the top of the balcony’s glass door with the laser. My part of the job was protecting the other two, which was why I was carrying a scoped AR-15. I was willing to bet the magazine full of silver ammunition came from what the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes stole from me. Hell, if they were going to use my stuff, they could have at least given me the HK417. I preferred the longer reach and heavier weight of the 7.62.

"Okay, we’re goo," Cracker said. Technically, Cracker was there to operate the laser. I suspected the real reason was to make sure I didn’t push the shaman off the roof after we got the intel. That was a tempting thought, but Lord Savik made it clear I wasn’t to start beating up his lycanthropes. At least, not unless he specifically ordered me to do so. The shaman sat down and placed his hand on the laser designator. A coolness fell over the rooftop as the shaman murmurred in the Old Tongue. I was uneasy as the air prickled around me with unnatural energy. The Ancestors were coming into our realm at the direction of the shaman. I felt their unseen bodies as the spirits swirled around us. I spared a quick glance to Cracker. The other hunter just kept his gaze on the window. The shaman said a few forceful words, and the sensations stopped. I guessed the spirits followed the laser up. The shaman’s head snapped up. I gave Cracker a questioning look.

"You guys in Hillsborough never used anything like this?" Cracker asked, nodding to the shaman.

"No, we used actual surveillance gear," I answered, scanning for threats.

"Oh, you’re in for a show," Cracker replied. I gave him another questioning look, but he didn’t say anything further.

"I must say Mario, your deputy is quite formidable," a new voice said. "The scars give him extra, I don’t know, presence." I whirled around, scanning the roof. Cracker chuckled and pointed to the shaman. As I watched, the shaman spoke again, this time in an all-too familiar voice.

"I was originally put-out with him when he showed back up with those scars. Now, I agree with you," Silanti’s voice said from the shaman’s mouth. I wasn’t sure if I thought it was cool or disturbing.

"Well, at least we know that particular experiment worked. Shame we won’t be able to duplicate it anytime soon," a different male voice said. From Cracker’s tight expression, he knew who owned that silken male voice.

"The fortunes of war," Silanti replied. I could almost hear him shrugging his shoulders. "Those kinds of blunders are why there are no others on the Tampa Council for you to deal with."

"It must be so lonely, ruling that county alone," purred a female voice.

"I didn’t come here to take up that particular offer," Silanti said, his voice tight. "As much as I’ve enjoyed the sightseeing, I’ve seen nothing that would make me want to bind my territory to yours." The FCV asked Silanti to merge the TCV with them? I rethought my plan to kill Silanti for a brief moment then discarded the idea. No, he might keep the FCV out of Hillsborough, but Elizabeth would never be able to deal with him.

"That is disappointing," the female voice said, with an unmistakable coolness.

"If you’re not here to join us, then why should we give you any more of the merchandise?" a fourth voice asked. This one was commanding. It reminded me of Lord Savik.

"Did I ask you to give me the merchandise?" Silanti asked with feigned indignation, "Do you think me some kind of beggar?"

"What could you offer us that we don’t already have?" asked the commanding voice. "A vampire with nothing to offer is a beggar, Mario." This one was blunt for a vampire, which meant he was powerful. Only the powerful could afford to ignore the normal word games and subtle politics that dominated the vampire leadership.

"David, your coup here is universally regarded as one of the most brilliant and ruthless maneuvers against the dogs, but did you ever wonder why the other councils failed to flock to your banner?" Silanti asked.

"Because the Prince of Florida failed to attack. There was no united enemy for our people to rally against," David answered.

"That was part of it," Silanti said, "It was also because you were so open about your desire to control the entire state." There were murmurs of agreement from the other vampires. "I control the Tampa Council. What your merchandise allowed me to do against the dogs has frightened the Clearwater and Sarasota Councils enough that they are willing to be my vassals, as long as I include them in a new Inner Council. What does that mean for you? Another powerful council in this state."

"You’re bold Mario, but not bold enough to partake of our hospitality and then threaten us," the first vampire said.

"On the contrary, Victor. I would never threaten you," Silanti said, "I have nothing but gratitude to you for allowing me to field-test your merchandise. The lessons we both learned from their deployment was valuable enough, but the effect on the dogs in Tallahassee was even better. We now have the war we want."

"Which is why we need united leadership," David said, with the cadence of an often repeated statement.

"I agree David, but we’ll never get that if the only choice is your council," Silanti said. There was a long stretch of silence. That was the problem with only having listening devices. Vampires communicated so much with looks and body language, you only got maybe half of the full conversation with just the audio.

"How are you going to overcome your own reputation?" the female voice asked, breaking the silence. "You may not have the megalomania that infects David, but you’re not exactly moderate where the dogs are concerned." Silanti let out a bark of laughter.

"I will be by the time the siege of Tampa concludes," Silanti said. "Or at least that will be the public image among the other councils. Which is why I need more of the merchandise."

"What siege?" the second vampire asked, his silken voice suddenly rough.

"Did you think that the werewolf army would attack here first?" Silanti asked. "No. As soon as they manage to conclude their own politics, they will send their army against Tampa. A strong defense, aided by your merchandise will do much to rally the other councils."

"I see," David said. From the vampire’s tone, some sort of agreement was just made.

"Well, I think we’ll leave you to your comforts, Mario," the female voice said. "We have some stockpile of merchandise, but not nearly enough for what you described. We’ll need to start production immediately if we are going to meet your request."

"I’m most grateful for your hospitality," Silanti said, with a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

"The Florida Council is leaving," the shaman said. After listening to him act like a microphone for the magick bug, hearing him speak in his own voice was startling.

"Ranger, what is this ‘merchandise?’" asked Lord Savik, "Silanti said he deployed it in Tampa."

"I have no idea, milord," I said, "The vampires never used any special weapons against us. They just suddenly had a lot of vampires at the end." I thought about that for a moment. "Could they have shipped vampires up to Hillsborough?"

"Not in the numbers you described attacking your Manor," the Guildmaster answered. "We’d notice that many soldiers gone."

"Besides, the other councils are nervous enough about the FCV that any significant decrease in the FCV’s numbers here would be an invitation for one of them to try to take territory," Lady Anna said.

"All of which makes me very curious what this merchandise is," Lord Savik said. "I’d like to find out before they unleash it on our packs here. Anna, gather what we have here and go get this Silanti leech before he leaves." There was silence on the radios at the order. I was waiting for someone to remind Lord Savik we didn’t have enough intel to attempt a snatch. No one said anything.

"Hangman, Cracker, go with her," the Guildmaster said. "Ranger, stay on overwatch." There was a warning in his voice. Damn it, this was a bad idea. My instincts were going insane with warnings.

"Everyone meet up with me at the ground floor," Lady Anna said. "We’ll infiltrate as soon as the FCV leave the area. Ranger, you might want to find a better perch. I’d like some decent overwatch." I was already searching the area. Two buildings over was a crane. That should get me into a perfect spot.

"Ranger is relocating," I reported. The shaman looked almost relieved as I slung the rifle and sprinted down the stairs. The quickest way was to go out the back of our building, sprint down the block, and then shimmy up the crane. A barbed-wire topped fence was the only security I ran into. Like I hadn’t dealt with those enough times. Barbed wire is far less intimidating when you can heal as fast as a lycanthrope. The crane went up about eight stories before I hit the arm. I snaked out onto the arm until I could see into the FCV’s condo. Unslinging the rifle, I settled down into a prone position. Maybe a hundred or hundred-twenty yards. I was really missing the HK417 as I gauged the wind. Just enough to make things interesting.

"Ranger in position," I said, peering into the rifle scope, "I can see the main room. Silanti’s occupied with a female leech. I don’t see anyone else." My instincts were screaming danger. Why the hell couldn’t the Guildmaster have sent me instead of Hangman with the assault team? I had more experience with this kind of operation. Maybe he was worried I’d kill Silanti instead of snatching him. It was tempting as I kept the damned leech’s head in my crosshairs.

"FCV leaving," Lady Anna reported. "We’re moving." Several lycanthropes crossed the street and dashed into the building. They staggered their approach to look less like an assault team and more like just a group of people who happened to be arriving at the same time. I whipped my head around as I felt a sudden sensation of being watched. I wanted to shed for true and scan with enhanced eyes. What stopped me was my instincts weren’t telling me I was in danger. If there was someone out there, it was friendly. At least, that was what my instincts were telling me, and they weren’t often wrong. I heard Lady Anna reporting her team was in the building. It bothered me to have someone out there that I couldn’t see, but Lady Anna needed me to cover her.

"We’re in position," Lady Anna said. "Going now." I heard the slamming of a sledgehammer against the door. In the hands of a lycanthrope in true form, the hammer would blow a door in with the force of a breaching charge. Silanti and the female vampire leapt at the sound. Neither of them moved from the main room. I kept Silanti’s head in my sights.

"Contact!" announced one of the pack. What the hell? They weren’t even in the main room yet. "We’ve got contact!" Gunfire popped over the radio. Silanti and the female vampire dragged the couch from the wall and crouched behind it. Each drew a pistol.

"Cousin’s down!" Firebug called, "Leeches and ghouls here are controlling the main hall. Oh shit!" More gunfire came over the radio.

"They’ve got us in a crossfire," Hangman calmly reported. "There’s at least a dozen ghouls here and maybe another five leeches." Gunfire. "Make that four leeches and ten ghouls."

"Ranger, has Silanti moved?" Lady Anna asked.

"No. He’s waiting for you with that female," I answered. "He’s using a couch as cover."

"Resistance is heavier than we thought, but we’re going to push," Lady Anna said. "Ranger, when you see any of us coming into that room, take out the female." Damn it. Why was she pushing instead of retreating? Okay, maybe if I was over there, I would be doing the same thing. Maybe. I moved the scope over to the female. I would take her out, but I was going to put Silanti down as well. Not kill him, but definitely take him out of the fight. Then, a dozen more vampires came into the main room. Five of them radiated command. I knew that kind of command presence.

"The Inner Council is still in there!" I nearly yelled over the radio. "There’s fourteen vampires in the main room. Repeat, one-four leeches waiting for you. You need to get the hell out of there now!" Just after I spoke, the first pack warrior stumbled into the main room. He was torn apart by gunfire. Without hesitating, I aimed at the biggest vampire in the room and fired. The sliding glass door knocked the bullet off of my target, but another vampire went down. The joys of having your enemies close together.

"We need extract," Cracker said, "Exit is cut off." I picked one of the Inner Council and fired. The slim male went down. They realized someone was shooting from the window. The lights went out as the vampires scrambled to get away from the glass.

"We’re moving in to get you out of there," Lord Savik told Lady Anna. "Ranger get in there and take some of the pressure off." I was moving as soon as Lord Savik spoke my name. I knew what to do. I leapt off the crane, shedding for true form. I hit the roof of the building diagonal from the condo. A few bounds and I leapt across the street. I felt the cold metal of the balcony rail under my hands and yanked myself over before dropping to the concrete floor. As expected, gunfire shattered the glass door. Idiots. They were in the dark and hadn’t even shed for true. I came up into a crouch with my HK45 up. To my eyes, the darkened room was little more than shaded. Four shots and two of the vampire soldiers went down. I was already moving as a vampire fired at the muzzle flashes. That vampire was smart. Smart vampires needed to die quickly. I rolled up and found a vampire with a stubby subgun pointed at me. I twisted to bring my pistol around, but his head exploded into a mist. Damned lucky shot from the entry team. I didn’t even have time to reflect on my luck. I needed to kill vampires.

"Get out of here, into the halls," the smart vampire yelled to the others. I moved behind the couch, crawling over the body of the female vampire, changed to true form in death. The couch wasn’t going to protect me from gunfire, but it was the best I could do at the moment. It gave me time to holster my pistol and unsling the AR-15. I slid back the way I came. As I emerged from behind the couch, three vampires looked at me in surprise. I wasn’t where they’d expected. The first two went down with shots to the chest. The third fell backwards as he tried to get out of the way. He ended up taking a silver bullet in the leg for his effort. I pounced on him before he could get up and put a single shot into his head. Two more vampires emerged from hallway, but they were cut down before they managed three steps. Wait a fucking second. Those shots came from behind me. I twisted back to the balcony and saw a lycanthrope on the crane with a rifle. Savik must have ordered one of his Knights take overwatch. That was quick thinking. I gave a quick salute to the sniper and moved to the edge of the hallway.

I could hear the gun battle between Lady Anna’s force and the FCV. They needed me to pull off more leeches. The best way to do that was to make myself more dangerous than Lady Anna’s group. A quick look down the hallway showed I had maybe ten feet before a hard right. Four vampires in human form stood in the dimly lit corridor. They were armed with pistols and looked nervous. This shouldn’t be too hard. I slung the AR and grabbed one of the vampire bodies in the main room. Holding the body like a shield, I drew my HK45 and charged into the hallway. The four leeches hesitated a bare moment before they opened fire. Most of the bullets thunked into the dead vampire, although a few sliced into my legs. I only felt one with the familiar burn of silver. That was fucking stupid of them. I rushed the quartet while firing my pistol. Vampire number one went down from three hits to the chest. Number two fell against the wall, but he stood back up just in time for me to shove the vampire’s body into him. Vampire number three was desperately trying to track me and ended up putting nearly a full magazine into vampire number four. I thanked him by drawing a silver blade and plunging it into his heart. I spun low just as vampire number two managed to throw off the corpse. He was free just long enough to take two rounds to the chest. Holstering my own pistol, I picked up number one’s and two’s pistols. Oh good, they were Glocks with those big 33-round magazines. I dashed to the end of the hall and pointed the Glocks around the corner. I emptied both down the hallway and heard screams. I dropped the pistols. I fell back down the hall and yanked a couple of the bodies together.

Bullets cracked over me. I kept the rifle pointed down the hallway. Anything that came around that corner was going to get a 5.56 mm silver bullet for his trouble. No, they couldn’t be nice and charge into the hallway. A small canister rolled into the hall. I ducked behind the vampire corpses an instant before the hallway was filled with a brilliant flash and thunderous roar. Flash-bang, my mind concluded as I came back up. Not the first time I’d been on the receiving end of that particular present. The trick was keeping my sight protected. My hearing would come back on its own as my ears healed.

"How many of you fuckers are there?" I growled as four screaming vampires rushed me. I fired a quick pair of rounds into the lead vampire. The others stopped as the vampire fell to the ground. Surprise was clear in their face. They expected to find me stunned by the flash-bang. Fucking amateurs. Never pause when there is an enemy in your midst. Another two shots claimed a second of the quartet. The last two fled and only managed to make it around the corner because the AR-15 went dry. Damn it, I only had the one magazine. No point keeping more if I couldn’t load it with silver. I slung the weapon and drew my pistol. I guessed the HK45 was about half-full. I had another spare magazine full of Silver-Shoks. After that, I was down to silver blades and my claws. Well, that and whatever I scrounged from the vampires. I came around the corner and was nearly shot by a startled Silanti. Oh, this was getting better and better. I grabbed Silanti’s outstretched arms and yanked hard. He wasn’t expecting me to physically attack him and stumbled. He recovered quickly and rebounded off the wall. He stopped and looked at me with startled eyes.

"You’re the Badmoon," Silanti said. All of the gunfire ceased. Several other vampires turned to face me, their faces a mix of surprise and fear.

"Yeah, that’s me," I replied, "Are you surrendering, because I have some friends who have some questions for you." Silanti snarled as he dropped the pistol to the ground. He shed for true form and drew a long silver knife. The knife whistled as it slashed at me. I slid to the side and was nearly skewered by a thrust. Silanti wasn’t as good as a Bleeder at knife-fighting, but he was good enough to force me to take him seriously. The vampire fell into a fighting stance with an expectant look. Did he expect me to drop my pistol and knife-fight him? Fuck that. I brought up the HK45 and fired twice into Silanti’s hip. The vampire screamed in pain and fell to the ground. I spun back to find several more vampires attacking with silver blades. The first two went down from gunfire before my slide locked back on an empty magazine. I blocked one knife slash with the empty pistol before yanking out the vampire’s throat with my claws. I used the vampire’s body to block one of his comrade’s attacks as I dropped the empty magazine out of my pistol. I wasn’t about to go blade-to-blade with these idiots when I had a perfectly good magazine full of silver bullets available.

THOOM! The whole condo shook with a violent thunder that deafened me. I found myself on the floor with all of the vampires. Strangely, my hearing didn’t come back as it normally did. All I could hear was a high-pitched whistle. I fed my last magazine of silver ammunition into the handgun and hit the slide release. Four lycanthropes emerged from around the corner with shotguns. They moved efficiently among the vampires, loosing a blast of silver buck into each of the undead. I finally recognized the leader as the Guildmaster.

Your hearing should come back in fifteen minutes, the Guildmaster hand-signed to me, Magick force blast. Well that explained why my hearing wasn’t healing. Shaman magicks always caused archanal injuries. The Guildmaster slung his shotgun and helped me up. I turned back to stop one of the other lycanthropes before they blasted Silanti. There was no need. Silanti was lying flat on his back with a silver blade in his chest. He was well and truly dead.

Your work? the Guildmaster asked in hand-sign. I shook my head. Was it luck, or had Silanti suicided to prevent capture? I knelt down next to the vampire. This was the one I wanted to kill for as long as I’d been a hunter. The one I’d begged to be allowed to assassinate. Now, as I looked at his corpse, I was strangely annoyed Silanti was dead. Maybe it was because Lord Savik and Lady Anna wanted him alive. Or because I wanted to be the one to plunge the blade into his chest. For whatever reason, I let the Guildmaster lead me out of the apartment. I joined Lady Anna and the pack back in the van. The pack suffered two dead, two critically injured, and the rest were injured to some degree or another. They ignored me as I climbed into the van. Lady Anna gave me a sad smile as she sat down next to me. There was a bloody bandage taped to her right temple where a bullet managed to crease her.

Thank you, Lady Anna hand-signed to me. Surprised, I stared at the young female. She smiled amused. The Guildmaster said you were still recovering from the blast. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me. Lady Anna worked enough with the Guildmaster and Cracker, she would have picked up hunters’ hand language, if they just didn’t teach it to her. Surprisingly, I wasn’t offended. Lady Anna proved herself enough times to me. I suspected if she hadn’t been born an aristocrat, she would have made a pretty decent hunter.

You mind if I rest a bit? I asked in hand sign. She nodded. I leaned back and closed my eyes. Damn, I hated when jobs went sideways. The Guildmaster said they were going to toss the place and light it up. From what I gathered, all of the vampires were dead. Fire would slow down the identification process and give the lycanthropes a window before the FCV realized its Inner Council was dead. Not long, maybe twenty-four to thirty-six hours before the FCV managed to form a temporary Inner Council. All of the lycanthropes were hoping something important was found. If not, the lycanthropes would need to go into hiding until the FCV’s little leadership battle wrapped up. I wondered if maybe I could convince Lord Savik and Lady Anna that Hillsborough would be a good place to hide out.

The condo battle yielded two laptops and a bunch of paper records. Vanessa downed three energy drinks and plowed into them. She screamed at Hangman and me to leave her alone the moment we took a step towards her workstation. We were smart enough to leave her to her work and head over to the conference room where Lord Savik and Lady Anna were waiting with the Guildmaster, Cracker, Fangbearer, and the two remaining Red Knights. If she needed our help, she knew to ask for it.

"Kicked you out?" the Guildmaster asked Hangman.

"Yeah," Hangman conceded. The Guildmaster chuckled.

"Don’t feel too bad. She did the same thing to me after I showed her our data," the Guildmaster said, "She is an absolute terror when she works." Hangman shrugged noncommittally.

"My lord, shouldn’t we be out there causing havoc with the FCV?" I asked. "Maybe try extending this window of operations."

"Who should we be attacking?" Lord Savik asked, patiently.

"The next level of leaders, maybe some of their runners to screw up communications," I suggested.

"Do you know how large that target pool is?" the Guildmaster asked.

"Fifteen or twenty?" I answered.

"Try fifty to a hundred," the Guildmaster said, "The FCV learned to distribute their middle management. Harder for us to cripple and a better pool of talent to be promoted."

"And if we start taking out those leaders, they’ll band together to hunt us down instead of their normal infighting," Lady Anna continued. "The window would actually contract instead of opening up."

"Damn. Okay, scratch my earlier suggestion," I said.

"Your instincts weren’t bad, just uninformed of how things are here," Lady Anna said, giving me one of those strange smiles. I really wanted to know what questions were getting answered in her head. "You’re just going to have to exercise your patience while we wait for Vanessa to come up with a target. Given her previous performance, I’d expect her to come up with something in a few hours." With nothing else to do, I found my cleaning kit and stripped my HK45 down. Hangman joined me and pulled out his Wilson. As I watched him finagle the bushing wrench, I let out a low chuckle. He looked up as I slid the slide off the frame of my pistol. He gave me a look that clearly told me not to say anything. I liked shooting 1911’s, but damn I hated taking them down. Any pistol I couldn’t field strip in less than ten seconds took too damn long. I removed the recoil spring and then the barrel. I wasn’t going to do an in-depth cleaning. Just enough to clear out the excess carbon and grease down the moving parts.

"What is that you’re smearing on your gun?" Lady Anna asked as she sat down next to me.

"Silicone grease," I answered simply, handing over the small container. She gave me a skeptical look. "I use it mainly on the slide rails. It works better than oil."

"Why don’t we use it?" Lady Anna asked the Guildmaster.

"We do more jobs in sand," the Guildmaster answered, "Oil doesn’t gum up as fast as grease in a sandy environment." I shrugged my shoulders.

"I’ve never heard of that particular problem, but the Guildmanster may have a point," I said, noncomittally. The Guildmaster erupted in laughter. I quirked my eyebrow up in a silent question.

"I’ve gotten so used to you being this loud, brash hunter that I never thought you could do respectful disagreement so perfectly," the Guildmaster said. He took one look at my quizzical look and then laughed harder. "Sorry, you just reminded me of a couple hunters. They could say so much with a tone or facial expressions. It’s just too uncanny." His face fell as the Guildmaster remembered his lost wolves. Then, his smiling face was back. It was just a moment, but I could see the depths of his sorrow. It brought me a remembered pain. My Guildmaster was much the same way. Just with a look, I could tell exactly how much I could get away with in explaining some of my escapades. I remembered hearing him use the same respectful tone when talking to Lord Vollen. I looked across the table to Hangman. The mournful look in his eyes told me he was thinking on similar things.

"Don’t get too wrapped up in grief," the Guildmaster said, watching the pair of us. "It will consume you, make you question yourself, and ultimately get you killed. Especially here." I continued to think about the Guildmaster’s words for a few minutes. Then Vanessa came charging in.

"Found it," Vanessa announced to the room, shaking a sheaf of papers. "I found where they’re stashing their silver bullets." Before anyone could say a word, she stormed over to the Guildmaster and thrusted the papers into his hands.

"Now, I’m going to take a nap," Vanessa said as she left the room as quickly as she’d come. Hangman quickly reassembled his pistol and ran after her. The rest of us just traded stunned looks.

The briefing for the raid on the FCV’s silver stash was not like any other briefing I attended. I expected Lord Savik to find another vacant office building, so the location was a surprise. It was held at the cravex. Both of the original cravexes were eradicated by the FCV alchemists shortly after the ambush on the lycanthropes. The current cravex was on a farm in the rural part of Broward. The farm was owned by Savik through several shell companies. If there was one thing the Disputed Territories lycanthropes knew, it was how to live covertly. I thought I was paranoid, but the more I dealt with Savik and his wolves, I realized how much I trusted Hillsborough’s network of kin to keep my activities from prying eyes. I felt like a rank amateur compared to these wolves. With the exception of a pair of warriors on guard duty, every one of Savik’s lycanthropes were in their entri. It was odd holding something other than one of the Rites in the cravex, but it also felt right. This was how the packs had done this back in the Fatherland before the War of Discovery against the vampire. It was also nice not to be in formal robes. Most of the pack warriors looked at me askance, but there wasn’t the revulsion from earlier. My actions during the fight at the FCV condo seemed to have won me some points with the pack warriors. The shaman were following the Spiritmaster’s lead and pointedly ignoring me.

Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and the remaining two Red Knights stood at the head of the cravex. Lady Anna looked over at me and gave me a quick smile. Vanessa harrumphed behind me. I turned back to her, but Vanessa just gave me a blank look. Damn it, after this, I was going to find out what was behind Vanessa’s attitude lately. The murmuring of the packs ceased as Lady Anna walked into the middle of the cravex with one of the shaman in tow. This cravex didn’t have a maksen, the large cube of obsidian that acted as altar and magical focus, so Lady Anna could stand in the very center of the cravex. She motioned to the shaman, who created what looked like a hologram of the warehouse in the air above her.

"All of you know what this is," Lady Anna said, pointing at the floating image, "We have a narrow window to attack the warehouse, seize what we can, and destroy the rest before the FCV can recover from last night. If what we learned is right, there’s not only silver there, but information on all of the FCV’s activities and holdings. Once we hit this, we are going to have every vampire actively hunting for us. That’s fine, because with what we get here, we should be able to finally take down the FCV piece by piece." An approving rumble of growls erupted at the statement.

"To do this, we’re going to need everyone familiar with the operation and ready to jump in if one of us falls," Lady Anna said after the growls subsided. "That’s why we’re all here. We need to go over this quickly because this operation will commence tomorrow night."

"Why not during the day?" asked one of the pack warriors.

"We need to minimize human interference," Lady Anna said, "During the day, this area is flooded with humans. It’s deserted during our attack window. We should only have to deal with vampires and ghouls." The question answered, the pack warrior nodded and stepped back among his packmates.

"The raid will use two groups, Silver and Gold. The Silver group will infiltrate and secure the warehouse. After that has been accomplished, Gold group will come in for loading of the silver and data and cover exfiltration. Gold will also act as a reserve if Silver runs into unexpected resistance." I expected some of the pack warriors to raise an objection, but they just stood silently listening to Lady Anna.

"The Silver will consist of the hunters, George’s and Bob’s packs, two shaman, and myself," Lady Anna said. "Silver will be breaking into two teams. Ranger, Hangman, Cracker, and myself will be Alpha team. It’s our job to infiltrate into the loading docks and begin the assault. Once we have their attention, Bravo team consisting of the the Guildmaster, the pack warriors, and the shaman will attack the front entrance. Their objective is to seize the offices to prevent the destruction of the FCV’s data. Once that is done, both teams will link up and secure the facility." As she talked, small figures appeared in the hovering diagram and conducted the assault. Bravo would be in a Trojan Horse. More specifically, inside a panel truck that would "break down" in the warehouse’s parking lot. I was wondering how they were going to pass that off, but the Guildmaster said that he’d set up dozens of "sleepers" for various kinds of operations, including this. If the warehouse security checked, the company and the driver would be perfectly legit with records going back years. It would have been impressive even for Bradon. My team’s job, on the other hand, would be more what I was used to – breaking and entering, and then killing leeches and ghouls.

"Once the warehouse is secure, Gold will come up to the loading docks. This is where we are going to use the vans," Lady Anna said. The vans were another of the Guildmaster’s long-term "quiet" plans. Big trucks or even U-Hauls would be easily recognizable on the streets. The vans looked like any of the dozens of service vans that crowded the city streets. Even better, they were equipped to quickly change paint jobs and company logos. In five minutes, they could look completely different.

"Both Gold and Silver will load. The hunters will provide overwatch," Lady Anna said, "As soon as the vans are loaded, everyone except the hunters extracts. Standard pursuit rules. The rally point is the bakery." The Guildmaster was using up a lot of his long-held assets on this operation. "The hunters destroy the warehouse and exfiltrate on their own. Once everyone meets up, we’ll split the take and go dark for at least a month. That should give the FCV time for their normal infighting to resume. Questions?"

"What if there’s more guards there than you’re estimating?" asked George, one of the pack leaders.

"That’s up to me," Lady Anna answered. "If I think security is too strong, I’ll call off the operation. If I’m killed before I can call it off, then Cracker will make that decision." It was eerie to hear one of the aristocracy talk so casually about the possibility of being killed in a raid. Even during the war in Hillsborough, Jason Vollen never spoke once about the chance he might be killed. It would’ve disheartened the packs. The rest of the Disputed Territories’ wolves didn’t even blink at the comment.

"Once Silver is engaged, if we find more resistance than we expected, Gold will have to pull them out," Lord Savik said. "I will make that decision. If that happens, then the goal will be to destroy the warehouse instead of seizing its contents. Are there any other questions?" The cravex was quiet. Lord Savik and the Spiritmaster walked into the center of the cravex, joining Lady Anna. The Spiritmaster uttered something in the ancient tongue and a ball of blue energy appeared in his hand. Lord Savik and Lady Anna stood on either side of the senior shaman. The blue globe shot beams into the two aristocrats, who lit up with a blue auras. They closed their eyes and dozens of energy beams lit up the cravex. Each beam touched a lycanthrope, who in turn began to glow with an aura. A beam from Lady Anna struck me. As it enveloped me, I could feel all of the other lycanthropes around me in my mind. I think something went wrong with the magick, because the connection felt muddled. Lady Anna shot me a quick surprised look before she closed her eyes again. She wasn’t the only one. Most of the lycanthropes looked over at me, either in revulsion or pure shock. The Spiritmaster gave me a look of smug condescension, like I just failed some sort of test and he was happy about it.

When all of the lycanthropes were lit with blue, the beams intensified. The feeling of the other lycanthropes in my head grew stronger, but so did the – feedback? It felt like something was trying into force its way in, painfully. I stood as stoically as I could with just the barest hint of pain leaking out onto my face. I would be damned to give the Spiritmaster the pleasure of seeing me in pain. I’d fall dead first. The pain increased even more and then vanished. The feeling of the other lycanthropes was still there, but it was like looking at all of them through a pane of glass. Whatever happened wiped that look off the Spiritmaster’s face, so it must have been good. The beams disappeared and the cravex felt dimmer.

"We are bound as one," Lord Savik said, his deep voice almost rumbling through the cravex. "We are one pack, one force, one claw. Let our enemy know fear as our strength is unleashed upon him." The words felt familiar, with the cadence of a Rite, but this was no Rite I’d ever attended. On the other side of the pane of glass in my mind, a brilliant fire burned. From the looks on the others’ faces, Lord Savik was using his powers. With a wave of his hands, the lycanthropes of the Disputed Territories melted out of the cravex. I started to follow the rest of the Guild when a hand fell on my arm. I whirled to find Lady Anna standing next to me. Damn, I didn’t even hear her get that close. She didn’t say anything, but led me out of the cravex on a little used path. There was only the slightest rustle as the two of us walked. After a few minutes, we were at her car. She abruptly turned. There was an odd light in her dark eyes. My instincts lit off with warnings. She lifted her hand. I was sure she was going to claw me and demand I go back to Hillsborough or throw myself into the fire or something. I wasn’t expecting her to just lay her hand on my muzzle.

"What are you?" she asked quietly. The same words that Elizabeth hurled me as an accusation, almost sounded as a wonder in Lady Anna’s.

"A Badmoon," I answered, still waiting for the tirade and expulsion.

"So this is what it means to be a Badmoon," she said, "This is your curse. To be apart from us. You should be bound to every lycanthrope in that cravex, but you’re not. There’s something keeping you from me." Her head cocked to the side and a smile appeared on her face.

"From that look on your face, you must have thought I was about to banish you," she said.

"The thought did cross my mind, milady," I answered. She did laugh at that comment.

"Actually, I had another reason for bringing you out here," Lady Anna said, "I was just shocked about what happened."

"What did just happen? What was that at the cravex?" I asked.

"A long, forgotten Rite," she answered. "One of the Ancestors told the Spiritmaster about it. The Rite binds the participants together. Right now, I can tell where each of the others are and what they’re feeling. As we get into combat, I’ll know even more. All except for you. I can feel your presence in my mind, and that’s it."

"That’s kind of how the rest of you are to me," I said. "I wonder why we don’t use that Rite anymore. I mean, besides what happened with me, it sounds pretty damn powerful."

"I’m not sure," Lady Anna said, walking to the trunk of her car. "The Spiritmaster thinks it’s because it mixes the aristocracy’s powers with his." She pulled a case out of the trunk.

"Maybe that’s why it doesn’t work on me. Aristocracy powers have never worked on me," I said. She arched her eyebrow in surprise.

"Possibly, but this is the real reason I brought you out here," Lady Anna said. "You’re going to need this for our raid." She handed me the case. I popped it open and smiled. The familiar lines of my Commando gleamed in the moonlight.

"Well, fuck," Cracker said in a low tone as he looked up at the chain-link fence. "When the hell was that put in?" The big hunter was crouched next to the fence as the rest of us emerged from the darkness. All of us were in true form. Our nightvision was better than any human device. Plus, it kept us away the casual human scrutiny.

"What?" Lady Anna asked as she crouched next to Cracker. I was next to her, watching for the warehouse’s ghouls doing security patrols. Hangman was next to me, watching our backs. Cracker motioned at the top of the fence. The concertina wire was gone. In the darkness, I could just make out the three faint lines. Ancestors damn them, the vampires put in either laser or IR beams. From their faintness, I guessed IR beams. Lasers would have been easier to pick up.

"Jump, then," I said. Cracker grimaced, but nodded. Lady Anna went first. With her usual grace, she stepped lightly into Cracker’s waiting hand and easily sailed over the fence. She rolled as she landed, coming up into a crouch with her stubby P90 covering the warehouse. Cracker was next. He landed with an audible thump before moving slowly out of the way. Hangman was the more athletic of the two of us, so he helped me jump the fence. Much like Lady Anna, I rolled up into a firing crouch with my Commando trained on the warehouse. Hangman, the fucking pup, quietly landed behind me. He didn’t even sound like he strained himself leaping over the fence.

"Hold up," I whispered to Lady Anna as she started toward the warehouse. My instincts were screaming warnings. The building was too dark, and I didn’t see any guards around the area.

"What is it?" Lady Anna asked, looking back at me.

"Something feels wrong," I answered.

"What the fuck?" Cracker asked, exasperated, "You’re stopping us because you’ve got a feeling?" He turned to Lady Anna. "Milady, we need to move. If he can’t put what’s wrong into words, we need to move up. The others are depending on us."

"Should I call this off?" Lady Anna asked me. I could see in her eyes that she would do it if I told her to. I looked back up at the building. This wouldn’t be the first time I’d done something when everything told me not to. Getting the silver and the information was too important to these lycanthropes. It was worth the risk.

"Let’s go, but everyone keep extra sharp," I said. Lady Anna just nodded. Cracker made an ugly sound, but he continued towards the loading docks. Hangman clapped me on the back as we jogged forward. The loading docks were raised off the ground with an incline in front to allow trucks to back up and have their cargo sections level with the platform. Behind the loading platform was a large rolling metal door leading into the warehouse itself. The plan had Cracker and Hangman moving up to the door with Lady Anna and me using the incline and platform to cover them. We’d just hit the edge of the incline when the metal door snapped up.

"Into the pit!" I ordered, shoving Lady Anna forward before bringing up my Commando. Gunfire erupted with the blinks of muzzle flashes coming inside the warehouse. I felt the bullets whipping around me. Hangman and I both fired long bursts into the darkness as we ran behind our teammates. The four of us huddled up against the platform wall as bullets tore at the concrete above our heads. Well, this just turned into a sub-optimal position.

"Call off the operation," Cracker said to Lady Anna. "We’ve completely lost the element of surprise."

"Don’t. We can salvage this," I countered. Lady Anna and Cracker looked at me with incredulous looks. "This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this position. We can do this. Hangman?"

"Oh, this is going to be fun," Hangman said, smiling. "You’re going to have to cover me." Good, he was thinking along my lines. "Whatever happens, don’t tell Vanessa I did this."

"As soon as the grenade goes off, we need to lay down cover fire," I told Lady Anna and Cracker. The hunter started to object, but Lady Anna silenced him with a gesture. She searched my eyes for a brief moment and nodded. Hangman lobbed the small cylinder without hesitation. There was a metallic clank as it bounced off the concrete floor and into the warehouse. Then came the familiar crash as the grenade detonated. Hangman was up onto the platform before the grenade exploded. In the second between the bounce and the explosion, Hangman was at the side of the warehouse door. The pup was fast. I poured a full magazine of fire into the warehouse as Hangman took aim inside. He fired twice before he motioned us up. I snaked up the platform and into the warehouse. As soon as I entered the room, the darkness faded to my eyes. True vision was so much better than the humans’ nightvision devices. Four ghouls crouched behind stacks of crates. They were using submachine guns by the sound. Three other ghouls were lying unmoving on the floor. I didn’t care if it was the grenade or our fire that killed them, as long as they were out of the fight. I slipped behind another stack of crates and replaced the magazine in my Commando. Those bastards never expected us to use grenades, and now, they were playing catch-up. Their mistake. I felt bullets crack into the wood of the crate, but those were followed by the odd sound of bullets hitting flesh. I did a quick inspection. No, I wasn’t hit. What the fuck? I pushed the question to the side as more bullets hit my cover. I focused on killing ghouls. I came around the side and lined up a ghoul in the holographic sight. A quick burst and that one went down. His buddy turned to fire at me and slumped as Hangman took him down. The last two went silent. I could finally start hearing again as my ears healed from the constant gunfire. Hangman hand-signed that our teammates would cover the door as he took the opposite side of the warehouse. I nodded and started creeping over to the left wall. Time to flush out the prey.

One ghoul panicked. When ghouls panic, they don’t run. They go into what could charitably called a berzerker rage. This one ran down the center of the warehouse, emptying his gun at Lady Anna and Cracker. The two lycanthropes quickly put the ghoul down with a pair of bursts. The last ghoul, on the other hand, was smarter. I could hear him shuffling around the warehouse, but he was gone the moment I tried pouncing on him. The building shook with an explosion. That was Bravo starting their attack. The ghoul proved exactly how smart he was. I expected him to miss a step from the sudden assault, but he vanished again. Something glinted out of the corner of my eye. I turned and saw the ghoul on top of a stack. He was aiming at Lady Anna, who was oblivious to the threat. I brought my Commando up, but I knew I wasn’t going to get the shot off in time. The warehouse rocked with a booming gunshot. The ghoul fell dead to the floor. I didn’t even notice the sound of the body falling to the ground. I was looking at the shooter.

Standing in the doorway, holding a smoking revolver was Nick. Hangman and I stood dumbfounded. Cracker and Lady Anna, on the other hand, trained their weapons on Nick. If Nick noticed the weapons trained on him, he didn’t show it. He simply holstered his monster revolver as he walked into the warehouse like he was part of the operation. My mind was reeling. Where had Nick come from? Was he the one that saved Lady Anna and me when we’d been ambushed?

"Ranger, Hangman, stop gaping. This place isn’t secure," Nick said in that same even voice.

"Who the hell are you?" Cracker demanded. Nick turned an appraising gaze on the big hunter. Cracker’s face tightened into rage.

"He’s from Hillsborough," I answered, trying to defuse the situation. Lady Anna shot me a questioning look. "He’s a hunter."

"And you’re just showing up now?" Lady Anna asked, turning back to Nick.

"Yes," he answered simply. Before she could say anything else, Nick pointed to one of the stacks of crates. "Look at that." I couldn’t see what he was pointing at. The crates were just like the others, including the bullet holes. Then, I noticed the black fluid leaking out onto the floor. My eyes widened as I realized what I was seeing. I pushed away the scents of burnt gunpowder and found the particular scent I was hunting. I walked over to a single crate. I shoved my claws under the lid and tore it off with a single motion. Inside was a vampire in true form. It didn’t look dead. It looked more like they did when they were day-sleeping, but it was night out. Vampires never slept during the night. My pistol materialized in my hand, but the vampire never stirred. What the hell was this? Lady Anna peered in and was similarly baffled.

"Check the other crates," she ordered. Hangman, Cracker, and I pulled more apart and found more sleeping vampires. Well, some were dead from gunfire, but most were only in the odd sleep.

"Do you know what’s going on?" Lady Anna asked Nick. He just shook his head. Lady Anna gritted her teeth and stormed to a corner to contact the other team. As she talked, I approached Nick.

"How the hell are you here?" I asked.

"I’ll tell you after we finish this job," he answered, "This isn’t nearly the security I saw coming into this place earlier. There had to be forty or so vampires including some huge leech. Damn thing was covered in burn scars." The comment tickled my memory. I knew I should be remembering something, but my mind just wasn’t accessing.

"Glad to see you’re okay," Hangman said as he joined us. Before Nick could answer, the building shook again. All of us perked up. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Bravo must have run into the vampires Nick mentioned. Lady Anna pulled Cracker over to our little group. Her face was grim.

"George said they just ran into some heavy resistance. One of the shaman was killed. That was his death blast we just heard. Uncle is concerned about these vampires in the crates. He wants us to get into the office and see what we can find out while Bravo deals with the defenders." I traded looks with Cracker. I understood why Lord Savik wanted us up in the offices, but if those vampires were behind prepared defenses, Bravo was about to be slaughtered. Cracker saw what I was thinking and nodded in agreement.

"Ranger, go with Lady Anna up into the offices," Cracker said, "I’ll take your friends and see about flanking those bastards." I nodded and dragged Lady Anna towards the office before she could object. After a few steps, she yanked her arm away.

"What the hell was that about?" she demanded.

"You were getting that muley face, milady," I answered. Her eyes lit with anger. "Cracker needed to lead the assault team because the others will feel his presence thanks to that funny spell. You need to be raiding the office because you know what to look for. I was the logical choice to guard you while you ransacked for data."

"So why not Hangman?" she asked as we climbed up a metal staircase to the second floor.

"Because you trust me more than you trust him," I answered. She was quiet for a long moment as we moved towards the office door.

"Well, yes, but it’s more than that," she whispered as we lined up at the door to the office. Something in her voice made me shoot her a quick glance. She looked like she was trying to decide what to say.

"Let’s talk later," I said, "Job comes first." She nodded uncomfortably and gripped her P90. I kicked the flimsy door. It slammed open and Lady Anna charged through the open door before I could stop her. Her sudden scream cut off my curses. I charged in behind her and froze as my eyes locked on the vampire inside. The memory came flashing back as I looked at the seven-foot tall vampire covered in twisted scars. So, Lothos apparently could survive fire as well as silver and staking. The monster leech held Lady Anna by her throat with one of his over-sized fists.

"This one isn’t nearly as pretty as your other bitch, Ranger," Lothos chuckled, shaking Lady Anna like a rag doll. "Considering your pedigree, I have to wonder how you manage to attract these werewolf princesses. Must be the bad-boy thing." I didn’t say anything. I emptied the Commando’s magazine into Lothos’ chest. He screamed in pain and threw Lady Anna through a cubicle.

"You can cause me pain, but you’ll never kill me," Lothos said, as his chest expelled the silver bullets and sealed. "Our last fight strengthened my powers, even if it did leave me with some disfigurement." He motioned at his twisted face.

"What the hell are you doing down here Lothos?" I asked, making calculations for my next attack. Maybe the silver bullets didn’t work because they didn’t have enough silver individually. Time to try some big silver dumps.

"Escorting Silanti," Lothos said with disgust. A bizarre smile spread across his face. "You keep doing me favors Ranger. First, you take out Bradon, which makes me the new head of the Bleeders. Then, you kill Silanti. Now, I control the Tampa Council. Maybe I should do you some favor?"

"How about dying?" I asked. His head tilted back and let out a laugh of true mirth. I lunged at him, drawing a silver knife. I was going to carve that bastard’s black heart out and see if he could recover from that. His hand clamped down on my wrist faster than I could see. Before my mind could comprehend that he stopped my attack, I was slammed into the wall. A crashing blow across my face knocked me to the industrial carpet. At least the rug burns healed normally. My muzzle felt like it was broken and I was having trouble breathing through my nose. Damn, this was like last time we tangled.

Pistol fire dotted across Lothos. The vampire actually looked surprised as he turned to Lady Anna. She staggered to her feet as she slapped a new magazine into her Glock. Lothos was on her before her thumb hit the slide release. He backhanded her hard enough to send her flying into another wall. She whimpered as she tried to stand. He just casually strode over to her.

"Maybe you are more his style," Lothos said to Lady Anna. "I doubt that Vollen bitch would have the courage to face me." Rage coursed through me at Lothos’ words. The pain lessened. I leapt off the floor and sunk my claws into Lothos’ back. He snagged me by the drag handle on my MOLLE gear and flung me at Lady Anna. She barely manged to move out of the way as I hit the wall. Good, he wasn’t thinking. Throwing us into walls didn’t cause archanal wounds. It might knock our breath out, but that was it. I rolled closer, feeling as his punch whistled over my head. My pistol was in my hand. New tactic. I placed the muzzle of the HK45 to Lothos’ knee and fired. He fell to the ground with a scream. I put hot muzzle to his eye and fired again. More pain blossomed and I realized I was lying on the ground. My mind tried to grasp with what just happened. Ancestors, had he moved that fast? How was I going to kill this bastard before he ripped me to shreds? Lothos rolled me over and ripped off the front of my MOLLE. My silver knife was in hand. His eyes lit with rage. There wasn’t even a scar from my shot into his face. Lady Anna valiantly leapt at Lothos, but he battered her away with contemptuous ease. I heard her crash into a desk. She went silent. I tried to attack, but my mind swam with pain when I tried to move.

"Bradon should have killed you years ago," Lothos said with a cold rage in his voice. "You’re far too dangerous to be walking around. I’m bored with this fight. I’m going to carve you up, and then the little bitch. Then, I’ll just kill the rest of the dogs in this building. Maybe we can salvage some of the units." I felt the familiar intense burning as the silver knife was thrust into my chest. I felt my lung deflate as the blade mercilessly sliced through.

DESTROY THE ABOMINATION! a deep voice echoed in my head. It was the same voice that talked to me when I fought the alchemists back in Ybor. Right before all of that weird stuff happened and the top of that nightclub was destroyed.

I would love to, but I don’t know how to kill him. Plus, he’s a little busy carving me up, I thought back to the voice.

THIS IS WHAT YOU WERE BORN TO DO! CLAIM YOUR BIRTHRIGHT AND DESTROY THE ABOMINATION! the voice boomed back. I felt my ribs snap as Lothos jerked the knife down. Intense pain wracked my body. I felt my blood pouring out of me.

What birthright? I asked, hazily. Suddenly, I could see a ball of bright light hovering in front of my eyes. It blinked warmly at me. With the last spark of strength, I reached out to the light. Lothos chuckled darkly at my fumbling.

NO! REACH WITH YOUR SOUL! the voice ordered.

You could have said that to begin with, I shot back. How do you reach with your soul? Then, my mind unlocked, and I understood what the voice was telling me. I visualized a hand grasping the floating ball. Blinding hot power filled me. All of my pain went off like a switch. I held up my hand to Lothos. The gesture amused him and he cackled. The beam of brilliant white energy shot out from my palm and threw him through the wall of the office and down into the warehouse. I staggered to the hole in the wall. I could feel my wounds sealing. I was still a lightheaded from the blood loss, but somehow I knew my body would be fixed in a few moments. Lothos looked up at me in shock. He stumbled slowly to his feet. From his jerky movements, Lothos must have been in some major pain. Maybe I’d actually done some real damage to the bastard.

DESTROY THE ABOMINATION! the voice bellowed in my head, almost greedy for victory. I leapt down to the floor of the warehouse. There wasn’t even the normal flash of pain from the twenty foot drop. Lothos looked at me with a mix of rage and fear. That made me smile.

"What the hell are you?" Lothos gasped, managing to fall into a fighting stance.

"Badmoon," I answered. I examined his pose and launched my attack. Lothos saw what I was doing and tried a counter. Actually, it was a good counter, but he was just too damned slow. I changed my attack. My fist snaked under and struck hard in Lothos’ chest. The twisted vampire was lifted off of his feet and tossed a good ten feet back. He crawled along the ground as I casually stalked him. This is what he must have been feeling when he ambushed Lady Anna and me. This sense of unstoppable power. Damn it felt good. Lothos climbed up an open crate. He reached in and spoke a few words under his breath. The sleeping vampire awoke. It launched out of the crate and landed in true form. What caught me were its eyes. I’d seen that kind of mad look before. Those were the eyes of the vampires that attacked the Manor when it fell. The vampire attacked with the ferocity of a ghoul. Two blows merely scratched my arms. There was barely any pain. I backhanded the vampire. It crashed into a stack of crates and was still. Screeches brought my attention back to Lothos. He’d managed to awaken a few more of the vampires.

"Kill him!" Lothos commanded in a gasping wheeze. The vampires sprinted at me with claws extended. I really wished I remembered to bring my guns. These leeches would’ve been much easier to put down with gunfire. I grabbed the lead vampire by the head and neck and wrenched until it stopped moving. I used the corpse to knock down the next two. These two kicked back up and attacked. A gunshot rang out and one of the vampires fell. I grabbed the other ripped its throat apart with my claws. As it fell, I shot a look back over my shoulder. Lady Anna was kneeling at the hole in the side of the office with my Commando in her hands. I turned back to see Lothos materialize in front of me. Using a crate like a giant club, he smacked me across the warehouse. My breath whooshed out of me as I slammed into the concrete wall. I fell to a crouch. The pain was already gone. I was going to tear Lothos limb from limb. I was unstoppable. From the look of terror in the twisted vampire’s eyes, he knew it also.

Surprisingly, Lothos didn’t flee. Instead, the vampire pulled out a smartphone. He pressed something on the screen and the office exploded. Lady Anna was thrown to the floor of the warehouse. She wasn’t moving. Snarling a curse, I sprinted at Lothos. Even with all of the power coursing through me, I wasn’t fast enough. More explosions ripped through the warehouse. I heard the screams of the packs echoing through the new holes. Lothos was already at the door to the warehouse. He held up a hand.


"I don’t know what you are. You are probably the only one I can say this about. You can kill me Ranger. If you do, the rest of your lycanthropes will die in this warehouse. Believe me, there are more bombs set to go off," Lothos told me. As if to punctuate his point, another explosion rumbled through the building.

THE ABOMINATION MUST BE DESTROYED AT ALL COSTS! the voice commanded. I looked at Lady Anna. She was moving, but I could see the silver shards lacing her arms and legs. Blood was pouring out of her wounds. Lothos cackled when I realized the bombs were silver frags. Damn it all to hell. That fucking vampire was right. I sprinted to Lady Anna’s side. I could hear Lothos cackle as he fled into the night.

NO! YOU MUST NOT LET THE ABOMINATION ESCAPE! the voice screamed as pain flashed through my head.

"I’m not going to sacrifice my packs for a vampire I can deal with later," I told the voice. As soon as I touched Lady Anna, the power coursed through me. The silver fragments shot out from her like bullets. With the poison gone, her own body took over. I was about to pick her up when all of the power left me. I collapsed to the ground. Pain and exhaustion tore every scrap of energy from my body. I couldn’t move anything. I don’t remember having the strength to blink. I honestly don’t know how I was breathing.

"Ranger!" Lady Anna screamed. She rolled me over. Relief crossed her face as she realized I was alive. She held her hand to her throat mike. "All elements, evacuate! Evacuate! Evacuate! This place is coming down on us." She knelt down next to me.

"This might hurt," she told me, gently, "I’m sorry." Grunting, she lifted me up into a fireman’s carry. She was right. It hurt. A lot. Lady Anna sprinted out of the warehouse. Two other lycanthropes were waiting for us as she ran for the fence. They were yelling something at Lady Anna, but I couldn’t hear it. All I could do was feel the pain.

YOU HAVE FAILED YOUR BIRTHRIGHT, the voice rumbled, momentarily clearing the haze, YOU WILL BE PUNISHED FOR YOUR FAILURE. DO NOT FAIL AGAIN. The voice must have decided to be merciful, because at that point, I lost consciousness.

I woke up staring into Lady Anna’s brown eyes. She was in human form, but her face was pale. Her face lit up as I groaned into consciousness. The intense pain was gone, but I was still exhausted. I could barely move. I tried to get up, but Lady Anna placed a hand on my chest and gently pushed me back down. Ancestors, I was too weak to overcome even that little bit of resistance. Lady Anna gave me a warm smile.

"Just rest," Lady Anna told me, "You’re safe. We’re in one of the Guild’s safehouses." Using what little strength I could muster, I looked around. I was in a generic bedroom. It looked like someone transplanted one of those setups in a furniture store into an actual house. I was in the bed covered with a sheet. From the feel of the cloth on my skin, I guessed I wasn’t wearing much underneath. The scent of wolfsbane was strong in the air.

"Stop," Lady Anna commanded with a soft voice. "I don’t know what happened back at the warehouse. None of the others know about what you did. I haven’t even told Uncle Erik about it." Her hand stroked my hair. "Whatever it was, it knocked you out for the last two days. When you’ve got a little more strength, we’ll figure it out. I don’t know what birthright a Badmoon has, but if you have to go up against that vampire again…" Her words startled. I tried to talk. My voice didn’t want to work.

"Shh," Lady Anna said, holding her finger to my lips, "Rest. Get your strength back. I’ve got to see if Vanessa’s managed to decrypt the hard drives we recovered from the warehouse. I’ll bring you up some food in a bit." She gave me a small smile and walked out of the door. I didn’t even have time to guess how Lady Anna had heard the voice before blackness consumed me again.


I was standing in the Hillsborough Guild. As I looked around, I realized I was standing in the Guildmaster’s office. Elizabeth was sitting at the desk. Her eyes were blood-shot, her auburn hair disarrayed, and her body was slumped with fatigue. She was still the most beautiful lycanthrope I had ever seen. Just looking at her tore away all of the defenses I’d built up. Buried pain flooded through me. Why did it hurt this much even when I was just dreaming about her? Then she looked up at me.

"Why did you not destroy the abomination?" she asked. I stepped back in shock.

"What the hell kind of dream did I step into this time?" I murmured.

"Why did you fail to do what you were born to do?" Elizabeth asked, coldly. She stood up from the desk and walked over to me. Ancestors, even her scents were strong in this dream.

"I couldn’t leave the others to be killed," I told her, "We need them to take back Hillsborough."

"They were not important. Destroying the abomination was why you were there," Elizabeth said, her voice cold, almost alien.

"I was there trying to get allies for you!" I yelled back at her, my rage rising. "I’ll kill Lothos, but you and this county are the most important things in my life."

"That is not why you were born. Destroying the abomination was why you were born. You have failed, and your life can no longer go on the course set for you," Elizabeth said.

"What the hell are you talking about? What course?" I asked.

"Do not fail the second time, Bloodclaw," Elizabeth said.

"Bloodclaw? Who the hell is Bloodclaw?" I asked. She cocked her head at me quizzically.

"Do not fail the second time. A third meeting cannot be forced between the two of you," Elizabeth said. "You will not find the life that was planned for you, but another may be created. You must destroy the abomination." She leaned in close. Her green eyes sparkled. I couldn’t help myself. I leaned in to kiss her. There was a blinding flash.


I was staring at a dark room. I was awake. Elizabeth’s words echoed in my mind. What the hell just happened? As my mind grappled with the sudden readjustment to reality, I noticed a couple of things. First, the weakness and pain was gone. Better than gone. I felt restored. That was critical, because the second thing I noticed was there was a vampire sitting in the chair across from me. Either Hangman or Nick thoughtfully left my HK45 on the bedstand. I snatched the pistol and pointed it at the vampire. His face coalesced beyond the pale glowing green dots of my sights. I almost dropped the pistol.

"You can put that pistol down, Ranger," Bradon said, "We have a lot of work to do."

Chapter 21 – Things Become Clearer…I Think