Category: Badmoon Rising

A novel about werewolves and vampires set in Tampa.

Monday Fiction – Getting the Job Done

Yeah, I know. I’ve been mostly ignoring the blog lately. Mostly because life’s been hectic and kicking me around for the past few months. Not sure yet if that’s going to change. Anyways, this is the short story I submitted to Baen’s Fantasy short story contest. Since I didn’t win, I figured I’d post it up here for y’all to enjoy.

This story takes place in the Badmoon universe, but in Kentucky. Things are a little different there.

–Getting the Job Done–

Tysach. The learning time in the Ancestors Tongue. For the pups of Louisville-Jefferson County, it’s when the pups learn of pack traditions, history, and how to survive in the harsh world of the supernatural. Tysach is a hard time for the pups, and sometimes pups don’t survive. Longeye and his hit pack are there to make sure death isn’t from an outside attack. That is the job, and hunters never fail the job.

Longeye looks back at the shaman teaching pups not much younger than her. She must be strong and smart if the Spiritmaster trusts her with tysach, Longeye thinks. At least she doesn’t treat my hit pack like we’re her servants, unlike other shaman. A cold wind blows through the camp. In true form – the man-wolf of human legend – Longeye’s senses are much sharper. His pelt is also warmer than any jacket.

“CONTACT!” screams Mountain, Longeye’s second. The ripsaw sound of Mountain’s M240 fills the small hill valley. Blue light from behind draws Longeye’s gaze from his second. The shaman formed a cerulean shield in front of the pups. Longeye’s heard the stories when shaman fought, but Longeye has never seen such a powerful use of the magicks. An unnatural roar focuses Longeye back on the combat. He sprints to join his hit pack.

In between two hills are a half-dozen creatures unlike anything Longeye’s heard about. The creatures are fifteen feet tall with wide, round bodies and spindly arms and legs. A wide face protrudes from just below the shoulders. The monsters are mottled grays, like they’re made of rock. Following Mountain’s lead, Longeye brings his stubby AK74U up and fires a short burst into the closest monster. The bullets spang off the creature’s hide like they hit concrete. The monster turns and opens a mouth as wide as its head and filled with jagged teeth that look more like stalactites.

“What the fuck are those?” Thumper asks, sliding in the snow behind Longeye.

“No idea,” Longeye answers his hit pack’s last member, “Silver and lead don’t seem to have any effect. Bring the fire!” Thumper smiles and unlimbers his Milkor grenade launcher. The bulky weapon coughs four times. The first two grenades knock a pair of monsters to the ground. The third showers another monster with fragments. The final grenade pops and hisses as the white phosphorus melts into the monster’s body.

“Well, that seemed to–” Thumper is cut off as the fifth and sixth monster charge the hit pack.

How could those huge forms move so fast through the snow? Longeye thinks as he leaps to the side. Thumper fires his last two grenades, but the two charging forms shrug off the high explosive. Longeye aims at the small dot eyes and fires. The bullets do little more than draw the monster’s attention. The monster looms over Longeye and brings down its arm. Longeye leaps out of the way, but the damn thing manages to tag him in the leg. Pain flashes through Longeye as he rolls in the snow. The leg’s broken. He waits for a second for the wound to heal. Fear flushes through him when the pain doesn’t subside like it should.

“They’re archanal!” Longeye warns his hit pack. Archanal wounds defeat the lycanthropes’ natural healing. Longeye needs to shift his tactics, but the monster is back on him too fast. A stone backhand sends Longeye flying for a few yards before slamming into a tree. His back heals instantly, but his muzzle and jaw aren’t working. Blood pours down his pelt as Longeye gasps for air. In the mix of pain, cold, and oxygen deprivation, an idea emerges. Longeye gathers his strength and waits as the monster thunders to finish him. Longeye’s mind barely registers that he doesn’t hear Mountain’s machinegun or Thumper’s grenades. Longeye focuses only on the monster’s wide mouth. The monster looms over Longeye with that mouth wide open. Longeye yanks the pin off the thermite grenade and jumps. The metal cylinder grates against the monster’s teeth before bouncing into its maw. An instant later, Longeye’s side erupts in pain as the monster slaps him out of the air. Longeye’s conscious long enough to hear the grenade detonate inside the monster. What looks like lava pours out of its mouth before the monster sinks to the ground. In moments, the monster melts into a heap of stone.

Well, at least I got one of the bastards, Longeye thinks before darkness consumes him.

Pain and stink bring Longeye back to the world. The first things he sees are yellow eyes and rust color fur. That shaman. The one who made the shield when the fight broke out. From the stench, she’s smearing wolfsbane in all of his wounds. The foul medicine burns, but it expels archanal magic to let his body heal with its normal speed. With a grunt of pain, Longeye sits up. The entire county’s Order of Spirits is in the hollow. A dozen of shaman are casting wards around the hollow, while the rest are standing over the huddled pups. Longeye looks around. He can’t see Mountain or Thumper.

“I’m sorry, hunter. Your friends didn’t make it,” the shaman says, sympathetically. “You probably shouldn’t see them right now. The Order will prepare them for travel to the cravex after the hollow is secured.”

“I appreciate your concern, but those two were my hit pack. I need to see them,” Longeye says. To her credit, the shaman helps Longeye stand and walks him to the bodies of his friends. Or what’s left of his friends. Longeye’s seen hunters shot, sliced, burned, and mutilated. Torn apart is a new one for Longeye. The pile of body parts that had been Mountain and Thumper makes his stomach churn. He doesn’t even hear the Guildmaster walk up. The leader of the hunters puts a comforting hand on Longeye’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Steven,” the Guildmaster says, using Longeye’s cover name, “From what the shaman and the pups said, the three of you fought hard against those creatures.”

“Do you know what they were?” Longeye asks. The old wolf shakes his head.

“No. Neither does the Order. The Spiritmaster is communing with the Ancestors at the cravex,” the Guildmaster answers.

“Why didn’t they kill the pups?” Longeye asks. The Guildmaster looks uncomfortable at the question. Longeye’s stomach plummets. “Who did they kill?”

“It’s not who they killed,” a new voice says from behind Longeye. All three lycanthropes instinctively drop to one knee. Karl Silverbane, Lord of Jefferson County, radiates fury. The two Red Knights standing at his side look like hunters who failed a mission.

“Melanie?” Longeye asks the Guildmaster. By tradition, a pup in tysach, is treated by their family as if dead until he or she returns to the packs after the Rite of Initiation.

“We can’t find her,” the Guildmaster answers. “We did find a pup’s body. One of the other pups identified him as Melanie’s current paramour.” The Guildmaster gives the lord a sidelong look. “Everything points to Melanie being kidnapped.”

“Who would be insane enough to kidnap Lord Silverbane’s daughter?” Longeye asks. “Not even the LCV would sanction that. They would never endanger The Peace.” The Louisville Council of Vampire controls almost all of the vampires in Louisville and the surrounding area. Their Inner Council is very careful to follow the tenets of The Peace after Florida erupted in open war a few years ago. Neither the lycanthropes nor the vampires want that particular fire to spread to Kentucky.

“They are the natural suspects,” the shaman says, “Our races have been at war for centuries.” Longeye and the Guildmaster trade knowing looks.

“I know you just lost Michael and Kevin, but you’re my best investigator. I need you to find out who did this and get Melanie back,” the Guildmaster says.

“I’ll take the job, but I’m going to need help if whoever’s behind this has more of those monsters,” Longeye answers.

“What do you need?” the Guildmaster asks. From the look in his eyes, the old wolf is willing to sign off on damn near anything. Usually, only the Guildmaster’s personal hitter got such carte blanch.

“You will take her,” the Deputy Spiritmaster says as he walks up to join the small group. He points at the young shaman. The Deputy Spiritmaster glares, and the shaman looks down.

“Exactly why would my hunter take her with him?” the Guildmaster asks in his most polite voice. Longeye steps away from his boss. When the Guildmaster is that solicitous, someone’s going to spend the next few weeks with wolfsbane smeared over their entire body. One does not become the leader of the hunters without having the ability to back it up.

“The Ancestors command it,” the Deputy Spiritmaster answers. “They have told the Spiritmaster the pup will only be returned if both that hunter and this one are the searchers. They must begin by speaking with the scarred leech.” The Deputy Spiritmaster looks like the words leave a foul taste in his mouth. Longeye signals the Guildmaster, who motions for Longeye to speak. It’s that trust that endears the Guildmaster to his hunters.

“She can come. I know who the Ancestors are talking about,” Longeye says. The Deputy Spiritmaster looks revolted, but the shaman looks intrigued. That’s a hopeful sign if the two are going to work together, especially considering the normal rivalry between hunters and shaman. Longeye looks over to the Guildmaster. “Boss, I’m going to need some stuff from the armory and $100,000 in cash.”

That’s who your contact is in the LCV?” the Guildmaster exclaims. “I’ll need a couple of hours to pull together the cash. Take her with you to the armory. I’ll have the money delivered to you there.” The Guildmster walks off, issuing orders into a cellphone. The Deputy Spiritmaster storms back to the rest of the shaman leaving Longeye alone with the shaman. He holds out his hand.

“You can call me Steve,” Longeye says, using his cover name. She tentatively takes the proffered hand. Her grip is firm with the barest hint of uncertainty.

“I’m Jen.”

Jen is annoyed as she steps out of Steve’s car. Okay, hunters are supposed to be mysterious. They’re the lord’s assassins after all. Still, Steve didn’t have to ask her to go sit in the car while he talked with the scarred leech. Okay, the scarred leech is the leader of the Bleeders, the vampire counterpart of the hunters. And yes, Jen had growled at the leech guarding the door before Steve asked her nicely to wait for him in the car. It’s just frustrating. The Ancestors said that she needs to help. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t know all of this cloak-and-dagger shit.

The address the $100,000 bought is a small antiques shop in Jeffersontown. Even in her human form, Jen can smell the stench of leech. There’s an unusual scent, but it’s so faint, Jen dismisses it. Whatever left that scent is long gone. Steve gets out of his car and scans the area. The streets are mostly deserted at this time of night. Orange sodium lights reflect off the dirty snow on the curbs.

CRACK! The sound comes from inside the shop. Jen opens her mind and soul to the Ancestors. They fill her with their magick. Steve moves to the door with a small machine gun in his hands. He shoves the door open and storms into the darkness. Jen follows behind him, preparing a pair of rites in her mind. Her eyes attenuate to the darkness inside the shop, as she nearly gags from the intense stench of leech.

In the middle of the shop is a leech changing to true form in death. The black fluid that had once been human blood is pooling beneath the body. Behind the counter is another leech holding a smoking pistol. Steve keeps his machine gun aimed at the vampire behind the counter as he moves to the body and kicks away a pistol.

“Well, it’s not often I see your kind in my shop,” the vampire says with a pleasant smile on his face. His heavy German accent turns the “w’s” to “v’s”. The vampire puts the small pistol away. Steve lowers his machine gun.

“Porthos sent us your way,” Steve says, “He thought you might be able to identify something for us.”

“I am always happy to do a favor for a friend of Porthos,” the vampire says. There’s something in the vampire’s tone that sounds like the vampire is repaying a favor. The vampire holds out his hand. “Klaus.”

“Steve, and this is Jen,” Steve says, taking his hand. Jen warily shakes the proffered hand.

“What happened here?” Steve asks, motioning to the body on the floor.

Ach, that damned television show,” the vampire says, disgusted. “Every new independent in Kentucky thinks he’s the lawman or the criminal from that show. Some of them are dumb enough to see if they are faster than me. It’s almost to the point I shoot any young nosferatu that walks in here wearing one of those stupid hats.” Klaus looks back. “Bruno! Get out here!” A large ghoul strides out from the back room. He snarls at Jen and Steve, but Klaus shushes his servant. The vampire wordlessly motions to the body.

“So, what did Porthos think I could identify for you?” Klaus asks as Bruno hauls the humanoid bat form of the dead leech out of the front of the shop.

“Could you tell us what this is?” Jen asks. She silently casts the rite, and an image of the monster appears above her hand. A warm sensation runs through Jen when Steve looks suitably impressed. The vampire stares at the image for a long moment.

Mein Gott,” the vampire murmurs, “I hoped I would never see those again.” The vampire’s eyes flick to Jen. “Why do you want to know about these?”

“Six of them attacked the pups during tysach,” Jen answers.

Unmglich!” Klaus exclaims, “Those are Russian earth monsters! They cannot be here. Not on this continent’s soil!”

“Well, they are!” Jen snaps, “I watched them tear apart two hunters. I barely held them back.”

“How did you do such a thing?” Klaus demands. Jen looks to Steve, unsure if she should tell the vampire. The hunter nods.

“With a shield,” Jen answers.

“You held six of these at bay with a shield?” Klaus asks. “Our best wizards on the Ostfront barely held them back when they attacked us, and they needed to combine their strength in order to do that much.” Klaus gives Jen an amazed look. Then, an arrow is sticking out of the vampire’s chest and black fluid is spilling out onto the counter.

Steve spins, crouches, and brings up his machine gun in one graceful movement. Jen tries to mimic the hunter as she turns back to the door. The doorway is filled by – a were-ram? It’s humanoid, and easily eight feet tall from the top of its curled ram horns down to its cloven feet. Light tan fur covers the body. The face is more human than sheep-like. The ram-man takes a step into the shop and nocks another arrow in its polished wood bow.

Steven’s machine gun stutters. Jen is surprised how much more quiet it is than the ones the hunters used in the hollow. A half-dozen red holes bloom in the ram-man’s chest. The ram-man takes a step back from the gunfire, but looks more annoyed than injured. Steven kicks over a table, sending ceramic knick-knacks crashing to the floor. Jen crouches down behind a shelf of metal trinkets. There’s a hard thunk as the ram-man sinks its arrow into the table Steven is hiding behind. The hunter raises up and fires his machine gun again. The bullets just seem to piss off the ram-man. Well, if bullets don’t work, maybe it was time for something else.

STORMAYRE!” Jen shouts. She’s nearly deafened and blinded as lightning bolts arch from her outstretched hands to the ram-man. Cooked meat smells and smoke fill the shop as the ram-man is reduced to a charred heap. Jen falls to one knee, panting like she’d just run a marathon.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks, suddenly at her side. His voice is kind of tinny as her ears heal.

“Yeah, that rite just took a bit out of me,” Jen answers.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a shaman throw around that kind of magick,” Steve says. Jen shrugs.

“It’s not something we do on a regular basis,” she says. Steve just nods. Then he shoves her to the floor as the store’s frosted windows shatter from a fusillade of arrows. Jen pushes the hunter aside and peers around the shelves. Five more of the ram-men stand on the street pointing arrows into the shop. Jen prays to the Ancestors that the street are deserted. This is too blatant. If too many humans see what the attack, the pathwalkers will come and restore balance. Their definition of restoring balance favored wiping out entire supernatural populations.

Jaegar!” Klaus shouts. The vampire’s laying down at the end of the counter. He tosses Steve a worn assault rifle. “That will stop those bastard dusios.” Steve brings up the assault rifle to his shoulder and fires. The gunfire deafens Jen again. A ram-man crumples to the ground. The four remaining ram-men – dusios? – bellow deep howls of rage as they loose their arrows.

DENMANT!” Jen snarls. A translucent blue shield appears. The arrows flash into embers as they strike it.

“Can you lower that shield long enough for me to get another burst off?” Steve asks. Jen grits her teeth in concentration as she silently asks the Ancestors.

“No,” Jen answers.

“We can escape out the back,” Klaus says.

“We can’t leave those things out there,” Jen says. A steady stream of arrows pelt the shield as the ram-men advance on the shop.

“Jen’s right,” Steve says. “How do I get up on the roof?”

“Follow me,” Klaus says.

“Hold them here,” Steve says, gripping Jen’s shoulder. “I’m going to take them out.” Steve follows the vampire into the back room. Jen musters up her strength and focuses the magick into the rite.

He’d better hurry up.

Longeye and Klaus go out the back door into a narrow alley. Klaus motions to a metal ladder just to the right of the door. Longeye quickly strips and sheds human form for true. The world becomes more real as his senses sharpen. Longeye leaps up to the roof and sprints across the roof. He sheds back for human. Longeye doesn’t know where Klaus got an MP44, but he needs to be in human form to aim the seventy-year-old weapon. Firing human-sized guns while in the nine-foot tall true form takes a lot of practice. Longeye aims at the biggest of the ram-men. The MP44 stutters with a short burst. The creature slumps to the ground as rust-red blood pools on the street.

Much to Longeye’s surprise, the ram-men don’t scatter. They just stop in the street and aim up at the roof. Steve manages to take down a second ram-man before ducking down. Three arrows sail over the building. Longeye crab-walks a few yards to the right before rising up. A ram-man guessed almost right as the hunter pops back up. Pain blossoms across Longeye’s scalp. The hunter’s aim is better, and the third ram-man goes down. Longeye crouches back down. He smiles as he feels the wound seal. At least the arrows aren’t archanal.

There’s another bellow, but it’s cut off in the middle of the roar. Longeye rises up and looks down at the last ram-man. The hunter’s eyes go wide. The ram-man is encased in ice. The Ancestors must really like Jen to let her throw around those kinds of spells – or we are really fucked. I hope that Bruno ghoul can clean up those bodies. Longeye walks back to the alley side and jumps down. Hitting the asphalt, he rolls up into a crouch and waits the few seconds it takes for his legs to heal from the drop.

“I come here to kill the vampire my babushka hates, and look what I find,” says a new voice. Longeye looks up to see a tall, dark-haired human standing at the mouth of the alley. “You’re the werewolf who killed my elemental.” Longeye snatches his pistol from his discarded clothing and brings it up just in time to see Klaus bouncing off a shimmering shield in front of the wizard. At that instant, Jen sprints out of the shop. The wizard gives Jen an appraising look.

“And you’re the one throwing around all of that werewolf magic,” the wizard says. “So, we now have the three heroes who will try to stop me. How appropriate.”

“Who are you?” Jen demands.

“I’m not going to make it that simple,” the wizard answers, “I’m required by the ritual to give you a chance to try and stop me. If you don’t, then the girl werewolf will be sacrificed for the ritual.” The wizard smiles. “I will tell you one thing in the name of being sporting. You have until midnight tomorrow to stop me from sacrificing your precious girl werewolf.” Longeye snaps his pistol up and fires three rounds. The bullets ricochet off the shield.

“No!” the wizard snaps, “You will abide by the rules of the ritual, hero. You three will confront me tomorrow night. If you do not, then not only will the girl die, but every living thing in a hundred mile circle.” The alley goes dark for an instant. When Longeye can see again, the wizard is gone.

“So, let me get this straight,” Jen says, “You, me, and the Nazi vampire are supposed to stop a ritual before midnight or not only do we lose Melanie, but a bunch more people get killed?”

“That sounds about right,” Longeye confirms.

“To be fair, I was never that good a Nazi,” Klaus says, “My lieutenant always complained I lacked sufficient Nationalist Socialist ardor. It was such a shame when he fell on that land mine outside Stalingrad.” Jen and Longeye trade wary looks.

“So, how do we do this?” Jen asks.

“If you’re hunting lycanthropes, follow the packs. For vampires, follow the power,” Longeye answers, “For humans, you follow the money.”

Klaus pulls his battered Volkswagen Beetle up next to the fence. The vampire gets out and walks over to the two lycanthropes. Longeye stifles another yawn. Finding this place took all night and most of the day. Jen surprised him how good she was in things he’d always assumed were hunter specialties. He thought about how much of his old prejudices were still valid on the drive up to the property.

“I thought all of you hunters drove those big, black SUV’s with tinted windows,” Klaus says, walking over to Longeye’s beloved Subaru WRX. The vampire is dressed only in a flannel shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. “Is your boot able to hold all of your gear?” The vampire’s words bring a momentary pang of grief. Mountain always complained that he barely fit in the front seat of the compact. It’d been a running joke between Longeye and his second.

“I prefer nimble over mass,” Longeye says. The vampire nods as if Longeye said something profound.

“Now, if only you didn’t drive it like my grandpa,” Jen says, climbing out of the passenger seat. The teasing tone is welcome after the long night and day of work.

“If I drive like a bat out of hell, then it’s because everything’s gone to hell,” Longeye replies. He gives Klaus a sober look. “You’re here much later than we agreed.”

“It took more time and resources to fulfill my part of our arrangement,” Klaus answers, “Now, what did you find about our wizard? Besides this compound.” Jen smiles as she hands a tablet to Klaus.

“Michael Kursk,” she says, pointing at the picture of the dark haired man with a dour look on his gaunt face. “Came to America from Russia when he was a toddler. Orphaned shortly after. Made a ton of money in Silicon Valley before selling everything and coming east. He just bought this large swath of undeveloped land. According to the Ancestors, this area is magically significant. For humans, anyway.”

“You have been busy since I last saw you,” Klaus says. The vampire scrolls to the next page and grunts.

“That’s his grandmother,” Jen says, pointing to the photograph of an old Russian woman in traditional dress including the kerchief over the gray hair. “Kursk found her a few years ago and brought her over from Russia.”

“That’s not his grandmother,” Klaus says, with a growling tone that puts up both lycanthropes’ hackles. “That’s a fucking Baba Yaga.” Jen gasps.

“Are you sure?” Jen asks.

“Yes. Saw the Dämon on the battlefield,” Klaus says, then chuckles. “Bitch’s minions wounded me enough to bring me to attention of Great Council. I’m a nosferatu because of that monster.” There’s a quiet moment as Longeye looks between Jen and Klaus.

“What the fuck is a Baba Yaga?” Longeye asks.

“Nasty Russian demon,” Klaus answers. “Does some bad magic on her own as well as controlling other spirits from Slavic lands.”

“That’s one way of describing them,” Jen says, giving Klaus a skeptical look.”Ivan, another shaman, says they were once human wizards that let themselves be possessed by a spirit of destruction. I hadn’t heard they could control other spirits, though.”

“How do we kill her?” Longeye asks, before Klaus and Jen could start an argument. The two trade unsure looks. “Can we kill her?” The two both wore uneasy faces.

“I don’t know,” Klaus says. Jen shrugs her shoulders.

“Have you found out what the ritual is?” Klaus asks.

“There are a few possibilities,” Jen says, “They range from very bad to cataclysmic. Best guess is that they are trying to raise Zmey Gorynych.”

“That name sounds familiar,” Klaus says, “Who is that?”

“Not who. What. A three-headed dragon,” Jen answers. “It’s similar to the Greek hydra. No one has seen one in over a millenia. The stories about it are contradictory, but all say the Zmey is very bad news.”

“So, we have no hard information about what’s going on up there, but we have to stop it,” Klaus says.

“That sounds about right,” Longeye says.

“Well, then we might as well get on with it,” Klaus says. The vampire starts toward the chain link fence topped with razor wire that runs the perimeter of Kursk’s property.

“Do you have snips?” Klaus asks.

“We had something else in mind,” Jen says. The two lycanthropes walk a few feet away, disrobe, and shed their human forms for true. Jen pulls on the black formal robes of the shaman. She picks up the sling bag Longeye prepped for her and tosses it over her shoulder. The hunter pulls out a rig designed for hunters working in true form. Kevlar and steel to protect the torso, and pouches stuffed with spare magazines, knives, and other assorted toys of destruction. Finally, Longeye pulls out the RPK.

“You are full of surprises, hunter,” Klaus says, as he joins the two lycanthropes. Klaus is carrying the old MP44 and now wearing modern body armor with more magazines for the rifle in pouches on his side and front. Much to Longeye’s surprise, Klaus is wearing an old German stahlhelm instead of a more modern helmet.

“I’m full of surprises?” Longeye asks, pointing at the World War II-vintage helmet and rifle.

“These kept me alive on the Ostfront against Stalin’s soldiers and monsters,” Klaus says, “I just thought all hunters used those M16s, not dolled up AK-47’s.”

“Give me a break, it’s not like I slapped a bunch of Tapco on this,” Longeye replies, hefting the weapon. “Besides, this will lay down a ton of fire.” As if to emphasize the point, Longeye rocks in a 75-round drum and pulls the charging handle.

“Never mind, then,” Klaus says, “Shall we go find something for you to use all those bullets on?” Longeye slings the RPK before tossing the vampire over the fence. As Klaus covers the forest, Jen and Longeye leap over the eight-foot tall fence. Satisfied that no one is waiting to ambush them, Longeye leads the trio through the forest.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Klaus whispers.

“Satellite photos showed there are recently constructed buildings about two miles inside the property. Five pre-fab buildings forming a pentagon around a paved area with a gravel path leading back down to the main highway,” Longeye answers.

“According to my superiors, the buildings are in the middle of some kind of mystical convergence, but they couldn’t say more because it’s human magic,” Jen supplies.

“I would call that a good guess,” Klaus muses. Longeye pointed into the forest. Through the forest and snow, the two miles takes almost an hour for the trio. It would’ve been less, but Klaus isn’t as good at moving through the snow as the lycanthropes. The vampire grumbles, but otherwise they are almost silent as they move to the buildings.

Finding the site isn’t hard. Giant floodlights light up the entire area like it’s daytime – including the new structure in the center of the buildings. It’s forty feet of steel, concrete, and rock. Scaffolding wraps around three sides with more floodlights attached to the metal framework. A pathway winds up the structure from the ground to the top. Small outcroppings – almost like balconies – sprout out every ten feet up. Longeye pulls out binoculars and scans the buildings. A couple dozen humans walk around the site. Most are dressed in jeans and jackets. He doesn’t seen any unusual bulges that might be concealed weapons.

“There’s Kursk,” Longeye says, pointing to a figure walking up the tower. Kursk walks out onto an outcrop about halfway up that juts over the courtyard. Longeye fights down the temptation to just shoot the bastard, but he needs to finish his original job.

“I don’t see the Baba Yaga or Melanie anywhere,” Longeye says.

“Melanie’s in that building,” Jen says, pointing at the building across the compound from the trio.

“How do you know?” Klaus asks.

“She was a pup in my charge,” Jen answers. Longeye always wondered if the shaman put trackers on the pups during tysach. It would certainly explain how the shaman found his groups when they “wandered off.” Klaus accepts the explanation.

“I don’t know where the Baba Yaga is, but I can feel strong magic,” Jen says. Suddenly, Jen whirls around. Longeye doesn’t ask any questions and swings the big RPK back to the forest. Two ram-men emerge from the trees leveling bows. Longeye places the holographic dot on the chest of the closer one and squeezes the trigger. Five splotches of red appear on the ram-man’s chest before it stumbles back. Longeye swivels to the second one. Jen grunts as an arrow sinks into her chest. A second burst takes down the second ram-man. Longeye looks back to Jen. She’s already pulled out the arrow and her body is healing the bloody hole. The two ram-men stand back up – and are joined by a half-dozen more.

“MOVE!” Longeye shouts. The trio sprints out of the forest. At full speed, they reach the buildings in a few seconds. The three leap on top of the nearest roof and bound into the courtyard on the other side. Dozens of weapons are pointed at them by humans and ram-men. Six of those rock creatures are standing in front of the structure like sentinels.

“Hold them!” orders Kursk from his pulpit two stories above the ground. “I was expecting so much more from the three heroes. I am very disappointed. Still, two werewolves and a vampire will make a nice snack for Zmey Gorynych.” Jen hisses as she sees Melanie – unconscious, bound and gagged – dragged into view by an old woman in shabby clothes and kerchief tied over her hair. Longeye clicks his mike and hears two clicks in response.

“Send it,” Longeye says quietly.

“What was that werewolf?” Kursk asks. As if in answer, a rocket streaks across the courtyard and slams into one of the rock monsters.

Jen throws up the shield as the rock monster explodes. Some of Kursk’s human followers are pulped by the stone shrapnel. The ram-men are knocked down by the blast, but they get to their feet looking unhurt. Then, bullets start whipping into Kursk’s followers. Jen’s surprised she only hears the zips as the bullets pass by. Steve doesn’t look concerned, so Jen keeps a determined look on her face. She has her own tasks to complete. Jen focuses on Melanie and the Baba Yaga.

“It’s time,” Steve says. Jen touches the Steve’s gun and ammo pouches as she casts the rite. The power of the Ancestors flows through her to the hunter’s weapons. The Ancestors are angry, and the power tastes of their rage. At Steve’s nod, Jen drops the shield. Seven of the ram-men are right in front of them. Steve sprays gunfire into the group to open up ground for the trio. Almost as if on cue, the Bleeders join the fray with the entire Hunters Guild right behind them. The courtyard devolves into a mass of bodies, blood, and gunfire. Jen pushes all of that aside as she sprints towards Melanie and the Baba Yaga with the vampire at her side. Steve leaps up onto the structure to kill Kursk.

“Damn you werewolf!” Kursk sputters as Longeye charges up the tower. “I said only you three heroes could challenge me! You’re violating the ritual!”

“I hate dealing with fucking amateurs,” Longeye shouts back. “You think combat is like what you see on television. Since you’re going to die tonight, let me tell you a professional secret. Always bring backup.” Enraged, the human wizard hurls a fireball at Longeye. The hunter ducks, but his back explodes with pain from the near miss. Longeye snarls as he fires back at Kursk. The air in front of the wizard shimmers. Bullets ricochet as if they hit a wall. Longeye plays his hunch about the shield and empties the drum of the RPK as he runs sprints up the stairs. Kursk is blurred behind the shimmering. As the gun runs empty, Longeye lets the RPK fall on its sling and lowers his shoulder. His full mass slams into the invisible shield. Pain flashes as his shoulder and collarbone shatter under the impact, but Longeye didn’t rebound off of the shield. The invisible barrier is shoved back. Kursk is suddenly airborne. Unfortunately, Kursk smirks as he casts a hovering spell.

“That was inventive, if futile,” Kursk says. The wizard raises his hand and the concrete around Longeye shatters into dozens of stinging shards. “My followers will prevent any of your pathetic attempts to stop me.”

“You might want to take a look at your followers,” Longeye replies. His wounds are healed, so Longeye rocks a new drum into the RPK. Kursk looks down and blanches as he watches hunters and Bleeders slaughtering his ram-men. Even his stone monsters aren’t able to withstand the high-explosives both sides brought to the party.

“How could you defeat my dusios with mere guns?” Kursk demands.

“Did you think the Ancestors were going to let you sacrifice our pup if they could do anything to prevent it?” Longeye asks. “They remember those monsters you’ve unleashed, and they knew how to make our weapons work against them.” Kursk’s face twists in fury, but then smiles as a woman’s voice booms across the courtyard. Longeye follows his gaze down to where Jen and the Baba Yaga are dueling on the ground below.

Thank the Ancestors everyone’s keeping clear of us, Jen thinks as she sends another lightning bolt at the Russian demon. Jen knew going into the fight that the Baba Yaga is dangerous, but if any of Jen’s attacks hurt the Baba Yaga, she couldn’t see. By contrast, Jen’s auburn coat is slashed where the fur and skin was burned away. The Russian demon stands over Melanie and waves her long, thin hands in intricate motions. Jen casts the protection rite as lights of unearthly colors sparkle between and around the two.

Then, there’s an odd pulse in Jen’s magick, as if the Ancestors regret something. Before Jen can decipher the pulse, her shield vanishes. The Baba Yaga’s curse crackles through Jen. Every pain receptor in Jen’s body fires off simultaneously. Jen realizes it’s her own screaming she’s hearing. Her strength disintegrates and Jen crumples to the ground.

Why? Jen asks, Why did the shield fail? What did I do wrong?

NOTHING, the Ancestors answer in her head. If Jen wasn’t in so much pain, she’d marvel that the Ancestors are speaking to her. WE CANNOT DEFEAT THAT ONE’S POWER YET. Jen feels cold hands clamp down on her.

Kursk bellows a triumphant laugh as Jen falls. Longeye spins back to the wizard and rips off a burst. Kursk’s shield easily deflects the bullets. Before Longeye fires again, hooves clomped up the path behind him. The hunter whirls just as a dozen arrows are loosed at him. Longeye drops to the ground, but not fast enough. Pain flashes as three arrows sink deep into his shoulders and back. Longeye opens up. The enchanted bullets scythe down the ram-men. In a few seconds, all of them are dead or dying. Longeye turns, but Kursk is gone. Longeye catches sight of Kursk and the Baba Yaga pulling Melanie on to the top of the structure. From the looks on their faces, Longeye is sure that the ritual is about to begin.

“Well, that’s a clusterfuck, isn’t it?” Klaus says, startling Longeye. Klaus is supporting a battered Jen with one arm while holding a Walther P-38 with the other. Longeye recoils at the stench of wolfsbane that is smeared all over the shaman’s wounds. Jen’s breathing hard, but determination glows in her yellow eyes.

“Are you good?” Longeye asks Jen, keeping his voice as neutral as possible.

“Yeah, are you?” she asks in return, with a hint of anger.

“Yeah, everything’s healed back up,” Longeye answers, “What happened down there?”

“The Ancestors,” Jen answers.

“Why would they do that to you?” Longeye asks, confused.

“I have an idea, but we need to get up there now,” Jen says, with a note of command in her voice. Longeye grins as he rocks in a new drum. One more left.

“That looks like the best pathway,” Klaus says, motioning to the scaffolding with his pistol. “If you will clear the way, I will carry our young hexen.”

“I am not a witch,” Jen protests as she climbs onto the proffered back.

“Well, that’s not what you call yourself,” Klaus quips. Longeye chuckles as Jen playfully slaps the vampire. Longeye hops onto the scaffolding. Two humans pop up from the upper levels and rain down fire with machine pistols. Longeye grunts as two bullets hit, but they aren’t silver. Longeye’s body heals the wounds almost as fast as the humans make them. He aims at the wooden planks above him and opens fire. Blood pours down from the holes.

Longeye swings up to the next level. Satisfied that nothing is attacking, he motions for Klaus to follow. In the blink of an eye, Klaus is standing next to Longeye. The damned Kraut leech doesn’t even looked strained by Jen’s weight.

“I hear more above us,” Klaus says. Longeye plucks a small cylinder from the front of his rig, pulls the pin, and arches it up onto the planks above us. Klaus’s eyes go wide in horror. Longeye just smirks at the vampire.

Granata!” someone screams above. Longeye scampers up as the scaffolding gently shakes with the explosion. The hunter lands on the planks as the two humans blink furiously. Longeye doubts they hear the twin bursts that end their lives. Having a flash-bang go off in your face will do that to you. Klaus doesn’t look amused as he joins the hunter.

“Next up is the prize,” Longeye says, pointing at the planks above them.

“Are you going to use more of your firecrackers?” Klaus asks.

“I’ve got an idea,” Jen says, and quickly sketches out a plan. Longeye doesn’t like the plan, but he’s learned to trust the shaman’s instincts. Klaus looks skeptical, but nods. As Klaus blurs into motion, Longeye pulls himself up just enough to bring the RPK onto the next level. The Baba Yaga holds Melaine over a stone tub while Kursk puts a silver blade to the pup’s throat. Both are chanting something that sounds Russian.

Two ram-men guards see Longeye and loose arrows. The hunter grunts in pain as one digs into his right arm while the other punches through his ear. Longeye places the holographic reticle on a guard and fires a short burst. He doesn’t even watch it fall before swinging the light machine gun to the other ram-man. They fire at the same time. Longeye nearly lets go of the scaffolding as the most intense pain he’s ever felt explodes through his head. It takes him a moment to realize what’s happened. That bastard shot my eye out!

Longeye forces himself onto the top of the structure as his body works to heal him. Dammit, where did that bastard get an archanal arrow? At least Longeye killed the ram-man. Longeye crawls towards Kursk and the Baba Yaga. Kursk sees the hunter and scowls, but doesn’t stop chanting. Kursk hands the blade to the Baba Yaga before storming towards the crawling hunter.

Longeye yanks the arrow and feels his eyeball tear out of the socket. It’s a sensation Longeye never wants to feel again. He slaps a wolfsbane patch in the hole and grunts as the pain flares with the wolfsbane’s burn. Kursk kicks Longeye’s RPK out of his hands. The wizard moves faster than Longeye expects. The hunter slashes with his claws, but Kursk jumps out of the way. With the space opened up, Longeye draws his pistol and flicks on the flashlight. Kursk’s nifty shield doesn’t stop the brilliant 200-lumen light. The wizard shrinks back as he rubs at his eyes. To the wizard’s credit, he never stops the chanting. Longeye lines up the M&P’s sights and squeezes the trigger. The air in front of Kursk shimmers as his shield deflects the nine millimeter rounds. Longeye looks over and sees a malicious smile on the Baba Yaga’s face. As the demon pulls the knife back to cut Melanie’s neck, Longeye looks behind the Baba Yaga. Jen is mouthing words to the Ancestors as she casts.

“NOW!” Longeye screams. Melanie vanishes from the stunned Baba Yaga’s hands as Klaus darts in to rescue the pup. Then, the stone tub explodes like a landmine. Longeye is deafened by a screeching roar that shakes the tower. Four brilliant green tendrils lash out from where the stone tub had been. One tendril wraps around Kursk. He screams in Russian as the tendril pulls him into the ground. There’s an audible pop as the tendril and Kursk vanish. The Baba Yaga dodges two other tendrils with surprising deftness. Then, she points at Jen and chants in Russian. The three remaining tendrils lash out at Jen.

“Fuck no you don’t,” Jen snarls, “QVARE DOMA SCARTH!” The tendrils quaver as the Ancestors’ power stops them cold. First one, and then another tendril dissipate as Jen and the Baba Yaga battle. The remaining tendril pulsates as it whips between Jen and the Baba Yaga.

Brilliant turquoise light surrounds Jen’s forearms. Longeye smells burning flesh and fur. Jen shoves her arms in front of her and screams in pain and fury. The green tendril sways for a moment before it lances through the Baba Yaga. The Russian demon looks down at the glowing green tendril with a startled expression. Then, the entire top of the stone tower explodes.

Longeye recognizes the familiar scents of the Guild infirmary as he regains consciousness. Longeye opens his eyes. Relief flushes through him as he sees through both eyes. Thank you Ancestors! I’m not going to be expelled from the Guild. It’s a fear all hunters have, even if they pretend otherwise. Longeye looks over as the door opens. The Guildmaster and Jen walk into the infirmary in human form.

“I have something for you,” the Guildmaster says, handing Longeye an envelope. Inside is a business card for Klaus’s antique shop.

“I got that too,” Jen says. “I’m not sure what the card means.”

“Klaus is willing to continue talking to us,” Longeye answers. “You’ve scored your first contact in the vampire world.”

“Is it bad that I don’t think that’s a bad thing?” Jen asks. The Guildmaster barks a laugh.

“You may wish to refrain from bringing that to the Spiritmaster’s attention,” the Guildmsters says. Then, the Guildmaster looks back at Longeye. “Steven, you did good work. Albert wants you to rest for a few more days, and I think you should take the doctor’s advice. You will be out in time for the funerals.” The Guildmaster’s face grows dark. “We lost seventeen. After the funerals, I need you to take over Brian’s slot.” Longeye’s eyes go wide. Brian McKellan, better known as Bladesmith, is – or had been – the leader of the hit packs. The Guildmaster gives a short nod at Longeye’s unanswered question. Then, the Guildmaster abruptly turns and walks out of the infirmary.

“How’d you come out?” Longeye asks Jen. She purses her lips before sliding up the sleeves of her sweater. Her forearms and hands are covered in twisted burn scars.

“It was all archanal, and I didn’t get wolfsbane on them in time,” Jen says, clearly embarrassed by her scars. “Even taking on the Baba Yaga while she was distracted, I still needed to handle so much magic that I did this to myself.” She looks to be on the verge of tears. Longeye reaches out and puts a hand on her arm.

“Stop. You did the job,” Longeye says, “You paid a nasty price, but you did the job, and in the end, that’s all that matters. Anyone who tells you different is a fucking idiot. If anyone gives you grief for your scars, you put them in their fucking place. If you ever need it, the entire damned Guild will back you. We know the price of getting the job done.” Jen cocks her head and gives the hunter a smile.

“Thank you,” she says, standing up, “I didn’t mean to talk about that. I just wanted to make sure you were okay before I have to go out to the cravex to prepare for the Rites for the Dead.” The cravex is the lycanthropes’ holy site where all the rituals are performed. Her smile turns sad. “My first duty as caretaker is to handle the most funeral our packs have seen since the Great Fatherland War.”

“Caretaker?” Longeye asks, not sure he heard correctly. Jen nods.

“I’m now the third highest in the Order of the Spirits,” Jen says, “Right behind the Spiritmaster and Deputy Spiritmaster.” She leans over Longeye. “Can I tell you that it scares the hell out of me?”

“I’m not worried. You’ll get the job done.”

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising – Epilogue

The restaurant is Bradon’s choice. He usually chooses Italian, so I was surprised when he asked me to meet at the Columbia. The Cuban the oldest restaurant in Tampa, in the heart of Ybor City. The Columbia is not a landmark, it’s an institution. It’s somehow fitting for my last meal in my home county. I’m sipping on iced tea when Bradon joins me. His light gray suit is an interesting contrast to the charcoal gray one he asked me to wear to this meeting. He eyes me suspiciously as he sits down opposite of me. He says nothing as a waiter materializes. I order the ropas viejas. Bradon orders the picadillo. I crook my eyebrow up in surprise as the waiter vanishes.

"You never order food," I say.

"You’ll eat it," Bradon answers, with an unfamiliar coolness in his voice. I’m not surprised he knows about the recent uptick in my appetite. Even a month later, my body is still healing from my fight with Lothos. Healing takes a lot of calories. I set down my glass and study the vampire for several long moments.

"I’m sorry," I say.

"Whatever for?" Bradon asks.

"You were expecting Lady Elizabeth to marry me," I say.

"You promised me as part of our agreement," Bradon says, "I don’t know this Fangbearer."

"If you don’t have an inch-thick file on him already, I’m going to be very disappointed in you Bradon," I say. The comment elicits the ghost of a smile.

"It’s not the same," Bradon says.

"No, it’s not," I agree.

"Are you going to tell me what happened?" Bradon asks. "If I’m going to sell this change to our treaty, I should know why it happened."

"Savik becoming the Prince of Florida changed everything," I say. "I’m sure you have much better intelligence on the fallout among the county lords than I could tell you."

"That doesn’t explain why the Lady of Hillsborough is no longer in love with you," Bradon says, bluntly.

"What are you talking about?" I ask, trying to keep my tone as neutral as I can.

"Ranger, would you grant that I am very good?" Bradon asks. I nod. "Then why are you surprised that I would detect the change in how Lady Elizabeth speaks of you. How her eyes no longer sparkle when your name comes up? No heartache, just resignation when we discussed her upcoming marriage to Fangbearer?"

"I wouldn’t know. I haven’t talked to her since her packs came back to Hillsborough," I say.

"Lady Anna," Bradon states. I don’t say anything. Bradon’s dark eyes scrutinize me. He smiles, and a chill goes down my spine. I’ve seen that particular smile before. "I shouldn’t be surprised. In many ways, she suits you. I’m assuming you will serve her much as you did your Guildmaster here? Now that your Prince Savik put her in charge of the Society of the Fang and the Claw?"

"Nope," I say. "Nick’s her personal hitter. We didn’t think any of the Society would trust me in that role."

"So what will be your role in our upcoming war? Surely not in the State Guild?" Bradon asks.

"I’m the Prince’s personal hitter," I say. Bradon pauses for a moment, and then he erupts in a hearty laugh. Other patrons look over at the sudden noise. Bradon apologizes for disturbing their supper with a wave.

"Was that his idea or hers?" Bradon asks.

"I don’t know, and I don’t know if I want to know," I say.

"That is such a you thing to say, Ranger," Bradon says. Our waiter materializes, efficiently drops our dinner on the table, refills our glasses, and vanishes. The rich smells of the beef and rice awaken the hunger. I inhale the ropas on just this side of politeness. Bradon deftly switches our plates and sits with a patriarchal smile as I demolish the picadillo. Our small talk is limited to our pride and joys. In my case, it’s my guns. In his case, it’s his new Cadillac. After the dishes are cleared and the bill is paid, the two of us walk out of the restaurant.

"I hate to say goodbye, but I don’t know when we’ll see each other again Bradon," I say.

"You’re not coming to the wedding tomorrow?" he asks.

"The groom prefers that I not be in the county any longer than I need to be," I say.

"That’s understandable, from his point of view," Bradon says. "Thank you for giving me a little insight to the new Lord-Consort."

"Something tells me that I may have said a little too much," I say.

"That’s because I trained you well. Just not too well," Bradon says. I chuckle at the comment. He gives me a resigned look.

"What?" I ask.

"I was so looking to having another Bloodclaw as the Hillsborough County lord," Bradon says. I can’t stop my jaw from dropping. Bradon turns around nonchalantly and walks away. I swear that fucking leech is a fucking telepath. I hope I don’t have to kill him until after we deal with the FCV.

End of Badmoon Rising

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising Chapter 25 – A Very Long Conversation, A Decision, and An Ending

My eyes flicked open. The pain was gone. All of my pain was gone. As I stood up, I looked down. I was in true form and naked, but where were my wounds? Lothos savaged me damn good before I managed to put him down, but my pelt was unmarred. There was no blood on me. There wasn’t any blood around me. I couldn’t even smell any blood. That’s when I realized I couldn’t smell any of the normal scents of the forest or hear the normal sounds around me. Experience told me something was wrong, but my instincts were eerily quiet. That disturbed me more than anything else.

I needed to move. I needed to find out what happened with the others. I needed to find Elizabeth. I skulked down the path back to the cravex. The forest was quiet and still. As I emerged from the treeline, I froze in shock. It wasn’t the Florida cravex in front of me. It was the Hillsborough cravex. The cravex was empty and quiet, except for a lycanthrope sitting on top of the maksen. He was in true form and humming an unfamiliar tune. He stopped and looked over at me as I walked out of the treeline.

"It’s okay, Ranger," the lycanthrope said in a tantalizing familiar voice, "I’ve been waiting for you." I walked down into the cravex. My instincts were still quiet, but that didn’t make me feel any easier. The lycanthrope hopped down off of the maksen and walked to meet me. He motioned to the cravex with his arms.

"This place looks a lot different than the last time I was here," the lycanthrope said. "Bigger, more formal. Not sure if I like it or not."

"Why are we here? Why aren’t we in Leon?" I asked. The lycanthrope smiled cryptically.

"Because a decision has to be made. I thought it would be easier for you to make that decision in familiar surroundings," the lycanthrope said.

"Who the fuck are you?" I asked. His eyebrow quirked up in surprise before he let out a hearty laugh.

"Let’s see if this helps," he said, and shed for human. He was about my height, with the same dark brown hair and blue eyes. He looked achingly familiar, but I couldn’t place him. He motioned for me to join him in human form. Almost instinctively, I shed for human. He grinned broadly.

"I still have no idea who you are," I told the lycanthrope. His smile faltered with a hint of disappointment. Then he shook his head as if he was reproaching himself.

"I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised," the lycanthrope said. "The last time I saw you, you were still an infant."

"And you expect me to remember you?" I shot back. Then I thought back. An infant? I was still in Idaho. My human family hadn’t moved to Florida yet. The questions running through my head must have been showing on my face, because the lycanthrope gave me a resigned smile.

"Well, I was hoping you had at least seen my picture," the lycanthrope said, "I guess your father was serious."

"Enough with the cryptic bullshit," I said, feeling my frustration feed my rage. "Just tell me who you are."

"I’m your grandfather, Ranger. Marcus Edward Graven, Sr," he said, with a dramatic flourish. "Or as I was known when I walked these grounds, Marcus Phoenix Bloodsword. The Hillsborough Guild knew me as Ravage." I stared dumbfounded at the lycanthrope. It was impossible. My grandfather died back in Idaho, before my first birthday. He’d been some sort of businessman. He wasn’t a lycanthrope.

"What the fuck are you talking about? I’m a Badmoon. I have no lycanthrope lineage," I said, heatedly.

"You’re not a Badmoon. You’re a Bloodclaw," the lycanthrope answered, and then his voice turned darker. "You’re just like I was – and like all Bloodclaws, you’re a tool for the Ancestors in the world."

"No, I stood there during the Rite of Discovery," I said, pointing at the center of the cravex. "I heard the Spiritmaster tell me he could not see any lycanthropes of my line in the Ancestors or among the living. I am a Badmoon."

"No, Ranger, you’re not," he said, putting his arms on my shoulders, "Look at me. We have the same eyes, the same nose. You are my grandson, and for my sins, you’ve inherited our family’s curse." He was right. We did look similar. I could see my features in his face once he pointed them out. Still, that didn’t mean anything. Lycanthropes aren’t exactly a genetically diverse population.

"So, if my grandfather was a fucking lycanthrope, why the hell was I proclaimed a Badmoon. Why have I been a fucking outcast my whole life?" I said, pushing him away. My grandfather gave me a compassionate look.

"Because my existence – our whole family’s existence – was erased from the lycanthropes," my grandfather said. "I didn’t know at the time, but that set events in motion leading you to this point."

"If you don’t stop talking like a fortune cookie, I’m going to start hitting," I said.

"Ranger, you’re a very good hunter, but your hand-to-hand sucks," my grandfather said, "I watched you fight that hunter from Broward. I would take you apart." Ancestors, was that what I looked like when I said those things? He took a deep breath. "You’re right, though. I do need to tell you what I can. You need to know before you can decide."

"Decide what?" I asked, testily.

"Listen first," my grandfather said. He was quiet for a long moment. I cleared my throat. He chuckled. "It’s funny. There’s so much you need to know. I don’t know where to start."

"Why don’t you start with telling me why everyone thinks I’m a Badmoon," I suggested.

"What banner was the closest to the throne in the Hillsborough Manor?" my grandfather asked.

"The Forgotten Lord’s," I answered, and my eyes went wide. "Are you trying to tell me that was you? How? You said you were a hunter."

"I started my life with the Hillsborough packs as a hunter," my grandfather said. "The Peace was still young in those days. Barely a generation for the lycanthropes, and much shorter for the leeches. Hunters were more enforcers of the lord’s law than what you do now. Hell, the Tampa Council probably had less then a hundred members in Hillsborough at that time. Then, the Great Fatherland War erupted, and I was called to fulfill my destiny."

"What?" I asked, confused.

"I told you we were Bloodclaws. That’s not a family name, but it does run in our family. You saw in the fire vision, during tysach, the first of the Bloodclaws at the very beginning of the War of Discovery. Do you know why the leeches chose that night to attack the humans?"

"I always thought they were having some political fight. It’s always about politics when it comes to leeches," I answered.

"Good hypothesis, but wrong. That night, they were gathering blood to resurrect their god. It was why the Bloodclaws emerged. We were chosen to be the Ancestors’ weapons against the leeches attempts to resurrect their god. My turn to stop them was during the Great Fatherland War. Yours was now."

"Wait, Bradon said Lothos wasn’t an attempt to resurrect their god, but to find something else that wouldn’t draw the Pathfinders," I said.

"Knowing Bradon, he was lying, either to you or possibly to himself," my grandfather said.

"You knew Bradon?" I asked, flabbergasted.

"Of course I did," my grandfather answered, "That vampire was one of the top Bleeders when I was working in the Guild. We were drawn together. Even then, the lycanthropes and the vampires knew we needed back-channel contacts if this Peace was going to survive more than a generation or two. Why do you think he chose to become your contact?"

"He remembered you?" I asked, "I thought all traces of you were wiped out."

"Yes and no," my grandfather answered, then raised his hands as my eyes burned with frustration, "It’s kind of like when you met me. You didn’t know who I was, but I was familiar to you. We’re alike enough that you echoed something in the back of Bradon’s mind. Our magicks are sometimes unpredictable with the vampires. Now, if we can get back to the matter at hand?" I nodded.

"During the Great Fatherland War, I was pulled to a leech harem in Dresden. I stopped the leeches’ creature. And without getting as banged up nearly as badly as you did. Although getting out of the city was something of an adventure."

"How the hell did you do that?" I asked, "Lothos was impervious to anything I threw at him."

"This has been an ongoing project for the leeches for centuries. Lothos was probably the closest they’ve managed, unfortunately for you," my grandfather answered, "I didn’t need to have the Ancestors step in to help me. Chaining the bastard down during the firebombing did the trick, right nicely." My grandfather and I traded identical malicious smiles. That, more than anything up to that point, convinced me the lycanthrope standing in front of me was indeed my grandfather.

"After the war, the American lycanthropes returned home," my grandfather said, "The lord of Hillsborough and both of his sons had been killed during the war. The new Prince of Florida chose me to take over the county."

"Why? You’re not an aristocrat. How could he let you to take over a county?" I asked.

"Here’s where we stop walking down my road and start walking down the road that was built for you," my grandfather answered. "Florida lost a lot of its aristocrats in the war. I don’t think the Ancestors had a hand in that, but I’m sure they were the ones who reminded the new Prince about a hunter from his state to whom he owed a great debt when it came time to fill county lordships."

"The Prince owed you? What did you do?" I asked. My grandfather’s expression grew hard.

"I made the mistake of saving his life instead of his brother’s," my grandfather said. "I could only save one of them, and I chose the wrong brother. Hindsight’s a bitch." He worked to keep the rage off of his face, but it was slipping through.

"So how did you become the Forgotten Lord?" I asked.

"I made a mistake and fell in love," my grandfather answered, "Although to be honest, the Ancestors were behind that as well."

"What do you mean? Were they behind who you fell in love with?" I demanded.

"They knew what events needed to happen for you to be born," my grandfather asked, "Because they knew the road you would need to travel in order to be ready to fight Lothos."

"So that’s all we are? Fucking puppets for the Ancestors?" I asked, infuriated.

"Most lycanthropes, no. For us Bloodclaws, unfortunately, the answer is yes," my grandfather answered. I screamed in frustration. I punched the maksen, but felt none of the jarring pain. It was like punching a stiff pillow.

"What the fuck?" I asked, staring at my fist. I looked back at my grandfather.

"That comes into where we are," my grandfather answered. I quirked an eyebrow. "We are standing between the living and the dead."

"So which am I?" I asked.

"That’s the decision you’re going to have to make," my grandfather answered. "Your destiny is complete. You could choose to succumb to your wounds and come with me to join the Ancestors. You have certainly earned it, and there are many who would love for you to join us. Including all of your family. Or you can choose to live and go back. At that point, you’d be helping pave the way for the next Bloodclaw. Your life will never be truly your own."

"Like you?" I asked, with sharp sarcasm.

"Like me," my grandfather agreed. "Although to be fair, I wasn’t offered the choice after I completed the destruction of Kamon. Honestly, I didn’t even know that my life was being guided by the Ancestors. I’m not sure if that would have made what happened easier or harder."

"Yeah, getting back to that," I said, "You said you became the Forgotten Lord because you fell in love. How the hell does that work?"

"I fell in love with the daughter of my Spiritmaster," my grandfather answered. I nearly choked. "I knew there were taboos against it, but since I hadn’t grown up as an aristocrat, they weren’t as bone deep with me as my other fellow lords. When the other lords found out, of course they immediately demanded I cease the relationship and send your grandmother to another county. I told them to go fuck themselves. I married your grandmother and made her my lady. The other lords were so scared of what would happen, that they managed to convince the Prince to banish us. He even ordered the state Spiritmaster to call all shamans to erase our very existence in the minds of the packs. So, your grandmother and I went as far as we could from Florida."

"So I am a taboo son," I said, slightly crestfallen. I didn’t want to think I was like Blackhawk and Raven. My grandfather shook his head violently.

"No, you are a Bloodclaw," my grandfather answered, firmly. "Your father, had he been a lycanthrope, would have been a taboo son. Since he was only kin, that particular curse was not passed down on to you. You are not a taboo son."

"What about my ability to resist aristocracy powers just like that bastard Blackhawk?" I shot back, "Wasn’t that because he was a taboo son?"

"Did you notice you don’t have the extra speed and power both Blackhawk and Raven possessed?" my grandfather asked. I nodded. "They were both taboo sons. Your manifestation of your powers all came from me. When a hunter is elevated to the aristocracy, our powers act more as a shield rather than a spear. I could never do anything like what a traditional lord could do."

"Why?" I asked.

"Only the First Ancestor knows, and he isn’t talking to anyone, including the other Ancestors," my grandfather answered. "Which bothers the hell out of the elder Ancestors." We walked to the Guild’s entre. I remembered standing at this spot during the Rite of Discovery for Jennifer Denton. It felt like years before, but it had only been barely a year. I remembered seeing Elizabeth attending the Rite, and her comment afterwards. It was the first hint Elizabeth thought more of me than just a simple hunter.

"So, I can die or go back, marry Elizabeth, and live whatever life the Ancestors dictate until the next Bloodclaw shows up?" I asked, summing up. My grandfather gave me a disconcerted look.

"It’s not a bad life," my grandfather answered, "It wasn’t the life I originally asked for you. It will be a harder life than you expect, but it would be a good life."

"What was the life you asked for?" I asked.

"The spell surrounding our line to be broken enough for you to claim Hillsborough, which would have given you more of a claim on Elizabeth. Now, you will have to continue being the Badmoon, and all the hardship that entails."

"Who the fuck decided that?" I asked.

"It was the decision of the Ancestors," my grandfather said. I sat down on the cool ground of the Guild’s entre. Silence enveloped the cravex as I thought on what my grandfather said. He didn’t say anything, but gave me a compassionate look. Of course, he was allowed to marry and live with the love of his life – even if they were forced to move across the Kingdom in order to do it. Every time I’d been to Rites, the shaman told us how the Ancestors were there to guide, advise, and occasionally assist us. Instead, they’d been behind making my life hell from the very start. Then, something dawned on me.

"Did the Ancestors decide who I was going to fall in love with?" I asked. The look my grandfather was a mix of pride, sorrow, and anger.

"Maybe. I’m sure they were behind Elizabeth’s feelings for you. I don’t doubt she may have fallen in love with you on her own, but your path needed those feelings tipped in the correct direction," my grandfather said. It was infuriating to find out I was just a piece they moved around the board, but what made me truly incensed was the casual way my grandfather talked of Elizabeth being given to me as if she was a treat for a being a good dog. Play our game and get to fuck the female we choose for you. I stopped in mid-thought. What if I decided not to play their game anymore?

"No," I said, looking up at my grandfather. He gave me a confused look.

"No, you’re not going back to live with Elizabeth?" he asked.

"No, I’m not going to make this decision," I answered.

"You have to make the decision," my grandfather said, suddenly nervous.

"Why? Why the fuck should I do anything those bastards demand?" I asked.

"Because they are the Ancestors, Ranger, and you are the Bloodclaw," my grandfather answered, shocked at my words. "You owe your very existence to them."

"Really? I owe them for making me an outcast and then setting me up to fight a living version of the vampire god? How the hell does that make sense?" I asked, standing up, "Fuck the Ancestors. They decided it was better to screw over those whose help they needed. They decided to make me fight Lothos and then punish me for making the same damn decision any lycanthrope should have made according to the laws and traditions they gave us! If that’s how the Ancestors want to play, then they can go fuck themselves. I’m done playing their game. I’ll just stay here." My grandfather had a look of extreme horror, but with a touch of incredible pride on his face. The cravex shuddered. It didn’t feel like an earthquake. It was more like a – reality-quake? A circle of brilliant light appeared in midair in the aristocracy’s entre and two lycanthropes stepped out. I recognized both of them. The first was Stephen Vollen, in human form and dressed in a black suit. His companion I’d never seen in real life, but I’d seen him several times in the fires of tysach – first as a pup, then later as a hunter guarding pups. The lycanthrope who encountered the vampires on the first night of the Discovery War. So, this was the first Bloodclaw. Vollen and the First Bloodclaw strode over to us. The First Bloodclaw was incensed, but I just glared right back at him. Lord Vollen gave me a warm smile. I couldn’t make myself meet Lord Vollen’s eyes. Not after what happened between his daughter and me before leaving for Tallahassee. Furtive looks told me he was still smiling, which I didn’t understand. He should have been ready to tear my head off.

"Still causing problems, Marcus?" Lord Vollen asked, with a light tone that belied his words. "You don’t mind if I call you Marcus?"

"No, my lord," I answered, quickly, "Um, to both questions." Lord Vollen chuckled. The First Bloodclaw barked out a long string of what sounded like German.

"Either speak English or get the fuck out," I snarled at the First Bloodclaw. I was betting he was supposed to be the bad cop to Lord Vollen’s good cop. I’d played that game enough times in my line of work.

"He said that you must make the decision, or others will suffer," my grandfather translated. I shed for true and walked up to the First Bloodclaw. We glared at each other for a few seconds. He lips curled into a snarl. I punched him in the gut. As he doubled over, I laid another punch on his snout. My grandfather gasped in shock, but Lord Vollen looked unsurprised, almost resigned.

"Do you think you can still emotionally blackmail me?" I screamed at the First Bloodclaw, "You created me, you gave me this life that I was forced to live, and now you’re upset because I’m not reacting how you want? Did you ever think this might be your own fucking fault?" I looked up at the night sky. The stars were twinkling furiously.

"Did any of you ever think that maybe if you had let me know what the fuck you wanted me to do, I might have ended Lothos before he was even born in that fucking lab?" I shouted at the sky.

"I told you he would react like this," Lord Vollen said to the First Bloodclaw. The First Bloodclaw glared at Lord Vollen and barked out another string of German. Lord Vollen stood straighter and glared back at the First Bloodclaw. "He may be your descendant, but he is my daughter’s catshen. I have been watching this one more intently than you have for quite a long time." Lord Vollen turned to me and motioned for me to shed for human. I did as he asked and stepped over to him.

"What exactly is your plan here Marcus?" Lord Vollen asked, "Stay in this place for eternity? I know you. As nice and peaceful as this is, you’d be bored within an hour. Bad things happen when you get bored. We both know that."

"My lord, in all the times I’ve listened to the shaman speak about what happens when we leave the world of the living to go to the Ancestors, I’ve never once heard about this place. Some place between life and death where we are judged," I answered.

"Your point?" Lord Vollen asked, curiously. He looked pleasantly surprised by my reasoning.

"There’s a reason the Ancestors decided to give me a choice between living and dying," I answered, "They’ve never shirked from jerking me around my entire life. So why now? Why do I suddenly have a choice now?"

"Because the Ancestors decided to be generous," the First Bloodclaw answered in heavily accented English. So, he could speak it.

"Bullshit," I replied flatly. "They need me to make a choice. They need that little bit of freewill that the First Ancestor gave all lycanthropes in order to make their next move. Well, I don’t see any reason why I should help them out in any way, so I’m not going to make this decision." The three lycanthropes traded silent looks. Then my grandfather went rigid. As he relaxed, his expressions and stance were different, like someone else was using his body.

"How do you expect the Ancestors to protect the packs from the leeches’ attempts to resurrect their god?" my grandfather asked, but his voice was different. From the respectful look on the First Bloodclaw’s face, I suspected that this was one of the elder Ancestors. "We can see the paths laid out in front of our packs. We can pick the path that will allow our chosen to defeat them."

"How about trusting us?" I answered. "How about actually talking with the shaman, like you do with those from the Disputed Territories to let us know what needs to be done? Trust us to stop the leeches."

"Trust you? We trusted you to discover the enemy in your midst. Instead, you slaughtered each other until we forced the Bloodclaw to come forward," the elder Ancestor answered through my grandfather.

"That was a thousand years ago!" I shot back.

"A thousand years to you are meaningless to us," the elder Ancestor said, smugly. "We can see through the hundreds of thousands of years our race has walked this world."

"Well, maybe that’s the fucking problem," I retorted, "You are so mired in the past, you haven’t figured out that we learned from it. That we learned from our mistakes and taught our descendants how to not make the same mistakes. We are not the same lycanthropes we were a millennia ago. Hell, we’re not the same lycanthropes we were when my grandfather was still alive."

"YOU WILL DECIDE! YOU WILL DECIDE OR ALL WILL SUFFER!" the elder Ancestor bellowed with the fury of a cannon.

"The FUCK I will!" I screamed right back, "I am not going to allow myself to be punished for your fucking lack of trust. I’m not going to be manipulated because lycanthropes who died before gunpowder was invented can’t deal with the reality of the present." The elder Ancestor glared at me through my grandfather’s eyes for a long moment. Then, he collapsed like a puppet whose strings were cut.

"Well, that was unexpected," Lord Vollen said. He looked off into the distance, like he was listening to someone unseen. After a few minutes, his eyes snapped down to meet mine.

"It looks like your gambit paid off," Lord Vollen said, "The Ancestors have decided to offer you a new deal. Choose to live. You will be given my daughter as your wife. Your family’s curse will be lifted, so you will no longer be considered a Badmoon. You will have just claim to both Elizabeth and to Hillsborough. This little discussion not be counted as part of your judgement to join the Ancestors when you die. Finally, the Ancestors will stay out of your life. You will get the full freewill that any other lycanthrope would have."

"No," I answered. Lord Vollen looked at me in surprise.

"Isn’t that what you wanted? To live your life as your own with my daughter at your side?" Lord Vollen asked.

"More than anything, my lord, but I don’t want Elizabeth forced to love me. Even if she wasn’t aware of it," I answered. "I want her to make her own choices. I’m not going to doom her to the same slavery that the Ancestors put me through."

"What if she decides she doesn’t love you?" Lord Vollen asked, neutrally.

"It will hurt worse than anything Lothos ever did to me," I answered. "I’d still prefer that to knowing Elizabeth was forced to love me because of the Ancestors." Lord Vollen looked off into the distance again, and then his face broke into a warm smile.

"Would you rather free Elizabeth or have the Badmoon curse lifted from you?" asked the elder Ancestor.

"You are still trying to make me accept your fuckups? Why can’t you just fix what you’ve done?" I asked.

"You will not be the last Bloodclaw to arise. The Great Pack will still need one in the next generation. The paths that lead to the next one are rooted in that decision," the First Bloodclaw said.

"Marcus, think before speaking again," Lord Vollen cautioned. "You are a hunter. Would you truly threaten the lives of the packs when the Ancestors are willing to give you what they can?" Damn, the lord knew what buttons to press.

"Fine. Then, I want Elizabeth free," I said. Thunder boomed through the cravex.

"They accepted your terms, although they’re confused why you chose the terms as you did," Lord Vollen said. He walked up to me and embraced me. The move caught me off guard, and I was stiff as Lord Vollen hugged me. Fortunately, he found it amusing instead of insulting. "I don’t know if my daughter will still be in love with you once the Ancestors’ influence is gone, but I want you to know that I’m grateful for what you’ve given up. If she does decide to marry you, I will be happy for the both of you. You’ve proven that you are worthy of her, at least in my eyes." My grandfather, recovered from his possession, walked over to me.

"You’ve done good, Ranger," he said, also embracing me. "Your grandmother and I are proud of you."

"Make the choice," the First Bloodclaw said, impatiently.

"A moment, Bloodclaw," Lord Vollen said, "There is one more message to deliver before we cast him back to the world." Lord Vollen looked at me. "Tell my daughter that her mother and I are proud of how our little firecracker held our county together, and that the rest of the family is waiting for her when it is her time to join us." I blinked back sudden tears.

"Are you done?" the First Bloodclaw asked, impatiently.

"Yes, we’re done," I answered, my voice hoarse.

"Then say the words and make the choice," the First Bloodclaw replied.

"I choose to live," I said, and the Hillsborough cravex vanished.


My existence was pain. Unbelievable pain. Pain that lasted for years. After about a decade, I heard voices screaming around me, but they were indistinct against the background noise of the crushing intensity of the pain. Then, there were more voices. I focused on them, hoping to block out some of my suffering. The voices were yelling at each other. Something cold was pressed on my body. The pain was lessened, but it was like lava being taken down a single degree. The cold spread along my body. The pain lessened more. The voices became distinct, if not the words. Prince Savik and Lady Anna. The Spiritmasters. They were yelling and screaming about something. Where was Elizabeth? I couldn’t hear her voice. Panic surged through my body. Sudden movement made the pain roar back to fullness. More screaming and yelling. The cold was replaced with heat. It felt hot enough to cause burns, but honestly, I couldn’t feel any more pain. The heat flashed through me and everything went mercifully dark.

As the darkness receded, the pain was down to a dull, aching throb. I kept my eyes closed as I focused on breathing. Scents danced through the air. It was an odd blend of antiseptics and wolfsbane. I felt soft fabric below me. I was in a bed, but where? With more effort than I expected, I forced my eyes open. The room was incredibly bright. I blinked furiously as my eyes adjusted. I moved my head and waves of dormant pain swept through me. I tried again, but much slower. I was in a bedroom of some kind. There was a chest of drawers to my left and a large picture window to my right. The blinds were tilted to allow the barest amount of light. At the foot of the bed, someone was sleeping in a chair. I was in human form, and I couldn’t make out who it was. I hoped it was Elizabeth. It was nice to think she’d been watching over me.

I closed my eyes and sank back into the bed. Even that small amount of movement exhausted me. Well, at least I was alive, not in so much pain, and being cared for. I fell back asleep before I could take another look.


Quiet, urgent voices woke me. I wasn’t blinded this time as I opened my eyes. Two lycanthropes were talking in low voices in the corner of the room. From their postures and tone of their low voices, they were arguing about something. One looked female.

"Elizabeth?" I asked. Or at least, I tried to ask. It’s hard to speak clearly when your mouth is as dry as the desert. Both lycanthropes spun around at the sound of my garbled voice. The female sprinted over to the chest of drawers before coming next to my bed. As she came nearer, I could see it was Lady Anna.

"Here, drink," Lady Anna said, pushing a straw into my mouth. I sucked in the cool water. Had simple water always tasted so wonderful? The straw was yanked away from me. I looked up into Lady Anna’s brown eyes and glared. She just smiled down at me. I could just make out the tears at the corners of her eyes.

"Where’s Elizabeth?" I asked. Lady Anna shook her head in resignation.

"Why am I not surprised that’s the first question out of your mouth?" she asked, but her voice was warm. "She’s recovering." I felt my heart spasm. Lady Anna gripped my hand. "Ranger, she’s recovering. She was hurt in the fight with the dervishes, but she’s been patched up and she’s recovering. She’ll be just fine." There was something she wasn’t telling me. I could see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice.

"Excuse me, my lady, I need to see him," said the other lycanthrope. He gently pushed her aside. He was probably my height with a slim build. Long black hair was tied back. I grunted and growled as his hands danced around my body. His obsidian eyes revealed nothing as he completed his examination.

"Hunter Badmoon, I’m Dr. Talon," the lycanthrope said, "How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to ten, with one being no pain?"

"Five or six, I’d guess," I answered, thinking about the pain when I first awakened.

"Is that a hunter’s five or six?" Dr. Talon asked. His delivery was so clinical, I couldn’t tell if he was joking.

"Is there any other kind?" I asked in response. A quick smile flitted across the doctor’s lips.

"Where does it hurt?" Dr. Talon asked.

"Everywhere," I answered. He nodded and consulted a small tablet. "What’s going on?"

"You suffered grievous injuries," Dr. Talon answered, in a detached voice, "Somehow the Spiritmaster was able to keep you together long enough for the more shaman to get your body healing again. I don’t know how they managed to clear that much archanal from you without you dying on them." He made some notes on the tablet and looked back up. "I’m still not sure if you’ll have any residual injuries once your body stops healing. You should have been crippled, but your body keeps healing. The good news, is that you will live." He looked over to Lady Anna. "The Prince asked me to inform him as soon as Badmoon awakened. If you will excuse me, my lady?" Lady Anna nodded. The doctor bowed slightly, turned neatly, and walked out the door.

"So, how are you really, Ranger?" Lady Anna asked, once the door was shut.

"I think I died for a little bit," I answered, and Lady Anna softly chuckled. Then she saw that I wasn’t being my normal smart-ass self. Her happy expression vanished.

"What happened?" she asked, concerned.

"I found out a lot," I answered. She frowned at my cryptic tone. "I’ll explain later. It’s still a bit confusing." Her flat look made it clear she knew I was holding back, but she didn’t press the issue. I tried to change the subject. "What happened after I went after Lothos?"

"About that, you’re going to have to explain that fight. The shaman are going absolutely apeshit over the ‘magickal echoes’ in that part of the forest. They won’t let anyone go near it," Lady Anna said, as she pulled over a chair next to the bed. "As for what happened at the cravex? It was probably the nastiest fight I’ve ever been in. Nicholas said it was as bad as the battle at the Hillsborough Manor." I winced. Lady Anna’s face softened.

"Yeah, it was pretty bad, but don’t think for an instant you should have been there to fight with us," Lady Anna said, her soft tone holding a strong flavor of sternness. "You needed to finish Lothos. Everyone knows that now. Uncle Erik was very firm on that point to the lords." Lady Anna stared off at the wall as she remembered the battle at the Florida cravex. "The leeches were smart. They sent in the dervishes first to soak up whatever ammunition we’d brought with us while the rest of them stayed in the trees and rained fire down on us. We lost a lot of Blackhawk’s packs in that first rush. They just didn’t have anywhere to hide, and no real weapons. The dervishes just swarmed them and tore them apart. Literally, tore their bodies apart. The Guildmaster started bellowing orders for our lycanthropes. Some leech sniper took him down. One shot to the head." Lady Anna paused to wipe away sudden tears. I reached out and took her hand. The hurt in her eyes echoed my pain from losing my Guildmaster. She squeezed my hand gently and gave me a sad smile in thanks.

"Farmer took over from there," Lady Anna continued, "He managed to get the lords behind the maksen and protected by the Spiritmasters. He ordered the unarmed lycanthropes shift to wolf and start digging firing pits." I quirked an eyebrow up in surprise at the idea. "Yeah, everyone was so caught off-guard, that they just followed orders. Hunters were taking command of small groups of warriors and returning fire. Some of the fire let up when Farmer ordered our shaman to attack the treeline. They called down an impressive lightning barrage. It gave us a minute or two to get organized. I still think we lost a quarter of the lycanthropes we brought with us. Some of us still out in the open were piling up our own dead for cover. Then, the last of Blackhawk’s allies fell, and the remaining dervishes came down on us." She paused and shook as a horrific memory emerged in her mind.

"Blackhawk’s packs managed to kill about the third of the dervishes, but there were still so many of them. I think we killed another third of them in the ten seconds it took for them to cross the cravex to where we were dug in, but they still swarmed us. We were fighting the dervishes hand-to-hand while the fucking leeches in the forest were still shooting at us. That was when Farmer went down. He was swarmed by three dervishes before some leech stitched him with a burst." My mind reeled. Farmer was dead? Ancestors, how many of my few friends managed to make it out of that fight alive?

"I’m sorry, Ranger, I know he was a friend of yours," Lady Anna said.

"I wouldn’t say he was a friend," I said, "More like a friendly ally. Still, thanks. Who else died?" I was scared of what names she would speak.

"All of the packleaders from my home," Lady Anna said, keeping her voice even as she tried to make it through the bad news. "Two of the packleaders from your county. Devon Thames. Eagle and most of his hunters died pulling wounded into a new perimeter around the maksen. Hardclaw died with them as well. Probably about thirty of our warriors. I honestly thought we were about to get wiped out." Lady Anna looked down at her hands with haunted eyes.

"What happened?" I asked, when she didn’t pick back up.

"The Society, strangely enough," Lady Anna said, "There were teams of hunters and Society operators out patrolling the grounds. As soon as the battle started, they formed up into one large group and charged. All of the sudden, probably a hundred or so heavily armed hunters were attacking the leeches in the forest. It gave us the time to push back and destroy the dervishes. Then it was over. All of the leeches just broke and ran." That must have been when I finally killed Lothos. So, the entire fight at the cravex lasted less than twenty minutes.

"So how was Elizabeth hurt?" I asked. Lady Anna looked reluctant to tell me. My eyes narrowed, and she relented.

"A fucking stupid accident," Lady Anna said. "Elizabeth slipped in between two dervishes attacking some of her warriors. Nicholas never saw her and fired at one of the dervishes. She took two rounds from Nicholas’s revolver. She probably would have died too if Nicholas hadn’t realized what happened and immediately went to work on the pulling out the bullets. One was lodged deep in her, which is why she’s still recovering." My heart dropped when I heard how Elizabeth had been injured, but it started back up as Lady Anna reassured me that Elizabeth was still alive and mending.

"So what happened after the fight?" I asked. "Did the Society try anything?"

"Uncle Erik convinced them it wasn’t in their best interest to try and avenge Blackhawk," Lady Anna said, "In return for their restraint, they wouldn’t be branded wholesale as traitors to the state. Most accepted positions with the new army." I wanted to ask about the army, but a wave of fatigue hit me at that moment, and I fell back to into the bed. Lady Anna stood over me with a compassionate smile.

"There’s more we need to talk about, but we can do that later. Get some sleep," Lady Anna said, brushing my forehead with her lips. I wanted to protest. I needed to find out more, but the blackness swallowed me before I could say anything.


My strength was returning, but slowly. Over the last couple of days, I managed to finally get out of bed and move around my room. Not as much as I wanted to, but my body screamed at me. Pain was making me short-tempered, which wasn’t helped by the fact that I hadn’t seen any of my friends since Lady Anna spoke to me. I was visited regularly by Dr. Talon, who reminded me constantly I should be dead and that I shouldn’t push myself. I was bored, and I knew that wasn’t a good thing. I was in the middle of seriously contemplating breaking the room’s single window and taking my chances when my door opened. I expected to see Dr. Talon striding in with that condescending look on his face. Instead, Fangbearer strode into the room. He was wearing a charcoal suit, and I could see the bulge of a weapon under his arm. It was too big for a pistol. Submachine gun maybe? I was so busy guessing what Fangbearer was carrying, I didn’t notice the two Black Knights walking in followed by Prince Savik. When my eyes flicked over at the movement, I straightened in my bed. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t recovered enough to escape. Yet. Prince Savik looked weary and almost grateful to sit down. His blue suit, although well-tailored, still looked wrinkled and worn. I thought I could see new wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth as well as more silver in his hair. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. For an instant, I thought he had fallen asleep in the chair. Then his eyes flicked open and focused on me. A warm smile broke across his face.

"You don’t know how glad I am to see you alive," Prince Savik said. "I’m sorry I haven’t come by sooner."

"Your highness, I’m sure you’ve been a bit busy," I said, feeling awkward having Prince Savik apologizing to me. Prince Savik gave a humorless chuckle.

"Busy. Yes, that’s certainly one word I think we could use to describe the last fortnight since the battle at the cravex," Prince Savik said. "Every lord in Florida is in Tallahassee, not to mention a representative of the King and several of my new brother princes. Then, just to throw some fuel on the fire, Bradon sent a pair of ghouls to represent the TCV and the councils who have aligned with him. Oh, and planning for the extermination of the Florida Council."

"Ancestors, now I’m feeling guilty just sitting here," I said. The Prince and Fangbearer both laughed. The two Black Knights smirked, which was just as good as a laugh for them.

"You took down Lothos on your own and he damn near killed you for it," Prince Savik said, "If I had to choose between a fight with Lothos and dealing with state politics, I’ll take the politics."

"Of course you would. You’re an aristocrat," I said before I could shut my trap. Fortunately, the Prince and Fangbearer looked more amused than offended.

"How are you doing Ranger? Honestly," the Prince asked.

"Everything hurts, I don’t quite have my endurance back yet, and I’m going stir-crazy," I answered. "I’m also worried about Elizabeth." The Prince and Fangbearer exchanged glances, and my blood ran cold.

"Elizabeth has been elevated to the Lady of Hillsborough, with the Rite to be performed once our business here in the capital has been concluded," Prince Savik said, "She’s been told that you were awake, and she was very happy to hear about that. She also told me that she doesn’t want to see you right now. I think she’s getting used to her new responsibilities. She and Anna have been working together around the clock for the last few days." Prince Savik chuckled at my worried expression. "I don’t know what happened between them, but they’ve concluded their feud. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what that bodes for you. They’ve been rather cryptic about that." I didn’t know what to say. My instincts were strangely quiet. I decided to change the subject rather than dwelling on that.

"So, you recruited the remaining Society into your new army?" I asked.

"Anna told you?" Prince Savik asked. I nodded. "We are building the largest army of lycanthropes this continent has seen since the Great Fatherland War. The State Guild is a shadow of it’s former self. Even the packs we brought to Tallahassee have been decimated. I needed the Society’s experience. Plus, there’s been enough killing between us. So, they serve in my army against the FCV, and I will pardon them after we’ve won."

"I still don’t see how you can trust them, your highness," I said.

"I’m willing to forgive, but I assure you, I’m not liable to forget what the Society did to me and mine," Prince Savik said. "Of course, we’ll need someone as the new leader of the Society of the Fang and the Claw. Someone who can keep an eye on them."

"So, you’re keeping the Society intact?" I asked, not keeping my shock out of my voice.

"At least for the duration of the war," Fangbearer answered. "Blackhawk managed to accumulate quite a group of intelligence experts as well as trained operators. It’s not a force we want to get rid of at the moment. Change it’s focus, yes, but not dispose of." Fangbearer looked at my skeptical look and smiled. "Not all of them knew Blackhawk’s ultimate plans. Most of them thought they were serving the state, much like Vanessa. Those we could prove were collaborators with Blackhawk have been dealt with."

"So you recruited Vanessa?" I asked.

"Unfortunately, she turned down my offer," Fangbearer said, "She’s going to be busy helping her husband with his new position." Prince Savik and Fangbearer both laughed at my shocked expression. I would have been more resentful, but the two of them both looked like they needed the levity.

"Vanessa and Hangman got married?" I asked. "How the hell did that happen?"

"I can say it was the first pleasant act I did upon assuming this accursed throne," Prince Savik said. "Vanessa was most insistent that the two of them would be married as soon as she found Hangman among the wounded. A rare light of joy in a very dark time. We almost lost that hunter." Terror and relief rushed through me.

"When Lady Elizabeth found out what happened, she immediately tapped Hangman to be her new Guildmaster, with the caveat that Vanessa was to be his co-Guildmaster," Fangbearer said.

"So are you going to head up the Society?" I asked Fangbearer.

"Temporarily," he answered, "It will need a full time leader before operations begin."

"You’d be a good commander. You did well on our trek up here," I said. He smiled in thanks.

"Steven is going be one of my generals," Prince Savik announced. "I have too few qualified lycanthropes for those positions to let one play with the Society. I have a couple of lycanthropes in mind to lead the Society," the prince said. I wasn’t sure if it was my fatigue returning or all the news, but my head started to swim.

"Are you alright?" Prince Savik asked.

"Yeah, just that endurance thing I was telling you about," I said, "I’ll be fine."

"Well then, we’ll let you get some rest," Prince Savik said, standing up.

"You don’t have to do that, your highness," I protested.

"Ranger, I need you recovered as fast as possible," Prince Savik said, "Do you think I could let a hunter with your experience just sit on the sidelines during a war? I have plans for you, but they require that you are healed and recuperated." The two Black Knights flowed out of the room to clear the way for Prince Savik. The Prince stopped at the door.

"Is there anything that I can do for you right now?" he asked.

"If you see Elizabeth, could you give her my love, and let her know-" I stopped, unsure of what I needed to tell Elizabeth. So much was flowing through my mind, it was confused. Prince Savik seemed to understand the intent behind my words.

"Of course," Prince Savik said. He looked like he wanted to say more, but decided against it and left.


I was eating a bowl of thick stew when the door to my room opened and Nick walked in. His face was drawn and he looked apprehensive as he stepped into my room. My face split into a huge grin, and I nearly threw the stew to the floor as I bounded out of bed. Nick shot me a concerned look as I gripped his hand.

"Should you be getting out of bed like that?" Nick asked, as I motioned for him to sit. He tossed me a small satchel bag. I snagged it out of the air. It was heavier than I expected and pain lanced down my side. I grimaced as I got back into bed.

"Sorry," Nick said, "Just some things I thought you’d want."

"Relax, I’m healing," I replied, "It’s just pain. Compared to the pain when I first woke up, this is nothing."

"That doesn’t surprise me," Nick said, "I was one of those who found you. Lothos destroyed you. There was a heated argument as to whether you could be saved or not."

"I think I remember that," I said, and Nick’s eyebrows raised in surprise, "Nothing too specific, just that there were voices yelling at each other. I was pretty sure I heard Prince Savik and Lady Anna. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember hearing you."

"Let’s just say, I was the one ordered to end you," Nick said flatly, "Fortunately for you, I was waiting to see who would prevail. The shaman were sure you were too savaged from your fight with Lothos to be saved, and that we should put you at peace. Lady Anna and Fangbearer were screaming at them that we should be doing anything we could to save you."

"Well, I’m glad Prince Savik decided to spare me. I’ll have to thank Lady Anna and Fangbearer for convincing him the next time I see them," I said.

"They didn’t convince the Prince," Nick said. "You did."


"While we were arguing, you said, ‘I choose life,’" Nick answered, "Clear as day. I don’t think I’d ever felt so relieved."

"Even compared to finding out Elizabeth survived you shooting her?" I asked, with mock severity. Nick’s normally blank face contorted to a mix of anger and shame. His reaction took me by surprise, and I quickly held up a hand to stave off his retort. "Sorry, Nick. That was a cheap shot."

"We’re hunters. We know accidents happen in combat," Nick said, "Then, I make that mistake. I knew she was fighting in that area, but I just tunneled on that vampire. She tells me that she understands, but it’s still uneasy between us."

"You’ve actually seen her?" I asked. Nick nodded cautiously. "I haven’t seen her or even heard anything from her. I sent a message to her when Prince Savik came to visit me, but I haven’t heard anything back."

"Well, she is very busy," Nick said, "There’s only about fifty Hillsborough lycanthropes left, not counting our pups in Pinellas. She’s working with some of the other counties who have some packs that might want to move to Hillsborough – including some offers of marriage. Maybe she just can’t deal with you right now. You do tend to be a handful." My heart dropped when Nick mentioned the other marriage offers. I knew that it was a possibility. She was the Lady of Hillsborough. Of course there would be other aristocrats that would want to join their lines to hers.

"I guess that shouldn’t surprise me," I said, crestfallen, "I’m just a Badmoon. I couldn’t help her county as much as an aristocrat."

"I thought you were the Bloodclaw," Nick said, and my head snapped up fast enough for it to swim for a moment. He took one look at my face and chuckled. "Ah, so it is true. That certainly explains a lot."

"How the fuck did you know?" I said, when I finally found my voice, "I haven’t even told the Prince that."

"Well, the shaman were chanting for the Bloodclaw to come forward and claim his destiny," Nick answered, "Then you go harrying after Lothos. That, combined with what I’ve seen you do, are pretty strong clues that you’re the current Bloodclaw."

"How do you know any of this?" I asked.

"My grandfather served with the Bloodclaw during the Great Fatherland War," Nick explained. "My line has always been drawn to the Bloodclaws. We’ve ended up as friends, allies, even lovers of the Bloodclaws. It certainly explains why I was drawn to Florida when I left Nebraska. I feel like an idiot that I never put it together before that fight in the cravex. All of the evidence was certainly there." I sat back in the bed stunned. I thought I was shocked when I found out that Nick had been working with Bradon on "improving" me, but that was nothing compared to this. Just how much of my life had been directed by the fucking Ancestors.

"So, if you’re the Bloodclaw, how can you still be a Badmoon?" Nick asked, "You come from a long and distinguished line. Why would you still claim to be a Badmoon?"

"I made a deal with the Ancestors," I said, and the cautious tone in my voice made Nick’s eyes narrow. He knew me too well.

"What the fuck did you do Ranger?" Nick asked.

"I might have told the Ancestors to go fuck themselves, and then made a deal that required me to stay known as a Badmoon," I answered. Nick leaned back in his chair and gave me a look like he wasn’t sure if he should be surprised or not. He didn’t say anything for several minutes. I just looked down at my cooling stew.

"Could you please explain to me where in that twisted logic of yours it made sense to insult the Ancestors?" Nick asked, with exaggerated patience. I related to him what had happened in the world between life and death. Nick kept his face a steady blank as I related my story. When I finished, he stood up and paced around the room.

"I think the scariest thing is that I can see why you reacted the way you did," Nick said, "I’m not sure if I agree with what you did, but I know you well enough to see you doing that. It might also explain why Elizabeth hasn’t been to see you."

"To be honest, that’s what’s scaring me," I said. "I know I did the right thing by not demanding that she become my wife, but…" I let my voice trail off, not wanting to give voice to the words floating in my head. It was stupid, but I was scared that if I said it, then it would become true. Nick nodded in understanding.

"Well, there’s something to keep you occupied until you’re well enough to get back to work," Nick said, motioning to the satchel he’d brought me. I opened the flap. On top was my HK45 in a holster. Next to it was two spare magazines loaded with a new type of silver ammunition. I popped out a round and examined it. The brass case was polished to a mirror finish. The bullet itself was a hollow point, but the cavity was filled with a silver gelatin substance. I looked up at Nick with a questioning look.

"Something new that the Duval hunters brought," Nick said, "It’s based on a Hornady Critical Defense load, but the normal polymer inset has been replaced by a silver impregnated gelatin. There’s also some silver dust sintered into the cavity. Easier to make than the Silver Shoks, and it runs better in the subguns and pistols. Better penetration too." I put the pistol and magazines on the bedstand and pulled out the black plastic box at the bottom of the satchel. Opening the lid, I saw what looked like the slide to my HK45 and a pair of magazines laying in the foam.

"What the fuck?" I asked picking up one of the magazines.

"Training tool," Nick explained. "The slide replaces the one on your HK45. It’ll send a laser beam out when you pull the trigger. The magazines are the batteries. They can also be set so that they will only fire twelve times before you need to switch them out. Just like your real magazines. It’ll help you build your pistol skills back up. Plus, it’s something to do." Nick’s phone chirped, and he looked at the message on the screen.

"I have to go meet with the Guildmaster," Nick said, "Since you and I are the only other hunters in the Hillsborough Guild right now, I’ve been asked to handle a lot of the details to get it back up and running. That pup keeps trying to make me leader of the lone wolves. You need to quit lying in bed and get back to work."

"Believe me Nick, I’d love to," I replied. "Until they tell me I’m good to go, however, I’ll just have to lay here and play with my new laser gun." Nick smiled and walked to the door. He paused and turned back to me.

"Ranger, one more thing," he said, "My name is Nicholas."


My normal compatriots were all busy with their new duties, so I didn’t see them much. I still hadn’t seen Elizabeth. The others kept reassuring me that she was just too busy with her duties. They all seemed to understand my growing anxiety. Then, Lady Anna stopped coming to see me. In my mind, that confirmed that without the Ancestors forcing the issue, Elizabeth realized she was no longer in love with me and was avoiding me. I spent a lot of time shooting lasers around my room. Dr. Talon finally judged me strong enough to leave my room a few days later. A new state hunter was assigned to make sure I didn’t go somewhere the Prince didn’t want me. Apparently, I was still something of a wild card to all of the Red Knights escorting the lords to meet with the new Prince. My guard, Icepick, used to work with the Escambia chapter before being recruited for the State Guild. He was a decent enough hunter who didn’t seem to be bothered he was walking around with a Badmoon. Actually, he didn’t say enough for me to figure out if I bothered him or not. Icepick was definitely in the strong, silent camp of hunter.

Vanessa popped up the day after Talon released me and took Icepick and me for lunch at one of those quickie Mexican places. Vanessa needed an excuse to get out of the Manor for a couple of hours. In addition to being Hangman’s deputy as they worked to re-organize the Hillsborough chapter, Fangbearer managed to extort some help from her with the Society. She looked tired, harried, and supremely happy.

"And we finally managed to crack Blackhawk’s internal files," Vanessa explained as she chewed on a burrito, "It was a nasty little cypher, but we’ve got personnel files on all the Society operatives. Including a few moles in various packs and Guild chapters throughout the state. As well as all the nasty dirt Blackhawk was using on some of the lords to keep them in line."

"Would that have anything to do with the Lord of Orange County stepping down?" I asked. That news had shaken the capital. County lords generally didn’t step down unless they were crippled – physically or mentally. A county lord just stepping down without explanation brought out whispered accusations of treason or some other scandal.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about," Vanessa said with mocking innocence. Icepick raised an eyebrow, which for him was as good as a startled gasp. "Anyways, I turned all of those records over to Fangbearer. Sam needs more of my time now that we have a cadre."

"How many?" I asked.

"Thirty hunters have agreed to join the Hillsborough Guild," Vanessa answered. "About half of them are coming either from Duval or Pinellas." I sat back in my chair and gave Vanessa an astonished look. From the rumblings around the capital, the Prince’s army was sucking up any hunter it could pry loose from the counties. Not including the ones the State Guild was recruiting to fill out its depleted ranks. Vanessa grinned at my expression. "Yeah, Sam was surprised as well, but those are probably the only hunters Hillsborough will see until we grow our own. Nick mentioned a pup that he was hoping to recruit when she completes tysach."

"Jennifer Denton. She still has my SP101," I said, remembering the blond pup. Hopefully, in another few weeks, she and the other pups in tysach would return to Hillsborough.

"You gave a pup a snub-nosed .357 Magnum?" Icepick asked, incredulously.

"She earned it. She drilled a fucking ghoul with it when we were rescuing her and the other pups during the war with the TCV," I answered.

"Well, in that case, if she doesn’t like your chapter, I’m sure my Guildmaster would be more than happy to offer her a place," Icepick said.

"No poaching," I said. We all laughed. Probably more than the comment should have caused, but we needed to laugh.

"Anyways, Lady Vollen was pleased–" Vanessa’s mouth snapped shut as she saw the pained look on my face. Vanessa got that "concerned big sister" look on her face as she carefully set her food down and stared into my eyes.

"She’s still not talking to you, is she?" Vanessa asked. Not trusting my voice, I shook my head and took another bite of nachos. Vanessa’s mouth took a hard set and I could see frustration flicker through her eyes.

"Finish up," Vanessa ordered, "I’ve got to talk with someone." I knew that determined look in her eyes.

"Vanessa, just leave it," I said, but Vanessa forcefully held up a single finger to silence me.

"Don’t Mark, just don’t," Vanessa said, "I’m not the only one who’s tired of the little soap opera between Lady Vollen and you." I started to ask who else was involved, but Vanessa’s glare cut me off. Even Icepick looked slightly intimidated by the black-haired kin.


Cracker was now the Guildmaster for Broward County. He was also the only hunter in the Broward Guild. That left him a lot of time between meetings with the other Guildmasters. I managed to snag him to help me get back into fighting trim. A lot of that was Cracker throwing me around the Manor’s gym during hand-to-hand combat bouts. Icepick wisely stayed on the sidelines as Cracker proved over and over how much better he was at the hands-on techniques. After a couple of hard throws, I started wondering if Cracker agreed so readily so he could work out his frustrations on me. It had been a couple of hours since my lunch with Vanessa, and I was really regretting the nachos after Cracker threw me into wall. I laid still on the ground with my eyes closed as my body knitted itself. That part wasn’t fully recovered, yet. It was a floral scent above me that made me open my eyes. Staring down at me with an angry expression was Lady Anna.

"Get up and follow me," Lady Anna said in a low, controlled voice. I had no idea what I did to piss her off, but it didn’t seem like the time to ask. She spun on her heel and walked out of the Manor’s gym. I nodded to Cracker, who looked as confused as I was, and chased after Lady Anna with Icepick in tow. She strode through the Manor’s maze of corridors without once looking back at me. Finally, she stopped at a set of double doors. Two Black Knights were standing at either side. I was guessing these were Prince Savik’s quarters.

"You stay here," Lady Anna said to Icepick, before opening one of the doors. "You come with me." I followed her into a large sitting room with a pair of couches flanking an overstuffed leather chair. A glass coffee table was sat between the couches. Prince Savik sat in the chair, while Elizabeth sat on one of the couches. I froze as I saw her for the first time since the battle at the cravex. She was wearing a gray dress suit, with the jacket sitting next to her. Her auburn hair hid her face as she looked at the carpet. I could see battle scars crisscrossing her arms. My heart ached at her injuries, but I was also strangely proud that she’d come out of the battle scarred, but alive.

"Ranger, would you be so kind to join us?" Prince Savik said. It was then I realized that Lady Anna seated herself next to Elizabeth on the couch. Prince Savik motioned for me to sit on the other couch. As I sat down, Elizabeth finally looked up. I was struck by how pale she looked. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. I could see the cosmetic tracks where tears had streamed down her cheeks. I wanted to go to her. I wanted to flee. I wanted to tear apart the couch.

"I think it is time for us to decide on the fates of you three, and the two counties you represent," Prince Savik said. "I have had several requests from lords to inquire as to whether either Anna or Elizabeth would entertain offers of marriage." The two females looked at Prince Savik with trepidation. As the Prince of Florida, Prince Savik had the power to order their marriages as part of their oaths of fealty to him.

"I haven’t committed to do anything, because quite frankly, I was hoping the three of you would work out this little triangle on your own," Prince Savik said. "Or at least between the two of you considering how much the two of you have talked with me and between yourselves." The Prince looked at Lady Anna and Elizabeth. Then he looked over at me.

"I think it’s time that you told them who you really are, Bloodclaw," Prince Savik said. I stared at him dumbfounded. "I have everything from the previous Prince’s records. Including who you are and where you really come from. Then Nicholas was kind enough to fill in some of the details that were still sketchy." Lady Anna looked at her uncle and me with frustration. Elizabeth just looked like she was scared about what I was going to say.

"I am the Bloodclaw," I said, a mixture of fear and relief filling me as I spoke the words. "I was the tool of the Ancestors to stop the vampires attempt to resurrect their god." I looked up into Elizabeth’s eyes. Some of the fear was gone, replaced with curiosity. "I am the grandson of the previous Bloodclaw, who we know as the Forgotten Lord of Hillsborough." Both Lady Anna and Elizabeth gasped. I plowed on with my story. I told them about meeting my grandfather after Lothos nearly killed me. They sat perfectly still as I related my conversations with my grandfather, the First Bloodclaw, Lord Vollen, and the Ancestors. Tears streamed down Elizabeth’s face as I talked about her father. Their eyes went wild when I told them of my conditions about them in the deal I made with the Ancestors. I didn’t know what else to tell them, so I fell silent.

"Does this answer some of your questions?" Prince Savik asked the two females. The two nodded slowly as I just looked at the Prince confused. What questions?

"Why?" Elizabeth demanded, "Why would you not demand to make me your mate? Didn’t you want that?"

"You shouldn’t be forced into something you don’t want, even if your feelings are being manipulated to think otherwise," I said, "I couldn’t do that to you. I wanted to make sure you were happy because of what you wanted, not because the Ancestors forced you into it." Elizabeth grabbed the front of my shirt and yanked me to her. Pain filled her eyes.

"Do you know what that decision did to me?" Elizabeth asked. "Do you know what it’s like to wake up and find all of your feelings changed? I thought I was going insane. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and now, I find out the real reason." She collapsed into my arms crying and hitting me. Then, she pulled my face down to hers and kissed me. Gently. On the cheek. As she pulled back, I looked deep into her green eyes.

"You don’t love me anymore," I said. It wasn’t a question. I could see it in her eyes.

"Not the way you want me to," she answered. "I have affection for you, but it’s not the love of a catshen." I thought I steeled myself to hear those words. I was wrong. I don’t remember going to the ground. The next thing I remember is Lady Anna helping me back to my feet. Elizabeth – no, Lady Elizabeth – looked at me with a sorrowful expression.

"Mark, I don’t think I will ever be able to repay you for what you have done for me," Lady Elizabeth said. Her tone was tender, but formal. "You’ve saved my life in so many ways. This is a horrible way to repay you."

"I knew this might happen," I said, trying my best to be the perfect stoic hunter, "I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t hurt, but I understand." She nodded and traded looks with Lady Anna. All I wanted was to get out of the room.

"We are not quite done here," Prince Savik said. The three of us looked at the Prince. "I don’t think we’ll be able to tell all of Florida about you Ranger. Something about the spell that was cast. I mean, I know the truth, but I’m still having a hard time believing it. So, for as the rest of the lycanthrope community will know, you will remain the Badmoon. You deserve better Ranger, but this is just part of the price you’re paying for your deal. So, we need to figure out how to deal with what you two did back in Hillsborough."

"Uncle, please," Lady Anna pleaded. "They both just had their hearts ripped out."

"And any other time, I would give them time to heal a bit. Time is not a resource I can afford to spend with these two," Prince Savik said. "From the standpoint of the Prince of Florida, I should make both Elizabeth and Anna marry aristocrats who would help bind some of my more independent counties to me." He gave the two females serious looks. I barely stopped myself from wincing as Lady Anna crushed my arm in her grip.

"You, my young hunter have completely fucked that up," the Prince snarled.

"How?" I asked before I could stop myself.

"If I ordered Elizabeth’s marriage, I would be forced to guarantee her. Which I cannot do," Prince Savik said, through clenched teeth. "As for Anna, there are other complications."

"It was my mistake, let me deal with it," Lady Elizabeth said. Prince Savik gave her a fatherly look.

"You would be strong enough to do so," the Prince said, "Our tenuous peace with the lords and Bradon may not."

"Let me deal with Bradon," I said.

"Are you going to tell him everything?" the Prince asked.

"I’m going to do to him what he’s done to me for so long," I said, "I’m going to tell him what he needs to know."

"That still doesn’t fix our problems with the lords," the Prince said.

"I think that’s going to be less of a problem than you think," Lady Anna said. "While you’ve been dealing with the lords, I’ve been talking to their sons. Let’s just say, the sons are more forgiving."

"Even if it was a Badmoon?" Lady Elizabeth asked.

"You mean the Killer Of Lothos?" Lady Anna countered. I could hear the capital letters in how she said the words.

"Is there some reason they can’t choose on their own?" I asked. "I mean, that’s why I pissed off the Ancestors after all." All three stared at me in shock.

"Ranger, you cause me so much trouble," the Prince said, but the smile belied his frustrated tone. Lady Elizabeth gave me a sad smile.

"The truth is Mark, I need to find a suitable mate sooner than later," she said. "Not only does Prince Savik need allies, so does Hillsborough."

"It feels like you’re still being forced to marry someone against your will," I growled. Lady Elizabeth smiled at me.

"I’m choosing to put my county first," Lady Elizabeth said. She shot a look at Lady Anna. I was getting s little frustrated with all the silent communication between those two. Lady Anna stared defiantly back. Okay, so it wasn’t all sunshine and roses between the two of them.

"I hate giving contradictory orders, but take your time and make a decision relatively quickly," Prince Savik said. Lady Elizabeth nodded.

"What about Lady Anna?" I asked.

"There is still a complication there," Prince Savik. "More so, I would hazard with your revelations today. Anna, would you please take Ranger back to his room. Elizabeth and I need to talk without him in the room."

"Wait, I need to say something to Lady Elizabeth first," I said. Prince Savik nodded. I walked over to Lady Elizabeth, and took her hands in mine. "Your father asked me to tell you that your mother and he are very proud of their little firecracker." Lady Elizabeth’s eyes went wide in shock, like I had slapped her across the face.

"Ranger, I think you best come with me," Lady Anna said, tugging at my arm. I obediently followed Lady Anna out of the room. We walked wordlessly through the halls. Lady Anna kept her face a careful neutral as we passed other arisocrats, Knights, hunters, warriors, and shaman. As soon as we walked into my room, Lady Anna’s mask dropped. She looked pensive as she sat down in the room’s chair. I sat down on the bed. Several long moments passed in silence.

"So, do you want to tell me what the Prince was talking about?" I asked.

"Uncle Erik is hesitant to marry me off," Lady Anna said.

"Why?" I asked.

"He’s worried that I’m going to scare off all the potential suitors," Lady Anna said.

"Why? I asked.

"Do you remember when I told you I wasn’t going to be a consolation prize?" Lady Anna asked.

"Yeah," I answered, confused by the non sequitor.

"I won’t settle for being someone’s second choice, and I won’t settle for my second choice either," Lady Anna said. "Elizabeth may no longer be in love with you Ranger, but I still am, and I just won’t accept any aristocrat who wouldn’t measure up to you." Anger flashed through me.

"What do you want from me?" I asked. "Because right now, I’m dealing with Elizabeth ripping my heart out as gently as she could. And you told me that you wanted me to choose you over Elizabeth, not because Elizabeth rejected me." Lady Anna walked over and placed her hand on my cheek.

"Ranger, for someone who is so fearsome as a hunter, you are remarkably easy to manipulate," Lady Anna said, "They gave you everything you wanted. Love, acceptance, and status all wrapped up in a pretty package. How could you not fall for that?" She sighed. "One of the things I love about you is your stubborn devotion. Do you know it wasn’t until you told us about what happened that so much of this made sense. That night in Hillsborough, I could tell there was part of you that was interested in me, but your devotion to Elizabeth stomped it down before you could really think about it." I thought back to that night when Lady Anna and I were by the pool.

"What if there was?" I asked.

"I want to know if there’s still a chance of something between us before I let Uncle Erik marry me off," Lady Anna said.

"You want me to tell you right now?" I asked, "After what just happened to me?" Lady Anna gave me a sad smile.

"Like Uncle Erik said, take your time, but make a decision quickly," Lady Anna said. She walked out of my room, pausing just long enough at the door to give me an undecipherable look.


I avoided both of the ladies and Prince Savik for the next couple of days. I needed to clear my head. Medicating with gunpowder and lead was always helpful. Hangman, Vanessa, Nick and me were down in the State Guild’s range. With everything going on, I was pleasantly surprised that we had the place to ourselves. The disgusted looks from other lycanthropes was something I was used to. The looks of awe and respect were disturbing. Maybe because I just couldn’t believe that any of the county lycanthropes really did respect me. I was concentrating on transition drills. I lined up the holographic reticle on the cardboard target and fired a short burst from my Commando. I let the carbine drop on its sling as I drew my HK45 and double tapped the targets on either side. Next to me, Nick was doing the same thing with an M4 and his Smith. The room seemed to rock with the reverberations from his big Smith firing.

"Looks like you’re getting your edge back Ranger," Hangman said, inspecting our work. The first few times we ran this drill, the pistol targets each had two holes in the head. Now, each were sporting one ragged hole.

"About fucking time," I growled. The center burst from the Commando wasn’t as tight as I wanted. We walked back to the bench to top off our magazines.

"We have company," Nick said. I looked up and saw Fangbearer walk in with two other lycanthropes. They moved like hunters, and I saw the bulges from concealed pistols. Society operatives I was willing to bet.

"What the fuck is he doing here?" Hangman said.

"What’s the problem?" I asked, surprised by Hangman’s hostility.

"Fangbearer’s snatched a few recruits from us for the new Society," Vanessa answered. Fangbearer and his two flunkies walked over to us.

"Ranger, can I speak to you for a moment?" Fangbearer asked.

"Sure," I said, continuing to load magazines.

"Alone?" he asked. I was about to give him an angry retort, but Vanessa stopped me with a sharp gesture.

"Mark, you better go talk with him," Vanessa said. I gave her a questioning look, but she didn’t say anything else. Hangman and Nick both shrugged. I laid my Commando on the bench, holstered my HK45, and walked outside the range with Fangbearer. His two flunkies didn’t follow us out. We walked into the State Guild’s armory. Fangbearer wordlessly paced the barren room. The silence stretched out as Fangbearer walked back and forth. My small amount of patience evaporated.

"You want to tell me why you dragged me out here?" I asked.

"Not really," Fangbearer said. "The Prince, Elizabeth, and Anna told me what happened the other day. And Anna told me what she asked you."

"Why?" I asked, "Why tell you that?"

"A couple of reasons. Probably most important is that Elizabeth asked me to marry her," Fangbearer said, in a neutral voice. The words were an unexpected gut punch.

"Why you?" I asked, as my mind grappled with the revelation.

"Anna and Elizabeth were a bit too optimistic about how the other lords would react to finding out about what happened between Elizabeth and you before we came up to Tallahassee," Fangbearer explained. "Marrying her gives the Prince the opportunity to rehabilitate both of us in the eyes of the aristocracy and the packs. And to be honest, I don’t care about what happened between the two of you. I saw it too much back home." Fangbearer stared off into space for a long moment.

"You said a couple of reasons," I said, bringing him back to the conversation.

"Well, that depends on how you answer Anna’s question," Fangbearer said.

"What the fuck does that have to do with you marrying Elizabeth?" I asked, annoyed at Fangbearer bringing that up.

"First, because my fiancee, wants you to be happy. She still cares about you, if not as a lover, then certainly as friend. She thinks, as I do, that Anna would make you happy," Fangbearer said. "And second, because I would prefer you not return to the Hillsborough Guild." He must have seen the flash of pure rage in my eyes, because he held up his hands in supplication. "I do not think you would act dishonorably towards your lady, but it would be best for all three of us if there were not even the hint of further scandal.

"So, you’d rather me go down and be Lady Anna’s mate in Dade?" I asked. "Far away from my home and all of my few remaining friends?"

"Sort of," Fangbearer said.

"Being cryptic isn’t helping," I said.

"Anna renounced her claim to Dade," Fangbearer said.

"What? Why would she do that?" I asked.

"Because, as of right now, she’s the Prince’s heir-apparent," Fangbearer answered. "I know what you’re going to say. If the lords would have a hard with you as the mate of a county lady, they would have never accept you as the mate of the Prince’s heir-apparent."

"That thought occurred to me," I said.

"Continuing to be blunt, seeing what you did in Dade and Broward in the short time you were there, I suspect your reputation will only grow during the war with the FCV. More than enough to compensate for you being a Badmoon." He paused for a moment to let that thought sink in. "Now, just for a moment assume that I’m right. Do you think you could love Anna?" I pondered the question for a long moment. Nick made some good points on how Lady Anna was a better match for me than Elizabeth. Plus, I knew that Lady Anna wasn’t being manipulated by the Ancestors, or that she was using me to rebel against the Prince or something.

"I’m not ready now, but I think I would like to find out," I said.

"Thank you," Fangbearer said. Genuine gratitude shone in his eyes. He retrieved his two flunkies and left the range. I paced up and down as I went back over my conversation with Fangbearer. Apparently I’d been gone a bit too long because Nick found me in the armory.

"Made your decision?" Nick asked.

"Yeah," I said.

"Good. Took you long enough," Nick said. "You were thinking too much and not listening to your instincts." That stopped me flat. Nick was right. Damn. After learning what I was and what I was born to do, I’d stopped trusting my instincts.

"I’m not going back to Hillsborough," I said. Saying the words hurt so much more than I thought they would.

"Yeah, I thought that might happen," Nick said.

"Because of what happened to you back in Nebraska?" I asked. He was quiet for a long time. It wouldn’t have been the first time that Nick just ignored a question about his past.

"Yes," Nick said. I could see in his eyes that the answer cost something inside of him. "Maybe it’s time for me to tell you about what happened to me."

"Nope," I said. "Not unless you think those dogs that came for you once are coming again." Nick’s eyebrows crooked up in surprise. "Nick, if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine with me. Am I curious? Fuck yes, because I’m sure it’s one hell of a story. Maybe someday you’ll feel comfortable enough to tell me. Maybe you’ll never feel ready to tell that story. Just don’t let your past fuck over Hangman and Vanessa. They’re going to need all the help you can give them." Nick’s slap caught me off-guard.

"Don’t you remember what I told you when I came and saw you the first time?" Nick asked. "Our lines are bonded. You may have fulfilled your destiny. Something tells me that the Ancestors still have plans for you. I can’t leave the Bloodclaw while those ancient bastards are still plotting against you." I’ll admit, I was scandalized by Nick’s blasphemous words. Then I thought about what they did to all of us. Bastards was a good term for most of them.

"What about Hangman? What about Hillsborough?" I asked.

"We’ve groomed them well," Nick said. "The Guildmaster. And the Lady." We both smiled. It was the first genuine smile for me in what felt like a very long time.

"Right again, Nick," I said.

"My name is Nicholas."


Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising – Chapter 24 – Time For The Last Dance

"Well, this just became interesting," Nick said quietly. I chuckled as the large force of lycanthropes sneaking up on our encampment was now caught in the glare of several spotlights. They scattered like cockroaches, sprinting for what little cover could be found in the parking lot. The smarter ones sprinted across the street to a small wooded area. Shouts of alarm echoed up and down our encampment as sleeping warriors, hunters, and shaman were rousted.

"Always with the understatement," I replied to Nick. I pointed to one of the warriors we’d picked up from Hernando County. "Get more lights along the perimeter. Make sure some of them are aimed at that forest." The warrior nodded and darted away. Lord Savik, Fangbearer, Devon Thames, and one of the Disputed Territories Red Knights crouched down next to Nick and me behind a sedan. Fangbearer, Devon, and the Knight were in tactical gear and cradling P90’s. Lord Savik was dressed in his ceremonial robes. At least he had a pistol holstered at his side. Like Nick and me, the quartet were all in true form. Lord Savik ignored the questioning looks I traded with his companions. No one in the leadership of our force was happy with Lord Savik’s casual disregard of the danger. It was one thing when we were talking with the county packs and leaderships, but we were now in Leon County, where Tallahassee resided. Those forces across from us were under the direct control of Blackhawk. Or at least, that’s how we had to treat them.

"How many?" Lord Savik asked with the nonchalance he’d been using during our trek north.

"From what I saw, probably a couple hundred," I answered, "From the way they moved once the lights came on, it’s a mix of hunters and warriors. Probably a few Society operatives as well since we’re in Blackhawk’s home turf. Don’t know about shaman, but I kind of doubt it. They usually don’t tag along on combined ops unless they’re needed for something specific."

"Do they know we have them outnumbered?" Devon asked, with a cocky smile spreading across his face. The hundred lycanthropes who left Hillsborough had almost quadrupled in number as we were joined by contingents of hunters and warriors from Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, and Levy counties. We now had nearly four hundred warriors, hunters, and shaman under Lord Savik – including four young aristocrats. They were all the sons of lords from Hernando, Citrus, and surprisingly, Devon Thames of Pinellas. He caught up with us in Levy County and announced he was there to show Pinellas’s support for its long-time ally. I would have preferred some of their hunters instead.

"That depends on your definition of outnumbered," I said to the young aristocrat. Devon’s smile disappeared as he gave me a quizzical look. Since joining, Devon never seemed comfortable around me, but he wasn’t about to say anything with my apparent closeness to Lord Savik.

"What do you mean, Ranger?" asked Lord Savik.

"Out of our wolves, I’d say there’s fifty of us that I know will fight other lycanthropes. Those are your wolves who came out of Broward and Dade, as well as some of the hunters I’ve worked with in the past. There’s maybe another fifty I’m pretty sure will fight, based on reputation," I answered. "So, that gives us a hundred I’m confident to rely on compared to the two hundred that just tried to sneak up on us."

"I think you’re being overly pessimistic about our forces. Besides, aren’t you assuming all of those out there are capable of fighting other lycanthropes?" Devon asked with a noticeable bite. I gave him a level look. The young aristocrat was trying too damned hard in my opinion. He should be spending that time learning.

"Of course I’m making that assumption," I said, trying very hard not to sound condescending. From the look on Devon’s face, I wasn’t succeeding. "Blackhawk is a treacherous, murdering, bastard of a dog, but he’s not stupid. We have to assume any force he sends at us is capable of fighting and killing other lycanthropes. Otherwise, why send them?"

"We selected this strip mall as our stopping place, for a reason," Nick continued, while giving me a look that said I was getting a bit overbearing. "It lets us put all of our good fighters to the front behind a palisade of cars, while giving us choke points if the bastards try to come in the back." Devon didn’t look convinced, but he stayed quiet. Thank the Ancestors for small favors. At that point, Hangman joined our small group and knelt down. He was carrying the HK 417 and was tasked as part of our overwatch element.

"Lady Anna and Grinder have the backdoors shut tight with some of the county hunters," Hangman reported. Grinder was one of the State hunters. "Eagle and Farmer are coordinating the forces on our flanks while your Guildmaster and Cracker motivate the rest. Vanessa’s on channel four for coordination." Trust our intelligence kin to find out that the strip mall still had a working security camera system and hack into the server before we’d even unloaded. I wasn’t about to complain. It gave us eyes around the building.

"I still think Badmoon’s being overly pessimistic about our warriors," Devon declared. Lord Savik gave me a stern look before I could tell Devon where he could shove his ideas.

"Hopefully, we won’t have to find out," Lord Savik said. More lights flashed out into the darkness. In true form, we didn’t need the lights to see in the darkness. Big bright lights did a wonderful job of degrading our opponents’ vision. To the lycanthropes out beyond our circle of vehicles, the lights were brilliant balls of light that made it damn near impossible to see how many lycanthropes manning our impromptu palisade.

"LORD SAVIK, BY ORDER OF THE WAR COUNCIL, LAY DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND SURRENDER!" one of the lycanthropes commanded. That was a surprise. As far as we knew, Blackhawk wasn’t aware that Lord Savik was leading the force. To be fair, it was just a matter of time before that secret leaked out. I should have been glad it lasted all the way to Leon County. I rose up and located the speaker standing at the edge of the forest across the road from our strip mall. He was a tall lycanthrope, some eight and a half feet in true form. From the way his gear was rigged and how he was holding his M4, I suspected he was a hunter or a Society operative. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun.

"May I ask who I’m addressing?" Lord Savik said as he stood up. I saw the Red Knight slide behind Lord Savik. We’d practiced this multiple times since leaving Pasco County. If I signaled danger, the Knight would yank Lord Savik behind cover, and propriety be damned. Of course, that was great when we were only facing ten or twenty county lycanthropes. With the couple hundred we were facing, I wasn’t so sure.

"I am Robert Hardclaw, from Orange County," answered the hunter after a pause. "I have been charged by the war council to arrest you and all of those who follow you for treason against the state of Florida and hold you for judgment until the new Prince is ascended."

"Hardclaw, my lycanthropes do not want a fight with you and yours here," Lord Savik said, his voice booming through the night. "We are not here to fight against the war council. We are only here to prevent the council from elevating the real traitor to Florida."

"Your allegations do not change my duty, Lord Savik," Hardclaw replied, "My orders are clear. You and your followers are to surrender yourselves and your weapons to my marshals, upon which you will be detained until the new Prince judges your actions."

"You are a hunter," Lord Savik said, "Your duty is to protect your county and your state. How can you be protecting your state when your lord is being manipulated by Blackhawk? How can you follow a war council who is not the independent body of the lords, but the pawn of a traitor?" Hardclaw paused as he pondered Lord Savik’s words. Contrary to what many in the packs think, hunters are not mindless killing machines or slavishly devoted to our jobs. We have to think. We have to be able to react, adapt, and overcome. We have to be able to evaluate new intelligence and determine how it fits into not just the job at hand, but to the mission to protect the county and the state.

"I know my duty, Lord Savik," Hardclaw said, after a brief pause, "If your allegations about the war council were true, I would not be here. I have not seen anything to cast doubt on the independence of the war council, nor have you given me any hard evidence of such."

"Would you be willing to come to my camp under flag of truce and let us show you hard evidence?" Lord Savik asked. "If I can’t convince you the war council is not fulfilling its obligations, I will surrender myself to you." From the look of surprise on Hardclaw’s face, that brought him up short. He wasn’t the only one. Fangbearer and I traded a look of disbelief. I really wish Lord Savik would warn us before he pulled these kinds of stunts.

"Target," Hangman said over the radio a moment before the suppressed crack of his rifle echoed through the night. A lycanthrope in tactical gear and loosely holding a scoped rifle fell out of a tree in the forest. There was the barest instant where time seemed to stop and everyone just looked around with shocked faces. Time rushed back, and both sides flew into the action. The Red Knight grabbed Lord Savik and yanked him to the ground as both sides opened fire.

"Ranger, ten o’clock," Hangman said. I twisted and saw a lycanthrope holding an MP5. He was yelling at several other enemy lycanthropes to get into the fight. I placed a burst into the lycanthrope and he went down. The lycanthropes he was screaming at scattered away to find what cover they could.

"Hangman, what the fuck is going on?" I asked, trading bursts with the lycanthropes in the tree line.

"The Society operatives out there are stirring up trouble," Hangman answered, calmly. "We’ve got to take them down if we’re going to get this fight under control."

"Yeah, but you took the first shot," I replied, ducking down behind a car to reload my Commando.

"Society sniper was about to take out Lord Savik," Hangman answered, with that same steady calm. Okay, I guess that made a little bit of sense. Hangman brought me back into the fight. "Ranger, you’ve got another Society dog trying to sneak up to you. Nick, take out that one at your eleven." I dropped to the pavement to see the barrel of a submachine gun pointed at me. I triggered a burst and rolled, half-expecting to feel the familiar burning sledgehammer blows of silver bullets. As I lined back up on the Society operative, I saw the shocked look on his face and dead eyes. Every so often, Murphy was a bitch to the other side as well.

"Ranger, if you’re done playing with that one, there’s a pair of Society at your seven leading a push against the line," Hangman said. I picked myself up off the asphalt and sprinted. It was at times like this I wished our clothes and gear changed with us when we shed for wolf. Running low while in true form was not one of my favorite things to do, especially while under fire. Two of our hunters led ten warriors against probably thirty or so enemies. The enemies were pushing a trio of parked cars as mobile cover. Cars, contrary to what many think, are actually not great cover against bullets unless you managed to get the engine block between you and the bullets. The cars were being pushed head-on to our lines by most of the enemy lycanthropes while the rest provided covering fire. I could see the pair of Society operatives encouraging the enemy group a few yards behind the cars. Those two were my targets.

"Hose them! I need covering fire!" I shouted to one of the hunter giving directions to the rest.

"What the fuck?" was all he could say as I bounded towards him. I let my Commando fall on its sling as I drew my HK45 and plucked a flash-bang from the front of my MOLLE gear. My mind flew through mental calculations as I closed towards our line of cars. One to two seconds while our lycanthropes dumped their magazines on full auto. Maybe another second from the flash-bang. That should be enough.

Twelve assault rifles and submachine guns opened up as one on the attacking lycanthropes. I leapt to the top of a parked sedan and used it as a springboard. At the same time, I threw the flash-bang at the lycanthropes pushing the cars. As its supernova detonation lit up the night, I emptied my pistol at the lycanthropes running alongside the cars. That kept their fucking heads down. I landed on one of the cars just long enough to coil and spring off to the side. My pistol went back to its holster and I grabbed my Commando. The two Society operatives were still trying to sort out what was happening. They barely managed to bring their weapons to bear on me before I put them both down with short bursts. I twisted and placed the floating holographic reticle on the lycanthrope trying to cajole the others in moving the cars again. Three rounds into his head dropped him. The remaining lycanthropes abandoned the cars and sprinted across the parking lot. Without the Society operatives encouraging them, it seemed the opposition forces lacked the real will to fight us. Damn it, maybe Devon was right. I needed to confirm first. I charged across the parking lot into the wooded area. As I crouched in a small copse of trees, I changed magazines in my HK45 and Commando. It was time to see if my theory was right. I crept through the woods looking for my first victim. Angry whispers floated out from my right that sounded like what I was hunting. I snuck through the trees to where I’d heard the whispers. We earned the name hunters for a reason.

"We need to call our warriors back," said the first voice, in a harsh whisper. It was Hardclaw, the leader of the enemies. Ancestors, he was a hunter. He should know whispers could carry further than just speaking in low tones. Hell, he should have been using hand signs. His mistake. I crept closer, bringing my Commando up.

"Lord Blackhawk was very clear," the second voice said. He spoke in a commanding tone. It sounded like he was the actual leader of this force. Something about the voice tickled my memory. I’d heard that voice before, but I just could not drudge it up. "Savik must be dead before we withdraw."

"That was not part of our orders!" Hardclaw said. "We are supposed to be serving a warrant for Lord Savik’s surrender on the orders of the war council, not acting as a fucking execution squad for Blackhawk."

"Lord Blackhawk is the war council, you dumb fuck. The sooner you understand that, the better," the second voice replied, his voice ringing with annoyance. "If you can’t remember who is the really in charge, then you’ll become a casualty, and I’ll find someone who can follow orders."

"How about I just kill you?" Hardclaw seethed, "I’m sure you were very good at taking down the State Guild when you caught them by surprise, but I’m ready for you." My memory clicked. The second voice was one of the Society operatives that were with Blackhawk when he killed the State Guildmaster. That settled it. He wasn’t going to be alive by the end of this night. I’d make sure of that myself.

"If you bring that weapon up, my partner will put a bullet through your head. As far as anyone else will be concerned, you’ll be just another victim of that damned sniper of Savik’s." From the way the Society dog was talking, his partner wasn’t in the clearing with him. I looked up in the trees. The dog’s partner was in a tree some fifteen yards behind us. His rifle was pointed right where Hardclaw and the Society dog were talking. The dumb bastard was tunneling so hard, he never even heard me sneak into the area. Well, that kind of inattention should be rewarded – violently. I placed the reticle on the dog’s head. I stroked the Commando’s trigger. The headless corpse fell out of the tree. There was a stutter of gunfire from Hardclaw’s position. I slinked over to where Hardclaw and the Society dog had been talking. I expected to find Hardclaw’s corpse and then play a deadly game of hide-and-seek with the Society dog. No such luck. The Society dog was holding a suppressed M4 on Hardclaw. He smiled as I emerged from the trees, my Commando trained on him. Hardclaw was holding his ruined and bleeding right hand. His own M4 was laying on the ground in front of him.

"You must be Ranger," the Society dog said, "From everything Lord Blackhawk said, you’d be the only lycanthrope crazy enough to try and pull a stunt like this."

"He can call me Ranger," I said, nodding at Hardclaw, "He’s a hunter. You are one of Blackhawk’s pretend hunters, so you get to call me Badmoon like any other pack warrior." I needed the bastard focusing on me and not Hardclaw.

"I am a hunter, abomination," the dog said angrily, "I went to the camp. I served with the Collier chapter for fifteen years! I was the best damn hunter in that chapter before Lord Blackhawk recruited me. Now, I’m better than you could hope to be, no matter what Lord Blackhawk says." Well, that was an interesting tidbit, but I saved it for later.

"You’re a fucking traitor," I said, with cold contempt, "You murder real hunters because you follow the bastard son of a weakling prince." His eyes narrowed. I tensed, waiting for his muzzle to swing towards me. Then his head gave an almost imperceptible shake.

"Nice try, Ranger, but that’s not going to work," the dog said, an evil grin spreading across his face. "You can say whatever you want, try whatever stunt you want, and it’s not going to stop us from killing Savik tonight." I looked deep into his eyes and saw solid determination in them. Nope, this one wasn’t going to be dissuaded or tricked. So, how was I going to kill him before he killed Hardclaw? As my mind raced, a rifle cracked. Blood splurted across the trees surrounding us. Hardclaw and I stared at each other as the Society dog fell lifeless to the ground.

"Ranger, would you please get Hardclaw to order a fallback?" Hangman asked over the radio. "We’ve almost got this under control." Damn, that hunter was fucking scary sometimes.

"Here," I said to Hardclaw, tossing a wolfsbane-soaked bandage. "Do you want to call off your wolves before they all get slaughtered?"

"You are the Badmoon?" he asked.

"Yes. Now will you please stop this before more of your lycanthropes and mine get killed?" I asked, impatiently.

"The Society–" Hardclaw started to protest, but I cut him off.

"Will be dealt with," I said. "Tell your lycanthropes to stop fighting or any still fighting will be killed quickly. You can point out the Society ones if you want, and we’ll take them down first." Hardclaw considered this as he rubbed the wolfsbane bandage into his wounds. Finally, he nodded and walked out of the trees.

"CEASE FIRE!" Hardclaw bellowed at his wolves, "ALL COUNCIL MARSHALS, CEASE FIRE!" I heard the order repeated up and down both sides of the line. Two of the council lycanthropes spun back towards Hardclaw with their weapons up. Society dogs, most likely. I took one down with a quick burst. The other’s chest exploded as Nick fired his Smith into the dog’s back. The revolver roared twice more, and two more Society went down as they attempted to restart the fight. One look at Nick’s emotionless face as he swept the rest with his revolver and almost all of the council lycanthropes dropped their weapons. One tried to bring his rifle up at Nick. Hangman dropped him with surgical precision. The last few weapons clattered to the ground. Our wolves darted forward to secure the council lycanthropes.

"Ranger, bring Hardclaw over so we can talk," Lord Savik called. Lord Savik turned his attention to the council lycanthropes. "If any of you are wounded, we will have healers out in a few minutes. Any attempt to harm them will be met with immediate lethal force. I do not wish to see any more death today." I could feel the warm tendrils of Lord Savik’s power reaching out even to where Hardclaw and I stood.

"Light of the First," Hardclaw swore, "He’s that strong?" His stance was notably more relaxed.

"Yeah. Let’s get over there so you two can talk," I said. Hardclaw gave me a suspicious look.

"You’re still alert," Hardclaw said, "I know I should be, but I just can’t summon the presence of mind with your Lord Savik’s touch on me. So, can he choose who to affect?" I just gave him a mirthless smile. Let him guess. We walked to the strip mall in silence.

"Hunter Hardclaw, thank you for meeting with me," Lord Savik said as we met him inside one of the storefronts. In addition to Lord Savik, Fangbearer, the Knights, the other aristocrats we’d picked up were waiting for us. Surprisingly, Elizabeth and Lady Anna weren’t anywhere around Lord Savik. For some reason, that struck me as ominous. Lord Savik looked over at me. "Thank you Ranger. Anna and Elizabeth are talking with Vanessa. I believe they want to speak with you as well." There was an odd twinkle in Lord Savik’s eyes. I kept my face emotionless as I nodded, but my instincts started blaring danger.

I walked two doors down to the storefront where Vanessa set up shop. The lycanthropes gathered around the storefront parted as I walked to the back. I heard some muttering as I passed, but that wasn’t exactly something new for me. What surprised me was some of the muttering sounded respectful. As I approached Vanessa’s computer station, the three females looked up at me. Three pairs of eyes blazed at me. My instincts went into high gear. I was tempted to just turn around and walk back out. It was probably safer out in the parking lot with the council lycanthropes. Lady Anna stepped around Vanessa’s desk and snagged me by the front of my gear. With Elizabeth close behind, Lady Anna dragged me into a back office. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun.

"Are you insane?" the pair chorused as soon as the door was shut. Contrary to evidence, there are times I do remember to just keep my fucking mouth shut. After a firefight, however, isn’t one of those times.

"Did you two rehearse that?" I quipped. Their stern expressions darkened.

"Completely disregarding our current feud over a certain hunter, we were both wondering if you forgot what you’re supposed to be doing?" Lady Anna asked. I stopped myself from saying the first thing that popped into my head and looked at both of them. Lady Anna’s posture and eyes blazed with anger, but Elizabeth’s had a streak of fear in her anger. I just wasn’t sure what was the cause of the fear.

"Do you think I should be kept in glass box with a label that reads ‘Open Only In Case of Lothos’?" I asked, working hard to keep my voice neutral.

"No," Elizabeth said softly .

"What we need is for you to act less like the wild pup and more the restrained professional," Lady Anna said. "I need you to act more like you did in Broward and Dade. Not what we were forced to watch you do out there tonight." I looked up at Lady Anna, and she took a step back from the anger in my eyes.

"Lady Anna, I have a great deal of respect for your abilities and your intelligence," I said, "That said, you still have a great deal to learn about hunters. You saw what you thought was an insane stunt. What I was actually doing was running a calculated risk. One based on a lot more years’ experience doing jobs than you have." I stopped talking for a moment before my mouth got away from me. This was considered progress in my book. "Have either of you even asked one of the Guildmasters what they thought of my actions?" I could see a scored a direct hit from their sudden guilty expressions. I took a deep breath before continuing.

"Look, I know that both of you were worried about me, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me," I said, "That said, I’m not about to stand back when Lord Savik needs me to be a hunter. You’re just going to have to trust me to know what I’m doing." Much to my surprise, it was Lady Anna who stormed out of the room. Elizabeth sat down on the dust-covered desk.

"Do you know how hard it is to love you?" Elizabeth asked.

"I still don’t understand why you love me," I said, walking over to Elizabeth. She gently pushed me back with a serious look on her face.

"I’m being serious Mark," Elizabeth said, the hint of iron in her voice. I groaned.

"Ancestors, Elizabeth, I’m just coming down from a battle, and you want to have a serious discussion now?" I asked, venting a bit of my frustration.

"Consider this an after-action debrief," she said. I gave her a surprised look at her use of the terminology. She just shrugged. "The Guildmaster made us go through them after a mission or a skirmish with the TCV."

"That’s something Farmer would do," I said, "So, what in my actions during tonight’s battle would give me an indication of how hard it is for you to love me? Killing other lycanthropes?"

"That bothers me, but it’s not what I was talking about tonight," Elizabeth answered, "It’s certainly not what bothered Anna."

"Then what? Honestly, I don’t understand," I said. Elizabeth gave me a sad smile.

"We watched you go into battle and there was nothing we could do to help you. It’s worse for Anna because she’s used to being out there working with her hunters. Then you go and do something that looks insane to anyone except for you and possibly a handful of others, and all we can do is watch helplessly. It’s one thing when it’s one of our warriors or hunters, it’s another thing entirely when it’s your catshen." That rocked me back on my heels. None of that even crossed my mind. Elizabeth stood up and gave me a soft kiss on the cheek.

"There’s another thing you need to start thinking about," Elizabeth said, "Whatever happens, you can’t think or act like any other hunter anymore. If anything, you need to start thinking like a Guildmaster."

"Thinking about replacing Farmer with me?" I asked, startled by her words.

"No, but the skill sets for being a Guildmaster and my mate are similar," she said before kissing me again.

Lady Anna pointedly ignored me as I joined the aristocrats, the Spiritmaster, the two Guildmasters, and Eagle, who was acting as de facto Guildmaster for the State hunters. Lord Savik called the meeting after his talk with Hardclaw. The hunter was standing off to the side of the meeting under the watchful eye of Nick and his Smith. From what I’d picked up, Nick’s revolver held a certain aura amongst our opponents. As in, they were fucking terrified of it. Elizabeth stood next to me. Our recently acquired aristocrats were under the impression I was her special bodyguard. We didn’t disabuse them of that notion, mostly because, as Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Elizabeth stressed, it wasn’t worth the fight right now. That didn’t make it any easier seeing the looks on the aristocrats’ eyes when they watched her. Particularly when they thought she wasn’t watching. Devon Thames was probably the worst of them. He looked at Elizabeth as if she was already his fiancee. Just to be on the safe side, Vanessa, Hangman, and Nick were keeping an eye on the lot of them for me. It would be a bad thing if I was forced to gut one of them before we finished our business in Tallahassee.

"Marshal Hardclaw has been most reasonable," Lord Savik began, bringing the meeting to order. "We showed him some of our evidence, and he’s agreed that we need to present it to the war council, at the very least. He also made it clear Blackhawk is now using his Society operators openly as his enforcers in Leon County."

"Does that mean we’re going to do elimination jobs before heading in?" the Disputed Territories Guildmaster asked.

"We have neither the time nor the resources to do that effectively," Lord Savik answered. "Hardclaw agreed to escort our convoy to the state cravex. Many of his council lycanthropes agreed to assist after Hardclaw assured them that we really did have evidence the war council needed to see before they let Blackhawk have the state. The remainder will need to be guarded here, both for our protection and theirs. The Society made it clear to them that failure to kill or capture us would result in severe punishments for them when they returned. Plus, I’m sure there are a few among the council lycanthropes still convinced we are traitors."

"Who are we going to leave here for that detail?" asked Michael Durang, the aristocrat from Hernando. The acquired aristocrats traded glances between themselves. All looked afraid they were going to be left out of the confrontation with the war council. Personally, I would’ve left all of them to guard the council lycanthropes. Except for Devon Thames, as much as that annoyed me to admit. He, at least, proved he could fight during the skirmish with the council lycanthropes. If Lord Savik noticed the acquired aristocrats political maneuvering, he didn’t give any outward appearance of it.

"We will leave our most severely injured here, and about fifty more of our number to guard them. Fangbearer agreed to be in charge of the wolves we leave here, with Vanessa assisting him," Lord Savik said. That made sense. As a kin, Vanessa wasn’t even supposed to step foot on cravex grounds.

"How many of the council lycanthropes are coming with us?" asked Robert Connor, the Citrus County aristocrat.

"Thirty agreed to escort you," Hardclaw answered. "Well, thirty who I trust to escort you." I did some mental calculation. We lost twenty-three warriors, and another sixty or so were injured badly enough they shouldn’t go with us. That left us between 270 and 280 of our own wolves. Add in the lycanthropes Hardclaw vouched for, and that gave us around three hundred to confront Blackhawk and whatever forces he had at his disposal. It sounded pitifully small, but it was still probably the largest "army" of lycanthropes assembled in Florida since the Great Fatherland War.

"What are we going to do with the Society operatives we captured?" asked Devon Thames. "We really don’t have time to try them for their crimes if we’re going to make it to the war council in time. That means, we’ll have to leave some of our strongest warriors and hunters here just to make sure they don’t escape." Lord Savik looked at the Guildmasters and nodded.

"They won’t be a problem," Farmer said, flatly.

"If what you’ve told all of us about Blackhawk is true, and I believe it is, then of course they will be a problem," Devon said, not understanding what Farmer meant.

"For fuck’s sake," I growled, and then backed down as Elizabeth put her hand on my arm.

"No, let him speak, Lady Elizabeth" Devon said, motioning to me, "Obviously the Badmoon has decided it is his job to educate me on the finer points of dealing with prisoners." His cold tone could be called condescending at best, and contemptuous at worst. Lord Savik and Elizabeth traded looks of apprehension before Elizabeth nodded for me to continue.

"The reason we are not going to have to worry about those Society dogs is because each of them will have a bullet in their head before we leave," I said. To his credit, Devon’s face didn’t pale like his fellow aristocrats.

"Lord Savik, it’s one thing to kill in battle, but another thing entirely to murder prisoners in cold blood," Michael Durange protested.

"This is why you were all sent to me," Lord Savik said, "Not just to declare your parents’ support for my cause, but because all of you need to learn some hard lessons before you ascend to your own lordships. One of those lessons is ordering the death of another lycanthrope because you deem that he or she is a danger to the packs under your protection. Do any of you think any of those Society dogs we captured is not a clear threat to our packs?" Lord Savik waited a bare moment for any of the aristocrats to disagree. "So yes, they will be executed before we proceed to the cravex." His hard eyes swept over the aristocrats. "And each of you will look them in the eye and order their executions." The aristocrats paled even further, but none of them balked.

As the convoy prepared to leave, the ten captured Society operatives were marched into the woods by the aristocrats and fifteen hunters. Nick and I were part of the group, but Hangman was left behind to assist in preparing those who would stay behind. Lady Anna led the group with Cracker acting as her bodyguard and assistant. She was still studiously avoiding me. Part of me was grateful for the temporary relief from having to deal with her attempts to remind me how she was superior to Elizabeth. Another part wanted to apologize to her. Then, there was the part that was extremely irritated with the just barely correct looks Lady Anna was getting from the acquired aristocrats. The rest of me was busy telling the other parts to shut the fuck up and deal with the job at hand. I swear, dealing with females was threatening to turn me into a schizophrenic. The aristocrat meeting broke up and Devon Thames walked over to where Nick and I stood.

"If you two would follow me," the young aristocrat said, woodenly. Nick and I wordlessly followed him to where the Society prisoners were being guarded.

"Stand," Devon said to two of the prisoners.

"Fuck you," answered one of them. "You can slaughter unarmed prisoners all you like. I’m damn sure not going to make it easy on you." Devon didn’t flinch or waver. He just looked down on the two Society dogs with an impassive face.

"I don’t really care. I was going to give you some dignity by standing instead of being shot while sitting on the ground," Devon said, "Badmoon, Nicholas, I have deemed these two are a threat to the packs. Under my authority, I order you to kill the both of them." I traded a look with Nick. He drew his big S&W 500 while I drew my HK45. The loudmouth Society prisoner glared at us defiantly, but his companion looked terrified. More to the point, he looked at Nick in terror. I chuckled darkly. Usually, I was considered scarier because I was a Badmoon. I guess Nick’s revolver was earning him points.

"Nick, make sure you get a good down angle with that thing," I said, casually, "We don’t want you taking someone else’s fun because those bullets of yours over-penetrated." Nick nodded solemnly.

"Stop! I’ll tell you anything you want to know about the Society," the scared Society prisoner almost screamed. His companion gave him a contemptuous glare. "I know pass signs, places, lycanthropes." Nick and I paused.

"Lord Devon, it’s your call," I said to the aristocrat, "If you think this one has some value to Lord Savik, you can spare him." Devon didn’t say anything. His head snapped up as two pistols barked as one of the other aristocrats ordered the deaths of the Society prisoners. The noise pulled Devon out of his thoughts.

"No. Badmoon, Nicholas, carry out my orders," Devon said quietly. Nick whipped his revolver at the defiant prisoner and fired. The prisoner’s scream of pain was muted by the deafening boom of Nick’s Smith. The prisoner feebly grabbed at the half-inch hole in his stomach, although most of his innards were spread out behind him. The other Society prisoner’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly. He never noticed as I leveled my pistol at his head and fired. He slumped over with an almost peaceful look. Well, peaceful compared to the screaming mess of lycanthrope next to him. The screams mercifully quieted and stopped as the Society dog bled out. Devon took two steps back and noisily vomited. Nick and I pretended to ignore him as we surveyed the others. Pistol shots were cracking up and down the line as hunters carried out aristocrat orders. Devon wasn’t the only of the acquired aristocrats to retch after their prisoners were executed. Devon cautiously walked back over.

"That was far more difficult than I expected," Devon said.

"Try to remember that when you order your hunters to do the same," Lady Anna said, joining us. "They have to do the killing, and it’s just as hard for them." Devon nodded in understanding. He was probably the only of the acquired aristocrats who didn’t ogle Lady Anna, but that was only because he was certain he had Elizabeth’s hand secured.

"Nicholas, will you take Devon back to the convoy? I need to speak with Ranger alone for a moment," Lady Anna said. She waited silently as the two walked out of earshot.

"I talked with Cracker. He said that you were fucking insane, but not out of line," Lady Anna said when we were alone. "Of course, he was wondering how your Guildmaster dealt with you if that was how you normally operated."

"To tell you the truth, it’s been awhile since I let myself cut loose like that," I admitted. "My dramatics, as Nick calls them, used to drive my Guildmaster nuts when he led the lone wolves. On the subject of our discussion last night, I do owe you an apology. I shouldn’t have gone off on you. I never thought what it would be like for you watching me do something like that."

"Would you have still done it?" Lady Anna asked, with a quizzical look on her face.

"Yeah. I’d’ve just handled the fallout differently," I answered.

"She explained it to you, didn’t she?" Lady Anna asked, a sadness spreading across her face.

"Yes, she did. She also made it clear that I owed you an apology," I said. Her face became unreadable. I was starting to hate it when she did that.

"I’ll have to thank her," Lady Anna said, stiffly, "Let’s get back to the convoy so that Cracker can get this mess cleaned up before we leave."

The Florida cravex was located in a thickly wooded area in the northern part of the Leon County, just south of the Princedom of Georgia’s border. It was technically a private hunting preserve owned by the Prince, which I found to be amusing for some reason. Unlike in the counties where the lords ascended to their thrones in their Manors, the ritual for the Prince to ascend had to be done at the cravex. Our group arrived at the very edge of the preserve under the cover of darkness. Hardclaw was riding in the lead vehicle’s shotgun seat with Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Elizabeth, Devon Thames, myself, and the Red Knights in the back of the SUV.

"The gate’s guarded by Society," Hardclaw said.

"For fuck’s sake, how many of those bastards does Blackhawk have?" I asked. Lord Savik chuckled.

"Didn’t he tell you while you worked for him?" Lord Savik asked.

"I don’t think he trusted me with that information," I answered, innocently. The other aristocrats chuckled darkly. "Do you want me to take care of them?"

"We need for them to clear us, or we’ll have a force waiting for us before we can even reach the cravex," Hardclaw warned.

"Hardclaw will go forward to meet them. Kevin will accompany him, in case things go badly," Lord Savik ordered. Lady Anna gave her uncle a wary look, which he answered with a confident smile. "I think it’s past time we stopped trying to play nice. Kevin will make sure that we are able to pass." Hardclaw and I traded uneasy looks. Hunters tended to get nervous when the aristocracy started talking cryptically. As we neared the gate, the two Society operatives walked out from their hidey-holes. Both were in true form and dressed in digital camouflage and tactical gear. One carried an FN SCAR with a grenade launcher mounted under the barrel. His partner carried a belt-fed machine gun, with a large ammo box hooked up under the machine gun. Plenty of ammo to rip apart our lead vehicles and everyone inside them. Both of the Society guards leveled their weapons at our SUV. Well, that just looked like a bunch of fun. Still, something wasn’t right.

"Is that all, two guards?" I asked.

"Yeah," Hardclaw answered, seeing my suspicions, "These two are just the tripwire. There’s easily another fifty Society out there reinforced by another hundred or so hunters from across the state. We were summoned after Blackhawk disbanded the State Guild and the Society was put in charge. Now, if you’ll excuse, my lords and ladies, I’ll see if I can get you past them without tripping the alarm."

"That’s what Kevin’s going to help you with," Lord Savik said, motioning to the lycanthrope standing outside the SUV. Kevin was one of the Disputed Territories shaman. This was about to get interesting. Hardclaw just nodded and stepped out of the SUV. The pair approached the two Society guards. SCAR Boy tracked the pair as Mr. Belt-Fed kept his weapon on our vehicle. Hardclaw said something to SCAR Boy, who answered back harshly. The two Society guards and Hardclaw tensed, but then Kevin spoke. I couldn’t hear what the shaman said, but after he finished speaking, both guards laid their weapons on the ground. One held his hand to his head and spoke into a radio. Both stood off to the side while Kevin spoke again. Without hesitation, the two guards drew their sidearms, attached suppressors, and shot themselves in the head. I sat back in my chair dumbfounded as Hardclaw climbed back in and we continued down the path. In fact, I think the only ones not shocked by what just happened were Lord Savik and Lady Anna. Ancestors, I knew shamans could be scary bastards, but I’d never seen any of them do something like that. Maybe I shouldn’t have antagonized Lord Savik’s Spiritmaster as much as I did. Or at least I should have made sure that I had a claymore pointed at him when I did. With my hand on a deadman’s switch.

Our convoy stopped about three hundred yards from the edge of the cravex. The state hunters spread out in pairs along our outer edges as pickets. The main force, under the Disputed Territories Guildmaster surrounded "the pocket" of the aristocrats, the shaman, the Red Knights, Farmer, Hardclaw, Hangman, Nick, and me. Once arrayed, Lord Savik nodded at his Spiritmaster. The five shaman started a low chant. I shuddered at the odd sensation of being surrounded by unseen individuals. My instincts were not happy, but they weren’t screaming danger. The Spiritmaster spoke in the Old Tongue of the Ancestors. Energy pulsed around our group, and I had the distinct feeling that the unseen individuals were not happy. Out of the clear dark sky, a lightning bolt struck into the center of the cravex. The Spiritmaster said another phrase and then the energy and the unseen were gone.

"It is done, my lord," the Spiritmaster said, "Much to the dismay of the State Spiritmaster. They will wait for our arrival." There are very few things that will stop the war council from ascending a new Prince. The Ancestors themselves showing up and telling them to wait until Lord Savik showed up was probably the most effective. It also made damn sure Blackhawk would stand down his rovers. He wasn’t about to contradict a demand from the Ancestors. At least, I didn’t think he would. As we walked, my instincts started screaming warnings. I looked around. Nothing but trees and our lycanthropes. My sudden alertness was noted by the Knights, who stepped closer to their principals. Elizabeth also noticed. She stepped closer to me.

"What is it?" she asked, quietly.

"I’m not sure. Something out in the forest over there," I answered, nodding to our right.

"Perhaps it’s the Society force Hardclaw mentioned," offered Gregory, Elizabeth’s lead Red Knight. He didn’t like me, he hated the fact I was involved with Elizabeth, but he respected my instincts. "They could be shadowing our group in case they have the opportunity to kill us."

"It could be, but it just doesn’t feel right," I answered. Gregory gave me a flat look. This was why I hated trying to explain what my instincts told me.

"Farmer, ask Eagle to have one of his teams sweep out further," Elizabeth ordered, "Mark’s getting one of his twitches." Farmer nodded and spoke into his radio. Then as quickly as they started up, my instincts quieted down. Something very odd was happening out there. I needed to trust Eagle’s hunters, but I really wanted to be out there myself. A hand gently gripped my arm. I looked back to find Elizabeth giving me a knowing look. She gave me a slight shake of her head. I gave her a confident smirk, to which she just rolled her eyes.

"If there’s something out here, we’re not seeing it," Eagle reported back to us after a few minutes. Both Farmer and Elizabeth looked over at me with expectant looks.

"I don’t know," I said, "It just felt like something was out there waiting for us. Then it disappeared."

"Eagle, tell them to keep an eye out, but keep up with the group," Farmer said. Eagle snorted derisively over the radio and confirmed the order. The fun part of having instincts like mine is that you stop giving a damn if others think you’re fucking nuts. Staying alive will always trump the chance of looking foolish in front of others. Especially if it means keeping alive those that I actually give a damn about. Then our group was at the edge of the Florida cravex proper. The Florida cravex was laid out like the Hillsborough cravex, but much bigger. It had to be. Instead of entri for the maybe two dozen packs in a county, the Florida cravex had entri for each of Florida’s sixty-seven counties, plus one each for the prince, the Spiritmaster of Florida, and the Guildmaster of Florida. The maksen, the obsidian cube that dominated the center of any cravex was also larger, easily ten feet on a side. The Spiritmaster and several shaman surrounded the black glass cube. Light blue energies surrounded each of the shaman.

Nine of the entri were occupied by the lords selected to form the war council, along with their retinues. All told, there was maybe a hundred and fifty lycanthropes in the cravex. I didn’t recognize the lords, but then again, I didn’t know most of the lords outside of those that surrounded Hillsborough and Lord Savik. Blackhawk stood in the Guildmaster’s entre. It took a lot of self-control not to sprint over there and toss him out. I expected the Prince to be in his entre, but it was completely empty. I wasn’t sure if that was expected or ominous, but it wasn’t the time for questions. It was the time to stop Blackhawk. The tension was thick enough to be a physical presence as our group entered the cravex. Rather than going to the entri for our counties, our group of three hundred lycanthropes walked into the center of the cravex and stood there facing the Prince’s entre. Black and Red Knights, Society operatives, and hunters were trading nervous looks as they saw we were still armed, but they kept their positions. Our wolves were warned to make damn sure they kept their fucking fingers off the fucking triggers unless one of the leadership fucking told them to do otherwise. What do we call a negligent discharge in a tense environment with lots of open area and damn near no cover for anyone? We call that a recipe for a fucking bloodbath and a failed mission.

"The blasphemers arrive!" the Florida Spiritmaster announced as we approached. I didn’t think the tension could have ratcheted up any further without gunfire. I was wrong. Surprisingly, it was not Lord Savik who answered the challenge, but his Spiritmaster. The short lycanthrope stood in front of his lord and stared contemptuously at his supposed superior shaman.

"Blasphemy? Exactly what have we done to have that charge leveled at those under my guidance?" the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster said, his voice at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, but loud enough for the entire cravex to hear.

"You dare to manipulate the Ancestors to be your messengers! You fail to show them the reverence demanded of any lycanthrope who is granted the privilege of speaking with them. You use your gifts against the very rules of the Order of the Spirits." The Florida Spiritmaster sounded outraged, but there was something else in his tone. It sounded like fear, but why was the Spiritmaster afraid?

"Have you ever talked to the Ancestors outside of ritual?" the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster asked. "My shaman and I were forced to turn to them for assistance after you abandoned us. I can tell you, they were more than happy to help us since our brothers and sisters in the Order failed to do so."

"We were following the dictates of the Prince," the Florida Spiritmaster objected, but his words were stiff, like he was reading from a script.

"Really?" thundered the Disptuted Territories Spiritmaster, "You dare accuse me of breaking the rules of our beloved Order, while you have broken the most sacred commandment within the Order?" Blue ghosts of lycanthropes in true form floated around the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster. The Florida shaman stepped back in horror.

"You arrogant fools!" the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster shouted at the Florida shaman, "You failed to listen to the Ancestors. You failed to heed their advice or take their help. You let yourselves be bound to the decrepit and corrupt corpse of the Florida Prince’s reign. Stand aside and be quiet, or there will be more than one challenge for leadership here tonight." The blue ghosts surrounded the cravex. The pure rage on the faces of the ghosts terrified me. The blue halos of energy surrounding the Florida Spiritmaster and his shaman winked out. The ghosts faded into the blackness of the night sky.

"Now that’s been decided, perhaps the war council will deal with me," Lord Savik announced and stepped out into the full view of the cravex. Nine lycanthropes stepped from their entri and stood in front of the Prince’s entre. The eldest lord stood in front of the group. This one must have been nearly nine feet in his prime and was still a good eight and a half even stooped from age. His black fur was liberally streaked with silver. A quick whisper from Elizabeth told me this was Lord Dornier, the lord of Escambia County. Well, the northern counties were always tightly bound to the Prince. They could be expected to be tightly bound to Blackhawk as well.

"Erik, while I am glad you survived the troubles in the Disputed Territories, the war council cannot and will not suffer challenges to its authority," Lord Dornier said with a rich tenor. Some of the Disputed Territories lycanthropes snarled at the dismissal of their fight in their home counties. Lord Savik waved them for them to be calm before turning to the war council.

"I have not come to challenge the war council’s authority," Lord Savik countered, "I have nothing but the deepest respect for the war council and its mandate. So deep a respect, that I cannot stand by and let it be manipulated into installing such an unworthy dog as the new Prince of Florida."

"Do you have something other than base slanders to present?" one of the other lords sneered. "Something more than the slaughter of a nearly hundred of our wolves?" The other lords tensed as their faces darkened.

"What slaughter, MacMurtry? Are you talking about that little group you sent to try and assassinate my followers and me last night?" Lord Savik asked. "Rest assured, most of them are still alive. Less than twenty of your hunters or warriors were killed during the fighting. MacMurtry, your own hunter, Hardclaw, can confirm that. My lords, I deeply regret those who were killed, and I will try to make amends with each of your packs after our business is concluded here tonight." Lord Savik turned slightly to look at Blackhawk. "I’m afraid the Society’s losses, on the other hand, were total." Blackhawk’s face didn’t change, but there was a flash of anger in his dark eyes. Lord MacMurtry, the lord of Orange County, glared at Hardclaw. Lord Savik didn’t seem to notice as he looked back at the members of the war council.

"I have come here to formally accuse Christopher Blackhawk of treason against the Princedom of Florida as well as the murders of Scott Franken, Stephen Vollen, and my family, in addition to countless others in the course of his scheming to gain the throne. I demand his death." The cravex was silent. I don’t think I heard anyone even breathe. Finally, Lord Dornier broke the silence.

"If you do not have the evidence to support these allegations, this war council will have you executed for sedition," the old lycanthrope hissed.

"I have evidence," Lord Savik answered, "I have the records of his treason from his co-conspirators in the Florida Council of the Vampire. I have evidence of his murders of Scott Franklin and Stephen Vollen from his own mouth. The murders of my family are a bit more circumstantial, but I’m sure I can offer enough evidence to support that accusation as well." The lords traded looks that ranged from annoyed to horrified shock. From the reactions, I suspected at least six, including Lord Dornier, were Blackhawk’s. The other three I wasn’t so sure about, but one of the lords was clearly not a part of Blackhawk’s cabal. Lord Dornier turned to Blackhawk.

"Would you care to answer these accusations?" Lord Dornier asked, in an almost pleading voice. Blackhawk stood silently for nearly a minute staring at Lord Savik with an emotionless face. Then, almost as if he remembered that Lord Dornier asked him something, Blackhawk turned to the senior member of the war council.

"I call for rhaizen. I request for the war council to allow this issue be settled by blood," Blackhawk said, without emotion, like he was commenting on the weather. If I thought the silence was deafening before, the collective shock following Blackhawk’s words made the cravex as silent as a grave.

"I will assent to Blackhawk’s request for the issue to be settled by blood," Lord MacMurtry answered, quickly. A little too quickly. "Will the rest of the war council stand with me?" Slowly, the others nodded, except for that one grizzled lord.

"You are letting someone accused of collaborating with our mortal enemies againstfellow lords to escape judgement by having him engage in combat against a lycanthrope twenty years his senior?" the lord asked, outraged. "The same lycnathrope the eight of you have been convincing me since this war council convened is the best choice to rule the state? Ancestors protect us! The eight of you are doing far more damage to the authority of this war council than Erik could ever do!"

"It doesn’t matter Robert," Lord Dornier said, "The rules for a rhaizen brought before the war council are very clear. We only need a simple majority to decide on the course. With our eight to your one, the war council has made its decision. The matter will be settled by blood." Blackhawk smiled maliciously as he stepped out of the Guild’s entre.

"Uncle, don’t do this," Lady Anna pleaded quietly, "We can make them stop this insanity with the lycanthropes we have here. We don’t have to play their games." Lord Savik looked down at his niece and smiled warmly.

"Yes, we do," Lord Savik said, "Or the next war council will have no power. We have war councils to prevent civil wars, not to instigate them. This is my fault. I misjudged Blackhawk. Calling for a rhaizen to invalidate my charges wasn’t a possibility that even entered my mind. I honestly expected him to take your route, Anna, and try to force the issue through force of arms."

"If we have to do it this way, then demand a champion," Lady Anna countered, then looked over at me, "Blackhawk made the challenge. You could demand Ranger be allowed to fight for you. You know he would take Blackhawk apart." My heart quickened at the thought of going into single combat with Blackhawk. It also didn’t hurt my ego Lady Anna’s first thought of a capable lycanthrope to fight for Lord Savik was me. Even better, Elizabeth nodded in agreement with Lady Anna’s assessment. Before I could say anything, Lord Savik waved us down.

"No, this is something I must do, or they will figure out a way to prevent our evidence from being heard," Lord Savik said, "We can’t let them do that. Don’t worry, Anna. It’s not like I don’t have plenty of tricks of my own." Lord Savik gave his niece a mischievous smile before walking to the waiting Blackhawk. As required by pack tradition, the two combatants stripped off their robes and clothes, leaving two piles at the edge of the fighting circle. Settling by blood demanded the combatants brought nothing into the fight, except their own bodies. The fight would only end when one of those bodies were dead. In other circumstances, either Blackhawk or Lord Savik could surrender and end the fight, but this was rhaizen. The loser always died in rhaizen.

The Spiritmaster made a circling motion with his index finger and a circle of blue light some fifty feet in diameter appeared on the ground around Lord Savik and Blackhawk. Lady Anna was the first to step up to the line. I stood next to her. Elizabeth was on my other side. Soon, the circle was surrounded by lycanthropes. By tradition, we were there to make sure that the rules of the battle were not broken. In reality, we were just there to cheer for Lord Savik or Blackhawk. With the circle set and guarded, the fight could begin. Lord Savik and Blackhawk circled each other around the perimeter. Neither looked the least concerned they were in a fight to the death. Stress rode up my spine. Dammit, I would have already been tearing Blackhawk apart, not playing some bullshit mind games with the bastard. What the fuck was Lord Savik doing? As if in answer to my unspoken question, Lord Savik stopped.

Tendrils of cold psychic power came from Lord Savik. The lycanthropes standing on the edge of the circle shrank back from whatever Lord Savik was throwing. All except for me – and Blackhawk. The younger lycanthrope’s evil smile deepened. He stood casually as if he didn’t even notice Lord Savik’s power. Lord Savik gritted his teeth and the power increased. Two of the lycanthropes guarding the circle sprinted away to their entri. I felt Elizabeth’s hand slip into mine and squeeze it hard enough to stop blood flow. She looked up at me with stark terror in her eyes. I wanted so bad to reassure her, but I needed to keep my eyes on the fight. Something was wrong. Lord Savik’s confident face was gone, hiding behind an emotionless mask, but I could see the confusion in his eyes. I’d seen it before when he tried to use his powers on me.

"You were listening the last time I talked with Ranger, weren’t you? I told him that I was a taboo son," Blackhawk said quietly. "Didn’t you think on what that might mean if you had to fight me?" Blackhawk took a step towards Lord Savik. The power coming from Lord Savik increased even more. Several more lycanthropes fled the circle. Elizabeth’s grip tightened further. Blackhawk just laughed. "For the love of the Ancestors, can’t you see that won’t work? Good thing, too. You must be one of the most powerful aristocrats I’ve come up against from what I see." Blackhawk motioned to the quavering lycanthropes along the circle. We locked eyes for the briefest instant. There was amusement in his dark eyes. Then, Blackhawk attacked with blinding speed. Ancestors, he was as fast as Raven. Blackhawk batted aside Lord Savik’s hasty defenses and stabbed Lord Savik’s torso with his claws. Lord Savik grunted as blood poured down his chest and side. My hunter’s mind quickly evaluated the hits. Critical, but not immediately fatal. From the joy on Blackhawk’s face, those hits weren’t mistakes. Blackhawk was playing with Lord Savik. Elizabeth must have seen something on my face because she yanked me back hard before I could step into the circle.

"Did you think all taboo sons were like poor Raven? All power with no real ability?" Blackhawk said, "I’ll give you credit for stepping in here with me if that’s what you thought. In some ways, you were really more dangerous than I’d originally thought." Lord Savik lunged at Blackhawk, but the younger lycanthrope easily slid out of the way and hammered Lord Savik down to the dirt. Blackhawk just laughed, but I watched Lord Savik. There was something odd about the way Lord Savik hit the ground. Something about the technique. Then it hit me, and I smiled. Hunter hand sign wasn’t the only thing that Lord Savik learned during his years fighting the FCV in the Disputed Territories.

Lord Savik rolled towards Blackhawk and kicked out. The blow slammed into Blackhawk’s knee with a wet crunch. Blackhawk screamed in pain and tried to leap back. Lord Savik was already back on his feet. He was in close with Blackhawk. When dealing with someone faster than you, get the fuck in close and stay there. Best yet, get the bastard on the ground where his speed means nothing. Lord Savik was thinking the same thing, because he kicked Blackhawk’s legs out from under him. As Blackhawk fell, Lord Savik pounced on him and pummeled Blackhawk. Blackhawk managed to block a lot of the incoming strikes, as well as deliver a few nasty hits of his own, but they did nothing to stop the fury of Lord Savik’s attack. The older lycanthrope’s arms blurred with the rapidity of his attacks. Like any proper fight, it seemed to last minutes, but was over in seconds. Blackhawk laid limply in the dirt. I was surprised and disappointed to see his chest rise and fall with breath.

"I am more dangerous than you thought," Lord Savik said at the unconscious Blackhawk. "You made me this way when you killed my family and my wolves. Did you think I wouldn’t learn how to fight when you gave my county to the leeches? Reap the whirlwind you fucking dog." Lord Savik turned to the war council. The dissenting lord looked almost smug, but the others stood impassively.

"That dog is no longer capable of fighting," Lord Savik said coldly, "Declare blood is satisfied and fulfill the rhaizen." I knew Lord Savik was doing it this way for some reason, but I was fucking enraged. I would have torn open Blackhawk’s neck and been done with it, not given his fate over to the war council. From the look on Elizabeth’s face, she would have as well.

"You did not kill him, so the issue is not settled yet," Lord MacMurtry said, "Perhaps we should judge you as failing to satisfy the rhaizen and have you killed." The war council erupted into fast and bitter arguing. Lord Savik waited patiently as the arguments went back and forth. I quit listening. It was all so much political bullshit. It would be so simple to solve. A nice long burst of fire from my Commando and this farce would be ended. Then we could finish this bullshit with Blackhawk, and go home to figure out how to deal with Lothos. I looked down at Blackhawk. This dog was the cause of so much trouble. Would anyone care if I just ended him? My instincts flared with warnings. I looked back up at the war council. Had they decided to kill us? No, it was Blackhawk. He was conscious. He was moving. He was moving fast. I leapt after him. I don’t know why I just didn’t shoot him. My Commando was hanging on its sling on my chest, but all I could think to do was to grab that bastard and tear him apart.

Blackhawk moved with a speed I hadn’t seen since my fight with Raven. Was this part of being a taboo son? His hands darted into his discarded clothing and came back with a silver blade. Why the hell was no one else reacting? Blackhawk’s eyes locked onto where Lord Savik was standing. His body braced for a throw just as I reached him. His arm came down. I was too late to stop him from throwing the silver blade, but maybe not to stop him from killing Lord Savik. My left hand snaked out to deflect the thrown knife. I felt the strong burn of silver as the knife sliced deep into my hand. I could feel the blood pour down my arm. Blackhawk looked stunned when he realized what I’d done. He didn’t even put up a defense as I hit him in the chest with a palm strike. There was screaming behind me, but I didn’t dare turn my back on Blackhawk. Not until I finished tearing this bastard limb from limb. Blackhawk smirked as he fell into a fighting stance. I guess I would get to end this after all. I lunged and he easily deflected the shot. Good, I needed to close with the bastard. I stepped in and raked his sides with my claws. Blackhawk grunted before slashing me across the face.

"Have you figured it out yet, Badmoon?" Blackhawk said in a low voice, as we traded blows and blocks. Blackhawk was actually scary good. "I saw you standing there when Lord Savik was throwing around his power. Have you figured out what you are? Such a shame for you. Taboo sons are always put to death. Even if you manage to pound me down like your precious Lord Savik, he’s going to have to put you down like the dog you are. Unless you help me. I can protect you. I can give you what you want. I can keep what you are a secret." He gave me a smug smile.

"Blackhawk, you talk too fucking much," I said, finally landing a solid blow to his kidney. "You don’t fucking get it. You never could because you’ve never been a hunter. Trade my life for the chance to kill some dog who threatens my loved ones and my county? Gladly." Blackhawk’s expression hardened. Then, he stood up straight and smiled as he looked behind me.

"Mark, enough," Elizabeth said, as she placed a warm hand on my shoulder. She stepped in front of me. She leveled her pistol at Blackhawk. He just gave her a smug look.

"You have him trained well, Lady Elizabeth," Blackhawk said, "It’s a shame that the two of you will never be together. I’m sure even you realize that now. Unless of course, you help me."

"Blackhawk, you murdered my father," Elizabeth said in a cool, controlled voice, "I heard you admit it with your own tongue. I’m not going to wait for the war council to finish their bickering. I’m going to claim your life now." She kept the pistol trained on Blackhawk, but I could see it quavering.

"You?" Blackhawk asked incredulously, "If you claim my life right now, in this place, at this time, then you will have to be the one to end it. Not your pet monster. You." He took a step closer to us. I growled, but Blackhawk ignored me. He was focused on Elizabeth. "Put that gun down Lady Elizabeth. We both know you aren’t a killer. That’s fine. Not all of us can be. I know you couldn’t kill Speartooth. Badmoon had to do that for you. You can wave that pistol around all you want, but we both know you’re not capable of killing me."

"How did you know about Speartooth?" Elizabeth asked, lowering her pistol. I wanted to scream at her to keep her weapon up, but I dared not speak.

"How do you think I knew?" Blackhawk asked.

"You sent him. You sent him to keep me from killing you," Elizabeth said.

"I did send him, but not because I was scared of your retribution. Speartooth was supposed to take you as his bride once he secured Hillsborough. I didn’t want your line dying out. The succession fights would have been a distraction I didn’t need. I’ll admit, you turned out to be stronger than I expected." Blackhawk said, "I also underestimated Badmoon’s ruthlessness." He shot me an evil look before turning back to Elizabeth. "Now, you have every reason to want me dead. I appreciate that. If you kill me, though, I can’t help you rebuild your county. I can’t protect your precious Badmoon from being executed for being a taboo son. You know what he is. I can see it on your face." Elizabeth was crying, her pistol loose in her hands. Blackhawk cautiously took another step, his arms outstretched in submission. All of my instincts were telling me to shoot the bastard, but Blackhawk was right about one thing. This was something Elizabeth had to do on her own as the leader of Hillsborough County. Blackhawk took another hesitant step.

Elizabeth’s hands blurred as the pistol came up. Blackhawk looked shocked as she pulled the trigger. The gun barked once, twice, three times and continued to roar. Gouts of blood erupted from Blackhawk’s chest as the silver rounds tore fatal archanal tunnels through his body. Silence enveloped the cravex as Elizabeth’s pistol locked back on an empty magazine. She was still pulling uselessly on the trigger. I stepped next to her and gently pulled the still-warm pistol out of her hands. I heard Blackhawk’s body fall to the ground. I reached out to bring Elizabeth into my arms, but she darted away. I heard the cravex erupting in screams and yelling, but I didn’t care. All I could focus on was the running form of Elizabeth. As soon as she reached the edge of the cravex, Elizabeth collapsed. I heard the distinctive sounds of Elizabeth retching. I knelt down and gently brushed her fur. Deep sobs intermingled with dry heaves. Once she managed to settle down, I pulled her close and stroked her.

"It hurts so much," Elizabeth said between sobs.

"It’s supposed to," I told her.

"It doesn’t for you," she said, without any heat. More wistful than anything else.

"Because I’m a Badmoon, and a hunter," I said, although I wasn’t sure if that was the truth. Elizabeth looked up at me and I could see in her eyes that she didn’t believe me, either.

"What about what Blackhawk said about you?" Elizabeth said, her voice tight with fear. It was oddly comforting that she was scared for me, not about me. I pulled her in tighter.

"Blackhawk’s a fucking liar," I said, "That’s all there was to it. He was lying to us to keep us from killing him. The desperate ramblings of a condemned dog."

"Mark, he could do the same things you can do," Elizabeth said, with a quiet desperation. "If he’s right…" I placed my finger on her muzzle.

"What are you talking about? Did you see how fast he moved? I can’t do that. I’m a Badmoon, not a taboo son," I told her, "That’s all you have to remember. Well that, and the fact that I will always stand beside you. I will always be here to protect you." She gripped me tighter. I don’t know if she really believed me, but she was willing to let herself believe it for the moment. A shadow loomed over us. I looked up and bit off the snarling growl growing in my throat. Lady Anna looked down at us with a mixture of hurt and envy. Then her face went still in an emotionless mask. She cleared her throat and Elizabeth also looked up.

"You two better come back," Lady Anna said, "Something’s been decided by the war council, and we may need the two of you." She was looking hard at me when she spoke.

"Thank you, Anna," Elizabeth said, standing up. "I guess we caused a bit of trouble." Lady Anna’s hard expression softened.

"You did fine, Elizabeth," Lady Anna said, with what sounded like genuine compassion. Then she stepped in and put her arm around Elizabeth. "The pain fades faster than you’d think. Hopefully, you don’t have to do that again."

Everyone was watching us as we walked back to where Lord Savik was standing in front of the war council. Blackhawk’s body was gone. There was tension in the air, but it was different. I looked over to the war council. Lord MacMurtry and Lord Dornier looked like they wanted us dead, but the others looked almost hopeful. Lord Savik gave Elizabeth a brief hug while giving me a warm smile. He motioned for us to take our places behind him. Then he turned back to the war council. The lord who protested earlier stepped to the front.

"Lord Savik, we find you have successfully defended your claim of rhaizen," the lord said. From the looks of the other lords, this was the new leader of the war council. We must have missed the really interesting part of the arguments. Well, we were busy killing a traitor.

"Thank you, Lord Klaven," Lord Savik said. "I must demand that all of Lady Elizabeth’s actions are under that same rhaizen. None should dare attempt anything against her."

"With the Badmoon standing by her side? Not likely," Lord Klaven answered, "Still Erik, you present us with another problem. Blackhawk was this war council’s selection as Prince of Florida. By tradition, once the selection is made, the war council is to be considered disbanded for all intents and purposes. Lord Dornier forcefully argued that in a previous situation where the lycanthrope selected by the wat council died before assuming the throne, a new war council was forced to assemble and deliberate." Lord Klaven paused as he looked over at our group. "Given the current tensions in this state, the majority of this war council has decided such a course of action would be, to put it mildly, inadvisable." Lord Dornier looked like he was about to say something, but sharp looks from the other lords made him stay quiet. Lord Klaven turned back to Lord Savik with a strangely intent look.

"Lord Savik, the war council has decided it is the best interest of the Princedom of Florida to select you as the next Prince of Florida, and if you agree, immediately ascend you to the throne." Everything was still. Lord Savik couldn’t keep the shock off of his face. Long moments passed as everyone in the cravex waited with trepidation for Lord Savik to say something.

"Of course I will," Lord Savik said softly. The cravex erupted in a mix of cheers from our side and screams of protests from some of the entri. Lord Klavin bellowed for silence. It took a few minutes before order was restored in the cravex.

"I will serve as the Prince of Florida until all of our counties are restored and the Florida Council of Vampire is eradicated," Lord Savik said. "After that, I will call for a new War Council to either confirm my rule or select another." Some of the protests died away with his words. That was unexpected to say the least. If the members of the war council were surprised, they didn’t show it.

"Step forward and join us in the Prince’s entre for the ascension," Lord Klaven said. Lord Savik and his Spiritmaster walked into the entre with the war council. As soon as they stepped into the entre, sheets of thick, black energy crackled to life and surrounded the entre. Damned aristocrats. Always hiding the real interesting parts. Elizabeth’s hand found mine. As I gripped her soft hand, I felt relief flood through me. We’d done it, and we’d survived. Okay, Lord Savik becoming the next Prince of Florida hadn’t been part of our plans, but I considered it an acceptable outcome in my book. I looked at Elizabeth. I could see the hope in her eyes. A few days in Tallahassee to help get Lord – no – Prince Savik settled, and then we could take our wolves home and work at rebuilding Hillsborough. Maybe we could think about getting married before I had to go hunting Lothos. For the longest time, we could only smile wordlessly at each other.

The black energy disappeared. Prince Savik stood in the middle of the War Council. Black robes were draped over him. He was flanked by the two Spiritmasters. The War Council was standing behind him. Prince Savik strode out of his entre and looked out over the lycanthropes in the cravex. The lycanthrope aristocrat who’d been so good with words on our trip up to Tallahassee seemed to need a few minutes to figure out what to say the gathered lycanthropes. My instincts flared a split instant before the crack of the rifle rang out through the cravex. My first reaction was to throw Elizabeth to the ground. I brought up my Commando and started searching for the shooter. I shot a look back at Prince Savik. The still-spinning bullet was held nearly a foot from his head, surrounded by swirling blue and black energy fields. Guns from all sides were out and directed at each faction. Something about the bullet still hanging in the air drew my attention. It was a .338 Lapua round. It wasn’t even silver. None of the lycanthropes in the cravex was holdinh a weapon that fired that round, and any Society operative wouldn’t have used a standard bullet to bring down Prince Savik. What the fuck was going on? I didn’t have to wait long for the answer.

"LYCANTHROPES OF FLORIDA! THE ANCIENT ENEMY APPROACHES! FIGHT AS ONE PACK!" intoned every shaman in the cravex as one. Everyone looked at each other in shock. What the hell was going on? Then, out of the darkness, vampires in true form emerged at the edge of the cravex. Not a small group either. There had to be more than five hundred of the leeches. They were dressed in full tactical gear and holding a mix of assault rifles, submachine guns, and shotguns. More than half of them had the crazed look of dervishes. The lycanthropes immediately trained their weapons at the vampires, but we were surrounded. How in the fucking hell had they managed to get that fucking close?

"THE ABOMINATION AND HIS HORDE APPROACH THE HOLY GROUND!" the shaman spoke as one. A cold chill ran up my spine. "LET THE BLOODCLAW STEP FORWARD AND FULFILL HIS DESTINY!" An evil laugh echoed through the cravex. Lothos strode to the edge of the cravex. He was easily a foot taller than any of the leeches surrounding him. Dark eyes glittered with evil amusement from his flame-twisted features. I looked over at Elizabeth. Terror filled her eyes. I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. It didn’t seem to help. If anything, her fear was now squarely directed at me. Damn.

"Congratulations on becoming the new Prince of Florida, Savik," Lothos said, his voice booming through the cravex. "Honestly, you’re a much stronger lycanthrope than that weasel Blackhawk. I’m sure you would have made a much better Prince. Unfortunately, I could work with Blackhawk. I very much doubt I could work with you."

"You dare attack us on our holy ground?" Prince Savik bellowed back, "You’re more of a fool than I thought Lothos. The Ancestors will ensure your destruction."

"You think I’m scared of your ghosts?" Lothos countered, "I am Lothos. I am the invincible nosferatu. Nothing any of you can do can hurt me."

"Fuck you Lothos, I can make you hurt," I said, stepping out into his view. Lothos looked over at me, and his eyes flared in anger.

"Kill them!" Lothos shouted. Everything seemed to slow down as gunfire erupted from all sides. I wanted to grab Elizabeth and drag her behind some cover, but my instincts were telling me something else. Lothos needed to be dealt with. It was time for me to finish this. I had to trust my friends would protect Elizabeth. I sprinted towards Lothos. I felt bullets zip by me. My Commando chattered as I cut down the leeches who were stupid enough to get in front of me. Lothos just smiled at my charge before sprinting away from the cravex. Snarling, I followed him into the trees. My instincts were screaming danger. Also, where were the fucking powers that were supposed to help me? I didn’t even hear the voice from before. I was really hoping I didn’t have to get beat nearly to death again before the powers activated.

As soon as I stepped outside the cravex, the familiar warmth of the power filled me. All of the cuts from my fight with Blackhawk healed in an instant. I could hear the raging gunfight in the cravex and smell the mix of burnt gunpowder and blood. I wanted so badly to take this new power and lay waste to all the leeches that dared attack the cravex, but I knew what needed to be done. Somehow, I knew that if I killed Lothos, the leeches would break and run. It didn’t make any tactical or strategic sense, but I felt it as strong as my instincts. If I wanted to save Elizabeth and the others, I needed to finish this quickly. With the power coursing through me, I stepped into the wooded area that Lotho chose for our battle.

I felt more than saw the attack. Instinctively, I spun to bring the Commando up. A long silver blade sheared the holographic sight off the top of the Commando and dug into the Picatinny rail. I felt the carbine actually flex from the blow. I triggered a burst, but Lothos was already dancing away. I pivoted and pulled the trigger again. The Commando fired once and jammed. I let the carbine fall on its sling as Lothos laughed. Lothos was dancing between the trees making taunting sounds that echoed through the forest. I slid among the thin tree trunks. He was opening up the range. That made no fucking sense. From our last dance, that was probably the worst thing he could do. Lothos was many things. Stupid wasn’t one of them. I felt the power pulse angrily in me. It wanted Lothos finished – right the fuck now. So did I, but I needed to find him first.

Lothos slid in front of me. I reacted by stepping towards him and punching as hard as I could. As the blow landed on Lothos’s chest, I felt an odd wave of heat pass over me. Then, there was intense pain. I looked down and saw Lothos withdrawing a silver dagger coated in my blood. I stumbled back. Lothos staggered back behind a tree. What the fuck? With the power behind that punch, it should have crushed his chest. Lothos just looked a little bruised and annoyed. I waited for a moment to give the power time to heal up the wound in my side. Instead, the blood continued to ooze down my side. Burning pain radiated as I moved. I didn’t even have time to curse. Lothos was suddenly at my side, that red-stained silver blade flashing down at me. I brought up my hand and a brilliant beam of white light lanced out at Lothos. This time the leech was tossed back ten feet and slammed into a tree. He just laughed and stood back up.

I wasn’t sure what I did, but maybe I could do it again. I raised my hand. Another beam of energy fired from my hand. It hit Lothos in the chest. I wasn’t expecting what happened next. Most of the was drawn away by five glowing points on Lothos’s chest and then ejected out into the air. Only a small amount of the energy made it through to singe his black fur. The leech saw the startled look on my face and laughed. In an instant he was next to me. His arm darted under my feeble block and he drove the dagger deep into my lung. I placed both hands on Lothos’s chest and focused all the power I could into him. The blast was strong enough to shoot Lothos through several trees to land some fifty feet away. I fell to one knee as the pain nearly swallowed me.

"GET UP!" demanded the familiar voice in my head. "DESTROY THE ABOMINATION!"

"In case you haven’t noticed, he’s managed to develop a resistance to the power you’ve given me," I said, "It might help if you would fix me up before I bleed out or suffocate from a collapsed lung." I stumbled over to a tree. I needed the support. It was getting harder to breathe.

"THE ABOMINATION’S ARTIFACT PREVENTS THE HEALING!" the voice said, "DESTROY THE ABOMINATION AND YOUR BODY CAN BE HEALED!" I wasted precious oxygen swearing at the voice in my head. Lothos walked casually back to where I was struggling with standing.

"Did I manage to hurt you badly?" Lothos taunted, pointing at my bleeding wounds with the dagger. Not wanting to waste breath, I gave him the bird. Lothos found that amusing and smirked.

"As much pain as you’ve caused me Badmoon, I still have to thank you," Lothos said. "Every time we fought, you’ve shown me a weakness I had. Now, I am completely invulnerable to anything that you could hope to throw at me." He took a step closer and pointed at something on his chest. It looked like an intricate tattoo placed right where I’d seen one of those glowing points.

"After tonight, there will be no argument as to whether the nosfertus’ alchemy is stronger than you werewolves’ pathetic magicks," Lothos said. That struck something in my mind. He continued to spout off, but I ignored him as new thoughts ran through my head. Lothos was not a natural vampire. He was a creation of that lab I helped destroy back in Hillsborough. That meant those new protection points were alchemical in order for them to work and attached to an alchemically created body. Lycanthrope magicks were based on having the Ancestors using their power to influence the world. Alchemy was strictly relegated to manipulating what magic there was in the natural world. Alchemy was always weaker because it could be disrupted by the objects in the natural world.

I need a low power blast, I thought to the voice in my head, hoping it would hear me. Nothing that will send him flying. I need him standing where he his. Then, I’ll need everything you can give me. It was a gamble, but at this point, everything was a fucking gamble. I brought my hand up and a barely visible beam lanced out. It struck Lothos dead center.

"What the hell was that?" Lothos said, before laughing maniacally, "Are you so weak that you can’t even properly use that fearsome power of yours?" Thankfully, he didn’t topple over in his fit of laughter. I needed him upright for a few seconds more. My hand slid down and gripped the butt of my HK45. I wasn’t the fastest draw in the Guild, but I’ve always been pretty fucking quick with my shot placement. My HK45 snapped up. The green glowing dots lined up. Lothos’s eyes widened in horror as he realized what I was doing. Five shots rang out so fast, they almost sounded like a burst from a submachine gun. I dropped the pistol as Lothos hurled the dagger. I felt the silver blade pierce into my chest. I ignored the fresh blossom of pain. I needed just a second more. I raised my hands.

The darkness of the forest turned to daylight from the intensity of the blast. The beam struck Lothos perfectly. The five glowing points flickered furiously and then blinked out. Lothos howled in pain as his black flesh started to melt. More power poured through me into Lothos. His screams cut off as he erupted in flame. For the briefest second, his body was illuminated, then it was reduced to black ash. The energy beam winked out. I looked down at the pile of ash that had been Lothos. A wind scattered the ash into the forest. It seemed so peaceful. Then, the pain came crashing down on me. I looked down and saw the dagger buried hilt-deep in my chest. I crumpled to the ground. All of the power evaporated from me, along with any strength I had. I couldn’t breathe. All I could feel was pain, flowing blood, and the slowing of my heart. As my body started to shut down, I thought of Elizabeth. I didn’t know why, but I was sure she was safe. It just felt like the truth. Lady Anna as well. I didn’t have the same certainty with the rest of my friends. I would just have to trust that fulfilling my destiny against Lothos meant that they were safe. I grabbed the dagger and yanked it out. More of my precious blood spilled out on to the growing pool under me.

IT IS DONE. the voice said.

I thought you were going to heal me when I killed Lothos, I thought as a new wave of pain wracked my body. I could really use some healing right about now.

THIS IS WHERE IT ENDS. the voice responded. Then the blackness consumed me.

Chapter 25 – A Very Long Conversation, A Decision, and An Ending

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising Chapter 23 – Where’s This Calm Before The Storm They Keep Telling Me About?

After talking with the others, I needed to talk with Elizabeth. Before I did that, it would probably be a good idea to get cleaned up first. Our relationship was shaky enough without the chance of her picking up Lady Anna’s scent on me. Elizabeth might get the wrong idea, or worse, the right one. The last thing we all needed was for Elizabeth and Lady Anna to be fighting while we were trying to survive. I let out a tired laugh as I stepped into my room. Any other time, it would’ve been just a sensational scandal for two beautiful aristocrat females fighting over a lowly Badmoon. Now, it could destroy the alliance before we even got to Tallahassee.

As I stepped into the shower, I replayed the whole encounter with Lady Anna. Looking back, I guess it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. I damned sure didn’t scare Lady Anna the way Elizabeth said I scared her. Lady Anna always understood the demands of my life and profession. She accepted the weirdness surrounding Lothos and me. Ancestors. This was not helping me sort out what I needed to do. Still unsure of what I was going to say to Elizabeth, I headed up to her quarters. Maybe something would come to me on the way. As I came out of the stairwell, I heard the elevator ding across from me. My instincts screamed warnings, and I fell back into the stairwell. Lady Anna walked out of the elevator flanked by one of Elizabeth’s Red Knights. The Knight ushered Lady Anna into Elizabeth’s office. From the look on Lady Anna’s face and the guarded walk of the Red Knight, it looked like Elizabeth summoned her. I had a nasty suspicion why. I crept out of the stairwell over to Elizabeth’s suite. Elizabeth took over the Guildmaster’s suite when the Hillsborough lycanthropes moved into the Guild. Just beyond the door was the Guildmaster’s, now Elizabeth’s, office. Another door led to a small apartment the Guildmaster jokingly called his "bachelor pad." It was simply a combination kitchen and living room with a small bedroom and bath. I opened the door to the office, expecting to find at least one Red Knight standing guard. The office was deserted. It didn’t bode well if both of Elizabeth’s Knights were in the apartment. Fortunately for me, I had been the Guildmaser’s personal hitter, and one of the duties of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter is making sure the Guildmaster is fit for carrying out his duties. Because of that, I was given access to the security cameras in the apartment. I sat down at the desk and typed in my access code. The monitor switched over to the feeds from the cameras. I needed to make sure that those two didn’t attack each other. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do if they did, but I was sure I needed to monitor them. Elizabeth and Lady Anna were sitting across from each other at the small coffee table in the main room. I clicked on their camera and it filled the screen. A Red Knight stood guard at each female’s shoulder. Glasses of amber liquid were set in front of Lady Anna and Elizabeth. They both sat with rigid formality. My instincts screamed danger.

"Thank you for coming to see me," Elizabeth said with a neutral tone. I’d heard that tone before, and it wasn’t good.

"Let’s skip the bullshit pleasantries, and you can tell me why you sent your Knight to fetch me in the middle of the night," Lady Anna replied, glaring at Elizabeth. If Lady Anna’s blunt words disturbed Elizabeth, she didn’t let it show.

"If that’s the way you want, I’ll be just as blunt," Elizabeth said, "Stay away from Mark." Lady Anna sat back in her chair and let out a bark of harsh laughter.

"No," Lady Anna said flatly. Elizabeth looked like she wanted to come across the table at Lady Anna, but she quickly brought her features back to a polished neutrality.

"Yes, you will," Elizabeth said, "We’re about to head into our enemies’ stronghold, and I’m not about to have you messing around with his head. His job is already dangerous enough without your attempts to seduce him." The two females stared at each other for a long moment. I thought that comment was unfair. Elizabeth hurt the hell out of me, but I still managed to do my jobs.

"Do you think I would do anything that would put Ranger at risk?" Lady Anna asked, "Or more risk than he normally puts himself in?"

"What do you think you did with your little display at the pool?" Elizabeth asked in reply, "Mark isn’t like most males. He doesn’t have the experience with us."

"I know that," Lady Anna shot back, angrily, "I can’t believe you were spying on us! Where the hell do you get off doing that to your allies?"

"After what I saw, I had good reason to spy on you," Elizabeth replied coolly, "He and I are putting our relationship back together, and you go play with him like that?"

"What in the hell makes you think I was playing with him?" Lady Anna demanded, "I didn’t tell him one thing that wasn’t true. If anyone’s playing with Ranger, it’s you."

"Me?" Elizabeth asked in shock.

"Yes, you. Don’t play the innocent with me. You screwed Ranger up so badly, he shut down everything but his hunter side when he came down. Do you know how dangerous that is? Especially for him?" Lady Anna asked. Elizabeth looked taken aback.

"You know how we were raised," Elizabeth said, trying hard to get her feet under her. "We always knew our mates would be political. Did you ever think you would find someone you could actually love? So, yes, I acted badly when I didn’t know how to handle all of him. We’re trying to fix that now."

"So what are you going to do when you learn everything about him?" Lady Anna asked, "Are you going to send him away again without an explanation? Destroy him again? He doesn’t have enough friends to bounce back from that. As for me, Ranger doesn’t scare me. Any part of him. I can handle anything he has to deal with. Can you say the same?"

"I’m going to find out," Elizabeth answered.

"That’s not good enough," Lady Anna, "Not for him. You think you’ve got a hard road ahead of you? You’ve got nothing compared to what Ranger has to deal with. He needs someone in his life he can be sure won’t abandon him again because it scares the hell out of her."

"I am his catshen, and I’m not going to lose him again," Elizabeth said, "I’m damn sure not going to lose him to you."

"I’m not about to lose Ranger to you, either," Lady Anna said, "He’s important to me, and too damned important to all of us to risk him with your crush. Why don’t you ask him about what he needs to do, and make damned sure you can handle it before declaring him your catshen? You’ve got no fucking idea what that’s going to entail. Now, by your leave, I actually need to get some sleep." The last words were delivered with a biting sarcasm. Elizabeth waved her hand with a dismissing motion. The Red Knight escorted Lady Anna out of the room. I waited as she came out of the suite.

"A bit harsh weren’t you?" I asked as Lady Anna stepped out of the door. If I surprised her, it didn’t show. The Red Knight, on the other hand, almost drew his pistol. Lady Anna waved him down and looked over at me like she was fully expecting to see me sitting at the desk.

"What is it with you Hillsborough lycanthropes and spying on private discussions?" Lady Anna asked with a cutting coldness.

"Funny thing, I tend to want to make sure that the lycanthropes who’re important to me don’t kill each other," I replied. "If that means spying on them, then so be it." Lady Anna gave a low, mirthless chuckle that disturbed me.

"In some ways, you’re as bad as her," Lady Anna said, "Did you really think either of us would kill the other? Over you? Ranger, you know a lot about hunting, but you don’t know a thing about females. That was simply a dominance fight. One that ended inconclusively in my mind." She gave me a devious smile. "So, what did you think of what you saw?"

"I originally came up here to tell Elizabeth everything," I said, "She needs to know about me. You were right about that. We need to get this finished between you two."

"You know, most males would be ecstatic with having two females fighting over him," Lady Anna commented. "Some might even let it go on so that they could get what they want." Her smile was suggestive. I gave her a hard look in return.

"Most males don’t have to do what I do," I answered. "Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go have a talk with Elizabeth." Lady Anna rolled her eyes.

"Can you trust her not to run away from you again? Especially after she knows?" Lady Anna asked.

"I don’t know, but I won’t find out anything if I don’t tell her," I answered.

"I may be in love with you Ranger, but I’m not willing to be a consolation prize," Lady Anna said. I was about to ask her what the hell that meant, but she traipsed out of the office with the Red Knight in tow. Trepidation filled me as I looked at the door that led to Elizabeth’s quarters. Cursing under my breath, I pulled open the door and walked the short hallway to the suite. The Red Knight materialized in front of me. The look he gave me went past disapproval straight to contempt. We silently stared at each other for a long moment before Elizabeth’s voice broke our contest of wills.

"Who’s there Gregory?" Elizabeth asked, the fatigue clear in her voice as it floated from the bedroom. Then she walked in and I had that momentary feeling of surprise I always felt when I saw her. At least, that’s the best way I could explain it. Joy and fear danced in her eyes as a cautious smile spread across her face.

"I need to speak with you," I said, working hard to keep all my own worry off my face. From the look on her face, it was making my face severe.

"Can it wait until morning?" Elizabeth asked. I shook my head. "Is this about what happened with Lady Anna?"

"Not exactly," I answered. From the questioning look on Elizabeth’s face, that wasn’t a response she expected. She motioned for me to take the same seat that Lady Anna used.

"What does ‘not exactly’ mean?" Elizabeth asked guardedly.

"Lady Anna mentioned to you there were some things that you needed to know about me," I started. "That’s what I came here to do."

"How did she tell you so fast?" Elizabeth asked.

"She didn’t. I saw it on the camera feeds," I answered, motioning to one of the cameras.

"You spied on our conversation?" Elizabeth asked coldly.

"Let’s not go there," I said, firmly. "I happened to see her walk in here. I thought there might be bloodshed, because as I have been reminded, I don’t understand females." Elizabeth snorted a stifled chuckle.

"Yes, that fact occurred to me on more than one occasion," Elizabeth commented, "So, what do I need to know about you that might change our relationship?" Words evaporated from my mouth. Maybe I should have rehearsed what I was going to say before coming up here. There was an uncomfortable silence as I grasped for words.

"Did your father ever talk to you about me?" I asked. She shook her head. "You know the powers that you aristocrats get when you ascend to the throne?"

"Yes, I am familiar with them," she answered, with a slight chill in her words.

"Those don’t work on me. Never have. Your father found out after he tried them on me, so I thought he may have told you about it." Elizabeth looked at me quizzically.

"Not at all?" Elizabeth asked, in shock. "You don’t feel anything?"

"I know when an aristocrat’s using them on me. I can feel them, like tendrils or ropes, but no, I don’t feel what the aristocrat is trying to force on me," I said. I half-expected Elizabeth to move away or do something that told me she was scared of me. Instead, she leaned in and scrutinized me.

"Why?" she asked, with a tone of curiosity. Feeling a bit better, I continued.

"I don’t know, but I think it may have something to do with being a Badmoon," I answered. She cocked her head inquisitively.

"There seems to be a bit more to being a Badmoon than your powers not working on me," I ventured. Her curiosity became more intense. "You’ve heard of the vampire called Lothos?" Everything about Elizabeth went cold at once.

"Yes," Elizabeth said, with a controlled voice, "He is responsible for several of my wolves’ deaths. The few warriors who survived encounters with him has said that he’s incredibly powerful. They said he shrugged off getting shot by silver." From the look in her eyes, Elizabeth wasn’t sure about that last part, but I could tell she wanted Lothos dead. Well, dead again.

"He’s invulnerable to silver," I confirmed, "As well as staking and fire. I know because I’ve done all three to him." Elizabeth’s eyes widened in horror.

"Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? Is he back in Tampa? How is Bradon going to stop a vampire like that?" Elizabeth asked with the rapidity of a machinegun. I came around the table and grabbed up Elizabeth into an embrace. I could feel her slight shakes in my arms. Lothos terrified her.

"He’s not here. Lothos is still in the Disputed Territories, probably gathering the FCV around him. He’ll be dealt with after we finish our business in Tallahassee," I said, trying desperately to comfort Elizabeth.

"How? How are we going to fight something like that?" she shot back, some of her terror slipping through.

"Not we. Me," I said. Elizabeth slipped out of my arms and looked at me with one of those unreadable looks.

"What do you mean, ‘me’?" she asked, in an angry tone.

"I fought Lothos in the Disputed Territories, when we thought we were going after the FCV’s silver cache," I said, "During the fight, something happened. He’d beaten me and was going to kill me, but suddenly I heard this booming voice in my head, and then I was filled with power. Power enough to take down Lothos."

"A voice spoke to you and suddenly you have power?" Elizabeth asked, with a slight skeptical tone to her voice.

"I know how it sounds," I said, "If it hadn’t happened to me, I don’t know if I’d believe it either." Elizabeth didn’t say anything. She just looked at me, like she was hunting something in my eyes, face, and stance.

"I believe you," she said, "You’ve never given me any reason to think you’d lie to me, much less tell me such a wild story. There’s only one thing that’s bothering me. If you had all this power, why didn’t you kill him?"

"Because Lady Anna was badly injured, about to die, and Lothos was threatening to kill every lycanthrope in the warehouse if I didn’t let him escape," I answered. Elizabeth went back to being unreadable. I was pretty sure it was because I mentioned Lady Anna, but I wasn’t about to go down that road.

"So now what?" Elizabeth asked.

"I think I’m fated to fight Lothos again. This time to kill him," I answered, "I’m not sure if I’m supposed to survive that fight or not."

"Oh," was the only sound she made. Then Elizabeth was in my arms and crying. She kissed me gently. "Why does everyone I care about die?"

"Hey, I’m not dead yet," I reminded her. She let out a sorrowful chuckle and hugged me tighter.

"No, you’re not," Elizabeth said, warmly. "Is that everything that Anna was talking about?"

"Yeah," I answered, "Everything you should know before deciding to continue our relationship, or whatever this is." She chuckled at the remark. I kissed the top of her head.

"We have a long day tomorrow," I said, starting to get up, "I should let you sleep on everything." She pushed me back down into the chair.

"No," Elizabeth said, "I’m not going to let you go again."

"Are you sure about that? The packs could get the wrong idea," I said.

"Are you saying you don’t want to stay with me tonight?" she asked.

"Of course I do," I answered, "I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret in the morning, or something that will hurt you with the packs." She kissed me fiercely.

"Mark, what’s the chances of us surviving the next few days?" Elizabeth asked softly, "What’s the chance of you surviving your fight with Lothos, even if we win? I’ve made my decision, and I’m not going to spend what might be our last few days together apart for the sake of propriety." I was confused about Elizabeth’s sudden shift, but I didn’t resist when she led me back to the bedroom.

"My lady?" a voice asked from the darkness, startling me awake. My hand shot for a gun, but it was caught under something. Elizabeth growled at my sudden movements, and snuggled up closer. Where the hell was my pistol?

"Relax," she whispered, before looking up at the Red Knight hovering at the door of the bedroom. The Knight was studiously studying the back wall without looking directly at us. Elizabeth fixed the sheet around her.

"Yes, what is it, Gregory?" she asked. I could see the glint in her eyes of amusement at her Knight’s discomfort.

"Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and the Guildmaster are here demanding to see you," the Red Knight reported, "Apparently, Badmoon has not been seen since last night, and there was some concern among the leadership."

"Fuck," I murmured. Elizabeth just stifled a giggle.

"Why didn’t you just tell them he was in here, Gregory?" Elizabeth asked. The Red Knight blushed brilliantly.

"It’s not my place, my lady," he answered, with perfect neutrality.

"I see," Elizabeth answered, "Please let them know I will be out in a few minutes." The Red Knight did a sharp about-face and strode back out of the room. Elizabeth rose out of bed and walked to a closet. My mental recriminations stopped as all I could do was watch.

"Mark, get dressed," she chided me when she turned to find me staring. "We’ve got a long day ahead of us."

"Oh, yeah," I said, remembering we were supposed to be getting ready to leave for Tallahassee. I looked around the room and started picking up my clothes. It took me longer to get dressed than it should have. I thought it was mesmerizing to watch Elizabeth undress. Why was it just as sexy to watch her get dressed? Elizabeth seemed amused by my antics, although she feigned annoyance. Ten minutes later, Elizabeth walked into her sitting room while I stayed a few steps behind her.

The reactions were diverse. Farmer just smirked as Elizabeth walked in and sat down. Lord Savik looked almost as if he expected it, and more annoyed he wasn’t told. Lady Anna’s face was expressionless, but I could see the flashes of anger in her eyes. Elizabeth gave the other female a look I couldn’t see, but from Lady Anna’s glare, I was half-worried that Lady Anna was going to put a blade in Elizabeth’s chest. Then came a rising wave of shame. Damn it, why did I suddenly feel the need to explain what happened to Lady Anna? Why did I feel like I betrayed her, somehow? Her words echoed in my head. Not knowing what to do, I shut the fuck up and stood off to Elizabeth’s side.

"I’m sorry to worry you," Elizabeth said, "Badmoon needed to talk to me last night."

"Well, now that we’ve dealt with that, I think it’s time we went down and joined our packs," Lord Savik said, "Elizabeth, would you please walk with me?" Lord Savik’s voice had that same tone of disappointment I’d heard from my Guildmaster when I screwed up spectacularly. Elizabeth must have heard something similar because she shot a nervous look back at me. She stood and took Lord Savik’s arm with a look of unconcern. Farmer quickly excused himself to walk with them. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room as Lady Anna and I looked at each other.

"Lady Anna, I think–" I started.

"No, I’m not having this talk with you now. Not the morning after you fucked her," Lady Anna said with a dangerous tone, "Let’s go and get to work."

"No," I said, my own anger rising, "What the hell did you think would happen? I told her everything, and she decided not to walk away from me. What the hell should I have done?"

"Realized that I’m still better for you than her," Lady Anna shot back, "But you’re not going to see that this morning because you’re still riding the afterglow. I’m pissed with her seducing you, and I’m pissed with you being that fucking stupid!" Then she was in my face, tears streaming down her face. My head rocked as she slapped me.

"If you were any other male, I would forget about you right now," she said, "You better realize that she is not going to be around for you when the shit hits the fan before I get some of my pride back." Then she stormed out of the room. I let out a stream of curses as I followed her. Damn it, why couldn’t these things be simple? More importantly, why was there a small part of me that thought Lady Anna was right?

I was still fuming about Lady Anna when I met up with Hangman and Vanessa on the way down to receive our assignments. Getting everyone out of Hillsborough was going to be an all-hands evolution. The only ones that wouldn’t be doing hard labor would be Elizabeth, Lady Anna, and Lord Savik. They would be busy making sure that all the necessary tasks were done and shifting lycanthropes as needed to get them done. That was part of being aristocrats.

"Where the hell have you been?" Hangman asked, "We went to your quarters this morning to get you for breakfast, and you weren’t there. I had to tell the Guildmaster."

"Yeah, I know," I said, not sure what I could tell them. Granted, they knew everything else, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell them all of the night’s events. I needed to tell them something, not just to stave off further questions, but because they deserved to know. They were two of my few friends, and both of them had stuck their neck out for me at one time or another.

"Oh God, you slept with her," Vanessa breathed. Hangman and I both shot her looks of surprise, but for completely different reasons. "That’s why you weren’t home this morning. You spent all night with Elizabeth."

"Would you keep your voice down?" I asked, nearly shouting at her. Vanessa let out one of her girly squeals and hugged me. I think she wanted to jump up and down, but was restrained by the serious looks on our faces.

"Ranger, is Vanessa right?" Hangman asked. His normally happy face was completely devoid of emotion. I nodded, and the fury that came across his face reignited the shame I’d managed to tamp down from my fight with Lady Anna. Damn it, he was right.

"Ancestors, Ranger, how could you have done that? Were you out of your fucking mind?" he asked, sounding like the Guildmaster he was destined to become.

"Sam!" Vanessa interjected, looking at her fiancee with a scandalized look, "Those two are supposed to be together. How can you be so cruel? This is a happy time for them."

"No, it’s not," Hangman said, "They should have waited. Ranger should have made sure of that." Vanessa looked confused.

"I know, I screwed up," I said, "I told her everything. About me, about Lothos, and then things got a bit emotional, and then went too far. I made a mistake. Can you forgive me?" The two of stared silently at each other.

"What the hell is wrong with you two?" Vanessa demanded, "Sam, you’re acting like Mark betrayed you."

"Because I did," I answered. "I let something happen that could sully the reputation of our Lady-Apparent and put her in a bad position with the other lords. Males are supposed to stop these sort of things before they happen, and I didn’t."

"Sullied her? Because you slept with her?" Vanessa asked incredulously, "That makes no sense. Am I sullied because Sam slept with me?" I held up my hand before Hangman could answer. It would be better if she heard it from me.

"You’re not the Lady-Apparent. Plus, you’re kin. The rules are different," I answered. I held up my hand before Vanessa exploded. "You didn’t go through tysach, so you won’t understand what the traditions and customs. It’s not something we talk about a lot outside of tysach." Vanessa was furious, but she just steamed silently.

"Who else knows?" Hangman asked.

"Farmer, Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and the Red Knights," I answered.

"You’ll have to tell Nicholas, but hopefully, no one else will find out," Hangman said, "At least, not until after you’re married."

"Marriage cover all sins?" Vanessa asked, bitterly.

"Something like that," I answered, "At least, it will be mitigated in the eyes of the lords. Or I could get killed fighting Lothos. That’ll probably do it also."

"I think you’re both being stupid, but I’ll keep my mouth shut," Vanessa said, "I’m still happy for you, Mark. Whatever your traditions say, I’m glad the two of you got together last night." We continued the training room on the second floor. Dozens of lycanthropes were listening to instructions from the pack leaders. Nick spotted us as we walked in and motioned us over.

"Vanessa, they’ve got you on data transfer and securing. That Fangbearer wolf and one of the State hunters are waiting for you upstairs," Nick said, "Hangman, they want you in the armory to help distribute what guns we have to the packs. One of the State hunters is in charge. Ranger, you and I get to be ammo carriers. We need to move what ammo there is down to the trucks and make sure everyone has enough." Vanessa gave Hangman a perfunctory kiss on the cheek before dashing off to her assignment. Hangman gave Nick and me a quick wave before also running off.

We need to talk, I hand-signed to Nick as we walked to pick up the ammo from the armory. He just nodded. We barely walked into the armory when one of the state hunters handed over a cart of ammo cans. I looked down at the fifteen green metal boxes. If this was just the first load, we were moving everything with us up to Tallahassee. I hoped they’d detailed a few lycanthropes just to loading magazines if they were thinking we’d need this much ammo. I grabbed the handle and wheeled the cart out. The convoy was being loaded at the Guild garage. It wasn’t part of the Guild the hunters used much because we were in and out enough that we could use the spare garage space in the houses above us. The Guild garage consisted of a dozen vehicle bays where the Guild’s special vehicles were maintained and prepared for missions. Those were gone and the garage was crammed with a collection of about twenty large vehicles – a mix of SUV’s and vans.

"Where are the heavies?" I asked Farmer as he walked up to Nick and me.

"Upstairs in the garages," he answered, "You’ll load those first because they’re going to be lead and trail vehicles in the convoy."

"Joy," I said, and turned the cart around to the elevator. Nick followed me as I moved to the cargo elevator.

"Did you want to talk about your indiscretion last night?" Nick asked, his tone so even I couldn’t tell if it was an inquiry or an accusation.

"I wanted to let you know what happened," I answered.

"I figured it out on my own when I couldn’t find you last night," Nick said. He looked at my face and shrugged, "I guess you already know you screwed up."

"Yes, thank you," I replied, trying to keep the heat out of my voice, "Hangman was more than clear on exactly how bad I screwed up."

"I doubt it," Nick said, "Though, that’s more because Hangman doesn’t fully understand the depth of the situation. Have you told Lady Anna, yet?" That surprised me.

"She found out when the leadership came looking for me," I answered.

"Ranger, that is where you really screwed up," Nick said. I gave Nick a puzzled look, to which he gave one of his few expressions – exasperation. "Ancestors, I hope you didn’t burn that bridge."

"What the fuck, Nick?" I asked, my own frustration coloring my tone, "I thought you wanted Elizabeth and me together. Why are you all of the sudden pushing Lady Anna on me?"

"I was fine with you and Lady Elizabeth when she was just a county lord," he answered, "I was expecting her to stay here while Lord Savik went to deal with Blackhawk. Once, she steps onto the state stage, your relationship is no longer a good fit for either of you."

"I have no fucking clue what that’s supposed to mean," I replied, "What the hell does her being in Tallahassee have to do with our relationship?"

"Ranger, you are not the only lycanthrope who will see Lady Elizabeth as desirable, especially if she shows her strength at the state level," Nick said, "When she gets to that level, do you think a marriage to a Badmoom will be acceptable?"

"Why not?" I asked, "Everyone seems to think it would be a good idea, except for Lady Anna and you. At least I understand her reasoning." Nick’s hand slammed the emergency stop on the elevator. Nick’s normally impassive face was contorted in rage.

"You don’t fucking understand Ranger, I’ve seen this happen before!" Nick yelled, "For Ancestor’s sake, would you quit thinking like a lycanthrope who just got laid and start thinking strategically! I know that’s not something you do normally, but I’d hoped you learned something while you were down in the Disputed Territories."

"Okay Nick, tell me what I should do," I said. I’ll admit, Nick furious scared me a bit. I’d never seen him expressing that much emotion.

"Be prepared to give up Elizabeth, for both your sakes and for the good of Florida," Nick said. "Take a good, hard look at your feelings for Lady Anna." I nodded, and Nick flipped the emergency switch off. The elevator resumed. The rest of the short trip passed in silent. The good part of simple labor is it gave me time to think. I didn’t understand what politics would force me to give up Elizabeth, but I trusted Nick. If he said that it was a possibility, I had to take it as an article of faith. I was in love with Elizabeth, but since my talk – talks– with Lady Anna, I admitted to myself I saw her in a new light. I had never considered Lady Anna as anything but a friend, but could there be more? Ancestors, how did normal lycanthropes deal with things like this? Of course, they didn’t have to deal with things like this. Only someone like me could manage to make his personal life so difficult that the idea of conducting what was, in essence, a coup was actually relaxing.


My phone buzzed as I was loading one of the Suburbans with a case of Silver Shok. I plucked the phone off of my and read the text. Call this number. Scott Franklin. I didn’t know why the State Guildmaster was contacting me, but my instincts told me that it wasn’t some kind of trick by the Society. I redialed the number and motioned for Nick. He walked over looking at the phone with a curious expression.

"Get the aristocrats over here right the fuck now," I said as the phone rang. Nick just nodded and darted over to where the leadership was talking. Nice thing about Nick – once he yelled at me, he let the matter drop.

"Marcus?" the State Guildmaster asked with an uncertain tone.

"Yes sir," I said.

"Excellent," the State Guildmaster said, with palpable relief in his voice, "I would’ve called my own people, but the Society is blocking all those numbers. They don’t know about this phone or yours."

"How is the Society–" I started to ask, but the State Guildmaster cut me off.

"No time. Listen to me. The war council officially removed the Prince from the throne about an hour ago. They’ve also disbanded the State Guild and instated the Society as our replacement. My hunters who were there were rounded up and jailed in the Manor by Society operatives. The Society is invading the Guild right now to get me and the remaining hunters. You need to get here–" He was cut off by a crashing sound. That had to be his office doors being breached. The expected gunshots didn’t sound. The State Guildmaster gave three short presses on one of the keys. That was a hunter signal for Can’t talk. Keep line going. Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Lady Elizabeth joined me. Their Red Knights formed a protective bubble around us. I hit the mute on the phone and punched up the speaker.

"State Guildmaster called me. The State Guild’s being raided by the Society," I explained. "Someone’s just busted into his office."

"Is there something I can do for you Blackhawk?" the State Guildmaster asked.

"You were supposed to surrender yourself and your hunters to the war council a half-hour ago," Blackhawk answered, "As the leader of the Society of the Claw and the Fang, I’m here to arrest you."

"We both know the council doesn’t have the authority to disband the State Guild," the State Guildmaster said.

"Yet, here I am," Blackhawk retorted.

"And what happens when the county chapters rebel against council for your actions against the State Guild?" the State Guildmaster asked.

"They’ll be too busy fighting a war against the leeches," Blackhawk answered. "Even your few remaining hunters not in custody will be too busy helping the counties stay alive to come and rescue you. Like those you sent down to Hillsborough against the Prince’s orders." Metal slid against leather as guns were drawn. For a tense moment, no one spoke.

"I could kill you and neither of your thugs could stop me," the State Guildmaster said.

"Scott, I’ve always thought of you as a pragmatic lycanthrope," Blackhawk said. "Or at least, a relatively pragmatic lycanthrope. Yes, you could kill me, and then my two ‘thugs’ would kill you. What would really be the end result of that? Florida wouldn’t have its two most valuable lycanthropes in the middle of a crisis we haven’t seen since the Great Fatherland War."

"One of my hunters that you haven’t illegally captured will take over the State Guild. As for you, there’s always another courtier willing to be the power behind the throne," the State Guildmaster countered, "Maybe the next one won’t have to bring the state to war just to get power."

"Is that what you think all of this was?" Blackhawk said, "For me to be puppet-master to the next Prince?" Blackhawk let out an evil laugh. "Here I was, thinking that you were just a step behind me. Thinking you were just about to destroy my plans. All that worry, and you have no fucking clue what I am doing. Well, now I’m annoyed. I wasted time, energy, and resources collecting you and your hunters up because I overestimated you." I traded looks with Lord Savik and the two ladies.

Can you tell him? Lord Savik asked with hand-talk. I shook my head. There was no way to tell the State Guildmaster about Blackhawk seizing the throne without betraying that we were listening.

"It’s those kinds of things that cause plots to fall through," the State Guildmaster said, smugly.

"Yes, because I do these things without planning for contingencies like some third-rate villain," Blackhawk snapped, sarcastically. The State Guildmaster snickered.

"Considering the string of failures of your primary operations, the description would be apt," the State Guildmaster said, "Actually, I’m surprised you’ve made it this far without someone killing you."

"Failures?" Blackhawk said, "I’ve turned every setback into an even greater success."

"Including trying to kill Lord Savik?" the State Guildmaster asked, "I think that turned out poorly for you."

"Why am I not surprised that you’ve found out about that?" Blackhawk mused, "Badmoon found the emissary’s report and handed it over to you, I presume?"

"Something like that," the State Guildmaster said.

"I’m regretting not killing that lycanthrope while he was here," Blackhawk said. "I’ll actually admit that was a failure on my part."

"Why didn’t you? He’s a Badmoon. It’s not like anyone in the Manor would or could have stopped you," the State Guildmaster said. "Unless the problem was that you didn’t want to draw attention to yourself with that bit of murder. The entire court would know it had to have been you or your Society if Ranger ended up dead here in the capital. So, that meant you didn’t want any attention drawn to some plot of yours in Hillsborough." There was a brief pause before the State Guildmaster let out a dark chuckle. "You had one of your Society thugs assassinate Lord Vollen, didn’t you?" Elizabeth gasped. Lord Savik reached out and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. Even Lady Anna gave Elizabeth a sorrowful look.

"I really wanted to keep you around, Scott," Blackhawk said, regret filling his voice. For some reason, I suspected it was genuine. "You would have been a great asset in the war. If only you weren’t so damned perceptive."

"Do you really think even your pet war council will believe that I died resisting you?" the State Guildmaster asked. "Do you really think that the rest of the state will believe it?"

"My war council? Of course they will," Blackhawk answered, "Did you think I would have let them convene without ensure that the majority of members owe me their personal loyalty? As to the rest of the state? Well, there are so many ways for opposition lords to be killed during a war."

"The Prince was always such a good judge of character, how did he miss you?" the State Guildmaster asked.

"Miss me? He helped me engineer everything," Blackhawk answered. "Why else would a veteran of the Great Fatherland War let parts of his state fall under leech domination? Who else could have hid the details of what happened in the Disputed Territories from you for so long? Every time I think you’re this omniscient spymaster, you ask something like that."

"Why? Why would the Prince allow himself to be deposed?" the State Guildmaster asked.

"To allow his only son to rise to the throne," Blackhawk answered. There were sharp intakes of breath from the aristocrats.

That explains it, Lord Savik hand-signed. He sees himself as the true heir.

"The Prince had no children," the State Guildmaster said flatly, "He didn’t even take a mate."

"No legitimate children, true," Blackhawk said, "He did have two illegitimate sons."

"You are one of them," the State Guildmaster said, flatly. There was momentary silence on the line, and I guessed Blackhawk must have nodded in answer.

"This still makes no sense," the State Guildmaster said, "The lords would have accepted even an illegitimate son as heir-apparent once the Prince was past sixty."

"Would they have accepted me if they knew I was a taboo son?" Blackhawk asked. The aristocrats traded shocked looks. What the fuck was a taboo son? Did the Prince have a child with another Badmoon? No, that couldn’t be it. From the horror on the aristocrats’ faces, a taboo son was something so frightening that if that were the case, there was no way that Elizabeth or Lady Anna would even have contemplated a relationship with me. This was something else.

"I would have known if a taboo son had been born," the State Guildmaster said, flatly. "If not me, then certainly my predecessor."

"You know what I find amusing? You actually believe that," Blackhawk said. "For your information, I am not the only one running around the state. There’s another. Well, there were two, but one of them was killed recently. Such a waste. To be honest, neither of them knew their true nature, so it’s not surprising you didn’t know about them. I just wanted you to know exactly how badly you’ve failed in your duties before you die." The crack of a pistol shot was followed by the stutter of a suppressed burst from a submachine gun.

"Are you alright, my lord?" an unfamiliar voice asked.

"Yes, thank you," Blackhawk said. He grunted in pain with the sound of movement. "That was very quick work John. If you’d been an instant slower in knocking me out of the way, he might have actually killed me. I’ll take a wound to death any day."

"Sorry, sir, about the mess," another voice said.

"No, you did exactly what you should have Michael," Blackhawk said, "It may make things more difficult, but that was my fault, not yours. I let that bastard trick me into talking instead of just acting. What have we learned today?"

"Never let the need to gloat supersede the job at hand?" John asked.

"How about ‘never gloat’?" Michael countered.

"I think Michael’s closer," Blackhawk said, "Gloating, though very pleasurable, takes up valuable time and can solidify the enmity of your opponent." There was a rustle as the phone was picked up. "It also provides intelligence to whoever might be listening in to the conversation."

"We shut down all of the hunters’ phones," protested John. "He couldn’t call any of his hunters or even any of the lords."

"I know John," Blackhawk said, "So who else could he have called? Any guesses?" There was a pause as Blackhawk waited for answers from his thugs. "Well, I do. Ranger are you there?" I mouthed for the others to stay quiet as I unmuted the phone.

"I’m still here Blackhawk," I said, working hard to keep the fury out of my voice.

"Let me guess. After hearing my conversation, you’re even more determined to come after me and kill me," Blackhawk said, sounding almost bored.

"You ordered Lord Vollen’s murder," I replied. "Not only was he someone I respected, but you set in motion events that ended with my home falling to the vampire."

"For the record, I didn’t order Lord Vollen killed," Blackhawk said, "I did that myself. And you almost killed me, which should have been my first clue that you were too dangerous to let run around unsupervised. I’ll admit you were a nasty surprise that night." Lady Anna clamped her hand firmly over Elizabeth’s mouth. Pain and fury raged in Elizabeth’s green eyes. She fought hard against Lady Anna before letting herself be wrapped up in the other female’s embrace.

"That isn’t making me want to kill you less," I said.

"It wasn’t supposed to," Blackhawk replied, "It was to give you an idea of exactly how dangerous of a target I am. Whether you want to believe me or not, I am just as good a hunter as you are."

"You’re no hunter," I said, malevolence in my voice.

"I didn’t go to the camp, no," Blackhawk agreed, "I was trained by some of the best hunters in the state until I was just as good as them. How else did you think I was able to lead a bunch of former hunters in the Society?"

"By having your daddy tell them they had to play with you?" I taunted.

"For the first to join the Society, but they stayed once I proved to them I was just as capable as they were," Blackhawk answered without a hint of emotion, "At any rate, you should be thanking me for that particular murder. Without that happening, you would never have been able to have a relationship with his daughter. Which is what I’m offering in return for you to give up this crusade of yours."

"What?" I asked, "The last time we talked, you told me that you were going to marry off Elizabeth to another lord and you wouldn’t have her killed if I played nicely."

"That was before you heard something that could actually turn her into a real threat," Blackhawk said, "So, in return for your silence on this, I will allow her to marry you. As long as you stay in Hillsborough, with the occasional help during the war, and as long as Elizabeth doesn’t leave the county, I will let you both live. If, on the other hand, you tell her, or come after me, I will make sure that both of you die. Think about Hillsborough’s lycanthropes. Do you really want to rob them of their last member of the Vollen family?"

"Fine," I snarled into the phone, "Our lives for your secret. Any attempt by you to kill either of us, or any attempt that I even suspect you’re behind, and the deal is off. I will make sure you die."

"See, we can be reasonable," Blackhawk said, "After my coronation as the new Prince of Florida, a proclamation will be sent out declaring Elizabeth Vollen as the new Lady of Hillsborough County, with the caveat that she is to marry you. I’m sure that you will take measures on your end to make sure that I fulfill my end of the bargain, so there’s no need for you to threaten me further. I have enough to do than listen to your very competent threats." With that, he ended the call.

"Why did you agree?" Elizabeth nearly shouted at me. Lady Anna pulled Elizabeth into a comforting hug. It surprised me, but then again, Blackhawk had been responsible for both of their fathers’ deaths.

"Because Blackhawk still thinks these two are dead and the Broward and Dade wolves are still in their counties," I answered, pointing at Lord Savik and Lady Anna. I was trying to keep my mind in job-mode, but seeing Elizabeth in pain was making that difficult.

"Do you think he believed you?" Lord Savik asked.

"I doubt it," I answered, "I think he believes that he bought himself some time for his Society assassins to come after me. Maybe Elizabeth as well. At any rate, we have at least four hours before any of his minions can do anything."

"Four? I would have thought at least six," Lord Savik said.

"Unless he’s flying them in," I said.

"Damn, I didn’t think about that," Lord Savik said. "Will we be ready to move in less than four hours?"

"Probably," Nick said, "We may have to leave some stuff, but we can be ready to move in four hours."

"Can I ask you a question?" I asked. Lord Savik gave me a knowing look.

"You want to know what a taboo son is?" Lord Savik asked. I nodded. "Do you remember when we talked about how aristocrats generally don’t marry or mate with non-aristocrats?"

"It was the reason for the strong extra-marital sex taboo," I said, shame from what happened last night coloring my face. "So Raven was a taboo son because the Prince had a child with a non-aristocrat?"

"No," Lord Savik said, hesitantly, "You’ll have to excuse me, but this isn’t something we talk about outside the aristocracy. We marry outside the aristocracy, particularly when a powerful pack leader is being brought into the fold. There’s also the small fact that aristocrats can’t help falling in love anymore than any other lycanthrope." He looked meaningfully at the two ladies-apparent.

"There is one mating that can never happen. A taboo son is what happens when an aristocrat and a shaman have a child," Elizabeth said. "They’re always male, always powerful, and always unstable. The Guildmasters are supposed to kill any taboo son once their identity is revealed." She turned to Lord Savik. "He needs to know what we’re facing."

"Did you even suspect we were dealing with a taboo son when I told you about Raven?" I asked Lord Savik.

"Yes, but since he was dead, I didn’t think you needed to know," Lord Savik said, "It never occurred to me that there might be another, much less two."

"So who is the last one?" Elizabeth asked. "Blackhawk said that there were two others, but one was killed. I’m assuming that was this Raven individual you’re talking about."

"Maybe that’s why Blackhawk doesn’t want Ranger anywhere near him," Lady Anna said. "He’s already killed one of the taboo sons."

"I think it has more to do with the fact that Ranger is too unpredictable and dangerous to be let wandering around loose in the state when Blackhawk is trying to pull off a very complex plot," Lord Savik said. There was a dark chuckle from the two females. I’ll admit I got a bit of an ego boost from that.

"Let’s get back to work if we’re going to leave in time," Nick said. The aristocrats nodded and went back to supervising the work. I grabbed Elizabeth as she walked past and pulled her into an embrace.

"I am so sorry," I whispered to her.

"Don’t," she said, putting her finger across my lips. "There will be time to deal with all of this after we kill Blackhawk." All I could do was nod.

"Nick, there’s one other thing," I said as I shoved another metal box of ammunition into the truck. He quirked up an eyebrow. "Whatever happens, make sure Blackhawk is dead before the week ends."

"Is that all? I thought that was already a forgone conclusion," Nick answered simply. This is why Nick was probably my best friend.


Three hours and forty-five minutes later, I climbed into the shotgun seat of one of the Suburbans. Behind me sat Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Elizabeth, Farmer, and the Disputed Territories Guildmaster, as well as the four Red Knights. Fangbearer was driving. All of the packleaders, as well as the Disputed Territories Spiritmaster and Eagle, protested putting all of our leadership in a single vehicle. Especially with only a single hunter – and a disreputable one at that – to provide additional security. The barb annoyed me, but this time I agreed with the packleaders. Not about the disreputable part, but I kept having visions of a single attack wiping out the aristocrats. None of the packleaders had the ability or gravitas to pull this assault together without at least one of the aristocrats. Unfortunately, all three of them got that muley look on their faces when we brought up our concerns, so I just shrugged and made sure the aristocrats were as close to the center of the vehicle as possible. I racked my Commando into the clip under the dash and placed the MP5K PDW on my lap. Fangbearer looked at the two weapons and my vest stuffed with spare magazines. His look silently asked if I thought I brought enough toys. I restrained the urge to give him the finger, which I thought of as a personal growth victory. The aristocrats were busy giving last minute instructions and reassurances to the group of lycanthropes we were leaving behind. Twenty Hillsborough lycanthropes and a State hunter were left to guard the Guild in case Society operatives came around looking for Lady Elizabeth. Actually, the hunter and about five of the others were the guards. The others were too wounded too bring with us. Still, proprieties needed to be maintained. The wounded were also charged with protecting the Guild, and from the looks on their faces, I didn’t doubt they would do their best to kill any Society fucker that showed his face. Now we were ready to go. The first wave of four vehicles left shortly after the call from the State Guildmaster. We would meet up with them in Brooksville. A third wave of six vehicles would leave a couple hours after us and join us in Brooksville. The idea was to form up before crossing into a county and then disperse as we moved through.

Ours was the largest of the waves. Ten vehicles loaded with fifty of our hundred lycanthropes. Although we were staggered as we drove up Dale Mabry Highway two SUVs stuck to the aristocrats’ Suburban. There was only a pair of lycanthropes in each of them, but they were there to provide a screen for our truck in case the Society decided to deploy anti-armor weapons. Not likely, but I wouldn’t put anything past the Society at this point. I really didn’t want to dwell on that idea. Nick was driving one of the vehicles. Hangman was driving the other.

"Ranger, we’ve got an issue," said one of the state hunters from our scout vehicle a couple of miles ahead. "You’re going to need to pull into the Wal-Mart at the apex of Dale Mabry and 41." I looked back at the aristocrats. The hunter said issue, not problem, which meant it was something that had to be dealt with, but not necessarily with firepower.

"Best guess, it’s the Pasco County lycanthropes," I concluded.

"They haven’t been guarding the border for the last two days, and now they suddenly show up?" Fangbearer asked, "I don’t like it. It’s a trap."

"Or an opportunity," Lord Savik said, "We’re going to have to take that chance. Alert the rest of the convoy." The tension ratcheted up as the convoy merged. If it was a trap, we needed to bring the mass. I grabbed my Commando and slung the small MP5K. If this was going to get violent, I wanted the heavier-hitting 5.56mm. Ours was the next to last vehicle in the line as our group pulled into the parking lot. The scout car was surrounded by six Pasco County deputy cars as well as five large pickup trucks. I was willing to bet a mix of kin and lycanthropes. This was going to be fun. Six of our vehicles pulled into a line abreast, giving us an impromptu firing line. The rest of us pulled behind them. There was an eerie quiet as all the motors were turned off. A single lycanthrope walked out in front of our two groups. As he came into view, I swallowed hard. It wasn’t everyday you saw a county lord step into the middle of two armed groups. Especially without being surrounded by Red Knights.

"Lady Elizabeth, would you please come out?" Lord Hauser asked, "We need to talk. I promise, we do not want to harm any of you."

"Stay here, Anna," Lord Savik said, "Elizabeth, if you will come with me. It’s been a while, but it would be good to talk to an old friend." The two aristocrats stepped out of the truck. Lord Savik waved back the Red Knights. If Lord Hauser was willing to meet without them, we were going to reciprocate, much to the Knights’ dismay. I didn’t care. I stepped out of the truck and stood by the engine block with my Commando at the low ready. Elizabeth gave me an indulgent smile as she passed by me.

"Tell me you miked them," I said back to the Red Knights.

"Damn straight," Lord Savik’s senior Red Knight said.

"Can you feed it to me?" I asked.

"Channel six," the Red Knight said. Flipping the dial on my radio to the frequency, I heard Lord Savik telling Elizabeth he hadn’t seen Lord Hauser for several years.

"Ancestors, Erik, I couldn’t believe my eyes when you stepped out of that truck," Lord Hauser said, warmly "I thought you were dead." The two lords hugged briefly. "Lady Elizabeth, you’re looking more and more like your mother."

"Thank you sir," Elizabeth said, her head dipping down with pleasant embarrassment.

"That being said, what the hell are you doing breaking the quarantine through my county?" Lord Hauser asked, his voice suddenly becoming formal.

"We’re going to confront the war council before it selects the bastard dog who sold out my county to the vampires as the new Prince of Florida," Lord Savik answered flatly. Lord Hauser stepped back in shock "Believe it John. The bastard has already killed the State Guildmaster and admitted the majority of the war council is in his pocket."

"How do you know this?" Lord Hauser asked.

"You know the Badmoon?" Lord Savik asked.

"Of course I do," Lord Hauser answered, sounding slightly disgusted, "What does he have to do with this?"

"Blackhawk, the bastard dog, sent him to Disputed Territories to bring me out. Or at least, that’s what Blackhawk told Badmoon. Actually, it was so Badmoon could lead an assassin to my door," Lord Savik said, "So, between being used to betray me and learning Blackhawk was behind my counties’ fall as well as the death of Lord Vollen, Blackhawk’s managed to piss Badmoon off quite nicely. I imagine you know his reputation from your Guildmaster? Blackhawk tried to buy him off. Blackhawk doesn’t know I’m still alive and coming for him." There was a long silence as Lord Hauser looked between Lord Savik and Lady Elizabeth.

"For the love of the Ancestors, if you aren’t sure if you can believe it, why don’t you just Look?" Elizabeth asked. I didn’t know what Look was supposed to mean, but the capitalization was clearly stressed in her voice. Whatever it was, both Lord Savik and Lord Hauser froze in shock at her words. I looked back and saw that Lady Anna, Fangbearer, and the Knights were similarly shocked.

"Would you let me Look, Erik?" Lord Hauser asked with trepidation.

"Yes, but it won’t be easy for you," Lord Savik answered gravely, "The last few years have been tumultuous, to say the very least. Don’t let yourself get pulled into the storm." Lord Hauser nodded. The two lords stood across from each other and stared into each other’s eyes.

"I can’t believe Lord Savik let him do that," Fangbearer breathed.

"It makes a certain amount of reckless sense," Lady Anna said, "Maybe she is learning from Ranger."

"Would either of you explain before I get twitchy and shoot something?" I asked, with an overly polite voice. Lady Anna stepped out of the truck, walked over to me, and then got very close. I struggled to keep watching the Pasco lycanthropes in case something needed killing. I could feel her warm breath against the side of my face.

"Looking isn’t something we talk about," Lady Anna whispered into my ear, "It’s telepathy, but so much more. Lord Hauser is looking into Uncle Erik’s mind. He can see everything. Anything that Uncle Erik knows or feels. The stronger the emotions, the thoughts, the mind, the easier it becomes for someone to get lost." Something in the way she said the last word made me shudder. "It’s why we don’t use Looking except on rare occasions. Everyone has something they don’t want others to know, and no one wants to chance that they’ll never come out of it. Then, there’s times like these." She paused for a long moment. "I wonder what would happen if you Looked with that female."

"From the way you’re talking, it takes two aristocrats to do Looking," I said.

"True, but I’m starting to wonder exactly what your limits are," Lady Anna said, with a mischievous lilt in her voice. "If she won’t, I will. There’s nothing in you that could scare me. And there’s nothing in my mind that I’d hide from you."

"You don’t know that," I said, "Hell, I don’t know that. Why would you even consider it?"

"Why do you think?" she asked. Before I could say anything, Lady Anna was back in the Suburban. What the hell was that all about? First, Lady Anna is screaming at me for sleeping with Elizabeth, and then offering to let me read her mind? I pushed it to the back of my mind and focused harder on the Pasco lycanthropes. Then Lord Hauser collapsed. The Pasco lycanthropes tensed and a few weapons came out. Our wolves responded with more guns. Most of the weapons were simply being brandished. Except for one – a Pasco hunter trained an M4 at Lord Savik. I placed the holographic reticle on the hunter’s head. If I saw him tighten on the trigger, I was going to put a silver 5.56mm round through his fucking head. Lord Savik went down to help Lord Hauser. The Pasco hunter tracked Lord Savik before realizing that I was zeroed on him.

Back off, the Pasco hunter hand-signed. I flipped him the bird and kept my Commando trained on him.

I can kill him faster than you can kill me, the hunter hand-signed.

And you and your lord will both be dead, before anyone can stop me, I hand-signed back, I win.

Are you fucking nuts? he hand-signed furiously.

No, I’m a Badmoon, I replied. The Pasco hunter froze. After a heartbeat, his weapon rose until it was pointed safely skyward. Sometimes playing into my reputation was useful.

"Ancestors, Erik, how have you managed to remain sane?" Lord Hauser croaked as Lord Savik helped the Pasco lord to his feet.

"Not easily," Lord Savik said, grimly. "I’m still not sure if I am." Lord Hauser let out a bitter laugh.

"I’ll admit I have my own reservations," Lord Hauser said, seriously, "I’ve seen how hard it’s been for you Erik, but trusting a Badmoon, much less a vampire. I’ve heard of Bradon. He’s one of the most dangerous vampires this area’s seen in a generation, and now he has the entire TCV at his beck and call."

"Badmoon made it very clear that we can trust Bradon only so far as our goals are the same, and after meeting the vampire, I’m of the same mind," Lord Savik said. "In this case, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, if just a temporary one."

"The same Badmoon who was sent to kill you and miraculously comes up with all the evidence you need to come out of hiding," Lord Hauser retorted, "The same Badmoon that managed to seduce the young lady." He shot Elizabeth a withering look.

"John, stop. Could Badmoon be a false flag from the Society?" Lord Savik asked, "It’s possible, but it has to be the most elaborate false flag in the fucking history of our race. That hunter has done more for my counties and Hillsborough than almost any other lycanthrope. He made some mistakes." Lord Savik shot a similar withering look at Elizabeth, who quickly looked down as her face reddened. "But, I think his contributions easily outweigh whatever reservations you have about him." Lord Hauser gave Lord Savik a long look that clearly said he was unconvinced about me.

"I can’t go with you Erik, but I will help," Lord Hauser said, "I will send word to the other lords on the way up to Leon County as well as my endorsement. I’ll also send a contingent from Pasco. Can you give me an hour?"

"Yes, but your wolves and mine have to be at your northern border within the hour," Lord Savik answered, "Time is not our friend."

"Understood," Lord Hauser said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small metal case. Flipping it open, Lord Hauser handed Lord Savik a business card. "My contingent will meet you here. Give the kin this. They will take care of your lycanthropes."

"Thank you John," Lord Savik said, his voice husky.

"It’s the least I could do. I should’ve come to your aid when the Prince sealed your borders. I knew it was wrong, but…" Lord Hauser’s voice trailed off.

"We all make mistakes. Even young ladies-apparent," Lord Savik said pointedly, "I don’t harbor any ill will John. Not towards you. I just want you to keep in mind how you feel right now about what happened when you’re dealing with Lady Elizabeth in the future, or what you tell the other lords."

"I’ll keep it in mind," Lord Hauser said, pointedly not looking at Elizabeth. "Just give me time to think about it." The two lords embraced again, then both parties walked back to their sides.

"Thank you," Elizabeth said quietly as they walked back to the Suburban.

"You are my ally, and I take those seriously," Lord Savik, "That was a risky gambit. It helped our cause, but may have hurt you. Actions have consequences, including to who you give your heart."

"You’re right, of course. So what do I do now?" she asked.

"I’ll answer that when we’re not being monitored by everyone," Lord Savik said with a warmness that brought a smile to Elizabeth’s face. Nothing else was said as they finished crossing to the Suburban and climbing in. From the look on Lady Anna’s face, I was damned sure it was going to be an interesting trip up to Tallahassee.

Chapter 24 – Time For The Last Dance

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising Chapter 22 – Treaties and Complications

"Well, that is an interesting sight," Fangbearer said from the front seat of the van. "The border is completely unguarded." The convoy of a dozen vans, trucks, and cars carrying all of the lycanthropes out of the Disputed Territories was now in the second day of the journey to Hillsborough. Getting out of the Disputed Territories was disturbingly easy. It didn’t seem like there were any of the normal guards on the border between Broward and Collier, nor did anyone shadow us. Best guess was everyone was looking north. To keep us off everyone’s radar, we stayed off the main roads and navigated through the back roads. For the final stretch into Hillsborough, Lord Savik ordered something bold. Our full convoy was driving into Hillsborough up I-75 in broad daylight. Lord Savik had been friendly with the Lord of Manatee County for many years prior to the fall of the Disputed Territories. He was convinced Lord Kant would help rally the southern aristocracy to our side in the coming fight. Or at least, Lord Kant could help keep them the hell out of our way.

"Well, that is very interesting," Lord Savik said, walking up to the front of the van. "Paul was always very conscientious about his duty. So why would he pull his guards off the border?"

"Could they be hidden?" Lady Anna asked.

"We’re less than two miles from the border," Lord Savik said, "If they wanted a chance of stopping us without attracting undue attention, I very much doubt they’d be hidden at this point. There aren’t even any unmarked police cars around."

"They were pulled off," Nick said quietly. The others in the van turned back to look at the tall hunter. "The quarantine is not being enforced. Just like the quarantine of your counties wasn’t being enforced when we left. Why else do you think we had such an easy time of leaving?"

"That makes no sense," Lady Anna said, "Why would the Prince tell his lords not to enforce his own quarantines? Especially after pushing it so hard?"

"Because the Prince is not in charge anymore," I said, following Nick’s logic. "He’s surrendered his throne to the war council. That’s always the first step isn’t it? It’s not like any of the counties surrounding ours were ever happy about the quarantines. The moment they wouldn’t have to enforce them, they wouldn’t." The others in the van didn’t answer me, but the cold looks on Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Fangbearer were all the confirmation I needed.

"Should we go to the Manatee Manor?" Fangbearer asked. "It was your plan to try and get Lord Kant on our side." Lord Savik shook his head.

"That would be useful, but we don’t have the time to waste. How fast can we get to your Guild?" Lord Savik asked me.

"Maybe another forty-five minutes," I answered. "If traffic doesn’t get bitchy around Brandon."

"It’s time to make your call," Lord Savik said. I nodded and moved to the very back of the van. I pulled out the burner phone. It had one purpose. I hit the speed dial. Two rings and I heard the familiar voice.

"Ranger, you’re alive?" Farmer asked. I think he was surprised by the call, but it was hard to tell with Farmer. The only other lycanthrope I knew who used less inflection in his voice was Nick.

"Job’s completed," I said, "Expect delivery of package in forty-five minutes. Better clear out some space. The package is pretty big." Farmer cupped the mike of the phone and talked to someone on his end. Although I couldn’t make out the words, I could hear the unmistakable tones of Elizabeth’s voice. Ache violently ripped through me. I fought to tamp my emotions down. I needed to focus on finishing the job. I could deal with all of those emotions after the job was done.

"Don’t deliver here," Farmer said, "The local hooligans have been acting strangely. There’s concern it might not be safe for delivery, and they’re prepping for some shenanigans."

"We might have answers for that," I replied, "We need to talk about that in person."

"Hold one." Farmer talked with Elizabeth and some other lycanthropes for a few moments. From the volume of voices, the discussion got a little heated. Then Farmer came back on the line.

"Can you get to the university area?" Farmer asked.

"Yeah," I answered.

"Go to Lettuce Lake Park," Farmer said, "We’ll have someone meet you there. Top end to come here first, then we’ll figure out how to distribute the rest of the product." The phone cut off. I closed the phone and looked up to see Lord Savik and Lady Anna looking at me with expectant eyes. I quickly summed up the conversation.

"You think this strange activity by the local leeches is the work of Bradon?" Lord Savik asked.

"Yes, milord," I answered. "He told us he would pull his vampires off to let us deal with Blackhawk. To the Hillsborough packs, that would certainly look like the calm before the storm."

"I wish we had some confirmation," Lord Savik said. The van suddenly swerved as a red convertible cut us off. The passenger in the convertible stood up and motioned for us to follow her car. I groaned as soon as I saw the woman’s face.

"What’s that human saying? ‘Be careful of what you wish for?’" I asked. "Follow that car."

"Why?" multiple voices demanded.

"Because that’s one of Bradon’s ghouls," I answered. "I imagine she’s got a message for us." Lord Savik motioned for the Red Knight driving to follow the car. Fangbearer informed the rest of the convoy what was happening and told them to be ready to disperse. I doubted it was a trap, but in the current situation, paranoia was more likely to keep us alive. The car took the next exit and pulled into a fast food parking lot. Our van and one of the packs’ trucks followed. The rest of the convoy pulled into other businesses. Close enough to help out, but not close enough to draw attention. The female ghoul stepped out of the car and walked into the restaurant.

"I’ll go meet her," I told the others, "We have history. Nick, care to backstop me?" He nodded and moved to the door.

"Wait, why him?" Lady Anna asked.

"Ranger’s worked with me longer than anyone else in this car," Nick answered, "I know how to react if this goes badly." Then he stepped off the van. Lady Anna didn’t looked pleased.

"He’s right," I said, "In the same situation, would you rather have me or Cracker backing you up?" Lady Anna scowled and then turned away from me, which was all the answer I needed.

"If this goes sideways, you know what to do," I said to Nick as we walked up to the restaurant. He nodded. His job would be to take out the driver of the convertible to prevent him from reporting back, and then to get Lord Savik and the Disputed Territories’ wolves out of here. I was back on my home turf. I could find my own way to the Guild. The job always came first.

"What’s the signal?" he asked.

"If I drop the flash-bang in my pocket," I answered.

"Why am I not surprised?" Nick asked, with a resigned tone.

"Because I’m nothing if not predictable?" I retorted.

"Predicatable wasn’t the word I was thinking of," Nick said. He moved to the side of the building and pulled out his cell phone. To the rest of the world, Nick looked like he was taking a phone call. Perfect reason for loitering outside. Taking a deep breath, I went into the restaurant. Briana was sitting at a booth in the corner, sipping at a drink. She looked up at me with the familiar intense eyes of a ghoul. Her face contorted into a grimace as she recognized me. Well, we did have history. Just not good history.

"I’m surprised you’re alive," I said as I slipped into the booth. "It makes me kind of sad you weren’t part of the initial kills." The ghoul gave me a frozen look.

"I’m not here for small talk," Briana said sourly, "Phillip wants to meet with your leadership tomorrow night. Neutral ground. He guarantees safety."

"Why does he want to meet?" I asked. "We’ve already discussed what he wants from my leaders."

"He wants to formalize the arrangement. He wants a proper treaty between the Tampa Council and your leaders," Briana answered. She pulled a small burner phone from her purse. "You can call him on this when your leadership agrees. He was very clear that it needed to be either you, Lord Savik, or the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough who uses the phone. Anyone else, and he will assume there was a coup and the war between us is still on." As soon as I picked up the phone, Briana stood up and stormed out of the restaurant. I waited a few moments to take the battery out of the phone and put them both in my pocket. It probably was exactly what it seemed, but cell phones were often a double-edged sword. Better to be cautious. I walked out of the restaurant and started back to the van. The convertible was speeding out of the parking lot as Nick walked over to me. I hand-signed that everything was good. He just nodded as we walked up to the van.

"Well?" Lord Savik asked as we climbed in.

"You’ve been invited to a dinner party," I answered. "Bradon wants a meet after you’ve had a chance to talk with the Lady-Apparent. He wants to formalize the agreement between you."

"I didn’t bring my good suit," Lord Savik quipped, but the humor was lost with his tired tone. Lady Anna gave her uncle a worried look. He waved her off.

"Let’s get to this park of yours Ranger," Lord Savik said, "Time is not our ally."

The leadership team who made the first trip to the Guild included Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Fangbearer, the three packleaders, the Guildmaster, the Spiritmaster as well as Nicholas, Hangman, Vanessa, and me. Carl, the lycanthrope Vanessa and I encountered at USF’s library was leading the lycanthropes escorting us to the Guild. Another team was responsible with dispersing the rest of the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes until it was time to bring them in as well. We were met in one of the houses above the Guild by Elizabeth, Farmer, two of the surviving Hillsborough pack leaders, and Eagle, who was leading the State hunters in Hillsborough. Lord Savik was the first out of the cars, followed quickly by Lady Anna. The rest of the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes stayed in the cars.

"My lady, I come asking your aid and comfort for the lycanthropes under my protection," Lord Savik said, invoking the formal request of sanctuary, "I will accept whatever terms you require." Lady Anna mirrored the words.

"I request no terms beyond the laws of the packs," Elizabeth answered with the same formality, "You will sit with me as equals. Please be at ease in my domain." She smiled at the two aristocrats. Ancestors, why did she have to be so damned beautiful? The rest of the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes joined us. She swept our group with her brilliant eyes. As they locked on mine, her smile wavered just a bit.

"My lady, shall we continue this downstairs?" Farmer asked. He hand-signed that he wanted Nick, Hangman, and me to stay up here for a bit. Elizabeth just ignored the intricate hand signs and gave another of her dazzling smiles.

"Of course," Elizabeth answered, "Would you please follow me?" She led the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes and the Hillsborough packleaders down into the Guild proper. Farmer and Eagle stayed behind to talk with us. Farmer walked over to Nicholas.

"Damn it’s good to see you, Nicholas," Farmer said, shaking the tall lycanthrope’s hand, "I thought you were banished from the state." Nick gave me a smug look that clearly asked "if-he-can-say-my-name-properly, why-can’t-you?" I just shrugged and gave him my best mocking smile.

"My leaving was interrupted," Nick answered, "At the moment, that’s all I can tell you." Farmer just nodded, but Eagle didn’t look happy at the statement. He was willing to follow Farmer’s lead for the moment.

"Ranger tells me your the Guildmaster now," Nick continued.

"Not much of a Guild, but yes," Farmer said, "Eagle’s hunters have been very helpful in giving us some room to breathe. He’s also been helping me train some of the warriors. Now, why have all the leeches seem to have disappeared? We haven’t so much as seen a patrol out for the last two nights."

"Lord Savik will explain," I answered. Farmer gave me an annoyed look. "Look, there’s a reason why you should hear it from him." Farmer gave me a hard stare for a few moments. I’m sure it was very intimidating to the pack warriors, but it was nothing compared to the looks my Guildmaster gave me.

"Ranger, would you do me a favor and go outside for a few moments?" Farmer finally said, "I need to speak to Nicholas and Hangman." I nodded and walked outside. Vanessa followed me.

"Doesn’t it bother you that he sent you out here?" Vanessa asked as we stood on the sidewalk.

"A little, but he’s the Guildmaster," I answered, "I’m not his personal hitter, so it’s up to him if I have a need to know what he’s talking to them about."

"But don’t you want to know?" she asked. I had to admit I was curious. I’d grown used to being in on high-level meetings and knowing what was going on in the Guild. It made me slightly anxious there was something going on I didn’t know about. How in the hell had I operated those years before I became the Guildmaster’s hitter?

"Elizabeth looked nice," Vanessa said with a cautious tone. The sudden change of topic caught me off-guard.

"Yeah," I said, trying very hard not to think about her.

"She wasn’t shooting daggers at you with her eyes when she saw you," Vanessa said, the barest hint of hope in her voice. "Much better than when we here last time."

"She was just being polite to Lord Savik and Lady Anna," I said, refusing to give into that slight hope. There was nasty pain down that road. Pain that I really didn’t want to deal with at the moment.

"Maybe," Vanessa said. I whirled on the kin.

"Vanessa, that female hates me," I said, "She’s just willing to pretend otherwise for the guests that I brought back for her. It’s politics, nothing else."

"Maybe," Vanessa repeated. Before she could say anything further, Farmer came outside and motioned for us to return. We were led down to the main conference room on the first level of the Guild. The Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes were around the head of the table with Elizabeth at the head. The four remaining Hillsborough packleaders were just down the table. Farmer sat down next to Elizabeth while the rest of us crammed around the end. Nick was nice enough to sit at the foot of the table so I didn’t have to look directly at Elizabeth. It looked like the initial pleasantries and introductions had been completed.

"I think it is time to get down to business," Lord Savik announced as he stood up, "Although we have asked for your aid and comfort, I did not abandon my counties simply to join your battle here. I am here to ask you if you will ally your county with mine against the war council." The room fell to dead silence.

"Why in the Ancestors’ names would we go against the war council?" one of the Hillsborough packleaders asked, "They’re the only way we will liberate this county."

"Because the lycanthrope they’re about to select as the new Prince of Florida is responsible for the fall of our counties and has been colluding with the Florida Council of Vampire," Lord Savik answered.

"What are you talking about? Our county fell because the TCV swamped the Manor with more vampires than we thought they could have," another of the Hillsborough packleaders said.

"Your war and the defeat at your Manor was orchestrated by the lycanthrope in question with the assistance of his vampire allies in the FCV," Lord Savik answered, "Just as he orchestrated the near elimination of the packs in my counties."

"We went to war because those leeches were behind the murder of our lord," the first packleader said.

"You went to war because you thought the leeches killed your lord," Lady Anna said, "Or at least your lord’s successor did." Elizabeth’s eyebrow rose, but Lady Anna studiously ignored her. Instead, Lady Anna looked at me.

"Tell them," Lady Anna said to me. I looked up at Lord Savik who nodded.

"Tell us what?" Elizabeth asked, her voice cool and controlled. I stood up.

"The Guildmaster suspected the individual who sent your father’s assassin wasn’t a vampire, but another lord," I answered. The table erupted in gasps of shock.

"The hunters were helping the Knights’ investigation into the vampires," Elizabeth said breathlessly, "Everything they found pointed to the TCV."

"Yes, but the Guild was running two investigations at the time," I said, "One with the Knights, while the other was looking for evidence against one of the lords. After what I learned in Dade and Broward from Lord Savik, I don’t think it was a lord behind your father’s death. I believe it was the Society of the Fang and the Claw." Elizabeth didn’t say anything for a long moment. There was nothing I could read on her blank face.

"Aren’t you working for them?" Elizabeth asked. "This Society?"

"I was recruited by the Society after Nick, Hangman, and me reported to the Prince what happened in Hillsborough," I answered, "I believe the leader of the Society recruited me so he could send me down to Dade and Broward to find Lord Savik so his assassins could kill the lord. Or me. Or both."

"We have the evidence," Lord Savik said, "At least of Blackhawk, the lycanthrope in question, ordering my death and the deaths of my packs. As well as his involvement with the FCV. If we present the council with the evidence, we can force them to order his execution. Then, we can make sure whoever is chosen to become the next Prince of Florida will liberate our counties."

"Where did you get this evidence?" Elizabeth asked.

"We seized it in a raid on what we thought was the FCV’s silver ammunition stash," Lord Savik answered. "What we actually found was the reason you lost your Manor. The FCV developed a means of ‘mass-producing’ vampires. These dervishes, as the FCV calls them, are more savage and less intelligent than normal vampires. The perfect foot soldier in a war with the lycanthrope. The Tampa Inner Councilmember, Silanti, acquired enough of them to overwhelm your forces at the Manor. We believe this was a field test of the dervishes." The Hillsborough lycanthropes traded startled looks.

"That certainly sounds like what we fought at the Manor," Farmer said, "Did you manage to destroy the FCV’s manufacturing facilities in your raid?"

"No, we ran into stiffer resistance than expected," the Guildmaster said, "It was either extract or die."

"What’s to stop Silanti from bringing more of these dervishes to Hillsborough?" asked a Hillsborough packleader.

"Well, to start, Ranger killed Silanti," Lady Anna said, giving the Hillsborough lycanthropes a defiant look. The Hillsborough packleaders turned to look at me in stunned amazement. Farmer’s look was more "why didn’t you tell me that earlier?" Elizabeth was still unreadable.

"As glad as I am that Silanti is no longer going to trouble my county, what’s to stop the next leader of the Tampa Council to start importing these things from the FCV?" Elizabeth asked.

"Because I have been given assurances by the new leader of the Tampa Council," Lord Savik answered. "He is willing to reinstate the Peace in Hillsborough and return to status quo ante bellum." The room erupted with the shouts from the Hillsborough packleaders. Elizabeth waved them all down.

"The TCV nearly wiped out all of my packs, and this new leader expects us to just stop? To forget what they did at the Manor?" Elizabeth said coolly.

"I’m going to request that you clear the room," Lord Savik said, "Your Guildmaster may stay, but everyone else who is not aristocrat needs to leave." Elizabeth thought for a moment before nodding. Sometimes aristocrats needed to speak with each other without any of their subordinates. I was surprised Lord Savik said Farmer could stay, but I thought Lord Savik was smart enough to realize Farmer was Elizabeth’s strongest adviser. As the rest of us stood up, Lord Savik hand-signed for me to stay. Farmer’s eyes went wide in surprise. I shrugged and sat back down. Elizabeth’s eyebrow crooked, but she didn’t say anything. As soon as the door was closed, Lord Savik turned to Elizabeth.

"Elizabeth, you must agree to the reinstatement of the Peace," Lord Savik said.

"Not a fucking chance, Erik," Elizabeth replied defiantly.

"I need your packs with mine in Tallahassee. You can’t leave this county if you are still at war with the Tampa Council," Lord Savik said. Elizabeth didn’t say anything for several minutes. I could see the battle being raged in her head.

"I don’t know," Elizabeth finally said. "We’ve lost so much."

"For fuck’s sake, grow up!" Lady Anna said, "Bradon’s giving you an end to the war without demanding anything. A war your brother started. If you think you’re going to have a hard time explaining it to your packs, how hard do you think it’s going to be for him to explain it to the TCV?" The two Ladies-Apparent stared at each other with barely concealed rage. I wondered if this was how humans felt when they were in the crossfire during one of our firefights?

"My lady, as tactless as Lady Anna is being at the moment, she’s also right," Farmer said, giving Lady Anna a cold stare. "We have to focus on the real threat. If this Blackhawk is as dangerous as they claim, then the moment he is given the throne, you and all of your packs are in danger." Elizabeth motioned for her Guildmaster to continue.

"Blackhawk can’t chance you would find out about his role in the death of your father and manipulating your brother into declaring war in the county. The only way to make sure that you’re not a threat to him is to make sure you don’t survive the liberation of the county. He may just make sure none of the Hillsborough lycanthropes survive just to be sure. He can always grant the county as a boon to his supporters."

"How can we trust this new leader of the TCV?" Elizabeth asked, "What’s to stop him from killing us when we try to return to Hillsborough?"

"That was why I asked Ranger to stay behind," Lord Savik answered. "He’s known this vampire for several years and has a strong working relationship with him. Ranger, please inform your lady about Bradon." I stood up and faced Elizabeth. She didn’t look at me like I was a monster. Well, that was a little bit promising, like Vanessa said. I took a deep breath.

"I know Bradon because he was my main contact within the TCV. Bradon was the leader of the Bleeders up to the beginning of the war," I started, "Prior to the war, Bradon was one of the major players in the faction of the Inner Council that supported the Peace." I waited a moment to see if that elicited anything from Elizabeth. She didn’t so much as blink. "Recently, Bradon told us that he had noticed that both the TCV and the Hillsborough packs were being manipulated towards war. He used my assassination attempt against him to go underground and investigate further. He brought us the information about the link between the Society and the FCV."

"Why?" Elizabeth asked. "What’s in it for him?"

"In all the time I’ve known him, Bradon has backed the Peace," I answered, "That has included direct action and political actions of his own as well as intelligence sharing with the Guild. Right now, Bradon believes that the best way to make sure the Peace doesn’t fall statewide is for the Peace to be re-established in Hillsborough and for you and Lord Savik to confront Blackhawk in Tallahassee."

"That’s all fine and good, but can we trust him?" Elizabeth asked.

"In this instance, yes," I answered. Her eyebrow quirked up. "As long as his goals match ours, we can trust him. Beyond that?" I shook my head. "He won’t lie to you, but he knows how to twist the truth. He also is scary good at maneuvering his opponents against each other."

"My lady, if I may," Farmer said, "From what I’ve gathered from my predecessor, Ranger’s impressions of Bradon matches his own." Farmer and I shared a brief pained expression at the memory of our Guildmaster. "If Ranger says that Bradon wants to work with us on this, I think we can trust it."

"He wants to meet with us," Lord Savik said, "On neutral ground to discuss a formal arrangement." Elizabeth let out a harsh laugh.

"What neutral ground?" she asked, "There isn’t any in the county right now."

"Farmer, where can we secure a dinner meeting?" I asked. The Guildmaster sat back in his chair thinking.

"Honestly, with the State hunters here, I can technically secure anywhere," Farmer said. "If we keep the guest list relatively small." Elizabeth shrugged in resignation.

"This is the best chance for my county, isn’t it?" she asked Lord Savik.

"As much as it goes against my grain, yes," Lord Savik answered, giving the Lady-Apparent a sad smile. "Sometimes, we must do what we hate in order to protect our packs. I would do the same in your place, and I would hate it just as much." I was so busy watching Elizabeth, I almost didn’t notice the flurry of hand-signs between Farmer and Lord Savik. Before I could decipher what they were silently discussing, agreement signs flashed and their hands fell silent. Lady Anna must have seen it, because she shot Lord Savik a hard look. Well, that didn’t bode well for what was being discussed. Lord Savik produced Bradon’s phone. Hooking the phone up to the speaker, Lord Savik pressed the redial button. It rang once before being picked up.

"Good day," came the efficient male voice, "The Councilman is currently unavailable, but I am authorized to speak on his behalf." Definitely a ghoul, but not one I knew.

"We will meet with your master tonight," Elizabeth said, her voice a carefully controlled neutral.

"My master informed me to convey his thanks for agreeing to meet with him," the ghoul replied with perfunctory precision, "Did you have a location in mind?" I locked eyes with Farmer and mouthed the location to him. Farmer gave a brief smile.

"Poppa Gus’s," Farmer said, catching the other lycanthropes off-guard.

"That is not neutral territory," the ghoul said, suspiciously.

"As I reminded my Guildmaster, nothing in Hillsborough is neutral territory at the moment," Elizabeth said, coolly. "I am willing to give your master safe passage." The phone was silent for a long moment. Then, the ghoul’s rich laughter filled the conference room.

"You make an excellent point, my lady," the ghoul said, "Shall we say, ten o’clock tonight?" Farmer nodded to Elizabeth.

"We will be there," Elizabeth answered. The phone abruptly disconnected.

"What is this Poppa Gus’s?" Lord Savik asked.

"It was the hunter’s watering hole," Farmer answered. "We also used it for the occasional meet with our contacts in the TCV. Right now, it’s one of the few places in the county we indisputably control. And we have Ranger to thank for that." My head snapped up at the comment.

"What did I do?" I asked.

"That little fight you had there when you came back into town," Farmer answered cryptically, "I don’t know exactly what happened, but ever since that, the TCV’s been avoiding the whole area like the plague. It seems they are under the belief that any vampires that go near Poppa Gus’s uninvited will manage to end up spectacularly dead."

"Oh yeah, that," I said, remembering back to my first fight with Lothos. Where was the magic voice during that fight? Another mystery to deal with at a later time.

"You seem to have things under control at the moment," Lord Savik said, "With your permission, Elizabeth, I’d like to get my packs settled into your facility here. If you will excuse Anna and myself." The aristocrats and Farmer stood up. I started to as well when I caught Farmer’s hand signs.

Remain in the conference room, Farmer hand-signed to me, There’s another matter to deal with. I sat back down in my chair. I wondered exactly what Farmer wanted to discuss without the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes. I suspected it might have to do with whatever Farmer and Lord Savik discussed in hand sign. Or he could want to talk over the security arrangements for the evening’s meet with Bradon.

The four of them walked out of the conference room. I expected Farmer to excuse himself at the door to talk with me. I didn’t expect Farmer to grab Elizabeth, toss her into the room, and swiftly shut the door. Her Red Knights standing right outside the door didn’t even seem surprised. What the hell was going on? I sprinted across the conference room. I grabbed the door and yanked. Locked, damn it. So, I went back to check on Elizabeth. She was sitting on the floor, staring at the door with betrayed shock. She noticed me standing next to her. I was expecting to see the revulsion in her eyes that had been there before I’d left for the Disputed Territories. Instead was Elizabeth wore a guarded look. I offered my hand to help her up. She tentatively took my hand and picked herself up off the floor.

"What in the hell is going on?" Elizabeth asked.

"I was asking myself the same question," I answered.

"Did my Guildmaster ally himself with Lord Savik in some sort of soft coup?" Elizabeth asked, a mix of anger and fear in her voice, "I saw them doing that hunter hand-sign you all do."

"I don’t know," I said, "I couldn’t see what they were saying, so to speak." I expected some sort of personal attack, but Elizabeth just let out a frustrated grunt.

"You have your gun. Can’t you shoot the lock out?" she asked. I shook my head.

"That’s a steel door in a reinforced housing," I said, "Shooting will just break the handle and leave us even more trapped than we are now. We’d need a breaching charge to knock that door down. I generally don’t carry those around. Sorry." Elizabeth collapsed into a chair with a resigned air. The conference room phone rang, breaking the silence. She motioned for me to answer.

"Hello Ranger," Farmer said, "Please put me on speaker. I need to speak with the two of you." I pressed the button and sat down. Elizabeth looked coolly at the phone.

"First, this is not a coup," Farmer said, "It’s more of an intervention."

"What the fuck are you talking about?" I demanded. "An intervention for what?"

"You both know I lost my entire family between the witch-hunters’ and vampires’ assaults on the Manor," Farmer said, the sadness heavy in his voice, "In the time since, one of the few things that has helped me go on has been helping you, my lady. In that short time, I’ve become very fond of you. If not as a daughter, then certainly as a favored niece."

"So why would you trap me in here?" Elizabeth asked, softly. I half-expected her to add "with him," but she didn’t.

"Because I saw how you were before Ranger came back to Hillsborough, when he arrived, and after you chased him off," Farmer said, "You’ve been distant since Ranger went to the Disputed Territories. I noticed it, and so have the pack leaders. It’s hurting your relationship with the packs, which is something you can’t afford right now, most of all. We’ve discussed the reasons, and we were fairly confident we knew why you were withdrawing. When Ranger came into the Guild today, I was sure."

"Sure of what?" Elizabeth asked, in a controlled voice. From the look on her face, she was clearly not happy with Farmer’s frank assessment.

"You’ve been punishing yourself for chasing Ranger away," Farmer answered, "For chasing off your catshen." Tears started to trickle down Elizabeth’s face at Farmer’s soft words.

"Mark, you’re not exactly blameless in this," Vanessa said. Great, this was a real conspiracy. "You’ve done the same thing with Hangman and me. She hurt you deeply, and she was the only one who could have done it. Deal with it, because you screwed up, too. You let her chase you off instead of fighting to stay. Probably because you didn’t know how, but you didn’t ask for help, either."

"So, here’s what’s going to happen," Farmer said, "As far as everyone is concerned, the two of you are unavailable. You will deal with this. I’m hoping the two of you figure out a way to make your relationship work. If not, then both of you will decide how it ends. This county cannot afford for its Lady-Apparent and its strongest hunter to be publicly fighting and privately moping." Elizabeth and I looked at each other, both of us wearing neutral expressions.

"Farmer, she’s supposed to be meeting with the new leader of the TCV in seven hours. Are you sure now is the best time to be doing this?" I asked, hoping for a reprieve.

"Who do you think suggested locking the two of you in?" Nick asked. Ancestors, how many of them were listening to this call? "If we told him the meeting needed to be postponed because you were working out your differences with the Lady-Apparent, he’d agree in a heartbeat."

"That said, it would be best if we didn’t have to explain that to him, so you might want to get this sorted out before then," Farmer said.

"What about Lord Savik and Lady Anna?" Elizabeth asked, "What sort of impression is this going to make with them and their packs?"

"Your Guildmaster adequately explained the situation to me," Lord Savik answered. Elizabeth and I traded surprised looks. Sweet Ancestors, did they have everyone in on this? "From what he explained, everyone would prefer to see this situation resolved before we go to Tallahassee. And on a personal note, I would like to see this resolved. Now, stop stalling with all of these questions. The two of you need to solve this before it can impact our actions to save our state. So get to it." There was an audible click as they hung up. Elizabeth and I stared at each other in shock for a moment before she turned away.

That tiny little box in the back of my mind opened up, and I finally let myself feel all of my conflicting emotions. I wanted to yell at her for the way she treated me. I wanted to beg her forgiveness for what I’d done. I wanted to demand that she love me the way I loved her. I was terrified of hearing her reject me again. Most of all, I just wanted to hear her speak to me the same way she did when I came back to Hillsborough from Tallahassee. My instincts were screaming danger, but they were also telling me I needed to tell Elizabeth about what was going on in me. Why in the Ancestors’ name was it so hard to just talk with this female? Damn it, I never had this problem with any other female. There was so much that I needed to tell her, but as I looked at her, the words just wouldn’t form. I could feel that the moment was slipping, but I wasn’t sure exactly why. So, I did the only thing I could think of.

"I never stopped loving you," I blurted out. She didn’t say anything, not even a grunt in acknowledgment. I felt a rising anxiety. The closest I could compare it to was waiting for a hastily set explosive to detonate.

"I know," Elizabeth finally said. Anxiety turned to anger. What the hell was that supposed to mean? I took some long breaths to calm down. From what Farmer said, I wasn’t sure if Elizabeth knew what she was feeling. So, I waited for her to speak, look at me, do something.

"I’m sorry that I called you a monster," Elizabeth said, "I didn’t know how to react when you murdered Speartooth in front of me." Her use of "murdered" instead of "killed" hit me like a punch. I wasn’t sure how to take her apology. She turned around to look at me. Her eyes were red and I could see the wet paths of tears streaking down her cheeks. My anger melted away. I wanted to take her in my arms and make the hurt go away. Instead, I forced myself to stay in my chair. I had to ask the next question, no matter what answer she would give me.

"Do you still think I’m a monster?" I asked, desperately trying to keep the hesitancy out of my voice.

"No," she whispered and broke down into a new wave of sobs. I felt an enormous wave of relief pass through me. She could reject me, tell me she no longer loved me, or even asked me never to talk to her again. It would hurt, but at least she didn’t think I was a monster. I waited for her to collect herself.

"So, where do we go from here?" I asked, cautiously.

"I don’t know," Elizabeth said, "After the shock of what I’d seen wore off, I didn’t know how to act with you. I saw your face when I called you a monster. I didn’t think you’d ever forgive me. I just couldn’t face you anymore. And then you left to find Lord Savik…" She let the statement trail off.

"I didn’t know how to talk with you either," I said, "Vanessa told me to go back that night, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t hear that from you again."

"Two hours after you’d gone to the Disputed Territories, I knew I’d made a mistake," Elizabeth admitted, "Until just now, I hadn’t realized I’d been taking out my frustration on my wolves. Damn it, I should be better than that."

"I shouldn’t have left without having this talk with you," I said, softly.

"Why did you?" Elizabeth asked. The words were a simple question, not an accusation. "Anytime I’ve seen you, you just didn’t give a damn what anyone thought about you. You just went right after your target."

"Those were jobs. I know how to do jobs. This is something completely different," I answered, "I didn’t know how to approach you, so I figured there was no way to approach you. Vanessa told me to force the issue, but I just told myself she didn’t understand because she was just kin."

"Ancestors, you’re as bad as I am with this," Elizabeth said, with a mix of sob and laughter.

"How in the hell are you as bad as me?" I asked, "I was the abomination forced to the outskirts of the packs. You grew up in the Manor. You were taught how to act."

"For politics and social situations, Mark, not dealing with a lycanthrope like you," Elizabeth shot back with the barest hint of heat in her voice. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

"And what exactly what kind of lycanthrope am I?" I asked, hoping the fear I was feeling didn’t leak out out in my tone. Elizabeth looked up at me, and I was momentarily entranced. Damn it, why did she always have that effect on me?

"A lycanthrope who I love, but I’m also a little terrified of," Elizabeth answered. I closed my eyes and turned away as happiness, pain, fear, and anger threatened to tear me apart. I couldn’t look at her, and I couldn’t say anything. I felt her warm hands on my face as she guided me back to her.

"Mark, look at me," Elizabeth said gently. Working hard at keeping my emotions under control, I complied. Her face was only a few inches from mine. "I had a crush on you for years. Something about the mix of danger and outcast, I guess. But then, you were there when I needed someone to support me, and I fell in love. Something I didn’t really think I’d feel in my life. I knew you were in love with me. I could see it when you looked at me. And we almost threw it away because neither of us could be honest when things got hard. So, I’m being honest with you. I love you, but I’m also scared of you. I let my fear overwhelm my love the last time, but I don’t want to do that again. Now be as honest with me as you can. What do you feel about me?"

"I love you, but it scares me how much you can hurt me," I answered, saying the first words that popped into my head. "I’ve never done this before, and that’s also scary. I don’t know what to do, but I don’t want to lose you again." Elizabeth leaned in and kissed me. It was soft, tender, and understanding. We just stayed there holding each other, long after we heard the audible click of the conference room door being opened. Only the upcoming meeting managed to break us apart.

"Ancestors," I breathed as Elizabeth stepped out of the truck. She was wearing her auburn hair up in a refined style. A dark jade green dress accentuated her feminine form while still maintaining a formal air. She was the perfect form of a female aristocrat. She gave me a dazzling smile as I walked over.

"You look amazing," I whispered in her ear.

"You clean up pretty decently as well," Elizabeth replied, giving me a hard inspection. "So, now I know what was in the box." I could only nod. Shortly after the initial negotiations were concluded as to time and place of our meeting with Bradon, a package was delivered to one of the houses above the Guild. It was disturbing to see my name as the recipient, but much worse to see who sent it.

"Bradon always said I needed to dress up more," I said, letting her see the charcoal suit. "I’m somehow not surprised that he had my measurements on file. It’s even cut for wearing my sidearm." Elizabeth gave me an indulgent smile.

"I’m sure that last part is very interesting for someone in your profession, but for future reference, it isn’t something you need to share with me," she informed me, her smile softening the slight bite of her words. At that point, we were joined by Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Farmer, and Hangman. Lord Savik, Farmer, and Hangman were all dressed in formal dark suits. Lady Anna wore a black dress which had much the same effect as Elizabeth’s. She also gave me the once-over before her own smile spread across her face.

"Bradon sent you that suit?" Lady Anna asked. I nodded. "Seriously Ranger, when all of this is done, have him pick out your wardrobe. That vampire is an artist. You cut quite the dashing figure of a hunter."

"Thank you. You cut quite the exquisite figure yourself," I said. Lady Anna gave me another of those unreadable smiles. Elizabeth’s grip on my arm tightened, but her countenance didn’t change a whit. Something to ask about later. I turned to Farmer.

"There’s a complication," I said, "Bradon and his party didn’t arrive alone." I was part of the advance team sent to secure Poppa Gus’ before the vampires arrived. Four of the state hunters and myself cleared the restaurant, set up the meeting table, and make sure our shooters had the best vantage points if it became necessary to hose the vampires with silver. Plus a few other surprises if things got rowdy.

"What do you mean they didn’t arrive alone?" Farmer asked. If it had been something that compromised the aristocrats’ security, he knew I would’ve waived them off.

"Bradon brought a Turaki to moderate the negotiations," I answered, deciding the direct path was the best. They all stared at me.

"You couldn’t have told us this over the radio?" Lord Savik asked through clenched teeth. I looked over to him with a neutral expression.

"What would you have done if I told you that a Turaki was here?" I asked.

"I would have told the driver to take us back to your Guild," Lord Savik answered.

"Yeah, I kinda had the feeling you would, which is why I’m telling you now," I said. Lord Savik gave me a hard stare that I’m sure would have wilted one of his own wolves. He had nothing on my old Guildmaster.

"Uncle, please," Lady Anna said, taking Lord Savik’s arm, "Ranger’s right. Having the Turaki here doesn’t change anything. It’s probably a smart move to have one here." Lord Savik didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t make any further protestations as I led them to the restaurant. Farmer strode up next to me.

"Change in plan," he said, "You’re going to sit at the table instead of me."

"What?" I asked, barely keeping my voice under control. The plan was for me to coordinate the hunters and the four Red Knights doing security while Farmer joined the aristocrats at the table as Elizabeth’s senior adviser.

"I hate making last minute switches more than you hate dealing with them," Farmer said, "That said, you still need to be at the table instead of me."

"Why?" I asked.

"Do you think Lord Savik would’ve backed down from me if I told him the same thing you just did?" Farmer asked, "Plus, I saw how Lady Elizabeth looked at you when she stepped out of the car. You need to be by her side. For her sake as much as what it will tell the vampires."

"You’ll be on the radio?" I asked, letting my hesitation show. Farmer gave me a confident smile.

"I’ve got your back Ranger. Just like Nicholas and Hangman," Farmer said. He stepped back just as we came to the door and told the aristocrats about the change. For some reason, all three looked inordinately pleased. I just shook my head and stepped into Poppa Gus’s. The main dining area was cleared except for a long table. Four vampires sat along the right side with untouched glasses of water in front of them. The Turaki sat at the head of the table, sipping a glass of dark red wine. That meant he was a half-breed and not fully alien. The full-bloods had a hard time with most Earth foods.

The Turaki were an alien race who showed up on Earth shortly after the end of the Great Fatherland War. Something about the humans’ use of nuclear weapons drawing their attention. They claimed Earth was part of their empire, but that the planet was not quite ready for integration. Too primitive was what they said. The more believable theory was that when the Turaki realized there were things on the planet more terrible than the humans, the Turaki quickly changed their plans. As of now, they maintained that they were "Peacekeepers" against invasion from another alien race, although they’ve never bothered to name that other race. For the unseen world, the Turaki insinuated themselves as neutral mediators and arbiters between the pathwalkers and the rest of us. A Turaki, even a half-breed low-level one, would guarantee that any treaty between the Hillsborough lycanthropes and the Tampa Council would meet the pathwalkers requirements to stay the fuck out of our county.

"Good evening, Lady Vollen," Bradon said, standing up from the table. Bradon was a known, or at least a sort-of known, quantity, so I didn’t spend much time examining him other than a cursory check. The other three I wasn’t so sure about. I didn’t know any of them on sight, but the one to Bradon’s right had her fingernails painted black. From the way she walked and scrutinized her surroundings, I was fairly sure she was the new leader of the Tampa Council’s Bleeders.

"It’s Lady Elizabeth, Councilman Bradon," Elizabeth corrected, "I’m still technically the Lady-Apparent to Hillsborough."

"A mere formality," Bradon replied, giving a chivalrous wave of his hand. Damn, I spent too much time around vampires and senior lycanthropes. I could see what actually happened on the faces of the participants. Bradon had forced Elizabeth to admit to a lower station, and then he graciously ignored it. In the murky depths of politics, Bradon just scored a point and taken the initiative. I barely managed to keep my polite smile on my face as the realization of what happened crossed my mind.

"Let me introduce the new Inner Council of the Tampa Council of Vampire," Bradon said and motioned to the female Bleeder. "This is Mercedes Alonso." The Bleeder gave a respectful nod to our group. Mercedes looked like she could easily fit into either the Italian or Spanish groups with long dark hair and pale skin with bare hints of once being a darker shade.

"Collin Cleary," Bradon introduced the vampire to his left. Collin looked like he’d been turned in turn of the twentieth century Ireland and barely remembered to dress in modern clothing. He glowered at us with his ice blue eyes. My instincts were screaming warnings about that one.

"And Dominic Smith." Bradon motioned to a tall black vampire with a shaved head. Everything from his immaculate dark suit to the fashionable gold rimmed glasses screamed "business." I was willing to bet his nails had once been black. He had the same air of refined savagery about him as Bradon.

"This is Silas Green," Bradon said, motioning to the Turaki, "Considering the bitterness of our conflict and the level of violence, I thought it was prudent for us to have a neutral party mediate."

"An admirable suggestion," Elizabeth said, "Welcome Mr. Green." The bored-looking Turaki only nodded before taking another sip of wine. Even their half-breeds were aloof bastards.

"Councilmembers, please allow me to introduce Lord Savik of Dade County and Lady Anna of Broward County," Elizabeth said, "They recently joined in an alliance with Hillsborough. I consider them both not only allies, but close friends." Bradon and the other vampires made their own welcomes as we sat down across from them. I noticed she didn’t introduce me. So did the vampires from their expressions. I’m not sure if the Turaki noticed or even cared. I wasn’t sure what Elizabeth was playing at, so I just took my seat. Bradon and Elizabeth were at the center of our respective parties. I sat to Elizabeth’s left, which was the normal place of her Guildmaster. Across from me was Mercedes, the head of the Bleeders. She gave me a seductive smile. I ignored it with a bored expression I copied from the Turaki. An uncomfortable silence filled the restaurant. The lycanthrope aristocrats and the Inner Council were silently jousting with each other while waiting for the Turaki to open the negotiations. Actually, it was kind of amusing to watch. After a few minutes, Bradon cleared his throat. The Turaki finally looked up from his wine. He did a quick survey of the table and sat straight up. The bored look vanished to be replaced by a neutral look. Oh, this was going to be fun.

"Now that we are all here, let’s begin these negotiations between the Hillsborough County Lordship and the Tampa Council of Vampire," Green said with a pompous baritone. I remembered once again how much I hated dealing with the Turaki, even when it was necessary. "Will one of the sides declare as being the aggrieved party under the Peace?"

"The Tampa Council claims aggrieved status due to the fact that the Lord of Hillsborough County opened a war with us without a formal renouncement of the Peace," Bradon opened, looking hard at Elizabeth, "Do you have an objection to my claim?"

"No, we will concede the point for these negotiations," Elizabeth answered with regal neutrality. Bradon turned to Lord Savik and Lady Anna.

"The Tampa Council has no quarrel with the counties of Dade and Broward, but since you are allied with Hillsborough, the Tampa Council will also treat with you as the aggrieved party. Do you have any objections?" Green asked.

"No," Lord Savik answered.

"None," Lady Anna said.

"As the aggrieved party, the Tampa Council may begin with its requirements for the reinstatement of the Treaty of Peace Between the Lycanthrope and the Nosferatu as Agreed Upon in Malta in the year of Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen of the Human Common Era," Green said, "For the purposes of these negotiations, will all parties agree to refer to the aforementioned treaty by its colloquial name of ‘the Peace?’" Bradon and Elizabeth nodded.

"For the reinstatement of the Peace, the Tampa Council requires the reigning lord of Hillsborough publicly admit that Hillsborough was at fault for discarding the Peace, an apology from the reigning lord of Hillsborough, the acceptance of an ambassador to the court of the Hillsborough County Lordship from the Tampa Council of our choosing, and the relinquishing of all Ybor City territory to sole Tampa Council control, with all other territory in Hillsborough County being returned to status quo ante bellum," Bradon said without inflection.

"For the reinstatement of the Peace, the Lordship of Hillsborough County requires the acceptance to the Inner Council of the Tampa Council of Vampire of an ambassador of our choosing, all territory within Hillsborough County to be returned to status quo ante bellum, and the destruction of the Tampa Council’s stockpile of the manufactured vampires known as dervishes," Elizabeth replied.

The silence returned as the two sides "contemplated" the offers. Each side knew which of the opening stances were actually required and which were negotiable. The real negotiation would be over the side issues raised during the exchange of the main offers. For not the first time in my life, I wondered how something so important could be so fucking boring. I would have much preferred being part of the security team than sitting at the table. Okay, knowing Elizabeth needed me there made it a bit more bearable. I just needed to treat my role at the table (whatever that was) like I would any job. I listened as the opening stances were repeated. According to Elizabeth, there were good reasons diplomatic negotiations went through this circuitous round about to get to final agreement. Something about it controlling the flow so side issues could be dealt with before they could sidetrack the whole negotiation. It was also why only Bradon and Elizabeth would be speaking. All of it was to make sure all participants fully agreed upon the final deal.

"The Tampa Council cannot absorb the loss of its dervishes without compensation from the Lord of Hillsborough County," Bradon said. From the tightening around Lord Savik’s mouth, this wasn’t one of the iterations discussed prior to the meeting. From the glee dancing in Collin’s eyes, my guess was he was behind that requirement.

"Under the terms of the Peace, the dervishes qualify as weapons of mass destruction in their totality," Elizabeth countered, "As such, the Tampa Council would be bound to dismantle its arsenal through its own resources." Bradon’s face was neutral, but I could see the ghost of amusement dance in his eyes. Collin, by contrast, visibly fumed. For an Inner Councilmember, Collin didn’t seem to have much of a poker face. Maybe that was why Bradon allowed him to join the Inner Council.

"An interesting argument, Lady Elizabeth, but I disagree. The dervishes are simply highly effective ‘smart’ weapons. They in no way meet the definition of a weapon of mass destruction under the letter or spirit of the Peace," Bradon said.

"Before this point can prevent negotiations from continuing, I will review the Peace and make an objective finding if these dervishes meet the criteria of a weapon of mass destruction," Green announced. "We will be in recess during my review." The Turaki stood up and walked over to a wall. I knew he was communing with the Turaki’s artificial intelligence supercomputer, but he still looked like a child being disciplined. Elizabeth was talking with Lord Savik and Lady Anna, so I decided to check in with Farmer. Before I managed two steps, Bradon was in front of me.

"What do you think of the suit?" Bradon asked.

"It’s very impressive. Thank you," I answered. "Although I admit, I was surprised by its appearance." Bradon smiled at the verbal jab.

"Well, since you were going to be sitting with your lady at the negotiation, I knew you needed something appropriate," Bradon replied.

"Why did you assume I would be sitting at the table? I’m not a packleader or even Hillsborough’s Guildmaster," I said. Bradon chuckled lowly.

"No, you’re becoming something more," Bradon answered, "Nicholas informed me that the intervention for your lady and you was staged before you came here. I had confidence that you would win her heart back. In all seriousness, you have my congratulations."

"Thank you, but what does that have to do with me sitting at the table?" I asked.

"Where else would the Lady-Apparent’s mate sit?" Bradon asked.

"I’m not her mate," I protested.

"You may not be her mate officially, but I can see it between the two of you," Bradon said. His countenance grew serious. "Mark, please remember this. No matter what happens in the coming days, that young lady loves you just as much as you love her. Hold nothing back with her." Bradon’s intensity on my relationship disturbed me.

"Is it in your interests that I marry her?" I asked, half-joking.

"I’d make it a condition of these negotiations if I thought I could get away with it," Bradon answered seriously. "There are few things I could be sure would maintain the Peace in this county more than her on your county’s throne with you as her mate."

"Thank you, I think," I replied. Bradon’s smile returned.

"Go back and join their conversation," Bradon advised, "I’m sure between your Guildmaster, Savik’s Guildmaster, and the state hunters, everything is quite secure. I’m fairly certain that was your pretext for not joining them. Other than the fact you’re uncomfortable being party to such important events."

"Ancestors damn you Bradon," was the best reply I could come up with. He let out a laugh of genuine mirth before returning to talk with the other Inner Councilmembers. Annoyed, I walked back to the aristocracy. Each gave me questioning looks of varying severity as I joined them. To my surprise, Lord Savik’s was the most severe, while Lady Anna’s was the least.

"What did he want?" Elizabeth asked for all of them.

"First to tell me that he bought me my suit because he knew I would be sitting at the table," I answered, "And second, to congratulate us on working out our differences." Elizabeth’s face tinted a little red before going neutral. Lord Savik gave a low chuckle.

"So, your Nicholas read that situation well," Lord Savik observed. "Do you know any of those Councilmembers?" I told Lord Savik no and then related my observations of the three vampires.

"If Collin isn’t a disciple of Silanti, he’s certainly Bradon’s sap to that faction of the TCV," Elizabeth said. "Assuming he has the control of the Inner Council he appears to."

"I’m sure he does," Lord Savik commented. "He doesn’t strike me as a vampire that would promise more than he could deliver." Elizabeth looked unconvinced, but she didn’t say anything further. The Turaki walked back to the table, signaling that the break was over. We returned to our seats and the game faces returned on both sides.

"After reviewing the original documents as well as the information on the dervishes provided by the Tampa Council of Vampire, I have concluded that they do not meet the criteria for a weapon of mass destruction," the Turaki said. Green paused for a moment before continuing. "That said, I can understand how the Hillsborough County lordship would consider that dervishes in mass would constitute such a weapon. As an observer, I would recommend that a limit on the inventory of dervishes for the basic security of both parties." Bradon looked pleased, although Collin looked pissed. Elizabeth squeezed my hand under the table. I don’t know why, but I felt that she was happy with the ruling. Ancestors damn it, I didn’t want to understand these politics. I just wanted to be a hunter.

Elizabeth proposed no more than fifty dervishes with destruction costs borne by the TCV. Bradon countered with five hundred with destruction costs borne by the lordship. It went back and forth for a few iterations. I sat up straight as an idea came to me. The question was how was to suggest it to Elizabeth. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Bradon could read any of my slightest movements.

"Ranger, do you have a compromise?" Bradon asked. Everyone looked over at me. I gave Elizabeth a questioning look. She gave me the barest nod. I looked back at Bradon.

"How many dervishes do you really need to have as a reserve against the lycanthropes in Hillsborough County?" I asked, "Two hundred, maybe, but honestly, you could probably get away with a hundred. Especially for as long as it’s going to take the lordship to recover from the war."

"Assuming your estimates are correct, how do you propose to handle the destruction of the rest of the inventory?" Bradon asked.

"Turn them over to the Florida Princedom, on the condition that the lycanthrope candidate backed by Lord Savik and Lady Elizabeth is selected by the war council. The army’s going to need some targets for live fire practice before going into Broward and Dade, plus whatever other councils obtain dervishes for their own use."

"There’s no way we’re going to provide materials for you dogs to create an anti-dervish force," Collin snapped, almost coming out of his chair. He sat back down under the cold gaze of Bradon.

"That’s going to happen with or without you," I answered, "The question is whether the training happens before or during the fighting."

"I suggest we take another break to let each side consider the proposal," the Turaki suggested, annoyed about the breach of diplomatic etiquette.

"Where did you get that idea? It was brilliant," Lady Anna said as our party moved away from the table.

"What? It just made sense," I answered, "The whole point of this is to free us up to take on Blackhawk, and if we’re successful, the FCV. It didn’t seem smart to waste a resource."

"It was a smart suggestion, but we are going to need to teach you how to conduct yourself at these kinds of negotiations. Such a breach of protocol could have derailed talks like these," Elizabeth said. "There are proper means of providing those kinds of suggestions."

"I’m supposed to be guarding these kinds of talks, not participating in them," I protested. The three aristocrats gave me sorrowful expressions.

"Once, maybe, but I think that time is over for you," Lord Savik said. He turned to Elizabeth. "I think we should agree to Ranger’s terms, the trade of ambassadors, and returning of territories to their ante bellum borders. Maybe a caveat that the territory and apology issues can be revisited after the FCV is dealt with." Elizabeth mulled that over for a moment and then nodded.

"I think that will get us what we want in the short term," Elizabeth agreed.

"Do you think they will hold out because they know we are on short time?" Lady Anna asked.

"Collin will want to, I don’t know about the other two, but I think Bradon will want to get this little negotiation concluded. From what he was saying back in our counties, he has his own issues to deal with if he doesn’t want the entire state to plunge into a nasty war," Lord Savik said. "We are not the only faction he needs to talk with." We all nodded as the Turaki cleared his throat.

"Let’s reconvene," Green said. As we walked back to the table, Lady Anna brushed my shoulder. For all outward appearances, it just looked like Lady Anna was in a hurry to get to the table. It was a smooth bit of work. If I had been anyone other than a hunter, I doubted I would have felt her slide the small note into my pocket. She didn’t even look back at me to see if I felt the note. Not for the first time, I wished that Lady Anna wasn’t an aristocrat. She’d have made a great hunter.

"If you don’t mind, milady, I would like to start this round," Bradon said after we were all situated at the table.

"Of course, Councilman," Elizabeth replied. Green motioned for Bradon to speak.

"I propose that we agree to Ranger’s compromise on the issue of the dervishes, that we exchange ambassadors with acceptance by the receiving party, and the return of our territories to their ante bellum borders, with the exception of Ybor City. We would like to reserve the right to renegotiate the borders at the conclusion of your business in Tallahassee, assuming, of course, you are all still alive." There was silence on our side of the table. The three aristocrats were shocked that Bradon’s terms were almost identical to the terms Elizabeth was about to propose. I, on the other hand, was wondering how the fuck Bradon snuck a bug onto my suit. It wasn’t like we didn’t check it thoroughly when it showed up.

"We will agree to those terms," Elizabeth said. "I would add the proviso that ambassadors should be exchanged after our business in Tallahassee is concluded." Bradon nodded as if that was what he meant all along. Then he turned to Lord Savik and Lady Anna.

"I know that you were just providing support to your ally in this negotiation, but I would propose that the TCV have a similar treaty with the lordships of Broward and Miami-Dade counties," Bradon said. Lord Savik and Lady Anna quietly talked for a few moments before turning back to Bradon.

"We can agree to that as well," Lord Savik said.

"With all parties in agreement, I will produce the treaties," Green said, pulling out a tablet. Green tapped in a few commands, and golden displays appeared in front of each participant. I refrained from the urge to touch the hovering, translucent displays. The Turaki always like to show off how much more advanced their technology is than what we use. The full legalese of the treaties appeared on each display. As the treaties scrolled through, Green made sure all sides agreed to the verbiage. How the hell could basic English be so mangled? I could barely follow the read through. Once everything was read through, the displays vanished. Green placed a small box on the table about the size of a hockey puck.

"If each signatory will please state their full name and then place their right thumb on the recorder to bind the contracts?" Green said, "Who will go first?" The vampires volunteered. Each of the Inner Councilmembers announced their full name and firmly placed their thumbs on the block. Each time, the block glowed for a brief moment before extracting the crucial drop of black blood. Blood, or the vampire equivalent, was needed to "sign" any treaty if we didn’t want the pathwalkers to get involved. That blood could be used by the pathwalkers to punish any party that broke the treaty, assuming they just didn’t wipe out the entire side. You never knew with pathwalkers which approach they would use until folks started dying. Lady Anna went first on our side, followed by Lord Savik, and finally Elizabeth. Then all eyes fell on me.

"What?" I asked, "I’m just here to support my lady. I’m not a signatory to the treaty."

"I’m going to request that you be a signatory to the treaty," Bradon said. I was about to demand why when I caught Elizabeth’s slight shake of her head. She looked at the block and gave me a slight nod. Well, if she wanted me to sign, then I wasn’t about to argue with her.

"Marcus Phoenix Badmoon," I said, as I placed my thumb on the box. The box warmed as it glowed. I didn’t even feel a prick, but when I lifted my thumb, I could see the small red dot of blood welling up.

"The master treaties will remain at Senior Judicial Officer Klig’s office, but certified copies will be transmitted to the specified email addresses. The Imperial Security Service reiterates its desire that this treaty be upheld by the signatories." With that, Green stood up swiftly and strode out of the room. Well, that was one of the shortest "be good" speeches I’d ever heard from those damned aliens. Maybe because it was a half-breed.

"My lord, my ladies, I wish you all the best luck in your endeavors in Tallahassee," Bradon announced, "For the Tampa Council, the Peace is now back in effect, and we will keep this county safe for you while you are dealing with the War Council." The vampires walked out of Poppa Gus’s with a dignified air. Well, except for Collin. From the look on his face, that one was definitely going to be trouble. I wondered if Bradon would get upset if I assassinated Collin before we left for Tallahassee.

"My lady, we should get back to the Guild," Farmer said, walking up to the four of us. "We are going to be very busy if we want to leave for Tallahassee in the next thirty-six hours. You, at the very least, need to get some sleep." Elizabeth looked at her Guildmaster and nodded. They started to walk to the waiting vehicles when Elizabeth noticed I wasn’t with them. She shot me a questioning look.

"I’ll catch up later," I told her, "There’s some items here that need to be finished before I head back." She nodded and walked out the door with Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Farmer, and a couple of the state hunters. Hangman walked up beside me.

"You could’ve gone with her," Hangman said, "I’ve got keys to your truck." I pulled out the note that Lady Anna slipped into my pocket. We need to discuss something privately. Three hours. Blue house. As if this night wasn’t confusing enough. What in the hell would Lady Anna need to discuss with me that she couldn’t talk about in front of the other aristocrats? Maybe it was something about Lord Savik or Fangbearer.

"Oh shit," Hangman breathed as he read the note over my shoulder. "Come by our room after that meeting. You’ll need to talk with Vanessa."

"Do you know why she wants to talk to me?" I asked.

"I have a suspicion, but I’m not going to say anything unless I’m wrong," Hangman said. "So, just do me a favor and swing by our room after you’re done talking with Lady Anna." Hangman thought about it for a moment. "And don’t tell her I saw the note."

The blue house was one of the houses above the Guild vacated by the kin family when Hillsborough fell. Currently, it was being used Lord Savik, Lady Anna, and Fangbearer while they stayed in Hillsborough. I walked up the stairs to the house’s garage and knocked on the door at exactly one minute before the three hours were up. Lady Anna opened the door. She traded her dress for jeans and a black shirt. Her Glock was holstered at her waist. The light makeup she’d worn at the meeting was scrubbed off and her black hair was tied back. She hand-signed for me to follow her, but to be quiet. We walked through the house out to the pool in the back of the house. She sat down and motioned for me to sit next to her. My instincts were screaming danger, but I sat down. Lady Anna was quiet for several moments. Her face was drawn and pensive. I could tell there was something she wanted to talk about, but it was like she couldn’t figure out how to put it. I matched her silence as she worked out what she wanted to say. It must have been important for her to ask me to come out here when we both should’ve been getting some sleep.

"I’ve been debating telling you this for awhile now," Lady Anna said, breaking the silence, "I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to when I passed you the note."

"Tell me what?" I asked, "Is there something I should be guarding against?" Lady Anna gave me one of her unreadable looks.

"Ancestors, you really are that dense," Lady Anna said, "I thought you were just avoiding the issue. No, Ranger, I didn’t bring you out here to talk about some secret danger. Not exactly."

"Then why did you?" I asked, confused.

"This was the only time I knew I could get you alone," Lady Anna said, "Now, stop talking for just a moment. This is difficult enough." She gave me an intent look. "I know this isn’t the best time, but I had to tell you before we left for Tallahassee. I needed to tell you that I love you and that I want you to be my mate." Okay, that definitely wasn’t what I expected her to tell me. Although that sort of explained what Nicky and Bradon meant when they were making fun of me back in the Disputed Territories. Then I realized that Lady Anna was expecting me to say something.

"Why me?" was the only thing I could think to see. From the look on her face, it wasn’t what she’d hoped, but it wasn’t what she was scared I was going to say.

"Because you’re the only male I know that not only can keep up with me, but doesn’t think it’s strange that I do a hunter’s work. If anything, you respect my talents," Lady Anna said, "Plus, there was that whole willing to sacrifice yourself for me when we first met. That tends to make a female notice you."

"Oh," I said, my normal bantering ability escaping me completely. Lady Anna gave me a warm smile. She was actually amused that I was reduced to silence. Then before I could react, she was kissing me. How could something so similar be so different than when I kissed Elizabeth? Then my mind caught up, and I pushed Lady Anna back.

"Stop. I’m not going to do this to Elizabeth," I said.

"The same Elizabeth who chased you out when things got tough?" Lady Anna asked, a fiery heat in her voice, "What’s to stop her from doing it again? Think about it Ranger. I’ve seen or done everything that scares your Lady-Apparent. I understand you better than she does. Have you even told her about you and Lothos?"

"No," I answered.

"Why?" she demanded.

"Because I haven’t exactly had time to have that conversation with her," I shot back.

"Are you sure that’s the reason, or could it be because you know she wouldn’t be able to deal with it and give you the support you’re going to need when you go up against him again?" Lady Anna asked. Then she held up her hand before I could answer. "I’m sorry. You’re probably confused as hell right now."

"A bit, yeah," I admitted. "Why in the hell would you do this now?" Her question about why I hadn’t talked to Elizabeth hit a little too close.

"Because there’s a damned good chance that none of us will survive the next few days," Lady Anna answered. The uncertain look on her face made my angry retort die in my throat. "I couldn’t chance going to the Ancestors without telling you. And there was the hope that if I told you, you’d realize I am the female you need by your side."

"I need to go," I said, standing up. "I’ll see you in the morning." Lady Anna nodded, but didn’t say anything as I left. Hangman must have figured out what Lady Anna was going to say to me. Now I was glad that he told me to stop at his and Vanessa’s room. I needed some help figuring out all of the sudden emotions that were pinging around my head like ricocheting bullets.

Nick opened the door when I knocked on Hangman’s door. Oh good, more surprises. At least this was a surprise that I wanted. Nick was someone I could trust with this kind of problem. Plus, I was sure he’d known about this back in the Disputed Territories.

"Ancestors, you look like shit," Nick said as he ushered me into the room. Vanessa sat cross-legged on the bed with Hangman next to her. Nick sat me down in one of the chairs as he took the other. All three had sympathetic looks on their faces. I didn’t know whether to be angry with the three of them or glad that I had friends.

"So, she finally told you, and you never suspected a thing," Vanessa said, "Sweet Jesus, Mark, I love you, but I don’t understand how you never saw this coming. I honestly thought you were just leading that woman on back in the Disputed Territories."

"Wait, is that why you were always so angry with me?" I asked.

"Well, yeah," she answered, sheepishly, "Until these two explained it a little better. I thought you were just taking your anger with Elizabeth out by getting with the next woman who showed some interest in you."

"Well, that’s not what was happening," I said.

"So what exactly did she tell you?" Nick asked. I looked at the three of them. If there was anyone I could talk about this, they were all in this room. More importantly, they all wanted to help me.

"That she loves me and wants me to take her as my mate," I said.

"And what did you tell her?" Vanessa asked.

"I asked her why, and she said it was because I don’t treat her different because she can hunt, and I saved her life, and then she kissed me." Vanessa gasped as Nick and Hangman traded chagrined smiles.

"You let her kiss you?" Vanessa asked. She looked like she couldn’t decide whether to hug me or slap me.

"She caught me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting it," I protested, "And I stopped her. Then she went off on how she was better for me than Elizabeth and why haven’t I told Elizabeth about Lothos. Then she said she had to tell me now because we might all get killed in Tallahassee. At that point, it got very confusing in my head, so I left and came here."

"Why is it so confusing Ranger?" Nick asked.

"Because some of what Lady Anna said makes sense. Sort of. At least from a strictly logical point of view," I said. "She knows pretty much everything about me, and none of it scares her like it does Elizabeth. I’m also no longer sure about why I haven’t told Elizabeth about what happened at the warehouse with Lothos. I thought it was because there hasn’t been time, but now I’m thinking it’s because I know it’ll scare her even more." Vanessa decided I needed comforting more than being hit, so she came over and enveloped me in a hug.

"What do you want, Mark?" Vanessa asked.

"I want to kill Lothos and Blackhawk. I want my home to be back to normal. I want to be just a fucking hunter without having to deal with this state bullshit," I yelled. I took a few deep breaths.

"Yeah, but that’s not what we’re talking about," Vanessa gently chided.

"I want to be with Elizabeth," I said.

"Are you sure?" Nick asked, "Lady Anna made some very strong points. To be honest, she probably would be a better mate for you." Vanessa and Hangman both shot Nick betrayed looks. He shrugged. He held up a hand. "You’ve been infatuated with Lady Elizabeth for a very long time. Probably longer than you realize. It’s hard to overcome that kind of attachment, and look at things rationally. Are you willing to chance that you’re making a mistake and trying to build a relationship with the wrong female?"

"Damn it Nick, you’re supposed to be helping me, not messing me up more," I said.

"I am. Believe me, any relationship between you and Lady Elizabeth is going to be harder than you can imagine right now. Not just because you’re a Badmoon, but you’re a Badmoon hunter. There’s all sorts of traditions the two of you would be breaking if you two go through with this." Nick gave me a sympathetic look. "Are you willing to go through even more hell with a strong chance that you won’t be allowed to be together?" There was something in Nick’s eyes that stopped me from making a snap decision. I don’t know why, but I was sure that Nick had to make a similar choice, and he chose wrong. Maybe that was why he’d come to Florida.

I needed to be honest with myself. I knew I loved Elizabeth, but I wasn’t sure if I could trust her with everything about myself. I could trust Lady Anna with damn near anything, but although I found her attractive as hell, I wasn’t in love with her. Could I be though? I liked her well enough, and I damn sure respected her abilities. Would it be worth finding out if those feelings could turn into something more? The more I contemplated it, the more I realized one thing. At that moment, I wanted to be with Elizabeth. I wanted to be her mate, even if meant I was forced to stop being a hunter. I didn’t know how long I was quietly thinking through all of this, but when I looked up, all three were waiting patiently for my decision.

"I could live with Lady Anna, but I can’t live without Elizabeth," I said. Nick simply nodded, but Vanessa was beaming.

"Then you need to tell her everything about Lothos and what you’ve got to do," Nick said. "You’ve got to give her the chance to make the same decision as Lady Anna."

"Just don’t tell her about Lady Anna right now," Vanessa cautioned. "Let that wait until after we’ve all survived dealing with Blackhawk."

"Now that we’ve got Ranger’s love life sort of straightened out, I need to ask the two of you for a favor," Hangman said.

"What?" Nick and I asked at the same time.

"Vanessa’s agreed to marry me, and I want to know if the two of you will stand with me," Hangman said.

"Of course," I said.

"It would be an honor," Nick said.

We spent the next couple of hours celebrating the happy news. Buoyed by the joy of seeing Hangman and Vanessa taking the next step, I left their room to go have possibly a long talk with Elizabeth. It was time for her to find out if she could live with what I had to do.

Chapter 23 – Where’s This Calm Before The Storm They Keep Telling Me About?

Monday Fiction – Badmoon Rising – Chapter 21 – Things Become Clearer….I Think.

"How the hell are you here?" I asked, keeping the HK45 trained on Bradon. I was pretty sure it was Bradon. The elegantly cut dark suit and calm demeanor was definitely Bradon’s style, but I’d been fooled before.

"A simple question that covers a lot of complex territory," Bradon said. "Ranger, could you please put that pistol down? I used to wonder if you could shoot me, but you proved that. I’d rather you not prove it again. I don’t want to see all of my work destroyed. Neither do you, unless you’d rather see Tampa and the surrounding counties in Lothos’s control."

"None of which answers the question," I said, keeping the glowing green dot on Bradon’s forehead.

"Ranger put the gun down," Nick said, appearing out of the doorway. I looked back at my friend and back to the vampire. Neither Bradon nor Nicky were surprised by the others’ presence, which meant these two were working together. Betrayal and rage flared through me before I clamped down on my emotions. I almost shot Nick right there, but I knew there was more going on.

"Okay, one of you better start explaining, or I’m going to kill you both," I said. The two traded resigned looks. Nicky motioned for Bradon to speak.

"Ranger, you were not the only lycanthrope I cultivated a relationship," Bradon said, "I will admit you were my personal favorite, but I had others. Most were in your packs. With one exception."

"You," I said at Nick, who silently nodded.

"Nicholas is a very useful lycanthrope to know. He is so much more than the hunter he appears to be. Much like you. So, I recruited him for intelligence and his perspective as a non-Florida lycanthrope. He also was helping me with you," Bradon said, "Whether you know this or not, your presence in Tampa was very useful to the Peace. Which, in turn, was useful to my faction within the Inner Council. If outside forces hadn’t forced the issue, Nick and I would still be grooming you."

"For what?" I asked.

"Legacy hitter for the Guildmaster and his successor," Nick answered, "Although, if I’d known how strongly the Lady-Apparent felt about you, I would’ve groomed you more to court her."

"Well, you don’t have to worry about that," I said. Nick gave me a quizzical look. I waved it off. It wasn’t a subject I wanted to go into, and I needed to get back to what was actually going on. I looked back at Bradon.

"I knew you were trying to make me more, civilized. I knew that fit into your plans, somehow. The idea of you working with another of your contacts to make that happen doesn’t surprise me. Who you chose does surprise me. If anything, it makes too much sense. Enough for a good cover story. I put two bullets into Bradon. I saw enough black blood pour out of your body that there was no way for your abilities to save you. I’ve already killed one leech with Bradon’s face. So, you better have an answer as to how you survived or I’m going to assume you’re not Bradon and deal with you accordingly."

"I was alerted the moment Jason Vollen declared war against us. Not Nicholas, but from one of the packs. I knew you would be sent to kill me. Decapitating the Bleeders would be essential in the first shots of a war," Bradon said, "Our alchemists were never as good as your shaman, but they could do some very good magic on occasion. Like enchanting my clothes to become as strong as armor and just enough glamour to make it look like I suffered a mortal blow. All I received were a few broken ribs that healed up quickly."

"That would be plausible except that the Bleeders were never effective as they should’ve been after I shot you," I said, "Bradon would never have let his operatives be that sloppy."

"If I had been leading the Bleeders during the war, that would be true," Bradon said, "Do you think you were the only ones who noticed how the werewolves were being manipulated into a war against the TCV? Moreover, did you think your werewolves were the only ones being manipulated? There was pressure on the Inner Council as well. It was more subtle, but definitely from outside our borders. Among other actions, these outsiders were the ones who suggested Silanti start attacking your pups in tysach. At first I thought it was the Turaki trying to foment a war to provide causus belli to take control of the entire region. When I found out those aliens had no idea what was happening, I realized this was something new. Something I haven’t seen in my almost century and a half of being a nosferatu. Then, you came to kill me. My apparent death gave me the opportunity to investigate on my own without interference from the Inner Council. Just like you, I was overtaken by events. Your county fell faster than I expected. The only good to come of that was I happened to be in Tallahassee when Nick, you, and that young hunter of yours showed up."

"Bradon rescued me from those Nebraska dogs," Nick said, taking over the story. "After that, we went to Orange County to see what we could dig up. We found FCV vampires working the Orlando Council. They also sent some cryptic emails to both the FCV and the Society. We came to the Disputed Territories so Bradon could find out more about the connection between the Society and the FCV." My eyes shot over to Bradon, but the vampire was too busy giving Nick an annoyed look.

"What connection between the Society and the FCV?" I asked.

"That’s something I would like to know," Lady Anna said out of the doorway. Damn, she was quiet. "I would also like to know why there’s a vampire sitting in my safehouse talking with two hunters who should have already killed him." Her pistol was pointed at Bradon.

"Because the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Bradon said, "Or at least, a temporary ally. You want to see the FCV and the Society destroyed. So would I."

"Why?" Lady Anna asked.

"Because I want to see the Peace restored in Florida. That can’t happen with the FCV and the Society working to subvert it. They have too much combined power in this state," Bradon answered. "The only chance to stop them is for your Lord Savik and the Lady-Apparent in Hillsborough to stop the war before it gets out of hand. The only way that would happen was for me to take a more active hand in events."

"We can’t stop the war," Lady Anna said, "The war council has already convened. Once the new prince is selected, an army will be raised and the vampires will be wiped out of Florida."

"My lady, you are too smart and have lived in FCV territory too long to think it will any war between our races would be that easy," Bradon answered, sounding disappointed. "That kind of war will be the end of both of our races. For your lycanthropes to eliminate our kind, you would have to turn most of Florida into free-fire war zones. The pathwalkers would never allow that. They would eliminate every vampire and lycanthrope in Florida if that happened. Have you ever seen what happens when one of them take action to "restore balance?" Let me assure you, if you do, it will only be because you are the one the pathwalkers allowed to live to warn others. That horror will haunt you for the rest of your days. So, open warfare is off the table. The question then becomes do we want a long, protracted war of attrition between us until the vampires grind your race down?"

"What’s the other option?" demanded Lady Anna.

"A short, limited war to restore the status quo, the restoration of the Peace, and possibly formal relations to make sure this doesn’t happen again," Bradon said.

"The war council will never accept those terms. Not with the provocations of Dade, Broward, Hillsborough counties," Lady Anna said.

"Do you know what will happen if your so-called leaders decide to attack all of the nosferatu councils in the state? We will be forced to unleash those automatons you found in that warehouse. If the various councils manage to keep those savages on a short-leash, we will overwhelm every county like we did in Hillsborough. If not, we face the pathwalkers. This is why the Peace was forged. To prevent our races going to mutually assured destruction, to borrow the human phrase. Although, to be fair, the pathwalkers are far more terrible than any human nuclear weapon." Lady Anna holstered her pistol. She gave Bradon a long examining look.

"I can’t make that decision on my own," Lady Anna said. "You’ll have to make your case to Uncle Erik. For that, you’ll have to be bound with silver." Bradon nodded, as if he expected the condition.

"Ranger, if you’re strong enough, I’d like a word outside," Lady Anna said, "You two stay here. I want all of your weapons. Consider yourselves prisoners until I say otherwise."

"Of course, milady," Bradon said, handing over a Glock 19. Nick handed over his S&W 500, his back-up piece, and several knives. I gathered the assorted weapons, picked up my own pistol, and followed Lady Anna out of the room.

"Who is this Bradon leech?" Lady Anna asked in a hushed tone.

"He was the leader of the Bleeders in Hillsborough," I answered, "He was also my contact in the Bleeders. I don’t know why, but he’s always liked me. He admitted he was grooming for something."

"What’s his game?" she asked, "He can’t really want to restore the Peace and formalize relations."

"Actually, I believe him," I said. Lady Anna shot me a suspicious glare. "Look, everything he did in Hillsborough against the lycanthropes was done with the goal of increasing the power of his faction on the Tampa Inner Council without disrupting the Peace. Bradon is most likely using us as pieces in his own game with the other vampire councils, but his end goal will be the Peace. I thought it was because he’d seen what happened back in the Great War, but now I’m wondering if he was the survivor of a Pathwalker intervention. Just another mystery to add to the pile." I gave her a searching look. "Why didn’t you just kill all of us? I never even heard you come in."

"I think I know you Ranger. If you and your friend hadn’t killed him, then you trusted that vampire for some reason," Lady Anna said, "It’s more than that, isn’t it?"

"Trust wouldn’t be the right word," I said, "I respect Bradon. I respect his abilities even more. Past experience tells me that Bradon’s goals are currently in sync with ours, but I don’t know if those are his end goals, or just steps to something bigger. He’s used me before to win a conflict in vampire politics. I think he’s doing that with us now."

"So why shouldn’t I go back up there and kill him?" Lady Anna asked.

"Because I’m not sure you could," I answered. She gave me an angry glare. "Listen, the only vampire I know that is more dangerous than Bradon is Lothos. Believe me when I tell you, I don’t think you would be able to kill him. He’s too smart to come here without a way out. That said, it’s in his interest for us to succeed. Moreover, Bradon thinks long-term. Very long-term. It isn’t in his interest to use us and kill us. More likely, he’ll want to cultivate a relationship."

"Does he have anything on you?" she asked, "Something he could use to manipulate you against us?"

"I don’t think so," I answered, "Bradon has some plan for me. I don’t think it’s the same plan he has for Lord Savik and Elizabeth. Something else." Lady Anna gave me a look I just couldn’t read.

"We are going to have to do something about that," Lady Anna said softly as she reached up and placed her hand on my cheek. Her hand was warm and soft. A voice called Lady Anna from downstairs.

"I will talk to my uncle about this, but I don’t know what he’s going to do," Lady Anna said, "He may have all three of you killed, or he may listen to this Bradon. Until then, I want your weapon as well." She gave me a sad smile. I reluctantly handed her all of the weapons, including my own. She turned and walked back downstairs. I walked back into my room.

"My poor fool of a lycanthrope," Bradon said as I laid back down on the bed. He gave me an odd smile of contentment.

"Are you going to explain that remark, or do you just want to be cryptic?" I asked.

"For the moment, I want to be cryptic," Bradon said, smiling, "It’s more fun. Plus, you’re going to have enough to worry about without me burdening you further." Nick just gave me a mournful look.

"I swear Ranger, I think you really are cursed," Nicky said, "I wish I knew how you do it."

"Do what?" I asked, confused.

"That’s not important right now," Bradon interrupted, quieting Nick with a look, "What is important is what you have to do. None of this is going to work unless you can accomplish one thing."

"What’s that?" I asked.

"You have to kill Lothos," Bradon answered. The words hung in the silent room. I waited a long moment before breaking the silence.

"Tell me Bradon," I said, looking at the vampire, "What the fuck is Lothos, and why is it I’m the one who has to kill him?" Bradon didn’t say anything for a long moment. It was one of the few times I’d seen Bradon without a ready response. That was a little worrisome by itself.

"Lothos is what the nosferatu have spent over a millenia attempting to create," Bradon said, clearly uncomfortable with the subject, "A nosferatu without any of those pesky weaknesses to silver, wood, or fire. Strong enough to wipe out the lycanthropes, but not bring the pathwalkers’ attention."

"What about sunlight?" Nick asked. "Does he still get weak during the day?"

"Lothos is still a nosferatu," Bradon answered, as if that was enough.

"How in the Ancestor’s name did the Tampa Council make something like that?" I asked. "Why not one of the European councils, or even one of the larger American ones?"

"Because when Jacqueline Razor appeared in Tampa, she brought the project with her from Europe. How else do you think she managed to gather so much power in a short time?" Bradon asked.

"Blackmail and seduction," I answered. Nick nodded. Bradon gave us both a look of frustrated patience.

"There are days when I wonder if I invested my time in the wrong hunters," Bradon said, with aggravated patience, "Those are tools to bring down an enemy, not build the power base a true nosferatu would need to gain control of the Inner Council. Could a werewolf sleep her way into a pack leader position? No, of course not. Then, why would you think that would happen in our more sophisticated politics?"

"Careful Bradon, your prejudices are showing," I chided, "Sorry, but your politics look so much like the humans’ from our perspective. Perhaps more deadly. Why wouldn’t we think those would be part of your council games?"

"If we get out of this relatively unscathed, I am going to recruit that pup the two of you found in Carrollwood," Bradon said, "Maybe if I start early enough, she’ll learn enough to be useful." Twin growls erupted from Nick and me. Not even Bradon could make those kind of remarks about a pup.

"Grow up, you two," Bradon said, flashing his canines, "I didn’t reach my position by not knowing what rules I could and could not ignore. Why wouldn’t I want to recruit her like I did the two of you, after she joined the Guild? All of which is beside the point. We were talking about Lothos." Nick and I settled down. Jennifer Denton was probably still in tysach in Pinellas County. Bradon wasn’t going to be talking to her anytime soon.

"Razor brought a team of alchemists with her from Europe that spent decades trying to create Lothos," Bradon continued, "Their belief was that they would draw less attention in a smaller city. That was true, as far as the other vampire councils were concerned. They set up a laboratory to create Lothos and succeeded. Then, Ranger destroyed it before any more could be made." I flashed back to that odd warehouse back in Hillsborough that I helped a hit pack take out before the war erupted.

"Wait, you said that wasn’t a harem," I said, "Isn’t that the point of a harem, to create something like Lothos?"

"Not quite," Bradon said, "A harem is trying to re-create Itjawy, the Pure Nosferatu. Imagine your First Ancestor walking around in a werewolf body. All that power, none of the weaknesses of our bodies. Lothos was an attempt to create a lesser version of Itjawy. Something that could be used to defeat the werewolves, but not draw the ire of the pathwalkers. They have made it clear to us that if we manage to re-create Itjawy, they will wipe out our entire species."

"Then why would the vampires continue to even try to re-create Itjawy?" Nick asked.

"Do you believe your First Ancestor is more powerful than the pathwalkers?" Bradon asked. We both fell silent. The First Ancestor was supposed to be have the power of a god, but he was just one werewolf. Even the most junior pathwalker could manipulate the elemental forces of our world with ease. The senior ones were as scary as gods. Still, the First Ancestor would have the backing of all the Ancestors. I shrugged my shoulders. This was getting way too philosophical for me.

"So why didn’t Lothos do more in the war?" I asked, "Something like him could have torn any lycanthrope force apart."

"I don’t know. The alchemists never trusted the Bleeders, or more to the point, me. I only found out about their success well after the fall of the Inner Council and Silanti taking control of the Tampa Council. Of course, I was underground at that time, which freed up my methods a bit." He gave us a cryptic smile. "I do know Ranger’s slaughter of the alchemists slowed down awakening Lothos. Since his awakening, Lothos has been the leader of the Bleeders under Silanti."

"So why do I have to kill him?" I asked. "And for the record, how do I kill a vampire that’s immune to silver, wood, and fire?"

"I don’t know, but you’ve obviously been chosen for the task," Bradon answered, "As to how, I would imagine those extraordinary powers of yours should do the trick. It looked like you could have killed Lothos in the warehouse. If you hadn’t gone back for that pretty female aristocrat." I couldn’t keep the surprise off my face. Bradon had seen that fight? Had he heard the voice as well?

"Why didn’t you kill Lothos?" Bradon asked.

"He had the entire warehouse rigged with silver frags. He was going to kill all of the lycanthropes in the attacking force if I didn’t back off. Plus, I had to help Lady Anna. She’d been hurt badly." I answered.

"I see," Bradon said. I could almost see the calculations going on behind his dark eyes.

"What?" I demanded.

"It’s not important right now," Bradon said. I scrutinized his tone and posture. He was lying. He wouldn’t be thinking that hard on something that wasn’t important. Getting it out of him would be impossible, so I stayed quiet. Bradon watched my internal frustration with a passive face until he saw that I wasn’t going to ask further. Then another of his cryptic smiles spread across his face. I had a feeling that Bradon was enjoying some kind of victory.

"Here is what is important for the two of you," Bradon said, "I will tell Lord Savik about what is going on in Florida at the moment. I will not tell him about Lothos. First, he can’t waste werewolves going after Lothos. They’ll just be slaughtered. Secondly, that vampire is Ranger’s responsibility. Neither of you should speak about this to any of the other werewolves, except for maybe that young hunter from your county, the kin following Ranger around, and Lady Anna."

"Lady Anna?" I asked, confused. Nick just nodded, as if he understood Bradon’s logic.

"Yes, Lady Anna," Bradon said, "She can provide you the cover with these werewolves you’ll need to go after Lothos." It sounded logical enough, but there was something in Bradon’s eyes that made me think that wasn’t the real reason he included her.

Hangman bounded up the stairs. Vanessa was running to keep up with him. The two crashed into the room. Bradon, Nick, and I looked up from our poker game on the floor. Here is what I learned during that game. Never play cards with Bradon. The bastard is a fucking shark. I was already down two hundred bucks, and that was because Bradon was being nice. Or he was just drawing out the pain.

"Ancestors, it is true," Hangman said, looking at Bradon. Then, he turned his gaze on Nick and me. "How could you bring a leech here?"

"Could you not refer to me as a leech?" Bradon asked, "It’s offensive."

"It’s supposed to be," Hangman shot back at Bradon. He turned back to Nick and me. "Well?"

"Hangman, it’s not as cut and dried as you think," Nick said, motioning for Hangman and Vanessa to sit down on the bed. Hangman just continued to give the three of us a betrayed glare.

"Sit the fuck down, pup, and put the damned look away," I snapped at him, "This is part of being a hunter that you still need to learn." At Vanessa’s quiet urging, Hangman sat down on the bed. Vanessa was scared to be this close to a vampire, and she tightly gripped Hangman’s arm. I glared back at Hangman until he finally managed to bring his face to a scowl.

"Better," I said, "Now, Bradon’s been a contact of mine longer than you’ve been a hunter. He’s proven time after time that his interests lay in keeping the Peace between the lycanthropes and the vampires. Now, he’s using his considerable talents in assisting us because that is the best option he has for achieving his goals."

"How can you trust him?" Hangman asked with barely contained rage, "He’s a lee–, um, vampire." Bradon nodded to acknowledge Hangman moderating his speech. Hangman’s scowl deepened in response.

"I don’t trust him, per se. Not because he’s a vampire, but because he’s very dangerous. What I do trust is for Bradon to look out for his own interests, and to use anything and anybody in furtherance of those goals," I answered, "I trust that Bradon is still working the long game instead of just trying to get quick wins that would sour a long-standing relationship."

"Didn’t your killing him sort of sour the relationship?" Vanessa asked, neutrally. Bradon let out a melodic laugh.

"Taking out the leader of the most significant threat to werewolf operations at the beginning of a war?" Bradon asked in an all too familiar tone of the barest condescension. "I would have been professionally insulted if Ranger or one of the other hunters didn’t try to assassinate me. If the Inner Council had been the ones to start the war, the Guildmaster would’ve been the first werewolf I sent my Bleeders after. Then, maybe Ranger." That brought Hangman up short.

"Ranger? Not Sneller or Deadeye?" Hangman asked. I looked back at Bradon with a questioning look. His comment surprised me as well. Nick, on the other hand, just nodded in agreement.

"Ranger has always been the most unpredictable member of your Guild," Bradon answered, looking at Hangman, "I could never be sure if he would follow orders or take action on his own. He settled down demonstrably under the tutelage of your Guildmaster, but there was always that glint of chaos in him. If the Guildmaster was killed, there was an equal chance he’d become the leader of the lone wolves, or just try to exterminate every Bleeder in Tampa on his own. Given his capabilities, there would have been a fair chance he would have done significant damage before I could hope to stop him."

"So, why not kill me first?" I asked, intrigued by this turn in the conversation.

"Two reasons. First, the Guildmaster was always the more dangerous werewolf of you two," Bradon answered, enjoying the discussion. "Oh, you were probably the more technically proficient hunter, but the Guildmaster was a much better tactician and strategist. Not my equal, of course, but a truly gifted opponent. Second, there would need to be the element of surprise. Assassinating you would have forced the Guildmaster to take stronger security protocols making any operation against him significantly more difficult."

"That is fascinating, in a morbid kind of way," Vanessa said, clearly impressed by Bradon’s reasoning. Bradon acknowledged the comment with a sitting half-bow. I looked back over to Hangman.

"Those are the kind of calculations you’re going to have to make," I told him. His head snapped up in surprise.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"The Guildmaster, our Guildmaster, thought you had the potential to succeed him at some point," I said, "It’s why he had you training with the different sections of the Guild before the war broke out. He never did that with any of the other rookies that came in. By the time they came back from camp, the Guildmaster already knew where he was going to put them. Except for you. He wanted you to learn the big picture. Part of being the Guildmaster is learning what he called ‘strategic calculus.’ Being able to take into account all the costs and benefits, decide which are more important, and make the call on whether or not to take action."

"Do you think I could be a Guildmaster?" Hangman asked me, trying to hide the hope and excitement in his voice, "I know what the Guildmaster said when he died, but I thought he was just trying to soften his death." He squeezed Vanessa’s hand. So, the pup had ambitions. Good.

"There was a reason that the Guildmaster had you work with Ranger," Nick said, "You needed to see Guild operations at the highest, and most sensitive, level. You needed to see what a Guildmaster could only trust to his personal hitter. If the war hadn’t broken out, you would have learned the need of having vampire contacts." Bradon was eyeing Hangman with considerable interest. I’d have to keep an eye on that.

"So, right now, you’re willing to trust Bradon’s using you for his own ends, and that those ends mirror your own?" Vanessa asked, suspiciously.

"That is a remarkably succinct statement of our situation, young lady," Bradon said, clearly amused.

"So, if we’re so important to your goals, why did you steal all the information from the computers in the warehouse before our raid?" Vanessa asked. All of us looked at Vanessa with surprised looks. All except for Bradon. He gave Vanessa an appraising look.

"How do you know that I did it?" Bradon asked, his voice a cool neutral. "It could have been some enterprising member of the FCV."

"The FCV would have cleared out the entire warehouse, not just erased the the computers’ hard drives," Vanessa answered, matching Bradon’s tone. "If what you’ve said is true, then you had the most to gain by leaving the evidence of the FCV’s sleeping vampires for us to find, but taking all of the data out of the computers before we could retrieve it." Bradon said nothing for a long moment. Then he turned to Hangman.

"You’ve chosen your mate well," Bradon told Hangman, "Listen to her, and you’ll be one of the most dangerous Guildmasters this state has seen in some time." Then he turned back to Vanessa.

"I secured the information to make sure that it wasn’t lost in your raid," Bradon said, "You thought you were gong after the FCV’s sliver ammunition store. I needed you to understand what the true stakes were."

"And so you could make sure we didn’t get our hands on some of the information, such as the process by which those vampires were created?" Vanessa asked with a silky smooth voice.

"I make it a point never to lie to those who work for me," Bradon said, "So, yes, I removed that information. That secret shall remain with the nosferatu."

"Why?" Nick asked.

"Call it detente," Bradon answered, "Something for us to bring to the table. Do you think your war council will simply stop at liberating three counties if there isn’t something stopping them? The nosferatu need something to make sure that you will hold up your end of the Peace."

"Detente requires both parties have the means of destroying the other," Vanessa said, "Exactly what do the lycanthropes have that equate to the ability to mass-produce vampires?"

"By the end of these events, I fully expect the new prince of Florida to have a standing army of werewolves sworn to him. A battle-tested army of veteran warriors, shaman, and hunters. That kind of professional force will be a very big stick in the hands of the Prince of Florida."

"The county lords will never allow the Prince to keep a standing army," I said, "Part of the reason they can call a war council to replace the Prince or name his successor is because the Prince has no warriors except for those in his own county."

"That was true," Bradon said, "I have a feeling that when all of the intrigues are resolved, the idea of the new Prince having his own army will be considered a very good idea."

"One you intend to push?" Nick asked. Bradon didn’t say anything, but the sly smile across his face was all the answer we needed. The problem was I couldn’t see how Bradon benefited from the Prince having his own army. Bradon didn’t do anything that didn’t offer him some benefit. Of course, part of the danger with dealing with Bradon was that he was able to make things that seemed like setbacks turn out in his favor. That vampire played the long game better than anyone else in the state.

"This conversation has been most enlightening, but have you asked all of your questions regarding me?" Bradon asked Hangman and Vanessa, "I would dearly like to get back to taking all of Ranger’s and Nick’s money."

"For the moment. I think I’ll put any of my other questions to Lord Savik," Hangman said, standing up, "I’ll let him ask them of you." Bradon let out a bark of laughter.

"You are going to be a very dangerous Guildmaster someday," Bradon said, "I fear for the lord who has to deal with you." Hangman and Vanessa walked out of the room. Bradon watched them leave with an almost predatory gleam in his eye.

"Your lords are going to need werewolves like that," Bradon said as Nick dealt out the cards, "Especially to rebuild from the destruction." Nick and I exchanged glances. Neither of us wanted Bradon to go into detail about that. We had enough to worry about at the moment.

Lady Anna walked into the bedroom in at dusk the next day. Bradon was waking from his day’s sleep. Being in the same room as a sleeping vampire is creepy. They don’t breathe or move, and there is none of the normal sounds I expect to hear from a sleeping person. It was like being in the same room with a corpse, but without the smell of decomposition. Then about ten minutes before Lady Anna walked in, Bradon just sat up, looked around, and asked us if we’d heard anything from Lord Savik.

"Lord Savik will be here in half an hour," Lady Anna announced. "We will be escorting the three of you downstairs. You will stay in human form and you will be shackled. Any attempt to escape by any of you will result in the execution of all three of you. Is that understood?"

"Yes milady," I answered.

"Yes milady," Nick said.

"I give you my word that I will comply," Bradon said. At the looks Nick and me shot at him, Bradon quickly amended, "Yes milady."

"If you fail to convince Lord Savik that your actions weren’t treasonous, all three of you will be executed. Is that understood?" Lady Anna asked.

"Yes, milady," the three of us chorused. She nodded in acknowledgment.

"There are guards outside that will take you downstairs," Lady Anna said, "You will be brought down one by one. The vampire first." Bradon stood up gracefully, and followed Lady Anna outside.

"What do you think the likelihood is we’ll see dawn?" I asked Nick.

"That may depend on how much influence your Lady Anna has with Lord Savik," Nick answered.

"Huh?" I asked, confused.

"Never mind. There’s no point in confusing you more right now," Nick said. "Bradon probably has enough information, but I don’t know if Lord Savik will believe anything a vampire tells him. He doesn’t know me enough for my vouching him. Your vouching for Bradon? That might be the factor that swings things." We both fell silent until Lady Anna came back into the room for Nick. At that point, I was left alone with my thoughts. It wasn’t like this was the first time I’d been threatened with execution. That part didn’t frighten me. What consumed my thoughts was this destiny I was supposed to fulfill. That and Elizabeth. Damn it, why should she intrude into my thoughts now? She told me she didn’t want me in her life. That should have been the end of it, but no, her face and even her smell was vividly dancing in my mind.

"Ranger," Lady Anna said as she came back into the room. I shook my head to clear out those bothersome thoughts. Lady Anna looked oddly hesitant, like she wanted to say more. I stood up and walked over. She didn’t move.

"Do you really believe this vampire is going to tell us the truth? Or is he going to tell us what he needs to in order for us to do what he wants?" she asked. Her voice was so quiet I almost couldn’t hear her.

"Yes," I answered. She shot a confused look at me. "He will tell us the truth because he’s sure that it will get us to do what he wants. That’s how Bradon operates. You might want to let Lord Savik know to make his questions as specific as possible. Bradon won’t lie to us, but he may not tell us the whole truth."

"Why are you so willing to vouch for him?" she asked. "For a damned leech?"

"Because Bradon would have never allowed himself to be at your mercy if he wasn’t willing to invest his time in Lord Savik. Bradon never invests time in tools he’s expecting to expend quickly. He wants a long relationship with Lord Savik. He never outright lies to those he has a relationship. It’s the quickest way to destroy his work."

"I dearly hope you’re right," Lady Anna said, caressing my cheek. "Uncle is willing to listen to the vampire, but he better have some damned good information. He doesn’t want to have you killed, but that was the only arrangement that the packleaders would accept."

"I understand," I said, "If I do end up being killed, would you tell Lord Savik thank you for listening to us and I understand?" Lady Anna whirled around at my words. She took a few deep breaths before speaking.

"I will," she said, stiffly, "Follow me please." Just outside the door, two guards clamped my hands my back with silver manacles. The familiar burn of the silver caused me to pause for a moment. The guards understood and let me take a few deep breaths before they ushered me downstairs. They brought me into a large room, probably the living room of the house, and sat me down on the last of three stools. The room was mostly empty. It reminded me of the room that Fangbearer interrogated Hangman, Vanessa, and me when we first came to the Disputed Territories. Except there were a hell of a lot more guards this time. Lord Savik and Lady Anna sat on leather chairs across the room from the three of us. Six pack warriors serving as guards surrounded them. Eight more were around Bradon, Nick, and me. Those were staggered so that none were in the firing arc of another. From their expressions, the guards were ready to hose us with whatever silver the packs managed to scrape up if we posed the tiniest threat to Lord Savik and Lady Anna. Off to the side, Hangman stood next to Vanessa. I wondered why they were there, but realized that Lord Savik probably wanted Vanessa’s mind ready to jump on any inconsistencies from Bradon. He’d certainly taken to the kin.

"Lady Anna warned you of the penalties, so my instructions are simple. Do not lie by deception or omission. Answer my questions and at the end, I will make my decision about whether or not to kill you and execute your lycanthrope supporters. Is that clear, vampire?" Lord Savik asked.

"Lord Savik, I will answer to the best of my abilities. I will tell you when I know something and when I suspect something. There may be somethings that I won’t answer right now, and I will tell you so," Bradon answered.

"That you won’t answer?" Lord Savik asked, incredulously, "Tell me why I shouldn’t just kill you know for the fact that you won’t answer all of my questions."

"Because then you won’t have the ally you need to keep the coming war under control and beneath the pathwalkers’ attention," Bradon said, "There are somethings you can’t know if I’m going to have a stable vampire community after the war. A stable community who will be willing to accept the return of the Peace after the FCV and its allies are destroyed." Lord Savik thought that over for a long moment before his eyes fixed back on Bradon.

"You need?" Lord Savik asked, "Do you expect to be the first vampire prince of Florida?"

"The nosferatu would never accept a prince ruling over them," Bradon answered, "We’re too conniving. If I tried, I would be deposed and destroyed within a year. No, I will return to Tampa and rebuild the Inner Council."

"Then how can you expect to force the other councils to accept the return of the Peace?" Lady Anna asked.

"A fair question, and one of those I won’t answer," Bradon said, "Suffice to say, I will have enough influence and with the resources of the Tampa Council, I can ensure no other council in Florida will allow the Peace to fall again."

"Do those resources include those vampires we found in the warehouse?" Lord Savik asked. Bradon paused a moment before answering.

"They are called them ‘dervishes’ by the FCV. I have no idea why the FCV decided on that name," Bradon said, "Once the FCV is destroyed and the Peace is restored, none of the councils will create any dervishes unless the lycanthropes start a war. I’m sure the kin explained to you the reasons." Bradon gave the two aristocrats a hard look. "I don’t think either of you comprehend how different this state is going to be for you werewolves after our war. This isn’t like anything that has happened before, including the Great Council War."

"What do you mean? Explain why." Lord Savik ordered.

"We have two forces outside our normal power structures colluding to bring about a war for the express purpose of changing their own political dynamics. Unfortunately, both of them are under the impression that they will be able to destroy the other in the war." Bradon was always good at hooking someone’s interest by dropping these cryptic bombs. He’d done it enough to me over the course of our working relationship.

"The Society and the FCV?" Lord Savik asked. Bradon nodded, looking pleased. "I understand how the Society is outside the normal lycanthrope structure of the prince and the lords, but how is the FCV outside the normal vampire structure?"

"One of the lessons from the Great Council War, what you call the Great Fatherland War, was the nosferatu should never try to control human nations. Influence maybe, but never outright control. Our internal politics will always cause instability both inside the nation and with those nations around it. The kind of instability that brings the pathwalkers. The FCV is under the impression they can take over the human state of Florida and not fall to the same fate. That is why they call themselves the Florida Council instead of the Miami Council or the Fort Lauderdale Council."

"Why would they collude to start a war?" Lady Anna asked, "That goes against all tradition. On both sides."

"Really?" Bradon asked, crooking up his eyebrow ironically. Lady Anna scowled as she caught Bradon’s meaning.

"We aren’t colluding with you, we’re interrogating you," Lady Anna retorted, "You didn’t answer the question. Why were they colluding?"

"Why? To gain power in their respective worlds, of course. Anything else, they could procure on their own," Bradon answered. "They would be the flags upon which our races would rally. An interesting, but horribly wasteful means to quickly gain power and destroy internal opposition."

"Stop. When was this pact formed?" Lord Savik asked. Bradon gave the lord a wide smile.

"Shortly before the Society betrayed you to the FCV," Bradon answered, "Your death was supposed to seal the pact. The FCV’s failure to kill you soured the relationship a bit, but there’s been regular correspondence as both factions have adjusted their plans."

"You have this correspondence?" Lord Savik asked.

"They were part of the data I stole from the FCV before you raided the warehouse. I doubt they even know it has been copied," Bradon said, "Not like they would warn their co-conspirator. A werewolf civil war would do quite nicely to give the FCV time to form a new Inner Council. Assuming there isn’t a nosferatu strong enough right now to forge a new council." Bradon shot a meaningful look to me. If Lothos recovered, he might just be strong enough to do something like that.

"I want my own eyes on this data," Lord Savik said, "Will your stolen information tell me why the Society decided to betray me?"

"Possibly," Bradon answered, "I looked just enough to confirm what I’d learned about the FCV from other contacts around the state."

"Where is it? We need to get it into a secure location so that we can analyze and make sure you’re telling the truth, or you didn’t make a mistake," Lord Savik said.

"Well, you’re in luck then," Bradon said, "The data is on two hard drives. I have them in a locked case and stored in your Guild. I thought that was safe enough. Pad 221, I believe." The silence in the room was deafening. Lord Savik and Lady Anna just stared at the vampire with shocked looks. The guards tried to hide expressions that ranged from shock to terror. My expression mirrored the aristocrats. I knew Bradon was good, but how the hell did he manage to ferret out the location of the Disputed Territories’ Guild?

"Was there a reason you hid them there?" Lord Savik asked, recovering quickly from the shock.

"Reasons, plural," Bradon answered. "First was to show you that I am just as dangerous as Ranger warned you. Second, to prove to you that even if I am dangerous, I want to work with you towards common goals. I could have revealed the existence of not just the Guild, but several of your safehouses to the FCV. I would have been generously rewarded, believe me. They fear you more than you realize. Instead, I would rather work with you to cripple the FCV and its lycanthrope allies." Bradon waited just long enough for Lord Savik to swallow what he’d said before dropping his next bomb.

"Although, if you want to analyze the data, you need to hurry. You need to be in Hillsborough in no more five days, if my calculations are correct," Bradon said.

"Why do you say that?" Lord Savik demanded.

"Because a new prince will most likely be selected in ten days’ time, and you will need Elizabeth Vollen and her wolves if you’re going to stop the Society from ruling Florida’s werewolves. Once that happens, the war truly begins, and both races will be destroyed."

"I’m supposed to leave my counties to the FCV to go fight in Tallahassee?" Lord Savik asked.

"Lord Savik, I’ve fought political battles longer than you’ve been alive," Bradon said, "I knew when Stephen Vollen was assassinated there was something strange going on in this state. Something pushing our races to war. So, I let the council I spent decades shaping fall into the hand of my nemesis for the purpose of finding exactly what was happening. Believe me, right now, you are the only lord who can stop your war council from handing the throne to Blackhawk."

"That makes no fucking sense. Blackhawk’s a puppet master. Why would he want the throne?" I asked.

"Why indeed?" Bradon asked in response.

"Blackhawk is not a lord. He’s not even of an aristocratic line. He’s not eligible to become the next prince," Lord Savik said, flatly.

"Are you so sure?" Bradon asked, "How much do you really know about Blackhawk? Believe me, not even the FCV knew anything about him before he showed up as the head of the Society. I couldn’t even find out anything except unconfirmed rumors little more than stories."

"If we do this, what assistance are you going to provide us?" Lord Savik asked, eyeing the vampire.

"I gave you the information, didn’t I?" Bradon said.

"Which keeps me from killing you, and keeps Ranger and Nicholas alive as well," Lord Savik said, "I need more to accept you as an ally or not mark you out for death later."

"I like this lord of yours a great deal," Bradon said, looking back at me. Then he turned back to Lord Savik, "I will keep the TCV away from you while you’re in Hillsborough. We’ll be busy forming a new Inner Council under my auspices anyway. Shortly after, I will begin convincing the other councils to stay out of the battles to liberate your counties. As soon as the new prince is selected, the TCV will sign a reaffirmation of the Peace at status quo ante bellum. The rest of the councils will follow suit shortly after."

"You think we would accept that after you sent the witch hunters after us? And those dervishes?" I demanded. Bradon looked back and gave me the coldest look I’d ever seen on his face. I shrunk back from his visage. I’ll admit it. Bradon scared me.

"Your lord started the war because your Guild didn’t tell him that his father’s assassin was a hunter, not a nosferatu-controlled werewolf," Bradon answered with a quiet, neutral voice, "Further, we didn’t send the witch hunters after you. I would suggest you look at who murdered Stephen Vollen, and you will find who sent the witch hunters into your Manor."

"That will be dealt with later, and with the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough," Lord Savik said with an air of finality. Lord Savik turned to Vanessa. "You have twenty-four hours to confirm what the vampire has said. If you can’t find anything that disproves what he’s told us, we will leave for Hillsborough." Even the guards couldn’t contain their surprise.

"Uncle?" Lady Anna asked. Lord Savik held up his hand and gave Bradon a hard look.

"Ranger warned Lady Anna that you are using us for your long-term plans. Very long term plans," Lord Savik said to Bradon, "It made me realize that I’ve been looking at the short term for too long. If what you’ve been telling me is true, then we can no longer ignore the rest of the state. My packs will be the first to die in the new war if Blackhawk gains the throne. You’re also right I will need all the wolves I can trust, which means the lycanthropes in Hillsborough." Lord Savik thought for a moment. "What will you do if I release you?"

"Leave immediately for Tampa," Bradon answered, "With Silanti dead, and myself returning from the dead, there won’t be a better opportunity to take control of the Inner Council. It will also take time for me to contain the dervishes in Tampa. You should be free to conduct business while that is happening."

"Ranger, you will release Bradon and Nick one hour after we have departed," Lord Savik said, and motioned for one of the guards to unshackle me. "Anything less than that, you will end up dead. I don’t want to kill you. After that, I will expect you to join us at the Guild. We have much to plan, and I’m going to need your specific skills." Lord Savik gave me a sad smile. The lycanthropes left the house. I didn’t watch them leave. I focused on Bradon. The vampire was busy staring up at the ceiling as if everything was going to plan, and he had to be patient just a bit longer. Considering Bradon, that was probably the truth.

"What about Lothos?" I asked, "Won’t he try to stop you from taking over the TCV?"

"He would, if he was going back to Tampa," Bradon said, still looking at the ceiling.

"If he’s not going back to Tampa, then where is he going?" I asked.

"He’ll stay with the FCV," Bradon said. He finally looked at me. "I’ve been monitoring him since he emerged on the Tampa scene. Lothos is convinced of his superiority to all vampires and all lycanthropes. I wouldn’t be surprised if he believed he could challenge the pathwalkers. The FCV will give him a better change at seizing control of all the councils, which is why he’ll stay here."

"Then I should stay as well," I said, "To hunt him down and finish him."

"I don’t think you need to hunt him," Nick said. Bradon and I looked over at our quiet companion. "Lothos will hunt you down Ranger. He can’t leave you out there as a constant threat."

"All the better to kill him now before he can threaten the others," I said. Nick just shook his head.

"He’s going to be fixated on you," Nick said, "Just you. Everything and everyone else doesn’t matter. If he comes back, expect a challenge. He needs to defeat you, and to do it with his own abilities to prove to himself that he is truly the vampire he thinks he is. Believe me, I’ve seen his kind before." Nick’s voice got that tight tone when he was approaching his past. He didn’t look like he wanted to explain further. There was going to be a time Nick was going to have to tell me everything, but now wasn’t the time. We spent the hour reminiscing about past escapades in Hillsborough. It was comforting to think about the times before the assassination of Stephen Vollen. Before the deaths of so many lycanthropes who were closer to me than any family. I excused myself for a few moments. For the first time in a very long, I spoke to the Ancestors. I told them I hoped my friends were doing well with them and asked for their guidance over the next ten days.

"So, this is why we will be leaving our home counties for Hillsborough," Lord Savik told the wolves of his collected packs, the Order of Spirits, and the Guild. "In twenty-four hours, we will be gone from these lands. Hopefully, once we’ve dealt with Blackhawk and the Society, we will return with the reinforcements we need to destroy the FCV." The cravex was eerily quiet. No one moved or spoke. I could see a range of expressions on the wolves. Everything from shock to rage to terror to reluctant acceptance.

"We are doing all of this on the word of a leech, vouched by the abomination?" the Spiritmaster asked, through clenched fangs. Lord Savik and Lady Anna told me that no matter what anyone said, I was to sit firmly on my temper. As the Spiritmaster looked at me with deadly accusation, I found it easy to look back with a neutral look. These wolves were going to help my county and save my state. It was worth dealing with some of their vitriol.

"No, we are doing this based on verified evidence that the Society made an alliance with the FCV and betrayed us, and are now doing the same thing to the entire state," Lord Savik said calmly.

"Evidence provided by the leech," one of the pack leaders countered.

"The initial data was provided by Bradon," Vanessa interjected, "Using information on the drives, I was able to hack into an FCV network known to the Guild. I was able to find corroboration for the major items on their network before their security shut me down."

"You are Society and an ally of the abomination," the Spiritmaster, "How we can trust anything you tell us?" Vanessa blanched at the accusation. Hangman, on the other hand, gave the Spiritmaster a murderous look that made me proud. Fortunately, the Guildmaster stepped in before the pup could do anything.

"Because I supervised, and I’m willing to vouch for what she said," the Guildmaster said, "Are you going to call me a liar or a fool? If so, we’ll deal with that right here in the old way." Gasps erupted from the packs and more than one of the shaman.

"Enough!" Lord Savik’s voice boomed through the cravex. "Every lycanthrope in this cravex swore to me personally that you would follow me. I swore to you that I would do whatever it took to restore our counties to us. This is what needs to be done to restore our counties."

"Lord Savik, at least let one of the packs stay here," the pack leader from earlier said, "For reconnaissance, if nothing else."

"I thought hard on that," Lord Savik said, "We are going to need every wolf when we confront the Society. I can’t spare any of you. This is the same sacrifice I am going to be asking of the Hillsborough lycanthropes. We all go. We all fight." The pack leaders traded looks. For the briefest of moments, I expected one of them step up to challenge Lord Savik. None did. The pack leaders gave their lord resigned nods. Lord Savik turned his glare on the Spiritmaster.

"Where you go, my shaman and I will follow," the Spiritmaster said, the look in his eyes clearly telling he disagreed with the lord.

"That’s not going to be enough this time," Lord Savik told his Spiritmaster, "We need to present a unified front in Hillsborough, and when we finally deal with the Society. If you or any of your shaman hint at any discord among my wolves, Fangbearer or Ranger will express my displeasure. Is that clear?" The Spiritmaster was paralyzed with shock. Even the Guildmaster’s cool neutrality slipped with the briefest expression of horror.

"Is that clear?" Lord Savik said, growling.

"Yes, milord," the Spiritmaster said, bowing low in submission. At their leader’s insistence motioning, the rest of the shaman followed suit.

"Lord Savik, how are we going to make it to Hillsborough? We know the Society would see us leaving and have one of the surrounding counties’ packs on us the moment we crossed the borders," another pack leader said, "Especially for a convoy of our size."

"I have a plan for that," Lord Savik said, an evil predatory smile spreading across his face, "By the time we are ready to leave, the Society’s eyes won’t be an issue. Now, go my lycanthropes. We will meet here at six o’clock tomorrow. Anything you can’t pack by that time will be left. Bring all the weapons, ammunition, and combat gear first." The Disputed Territories’ packs and shaman left the cravex talking among themselves. In about fifteen minutes, the only ones who remained were Lord Savik, Lady Anna, Fangberarer, the two Red Knights, the Guildmaster, Cracker, Vanessa, Hangman, Nicky, and myself.

"Jan, I need your wolves to quickly pack up what you have at the Guild and then get back here," Lord Savik said, "I have a feeling I will need you to help coordinate our leaving. Anna, go with them. Ranger, you and your tall friend need to stay." Nick and I traded a look before nodding. As the hunters, Anna, and Vanessa left, Lord Savik gave Nick and me a job.

"You know where the Society’s listening post is?" Savik asked.

"Yeah, Vanessa and I had to go there before we came down here," I answered.

"Wipe it off the face of this earth," Lord Savik said, "Under no circumstances can anyone there alert any county or the capital. You have full authority to take whatever you need to get this done. From what you’ve told me, we can rearm in Hillsborough. Do you understand?"

"We’re hunters, milord," Nick said in his familiar calm tone. Ancestors, I missed that.

"First off, I need everything your wolves took from my truck that hasn’t been broken or used up," I said.

"Fangbearer will see to it," Lord Savik said, "Just make sure to be back here in time to leave with the rest of the Guild." With that the lord left, his two Red Knights trailing their principle.

"Give me a list, and I’ll have it here in a few hours," Fangbearer said, "Oh, and Ranger, please exercise some caution or my little sister will kill you."

It was times like these that I realized how much I relied on the support of the Hillsborough Guild. In Hillsborough, as soon as I got the job, I had building plans, specific tools, and an intelligence briefing on likely opposition. For this job, all Nick and I had were Fangbearer’s promise to try and get our list and my memory of what I saw when Vanessa and I went to the Society’s listening post. We really didn’t have the time to do proper recon either. My reputation to the contrary, I don’t like going into a job this blind. I sketched out what I could remember. My first instinct was to do a controlled drop of the office park. Nick kindly pointed out that demolishing the whole building was not likely to work because glass and steel wouldn’t give the lycanthropes inside archanal wounds. I swore. From what I remembered, there was Raven and six kin. Taking out seven targets wasn’t hard for two hunters. Taking them out before they had a chance to send an alert was another thing entirely. We also didn’t know if there were more Society operatives that I couldn’t see previously.

"We’re thinking about this wrong," Nick said, "We need to make sure they can’t communicate out first, and then we can take them down."

"Okay, that makes sense," I said, mentally slapping myself. Sometimes you start going down one path and completely lose sight of the job’s goals.

"Going back to your earlier suggestion, we can take out the entire building’s telecom with some judicious explosive use," Nick said. "A small charge to the telephone exchange should do the trick. Then breach, flash-bang, kill. Not as flashy as some of your jobs, but it should do the trick." I gave him a level look.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about Nick," I said evenly.

"My name is Nicholas, Ranger," Nick replied, just as evenly.

From the cravex to the office park was a little over two hours. It took Fangbearer about four hours to get the items we requested. So, we were on-site about two in the morning. We parked in a strip mall some three hundred yards away from the office park. All of our gear fit into two over-sized gym bags. So, it was a quick hike to the fence surrounding the office park. As we kneeled down next to the decorative black iron fence, my phone buzzed. That was unusual. I pulled it out. An email from Vanessa? I tapped the message and a map of the office park popped open in my screen. A quick scan told me our initial mistake.

"Nick, take a look," I said, holding up my phone, "It looks like the communications exchanged isn’t that box, but inside the Society listening post itself." Nick scooted closer and peered at the map.

"Where the hell did that come from?" Nick asked.

"Vanessa. She found it on those drives from Bradon. It looks like the FCV spent some time mapping out this area in case they needed to take out the listening post." I sat back on my haunches and thought about that for a moment.

"Ranger, what’s going through that mind of yours?" Nick asked, warily.

"The FCV," I answered, "What if the Society thought the FCV was responsible for taking out their listening post?" Nick gave me that level look that told me he thought I was going off the deep end – again.

"Our job is to take out that post and and everyone working in it," Nick reminded me.

"Actually, our job is to silence this listening post. Savik wanted us to make it vanish, but if the Society is scrambling to find out why the FCV killed their listening post? That would give us a hell of a window." To his credit, Nick thought it over.

"I have a feeling we’re going to regret this, but I can see what you’re getting at," Nick conceded. "Still, how are you going to make this look like an FCV raid? It’s not like the FCV would just spray paint ‘The FCV was here’ on the walls." That was definitely a point. How would I make this raid point to the FCV?

"I’ll think on that as we sanitize the post," I answered, "Worse comes to worse, we can always just do what Savik wanted."

"Do you know how much I hate changing the plan in the middle of a job?" Nick asked.

"Almost as much as when I call you Nick," I replied.

"I don’t know whether to punch you or just be glad to be working with you," Nick said, "Let’s do this." Both of us shed for true form. We bounded over the fence. As soon as my feet touched the ground, I darted into the shadows. True form would keep us hidden from the human guards’ occasional glances, but seeing us out in the open might make one of them into a witch-hunter. Better to stay to the shadows as much as possible.

I tasted the wind as we neared the Society listening post. The scents of the humans and kin were hours old. The place was deserted. I motioned for Nick to move up to the entrance. I fell in behind him as we stood beside the glass door. Nick slung the HK417 and drew his revolver. I smiled as the stainless S&W glinted in the faint moonlight. I kept my Commando at the low ready. Nick ripped the door open. I slipped in and swept the room. Monitors gave the room an eerie illumination. My instincts started screaming danger. I paused and Nick nearly collided with me as he came through the door. He gave me a quizzical look. I hand-signed that something was wrong. Nick nodded, unslung the 417, and moved in behind me. Ancestors, I missed working with Nick. He never questioned my instincts.

The two of us crept through the room, looking for whatever was setting off my instincts. The main room was as I remembered. Nothing seemed unusual. We both focused on the door at the back. According to the plans, the communications closet for the office park was behind that door. Nick and I spread out and cautiously approached the door. It wouldn’t surprise me to find the damn thing booby-trapped. I took deep breaths, tasting the air for the tell-tale scents of dead rubber or ozone. Even the slightly rusty scent of thermite. Nothing. I held up my hand as it clicked in my head. Nick froze. I wasn’t smelling anything, not even the normal smells of a small room filled with hardware. The blinding flash and deafening roar came an instant after I realized the trap. Something hard and heavy clubbed me across my muzzle. I spun to the ground. The pain wasn’t going away, which meant archanal. I heard Nick grunt, then glass shatter. As my eyes recovered, I saw a lycanthrope in true form standing where Nick had been standing.

"Hello Raven," I said as I leapt to my feet. I brought the carbine up. The holographic reticle floated over his face. Raven darted faster than I thought possible and knocked my Commando out of my hands before hitting me hard enough to launch me into one of the workstations.

"How did you know it was me?" Raven asked.

"I didn’t until you just told me. Although, it wasn’t hard to guess. Where’d your limp go?" I asked, standing. We both fell into fighting stances.

"Where do you think?" he sneered. "It’s been a while since I took apart a hunter. Now, I get two to play with." He dashed at me. I drew my HK45 as I crouched down. His fist sailed where my head should have been. I fired twice before Raven spun and kicked me to the ground.

"Hunters and their toys," Raven said as he held his side. Blood dripped onto the floor. "You’ve forgotten what it truly means to be a lycanthrope. You’re too human."

"Whatever it takes," I said, getting to my feet. Raven was suddenly in front of me. A fury of blows shot out. I blocked some, but others snuck through. How the hell was Raven so fucking fast? This wasn’t like Cracker. This was more like fighting Lothos. Except no weird voice was talking to me and no super powers to help me out. A gut punch doubled me over and I fell to my knees.

"I don’t know why Blackhawk was so worried about you," Raven said as he loomed over me. I didn’t look up. I just gripped my middle and gauged the distance. Barely close enough. I lunged at his legs, my own claws bared. Raven tried to dodge, but he was too close and, more importantly, wasn’t expecting the tackle. I sunk my claws deep into his calves and yanked. Raven howled with pain as my claws came back meaty and dripping. Pain flared as I felt one of his claws rip across the back of my head. As soon as we hit the ground, I rolled. As soon as I opened the distance, I grabbed my small Glock 26 from its ankle holster. Raven snarled as I fired. Brains and blood splattered across the wall and floor.

"I hope you realize you just killed one of the Prince’s sons," a familiar voice came from Raven’s workstation. I looked around for the video cameras. "Don’t bother Ranger, they’re pinhole cameras. You won’t be able to find them before the local pack comes to kill you for breaking the boundary, and killing Society personnel."

"Well Blackhawk, it didn’t go the way I thought it would, but your little team here is destroyed," I told him.

"For what reason?" Blackhawk asked, calmly.

"To give the remaining lycanthropes in the Disputed Territories a fighting chance," I answered. "I know you’ve been trading favors with the FCV, you traitorous dog."

"You’re a small minded monster of a lycanthrope," Blackhawk said, condescendingly. "All you knew was your county. You have no idea of how things stand on the state level. What did you think you were accomplishing with your little raids across the Territories? Did you think Savik might actually win now that you killed so many of the FCV leadership?"

"I owed it to them after –" I stopped suddenly. "It doesn’t matter now. I’m almost done with what I came to do. Then, you can find me in Hillsborough."

"What did you owe the lycanthropes in the Disputed Territories, I wonder?" Blackhawk mused, an almost delighted tone in his voice. "I know you, Ranger. If a lycanthrope earns your respect, you become almost slavishly loyal to them. Your Guildmaster, Lord Vollen, and now Lord Savik." He paused and gave a low chuckle. "That’s it. He’s dead. Probably his little heir bitch as well. That was a bloody raid from what I understand." I glared around the room.

"Whether you like it or not, you’ve done what I wanted you to do," Blackhawk said, "Go back to your county, Ranger. I’ll call off the packs. The human police, on the other hand, you will have to deal with."

"Just like that?" I asked. "All is forgiven?"

"Of course not," Blackhawk said. "We are not fools, Ranger. I will make you this offer, though. Behave and I won’t kill your precious Lady-Apparent." A low snarl of rage escaped my throat. I managed to force my face into neutrality. Damn it, why did she have that effect on me? Still?

"Who do you think sent me here, Blackhawk?" I asked, "She wants nothing to do with me."

"Perhaps. Young females often grow out of their adolescent infatuations," Blackhawk said confidently, "You on the other hand? You still love her. That slavish devotion. If you don’t interfere, I’ll just marry her off to another lord. If you attempt any foolishness in Tallahassee, I will kill her. I may have to kill you as well, but she will die first." I let my anger flow. I stalked back to the closet. This had gone far enough. I started yanking out wires and boxes.

"I’ll leave you to your destruction, but don’t forget what I said," Blackhawk warned. There was an audible click, like a phone being disconnected. Well, we were going to have to torch the place now. Speaking of "we," where the hell was Nick? Almost as if my thoughts summoned him, Nick walked into the listening post, reloading his S&W 500.

"Oh good, you killed him," Nick said. "I’ve got four dead kin outside. Bastards tried to ambush me. It fell apart when I killed the first one." My anger dissipated, and I nearly fell back down as a wave of vertigo hit. Nick was next to me as the vertigo faded. He looked at the back of my head. "I’ll wipe that. That should at least stop you from bleeding all over the place." The familiar odor wafted up an instant before my head was bathed in brilliant pain. Thankfully, the pain vanished as quickly as it hit. I could feel my wound healing.

"You said you killed four kin?" I asked Nick.

"Yeah," he answered. I scowled.

"There were six kin working here when Vanessa and I came here," I said, "What’s the likelihood that those last two are snug in their beds?" Nick’s scowl matched mine.

"This job’s already blown," Nick said, "All we can do is burn this place and the bodies before the humans or one of the local packs comes around."

"We don’t have to worry about the local packs," I told him. He gave me a quizzical look. "Blackhawk is going to call them off. I’ll explain later. We do have to deal with the human authorities." Nick just nodded. I helped him drag the four kin from outside. Nick produced the small explosives we’d brought for destroying the listening post. Those were quickly set. Ten minutes later, we were outside the fence as the block of offices were blown apart with an explosion that lit the area up like daylight.

"P for plenty, Nick?" I asked as debris landed around us.

"No sense in chancing that they wouldn’t do the job," Nick said. He gave me a weary look as we quick-timed to the truck. "Would it even matter for me to remind you that my name is Nicholas?"

"Has it ever?" I replied as we dashed across the highway. My ears picked up the faint sounds of sirens. We needed to speed this up. I wanted to be at least a few miles down the road before the humans cordoned off the area. Nick must have heard them also and come to the same conclusions. As fast as we scrambled into the truck, I had to remember to drive sedately as I pulled out onto the highway. I saw the tiny speckle of flashing lights as we drove back into the Disputed Territories.

"Now would you please explain why Blackhawk called off the local packs?" Nick asked. I gave him a brief recount of my conversation.

"I think I have him convinced Lord Savik and Lady Anna are dead," I finished, "We may not have wiped out all of the Society personnel, but I think we managed to get the job done."

"More to the point, we’ve managed to achieve what the job needed," Nick agreed, "I hope Lord Savik will take that victory and be happy. He’s going to be upset enough when we tell him that he has a traitor in his packs," Nick said. I nearly swerved the truck off the road.

"Traitor? Who?" I asked, getting my truck back on the road.

"I don’t know, but that ambush was laid too neatly. They knew we were coming," Nick answered.

"Maybe they detected us coming up," I suggested. I could see Nick’s logic. It wouldn’t be the first time the Disputed Territories’ lycanthroeps had been betrayed by one of their own. Still, it was my job to poke holes in his theory. "If it was a traitor, why did they let us get that close? Why not intercept us away from their listening post?"

"They were warned too late?" Nick offered, "Or maybe that lycanthrope you killed was overconfident in his powers. He was incredibly strong and fast. I’ve only see one other lycanthrope do that." He gave me a significant look.

"Blackhawk said that Raven was the Prince’s son. Maybe that gave him those powers. It wasn’t whatever’s been happening to me," I replied.

"How do you know that?" he asked.

"Gut feeling. I can’t explain it better than that," I answered.

"Instinct?" Nick asked.

"Maybe," I conceded. Nick sat back in his seat. He was so sure my instincts were tied to me being a Badmoon. I wasn’t so sure, but with so many odd things happening around me, I wasn’t going to discount his theory. Not yet, at least.

"Let’s hold off on saying there’s a traitor," I said, "Let’s just tell Lord Savik what happened. He may know about something we don’t."

"You advising caution?" Nick asked, "You have changed."

"Savik has seen enough betrayal. If we tell him what happened, he’s going to come to the same conclusions," I said. "Although I’ll agree that the possibility is there. Keep an eye out for something odd."

"You know Savik will blame Bradon or me," Nick said, "If he doesn’t, his packs certainly will."

"The packs might, assuming Lord Savik tells them," I said, "For some reason, he trusts me enough that I can vouch for you."

"No, he trusts Lady Anna, and she trusts you," Nick said, "Speaking of whom, are you going to tell her about Blackhawk’s threat to Lady Elizabeth?"

"She’ll find out when I tell Lord Savik," I said. Nick’s question confused me.

"Ranger, do me a favor," Nick said in that solemn voice he used when things were grave, "Pull her to the side and let her know. Answer any questions as honestly as possible. If he asks why you’re telling her, just say you thought she ought to know. Do not say I told you to tell her."

"Okay," I agreed, "Can you tell me why?"

"I don’t think so. Not yet anyway. You’re going to have to trust me on this," Nick said.

"Nick, I always trust you," I told him. We drove the rest of the way in silence. He didn’t even correct me on his name.

When the two of us drove into the Disputed Territories’ cravex, I was surprised to find Lady Anna waiting for us. I was even more startled to see her in a dress. Since my time in the Disputed Territories, I’d only seen her in jeans and blouses or tactical gear. This was the first time I’d seen her in something that made her look, well, feminine. She really was a pretty female. She was going to make some aristocrat very happy someday. Assuming she survived all of this. As we approached, I could see her pacing in the grass. She looked worried or apprehensive. I gave a warning look to Nick, but he kept a neutral look on his face.

"Lady Anna, has something happened?" I asked as we came to where she was pacing. She looked at my expression.

"Oh no. Nothing like that," she quickly answered. Then, she looked me over and her expression changed to something I couldn’t decipher.

"Do you always come back from jobs covered in blood and bruises?" she asked softly, as she walked to me. She ran her hands around my head and torso. I grunted as she touched some of the bruises. Those were going to need a rub of wolfsbane to heal normally.

"Not normally, but some jobs are more fun than others," I answered. Another one of those undecipherable looks, but I got the distinct impression there was some anger behind that one.

"Ranger, I’m going to get the gear out of your truck and clean it up," Nick said. He handsigned You know what to do. He walked back to the truck, leaving Lady Anna and me alone.

"What did he mean, ‘you know what to do’?" Lady Anna asked, reading the hunter’s handsigns.

"Blackhawk was watching me when I killed Raven," I said. I grimaced as Lady Anna clenched my arm right where I deflected some of Raven’s blows.

"I’m sorry, Ranger," Lady Anna said as she saw my face contort, "Let’s get that gear off you and those injuries rubbed down." She led me over to a stone bench. I pulled off my gear and shirt. She plucked the wolfsbane-soaked cloth out of my hands and started to rub the bruises on my chest. I don’t know what was more uncomfortable, the burning of the wolfsbane or having Lady Anna tending to my injuries. It felt wrong.

"So Blackhawk knows we’re leaving?" Lady Anna asked.

"Actually, he thinks you’re dead," I answered.


"I’ll explain everything when Lord Savik gets here," I said, "Easier to do it once and get all the questions out of the way. There is something I need to tell you. Blackhawk promised to kill Elizabeth if I interfered with his plans in Tallahassee." Lady Anna stopped rubbing. She gave me a neutral look.

"He did? What did he promise if you kept out of his plans?" she asked.

"He said he would marry her off to another aristocrat. Essentially, she’d be a permanent hostage for my good behavior," I answered. She silently started rubbing one of my arm bruises. I tried to grab the cloth from her, but she deftly avoided my hands.

"What are you going to do?" Lady Anna asked.

"I’m going to help get your packs to Hillsborough, and then up to Tallahassee," I said, "Blackhawk needs to be killed."

"Even though he’s offered not to harm Lady Elizabeth?" she asked.

"She’ll never be safe as long as that bastard is alive," I answered, "Even if I took Blackhawk up on his offer, she still won’t be safe. The only way to make sure Elizabeth is safe is to stop Blackhawk. The best way to stop Blackhawk is to kill him."

"And her safety is that important to you?" Lady Anna asked. My instincts were blaring danger, but Nick told me to answer Lady Anna’s questions honestly.

"Yes," I answered, "She is the Lady-Apparent of my home." I paused for a moment.

"And?" Lady Anna asked, sensing my hesitation.

"And I still love her," I answered.

"Even after everything she’s done to you?" Lady Anna asked, her voice almost a whisper.

"I don’t know why, but yes," I answered, "When Blackhawk threatened her, everything came flooding back through me. She may hate me, but I still love her. Maybe that will fade in time. I don’t know. I kind of hope so, because it’s going to hurt worse when I see her with someone else. When Blackhawk said he was going to marry her off, it hurt almost as much as the thought of her being killed." Lady Anna said nothing for a while. She looked like she was thinking hard on something, so I just let her work it out. I had some questions of my own. The biggest was why did Nick want me to tell Lady Anna about Blackhawk’s threat to Elizabeth? It made no sense at all. My guess was Nick thought Lady Anna could help me work out my feelings for Elizabeth. She certainly seemed sympathetic. Something told me that wasn’t it, but I had no other explanation. I would’ve asked Vanessa, but I’d done something to piss her off, and neither her nor Hangman would tell me what it was.

"She doesn’t deserve you," Lady Anna finally said, "The sooner you realize that, the better." She handed me the cloth. "I’ve got to call Uncle Erik and let him know you’ve returned." She walked to across the cravex with a cellphone to her ear. As I rubbed the last few bruises, I thought about what Lady Anna said. Maybe she was right, but I was having a hard time convincing myself. Maybe when we made it to Hillsborough and I saw Elizabeth again, Lady Anna’s advice would be more effective. Right now, all I could do was try and repack my emotions. We still had a lot of work to do.

Lord Savik and his normal entourage showed up a couple of hours later. From the snarl on his face, I suspected that Lady Anna briefed him on how the job turned out. I waited patiently as the lord stormed across the cravex.

"I give you free access to our supplies, and you still fail to complete the job?" Lord Savik asked with a controlled voice.

"Not necessarily," I answered, "That depends on what the ultimate goals of the job were for you." That stopped Lord Savik in his tracks. He gave me a questioning look.

"I thought my goals were clear in the instructions of the job," Lord Savik said.

"Why were Nick and I sent to wipe out the Society’s listening post?" I asked in return. "Were we there to send a message from you, or to hide our leaving the counties?"

"Both," Lord Savik answered.

"Then we half-succeeded," I said.

"If you didn’t completely succeed, then why isn’t that a failure?" Fangbearer asked.

"Because as far as the Society is concerned, Lord Savik and Lady Anna are dead, and I’m going back to Hillsborough," I answered. "Blackhawk got what he wanted from my little trek down here."

"Assuming Blackhawk believed you," Fangbearer said. I nodded, reluctantly conceding the point. Lord Savik held up his hand.

"Start from the beginning, Ranger," Lord Savik said, "Tell me exactly what happened." I spent the next half-hour relating Nick’s and mine adventure. As I finished, Lord Savik silently mulled over my report.

"What I haven’t figured out is how Raven was so damned powerful," I said, breaking the silence. "I’ve never seen a lycanthrope move that fast."

"Blackhawk said Raven was a bastard son of the Prince?" Lord Savik asked.

"Yes," I answered, cautiously.

"It’s not something we discuss outside the highest levels of the aristocracy, but there’s always been a danger of mixing blood lines. It’s part of the reason we have such strong rules for female purity and sex outside the mated pair. It’s also partially why Badmoons are…" He seemed groping for a word that wouldn’t infuriate me.

"Considered abominations?" I supplied. Lord Savik gave a resigned nod.

"What kind of mixing would cause something like Raven?" Nick asked, "This is far different than lycanthropes being born deformed or afflicted." Lord Savik gave Nick a long, hard look. Something about what Nick said piqued the lord’s curiosity. Nick didn’t quite shrink from the look, but he was clearly not going to say more.

"I have my suspicions," Lord Savik said, before turning to face me, "Ranger, walk with me." I followed Lord Savik as he moved deeper int the cravex.

"What do you know about your friend?" Lord Savik asked.

"I trust him," I answered, "He stood by me when few would."

"Which he could have been doing at the behest of the vampire," Lord Savik countered.

"I don’t think so," I replied, "Bradon may have pointed me out to Nick, but his friendship is real. He’s helped me deal with things. He’s never given me bad advice."

"All of which still doesn’t answer my original question," Lord Savik said, "What do you know about him?"

"He’s from Nebraska, and had some trouble there. The Prince gave him asylum in Florida, but Nick ran into some trouble in the capital and ended up in our county. That’s when I ran into him about four years ago. He was well respected in the Guild and my Guildmaster trusted him."

"So, not much," Lord Savik said, and then held up his hand, "I’m sure he didn’t talk much about his past and you chose not to pry. That’s very admirable – as a hunter. We don’t have that luxury. His actions have made me very suspicious."

"You don’t think he’s working for Blackhawk?" I asked.

"No, but I don’t know who he is working for or what he is trying to accomplish," Lord Savik answered.

"Exactly how are you going to get your answers?" I asked.

"I’m not. You are," Lord Savik said, "He’s your friend. You will make sure he’s no threat to my packs."

"No." My response astonished Lord Savik.

"What?" he asked, as if he couldn’t believe what I’d just said.

"No," I repeated, "I’m not going to interrogate my friend. You want to know why he’s here? He’s here to help me fulfill my destiny. To make sure that I can do what I’m supposed to do."

"And what is that?" Lord Savik asked, clearly not sure if I was sane.

"I don’t know all of it, but it starts with killing Lothos," I answered. Lord Savik gave me a cool look.

"That vampire you tangled with during the warehouse raid?" the lord asked. "Anna told me some of it. What she could remember clearly. That vampire survived silver, fire, and staking. How are you supposed to kill it?"

"Because I’m the Badmoon," I answered.

Chapter 22 – Treaties and Complications

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 20 – Oh, Look What Followed Us Here

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