Category: Badmoon Rising

A novel about werewolves and vampires set in Tampa.

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 19 – New Town, New Rules, Same Old Killin’

The Society’s listening post for the Disputed Territories was outside Boca Raton, just north of the Broward county line. It was located in a small office park off A1A that catered to clients who valued anonymity and relative ease of access. The gate guard examined our ID’s before stepping in to the guardhouse to call the Society contact and clear us. After a few words, the guard handed back our ID’s and motioned for us to continue into the office park. Vanessa scowled as I pulled the truck through the gate.

“Can I say again that I think this is a bad idea?” she asked.

“I don’t see how I can stop you this time anymore than I could the dozen times before,” I answered sarcastically. She gave me an even look. I pulled the truck up to a row of office suites. They were joined, but the facades made each suite look like individual offices. I confirmed which of the offices we wanted, and we stepped out of the truck. Beyond the tinted glass door the façade of being an office stopped. The single room was lined with workstations. There were six kin spread out, each focusing on their monitor. In the center was a short lycanthrope sitting at a command post. From the look of the set-up, I revised my opinion of Blackhawk and the Society. This wasn’t a jury-rigged lash-up thrown together at the last minute. This looked like a professional intel shop. Maybe the Society was as big and powerful as Blackhawk implied. If so, this operation just became much more interesting.

The lycanthrope looked up as we walked in. He didn’t look like the normal lycanthrope. He was barely five and a half feet tall as a human with a shock of brilliant orange hair. His round face and speckling of freckles made him look young, like he was in late teens. His eyes were much older. They looked over me with a cold pragmatism that I’d seen in hunters and Knights, not pack warriors. He looked over at Vanessa. There was something in his long look that set off my instincts. From her reaction, Vanessa didn’t like it either. She gripped her bag tighter as her hand slipped inside to grab the butt of her pistol. The lycanthrope didn’t seem to notice, which meant he wasn’t a hunter or a Knight. Even if he was trying to maintain a neutral look, his eyes should have tracked the motion. There was too many contradictions with this lycanthrope, kind of like Blackhawk. Were all of the Society’s lycanthropes like this? The lycanthrope smiled unpleasantly as he walked out from behind his desk to us. His gait was staggered, but not quite a limp.

“You’re late,” he said in a flat tone, “Blackhawk was wondering if you’d gone against orders.” He directed his words at Vanessa, as if he was trying to intimidate her.

“If you mean, did we end up going to Tampa, yeah we did that,” I admitted, watching the lycanthrope. He looked over at me, clearly annoyed that Vanessa wasn’t the one talking. I returned his look with a flat stare. “Who the hell are you? Since you didn’t bother introducing yourself.”

“Raven,” the lycanthrope answered. “So, why did you disobey our leader?”

“There was a report we thought might be of use, but we couldn’t find it. So, we went and got some things I’d left at my house and came down here. What are you going to do about it?” I wanted to see how much authority this Raven thought he had.

“Not my problem. If Blackhawk wants to do something about it, that’s up to him,” Raven said, dismissing the challenge. He tried to play it off, but I could see the nervousness in his eyes. He was expecting us to lie, not throw the truth in his face. He motioned for Vanessa and me to follow him over to a table set behind his little command station. As we approached, I saw it was one of those huge touch-screen displays. Another indication the Society had a bit more support behind it than I originally thought. Those things weren’t cheap. The table was displaying a map of the Disputed Territories. It was littered with icons.

“What are we looking at?” I asked.

“A map of all the activity we can positively attribute to Savik and his lycanthropes, as well as those we suspect for the last six months,” Raven answered.

“So Savik is alive and still in charge?” I asked.

“From the little bit we’ve managed to hear, he’s still in command,” Raven said as if that were a minor point. Vanessa an I traded looks. That wasn’t included in our briefing materials. Raven tapped the screen and most of the icons disappeared. He pointed at one icon at the southeast corner of the Disputed Territories.

“A force of lycanthropes attacked warehouses at the Port of Miami last night,” Raven said, “From other attacks on the FCV across the city, I think it was the culmination of one of Savik’s campaigns against the FCV. Whatever was in those containers, it stirred up the vampires. They’ve had their Bleeders scouring for Savik’s forces, and they weren’t being too subtle about it.”

“You know this how?” Vanessa asked.

“The FCV Bleeders are led by a vampire called Glenn. One name, that’s all. He’s got some covert work in his background. He has his Bleeder teams using some pretty heavy encryption. We snagged the key a few weeks ago, so we’ve been able to eavesdrop on them. Thank the Ancestors, the Bleeders lapsed from using basic radio discipline. Probably, because they think no one else can crack their encryption. Don’t ask how we got the encryption key.” Raven’s tone made it clear we didn’t have the need to know.

“Why are you guessing the attack at the port was the culmination?” Vanessa asked, completely into analyst role.

“Ms. Hawthorne, over the years we’ve gotten a feel for how Savik and his lycanthropes do things. Small little raids to gather intelligence that lead to larger raids to eliminate specific targets. After a while you get a feel for the ebb and flow. We know when they’re on to something new.”

“Anything on the radar now?” I asked.

“We have a few things we aren’t sure about. They look like the kind of small incidents, but we don’t know what Savik is after,” Raven answered. He zoomed in on what looked like one of the more affluent areas of Fort Lauderdale. “This neighborhood was one of those that tanked after the real estate crash. Lots of empty houses. Five were vandalized last week. There were also reports of a pack of coyotes in the same area, so we took a closer look.” The map shrunk and a new window appeared displaying pictures of the interiors of the houses.

“Were there vampire targets in those houses?” I asked, examining the damage. Bullet holes were clearly visible in the walls. Doors were off the hinges, like something heavy slammed into them. Like a battering ram or charging lycanthrope.

“Not that we are we aware of, and there weren’t any signs of vampire corpses,” Raven answered.

“Then those are shoot houses,” I said.

“What’s a shoot house?” Vanessa asked.

“It’s a building used to practice fighting inside a house or building. Usually it has modular walls so the user can configure it to the floor plan of a specific target. Plus it helps when you need to replace shot-up walls. These look like they were used as improvised versions.” Vanessa stared intently at the photos. Her head snapped up and looked at Raven.

“I need all the information you have on this development,” she said, “The builder, when this was completed, and anything else that you have in your files. We need this now.” Raven was taken aback by Vanessa’s sudden forcefulness.

“Why?” he asked.

“Are you going to provide the support Blackhawk ordered you to?” Vanessa asked, “Our operational orders said you would give us anything we asked for to accomplish our mission.” Raven gave Vanessa a nonchalant shrug and went back to his desk.

“You want to tell me what’s going on in that head of yours?” I asked, quietly.

“Not here,” she answered. Vanessa turned away from Raven’s desk to look out the front. “I don’t like the way Raven is looking at me. The sooner we leave, the better.”

“You’d like it less now,” I said, quietly. “It’s a good thing Hangman isn’t with us.” Raven was openly leering at Vanessa. I had to restrain the urge to do immediate and severe violence to the lycanthrope.

“Let him look,” Vanessa shot back, “As long as it gets us out of here.” I gave Raven a warning look. He shrugged it off, but stopped openly leering. I still wanted to thrash him. Maybe that explained why Raven walked so strange. I hoped it was because he’d crossed the wrong lycanthrope. After about an hour, Raven handed me a USB stick. Vanessa was visibly relieved as we walked back to the truck.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked.

“Find out what Savik’s wolves were training for and then get there before them,” Vanessa answered. “Oh, and Mark, we don’t tell Sam a thing about what happened there.”

“Why? He’s a professional,” I said. “As much as I hate to admit it, the pup’s more of a professional than I am sometimes.”

“Which is being strained right now because you brought me here,” Vanessa answered. “Just trust me.” With that, Vanessa dived into the data as I drove back to the hotel.

I kept still as a statue as the three vampires strode up to the house. This far into the Disputed Territories, the leeches felt secure and safe. They didn’t even bother doing the most basic of security sweeps. Damn it, taking them down would be so easy. Just three strokes of the trigger would be all I needed. Of course, doing that would reveal my position and blow the operation Vanessa, Hangman, and I had spent hours planning. So, I continued crouching in the mud with the rain pouring down on me. I kept my Commando trained on the three vampires. My real quarry better show up. The three vampires laughed as they entered the house. It felt like they were laughing at me.

“Patience Mark,” Vanessa said over the radio. Damn, I must have let out a grumble or something.

“Keep the radio clear,” I whispered back, trying to keep my annoyance out of my voice. I knew Vanessa wasn’t trained for this kind of thing. I knew she was trying to help. Hell, she’d worked a minor miracle finding this place. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t a little envious that she got to keep warm and dry in the truck’s cab while Hangman and I tromped around the target in the mud and the rain.

My instincts went from their normal dull buzzing to a sudden roar. I could feel new eyes boring into my back. I silently cursed being in my human form. I knew someone was behind me, but I couldn’t hear or smell them. Only one thing to do about that. I clicked my mike three times and waited patiently. Whoever was sneaking up on me managed to get pretty close before I picked them up, and they hadn’t put a bullet in me. That ruled out vampire security. They would’ve learned the hard way about sneaking up on a lycanthrope from Savik’s packs.

“That’s close enough,” I said quietly to my stalker. I heard the faint misstep as my words caught the lycanthrope off-guard. I slowly turned around. A short female lycanthrope in true form was standing a few yards behind me. She pointed a suppressed pistol at me. I kept my Commando in a low ready. Her gold eyes glared at me.

“Could you lower that weapon?” I asked. She stood there silently. The pistol never wavered. I fought the urge to grin. This one was good, but not good enough. She didn’t hear as Hangman in true form emerged from behind her. He took two steps and clamped an iron hand on the female’s wrist. She yelped in surprise and dropped the pistol. She attempted to throw Hangman. He managed to turn the move into a full grapple. The pair fell into the mud. To her credit, the female was pretty good in close quarters. Hangman was just bigger, stronger, and better trained. A few moments of ferocious violence ended with Hangman pinning the female face down with her arms behind her back.

“Quit fighting, we’re here to help,” Hangman whispered into the female’s ear. She gave him a murderous look, but stopped fighting.

“Mark, I think the attack’s started,” Vanessa said. I turned back to the house. Several forms were creeping towards the house.

“What do you want to do?” Hangman asked me, motioning to the female pinned to the ground. Before I could answer, gunfire erupted from the house. I brought my weapon up and slid back into my original position. The lycanthrope attack had just turned into a vampire ambush. The attacking lycanthropes were pinned down on the lawn with almost no cover. Two lycanthropes were sprawled out on the lawn with bloody chest wounds. I couldn’t tell if they were still alive. Another four or five were trying to hide behind trees and garden statues. I swept my Commando across the front of the house, looking for targets, but I was too far to the side of the house.

“Get her back to the truck and wait there,” I told Hangman. “If the police show up, get out and I’ll meet you back at the hotel.” Hangman didn’t look happy with the command, but he lifted the female up and dragged her back into the small wooded area. I focused on the house. I couldn’t run out into the lawn without getting torn to pieces by the gunfire. It was just too well-controlled. That didn’t mean I couldn’t cause some problems. The gunfire was coming from two large windows at the front of the house. I place the holographic reticle on the frame of the nearest window and fired a short burst. The gunfire from the window fell silent as my rounds ricocheted off the metal frame. The lycanthropes on the lawn didn’t hesitate. They immediately sprinted from cover and grabbed the two out in the open. They pulled the injured lycanthropes back to the street. I fired another burst at the near window, followed quickly by a burst to the far window. No sense in letting the leeches regain their balance.

A vampire in tactical gear jumped out of the near window. I didn’t have to see his painted claws to know this one was a Bleeder. He quickly figured out where I was. He aimed a stubby P90 submachine gun at me. I fired a heartbeat before him. My rounds stitched across his front while his burst smacked into the trees above me. I took a quick look and saw the lycanthropes had managed to retreat. It was time for me to go. I changed magazines in my Commando as I shuffled back into the wooded area. My truck was parked just outside of the wooded area. Vanessa was sitting in the driver’s seat, but where was Hangman and the female? My instincts screamed warnings an instant before two lycanthropes in human form stood up from behind my truck. Both leveled M4’s at me. This was going to be fun. My mental calculations came to a screeching halt as I heard the mechanical snap of a safety coming off behind me. What the hell? I didn’t even hear the bastard.

“Very carefully stranger, lay that rifle on the deck,” ordered the lycanthrope behind me. He spoke with an odd accent with hints of both Southern and Spanish. He must have wanted me alive, or he’d have just shot me in the back of the head. I unslung my Commando and carefully placed it on the asphalt.

“We are taking you into custody to determine who you are and what you’re doing here,” the lycanthrope behind me explained in a calm, confidant tone, “This information is not as important as the safety of my pack. If you do anything that I think endangers any of my pack, I will kill all three of you. Do you understand me? Say yes.”

“Yes,” I said, matching his calm tone. Well, it wasn’t our plan, but it seemed to be achieving our objectives. The two lycanthropes in front of me slung their weapons and walked over to me. One held a set of silver manacles like the ones the marshals used back in Hillsborough. Ancestors, that felt like a lifetime ago. The other held a black cloth sack. I didn’t resist as the two shackled me and placed the sack over my head. They removed my HK45 from its holster and then proceeded to methodically remove the rest of my weapons. To their credit, they were thorough. I heard the truck door open. Vanessa yelped as one of them yanked her out. I bit down the sudden flash of rage at my partner’s fear and pain. The lycanthropes weren’t being more forceful than necessary. This was just how the game had to be played out.

“Hey, could you be careful with my Commando?” I asked, channeling my anger into smart-assery, “I put a lot of work into that weapon.” I was hoping for at least a polite chuckle, but there was no answer from any of the lycanthropes. I was forced into the back of a car. Vanessa was quietly whimpering next to me. Hangman was softly murmuring, trying to comfort her. We drove around for nearly an hour by my internal clock. The two lycanthropes in the front were silent for the entire time. I was surprised they didn’t even tell Hangman and Vanessa to be quiet. The car stopped, and the three of us were roughly pulled out. From the smells, we were near the ocean. That didn’t exactly narrow down the area. We were led into either a house or a small commercial building. A couple of turns, and we were sat down on stools. The dim light seemed brilliant after our hoods were removed. I did a quick scan. We were in a house. One that had been vacant for a while, by the looks of the walls and carpet. Four lycanthropes in human form stood in front of us. One was a female who glared at me with dark, flashing eyes. I was betting she was the female who snuck up on me at the vampire house. She looked to be in her mid-twenties and definitely some Spanish blood in her background. Her black hair was tied back. She was dressed in jeans and t-shirt with a tactical rig draped oveon The other three were males dressed similarly to the female with causal clothes draped with MOLLE gear and vests. The two at the corners were the two I’d seen coming up from behind my truck. They were still cradling M4’s. The last male was different. He was studying the three of us with his brown eyes. His lanky form was relaxed, but his posture screamed “hunter.” From the look on his face, he wasn’t sure what to do with the three of us.

“So, let’s get down to basics,” he said, breaking the silence, “Who are you and what are you doing screwing up my operation?” Hangman and I looked at each other with puzzled looks. From the look on his face, Hangman knew our questioner was a hunter, also. So why did he call the attack on the house an “operation” instead of a “job?” Or was he talking about something else?

“Answer him!” snarled the female, “Before we put silver rounds to the back of your heads and dump your corpses in the swamps.” She was trembling visibly with anger. That wasn’t a good thing when she was armed.

“Easy Anna,” the male cautioned. He turned back to us. “Please answer the questions.”

“We’re from Hillsborough County. We’re here to recruit your people to help us with the war council,” Vanessa blurted out. She sounded terrified.

Hillsborough?” the male asked, his voice too smooth, “Not from Tallahassee?” His voice was neutral, but I could sense the trap.

“I was recently recruited by the State Guild, but I’m originally from Hillsborough,” Hangman said, “I was sent back to Hillsborough to help the lycanthropes still fighting there. The Lady-Apparent sent the three of us here.” Damn the pup. He was skirting the truth. That was fine when explaining to your Guildmaster why your job went a little sideways. It wasn’t a good idea when dealing with lycanthropes whose trust you needed.

“So why does he own a truck registered in Tallahassee?” our questioner asked, pointing at me. Hangman’s mouth shut with an audible click. Yeah, that was why it was better just to shut the fuck up than trying to play games.

“Because that’s where those motherfucking traitors in the Society bought it for me,” I said, matching my questioner’s neutral tone. The two guards brought their weapons up. The female, Anna, drew her pistol and leveled it at me. The lycanthrope questioning us held up a hand before anyone fired.

“You’d best explain that last remark,” he said, his voice tight. His eyes flashed with anger.

“We know what the Society did to you,” Vanessa said, quickly, apparently trying to defuse the situation. If anything, the tension rose in the room. I silently swore at myself. I knew she wasn’t ready for field work. I should have made her stay in Hillsborough and come here alone. On second thought, if I’d done that, I probably would’ve never found them.

“Are you Savik?” I asked casually. He didn’t look like the picture in the file Blackhawk had given us, but maybe that Lord Savik was dead and this was his successor.

“No,” the questioner answered, caught off-guard. Damn.

“Do you think we’re stupid enough to let assassins close enough to Lord Savik?” Anna asked, heatedly.

“No, but assassinating Lord Savik is not the job the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough gave me. Talking to him is,” I answered her. She didn’t look convinced, but she lowered her pistol. I looked back at the questioner, “As to screwing up your operation, I didn’t do anything but cover your warriors’ asses when the shit hit the fan.” Anna darted forward and pistol-whipped me across the face. I felt the familiar flash of intense pain of a cracked cheekbone before my body started to heal. I noticed she used the top of her Glock to smack me. Someone taught her right. Most people used the butt or the side of the gun. Using those could cause the weapon to malfunction, which wasn’t something you wanted in a fight.

“You stopped me from doing my part,” Anna almost screamed at me, “I would have noticed that we were walking into a trap and aborted the operation. Because of your interference, we have two badly wounded warriors.”

“Really? Because from where I was sitting your target was just sitting there nice and happy. Not a fucking thing indicated that your wolves were walking into machine gun fire,” I replied.

“What makes you think you’d see something I couldn’t?” Anna fired back.

“Maybe because he was the Hillsborough Guildmaster’s personal hitter?” Hangman retorted. A protective rage filled his voice and flashed in his eyes. Anna started to say something, but the questioner held up a hand to stop her.

“So you’re the infamous Badmoon,” he said. The two guards nearly dropped their weapons and looked like they wanted to get as far away from me as possible. Even Anna took a step back from me with a look of shock on her face. Not revulsion, but more like I threw her a curveball. The questioner looked at me as if I was some sort of curiosity. Well that was the normal gamut of reactions my name garnered.

“How’d you figure that one out?” I asked.

“The only Badmoon in Florida?” he asked in response.

“Bullshit. I may be the only Badmoon in Florida, but that’s all most lycanthropes know about me. Hunters are the ones who know what I do. So were you with Broward’s or Dade’s chapter before the fall?” I asked.

“Neither,” he answered, “Like most of the lycanthropes of our packs, I’ve been forced to learn quite a bit in order to survive. I knew about your position because of my position before the betrayal by the Society.”

“And what was that?” I asked.

“No, I’m asking you the questions. Not the other way around,” he replied, “However, you seem to be the most rational. What about him?” He nodded his head at Hangman.

“He was part of the Hillsborough chapter. Then he went up to State, after the fall,” I answered.

“And her?” he asked, eyeing Vanessa suspiciously. “Who are you, little kin?” Vanessa looked back and forth between our interrogator, Hangman, and me. She was terrified and knew it. She didn’t want to say anything that would get us killed. Anna growled at Vanessa’s hesitation, but our interrogator just sat there. This one was fucking good.

“She’s my fiancee,” Hangman said, trying hard to sound like it was a grudging admission. It was a good ploy, but he didn’t quite pull it off. Vanessa didn’t help matters by staring at the floor.

“You brought your kin fiancee on a job?” Anna asked incredulously, “Why would you endanger her like that?” I perked up at her word choice. Anna didn’t act like a hunter, but was she one of the local hunters’ proteges? It wasn’t like they could get wolves up to the training camp. If she was some kind of super hunter-trained warrior, she still had a ways to go. From the look on her face, Anna bought that Vanessa was simply Hangman’s fiancee. The interrogator didn’t. I could see it in his eyes. My instincts screamed warning.

“She’s Society,” the interrogator said with a scary finality. The two guards brought up their carbines. Anna gave me a predatory smile. The interrogator turned to Anna. “Do what you have to, but make it fast.” The interrogator walked out of the room without giving us another look. Anna strolled behind me humming what sounded like a happy pop tune. I felt the cold muzzle of her pistol press into the back of my skull. She should have just pulled the trigger. Now, I knew where she was.

“Forward!” I shouted as I pushed off the stool. I shed for true form. Intense burning pain shot through me as the silver manacles bit deep into my expanding arms. Pain I could deal with. I could recover from pain. Death was another matter. I kicked the stool back into Anna, and then swept Vanessa’s out from under her. Gunfire erupted over us from the two guards. Hangman, also in true form, barreled into the guard closest to him. I winced as slid the manacles under my legs to bring my hands in front of me. I found the emergency release and the manacles fell off. So many lycanthropes were completely unaware that the manacles were a hunter design for just that reason. A similar thunk told me Hangman ditched his as well. I spun back towards Anna. Hangman could handle the guards. Anna was standing up from being knocked down by the stool. I pounced. I was momentarily deafened by her gunshot.I felt the bullet pass over my shoulder. I grabbed her gun hand and drove her to the floor. I didn’t need her shooting me if I was going to get this job done. She grunted as we slid across the carpeted floor. Vanessa screamed as I heard new voices shouting. I could smell more lycanthropes storming in on us. I ripped the pistol out of Anna’s hand. I jerked her up and faced the newcomers using Anna as a shield. Hangman was behind me with a liberated M4.

The lycanthrope in front of me was in true form. He was about my height, but far more powerfully built. His black pelt was only marred by a completely white muzzle. His gold eyes flashed with rage. The lycanthrope leveled a 1911 at my head. Three heavily armed lycanthropes in human form flanked the lycanthrope. Something about the way they moved clicked in my head. Those weren’t hunters. They were Red Knights. So that meant the lycanthrope I was facing down was Lord Savik. Okay, this wasn’t exactly how I hoped to meet the lord.

“Milord, could you lower that pistol?” I asked calmly.

“A Society assassin holds a gun on my niece and expects me to lower my weapon? How amusing,” Savik answered with a deadly calm. I felt waves of psychic energy lash at me. What should have been a painful torrent felt little more than warm water splashing on me. I was really going to have to figure out why the aristocracy’s powers didn’t work on me. Savik’s pistol dipped. Rage softened to confusion when I wasn’t reduced to a quivering puddle.

“I stopped working for the Society the moment I learned what they did to your packs,” I said calmly, ignoring as he tried another attack. “I’m here as an emissary from the Lady-Apparent of Hillsborough.” The room was filled with a tense silence.

“You’re using that ruse?” Savik snarled, “Doesn’t the Society inform its assassins of failed attempts?” I kept my face neutral as my instincts blared warning at Savik’s words. My mind raced as I tried to put the pieces together. Vanessa was faster.

“Mark, they used you as a scout,” Vanessa said.

“Oh shit,” I swore. I released Anna and dropped the pistol. “Hangman drop your gun. My lord, you need to get out of here right now.” So, that’s why Blackhawk sent me down here. He’d lost too many of his good assassins trying to take out Savik. I was a completely expendable asset he used to locate Lord Savik. The Society could detonate a nuke in this house and Blackhawk wouldn’t have lost anything of value to him. Savik must have thought this was a new ploy because his weapon didn’t waver. His Knights, for some reason, believed me. The one closest to Savik reached out and grabbed the lord’s handgun.

“My lord, we need to go,” he said in a forceful, but respectful, tone. The Knight’s partners were already falling back to clear an escape route. Savik looked surprised and confused, but he didn’t argue with his protectors. Savik barely took four steps before the doorway exploded. The blast threw everyone to the ground. Hangman and I were back on our feet before anyone else. He tossed me the other guard’s carbine.

“Stay down,” I hissed to Anna as I crouched next to her, pointing the carbine at the doorway. Savik’s Knights managed to crawl on top of the lord. Two metal balls sailed into the room. Grenades, my mind quickly realized. Anna screamed bloody murder as I shoved her down and covered her. Two explosions ripped through the room. I felt fragments rip through my clothing. Pain lanced up my arms and then went away almost instantly as my body healed. Not silver frags. The assassin was using them as distraction devices. I’d done the same thing a few times. I scampered off the floor with the carbine up as the assassin strode into the room. He didn’t even look in my direction as he fired an entire magazine from his submachine gun into the Red Knights covering Lord Savik. Hangman and I fired at the same time. That’s when I realized I was holding a semi-automatic AR-15 instead of a full-auto M4. Hangman must have known, because his torrent of bullets ripped through the assassin’s head. He dropped like a puppet with its strings cut.

“Here,” I said to the still-shaken Anna as I handed her the carbine. I wanted the assassin’s submachine gun. I snaked over to the corpse. It was changing to true form in death. I took the weapon from his dead hands. It was unfamiliar, blocky, and had the look of something Russian. I dropped the magazine out and reloaded with the spare stored in the wire stock. Weird, but that explained a lot of Russian-produced guns. I looked back the way we were brought in. The door opened into a short hallway with the garage just beyond. Someone rose up from behind the parked sedan. I shoved the assassin’s corpse on its side as the new assailant opened fire. I lost the submachine gun, but fortunately the dead assassin was carrying a pistol in chest rig. I whispered thanks to the Ancestors for sending an idiot in first and yanked the handgun out. I fired twice and heard the bullets slap the car’s panels. That should keep the bastard’s head down. I leapt from behind the corpse to land next to the doorway. Damn, I should have grabbed the submachine gun. Anna slid next to me gripping the guard’s weapon. I looked over to her. The rage and fury was gone from her. She had the cool look of a veteran. I looked over to where Savik was lying under his guards. One of the Knights was clearly dead, having soaked up most of the burst. The others were wounded and doing their level best to play dead. I needed to finish this up before they bled out.

“Cover me,” I told Anna. I ran crouched into the hallway as Anna pumped round after round over me. The bullets kept the other lycanthrope behind the car down. Hitting the garage, I shed for true form and bounded over the car. The lycanthrope froze as he saw my shadow over him. I dug my claws into his throat as I landed. He gurgled and grabbed at his throat as he tried to breathe through a severed trachea. I picked up his submachine gun off the floor and scanned outside. The lycanthrope interrogating me scant moments before was lying on the driveway. Blood was leaking from somewhere. I crab-walked over to him, searching for targets with the submachine gun. He was still conscious, but smart enough not to draw attention with movement.

“How bad?” I asked.

“I need wolfsbane. The bastards shot me in the hip,” he answered.

“Okay. This is going to hurt,” I told him. I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back into the garage. He let out strangled cries of pain. I pulled him next to the now-dead second assassin. His eyes went wide as he saw the corpse. I ignored his reaction as my hands danced across the assassin’s gear. I found the bottle of wolfsbane and dumped the contents on the interrogator’s wound. He screamed as the foul-smelling liquid splashed onto the bloody torn wound.

“Sit here,” I told him. I dropped the submachine gun in his lap. “Shoot any fucker who tries to come through here.” He nodded. I sprinted back to Savik. Anna was standing protectively over her uncle. Her expression softened as she saw me walk through the door. Vanessa was busily trying to treat the two wounded Knights. Hangman stood over her with a murderous expression on his face. I grabbed Anna and yanked her back into the garage.

“What the hell?” she demanded, “I need to stay with my uncle.”

“Hangman’s got that just fine. Now, I’ve been nice and answered your questions,” I said, “Now it’s your turn.” I shoved her around the car. The interrogator snarled as he saw us.

“Get her back into the house,” he told me. “Those bastards might come back.”

“With their two hitters dead? If they do, they’re fucking stupid, and I don’t think they’re fucking stupid,” I retorted, “Now, who are you exactly?”

“Steven Fangbearer,” he answered.

“Okay, Steven Fangbearer, what do you do for Lord Savik?” I asked.

“I serve Lord Savik in a similiar capacity as you served your Guildmaster,” Fangbearer answered. “I’m his troubleshooter. Now, would you please get her back inside?”

“Why? From what I’ve seen, she can handle herself just fine,” I said, looking back at Anna. She actually looked ashamed.

“She’s the Lady-Apparent of Broward County,” Fangbearer answered flatly. I looked back at Anna. No, it was Lady Anna. What the hell was she doing working operations? I decided to push that concern to the back of my mind.

“Who’s the body?” I asked, pointing at the dead assassin.

“Mako,” Fangbearer answered, “He was supposed to be in Okeechobee on a supply run. He was the last wolf I would’ve expected to betray us.” There was a resigned undertone in his voice that caught me off-guard. My response to such a betrayal would’ve been a burning rage leading to a lethal encounter for the responsible dog. It would not be accepting betrayal as a cost of business. Even Lady Anna didn’t looked outraged at one of their own trying to kill Savik. What the bloody fuck was going on?

“Can we move?” Fangbearer asked Lady Anna. With a grunt from lingering pain, he gingerly rose from the concrete floor.

“Difficult, but doable. The car is trashed, and I don’t know what vehicles Uncle Erik brought,” Lady Anna answered. “What about him and the other two?” She nodded at me. Fangbearer looked me over.

“We bring them with us,” Fangbearer answered. A ghost of a smile flitted across Anna’s face. Fangbearer looked over at me. “I’ll be blunt. I don’t know if I can trust you, or if you’re a plant from the Society. For all I know, this was just an elaborate false flag operation to insert the three of you. I can’t let you or your companions out of our control until we figure that out.”

“Alright, so let us help you,” I said, taking a chance, “That would give you two more hunters and a trained intel specialist. You can’t have many of those.”

“Oh I fully expect you be of some use to us,” Fangbearer said, “If nothing else, you’ll make good bait. For right now, we need you to help evac this house.”

“Can I have my sidearm back?” I asked. I knew I was pushing my luck. The expression on Fangbearer’s face made it clear he was sketchy about me holding a submachine gun.

“Of course,” Lady Anna said. Fangbearer shot her an angry glare, but she ignored it. “Steve, can you get uncle’s car while we get him ready to move?” Fangbearer scowled, but didn’t say anything as he walked out of the garage. I followed Lady Anna as she walked back into the house. The stench of wolfsbane hung in the air. Lord Savik was sitting on the floor, but he looked better. The two Knights were moaning as Vanessa and the two guards swabbed their wounds with wolfsbane-soaked bandages. Someone had thrown a jacket over the dead Knight. Lady Anna walked to another room and came back with Hangman’s and my sidearms. She handed them over with a smile. Hangman’s scowl didn’t change as he holstered his pistol. I hand-signed for him to calm down. He nodded before storming back to Vanessa’s side.

“Thank you, by the way,” Lady Anna said quietly, “For saving my uncle and me.”

“It’s my job, milady,” I replied, formally. She leaned in closer.

“You could just say ‘you’re welcome,'” she said, with an odd tone in her voice. It sounded annoyed, but there was an undercurrent I didn’t understand.

“You’re welcome, milady,” I said. A warm smile crossed her face.

“Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” she asked.

“You have no idea, milady,” I replied. She let out a short chuckle.

“You’re really the Badmoon?” she asked, looking me over.

“Yes, milady,” I answered, taking a deep breath. “Does that frighten you?”

“A bit,” she answered, “We heard all the stories in tysach about Badmoons. Still, you’re not what I expected.” I didn’t have a good answer to that, so I stayed quiet. Lady Anna still kept shooting me sidelong glances as we waited. Something about her looks made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t like I didn’t get all sorts of looks from lycanthropes once they found out I was a Badmoon.

“Jack’s pack will be here in fifteen,” Fangbearer reported as he walked back into the house. “They’re bringing some vans to transport the Knights. The bastards wrecked the lord’s car before coming in.”

“Damn, I liked that car,” Lord Savik said, standing up. He looked weary, but determined. “Steven, let them know we’ll be going to the Maple house.” Fangbearer nodded and pulled out his phone. Lord Savik turned to Vanessa. “Thank you for your help, young kin.”

“You’re welcome, milord,” Vanessa answered, her cheeks turning a deep pink. Lord Savik gave her a paternal smile before looking up to Hangman.

“Thank you as well, hunter,” Lord Savik. “You put down that bastard, so I’ll forgive you for roughing up my wolves.”

“You’re welcome, milord,” Hangman said, with just a hint of nervousness in his voice. Lord Savik then rounded on me.

“You, on the other hand, I need to deal with,” Lord Savik said, giving me a cautious look.

“Uncle, he saved our lives,” Lady Anna protested. “If you can forgive his friend for roughing up Patrick and Don, then surely you can forgive him.”

“Anna, that’s not what I’m talking about,” Lord Savik said. He turned to me and read my expression. “Please go help the others get Robert and Kevin ready to move.” Lady Anna gave Lord Savik a frustrated look before storming over to the others.

“You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?” Lord Savik asked, his eyes suspicious. I just nodded. Well, maybe Lord Savik had some ideas about why his powers didn’t work on me. Ancestors knew I didn’t have a fucking clue.

As soon as the small convoy of minivans parked in front of the house, the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes went into action. Pack warriors from the minivans strode into the house. Collapsible stretchers were unloaded and the two wounded Knights were loaded. The dead Knight was sealed in a bag. All three were hustled out of the house to a waiting van. Lady Anna, Hangman, Vanessa, and the two guards were directed to a second minivan. Fangbearer motioned for me to follow Lord Savik into a third. I was pushed to the back of the cab with a hard-looking lycanthrope. He wasn’t a hunter, but had the look of an experienced warrior. Lord Savik and Fangbearer sat in front of me in the middle of the cab. The driver and another warrior climbed in. As soon as we were loaded, the convoy sped off. The whole evolution took less than two minutes. As we left, other lycanthropes were stripping the cars and cleaning up the scene.

We were almost out of the housing development when our minivan broke from the convoy. Lord Savik and Fangbearer were talking quietly to each other, but neither looked back at me. The lycanthrope sitting next to me gave me a glare that was clear I was to remain silent. That was fine. It wasn’t the first time someone had given me that look. So, I tried to listen in to what Lord Savik and Fangbearer were saying. Even though I was maybe two feet from them, their words were indistinct. That sparked my curiosity. I should have been able to pick up a stray word or two, at the very least. Instead, all I could hear was a low garble. After a few moments, I leaned back in my seat. I didn’t know where I was going, how long it was going to take, or what would happen when I got there. I did the best thing I could do in this situation. I dozed. My eyes opened as I felt the minivan pull into a driveway. We were in front of a modern two-story house. The minivan pulled into the garage. I was ushered into a room on the second floor. It was empty except for about a half-dozen metal folding chairs. I was sat down in one. Lord Savik sat across from me, his dark eyes boring at me. Fangbearer placed another chair down to my left and leaned on it. My escort and the lycanthrope that was riding shotgun stood at the door of the room. The only sound in the room was from the ceiling fan. I felt tendrils of invisible power snake around me. They weren’t strong, just enough for me to feel rippling across my skin like cool air drafts. I continued to meet Lord Savik’s eyes. His brow furrowed, and the tendrils pulsed with new strength. They were uncomfortable, like standing underneath an air return, but that was it. A second set of tendrils wrapped around me, but these weren’t coming from Lord Savik. My eyes flickered over to Fangbearer, who looked like he was straining with effort.

“You’re an aristocrat?” I blurted out at Fangbearer. Both sets of tendrils vanished. Lord Savik and Fangbearer traded a silent look.

“So, it’s not just you, milord,” Fangbearer said, ignoring my question, “Between the two of us, this one should have been reduced to little more than a mewling pup.” Both turned their looks on me.

“Are you really a Badmoon, or was Vollen hiding a bastard son?” Lord Savik demanded.

“Fuck you, milord,” I said, rage coursing through me, “I’m a Badmoon, and if you ever disparage Stephen Vollen in front of me again, I will show how little your mind powers work on me.” Fangbearer and the two guards looked shocked at my effrontery, but Lord Savik looked somewhere between amused and curious.

“That was not the reaction I expected,” Lord Savik said, “What did Stephen Vollen do that earned him such loyalty from a Badmoon?”

“He treated me like the hunter I am, and not just a Badmoon,” I answered curtly, “Moreover, he appointed my Guildmaster to fix the mistakes of his father.” Lord Savik pondered this for a long moment.

“Did Stephen Vollen know about your resistance to our powers?” Lord Savik asked.

“He was the first lord who tried them on me,” I answered.

“He knew you were a Badmoon, knew you could resist his powers, and he still let you stay in the Guild?” Lord Savik asked. I nodded, not trusting my words at the moment. There was another long moment of silence.

“Do you know why you can resist our powers?” asked Lord Savik.

“No, my lord,” I answered, “I was hoping you were going to tell me. Since you don’t seem to understand it either, I suspect it has something to do with being a Badmoon. I’ve only known about this ability for less than a year.” Lord Savik mulled that over. From Fangbearer’s expression, this had not gone the way they expected. Suddenly, Lord Savik stood up and walked to the door.

“Stephen Vollen was very good at knowing which lycanthropes he could trust,” Lord Savik said, “He was also perfectly willing to eliminate any lycanthrope who threatened the safety of his packs.”

“I know. I was the one who got the jobs, milord,” I said. The two guards traded a brief, but nervous look.

“I see,” Lord Savik said, “Well, that makes me even more certain Stephen Vollen trusted you. He would have had you killed otherwise. If he was willing to trust you, then so am I. Fangbearer told me what you told him. I will put you and your friends to work for me.”

“What about the war council?” I asked before he left. Lord Savik paused.

“I will not leave my county while it’s still being occupied by the FCV,” Lord Savik said, “Going to Tallahassee does nothing for that.”

“If Blackhawk and the Society control the war council?” I asked. “Do you really think that is good for the lycanthropes of this state?”

“My fellow lords know the Society is pulling the strings, and they’ve done nothing,” Lord Savik said, his eyes flashing with anger. “They knew the Society betrayed my packs to the FCV. Yet, Blackhawk is still alive, and my counties are still under the Prince’s blockade. I understand you are trying to help your Lady-Apparent. The best way you can do that is helping me. I swear to you Badmoon, by the Ancestors, that if you help restore our counties, I will send my warriors to aid your Lady-Apparent. The rest of the state can burn as far as I care.” With that, Lord Savik left the room.

“For someone who is supposed to be treated as an outcast, you have managed to gain the trust of some very powerful lycanthropes,” Fangbearer commented. I looked over at him questioningly. “The one that most surprised me was Anna. She never trusts lycanthropes outside of our packs.”

“Do you trust me?” I asked, half in jest.

“No, but not because you’re a Badmoon,” Fangbearer answered, “It’s my job not to trust anyone except for Lord Savik and Anna.”

“Who are you?” I asked. “Why do you have the powers of an aristocrat?”

“Who do you think I am?” Fangbearer asked. I sat quietly as I thought through the evidence.

“You’re Lady Anna’s illegitimate half-brother,” I said. Fangbearer froze with a surprised look on his face.

“How did you come to that conclusion?” Fangbearer asked, neutrally.

“First, because the first thing Lord Savik accused me of when he discovered I could resist your powers was of being a bastard child of a lord,” I answered, matching Fangbearer’s neutral tone, “I expect his mind would go there because of personal experience.”

“So why am I Lady Anna’s half-brother and not Lord Savik’s son?” Fangbearer asked.

“Because you treat Lord Savik as a lord, but not Lady Anna,” I answered, “You don’t even call her Lady Anna. There’s none of the deference one would give a Lady-Apparent. There was the protectiveness of an older brother. I’m not sure if she knows or not. If she does, she hides it well.”

“Based on the evidence you’ve seen, I can certainly see how you came to your conclusion,” Fangbearer said, and then chuckled. “The answer is far less scandalous. I simply have enough aristocrat blood in me that Lord Savik was able to unlock my powers. They’ve been necessary in my position.”

“I didn’t know that could be done,” I said. “I thought those could only be unlocked when an aristocrat became a lord.”

“We’ve pushed a lot of the traditional boundaries and found they were little more than legend,” Fangbearer said. “Lord Savik is willing to put his trust in you. Now, we are going to have to ask something from you.”

“What? I already said that we’d help you,” I said suspiciously.

“My powers aren’t well known outside of a select few. Lord Savik and I thought it was best to keep that secret. I must ask that you don’t mention this at all,” Fangbearer said. “If anyone asks, we wanted to talk with you because you’re a Badmoon.”

“Sure. I can do that,” I said. Fangbearer nodded.

“Good. Probably tomorrow, we’ll take you to meet with the rest of the packs,” Fangbearer said, “At that time, we’ll tell them why you’re here and that you’ll be working with us. For now, you can rest in the room across the hall. The bathroom is two doors down on the left, it you want to clean up.” I nodded. Fangbearer and the two guards left me alone. Well, this didn’t turn out like I hoped. Still, I did secure a pledge of assistance for Hillsborough. All I needed to do was find a way to take down the most powerful vampire council in the United States. I walked over to my bedroom for the night. Maybe this was what I needed. A chance to be just a hunter again. No politics, no confusing relationships. Just me doing what I do best. As I laid down on the bed and closed my eyes, Elizabeth’s face haunted me.

My fingers flexed as my mind calculated the odds. I could probably draw my HK45 faster than the shaman in front of me could whip up some of his magicks. Unfortunately, with shaman “probably” wasn’t good enough. If this shaman was good and managed to pull off some mystical attack before I could shoot him, it would be a lethal misjudgment for me, as well as Hangman and Vanessa. Then there was the whole issue with killing Savik’s Spiritmaster in front of what looked like the collected leadership of the Disputed Territories’ lycanthropes. Also, I was pretty sure killing the Spiritmaster would give his rantings about my being an “abomination” and accusations of evil intent some weight in the pack leaders’ eyes. Not that some needed much convincing.

“I can’t believe you’re allowing this horrible monster in your presence, much less the Lady Anna’s,” the former Broward Spiritmaster repeated. It was the third, no fourth, iteration of that sentence since the meeting began. The Spiritmaster was a short lycanthrope, only standing about five foot four as a human. Close-cropped white hair and a lined face gave the Spiritmaster an aged look. It didn’t help he was wearing khakis and a pastel pink polo shirt. He looked more like an aging executive instead of the most powerful spellcaster in the Disputed Territories. Lady Anna shot me a sympathetic look as the Spiritmaster paced back and forth for dramatic effect. I noticed his pacing never came within ten feet of me.

The meeting was being held in a large conference room that was part of a vacant office suite. In addition to Lord Savik, Anna, Fangbearer, and the two remaining Red Knights, there were also the leaders of the four remaining packs, their deputies, a pair of hunters, and the Spiritmaster escorted by four shaman. Lord Savik called the meeting to introduce Hangman, Vanessa, and me to his top lycanthropes. Lord Savik didn’t even have the chance for the full introduction. As soon as Lord Savik said my name, the Spiritmaster started into his tirade about the folly of letting a Badmoon get near any of them. The hunters didn’t seem to be paying attention to the Spiritmaster, but the others were giving Lord Savik and Lady Anna questioning looks. Some of it was probably because we were from outside the Disputed Territories, but I wondered how much was from the Spiritmaster’s haranguing.

“My lord, you should ask Fangbearer to exterminate this abomination before the Ancestors curse us more than they already have. Look what his presence in Hillsborough caused for that county,” the Spiritmaster commented smugly. Okay, that was the last straw. I could withstand the verbal abuse, but I wasn’t about to let anyone from this county threaten my life. The old lycanthrope noticeably paled as my neutral mask slipped into rage. He visibly flinched as I took a step towards him. The four shaman behind the Spiritmaster fell into what looked like video game fighting stances. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I felt the shaman drawing magicks. Fangbearer stood in front of Lord Savik and Lady Anna. The pack leaders and their deputies backed as far as they could against the wall. No one wanted to be a part of this fight. Well, no one except Hangman. The pup fell in beside me. That gave me an unusually large sense of relief. At least someone had my back.

“Renn, I wonder how you managed to survive this long,” the older of the hunters said in a bored tone. Everyone’s heads turned to him, except for me and Lord Savik. Well, that was interesting. Someone taught the lord not to be distracted from the real threat.

“What?” was all the Spiritmaster could manage. The comment clearly caught him off-guard. I saw my chance. My HK45 was almost clear of its holster when Hangman put a hand on my shoulder. When I looked back, he pointed over to Lord Savik, whose hands began to flick with hunter hand-signs. Put your weapon away. I will deal with him. Stunned by the revelation, I managed to holster my pistol by muscle-memory alone. Hunters weren’t supposed to teach hand-sign to anyone outside of the Guild.

“You’ve just asked for a lycanthrope to be executed in front of Lord Savik and Lady Anna,” the older hunter said, drawing me away from the lord. “A lycanthrope who is a hunter and in the course of his hunting duties has killed other lycanthropes. Moreover, according to you, he can’t fear the wrath of the Ancestors because they’ve already damned him. Didn’t your primal survival instinct at least warn you that it might not be a good idea to corner such a lycanthrope?” The hunter’s words broke the tension in the room. There were muffled chuckles around the room as the Spiritmaster’s fair skin reddened.

“This argument has gone far enough,” Lord Savik said with a tone of finality. The Spiritmaster motioned for his shaman to stop their summonings. “I called this meeting to tell you we have three new allies. Not for you to question me in front of my pack leaders in a disrespectful manner. Especially not to demand one of their deaths after I accepted their generous offers of service in our cause.” Lord Savik gave the Spiritmaster a hard look. The Spiritmaster bowed his head in submission. Apparently that was all the contrition Lord Savik needed. I still wanted to rip the bastard’s head off.

“That’s all fine and good my lord, but just who are they?” one of the packleaders asked, eyeing us suspiciously. “Suddenly two hunters and a kin appear in our county to help us?”

“They saved Uncle and me from an assassination attempt by Mako,” Lady Anna said, her voice almost challenging.

“Which could just be a false flag,” the older hunter retorted. Lady Anna glared at him, but he wasn’t fazed. He turned to me. “No offense, but we have a reason to be a bit on the paranoid side around here. Lady Anna vouching for you helps, but it’s not enough.”

“No offense taken. After what happened here, you wouldn’t have survived without building a healthy sense of paranoia against all outsiders. Truthfully, we didn’t come here to help you, at least not directly,” Hangman said, “We’re here because you might be able to help Hillsborough.” The Disputed Territories lycanthropes exchanged looks.

“What exactly do you think we could do to help Hillsborough?” another of the packleaders asked.

Hillsborough is now under vampire control, much like the Disputed Territories,” Hangman said. He paused as all of the lycanthropes in the room snarled.

“I would suggest you avoid the use of that term, pup,” Lord Savik almost hissed, “We are the wolves of Broward and Miami-Dade counties. That weakling prince is the one who bestowed that title on our territories. After he and his pets caused it.”

“I apologize my lord,” Hangman said, bowing his head, “The war council is forming in Tallahassee or has already formed. If the combined forces of the three counties under vampire control are at the council, we can force it to elect a new prince who will help our counties.”

“A naive sentiment,” the Spiritmaster smirked. At least two of the pack leaders seemed to be in agreement with him.

“If Lord Savik wasn’t a threat to the powers orchestrating the fall of our counties, then why do they keep trying to assassinate him?” Vanessa asked. “It would just be easier to keep you bottled up here and let the vampires kill you than waste the resources. Something about you personally is a threat, my lord.”

“I’m not discounting what you say, but I can’t leave my county. Not with it under the control of the vampire,” Lord Savik said. It was the same thing he’d told me at the safe house.

“Then maybe we should do something about that,” I said, drawing all eyes on me. A ghost of a smile danced across Lord Savik’s face. He was expecting me to say this. I was fairly certain how this was supposed to go.

“Easier said than done, abomination,” the Spiritmaster sneered, “What do you think we’ve been doing these past years?” I really wanted to hit him, preferably in the face. Multiple times. It must have shown on my face because Lord Savik was hand-signing for me to remain calm.

“Surviving, and doing it well from what I can see,” I answered. I wasn’t speaking to the Spiritmaster. I was talking to the pack leaders. They were the ones I needed.

“You are going to deliver us like the humans’ Messiah?” asked the first packleader with a pointed tone. “That would fit into so much of their literature. The outcast come to lead the unwashed from harm.”

“I’m no savior. I’m a hunter. So’s he,” I said pointing at Hangman. I pointed at Vanessa “She’s a data analyst, and a damned good one. All of us are willing to do whatever we can to help the lycanthropes of these two counties. Let us help you find the leeches’ weak points and slaughter them.”

“What wonderful rhetoric from a Badmoon,” the Spiritmaster said, “Just the kind of thing to lead our few wolves into a suicidal spiral against the vampires.” Exactly how mad would Lord Savik be if I beat his Spiritmaster to bleeding pulp? From the glare on her face, I had the feeling Lady Anna wouldn’t be too upset with me.

“Isn’t taking back our counties what we’ve been fighting for?” demanded the Lady-Apparent. “Or have you settled for being a hunted dog?” There were sharp intakes of breath from some of the lycanthropes. The Spiritmaster looked like he’d just been slapped. It took everything I had to keep from laughing.

“That is enough!” Lord Savik thundered. His powers filled the room, and I watched as the other lycanthropes fell back in psychic-caused fear. I tried looking fearful to hide that the lord’s powers weren’t doing a thing to me.

“All of you, and all of the wolves you lead have sworn to fight under me until the vampires are destroyed and our counties restored. That has not changed, nor will I accept any aspersions on any of the wolves under my leadership without evidence. That includes three who have sworn to serve me recently. As they have generously offered their services, we will offer ours to them, once our counties are restored.” He looked over to the older hunter. “For now, they will work in the Guild. That makes the most sense considering their talents.”

“Well, that triples my hunters, then,” the older hunter said. “Plus, I get a support kin. I can live with that. If you don’t need me further, my lord, I’ll take them with me back to the Guild. The sooner I get them integrated into the Guild, the sooner we can use them in the field.” Lord Savik nodded. The pack leaders and the shaman didn’t look particularly happy as Hangman, Vanessa, and I followed the two hunters out of the office. I was surprised when Lady Anna joined us. The two hunters didn’t seen to think it was unusual, so I kept quiet. There would be time to ask questions later.

“In case you haven’t figured it out, I’m the Guildmaster for the remaining Broward and Dade county lycanthropes,” the older hunter said as our group boarded the elevator. “That’s Cracker. He’s my sole surviving hunter.” Cracker was about my height, but much thicker. I swear, I could take cover behind him. His face was an expressionless mask.

“I let Lady Anna tag along with us because she’s got some talent,” the Guildmaster said.

“I noticed,” I said, and then grunted as Vanessa jabbed an elbow into my side. She just glared at my questioning look. If the others noticed, they didn’t say anything. Lady Anna just smiled at me.

“What about Fangbearer?” Hangman asked, “Does he work with you?” The Guildmaster and Lady Anna traded a look.

“He works for Lord Savik,” the Guildmaster answered. The flat tone told me there was something odd about going on there. Vanessa caught my eye and gave a small shake of her head. I trusted her instincts and let the matter drop. There would be time to figure that out later. An uncomfortable silence filled the elevator car. The Guildmaster broke it as the elevator opened.

“What I want is for Vanessa to take a look at our current intelligence,” the Guildmaster said as we exited the building. “We have a bunch, but no one’s been able to make it work for us.”

“Is that what happened at the house last night?” Vanessa asked.

“I honestly don’t know,” the Guildmaster answered. “That was just a clusterfuck. I thought we had good intel on one of the leeches’ stash of silver ammunition. Now I’m wondering if the leeches were just laying out bait to trap us.”

“Perhaps,” Vanessa said as we left the building. They’d left my truck in the parking lot next to an older muscle car. Hangman’s eyes went wide at the car, so I guessed it was something impressive. Cars weren’t really my thing. They were just something I used.

“Lady Anna, would you mind showing them the way to the Guild?” the Guildmaster asked as he and Cracker slid into the car. Lady Anna climbed into the back of my truck’s cab as the door opened.

“Hey, I’ve got gear back there,” I protested.

“No, we removed it while we were searching your car last night,” Lady Anna answered. “You might want to hurry. Robert’s not well known for his patience.” Vanessa gave me a level look as she climbed in next to Lady Anna. As soon as Hangman was in, the Guildmaster peeled out of the parking lot. I slammed the truck into gear and followed. I didn’t bother paying attention to where we were going as much as just trying to keep up with the muscle car as it swerved through traffic. I swore as I sped through an intersection as the light turned red and nearly took the front end off of a sedan.

“Is there some reason your Guildmaster is driving like a bat out of hell?” Hangman asked.

“Leeches control the traffic cameras,” Lady Anna answered, “They have roving patrols of ghouls that try and ambush us when we’re out on the roads. It’s actually safer for us to move at night.”

“What about the cops?” I asked.

“Easier to use the Wolf’s Growl on humans than get into a firefight with ghouls,” Lady Anna answered casually. Hangman looked back at her. The Wolf’s Growl was supposed to be used in rare occasions, not to get out of traffic tickets. The more it was used on humans, the less effective it became. Worse, humans were so tribal, that using it on one policeman would bolster the resistance of all the police that officer regularly worked with. I don’t know why. The shaman say they know, but I didn’t really believe them. Lady Anna didn’t comment further, so I just concentrated on driving.

“So where is all my gear?” I asked.

“Most of it went to the packs,” Lady Anna answered, “We needed the guns. The silver bullets went to the Knights.”

“Even my Commando?” I asked, choking back a sudden rage. After my HK45, that was my favorite gun.

“You’re hunters, you won’t need them,” Lady Anna said, clearly perplexed by our dark mood. Before any of us could answer, the Guildmaster pulled into a private storage building. I damn near fishtailed the truck as I screeched into the lot. I parked next to the muscle car, half-wondering if I made the right decision.

“Good, you managed to keep up,” the Guildmaster said cheerfully, “I was wondering if that truck would do it.”

“So did I,” I retorted. The Guildmaster chuckled.

“Welcome to the Guild,” the Guildmaster said. “It isn’t nearly as good as our old one, but it’ll do.” There was a hint of sadness as he mentioned the old Guild. The Guildmaster opened the front door and led us inside. I was surprised to see there was a human male sitting at the customer service desk. Completely human, not even kin. He looked in his late teens or early twenties.

“This is Tyler,” the Guildmaster introduced, “He handles the customers and makes sure that no one bothers us.” Tyler nodded and went back to working on his computer. The Guildmaster led our little group through a door into the storage area.

“You have customers here?” Vanessa asked quietly.

“A business that has no customers looks suspicious,” Lady Anna answered.

“That was one of those lessons we learned the hard way,” the Guildmaster said. “We have half of the first and all of the third floor to ourselves. Under a variety of names, of course. The rest is rented out by humans. The shaman were nice enough to whip up some protections that if a leech or a ghoul comes in, all of those in the Guild will get a warning. The first floor we actually use for storage. We have a lot of paper records and some specialty gear.”

“Weapons?” I asked.

“Not really,” the Guildmaster answered, “Too chancy of an accidental discovery by human authorities. Besides, you two are hunters. You shouldn’t need more than what you’ve got on you.”

“That’s the second time that’s been mentioned,” Hangman said, looking over at Lady Anna. “I’ve always been taught to bring the proper tools for the job, not just what tools I happen to have.”

“Must be nice,” Cracker said, sarcastically. The Guildmaster waved us down before Hangman or I replied.

“I’m sorry. I should have thought of that. Both of you are used to working with better equipped chapters. It’s best if we discuss this on the third floor. It’s more secure.” Hangman and I traded glances, but nodded. As we got onto the elevator, I noticed Lady Anna giving me an appraising look. My instincts were going off as I looked at her, but they were soft, like danger, but not immediate danger. Why did they wait until now to start going off? The Guildmaster led us to a large storage bay and opened up the door. Inside was laid out like an office with four workstations.

“This is our intel section,” the Guildmaster said, motioning to the workstations. “More to the point, our intel section whenever any of the three of us has a chance to do some actual research and analysis of what we get.” Vanessa immediately slipped into her professional role as she sat down at a proffered desk.

“How are you indexing?” she asked as she started clicking on icons.

“Indexing?” Lady Anna asked, confused. Vanessa’s head shot up to meet the Guildmaster’s eyes. He shrugged.

“We haven’t really been doing all of the front-end work,” the Guildmaster said, “Like I said, it’s been more fast and loose than structured around here.” Vanessa let out a disapproving sniff before focusing back on the computer. Lady Anna looked slightly offended, but the Guildmaster and Cracker just chuckled.

“Now perhaps you want to explain why I don’t have my Commando?” I asked.

“The packs and the Knights need it more than you do,” Cracker said, “Real hunters don’t need all of that fancy gear to do a job.”

“Fuck you, dickhead,” I shot back, “We do the job with the best tools we have. I’m not going to let Murphy fuck something up because I don’t have the tools. Our jobs are dangerous enough as is.”

“If you can’t do the job with what you have available, then you’re not really being a hunter. Any warrior can do a job if they just rely on tech.” Cracker gave us a look of haughty superiority. I’d seen that look far too often from lycanthropes who thought they were better than me because I was a Badmoon. Buried rage welled up inside of me. My instincts screamed warnings, but I ignored them. Damn it, I was one of the best hunters in Hillsborough. My hand shot out to shove Cracker against the wall. Pain blossomed across my face and through my arm. It took me a moment to realize Cracker had me in an arm lock and shoved up against concrete wall. How the fuck did someone that size move that fucking fast? The pain in my shoulder increased as he tightened his hold.

“Are you done?” Lady Anna asked with an annoyed tone. I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. Cracker let go and slid away from me with a scary grace. Lady Anna walked over to me.

”I expected better of you,” she said in an angry whisper.

“Ranger, if you expect to work with us, you’re going to have to do things our way,” the Guildmaster said with a warning tone in his voice. “One thing you’d better get through that skull of yours is most of the pack warriors here have more combat experience than most hunters in the state. What they don’t have is our training, so they get what special weapons we can get our hands on. As hunters, we have the skills to operate on a bare minimum, which is good, because that’s usually all we have. Forget about having racks and racks of the latest weapons and gear. Forget about having all the silver ammunition you can shoot. The ammunition you brought with you was the most we’ve had on hand for months.”

“We need you’re help, but not if you end up getting us killed because you can’t operate within our constraints,” Lady Anna said, her dark eyes flashing. Hangman put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head. If the pup thought I was overreacting, then it was probably time to stand down. I relaxed a bit and the tension in the room lessened.

“I still want my Commando back when we leave,” I told the Guildmaster. The Guildmaster simply nodded. From the look in his eyes, he was humoring me. Cracker rolled his eyes. I really wanted to beat the hell out of the other hunter, but not until I figured out how he moved that fucking fast.

“So how do you operate, exactly?” Hangman asked. Trust the pup to act rationally. I knew I wasn’t, but I wasn’t sure yet if I cared.

“Most of our jobs are to support a larger operation by one or more of the packs. On those, we borrow weapons from the packs’ arsenals,” the Guildmaster answered. “Sometimes we’ll do recon or assassination jobs. Those are built around what we have and what we can expect to pick up in the field. I know that’s not how we trained at the camp, but we do it this way for a reason. Everything we use can’t be traced back to where it might endanger the packs. The FCV is unbelievably good at using the humans’ data systems to track us down. Some of their ghouls are scary good investigators. We have some kin still in the area, but not the network most counties have built up over the generations.”

“Think about your precious Commando Ranger,” Lady Anna said, taking over from the Guildmaster, “It’s yours, but I bet according to the humans, it’s technically owned by a kin in some kind of cover business. Everything done properly to keep the humans out of our business. You have kin in the local police forces to keep investigations of you using a full-auto weapon from coming to the notice of the human authorities and media. We have none of that. If a full-auto weapon gets used here, the FCV will bring everything they can to bear and ferret us out faster than you could believe. It’s how we lost so much of our equipment, money, and not a few of my wolves.” There was a defiant flash in her eyes. She was not going to go through that again.

“That’s not including the Society,” the Guildmaster continued, “They have many of the same resources as the FCV, and they use them just as ruthlessly. Not as well as the FCV, thank the Ancestors. If so, Lord Savik would be dead by now, and maybe Lady Anna as well.”

“Ancestors, Elizabeth,” I whispered to myself. My mind raced. I ignored the suspicious look on Lady Anna’s face. What the Guildmaster and Lady Anna were saying suddenly clicked in my mind. If the TCV managed to do the same in Hillsborough as the FCV did in the Disputed Territories, then Elizabeth and the rest of the Hillsborough lycanthropes were in extreme danger. Technically, most of the Guild’s weapons and gear were under Mrs. Werstand’s security firm. Her employees had gone to ground as soon as everything went to hell. So did most of our kin. What was Elizabeth and the Hillsborough lycanthropes doing now that would get them killed? As bad as Elizabeth hurt me, the thought of her dead hurt more.

“Who is Elizabeth?” Lady Anna asked, her eyes narrowed. My instincts were screaming warnings at her cool tone.

“She’s the Lady-Apparent in Hillsborough,” Hangman answered.

“Why do you call her Elizabeth and not Lady Vollen, or at least Lady Elizabeth?” Lady Anna asked. Hangman’s hands flashed with danger signals. I may not understand females all that well, but I knew well enough to listen to my instincts. Most of the time, at least.

“Because she asked me to,” I answered. From the cold look on Lady Anna’s face, that wasn’t the answer she wanted. An uncomfortable silence fell over us that seemed to stretch for hours.

“I see,” Lady Anna said, finally breaking the silence. The Guildmaster and Cracker both gave the her questioning looks. She waved them off.

“Well, now that’s settled, we can get to work,” the Guildmaster said. “I’m going to work with Vanessa and see if we can dig up anything we can use. Cracker, would you mind working with Ranger and Hangman?” The big hunter smiled malevolently. “Lady Anna, you can stay here with us unless Lord Savik has something else for you.”

“I think I’d better help Cracker with these two,” Lady Anna said, “I think it’s past time we acquainted them with our methods.”

“Not bad Ranger,” Cracker said, barely breathing hard, “That one almost hurt.” I gave the massive hunter an evil glare. I was covered in bruises and mostly-healed cuts. Part of me wanted to just sit down and let Hangman try his luck. Most of me, on the other hand, wanted to kick the smirking bastard’s ass into next week. I was sure I’d seen a small hole in his defenses. It wasn’t much, but I should be able to jab the point of the steel fighting knife into his lung. Since it wasn’t silver, it’d just hurt, but I intended to follow it up with some hand strikes that would let this asshole know I wasn’t some fucking rookie pup just out of camp. We both fell into fighting stances with knives outstretched. I waited patiently for him to make the first move. This was always the hardest part of sparring. It felt like minutes passed as we watched each other. Cracker figured out that I was not going to strike first. He slid to the side and leapt at me. Not the attack I was expecting, but it should do. I blocked his knife strike, twisted to his side and punched at his face. Cracker always seemed to need to protect his face. As his arm went to block my strike, my knife darted towards his exposed side. Then I was on the mat with a ringing head. How the hell had he done that? From the pain across the side of my face, he’d punched with the pommel of his knife. I didn’t even see the blow coming.

“You’re done,” Cracker said flatly.

“I can still fight,” I shot back as I picked myself up off the mat and recovered my blade.

“No doubt, but you’re still done. You’re too focused on trying to hurt me that you’re not thinking straight. Go sit down and let me practice on the pup. Maybe you’ll figure out why I’ve been routinely putting you down,” Cracker said. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to gut Cracker. Hangman walked over and nodded back to the chair he’d vacated. I don’t know why, but the expression on Hangman’s face was enough to bring some modicum of reason back in my head. Cracker was right. I wasn’t fighting, I was just brawling. I handed over the training knife and sat down next to Lady Anna.

“If it makes you feel any better, Cracker’s full packname is Bone Cracker,” Lady Anna said with a ghost of a smile dancing across her face. “He was the Guild’s best hand to hand fighter.”

“No, milady, that doesn’t make me feel better,” I replied.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I’ve gone up against enough hand to hand fighters and held my own. This was something completely different,” I said as Cracker and Hangman settled into fighting stances. The pup’s was looser than mine. I watched as the two circled each other. Lady Anna eyed me speculatively as I sat quietly. Hangman tried a feint to get in close with Cracker and landed face first in the mat. The pup sprang back up and shook off the pain. The second bout ended little better with Hangman gasping from a stab into his lungs. Three more bouts all ended with Hangman picking himself up and Cracker not so much as scratched. This was getting pointless. I sat back as a thought ran through my mind.

“What is it?” Lady Anna asked, deciphering my expression.

“Okay, I get it. You’re not teaching us how things are done here,” I answered. I looked over at Cracker. “You’re teaching us that we need to forget how we did things back home. Prove to us that we can’t handle things like we used to.” Cracker stopped the fight and reluctantly smiled.

“Hate to admit it, but you picked that up faster than any of the others. You think you’re the first hunters we’ve had come in offering assistance?” Cracker asked when he saw our surprised expressions, “Most were Society moles. We killed those. Some more were glory seekers, and a few were actually just trying to help. But they couldn’t get the idea that the pack warriors were warriors again. Hunters are now support for the warriors, not the other way around. Those that didn’t get themselves killed were mind-wiped by the shaman and dropped at the border.”

“Mind-wiped?” Hangman asked incredulous.

“The Prince may have abandoned us, but the Ancestors have not,” Lady Anna answered, “The Spiritmaster and his shaman are very scary with their magicks. Just like the warriors, the hunters, and even the aristocracy, the shaman were forced to become harder and stronger. If we had more than just five, we could tear the FCV apart.”

“That and the pathwalkers would show up,” I said. I don’t care how good the shaman were supposed to be. I didn’t trust anyone who was calling for my execution. Lady Anna just gave me a sad smile.

“I suppose there is that,” was all she said.

“So, how are you going to show us how to help you?” Hangman asked.

“We survive by stealth with occasional bursts of violence,” Lady Anna answered. “Not only stealth like when you snuck up behind me at the house. Completely blending into the background of humans so when it’s time to spring our occasional violence, the FCV never sees us coming.”

“It also helps when the Society sends the occasional assassins after us,” the Guildmaster said, walking into the room. Vanessa trailed behind him. “Thankfully, they no longer have your services. I’d hate to think what they could do if this young kin was still in their employ.” He nodded to Vanessa who was standing next to Hangman inspecting his injuries.

“Not the first time they managed to figure out where we were hiding,” Cracker said. “What makes her so impressive?” Hangman gave the hunter an evil look. The Guildmaster laughed at the two of them.

“How long have you been here sparring?” the Guildmaster asked.

“Long enough,” Cracker answered. The Guildmaster just nodded at the answer.

“Good, because this young kin has already managed to put enough strings together that we have a job. Ranger, take a couple of hours to heal up, and then we’ll see if you are up to working in our counties.”

I followed Lady Anna to the table while scanning for our target. I hated this part of a job. I’m not a patient lycanthrope by nature. I’ve learned patience through years of working jobs, but it never comes easy for me. It’s worse when I feel exposed. Such as watching for a vampire courier from inside a coffeehouse. It felt like I was in a bad spy movie. I would have been much happier sitting on a rooftop with a pair of binoculars or in a surveillance van.

“Would you relax?” Lady Anna said as she sat down. “You’re going to draw attention.”

“I am relaxed,” I lied, sitting down next to her. We were at a table next to the large plate glass window. From what Vanessa managed to compile from the hunters’ intelligence, we should be seeing the vampire courier as he made his rounds. Those rounds included dropping off payment and instructions to the security firm guarding the FCV’s ammunition cache. It was so fucking Old-World of the vampires that they needed to use a courier instead of the Internet.

“No, you’re looking around for threats,” Lady Anna chided me as she settled herself, “In this neighborhood, it makes you look a cop or a criminal. Both draw the wrong kind of notice. Any trouble with the humans will screw this up almost worse than getting spotted by a vampire. So relax, and just pretend we’re two people out on a casual date.”

“Yeah, because I have so much experience with that too,” I murmured sarcastically into my tea. Lady Anna quirked an eyebrow up.

“I guess being a Badmoon would scare off most females,” Lady Anna said after a moment. “Then, there’s the small issue of being a hunter. What respectable female would dare the scandal among the packs?”

“Thank you for that enlightening observation,” I said, using sarcasm to prevent my anger from showing.

“Now an aristocrat could. If she was powerful enough or secure enough,” Lady Anna said. The words dug in like a knife. Did she know about Elizabeth and me? How could she? Then there was the way she said those words. I didn’t understand her light tone. Her eyes were alight with playfulness, but it didn’t look like malovelont playing.

“Maybe you should concentrate on looking for the courier,” I said, not wanting to discuss it any further. This job was going to be tricky enough without having to dredge up feelings I just buried in the back of my mind. Lady Anna leaned back in her chair without another word. I was thankful for that. I tried to be more discreet in my scans of the coffeehouse and the street. I don’t know how successful I was, but Lady Anna didn’t make any further comments.

About an hour later, a vampire turned the corner and started walking down other side of the street. He looked about thirty years old with stylish brown hair and a suit that would have made Bradon jealous. He stood out, and the locals avoided looking at him. I checked him against the photo on my phone. He looked pretty close.

“Looks like our guy’s here,” I said. She studied the vampire against the photo.

“Looks like it,” Lady Anna said as she stood up. We walked to the back of the coffeehouse. We could still see the vampire, but it would have been hard for him to see us if he looked our way. Except he wasn’t looking around. My instincts started going off. Why wasn’t the courier checking his surroundings? Even vampires weren’t that causal with their security if they were doing a job for their superiors. The courier passed the coffeehouse without even looking our way. Lady Anna started for the door, but I grabbed her arm.

“Wait,” I said quietly. She gave me a frustrated look.

“Why? He’s moving fast,” Lady Anna said, “We need to snatch him before he gets off this block.”

“He’s not acting right,” I said, “He isn’t even checking to see if he’s being tailed.”

“The leeches don’t,” Lady Anna said, “Except for their Bleeders, most of the FCV just don’t believe we could target them. They act like the mob. Who would dare go against the mob?” She pulled out of my grasp. I hesitated for a moment and then followed her, but not before checking my HK45. As soon as I stepped outside the door, my instincts went into overdrive. Lady Anna was already across the street and about thirty feet behind the courier. She was maybe fifty feet from me and walking away. I needed to back her up, but I hadn’t lived this long by ignoring my instincts. Lady Anna turned back and furiously mouthed for me to catch up. I couldn’t see any threats. Maybe she was right. My instincts were honed on the streets of Tampa. This was an entirely different operating environment. I jogged across the street and up until I was about five feet behind Lady Anna.

The plan was relatively simple. The second from the last shop on the street was vacant and boarded. We would intercept and “escort” the courier into the vacated sandwich shop with the prospect that if he didn’t fight, we wouldn’t kill him. Apparently, that still worked in the Disputed Territories. Before the fall of the Peace, that kind of ultimatum was expected. Killing vampires or lycanthropes without provocation was frowned on by both sides. It was as if the vampires here didn’t realize they were still in a war with the lycanthropes. As soon as we forced the leech in the building, we were to take the leech into the cooler, shoot him, steal everything he had on him, and walk out the back. A car would be waiting for extract. According to Lady Anna, this was one of the most basic jobs the Guild did. They had used this plan successfully dozens of times. My instincts were still screaming. There was just something wrong.

Lady Anna sped up to intercept the courier. I shook my head in appreciation. She was moving faster, but somehow she made it look so fucking casual. Oh, she was good. I admired her technique. I barely managed to keep up. She grabbed the courier’s shoulder. He turned around angrily and looked like he was about to say something, then his dark eyes went wide and his mouth snapped shut as he saw her. She smiled warmly and spoke too low for me to hear. It was some variation of “cooperate and live, or my friend will execute you.” The courier went from outraged to pleasant in nothing flat. He knew the deal. He almost seemed jubilant as Lady Anna escorted him over to the vacant storefront. She opened the previously lock-picked door and gave the vampire a slight push before following him in. I slipped in and locked the door behind us. Lady Anna turned on the lights. The shop was musty, but it looked like almost every sandwich shop I’d been in. Tiled serving area with a few scattered tables. A long counter for making sandwiches protected with plexiglass sneeze shields. I went back to the door to make sure some random human didn’t wander into our murder house. When I came back, the courier was seated at one of the tables. He was setting out documents under Lady Anna’s watchful guise.

“I must say, you dogs have balls,” the courier said in an affected New York accent, “I don’t think anyone would’ve thought you’d hit me. You know I don’t carry cash right?” My instincts went from screaming to klaxon. The courier was too fucking calm, and the jibe about the cash didn’t seem right.

“That’s okay, I’m sure you have things on you that are even more useful,” Lady Anna said, ignoring the jibe.

“Strip him,” I commanded. Lady Anna looked back at me with shocked surprise. I pushed her aside and started ripping open the courier’s pockets. He made a rude comment about needing to buy him dinner first. I found the alert button an instant before we heard the screech of tires outside. I snarled as the courier backhanded me. He overturned the table with one hand and tossed a chair at Lady Anna with the other. She rolled out of the way and came up with her Glock 19. A stainless pistol materialized in the courier’s hand. He fired first. The courier was fast, but not accurate. The bullet whipped past an inch from Lady Anna’s head. She instinctively ducked, and her first shot went into the ceiling. They were bringing their pistols down on each other. Both were tunneling and had forgot about me. I drew my HK45 and placed two rounds into the courier. He went down hard onto the table.

“Time to go,” I said loudly. Guns are fucking loud indoors. Our hearing would heal fast, but it wasn’t instantaneous.

“Let me get the documents,” Lady Anna answered as she started stuffing the courier’s papers into her purse.

“No time,” I said, grabbing her. She slipped out of my grasp and gave me a look like she was about to tell me exactly how important the documents were. She didn’t have the chance. The door to the sandwich shop slammed open. Two small metal canisters were tossed in. I recognized them instantly as flash-bangs and pushed Lady Anna to the ground. I closed my eyes and waited for the abuse my ears were about to endure. I heard about a microsecond of the blast before it all went to a high-pitched ringing. I rolled off Lady Anna and brought up my HK45 as the first vampire stormed in. He was wearing black tactical gear with POLICE emblazoned in bright white letters. I gave him the second to turn before putting two rounds in the head. He fell back into his teammates, which gave me seconds I desperately needed. I yanked Lady Anna off the floor. I fired off an un-aimed burst of gunfire into the doorway as I pulled her behind the counter. We hid behind two large ovens under the counter as I reloaded.

The leeches recovered far too quickly for my tastes. Four M4’s were emptied at us. Bullets puched through the thin sheet metal of the counter. I felt the bullets hit the heavier steel of the ovens, but 5.56mm bullets coming out of those short barrels just didn’t have the umph to punch through industrial grade equipment. At least the ringing in my ears was gone. Now, it just sounded like I was listening to the battle through water. Maybe I should just get some of those electronic hearing protection humans used. When the leeches’ carbines ran dry, I rose up to take a shot. I ducked back down just in time as a fifth vampire fired a burst. Okay, they weren’t as stupid as I hoped.

“Shit, we need to leave,” Lady Anna said. She turned to crawl to the back door. I yanked her back behind the oven before a burst of fire punched through right where she had been crawling. Fuck this. Two could play at this game. I turned and fired at that vampires through the now perforated steel. One screamed as I shot his legs out from under him. I still couldn’t get a good count on how many leeches we were dealing with. They looked like a solid wall of black legs. Lady Anna took her cue from me and fired her Glock at the vampires. They weren’t falling for that again. They had us localized. Now it was time for them to fire and maneuver. Christ on a crutch, if I just had some of the cooking supplies normally found under a counter, I could really do some nifty shit to get us out of this mess. Of course, the shelves were empty except for the odd spider or cockroach. I loaded a fresh magazine into the HK45. I reached down and pulled out my Glock 26 from my boot holster.

“I’m going to spray enough fire to keep their heads down. You get into the back of the store,” I told Lady Anna.

“I’m not going to leave you behind,” she said, an unfamiliar iron in her voice.

“I hope the fuck not,” I said, “Once you’re back there, pull one of those rolling fridges over here and drop it on its side. That should give me enough cover to join you.”

“Oh. That makes sense,” she said. She looked embarrassed, but I didn’t know why, so I ignored it. A couple of bursts were sent to remind us that the vampires really did want us dead. I readied myself and looked over at Anna. She held out her hand and silently counted down. Five, four, three two–

The first booming thunderclap startled both of us. Then came a second, and a third. A pause and two more in quick succession. No fucking way, I thought as my mind remembered something else that made that kind of noise. I peered up and saw the seven leeches. Five had gaping holes in them. The last was almost decapitated from a machete still stuck in its neck and a stake driven through its chest. The last one was the unlucky bastard I’d shot first. I rushed to the door. I saw a lycanthrope turn the corner. I knew what my eyes were seeing, but my mind refused to believe it. It just wasn’t possible.

“Ranger, help me get these bodies inside!” Lady Anna yelled. I’d have time for dealing with the mystery later. I dragged the first vampire inside. Lady Anna was in true form and tossed the courier into the cooler at the back of the store. I agreed with her. No sense in being delicate. I stripped the dead leeches of weapons, ammo, and anything else that looked useful and tossed the lot into a bag the vampires had thoughtfully brought for us. As soon as I was done, Lady Anna pitched them into back of the store. We were done in under four minutes. We exited out the back with Lady Anna shedding for human. She quickly dressed as we walked around the back of the buildings. Well, this was why we had a “go-to-hell” plan. The small alley behind the store was used for deliveries. Across the way was the rear to another store. The warriors picking us up made sure the door was unlocked. We walked through the stocking area of the mattress shop. The employees stared at us, but were too shocked by our blatant attitude to say anything. We ignored them and walked out the front to the waiting car. We entered the car like nothing was wrong. The warriors drove us a couple of blocks and the four of us switched to the back up car. We saw dozens of police cars as we drove back to the safehouse we would use for the debrief.

“Why did she send you here?” Lady Anna asked quietly. The question caught me completely off-guard.

“What? Who?” I blurted out as my mind tried to keep up.

“Your Lady-Apparent. Why did she send you here?” Lady Anna asked.

“I already told you,” I answered.

“No, you told me the official reason for sending you down here,” Lady Anna said, looking up at me. Her brown eyes were filled with concern and something else I couldn’t figure out. Her voice lowered to barely above a whisper.

“Why did your lover send you down here instead of keeping you by her side? Where she needed you,” Lady Anna asked.

“I’m not her lover,” I snapped back. Lady Anna gave me a knowing look. “Listen, Elizabeth hates me, and she wasn’t going to use me properly in Hillsborough. We were already tasked to go down here for the Society, so I thought I could at least try and get your wolves back up to help her. I mean, Hillsborough.” My mouth snapped shut. I felt like I’d said too much. Lady Anna gave me an appraising look, but didn’t say anything. I hoped she’d just let the matter drop like she had back in the coffeehouse. I wasn’t that lucky a second time.

“What did you do to make her hate you?” Lady Anna asked. “She did love you, didn’t she?”

“What the fuck, do you have a file on her and me?” I asked exasperated.

“No, I’m just good at reading people. I can tell from the way you talk about her,” Lady Anna explained. “So what did you do to make her hate you?”

“I killed a lycanthrope who was challenging her. In front of her and the rest of the Hillsborough lycanthropes,” I said flatly. I expected Lady Anna to recoil. She surprised me and put her arm around my shoulders.

“She wasn’t ready to see that side of you,” Lady Anna said, soothingly. “And you still love her. Poor fool.”

“Thanks,” I said angrily and jerked back. There was enough pain without Lady Anna rubbing silver into the wound.

“No, I’m sorry,” she said, pulling me back. “I meant her, not you. I imagine you were protecting her from having to do that nasty deed herself. That’s what hunters are for, after all.” The comment didn’t sound flippant. It sounded like someone who understood the burden hunters were asked to undertake for the packs. She sounded so much older than she looked at that moment. I don’t know why, but I felt I had to tell Lady Anna the last bit.

“It doesn’t bother me. Killing other lycanthropes, I mean,” I said. I waited for her to look at me in horror. I waited for the warm arm to recoil in revulsion. Instead, Lady Anna just gave me a sad smile.

“Some don’t,” she said. We rode the rest of the way in silence.

The four other members of the Guild were waiting for us at the safehouse. The weapons and ammo were left with the warriors, but all of the intel came with us. The Guildmaster wasn’t happy with how things went down. It was too loud, and it would remind the FCV the lycanthropes were still dangerous. At least that was how he explained it. He was happy we managed to get out without getting too banged up. Somewhere during the debrief, Lord Savik called and demanded his own explanation for what happened. Lady Anna, the Guildmaster, and Cracker went to talk with the lord. I was glad because I really wanted to be alone with Vanessa and Hangman. At least, I thought I did until I saw the venomous looks Vanessa was giving me.

“What?” I asked.

“I thought more of you Mark,” was all she had to say on the matter. I shot a questioning look at Hangman. He just shrugged his shoulders. Hand signs told me he knew as much as I did, but I should be careful.

“Listen, about the mysterious savior,” I started, referring to the lycanthrope who killed all of our attackers before vanishing.

“Yeah, about that. Do you think he’s another Society operative?” Hangman asked.

“It could be, but why would he save you?” Vanessa commented, “It’s pretty clear we’ve gone off mission.”

“I don’t think it was a Society operative. Ancestors, I hope it wasn’t,” I said.

“Why?” the two asked simultaneously.

“Because I think it was Nick.”

Chapter 20 – Oh Look What Followed Us Here

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 18 – I Am A Badass, I Don’t Care What That Vampire Said

Vanessa packed up all of her gear in record time. To her credit, she didn’t say anything as we climbed into one of the Guild’s cars. She just gave me concerned looks as I sat down in the driver’s seat. My professionalism was screaming bloody murder at me for putting my partner in danger, but the rest of me just didn’t give a damn. Plus, the place we were going should be safe. Even if the TCV thought the lycanthropes were almost finished, they wouldn’t dare touch neutral ground. I gunned the car out of the Guild. I looked up into the beginnings of night.

Poppa Gus’s looked the same as it did before the war. Hell, the only change in the entire strip mall was the out-of-business sign on the furniture store that anchored the mall. I looked over the parking lot. No vampires in sight. I made sure to grab the messenger bag with the MP5K and all of my other goodies. I may be acting foolish, but I hadn’t lost all of my sense. Vanessa grabbed her laptop as we exited the car. She looked around nervously as she followed me into the restaurant. Mama Sanchez was at the podium as Vanessa and I walked in. Mama’s dark eyes went wide in surprise as I crossed the threshold. I was savoring the familiar smells and atmosphere when the large Latina crashed into me with a powerful hug. Other members of the family peeked out as Mama went into a liturgy of Spanish thanking God for my safe return.

“Oh, Senor Mark, we all thought you were dead,” Mama said in Spanish. It was so rapid-fire, it took me a moment to understand what she was saying.

“What did you hear?” I asked, in the same language. Vanessa gave me a wide-eyed look. Apparently, the Society didn’t require its operatives to know Spanish. That was kind of foolish in Florida.

“Two of those nasty people you deal with came here maybe a month ago,” Mama explained, “They said all of you were probably dead. They would leave us alone, but we were supposed to call if any of you showed up. They scared us.” I grimaced. Well, the vampires hadn’t broken neutral ground, but they were treading thin.

“We won’t call them Senor Mark. Julio’s people will be coming to help,” Mama said, misreading my expression. Mama must have been terrified if she let her thug son call his gang over to watch the place. They wouldn’t be able to do much to the vampires if any did come, but they might work out as an early warning. Anyone else in Mama’s clan, I would have refused the help, but Julio was a dick. At least, he might turn out to be a useful dick.

“Mama, why don’t you sit us in the back, near the kitchen?” I suggested.

“Yes, of course,” she answered, her face brightening. Mama led Vanessa and me back to a small table maybe five paces from the door to the kitchen. As Mama sat us down, she finally realized that I wasn’t alone. The vampires had really shaken her.

“I’m sorry senorita, I’ve been rude,” Mama Sanchez said, in heavily accented English, “Welcome to Poppa Gus’s. And you are?” The fear was replaced by the warm hospitality that made Poppa Gus’s popular with the Guild. Vanessa couldn’t resist Mama’s smile.

“Vanessa Hawthorne, ma’am,” Vanessa said, “I’m Mark’s partner.” Mama arched her eyebrow at her and gave me the same expression. I waved my hand to let her know we couldn’t discuss it more. Mama gave me a knowing expression and nodded. She walked away to get our food. Vanessa looked at me with a quizzical look.

“What?” I asked.

“I thought she was going to take our order,” Vanessa said.

“We don’t order here,” I explained to Vanessa, “Mama takes care of the hunters. She knows what we need and what we like. Keeps things simple.” Vanessa was flabbergasted by the arrangement. I just took it for granted. There were reasons Poppa Gus’s was still standing. Farmer would have probably wiped out large sections of the vampires if the leeches touched the restaurant or the Sanchez family. Granted, Farmer probably wouldn’t survive the purging, but that wasn’t the point. The hunters of Hillsborough gave their loyalty to the Sanchezes, and we took that loyalty with deadly seriousness. As we waited for our food, my mind floated back to Elizabeth. One of the younger girls of the family deposited glasses of iced tea onto the table. I think I thanked her, but I wasn’t sure. I was busy staring into the light brown liquid. Maybe the answers to how I fucked up were somewhere amongst the floating ice cubes. It wasn’t been the first time I’d been called monster. It was an open secret amongst the lycanthropes that I killed lycanthropes for the Guild. Someone had to deal with those kinds of problems. That didn’t stop the packs from whispering when I accompanied the Guildmaster or went out to do jobs. Why did it hurt so much when Elizabeth called me a monster? A sudden slap on the table jolted me back from my ruminations. Vanessa looked at me with a look of annoyed sympathy. I tried to remember if Vanessa said something that I was supposed to answer. I couldn’t remember anything but staring at the glass of iced tea. Vanessa let out a resigned sigh.

“I thought we came here to talk about the emissary’s report,” Vanessa said, giving me an accusing look.

“Oh. Yeah,” I said, sitting up a little in my chair. I waited for her to start.

“Forget it,” Vanessa said, “You’re in no shape to do any work.” Vanessa looked at me in the way only a friend can. It would look casual to an outsider, but it was an in-depth searching of my emotional damages. Vanessa could pick out all sorts of details from just how I sat and the look on my face.

“Ancestors, what did she do to you?” Vanessa asked after a moment.

“She called me a monster,” I said quietly. “She attacked me and called me a monster.” As bad as it hurt to think about, it hurt even worse telling Vanessa. Fucking emotions. Why the hell didn’t I put a stop to this before?

“Not to be glib Mark, but aren’t you?” Vanessa asked. If it had been anyone else, I would have snapped. In just the short time I knew her, Vanessa managed to squirm her way into my close circle of friends. In many ways, she was the sister I never had – and needed. Vanessa knew it and took full advantage to comfort me and pound sense into my skull.

“There’s a world of difference to being a monster in human folklore and being a monster to my own kind,” I answered.

“Mark, you’ve always been a monster to your own kind,” Vanessa said. She sat back for a moment as I floundered with her words. “Before you try to deny it Mark, let me put something out there. You know you’re a monster to lycanthropes. From what I’ve gleaned from talking with Sam, you are the scariest thing to a regular lycanthrope this side of a pathwalker. You can kill another lycanthrope without remorse, going against generations of bred and taught instincts. You even frighten Sam a little, when he thinks about it.”

“How did he know all of that?” I demanded, a little more harshly than I intended. Vanessa just ignored my tone.

“Everyone knew. It wasn’t a secret amongst the hunters in your chapter. They knew who the Guildmaster handed those jobs to,” Vanessa said, overly calm. Her tone implied I needed to calm down. I knew that look on her face. It was time to face some nasty truths about myself. I wasn’t sure I wanted to explore those truths, but I knew on an instinctual level that I would need to confront them.

“My dad and brother are pack warriors up in Tallahassee,” Vanessa said, “I know the stigma associated with the Badmoon. I also know that you worked hard to prove yourself better than any of the lycanthropes around you. You proved it so well, that you just don’t give a damn what they think anymore. If they can’t compete with you, then they’re below your notice. You’re as much an intolerant and arrogant ass as you think they are.”

“Bullshit,” I shot back at Vanessa. Her little summary was just too callous and removed. She didn’t understand it all. She didn’t have to go through tysach with me. I wasn’t picked on by the other pups. I was fucking shunned! If the shaman weren’t required by decree to teach me something, they wouldn’t. If the law was a little fuzzy on their duties, they ignored me. I learned how to hunt, how to protect myself, and how to kill on my own. When it came time to prove ourselves, what did those bastards who held themselves away from the abomination with sneers of superiority do? They ran from the instructors “hunting” us. I “killed” our pursuers. I protected them from being “caught.” Of course I was better than they were.

“Let’s just pretend I’m right for a minute,” Vanessa said, dismissing my anger, “There are still lycanthropes whose respect you value. The other hunters and your Guildmaster.” Her voice went soft with sympathy. “They put aside your monstrous abilities because you showed them that you were a protector of the packs, not a destroyer. You were among lycanthropes who valued you being a monster, and who you respected as being just as capable as you. That was, until Elizabeth.”

“That doesn’t make any sense!” I said, pounding the table. A few of the other customers looked our way, but my glares quickly averted their attention. I focused back on Vanessa. “Nick said Elizabeth has been watching me for years. Studying me. Even Elizabeth said she had been waiting for me.” I paused, not sure how to frame the question.

“So why does your monstrosity suddenly terrify her now?” Vanessa asked, ripping the question out of my throat with a casual smile. “You really don’t understand what it means to have a crush on someone, do you?” I shrugged noncommittally, not wanting to admit my ignorance. “More than likely, your young Lady-Apparent idealized you. Probably at first, it was the whole ‘bad boy’ thing to rebel against her father. You said she lost her mother in a vampire attack?”

“Yeah. The TCV were quick to hand over those leeches,” I answered, remembering the incident. If we could only have proven Silanti was behind the attack.

“Were you a rising star in the Guild at the time?” Vanessa asked. I thought back.

“Sort of,” I answered, “That was a time when I did a few of my more risky jobs. The Guildmaster at the time was trying to kill me.” Vanessa stopped her explanation as she digested the matter-of-fact manner I related the last bit.

“Okay,” Vanessa said, getting back to the matter of the discussion, “So, you could have represented security to a young woman who just had her mother ripped from her. You could take care of yourself. You could probably protect her if she needed it. Over time, emotions have a way of eroding away the bad truths. What did you do to throw them in her face?”

“Killed some dog trying to usurp her position,” I said. Vanessa’s eyes went wide. I knew that look. It was the look of terror when someone realized I was the killer everyone thought. I had grown used to seeing it on those outside the Guild. Vanessa quickly recovered, but her look made me wonder if what she was telling me was the truth. Before we could continue the conversation, a young man stumbled over to our table. It took me a moment to recognize Julio Sanchez. Julio was a physically impressive young man who had the height for basketball and the pure muscle for football. He probably could have gone to college with his talent. Instead, Julio was an enforcer for a local crew. Gang tattoos covered his forearms and neck. He kept his black hair in a fade and his ears decked with dangling silver earrings. The few times I encountered Julio, he tried hard to prove how tough he was compared to the hunters. Not now. His frame was shrunk down, and his eyes darted with fear.

“Mister Mark, you gotta go outside,” Julio said, his voice devoid of the normal gang accent and slang, “Two guys outside looking for you. They fucked up Manuel. They just fucked him up.” The once-proud gang-banger was shaking with fear. My mind clicked into job mode. All my hurt, confusion, and anger slipped back into its little box as I walked to the front of the restaurant. The house staff shepherded the rest of the patrons, including Vanessa, to the back of the restaurant with a skilled touch. A half-smile touched my lips as I remembered when the Guildmaster brought in one of his wife’s security specialists to train the Sanchezes on what to do in case of something like this. The Guildmaster was one of the best hunters I had ever known. A small pang of grief tried to break my mindset, but my professionalism and combat instincts shoved it back into the little box.

I stepped out of Poppa Gus’s. Standing along the front of the restaurant were members of Julio’s gang. They were trying to protect one of their own who looked like he had gone a few rounds with a grizzly bear. I looked across the parking lot. Two young vampires were standing casually under the orange light of a streetlamp. I almost laughed. They looked like bad caricatures. The two vampires were dressed like they just stepped out of a B-movie. Black leather pants with white blouses and black silk jackets. Their black hair was greased back. Their pale, handsome faces gleamed out at me with matching smug smiles. The only difference between the two vampires was the left one was taller.

“Did you two watch Twilight one too many times?” I asked lightly as I drew my HK45. I kept the pistol behind me. The two vampires straightened up and took a few steps closer. Neither held a weapon, and they didn’t have any visible cues of concealed weapons. The taller one gave a smile that might have been threatening, if I hadn’t seen it a dozen times before from vampires that were actually a threat. These two didn’t even have painted nails.

“So, you are here,” the shorter one said, with an odd foreign accent in his voice, “The great Ranger finally reappears. Our master was very happy to hear that.” I relaxed a bit. They were just messenger boys. If the two of them were here to kill me, they wouldn’t have announced themselves by roughing up the human gang. It would have either sneak in to attack me or just cut their way through the humans.

“What the hell does Silanti want with me personally?” I asked.

“Silanti?” Shorty sputtered, “We’re not Silanti’s.” I kept my face neutral. I needed to keep these two morons talking. It amazed me how much information simple sentences could give away. I now knew Silanti was not only still operating, but so were other elder vampires – and they weren’t getting along. That sort of rivalry always filters down to the thug level in the vampire society. Shorty eyes grew wide as he realized his mistake.

“Our master challenges you to single combat!” Shorty annouced. I responded by putting a double tap through his chest. Damn it. I just made a very serious mistake, and it damn near killed me. The Ancestors must have been smiling on me because Tall One glanced sideways with anticipation. These two weren’t messengers. They were spotters. They had drawn me out of the restaurant perfectly. I heard the bullet crack above me as I placed a double-tap into Tall One. Julio’s gang friends were hollering and yelling as I scooted behind one of their vehicles seconds before a hail of automatic fire punched into it. At least three shooters armed with AK’s. Those weapons had such a distinctive sound. Thank the Ancestors, the ambush was sloppy. I holstered the HK45 and yanked the MP5 out of the messenger bag. More gunfire rocked the car as I quickly screwed on the suppressor. The sound of the gunfire was coming closer. I slid to the ground. I easily picked out the three pairs of black combat boots with black combat fatigues tucked into them. I placed the ring of the front sight on the farthest pair and squeezed the trigger. The suppressed burst of the MP5 was silent compared to the thundering AK’s. The leech collapsed as his ankles were destroyed by the nine millimeter silver rounds. His masked face hit the ground an instant before three more rounds ended him. The other two pairs of feet stopped instantly.

I scrambled to the rear of the car. I brought the MP5 up as I cleared the car. One was sprinting towards some parked cars, while the other twisted to bring his AK to bear on me. He wasn’t even taking cover. I placed a short burst into his torso an instant before he fired at me. My burst didn’t take the vampire down, but it sent his burst scant inches above and right of my head. I could feel the micro sonic booms as his bullets passed over me. I smoothly readjusted my aim and placed the next burst into the vampire’s face. The vampire toppled to the ground as I kept moving after the last vampire. I took cover behind another of the gang’s street racers. The expected burst of gunfire didn’t happen. I rose very cautiously. The last vampire was running from the parked cars toward the closed-up furniture store on the other side of the strip mall from Poppa Gus’s. I shouldered the MP5 and placed a careful burst into the last vampire’s back. He staggered for an instant, but recovered without losing a stride. Hell, it looked like I gave him a needed push. I moved through the parked cars, taking great pains to make sure I was either behind cover or could quickly jump behind some. One ambush a night was enough. The front door on the darkened furniture store opened as the vampire sped through. Damn, there were more in the store. I wanted to shed for true form, but there were too many humans around. I felt naked facing the forbidding darkened structure without the completeness of true form’s senses. It was time to think sneaky. I slinked back through the parked cars. I watched the front of the store as I called Vanessa.

“Mark, are you okay?” Vanessa asked as she picked up.

“For the moment,” I said, “I need you to get the car and come pick me up.” I gave her some specific instructions as I kept watch on the doors of the furniture store. I fired at some movement in the store. I didn’t expect to hit anything, but it should have kept them focused on me. I heard Vanesssa’s shoes clacking across the asphalt and then the welcoming sound of the car’s engine. Vanessa wheeled in behind me, scraping the paint off a car as she pulled into the tight space. With my MP5 trained on the furniture store, I climbed into the passenger seat and motioned for Vanessa to punch it. I felt the car fish-tail as Vanessa slammed on the gas.

“What’s the fastest way to get back to the Guild?” Vanessa asked as the car slammed onto the road.

“We’re not going back to the Guild,” I said as I slapped a new magazine into the MP5. Vanessa shot me a surprised look. I didn’t answer her unspoken question. “At the next corner, turn right. Then another right at the next corner.” Vanessa nodded as I reached behind her seat and found the Kevlar. All of the Guild cars carried a spare vest. The vest wouldn’t protect me from the rifle rounds coming out of an AK, but it would keep pistol rounds, fragments, and the odd knife from putting holes in my torso. I stuffed two more magazines for the MP5 in the vest’s pouches. As we rounded the last curve, I spied a dark copse of trees and motioned for Vanessa to pull over. I climbed out of the car. A quick scan made sure there was no one around. I yanked off my shoes and pants and threw them into the passenger seat. I liked those shoes and pants. Vanessa teased me with a murmured catcall. I smiled as I closed my eyes and shed for true form. I welcomed the familiar flash of pain as my body stretched and reformed itself. I relished the new barrage of scents as the world of the true lycanthrope opened up to me. I could hear Vanessa’s quickened breathing. I opened my eyes. The night was no longer dark, merely dim. I could easily see my way through the trees. I looked down to the weapon in my hands. My claw-tipped hand held the MP5 like a child’s toy.

“No matter how many times I see it, it’s still amazing,” breathed Vanessa.

“Go back to the hotel and get the truck,” I told her, “Then come back here to pick me up. Be careful. This isn’t the best neighborhood.”

“What about this car?” she asked, surprised by my instructions.

“Leave the keys in them,” I told her, “One of the Pasco lycanthropes will bring it back.” They might have questions, but they wouldn’t want the evidence that someone from Hillsborough managed to get out.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I’m going to clear out that store,” I said, pointing at the furniture store.

I crept out of the copse of trees and elephant ear plants to the back of the strip mall. Security lights provided some illumination. They also provided me shadows big enough for my eight foot true form to hop across to the back of the furniture store. It was kind of like crossing a river on stepping stones. Vampires in true form would be able to see straight through the shadows, but I wasn’t worried about them. They’d all be dead soon enough. I didn’t want any witch-hunters born tonight. The back of the furniture store was dominated by the two large loading docks. The ground sloped down in front of the docks so that the large delivery trucks would be able to line up evenly with the docks. Just beyond one of the docks, a few large crates stacked up to provide a firing position for a ghoul. It was dressed in black tactical gear and loosely holding an AK. The ghoul’s stance and easy grip on its weapon were too lazy and too confident. A ghoul would never fall into those bad habits, especially after a gunfight in front of the building. They were too zealous in the protection of their leech masters. I kept still in the shadow and inspected further. Another ghoul was about five yards back in a similar position. One bait and one trap. Not a bad plan.

I brought the suppressed MP5 to my shoulder with an agonizingly slow motion. My natural inclination would have just been to attack both with a furious strike. I also knew my natural inclinations weren’t always conducive to keeping me alive. That is where experience came in handy. I lined up the sights and placed a quiet burst into the far ghoul. Against a vampire team that would have bought me a second or two as the bait figured out he wasn’t the one being attacked. Ghouls just responded. I sprinted into the sloping loading dock as the bait ghoul sprayed the area with a long chattering burst. At least they didn’t always respond appropriately. With my silent infiltration blown, I needed to rely on speed and violence. The ghoul stood up from his cover to search for me. The flash of the muzzle destroyed the ghoul’s night vision. He never saw the burst that caught him between the eyes. I slung my submachine gund and snatched the ghoul’s AK. I stuffed a couple of spare magazines into my vest as I stormed into the back of the store. Might as well use their ammo first.

Beyond the loading docks, the store was more like a warehouse. Empty metal and wood shelves went from floor to ceiling. Two double-wide swing doors led out to the showroom. I found some concealment behind some discarded packaging and scanned the area with the AK. I was alone in the cavernous area. My instincts were roaring danger. I heard boots approaching the left-hand door. I placed the AK on the floor and unslung the MP5. The vampire from the parking lot cautiously tread into the stockroom with his AK pointing wildly. I dashed from my position. The vampire turned to the sudden movement just in time to see the muzzle flash of my weapon. I sprinted past the falling corpse through the swing doors. There was a second vampire a few feet beyond the doors. He stood there immobilized as I slammed into him. I felt the thud of the linoleum walkway through him and triggered a burst into his face. I felt something tug at my vest an instant before I was lifted up and casually tossed across the store. I felt the flash of pain as I landed on the floor and slid for a few feet. I scampered to my feet, snarling in anger. Then I was on the floor again, but this time I was dizzy and my face felt like I’d been hit with a metal bat. My head continued to throb as I tried to get up off the floor. I felt the kick as it lifted me off the ground. I was airborne for a couple of seconds. I finally saw the source. My attacker was the biggest vampire I’d ever seen. He was in true form with the tattered remains of tactical clothing hanging from his frame. He also wore the black claws of a Bleeder. This just got more interesting.

As I crashed to the floor, I rolled until I could come up with my HK45 in hand. The vampire was already within arm’s reach and punched me in the side so fast I don’t think I actually saw the strike. I just felt the explosion of archanal pain. I leapt back onto a sofa and rode it as it crashed backwards. I needed to open up space between myself and this monster. I skittered back a step as the sofa collapsed and double-tapped the vampire in the head. His head snapped back from the energy of the two rounds. It was enough to topple him over. Satisfied, I crouched down and looked around for any other targets. If there were any other vampires, they were long gone. I let out a long breath, and then winced as my right side screamed in pain. I ran my hand along my side to see if that big bastard managed to break any bones. Those were a bitch to heal. Something scruffed me, lifted me up, and sent me crashing back to the ground. For the record, the industrial carpet wasn’t any softer than the tile. It actually hurt more as it tore at my pelt. I was tossed on to my back. My mind froze as Big Bastard loomed over me. Wait, I knew – I fucking knew – I had just put two rounds of high-quality silver into this vampire’s head. The same way I had taken down countless leeches since I was a baby hunter. There weren’t any bullet wounds on his face. Big Bastard grabbed me by my neck and held me aloft. His twisted true form was a good foot and a half taller than me and easily a couple hundred pounds on me. I felt the sharp pain as his claws punctured my neck. I did what came naturally. I put the HK45 to his side and fired. And fired. And fired. And fired until the slide locked back on an empty magazine.

Big Bastard never let go, and just smiled as each round slammed through his body with just the tinniest tremor. His black glossy eyes narrowed as my gun ran empty. He gave me a playful shake, opening the punctures on my neck even more. My mind was starting to get cloudy as I continued to lose blood. The leech must have hit one of the big veins. He tossed me through the air, ripping bits of my neck out. I crashed into a pair of dining room chairs, and I felt them break under me. Then he gave out the most evil laugh. I was afraid. Not the low-level “you’re-doing-something-stupid” fear I felt on jobs. Not even the over-powering fear of something threatening Elizabeth. This was the primal “my-internal-three-year-old-just-met-the-boogie-monster” fear. I watched as he slowly stalked across the store, almost as if he was savoring my terror. My instincts were screaming for me to run. They just wanted to get away from this horror. My professional side reminded me that if I didn’t stop this thing here, it would tear right through the remaining Hillsborough lycanthropes. Right through Elizabeth.

Fear was ignited into rage. I was still a little cloudy, but I wasn’t going down yet. This was what I was trained to do. My right hand slipped under my vest. I drew out and snapped open my knife. In my left hand was a nice sharp piece of wood a little less than a foot long. I think it was the leg to something. I stood slowly, trying to keep my weapons concealed. Big Bastard just kept walking with that same slow stride. I made the calculations in my head. As soon as he crossed the invisible line, I sprinted at him. Big Bastard braced as I attacked. He tried to stop me cold with a scary fast punch. It was the same attack I would have done against a frontal hand-to-hand attack. Only I wasn’t doing a frontal attack. I slid to his left, keeping my body crouched to avoid the backhand that whistled as it passed over me. I sprang to full height and gave a light slash to Big Bastard’s chest. The knife blade easily cut the black fabric of his torn shirt and through his fur-covered flesh. His laughter ended abruptly. He countered with a pair of punches. One managed to tag me in the shoulder, but I was moving too fast for it to do anything more than twist me a little – and give me a bit more momentum as I slammed the improvised wooded stake into his chest with all my strength. Big Bastard took a step back from the force of the blow. He looked down at the wood protruding from his chest. My mind locked with terror. He should have just dropped, like a marionette when someone cut the strings. A wood strike was supposed to be instant death for any vampire. He didn’t have anything protecting him. My knife proved that. How was he still up? A sledgehammer blow crashed down on my muzzle. I felt the crack as intense pain bloomed. As I stumbled back trying to clear the sparkles from my eyes, I knew my nose was broken. It may not sound like a serious injury, but that blow effectively took away my biting attacks in true form.

“This is getting to be a very boring fight Ranger,” Big Bastard said with a deep, almost melodious voice, “I was expecting so much more, I don’t know, violence out of you.” I froze at he spoke my name. This wasn’t a chance incident. What was going on?

“Sorry to disappoint,” I growled out between throbs of pain, “How about you let me get some wolfsbane, and we’ll try this again?” I felt through the pouch on my vest. I was sure that I brought it. The leech let out another evil laugh before speaking again.

“At least you’re as flippant as I was told,” he said, “Just not that quick on the uptake. How many times are you going to try to kill me before you realize that you can’t?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I answered, finally finding it and sliding it out of my pocket. “My Guildmaster always told me I’ve got a pretty good imagination and a tendency to be foolishly persistent.”

“Foolishly persistent,” Big Bastard echoed, “Yes, I can give you that.” I found the square-shaped metal device. One more thing to try. I kept the distance between us as he lumbered towards me. I kept walking back. He followed obediently. Good, this might just work.

“It’s amusing how the other Bleeders feared you. The dog who killed Bradon and the alchemists. Some even said you had mysterious mystical powers. Now, you’re running away from me, just like I expected. Disappointing, really.” I stopped next to the body of a dead vampire. It was already in true form. Excellent.

“You talk too much. Let’s finish this,” I said, opening the lighter behind my back.

“Just so you won’t die ignorant Ranger, I am Lothos,” the vampire announced as he stanced himself. He waited a bare moment before rushing me. Okay, this vampire had some kind of invulnerability and a lot of physical power, but not a lot of technique. Or a grasp of tactics. I dropped the lighter on the dead vampire. The corpse ignited brilliantly. As the flames lit up behind me, I could see the surprise in his eyes. He was faster than me, but in this case, that was a liability. I slipped forward right and pushed Lothos onto the burning vampire. He screamed. I leapt on his back and pushed him down onto the flames. The heat blistered my skin and embers ignited my pelt. I didn’t care. Burns I could heal. This bastard needed to die. Lothos screamed, kicked, and flailed as the flames crawled across his body. It was getting harder to hold him, but as I told Lothos, I was foolishly persistent. It seemed like hours of nothing but pain, but Lothos finally stopped moving. I fell back from the bonfire and slid back across the linoleum. Pain quickly subsided as my body began to heal the burns. Almost as if to add insult to injury, the store’s fire sprinklers kicked in that moment. Streams of cold water soaked every inch of me in a few seconds. I was too tired to even curse. I retrieved my weapons and headed out the back door. Let the vampires clean up their mess. I shed true form for human. I felt pebbles and glass poke my feet as I trotted out of the store and back to the pick-up point. I heard the wail of sirens behind me as fire trucks raced into the parking lot. I watched as the firefighters worked the building. Patience was never one of my strong suits. I was starting to get twitchy waiting for Vanessa to return. An almost eternity later, my truck’s headlights fell on me. I scampered into the cab.

“Do you always come home bloody? Good God Mark, what happened?” Vanessa exclaimed at my appearance.

“Just drive,” I told her. I punched in an address into the GPS. “Follow the bouncing ball.”

“Where are we going? That isn’t the Guild,” she asked. She was nervous, and I couldn’t blame her.

“We’re going to my house,” I told her.

We made a slow pass through my old complex. It looked the same. Sometimes I forget that even when monumental things are happening in the unseen world, the human world just continued along. I don’t think any of my neighbors ever realized there was a supernatural war going on in Tampa, much less they were now in occupied territory. All of the cars were the same. Even the same people were out doing their nightly walks or such. I didn’t think the leeches managed to peg my human identity, but I hadn’t lived this long without a certain level of paranoia. The truck was a tight fit in my one-car garage. It took me a few moments to access and open up the house. There was a stale odor to the townhouse, and the faint hint of dirty dishes. Vanessa took a long look over my townhouse’s great room.

“Did you ever clean this place?” she asked.

“There was a war on. I had better things to do,” I grumbled. I wasn’t in the mood for joking around. Vanessa put a comforting arm around me. I smiled weakly. She walked around the debris of my life and sat down on the couch.

“So what are we going to do now?” Vanessa asked.

“Tonight, we’re going to get some sleep,” I answered, “In the morning, we’re going to get to work on the actual operation we’re supposed to be doing.” Vanessa gave me a concerned look.

“Mark, you really need to talk to Elizabeth before throwing yourself back into an operation,” Vanessa said, softly.

“No, I don’t,” I shot back, “She made herself fucking clear.”

“Mark, you still love her. I can see that on your face. You wouldn’t hurt this much otherwise,” Vanessa said. “You need to tell her that before you go traipsing down to the Disputed Territories. What happens if you don’t make it out of there? What do you think she will feel?”

“First, I’m not going to get killed down there. Second, she already thinks I’m a monster. She’ll probably glad she doesn’t have to deal with me.” I plopped down on the couch. “My bedroom is upstairs. You can take the bed.”

“Ancestors, I forget how new to all of this you are,” Vanessa said, looming over me with her fists planted firmly on her hips. “You scared her. I saw the way she looked at you when she saw you at the Guild. Those feelings don’t just go away because you scared her. It just makes everything she’s feeling confused.”

“And because she’s confused, that gives her license to do whatever she wants?” I asked, “Sorry, not buying it.” Vanessa started to say something, but stopped. She took a deep breath and tried a new tack.

“What if she gets killed before we come back? How would you feel if you left things like this?” she asked. The words felt like a gut punch. At that moment, I hated Vanessa and all her damned logic. For a few minutes, I couldn’t trust my own voice to talk.

“I’ll think about it,” I said, making the only concession I could think of at the moment.

“No Mark,” Vanessa said, stooping to look at me in the eyes, “This is something you’re going to have to do. You’re a good hunter, but you lose your head where Elizabeth is concerned. If we’re going down to the Disputed Territories, I need you completely in the game.”

“Why? Why are you pushing this so damn hard?” I asked, seeing something new in Vanessa’s eyes. She realized she gave something away and retreated into my kitchen. “Vanessa, what’s going on?” She rummaged around my cabinets, found a glass, and took a drink of water from the tap. Her eyes bulged and she spat it out. I suppressed a smile before handing her a bottle of water out of the fridge.

“Sorry, Tampa tap’s not exactly the best,” I said. “Now tell me what’s going on? Why are you trying so hard to get me to go talk with Elizabeth?”

“You were right when you said that this mission into the Disputed Territories was a suicide run,” Vanessa said. “I read the emissary’s report. It was the Society who betrayed Lord Savik and Lord Kiel to the vampires.”

“What the fuck?” I asked, “Why the hell would Blackhawk send us down there?”

“I was thinking on that while I was getting the truck,” Vanessa said. “The most generous explanation I could come up with was Blackhawk figured because we were new to the Society, we weren’t ‘tainted’ and could actually succeed in getting Lord Savik and his packs out of there.” I gave her a flat look. “Yeah, I really didn’t believe that either. I’m thinking it was a quiet way to get rid of a Badmoon. My death would just be the cost of doing business.”

“Assuming I’m the target and not you,” I said. The idea surprised Vanessa, but she nodded. “So what does this have to do with my problems with Elizabeth?”

“I hoped once you found out what actually happened in the Disputed Territories, you’d just stay here in Tampa. I’ll admit part of it is I don’t want to die on some bullshit mission. The other is I don’t want to see you get killed before…” She trailed off. She dropped into a recliner and looked up at me with a mixture of guilt and sadness. My first instinct was to hop in the truck, drive to Tallahassee, and kill Blackhawk. I could clearly see what Blackhawk was doing. Either I succeeded and he won, or Vanessa and I disappeared into the Disputed Territories and he won. The missing piece was why he wanted me dead. It could have been just because I was a Badmoon. Surprisingly, I could hear Bradon’s voice in my head telling me it wasn’t that simple. I don’t know why I thought of Bradon at that moment, but some of the old vampire’s lessons were coming back. I walked out onto the back porch and paced. If Blackhawk was willing to send Vanessa and me on a suicide run, then one or both of us were threatening his machinations up in Tallahassee. If we found Lord Savik or Lord Kiel, the moment we said we were from the Society, the lord would tear us apart – and I wouldn’t blame him one bit. So, what was the best way to completely fuck up Blackhawk? Not just kill him, although I did plan on doing that at some point, but make sure whatever he was plotting came unraveled. Just getting the emissary’s report into the hands of the State Guild may not be enough. I’d never heard of the Society before going to Tallahassee. I didn’t know how much behind the scenes influence Blackhawk commanded. Were there any lords I trusted to take Blackhawk down? My head snapped up as I realized there were two. My ruminations stopped as Vanessa came out to the porch. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She flew into my arms crying.

“What’s this about?” I asked confused.

“I really wanted you to be happy. I wasn’t trying to manipulate you just to keep myself safe. That’s why I pushed you so hard. If you were here, you weren’t going to get yourself killed.”

“I know Vanessa,” I said. She stopped crying and stood up.

“Mark, in the short time I’ve known you, the happiest I’ve seen you was after Elizabeth and you admitted your feelings to each other. She was practically glowing. I can’t believe that kind of emotion was simply stamped out.”

“Vanessa, leave it. I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I know how happy you and Hangman have been for the past couple of months. I know you’re trying to help me find that same kind of happiness. You’re just going to have to face that it’s not going to happen for me.”

“Only because you’re being stubborn,” Vanessa shot back, “You think Hangman and I don’t have to work at it?”

“There’s a difference between having a fight over a restaurant and having the one you love think you’re a monster,” I said evenly.

“Ancestors! You are so fucking stupid sometimes,” Vanessa said. She stood up and started walking up the stairs. “I’m going to bed. We’ll talk about this more in the morning.” I grimaced at the thought of talking even more about this. I just needed to get over the pain and get back on the mission. I opened up the cupboard next to the fridge and pulled out the Serbu Shorty I stashed there. The tiny little shotgun would be perfect in case anything tried coming through the door. With the Shorty on the floor next to me, I laid down on the couch and finally racked out.

Pain greeted me as I woke up the next morning. I could still feel it in my ribs where Lothos pounded me. I staggered into my bathroom. Rummaging through expired toiletries, I finally found the tube of wolfsbane paste. I gingerly applied the paste to my collection of ugly-looking bruises. The pain intensified as the medicine went to work on the archanal wounds. Ancestors, I hated wolfsbane. I hated not being able to move more. Grimacing, I walked into my study. In the far corner sat my gun safe. Like everything else in the house, it was covered in a layer of dust and insect carcasses. Florida doesn’t take long to invade and take back vacant areas. I cracked open the safe and smiled as the whiff of gun oil wafted out. Whatever happened to the rest of the townhouse, my guns and ammunition were still in the same condition I left them. I carefully lifted out my beloved Commando. I dropped the magazine and racked back the charging handle. Lifting the upper receiver, I inspected the Commando’s internals. All looked good. I closed up the weapon, inserted the magazine, and chambered a round. My Glocks were all hanging on the rack inside the door. In the back of the safe was the HK 417. I’d forgotten I left that rifle here. My first thought on seeing the rifle was Gunny was going to kill me for not returning it. I chuckled mirthlessly to myself at the thought. Pain echoed through me as I remembered the dead armorer and his brother. I carefully steered my mind clear before I drudged up the pain from the Guildmaster. I wasn’t quite ready to deal with that yet.

Next to the safe was an old steamer trunk. At least, that’s what it looked like on the outside. In truth, it was a nice portable gun safe. It was a gift from Hangman’s uncle when I took over his position as the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. I opened the trunk and smiled as a rifle rack lifted up like a tackle box. Below the rifle rack was space for ammunition. I loaded the HK 417 and my Commando into the rifle rack. I put in twenty loaded magazines for the Commando and six for the HK. Boxes of ammunition for the two rifles and my HK45 took up the rest of the space. Vanessa walked in as I closed the lid of the trunk.

“Sam texted me. He should be at the Guild in a few hours,” she said, her voice a careful neutral.

“That pup needs to have someone beat operational security into his skull,” I replied. Vanessa ignored the comment.

“Shouldn’t we meet the State Guild so we can let them know what we found out?” Vanessa asked. I didn’t say anything for a few moments. I could hear the tone in Vanessa’s voice. She was carefully trying to start again about her ideas concerning Elizabeth and me. No, damn it, it was the Lady-Apparent again. I took a deep breath and forced the pain back down.

“We’re going to go meet them. We need to help brief whoever they sent down. Plus, I may want to steal Hangman for our operation down in the Disputed Territories,” I said. Vanessa pursed her lips, trying to decide whether or not to continue the discussion.

“Well, then I need to go get ready,” Vanessa said flatly. “Would you do me a favor and at least try to dress nicely today?”

“Why?” I asked, eyeing her suspiciously.

“You’d be surprised how much a good appearance can help,” she said. I grunted agreement and she went off to get herself cleaned up. She didn’t have to tell me about appearances. I’d learned that from Bradon. Still, I wasn’t going to dress for the Lady-Apparent. Damn it, I was not going to do that. I wasn’t.

A couple of hours later, I was pulling into the Guild. Vanessa left nothing to chance and laid out one of my better suits with shirt and tie while I was in the shower. I hated wearing suits. They were too damn constraining. Vanessa was wearing a tight blue dress. Poor Hangman, the pup wasn’t going to know what to do when he saw her. That thought led me to thinking what I was going to say when I saw the Lady-Apparent. I pushed the sudden thunderbolt of pain to that familiar box in my mind. I needed to concentrate on my mission. Farmer met me in the garage. Standing next to Farmer was a familiar looking lycanthrope. I think I saw him in the State Guild one of the times I spoke with the State Guildmaster and his subordinates. He was maybe six foot and solid built with his brown hair cut military-short. His relaxed but ready stance and examining look screamed hunter. I tried to keep a pleasant look on my face as I stepped out of my truck. The State hunter carefully looked me over. I did the same. He was dressed in jeans and a button-up shirt. A Glock was in a retention holster at his right hip. The cowboy boots looked worn. His dark brown eyes were alert. They flicked over to Vanessa as she stepped around the truck. His sharp features broke into a slightly evil looking smile.

“Damn, I owe Hangman five bucks. He wasn’t kidding about you,” the State hunter said to Vanessa. She smiled coyly and her cheeks reddened a bit. The hunter turned back to me.

“Eagle,” he said, introducing himself, “I’m heading up the group here.” His tone was professional, but I knew the look in his eyes. I’d seen it on countless faces. Eagle was one of those who really didn’t want to work with a Badmoon. At least he was professional enough not to let it show to everyone else.

“I guess you already know who we are,” I said, “Let’s get inside. We’ve got a lot to cover, and you’re not going to like any of it.” Eagle looked at me suspiciously. Farmer didn’t say anything. He just pointed at the door that led down into the Guild. Eagle and I led the way while Farmer and Vanessa fell in behind us. They were chatting, but it was too low for me to hear.

“I hope you’re not just being overly dramatic,” Eagle said cautiously as we walked down the stairs.”I’ve heard some stories about some of your stunts.”

“Nope,” I answered, “Best though if we go over all of this once. Just to give you a head’s up, I may need to steal Hangman.”

“This is going to have to be good for me to let you steal my best rookie,” Eagle said. I looked over at the hunter. I expected him to tell me no fucking way. I was going to ask what would constitute “good enough,” but stopped when I saw a familiar smiling face. From behind me, Vanessa let out a squeal. The woman nearly knocked me to the ground as she launched into Hangman’s waiting arms. Eagle chuckled and a ghost of a smile darted across Farmer’s face as Hangman and Vanessa reunited properly. Farmer led our group to one of the many conference rooms on the first level. As soon as I stepped through the door, my eyes locked onto the scowling face of the Lady-Apparent. She shot a poisonous look at me and then turned back to one of the other lycanthropes already in the room. Vanessa gave me a sympathetic squeeze on the arm as we were ushered to our seats at the table. Hangman sat with us. Across the table was the rest of Eagle’s hit pack. Actually, it was a bit more than a hit pack. The State Guildmaster sent nearly a dozen hunters down. Before the war, that would have been a bit over ten percent of the Hillsborough County Guild. The Lady-Apparent sat at the head of the table. A shaman, the acting Spiritmaster by my guess, was sitting at her right hand. Farmer sat on the left. Three other Hillsborough lycanthropes were there, but I didn’t know any of them. They were trying too hard to look confident, which meant they were probably very new pack leaders.

“Well Ranger, since you like acting out of turn, maybe you’d be so kind as to explain to these State hunters why they are here?” the Lady-Apparent asked. Her voice dripped with sarcasm. I fought to control the flash of anger that shot through me. Her normally melodic voice twisted into a knife that cut open all the barely healing wounds. Vanessa laid a restraining hand on my shoulder.

“Actually, that’s my job,” Vanessa said, standing up. The Lady-Apparent and Vanessa locked eyes for a tense moment. I think one of the new pack leaders actually slid his chair back a bit.

“Very well,” the Lady-Apparent answered, her voice cold as ice. She waved her hand for Vanessa to continue.

“Mark and I were tasked by the leader of the Society of the Fang and the Claw to infiltrate into the Disputed Territories and extract whatever lycanthropes we could find. Supposedly this was because it was felt that whoever the war council chooses to succeed the Prince would need an experienced warriors to train and lead the state’s warriors against the vampires. Our search for intelligence about the Disputed Territories led us here to Tampa to find a lost report from the last real contact with the lycanthropes still in the Disputed Territories. We also believed this document could have possible ramifications to the deliberations of the war council. We made an agreement with the State Guildmaster if such was the case, then he would provide hunters to secure it. Since they were going to be here in Tampa, they would also help out the lycanthropes of Hillsborough.” Eagle and his hit pack nodded as Vanessa recounted the events before we came to Tampa.

“According to the report, the Society set up Lord Savik and Lord Kiev to be slaughtered by the Florida Council of Vampires.” Vanessa let the sentence hang in the air as the lycanthropes in the room tried to come to grips with the revelation. Farmer recovered the quickest.

“If you’re working for the Society, then why would they send you down there?” Farmer asked.

“I can think of two scenarios immediately,” Vanessa answered, “Both are based on when Mark and I found the Disputed Territories’ packs, and then informed their leadership of who sent us. Either they would kill Mark or Mark would kill them. We don’t have enough information to know why the Society originally betrayed them, or why it decided to attempt some other mission within the Disputed Territories.”

“What do you know of the Society?” the Lady-Apparent asked Eagle, plainly ignoring Vanessa and me. The State hunter leaned back in his chair and let out a long breath.

“Not much beyond the fact that it exists,” Eagle answered, “Some of our hunters have been recruited into the Society, and then they fall off the face of the earth. Rumors are that they answer to the King of the United States.”

“So why haven’t we heard about it before?” Farmer asked.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Eagle answered, “They’re a secretive bunch.”

“Sitting right here,” I said, annoyed. I felt as all of the eyes turned to me.

“Go on Badmoon,” the Lady-Apparent said, almost spitting out the name.

“From what I’ve seen since Blackhawk recruited me, the Society operates on a cell basis. No cell knows what the others are doing. The only one who probably knows everything is Blackhawk,” I said, doing my best to ignore the Lady-Apparent’s barbs. “He keeps his motives close to his chest. Most of the people working for him probably don’t even understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. They just trust him to know what needs doing.”

“Well that’s nice, but that doesn’t explain what the Society is for,” Farmer said calmly.

“It may simply exist to provide Blackhawk a power base. When he recruited me, he dangled the chance for me to be in the forefront of the forces that would take back Hillsborough. That’s not something he could promise if he didn’t have the influence to make it happen.” The State boys were looking at me intently. The Hillsborough lycanthropes weren’t as impressed. Farmer voiced their concerns.

“I’m not following you. How does his Society translate to power?” asked Farmer.

“If you had a bunch of hunters and smart kin working for you, how many dirty secrets could you uncover or dirty jobs could you do for some of the lords, or the Prince?” I asked in reply. “Blackhawk’s probably got a lot more pull than he lets on.”

“Holy shit, that would explain it,” Vanessa said. Then she fell quiet as her mind crunched through her hypothesis. The other lycanthropes grew frustrated as she just stood there silently.

“Vanessa, you mind letting us in on what you’re thinking?” I prodded her.

“Oh yeah,” she said, startled. “Assume for a moment Blackhawk has enough pull because of the Society that he can play king maker on the war council. Maybe even get himself into the position of puppet master for the war council. He’s got two loose warheads rolling around that could explode all of that. First is an embattled group of lycanthropes who know what Blackhawk did to them. Second is Mark.”

“What?” Eagle said, not following Vanessa’s logic, “He’s a Badmoon, but he’s just a hunter. Who the hell would listen to him?”

“He’s a Badmoon who has nothing to lose. Uncontrollable, unpredictable, and with a need to liberate his county. Would you want someone like that near the war council if you were trying to subvert it?” Vanessa asked. Eagle nodded and sat back.

“You have an interesting theory Ms. Hawthorne,” the Lady-Apparent said stiffly, “So how does all of this help me get my county back?” The pack leaders nodded in agreement.

“Not at all, at first,” Vanessa said meeting the Lady-Apparent’s eyes, “Lord Savik’s the key. The emissary said he was leading the packs down there. Assuming he’s still alive, we need him if we’re going to stop Blackhawk.”

“Agreed,” Farmer said, “The question becomes how does Savik stop Blackhawk?”

“Savik and the Lady-Apparent making an entrance into the war council?” Eagle asked, “It’ll shatter all of the deal-making that’s going on.”

“Will the State Guildmaster let you assist here until I can get to Savik?” I asked Eagle.

“I didn’t say this, but the State Guildmaster would be very disappointed if my team came back without some record kills. You can believe that we’ll keep things good here.”

“And just how in the Ancestors’ names do you hope to accomplish this?” the Lady-Apparent asked.

“Vanessa, me, and Hangman, if I can steal him, will go to the Disputed Territories, find Savik, and extract him to Hillsborough with as many of his packs as we can,” I answered. The room was deathly quiet.

“You are insane,” Eagle said. “Why bring them all here?”

“Why does everyone keep questioning my sanity?” I asked rhetorically. I looked directly at Eagle, “We can’t take Savik to the capital. I’m pretty sure Blackhawk has taken pains to make sure Savik dies before reporting to the war council. Probably Society shooters, which means former hunters. As strange as it sounds, he’s safer here.”

“We could stash him in another county,” another of the State hunters suggested, “There’s a lot of empty space in Hendry and Collier counties. You’re talking about dragging him across half of the state.”

“That’s a good point, but the only lycanthropes I trust right now are either here, across the bay, or a few up in Tallahassee. Blackhawk couldn’t be pulling this off unless he had the support of lords. Who and how many I have no idea.”

“Plus, bringing in any lycanthropes out of the Disputed Territories would be a force multiplier for the lycanthropes here in Hillsborough,” Eagle said flatly. His face was an expressionless mask. The other state hunters, with the notable exception of Hangman, looked unconvinced. The pup was nodding in agreement.

“I’ll be honest Ranger. I don’t give a damn if you want to go get yourself killed in the Disputed Territories,” Eagle said, “You’re reckless and crazy enough you might actually succeed in finding Savik and survive the encounter. I’m not letting you take Hangman, and because he’s not going, I can’t let you take Ms. Hawthorne either. With her in the Disputed Territories, Hangman would be useless.” The leader of the State hunters turned to Hangman. “Sorry pup, but it’s true. I can see the signs of it. Maybe if you’d been married for a couple of years, but not at this point in your relationship.” Some of the older hunters grunted in agreement.

“Eagle, I work for the Society, not you,” Vanessa said coldly, “If Mark goes down to the Disputed Territories, then I go with him. He’s my partner.”

“You’re a data analyst and a kin,” Eagle shot back, “Not the kind of person I’d want sneaking about in the Disputed Territories. We can use you better here.”

“Enough,” the Lady-Apparent said. Everyone went quiet at the command in her voice. She looked over at Eagle. “My understanding of your orders was that you were serving under my authority.” The State hunter grudgingly nodded. “Then I will decide who goes where.” She turned and faced me with cold eyes.

“Ranger, you may take your partner and Hangman to try this gambit,” the Lady-Apparent said. “Please go see to it while we discuss other plans.” The dismissal was clear. I stood up and strode out of the room before my temper got the better of me. I heard as the Lady-Apparent continued the meeting. As soon as I was out in the hallway, Vanessa and Hangman met up with me.

“Now you see what I mean?” I asked Vanessa, waving my hand at the door of the conference room. “There is no chance of salvaging that relationship.”

“Maybe,” Vanessa answered. There was an uncertainty in her tone. “There’s something else going on there.” Hangman and I traded a look. We didn’t know what Vanessa was talking about. She waved it off. “Let me worry about it for now.”

“Sounds good. Now, exactly how are we going to do this?” Hangman asked, changing the subject.

“If you had to find someone who’s gone to ground and not likely to surface because they don’t trust anyone, how would you do it?” I asked the two.

“Was that a trick question?” Hangman asked.

“No. We’re not going to find Savik unless he wants us to find him. The Disputed Territories are just too damned big. We have to get him to want to find us,” I explained.

“Just how did you plan on achieving that goal?” Vanessa asked.

“By doing what we do best. Kill bunches and bunches of vampires,” I answered.

Chapter 19 – New Town, New Rules, Same Old Killin’

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 17 – Answers, Questions, Answers, Death

Farmer and I kept the Mexican standoff for a few, long moments as my mind processed the bombshell Farmer just dropped on me. Elizabeth was alive! I looked into Farmer’s eyes, needing to see if there was any deception – and terrified there might be. Farmer kept his eyes steady, almost as if he knew what was going through my mind. There was no deception in him. Elizabeth was alive! All of those emotions I had carefully packed away flooded through my mind. It took most of my reserve to holster my pistol before I dropped to the floor. The pack warrior rushed to try and catch me. All of that deep, dark fear that tormented me crystallized into a relief and joy so strong my mind just could not cope. I had seen others overcome by emotion, but I never truly understood what was happening to them. Now I did, and I would never dismiss them again.

“The Lady-Apparent’s alive?” I managed to force out. Farmer knelt down next to me. There was no emotion on his face, nothing that I could grasp on to see what he was thinking.

“She’s alive,” Farmer answered, in an even tone, “She’s alive, and she’s been leading the packs to take back Hillsborough.” That statement made me – proud? – of Elizabeth. It was confusing with everything else in me that I quickly slammed it back down. As I did, other emotions reared up. I couldn’t even be sure Elizabeth felt the same way I did. She must have been going through hell fighting against the vampires. A new and vile emotion appeared – guilt. Where the hell had I been when she needed me? Going up to worthless Tallahassee and ending up on a fucking worthless mission?

“Let’s go,” I said, finally standing back up, “We need to get to her now.” Vanessa stood in front of me. She put a gentle hand on my chest.

“Mark, stop and think for a moment,” Vanessa said, “We still have a job to do. That has to take priority. Isn’t that what you’ve always told me. Hunters put the job first.”

“This is not a job. You can call it a mission or an operation if you want, but it’s not a fucking job,” I retorted, angrier than I should be. I knew it, but I just didn’t care. Vanessa’s face went hard. “What the fuck? We both know the mission is a suicide operation.” Vanessa firmly kept her hand on my chest as I tried to move past her.

“You’re losing perspective Mark. Think past what you’re feeling right now. What is the most important thing you can do right now? What is the most important thing you can do to help Hillsborough? To get the State Guild down here?” Vanessa asked with a surgically precise tone. It helped cut through a lot of what was going through my head. I nodded, not trusting my voice at the moment. “Then, we need to finish this.”

“What do you mean ‘get the State Guild down here?'”Farmer asked. Vanessa quickly recapped what we were doing in Hillsborough and the agreement I made with the State Guildmaster. I slumped into Vanessa’s vacant chair. Dammit, I knew she was right, but why did she have to be right at this moment? No that wasn’t it. Why was I having such a hard time dealing with this?

“Vanessa, right?” Farmer asked, “You’re right. We need the help. You and Ranger stay here and find that emissary’s report.” Farmer pointed at the pack warrior. “Carl, you stay here and help them. As soon as you find it, get them to Safehouse Bravo.” Carl nodded with dogged determination.

“Ranger, walk outside with me,” Farmer ordered as Vanessa and Carl grabbed up books and began reading. I nodded. The two of us walked out of the stacks and into the stairwell. Half way down the stairs, Farmer turned to me.

“I’m assuming Nick, Hangman, and you went to Tallahassee on the Guildmaster’s orders,” Farmer said.

“Do you think anything else would have made us leave Hillsborough?” I asked angrily.

“Nope, but I had to be sure,” Farmer said, “Whether you knew it or not, your disappearance was hard on the Lady-Apparent. She works damn hard not to let it show in front of the packs, but she let her guard down in front of me. I don’t know why. Maybe, it’s because I was the only hunter around, and that was a connection to you. Or maybe because she knew I lost my wife in the fighting for the Manor.” He paused for a moment as he collected his thoughts. “What this means is that I’m going to need someplace quiet and safe before you show back up. I just don’t know what she’s going to do. I don’t want her seeing you for the first time in front of the packs. Hell, I wasn’t expecting that reaction out of you. The two of you are more alike than you know.” I snorted.

“Yeah, well I really haven’t been my normal bad-ass self, lately,” I quipped halfheartedly.

“None of us have,” Farmer said with an eerily dark tone, “None of us were sure what happened to the three of you. Honestly, I thought you, Nick, and Hangman were dead. I was sure that if any of you were alive, you’d have been there to evac the Lady-Apparent out of the Manor. The Lady-Apparent kept insisting you were alive. If any of the shamans had made it through the battle, I would’ve had them scrye to make sure. Any answer would’ve been good.” He paused, momentarily locked in deep thought. Then, his head shot up with a strong look of determination.

“Listen to me Ranger, there are only a hundred or so lycanthropes left in Hillsborough,” Farmer said, “I’m the only hunter left in the county. I’ve been working with the few hunter-trained pack warriors who managed to escape the Manor, but we’re hanging on by the tips of our claws. The only thing keeping the lycanthropes going is the Lady-Apparent. Her determination to not only survive, but to take back this county from the TCV. Even with all of her strength, it’s not going to be enough. I need more trained help. I need the State Guild in this county.”

“Understood boss,” I told him without a trace of sarcasm, “We’ll get you what you need.” Farmer was a good choice for the county’s Guildmaster. His words helped me put my head back into the game. As far as I was concerned, he was now my real boss.

“Good. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a nice and secure place for the Lady-Apparent tonight,” Farmer said.

“The Guild’s already been compromised? That should’ve been the most defensible stronghold in the county,” I said. I was surprised Farmer wasn’t using as the home base for the remaining Hillsborough lycanthropes.

“We can’t get into it,” Farmer said, “I lost my phone in the siege and none of the other hunters survived to unlock it.”

“I think I can solve that particular problem,” I said. The mischievous smile on my face was the first time I felt like my old self since before I left for Tallahassee. Farmer nodded with a hint of an understanding smile on his stoic face. He turned and walked down the steps. I went back upstairs to join Vanessa and Carl. I did have one major question that needed to be answered. Vanessa smiled as I approached. Her expression turned to horror as I yanked Carl out of his seat. I pulled him between two stacks and thrust my pistol into his stomach. Carl tried a few limp strikes, but he was caught off-guard and couldn’t focus enough to remember what he had been taught. Vanessa stood up and shielded us from view. She didn’t know what was going on, but she trusted me. Damn, Hangman was a lucky wolf.

“How the fuck did you know we were here?” I asked with a menacing calm tone, “Too few of you left in the county to risk putting eyes on the campus. You had some help, and I want to know who.”

“I don’t know,” Carl said, somehow managing to keep his voice steady, “Farmer just rounded up me and my team and told us we were going to USF. I didn’t even know that you were the target until we got here.” I watched his eyes. He wasn’t lying. The good news, at least, was it was one of Farmer’s contacts who informed on Vanessa and me. Hunters always keep a coterie of contacts in the various worlds we work in. Most of mine were scattered among the tactical community in the human world, with some kin and some vampire thrown in. Well, I had some in the vampire community, but those centered around Bradon. I was pretty sure my contacts were either dead or would be unwilling to talk to me. Why I was relieved that it was one of Farmer’s contacts? Simple – hunters take great care to vet their contacts. Our lives depend on what those contacts tell us. I was worried one of the pack warriors received a phone call and gotten excited. Anonymous contacts like that was a good way to try and draw out high value targets. Like say, the Guildmaster, or even the Lady-Apparent herself. I holstered my HK45 and gave Carl a slight shove back to the table. Until I figured out the current politics amongst the lycanthropes, I could trust only the few that I knew. Right now, Carl wasn’t one of those I could trust. So, let him think I was an asshole, as long as he was sure I was a dangerous asshole. Sometimes, it was better to be feared than loved. Carl and Vanessa returned to scouring the books on the table. I picked up the one I started with, but I couldn’t focus on the damn thing.

Ancestors, she was alive! Joy and relief still coursed through me. Still, there was a dark fear flowing under my happy thought. It had been nearly two months since I last saw Elizabeth. I didn’t know where I stood with her. Two months of desperate fighting, trying to keep herself and all of the remaining lycanthropes in the county alive. Would she hate me for abandoning the county? Was there anything there in the first place? Farmer seemed to think so, and so did Nick. I trusted them, but there was still an unrealness to the idea that made me think I was just imagining it all.

“Oh bloody hell,” Vanessa snarled. The sudden words startled me back to the library. A stab of guilt quickly melted to relief as I realized Vanessa was cursing at a book and not my inattention to the work. She held the book in front of her with an angered look of disbelief.

“What’s the matter Vanessa?” I asked, hoping she wasn’t swearing because of me. It would have been embarrassing, to say the least.

“Well, I found the emissary’s report, but it’s encoded,” Vanessa said, turning the book so Carl and I could see. It looked like a standard report of a meeting with one of the Prince’s advisers.

“Are you sure? It doesn’t look encoded,” Carl said. Vanessa shot the pack warrior a scathing look. It was the look of an irate professional being questioned by a new amateur.

“Yes, I am quite sure,” Vanessa said with a deadly drawl to her words, “The time is of the report matches when the emissary met with the Prince’s court. Plus, see this glyph? That’s the cipher key.” She pointed to a Cyrillic looking character in the top right of the first page.

“How do you know?” Carl asked dumbfounded. Actually, I was curious as well.

“Because I developed the system five years ago, for Society reports,” Vanessa said, “I had no idea Chris gave it to the Prince. It’s going to take a while to decode this.” She began pulling out her laptop. I motioned for her to stop.

“How long is it going to take?” I asked.

“First, I need to figure out how much the court recorders mucked with my encryption program. I don’t recognize this particular glyph, so it’s probably one they dug up from the same source I used,” Vanessa explained, “Once I know where the glyph came from, then it’ll be just a matter of adjusting my own program. Then, I can feed the report into the program. For a report this long? At least three hours. Maybe as long as six.” Vanessa answered. I looked at the time display on my cell phone and grimaced. This was going to be too long for us to be out in the open.

“I’m sorry Mark, but I devised this system to be extremely secure at the expense of accessibility,” Vanessa said, reading my expression.

“No, you did fine. You had no way of knowing five years ago that it’d screw us,” I said. “Vanessa, I need you to get a hold of the Williams kid. Get him over here to check out the books you need.” I held up my hand to stop the argument before Vanessa could voice it. “Yes, I know it’ll probably send out some kind of flag back to Tallahassee. That may actually be in our favor right now. Carl, did you bring your car?” The pack warrior nodded. “Good. Give me the keys. You’re going to guard Vanessa. I’ve got something that needs to be done right now.” As Carl dug out his keys, Vanessa leaned over to me.

“What’s going on, Mark? It’s not like you to foist me off onto someone else. Especially someone you don’t consider good enough.” Sometimes Vanessa was just a bit too good at her job.

“I can help the lycanthropes here, but it’s going to take time. I can’t do it if I’m covering you here,” I answered, “I need you to get packed up because I don’t want to be out after nightfall. Even three hours would put us out too close for comfort.” Vanessa’s expression told me that she didn’t like it, but she understood. “Stay with Carl. I’ll call you as soon as I can to let you know what to do and where to go.” Vanessa gave me a quick nod, and then began packing up. Carl told me where and what his car was, and I trotted out of the library as fast as I could.

Carl’s car was a non-descript sedan, which was great for where I was going. When the current Guild was built, there’d been a lot of talk of where to put it. Locating the Guild in the suburbs was risky. Having people coming and going at all hours of the day and night tended to bring unwanted attention from suspicious neighbors. We got around that by burying the Guild under an entire block of homes, instead of the traditional one or two. As I drove up to one of the homes, I noticed most of the homes on the block were vacant. The kin that we recruited to occupy the homes above the Guild weren’t stupid. Most were packing up when Nick, Hangman, and I left and sealed the Guild. A phone call woke up the Guild’s central systems. There was a barely perceptible rumble in the ground. The thick concrete barriers were sliding away from the entrances into the Guild. Procedure said it would take a minimum of an hour for the Guild to vent itself out and bring up all of the necessary control systems. I waited the twenty minutes for the air to be breathable and the electricity to re-engage. I’d like to chalk it up to a desperate need to get the Guild ready to receive Hillsborough’s lycanthropes. That was true to a fault, but the bigger reason was I just couldn’t wait that long to get back in one of the few places I could call home.

The main computer was in the middle of coming up as I walked into the familiar concrete structure. Pangs of sorrow and loss hit me as I faced the cavernous emptiness that used to be the main planning and operations control of the Hunters Guild. I just shook my head as I walked around the first floor to secure some of the more sensitive information. The first floor was always so frenetic during the war with the vampire. Even when Nick, Hangman, and I were sealing the Guild, and no other hunters were in the facility, that same frenetic energy was still there. The other floors were musty, but livable. It was time to bring everyone home. My first call was to Farmer. Of all the lycanthropes, the Lady-Apparent was the one who needed to get to the safety of the Guild first. Farmer just acknowledged the Guild was ready. Sudden jolts of irrational fear shot through me, but I pushed them aside. The Lady-Apparent needed me to be professional, not some kind of sappy, love-struck follower. After I got off the phone with Farmer, I called Vanessa. I gave her a place where I could pick up her and Carl. I trusted the Williams clan because they worked for Mrs. Werstand, but they weren’t kin. They couldn’t know the location of the Guild, both to protect us and to protect them. I picked Vanessa and Carl up in Carl’s car. Everything went well on their end, according to Vanessa. I made sure we weren’t being followed as they talked.

“Mark, where are we going?” Vanessa asked after fifteen minutes.

“The Guild. I figured the Hillsborough lycanthropes could use it,” I answered.

“We’re going to the Guild?” Carl blurted out, “The actual Guild?” I nodded in response. Carl fell silent as I finished my last few turns before entering the Guild’s neighborhood. Carl was in awe as I led the two of them down into the Guild. For the pack warriors, the Guild was always kept as a mysterious facility where the county’s trained killers worked and trained. It was an image the Hunters Guild cultivated. I gave Carl the task of patrolling the lower levels of the Guild while I set Vanessa up in one of the conference rooms. In her normal efficient self, Vanessa quickly set up her system and started scanning the encoded report into her system. I texted Farmer to let him know where we were in the Guild. With nothing else to do, I sat down in front one of the monitor stations. At least I would be able to watch when they arrived. All I needed to do was wait patiently for the arrival of the Lady-Apparent. From Vanessa’s expressions, I wasn’t that successful. Thirty endless minutes passed before Farmer led a small convoy to the Guild. My hands began to shake as I watched Elizabeth step out of a sedan. She cut her hair, was the first thought that ran through my mind. The auburn curls that once cascaded halfway down her back were gone. Her hair hung straight and just above her shoulders. I watched her in the security monitor with rapt attention. I didn’t even notice when Vanessa came up behind me and spun me around. The brush was running my hair before I knew what was happening.

“Tuck your shirt in, damn it,” Vanessa hissed as she continued to fiddle with my mess of hair, “At least try to make yourself presentable for her. Thank the Ancestors you wore a nice shirt for a change.” I followed Vanessa’s stream of instructions as she fiddled with my clothes, hair, and anything else she felt needed attention. The last thing she did was to grab my face in her hands, look me dead in the eye, and give me one last piece of advice.

“Do us all a favor and don’t screw this up,” she said solemnly. I didn’t have time to respond before Farmer’s voice was on the other side of the conference room door.

“Yes milady, the lycanthrope responsible for unsealing the Guild is in here,” Farmer boomed. It sounded unnatural, but I was grateful for the warning. The door opened and Elizabeth was standing there. For a brief, but almost eternal, moment I was unable to move or speak. I could only look at her. She took a hesitant step into the conference room, and then another. I saw Vanessa leave the room and Farmer shut the door, but they weren’t really important. All that was important was the person standing in front of me. She crossed the room, each step becoming more confident. Her green eyes were questioning, almost as if she didn’t believe what she was seeing. I stifled the urge to swallow nervously and took the few steps to stand in front of her. Her hands danced along my arms, my chest, my shoulders, and came to rest on my face. It took all my strength not to succumb to the dizzy intoxication of her scent. We just stood there looking into each other’s eyes, silently reassuring the other that we were really there.

The room blurred as the heavy slap landed across my face. I turned back to find a fearsome expression on Elizabeth’s face. Surprised and unsure, I stood there paralyzed as a second, and then a third, slap struck me. My senses snapped back into focus. I caught her fourth strike in a gentle, but firm grip. Elizabeth’s entire body went limp and collapsed into mine. The unnerving sound of her sobbing shook me harder than her outburst of violence. All I could do was wrap my arms around her and cradle her.

“Why weren’t you here?” Elizabeth whispered between sobs, “Where did you go?” They were simple questions, devoid of any accusation, but I felt the shame blaze inside of me. I knew intellectually I had been under orders from the Guildmaster to leave Hillsborough, but Elizabeth’s simple pleading questions tore all that from me. I knew I made a mistake. I should have stayed. I should have sent Nick and Hangman up while I went to go find her. I should have done whatever it took to not cause her so much pain. I couldn’t answer her questions, so I just pulled her closer. Elizabeth reacted fiercely by pushing against my chest. I don’t know what I tripped on, but I felt myself falling backwards, with Elizabeth firmly in my grasp. My breath whooshed out of me as I was sandwiched between the lightly carpeted floor and Elizabeth. The door to the room slammed open as Elizabeth’s sole Red Knight charged in at the crashing sound of two lycanthropes hitting the floor. The unfamiliar Knight gave the two of us a look of scandalized horror. I just tilted my head so I could look the Red Knight in the eyes.

“Do you mind? We’re in the middle of a conversation,” I told the Red Knight, as deadpan as I could manage. It must have been enough, because the Knight’s expression went from scandalized to indignant. He was young. I was willing to bet the Red Knight wasn’t more than a few years out of tysach. If I had to guess, this one was probably more full of piss, vinegar, and propriety than common sense. Come to think of it, that described most of the Red Knights I dealt with. The Red Knight didn’t say anything, but his hand darted to the pistol holstered at his side. My eyes narrowed and fixed him with a glare of pure menace.

“If you don’t quit touching that pistol, I’m going to come over there, take it from you, shove it up your ass and fire every fucking round in the magazine,” I said. The Red Knight blanched, but to his credit, he stood his ground.

“Milady, is this hunter harming you?” the Knight asked, his voice full of forced calm and confidence. Elizabeth squirmed on top of me to look at her bodyguard. It was uncomfortably pleasant. My self-control strained to keep me from breaking into a stupid grin.

“No, I’m fine,” Elizabeth answered, “Badmoon just tripped, and unfortunately took me with him. It was a simple accident. Nothing you need to worry about.” The Red Knight’s hand came away from his pistol, but he didn’t look convinced. “Gregory, I’m perfectly fine. I know Badmoon’s reputation among the Red Knights, but I swear to you, he won’t let any harm come to me. I’m as safe with him as I would be with you. Now, leave us alone.” The last sentence came out with the unmistakable tone of command. The Red Knight shifted his look between Elizabeth and me, clearly torn between his duty to obey the Lady-Apparent and his duty to protect her. Elizabeth looked down at me and slapped my chest.

“Quit scowling at Gregory,” she told me with the same commanding tone. My face went to a neutral expression. The Knight must have been satisfied Elizabeth had me under control, because he carefully backed out of the room and carefully closed the door. I looked up into Elizabeth’s waiting eyes. There was amusement in them. The encounter with the Red Knight broke some of the tension between us. Instinct took over, and I reached up to her beautiful face with a trembling hand. She nuzzled against my palm, and some of my confidence returned. I pulled her face down to mine and kissed her. Sort of. Fortunately, Elizabeth knew more of what to do than I did. For the record, it was not my first kiss, but it wasn’t far removed. Very few females would dare dalliances with a Badmoon, even in the crazy times of tysach. I finally figured out what I was supposed to do and kept up with Elizabeth’s frenzied pace. Time stopped and blazed by as the Elizabeth’s hands explored my body, and I returned the favor. My hands found the first button of her blouse and popped it open. Her hands stopped instantly and slammed into my shoulders.

“Stop!” she told me.

“Okay,” I said, confused. I let my arms drop to my side, “What did I do wrong?”

“Just stop,” Elizabeth said softly. She clamored off of me and sat down in one of the chairs. I sat up and watched her for any signs of what I had done wrong. Elizabeth just gave me the warmest and most loving look any lycanthrope ever gave me. The kind of look that made me think I could just sit there in that room forever.

“Ancestors, I’ve been waiting so long. Damn it,” she cursed.

“What’s the matter?” I asked sliding up next to her. She put a soft hand on my face and gave me another of those looks.

“Me,” she answered, with a hint of sadness, “I’m the Lady-Apparent. The Lady of Hillsborough for all practical purposes.” The warm look evaporated, and one of frustration replaced it. “I can’t allow myself to be soiled by an affair with a lycanthrope who is not my mate. Or going to be my mate.” I flinched at the words, but I knew the truth behind them. Lycanthropes were very strict on affairs outside of the mated pair. Some intimacy was expected when lycanthropes dated, and some experimentation during tysach was forgiven. That said, the lines were clearly set out during tysach. Lycanthropes were forced from the packs for crossing those lines. It was even more demanding upon the aristocracy. This wasn’t something I even contemplated in the past two months. I was too busy worrying if Elizabeth was even alive.

“I’m sorry,” I ventured, not really sure what I needed to say, “I’ll keep away from you. I’ll be the good hunter for you, and nothing else.” I began to stand up, but Elizabeth’s hand fell on my arm.

“No, you don’t understand,” she said. She looked deeply into my eyes. “Do you know how long I’ve waited for you?”

“No,” I answered, “I’m still having trouble with the whole idea that the Lady-Apparent has a thing for me. It’s not exactly something I’ve had a whole lot of experience with.” Elizabeth laughed. It was a deep laugh. The kind that unleashed all of one’s pent-up fears and sorrow.

“Do you remember when we met at your Rite of Initiation?” she asked.

“Ancestors, yes,” I answered, “I thought you were the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.” For some reason, the words didn’t sound corny or sappy when I said it to her.

“I saw it in your eyes,” Elizabeth said, “I’ve seen it in so many of the males, but you were different. You were so intense and calm all at the same time when you looked at me. It was scary and exciting all at once. I think that’s when I fell in love with you for the first time. Then, you disappeared into the Guild before I could find out what was behind those eyes of yours.” She paused for a moment. The silence was deafening.

“You know, I don’t think Daddy ever knew how I felt about you,” Elizabeth mused, “I know he liked you, but I don’t think he ever connected my pestering him about you to anything more than my being a dutiful daughter making sure he was doing what was best for the family. You weren’t exactly popular among the packs.” I was stunned. I didn’t even suspect Lord Vollen took an interest in me beyond me being a Badmoon and the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. Elizabeth smiled as she saw the effect her words had on me.

“Jason knew how I felt though,” Elizabeth continued, “He and Bobby used to tease me relentlessly about it. Sissy thought it was like some sort of romantic fairy tale. She didn’t understand the reality. There was no way I was going to marry a hunter, much less a Badmoon.” Elizabeth slid out of her chair and snuggled up next to me as she spoke. “Ancestors, I miss them.” She collapsed into my arms and cried.

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said as she fought to get her grief under control, “I try so hard, but then I see their faces almost every night.” Elizabeth shook her head and looked at me with a determined look. “Listen to me Marcus, as much as I want to be with you, I can’t ignore what my lycanthropes expect of me. You’re a Badmoon. It’s going to take a lot to overcome that in the eyes of the pack. Giving us back the Guild is going to help, but I don’t know how much. I know I will do what I can, but if I don’t have the support of the packs, then we can’t be together. At the very least, we’ll have to keep this out of the packs’ eyes until the right time. And it means we’ll have to restrain ourselves until the packs accept the idea of us being mated.” I could have been bitter about the injustice of being a Badmoon. I could have been infuriated about how the superstitions of the packs were keeping me from being with the one I loved. Truth to tell, though, I was still feeling the warmth of finding out that all of me fears were baseless and she did love me. She. Loved. Me. That washed away a lot of the pain.

“Milady, what if I managed to bring down some help from the State Guild? Say enough to help take back the county?” I asked. Her gorgeous green eyes went wide. In an instant, Elizabeth was kissing me ferociously. As she pulled away, it took me a moment to remember to breathe.

“You only call me Milady in front of the packs, Marcus,” she whispered to me, “When we’re alone, it’s Elizabeth.” I kind of lost track of time after that.

Vanessa didn’t even try to hide the smug smirk as she strode into the conference room. The embarrassed look on my own face didn’t help. Thankfully, Vanessa made no comment as she casually checked the process on her computer and typed in a few commands. Elizabeth was sitting demurely in one of the other chairs with Farmer sitting next to her. Gregory, the Red Knight, was standing in one corner with a disapproving look on his face. He was careful to keep his hand away from his pistol while doing his best to ignore my presence. I wasn’t sure if the Red Knight was more amusing or annoying. Farmer, Gregory, and Vanessa joined Elizabeth and me in the conference room after we managed to make ourselves somewhat presentable. That took some doing considering how Elizabeth reacted to my mention of the State Guild. It was energetic, to say the least, even if it was kept within the relative boundaries of propriety. Vanessa just strode in with a look that told me she was completely satisfied with herself. Farmer was unfazed. Thank the Ancestors for that stoic hunter. The Red Knight just scowled, but I didn’t give a damn what Gregory thought.

“Milady, Farmer, this kin is Vanessa Hawthorne,” I said, finally introducing my partner to the others, “She works with me in the Society of the Claw and the Fang.”

“The what?” Farmer asked.

“What is the Society of the Claw and the Fang?” Elizabeth asked.

“That’s a good question, milady,” I replied, “The truth is, I’m not really sure what or who the Society really is. From what Vanessa and I can figure out, at the very least, it’s a loose collection of operatives and analysts who work for a lycanthrope named Blackhawk. He’s some kind of adviser to the Prince, and possibly to the King of the United States. Beyond that, his motives get a bit murky.” I went into a brief explanation of what happened after the fall of the Manor. I covered Nick being deported to Nebraska, Hangman joining the State Guild, and my own recruitment into the Society. Vanessa took over the explanation at that point and explained to Elizabeth and Farmer about the mission Blackhawk assigned us, and why we had come down to Hillsborough.

“So, if we can make a case that valuable information the war council needs is here in Hillsborough, then the State Guildmaster would have no choice but to send some of his hunters in to Hillsborough to secure the information,” I concluded.

“I should have the report decoded in the next few hours,” Vanessa chimed in, “The court recorders weren’t very creative in their tinkering with my code. It didn’t take much to get my program set up.”

“After that, I intend to be on the phone with the State Guildmaster,” I finished, “Knowing the State Guildmaster, we can expect Hangman and other hunters here within the next twelve hours.”

“Assuming you find any useful information in that report,” Farmer said flatly, “What if you don’t?” Elizabeth and Vanessa traded uncomfortable looks about Farmer’s scathing pragmatism.

“On that very slim chance, I’ll lie,” I answered, “The State Guildmaster can hand me over to the war council for deceit after we kick the fucking leeches out of our county, if he feels it’s warranted. I don’t care. We need the help, and I’m willing to risk the small chance the emissary’s report doesn’t have something the State Guildmaster would find interesting.” Farmer smiled. Some folks just shouldn’t smile. It was disturbing to look at.

“Okay,” Farmer said, “Milady, since this is going to take some time, I think you should get some rest. The packs will be here in a few hours. You may not have the chance later.”

“You’re probably right,” Elizabeth said resigned, “Ms. Hawthorne, thank you for your efforts. I greatly appreciate it. Badmoon…” She just let her sentence trail off and smiled seductively. Farmer gave a pained sigh and led Elizabeth out of the conference room with the scowling Red Knight trailing behind them. Vanessa waited for the door to shut, and then whirled on me with a mischievous smile.

“Someone got his answer, from the look of things. Maybe a bit more?” Vanessa said, with a teased, but pleased tone in her voice.

“Yeah, I got some answers,” I said, smiling. Then my face darkened. “I also got a whole bunch of new problems. Some of those will hopefully be solved once Hangman and the State boys get their asses down here.” I flopped down into one of the leather chairs. My mind was clearer now. Elizabeth managed to remove all of the fear and torment that threatened my sanity for the last couple of months. I knew where I stood, and where I wanted to stand. The trick was getting there.

“Mark, what are we going to do once we’ve confirmed the existence of the report to the State Guildmaster, and he sends down Sam and the others?” Vanessa asked as she worked on her laptop. I leaned back in the chair and thought for a few moments.

“I think some of that we’ll figure out once we actually know what’s in that damned report and when we actually talk to the State Guildmaster,” I answered, “The war council should be forming. We have some time as the lords jockey for who will be the leader. Talk about a job none of them will want.” By law, the leader of the war council can’t succeed the Prince of Florida. Supposedly, it was to prevent coups. I was skeptical of that claim, to say the least. “Once they figure out who’s going to lead them, the first thing the war council will do is formally request the Prince relinquish his throne to the council. Depending on what the Prince does from there, it could be quick, or it could drag out for some time.”

“You’re taking the destruction of the state very calmly,” Vanessa said, “The Prince is about to be deposed, and a mob of county lords are going to be vying for his crown.”

“I really don’t give a flying fuck about the Prince, or his crown,” I said, “I’m sitting in a county that should have been flooded with warriors, shaman, and hunters the moment we lost the Manor. Down south are two more counties that should have been taken back the moment their aristocracies went missing. The Prince didn’t do a damn thing to help any of us. This is why that mob of county lords can even legitimately form a war council. At least the council’s a hell of a lot more stable than if one of the lords was required to personally challenge the Prince, like what happens on the local level.” Vanessa eyed me appraisingly over the top of her laptop.

“This is new for you,” Vanessa said. She slid her chair to the side so that she could look directly at me. “When did you become such a revolutionary?” Her unspoken question was when I lost faith with my Prince.

“I’m not a revolutionary,” I told her, “I just want my home back.” She gave me what could best be described as a mournful look.

The electronic chime startled me as it broke the two hour silence. A deft move caught the barrel of my HK45 as it slipped from my fingers. Vanessa smiled at my fumble, but didn’t say anything as she perused the now-decrypted report from the emissary. I continued to oil and reassemble the HK45. Vanessa’s eyes widened as she read the report. Her fingers danced across the keyboard as she began making notes.

“Mark, get on the phone right now,” Vanessa said, her eyes never leaving the screen, “Tell the State Guildmaster we found what he needs. I need him to send me a courier. He needs to see this immediately, and I don’t want to send it electronically.”

“What’s going on Vanessa?” I asked, pulling out my phone. Vanessa looked up to answer me, but was interrupted as Carl barged into the room. The pack warrior was in true form, which was unusual enough.

“Ranger, you need to come with me immediately,” Carl pleaded. I arched my eyebrow at the pack warrior, which only increased his frantic motion for me to follow him. My instincts screamed warning signals. Something was wrong. I stood up, unconsciously holstering my pistol. I dialed the State Guildmaster.

“This is Ranger,” I said tersely as the State Guildmaster answered his phone, “It’s time to fulfill the bargain.” There was no reply. The State Guildmaster simply hung up his phone. Soon, state hunters should be on their way to Hillsborough with Hangman leading the way. I smiled. I managed to accomplish that for Elizabeth. My smile died as Carl led me into the training room on the second floor. In front of me were the hundred or so surviving lycanthropes of Hillsborough County. All were in true form. Across the room from me was Elizabeth, Farmer, and a third lycanthrope I didn’t recognize. The eight foot tall true form was shaking with indignant rage. His white fur, tinged with just a hint of gray, was standing on end. The lycanthrope was loosely holding a silver dagger in his hand. There was something familiar in his stance. Elizabeth’s roan true form was braced to attack, a similar silver dagger in her hand. Farmer looked from the two snarling lycanthropes to me as I walked in behind Carl. Surprise, terror, and relief all mixed together on the normally stoic hunter’s face.

The lycanthropes turned to face me as I stepped in. I shed human for true as I walked, feeling my clothes pop and tear as my form grew and expanded. I welcomed the opening of the lycanthrope senses like a long-lost friend. I had spent far too much time in human form over the last couple of months. From the scents suddenly flooding through me, the lycanthropes of Hillsborough County were still terrified from their long ordeal – and they were enraged. What were they so angry about? The mass of lycanthropes parted, leaving me a clear avenue to Farmer, Elizabeth, and the unknown lycanthrope. Their eyes didn’t leave me.

“Well, since I seem to be the only one who doesn’t know what is going on, would someone be kind enough to explain?” I asked, with a deadly seriousness. “Especially, since someone is holding a silver blade in the presence of the Lady-Apparent.”

“Badmoon, please, don’t interrupt this,” Elizabeth commanded with no hint of any affection in her voice. The unknown lycanthrope snarled a malicious and triumphant grin. His stance relaxed a bit.

“So, your corrupted lover comes to your rescue,” he spit out, “What a pathetic excuse for an aristocrat you are.” Events snapped into place. This was a leadership challenge. This challenger was hitting Elizabeth in the one place she might be considered weak – her relationship with me. It was the one subject that would undermine Elizabeth’s hold over the packs. Worse, I could tell by the way Elizabeth was holding her own dagger she knew it as well. She was going to lose if I didn’t do something. I looked over at Farmer. He gave me an almost imperceptible nod.

“Who the fuck are you asshole?” I asked dismissively, striding to the middle of the room, “Because a shithead like you had better be real careful in who you try to insult.” Farmer eyes went wide, but then narrowed as he realized my ploy. I flashed hand signs for him to rein Elizabeth in. If she jumped in at the wrong time, this would go sideways, and there would be a nasty power struggle in the county.

“I am Franklin Speartooth,” the unknown lycanthrope declared, “I am the son of Lord Jaegar, Lord of Lee County.” Oh good, my instincts were right. This was some outsider bastard trying to jump what he thought was a weak county. He gave me a disgusted look. “Even a Badmoon should know better to interfere in a challenge of the aristocracy.” He turned his back on me to continue his silent challenge of wills against Elizabeth. He was correct, to a point.

“You’re a fucking carpetbagger,” I said, interrupting him again. I could see the flash of pure rage in Speartooth’s eyes. “What, your daddy couldn’t trust you with his piddling county so you’re trying to take ours? And you waited until we’d been badly weakened. You fucking coward.” The remarks must have been dead on, because Speartooth ignored Elizabeth and leapt at me. I watched Speartooth’s eyes as he closed the distance. His dagger swung up. I sidestepped his attack at the last instant. I felt the familiar burn of silver as his dagger lightly cut along my upper left arm. Excellent. I needed to be blooded for this to work.

“What’s the matter Speartooth?” I asked, letting the blood course visibly down my arm, “Why are you so afraid of the words of a Badmoon? Shouldn’t a prospective lord be able to ignore a single member of the packs?” I shot a quick look to Elizabeth. Her eyes were wide with understanding. Horrific understanding. I realized at that instant I made one critical misjudgment in my hasty plan. It was too late to try and shift the plan. I needed to play this out. The Hillsborough lycanthropes were starting to shift as Speartooth stabbed with his dagger. My hand hit just above Speartooth’s wrist and shoved the blade to the empty space next to my torso. I looked over to a lycanthrope I knew. Pamela Tailsnatcher was the now-widowed wife of the Oak Grove pack. She despised me as a Badmoon, but the other lycanthropes respected her. She looked upon both Speartooth and me with equal disgust. If a respected lycanthrope felt this aristocrat merited the same respect as a Badmoon, then I accomplished my first goal. It was time to end this before Speartooth managed a miracle and shifted the packs back to him. I caught Farmer’s eye and nodded. As he bent down to speak to Elizabeth, I dodged another two dagger stabs. Speartooth really had no idea how to actually fight with that thing. He must have been used to no one putting up a real fight.

“Speartooth!” Elizabeth’s voice shot clearly through the training room. “You have dared to blood one of my wolves without my permission in my county!” Speartooth stopped and turned to Elizabeth, a look of pure shock in his eyes. A brief moment, and then I could almost see the light bulb turn on above his head as he realized what was happening. The law on lycanthropes, especially aristocrats, abusing the packs of another lord – including hunters and shamans – was very clear. Worse for him, he’d technically withdrawn his challenge against Elizabeth to attack me. He no longer had any standing in the law, or the eyes of the packs. Now, if Elizabeth could just follow through.

“Hunter, deal with him,” Elizabeth said, the rage apparent in her voice. I knew what she wanted me to do, but I also knew what she needed me to do. I looked over to Farmer. He nodded at me with closed eyes. I heard the particular ring of silver hitting the concrete floor as Speartooth let go of his dagger. He was outmaneuvered, and he knew it. So, he was playing what he thought was his one move. Speartooth saw that Elizabeth wasn’t a killer of lycanthropes. As I turned to face him, I saw the resigned look of someone whose gambit failed and was now steeling himself for the punishment. He was expecting maybe a beating, or at worst, some new scars. The poor fool.

My HK45 materialized in my hand. Confusion darted across Speartooth’s face. I pointed the pistol at his chest and squeezed the trigger twice. The gunfire was deafening even in the cavernous training room. Blood sprayed across me as bits of Speartooth’s torso splattered the lycanthropes behind him. The packs looked at me in horror. The death of a lycanthrope at the hand of another was firmly ingrained into us as the epitome of evil. It was the strongest of our taboos. Of course, even the packs realized there were some lycanthropes who needed to be removed because they were a danger to the packs. That knowledge didn’t change their bone-deep revulsion against the act or those who did the deed. I could hear the whispers from the packs as I calmly decocked my pistol and holstered it.

“Will anyone else attempt to fill his shoes?” Elizabeth said as the echoes of gunfire subsided. The packs looked at their lady with respect and fear. From the looks on their faces, they saw what Elizabeth needed them to see. Elizabeth used me to manipulate Speartooth into abandoning his challenge and attack me. In their eyes, it was all Elizabeth’s plan. Lycanthropes respect the strongest leader, which wasn’t always the one who was physically stronger. It was the one who walked away from the challenge. Now that was clear to the packs, and would be clear to the state when Speartooth’s body was dumped at the border. Elizabeth Vollen would not tolerate challenges during this war, and all challenges would be ended lethally.

“Hunter, you may return to your duties,” Elizabeth said emotionlessly. I wanted to stay, but Farmer’s expression made it very clear I needed to leave. I played my part, and Elizabeth was safe. Now it was time for her to play her part to pick up the pieces of her county and forge them into a single force. I bowed my head and wordlessly left the training room.

Vanessa was still making notes on the emissary’s report as I walked in. Her eyes didn’t even leave the monitor as I took a few steps into the room, shed true for human, and then slumped into one of the chairs. I drew my pistol and stared at the blood-spattered weapon. I hated killing another lycanthrope. Most lycanthropes, even hunters, would be either physically ill or so wracked with guilt they were essentially immobilized. There are even stories of lycanthropes who committed suicide after accidentally killing another lycanthrope. I knew I should be feeling those emotions of guilt and self-hate, but I didn’t. That lack of emotions always worried me. Lycanthropes were monsters to the humans, but even the lycanthropes had things that we considered horrifying. One of those is the lycanthrope who can kill another lycanthrope without remorse. I was one of those. I didn’t even have my Guildmaster to reassure me that I was doing what was best for the packs anymore.

“Ancestors, what happened to you?” Vanessa asked, finally looking over at me. Her chair hit the wall as she rushed over to me.

“Relax, the blood’s not mine,” I said as Vanessa examined my bloody and shredded clothing. “I had to deal with a problem. It wasn’t pretty. Did you get anything done on the report?” Vanessa was momentarily mesmerized by my torn and bloody clothes. She cleared her head with a quick shake.

“Um, yeah,” Vanessa answered, “Did you call the State Guildmaster?”

“Yeah, but it was real quick,” I said, “Just long enough to let him know that we had the report and that it was significant enough to send hunters down. Just, not in that many words.” Vanessa nodded absentmindedly and went back to her laptop.

“The report gives us a lot more than we could have expected,” Vanessa stated, “Mark, it says–” Vanessa was interrupted by the door slamming open. Farmer stormed in with eyes burning in anger. I motioned for Vanessa to leave. Farmer didn’t say anything as Vanessa scooted out of the room.

“JB always said you were one of the most reckless lycanthropes he ever had the displeasure of meeting,” Farmer said in a controlled tone, “I thought he was just exaggerating. I knew your reputation, but I couldn’t believe you’d be that crazy. Until now.” He loomed over me, but I wasn’t in the mood to be intimidated.

“What the fuck?” I shot back, “I did what was necessary. Even you saw that.”

“Speartooth wasn’t dangerous enough for what you did,” Farmer said, “You could have just maimed him and that would have done it. That’s what I thought you were going to do.”

“Bullshit,” I said before Farmer could continue, “War council’s probably already meeting, Farmer. If Elizabeth doesn’t have an unshakeable grasp of this county when they come down, she’ll lose it. What I did wasn’t pleasant, but there won’t be any doubt who rules Hillsborough’s packs when the time comes.”

“You’re playing a dangerous game with this county, Ranger,” Farmer said, “I don’t like it. You won’t be doing anymore executions in this county while I’m Guildmaster. Do you understand me?”

“I won’t do any that you don’t order,” I said.

“That’s not what I said,” Farmer said.

“No, but it’s what you should have said,” I replied. “There’s a reason your predecessor kept me as his personal hitter.” Farmer thought about that for a long moment.

“I see. You will not committ any further executions without my explicit orders. My orders,” Farmer stressed.

“Yes, boss,” I said. Farmer was the Guildmaster. If he told me not to kill, I would obey.

“Against my advice, the Lady-Apparent wants to see you,” Farmer said.

“Give me a bit to clean up,” I said. Farmer nodded and strode out of the room. Vanessa cautiously walked in after Farmer left. I told her I would talk to her about the report, but Elizabeth wanted to talk to me first. I walked out of the conference room and took the stairs down to the quarters. I knew I there was some fresh clothes in my old room. Plus, I needed a shower to wash off Speartooth’s blood. It took me about fifteen minutes to make myself somewhat presentable. My clothes were a bit musty, but they were better than bloody and torn set I had been wearing. Farmer guessed at what I was doing and led me back up to the first floor. One of the first things Farmer did after bringing the lycanthropes into the Guild was put Elizabeth in the Guildmaster’s office. The suite had an office as well as a small bedroom. Elizabeth’s Red Knight stood outside the office. His face twisted into a vicious snarl as I approached. I gave him a cool look and then ignored him.

A sudden burst of grief hit me as I walked through the door. Nothing had changed since the Guildmaster – my Guildmaster – was last in this office. I could almost see his ghost at the desk, chewing me out for some stunt or the other. I blinked and the image was gone. Farmer motioned to the door to the bedroom. I walked into the room and hit the floor as a silver dagger was thrown at my head. I was crouched behind a chair. My pistol was in my hands before I even realized Elizabeth was the one who’d thrown the blade. She was standing behind the bed. I holstered my pistol and rose up from behind the chair.

“What was that?” I asked, somewhere between anger and confusion.

“You fucking bastard!” Elizabeth yelled, snatching a pillow off the bed. She threw it back down as she realized it wouldn’t hurt me. “You fucking dog! You made me murder Speartooth! You didn’t even give me a fucking choice!” She leapt, shedding human for true. The sudden attack caught me off-guard. Her backhand slap slammed me against the door frame.

“How could you do this to me?” she screamed in my face as she picked me up and threw me into the office. The blow across the face was going to leave some bruises, but I could feel everything else healing. I shed for true and caught her next attack.

“I’m sorry Elizabeth, but it had to be done,” I said, holding her struggling arm in a tight grip. “For your protection and for the packs.” She stopped struggling and looked deep into my eyes. Elizabeth shrank as she shed for human. She yanked her arm out of my hands.

“Ancestors, you’re not even feeling the pain of what you did,” she breathed, “You really are the monster they said you are.” Her words and tone hit me harder than any physical blow. There was a horror and a revulsion in her eyes that crushed something inside of me.

“Get out of here. I don’t want to see you again,” she said. I didn’t say anything. I just shed for human and walked out. I didn’t even react to the smug look on Gregory’s face. My steps came faster as I made my way to the conference room. Vanessa looked up at me as I walked in and blanched. She started talking but I didn’t even hear her words. I held up my hand and she fell quiet.

“Pack up your stuff. We’re leaving.” It was all I could say in while my head swam with the tumult of emotions running through it.

“Mark, you do realize it’s night out?”� Vanessa asked, “You know, night, in a county controlled by vampires.” Something about hearing my nemesis race cleared my head a bit. Vanessa stepped back in fear at the smile that spread across my face.

“Oh don’t worry Vanessa. I know just the place to go.”

Chapter 18 – I Am A Badass, I Don’t Care What That Vampire Said

Badmoon Rising Chapter 16 – Laying the Groundwork

“What the fuck do you mean it’s in Tampa?” I asked, straining to keep from stammering out my words.

“According to these tracking documents, the emissary’s report was part of a batch of documents sent to the University of South Florida, for storage,” Vanessa explained, motioning to the display on her laptop, “From the address, the university is in Tampa.”

“Yeah, it is,” I confirmed, “I’ve worked the school plenty of times.” My mind was racing in several different directions at once, and I couldn’t keep focused on any of them. I closed my eyes to pull my thoughts together. Elizabeth just haunted the sudden darkness. I pushed her aside – I needed to concentrate on the task at hand. “Do you know where exactly the records are? That campus is huge.”

“According to this, the records are stored in the main library,” Vanessa answered, “Mark, what are you thinking?”

“How the hell we’re going to get in there without causing a problem,” I answered. My mind started dealing with the hurdles that needed to be overcome. The main highways were bound to be watched, if not by the vampires and their minions, then by the lycanthropes of the surrounding counties enforcing the border. That would be tricky, but not impossible. The big question was how would I find her once I was back in Hillsborough?

“Mark, stop thinking about her for a minute,” Vanessa said, sharply, “We’ve got to concentrate on our mission.”

“What are you talking about?” I shot back, a little too defensively.

“You get the same look on your face anytime you think hard about Elizabeth. Focus.” Vanessa waited with a patient look as I organized the barrage of thoughts and emotions running through me. Chagrined, I nodded for her to continue. “First, we’ve got to let Blackhawk know what we’ve found. He needs to know why we’re going to Hillsborough, and what we expect to find.”

“Yeah, okay,” I murmured, fighting against my dislike for Blackhawk. Vanessa was right. As our employer, Blackhawk needed to know what we were going to do, both in case he could provide additional details and in case he needed to be able to cover himself if we were about to cause problems. “As soon as we’ve advised Blackhawk on what’s happening, I need to start doing some more mission planning. Things have taken an odd turn.”

“Do you always have this gift for stating the obvious?” Vanessa asked.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I quipped. She just glared at me. “For the record, when I’m doing mission planning, I will state things that may or may not be obvious. It helps cut down on confusion.” I pulled up the map of Florida on my computer.

“Originally, I was going to have us skirt the east coast before heading inland to meet Blackhawk’s contact on the northern border of the Disputed Territories, here.” I said, highlighting the location Blackhawk gave us as part of the data dump. Since this was a covert mission, Vanessa and I would not be allowed to make contact with any county-level lycanthropes. That requirement alone made planning difficult. Lycanthropes didn’t allow foreigners on their territory without permission. If the county lord was being lenient, getting caught meant a only bad beating as punishment and a strong escort to the border with instructions to never come back. Closer to the Disputed Territories, they were known for executing wayward lycanthropes.

“Now, all of that work just hit the circular file,” I said, “On the plus side, I’m more familiar with the west coast of Florida. It shouldn’t take me nearly as long to pick our way down. The tricky part will be cutting across the state to get into the Disputed Territories.”

“Why?” Vanessa asked. “It looks like a lot of these counties have small populations. Wouldn’t that mean less lycanthropes looking for us?”

“Yeah, but there are fewer ways to get across those counties quickly,” I answered. “Those packs have a fewer number of routes to watch for wayward souls, like us.”

“I suppose Google Maps doesn’t have a routing for avoiding lycanthrope packs?” Vanessa asked. I chuckled.

“That would be useful right about now,” I answered, looking at the map. Maybe if we blew through the towns in the dead of night. It would make it harder.

“Okay, you figure out how to get us into Hillsborough, how to get the emissary’s report from the university, maybe see your girlfriend, and then get us into the Disputed Territories,” Vanessa said. “I’ll go talk to Chris and tell him what we’ve found. Maybe he can scare up some resources to help us.” It wasn’t until she was out the door that I fully parsed her sentence. Every time I thought I had Vanessa figured out, she went and said something like that.

The ringing of my cell phone caught me by surprise. Annoyed at myself for being startled, I looked down at the display. My scowl deepened. I didn’t know why Blackhawk was calling me, but I damn sure didn’t want to talk to him at the moment. I had Vanessa for that. Unfortunately, if he was calling me, then it was probably something important. Or at least, something I couldn’t just ignore.

“Ranger,” I said, tersely.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Blackhawk growled into the phone, “I do not like my operatives abusing my trust.” My first reaction was someone in the State Guild was talking to Blackhawk about my meetings with the State Guildmaster. I kept quiet and was rewarded for my patience.

“I told you that I would make sure that you would be part of the retaking of Hillsborough. Why are you coming up with some bizarre story to get yourself down there now?” Blackhawk demanded. Oh, so that was what this was about.

“I need to know what the emissary from the Disputed Territories told the Prince,” I replied, finally understanding what Blackhawk was going off about. I made sure to keep the relief out of my voice. “You want me to traipse down into the most dangerous part of Florida and complete an operation, then I need good intel. An emissary from the folks I’m supposed to be contacting sounds like pretty good intel.” I heard Blackhawk take a few controlled breaths before he began again.

“I’m going to tell you the same thing I just told Vanessa. There is nothing in that report that will help you. Forget about it and get on with your mission,” Blackhawk ordered. There was something wrong about the tone in his voice. Blackhawk was being too forceful in his dismissal of the report. He could’ve just been clumsily trying to keep my focus on the job, but that’s not what my instincts were telling me. If he knew that there was nothing in the emissary’s report that would help us, he should have included the report in the intel he gave us. Or at least mentioned it. Blackhawk was trying to keep me away from the report, or from Hillsborough, or both.

“I understand,” I told Blackhawk. He disconnected without any further words. I dialed Vanessa. There were a few things I needed to confirm. Vanessa was waiting for my call.

“Hi Mark,” she answered weakly, like she was expecting me to erupt at her.

“Hey Vanessa. I just got a call from Blackhawk,” I said in as a pleasant voice as I could muster. I could barely hear the intake of breath as she waited for the expected torrent from me.

“What exactly did he tell you?” I asked.

“When I told him that we located the emissary’s report and were going to go get it, he just kind of exploded,” Vanessa said, “He wanted to know where we heard about it and how we found it. Then, Chris told me there was nothing in that report that would help us. We were just to forget it and get back to doing our job.” Vanessa’s story confirmed a few things in my mind.

“That’s pretty much what he just told me. I need you to continue to prep for our trip to Hillsborough,” I told her, “I’ve got to go back to the State Guild. Make sure you keep your appointment with the tailor. I may be out of contact for a bit. If Blackhawk asks, tell him we’ll be leaving day after tomorrow.”

“Mark, if there’s nothing in that report that can help us, there’s no reason to go to Tampa,” Vanessa said, warning tone in her voice, “At least not in terms of the mission we were given by Blackhawk.” I knew Vanessa was thinking I was using this as a reason to get back into Hillsborough. She was right, but not for the reasons she thought I was doing this. Vanessa was still too trusting of Blackhawk. I didn’t share that particular attitude. I needed to set things in motion in case my suspicions were correct.

“Vanessa listen to me, this has nothing to do with me trying to find the Lady-Apparent,” I told her. That was true. Mostly. “If there was nothing in the report from the emissary that could help us, why didn’t Blackhawk tell us about it so we wouldn’t waste time? Why wasn’t it included in our packets, at least as background? That’s something that would be perfectly logical for us to at least know about, even if there was no actionable intel. So, does Blackhawk admit that he overlooked it and told us what was in the report? No. Instead he exploded at us. Can’t you see that there’s something wrong with that?” Vanessa didn’t have a good answer for that. There was a long pause before she gave me an absentminded goodbye and hung up. I knew that tone in her voice. She needed some time to think. I just hoped she didn’t decide to ask Blackhawk for clarification. If my suspicions were right, I needed Blackhawk in the dark about what we were doing. At the moment, I needed to line up my real alliances.

The State Guildmaster was holding a meeting with his lieutenants when I barged into his office. The State Guild section leaders gave me a variety of evil looks for the effrontery, but waited for their leader to rebuke me. Most of them had sat in on my conversations with the State Guildmaster. Most intel operatives would have called them debriefings. I got the distinct impression that half of them respected me, while the others thought I was an abomination. Ignoring their venom, I looked directly at the State Guildmaster.

“We need to talk. Alone,” I said, curtly. He gave me an appraising look.

“I see,” he murmured. He turned to his lieutenants and wordlessly ordered them out. The six lycanthropes traded confused looks. I understood their position. They were the leaders of the different sections of the State chapter. They’d sat in on enough of my talks with the State Guildmaster. What could I need to talk to the State Guildmaster about that they shouldn’t be privy to? The State Guildmaster was extending me a great deal of trust. He waited until the last of them closed the door before asking.

“What is so important to drag you over here again so soon?” the State Guildmaster asked, clearly curious.

“I think Blackhawk is setting me up to get killed,” I answered, flatly, “I also think I found a legitimate reason for you to send hunters into Hillsborough now instead of waiting for the war council.” The office fell silent save for the slight hum of office electronics. The curious expression on the State Guildmaster’s face evaporated, and a neutral expression appeared. I didn’t know the State Guildmaster well enough to find the slight facial signals that would tell me what he was thinking. The State Guildmaster said nothing for an eternally long and silent minute.

“Perhaps you should explain a bit further,” he said, giving me a short efficient wave of his hand to punctuate his statement.

“Okay,” I said, drawing my breath, “Blackhawk ordered Vanessa and me to infiltrate the Disputed Territories. Supposedly, we’re supposed to try to find and extract the remaining lycanthropes. Blackhawk hinted they were supposed to be the backbone of the war council’s liberation army.” The State Guildmaster nodded as I said this. “Doing our background research for the mission, we came across reference to an emissary from the Disputed Territories.”

“Yes, I remember,” the State Guildmaster, “I was busy dealing with a possible pathwalker in Orange County when the emissary reported to the prince. The Prince told me that the emissary was little more than a half-crazed lycanthrope who couldn’t put together a coherent sentence, much less tell us what was happening in the Disputed Territories. Are you saying I should have pursued the matter further?”

“Well, that’s very interesting,” I murmured, ignoring the State Guildmaster’s question. “First, everything we saw said that the lord from Duvall did the report, not the emissary. Once we found out about it, Vanessa tried to hunt up the report. Most of the references to the emissary were scoured from the normal databases. Even if what the Prince told you about the emissary was correct, why would the Prince’s archivists do that?”

“I don’t know,” the State Guildmaster answered, clearly unsure of where I was going, “It could have been a simple clerical error. Mistakes do happen. What does this have to do with Blackhawk trying to kill you or getting my hunters into Hillsborough?”

“Because I think the emissary gave a much more detailed report than you were told, and Blackhawk is trying to make sure that the Guild is completely unaware of it,” I answered

“Why?” the State Guildmaster asked, unconvinced.

“That I don’t know for sure. At least I don’t have any evidence that would tell us,” I answered, “Here’s the thing, Blackhawk was just a bit too forceful telling us not to go after a physical copy of the emissary’s report. My instincts are telling me there’s something in that report that he doesn’t want you to know about. Blackhawk knows I would tell you if it was something important to the State Guild. I may be working for him, but I’m a hunter first.”

“I think you’re letting your dislike of Blackhawk color your interpretation of events Ranger,” the State Guildmaster said, sounding eerily similar like my Guildmaster when he was “mentoring” me from doing something stupid. “It was the Prince who told me about the emissary, not Blackhawk.”

“What if Blackhawk convinced the Prince to tell you that?” I asked in response, “You’ve told me enough times that Blackhawk has the Prince’s ear, or am I wrong about that?”

“No, but what is the end game of all these machinations?” the State Guildmaster.

“Again, I don’t know for certain, but I’m pretty damn sure it has something to do with the the war council.” The State Guildmaster leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully.

“You may be right, there,” the State Guildmaster said, “I can see Blackhawk trying to manipulate the war council to put who he wants on the throne. What’s the point of sending you down to the Disputed Territories and killing you?”

“Not sure about that either,” I said, “I think I’m supposed to disappear like every other hunter who has gone in. I have this feeling like he’s trying to wrap up a loose end, but I don’t know how that could be me. How can a Badmoon have any effect on the war council?”

“What if it isn’t you, but your partner?” the State Guildmaster asked. I stopped and thought about that for a long moment. Well, that’s why he was was the State Guildmaster.

“That’s certainly a possibility,” I conceded. “I guess I’m so used to people trying to kill me, that it’s my default. If Blackhawk is trying to kill Vanessa, I’ll bet you she doesn’t even know why. She still trusts him way too much. Whatever the reason, I am going to complete my mission. Blackhawk was right about them being needed, even if it was bullshit on his end. So, in order to do my job, I’ll need the emissary’s report. Which leads to how to get your hunters into Hillsborough.” The State Guildmaster’s eyes shot over to me with a burning intensity. I was a little taken aback. I didn’t know how angry the State Guildmaster was over the fact he was forbidden to send in his hunters into Hillsborough. I took his smoldering glare as a cue to continue.

“The emissary’s report is in Hillsborough,” I told him, “If I found something important in the report, something that could have an effect on the war council, wouldn’t you have to send hunters down to secure the information?” The State Guildmaster’s face scrunched down in thought.

“That’s dangerously skirting the edge of my authority,” the State Guildmaster admitted after a brief moment of hard internal debate. “Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t push it so hard. With the war council, I might be able to without being forced from the State Guild.” A Guildmaster – at the state or county level – was removed only for the strongest of infractions. I wasn’t aware the Prince was enforcing such a strict blockade around Hillsborough.

“So, could I take Hangman along?” I ventured.

“Not a chance in hell,” the State Guildmaster snapped. I held my hands out to show I didn’t really expect to be able to snag Hangman, but I had to try. He smiled briefly to acknowledge the point before continuing. “I won’t be able to send in any of my hunters until I have reasonable evidence there’s something that needs to be secured by my hunters. Once I’m made aware of such an item, then it would be foolish not to include the hunter with the most local experience in the team tasked with securing whatever needs to be secured.” Our eyes met. The agreement was made. If I could provide the something important, the State Guildmaster would send down state hunters to “secure” it, and provide the remaining Hillsborough lycanthropes some much needed support. I got a bonus with the State Guildmaster tacitly agreeing Hangman would be part of the securing team. I just hoped there were lycanthropes left in Hillsborough to be supported.

“One more thing Marcus,” the State Guildmaster said as I reached the door, “Don’t tell Vanessa or Samuel that she might be the one Blackhawk wants dead. You and I both know what would happen next. That young hunter is too valuable to me right now.”

“That young hunter is one of my few friends,” I said, “I’m not about to send him on some mission of vengeance.”

“Good. Now get out of here and get to work. I need to reconvene the meeting you interrupted and go over all of these new revelations,” the State Guildmaster said. “And Marcus, try not to get dead during this mission for Blackhawk. You are also too valuable to me to lose this early in the game.” For some reason, that comment felt satisfying.

Vanessa came to my house after her appointment with the tailor carrying a large hanging bag. I spread a map of Hillsborough County and the surrounding area on my table. Her annoyed expression let me know how she felt about the tailoring session. I returned her annoyance with bland indifference. Vanessa wouldn’t have had to go through the indignity of a rush tailoring job if she’d taken the time to properly procure a vest when she knew she was going out into the field. Sensing my apathy for her predicament, Vanessa turned her attention to the map that dominated my kitchen table.

“So, what’s the plan, Mark?” Vanessa asked, hanging her bag in a closet.

“The plan is in general stages, at the moment,” I replied, fixing the two of us glasses of iced tea. We both sat down at the table. “The good news is Hillsborough is too big and there are too few lycanthropes – especially hunters – to properly seal the border. What they can do is patrol the common routes into the county and randomly patrol the rest of the border. They will most likely be relying on the fact they can spot a lycanthrope with just a look. Then they can hunt that lycanthrope down. We’re limited in that we can’t do anything that might seriously injure one of those lycanthropes. So, we’re going to have to be sneaky getting back into the county.”

“Sneaky, how?” Vanessa asked, suspiciously. I wondered exactly what Hangman was telling her about my previous jobs.

“It shouldn’t be too bad,” I answered, “It does mean that it will take more time than just a straight shot. Truthfully, the actual odds of us being seen on anything but the main roads is slim. The problem is if we are detected, we’re going to be in a bad situation. Those lycanthropes will do anything to stop us from crossing the border, up to, and including, killing us.” Vanessa shuddered.

“And there’s nothing we can do to them,” she replied flatly.

“Yep,” I answered. I tilted my head and looked her in the eyes. “Those lycanthropes are doing what their lords told them. They have faith that their lords have a damn good reason for it, even if they don’t see it. More importantly, we are going to need these lycanthropes when the war council convenes and the lycanthrope army is sent into Hillsborough. I don’t want any bad blood between us if I have to work with them. There’s too much at stake.”

“For someone who claims complete ignorance of state politics, you sure seem to understand a lot,” Vanessa chided, the smile on her face reassuring me that she understood my explanation, and accepted it.

“The State Guildmaster said something similar today,” I answered, “To use a human phrase, I never had a dog in the hunt before.”

“You still think she’s alive,” Vanessa said softly.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said, “Everything says she is probably dead, but I Just Can’t Believe That. I need to do everything in my power to get as much help into Hillsborough as I can, including doing this mission for the Society.”

“I actually do understand. From everything Sam told me about Elizabeth and you, I’m starting to believe she might be alive,” Vanessa said. I was stunned into silence. She just shrugged and continued.

“So how are we going to do this?” she asked, bringing me back to the mission.

“I was thinking on this while going through the gear we’re taking down,” I said, “The incursion into Hillsborough needs to be brief, or at least appear that we meant it to be brief. Again, a matter of state politics, which I’m really fucking hating. The whole idea of getting state hunters into Hillsborough to find and rally any surviving lycanthropes – and killing as many vampires as they can in the process – is based on the premise that we made a quick, completely unauthorized incursion that just happened to turn up something important enough that it needs to be secured immediately. The first few members of the war council should be showing up in Tallahassee while we’re in Hillsborough. Their presence should be enough to shield the State Guildmaster. At least, that’s the plan.” Vanessa nodded understanding.

“I have the idea, but I’m going to need you to do pretty much all the phone work for this,” I told her, “Also, you’re going to have to use your personal money to do this. If any Society funds get used, Blackhawk will get wind of it, and he might pull us off the operation.”

“Okay, what?” she asked, annoyed I was beating around the bush instead of just telling her what the plan was.

“First, we’ll need a hotel in New Port Richey for tomorrow night. Then we’ll need to rent a limo for the trip into Hillsborough.”

“What the fuck?” Vanessa screeched, “Why in the Ancestors’ names do we need a limo for this? Do you know how expensive that’s going to be?” I held up my hands, silently asking her to calm down. The Society didn’t exactly pay its operatives as well as the Guild paid its hunters. Instead, the Society gave large allowances for items such as home and vehicle. The personal expense I was asking Vanessa to undertake was considerable for her. I slid a check across the table to her.

“A thousand dollars to help defray the costs, but you can’t cash that until we get back,” I told her, “I have a feeling Blackhawk has our accounts tapped. We can’t do anything that will tip him off, or the entire mission will be screwed.” Vanessa’s trust in me and her trust in Blackhawk was warring across her face. We’d spent a lot of time together since I turned up in Tallahassee. I’d trusted her with many of my dark secrets, and that was a big thing for Vanessa. I had a nasty feeling it was Hangman that put me over the top, or she would’ve already turned me over to Blackhawk. She trusted her lover implicitly, and he trusted me implicitly. Her internal debate quelled for the moment, she nodded.

“Now, the reason we need the limo is because it’s so flamboyant,” I explained, “The lycanthropes patrolling the border are not going to be looking for lycanthropes in limos. The moment they see a limo, it will be automatically dismissed. Oh sure, some of the hunters might consider it, but the tint will prevent them from seeing me, and they’re damn sure not going to stop someone in a limo unless they have proof positive that a lycanthrope is in there.”

“So why not rent a cargo van?” Vanessa countered.

“Who’s going to drive it?” I asked, “Limo services provide a driver. More importantly, they’re used to providing drivers for unusual requests. A cargo vehicle would be more inconspicuous, but that’s not necessarily what we need to get into the county.”

“And when we get on campus?” Vanessa asked, “Won’t that big limo attract notice? If there are ghouls on campus or someone else looking for lycanthropes like you, it could cause a problem.”

“Depending on where we get dropped off,” I answered. Vanessa looked confused until I explained further. She wasn’t fully convinced, but she didn’t seem to have any further objections. She opened up her laptop and started working on the details. I needed to finish my own preparations. My truck would be loaded with gear I would need, plus enough room for items I expected to retrieve from Hillsborough. One of my secondary goals while in Hillsborough was to get to my townhouse and retrieve my personal stock of weapons. I missed my Commando. I was pretty sure I was going to need it when I did head down to the Disputed Territories.

There was another item that needed to be figured out, and I was hoping that Vanessa might be able to lend a hand. Hillsborough was overrun with vampires. I still didn’t have a clue as to how the TCV managed to get that many vampires in undetected by our intelligence specialists. The TCV would have had to “recruit” them from inside Hillsborough or managed to acquire assistance from another council. As to the former, we would have known if that many humans suddenly went missing. Hell, the human authorities would have noticed it, and more than likely, so would have the pathwalkers. The TCV wouldn’t have been that suicidal. As to getting more vampires into the county from another council? That possibility was more likely. I still don’t know how we would have missed the influx of vampires from outside the county. Simply put, your basic vampire would not have the experience or training to avoid all of the common entrances into the county. We should have seen a few of them coming in, and then found out about the rest of the bastards. That we didn’t meant that there was something new and evil going on amongst the undead. I was hoping Vanessa could figure it out. This lead back to why we were still going to the the Disputed Territories, even with my suspicions of Blackhawk. Because of the sheer numbers of vampires in the county, any attempt to take back Hillsborough was going to require extensive training for the army that the war council would authorize. That kind of training needed to come from lycanthropes experienced in constant, tiring, and nasty warfare. The kind of lycanthropes we would find in the Disputed Territories.

As I looked at the map spread out on the table, my mind plotted our moves beyond retrieving the emissary’s letter. I intended to call in the State Guild no matter what the letter said. If we found lycanthropes in Hillsborough, the State boys would help organize and train them. If not – my heart seized as I contemplated the thought – then the State hunters would be able to collect priceless intelligence. Especially if Hangman was among their number. Once I was sure the State Guild was sending a team in, Vanessa and I would have to move to the Disputed Territories. I knew I was putting a lot of faith that the emissary letter contained crucial information. If not, this mission had all the trappings of a suicidal run into vampire-held Florida. At least I knew the ground in Hillsborough and knew enough people to help me. The Disputed Territories, on the other hand, were completely foreign to me. I had a few ideas of how to contact the lycanthropes still running around down there, but I wasn’t really thrilled about any of them. This rumination brought my nagging suspicions to the forefront. Why was Blackhawk only sending two operatives on a mission that should require at least two hit packs? Was he trying to kill one or the both of us off in some acceptable manner, or did he truly believe that Vanessa and I would extract these lycanthropes out? What were the Society’s ultimate goals for the war council and the inevitable campaign to retake the territories the lycanthropes lost to the vampire? There were too many questions. I put those aside for the moment.

Elizabeth taunted me in my dreams that night. I kept running towards her, to save her, and she kept disappearing the moment I nearly caught up to her. I woke in a sweat. My phone buzzed. I reached over and looked at the text message from Vanessa.

“All arrangements made. Ready to go.”

One of the oddest sensations when doing a job – or in this case, an operation – is the strange combination of excitement and boredom. The actual drive down to the hotel was dull. Florida can be a pretty state, but Interstate 75 doesn’t go through the most spectacular parts of the state. Mostly it’s sparse grasslands, farms, and then the edges of the Tampa sprawl. I looked across the cab of the truck. Vanessa spent the entire drive from Tallahassee immersed in the data on her laptop. Barely audible pop music drifted over from her earbuds as she drowned out the outside noise. She didn’t speak to me the entire trip. Her body language was oddly neutral. I couldn’t tell if she was just immersed in her studies, or if she was making a concerted effort to ignore me. Hangman mentioned to me as we were leaving that my plan was costing Vanessa a good portion of her savings. He understood why I was asking her to do it, but Hangman also made it perfectly clear that her outlay wasn’t something to be taken for granted. I knew he was right, but I didn’t know how to talk to Vanessa about it – so I didn’t say anything. I was hoping to have some inspiration during the trip. It didn’t exactly work out that way. To be perfectly honest, I had my own problems as we got closer and closer to Hillsborough. It was getting harder for me to put away all of those unfamiliar emotion blasting through me as I thought about what Elizabeth must be going through. Assuming she was still alive. Intellectually, I knew she was most likely dead. If only my brain could get through to the rest of me. It was taking more and more of my willpower to continue on to the hotel. Everything in me screamed to blaze into Hillsborough and violently search for her – even if it meant bringing in the pathwalkers. Once my mind hit that revelation, I knew my judgment was getting seriously fucked up. I was going to need some serious time to get into mission-mode once we got to the hotel. That was not going to help my repair my relationship with Vanessa if she decided we needed to talk.

The hotel was your basic chain hotel. Vanessa retreated to her room, leaving me alone with my traitorous thoughts. I concentrated on mission preparations, such as properly rigging one of the MP5Ks into a nondescript satchel. It wasn’t as good as a dedicated bag, but the satchel would blend into the university scene. The blending was for the humans, not the vampires or ghouls. The last thing Vanessa and I needed was for some stupid human to catch sight of a weapon and panic. Four spare magazines slipped into another pouch. I wasn’t expecting a fight during the mission. If we made contact with the vampires forces, which during the day would be ghouls and a few stupid humans, then Vanessa and I would run. Maybe with just enough gunfire to cover our escape, if I didn’t have any other option. I was there to find the emissary report, not trying to take back the county on my own. I couldn’t even think about searching for Elizabeth until after we secured the report. There was a soft rap on the door. I peered through the peephole and saw Vanessa pacing back and forth indecisively in front of my door. Damn it, she looked too conspicuous doing that in the hallway. I jerked the door open and yanked my partner inside. Vanessa let out a stifled yelp. I flinched as Vanessa slammed a surprisingly strong fist into my side. Hangman must have been giving her lessons. The two of us glared at each other for a brief, but eternal moment.

“Sorry,” I murmured, looking down at the floor, “My mind’s kind of fucked up right now.” Vanessa’s expression softened slightly, but her annoyance was still there. She rubbed her arm and walked into my room.

“I understand Mark,” Vanessa answered, her voice seasoned with an unexpected uncertainty. She sat down on one of the beds and stared at blank television screen. Her stillness was unnerving. I waited for her to speak.

“You know, being this close to Tampa, I’m scared,” Vanessa said, a slight tremor in her soft voice, “No, I’m fucking terrified. I thought as we got closer to the mission, all of those fears would just fall away, but they haven’t.” She slowly turned and looked at me. Vanessa’s eyes were pleading with me. I walked over and put my arms around her. It was uncomfortable for me, but Vanessa needed the physical reassurance. It also reminded me that I needed to concentrate on the mission. This delicate little kin, the beloved of my friend and protégé, needed me to keep focused. If I didn’t, there was a damned good chance she wouldn’t make it out alive. She needed to know that I was with her on this mission. Vanessa gently pushed me away and sat back down on the bed. She gave me an appraising look. That was unexpected.

“Hangman said you liked hugs,” I answered meekly, “He told me it might be necessary to give you one before we went in.” Vanessa laughed long and loud as the tension inside of her finally found a release.

“That sounds like Sam,” Vanessa said, finally getting control. She gave me an odd look and leaned into me, “You know Mark, you give good hugs. Reminds me of my brothers.” Vanessa stared at the blank television screen, almost as if she were looking through it. I waited as she collected her thoughts. Vanessa almost never mentioned her family. The few times she let something slip in conversation, she just stopped and stared off for a bit.

“Are you sure this plan is going to work?” Vanessa asked without taking her eyes off the television.

“About as sure as I am about most of my plans,” I answered confidently. Vanessa giggled at the comment.

“Considering some of the stories that Sam told me, that doesn’t exactly comfort me, Mark,” Vanessa replied.

“I’m still alive, and I promised Hangman that I would make sure that you stayed alive too,” I told her.

“Now that is comforting,” Vanessa said before getting up and walking back to her room.

The curtains in the front window moved ever so slightly as the limousine pulled up to the curb. I stepped out from the back, my eyes sweeping the street for possible threats. Vanessa stepped out behind me after tipping the driver. I looked up at the house as the limousine quietly pulled off. Right now, Vanessa and I were in the most dangerous part of our mission, even if she didn’t know it. I slipped the strap of the messenger bag over my head. I felt the comforting weight of the MP5K. We walked up to the front door. The house was a simple nondescript home in Riverview, one of the many suburbs of Tampa. Like most of Hillsborough County, Riverview had been farmland until it was taken over by the creeping urban sprawl. The subdivision was similar to so many that were quickly constructed in the nineties. I couldn’t even remember the name of it. The varying blues of the house’s exteriors could have been any house in a twenty mile radius. Two nice, but unimpressive sedans were parked in the driveway. A rusty and worn sports car was parked on the curb. I smiled. At least part of my grand plan was working. Now, if the occupants in the house would cooperate. I gently knocked on the door.

The door swung open. A disheveled man in his early forties stood in the doorway. From the look of his black hair and growing beard, not to mention the smell of stale sweat and beer, it had been a few days since the man shaved or showered. His eyes, although bloodshot, were clear and focused on Vanessa and me as he visually inspected us. He was wearing a faded black t-shirt and black sweatpants. There was a familiar bulge on his right side at the waist. The man looked like he was leaning into the left side of the doorway, but I could see the signs that his annoyed nonchalance was a charade. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from one of Mrs. Werstand’s finest security consultants.

“Can I help you?” the deep voice drawled, betraying a childhood firmly in the Southern states. I heard Vanessa take a step back as the alcohol tainted breath floated across us.

“I hope so Mr. Williams,” I answered. Williams perked up when I said his name. His hand slid down to the bulge, but his eyes never left mine. “My name is Marcus Smith. I worked for Mr. Werstand.” The reaction was almost instantaneous.

“Get in here,” Williams ordered, grabbing my arm and jerking me into the house. I was barely in the foyer before Williams was grabbing Vanessa and dragging her into the house. There was a small Glock in Williams’ hand as the door shut. I pushed down my instinct to either draw my sidearm or yank the MP5 out of the messenger bag. Williams was scared, but he wasn’t threatening us. He was trying to protect us.

“What in the hell are you doing here?” Williams demanded as soon as the door was securely shut.

“We need your help,” I said, “More to the point, we need your son’s help, Mr. Williams.” Williams’ arm jerked as he almost brought his weapon up to me before his conscious mind caught up.

“Who is we?” Williams asked suspiciously, “Your whole operation was rolled up. Your boss and mine are dead.” Williams had every right to be suspicious of me. Williams worked for Mrs. Werstand’s security company, and the employees helped out the Guild on a semi-regular basis. The employees weren’t stupid. They needed something to explain why they occasionally escorted individuals toting fully automatic weapons and did surveillance on individuals who acted like criminals and terrorists. The few kin in Mrs. Werstand’s company knew the whole story. Unfortunately, they were a small minority of the company. There just weren’t that many kin with the necessary skill set for an upper-tier security firm. For those individuals with the necessary skill set, but not the heritage, it was quietly known that the firm contracted out to clandestine intelligence operations. As far as Williams knew, the local spy ring in Tampa just fought a nasty clandestine war with a new foe and got thrashed. Many, if not most, of the local operatives were killed or in the wind. Now, I was showing up and telling him I needed him and his son to get back into the game.

“Yeah, the locals are underground,” I answered, silently thanking Vanessa for being smart enough to just play along, “I work for the next level up. There are records here in town that we need before they can fall into opposition hands. We need to get to their location and extract from their location without being seen.”

“What does this have to do with my son?” Williams asked.

“The records are at USF,” I answered, “Your son is a student. He can get us on to the campus with a minimal amount of fuss. We get the records and he brings us back here. Then we leave. Minimal danger to your family.”

“Fuck you,” Williams hissed, “I’m not risking my family for this. For all I know, your bad guys are waiting there to kill you and anyone around you. Hell, they could be watching this house.” I took a moment before answering and looked at Williams. The aging in his face and graying in his hair was recent. This was a man who watched his world explode in his face. He was terrified that it followed him home to his family. I doubted that Williams managed a good night sleep since Mrs. Werstand was killed by the Bleeders.

“I can tell you that the firm’s relationship to our work was not revealed,” I told Williams, “We lost because the opposition flooded the area with limited duration operatives that focused on us. We had already eliminated their main operatives. There wasn’t anyone to make the connection.” Williams looked at me askance. It went against all of his professional experience, but he knew I was telling him the truth. Not all of it, but enough for him to believe me. “Our organization needs these records if we’re ever going to retake this area. Yes, there is some risk. If there wasn’t, I would just go to the university myself and not involve you or your son at all. But, I will be there, and I will protect your son.” Williams turned away from us and walked into the kitchen. Vanessa and I silently followed him. Vanessa gave me a worried look, but I just gave her a reassuring smile. I spent some hard time researching my mark. Williams was going to agree – and so would his son. He just needed enough time for his mind to come to that forgone conclusion. I just hoped he would do it before his son’s afternoon class.

The younger Williams eagerly agreed to help us out. Part of that was probably ingrained family tradition. Most likely, it came from a teenager’s excitement for doing what he considered “Epic Shit.” I heard the capital letters in his voice as the young man bubbled on how exciting it would be to be doing a covert operation. Vanessa gave me a concerned look, but I just smiled and waved her worries away. Williams wasn’t the only employee of Mrs. Werstand’s company with a child at USF, but the younger Williams had been profiled as a “possible asset” for the Guild. One of the perks of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter was sitting in on those evaluations. The young human’s performance confirmed my suspicions. As we drove onto the campus, any outward sign of eagerness or excitement faded away as Williams Jr. became just another student. He was just giving some friends of his parents a ride onto the campus. He even wore the strained sneer of being put upon. He was his father’s son.

The younger Williams dropped us off in front of the massive six-story library. The beige-bricked and gray concrete structure was taller than most of the other buildings on the expansive campus, with the notable exception of the Sun Dome arena. As I made sure the messenger bag was hanging properly, Vanessa confirmed cell numbers with Willams Jr. I scanned the surrounding area. In front of the library was a courtyard area dotted with green metal tables and crammed with humans. Behind us was a small cul-de-sac that acted as an access road. Beyond that was a small parking lot and one of the parking garages. To the left of the library was Cooper Hall, the main liberal arts building and the College of Education. On the right was the main entrance loop of the university, starting from Fowler Avenue to the main administrative building. Across the loop was the College of Engineering. My instincts were screaming that something was wrong, but I couldn’t see the danger. My hand reflexively slipped into the messenger bag. Vanessa notice the motion.

“Something wrong Mark?” Vanessa asked with a strained casual tone.

“Nothing I can see, but there’s something’s wrong,” I answered, searching around. “I can feel it.”

“Do we need to leave?” Vanessa asked with a hint of fear in her voice. Her hand lightly grabbed my left arm.

“No, but I think we need to be careful,” I answered, taking the first steps toward the library. She kept a casual pace next to me, but she was darting looks all over the crowd of people. I doubted any of the students noticed, but a professional would.

“Do you know where we’re going?” I asked.

“I know what we’re looking for,” Vanessa replied, “I’ll find out the where once I get on one of the computers inside.” We entered the sliding glass doors, through an airlock, and into the lobby of the library. Just on the other side of the airlock was a wide entrance way with a Starbucks to the right and the checkout desk on the right. The entrance way dumped into a common area crammed with students at tables. Vanessa stopped one of the milling students and asked where the common use computers were located.

I jerked my head around as my instincts screamed warnings. My eyes scanned the area around us. We were being watched, but I couldn’t see who. My hand gripped the MP5 in the bag. Vanessa’s conversation with the other girl came to a screeching halt. Both of them gave me wary looks. I didn’t care. This was not me being paranoid. Someone with a bit of training was tracking Vanessa and me. My protective side told me to extract Vanessa and hunt down the bastard on my own. My professional side reminded me that the job needed to be done. I shook my head. A vague threat was something to be cautious about, but nothing so far was enough for me to cancel the operation. I fully believed that the information was too important to Vanessa and my overall mission.

“Let’s get this done, and get out of here,” I murmured to Vanessa. She nodded and warmly thanked the still-spooked coed. I followed my partner back to a bank of computers. It was primarily set up for the students to check their email, but the computers also let Vanessa access the library’s catalogue. I let her tap away on the keyboard as I searched again for whoever was following us.

“Are you sure you’re not just being paranoid about being back in town, Mark? Vanessa asked in a low voice.

“We are being followed,” I told her, “I just can’t find who’s following us.” Vanessa went pale and swallowed hard. I smiled down at her. “Relax. I’d scrub the operation if I thought you were in serious danger. Hangman would kill me if he find out I risked you recklessly.”

“Somehow that’s not making me feel better, today,” Vanessa replied tartly. She turned back to the computer and copied down some information onto her phone. Then she looked up at me and told me what she’d found. “The emissary’s report is on the fourth floor.” I grimaced at that. I was hoping that it was close to the ground. The library’s main elevators and staircase emptied onto a common area on each floor. Rooms surrounded the common areas, and most of those were the stacks. If a fight broke out, the exits were limited. Hostiles could easily block the common area, which meant any exit would mean using very noisy means. Either an emergency exit, which would pinpoint our location for any bad guys, or we would have to go out the window. I could survive a forty foot fall, but Vanessa couldn’t. With this many humans, I really didn’t want to have to pull out weapons. I spent a moment weighing the risks and rewards before nodding to Vanessa.

“Okay, let’s do this,” I told her, “We’ll take the stairs up. I don’t want to get trapped in an elevator.” Vanessa nodded in agreement. The two of us walked as casually as possible up the stairs to the fourth floor. Vanessa kept a happy smile on her face as we passed the smattering of students in the common area. My instincts weren’t screaming as we went through the glass doors to the library’s stacks. It was possible that whoever was following us had given up. More likely, our tail was calling for backup. Vanessa went in search of the court records while I cleared out one of the studying corrals. My glower was scary enough to do the job, because the two humans quickly grabbed their materials and skittered out of the stacks after a moment or two of me standing over them. Vanessa was oblivious to the matter as she plopped down half a dozen thick books. From the look on her face, Vanessa was annoyed. More than likely the scowl was because she had to actually sort through paper instead of scrolling through electronic records. Vanessa hated paper records. Antiquated and obsolete, were among her many complaints. She slid the first book in front of her and cracked it open. The book’s binding actually audibly cracked from never being opened since it was printed and bound. As Vanessa settled down in her chair and began reading, I focused on watching the glass door. If our stalker decided to sneak in here, I was damn sure going to intercept him and make sure he had a nasty surprise. Quietly, of course.

“Mark, what are you doing?” Vanessa asked, her voice tight with annoyance.

“Guarding you,” I answered, keeping my focus on the door.

“Mark, we’ve got over two thousand pages of text to get through,” Vanessa laid out, “We won’t get anything out of these before dark if you don’t help me. Now pick up one of those books and get to work.”

“Can’t you just find the date of the envoy’s report and look it up in that volume?” I asked.

“If there was any sort of order to these reports,” Vanessa answered, “The Prince’s court recorders don’t put everything in a nice, neat, chronological order. They have some bizarre indexing system that I don’t understand.”

“Ancestors,” I swore, “Okay, but move over here.” I gestured to the seat I was currently occupying.

“Why?” Vanessa asked, looking back at the door, “If anyone comes through the doors, they’ll see me first.”

“I’m counting on it,” I answered. Vanessa gave me an evil look before complying. I picked up one of the books. Vanessa was right about two things. First, the system for listing entries in the court records was bizarre. I couldn’t make rhyme or reason on how the recorders decided to list the various transcripts in the books. The transcripts went from subject to subject with no theme. Even the date was irrelevant. Some passages had transcripts from the same day, other times one day would be spread out over several passages. It was enough to drive anyone trying to gather information from the books to near madness. The second thing was that Vanessa was easily spotted where she was sitting. After a few hours of trying to decipher the books, I heard the glass door open. I’d heard it open several times since we started looking for the emissary’s report. This time my instincts started screaming again. I slid out from the study corral into the stacks. I left the messenger bag, but my HK45 was drawn and out of sight. The stalker walked almost noiselessly across the carpet. He had some training, but the stalker wasn’t a professional. He could be a ghoul, but I didn’t think so. They were usually too task-oriented to do things stealthily and subtly. The ones who could were usually personal servants to the vampires. He walked up to Vanessa. I heard the distinctive sound of metal against leather as he pulled out a weapon. Stupid fucker.

“Where’s the lycanthrope?” an angry voice whispered. Vanessa gasped. I stepped up behind – the lycanthrope? What the fuck? I didn’t recognize him, but he was definitely a lycanthrope. He was holding a small revolver at Vanessa and didn’t sense me as I placed the barrel of my HK45 right behind his ear.

“Very carefully pup, hand your weapon to my partner,” I told him. He hesitated and his muscles tensed, prepping for a counter against me. I slapped my pistol into his temple. “I really don’t want to kill you, but it wouldn’t be my first time.” His muscles went slack at my words. He quickly handed the revolver to a wide-eyed Vanessa.

“Good,” I told him, “Now sit down.” The lycanthrope quietly complied. I finally got a look at his face. The dark brown eyes and similarly colored hair was almost a trademark of the lycanthrope population. His face was lean and angular. There were faint scars on his chin and a more prominent one splitting his right eyebrow. He looked at me in fear and surprise. He swallowed as I towered over him. I holstered my pistol.

“Ancestors,” the lycanthrope whispered with a disquieting awe, “You’re the Badmoon.” The lycanthrope knowing me caught me off guard. I gave him another hard look. I didn’t know him, but I recognized him. The lycanthrope was a pack warrior. I’d seen him before at one of the Rites.

“Ancestors, I thought you were dead,” he said.

“Well, I’m not,” I said, “What are you doing here?” My heart tensed. If she was alive, did she think I was dead? Had she found another? I pushed those thoughts aside as I concentrated on the warrior in front of me.

“The Guildmaster sent me,” the warrior said, “Blue Blade saw you and the human come in and reported it. Guildmaster told me to go in and find you.” My hand shot out and slapped the young warrior. I hit him harder than I wanted to, but I wasn’t about to apologize.

“The Guildmaster’s dead. I saw him die,” I whispered dangerously, “So you better tell me who the imposter is, and who damn well gave him the idea he could take that title.”

“That would be me,” murmured a familiar voice from behind me. I whirled around, drawing my pistol. Farmer kept his pistol aimed at my eye as I place mine firmly into his gut. “And as to your second question, the Lady-Apparent made me this county’s new Guildmaster.”

Chapter 17 – Answers, Questions, Answers, Death

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 15 – Welcome to the New Job, Same as the Old Job

At the State Guildmaster’s suggestion, we stopped into a men’s clothing store where I changed into a more respectable looking outfit. My jeans were replaced by tan slacks. An oxford blue button-up shirt and a tie were also his doing. I kept my boots, mostly so that I could easily carry my new back-up piece, a Glock 30, but I did have them shined so they didn’t look quite so rugged. My HK45 was at my waist, covered by a dark blue sports coat. As I looked in the mirror, I could hear Bradon laughing from the grave. It amused him anytime that he managed to get me dressed up.

I watched the city go by as the State Guildmaster drove me to my meeting. Thankfully, he let me ride in silence. I didn’t feel like talking. I thanked him for the ride as he let me out at the coffee shop. He just nodded, told me to call him when I was done, and then drove off with a wave. I stood in front of the building a moment before going in. The Java Spear was a hangout spot for the students of the nearby Florida State University. The rich smells of the various coffees and teas flooded me as I opened the door. The central walkway was bordered by two raised drinking/dining areas, each holding roughly ten tables. Large picture windows framed the areas. The walkway continued to the counter where three twenty-ish humans were waiting on customers. Off to the side of the counter the walkway continued into a back room. I could see Blackhawk standing next to the doorframe. I walked up to the counter, bought a cup of tea (I hate coffee, but tea is at least drinkable) and joined Blackhawk in the room.

Unlike the front areas that were heavily decorated with FSU paraphernalia, this room was devoid of any mention of the Seminoles. The walls were painted a strange green color and the only light emanated from the door and the small lights on the dozen tables of the room. There were a couple of humans in the room, heavily involved in their textbooks. In one corner sat another human, a female, about twenty-five or so. Blackhawk and I made our way through the maze of tables to where she sat. He sat next to her, as I took the chair opposite of her. She was attractive, but it would take a second glance to notice it. She wore her long, black hair in loose curls cascading down her back. Her face was a soft pale white, with a light amount of make-up placed about her. What caught me was the intelligence I could see in her startling deep blue eyes. She studied me as I sat down before speaking.

“So, Christopher, this is my blind date?” she asked Blackhawk in a playful tone as he sipped his coffee.”He looks nothing like you warned me about.”

“That’s because one of his colleagues managed to clean him up,” Blackhawk said in the same playful tone, “Vanessa Hawthorne, may I present Marcus Badmoon, commonly called Ranger by his colleagues in the Guild.” He produced a manila folder from a small attache case beside him on the floor and placed it in front of her. I was curious, but I pushed it to the back of my head as I sipped at my tea. She read what I assumed was a file on me, occasionally making an inquisitive noise, for about fifteen minutes before setting it down on the table. I could see her mentally preparing the questions she had for me.

“Did you really do all those things?” she asked, almost incredulously.

“That depends. I didn’t read that file, so I don’t know what exactly you’re referring to,” I answered, trying to keep my voice nonchalant.

“A couple of highlights. Did you really walk into a coven of vampires with nothing but a pistol and wipe them out?” Vanessa asked, incredulously. I nodded casually. That job was a couple of years ago. The Guild found out about a group of independent leeches attacking our kin. The leeches killed three kin and critically wounded another two by the time the Guildmaster gave me the job. The Guildmaster made it clear I was expected to eliminate the entire coven as quickly as possible. Doing some basic recon, I found out the leeches were going after another kin that night. So, I intercepted the kin, knocked him out, and liberally laced his blood with a concoction provided to me by a somewhat decent shaman during an earlier job. When the leeches drank from the kin, the concoction paralyzed them like a good nerve agent. Then it was a matter of suppressing the three or four ghouls guarding them and executing the leeches. Hard on the kin, but that was sometimes the price of business. I was protecting all of the kin and the Peace. The Guildmaster, to his credit, made it sound much more difficult than it was, mostly to keep other lycanthropes from understanding how simply we operated.

“You also killed three vampires by smelling them?” she asked.

“Why does everyone keep bringing that up?” I asked in response, a little exasperated. Compared to all the crazy things I’ve done during my various jobs, that incident was pretty mundane. “The dumb bastards made a very bad mistake and landed upwind of me. Any hunter could have done that.”

“Not every hunter would have put it together so fast as to where the leeches were,” Blackhawk said quietly, “That’s what makes you so valuable, Ranger. You observe the world through all of your senses and act quickly on your observations.” There was something in the way Blackhawk made the observation that sent my instincts roaring.

“I don’t think you understand hunters as well as you think you do. You’re making a bigger deal of that episode than it really deserves,” I replied, “I’m good because I don’t think like most of the other hunters. A nasty flair of the dramatic and a habit of finding the odd solutions is what the Guildmaster told me.”

“And this part about you hearing the assassin assembling his weapon the night Stephen Vollen was killed?” asked Vanessa. I looked up in surprise at the question.

“How the fuck did you know about that?” I demanded, my voice dropping to a threatening tone. Outside of a few hunters in the Hillsborough Guild, I didn’t think anyone knew about that. Vanessa’s eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything.

“The Society’s contact in your Guild was Skiff,” Blackhawk interjected quickly, “He thought it was significant enough for us to know about. I have to agree with him. The question remains. How did you hear that?” Instincts screamed danger. Who the fuck were these Society wolves? And Skiff was a part of them?

“To be truthful, I’m not sure how I did that. I just did, and acted on it,” I answered, a little guarded. The possibility of the Guildmaster being unaware of the Society was growing in my mind. “Stephen Vollen was the best lord of Hillsborough since I joined the Guild. I couldn’t let him be killed without doing something to stop it. In the end, I was ineffective.” The two of them let that pass without comment. I pretended not to see the look that went between the two of them.

“How did you know the person assembling the weapon was hostile?” Vanessa pressed, “How did you know it wasn’t just one of the hunters or a Knight?”

“It sounded like a rifle being assembled. Most likely a bolt-action rifle,” I answered, keeping my rising annoyance in check. I had to remember that Vanessa had no history with me. She was asking logical questions about the situation.

“How does the kind of weapon determine hostility?” Vanessa asked, clearly confused by my answer.

“During that kind of event, where the Knights and the Guild are providing the heavy security, the Knights don’t use rifles. They stick to subguns, pistols, and maybe a shotgun or two for heavy artillery. That’s because they are the inner ring of defense. Inside the warehouse, the Guild doesn’t use rifles,” I answered, “During those kinds of events, our practice was for our sharpshooters to use semi-auto rifles. Bolt-action rifles are used for offensive sniper attacks – not protection details. There was no legitimate reason for anyone to be assembling a bolt-action rifle inside the warehouse.”

“See what I mean?” Blackhawk asked Vanessa, with a triumphant smile. She nodded slowly and took a long sip from the cup in front of her.

“Do you know what you are doing here?” she asked, a sudden seriousness in her voice.

“Meeting a prospective partner and deciding on whether or not I want to join the Society,” I answered, neutrally, “What are you doing here?” Vanessa was taken aback by my reply. I saw a glimpse of a weakness. Vanessa liked to be in control, and she didn’t recover quickly when that control was lost. That was something we’d have to work on. Assuming I decided to work with this Society.

“I’m trying to find out if the lycanthrope in front of me is capable of doing what I need done in the field,” she asserted with a lot more force than necessary. I just shook my head.

“Sorry Blackhawk,” I said, standing up, “I’m sure she’s a good analyst, but nothing has been said that makes me want to join your little playgroup.”

“Wait, Ranger,” Blackhawk said, holding up a hand, “Despite what you think, you are needed here, in the Society. A war is coming in this state. Hillsborough is just one front. The Society will be helping to get the state ready for the war. We’ll be doing operations to assist the war council once it decides on how to proceed. I need my people out in the field to get me the information that the war council will need. I need operators to protect my field assets, as well as conducting operations that will make the state stronger for the coming war. Including the re-taking of Hillsborough.” I knew Blackhawk was punching my buttons – and doing it damn well. He could see it.

“I need Vanessa out in the field,” Blackhawk said, “I need someone to keep her from getting killed, giving her help in analysis, and acting on the information she develops. In return for doing these tasks, I’m going to give you a mostly free reign of action in executing these tasks. In addition, I’ll make sure you’re part of the re-taking of Hillsborough.” He saw that was enough to keep me from leaving, so he continued. “You’re a Badmoon. Do you think any war pack will want your help? Do you think you any of the war council will let a Badmoon anywhere near their army? They will – if I vouch for you.” I knew Blackhawk was manipulating me into working for him. Worse of all, I was falling for it. I looked between Blackhawk and Vanessa.

“Okay, I can work with her,” I said.

I retrieved my few belongings from the State Guild and was taken by Blackhawk to my new place. I was expecting a townhouse similar to what I had when I was with the Hillsborough County Guild, or maybe an apartment. Instead, the Society provided me with a small house on the outskirts of the university. It was a single-story, two-bedroom house in a neighborhood that mainly catered to college students. As I walked around the empty house, Blackhawk explained the locale.

“The Society does most of its admin and intel analysis on the campus of the university. Mainly, it’s hiding in plain sight. So, we try to keep our members close. Furnishings are selected by you and the Society pays for them. Same thing goes for your vehicle.” My eyebrow arched at that. The Society was a hell of a lot better funded than I expected. Who was backing this group?

“When do I do all these things?” I asked, completing my inspection of the house.

“Over the next week and a half. We want you here during the Bone Moon. The Society always hunts together. May I make a suggestion?” Blackhawk asked.

“Go ahead,” I answered, not really sure what he was going to say.

“Take Vanessa with you when you go shopping. She is much better at interior design than I suspect you are. We do want you to maintain appearances. It helps with the hidden nature of the Society. I have a feeling that if you do your own decorating, it will turn out looking like a barracks.” I shrugged noncommittally.

“How good is she really?” I asked, “At her job, I mean.”

“She is perhaps the finest intelligence analyst I have ever met. I won’t bore you with her accomplishments other than to say that she is quite capable of making excellent use of the fragmented reports we get here. I think if you two communicate freely she will surprise you with her conclusions.”

“What about weapons and field training?” I continued.

“Vanessa knows how to spot a tail, because all of our people are taught that. Other than that, she has had only rudimentary training in weapons and field training. She was recruited under my predecessor. He failed to see the use in putting analysts out in the field. Of course, that was before Dade and Broward counties fell to the vampires.”

“I’m going to have to train her myself then,” I said, not really looking forward to it. I’ve never been a good teacher. I lack the patience. I usually do my best training refining the techniques someone was already using. Such as I had been doing with Hangman. Hunters never stop learning, and we learn the most from each other. Blackhawk nodded, seeing the annoyance on my face.

“She may surprise you,” he offered, “I doubt that she will ever be as proficient as you are, but I think she will grasp what you are going to teach her fairly quickly. Now there’s only one question left.”

“What’s that?” I asked suspiciously.

“What kind of car are you going to get?”

Hangman joined Vanessa and me as we searched through the kin-rated car dealerships. After wasting most of the day, I settled on a black Chevy Silverado pickup with an extended cab. It was a custom-order rig that the dealer was happy to get rid of because the person who ordered it then decided he couldn’t afford it. I had no such problem thanks to the Society’s deep pockets. The truck was big and loud, thanks to a big diesel engine, and it came loaded with a bunch of neat goodies. After a quick spin on a secluded driving range, I fell in love with it. Vanessa just grinned at us in a patient manner as Hangman and I poured over it back at my new house.

Blackhawk was right about Vanessa. She helped me go through the drudgery of decorating my new home. She responded well to my own tastes and helped me coordinate the rooms of the house. I had a modest master bedroom. The other bedroom I turned into an office, complete with a new computer and phone system. The living room looked better than average, and the kitchen was actually neatly put away. I wasn’t sure how long that would last, but it was nice to start out right. Most nights found Hangman, Vanessa, and me at my new house talking over dinner. Sometimes Hangman talked about some of the other hunters in the State Guild. Other times, we would regale Vanessa with stories about our lives in Hillsborough before the war. Vanessa later confided in me that interior decorating was what she was originally working towards, but her intellect and kin status brought her to the Society’s attention, and she never left. I learned a little of her background as we worked making my house habitable. Her brother and father were both lycanthropes. Her mother was a kin, but Vanessa didn’t say which members of her mother’s family were lycanthropes. She grew up knowing about the unseen world, and had even tried to find the elusive Pathwalkers in order to prove herself to her parents. Fortunately for everyone, she gave up that quest and decided to act like a normal human. She didn’t even become involved with the lycanthropes until her college years when she joined the Society.

“Mark, why are you still here?” Vanessa asked, out of the blue one night. It was a few weeks since Hangman and I arrived in Tallahassee. Vanessa was an outstanding cook, and she was demonstrating her skills as I cleaned my HK45. We were both waiting for Hangman to show up.

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused by the sudden question.

“I was talking to Sam last night, and he told me about you and Elizabeth Vollen,” she answered. Anger raged inside me at Hangman’s betrayal of my secret and Vanessa’s casual reference to Elizabeth – no, the Lady-Apparent. Vanessa stepped out of the kitchen with a large pot of pasta and saw my expression.

“Mark, calm down,” Vanessa said, with just the slight hint of command in her voice.

“Why?” I growled, “He had no right to tell you that!”

“He had every right,” she answered with a calmness that pissed me off even more. I forced the slide back onto my pistol, trying to control my impending explosion. She drew her face into an annoyed expression. As I focused on my pistol, Vanessa walked over to me and slapped me upside the head.

“In case you never noticed, Sam doesn’t come over here just for you,” Vanessa said as I glared at her, desperately restraining the urge to hit her. “He comes over here for me.” That stopped me in my tracks. My mind went over every time Vanessa and Hangman were together with me. Hangman had shown up a lot, and yes, he did have a different look in his eyes when he looked at Vanessa. Was that how I looked when I thought of her?

“Sam’s worried about you,” Vanessa explained, her annoyance melting into compassion, “He says you haven’t been acting normally since your county fell.”

“So, why’d he tell you?” I asked, still angry. Or at least trying to be angry. Vanessa was making it hard at the moment.

“That’s what lovers do, you idiot,” Vanessa answered, exasperated, “Good God, you’re such a newbie at this stuff. Unlike your dumb ass, Sam and I knew right away. After a few long talks, we were both sure. So, he confided in me what scares him. You not being your normal self scares him.”

“So why ask why I’m still in Tallahassee?” I asked, returning to the original question.

“I want to know why you haven’t left to go find Elizabeth,” Vanessa asked, “If what Sam’s been telling me is true, you’ve gone off the deep end for Elizabth, but you haven’t gone looking for her.” I felt an unfamiliar pain as she talked.

“Why do you care?” I shot back, not knowing what else to say. I knew that was the wrong thing to say the moment the words left my mouth. Fortunately, Vanessa didn’t rise to the bait.

“One, because I like you Mark, and I hate to think of you in pain,” she answered, “Two, because I want to know that my partner isn’t going to vanish in the middle of an operation to go chasing some phantom.”

“Do you remember two nights ago when I kicked you and Hangman out early?” I asked. She nodded, a little lost, but willing to see where I was going, “The State Guildmaster arranged for me to sit down with a shaman.” Vanessa’s eyes went wide at my admission. Considering how many times Hangman and I disparaged the shaman in front of her, her reaction didn’t surprise me.

“The State Guildmaster is worried about me too. So, he asked Melissa to come over and talk with me,” I explained.

“What happened?” she asked, curiously.

“She and I talked about me a lot. About my professional side, and my personal side. It was fucking painful,” I said.

“My God, I can only imagine. Did she help?”

“Yes and no. Although Melissa couldn’t find the Lady-Apparent among the Ancestors, she explained that the Lady-Apparent is probably dead. I don’t know. I still think the Lady-Apparent’s alive. The one thing Melissa did help me figure out is that I can help the Lady-Apparent better by my work in the Society. The county doesn’t need a single hunter right now. It needs the whole damn state to come charging in. I think the Society will accelerate that. It helped make the pain a bit more bearable.” We both fell silent. It was uncomfortable. I only admitted this much because Vanessa was my partner. She needed to know why I was doing this. The Society wasn’t like the Guild. I didn’t work for the Society out of personal honor and pride. I did it for personal selfish reasons. After a long uncomfortable silence, Vanessa spoke.

“You could call her Elizabeth,” Vanessa suggested, “It’s her name. It sounds so stilted when you call her the Lady-Apparent.”

“I can’t, it just hurts too much,” I admitted, “Calling her by her station lets my mind think without devolving into emotion.”

“Okay,” Vanessa answered. She didn’t push it any further. Neither of us mentioned anything about our conversation when Hangman finally joined us. It was a quiet meal. Now that I knew to look for them, there were a lot of meaningful looks between Hangman and Vanessa. I’d been so oblivious. Not good for a hunter. Finally, I kicked them both out to think. As I paced through my small house, the Lady-Apparent’s face haunted me. I felt guilty for letting the shaman push the Lady-Apparent to the back of my mind. I should be strong enough to deal with what was going on in my head. I wished for the thousandth time that Nick was with still in Florida. For some reason, I knew he could help, and he’d do it because he was my friend. The shaman tried to help me because my work was important to the state. I didn’t blame her for that – it was what shaman did. In lycanthrope society, the needs of the pack, in this case the state, outweighed the pain of the individual wolf. Pain could be dealt with after the pack was safe. When you got right down to it, that was the essential truth of the hunter. We bore the pain to protect the packs. We did the jobs, and bore the pain of those jobs, to make sure the packs were safe. We even did the most horrific jobs, and we did it without hesitation. I was ashamed of my earlier disdain for hunters who went through the emotional turmoil of watching their private lives die because of the Guild’s demands. Without warning, my old sarcasm flooded through me. If those bastards managed to struggle through and do what was necessary, then I could damn well do it. I was too good a fucking hunter. I began jotting down notes of things I needed to do to get Vanessa ready for the field.

Elizabeth still haunted my dreams that night.

As I started working with Vanessa, I noticed she was somewhat talented at many of the basic aspects of fieldcraft. She didn’t have any problem spotting tails, losing tails, covertly passing intel, and picking up dead drops. The one thing she was truly miserable at was shooting. After my house was set up, I took her to a pistol range. I brought several pistols with me, most of them borrowed from Hangman, who in turn, borrowed them from the State Guild. The range was an indoors range close to the State Guild. We took a place at one of the doubles booths that allowed two people to stand at the firing bench rather than one. I laid out the pistols I brought with me on the bench in front of us. While I loaded them, Vanessa put up the silhouette target.

“Alright, you had the standard firearms instruction, right? I asked her over the loud background of the range. She nodded.

“Okay, this is a Glock 19,” I said, handing her the small black pistol. “Now what’s the first thing we’re going to do?”

“Keep my finger off the trigger until I’m ready to fire,” she answered confidently, picking up the pistol.

“Nope,” I answered, “I’m teaching you how to combat shoot. I just handed you an unfamiliar pistol. The first thing you need to do is to make sure the gun is loaded.”

“But I saw you load the gun,” she protested.

“Yes, but I’m trying to get you in the habit of checking any strange weapon’s ammo supply before shooting,” I answered. “Will there be times that you can’t check it before shooting? Yes. Is this one of those times? No. Check to make sure the weapon is loaded.”

She fumbled for a moment, until I showed her how to release the magazine. She looked at the casings glittering through the holes in the magazine. Satisfied, she slammed the magazine back into the Glock’s grip and brought the weapon up. I pushed it back down.

“What the hell?” she said with her eyes burning with fury. When Vanessa was sure she was right, she didn’t take correction very well. It was an annoying personality quirk, but one I would have to work around if we were to survive in the field.

“Is the chamber loaded?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” she asked, hotly, in response.

“You checked the magazine, but there needs to be a round chambered before the pistol will fire,” I said, “Did you check if there was a round in the chamber?”

“How I do that?” she asked. At my motioning, she handed over the pistol.

“You can do a press-check,” I said, demonstrating on the Glock. “In most situations, it’s best just to rack the slide and get a round from the magazine.”

“I’ll lose a round that way!” Vanessa countered.

“Yeah, but you’ll know the chamber’s loaded. That’s worth a bullet,” I said, handing Vanessa back the pistol. She nodded and yanked back the slide. She pointed the gun at the silhouette’s looming figure about ten yards away. She was holding the pistol wrong, but not dangerously so. I watched without comment as she yanked back the trigger. The gun bucked slightly up from the recoil and a hole appeared just above the silhouette’s right shoulder .

“You probably scared him,” I commented as the two of us surveyed the target.

“Very funny, asshole,” she said in her usual sweet voice, “Now show me how to hit the target.”

“Place your feet about shoulder-width. Now outstretch both of your arms in front of you. Don’t lock your elbows, allow your arms to jump up a little to compensate for recoil. What you have now is the isosceles stance. Got it?” I asked. She nodded her head as she placed her arms like I was demonstrating. Her stance was mostly correct. I just needed to make some slight modifications. When I was satisfied that she the stance right, and that she wasn’t uncomfortable in that position, I began the next part.

“Can you see the front sight on the gun?” I asked.

“The white dot in the middle of the other two dots,” she answered, slightly annoyed with all of my corrections. I kept my own frustration under check. Vanessa didn’t know how gentle I was being with her. Well, at least compared to the last group that I taught.

“Yup. Place the dot over the target’s center. Then line up the other two dots. Got it?” I asked, watching for her to nod, “Good, now relax. Gently squeeze the trigger. Don’t yank it and don’t jerk it. It should come as a surprise.” I watched as she gently squeezed the trigger. The gun barked again as the bullet was thrown out of the chamber by the explosion of the powder within the brass casing. The bullet hit the target about two inches to the right of the center.

“Much better, Vanessa,” I complimented her. She beamed at the hit.

“Pretty good, huh?” she asked. I might have agreed, but she was going to have to do much better before I could feel safe with her having a weapon in the field. The real world was a harsh test for the inexperienced.

“I said much better, but you still have a ways to go yet. You took about thirty seconds to get that hit. When we’re done, you should be able to hit the center of the target with less than a second to fire.”

“Less than a second? Are you kidding me?” she asked. I picked up one of the other pistols on the bench. I hit the magazine release, inspected the rounds, and slipped the magazine back into the pistol. I pulled the slide back, loading the first round into the chamber.

“Time me,” I said. She brought up a stopwatch on her phone. I waited with the pistol in a low-ready.

“Go,” she said. I brought the pistol up. The sights came into line. My finger squeezed the trigger. The pistol roared once, then twice, and continued for another five times as I blew out a two-inch section of the target’s chest. The slide locked back on the empty magazine, signaling me to quit firing. I lowered the pistol and released the magazine.

“Less than five seconds for seven shots,” she stated, looking at her watch.

“All of them placed in roughly the same area. That was a bad shooting set for me. The Guild expects better performance. Vanessa, I don’t expect you to match a Guild shooter, but I’m not going to lie to you. You’ve got a ways to go yet, and it’s going to take practice.”

“You expect me to learn how to do that in a few hours?” she asked.

“Oh, hell no. Not even in a few weeks, although you could if I constantly drilled you. The first few sessions are going to be getting you to instinctively go into the right stance and hit a high center mass without a problem. We also need to a find a weapon that suits you. The Glock’s a good all-around pistol, but we need to find one that works best for you. Now, let’s get back to work, okay?” The shooting session went mostly well. Vanessa was a quick study. She went through all the guns that I brought with me and learned how they operated. By the end of the session, she knew the difference between a revolver and a semi-auto, the different types of semi-autos, and how all of them operated. She even had the stance down. Her accuracy, on the other hand, left a great deal to be desired. It looked like she was anticipating the shot, and I couldn’t think of how to deal with that. As I said, I’m not a good instructor. At least she was hitting the target with all of her rounds, but there was a good enough chance that the target would still be walking afterward. That was never a good thing in our line of work. I hoped I could help her get better before we were sent out on our first mission together.

I didn’t see or hear from Blackhawk during those first few weeks. It was just as well. I was busy as hell getting myself settled into my house and working with Vanessa to get her ready for field operations. I couldn’t bring myself to call whatever the Society wanted me to do jobs. That term was reserved for hunters, and I wasn’t working for the Guild anymore. I liked Vanessa, but my instincts were telling me something was wrong with the Society. It wasn’t anything I could put my finger on, but I definitely felt an ill-ease with the Society. Blackhawk’s sudden reappearance did nothing to lessen my suspicions.

A knock at my door woke me up before sunrise – a situation that didn’t make me all that happy to begin with. I was half-expecting Vanessa, but found Blackhawk standing impatiently on my front porch. Blackhawk was adjusting his grip on two brown bags. One bore the logo of a local pastry shop, which explained the smells emanating from it. The other was completely blank. That one piqued my interest. Blackhawk didn’t wait for me to invite him in. He just pushed past me. My mind was still trying to clear the haze of semi-consciousness, so instead of grabbing my interloping boss and throwing him out, my hand just sailed past his rushing body. He set down both bags on my table.

“Call Vanessa and get her over here, now,” Blackhawk ordered curtly. I wondered exactly how much trouble I would get into if I scruffed my runt of a boss and punched him in the face. Instead of following through on my impulse, I snatched my phone off of the kitchen counter. I dialed Vanessa and after a couple of rings, I heard her mumble some sort of greeting. I smiled as I heard Hangman grumbling profanities in the background.

“Vanessa, it’s Ranger,” I said in the most controlled voice I could manage.

“I knew that when I saw the phone number, you dickhead,” she hissed into the phone, “This better be damned important for you to be calling me this early in the morning.”

“Our fearless leader decided to show up at my place and decreed you come over here,” I answered, lacing my words with as much false sincerity as I could, “Since he’s the one paying the bills, you might want to get over here. At least he was nice enough to bring breakfast stuff.” I heard shuffling in the background.

“Tell Chris I’ll be there in an hour,” Vanessa said. She must have turned to Hangman, because I heard her faint scolding voice, “This is what I get for staying over at your place.” I stifled a chuckle and hung up the phone. I turned back to Blackhawk. His face was twisted in righteous indignation as he closed the distance between us.

“I do not appreciate my subordinates referring to me in mocking tones,” Blackhawk said in measured tones. Gone was the smooth and collected façade Blackhawk exuded on the past two times I met him. In front of me was someone who reminded me heavily of my first boss when I joined the Hunters Guild. He was a tin god that I learned to hate. Fortunately, his deputy protected me before I did something incredibly impulsive. That deputy would continue protecting me before promoting me to be his personal hitter when he became the Guildmaster of Hillsborough County. I decided to follow the constant advice of my Guildmaster and ignore Blackhawk’s provocation. Almost.

“I don’t care if you don’t like it,” I answered coolly, “Vanessa will be here in about an hour. I’m going to get dressed.” As I turned towards my bedroom, Blackhawk grabbed my arm.

“I will not have you talking to me like that,” Blackhawk spat, his body vibrating with anger at my insolence, “I am your leader, and you will give me the respect a leader deserves.” My eyes narrowed at Blackhawk’s words. The term leader has a very specific connotation in the lycanthrope world. A leader was a lycanthrope who earned his position through skill and strength. A leader was someone who could protect his pack and assert its claims. Someone that strong deserved the respect his subordinates willingly gave. Blackhawk was not a leader. He was my boss, because I worked for him.

“You are not my leader,” I replied with a coolness in my tone that amplified my words, “You are a means to an end. I am willing to work for you because I know the war council will need me when it goes back into Hillsborough, and you can secure my position there. Make no mistake about how far our relationship goes.” He shrank back from me as I talked. Okay, maybe the Guildmaster was right and words could be more effective than outright violence. I quickly hid the smile as my mind clicked on a realization. Blackhawk didn’t understand who he recruited. If his contact was Skiff, then Blackhawk probably had no idea what happened to me during the war and the fall of Hillsborough. Blackhawk came to the same conclusion, because the anger was replaced by a calculating look. Was all of his anger an attempt to manipulate me? All of this double-thinking was hurting my head.

I walked into my bedroom as Blackhawk retreated back to my kitchen. My confrontation with Blackhawk did nothing to mitigate the warnings my instincts were blaring about the Society. Hell, for all I knew, Vanessa and I may be the Society’s only employees. From my talk with the State Guildmaster, I was fairly sure Blackhawk could deliver on his side of the bargain. Even being isolated from lycathrope society, I knew that the war council would form in less than a month, from what Hangman told me. Once the war council convened and a new leader for the state was selected, then an army of lycanthropes from all over the state could be raised. That army would take back Dade, Broward, and Hillsborough counties and install lords for those counties. For such an army to succeed, it would need the Society and the State Guild to do prep work such as gather strong, hard intelligence and surgically remove some of the obstacles. I was willing to do that to make sure that my county was liberated and the Vollens restored to power. Damn it, I knew she was still alive. I made a point to stay in my office until Vanessa showed up. I was going to need her to keep me restrained while dealing with this new Blackhawk. I trusted Vanessa to keep me from doing more damage to my position with Blackhawk. I heard Blackhawk and Vanessa speaking in low tones, so I walked out of to the kitchen. Vanessa shot me a frustrated look. Blackhawk pointedly ignored my entrance, and instead, focused on emptying the contents of the bags. Vanessa sat down next to me as Blackhawk looked askance at us from across the table.

“Your first assignment,” Blackhawk announced as he shoved a foot high stack of paper at Vanessa and me. “You will need to get started on the information analysis as soon as possible to move quickly.”

“Okay, so what is it?” I asked.

“I need you to locate and extract Lord Savik and his followers from the Disputed Territories,” Blackhawk answered, casually.

“What the hell?” Vanessa demanded. She looked over at me, surprised that I wasn’t objecting as well. “Why are we doing this?”

“Because the war council will need those lycanthropes,” I answered, startling Vanessa. “They need warriors with experience to help lead in a lycanthrope army. To re-take Hillsborough, Hangman, myself, and anyone else who managed to escape the county will be needed. For an army to survive any incursion into the Disputed Territories, it will need those lycanthropes with experience on the lay of the land and the enemies to expect.”

“None of the State Guild hunters sent into the Disputed Territories have returned, nor any of the Society teams,” Vanessa countered, “That place is a black hole. How do you expect us to survive long enough to pull out this Lord Savik, assuming he’s alive?”

“You, by providing the best analysis of the available intelligence,” Blackhawk answered, jabbing a thin stub of a finger at Vanessa, “And you, protecting her and helping to scrounge up more intelligence for her to analyze. That’s why I put the two of you together – to handle these kinds of operations.” Vanessa scowled, but she didn’t have any other arguments to make. I didn’t have any arguments against the operation. This was exactly the kind of operation I expected from the Society. A hint of smugness leaked through Blackhawk’s business facade. He knew the odds were against Vanessa and me on this operation, and he knew I could see the importance of it to the war council enough not to object.

“I’ll leave you two to discuss how you want to do this,” Blackhawk said as he walked to the front door, “Just so that you know, this operation is vital to the state.” He brusquely slipped through the front door. Vanessa shot me a ferocious look of betrayal.

“What?” I demanded as she stood with a sniff.

“Why the hell didn’t you say anything?” she countered, “Even you can tell going into the Disputed Territories is death.” I looked at Vanessa for a moment without saying anything. Her body was slightly trembling and jerking her hand through her hand. When I didn’t say anything, Vanessa began to pace. Then, it finally occurred to me.

“Vanessa, does going into the Disputed Territories terrify you?” I asked softly.

“Yes! Doesn’t it scare you?” she answered, nearly screaming. I looked at her for a moment before answering. For once, I needed to be the calm one in our pair.

“No, not really,” I answered, trying to keep my voice as even as possible, “The operation doesn’t scare me. I understand it’s dangerous, but not terrifying.”

“I don’t believe you,” Vanessa shot back, “I don’t care what your rep is, you have to have some fear in you.”

“Yeah, but not like what you’re feeling,” I said. Vanessa planted her fists into her hips. Her face plainly told me that she didn’t believe me, so I tried to explain. “Look, this isn’t exactly the first time that my superior has sent me on what would be called ‘a suicide mission.’ Hell, that’s partly how I made my professional rep. That said, I’ve had years of training and experience doing this kind of thing to fall back on.”

“And I don’t,” Vanessa concluded before I could finish, “I’m acting like a rookie, like a pup, is that it?” Her eyes flashed dangerously.

“No, you’re acting like someone who’s facing a completely unknown and dangerous situation,” I answered, “Look, you’re just going to have to trust me that I know what I’m doing when it comes to this shit. Yes, you’re going to be in some danger. That’s the nature of field work, but I’m not going to risk you unnecessarily.”

“That’s not exactly comforting, Mark,” Vanessa said, her sarcasm returning with a vengeance.

“Listen, you signed up for a job that’s not exactly safe,” I replied, “The trick is to maximize your results while minimizing your danger.”

“Isn’t that supposed to be eliminating the danger?” she asked.

“Nope,” I answered, “At the end of the day, you better be willing to lay down your life for the job if necessary.”

“Sam is going to flip when I tell him what I have to do,” Vanessa said, slumping into the chair next to me. She stared at the stack of paper.

“Hangman’s a professional,” I said, “He knows the work.”

“Yeah, because you would react so well if it was Elizabeth traipsing down to the Disputed Territories with only one bodyguard,” Vanessa retorted. My body locked as the words hit me. I was frozen as a locked-away terror roared through me with pent-up power. Vanessa saw the effect her words had on me and quickly wrapped her arms around me like a warm blanket and murmured a low soothing tone. The fear smirked at my partner’s actions. Fear was a paralyzing thing, but this was stupid. Since I didn’t have to concentrate on the external world, I could pull all of my strength together and slam the fear back to the dark place in my mind where I kept it.

“Okay, that’s something that scares me,” I said. I exhaled slowly, “Ancestors, it scares me.”

“That’s not a normal reaction, Mark,” Vanessa said, with the same low, soothing tone, “You’re going to have to deal with all those feelings you keep locked up. Preferably before it gets us killed.” I nodded silently, not trusting words at the moment. “Are you going to be okay?”

“Get me on the operation, and I’ll be fine,” I answered, “I know how to handle those.” Vanessa seemed warily satisfied with my answer and excused herself. She wanted to get back to Hangman. I could understand her desire to curl up with Hangman and let him tell her everything was going to be all right. I wished desperately I could do the same thing with Elizabeth. Well, if there was any benefit to the episode, calling her by her name hurt less.

The dark sky was cloudless, which let me see the stars gleam in the night. The moon was a bright white disc in the sky, trickling light into the woods. The shadows from its dim light moved and danced as the light breeze came through where I was waiting. I tasted the breeze with my muzzle, smelling the quarry’s fear. My paws silently moved through the brush. My eyes hadn’t caught his image among the trees, but I could hear his crushing footsteps as he ran. My nose smelled his fear, his dank perspiration, the stains on his clothes from his last meal. The prey thought he’d escaped the worst of his life. I knew different. Soon, he would also.

I tracked him from where the prison bus tipped over. According to the scent on the crude knife in the body, my prey killed his guard before escaping with about ten or so other prisoners. They were being hunted this Bone Moon by other lycanthropes of the Society. I was only interested in this one. I lowered my head at one of his footprints. I could feel my instincts fighting me.

Run, chase, and kill. His scent is strong and the hunger grows, they beckoned in my head. I could see something was wrong. This wasn’t the path of an aimless run. The prey knew something was following him.

Good, it makes the hunt more exciting if the meat knows that his hunter is out there, the wolf inside beckoned. I could have shed my wolf form for true and lessened the voice, but I refused to let the primal animal in me win any small victory. That was another part of the hunt of the Bone Moon. The human knew he was being hunted, and that made him dangerous. Well, possibly dangerous. I very much doubted he realized what was hunting him. I ran parallel to the tracks, hoping to find any traps the prey set. I tasted the wind again, hoping to find his familiar scent among the background of the forest. I couldn’t smell him at all. He was moving downwind of me. The bastard – meat – was smart. I tasted the wind again. This time, I listened to it instead of smelled it. The birds upwind were chirping wildly. They were defending their territory. The birds downwind were coming this way because the human startled them out. After listening to the sounds of the calls for a few minutes, I figured out where the human was and in what direction he was moving.

I ran through the brush. The dead leaves, fallen branches, and dirt were mashed together under my paws, making a unique noise that the other animals in the forest knew and understood. A predator was chasing his prey and everything else had best move out of the way. The trees began to thin out as I chased the human, and in the distance I could see the end of the forest. A wide open clearing of tall grass awaited me. The poor fool. I could now make him out. He wasn’t very tall, but he was fast. He knew how to run through tall grass. I ran out of the forest into the grass, swishing through the tall strands. I was close enough now that I no longer needed the wind to smell him. I could smell the sweet stench of fear all on my own. I could feel his heavy footsteps pounding through the ground as he ran.

Yes! Run him into the ground! Pounce and tear him apart! I let the primal me take over. My pace quickened. The prey had no chance. Against a normal wolf, he might have escaped with his life. Against a lycanthrope, there was no hope. I was only about two yards from him when I attacked, springing well over ten feet into the air. My front legs grew as the paws articulated themselves into clawed hands. My neck shortened as my chest broadened. My body elongated itself, with my tail growing also. My legs stretched and fleshed out. My prey grew smaller as my perspective changed. The subdued night colors sprang into my vision as the wolf’s gray-scale vision transformed into the enhanced eyes of the true form.

His spinal column shattered as I slammed into his back. We crashed into the ground. I rolled off him and crouched in front of his paralyzed body. He whimpered and cried, desperately trying to pull himself along the ground with his arms. His legs dragged behind him uselessly. He did not seen me in front of him. I reached out and grasped his hair. I pulled up his head from the ground until he was staring me in the eyes. Pain fell from his eyes as it was replaced with stark fear. My other hand swept his neck, the razor-sharp claws slicing his throat open. A rasping wind came out, then the blood from his veins filled the air pipe. A pathetic gurgling came out as the body tried to save itself. The human was not aware of this. His cognitive mind was gone, already deep within itself as the catatonia set in. The gurgling of his last breaths pumping out of his mutilated throat lasted over a minute before it ceased. The prey was dead. The hunt was finished. The Bone Moon beamed happily down on me as the Ancestors gave their approval of my hunt.

Perhaps the most boring part of an operation is the intelligence analysis. Not the gathering of intelligence. That can be kind of fun, or at least interesting, if you’re doing it right. It was just fucking boring plowing through the available intelligence to glean out the useful bits of information from the useless details. At least it was for me. Vanessa, on the other hand, hummed happily to the song on her earbuds as she sat at my dining room table and read through the stack of paper. The rapid clicking of her laptop’s keys was grating on my nerves. I hated her at the moment. I was still staring at the same scrap of paper for the past ten minutes. Granted, part of her happiness and part of my grumpiness was because of the Bone Moon. The hunt was good, but it was the first time in my life I felt an empty pit afterwards. For most lycanthropes, after returning from the hunt, they burned off the remaining energy with their mates. There was a good reason for that. Most lycanthrope females were fertile during the Bone Moon, which led to an odd cultural ritual of hunting followed by sex. Badmoons were never considered good sires, so I never had to worry about doing the mating dance. This Bone Moon was the first time I felt loneliness and envy. I wanted Elizabeth, and there was no substitute. Part of me wanted to leave all of the work to Vanessa and go shooting, or do something else to take my mind off my frustration. My professional side knew better. I had no doubt Vanessa would give me an excellent intelligence summary, but sometimes I needed to see the hard data myself. The raw data could give you a feel for the situation that a summary just couldn’t. I tried again to focus on the work.

Part of the problem with dealing with the Disputed Territories was the damn place was a black hole – for hunters, spies, and intelligence. Nothing came out of there, not even on the vampire side of the conflict. Bradon confided in me one time that the place scared the vampires almost as much as it scared the lycanthropes. Something about the council running things down there. Vanessa and I had plenty of information, but it was all before the surprise attack by the vampires that started the war. Hell, we didn’t even know what happened during the attack. Like I said, the damn place was a black hole.

Every lycanthrope in Florida knew the basics. About six years ago, the aristocracies of Broward and [Miami-Dade](, _Florida) went missing in what was assumed a massive surprise attack by the Gold Coast Council. This was followed by the extermination of the packs in a furious series of attacks. A few lycanthropes managed to escape. None of them could give a coherent account of what happened. The State Guild immediately dispatched two hit packs to investigate and extract any lycanthropes. They just vanished shortly after crossing the border into Broward. According to the papers Blackhawk supplied, the Society also lost an asset who infiltrated into Miami-Dade. The Prince ordered the sealing of the borders between the state and the two counties. Supposedly it was to investigate what happened and come up with a plan for retaking the Disputed Territories. The surrounding counties were charged with maintaining the border with some assistance from the state. The Society set up a few listening posts, but neither the Society, nor the State Guild, sent in any additional forces. The Prince suffered politically for his decision. The few times I heard my Guildmaster speak of the situation, it was with unadulterated disgust. From what he said, Lord Vollen was of a similar opinion. I don’t know how the Prince managed to avoid a war council being convened when those two counties fell. I didn’t pay attention to state-wide politics beyond the occasional grumblings of my boss. Hell, county politics were annoying enough to me that I only paid attention to them when I was forced to. The only good point was that the vampires didn’t have a state-wide structure. The individual councils were too busy fighting for advantage to band together. Even with one of them gaining control of two of Florida’s richest counties, there was no move to band together against the lycanthropes of the state.

From just the basic facts, the mission Blackhawk gave Vanessa and me looked impossible. What changed the mission from impossible to improbable happened about the time that tensions started to rise between the TCV and Lord Vollen. There was only a tersely worded memo talking about an “emissary” from the Disputed Territories who showed up in Jacksonville. There was no information about what the emissary said in the memo or anything else Blackhawk gave us. From what I was reading, the whole incident was swept behind the curtain by the Prince. My instincts were telling me Blackhawk had something to do with it, but I was being very careful with that theory. I wanted it to be true too much, and that meant it would be too easy to ignore information that disproved it. I learned that lesson the hard way a long time ago. It damn near cost another hunter his life. You tend to remember those kinds of lessons.

“Vanessa, have you managed to find anything on what the emissary told Lord Janis from Duval?” I asked. The emissary’s message was the focus of Vanessa’s research while I reviewed the basic background to get a feel for the Disputed Territories. When Vanessa didn’t even move her head at my question, I fished a coin out of my pocket and threw it at her.

“What the fuck?” she asked as the coin audibly slapped against her neck. She took one look at me and pulled her earbuds out. “Sorry, what did you ask me?”

“The emissary?”

“Not a thing,” she answered, “I chased down a few leads, but they all came up empty.” Vanessa surprised me. I expected her to be frustrated, but she wasn’t. If anything, Vanessa was more excited about the hunt for the information she was searching. “I hoped to find the emissary, but he died shortly after talking with Lord Janis. Lord Janis made a report to the Prince, but so far that’s the extent of what we know.”

“Great,” I groused, “Any other ideas?”

“A couple,” Vanessa said, “Whoever didn’t want the contents of the emissary’s report known couldn’t destroy the actual report. Not once it was entered into the official record. According to our memo, Lord Janis’s report was entered. So, the only options would be to hide its existence and where it ended up.”

“Okay, I’m following you so far,” I said.

“Well, we already know the report exists, so now we only need to find where it ended up,” Vanessa explained, “How familiar are you with the the Prince’s court records?”

“I’m not,” I answered, “At the county level, the aristocracy leaves that duty in the hands of the Keeper. I don’t know what that old bastard did with them.”

“I’ve never even heard of a Keeper,” Vanessa said, “At the State level, the keeping of the Prince’s court record is kept by the kin of the Prince.”

“I didn’t see any kin in the Manor.”

“I don’t know all of the specifics, but the kin transcribe the records from audio recordings,” Vanessa answered. Okay, that shouldn’t be surprising. The hunters kept audio recordings anytime the Guildmaster met with any of the pack leaders. It kept them honest if we did something they asked for in a manner they didn’t like.

“Now, from what I’ve been researching, the court records aren’t kept in the State Manor,” Vanessa continued, “The records are distributed to safe places throughout the state, using the state university system to protect them.”

“Okay, so what does that mean for our search?” I asked, trying to get to the point.

“It means that instead of looking for the actual report, I’m looking to see where the kin sent the records for the day Lord Janis reported to the Prince,” Vanessa answered, “I’m making some headway on this track, but there’s a lot of disparate data that needs to be mapped and analyzed.”

“Time estimate?” I asked, internally reviewing my building list of to-do items.

“I can’t give you one,” she said, “I could find it in the next ten minutes, the next two hours, or tomorrow. There’s just a ton of raw data I have to sift through.”

“Yeah, okay. You don’t have to sound so damn happy about it,” I grumbled.

“Can’t help it. This is the kind of thing I love doing.” Vanessa was beaming with anticipation. I needed her for some of things that needed to get done before we left, but we needed the emissary’s report more. I stood up from the table. There really wasn’t anything else I could really contribute on the intel side.

“Okay, you continue to work here. I’ve got to go to the Guild and get some of the gear that we’re going to need.”

“Say hi to Sam for me,” Vanessa said as she immersed herself in her music and the glowing display on her laptop.

I learned Tallahassee’s streets just enough to get to the few places I needed to go. One of those was the State Guild. Most of the time I was meeting with Hangman for lunches, but there were occasional discussions with the State Guildmaster and some of his hunters. Those discussions were informal briefings on what happened in Hillsborough. I got the distinct feeling the State Guildmaster was planning something in Hillsborough, but he wasn’t giving out any details – at least to me or to Hangman. As soon as I arrived at the State Guild, the guard directed me to the State Guildmaster’s office. That was fine, because I needed to ask the State Guildmaster for stuff.

“Ranger, we need to talk,” the State Guildmaster growled as I walked into his office. We were alone, which surprised me. The State Guildmaster hadn’t met with me alone since the day I joined the Society.

“What about?” I asked in response.

“Why in the hell is Blackhawk sending you down to the Disputed Territories?” The State Guildmaster gave me a severe look that I recognized. It was the same look my Guildmaster gave me when he wanted an answer from me without any of my normal bullshit.

“How did you know that?” I asked, neutrally. From the earlier conversations with the State Guildmaster and some of his hunters, I had the impression the State Guild knew very little about the Society and its activities. I wasn’t expecting the State Guildmaster to be privy to what the Society was doing.

“Your partner needs a refresher on operational security,” the State Guildmaster answered, “She confided in her lover, and of course –“

“He told you,” I finished. I was annoyed, but Hangman didn’t do anything wrong. He did exactly as hunters were taught since we first walked into the training camp.

“So?” the State Guildmaster asked, “Why are you going to the Disputed Territories?”

“I’m not sure that I can tell you that,” I answered. The State Guildmaster’s face darkened. “Listen, I’m not trying to make trouble for you, but that may be information that’s too sensitive for me to hand over to you.” The State Guildmaster’s face continued its scowling countenance.

“Look, I don’t know what you’ll do with that information, and I don’t want anything that can be traced back to me,” I said, trying a new tack. I needed to keep my good relationship with the State Guildmaster. I wasn’t about to trust only in Blackhawk getting me on the assault back into Hillsborough. ”That wouldn’t do either of us a bit of good.”

“So why are you here?” the State Guildmaster asked, slightly less scowling.

“Actually, I need some stuff for this upcoming jaunt,” I said with a straight face. The State Guildmaster just gave me a blank look. I could see the incredulous thoughts running through his head, so I plowed on before he had time to recover. “I brought a list of things that I can’t procure on my own. I kind of figured you might be willing to give me a hand.”

“Why, in the Ancestors’ names, should I do that?” the State Guildmaster asked, finally recovering from my impudence.

“Because you don’t want me dead,” I answered, dropping my voice from its normal irreverent tone to one of deadly earnest, “Because neither of us trusts Blackhawk, and we both know it’s better to have someone on the inside.”

“For a non-political lycanthrope, you seem to know how to play the game well,” the State Guildmaster commented as he reached for the paper list in my hand.

“Politics, no. Survival, yes.”

Like the Hillsborough chapter, the State Guild maintained its armory inside a legitimate gun store. Most chapters did so, because a gun store was such an excellent cover for a depository of a vast quantity of guns and ammunition. The State Guild armorer was, surprisingly, a kin by the name of Rube Simmons. Kin were hired and used by lycanthropes for a variety of reasons, but the Guild never used them for anything but intelligence gathering and occasionally staffing some outside offices. My momentary surprise was quickly swept away by the gruff, efficient manner Simmons put together my package – including offering some very helpful suggestions. My gear was simple because I knew what worked for me. Getting things for Vanessa on the other hand, was to say the very least, challenging. I returned back to the house and began laying out the gear I planned taking on into the Disputed Territories. When it got down to brass tacks, the mission was locate-and-extract, since the lycanthropes I was looking for already sent for help from the rest of the state. My suspicion was that once Vanessa and I managed to find out exactly what the messenger told the Lord of Duval County, we would know where to find the remaining lycanthropes in the Disputed Territories. I called Vanessa and asked her to meet me back at my house.

“Hey Mark, what’s up?” Vanessa asked as she stepped through my door.

“We need to get you equipped before we have to leave,” I answered, “First, did you manage to make any progress on the search?” She pulled her laptop out of her satchel bag and laid it out on my table. She quickly keyed in some commands.

“I’ve got one of my custom search bots working on it,” Vanessa said, “Nothing yet, but the more negative hits, the better I can refine the parameters.”

“So the answer is you’re making some progress, but no real definitive idea of when we’ll find what we’re looking for,” I said. She nodded with an exasperated look on her face. I ignored it and continued on the main purpose of the meeting. “First, you have a nine a.m. appointment at the State Guild to have a vest fitted. I’m not taking you into the field without one. The other thing is to get you equipped with a sidearm and a field weapon.”

“You’re kidding, right?” she asked, “You’ve seen me shoot.” I laid out a few handguns on my coffee table. Vanessa could hit something, but only after some intense drilling, which we didn’t have time to do. Vanessa also got flubbed by the controls of some of the semi-automatic pistols.

“Try this one,” I said handing her a small pistol.

“Isn’t this your back-up piece?” Vanessa asked handling the tiny Glock 26.

“Similar, but this one is chambered in nine millimeter, ” I answered, “You should be able to handle it without too much problem.” Vanessa hemmed and hawed, but in the end, she preferred the Glock over others she tried. Personally, I was glad she liked the Glock. It used the same ammo as the two MP5’s and would take all of the abuse a new owner was going to put it through. Simmons was kind enough to give me a used one, so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking it in. Simmons also threw in a bunch of different gun leathers. Vanessa found a pocket holster and a purse holster that she liked. I was about to turn to let her start choosing a long gun when her laptop toned.

Vanessa’s jaw dropped as she looked at the screen. She tapped furiously as I waited patiently for her to confirm the findings. I knew she was shocked at the results her computer generated, but there wasn’t anything I could do. I would more than likely just get in her way.

“Mark, we’ve found the emissary’s report,” Vanessa said with a hushed voice.

“Great, where is it?” I asked. That report would hopefully give us strong intelligence on the current situation in the Disputed Territories.

“It’s in Tampa.”

Chapter 16 – Laying The Groundwork

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 14 – The Only Constant is Change

I woke up in the back of the Suburban as Nick pulled into a grocery store. I shook the cobwebs from my mind and pushed through the immediate flash of longing pain. If this was what was going to happen every time I woke up, I wasn’t sure how long I could go on. Nick looked back at me with that same disturbing sympathetic look. I shot him a challenging look, but his face didn’t change.

“Let’s go, Ranger, we need provisions,” Nick said, nodding to the grocery store.

“If Ranger wants to stay here, I’ll go,” Hangman offered with a note of confused sympathy in his voice. I grimaced and started to move. I was getting a vibe that Nick wanted to get me alone for a bit. Usually, it was because Nick wanted me to tone down my tactics. Nick always thought I did things a little too much on the spectacular side. This time, however, there was something else on his mind, and the only clue was that sympathetic look on his face.

“Thanks anyway Hangman,” I said, “After that nap, I need to get my muscles stretched a bit.” Hangman nodded and settled himself down in his seat. I climbed out of the truck, my hand brushing the grip of my HK45. Touching my pistol was like a Catholic rubbing a saint medallion. It gave me a sense of reassurance and confidence when I was lacking. All I felt like doing was turning around the truck and charging back into the Manor until I found Elizabeth. I was shrouded in emotions completely new to me. I had this profound love encased in a terror I’d never felt before. If this was the horror that was felt when the aristocracy used their psychic powers, I understood the Guildmaster’s amazement at my resistance. All of this was on top of something I had never even considered possible before – a strong and almost overpowering urge to abandon the job. Until that moment, the job was what defined me. All of my interests and all of my beliefs sprouted from being a hunter – being the best damn hunter in Hillsborough – but now was there someone else that had enough power over me that the idea of abandoning my job didn’t feel like heresy. It almost felt like the completing the job was abandoning my duty, not the other way around. Which was why I needed to speak with Nick. The two of us walked into the grocery store. For me, it was kind of a disorienting experience. In less than six hours, I went from the furious and desperate fighting against my race’s ancient enemies to the peace and quiet of suburban commerce. I didn’t say anything as we began meandering through the aisles. Nick remained quiet through the cooler aisles, almost as if he was building to something in his head.

“If you want to leave Hangman and me, we would understand,” Nick said quietly, “I know I would at least.” I looked at him, feeling almost betrayed, but also relieved. I always maintained a façade of casual superiority among other lycanthropes. It was always a matter of going on the offense about my heritage when dealing with most of them. No one managed to get past that façade, including those who were supposed to be my friends – like Nick. For some reason, I finally felt like I could speak to Nick without fear of losing his respect. We stopped in the middle of the aisle, and I looked Nick directly in the eye. I knew right then and there, I could walk away and try to find Elizabeth, and Nick would not judge me. He might even encourage me.

“I really don’t know what to do Nick,” I admitted, finally letting my guard down, “For the first time in my entire life, my professional life and my personal life are completely at odds.”

“Considering this is the first time that you’ve actually had a personal life, I suppose that a little confusion is understandable,” Nick chided me. He paused and gave me a knowing smile. “You don’t aim low do you?”

“I’ve got all that sniper training,” I retorted, “It’s always aim for the top.” Nick and I chuckled at the weak joke.

“What are your instincts telling you?” Nick asked. Nick trusted my instincts. Sometimes more than I did. He always asked me that same question when I had a dilemma.

“She’s alive,” I answered immediately, “They’re also telling me I need to get to Tallahassee with the two of you. I can’t abandon the job.” Nick just nodded, not with approval or disapproval, just understanding. We were hunters once all was said and done. There was a reason hunters generally had a hard time with relationships. Our jobs always came first. Finally, I understood the torment some of my colleagues went through when they had to choose the job over their loves. In the past, I silently admonished them for their “weakness.” I would never do that again. Lost in thought, I almost didn’t hear my phone buzzing.

“You’ve got company,” Hangman said in a hushed tone, “Five of those weird leeches from the Manor just walked into the store. One is prowling the lot. I think they’re looking for us.” Damn, those bastards were moving fast. The fight at the Manor must have finished up. I thought our escape window was good for at least another twelve hours.

“Take down the prowler as quietly as possible,” I told Hangman, “Nick and I will deal with the ones in the store.” I hand-signed to Nick “vampires incoming.” He just nodded. I could see his eyes slide from compassion to killing. Nick continued to push the cart nonchalantly down the aisle as I went to scout for the vampires. For the record, trying to be inconspicuous while looking for a group in a grocery store isn’t always easy. With the early darkness of Florida winter, the vampires could come out while many people were doing their routine shopping. With the store crowded as it was, I didn’t want to use my pistol. Humans did unpredictable things around gunfire. I was left to use the stuff I was carrying – and what was on the shelves. Fortunately, I was pretty good at that. First thing, I needed some wet floor signs.

“Nick meet me at the end of Aisle 12,” I said over my phone, “Pick up some toilet paper and some lighter fluid.” I had to work fast. I needed to get the humans out of the way. I walked up to the customer service desk. The young girl behind the counter looked up at me with sparkling eyes and a brilliant smile. She was the picture of what a customer service rep should look like. Glaring got rid of some of the humans in front of me. Shoving took care of the last two.

“Get on the intercom and have everyone leave the store,” I ordered her with the Wolf’s Growl. Her welcoming eyes immediately darkened with fear. Her manager noticed something wrong and joined us. I told him in the Growl, “Everyone must leave.” A stammering voice came over the intercom telling all of the patrons that they were required to leave immediately. The customers looked about with various looks of bewilderment and annoyance as I moved through the throngs. I needed to get the rest of my components before the vampires caught up with us. I ducked between the aisles, narrowly avoiding the vampires. Preparations took a few moments. Then I went out to meet my pursuers.

“Hey, shitheads,” I growled as the gang of vampires came into the main aisle. They had that same wild, uncontrolled look many of the vampires in the Manor possessed. There was something different about these vampires. Something feral. I was surprised they managed to walk among the humans without lashing out. The group sprouted twisted smiles as they locked their eyes on me. Oh yeah, they were here for us. I almost reached for my pistol, but I kept my hand away. I had a plan in place for a reason. Seeing their prey, the five vampires sprinted down the aisle at me. I took a sidestep into my trap. I was on the other end of aisle with a waiting Nick, who was holding a lighter. The vampires scrambled into the aisle – and hit the slick of floor polish. The vampires sprawled onto the floor and slid into the waiting pool of lighter fluid. Nick lit the matches in his hand and let them fall into a line of lighter fluid. A whoosh followed the wave of flame. The vampires had less than a second to realize what was happening to them before their bodies were consumed by fire. Primal screams filled the aisle as Nick and I watched the writhing bodies burn. My phone vibrated at my side.

“Humans are on their way,” Hangman reported, “You might want to get the hell out of there.” I hand-signed what Hangman said to Nick, who nodded silently. The two of us jogged to the front door.

“We’re on our way,” I said to Hangman, “Did you take care of the prowler?”

“Yeah, and I’ll never get the stench off my good knife,” Hangman replied, “I’ve got the truck running. We can get the hell out of Dodge as soon as the two of you get here.” The pup was thinking on his feet. Human involvement was the last thing we needed. Nick and I piled into the Suburban and Hangman pulled the truck out of the parking lot. Less than a minute after we pulled out, a flurry of emergency vehicles screamed into the parking lot. Hangman slammed on the accelerator, but backed off when Nick quietly chided him to drive normally. It was a typical mistake. When fleeing from the scene, it was better to blend in with the surroundings rather than getting out as fast as possible. Running away stood out in bystanders’ minds when questioned. Thwarted from getting some real food, the three of us decided to just head to Tallahassee. The quickest way north would have been either the interstate or up the Suncoast Parkway. the problem was both routes would be under surveillance. The attack at the store wasn’t luck on the vampires’ part. With the Manor secured, the TCV was trying to eliminate what remained of the lycanthropes of Hillsborough County. We had the weapons and the ability to take on pretty much anything the TCV could throw at us, but it would delay us. Time was critical. We’d wasted far too much time dealing with the vampires in the grocery store. So we headed north on Dale Mabry, figuring on using county and state roads to get to our destination.

There was some tension as we crossed the border between Hillsborough County and Pasco County. Fifty years ago, we would have been required to immediate proceed to the Pasco Manor and state our business before Lord Smith. One of the good things the first Lord Vollen did was forge a treaty allowing lycanthropes to cross borders without restraint as long as it didn’t endanger the county. Which was exactly what the three of us were doing. Fleeing into the county could easily be construed by as bringing Pasco into the war with the TCV. Flashing lights blazed behind us. I looked back to see the blue and white lights of the Florida Highway Patrol. My instincts were screaming as Hangman dutifully slowed down and pulled off to the side of the highway. I had a nasty feeling we weren’t being pulled over by a legitimate state trooper. I drew my HK45. Nick looked back at me as he heard the pistol clear my holster.

“What is it Ranger?” he asked, giving me a questioning look.

“I don’t like this,” I answered, “Something’s wrong. I can feel it.” Nick tensed up. Hangman looked at me through the rear view mirror with a confused look.

“What do I do?” Hangman asked with a forced confidence, “I can punch it.” I looked back as our vehicles slowed. It wasn’t the normal cruiser, but one of the handful of sports cars used for pursuit. Outrunning a police sports car in a heavily loaded SUV wasn’t an option. The good news was the sports car could only hold two occupants, max. If it was vampires, it would be two leeches. Even with Bleeders, three on two were good odds. Nick drew his monster revolver.

“Pull over,” Nick told Hangman, “As much as I trust Ranger’s instincts, this could be a normal traffic stop. We play this normal until we see different. If it starts to go down Hangman, get out of the truck as fast as you can.” There was a wait after our vehicles stopped. If this was a legitimate stop, the trooper was running the Suburban’s plates. If it wasn’t, reinforcements were probably on their way. To make matters worse, I couldn’t make out the car’s occupants beyond the bright lights of the headlights and the spotlight. My instincts were fucking shrieking danger signals, but there wasn’t anything I could do. My instincts were scary good, but they had one problem. They gave me warnings on danger – any danger, including those I could get out of without gunfire.

Two more sets of flashing lights appeared in front of us. These were red and blue of county deputies. If this was an ambush, those deputies were more than likely ghouls. The three of us were about to be in the middle of a nasty crossfire. I wanted to roll out of the truck and start the firefight. I was always more comfortable being on the offensive. The Guildmaster had been trying to break me –. The thought stopped as a wave of pain swept through me as I thought of the Guildmaster. I locked down the pain and focused on the deputies getting out of their cars. I couldn’t see them very well, but I could see the silhouettes of long rifles. More blue lights from behind announced the arrival of another state trooper. A Tahoe this time. The SUV could hold another four to six, which meant we likely had eight to our rear and another four to our front. This was not good. The deputies lowered their rifles. The quiet of the night exploded into sound. I kicked my door open and rolled out onto the asphalt as the muzzles of the deputies’ rifles lit up. I rolled up into a crouch and lined up the nearest deputy with my HK45. As I finally saw the deputy’s face, I quickly lowered my pistol. I nearly shot another lycanthrope. It was then I finally realized that the deputies in front of us weren’t firing at us. They were firing at the state troopers behind us. I swung around to join in the fight, but the lycanthropes had already finished the job.

I crept up to the two FHP vehicles, pistol firmly in front of me. Another lycanthrope came up next to me with an assault rifle and covered my blind side. The lycanthrope was a hunter by his movements. The two of us moved towards the Tahoe. I looked over at the sports car. The ghoul trooper managed to take a step out of the car before a burst of fire cut him down. The front of the Tahoe was shredded from rifle fire. The front two occupants had been slaughtered, but I wanted to make sure there weren’t any others in the back of the vehicle. The hunter at my side tapped me on the shoulder. Hand signs gave suggestions on how to handle the approach. His idea was good, so I agreed. The two of us strode up to the SUV in a low crouch. I shed human for true as we came alongside the truck. The smells of death and gunfight flooded my senses as I left the paleness of the human world behind. As the hunter circled behind me, I holstered my HK45 and grasped the passenger door. I ripped the door off of the truck, holding it as a shield against possible fire, and slid back as the other hunter rushed forward with his rifle. He cleared the Tahoe as I dropped the door. There were only two in the Tahoe – both vampires and both with black-painted claws. Bleeders. I looked over at the hunter, actually seeing him for the first time. The multi-colored hair was the first thing that I noticed. I broke down into an exhausted laugh.

Damned Punk, he’s actually getting good at this. I thought. The last time I worked with this hunter, he was a fucking pup who nearly got us both killed with some stupid mistake. At the moment, I was too happy to see him to give a damn. Punk and I walked back to my truck. Nick and Hangman were standing next to the Suburban with the other hunters. One of the hunters took a couple of steps toward me. I recognized the Guildmaster of Pasco County. I worked with the Pasco Chapter enough times the Guildmaster recognized me. Of the three of us, I was technically the highest ranking member, and Pasco’s chapter was always a bit on the formal side.

“You can tell Erik the debt is paid,” the Pasco Guildmaster said with an almost aristocratic formality. I didn’t know what debt he was talking about, but the Guildmaster’s serious tone bespoke of an old and personal debt between the two Guildmasters.

“He’s fallen,” Nick answered quietly. The Pasco Guildmaster bowed his head as he heard of his friend’s death. When the Pasco Guildmaster looked at us again, his face was an undecipherable mask.

“Get to Tallahassee and try to get some support down here. Something horribly wrong is going on here. Hillsborough should not have fallen,” the Pasco Guildmaster told us. His voice had that unique huskiness of a lycanthrope holding back his emotions. My voice had sounded that way as the three of us had been sealing the Guild.

“Watch out for witch-hunters,” I said from the backseat, “Three full Shields attacked our Manor. We wiped them out, but there may be more in the area.” The veteran hunter’s eyes went wide in the unique horror witch-hunters evoked. “Also somehow the TCV brought in hundreds of new vampires. Didn’t think there were that many vampires in the fucking state. That’s what finished the county. They attacked us just after we’d finished with the witch-hunters.”

“We will be careful,” the Pasco Guildmaster told us, “You must get this information to the State Guildmaster. Witch-hunters and vampires acting in concert? Something is very wrong here. I’ll seal this border as I’ve been ordered, but if State doesn’t send some folks down here, I’ll find out what happened on my own. Polk will help me, and so will Sarasota.”

“Who the hell ordered the border to be sealed so fast?” I asked, “The Manor fell less than eight hours ago.” Events were happening way too fast. It had taken nearly a week before the Prince ordered the Disputed Territories sealed. Now Hillsborough was sealed in less than a day. The Pasco Guildmaster studied me a moment before he answered. His face was one of concern and shared worry.

“My lord ordered it,” the Pasco Guildmaster answered in a calm tone, “At the time, I didn’t think about it. We just found out about the ghoul following you, and I scrambled to get my people out here. Although I think it’s something that I will look into.” We made our good-byes and drove off.


If you traveled by best speed and the most direct routes, Tallahassee was about four hours from Hillsborough. We traveled up to Tallahassee using the back roads and being as covert as possible. We met with our counterparts in other chapters of the Guild. Most of them looked at us as outcasts, but they did give the three of us some help. An associate of Hangman’s from their time together at the Guild’s training camp told us in Perry how to get a hold of the State Guild without alerting anyone else. Which led us to the travel information center the State Guild was using as a checkpoint for all hunters going into Tallahassee about twenty hours after we left the hunters in Pasco. Nick made his way to a pay telephone bank, while Hangman and I checked the hard drives and all of our information on the conspiracy, if that was what it was. After we were satisfied everything was intact, Hangman cleared a green metal park bench while I hit the vending machines for snack foods and soda. Leon County, where Tallahassee resides, is the only county without a lord. By law, it is ruled directly by the Prince of Florida. As such, its Hunters Guild chapter is the known State Guild, and it’s an elite organization. Membership is strictly by invitation, and only the best hunters are invited. Because of this, the most of the State Guild hunters have an aloof attitude to the rest of us. From the few I’d met (including Mrs. Werstandt), they deserved their professional reputation. Because of the unique status of Leon County and the State Guild, regular hunters are not allowed to come into Leon County unless: a) you were invited; b) you were escorting a lord, lady, or Guildmaster; or c) you were cleared for visitation by a member of the State Guild. Nick was working on getting us cleared to visit by the State Guildmaster. I spread out my collection of chips, candy, and cans of soda onto the table as Hangman leaned on his arm and looked drowsily around. I distributed my collection between Hangman and me, leaving some for Nick, as Hangman continued to sweep the perimeter with his eyes. Satisfied that we were “alone,” Hangman grabbed at his first soda and popped the tab. As he gulped it down noisily, Nick returned from the phones.

“This was the best you could do for lunch Ranger?” asked Nick, staring down at his allotment of the snacks and soda. I could tell he wasn’t enthused with my choice of entrees.

“You really want some of the MRE’s in the back of the truck?” I asked sourly. Nick gave a thoughtful look and decided not to press the issue. He ripped open a bag of chips. I had managed to push Elizabeth to the back of my mind, focusing hard on the job that the Guildmaster had given us, but I was wearing thin. Nick’s comment angered me far more that it should have. I took a few deep breaths and tried to fortify my mental barriers. The job came first.

“The State Guild is sending someone to ‘fetch’ us,” Nick related between chips. His tone told Hangman and me exactly what he thought of that wording. He was definitely insulted by something, but I just wrote it off to the State Guild’s arrogance. They deserved their rep, but the way they carried themselves could be more than a bit annoying. “At any rate, the hunter on the line said they had been expecting to hear from us yesterday, but they figured we were being cautious on the drive up.”

“So what are they going to do about Hillsborough?” Hangman asked.

“Do you really think that I told them about Hillsborough over an open line?” Nick responded. Hangman rolled his eyes back and muttered a curse under his breath. Nick continued to brew about the responses he’d gotten from the State Guild as he ate his food. I finished my lunch and picked up the other can of soda I had and got up from the table. I walked back to the Suburban and checked the drives in their box. I wished I had a chance to check them on a computer to make sure all the data was still there. I placed them back in their case and put it back into the truck. I also checked all of our “proof” of the conspiracy again, and swallowed a short burst of anxiety. I didn’t know what the Prince would do to us when we told him what suspected, and what I knew of the Prince was sketchy at best. The Prince of Florida had presided over the state for the past sixty years. His father was killed during the Great Fatherland War, leading Florida’s warriors against the vampires and their ghouls. When he started his reign, the Prince was a strong proponent of the Peace and worked hard to make sure his lords followed the Peace. All of that changed over the past decade. The Lords of Broward and Miami-Dade Counties went missing as open war with the vampires erupted on the southeastern tip of the state. The Prince’s inability to quell the fighting and reestablish the lordships eroded his standing with the lords and his power within the state. Since the Prince had no heir-apparent, some of the more ambitious lords were already jostling to see who would ascend to the throne. With the fall of Hillsborough County to the vampire, the Prince would be forced to convene a war council to keep the lords from challenging him directly and killing him outright. There was some politics there that I didn’t understand, but I could see what was going to happen. The Prince might be able to delay it, but that was all he could do. Once the war council was convened, the Prince would probably be ousted from his throne and one of the lords would become the new Prince. From everything we knew about this conspiracy, that was probably the ultimate goal of whoever ordered Lord Vollen’s assassination. We didn’t have enough hard information to guess who this group would put forth as their candidate. I’m sure Nick had a few good ideas, but without hard evidence, and a strong ally on the council – which the Prince was not, unfortunately – we wouldn’t be able to stop them. At least not politically. To be honest, if I discovered who ordered Vollen’s assassination, I would make damn sure that he was dead by the next Bone Moon. I looked up as a compact car pulled into the spot next to the Suburban. The driver stepped out. He was a smallish lycanthrope, about five and a half feet tall, but his passenger was a giant. The lycanthrope topped at just under seven feet – and that was in human form. He probably nudged ten feet in true form. Both stood by the car in human form, watching me as I put my back up against the truck. I looked back at the car with an incredulous stare, trying to figure out how that behemoth had fit in the tiny seat.

“Hello hunter,” the smallish lycanthrope said to me. He was dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt with a yellow smiley face with a bullet hole in the forehead embossed on it. His voice was high-pitched and off-key. It took me a moment to realize the lycanthrope in front of me wasn’t more than eighteen years old. This pup should be in tysach, not playing at being a hunter. What was going on in the State Guild? That was assuming this pup was from the Guild. He could very well be part of the conspiracy looking to tie up loose ends. Did I mention that hunters tend to be paranoid?

“Who are you, pup?” I asked cautiously, my hand sliding back to the butt of my pistol. Nick and Hangman saw the two pull up and were making their way to me. Both of them wore very serious expressions, although Nick’s held a trace of – anger? I had no idea where that was coming from. I turned my attention back to the pup, as soon as I was sure backup was on its way.

“We’re from the State Guild,” he said with an arrogant flippancy that made me want to reach out and touch him very harshly. He held up his identification card. It looked like a generic club card, but it had the correct identifying marks on it. I checked the picture on the card to the prick’s face. I didn’t bother reading the name.

“Yippee,” I responded, dryly, “What the fuck do you want?”

“You three are required to follow us to the State Guild and wait there for the State Guildmaster to deal with you.” The little prick sounded so pompous about the whole thing. Out of habit, and hidden desire, my mind calculated the distance from where I was standing to the pup’s throat. The thought faded as I remembered that one, I badly needed to talk to the State Guildmaster, and two, that behemoth behind the prick was probably his partner. He could and would pick me off before I had a chance to finish anything.

“Get in your plastic car and get moving, we’ll follow in a moment,” Nick said as he moved around the compact towards me, never letting his gaze drop from the giant. His voice held a definite warning. What the hell was going on? Nick was usually the steady one of our group. Hangman swiftly moved around Nick and got into the driver’s seat of the truck as the two State hunters lowered themselves into their small car. Nick was angry at the big one for some reason, but I didn’t know why. For that reason, I pushed Nick into the backseat and climbed into the shotgun seat. I had an odd feeling that Nick might use the twelve-gauge under the seat on the tiny car. I had never been to Tallahassee before, so the roundabout route through the city lost me. I finally quit trying to find my way around and just concentrated on looking for threats. Hangman continued to follow the compact car until it reached the parking lot of a four story office complex. The complex was a block of one-way, bluish-tinted glass with an entrance door on the south side that was barely distinguishable. Standing by the door was a hunter wearing the uniform of a private security guard. I climbed out of the Suburban and walked to the front of the truck where Hangman and Nick joined me. The prick and the big guy walked towards the door. The prick motioned for us to follow him into the building. As the two approached the guard, they showed their ID’s to him. After checking them, he looked us over.

“They’re the boys from Hillsborough. The Guildmaster wants to talk to them,” the prick explained with a barely contained tone of annoyance in his voice. The guard came over to us with a neutral expression on his face.

“What weapons do you have?” he asked.

“Do we have to be truthful?” asked Hangman, hoping to lighten the mood between Nick, who was still glaring murder at the behemoth, and myself, who was contemplating violent action against the little prick. Both of us looked at our younger companion with quizzical glances. He just smiled back at us in response. I shook my head. Sometimes the pup did the oddest things that came in handy.

“It doesn’t hurt,” the guard answered, his tone lightening with Hangman’s remark. We showed the guard the collection of pistols and knives we were carrying. The behemoth actually showed a slight hint of emotion as he saw Nick’s big Smith. The guard nodded and let the five of us in the door. The first two floors of the office complex were an open air courtyard with several Asian-style gardens surrounding the pebbled walkway. Offices lined the walls. A pair of open staircases were on the west and east walls. We walked to an elevator bank was at the north side. We followed the two in silence as we rode up to the fourth floor and then to the State Guildmaster’s office. The State Guildmaster was a sour-faced lycanthrope named Scott Franken. He was in his early fifties, wearing his graying dark hair in a crew cut. Like many lycanthropes, he wore a full beard. It was still mostly dark but there were a few streaks of grey. Dressed in a black suit, he looked up as we walked into his Spartan office. He leaned back into his chair and studied us in silence for a long minute.

“I don’t know what the big deal is about these three,” Prick said, breaking the silence. “They lost their county. Hell, one’s a Badmoon.” My rage threatened to bubble over. Hangman put a restraining hand on my arm and shook his head. The State Guildmaster gave the pup an appraising look.

“You should be more careful in your appraisals,” the State Guildmaster said to Prick, “These three are very good hunters. I doubt that arrogance you wear so proudly on your sleeve impressed them. You might be the youngest hunter accepted by the State Guild, but you are definitely not in these three’s class.” Prick’s face fell, and then twisted in anger as the Guildmaster dressed him down in front of us.

“They haven’t even been invited to join the State Guild. How good can they be?” the prick asked the Guildmaster. In response, I flicked a throwing knife at Prick. It whistled by his ear and buried itself in the wall behind him. The Guildmaster laughed heartily as Prick grabbed his ear in panic. The behemoth lurched at me, but stopped suddenly as Nick put the barrel of his Smith to his temple.

“We danced before,” Nick stated very quietly, pulling back the hammer on the revolver, “Do you want to go again?” At least that revealed something about Nick’s past in Tallahassee. The two of them were definitely not friendly.

“Nicholas,” the Guildmaster said, in a commanding tone, “Put that gun away. We have more important things to do than blow poor John’s brains all over my upholstery.” Nick reluctantly holstered his revolver.

“John, please take my nephew down to the training room. I will deal with the two of you later,” the State Guildmaster. The two hunters almost fled the room. The State Guildmaster turned to us. His calm eyes were suddenly filled rage.

“Let me make one thing clear. I deal with my hunters. I do not accept anyone’s interference with my hunters. There will be repercussions if that happens again. Do we understand one another?” I felt myself nodding as the rage in the words rolled over me. Satisfied, the calm expression and tone returned like nothing had happened.

“I know Nicholas, so I’m assuming that you’re Ranger. Your other friend isn’t old enough for your file.” The State Guildmaster pulled out a manila folder from a desk drawer and plopped into onto the desk. My name was in block letters on the tab. He turned to Nick. “I’m glad you’re here, Nicholas.”

“Really?” Nick responded, in a controlled voice, “Why is that?”

“The Prince has need of you. You hold a very unique position right now,” the State Guildmaster answered cryptically.

“There is something more important than any position I hold right now,” Nick said. I took a sidelong glance at Nick. He looked his normal self, but I could see the faint signs. Nick was very nervous all of the sudden. “We believe that one or more of the lords is plotting against the Prince. They may have been behind the assassination of Lord Vollen.” I was surprised by Nick blurting out our suspicions, but he must trust the State Guildmaster. If Nick did, then I would.

“Do you have any proof?” asked the State Guildmaster.

“Nothing concrete,” I answered, “I was up on the catwalks when the assassin took his shot. The shooter positioned himself so that the railing would deflect a hunter’s normal kill shot. That kind of familiarity with our tactics tell me the shooter was either a current or former hunter – and a damned good one at that. That was our first clue the assassination of Stephen Vollen was a lycanthrope-instigated assassination, not a vampire action.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t just a rogue hunter hired by the vampire?” the State Guildmaster asked me. The look in his eyes and the tone of his voice told me he was probing, but not dismissing, what I was telling him. That worried me even more.

“I talked to the head of the Bleeders at the time,” I answered, “He confirmed the Inner Council of the TCV had nothing to do with it. There weren’t any independents vampires at the time with the resources or contacts to bring someone of that caliber in.”

“How do you know that?” the State Guildmaster countered, “I imagine a powerful independent would be able to covertly pull something like this off. Even your own Red Knights concluded the TCV was most likely behind it.”

“That’s because our Guildmaster was keeping evidence from the Red Knights while running a second, covert, investigation,” Nick answered, “The political situation was too tense, and the Guildmaster didn’t want it known to the packs that a hunter assassinated their beloved lord.” The State Guildmaster gave Nick a cool look. It wasn’t dislike, but rather a controlled expression.

“That leads us into other evidence,” Hangman chimed in, “The weapon recovered at the scene was loaded with Silver Shoks in seven-six-two NATO. I don’t know about the Sate Guild, but we only started getting silver rounds in that caliber just before the war started in our county. No way a vampire would be able to supply those kinds of rounds. That leads us back to lycanthropes who had a ready supply of the ammunition available. Which means a lord.”

“Further, during the war with the vampire, I recovered information that appeared to show alliances county-by-county when open war erupted in Hillsborough,” Nick continued, “Our analysis is that a lord is making a power play and the information I recovered was a graphical representation of his most probable enemies and allies.”

“A power play for what?” the State Guildmaster asked.

“My guess would be the throne,” Nick replied coolly. The State Guildmaster cursed under his breath. From his expressions, he didn’t look like he was surprised by what we were telling him. He was hearing unwanted confirmation. What the hell? If the State Guild knew about this, why weren’t they doing anything about it? That’s what the State Guild was supposed to do.

“Well, at least we can use you showing back up in Tallahassee to put your evidence in front of the Prince,” the State Guildmaster said. “Follow me, the three of you.” The State Guildmaster led us through a maze of corridors to an unmarked elevator. We entered silently and made our way to a subterranean passageway. The State Guildmaster led us over to a dressing room where we were told to take off our clothing. After we shed our human forms for true form, we put on loose-fitting jumpsuits the State Guildmaster handed us. After strapping on our weapons, we put the long, black formal robes lycanthropes wore when the top levels of the aristocracy received them. The passage led us on a twisting route under the city of Tallahassee. According to Nick, who played reluctant tour guide as the State Guildmaster led us down the passageway, this was a relatively new construct. It had been built about twenty years ago when the new State Manor was constructed. There actually were three passageways. One led to the Hunters Guild. The second led to the Order of Spirits’ house. The last led to a hotel used by visiting lords and their delegations. All three tunnels met up at a reception are under the new State Manor, where the Black Knights – kind of like a State Guild of Red Knights – would clear us into the State Manor. The tunnel stood about fifteen feet high, allowing for the size of lycanthropes in true form. The passageway wasn’t lit, making the lycanthropes who traversed it use their supernatural vision. The floor was smoothed limestone. The natural aquifers that provided Florida with a great deal of its fresh water had been mystically altered around the tunnels and acted as a natural cooling system. They also hid the smells from the city’s sewage system. After about fifteen minutes, the darkness brightened as we approached what Nick had referred to as “the landing.” Another five minutes passed as the light gradually increased. The end of the tunnel was an arch where a pair of lycanthropes were standing. Both were in true form, standing well into eight feet tall, about average for a lycanthrope. Both wore black jumpsuits with body armor. One of them was holding a ten-foot long metal pole, an inch in diameter. The other was cradling a Steyr TMP. The Knights loved those little subguns. I preferred my MP5’s.

“Don’t look too happy to see us, do they?” I commented to Nick. He just glared at the two, much as he did at the behemoth back at the State Guild. I wondered if Nick was on bad terms with everyone in Tallahassee. That could make this trip even more interesting.

“If you thought your lord’s Red Knights were paranoid, you won’t believe the scrutiny of the Black Knights. They look on everyone as an immediate threat to the Prince, especially hunters,” responded the State Guildmaster, who overheard my comment.

“Even paranoids have enemies,” Nick stated, coldly. I was about to ask Nick what he meant, but the two Black Knights walked up to us at that point. They escorted us into the landing in silence. Unlike the tunnels, the landing was about twenty feet high, and was lit with an off-white light from a huge overhead fixture. The limestone walls were covered by concrete blocks. There were evenly spaced crevices in the walls. I assumed those were where the Knights placed their shooters when dealing with trouble. At the far end of the landing, about forty feet from the end of the tunnel, was the opening to another tunnel. I could make out the first steps of the staircase inside the tunnel. We were greeted by another six Black Knights in body armor and assault rifles. My first reaction was to place my hand on the butt of my pistol. Nick caught my hand and shook his head. The State Guildmaster, oblivious to the exchange between the two of us, walked over to the Black Knight in charge.

“These three are the hunters from Hillsborough. I am taking them to the Prince so he can talk to them about the situation there.” The head Knight looked us over. His eyes locked onto Nick, who returned the gaze with a steady cold glare. Questions about Nick’s shadowed past crossed my mind. The tense moment between them broke quickly. The head of the detail motioned for the pair of Black Knights that brought us out of the tunnel to come over to him. He spoke quietly to them, then sharply turned about, and walked back to the rest of his detail. Our two escorts walked over to the State Guildmaster and introduced themselves.

“I’m Staff,” the one with the long metal pole began, “This is Bullie. We’re to escort you into the Manor. Do they know the rules for hunters here?”

“One of them does, but the other two have never been here before,” the State Guildmaster answered. Staff walked over to us. His pole was in the feigned relax pose of a master wielder. I recognized the stance from several martial arts demonstrations.

“Okay, the basic simple rule is, don’t make yourself a threat. The Black Knights and the State Guild have an understanding. The Black Knights understand hunters need to have their weapons on them, and the Guild understands we must protect the Prince from all threats. No fast movements around standard weapon positions, namely the waist, small of the back, thighs, and under the arms. You’ll have a good deal of Black Knights pointing guns loaded with silver at you. Are you bringing any packages with you?”

“Nope, we left them in the car,” answered Hangman.

“Good. Less work for me. Hunters, if you would follow me,” Staff said, leading us to the tunnel at the back of the landing. Bullie came up behind us with his sub-machine gun in a ready position. I took a quick glance back at him and saw the coldness in his eyes. There was no doubt in my mind the Black Knight would hose the four of us with silver if he thought we were about to harm the Prince or Staff. In that order. This tunnel was also unlit, relying on the ambient light of the landing and a lycanthrope’s supernatural vision. The limestone was covered by red brick, which gave this tunnel an almost Victorian feel. It went straight for about thirty feet before ending at a staircase. The stairs were made of the same smoothed limestone as the floor of the tunnels, and extended at least thirty feet up into the darkness. It was steep enough that from the foot of the staircase, I couldn’t make out what waited for us at the top. Staff quietly walked up the staircase, his leather foot coverings making almost no sound on the cold limestone. The four of us, however, sounded like a pack of elephants in comparison. The way the steps were designed, we couldn’t stop the claws on our feet from clicking on the limestone. It had to be a passive alarm system, since no lycanthrope, except the Back Knights who trained here, would make it through here without making enough noise to alert whoever was at the top and bottom. At the top was another open area, but it was not lit up like the last one. Much smaller than the landing, several oak doors lined the walls. Another half-dozen Black Knights were waiting for us. Two were manning an M2 Browning .50 caliber machine gun. The heavy machine gun team was flanked by another pair of Black Knights holding KAC Masterkey combos. The last pair of Black Knights were armed with pump shotguns. Oh yeah, this group could fill the area with silver real fucking fast.

“Alpha Bravo seven four,” said one of the Black Knights at the top.

“Delta Whiskey eight nine,” responded Staff, who was standing at the very top of the staircase, just on the edge of the guarded area. I was about to continue up, but Staff briskly motioned for us to stay put.

“Omaha,” said another of the Black Knights in front of us.

“Denver,” responded Bullie. Hangman and I traded approving looks. Nick and the State Guildmaster waited for Staff to lead the group through the heavily armed Knights. Staff moved quietly across the floor to the door opposite of the staircase. He opened the door and motioned for the four of us to go in.

“Aren’t you coming the rest of the way?” asked the State Guildmaster. From his tone, this was a change in the normal protocol.

“No sir. Longblade and his team will be escorting you to the Prince. They will meet you at the end of the hall.”

“Longblade? James Nightglow?” Nick asked, sounding incredulous. Something was not right with Nick. That alone made it my problem. However, I also had to factor in the fact that we were carrying sensitive information. Anyone Nick didn’t like or trust became a threat.

“Yes, why do you ask?” responded Staff.

“I didn’t think he was still alive. The last time I saw him he was suffering three gunshot wounds to the chest.” Staff looked at Nick peculiarly as our group entered the hall. Staff looked like he was about to say something, but decided against it. He shut the door behind us. As soon as the door clicked, a thick steel wall slid down, sealing us in the hall. The hall, unlike the tunnel and the landing, looked like it belonged in a Manor. The walls were the typical off-white color, and decorated with several paintings. All but one of were landscapes of various areas in Florida,, such as Bok Tower in Lake Wales and Miami Beach. The one painting not of Florida was of the King of the United States. Each prince was required to have at least one painting of the King displayed in their State Manor. Where it was displayed was often an indicator of how the prince felt about the King. That was something an instructor told me during my training. He said that it was a bit of knowledge that might prove useful later in our careers. The placing in the entrance hall was neutral. All of the important lycanthropes coming to see the Prince would see it, but the painting was not in the most prominent place, namely the State Manor itself. The door at the end of the hall was oak, but I could smell the iron of the metal plate inside. Iron has a peculiar smell, although it is very hard to detect, and normally I can’t smell it unless I’m in true form. I also smelled anxiety from Nick. This surprised the hell out of me, since as long as I’ve known Nick, he’s never been anxious.

“Okay, so who the fuck is this Longblade?” I asked ws we walked across the thick red carpeting.

“My exit from Tallahassee was less than docile,” Nick answered. I was puzzled by his cryptic response, but I could tell by his expression he wasn’t going to say anything more. I looked over to Hangman and shot him a questioning look. He shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention to the State Guildmaster. The State Guildmaster knocked on the hall door. It opened to reveal a somewhat short lycanthrope wearing flowing black robes. Behind him was a team of four other lycanthropes, also in black robes, with their weapons visible. More Black Knights. We walked out of the hall into a large, well-appointed waiting room. The small Black Knight looked each of us over with a cool appraising eye. That coolness faded as soon as Nick came out of the hall. Anger flashed in the small lycanthrope’s eyes, and a growl came from his throat. Nick responded with a similar evil growl, but didn’t move from where he stood. In a lightning blur of motion, the small lycanthrope threw himself at Nick. Nick absorbed the impact, falling down to lessen the blow, as we were taught. The little Black Knight knelt over Nick and snarled. He waved his claws, almost as if he was looking for a place to strike. My hand shot under my robe and whipped out my HK45. I placed the barrel to the small Black Knight’s head.

“Back off doggie,” I said, in a dangerously calm voice. His companions, stunned by their leader’s attack, were quickly covered by Hangman. Before they could spray all of us, the State Guildmaster stepped between Hangman and the Black Knights. They took one look at him and took a step back. The small Black Knight calmed fractionally as he felt my pistol press against his head. When he refused to get off of Nick after I asked him nicely, I pulled the metal hammer back with my thumb to wordlessly emphasize my command.

STOP!” thundered a voice from behind me. I looked at the State Guildmaster, thinking it was him. The State Guildmaster was standing rigid. Hangman had his pistol lowered. I decocked my pistol and turned to face the speaker. He stood in impressive black robes with silver runes printed down the hems. He wasn’t much taller than me, but his presence made him seem another two feet taller. His eyes were pure obsidian, containing both coolness and fire within them. His dark brown pelt was streaked with silver puffs, but he moved across the room towards us with a grace and boldness that belied any show of age. He was Jan Kraven, Jan Talis Silverflash, the Prince of Florida, may the Ancestors long bless his reign.

“You are my guardian, Longblade. You are not my attack dog. We have need of this particular lycanthrope’s services. That comes before any personal vendetta. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?” the Prince boomed, his deep voice echoing slightly off the room’s walls. Longblade took the reprimand stoically, never changing his now emotionless face. The rest of his detail looked about ready to collapse from fear. I could feel the tendrils of psychic fear swirling about. The Prince looked down at Nick, who was still on the floor. Nick’s face remained emotionless as the Prince studied him, but I saw something I’d never seen before in Nick’s eyes. Terror.

“Nicholas, I’m glad you have returned to us,” the Prince said in a surprisingly warm tone, “You’ve brought allies?” The Prince looked at Hangman, studying the young hunter as he studied Nick. Hangman looked like he was about to flee, but he held his ground. Then, the Prince looked at me. The Prince’s eyes went wide. He stepped back a moment as he looked at me in wide-eyed wonder.

“Ravage, my word, is that you?” the Prince asked.

“Pardon, your highness?” I asked. I’d never heard of a lycanthrope called Ravage, much less anyone I resembled. Maybe I had a double up in Tallahassee? The Prince shook his head with a hint of what I read as nostalgia.

“I’m sorry. Of course you’re not Ravage. You look very much like an old friend of mine,” the Prince explained, “You’re much too young to be him, but the resemblance is very strong. Ancestors, it’s frightening. What’s your name lycanthrope?”

“Marcus Phoenix Badmoon, hunter of the Hillsborough Guild,” I answered in a confident voice, which was more than I was feeling. There were so many questions and sub-plots running around Tallahassee that I was almost dizzy trying to keep track of them.

“Badmoon? A Badmoon here? I don’t there’s ever been a Badmoon in the State Manor.” Then, the Prince turned to the State Guildmaster as if I didn’t require any other comment. Nick, Hangman, and I shared apprehensive looks. Usually, I get either extreme hostility or, far more rarely, those who are trying very hard to look past the ancient stigma to deal with me. Complete dismissal was something new entirely. The Prince motioned for us to follow him into the State Manor.

“So tell me Scott, why have you brought these hunters to me? We already know about the fall of Hillsborough. What are they going to add to that? Well, besides Nicholas. I know why he’s here.” The State Guildmaster stepped up next to the Prince under the watchful eye of the Black Knights.

“Your highness, these three have brought additional evidence –“ the State Guildmaster began.

“The Great Overthrow conspiracy again?” the Prince interrupted, the weary tone in his voice conveying his annoyance at the State Guildmaster. My regard for the Prince dropped a couple of notches. First, the Prince’s comment about my home pissed me off. The fall of a county wasn’t supposed to be spoken of in such a casual manner. Secondly, the Prince was not only disregarding a very probable threat to his throne, he was acting as if it was a fantasy. At least the Lords Vollen, all three of them I’d served, listened to the hunters when the Guild said it had important information. Why wasn’t the prince listening to his best source of information, the State Hunters Guild? We followed the Prince into the State Manor without another word being spoken. Unlike the grandeur of the Hillsborough Manor, the State Manor had an elegant Spartan look to it. It was similar to the way the Guildmaster kept his office, just with different appointments. The walls were an off-white plaster, trimmed in wood and gold-leaf. The floor was white marble, with great black swirls. The doors were richly polished oak. At the far end of the State Manor was a dais with a single chair on it. The chair was built to fit the prince, with a high back. It was adorned only with two emeralds on the arms and purple satin cushions on the seat and back. It looked like a traditional human throne, and that made me slightly ill. Why would the prince ape human traditions? We had our own, and I was damned proud of them. The prince took his throne and looked out at us. Longblade and another of his Black Knights stood beside the Prince on the dais. From concealed doors on either side of the platform, ten Black Knights filed into the room, taking evenly spaced positions along the walls.

“Bring in Christopher and that bastard dog from Nebraska,” the Prince thundered. The two Black Knights at the double doors rushed outside. I looked over at Nick, who seemed very anxious, all of the sudden.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to him.

“SILENCE,” boomed the Prince, “We will wait for the others before the talking begins.” I whirled angrily on the Prince. I could feel the Prince’s powers hammering down on me, but I was pissed. I felt something surrounding me. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw my friends shuttering with terror. It was very similar to what happened when Stephen Vollen tried using his powers on me before the war. I knew the Prince’s powers were lashing me, but I didn’t feel the terror’s touch. There was confusion in the Prince’s eyes when he saw I wasn’t quivering in fear. The powers quickly dissipated, but I remained silent. I heard my Guildmaster’s voice in my head. If the Prince was willing to use his powers on me, then it was probably a good idea not to anger him further. I bowed my head in submission. The Prince still looked disturbed, but didn’t say anything further. I stood quietly, waiting for the other lycanthropes that were supposed to be joining us. Hangman just stood rigidly, trying to shake off the after effects of the prince’s psychic lashing. Nick’s eyes bored into me.

What? I hand-signed to him, the sharp movement of my hands punctuating my frustration.

What was that? Nick asked with his hands. At least, that was my interpretation. Nick actually signed What is it? Hunter hand signs were designed to silently ask questions and give directions. It was a more complex version of the tactical hand signs used by military and police forces around the world. It wasn’t designed to hold a prolonged conversation, but hunters being hunters, we managed it.

Don’t know, I answered, Talk about it later. Nick looked a little calmer, but he was uneasy about what he had seen. I didn’t blame him, but it was disturbing to see that uneasy look on his face. Nick was always one of those who always looked at me like I was just another lycanthrope, instead of a Badmoon. After about fifteen minutes, which felt like an hour, the two Black Knights reentered the room, followed by another pair of lycanthropes. Both were standing in true form, with the traditional black robes draping off of them. The taller one, about Hangman’s height, was walking in an arrogant stride, not even bothering to look at the rest of us. Conversely, the shorter one, studied each of us before kneeling to the Prince at the platform. The Prince handled the introductions.

“He is called Bradford,” the Prince said, pointing to the tall one, “He is the son of one of the lords in Nebraska, and is the Prince of Nebraska’s emissary.” Nick stiffened. The Prince pointed to the other one. “This is Chris Blackhawk, one of my advisers. Among other things.” Bradford now felt dignified to look at us. He kept his face impassive until he saw Nick.

“Well, it looks like my job is finally done,” Bradford said with a slimy smugness, “How are you, Nicholas? The Prince is very interested in having you back in good shape, as is his daughter.” Nick took one step back from the tall lycanthrope. That set me off. I was sick and tired of all these little games. I wasn’t about to let this asshole talk to my best friend – who listened to me cry for Elizabeth’s safety on the way up here and would keep that secret – like he was some prize. All of my pent-up rage and anger was released in one moment. With a quick leap, I was on top of the bastard dog, pinning him. One hand was wrapped around his throat. I was deciding what to slash when I felt like I was hit with a live electrical wire. My heart jumped as the powerful shock threw me off of Bradford. I looked up at the Prince and saw another lycanthrope standing next to him. This one was dressed in the black robes and stood with an almost regal bearing. I didn’t know where the new lycanthrope came from, but I didn’t have time to contemplate that bit. Something invisible threw me back a good ten feet. Whatever force protected me from magicks before wasn’t working at the moment. I really needed to figure that out. The Prince loomed over us.

“I will not tolerate any more foolishness in my Manor,” the Prince said, calmly but with the implied threat. “For those of you who don’t know, this is Marshall Yven, the Spiritmaster for Florida.” At the mention of his name, I wondered if he was related to John Yven, the deputy Spiritmaster from my county. Shaman did tend to run along family lines.

“What more can you expect from brutes?” asked the Spiritmaster, looking down at us. Damn. He certainly sounded a lot like the Yven I knew, including the condescension. My body was hurt from the lightning bolt. Magick caused archanal wounds, so I wouldn’t be healing that anytime quick. Even if I could, Nick was making sure I didn’t try to fight anymore. Bradford stood up shakily. There was fear in his eyes, although he tried to look angry. Blackhawk looked like he was about to explode into laughter. I wondered exactly who Blackhawk was and what his connection was to the Prince. He didn’t look like the normal advisor that I had seen in the Hillsborough court.

“Nicholas Starson Hellfire,” the prince began, “You were granted refuge in Florida from the Prince of Nebraska. After careful reconsideration of your case, that refuge is revoked. You are hereby required to return to your home state and obey the dictates of your Prince. Bradford is empowered as marshal by your Prince. He is to escort you to Nebraska. Do you follow these dictates, or will you resist?” Longblade grinned with anticipation as the ultimatum was thrown down. Nick stood towards the Prince.

“I will go with Bradford willingly, but first I must beg you to listen to my partners and me about the threat that awaits you.” The prince nodded, although he looked bored about the whole deal. “Several months ago, Lord Stephen Vollen of Hillsborough was assassinated. The shot could have only been made by a hunter for two reasons. The position he fired from was awkward and difficult to use. Anyone but a skilled hunter could not have made that shot. Furthermore, the assassin used Silver Shok ammunition, an ammunition that is used almost exclusively by the Guild. The conclusion from this is that another lord had Vollen killed.”

“The why is simple, Vollen’s death put his son on the throne of Hillsborough County. Moreover, it secured that whoever was behind it would not have to deal with the elder Vollen during the war council. We found documents to that effect. My Prince, there is a group of lords that fomented the fall of Hillsborough, and we believe are hoping to use the war council to force you off your throne.” The Prince gave us a bored look.

“I thank you for your testimony, Nicholas Hellfire,” the Prince responded with a tired tone that conveyed a slight sarcasm, “But I’m quite sure that you’re mistaken. You will leave my state as soon as reasonable possible.”

“May I ask an indulgence to speak with my friends?” Nick ventured, “If I don’t, they may act irrationally. They don’t understand what is going on.” The Prince nodded looking directly at me. Okay, I hadn’t exactly acquitted myself well. Nick gathered the two of us around him.

“I know what the two of you are going to ask,” Nick said, “I had some trouble with the Prince back home, and a friend of mine here offered to get me out. After his death in Broward, the Black Knights here wanted to send me back home to protect the Prince from any wrath of the Nebraska Prince. What resulted was my coming to Hillsborough after a bad escape. That’s all you need to know right now. You two are going to need to protect each other. You can trust the State Guildmaster, to a point. Everyone else is questionable. Ranger, I don’t know what happened earlier, but you better find out soon. And don’t give up on her. Hangman, find a way back to Hillsborough. The Guildmaster was right. You will be the new Guildmaster. Learn what you can up here, but get back quickly. I don’t know why the Prince just shrugged off the plot against him. Something vile is going on here. Be careful.” Nick walked over to Bradford, and the two of them walked out the double doors. Hangman and I stood next to each other without saying a word. The State Guildmaster walked up to the two of us, a sad look on his face.

“I didn’t want that to happen,” the State Guildmaster said, as we turned to look at him, “Unfortunately, the Prince is going to need all the external support he can get, and that includes the Prince of Nebraska. I know that doesn’t make you any less angry about this, but there’s nothing you can do. At any rate, the two of you will work for me, now.”

“I don’t think so,” said Blackhawk, who had silently walked up next to us, “The young one you can take, but I’m afraid the Prince said Ranger could work for me.” The State Guildmaster’s face darkened and looked about ready to attack Blackhawk.

“Who the fuck are you? And why isn’t anyone talking about sending a force to Hillsborough?” I asked, pissed off that the two of them were treating me like a piece of equipment.

“Those decisions have already been made. Take a walk with me Ranger,” Blackhawk said in response, “I will explain a lot of things. I will also explain to you why it’s important that you work for me.” Something about Blackhawk’s response intrigued me. I knew it was a hook, but there was something about this lycanthrope I needed to figure out. Something in the back of my mind told me was important. I hadn’t survived this long by ignoring my instincts. Blackhawk led me through the halls of the Manor to a large open courtyard. The courtyard was a couple hundred square feet, fenced in by ten foot tall hedges. Blackhawk projected an air of secrecy, like a seasoned spy. He knew things that I didn’t, and he knew I wanted them. That, for some reason, gave him confidence. I didn’t know whether that made me want to laugh or be worried.

Blackhawk, himself, was not intimidating. We had shed our true forms for human form somewhere along the way to the courtyard. I suspected we did that to protect him. Even in his lycanthrope form, he wasn’t big or particularly strong-looking. Even if he knew some form of martial arts, I was bigger enough to dominate the fight. In human form, his dark brown hair topped an unimpressive face. It wasn’t handsome or ugly, just average. Blackhawk could be anyone in a crowd. What disturbed me most about him were his eyes. I always looked into the eyes. They told me what the owners were feeling or if they were hiding something. Blackhawk’s eyes were empty, completely vacant of any emotion. Only a faint spark of life told me that they were not dead. That kind of control told me that Blackhawk was more than he pretended to be.

“To answer your earlier question, I am Christopher Blackhawk, or Chris Major to the human world. I head the Society of the Claw and the Fang in Florida. We are hunters, shaman, warriors, and kin. Our job is to act in the name of the King of the United States and to preserve the United States as a kingdom at all costs. We also act as informal advisers and spies for the Princes of the states.” Blackhawk leaned on the wall to the Manor and pulled out a cigar. He lit up from a lighter he produced from under his robes and then looked at me again.

“Why do you want me?” I retorted, “I’m just a hunter from one of the counties. I’m not even very good at the subtle stuff.” Blackhawk puffed on his cigar for a good thirty seconds before answering.

“You are not ‘just a hunter,’ Ranger,” Blackhawk answered, “I’ve seen your file from the State Guild. According to them, you are one of the best hunters in Florida. In addition to being well-versed in the various weapons you’ve employed, the file notes you’re a quick thinker and adjust easily to changing situations. As for the subtle stuff, the Society has plenty of quiet operators. Spies, if you will. What the Florida Society is lacking is lycanthropes who can do wetwork easily and efficiently. Your record in Hillsborough is proof enough of that. Did you or did you not take down three vampires because you smelled them?”

”What? You mean when I was guarding the pups in tysach? Why does everyone make a big deal about that? It’s like everyone forgets how different vampires smell from lycanthropes. Besides, the smell was just confirmation. Bats sound different from birds when they fly, and bats don’t go where we held tysach in Hillsborough.”

”It’s more of how fast you put it all together and reacted,” Blackhawk said. ”That kind of instinct I can’t train into my operatives. Which is why I want you to work for me.”

”And why do I want to work for you?” I asked.

“Most importantly, because it’s going to be the Society providing the intel on Hillsborough for when the liberation actually begins. I can’t guarantee you will be working in your home county, but I can guarantee a certain amount of freedom in the execution of your duties. In addition you will always have full material support. You will have to have a partner, but I can also guarantee she will meet the stringent rules the Society has for abilities and physical fitness.”

“She?” I asked, incredulously. We had no female hunters in the Hillsborough chapter of the Guild, and the number of female hunters is very low anyhow. The reasons are simple. Females aren’t as physically built for hunting as males are, and they usually can’t handle the intense harassment of the training. This doesn’t mean female hunters are any less capable than male hunters. Quite the contrary. Once they get through the training, female hunters are some of the most devious and cold-hearted hunters in the Guild. It’s just that, as a whole, females are more likely to fail the training then males.

“Yes, she.” Blackhawk replied, slightly annoyed, “Put that look away. The partner I have in mind is a kin who has more or less, grown up in black operations. She is a master at compiling and analyzing vast amounts of intelligence. She has been very useful to the Society in the past by coming up with information no one else had pieced together. My problem is, she’s wasted here in Tallahassee. By the time she’s done her analysis, the tactical situation has changed. It’s not her fault, but rather the fact my operatives are better at gathering information than analyzing and acting on it. This is where you come in.”

“Let me guess. I’m supposed to protect her as we gather up the data that you want. In addition, I’m supposed to be the one that acts on any of the truly time-sensitive things we find. This doesn’t sound very appealing. Who’s going to cover me during all of this?”

“We have contacts in most of the Guild chapters in Florida, but don’t you have your own network of allies?” he asked, almost in a mocking tone. I leveled a glare at him and crossed my arms, waiting for him to restart the conversation. If he wanted me that badly, he could make the next move.

“At any rate,” he said after fifteen seconds of silence, “My offer is firm. Furthermore, where will you better serve in the coming war with the leeches? In the State Guild preparing for missions, or in the Society, actually doing them?” That last line bit into me. I never was one to miss out on action. There were a few nagging doubts – and a very specific job in mind that I still needed to do.

“I’ll meet the kin first, then I’ll give you my decision.” I could see the triumph in his eyes. Blackhawk was sure he had me, and I wasn’t sure he was wrong.

“That is a perfectly acceptable answer Ranger,” he said, maintaining a level voice, “What say we meet at a coffee house I know in town? It’s called the Java Spear. The Guildmaster will know where it is.” With that, he left the courtyard, leaving me alone to think. A great deal occurred in the past few hours. I saw my best friend hauled off to Nebraska, of all places, and a strange lycanthrope offered a position doing what I was good at for an organization I’d never heard of before. There was something else. I was sure Elizabeth was alive, and she was going to need me. We didn’t have a lot of time together, and none of it in private. Well, except when she came down to talk to me in the prison cell. Amongst all the problems of the Florida aristocracy, my personal life fell by the wayside – again. Now, however, there was actually something in my personal life that needed my attention. I wished Nick was with me in the courtyard to bounce off ideas. He was gone, and I was treading unfamiliar ground by myself. I must have sat there for at least a couple of hours, because Hangman joined me. From the mixed relief and satisfaction on his face, he must have been looking me for awhile. He sat down beside me silently and stared at the vegetation. I didn’t think he knew I was aware he was there. Finally he took an audible breath after sitting for a good minute and a half.

“I’ve known you were there since you walked in Hangman, so you can come out and say what you’re going to say.” He looked directly at me, as I turned to face him.

“You’re going to go with that Blackhawk, aren’t you?” he asked, though it sounded more as a statement than a question.

“Yes,” I answered, finally truly answering the question for myself.

“Well that’s just fucking great. First Nick is shipped off to Nebraska and now you’re leaving the Guild to go play with that fucking dog. Just what in the hell am I supposed to do?” I took a long look at Hangman. His features, even obscured by fur, were strained. I had actually forgotten how young he was compared to Nick and me. We were his mentors, much as the Guildmaster had been mine. We protected him. We continued his training. Now, we were disappearing from his life.

“Hangman, over the short time I’ve known you, you’ve proved yourself countless times as an effective and even a superb hunter,” I said. The statement took Hangman aback, but I continued. “What you are going to do is take your ass back to the State Guild and teach those arrogant bastards exactly what a county hunter can do. I know you can beat them, because Nick and I taught you how. As for me, I need the freedom of action Blackhawk is offering me. I need the chance to go back to Hillsborough.”

“To look for the Lady-Apparent?” Hangman asked, reading my mind. I nodded my head. “You’re in love with her, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. You know, I always thought love was a damn stupid thing for a hunter to feel, considering what we do. Now, I’m not so sure.” Hangman’s sudden bark of laughter startled me.

“Nick was right. This is the first time for you isn’t it?” Hangman asked. Anger flashed through me as the thought of Nick betraying a confidence of mine to Hangman. It subsided as I realized Hangman probably had been extremely worried about me during some of my depressive bouts on the ride up. I guess I would’ve done the same thing.

“Yeah,” I answered, nodding my head, “I was taken to the training grounds right after Initiation. My first teacher was a crusty old bastard who loved to drill his students into the ground, either by training or his fists, but he taught us how to think nasty and win by doing so. After training, I came back to Hillsborough. After a couple of embarrassing situations with a couple of the older hunters of the Guild, I made the decision to become the best.”

“And you did, neglecting everything else, huh?” I nodded at Hangman’s question. “I know how you feel, sort of. I dated someone during tysach, but she told me after Initiation she wouldn’t become involved with a hunter. It hurt, but I left her and became a hunter. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choice.”

“You did. You have the knack for this job, and you handle yourself well.” I got up, dusting off the robes as I stood. Hangman did the same. “Now, how do we get out of here?”

“We can just walk around the Manor until a Black Knight shows up and escorts us back to the tunnel.” Hangman shed his true form for human.

“Sounds like a plan to me. Especially if it involves annoying the Knights.”

I awoke the next morning in unfamiliar settings. It took me a moment to remember I was staying in the State Guild. As I sat up in the dimness of the room, I vaguely remembered the roundabout route through the Manor Hangman and I had taken. We had been finally escorted to the tunnel by a pair of unsmiling Black Knights after we made a slight mess in the kitchen. I looked over to the other bunk in the room to see if Hangman was there. He was still sleeping soundly after a long night of training. Hangman told the State Guildmaster that he was going to join when we got to the Guild. So, the State Guildmaster had taken Hangman to the training hunter. The two sparred most of the night. I was barely awake when a very exhausted Hangman swayed into the room and collapsed on his bunk. Satisfied he was still alive, I stood up and walked over to the chest of drawers. I put on a pair of jeans with a simple white t-shirt. I slipped on wy well-worn work boots, and my HK45 slid into its holster. I made myself look somewhat presentable. Much to my relief, a small map of the State Guild was taped to the door. I memorized the directions to the State Guildmaster’s office and left the map for Hangman. As I navigated through the mass of corridors and staircases, I went over what I was going to talk to the State Guildmaster. Nick said I could trust the State Guildmaster. Right now, reliable information was what I needed. I had never heard of the Society of the Claw and the Fang until this Blackhawk wolf told me about them. I was still suspect about what sketchy details that I was given.

I walked right into the Guildmaster’s office like I did with my Guildmaster. It may have been arrogant on my part, but I really didn’t care. Unfamiliar pain ran through me. In less than a week, I lost just about everything and everyone I actually cared about. At that moment, I needed to know if the Society would be able to help me, or if I needed to go back to Hillsborough on my own. The State Guildmaster was sitting behind his desk, pouring over documents. I quietly sat down in one of the chairs in front of his desk and waited. He ignored me, so I was just going to wait him out. It was a technique I perfected with the my Guildmaster. Finally, after about ten minutes, he looked up at me.

“Oh, it’s you,” he said, slightly surprised, “I thought you were my nephew. I was wondering why he was waiting so patiently. Usually he begins to become annoying after about five minutes. Okay, Ranger, what do you want to know about the Society?”

“So they are a real organization?” I asked, not exactly surprised he knew why I was in his office. Idiots do not become Guildmasters.

“Yes, but I don’t know to whom they report. They say the King of the United States, but I doubt that.”

“Then who do you think they report to?”

“I think they used to report to the King, but now they have their own agenda. They’ve got contacts and operatives throughout the United States. You can always find their leaders near the Princes. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but from what I’ve seen of them, they act much like the power behind the throne of the kingdom.”

“What exactly do they do?” I asked the Guildmaster.

“In Florida, they gather information for the Prince as well as conduct limited field operations,” the State Guildmaster answered with a very annoyed look on his face, “I’ll be frank. I don’t like them. The Society does many of the same things the State Guild is supposed to do, but the Prince likes Blackhawk and values the intelligence the Society gives him. The Society has more diverse resources than I do, but they are geared more to intelligence gathering. They’ve been doing more operations recently, especially in the Disputed Territories and against lords suspected of disloyalty. I figured Blackhawk wanted you to bolster his operational agents.” I nodded, and leaned back into the chair. I pondered what the Guildmaster just told me. It wasn’t making me feel any better about my prospective employer, especially the part about investigating and operating against lords suspected of disloyalty against the Prince. It made a certain amount of sense from the Prince’s standpoint, but the nebulous nature of the Society didn’t sit well with me. I also didn’t like that I never heard of the Society before coming to Tallahassee. I was in the top tier of the Hillsborough county chapter. I should have heard about them. I wasn’t sure if this was something the Guildmaster knew about and didn’t – or couldn’t – talk to me about, or if the Society hid itself from him as well. Either was possible, and both were setting off all sorts of alarms in my head.

“Blackhawk wants me to play the enforcer to one of his analysts,” I told the State Guildmaster, “I don’t know if I trust him, but he offered me a free range of action for the data the analyst and I come up with. Do you know anything about a genius kin analyst of theirs?” The State Guildmaster shook his head.

“Their personnel identities are well guarded. The few I do know are former State hunters who left the State Guild to go work with them,” the State Guildmaster said. He looked at me with a quizzical look. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to meet my prospective partner at this ‘Java Spear’ place in town. Then I’ll decide.”

“If you decide not to join the Society, you have a place here with the State Guild,” the State Guildmaster said. I blinked. I wasn’t expecting that.

“I’m honored, sir. I truly am,” I said. “Still, even if I don’t join the Society, I won’t be joining the State Guild.”

“Why?” the State Guildmaster asked, shocked by my statement. He had a right to be. Very few hunters refused the opportunity to join the State Guild. For all the mocking county hunters leveled at the state hunters, we understood the state hunters were the best. A few months ago, I would have jumped at the chance to be part of the State Guild. Now, though, things were vastly different. There was more to it for myself. Lycanthrope society is based on belonging to a pack that belongs to a bigger pack and so on up to the Great Pack. It was the same for hunters. Our county chapter was our pack. For Hangman and myself, our pack was destroyed. Without a Guildmaster, or even a county lord or lady (Ancestors, I hoped she was still alive), Hangman and I technically belonged to the State Guildmaster. My telling the State Guildmaster I would not join the State Guild was a direct challenge to his authority. I needed to walk carefully.

“If I don’t join the Society, I’m going back to Hillsborough,” I answered, trying to keep an emotionless mask on my face, “I have to go back.” The State Guildmaster’s face flashed with anger, but quickly regained its controlled composure.

“I know you had a very unique relationship with your Guildmaster,” the State Guildmaster said in tightly controlled tones, “I hope you are not expecting me to honor that same relationship? If so, I will quickly disabuse you of that. Unless the Society grabs you, you are my hunter. I do not allow my hunters to dictate their orders to me.”

“Sir, you’ve been very open with Hangman and me, so I’ll try and do the same for you,” I said, leaning forward, “I’m hoping you’ll give me permission to go back in, but there’s something else at stake here.”

“Who is so important to you that you would walk into a suicide mission?” he asked in reply. His question caught me off-guard, and he chuckled at my momentary surprise. “I’ve been the State Guildmaster for a while. Most of the time a county hunter refuses an invitation, it’s because of a mate or family. You have no family except for the Guild, and that pained look on your face means your mate is still behind in Hillsborough. We have no information about your personal life, so it must be a new development.”

“The Lady-Apparent,” I mumbled. It still sounded preposterous to me, so I could imagine how outrageous it sounded to someone who hadn’t been there. The State Guildmaster’s eyes bulged with shock. Then, he threw his head back and laughed. Sudden anger consumed me, and I restrained the impulse to attack the State Guildmaster. The impulse startled me. I occasionally threatened to thrash some of the higher ranking lycanthropes, but it never went beyond the verbal. This was a visceral reaction that sliced through my honed controls, and it scared me a bit. Did I have no control over these no emotions and what they wanted me to do? My reactions did not go unnoticed by the State Guildmaster.

“I’m sorry Ranger,” the State Guildmaster said, “That was rude of me. It was just so reminiscent of bad drama – and you have to live with it.” He sat quiet for a moment, as if collecting his thoughts. “I know you. I’ve seen your type many times in the State Guild. Hunters so dedicated to the profession that anything outside the Guild catches them off-guard. You aren’t thinking like the professional I need. Is that a fair summary?”

“Yes,” I said, thoroughly embarrassed by the State Guildmaster’s skewering assessment. “My professionalism is ashamed, but the rest of me doesn’t give a damn. I’m sorry if that doesn’t make sense.”

“Makes plenty of sense,” the State Guildmaster answered, “I even remember a certain state hunter that gave up everything to marry a chapter hunter – even though everyone else damn near commanded her not to. Amber was a good friend, and a damned good hunter.” The revelation caught me off-guard. Damn, that was happening a lot lately.

“I sent in a hit pack in to reconnoiter Hillsborough,” the State Guildmaster said, “Their initial report came in just before you walked in this morning.” He looked like he was bracing himself. “The hit pack found no lycanthropes, but more vampires and ghouls than they had seen in any other county – including the Disputed Territories. You and Samuel may have been the only survivors. If you want to go down there, I owe it to Amber and you to let you. Ancestors knows that you would probably have a better chance than any of my wolves, but you have to know that you will probably be walking in to a death trap.”

“I kind of figured that out on my own,” I replied, my normal sarcasm suddenly reappearing, “I know I’m not thinking clearly. That’s one of the few reasons I’m thinking hard about joining the Society.”

“I think this is the first time I actually want someone to work for Blackhawk,” the State Guildmaster said, “Let me know when you’re ready. I’ll drive you.”

Chapter 15 – Welcome To The New Job, Same As The Old Job

Badmoon Rising Chapter 13 – Sometimes Even I Think I’m Cursed

The ride under the stars was refreshing. Hell, just getting out of the Manor was refreshing. It wasn’t the carnage bothering me. It was trying to grasp something completely new to me. The more I looked back on the few interactions between Elizabeth – I couldn’t believe how natural it was to call her by her name instead of the Lady-Apparent – the more I saw, or hoped to see, the early flickers of something between the two of us. At the same time, my mind was also busily slapping down those lofty aspirations with reality. Completely out of character, I reached out to another lycanthrope in need and probably got what was a normal response that I was blowing completely out of proportion. To make matters worse, the two lycanthropes I normally went to for these sort of things weren’t available. The Guildmaster was far too busy helping Elizabeth – the Lady-Apparent, dammit – gather the packs and restore some order to the chaos the witch-hunters wreaked upon our society. Nick, on the other hand, was being far too amused by my blubbering to do anything but give me an almost malicious smile. So, when Sneller asked us to check on the Guildmaster’s wife, I jumped at the job. Almost literally, but I managed to keep some of my normal composure. I don’t think Nick was fooled at all.

I traded the M4 I liberated from the Manor’s armory for the Guildmaster’s Benelli. The Guildmaster just nodded when I told him what I was doing and dismissed me without a thought. Elizabeth gave me a quick look before I left, but I couldn’t decipher it. I just let my mind go into job-mode. Nick tagged along, but he was being cagey about why. It was a lone wolf job. I really didn’t need help, but I wasn’t about to tell Nick he couldn’t come. Besides, I would probably need him to vouch for me if we ran into any straggling lycanthropes. Calling for rhaizen was rare enough that every lycanthrope in Hillsborough County would have heard about it. I would need someone else to verify I hadn’t gone rogue. Fortunately, there weren’t any incidents as we traveled up the interstate to New Tampa. The Guildmaster’s wife ran a very successful security business. About two years ago, the two purchased their dream home. Well, it was Mrs. Werstand’s dream house. The Guildmaster just grumbled about the extravagance of it. He was always more like me when it came to such things. We both wanted just enough to make it comfortable and useful without any of the flourishes just to make it pretty.

The house was one of the new-style small mansions that cropped up during the late nineties. The exterior was designed to resemble a Spanish villa, complete with that odd orangy-beige color stucco walls and curved red clay tile roof. The doorways were recessed behind grand arches. The landscaping was pure Floridian with a wide lawn dotted with palm trees and low flowering plants. A brick driveway curled out to the road, where the house hid behind a tall masonry wall. As Nick and I drove up to the wrought-iron gate protecting the driveway, I knew something was wrong. The property was too dark. Mrs. Werstand was a hunter before becoming a security specialist for the humans. She’d seen to the security precautions herself, including a well-lit perimeter. Especially while there was a war going on with the vampires.

I scanned the driveway and picked out a Tampa Police squad car. I looked over at Nick. He nodded to my unasked question. I pulled the shotgun out of its scabbard. Nick still had his M4 and was aiming it at the police car. I shed my human form, feeling the jumpsuit I was wearing rip and tear as my frame rapidly grew and expanded. I crept towards the police car, cradling the shotgun in my arms. As I neared the car, I smelled blood and fresh death. I knew that smell well enough. A lot of times because I was the cause. As I came up to the driver’s door, I saw the four bullet holes through the windshield. I peered in to check the cop. His face was frozen in death, contorted by pain and shock. Of the four bullets, one hit him in the throat, killing instantly. Another took him in the chest, and the other two destroyed the laptop mounted next to the officer. Aimed shooting, but not very good. I whistled for Nick to come up. As Nick slid up to the car, I reached in and checked the officer’s wallet. He was kin. Sneller or Deadeye probably sent him over to secure the house until Nick and I showed up to collect Mrs. Werstand. The good part was the kin was off-duty, so we wouldn’t be dealing with a bunch of human police screaming down on the area while Nick and I were dealing with whatever killed the kin. Tomorrow would change that, but we couldn’t deal with that now.

“Should we go in the front door, or try to find another way in?” I whispered to Nick as he looked into the car at the dead kin. Nick scanned the yard and surrounding area before he answered.

“Front door,” he answered softly, “I doubt the bad guys are still in there. If they are, I doubt they will be expecting hunters.” I nodded with his assessment. If the bad guys were still in the house, they would have attacked Nick and me as we made our way up the driveway. I made my way up the last fifty feet, skirting the lawn the entire way. I pulled to the right of the door, while Nick crept up to the left. I checked it quickly. No signs of a forced opening. I twisted the knob. The door was unlocked. That was definitely out of pattern for Mrs. Werstand. She was more paranoid about securing the house than the Guildmaster could ever hope to be. I opened the door carefully, pushing gently enough for it to move under its own inertia. Nick swept the entrance with his carbine and moved in. I followed, doing an opposite sweep with the shotgun and checking behind the door for any surprises.

The interior of the house was black. There was absolutely no light. I could barely pick out objects with my true form’s sight. Even then I only barely recognized the furniture and fixtures from memory. We carefully swept each room for any sign of the bad guys. I assumed the worst. There was no good reason for the house to be that dark. After we swept all the rooms on the first floor, we crept up the stairs, with my shotgun leading the way. The second floor was just as dark as the first, and even more silent. This disturbed me because the Guildmaster and his wife kept their home offices on the second story. They always kept their computers running. I couldn’t hear any of the normal quiet sounds I should have heard, such as the cooling fans of the computers or the slight buzz of monitors turned on. Nick and I swept the office, only to find it torn apart and most of the equipment destroyed. I didn’t waste time to check the files, but moved towards the staircase as fast as I could. My heart was in my throat and adrenaline was rushing through my system. The first two rooms on the third floor were guest rooms. Nothing. We moved down the hall, quickly checking the communal bath and came to the door of the large bedroom suite. Again, I opened the door and Nick did his sweep. I did the opposite sweep.

The Guildmaster’s wife was sitting in true form, looking out her large picture window down onto the front of the house. The smells of death and blood immediately told me the scene was staged. The body of Mrs. Werstand was the centerpiece. It took me a moment to push down my rage as Nick and I stepped into the room. As we looked down on her body, we saw several gunshot wounds in her torso. I covered my eyes and flipped on the light switch. I heard Nick gasp as the light flooded the room. Then I saw what he was staring at. The word “Revenge” was carved into her stomach. I pushed away the fresh flash of anger that arose in me, albeit with great difficulty. Nick looked like he’d already waged his small battle and his reason was returning to him. How had the Bleeders managed to get into the house? The Guildmaster would want answers.

“Nick, let’s have a look around and see if we can figure out what happened,” I said, tearing my eyes from Mrs. Werstand’s body.

“I think it’s pretty obvious what happened,” Nick answered with a trace of annoyance that sounded very strange coming from him. “The Bleeders took advantage of us being distracted and tried to hit the Guildmaster like you did Bradon.” A familiar pang of what almost could be called guilt ran through me. What Nick said did make a certain amount of sense, but there was something that I felt we were missing.

“Nick, I’m with you on what the Bleeders were doing here,” I replied, trying to keep any annoyance out of my voice, “What I don’t understand was how a group of Bleeders managed to infiltrate the house and take out Mrs. Werstand – who used to be with the State Guild – and not have any casualties of their own. Did you smell any black blood while we were securing the house? I didn’t.”

“Neither did I,” Nick said with an ominous look in his eyes. He could see where I was leading, and he didn’t like it one bit.

“I think this might have been the new leader of the Bleeders,” I said, “If so, he’s fucking scary. Anything we find here might help us when we deal with him.” Nick nodded in silent agreement. Since we were in the bedroom, Nick and I decided to start there. The bedroom didn’t look disturbed with the exception of the body and the shattered glass of the picture window. From the angles, the Bleeders shot the kin police officer from the picture window before departing. Nick stopped suddenly by the side of the bed and picked up a small metallic object off the floor. It was a bullet casing.

“This is bad Ranger,” he said as he stood up.

“What else?” I asked as he handed me the casing. It was a Silver Shok. “Our rogue hunter?” If that was the case, then the whole situation just changed.

“No, I don’t think so. I think it was really the Bleeders. Strange they signed their work though.” I noticed the detachment in his voice. Nick was very good at removing his feelings from his work and examining the situation clearly.

“Then where did they get the Silver Shoks?” I asked. I wanted Nick to give me a good answer. I didn’t want to believe that the same fucking rogue that killed Stephen Vollen was still operating in Hillsborough.

“I talked to Gunny before the raid on the TCV Hall. He said an expected shipment of Silver Shoks hadn’t arrived.” I remembered his brother Boomer mentioning the same thing as I was preparing for the raid. It wasn’t unusual for shipments of silver rounds to be late. It was hard for our kin in the ammunition firms to circumvent the normal security procedures to sneak us our silver bullets. It took longer than it should to confirm whether or not a shipment was merely late or if it was intercepted. “This explains what happened to it. I think we ought to see if this bullet was in one of the lots we were expecting.”

“It could have been our rogue,” I replied, playing devil’s advocate.

“Maybe. If it was a hunter, why darken the area? He could have infiltrated the area without doing that and arousing suspicion. Why kill the kin? Hunters never complicate things by killing humans unless necessary. You know that. It just brings unwanted attention to our situation. This was a big, bold, and staged affair. The Bleeders wanted to know that they were behind this. I think you were right. The new leader to the Bleeders is fucking scary.”

“There’s another question,” I said, moving to the door, “How did they know when to strike at her?” Nick gave me a wide eyed look. The possible answers to that question were not good. We needed to talk to the Guildmaster. I called the Manor. It rang six times and then disconnected.

“What the fuck?” I asked, looking at the phone. Nick gave me a questioning look, so I told him what happened. He thought for a moment before answering.

“When the site went down, every lycanthrope on the net probably called the Manor. The phones must be swamped,” he answered.

“No, this is something else,” I said. I could feel it in my bones. My instincts all said to return to the Manor. At least, I thought it was my instincts. All I kept seeing was Elizabeth, and it didn’t do anything to help me think straight.

“Then, let’a finish up here and get back to the Manor,” Nick said.

“What do we do about her?” I asked, nodding my head to the body.

“Call a shaman and tell him to get over here. They know what to do about this.” He walked out of the room as I called the shaman. After several calls, I managed to get a hold of a minor member of the Order who said he would come out to the Guildmaster’s house as soon as possible. I thanked the young shaman and went to go find Nick.He was in the offices sorting through the trashed files. A small fire was raging in the trash can.

“What are you doing?” I asked him as I walked in.

“Disposing of a few incriminating files. There’s some stuff in here I’d rather not let the Order have a chance to see.” I agreed with that and helped. We needed to get this done as fast as possible and get back to the Manor. As he handed me a file, I lit it with a lighter then threw it into the trash can. I didn’t bother reading any of it, since the files were in sealed manila envelopes with one-word code names written in black marker on them. It took us about fifteen minutes to burn the files. Just as we were finishing up, my phone began vibrating on my side. I looked down to see who was calling me, only to find a three digit code blinking. Ancestors, it was the immediate recall code triggered by the Guildmaster pressing his panic button. He was in trouble, and if he was in trouble so was –

I didn’t let the thought finish itself. I just grabbed my shotgun and flew out of the house. I kicked my motorcycle to life before realized I hadn’t even checked if Nick was still with me. I was relieved when I heard the revving of his bike. I slid the shotgun into its scabbard and opened the throttle. Our two bikes screamed through the roadways, narrowly dodging cars and pedestrians alike. I didn’t care. I had one thought. I had to get to her. I saw the pillar of smoke a mile or so before I saw the Manor. The gate was blown apart, its two columns torn apart. I could see nearly two dozen vampires in true form swarming a few lycanthropes, who were desperately trying to fend the leeches off. I shed for true form, letting the pale view of the human senses sharpen as my true form overtook me. Pulling the shotgun from its scabbard, I launched myself off my motorcycle. It collided with one of the leeches as I landed and let loose three blasts of silver buckshot. Several leeches were caught by the blast and fell to the ground. I checked my six, only to find Nick taking out several more leeches with his M4. I sprinted towards the front door, letting loose shotgun blasts as leeches tried to get in my way. As I entered the door, I put the last shell through a pair of leeches attacking a Red Knight. I picked the semi-conscious lycanthrope off the floor and pulled him over to the wall. Bullets cracked overhead as warriors and leeches exchanged fire around us.

“What happened?” I asked the Knight as I surveyed the battle around me. Warriors filled the hallway, but they were outnumbered by the flood of leeches and ghouls. Nick covered me, neatly cutting a pair of leeches in half with his carbine. He quickly reloaded his M4 as a pair of Red Knights moved past us to set up a crossfire against a pocket of ghouls.

“I don’t know. All of them just appeared,” he said, coughing through his injuries, “They broke through us and got into the Manor. Just came out of nowhere.” I saw his eyes grow wide in fear. Sensing more than seeing, I picked up the fragment of one of the broken flower tables and drove the improvised stake over my shoulder. I felt the leech stiffen on the wood fragment. The vampire fell to the floor as I let go of the stake. I nodded to the Knight and handed over the empty shotgun and some shells from my pocket. As the wounded Knight loaded the shells into the shotgun, I drew my HK45 and grabbed Nick.

“We’ve got to get into the Manor.” I yelled over the din of the surrounding battle. Nick just nodded and quickly emptied the magazine into a group of ghouls fifteen feet from us. They dove to the ground to escape the gunfire. Nick replaced the magazine in his carbine as a pair of shaman joined us. They exploded the ghouls’ heads with an incantation as Nick slapped the bolt release. We leapt through the battle. We pushed, shoved, and shot our way through. When we got to the doors, we saw a pair of ghouls in full body armor wielding very large machine guns. There were pockmarks on the front of their armor from earlier engagements. There were a few wounded lycanthropes in front of the two and plenty of dead. The two ghouls noticed as Nick and I emerged from the throng of the melee. Without a word, the two swept their weapons at us. As they opened up, the Nick and I dove behind the necrotic cover. Bullets kicked up parts of the tile floor in front of us. The two ghouls continued to spray the area until their weapons ran dry. As soon as their firing stopped, Nick and I pounced. Full body armor tends to be weak in one major place – the hands. I double-tapped the closest ghoul and he shrieked. His machine gun clattered to the floor as he grasped at the bleeding hole in his hand. I slammed the ghoul into the wall. I could feel his rib cage snap from the impact. A full strength blow across the face nearly spun the ghoul’s head off. The ghoul stopped breathing. I turned to check on Nick. He just smiled back at me as his ghoul slumped to the ground.

The doors to the Manor had been jury-rigged back up after the witch-hunters blew them down. With the two ghoul guards down, I figured knocking the doors down again would be the easiest entry. Hand signals flew between Nick and me. Simultaneous shoulder hits shoved the right door back down. The falling door caught two leeches throwing knives at pack warriors. Single shots finished them off as Nick and I charged into the Manor proper. The fighting had all the organization of a street brawl. Pockets of lycanthropes were fighting with waves of leeches, while single battles were occurring in the crossfire. Bullets whistled by Nick and me. We returned fire at the leeches while moving deeper into the battle. From the door, we moved to the wall, making sure there was nothing behind us. Through the gunfire, I searched for Elizabeth. I didn’t see her, but I caught sight of Hangman cutting down groups of leeches with a pair of TMPs. It looked like a bad action movie scene, with Hangman keeping the tide of leeches away from him with short bursts of fire. I put a round into the head of a leech that tried to get too close, and then suggested to Nick we go help the pup. He nodded and sprayed a hole into the vampires in front of us. As he exchanged magazines, I dashed into the hole, deepening it with double-taps. As soon as my magazine went dry, Nick leap-frogged me and deepened the hole again as I replaced the magazine in my pistol. We worked our way slowly through the clogged Manor floor, exchanging the point position a few more times before we reached Hangman. Hangman was surprised as we emerged from the mob and almost shot us for our trouble. Then, we saw why he was so determined to hold his ground. At his feet was the Guildmaster, bleeding from several wounds to his chest. Nick bent down to examine him as Hangman and I provided cover fire.

“These are bad. We’ve got to get him to help fast,” Nick said. I looked around the Manor, but couldn’t see anywhere we could safely move the Guildmaster. Hell, there wasn’t anyplace safe in the entire Manor.

“Why don’t we get him to that corridor we used during the witch-hunter attack?” Hangman suggested, busily putting a wall of silver between the oncoming leeches and our little group. Nick and I exchanged glances and then nodded simultaneously. It would be dangerous to move him, but we weren’t going to last long out in the middle of the battle. A lycanthrope slammed down next to the Guildmaster, bleeding from a close-range shotgun blast. Hangman quickly disposed of the shotgun-wielding leech and the three of us picked up the Guildmaster. We could hear his grunts of pain as we half-carried, half-dragged him over to the section of wall where the corridor was. The Guildmaster looked up dazedly at what we were doing and had us raise him so that he could unlock the access door. As the door opened, Nick and Hangman threw the Guildmaster into the darkened corridor as I shot off the remaining rounds in the magazine. The door closed solidly and the sounds of the battle muffled down. We began to pick up the Guildmaster to move him back to the armory. There were medical supplies there. We needed to wash out those wounds and let his body heal. Then he could coordinate the fight to take back the Manor while I went after —

“STOP,” the Guildmaster yelled, with a sickening tone of agony in his voice. The three of us halted immediately and gently lowered the Guildmaster to the concrete floor. The dark made it hard to see his eyes, but I could hear his pained breathing. I was at a loss for words. This lycanthrope was almost like a father to me, and I could see the precious life draining out of him and onto the floor.

“Marcus, Nicholas, and Samuel,” he coughed. He raised himself to a sitting position, leaning back on the wall of the corridor. “I had such hopes for the three of you. You were going to be the future of my Guild. Now, because of this, that is no longer possible. I hate doing this. I could live with dying if we were going to win this battle, but we’re not.” All of us were shocked by his words. The Guildmaster never said such things. He was always the one urging us to push on even when the situation was bleak.

“New pack warriors just arrived. They’re regrouping outside the Manor,” Nick said, his tone urging the Guildmaster to hold on. The Guildmaster groaned in pain before he began again.

“Too little, too late. The leeches back there in the Manor are just the tip of the iceberg. Silanti has an army of undead like I haven’t seen before. I don’t know where he got them all, but they outnumber us ten to one. The rest of his forces are running through the rest of the Manor. They will kill every lycanthrope in this Manor just by weight of numbers. The witch-hunters must have been to weaken us and get us to gather everyone in an easy killing ground.” The Guildmaster made a wet, hacking sound before continuing. “Now, I must ask something of you that will go against everything you have been taught.” He wheezed, the pain of his wounds racking his body as his lungs tried to inhale air. The blood already soaked his pelt and was pooling around his body.

“The three of you must leave Hillsborough. Go to Tallahassee and inform the prince and his advisors of our downfall. The war council must know what happened here. Leave the Manor, go to the Guild, gather your things, and leave this county. By nightfall tomorrow, it will be leech territory.” He held up a hand to forestall us. “This is not easy for me to ask. You three were going to become pivotal members in the Guild after me. The Guild is gone. Kurt is dead. Ronin and James are missing. Most of our members here were killed in the very first of the fighting.” His eyes locked on mine before he continued. “I’m sorry Marcus, but I don’t know what happened to the Lady-Apparent. I saw a few Knights leading her out of the Manor, but there are so many leeches and ghouls in the Manor itself, I don’t know if she made it out alive. You can’t waste time looking for her. Even if you could find her, you couldn’t do anything more for her than her Red Knights are doing now. Marcus, you of most of all, be careful. There are those in Tallahassee who will either manipulate you or try to kill you.” He turned his head to Nick. “Nicholas I need you to protect these two. You know why.” Nick nodded without a word. Finally, the Guildmaster faced Hangman. “Samuel, I hoped someday you would succeed me. You were the promise of the new generation. Go now, and don’t return until you can win back our county.” The Guildmaster didn’t die with his last statement. He continued to gasp and grabbed one of Hangman’s TMPs. I wanted to stay, so the Guildmaster wouldn’t meet the Ancestors alone, but he gave us our job. We were hunters. We completed the job. That would be the best, and final, deed we could ever do for our Guildmaster.

We moved down the hall to the Manor’s armory. If we were going to do our job, we needed more weapons and definitely more ammunition. As we neared the armory, I heard the unique voices of vampires. A predatory grin crossed my face. Our first action would be to clear out those motherfuckers from the armory – and we had the element of surprise. The concealed door opened and the four vampires froze at the sight of us. Well placed fire quickly cut down the first two. The other two snapped out of their momentary panic and tried to fight back, but they were brought down by a pair of shots from Hangman. The pup’s face was an emotionless mask. Whatever he was feeling, Hangman suppressed it deep within himself. Normally I would be happy and proud the pup was becoming more of a professional hunter, but for some reason I was feeling a strange sorrow. I forced my mind to push back these strange emotions and went into full job-mode. I grabbed an MP5 from the weapons rack. The three of us loaded up with extra magazines. A sound came from the doorway, and we pointed our weapons as a pack warrior staggered in bleeding.

“The leeches are completely overrunning us,” the pack warrior gasped, “They sent me for weapons and ammo.”

“You found them,” Nick said, his voice completely devoid of emotion. All three of us shoved back all the pain of seeing our Guildmaster dying on the hallway floor. The job was the only important thing now. Nick looked at the warrior. “Grab as much as you can. We’ll give you a hand.” As the pack warrior grabbed weapons and magazines, Hangman, Nick and I put on web gear and festooned them with additional magazines for our weapons. Nick and I exchanged a look. We were thinking the same thing. If we helped with a counterattack, we might be able to push through and get to the Guild. The pack warrior led us out of the armory, through the blood-streaked hallways. Nick yanked the warrior back a couple of times so that the frantic wolf wouldn’t outpace us. We understood his packmates were probably in desperate straits, but it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good if we ran into a vampire ambush or into the field of fire of jittery pack warriors. The gunfire echoing through the halls changed from sporadic to sustained. We were getting close to the action. We turned another corner. The firefight was intense. There were maybe a dozen lycanthropes using hastily assembled furniture as cover. Most of them were firing full-auto at the mass of vampires. As I looked beyond the lycanthropes’ positions, there were piles of dead vampires – and a horde more charging straight into the guns of the warriors. The lycanthropes were probably outnumbered at least thirty to one. As I scanned the hallway more closely, I could pick out where other lycanthrope positions had fallen. The vampires were simply pressing forward with their wave of bodies, trading on their numerical advantage. I’d never in my life seen such a battle tactic used in the conflict between the vampires and the lycanthropes. Neither side ever had the numbers to even attempt it. Where in the Ancestors’ Names did the TCV get all of these vampires?

“Ranger, take the right side. Hangman, the left,” Nick ordered. “I’ll help with the warriors.” We ducked into doorways, adding to the fusillade of gunfire holding back the waves of vampires. There was something very wrong with the situation. Vampires could do stupid things, but nothing blatantly as stupid as running into the silver bullets of the lycanthropes. Hangman and I thinned the waves by hitting the vampires making progress against the gunfire. It was like firing at targets on the range. The vampires weren’t dodging or taking cover. They were just pushing through their fallen to advance on the lycanthropes with bestial looks on their faces. I hoped Nick had a damn good idea of how to stem the undead tide.

“FIRE IN THE HOLE!” Nicked yell over the din of gunfire. Hangman and I slid into our respective doorways. A small canister sailed over the warriors. The hallway shook with the explosion of the concussion grenade.

RANGER, HANGMAN, KILL THEM ALL!” Nick bellowed with unmistakable command. This was a new side to Nick, but I didn’t have time to ponder it. I jumped back into the hallway and charged the staggering vampires. Hangman was right beside me, as both of us begin firing at any vampire still upright. My MP5 emptied, and I let the weapon fall on its sling as I drew my pistol out of its holster. Leech after leech went down, but Hangman and I were going to be swallowed whole as soon as the leeches recovered from the shock of the concussion grenade. Suddenly there were three more lycanthropes standing beside Hangman and myself, all firing away with assault rifles. Their appearance allowed for Hangman and me to do quick magazine changes on our primary weapons and return to the slaughter of the leeches. As the five of us pushed, six more lycanthropes came to our side, joining our fusillade with their weapons. Eleven of us continued to push against the leeches, who still hadn’t recovered from the explosion. The momentum shifted to our side. Nick finally came up beside us, with a Red Knight in tow.

“Hangman, Ranger, fall back!” he told us.

“What the fuck Nick?” I asked as we fell back a few yards behind the new lycanthrope push.

“That Red Knight can lead this counterattack,” Nick answered, “We have to get out of the Manor.” It didn’t make me happy, but Nick was right. Our job was to get to the Guild and then get to Tallahassee. As we watched the warriors continue the fight, we reoriented our location and made our way up through the Manor. We needed to get to the half-floor at the very top of the Manor. We found one of the smaller staircases and carefully crept up the stairs. I took the lead. It took a great deal of restraint not to join in the two battles we passed as the three of us made our way up. The half-floor was only a floor above us. I stopped maybe ten feet from where the stairs stopped at the half-floor. My instincts were roaring with danger. I took a look around the stairwell. It was the bullet holes that told me we were about to be slaughtered. Hangman and Nick were giving me confused looks as I scanned the stairwell. The bullet holes weren’t a splattering of pockmarks. There were several parts where the bullets cut almost straight lines through the dry wall. There was only one weapon that could reliably make lines like that – especially with a half-assed crew serving it. The vampires had control of the Minigun from the half-floor. We would be cut down before we could do anything. I snaked up the remaining stairs and scanned the hallway before letting myself slide back down.

“The leeches turned the Minigun around, but they’ve kept it on its mount,” I said to Nick and Hangman, “Some warriors tried to retake the room, and their bodies are splattered all over the hall. I saw three leeches by the Minigun and at least a dozen more. Getting out this way is going to be a mite bit difficult.” Okay, it was going to be damn difficult, and my two companions knew it, but there were standards to be upheld.

“The Minigun’s the killer,” Hangman stated, “Take it out and we’ve got a fighting chance. How about a grenade?”

“It’s about thirty feet to the Minigun, with a low ceiling,” Nick laid out, “No lobbing, so it’d have to be a real weak toss. I’m not that good with throwing a grenade.” I shook my head. I wasn’t either.

“Give it to me,” Hangman whispered tersely, holding his hand out, “I used to play baseball with some of the other pups during tysach. I can land it right where we want it.” Nick handed him the last of the frag grenades. Hangman slid upstairs, poked his head up once, and then tossed the grenade with a practiced ease. A crashing explosion rocked through the room and hallway. The three of us moved in concert. We had maybe two or three seconds before our enemies recovered from the shock of the explosion. It took us that long just to dance around the bodies in the short hallway between the stairs and the entrance to the half-room. As the three of us darted through the entrance to the half-floor, I saw the Minigun, was ripped from its mount by the blast. The impromptu leech gun crew was shredded by the silver fragments from the grenade. A burst from my left let me know Nick started the fight. A form rose in front of me. The MP5 stuttered and the form went back down. Longer burst to my right meant Hangman found more than one target for his weapon. The three of us rushed to the glass doors at the back of the half-floor. We didn’t stop moving. Anything that moved towards us was a target, and we made sure we put rounds on the targets. We had to make it to the outside. Once there, we could engage the bastards. About half-way through the room, Nick took over point position so Hangman and I could reverse step and cover our exit. Precise bursts reduced the leeches to about half of their number, but the remaining leeches were more than enough to swarm us if we backed off for a moment. Intense fire discipline training was the only thing that made crossing the half-floor less than suicidal.

“Ranger, you and Hangman hold them here,” Nick yelled as we stepped out of the half-floor and onto the artificial hill around the Manor. I didn’t know what Nick was up to, but I didn’t argue. I trusted Nick to know what he was doing, just as he trusted Hangman and me to keep the vampires and ghouls in the Manor and off his back. About ten yards down the slope from the half-floor, Hangman and I dropped to the grass and laid down fire. Those savage vampires flooding the Manor came out in singles and small groups. Hangman and I were knocking them down with accurate bursts and single shots, but the numbers that were pouring out of the Manor were quickly depleting our ammunition. I dropped the empty magazine out of my MP5 as my hand felt the empty magazine holder. My hand slid down and drew my HK45. Things were going to get interesting if Nick didn’t get back quickly. The Ancestors must have heard my comments, because just as I started taking down vampires with my pistol, Nick came up behind us in true form. He was dragging our motorcycles. I didn’t wait for any small talk or banter. We needed to get the hell out of Dodge. I tapped Hangman on the shoulder. He rose up into a crouch and snaked back to the bottom of the slope. We climbed onto our motorcycles – Hangman climbed onto the back of mine – and tore out of the area. We screamed through the streets to get to the Guild. The human houses on top of the Guild were deserted. The kin evacuated when the Manor was attacked. The Guild itself was eerily empty. After the battle with the witch-hunters, almost all of Hillsborough’s hunters moved from the Guild to the Manor in order to bolster the security forces and to support the Lady-Apparent. Most of them were probably dead now.

“Okay, Hangman and I will start getting supplies for the trip,” Nick said. “Ranger, gather up all of the information on the conspiracy.”

“What?” I asked, surprised by Nick’s order.

“The witch-hunters and the vampires may have brought this county down, but only because whoever is behind this conspiracy killed Stephen Vollen. We’ll need that evidence in Tallahassee if the prince and the war council will have any hope of stopping them.” I nodded and went back to my room as Nick and Hangman rummaged around the garage and armory. I transferred all the data on the conspiracy onto some memory sticks and put them into a manila envelope. Those we would need in Tallahassee. Then came the longest part. The Hillsborough County chapter’s intelligence and resources database had to be dumped into a series of removable hard drives. As I watched the progress bar slowly tick away, the other two readied the Guild to be sealed. The Guild was one facility we could not allow the vampires to acquire. When it was built, there were provisions made so it could be locked down and impenetrable from the outside. When the drives were done, we loaded them into their specially designed case. We placed the case into the back of a Suburban. It was already loaded with some of our personal gear, a lot of weapons, and even more ammo. The three of us knew we wouldn’t be able to ask for help from any of the counties we would be traversing. Anything that we would need, we would have to carry. Each of us made sure we had everything we would need on our travel to Tallahassee. Satisfied, the three of us finished sealing the Guild. Thanks to Mrs. Werstand, the Guild was equipped with heavy steel doors at the entrances to each level. The “blast doors” effectively sealed each level off from the others. Independent climate-controls took over and the main system was shut down. At the top, we closed the access points from each house. As the personal hitter for the Guildmaster, I was authorized to override the set lock codes and put a unique code in place. A small series of electronic beeps signaled the Guild was completely sealed off. It was going to be tough on any lycanthropes who might have survived the fight at the Manor, but I just couldn’t chance the TCV getting their soiled hands on the Guild. Satisfied the Guild was denied to anyone, I sent a coded message to my townhouse. It lock down and my computer would erase itself. Even if the leeches figured out where I lived, they would have a hard time getting in, and all they would find would be some weapons and little else. As I looked up from the confirmation message, I saw Nick and Hangman had just completed similar tasks. There was a momentary silence as each of us made the realization that we just cut our ties to our home. It was a disconcerting feeling that shook me down to my bones. Then my mental block slipped just a bit, and Elizabeth came into my mind. Her face floated in front of my eyes. I could see every detail with a clarity that I didn’t believe possible. The dimples in her smile, the brightness of her green eyes, the slight frizziness of her auburn hair, the small scar above her lip – I could see all of them, and a deep, almost overwhelming pain threatened to overwhelm me. I don’t remember going down to one knee, but I do remember Nick’s hand on my shoulder. As Elizabeth’s face faded back into my mind, Nick helped me back up. There was an unusual look on his face. I had seen Nick happy, mad, and almost every other mood. Sympathetic was one that I had never seen on his face. It looked very strange, but very comforting. I slumped into the back seat as Hangman and Nick climbed into the front. I felt the rumbling of the Suburban’s engine and closed my eyes as we pulled out of the garage. The idea that I might never see Elizabeth again was flashing through my head with enough pain that I just went numb. I closed my eyes and tried to push away the horror in my mind with the blissful numbness of unconsciousness.

Chapter 14 – The Only Constant Is Change

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 12 – There Are Worse Things Than Being On Trial For My Life

The blackness faded as I opened my eyes. The world slowly came into focus. I looked around the cell. Something was wrong, out of place. Then, it came to me. Everything was black and white. I shifted to wolf form in my sleep. Damn. I hadn’t done that in years. Shedding forms during sleep was something pups dealt with in the beginning of tysach. I shed my wolf form for true form, feeling my body extend as I emotionally triggered the transformation. My senses became sharper, making the world around me more complete. A scent floated into the cell. I looked at the door, where the Guildmaster stood in human form with one of the marshals.

“Hello Marcus,” he said, guardedly, “I assumed I would be one of the three that you would want to see.” By the rules of rhiazen, I was allowed to see three and only three lycanthropes before going to see the lord or lady. I could talk to them as many times as I wanted, but only those three. The only other lycanthropes that could talk to me were the lord or lady (in this case it would be the Lady-Apparent), the marshals guarding me, and the lycanthrope who would speak for the opponent, usually the opponent himself. I guessed Smythe in this case. I nodded to the marshal. He slid the door open to allow the Guildmaster inside. As soon as the Guildmaster was in my cell, the marshal slid the door shut and walked back to his post by the staircase. I noticed the the two marshals had leaned their rifles on the wall instead of carrying them. Their guard was relaxed. I placed it on memory, in case I needed it later. One of the things the instructors drilled into me during my training as a hunter was that information was important, because you never knew when you might need it later. I filed that thought away as the Guildmaster sat down in front of me.

“Mark, are you alright?” he asked in a concerned tone. I barely managed to keep the sudden surprise off of my face. In all of the time that I’d known him, the Guildmaster had never called me Mark.

“Yeah, just a little stiff from last night’s fun and games. My side still hurts like hell.” I stretched out my arms, trying to work out the kinks in the joints and muscles. The stab wound in my side burned. The wolfsbane was working, but slowly. If my past stabbings were any indication, Smythe’s stab wound would heal in about twelve hours. The Guildmaster didn’t seem to appreciate my attempt at levity.

“Knightfall? What the hell happened? The packs are being told that you had a hand in the lord’s death, and that the Knights are going to also accuse you of complicity in Stephen Vollen’s death as well.” I shook my head. When it rained, it fucking poured. I carefully explained, in great detail, exactly what happened during the attack on the TCV Hall. As I led up to the part where I called “Knightfall,” the Guild codeword for betrayal by the Knights (I said we were a paranoid lot), the Guildmaster stopped me with a raised hand.

“Surrendering to the Knights was quick thinking. It gives us a chance to find out what the hell is going on. I’ve assigned Matric to be your advocate. He will do everything he can for your defense.” I grimaced. The Guildmaster’s face grew grim. “I know how you feel about him, but Matric is well connected in the Manor and even with the shaman. He will do his best, and put aside any differences the two of you have, as long as you reciprocate.” I nodded to this. Much to my dismay, if anyone could help me with the political side, it would be Matric.

“I have another problem I need your help with,” he said. He opened his briefcase. I heard the M16s come up off the wall. The marshals set their weapons back down when the Guildmaster pulled a stack of papers out of his briefcase. I smiled briefly, then read the papers he handed me. Transcripts of radio reports from last night, as well as some written contact reports by some of the hit packs.

“Two hit packs and four lone wolves never returned last night. All of them did their jobs, but something happened after they reported in. All of the jobs were clustered in the Forest Hills area. One of the lone wolves, Samson, reported seeing one of the hit packs engaged in a firefight with an unknown enemy force. He went to assist and also disappeared.” I followed the paper trail as the Guildmaster laid out the facts. Something was gnawing at me. There was a common factor with all of these that made me worry. I knew Samson. He was too good a hunter to just disappear without causing some major damage. The vampires had their hands full last night. The human magic-wielders could have made our hunters vanish, but they wouldn’t have involved themselves in a firefight. Guns were too mundane in their thinking. My mind came up with two possibilities. One was on the outside chance of being probable. The other one did fit all of the evidence, but I was really hoping that I was wrong.

“None of them contacted us after they finished their jobs, with the exception of Samson, and we never heard from him once he reported the firefight,” I summarized. The Guildmaster nodded with a worried expression. My gut twisted. I could see it in his eyes. “You’re thinking what I am thinking, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but there is not enough evidence to bring it to the Lady-Apparent. If I bring it to her now, it will look like I’m doing it to free you, and she may dismiss it out of hand. I have Christian’s pack and Samuel investigating now. You will not speak of your suspicions to anyone outside the Guild until I have enough evidence. Since you are one of the few lycanthropes in this county who has dealt with this threat before, I wanted you to confirm it.” I nodded and hoped Hangman didn’t find what I thought it was. He was too young to deal with that threat without a lot of backup, say most of the Guild’s best hunters, and most of the armory’s heavy weapons. The Guildmaster took some clothing out of his briefcase and handed them to me. I unfolded them carefully, more to show the marshals there were no weapons concealed in the folds than anything else. Jeans, t-shirt, and the necessary undergarments were almost my unofficial uniform. I slipped them on as the Guildmaster walked out of the cell.

“Is there anything else you need for right now?” he asked.

“Send Nick.”

I fell asleep again, hoping to regain my strength. I was awakened by a sharp jab in my side. The stab wound healed up nicely, but it was still a little tender. The second jab really annoyed me. I opened my eyes to slits and saw one of the guards pulling back his rifle. I couldn’t see the face of the lycanthrope standing beside him, but the relaxed stance told me it wasn’t the other guard. I really wasn’t happy at being awakened so rudely. The guard lunged again. I grabbed the barrel and yanked. The guard, caught unaware by the move, held on to the weapon and was pulled into the bars. He slumped down to the concrete floor, bleeding from several gashes from the silver barbs. The rifle clattered to the ground. I scooped up the weapon, released the magazine, and yanked back the charging handle. The single round clinked on the concrete floor.

A light, feminine chuckle focused my attention on my visitor. It took every scrap of control I had not to let my jaw drop in shock. The Lady-Apparent was standing in human form, wearing a simple but elegantly-cut dress in forest green. I silently thanked Bradon for his teachings on the basis of fashion. Her long auburn hair was tied into a single, long braid and draped down one shoulder. Her bright green eyes flashed with amusement. I tossed the unloaded rifle to the ground and stood to face her. I hadn’t seen her since the Rite of Discovery. I’d forgotten just how beautiful she was. I immediately pushed that thought away. Why was she here? After all, this was the lycanthrope who would probably order my execution.

“Impressive,” she said, a warm tone to her voice, “You seem to be as dangerous as I was warned.” She took a half-step back from the bars. She looked at me for a moment, studying me. My instincts roared with danger, but other parts of my mind were almost enjoying the attention. I didn’t know why, and it unnerved me. There were too many conflicting feelings running through me. I pushed all of that confusion to the back of my mind and concentrated on why the Lady-Apparent was here. That’s when I noticed there were no Red Knights escorting her. Every time I met with a member of the aristocracy, the Knights were always hovering around. What was the Lady-Apparent doing down in the dungeons without her bodyguards and in the presence of a lycanthrope she had already said was dangerous? I decided it was time to cut to the chase. I didn’t have the patience to dance around the courtesies.

“May I ask what you are doing here, milady?” I asked quietly, and hopefully, with a neutral tone. I didn’t want any of the raging conflict within me leaking out into the open. My words must have come out harsher than I wanted, because the other marshal at the end of the hall clenched his teeth at my tone. A wave of the hand from the Lady-Apparent calmed him. She motioned to the still form of the incapacitated marshal and ordered for the marshal to leave the two of us alone. The marshal blinked, surprised by the order. He quickly recovered, picked up his unconscious partner, and hurried out of the dungeon. I sat very still as the Lady-Apparent paced in front of my cell. She seemed pensive, but I couldn’t understand what would cause such caution from her. Everything I saw from her led me to believe that she was an extremely strong and confident lycanthrope.

“I’ve come to see the hunter who caused the deaths of both my father and my brother,” she answered, stopping her pacing and turning to face me. Her tone was flat, but her eyes betrayed a raging torrent of emotions within her. I didn’t envy her one bit. She lost her father and older brother within six months of each other, and now she was thrust into leading a county at war. Something deep inside me felt – torn? – for the enormous burden she was carrying.

“I didn’t kill them milady,” I answered, barely controlling my temper. Damn it, I knew was a Badmoon, and an outcast amongst the lycanthrope pack, but I served my county faithfully and more diligently than almost any of the wolves in the packs. I protected them from dangers they never knew before the war. I put my life on the line more times than I could remember. Smythe’s allegations attacked my honor as a hunter – the one thing that gave me any sort of real legitimacy within the packs.

“You didn’t prevent them from being killed,” the Lady-Apparent answered, “Your accusers are saying that twice isn’t coincidence. It’s conspiracy.” An unusual rage blazed me. I know that I have a nasty chip on my shoulder about my treatment as a Badmoon. I deal with it by channeling that anger into my work. I’ve always felt my success was the best revenge against those who hated me just because of me being a Badmoon. Having the Lady-Apparent accuse me of such a serious crime made my blood boil.

“Fuck them,” I growled. The Lady-Apparent’s eyes went wide with my blunt profanity. “I thought your grandfather was a damned fool of a lord, but your father was nothing like him. The Guild loved and respected your father, because he let us redeem our professionalism and our honor. I did everything I could to stop his murder, and then to capture or kill the assassin. As for your brother, he made a rash mistake. I didn’t know him well enough to know if it was bad advice or if he was just being too stubborn. Either way, he paid for that mistake with his life and too many of our wolves’ lives. In both cases, bad things happened despite of my actions, not because of them.” I bit down on my tongue. My anger was getting the best of me, and I could tell by the Lady-Apparent’s eyes she wasn’t expecting the tirade.

“Then why are the Knights accusing you?” she asked, “Why would Smythe think you need to be put down?” She seemed truly confused. She seemed torn between the idea that the Knights could truly believe something she wasn’t convinced was true.

“Ask Smythe, because I don’t know,” I answered.

“Does he think you worked with the leeches to murder my father and brother?” She paced again, working the question in her head. I paused a moment before answering. The Guildmaster was going to kill me when he found out.

“My Lady, someone powerful ordered your father’s murder. Someone powerful in lycanthrope society. The assassin was a hunter.” Her eyes widened as I spoke. As I suspected, the Guildmaster hadn’t told her any of our suspicions. “I’m sorry milady, but it’s the only theory that fits the evidence we have. The assassin was too good to be anything but a hunter. He knew too much on how we operate and how to counter. He was damn good.”

“Better than you?” the Lady-Apparent asked, with a lilt in her tone that completely baffled me.

“Maybe,” I conceded.

“From your reputation, I didn’t think that was possible.” She gave me a look that completely unnerved me. My mind just went blank as those green eyes bore into mine. My reprieve came from behind her.

“Trust me milady, that hunter in front of you is much more dangerous than even his reputation makes him out to be,” came a deep voice from behind. Nick emerged from the staircase. He was in true form, a jumpsuit stretching itself to hold his huge form. The rifle of the other marshal was slung on his shoulder. “Ranger is quite possibly the best hunter in your county.”

“A friend of yours?” the Lady-Apparent asked me with a strange look on her face. Betrayal? Anger? I nodded slowly. “Well then, I’ll leave the two of you to talk.” She glided across the floor. Nick stepped out of her way and bowed as the Lady-Apparent climbed the stairs. Nick unslung the rifle from his shoulder and leaned it on the wall. He shed his true form for human as he walked over to me. The tight jumpsuit now sagged off his much smaller human body. His face was its normal blank, but his eyes were curious.

“What was she doing here?” he asked, his voice laced with suspicion.

“Haven’t a fucking clue,” I answered, “First she orders the marshals to leave, then she accuses me of being behind the deaths of her father and brother, and then asks me why the Knights are accusing me. There was something about it that seemed very scattered. Fuck me, I don’t know.” Nick looked back to the staircase for a moment.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Nick said, with a hint of frustration in his voice, “The Lady-Apparent called the Guildmaster first thing this morning for your dossier. Then, she shows up here. Do you think she believes you or Smythe?” From Nick’s tone there was more to that question, but I couldn’t decipher my friend at the moment.

“I don”t know,” I answered, “I don’t think she knows. When I told her our suspicions about who assassinated her father, she asks if the assassin is better than me. No fucking clue where that question came from.” Nick gave me a knowing smile but didn’t say anything. It made me want to punch him, but I decided on another tack.

“Speaking of Vollen’s assassination, have you found out anything more on our little mystery?” I asked, sitting down. Nothing like open war in your county to interfere with an important investigation.

“No, but I have Hangman searching around today,” Nick answered, “The leeches and their ghouls disappeared after the raid on the Hall. The Guildmaster thinks they are regrouping, and I concur. The Knights are claiming victory, which most of the packs consider a Pyrrhic one at best. All of the packs and the Guild are more or less stood down until the Rites are completed. And you are tried by the Lady-Apparent, of course. Hangman and I decided it might be a good time to start looking around. I have him talking around to see what information he can dig up on the lords of the counties on that map. Particularly if they have access to a hunter who isn’t with the Guild.”

“When’s the Rite of the Dead?” The way the Spiritmaster had been operating over the past few months made me suspicious. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had performed it while I had been locked up.

“Strange thing about that. The Spiritmaster wants to perform the rites after the Lady-Apparent deals with you. There was a small outrage over that from the packs, but according to Yven, the Spiritmaster’s deputy, the Order of Spirits feels the spirit of Jason Vollen will rest better when his murderer is dealt with. The pack leaders seem to accept that, although the Guildmaster is raising hell. Very careful not to outright accuse the Knights of betrayal, but he’s making the packs nervous. The rumor going around the packs is the Guildmaster is looking to puppet-master the Lady-Apparent.” Usually the Guildmaster was a very deliberate and cautious individual. He had me to do the impulsive and insane things. If he was acting this boldly, something was happening I couldn’t see.

“I didn’t kill the lord,” I protested to Nick.

“I know. There are enough witnesses to confirm that it was Silanti who actually killed Lord Vollen. The Knights contend your inability to kill either of the assassins proves that you are in league with the leeches. They still think it was a lycanthrope hired by the TCV who killed Stephen Vollen. Although your little admission to the Lady-Apparent may change that. Why did you tell her?”

“I don’t know. It just seemed wrong to keep it from her,” I answered. “We did that with her brother, and it led to open war and his death. I just felt she needed to know if she was going to run this county right.” Nick looked at me with a contemplative look.

“What do you think?” I asked, after he’d been quiet for a minute.

“I think you’re being royally fucked,” Nick said simply, “We know another lord or lady had Stephen Vollen taken down. I still haven’t figured out who, but that’s becoming less and less important in the short run. Smythe, for some reason, stopped you from killing Silanti before Silanti blew Jason Vollen’s brains out. Now he is accusing you of the failure. I wonder if whoever had Vollen assassinated got to Smythe. I’d say you are about to be crucified to lull the packs, and the agenda of whoever had Stephen killed will be accomplished, in as much as this county will be out of whatever political game is being played. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with the war council that will have to convene in Tallahassee. What’s worse, Silanti is still out there, but because the aristocracy is dealing with you, we are failing to locate and exterminate him and his remaining followers.” There was something else Nick didn’t know about, but the Guildmaster told me not to say anything until he had proof. I wasn’t going to defy the Guildmaster on this, even to Nick.

“What’s the Order doing?” I asked.

“Calling for your head on a platter and trying to console the Lady-Apparent. According to Matric, though, she hasn’t talked much to the Spiritmaster. In fact, she’s been doing a lot of research into the Guild and some of the key individuals, including you.” He tilted his head as he thought about what he was telling me.

“I wonder if she is going to try and micro-manage the Guild?” Nick asked. I grimaced at that thought. The first Lord Vollen, Stephen’s father, tried that and wrecked the hunters in Hillsborough. Outsiders rarely understand how we do things – and are usually better off not knowing. Nick cleared his throat.

“Listen, Hangman and I will be there for your hearing. We are going to bring everything we have on this conspiracy. Maybe it will help you. If not, do you want us…?” He let the question trail off. I knew what he was offering. He and Hangman would break me out of the Manor before the Knights had a chance to kill me if I asked. If they did that, we would be pariahs wherever we went, and hunted by every Guild chapter in Florida, including the State Guild. I shook my head no. I would have to die, and the Guild would have to avenge me. With an unhappy resignation in his eyes, Nick walked back up the staircase and never looked back. There was a calm stillness in the air. My life was at its end, so I better go out with a bang. For some reason, a picture of the Lady-Apparent formed in my mind. I pushed it back as I planned the end of my life. So many details.

The Manor was full of lycanthropes. The pack leaders brought as many members of their packs as they could. The packs felt comfortable bringing so many because the leeches did a very good job of going to ground in the wake of the attack on the Hall. All of the lycanthropes were dressed in formal black robes. At the podium stood the Lady-Apparent, Elizabeth Vollen. The Spiritmaster stood in his place at her right with the senior leaders of the Order. The shaman looked unnervingly serene. Matric, Nick, and Hangman stood with the Guildmaster at the left hand of the podium. I half-expected to see Sneller and Deadeye with them, but on further reflection, it made sense that they weren’t there. Every hunter was out searching for the remaining vampires. Sneller and Deadeye would be needed to coordinate the search. Silanti and Razor escaped from the Hall. The Guildmaster wouldn’t be satisfied until he had their heads in his possession. I was led to the throne by a pair of marshals who refused to speak with me as we walked up the staircase from the dungeon and into the Manor. Like the rest of the lycanthropes, I stood in true form, but instead of the black robes, I was forced to wear the white robes of the prisoner. White, the color of weakness and dishonor.

The room went deathly silent as I entered. Most of the lycanthropes crowding the Manor glared at me. I ignored them and focused on the friendly and sympathetic faces of Hangman and Nick. Matric looked uneasy, like he was a rat on a sinking ship. His discomfort made me feel a little better, but the realization was, that unless some form of miracle occurred, I was going to be executed by the end of the night. The marshals, fortunately, honored some of my requests. They knew I was a condemned lycanthrope, even though I was just reaching my “trial.” My requests included a small radio patched into their guard frequency – just in case Nick planned something against my wishes – and a small silver knife. I let the marshals think the knife was so I could kill myself rather than be executed. It was one of the many misconceptions that the general lycanthrope populace held about hunters. We didn’t practice honorable suicide. It just loses the Guild a trained operative. Still, it added to our mystique, so we didn’t disabuse the rest of lycanthrope society about it. Myths came in handy. Since I was going to die, I was going to make sure I took Smythe with me. He was a fucking traitor, and I was going to be damned if he walked out of this alive. I damned sure I didn’t want him protecting the Lady-Apparent.

I walked down the middle of the Manor, stopping about ten feet before the black square of the Vollens. Robert and Sarah Vollen, the two youngest children looked at me with a murderous gleam in their eyes. They weren’t alone, as most of the Knights looked at me the same way. The Lady-Apparent might have doubts of my complicity, but her surviving siblings had none. Smythe looked smug from his post at the right hand of the podium. I grinned back at him as my hand brushed against the silver knife concealed in my robes. According to the lessons in tysach, the rite of rhiazen came about in the early days after the lycanthropes settled in the Fatherland as a way of bringing a problem between a pack member and the pack leader to the lord. It evolved over the centuries where anyone could claim rhiazen and be granted a hearing in front of the lord. There were some problems with how the rite evolved. One, the lord set the terms of the hearing, meaning one side may not get a chance to fairly present its side, or even present it at all if the lord feels that the facts are conclusive. The second is in order to avoid giving the lord a long stream of civil disputes to preside over, the only penalty allowed is death. Even if the crime was vandalism, the guilty must receive the death penalty. The aristocracy was there to preside over matters that impact all of the packs in the county, not simple civil matters between individuals. As I’ve said before, the lycanthropes live in a brutal and unforgiving world.

I stood in my place in front of the throne and waited as the Lady-Apparent looked down at me. Something about her gaze disturbed me. I waited patiently for her to set the terms for the rhiazen. She would let the pack leaders know how much evidence and how much testimony she would allow from each side before she made her decision. There were no hard and fast rules for the terms. Each rhiazen was unique, and there was no concept of precedent in the lycanthrope society. We trusted our aristocracy to deal justly with us. There were remedies if the aristocracy failed that trust and most of them ended with the aristocracy dead. It was a great motivator for the aristocracy to maintain the trust.

“The terms for rhiazen will be as follows,” the Lady-Apparent began, “First the Red Knights will tell of us the deaths of Lord Stephen Vollen and Lord Jason Vollen and provide evidence as to how Marcus Phoenix Badmoon is responsible for their deaths. Badmoon, or one who will speak for him, will have the time to refute the Knights’ evidence. I will hear from Badmoon before I make my decision.” There was some murmur in the crowd. These were very lenient terms, certainly more lenient than most lords would have given me under the circumstances. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Matric smiling. Nick and Hangman still looked grim. They knew better. The Lady-Apparent would not be able to leave me alive and still control the packs. The Knights’ story was spread too wide among the packs. She might allow me time to present my side, just to get out what I told her before into the public arena, but that was it. For some reason, a feeling of gratitude welled up inside of me. A Red Knight came forward and stood about ten feet to my right.

“I am David Long-Knife, my lady” the Red Knight said, “I am honored to present the story for the Red Knights. This one, this Badmoon, is the lycanthrope most responsible for the death of the Second Lord Vollen. He was there that night in the Hall, and could have stopped the lord’s death, but he didn’t…” He continued to throw venom my way, twisting the truth beyond all recognition. It was a diatribe designed to provoke me into fatal action. I ignored Long-Knife. I was listening on the guard frequency just in case Nick planned something. A report grabbed my attention. The group at the front gate dropped off the radio net about five minutes before, and now the contingent sent out to check them just failed to report in. The Knights at the front door were discussing the problem over the radio.

“Roof One, this is Guard One,” the leader of the guards at the front door called to the leader of the Knights manning the half-floor on the top of the Manor, “I’m going to tighten things here and move Door One and his boys up the driveway. I don’t think it was leeches, but there’s no good reason for them to drop off the net like that.”

“Confirm Guard One,” answered Roof One, “Do you want me to send down some people?” There was silence. Roof One tried again. Nothing. I looked over to Smythe. He should have been monitoring the action on the security net. Instead, he was paying attention to Long-Knife, watching as his plan for my death unfolded.

“Door One,” called Roof One, “Where the hell is Guard One?” No answer. My instincts went into overdrive. Something just took out all of the security in front of the Manor. I checked the two guards at the back of the Manor. They’d tossed aside their deskunas and unslung the sub-machine guns concealed under their black robes. Smythe was hailed over the net by Roof One, but he was too busy watching my trial.

“All units report in,” ordered Roof One. Long-Knife, who also had the radio in his ear, stopped in mid-sentence. He looked over at me, and I nodded. The Lady-Apparent looked down at him, but he and I were trading looks that were asking the same question. What the hell was going on?

“I hope that there is a good reason that the two of you are looking at each other and holding up the rhiazen,” the Lady-Apparent said from her podium, annoyed at the two of us. I motioned for Long- Knife to tell her, since Smythe obviously wasn’t able to do it. As he began talking to the Lady-Apparent, I turned to Nick and Hangman.

“Gun,” I requested in a calm voice. A holstered pistol and spare magazine holder sailed through the air to my waiting hands. Everything went to hell. First, all the Knights drew their weapons on me, and the Lady-Apparent was surrounded by a ball of translucent blue energy. David Long-Knife shouted at his companions to forget me and cover the door to the Manor. Two shaman began projecting their forces on me. Their powers never reached me. They stopped a good five feet before stopping, as if they were hitting an invisible barrier. Any other time, I would have stopped to reason out why, but there was no time. Smythe was leading the Lady-Apparent, still surrounded in magick energy, into the coronation room at the back of the Manor, with the Spiritmaster and a large following of his shaman in tow. Red Knights in black robes and Steyr TMPs stood in front of the door. The Guild members all had their pistols out. I wrapped the holster straps around my bare thigh and pulled the pistol out, smiling at my HK45. I glanced at Nick, who just gave me a knowing smile. Maybe he thought I would change my mind, but for whatever the reason, the black gun was a comforting weight in my hand. Out of long-ingrained habit, I ejected the magazine. Full of Silver Shoks. A quick press-check showed a round in the chamber. Armed, I braced as we awaited the force that was sieging our Manor.

The Manor shook as a loud, low boom rocked the room. The massive entrance doors were thrown into the Manor with a thunderous roar. The two Knights standing next to them never had a chance. The pack leaders screamed at their warriors, each trying to get their forces into some semblance of order. Some were more successful than others. The Guildmaster didn’t bother with orders. He knew his hunters would already know what to do. A cloud of dark gray smoke and dust obscured the entrance to the Manor. I couldn’t see who was attacking us. Anxiety and fear fell away as the prospect of action dumped adrenaline into my system as my body prepared itself for battle. I brought my pistol up and braced for the attack. Then, I heard the enemies’ cry over the din of the Manor.

FIRST SPEAR ATTACK! SECOND SPEAR FOLLOW! SECOND SHIELD HOLD!” came the shouted command from dozens of voices.

Ancestors, I swore to myself, Fucking witch-hunters. There are fucking witch-hunters in the Manor. Anxiety swarmed through me as the cloud dispersed with an almost dramatic speed. I glanced back at the Guildmaster, who returned my look with one that confirmed my fears. These were the fuckers who took out our hunters. I quickly turned my attention on the intruders. This was going to be no fun at all. Humans in dark clothing and skull masks, armed with an uneven mixture of pistols, shotguns, and rifles poured into the Manor. The pack leaders screamed battle cries and threw their packs against the invaders. I wanted to scream at them to stop and just hold their ground. The packs were unarmed except for the true form’s strength and claws. They didn’t understand what they were facing. The witch-hunters were invulnerable to physical attacks by our kind. You could knock them around all day with punches and kicks – even hit them across the room with the full strength of a lycanthrope in true form – but they would still get back up and attack you with that nasty single-mindedness. The damned humans were also invulnerable to the magicks of the shaman. The witch-hunters were only vulnerable to edged weapons and bullets, and they cheated by using Kevlar vests. They also were as trained as hunters in unarmed combat and were more zealous than any ghoul. The first packs into the fray were torn apart as they tried to use their claws on the witch-hunters. I checked my side. Nick was standing beside me with his giant Smith in one hand, and his back-up gun in the other. Nick was one of the few pistoleers I knew of that could actually do the two-handed pistol fighting with something approaching effectiveness. Hangman, Wilson Combat in hand, was standing near Matric, his pistol out, and the Guildmaster, who stood waiting for the attack with his Colt 1911. I threw off my prisoner robes and waited for the melee to come into range.

The first group of witch-hunters made it past the slaughter of the packs. The shamans, on the other side of the room, were desperately using their magicks, and finding out the hard way about the witch-hunters invulnerability. Bright beams of energy just faded before they could hit the zealous humans. One of the shaman quickly figured out what was happening, and began mystically picking up strewn items and hurling them at the witch-hunters. My prejudices aside, the shaman weren’t all fucking stupid or useless. One of the witch-hunters coming after the hunters pointed a rifle at me. I dropped him quickly with a single shot to the head. Then the roar of the Smith as Nick fired the big gun into a small tangle of witch-hunters. They all fell down from the hits of the big .500 round, but not all of them were dead. I leapt over Nick, drawing the small silver knife as I came down. Covering myself with sporadic gunfire, I finished the downed witch-hunters with savage slashes. Another came out of a blind spot and caught me with a punch to the stomach. He loomed over me, as I was busy scampering for breath. The witch-hunter’s head exploded into a red cloud. Long-Knife, pistol in hand, stepped over the fallen body and helped me up. The Red Knight’s face held no traces of suspicion or hatred. Fighting a hated common enemy tended to do that.

“You okay?” he asked. Wordlessly, I put a double-tap into the witch-hunter coming up behind him with a wicked looking silver knife. As Long-Knife turned to see what I was firing at, he seemed satisfied with the answer and braced for the next melee. I did a quick scan and saw the two of us were far too forward. We needed to get back to the others. I pulled on his robe sleeve and pointed. He just nodded before killing a witch-hunter with a shotgun. The two of us fought our way back to the Guildmaster and the other hunters. As soon as we came into view, the Guildmaster tossed me a TMP from a fallen Knight. Nick also held one.

“You two, cut us a path to that section over there.” I looked to where he was pointing at a blank space of wall. Normally, I would have at least given the Guildmaster a questioning look. During the furious fighting, I didn’t even bother. He was my Guildmaster. I trusted him. I found a small opening in the melee and widened it with a pair of bursts from the small submachine gun. As the bodies fell, our small group dashed into the thick of the fighting. We slowly crossed the open floor of the Manor. It was strewn with lycanthrope and witch-hunter bodies. The packs were figuring out how to kill the witch-hunters. The white marble tile was slightly slick with blood and gore. I kept myself from noticing by killing as many witch-hunters as I could. Nick, who was behind me, was placing short bursts all on my flanks. A witch-hunter fired a burst at us. I threw myself to the floor to dodge the stream of bullets. Long-Knife caught the burst full in the chest. He crumpled down, almost cut in half by the silver bullets. I put a small burst into the witch-hunter’s head, watching as it made a satisfactory explosion. I scampered up off the floor, emptying the TMP into a group of witch-hunters that noticed our little group. I threw the empty machine pistol into the head of another witch-hunter, knocking the bastard off its feet. As soon as the sub-machine gun left my hands, I drew my HK45. I took the point and resumed our way to the section of wall the Guildmaster pointed out. The witch-hunters that came at us went down fast. Most of the witch-hunters were busy swarming the dwindling packs. The warriors figured out that they weren’t having any effect with their claws and started picking up guns from the dead witch-hunters. Even with the weapons, the warriors were having a hard time of it. Our group got to the wall, covering the Guildmaster as he touched one of the bricks. A small door opened in the wall. I saw a dark hallway beyond the concealed door.

“We’re fucking running?” Hangman asked incredulously.

“We are running low on ammo, and Marcus has already taken a gunshot wound,” said the Guildmaster. I looked down, and saw a small hole in my leg that was leaking blood. When the fuck did that happen? “This door leads back to the Manor’s armory, where we can get some heavier weapons. I called the Guild. All the hunters in Hillsborough are coming as fast as they can. The first group should be here in about five minutes. We need to get armed and patched if we’re going to be of any use in the fight.” He turned to me. “Marcus, are you still capable?”

“Yeah,” I answered, feeling the pain of the wound for the first time, “I’ll live.” My leg was starting to throb with just enough burning sensation to let me know I’d been hit with silver. I thought my leg wasn’t moving as fast as it should during the last push, but I didn’t have time to figure out what happened. I was too busy killing witch-hunters.

“Good. Nicholas lead off. Samuel, then Dennis. Marcus, you and I will bring up the rear. I want you to cover me as I shut the door behind us.” I nodded and hit the magazine release on my pistol. I looked down at the magazine in my hand and grimaced. Two rounds left, plus the one in the chamber. I would have to place my shots carefully. Nick, Hangman, and Matric scampered down the darkened corridor. I turned out to the Manor. The Guildmaster went into the corridor. A witch-hunter aimed a rifle at the Guildmaster. I fired once into its head. It fell down. Another came with a shotgun. Another head-shot threw it down onto the stained marble. A third appeared out of the melee of witch-hunters and the remnants of the packs. I aimed and fired. It fell down to the floor as the slide on my pistol locked back on the empty magazine. I was pulled into the corridor by the Guildmaster as the door slid down shut behind us. The corridor was unlit, using the lycanthropes’ natural night vision as a safety precaution against invaders. It twisted and rose until it reached another concealed door, which the Guildmaster opened for us. We spilled out into the armory, nearly getting shot by the two marshals stationed there.

The Guildmaster quickly defused the situation before our two parties began firing. He talked to the guards as they tried to grasp a hold of the situation. While he did this, Hangman rummaged through the weapons in the armory for useful guns. Nick took a long look at my leg wound. Up until we reached the armory, the wound throbbed and burned, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t ignore. Now, it flared to life with a vengeance. Nick, seeing my pained face, grabbed a medkit. He carefully probed the wound. I grimaced slightly at the pain, letting my breath out as Nick removed his claw from the hole.

“It went clean through. I’m going to flush it with some wolfsbane. That should help restore your healing. Applying,” he warned, spilling an amber liquid on the wound. Fire flashed through my body, but quickly subsided. Nick wrapped a cloth bandage around my leg and looked at it skeptically.

“I can walk,” I said, getting to my feet, “It just hurts a bit.” Nick’s face darkened, but I ignored his concern. There were more important things to do. I walked over to Hangman, who was laying a bunch of firearms on the ground. Most of them were pistols and small sub-machine guns. The Guildmaster walked over to where we were standing with Matric trailing slightly behind.

“The marshals are in contact with the group protecting the Lady-Apparent. They are holed up in the coronation room. They’re holding, but barely. The Red Knights in the rest of the building are regrouping for a push to recapture the Manor and the coronation room. I don’t think they will succeed. The witch-hunters have three full Shields committed to this operation and only the first has actually attacked us.” All of us fell silent in shock. They had to have pulled every witch-hunter in Florida to attack us. Why had they decided on Hillsborough and not the rest of the state?

“Several of our hit packs, along with the shaman, have rallied nearby and are planning to attack the reserve Shields. The pups in tysach have been moved to Pinellas to the Guild there. We are going to rescue the Lady-Apparent, then kill every witch-hunter in the Manor.” We accepted this quietly. The Guildmaster explained his plan. We nodded. There were no questions. It was a simple enough plan. Arm and armor ourselves, walk back down the corridor, open the door and throw concussion grenades, then fight our way to the coronation room. Then it was a matter of grabbing the Lady-Apparent and fighting our way back to the corridor to the armory, which would be guarded by the two marshals. After the Lady-Apparent was safe, the Guildmaster would let us go back and play.Our bare bodies were covered by light jumpsuits and Kevlar vests. Radios were placed and checked. The others began to load up on the heavy weapons. I reloaded my HK45 and found a couple of spare magazines for it. I grabbed an M4 carbine. It was nice, compact, and the 5.56mm bullets would go through witch-hunter vests. I stuffed as many magazines as I could into all of my pockets. Satisfied, I grabbed a few concussion grenades. We didn’t want fragments flying around with the warriors still fighting, especially since our frag grenades tended to fling silver shards around. The concussion grenades would open up enough space to work in. Nick picked up another M4. Hangman found an HK G36K, another of the compact 5.56mm assault rifles. It was okay, but I preferred variants of the M16, like my Commando and the M4 I was holding. Matric and the Guildmaster were both using Benelli semi-auto shotguns. I was mildly surprised by my boss’s choice in long guns, but it was the marshals who truly shocked me when they hauled out a small cart with a Minigun in 5.56mm mounted on it. I was surprised the armory even had one, but then remembered that the gun defending the half-floor at the top of the Manor was a larger Minigun in 7.62mm. This was probably the back-up. The taller marshal pushed the cart with the gun, while his partner pushed a second cart with the massive amount of ammunition to feed the Minigun. It was a hungry beast of a weapon. Both marshals also carried TMPs for back-up. Suitably armed, we planned what our group would do once we managed to make it back to the Manor. Our group moved back up the corridor in silence. The hunters were focused on the job, and the marshals were too scared to say anything. I didn’t care if they were terrified of going up against the witch-hunters as long as they did their part. As the door neared, Nick and I pulled out the concussion grenades and crept over to the door. The Guildmaster opened the door just a crack. The darkness was pierced by a narrow beam of light. Nick and I pulled the pins on our grenades and rolled them out into the Manor. We both silently counted down the three second fuses on the grenades.

WHUMP!! We half-heard, half-felt the muffled explosions that launched us into action. The Guildmaster swung the door open and stepped to the side. I slid out along the marble floor, letting loose short bursts at the first witch-hunters I saw. Okay, sliding was not generally considered a proper entry technique, but I wanted to make damn sure I was under all of the gunfire crisscrossing the Manor. Nick opened up with his M4 behind me. I scampered to my feet, shooting another two as I came up. The spent magazine clattered to the floor as I slapped a fresh one into the mag well. Nick came up on my right, cutting three witch-hunters down with accurate bursts. Hangman came up on my left, similarly taking down witch-hunters with odd sounding bursts of fire from his German gun. I heard the Guildmaster and Matric follow up behind. I half-worried Matric wouldn’t be able to keep up with us during the firefight, but I had to admit, he had done well so far. I still didn’t like him. Once we formed up about fifteen feet from the door, the Guildmaster ordered us to drop to the floor and signaled the marshals. As we hit the blood-laced marble floor, the marshals opened up with the Minigun.

Unlike most machineguns, Minguns are rotary guns. The gun has six barrels in a circle and spun by an electric motor. As they spin, the barrels are loaded, fired, and reloaded. This allows for a very high firing rate, usually in the two to four thousand rounds per minute range. It also makes a very unique noise when fired. Instead of the chattering sound of a conventional machinegun, a Minigun sounds like an amplified chainsaw. Because it ate up so much ammunition so fast, we didn’t use silver ammunition in it. Just the volume of fire tended to suppress most of the bad things – such as vampires – until others could pick them off regular guns loaded with silver. The witch-hunters had no protection from standard lead rifle rounds other than the body armor they were wearing, which wouldn’t stop the 5.56mm rounds of the Minigun. The witch-hunters around us were torn apart as the Minigun made its deadly arcs. As the Minigun kept firing, the five of us picked off individual witch-hunters. It felt like five minutes for the Minigun to burn through all of the bullets in the massive drum, but in reality, it took less than twenty seconds for the roaring chainsaw to dull down to the whine of the electric motor. No longer covered by the massive fire support of the Minigun, our group launched ourselves into the air. There was a paltry amount of fire from a few witch-hunters, and none of it came close. We landed about ten yards from the door to the coronation room. Nick, Hangman, and I opened up the area around us by hosing down the witch-hunters around up with our full magazines. As our guns ran dry, the Guildmaster and Matric rapidly unloaded double-ought buckshot at the few still standing. Hangman, Nick, and I did quick changes on the magazines. I gave Nick an evil grin and pulled out another concussion grenade. He nodded, mirroring my maliciousness.

The grenade landed about halfway between us and the door to the coronation room. The blast threw a couple of witch-hunters through the air, but most were just knocked down. The result was a small hole in the witch-hunters attacking the coronation room door. The Guildmaster and Matric darted through the hole as the rest of us covered them. Their shotguns were far more lethal in close quarters than our carbines. The two reached the door after a couple of close calls, and went inside. We waited for long minutes, keeping the door area clear with as much fire as we could. Finally, a group of Red Knights, most injured, came out of the door, with their machine pistols blazing away. Nick, Hangman, and I dropped to the floor to avoid being cut in pieces. I was about to scream at the Guildmaster for not warning us, but then found out my earpiece on my radio was unplugged. I cursed Murphy and his fucking law and plugged my earpiece back in.

“Marcus, are you there?” the Guildmaster asked.

“Yeah,” I answered, busily firing as the witch-hunters came near us.

“We’re coming out,” he reported, “I need you to meet us over here and help us cover the Lady- Apparent. Then–” The Guildmaster was cut off by a loud thunder clap that nearly knocked me off my feet. A new wave of witch-hunters ran into the Manor, joining their brothers in the crowded melee. What the fuck caused them to bring in reinforcements? The Minigun? After a moment, I noticed the new witch-hunters weren’t coming to reinforce the other witch-hunters. They were running from something. The back wall of the Manor collapsed. Blue-white lightning bolts streaked across the room. Tiles along the walls and floors exploded like frag grenades, sending razor-sharp marble shards into the unsuspecting witch-hunters. The sharp cracks of thunder from the lightning mixed with new higher-pitched cracks of assault rifles as I saw the first of the lycanthrope counter-attack. Sneller was visibly in the lead, shouting orders over the roar of the entry as hunters, shaman, and pack warriors swept down on the confused and panicked witch-hunters. We stayed on the marble floor, firing at any witch-hunters who were foolish enough to come within our reach. I lost complete track of time as the battle enveloped me. All I knew was the fight lasted another three mag changes, before Ronin slashed the last witch-hunter with a long silver dagger. There was a deathly silence as I got up off the tile and looked around.

Most of the lycanthropes who came to see my trial were dead, including nearly all of the pack leaders. Their bodies were strewn across the room along with the witch-hunters. Bullet pockmarks marred the walls and columns. The throne was destroyed, splintered in half by bullets. The Guildmaster led the group out of the coronation room, looking out across the room. He kept his face emotionless, but I knew he what he was thinking. He walked over to me and didn’t say anything, which in itself spoke volumes. Sneller walked over to us, a long slash on his muzzle.

“We wanted to warn you, but there wasn’t enough time. A group of the more experienced shaman joined us, and I decided to counterattack.” The Guildmaster nodded absently as he told Sneller to gather his forces and secure the perimeter, and then he walked over to the Lady-Apparent. She collapsed where the bodies of the last of her family, her younger brother and sister, were lying. Her two younger siblings died early in the fighting. Their Red Knight protectors laid next to them, nearly torn apart from the intense gunfire. I walked over with the Guildmaster towards her as she wept for her two dead siblings. Smythe was talking with the few surviving Red Knights. The shaman that came with Sneller were carrying out the bodies of the Spiritmaster and Yven, in addition to most of the entourage they brought. Ancestors, was the Guild the only group to keep its leadership?

“My lady,” the Guildmaster said, quietly, “I’m afraid we have much work to do right now. Some of it requires your attention.” The Lady-Apparent cradled the body of her little sister in her arms, not even showing whether she heard the Guildmaster or not. I don’t know why I did it. I was just acting on instinct. I knelt down beside her, laid my carbine on the ground, and put my hand on her shoulder. My heart was frozen with fear, but my instincts were in full control. The Lady-Apparent wasn’t thinking like a leader of the lycanthropes of her county. She was thinking like a big sister who just lost the last of her family. She needed to be guided back to her duties, or she would be lost. I don’t know how I knew, I just knew what I needed to do.

“Elizabeth,” I murmured to her, not sure why I was daring to use her first name, “She isn’t coming back. There’s nothing more you can do for her. You have to leave her and help us, or all of the lycanthropes in Hillsborough are going to die.” She looked at me. There was a brief flash of anger, but it quickly disappeared as she remembered her duty. Tears still streamed down her face, but she got up. I rose to my feet with her, my arm protectively circling her shoulders. She continued to sob for a moment, but the tears stopped as she composed herself. My heart yearned for vengeance, and I was frustrated by the fact that all the witch-hunters were dead. I was startled by the feelings, but comforted by her warmth against me.

“What needs to be done?” she asked the Guildmaster after she had regained her composure. I could feel her leaning into me.

“First, we need to gather the remainders of the packs as well as what’s left of both the Order and the Guild and bring them here. We also need the unaligned lycanthropes in Hillsborough. Once we have everyone here, we need to reorganize to finish the war with the vampire. They were almost certainly behind the witch-hunters’ attack. Finally, a detail needs to be formed to gather all the lycanthrope bodies here and take them to the cravex for a mass Rite of the Dead.”

“Get the Order to handle that. Preferably their senior member still alive. What about outside help, from the state organizations or from Pinellas or Pasco?” she asked. Her years of tutelage in leadership were coming to the forefront. She suppressed her grief as duty took over. It was much like when I pushed down all of my emotions to do a job. I loosened my arm over her shoulders, allowing her to stand on her own. It was difficult, but I knew it was necessary. Again, the instinct was guiding me what to do, because Ancestors knew I had no fucking clue in the cognitive part of my mind.

“I don’t think they will be able to help,” the Guildmaster explained, “The state organizations will be preparing for the war council, and the other counties are too busy playing politics forging alliances before they get to Tallahassee. The Pinellas Guild will guard our pups, and will accept any of our severely wounded, but I doubt Lady Thames will allow anything else.”

“NO!” screamed a voice behind the Guildmaster. A battered Smythe emerged from his group of Red Knights. There was a mad glinting in his eyes, and his fingers twitched around the TMP at his side. “The first thing we must do is kill the abomination. He helped kill Stephen and Jason Vollen. He led the witch-hunters here. He must pay for this. He must.” The machine pistol jerked up and pointed at me. I planned the moves I would need to reach my carbine and place a burst into the bastard dog’s chest.

“I didn’t kill them, Smythe,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. I tried to slide my arm off of Elizabeth’s shoulders, but she tucked in closer to me. Why was she doing that? She needed to get out of the way.

“You were responsible!” Smythe screamed.

“I tried to stop Stephen’s killer, but he was better than me,” I said. “I would have stopped Silanti from killing Jason, but you attacked me.” His eyes went wild, and a burst erupted from the gun. I could feel the bullets whistling past my ear. I felt Elizabeth grip me. At that moment, I lost my confidence, and a new fear set in. It was a deeper fear than any I felt before, because it wasn’t for me, but for her. That idiot would probably kill her if he didn’t control that fucking TMP. I tried to get her behind me, but she just wouldn’t move.

“You’re lying, you bastard dog,” he said wildly, “You were in league with the killers. I knew you wouldn’t shoot Silanti. You planned to deliver the lord to him in advance. I know all about you. At least, though, I could have killed you.” The barrel bobbed up and down, as he staggered towards us. No way to get to my carbine. Elizabeth was tucked in next to my holster, so I couldn’t even get to my pistol. Smythe laughed maniacally as I scoured my brain for what more I could do. Then, the thunder boomed.

I felt no pain, but watched the barrel of the TMP drop. I looked beyond the gun at Smythe and saw his side was blown out. He wobbled on his feet, a look of sheer surprise on his face. Another thunder boom and he was thrown to the ground. Nick stood with his big Smith pointed at the ceiling. He quietly reholstered the revolver and looked over to where the Red Knights were staring at their fallen leader.

“Does anyone else question my friend’s innocence?” Nick asked in a deathly calm and quiet tone. The Red Knights backed up a step, shrinking from the evil look on his face. It was almost as if Death himself possessed Nick. I squeezed Elizabeth protectively until my mind reassured me my friend was still there. The Manor again fell into silence.

The Lady-Apparent released me and strode over to the Guildmaster. It shook me how quickly she left. I was even more confused by the strange look she shot me over her shoulder. It hurt that she didn’t seem to need me anymore as she and the Guildmaster talked over plans. A hand landed on my shoulder. My reflexes took hold and my hand darted for my pistol. Nick stayed calm as I realized who it was and let my arm fall back down. He gave me a warm look, almost like an older brother to a younger, inexperienced sibling.

“Wipe that pained expression off your face Ranger,” he said, “She loves you.” I turned on him as an unusual anger gripped me.

“What the fuck do you mean?” I asked quickly. Too quickly. Nick just grinned and shook his head. He grabbed my arm and half-pulled me to where Sneller was gathering the surviving hunters. I resisted a little, but Nick was probably as strong as me, and I wasn’t all that determined.

“That look she gave you was transparent,” he said, “I realize that this is probably your first time experiencing some of the more refined emotions, having to be the ultimate hunter and all, but trust me on this. She does love you, and that explains a lot of her actions up to now. That said, she, like us, has a lot of work to do. Everything else has got to be put away until later. Come on, I think Sneller got a job for us.”

Chapter 13 – Sometimes Even I Think I’m Cursed

Badmoon Rising Chapter 11 – There’s a Dark Cloud For Every Silver Lining

“It’s nice to see that you managed to almost get yourself killed. Again,” the Guildmaster growled as I walked into his office. As soon as Nick and I returned to the Guild, I was rushed to the infirmary. From what Burn said, there was a moment they were worried about me bleeding out as they scrubbed out the remains of silver in my back, but my body was too stubborn. That was how Burn phrased it. Satisfied I was free of silver contamination, out doc let my body take over. When I woke up, I was informed my boss wanted to see me immediately, so I got dressed and headed to the Guildmaster’s office. I could feel my body still putting itself back together, but I was more or less operational. The Guildmaster’s expression told me he wasn’t happy I went out with Nick, and even less pleased I managed to get banged up even more. I kept my face neutral and sat down in my normal chair.

“What the hell are witch-hunters doing in West Tampa? I asked, completely ignoring the Guildmaster’s chiding remark. Sometimes with my boss, the best defense is to just go on the offense. He growled a bit, but picked up a folder off of his increasingly crowded desk. The anger drained from his face, replaced by a worried expression. That expression disturbed me. I knew that as the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, I was one of the few hunters with whom the Guildmaster could be totally honest and open. It was one of the reasons the personal hitter was usually a close friend of the Guildmaster. Still, it was disconcerting to see my leader look like he didn’t know what to do.

“I don’t know,”the Guildmaster exhaled, “Neither does our intel section or the lord’s intel section. Ronin told me a few weeks ago he was getting information from the feral dogs in the county there were more witch-hunters than normal. I dismissed it at the time. You know why.” I nodded in silent agreement. Ronin, the deputy commander of the hit packs, knew many of the packs of feral and stray dogs that roamed the streets of Tampa and the back areas of the county. They were useful sometimes, but most of the information they gave us was so vague as to be useless. Ronin still put his faith in his animal informants. In my experience, the strays were about as useful as retarded two-year-olds.

“You want me to investigate?” I asked, trying to shake my boss out of his momentarily melancholy. I knew the Guildmaster tended to beat himself up when he made a mistake. Sometimes that was good, because it made sure he never made the same mistake again. Mostly, it was just useless.

“No,” the Guildmaster answered, visibly shaking himself out of internal reflections, “You’re good at a lot of things Marcus, but this kind of investigation is not one of those. I need someone a little more subtle. I’ll have Baser send one of the intel boys out to see what is going on. I need some hard data. Matric informed me before you came in that the lord’s intelligence section considered the presence of the Sword to be an anomaly rather than a trend indicator.”

“What the fuck? They’re ignoring it? Maybe I should go down there and talk to them myself,” I said, my anger leaking into my voice. The Guildmaster gave a brief chuckle, but shook his head.

“There’s something going on over at the Manor,” the Guildmaster told me, “Something that they haven’t told me. I have a nasty suspicion that Lord Vollen is planning something to take advantage of the aftermath of the Sun City Center battle.” He turned his attention to another folder on his desk. “At any rate, I have another job for you. It’s something simple and easy.” His eye held a mischievous glint that I knew didn’t bode well for me.

“CEASE FIRE, DAMNIT!” I yelled at the lycanthropes on the firing line. I grabbed the closest lycanthrope, and snatched the carbine out of his hands. “What part of cease fire did you not fucking understand?” The warrior’s face was a mixture of anger and fear. I shoved him away as our altercation finally drew enough attention from the others that they stopped shooting and watched. I took a few deep breaths before beginning again. It also took me a moment to get all of my plans to kill my boss out of my head. I will be the first to admit that my boss has a nasty sense of humor. Moreover, he has an even nastier sense of punishment. Hence, my current job. The Guildmaster still didn’t know what was being planned in the Manor, but he was fairly sure the warriors of the packs would need to be prepared for some heavy fighting. So I was sent to work with several warriors on the basics of marksmanship and fire discipline. Too many of the warriors did little more than spray and pray with the full auto weapons, which wasted valuable silver ammunition. The idea was to get them used to properly using the weapons before giving them the silver ammunition that the Guild controlled. Good idea – until I actually saw the pack warriors using the few assault rifles and submachine guns on the shooting range the Guild maintained in the eastern part of the county.

“All of you, carefully place your weapons on the firing bench in front of you and take a step back,” I ordered. As the eight warriors followed my instructions, I walked out to the targets. As I suspected, most of the targets had a few holes that invariably rose to the right or left depending on what weapon the warrior was shooting. I just shook my head in annoyance. I warned each of them about muzzle climb in full auto fire. I reminded them to attempt to counteract the climb by leaning in to the weapon. The warriors then reliably forgotten that tidbit of information. I was beginning to lose what little patience I had. A lack of patience was one of my character flaws the Guildmaster made me painfully aware of over the years I worked with him. Sometimes, he liked to put me in positions where that flaw had to be overcome – or used as punishment, like now.

“All of you are here because you are supposed to be the best shooters of your packs,” I began with teeth clenched and my normal rage held firmly in check, “I know some of you have impressive war records, but this is fucking ridiculous.” The warriors had the decency to look ashamed at my comment. I walked the firing line, looking back between the atrocious firing cards and the warriors standing with slightly nervous looks on their faces. I needed to come up with a better way to train these warriors before the lord announced his plans. The biggest problem was me, and I knew it. I was not a trainer by temperament. I got easily annoyed when those under my tutelage didn’t progress as quickly as I thought they should. Especially on things I already explained in detail – several times.

“Okay, let’s go over this again,” I told them, trying to keep a calm voice, “Some of you are using submachine guns. These things are called bullet hoses for a reason. They have an extremely high rate of fire. Even with a nine millimeter cartridge, these weapons produce an impressive amount of recoil. That causes the barrel to rise, which means +YOU MISS THE FUCKING TARGET!* You will compensate for this by doing one of two things. You will either use short bursts of three to five rounds or you will learn to lean into the weapon to use your mass to control the weapon. Preferably you will limit yourself to short bursts, but I’d be just as happy if you could do just do the leaning. This is even more important for you with assault rifles because they have a stronger recoil.”

“Most of these guns have selectors for burst fire,” one of the warriors said with an almost snide manner. I really wanted to hit him. “Why aren’t we just putting them on burst and training like that?” The warriors around him nodded with an enthusiasm I chalked up to not wanting to be further embarrassed by their poor performance.

“You think I’m making you do this the hard way for my own entertainment?” I asked with a sarcastic tone, “Of course, I have no ulterior objective, such as making sure you survive if you have to use one of these weapons. I’m not making sure that you can actually be effective if you need to spray a large group, or just attack a single target.” I would have continued, but the warriors were saved by the ringing of my phone. I looked at the number flashing on the display. The Guildmaster. It was a simple text message. RTB. Return to base. The lord had announced his plan.

When I returned to the Guild, it looked deserted. Usually there were about twenty or so hunters at the Guild at all times. Mainly these were our intel, medical, and communications specialists, as well as the armorers. That didn’t include hunters waiting for targets of opportunity or for rapid rescue of warriors or shaman that managed to get themselves into a nasty position. As I entered, I only saw Baser and another hunter in the intelligence area. I walked over to Baser. He looked up with a start as I came up to his desk.

“I didn’t see you come in Ranger,” he said with surprise in his voice.

“How could you miss me?” I asked in reply, “Where the hell is everyone?”

“Oh, that,” Baser said, taking a moment to look around, “Well, Sneller and Deadeye have been sending everyone out to their advance points. I’m getting swamped with intel requests on a whole bunch of sites.” He turned to his computer and suddenly stopped in mid-motion.

“Oh yeah, the Guildmaster said he wanted to see you as soon as you came in,” Baser said before going back to his work. I walked to the Guildmaster’s office without another word. The advance points were positions around the county where hunters could group before launching a major job. With almost all of the hunters at their advance points, the Guild was about to conduct a series of simultaneous jobs. The lord was planning something massive. Massive usually meant complex. Something was bound to get fucked up, and someone, probably a hunter, would end up dead. Hunters were firm believers in keeping jobs as simple as possible. Less chance of something fucking up.

I walked into the Guildmaster’s inner office. I was surprised to see his wife standing next to him. She was dressed in tactical gear with a worried expression on her face. Something was very wrong if she decided to get back into the hunting game. She acknowledged me with a quick nod and then looked back to her husband. He didn’t look up at me, but held his hand in a silent command to wait quietly until he was done talking on the phone.

“Make sure that all of the packs are clear about their part in this,” the Guildmaster said, “This operation is so complex that a minor mistake could unfurl the whole thing. I’ll have Dennis coordinate with the Spiritmaster, but you need to hold things down until I get there.” As he set down the phone, he let out a resigned breath. He looked up at me.

“Lord Vollen wants a quick finish to this war,” the Guildmaster said, “I think the Spiritmaster or one of his Red Knights got it into his head that he can attack the TCV Hall and eliminate the entire Inner Council. I pleaded with him to reconsider, but he’s young, stubborn, and has victories under his belt. The Lord has decided on a nighttime – nighttime – attack on the TCV Hall with the intent of either forcing the surrender of the Inner Council or wiping them out. The plan is for the Knights and some experienced pack warriors to do a frontal attack with the lord leading them in. According to the Lord Vollen, it would be the last thing the TCV would expect, so they won’t be able to stand against our force. I’m sure that the Knights tried to keep him from leading the assault, but as I said, he’s a stubborn one. The hunters and shaman will provide surgical support. I’ve arranged for you to go in with the main assault force. Your job is to try to keep the lord alive. Take whatever you need. There will be a few hunters also going in on the siege, as well as a few shaman, but the plan has the bulk of the Guild acting in diversionary operations, preparing for mop-up operations and to strike any targets of opportunity. I’ve been ordered to oversee those operations. Since I can’t go with Lord Vollen, I’m sending you. Your secondary job is to locate :the new Bleeder leader and kill him. I may not approve of this plan, but I will be damned if I don’t do my best to try and make it a success. The operation will start tomorrow night, so you have about thirty hours before you are supposed to meet up with Lord Vollen and his force.”

I nodded. Sometimes even I knew better than to make a flippant comment. This was going to be a brutal battle even if everything went right. Lord Vollen was acting rashly. It was going to take a small miracle to keep most of the siege force alive. I smoldered over the apparent lack of concern the lord had for his wolves. I let my anger fall to the wayside. There was too much to do. I needed to gather equipment, memorize all the available information on the TCV Hall and the Inner Councilmembers, and somehow try to grab a few hours sleep. I returned to my room, sighing as I flipped on the light switch. I looked longingly at the bed. I stripped out of my clothing, letting it scatter across the floor. I sat down in the chair facing my computer. After booting up, I researched the files concerning the TCV Hall. The building plans were sparse on useful information, and even that little bit was outdated. The TCV Hall was built by a Northerner human who came to Tampa in the late 1890’s. He liked the warm climate and built an expansive mansion next to the bay. When the vampire infestation became virulent in the 1920’s, the elder vampires agreed to the organization of a new council rather than the older coven system that the vampires used throughout their history. According to Bradon, the original council chair found the TCV Hall “quaint” and had his ghouls take the place over. It wasn’t hard, because the current owner of the house overspent himself on illegal booze, and was willing to trade the house for getting the gangsters off his back. It was also about this time the vampires in Florida began their long association with the criminal element of the state. There had been several renovations to make the building more secure, but the external structure had changed very little. The building was split into three wings. The right wing held offices for the Inner Council and their ghouls. Actual floorplans for that wing were not available and the few composite sketches were skimpy at best. By contrast, the central part of the building was well-known. This was where the vampires hosted official events, such as entertaining a Turaki peacekeeper. That was the one time I was allowed past the front door. It was also where the Inner Council officially convened. The large double front doors of the Hall opened into a central foyer dominated by a horseshoe shaped staircase that led up to the second floor. Beyond the foyer on the first floor was a ballroom that where most of the leeches’ social events were held. Connected to the ballroom was a kitchen with a walk-in cooler and freezer. Intelligence estimated there were at least five to twenty humans somewhere on the first floor for feasts. Going up the grand staircase to the second floor led to the Council Room. From what we knew, the room was modular and could be set up any way they desired, from modern to Gothic. From what Bradon told me about meetings of Inner Council, the decor changed almost from month to month depending on what was in fashion at the time. Damn vampires and their obsession with style. I hated hitting a place with no knowledge of where anything would be. It was a good way to give the leeches your pelt. The left wing of the Hall was what really worried me. There was no solid information on that side of the building. Some rumors said that was where the Inner Council had their quarters, but others said it was the headquarters for the alchemists. The Guild was never able to insert any of its spies into the Hall to gather the proper intelligence. Anytime a hunter went to the Hall, they were closely escorted by a number of vampires, with at least one Bleeder in the contingent. Our kin reported being similarly observed. I thought all of the rumors were wrong. I thought the left wing was the Bleeders’ headquarters. The Bleeders were always very good at just disappearing. There were very few places in the county where a vampire could just disappear. The TCV Hall was on the top of the list. Add to the fact that Bradon was always extremely cagey when I broached what was in the TCV Hall. I couldn’t prove it, but that’s what my instincts were telling me. If I was going to sanction the new Bleeder leader, the left wing was where I would look.

After cramming my brain with information on the Hall, I turned to the Inner Council. Technically, all of the vampires within the territory claimed by the TCV belonged to the Tampa Council, but not all of them had a say in how the territory was governed. That power was held by the ruling body of the TCV, the Inner Council. The Inner Council was made up of five elder vampires, who were dangerous all by themselves. Vampires don’t make it to elder status without having either a lot of power, a lot of skill, or both. To make it even more fun, each Inner Councilmember also had one to five ghouls with them at all times. Intelligence said the ghouls were closer to bodyguards with training on par to the Red Knights. The political make-up of the Inner Council was evenly spread, with two activist Councilmembers, two conservative Councilmembers and a Council Chair who was usually a moderate, but tended to lean one way or the other as issues arose. The heads of the Bleeders and the alchemists usually participated in Inner Council meetings and affairs, but they were considered advisers to the Inner Council, not members. Each Councilmember selected his or her own successor, so the political split rarely changed. Outwardly, the Inner Council favored stability and consensus, but the politics were cutthroat amongst the Inner Councilmembers. Consensus was often just a codeword for one faction saying uncle.

The activist faction of the Inner Council was led by Mario Silanti, a vampire of forty years. He despised the Peace and was behind most of the plots to weakened it. He hated lycanthropes with a fiery passion. Silanti was considered by most lycanthropes as the prime suspect behind the murder of Lord Vollen’s father. Hell, if I didn’t know better, he would have been my first suspect. The Guild considered Silanti a major threat, as did the Bleeders. Before the war erupted, it was an open secret that if the hunters managed to assassinate Silanti, there would be no reprisal from the Bleeders. Current intelligence believed Silanti’s influence among the vampires was growing by leaps and bounds. As long as the war raged in Hillsborough County, the younger vampires of the TCV supported Silanti. If Silanti gained enough support, there would be no chance of stopping the war without one side wiping out the other. Or the Pathwalkers wiping out both. Silanti kept two ghouls. One was a female who acted as his secretary. She didn’t have any known combat training, but I suspected she knew some tricks. The other ghoul was a male who kept Silanti tied to the human underworld. The ghoul survived several years in the brutal drug trade before being “recruited” by Silanti. That made him dangerous, and definitely someone to watch. I looked at the most recent photo we had of Silanti. I studied his face, ingraining every feature into my mind. because if Silanti came within range of my weapons, he would become my primary target.

The other activist on the Inner Council was a vampire of eighty years by the name of Richard Crawford. Crawford was a known supporter “the Naturalists.” They advocated there was room on the planet for only one race of predator of humans, and that the two races must fight until one – the lycanthropes according to Crawford and his supporters – was exterminated. The Peace prevented that natural competition, and therefore, it must be struck down. Unlike Silanti, Crawford only acted politically against the other Inner Councilmembers. Bradon told me Crawford was more of a shadow player in the twisted politics of the TCV. He didn’t actually get involved in any of the ploys and plots, but Crawford pulled enough strings to get the ball rolling. Bradon called him a “useful danger.” Crawford kept four ghouls – one to act as his personal assistant, one bodyguard, and two errand boys. All of them were known to be dangerous in both hand to hand combat and firearms.

The conservative side of the Inner Council was headed by the elder vampire Samuel Davis. He had over a hundred and thirty years as a vampire, with more than forty years as on the Inner Council. Davis was thoroughly convinced that the lycanthrope were an enemy to be destroyed. That said, Davis knew better than to let an unrestricted war erupt between the two races, or else it would become like the humans’ Civil War he fought as a Confederate soldier. He supported the Peace while also supporting and nurturing the Bleeders, under his protégée, Philip Bradon. Davis’s three ghouls came from military backgrounds. One acted as his bodyguard and assistant, while the other two often acted as his personal hit team. All of them were trained by the Bleeders in fighting lycanthropes. Nick ran afoul of the hit team, and he said they were damned good for a pair of ghouls. I committed their faces to memory in case I ran into them. I was looking at enough surprises in this job to let those two ghouls get the drop on me.

Davis’s much younger ally was Harris Montgomery. Montgomery was a vampire of only twenty years, which was considered relatively young in vampire politics. If there was one thing Harris was, he was an outstanding politician. He secured his seat on the Inner Council by posturing himself as an almost clone of his predecessor. As soon as Montgomery assumed his seat from the “retired” elder vampire, Montgomery showed his true colors. Montgomery was of a new philosophy that believed the war between the vampire and the lycanthrope was a futile effort. The two races must coexist or they would wipe each other out. According to Bradon, Montgomery was annoying and embarrassing to the rest of the Inner Council. Unfortunately for the elder Inner Councilmembers, Montgomery represented the views of many of the younger vampires who grew up listening to the ramblings of the human counter-culture movement. As Bradon said more than once, it was an unfortunate case of the rare times humanity affected our part of reality. Although his credibility had taken a hit with the war, Montgomery was still an able caudillo, or boss. He was actually the one Inner Councilmember I would try not to kill on this job. His two ghouls were unknowns. According to reports, they often acted as retro-hippie girls, dressing in the costumes and using the dialect of the culture.

The Council Chair was held by Josephine Razor, a vampire who exploded onto the Tampa political scene. The Guild first took notice of her only about four years ago, but in less than two years she used her political abilities and seductress demeanor to not only gain her place as an Inner Councilmember, but to ascend to the Chair. She was known to be cunning and deadly, politically and physically. Her true politics were unknown, as she tended to bounce between the two factions, often playing one against the other to get what she wanted. Even Bradon couldn’t figure her out. She didn’t have any known ghouls, but I doubted she neglected to make herself a servant or four. It was more likely she kept her ghoul, or ghouls, out of sight until she needed them. I leaned back in my chair and yawned. As I looked behind me, I saw the clock and read the numbers upside-down. The translation slid slowly between my eyes and my brain. Well, that was why I was tired. I was doing this for the past six hours. I never understand why research tired me out almost more than physical activity. I shut the computer down and picked up the phone.

“Yeah, whadda ya want?” came Boomer’s voice over the line. I expected Gunny, but I figured he was busier than hell trying to prep enough gear for the hunters for tomorrow night.

“Boomer, it’s Ranger,” I answered in a business tone, “I’m going to be up there in a few minutes to grab weapons and gear. The Guildmaster told you?”

“Yeah, he told us you and the others on the Hall assault had priority. We were expecting you a couple of hours ago. Gunny kept some of your favorites, but I don’t know if we still have much to give you.”

“Where is Gunny?” I asked. It wasn’t like him to leave Boomer alone too long with a pile of weapons at his disposal. Odd things tended to happen to weapons left in Boomer’s care. Like configurations no one thought of suddenly appearing in the racks.

“He’s outfitting a couple of the hit packs before they run out of here. I’ll be here when you get your ass up here. What are you planning on?” he asked, casually.

“Tactical nukes would be nice, for all the surprises I expect.” Boomer politely chuckled at that comment. “I’ll see what you’ve got left when I get up there. Is ammo good?”

“Not as good as I would like. I can get your supply, but the Silver Shoks are getting shot up pretty damn fast. We were supposed to get a shipment of them today, but they didn’t come in. In a couple of days, we might have to switch to slug bullets.” I grimaced at that comment. Modern silver bullets were designed with lead exteriors to grip the barrel’s rifling and silver alloys that kept the bullet weights consistent with modern defensive ammunition. Silver Shoks were the best, although there were a few other lines with comparable performance abilities. Those were used mainly by the pack warriors whose leaders knew enough to buy the good stuff. Silver slug bullets, on the other hand, were standard bullets cast from silver. They were much easier to produce, but the bullets tended to drop or curve depending on the weapon. The only exception was shotguns, since they were smooth bore to begin with. Silver slugs and shot worked just fine in them, up to about seventy yards.

“Thanks, I’ll be finished here in about five minutes, and then I’ll be up. Hold everything until I get there.” I hung up the phone and put on a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt that was in my closet. The hallway was empty, as was the elevator up to the armory. The Guild was emptying out for Lord Vollen’s grand attack. Damn him. The elevator toned as I reached the second floor. I felt a little better as I walked by the intelligence section’s crazy sprinting back and forth between their workstations. At least I wasn’t the only one being driven insane by this attack. I made my way to the armory. As I approached, a pair of twelve-foot tall reinforced doors silently slid open. The Guild’s armory was made up of one large room with chain-linked fencing forming sections for different weapon types. Ancestors, it was fucking empty. Racks normally full of assault rifles and sub-machine guns lay naked. Boomer sat at one of the few tables in the room in human form, examining an assault rifle’s trigger assembly. He didn’t look up as I walked across the concrete floor towards him. I stopped five feet from him and waited for about half a minute for him to be finished with what he was doing. It passed and he continued to fiddle with the trigger assembly.

“Hi, Ranger. Your favorites are over in Pad A-1,” Boomer said without looking up. Rather than bother him, I walked over to the pad. The pads were sections of the armory with mission specific load-outs and a few extras so a hunter could tailor based on his tastes. I walked over to the pad and opened the gate door. The two benches were sparsely littered with rifles, sub-machine guns, pistols, and grenades. I picked up the first rifle, a Barret M107. I considered it briefly. With a .50 BMG bullet, there was very little that I couldn’t punch holes through. On the downside, it was too long to use indoors, although my strength in true form would have negated the weight problem of the big rifle. I picked up the next weapon and grinned. The Bowmasters thoughtfully left me a KAC Masterkey. The Masterkey was a Colt M4 carbine, but the wonderful folks over at KAC added something extra. It started out as a Remington 870, but KAC removed the stock, shortened the barrel, and mounted the package under the M4’s barrel. The M4’s magazine was used as a grip when firing the shotgun. Just for fun, Boomer mounted a rigid side saddle to the left side of the shotgun’s receiver for carrying an additional five shells. The Masterkey was a bit muzzle heavy, but being able to use either 5.56 mm rounds or specialty shotgun loads without changing weapons was a big advantage. A holographic sight was mounted to the top of the M4. After checking the actions the Masterkey, I put it aside and built the rest of my load-out. I wanted to bring my HK45, but decided on my Glock 17 instead. In our kind of combat, the usual arguments of small bullet versus big bullet didn’t usually apply. The amount of silver punched into the target mattered much more, and both a 9mm and a .45 would put enough silver into the target to be lethal. I normally preferred the .45 because it put more silver into the target. Very useful when you might only have one or two shots. For this raid, I was going to have lots of targets, which meant I needed more rounds. The Glock 17 had the advantage of accepting the bigger +2 magazines for a total of nineteen rounds. Plus, its magazines would work with the smaller Glock 26, which would be my back-up for this job. Custom-built silver throwing knives for quiet kills, and an Emerson folder for cutting things other than vampires. I found two speed loading tubes for the Masterkey. One was loaded with straight double-ought silver buckshot, while the other was loaded with a particularly nasty load of silver flechettes. Flechettes were tiny darts that perforated everything in its firing radius, including through nasty things like Kevlar. The side-saddle on the shotgun was loaded with willie-pete incendiary rounds that Boomer came up with. Great for creatures that were as flammable as dry kindling, but not so great on the gun. Gunny hated issuing them, but they’d come in handy before. Flash-bangs and a small roll of duct tape were added. My final bit of my rig was electronics. Namely a radio and throat mike. Boomer helped me load the mass of weapons, magazines, ammo, and gear into a few bags. With all of my equipment chosen, I went back to my quarters to rack out for a few hours. Sleep came and went way too fast. I was running too close, but I needed to run a few exercises before I joined up with the assault force. I spent the morning running through close-quarters drills with my load-out. I needed to be able to grab what I needed without looking. Another half-hour nap and I geared up. For the record, carrying the equivalent of four guns, several knives, some flash-bangs, a bunch of ammo, and electronics was heavy. That wasn’t even counting the heavier vest and gear. As I walked into the garage, Nick was waiting on his motorcycle with a sly grin on his face.

“Alright, I give,” I said as I approached him, “What’s so fucking funny?”

“You, going to protect the lord. With that much gear, you could defend him from an army. At least, knowing the way you fight.” His grin slipped as I climbed into one of the Guild’s special sedans.

“Ranger, be careful,” Nick said, his voice now devoid of humor, “I know that sounds strange, but I don’t like this.”

“You think I do?” I asked, as I clipped the carbine to the dash. “Thanks for the thought, Nick. I’ll watch my ass.”

“Good. I don’t have many allies in this town. I don’t want one of my close ones dying foolishly. Ranger, one more thing,” he said, his tone so serious it worried me, “My name is Nicholas.” Laughing, I revved the sedan’s engine and tore into the emerging night.


As I drove to the meeting point, I noticed the sky. Perhaps I should have looked up earlier, but that was my own mistake. It was also mine for not checking the human news for the past few days. The stars were dimmed by the Blood Moon. Lycanthropes know the red moon is a lunar eclipse, as well as the scientific reasons for its occurrence. None of that diminishes the surge of energy we feel from it. This was the reason Lord Vollen decided to raid the Hall at night. Maybe the lord was not a complete fool, but the lack of intelligence on the Hall still gnawed at me. There were few weapons, short of thermobarics and nukes, that overcame a lack of good intelligence, and even they occasionally suffered from it. The meeting point was a commercial conversion van parked down the street from the TCV Hall. Only the fifty-yard lawn separated us from the front porch. The raised porch was an antebellum fashion with four white columns. It was guarded by five vampires that I could see. I was instructed to leave the car several blocks away, using the darkness to travel the rest of the distance. I reached the far side of the van, emblazoned with TECO’s logo on the side. Behind the van waited the lord and a group of Red Knights, including Smythe. I sneered at him and made the proper gesture of respect Lord Vollen. He allowed me to crowd into the back of the van, which was crammed with surveillance and communication gear. This should have been used days before to conduct reconnaissance, but instead, Lord Vollen rushed things.

I scanned the lawn and the front of the Hall through the low-light cameras installed into the side of the van. A pair of kin were standing outside, mimicking work for the power company. The lawn looked normal. According to the van’s electromagnetic sensors, there were no land mines placed. The stately white facade was normal, although I knew surveillance gear was in place around the Hall. The front porch was guarded by five vampires. There were no other signs of security. My instincts said there had to be more guards around. I mentally doubled the number of guards I could see and figured they were hidden around the front perimeter. I didn’t like this frontal attack shit, Blood Moon or no. First off, there was no current information on the number or displacement of opposition on the grounds or in the Hall. Second, the environment was bad. Tampa Bay air, with its heavy marsh odor, muted our naturally keen sense of smell. The street lighting and the sparse lighting around the Hall made for strange shadows that would draw the untrained eye, like any pack warriors assigned to this job. Third, we were too exposed. I was sure the leeches on the front porch knew who we were and why we were there. If they didn’t, then they were bait in an inviting trap.

“Is there a problem hunter?” said a voice behind me. I expected a Red Knight, but turned to find Lord Vollen facing me. I made it a point never to be intimidated by any lycanthrope’s station if something important needed to be said or done. Respectful maybe, but never intimidated. With this many Red Knights, several of whom partly blamed me for the previous lord’s death, I decided a respectful tone was the best course. The Guildmaster would’ve been proud.

“May I speak candidly, milord?” I asked cautiously. He nodded slightly, so I continued, but firmly keeping my voice respectful and my speech devoid of its normal expletives. “This attack is a bad idea. There is no current data on what our forces can expect upon entering the Hall. Our natural senses are being beaten back by the environment. We don’t even have a full floor plans for the Hall.” His face darkened slightly, but I decided to press on, hoping to avoid what could be a bloody fight we could very well lose. “Milord, I suggest we postpone this attack until more information is available, or maybe if we cripple more of the TCV’s forces.” Smythe looked about ready to read me the riot act, but the lord silenced him with a wave of his hand.

“I’m glad that I was right in asking Eric for your services,” Lord Vollen said, “You are correct – from your stand point. There are a few things you don’t know. First, all the hunters and shaman left out of this attack are now conducting an extensive series of attacks on known leech strongholds and covens. Those should provide us with enough distraction to cover our initial attack. Second, the power to the Hall will be cut fifteen seconds into the attack. I realize the Hall likely has secondary generators, but the switch will give us a few seconds time to advance further. Third, our mission is not to clear the Hall, but simply to get in and plant these.” He handed me a thermite block demolition charge. It was similar to the one that I used on the night that I killed Bradon, but it was larger, which meant a bigger blast area. They were also tamper-proof, meaning that once they were set, any attempt to disarm or reset them caused the charge to detonate. Some of my doubts about the attack were alleviated. So, this wasn’t to go in and personally kill every member of the Council, but rather set the Hall on fire and make sure none escaped.

“With all due respect, milord, that’s all fine and dandy, but there’s still the problem of getting into the Hall,” I said. “I very much doubt the Council is going to let us waltz into their home and light it up.” Lord Vollen smiled as my respectful tone slipped a bit.

“Upon the signal from the Guildmaster that all the diversionary objectives are engaged, snipers will take out the sentries,” one of the Red Knights explained, “The doors will be taken care of by our anti-armor rifle.” He motioned to a kin assembling a Barrett M107, just like one that I briefly contemplated taking back at the armory. “Once the door was taken down, the first group will rush in and secure the foyer. They place their charges, but not activate. From there, the second group will leapfrog them onto the second floor, while a third group hits the ballroom. At this point, the snipers will join us as a fourth assault team. Then, they and the first team will leapfrog the second and third teams going deeper into the Hall. We continue until all charges are set.” I still didn’t like it. Our forces would be awfully thin as we drove deeper into the building. It also didn’t allow for a reserve force. I was to be part of the second group, along with Lord Vollen, Smythe and another half-dozen Red Knights. The plan laid out for everyone, the other lycanthropes went over their gear one last time. My feeling of dread was deepening. This plan was coming dangerously close to drawing the Pathwalkers’ notice. I could see why the Guildmaster wasn’t happy with this. He probably told Lord Vollen about the risk, and from what I’d seen, Lord Vollen probably dismissed his Guildmaster’s concerns out of hand. All I could do was try and salvage what I could. I scanned the target area. My instincts were roaring with warnings. With some difficulty, I shoved all of it to the back of my mind and focused on the job. My instincts have always been inordinately strong, with the downside being that sometimes they threatened to take over. Part of my hunter training was forcing me to hone them so they were useful while being able to shut them out when they threatened the job. Now was the hardest part of my job – waiting for it to begin. Finally, the Guildmaster came on the radio.

“Gaspirilla,” the Guildmaster said, curtly. Five muffled shots sounded from the roof of the van. The vampires guarding the front porch slumped down almost simultaneously. As the vampires fell, the first group ran across the lawn. The first group was made up of warriors with a couple of Red Knights to give them some kind of sound tactical support. As the group galloped across the lawn, I saw the lights of their weapons searching for targets. I winced as I watched their formation. It was too loose, too uncoordinated. The warriors had no clue how to scan for targets. They were mimicking what they’d seen on television or movies. It may look cool, but it would be trouble if they ran into any real targets. The first group ran under a pair of large trees about halfway across the lawn with no complications. I was surprised, but tried not to show it. Under the shadows of the trees, the first group paused and scanned the front of the Hall before making the final stretch. What the fuck? They needed to keep moving. Speed was life. Without warning, ten vampires fell out of the trees, shedding their bat form for true form. I didn’t wait for a command. I brought my carbine to my shoulder, watching as the reticle crossed the chest of the largest vampire. A gentle squeeze sent a short burst of three rounds into the leech. He jerked back as the rounds slammed into his chest, then crumpled to the grass. A couple of Knights next to me opened fire, bringing down another two leeches. The ambushed lycanthrope group rallied and let loose with short bursts of automatic fire. The whole encounter lasted less than thirty seconds, but it left one of the Red Knights and a pack warrior dead. The bodies were left with those of the vampires. We would retrieve them after the raid. As the first group reached the door, three distinctive booms rang out into the night. The hinges on the large front door exploded as the big half-inch heavy bullets from the Barrett slammed through the reinforced oak door. The door-kicker for the first group, a largish Knight, shouldered the door, using his momentum to carry him all the way inside. I couldn’t make out what was going on inside, but I guessed by the sound of the firefight they met some stiff resistance. A half-minute later, we went into the fray. As we crossed the lawn, I kept my weapon ready in case of another ambush. We crossed the lawn and made it up the porch without trouble. The gunfire from inside the foyer slacked off considerably. Either the first group was successful, or they had been wiped out. I looked over at Smythe. From the look on his face, he had already reached the same conclusion, and he wasn’t happy. He pointed to two Knights and motioned them inside while the rest of us waited outside. A double-click on the radio told us that it was clear. We entered the TCV Hall.

The first group cleared the foyer and set their charges. Vampire bodies, some still shifting to true form in death, littered the floor. There was no time to sort everything out, so Smythe and another Red Knight sprinted up the staircase to the second floor. A pair of vampires emerged from the Council Room. I brought them both down with a couple of shotgun blasts. I may not have liked Smythe, but I was still a professional, which meant I covered his ass when he needed it. The rest of the group advanced up at a breakneck pace as Smythe and his partner cleared the landing at the top of the stairs. The door into the Council Room was ten feet tall and looked like solid wood. Knowing Bradon, I was sure there was a metal core. One of the Knights produced a shortened shotgun loaded with door breachers. I grasped him by the arm and quickly sketched out an idea. He nodded with a predatory grin on his face. Taking our positions, his shotgun boomed three times, destroying the door hinges and the lock. I pumped the action on my shotgun, releasing the chambered shell. As the door fell in, I loaded one of the willie-pete rounds. A quick squeeze on the trigger sent a small ball of brilliant destruction. The round smacked into a leech just behind the fallen door, exploded, and caught two more leeches standing just behind the first leech. All three leeches lit up like dried out Christmas trees, screaming as their burning forms were consumed by the flames. Smythe didn’t pause to enjoy the view, charging in with his assault rifle chattering. His Knights and Lord Vollen followed his lead into the Council Room. I grimaced, and then followed into the room.

The gallery of the Council Room was two rows of long wooden pews, almost like a church or a courtroom. I ducked behind the back left pew. I rose to a crouch and surveyed the layout. At the end of the gallery, toward the front of the room was a low wooden barricade with a thin gate. Five feet beyond the barricade was a podium and an adjoining table where the vampires could speak to the Inner Council. The Inner Council’s platform was about fifteen feet behind the podium with a long raised barricade the Inner Councilmembers stood behind for their meetings. There were at least a dozen vampires and another dozen of ghouls behind that barricade pouring gunfire at the Knights. The Red Knights were scattered among the pews. Several of them dead or dying from hits from the leeches hiding at the front of the room. I placed a few bursts at white faces peeking out from their positions. I looked for Lord Vollen. I was supposed to be keeping him alive. The lord was crouched behind a pew several yards in front of me with a Knight beside him. Several ghouls were creeping up on them. I unloaded the shotgun, firing several blasts of double-ought buck at them. The ghouls were shredded by the hail of silver balls. The vampires behind the platform responded by firing at me. I ducked back down behind my pew.

“Smythe, this is too hot, we need to extract,” I called over the radio. I directed my comments at Smythe, because he could pull Lord Vollen out over the lord’s objections. I hoped that he would put any of our hatreds aside long enough for us to get out of this alive. Two attempts netted no response. He was either dead or too busy to answer me. I cautiously raised my head over the pew and looked over to the lord. He was replacing the magazine in his rifle. The Knight at his side was slumped over dead. We were pinned down, but other teams were having more success. Radio reports came over that reported the deaths of Davis, Crawford, and Montgomery. That left Razor and Silanti. As I scanned the platform, I saw Silanti firing a small machine pistol at the lord’s position. A lycanthrope crashed down next to me. A quick glance revealed it was Smythe. His rifle was gone, but his pistol was drawn.

“Smythe, cover me. I’m going to take down Silanti,” I said to him, loud enough to be heard over the crashing gunfire. I rose from my crouch, flipping the M4’s selector switch from AUTO to SEMI. I lined up the holographic reticle on Silanti’s face. He was exchanging gunfire with Lord Vollen. The leech was tunnelling. He never noticed me aiming at him. Beside me, I heard Smythe firing away with his pistol. About damn time he helped. As I squeezed the trigger, a sharp pain blazed in my side. I jerked upward from the sudden pain, sending my bullet into the ceiling. I fell to the floor as Smythe knocked me down. My rifle clattered to the floor. Smythe kicked it out of my reach.

“Now you die, abomination,” Smythe growled, holding a bloody silver knife over me. I was confused as hell. What was Smythe doing? We were in a fight for our lives – Lord Vollen’s life – and he decided to stab me? I looked for the glint of madness in his eyes, but only saw the coldness of contemplated murder. I suddenly realized why I was requested to do this job. Smythe wanted to kill me in the chaos of the raid. What I didn’t know was why.

A scream of pain from the lord’s position made Smythe jump off me. Smythe looked over to Vollen. His face contorted into a mixture of shock, fear, and pain. I pulled my pistol out and placed five rounds into Smythe’s chest. The bullets threw him back and gave me enough room to move. I staggered up. The pain from the silver blade blazed again. I looked back to where Silanti was. The leech was running for a small door at the back of the Council room. I fired my Glock several times, but he disappeared through the door. I looked down to my bloody side and cursed. I looked over to Lord Vollen. His head was a mess of blood, bone, and gore. Ancestors, not another one. The shame of a failed job crashed through me.

A force slammed into my face, throwing me a good five feet before crashing into a pew. I tried to shake off the daze, but I took another hit deep into my stomach. I felt my breath pushed out of me. Smythe continued the barrage of fists, striking all my vital parts. My pistol was knocked from my hand. None of my other weapons were within reach. Smythe hit me several more times and I did the only thing I could think of. I crumpled to the ground. He stopped once I fell to the ground. Out of my slitted eyes, I saw him motion to a pair of his subordinates. The two Knights picked me up off the ground by my shoulders. I played unconscious as they dragged my body out of the Council Room. I could smell the blood, burnt flesh, and death of a harsh battle. The two Knights dragged me down the staircase. I summoned all the strength I had left and pushed off one of the stairs. The two Knights were caught off-guard. They were expecting a unconscious subject, not a moving hunter. I landed on the ground below without losing my balance. A quick scan of the area showed I was badly outnumbered. At least a half-dozen Knights plus another dozen or so pack warriors who would believe anything Smythe and his cronies said because they were Red Knights – and I was the abomination.

I ran for the door, pulling my tiny Glock 26 from its holster in the small of my back. The fools hadn’t even taken it away from me. The two Knights at the door braced for close-quarters combat. One drew a knife, as the other stepped back, reaching for a pistol. I could smell the fear emanating from them. Sometimes my reputation came in handy. I fired a few rounds over their heads, sending them crashing to the floor. I leapt over them, gunfire from the pack warriors following me outside the Hall. As I rolled on the grass, I grabbed my radio from its holding place on my back. I finished my roll into a crouch behind one of the trees in the front lawn and switched it to the Guild’s frequency.

“Ranger, Knightfall. Repeat – Ranger, Knightfall.” I saw several Knights coming out of the Hall, led by Smythe. I didn’t feel like killing my own people – even if they just tried to kill me. Maybe if it was just Smythe. I stepped out into the lighted area, dropping my pistol on the ground. I slowly raised my arms up as a dozen weapons were aimed at me.

“I call for rhiazen,” I said loudly, so all could hear. Smythe was glaring at me, but there was nothing he could do. Once a lycanthrope demands rhiazen, or trial by the lord, no one is allowed to hurt or kill him. The downside of calling for rhiazen was if the lord found against a lycanthrope, the sentence is automatically death, even if the original offense wasn’t a capital matter. At that time, there wasn’t much choice. I needed to buy time. The Guild needed to know Smythe tried to kill me. They needed to know Silanti escaped. Most importantly, the packs needed to know how the lord really died. Then, they could do something about it. I was sure the new lord – lady, actually, since the next in line was his eldest daughter – was going to find me guilty. Better to delay my inevitable demise long enough to get all the pertinent information to the Guild and the packs, and prepare them for what was to come. Perhaps Nick or Hangman might avenge me and kill Smythe. These thoughts comforted me as the Knights walked over to me and stripped me down. I didn’t resist. I called for rhiazen, so I was obligated by honor and law to not resist arrest and confinement, as my captors were obligated to assure I was unharmed until the trial. They led me to a car. Two Knights climbed in the front of the car while I was pushed into the back. I could tell by the way they were holding their weapons on me they were scared of me. I just shook my head. The Guildmaster called me twice on the radio, but I ignored him. The Knights carefully navigated the streets of Tampa to avoid any chance of me meeting with one of the hunter hit packs. I was to be held at the Manor. in its holding area. It would have been called a dungeon in ancient times.

The three of us drove up to the Manor’s gate. As I was pulled out of the car, three warriors serving as the lord’s marshals met us. The marshals were only deputized when the aristocracy needed enforcers outside of the packs. I stopped a couple of yards in front of the marshals and waited for their instructions.

“Hold your arms in front of you,” the leader demanded, his voice as calm as a lake on a windless day. I felt a measure of relief. The leader was acting by the laws of the packs. I slowly put my arms out in front of me. The one next to him applied wolfsbane to the slash on my side as the youngest one placed a restraining device on my wrists. It was made of silver, and encompassed both wrists completely. They were joined by a thick metal bar that kept my hands separated by about a foot. The restraints looked intimidating, but I escaped from them before. This time, I was under obligation not to. If I escaped – and there was no way the five lycanthropes around me could have stopped me if I was determined to escape – I would be declared outlaw and ordered killed on sight. That also went for any lycanthrope who gave me sanctuary. I couldn’t return to the Guild without endangering the rest of the hunters. It would defeat the whole reason I called for rhiazen. So, I meekly accepted the restrainers and followed three marshals as they led me across the grounds into the Manor itself. Just inside the door, we were met by another pair of marshals. These two were carrying M16’s. From the menacing looks on the marshals’ faces, they didn’t trust me to carry out my part of the law. I wasn’t going to do anything, but I kept a wary eye on them as the original trio of marshals led me to a concealed door in the foyer. I had a nasty suspicion that one wrong move and the two behind me would hose me with silver bullets. Behind the concealed door was an unlit staircase that winded down into the ground. It opened into a large room, with several empty holding cells constructed of iron bars, lined with silver barbs. I was led to the first one. The door slid open and I walked in. The young marshal who put the restrainers on me removed them. He stepped out of the cell and the door slid shut behind him. The trio of marshals walked to the door as the two with the M16’s took positions by the entrance-way to the staircase. I grimaced at the company, but then studied my furnishings. There was a mat on the floor to serve as my bed. A small stand with a large basin for both my washing and to serve as my water reservoir. The bathroom was a hole in the ground. I stood there for a moment, then laid down on the mat. The cut on my side made it uncomfortable, but I was going to need all the energy I could get. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the floor.

Chapter 12 – There Are Worse Things Than Being On Trial For My Life

Badmoon Rising Chapter 10 – Easy Jobs Are Never Easy

The border between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties was odd in that part of it ran down the middle of Tampa Bay. It made pursuits sometimes interesting, because the laws governing crossing into a neighboring county “uninvited” were very strict. Even amongst friendly counties, the penalties for the offending lycanthrope could be very harsh, up to and including, a silver flogging. Leeches, on the other hand, had no compunctions. Their council system was city-based, not county-based. Their power was more a matter of what each council could grab and hold. So, even though the Pinellas Hunters Guild warned my Guildmaster some TCV vamps were “recruiting” in St. Petersburg across the bay, we couldn’t go over there and wipe out the “press gang.” As soon as Lord Vollen repudiated the Peace in Hillsborough, Lady Thames declared Pinellas was neutral, and she wouldn’t tolerate a hint of the fighting on her soil. From what I was told, she tried to stoke the Clearwater Council into attacking their rivals working in St. Pete, but the vampires were either unable or unwilling to find their opponents. At least that was what they told Lady Thames. The Guildmaster of the Pinellas Chapter wasn’t convinced, but he wasn’t able to set his hunters on the interlopers. Lady Thames was being strict on the neutrality issue.

The two Guildmasters conferenced on the problem, and I was dispatched to perform a slightly problematic job. Although I could have infiltrated Pinellas, found the leeches, and wiped them out, it would be too bold of a job for Pinellas to overlook. Instead, it was decided a limited incursion into Pinellas County would be overlooked in order for me to do the actual take-down in Hillsborough. Real-time intelligence would be fed to me from some Pinellas hunters. The mission was skirting the edges of Pinellas neutrality and would have some nasty repercussions if it was discovered exactly how much assistance the Pinellas Chapter was providing. Hence, the job was given to me. It was all part of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter.

From what we learned from the Pinellas Guild – who was shadowing the press gang – the leeches were planning on crossing back into Hillsborough County on the Howard Frankland Bridge. So, I would need to cross the bridge into Pinellas, turn around, and get back on the other span of the bridge – all without the permission of the Pinellas aristocracy. The Pinellas Guild made it very clear that if one of their packs spotted me, I was on my own. Honestly, I didn’t blame them for that. It was just part of the job.

For this job, I was using a customized sedan. On the outside, it looked like a normal car. The customization was the installation of shooting ports on the windows and in the windshield as well as clips to hold weapons. The whole point of the car was to be able to accurately fire a weapon while the car was in motion. The weapon in question was a suppressed M4 carbine. The Howard Frankland was oddly peaceful. The orange sodium streetlights cast a dull pall over the concrete. The muscles in my neck tightened as the large rise of the hump of the bridge approached. Halfway up that hump, I would technically be in Pinellas County, and for the first time, I would be entering the county without an invitation. Despite my reputation among the packs, going against the laws of our society wasn’t something I did lightly. I made sure I wasn’t doing anything that would bring unwarranted attention as the car crossed the invisible barrier separating the counties. I relaxed for a brief moment – then flashing lights filled my rear-view mirror. I didn’t panic, but my anxiety level shot up. I wasn’t speeding or changed lanes aggressively, so why was I being pulled over? It could be something as simple as a broken taillight that I hadn’t noticed when I took the car. The M4 was placed on the floor of the passenger side and covered. The rigging could be explained, but it was going to be interesting to see if the police officer believed me. I slowed and pulled into the emergency lane. The police car pulled in behind me. I found the registration for the car and retrieved my license and insurance card from my wallet. Just as a precaution, I slipped my HK45 from its holster to just under my leg. There was a possibility the police officer behind me was a ghoul or a leech trying to assassinate me. The police officer stepped out of his car, and I could see he wasn’t a leech or a ghoul. Good, I wasn’t going to have a shootout on the Howard Frankland, but my instincts screaming warnings. The police officer stepped up to my window.

“Good evening sir,” the police officer said with an almost bored tone, “May I have your license, registration, and insurance please?” I handed over the requested items, keeping the pistol concealed, but ready. The police officer inspected the documents for a brief moment before asking, “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“Honestly, officer, I have no idea,” I answered, “As far as I could tell, I hadn’t done anything.” The police officer gave me an almost predatory grin.

“Well, I guess I could pull you in for carting around full automatic weapons,” the police officer said, and my instincts screamed furiously. “That wasn’t why I pulled you over, Mr. Ranger.” I kept my face neutral while my mind racing. The only ones who called me Ranger were my fellow hunters. There was no mention of it anywhere on any of the documents I just handed the cop. I wanted to go for my pistol, but my experience told me to stay calm. The police officer’s pistol was still holstered and lashed down, which told me that he wasn’t expecting trouble.

“I’m afraid I don’t know whom you’re talking about,” I said, keeping my voice calm and slightly confused, “My name is Marcus Smith. I don’t know a Mr. Ranger.” The smile on the police officer’s face widened.

“Okay, if that’s how you want to play this,” the police officer answered, almost amused by my response, “Just to let you know, Lady Thames is aware you’re infiltrating her county. Needless to say, she is not happy that her Guildmaster and your Guildmaster would come up with this plan without expecting her to become aware of it. It would look very bad, especially considering her declaration of neutrality.” There was no point in playing the innocent any further. The police officer knew too many details for him to be just on the outside of the unseen world. He wasn’t a kin, so it was very surprising Lady Thames would use him.

“Are you warning me off?” I asked simply. I needed to find out exactly what was going on. Lady Thames would be fully justified in having me killed on the spot, but I strongly doubted she would have sent a human police officer to assassinate me. There was something else going on.

“Far from it,” the police officer answered, “Lady Thames was aware her Guildmaster would assist yours for this kind of an operation. That said, you will never implicate her Guild or her involvement in this. If any other lord, Guildmaster, or Spiritmaster questions this operation, you will fully admit that you broke the law in coming here. Either on your own volition or under the orders of your Guildmaster. Lady Thames doesn’t really care which story you go with. She won’t stop you, but she will not tolerate such shenanigans in her territory.” He handed me a paper that looked like a traffic ticket. On the paper was a phone number.

“The number is for the hunters tailing the vampires,” the police officer said, “Finish this quickly and do your damndest to make sure that none of the details of the operation ever leave the borders of our two counties.” Without another word, the police officer whirled back to his car. I didn’t waste time and rejoined traffic. I had lost time and the phone number wasn’t necessary. The message the police officer gave me disturbed me. Lady Thames had been acting strange since the beginning of the war. There had to be more than what I was seeing. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to deal with Pinellas’s aristocracy or their little games. I needed to take out some leeches. I filed the conversation in the back of my mind and made a point to talk privately with the Guildmaster. The rest of the drive across the bridge was uneventful. I quickly exited on Ninth Street, did a quick u-turn, and drove back onto the bridge. As soon as the car crossed over the Hillsborough line, I pulled the car into the emergency lane on the bridge and waited for my prey to arrive. Normally, it was a bad idea to wait for a car to pass by at seventy miles an hour while you were stationary. The only thing I needed was to be ready to give chase when the leeches came by. I was supposed to wait until the leeches were well into Hillsborough County before I killed them. The bridge was only necessary as a means to locate the leeches and hunt them. If we waited until the leeches were beyond the bridge, they could go to ground before we could fix their location. My phone toned. A text message let me know that my prey was on its way to the bridge. A few moments later, my prey sped past. A green minivan being followed by a silver muscle car. I shook my head. The Pinellas hunters had a thing for “old-school” muscle cars.

I slammed down the accelerator and flew into traffic. I needed to get to my prey before the end of the bridge. The car accelerated smoothly through the traffic as I slipped between the lanes. I might have problems if there were State Troopers out on the bridge, but I didn’t have much choice. There were a lot of cars from people coming home from their entertainment in Pinellas. I came up on the left side of the muscle car. We traded flashlight signals, and the Pinellas hunters backed off. They wouldn’t have any problems coming into Hillsborough, at least not from my side of the bay. The driver of the minivan didn’t notice he was being followed and continued sedately driving towards Tampa.

The hard part was patiently following the minivan. I wanted to just pull up next to it and take it out, but that would have been too spectacular. Especially after the rescue of the pups at the mall. I needed to wait for an opportunity to take down the minivan away from human eyes. We got off the bridge and continued up the interstate. I expected the minivan to exit off on Westshore or even Dale Mabry, but it continued past downtown Tampa towards the infamous Malfunction Junction where I-275 met up with I-4. I wondered what the bloody hell these vampires were doing because they jumped onto I-4 and headed east. There was something odd happening, and it was making my instincts scream bloody murder. I decided it was important enough the job parameters needed to be changed. I hit the speed dial on my phone and waited for my boss to pick up.

“What is it Marcus?” the Guildmaster growled over the phone. He sounded annoyed, but I didn’t think it was at me in particular. The lycanthropes had lowered the tempo of operations after the mall fiasco because of fears that the pathwalkers were going to intervene. The problem was that the operations still needed to be done, just done quietly – such as the job I was doing. Hence, while the packs were doing less, the Guild was doing more. I quickly related the situation to him.

“So, bide your time and take them down. It’s not like you haven’t done this plenty of times.” The Guildmaster used his “you’re-overcomplicating” tone.

“That’s not it boss,” I replied, “Why are the leeches driving out to the east part of the county with forcibly recruited new vampires. Their strength is in Tampa. They always keep new vampires close for the first year or so. I got a feeling that something else is going on.”

“What?” he asked.

“If I knew that, I would’ve told you,” I answered sarcastically, “The only ones I can see that might know something are the targets in front of me.”

“Can you secure them?” the Guildmaster asked. I looked into the minivan as best I could. From the heads bobbing in the windows, there were probably four full leeches and at least that many recruits. The recruits wouldn’t be full vampires yet, but they could cause me trouble. Recruits were somewhere between ghouls and full vampires. I made a snap judgment.

“Negative boss,” I answered, “I need some assistance. Doesn’t matter who – with the glorious exception of Twisted Knife.” The Guildmaster chuckled at the comment. He didn’t say anything about my confrontation with Twisted Knife, but all that meant was he felt my performance didn’t warrant a reprimand. The Guildmaster was beyond stingy with his praise where I was concerned. As his personal hitter, the Guildmaster expected an extremely high level of professional aptitude from me. Sometimes I managed to go above it, but it was rare.

“I’ll see what resources I can dig up,” the Guildmaster informed me, “I may not be the one calling you back. Get this done quickly.” He disconnected, and I watched the minivan. They were continuing sedately down the interstate. They weren’t even going above the speed limit. Either the leeches in the vehicle had absolutely no idea they were being tailed or they were leading me into a very nasty trap. I half-hoped it was the trap. At least that would be a rational answer for the leeches’ irrational acts. My phone toned and I hit the receiver on the earpiece.


“This is Kyle Bloodscent,” said the soft voice into my ear, “I’ve got two vehicles coming up behind you with six warriors from Plant City. We’ve got your plate and description. We should be there in the next few minutes. What’s the plan?” I loved modern technology. No need for long, drawn out conversations when all the information could be forwarded to a phone.

“We need to snatch these bastards fast,” I replied, “You know this area better than I do. Suggestions on where to force them off the interstate?”

“As quickly as possible,” Kyle replied without humor, “We’ll force them into the next exit as soon as we catch up to you. Anywhere between here and the county line is good for us, but we can’t cross the county line.” Pinellas might be willing to turn a blind eye, but the other surrounding counties were taking a hard containment approach. They didn’t want the fighting spreading into their own counties with their vampire councils. They continued to provide intelligence and material support. Hence, the strict bar from the lord against combatants entering the other counties. We couldn’t jeopardize what little help we were getting.

“Okay,” I replied, placing the M4 into the cradle on the passenger side of the car, “I’m going to put a burst into the van just before the next exit. That should force them to exit. I want you to follow, but not engage. I’ll head back around and join back up with you. We’ll find a nice place to do the take down. Remember, we need to capture these leeches, not kill them.” I saw flashing headlights in my rear-view mirror. Kyle and his warriors were ready. Capturing anyone, particularly leeches, is far more difficult than just killing them. I pulled up next to the minivan and slipped the carbine into the clips. The M4 stuttered. The suppressor made the carbine almost quieter than the brass thumping into the passenger seat. The rounds sparked off the body of the minivan. The burst did exactly what I wanted it to do – panicked the driver, sent the minivan off the interstate, and allowed for Kyle and his warriors to slip in behind them unnoticed.

Kyle kept me informed on the minivan as I worked my way back to his two cars. We were in a more rural part of the county. It was a good spot to do an interrogation. Even with Kyle’s warriors, there was little chance of me being able to get the leeches back to the Guild for a proper interrogation. So, I was going to have to perform an impromptu one with the warriors’ help. It was going to be nasty, and I really hoped Kyle’s warriors would be up to the task.

“Kyle, we have to get the minivan off the road so I can interrogate the leeches,” I said, “Have one of your cars pass the minivan so we can run a blocking maneuver.” I didn’t want to be too complex with warriors I’d never worked with before.

“I thought we were going to capture them so you could take them back to the Guild or some other place,” Kyle said, sounding a bit confused.

“Not an option at the moment. No transport,” I answered tersely. I needed to get this done and find out if my suspicions were correct. “Get your car going.” One of the cars raced in front of the minivan and continued on for about a hundred yards. Whoever was driving had good instincts or good training on laying a road ambush. First and foremost, don’t let your mark suspect he is about to get hit. The operation was relatively simple. The car in front slowed down until the minivan was within a car length. The warrior car at the rear came up behind to the point of tailgating.

“I’m going,” I said, and floored the car. The sedan sped past the rear car and came up alongside the minivan. “All cars slow.” As the three cars slowed, I saw the driver of the minivan realize what was happening. He was looking more and more panicked as the speed dropped off. I crowded the minivan to the shoulder. The driver of the minivan looked like he was about to ram the lead car to escape. I pointed the carbine at his head. The unspoken command was understood. He was talking rapidly to either the others in the minivan or possibly on some sort of hands-free cell phone. If it was the former, it might make the take-down more interesting. Outside of the Bleeders, I hadn’t run into many vampires that knew how to fight. If the driver was talking on the phone, it could mean reinforcements were on the way, or whatever operation was going on would be folded up quickly. Either way, my time was going to be extremely limited. I hated being rushed during an interrogation.

As soon as we stopped, the two lycanthropes in the front car were out with pistols drawn. They screamed for the occupants of the minivan to slowly get out of the car with hands up. These two watched far too many episodes of Cops. I didn’t bother correcting them. I just climbed out of the car with the M4 cradled in my hands. The leeches in the minivan didn’t look like they were moving, so I placed a burst into the rear of the vehicle. The doors flew open. Stumbling out of the van were four vampires followed by four humans with bite marks on their necks. Ah, the recruits. The driver was a tall, average looking vampire with brown hair and eyes. He followed the instructions the warriors were shouting with a look of resignation. The vampire that had been in the front passenger seat looked shocked. His blue eyes went wide at the pistols of the warriors. The other two vampires were giving me extremely hostile looks. I took a closer look at those two because there was something bothering me. There was a strong hostility, but it wasn’t focused or refined. They were thugs. The driver was probably the leader of the operation and the front passenger was a deputy or some sort of lieutenant. Those two were the important ones. The quick bursts from my M4 into the two thugs caught everyone off-guard. The warriors gave me shocked looks as the two thugs fell to the dirt. That was one of the problems with working with warriors. They weren’t trained to look for the same things that hunters were trained to look for in our enemies. I didn’t have time to explain to the warriors. I only needed to the leader and his lieutenant. Everything else was just complication at this point.

“I need you two to cover the humans,” I ordered, pointing at the two warriors from the first car, “The rest of you take these two leeches into the fields. I have questions for them.”

“Too late,” the driver said, flatly, “I’ve already warned them we were intercepted. By the time you get any information from me, they’ll be long gone.” I could tell by his eyes he was telling me the truth. What the leech didn’t realize was that I didn’t need to know the location of whatever was going on. I just needed to know why they were seizing humans in Pinellas just to drive them clear across Hillsborough. If I knew the why, then Guild intelligence could figure out where the vampires behind this would be setting up shop next.

I didn’t say anything. I just motioned for the two vampires to move away from the minivan and into the grassy field beyond the highway. The warriors roughly shoved the two vampires into moving as I sedately followed. I had a nasty feeling that the driver was anticipating me using harsh interrogation techniques against him. He was smart, resourceful, and dedicated. I was glad he was going to be dead before this job was finished. Leeches like that were extremely dangerous. His lieutenant, on the other hand, seemed to be around just to help out. He may have some information, but I was willing to bet it was very limited and may be slightly incorrect. Just enough to screw up any further investigation.

We walked maybe fifty feet from the cars when I motioned for the lycanthropes to halt. The two leeches were placed on their knees. I found putting leeches into a submissive posture helped with interrogations. One of the intel boys tried to explain the psychological reasons for why it worked, but I really didn’t pay attention. All I needed to know was that it did work. The driver was still looking defiantly resigned, but his companion was frightened.

“Are there others coming to get you?” I asked quietly, focusing my attention on the driver.

“What, no threats?” he replied, just a little too glibly, “No. No one is coming to rescue me or my companion. We are expendable.” He settled down on his knees into the ground. He was preparing for a long session. I didn’t have the patience for a long session.

“Why did you take those humans from Pinellas?” I asked, looking directly into the driver’s eyes. He was taking too long. No time to play games. The M4 was placed to the driver’s left arm and a single silver round went through his elbow. The screaming from the vampire filled the grassy field. “I can tell when you’re going to lie to me. Lying means that you aren’t going to be useful to me. If you aren’t useful, then you’re dead. And not quick. I will take you one piece at a time to get what I want.” He looked me in the eyes. I saw true fear in them for the first time.

“We didn’t think Hillsborough hunters would get involved in us snatching humans from Pinellas,” the driver answered. Okay, I scared him, but he had enough wits about him to try and delay me as long as possible.

“Who is ‘we?’” I asked. The players behind this scheme might tell me the nature of the operation and the ultimate goal. Assuming, of course, the driver knew who was his actual patron.

“A group of us deliver humans to some older vampires in Thonotosassa,” the vampire answered, “We don’t know who or why. The Inner Council told us to do it, so we do it.” The Inner Council was involved? In more peaceful times, I would almost wonder if they were stocking up for a party. Now, it had a more sinister tone to it.

“Where were you to deliver the humans?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” the driver answered, “They’ll be long gone by the time you could even hope to get there. Completely gone and no evidence to find them.” His delaying tactics were starting to annoy me.

“Where?” I repeated, with a slightly more demanding emphasis in the question. I tried to keep my annoyance out of my tone, but from the fear in the driver’s eyes, I wasn’t sure if I had succeeded.

“It’s on the GPS in the van,” the lieutenant answered, frantically, “I saw him input the destination right before we left St. Pete.” I looked at the driver. The lieutenant was telling the truth. It’s hard to fake that vitriolic look of unanticipated betrayal. The lieutenant was clinging to the hope I would let him go since he gave me the information I wanted. He should have known better. A year ago, he might have been right, but now his race and mine were at war. There was no way either leech was going to leave this field alive. Or as alive as a leech ever was.

“Kyle, would you have your warriors secure the GPS and confirm?” I asked, keeping my voice as neutral as possible. I needed the two vampires to maintain some hope I would release them in exchange for their cooperation. The moment that hope vanished, the two vampires would become unpredictable. Most likely, they wouldn’t do anything, but they might decide they had nothing to lose and attack. I wasn’t worried about me, but I was concerned about the warriors holding the vampires. Warriors were okay, but they rarely had the situational awareness to warn them something bad was about to happen.

Kyle called his warriors back at the van and related my orders. After a few moments, Kyle looked at me and slowly nodded. I spun back to the vampires. I snapped the M4 to my shoulder and placed a burst into each of the vampires. The warriors looked stunned as the bodies toppled to the ground. Maybe they thought I was going to let the vampires go also. They should have known better as well.

“Kyle, have your people kill the humans and disappear the bodies,” I ordered, walking back towards the minivan. Bitten humans could be rehabilitated, but it was a dicey and long endeavor. Even doing it right had a better than even chance of creating a witch-hunter. During peacetime, we would’ve turned them over to the wizards for rehabbing. With the war raging across the county, the wizards were having nothing to do with us, and we just didn’t have the resources to perform the rehabilitation. Those humans just became collateral damage of the war. By the time we reached the minivan, the two warriors were moving the bodies of the humans and the vampires into the minivan. I climbed into the driver’s seat and accessed the GPS. The drop-off point was a small office near the state fairgrounds. I copied the address into my phone and waited for Kyle to rejoin me at the road. I put a fresh magazine in the M4 and checked in with the Guildmaster. He might be able to scrounge up a hunter or two to assist me, but I doubted it. Whatever was going in Sun City Center sounded like one hell of a firefight. I hated missing it, but I the job came first.

“What is it Marcus?” growled the Guildmaster, “I’m a little busy coordinating things here.”

“Sorry boss,” I answered, “All of the objectives here have been taken care of. I found the drop-off point for these humans. The intelligence I got says this is some major operation for the vampires. I was hoping that you would have some assistance for me.”

“To be perfectly blunt Marcus, your job is a side operation right now,” the Guildmaster replied, “We’ve managed to find one of the major coven sites for the TCV in Sun City Center. It’s taking all of the spare hunters I have available just to provide enough support for the packs. In fact, I want you back here as soon as possible. I may need to send you out there.” I scowled. I could tell from the Guildmaster’s tone the fight was not going how he wanted. Probably a stalemate. Lycanthropes couldn’t afford a stalemate in a battle. Vampires always had the advantage of numbers. Lycanthropes were just better fighters on a one-on-one comparison.

“I need to check out this drop site. I might be able to find out something before they roll up the operation. Then I’ll get back to the Guild,” I told my boss, “I’ll see about support from the packs out here.” He just grunted approval and hung up. I looked for Kyle. I would need to see if he could get me some more help. The driver was probably right. The vampires would probably be long gone by the time we got there, but if it were me, I would have left a nasty surprise or two in their place. I had to assume that my opponents were at least as nasty and as devious as me. When I didn’t, the bastards proved me wrong. Barely escaping death looks really neat on movies and television, but in reality it was painful and exhausting. I avoided it whenever I possibly could.

The first thing I needed was intelligence. Thankfully, the humans always managed to provide technology that lycanthropes needed. I pulled out my phone and downloaded the satellite images for the address. The target was a barn or a large storage shed on what looked like a farm. According to the property records, the farm was owned by a small agribusiness firm. Getting onto the property wasn’t going to be difficult. That much wide open space would be difficult to secure. The barn, on the other hand, was either a dead drop of some sort with no security or it was completely secure and I could expect a nasty fight. A building that large would hold a lot of nasty things.

“Kyle, can you give me some more support?” I asked the warrior. He nodded without hesitation. “We need to get to this drop site. More than likely, it will be nothing, but there is a damned good chance the leeches might have a trap waiting for us.”

“My fiancée belongs to the pack out that way,” Kyle said, looking at both the GPS and the satellite picture on my phone’s screen, “She can get some of her packmates out there with some weapons to help us out. What’s the chance that this is a trap?” There was an undercurrent of concern in his voice. I couldn’t blame him. Lycanthropes may have casual flings with humans or kin, but relationships between true lycanthropes are very serious matters. There are too many issues for them to be simple, casual affairs. It was less than a century ago when only arranged marriages were allowed between lycanthropes.

“Maybe four to one,” I answered, “I don’t know who was running the operation. If the Bleeders are responsible, then there will be a trap and it will be nasty. If it’s just an operation run by the Inner Council, better than even that the operation just folded up and disappeared.” I looked Kyle dead in the eye. “Bottom line, we’re going to have to assume that the bastards are ready and waiting to kill any lycanthrope that shows up anywhere near that barn. Any lycanthrope that comes to this little party better be ready to do exactly what I tell them, and be ready to fight hard. Can your wolves do this?”

“I’ll make sure of it.”

The farm was primarily cattle with some fields for growing of hay and sod. Perimeter security was nonexistent. The barn was near the grazing fields. No real concealment from the terrain, but we did have the dark. The twelve warriors with me were spread out as we approached the barn. We were all in true form. Kyle and his five warriors were on my left while his fiancée, Renee, and another five warriors on my right. Renee’s group brought a small mix of shotguns and hunting rifles. All of them seemed to understand my instructions, but I was still a little worried about the Murphy factor on this job. The war made the warriors more proficient than before, but they still weren’t at the level that I was comfortable. Still, a beggar can’t be too choosy.

As we approached the barn, I scanned outline of the barn and surrounding area. I was looking for anything out of the ordinary. Something that would make my instincts scream we were creeping into an ambush. I motioned for the warriors to stop and crouch down. Nothing about this barn seemed to indicate ambush, but my instincts were telling me different. Not the normal screaming warnings, but the kind that reminded someone to look both ways before stepping off a street corner.

“Kyle,” I whispered, “I want all of you to slowly spread out and encircle the barn. Just hold at about hundred feet or so. I’m going to go in.”

“Are you sure you don’t want a couple of us to go in with you?” Kyle asked, “I know a couple of my boys that could do all right.” I shook my head. If a firefight broke out, I didn’t want lycanthropes I hadn’t worked with before in the middle of it. I wouldn’t know how they would react. At least if the warriors were coming in from the outside, I would have a better chance of managing the battle.

“If something goes down, I want your folks to close up the circle around the barn,” I told him, “I’ll let you know where I want you to enter. Do your best not to kill me.” Kyle smiled at the comment, but he understood the truth of the statement. The chaos of a firefight was intense, and a lot of the times warriors would fire at anything that moved that wasn’t on their side of the battle. Since I would already be in the thick of it, there would be a damned good chance of being caught in a crossfire. This would be what hunters like to refer to as a “bad thing.” Kyle moved back to give my instructions to the rest of the warriors as I crept forward.

The barn was actually a long single-story building – more of a large garage or storage shed. It contained the expensive tractors and numerous mechanical implements used on the modern farm. On the north face was a graded concrete slab that led up to two large doors where the tractors entered and exited the barn. From oil and other stains on the ramp, there had been more vehicles here recently. It was the first confirmation this was the drop point for the vampires. The doors were closed and there were no windows on them to peek through. I moved slowly to the east side of the building. On the east side of the barn was an access door and a path that led out to the farm’s main house some three hundred yards off. There weren’t any obvious security features on the access door beyond a basic deadbolt. I didn’t see the glimmer of brass in the slit between the door and the frame. The door was completely open. I slung the M4 and drew my HK45. I pushed the door open and let it swing open on its own inertia. I swiftly slipped through the door and heard the chattering sound of a sub-machine gun open up. Bullets whipped around me. Two rounds slammed into my vest as I dived behind a pile of equipment. A second sub-machine gun opened fire. Uzi, I concluded. There were very few sub-machine guns with that uniquely high rate of fire. Ricochets filled the area around me as the two sub-machine guns emptied. I holstered the pistol and brought up the M4. My turn.

Raising myself just over the farm equipment with carbine at the ready, I spied two ghouls reloading full size Uzis. I placed a burst into the left ghoul. He toppled over as the other ghoul ran for cover, still trying to reload his Uzi. I fired at the ghoul, only to see my bullets deflected by various bits of farm equipment. I crouched back down behind my cover. I listened and heard the ratcheting sound of the Uzi’s cocking handle being roughly yanked back. The ghoul was reloaded and ready to fire. I slipped to my left, looking for the ghoul. I didn’t see the creature, but I didn’t get any fire directed my way. I found new cover and listened again. I couldn’t hear the ghoul’s breathing, but I did hear the sound of his Uzi clanging against the tractor he was hiding behind. I judged the distance, and pulled out a flash-bang. I learned my lesson and always carried the devices on my jobs. I pulled the pin and carefully arched the device behind the tractor.

As the flash-bang rocked the barn, I launched myself towards the ghoul’s position. Flash-bangs gave me two to five seconds before target regained his faculties. The ghoul dropped his weapon and stumbled about. I didn’t waste time and placed a burst into the ghoul’s chest. I wanted to get information, but a ghoul wouldn’t betray its master. The only thing more zealous than a ghoul was a witch-hunter. My only hope for getting information would be to scour the two bodies as well as the barn and hope to come up with something useful. For this, I needed the help of the warriors. I called to Kyle and told him to get his warriors into the barn.

“What are we looking for?” Kyle asked as his warriors filed into the barn. He looked relieved his group didn’t walk into the fire of the ghouls. I didn’t blame him at all. His warriors didn’t have vests or any other kind of protective gear. The two bullet-hoses could have chewed the warriors up before they managed to fire back.

“Anything that will tell us who was responsible for this drop,” I answered, “If it looks suspicious, grab it. I’d rather have to look through a bunch of stuff than miss an important piece of intel. Good work by the way.” Kyle looked at me with an obvious look of confusion.

“Good work? We didn’t do anything,” Kyle said, almost startled.

“Exactly. You did what I told you to do and didn’t risk your warriors coming in trying to rescue me,” I answered, “I’ve seen too many times when warriors intrude during a job. Warriors die that way.” He nodded, but I couldn’t read the expression on his face. The warriors watched the exchange in silence, and then quietly searched the barn. I was impressed by their discipline, and I made a mental note to tell the Guildmaster. If possible, I wanted to get a hunter or two out here to do some more in-depth training. I had a suspicion this group of warriors would take well to the training. After half an hour of searching, we found a lot of nothing. At least that’s how it seemed from my initial scan. I would turn over all of the stuff to the Guild’s intelligence section to see if they could make anything out of it. I doubted that they would have time with all of the other demands the war placed upon them. Still, they were very good at finding the needles in the haystacks that hunters threw on their desks. Good enough that it was worth taking them out of the field just to do the intelligence analysis. I’d also ask the Guildmaster if he wanted me to send copies to the Lord’s intel group. Not as good, but they weren’t as overworked as our intel section. I collected all of the various pieces of paper, as well as the two Uzis and some of the spent brass, and loaded them into a sack I found in the barn. As I hoisted the sack, Kyle directed two of his warriors to pick up the ghoul bodies. I photographed them and sent the pictures to the Guild to see if we had their faces on file. Satisfied that we were clear, we quietly left the barn.

As we walked back to where our vehicles were waiting, I looked over one piece of paper that kept drawing my attention. The paper had taken some bullet and blood damage, but the part that I could read were instructions to the ghoul from his master. I couldn’t make out where the humans had been taken, but the ghouls were to send some papers and other materials that had been blotted out by blood to an address in Tampa. The address wasn’t complete, so I began trying to fill in the blanks and use my phone to determine where the ghouls might have been going. It didn’t seem right the ghouls would have a hard copy of the instructions unless it was something that they were unlikely to remember on their own. Ghouls weren’t mindless. They had the normal intelligence and reasoning capabilities of their former human selves, and the vampires didn’t choose idiots to be their servants. There had to be a reason that it was written down rather than committed to memory. As I played with various combinations of what the address could be, I kept coming up with destinations that were worthless. I knew it was important, but I was damned if I could figure it out on my own. I was going to need help.

I arrived at the Guild just as the rest of the hunters were coming back from their huge job down in Sun City. From what I gathered talking to my fellow hunters, the job was a marginal success. The coven had been a major stronghold for the TCV outside of the Tampa city limits. Almost all of the packs in southern Hillsborough County were committed to the battle. Wiping it out meant the TCV would be cut off to the south. At least that was the tactical thinking. Initially, the hunters were providing minimal support to the packs doing the attack. The Guild was stretched thin across the county. Of course, the pack leaders grossly underestimated the strength of the vampires holding the coven. The pack leaders also completely dismissed the idea the TCV would have committed any of their Bleeders to the coven. Granted, the Bleeders were disorganized and severely understrength. The Guild’s initial attacks on the Bleeders’ command structure was far more successful than even we expected. That said, there was still a significant number of lower level Bleeders, and the TCV was quickly learning how to properly employ their lycanthrope-fighters. To put it lightly, the initial attack was less than successful. As the casualties mounted, the Guildmaster pulled every hunter he could find and sent them down to Sun City to rescue the packs and press the attack. The shaman also sent down a decent contingent. There were conflicting reports about whether or not Lord Vollen joined the battle, but I doubted it. The Red Knights would have tackled the young lord if Lord Vollen stepped within range of such a fierce battle. By the end of the battle, three hunters were dead and nearly twenty wounded, six of which were serious enough they wouldn’t be doing jobs for some time.

Things were going to have to change soon or simple attrition would destroy the Guild. We started the war with about a hundred active hunters. We’d received maybe ten or so new hunters since the war started from pups we’d sent to the training camp. We’d lost over twenty hunters and another twenty were out of action. We couldn’t expect any more hunters for at least another year. It took a long time to train hunters, and there were damned few lycanthropes that had what it took to become a hunter. Usually there were about six or seven pups a year that were allowed to attend the Rite of Initiation. There was maybe one every other year that could be sent to the Hunters Camp to be trained. None of the pups currently in tysach were close to being ready for the Rite of Initiation. I was musing on this when I walked into the Guildmaster’s office. The Guildmaster was looking at his computer and talking on the phone.

“Hi boss,” I said as I slumped into a chair. The Guildmaster motioned for me to sit and be quiet as he continued to work. My Guildmaster would go down in the history of our chapter as one of the best to occupy his position. He managed our scarce resources with an unbelievable efficiency, but it from the way he looked, it probably cost him ten or fifteen years of his life. I wished his wife was at the Guild to help him, but she was running around as a liaison between the Guild and the packs. She was a hunter, but she had not joined the Hillsborough chapter. I knew there was some political reason for it, but the Guildmaster never explained. So I did what I always did. I accepted it and asked no questions. I still wished she was here and helping take care of the Guildmaster. The last thing the county needed was for the Guildmaster to fall over from the strain of the workload he was carrying. I listened as well as I could to the Guildmaster’s end of the telephone conversation.

“We need to take some time and see what the fallout of this battle will be,” the Guildmaster cautioned. From his tone, I guessed he was speaking to Lord Vollen, or at least someone over at the Manor. The Guildmaster trusted the coterie of advisors to give the lord useful advice, but they tended to be demanding. It was hard for the lord to understand that although the war was going well for him so far, it didn’t mean that it would continue to do so. Apparently the battle in Sun City was worse for the lycanthropes than I originally thought. The Guildmaster paused as he listened to the lycanthrope on the other end.

“Yes, we won,” the Guildmaster said, with a hint of frustration in his voice. I doubted whomever he was talking with would have detected it, but I had been on the receiving end of it too many times. “Unfortunately, my lord it was almost a Pyrrhic victory. I’m looking at the casualties for both the packs and the Guild.” The Guildmaster stopped abruptly as Lord Vollen said something. An angered expression crossed the Guildmaster’s face for a brief moment.

“I realize you want to press what you believe is our momentum,” the Guildmaster said with an almost forced calm, “However, that is not what we have. What we have is the vampires never having a chance to be fully committed to this war. We’ve managed to keep them off-balance through a combination of speed, ferocity, and just plain luck. That is changing slowly as the vampires regain their footing. They have always had numbers on their side, my lord. They can bolster their numbers faster than we can. The rage amongst the packs over your father’s death have sustained us so far. That rage is fading as we fight and lose lycanthropes.” The Guildmaster paused as Lord Vollen said something. “No my lord, I am not making your case for you. I am telling you the war has entered its next phase. This is where both factions will grapple for position. We will fight, but with the depletion of our numbers both in the Guild and the packs, we must prepare to be on the defensive while we regroup.” I knew that the lord didn’t like hearing that. I didn’t like hearing it. The thought we wouldn’t continue our string of victories against the leeches went completely against every instinct in my body.

“Thank you my lord,” the Guildmaster said, and I could see the relief physically wash over my boss, “I will keep you updated on the Guild’s status. We should be able to try and keep the leeches off balance for the time being.” The Guildmaster hung up the phone and looked over at me. I couldn’t read his expression, and that worried me. I was usually really good at reading my boss. “I am fairly certain your job tonight is not going to be important in the long run of this war, with the possible exception of forcing Lady Thames to expressly state her position on helping us during this war.”

“Did I lose us some covert help from the Pinellas Guild?” I asked quietly. I knew sometimes the way I did jobs had repercussions that the Guildmaster had to deal with. Since the war started, I tried to keep my normal flamboyance under control so as to not to force the Guildmaster in having to deal with more problems.

“We probably lost their covert help, but not exclusively because of you,” the Guildmaster, “Any of the jobs we did in Pinellas to curb the TCV’s incursion into that county would have forced the same result. I knew it was a possibility when I gave you the job. I will say I am glad you were harrying off on some wild guess rather than joining that battle down in Sun City.” I wasn’t sure how to take that comment. Part of me was slightly offended that the Guildmaster didn’t want me in a firefight where I could have probably have done some good, but most of me was just uncertain. My uncertainty must have shown on my face because the Guildmaster smiled.

“Relax Marcus, I have no doubt you would have made yourself known during that fight,” the Guildmaster said, “Unfortunately, you also have a habit of finding yourself in the middle of the nastiest part of the fighting. In this instance, I have a suspicion you would have been one of my casualties. I can’t afford to have you out of action at the moment.” The Guildmaster was pragmatic if nothing else. “What did your investigation turn up?”

“Nothing substantial, but I just dumped a bunch of stuff onto the intel group that we recovered at the site,” I answered, “I want permission to release copies to the aristocracy. I don’t think they will come up with anything, but with the overwork we’ve laid on intel, the backup might be necessary. There is something there, whether we can find it or not.” The Guildmaster looked at me with a hard look of skepticism. I didn’t care if my boss wasn’t sure of my hunches. I was used to defending my actions to the Guildmaster on a regular basis.

“What’s your guess about what was actually happening with the humans?” the Guildmaster asked. His voice was still skeptical, but at least he was willing to give me a chance to defend my hunch.

“Truthfully, I don’t know. My best guess is they’re stocking up on food so their soldiers don’t have to go out to hunt and get caught by our warriors,” I answered, “I wouldn’t be surprised if that was how we caught a lot of the leeches so far. The warriors have been too successful for it not to be stupid decisions on the TCV’s part. I have a partial address that may be where the leeches are taking all of the humans. I was trying to fill in the blanks, but I couldn’t make it work.”

“Okay, let’s see what the intel group digs up,” the Guildmaster said, “I doubt its quite that complex, but you have a plausible theory. If we find – let’s call it a supply depot – then I will probably need you on the job. Go rack out and get some rest. I will probably have a job for you later.” I nodded and left the Guildmaster’s office. With our strength depleted, I could foresee my workload increasing in the near future.

Nick doesn’t ask for my help very often, so when he does, I tend to move heaven and earth in order to help him out. Intel wanted to confirm their suspicions about the location of a leech sleeping hole. Lycanthropes liked knowing where the leeches slept during the day. It was much easier to hit the bastards when they didn’t have a chance to fight back. Plus, the sleeping holes were targets the Guild could reasonably expect one of the packs to deal with, rather than having to detail a hunter to the job. Confirmation, on the other hand, needed to be done by a hunter. We were just better at doing the sneak and peeks than the regular warrior. Deadeye asked Nick to handle the sneak and peek on the target. Usual set of instructions – do enough recon to confirm the intel group’s suspicions and to get a basic feel for the target, and then quickly extract. Engage only for self-defense. Nick wasn’t supposed to go after the leeches by himself, he was just to make sure that they were there. According to what Deadeye told him, there was a pack of warriors ready to do the attack as soon as confirmation was made. With hunters becoming scarce, we needed to do our jobs quickly and get ready for the next one.

“So that’s the basics of the job,” Nick concluded after he found me in the training room of the Guild, “Do you have anything on your plate right now?” I was supposed to be on “down-time.” The Guildmaster was being more forceful about hunters not doing jobs when they should be resting. He was being especially forceful with me because the Guildmaster knew I really hated inactivity when there were jobs to do.

“Better question is whether I’m supposed to do anything right now,” I answered with a half-smirk on my face, “Doesn’t matter. Don’t ask, don’t tell. What do you need me to do?” Nick looked at me skeptically. He knew the restrictions the Guildmaster had me under. He also knew I ignored them when I felt justified, much to the annoyance of the head of our chapter. Nick weighed asking me for a favor he knew I would do without hesitation against whatever backlash he might suffer when the Guildmaster found out I was assisting on a job when I was supposed to be resting. He must have decided I would be the one to suffer the full wrath of the Guildmaster – which I would, considering what happened every other time I ignored my boss.

“The target is in the middle of Tampa, and even during daylight, I would prefer not going in alone,” Nick said, “Especially if I’m going after what could be a leech sleeping hole. I just want some backup. Nothing real intensive.” While I didn’t mind helping Nick, there was something about this job that was starting to bother me. Nick never asked me to help him on something unless he thought there would be some real problems. Little things, Nick just handled with his normal efficiency. The few times that I had been invited along to one of Nick’s jobs had ended up into heavy fighting.

“What the fuck, Nick?” I asked, “No time have you asked me to help you out unless you think that bad shit is going to erupt. Are you expecting trouble?” He was quiet for a long moment.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Okay then,” I answered, “I’ll go get some toys.”

The target was in West Tampa, a predominantly Hispanic part of Tampa. It was probably best known as the home of Alessi’s, a well-established cafeteria and caterer. It was considered a landmark in the community for its Spanish dishes and strawberry shortcake. The target was a small home off of Himes Avenue, which made the recon a little more difficult. Many of the residents in this neighborhood lived here for decades. They would know if something out of the ordinary came onto the brick-laid streets. So, Nick and I had to be a bit more covert than normal. So, instead of a sedan or our motorcycles, we had borrowed one of the utility vans from the Guild’s motorpool and attached the TECO logo to the side. Masquerading as the local power company wasn’t something hunters did normally, but we had all the gear available when it was necessary.

The van was similar to the one I used when we raided what we thought was the harem before Stephen Vollen’s murder. Ancestors, was it only six months ago? It felt like ages ago. The back was set up with a pair of small cameras and a parabolic mike, all linked to a small computer. In addition to the surveillance gear, there were a couple of firing ports in case I needed to engage enemies. Because Nick would be driving, he was dressed in a TECO uniform. I would be in the back watching over Nick in case something bad happened. Since I wasn’t supposed to be seen unless shit hit the fan, I didn’t bother with the TECO uniform. Instead, I wore jeans and a t-shirt with my new plate carrier. Because I expected to be sitting down for a long time, I had my HK45 in a thigh holster and my Commando carbine clipped to a holder on the inside of the van. A Surefire flashlight was attached to the underside of the Commando. I didn’t need the light if I was in true form, but the powerful light could temporarily blind a target. It was useful in the close-quarters combat I anticipated if Nick ran into trouble. I also had a few knives, and of course, a couple of flash-bangs.

As we pulled up to the target house, Nick rubbed his throat across the concealed mike. I made sure the surveillance gear was working properly. Nick approached the front door with one of the Guild’s custom-made devices in his hands. It looked like one of the over-sized PDAs TECO used for meter readers, but was actually a sensory device that detected various microwave, infrared, and laser emissions from known security systems. I kept watch on both Nick and the area as he continued to sweep for telltales of a security system beyond the basic home alarm system. Nick was being his normal systematic self, which meant the work was slow and tedious to watch, but I couldn’t argue with his results. It didn’t make my part of the job any easier. Guard duty was one of the hardest things for a hunter to do. It required a hunter to be always vigilant under conditions that drained the concentration of even the most conscientious hunter. There were tricks to keep your mind focused on the job at hand. All I needed to do was to constantly remind myself that it was Nick out there, and he had a nasty tendency to attract trouble like a magnet in a scrap yard. The house itself was a single story home with a covered carport. A chain-link fence surrounded the back yard. From what plans we could retrieve from the Guild database, the house had a living room/dining room in the front of the house with a large kitchen behind it. Two small bedrooms were off to the right of the main room with a bathroom in between them. A master bedroom was located off the kitchen. There was a small utility room in the carport, but it had no door into the house. There was a front door, a side door from the carport, and a back door that led out onto the back porch behind the utility room.

Something flickered at the west corner of the building where the carport started. Nick didn’t see anything, or he would have contacted me or stopped what he was doing. I checked the monitor again to see if whatever it was made another appearance. I didn’t see it, so I opened a new window in the monitor to watch the playback while still keeping an eye on Nick. The flicker was a dark spot that could have been any number of things, such as a pet or the local wildlife, but I was sure it was something bad.

“Nick, there’s something on the west corner,” I said.

“What?” he asked in response, as he stopped and mimicked looking at the reading on his sensory device. I replayed the image again, but it was a blur the computer couldn’t refine.

“Don’t know,” I answered, “Saw something, and I don’t think it’s friendly.” Nick looked at the corner of the house. Part of the device was a digital camera that could also be used as a spotting device. Nick zoomed in on the corner, but neither he nor I saw what the flicker.

“Do you want me to come out to back you up?” I asked.

“No. I’ll investigate, but get ready to get out here in a hurry,” Nick answered in his normal, calm tone. Nick hung his sensory device at his belt and made his way to the corner. With that monster revolver of his, Nick could take down anything the unseen world could throw at him. Just to be on the safe side, I unclipped my Commando. My instincts were telling me something bad was happening. Nick moved to the corner of the house. He looked like he was doing a casual inspection, but I could see he was ready in case something happened – like a firefight. Nick rounded the corner and saw – nothing. There was no car in the carport and no sign of anything that could have made the flicker that I saw on the monitor. I saw Nick relax, but my instincts were still screaming something was wrong.

“I’m going to check the back,” Nick reported as he walked just beyond the view of the cameras of the truck. A small window opened on the computer monitor as Nick turned on his camera. The back porch was empty. The backyard looked like it hadn’t seen a lawn mower in weeks. The grass was easily a foot to a foot and a half tall.

“Watch that grass Nick,” I murmured over the radio link, “There might be passives in there.” I would have put in either some passive sensors or some passive defenses – like caltrops or small pungee pits – in the tallish grass. Nick double clicked his mike in response. With any other hunter, the double click was simple acknowledgement. With Nick, the unspoken message was more of the I-already-knew-that-dammit-and-call-me-Nicholas. Nick walked around the back of the house and came out from the other side of the home. I felt a little better as Nick came into view of the cameras in the van. I didn’t trust the tiny camera in the sensor device to give me enough warning that something was about to happen to Nick. With my unease about the situation, I really wanted as much warning as possible.

“Okay Ranger, I’m going to infil,” Nick said quietly, “I’ll peek through the windows first, then I’ll go through the side door if I can’t find anything.” Nick liked to confirm the plan before doing. He was very systematic.

“Do you want me to move up when you go through the door? If something happens while you’re inside, I don’t want to be sitting out here by the curb.” I watched as Nick took a moment to think it over.

“That’s…not a bad idea,” Nick answered, “If I don’t see anything in the windows, why don’t you move up to the back porch? There’s a door on the back porch to the kitchen. You can do an entry if you need to come and get me.” The back door would give me a nice entry point that would allow me to flank anything that was trying to kill my friend.

“Okay, give me a few moments,” I said, “If I have to move, I’m going to need to do it very fast.” Nick pulled out his cell phone and mimicked talking on the phone as I moved some of the gear around on my body. Most of my gear situated so I could sit in the back of the van for a long period of time. Things were quickly shifted into their normal places. I grabbed more ammunition for the Commando and my HK45. The only times you have too much ammo is if you’re drowning or on fire. I moved to the rear doors of the van and waited for Nick. Using the small camera on his device, Nick peeked into the windows. I grimaced as I saw the picture appear on the monitor. Whoever was inside placed a film on the inside of the windows. It wouldn’t appear as anything out of the ordinary in a casual inspection, but it distorted the windows so no one could see inside the house. Nick looked over at the van with disgust on his face. I agreed with him. This was the first indication something was wrong with this job. Nick casually walked over to the empty carport.

“Ranger, go ahead and move up,” Nick murmured into his mike. I slid out of the back of the van, using what little cover was available to dart to the back porch. The back yard looked clear. The back porch was a cement-floored open area. Steps led up to the door to the kitchen. The in the center of the door was a window with the same film applied. The real bad news for me was the door opened outward. I couldn’t just kick the door in unless I shed for true. I gently tried the door knob. Damn, it was locked. Contrary to popular conceptions, shooting out a lock wasn’t a good option. There are specialty loads for doing just that, but most of them were for shotguns, not carbines. My best option would be to break the window and unlock the door. It would be a slow and vulnerable entry, but I might make it better with the judicious use of a flash-bang. It wasn’t a particularly good entry plan, but I would try to keep Murphy’s influence to a bare minimum.

“Nick, if I have to go in, it’s going to be slow and nasty,” I told him over, and related the situation with the door.

“Just do it as fast as you can,” was Nick’s answer. This was going to get fucked up quickly. To break the window, I was going to use my right arm. My healing would prevent any real damage from the glass. Grasped in my left hand, I held a primed flash-bang. If there was something standing just behind the door, I would drop the flash-bang, let it go off, and continue the entry as fast as I could. I braced myself at the foot of the stairs, ready to race up them if Nick called me to assist.

“I’m going,” he said an instant before I heard Nick hammer through the door. An instant later, the door in front of me slammed open. A figure crouched with some sort of small gun in cradled in its hands. Instincts screamed as orange flashes erupted from the gun. I threw the flash-bang directly at the figure. The rounds lanced through my body armor. I felt the sledgehammer blows as the rounds punched through my body. I felt the burn of silver rounds. Blood poured through the half-dozen holes in my gut as mind-tearing pain almost rendered me unconscious. My eyes were closed when I heard the flash-bang detonate. Instincts and training forced me to look at the doorway. I saw the figure grasping at its ears. With what seemed an incredible amount of effort, I raised my pistol and fired several rounds until the figure collapsed onto the kitchen floor. I holstered my HK45 and reached into a pouch at my side. I quickly tore open the packaging to get to the foul-smelling patches. I swabbed out the wounds, doing as best as I could to ignore the intense pain from the wolfsbane. After a few moments, I felt some healing start. There was a small rush of energy as my body worked to save itself. I used that energy to crawl up the stairs and into the house. I heard bursts of gunfire coming from the main room of the house, but none of it seemed to be directed at me. I pulled myself up to the body. It was grasping an FN P90. Well, that explained why it managed to punch through my body armor. As I waited for my body to heal a bit more, I checked the body. It was a human. A normal human with silver bullets? What the fuck? A quick search didn’t turn up any of the usual markings of a vampiric servant. I didn’t have time to figure out what the fuck was happening because three more humans rushed out of the master bedroom directly across the kitchen from me. They skidded to a stop in surprise as I raised the P90. It was nice to see Murphy was fucking with the other side as well. I fired the P90, spraying the three humans with bullets. I liked the P90 because it didn’t climb much on full auto, allowing me to keep the stream of silver aimed directly at the three humans’ midsections. As the three fell, I dropped the P90 and brought my Commando up. Using their dead comrade as cover/shooting rest, I placed accurate bursts into their exposed heads. As the echoes of the gunfire subsided in the kitchen, I heard Nick’s revolver boom three times from the main room. I shakily got to my feet and crept into the main room from the kitchen.

Nick was in the dining room connecting the kitchen and the front room. He was behind an overturned dining room table and was firing at the corner of the room that led back to the two other bedrooms. I could see two bodies in the main room. I collapsed next to him. Nick gave me a quick look, which quickly turned into a worried expression. Bullets splintered through the table. Whoever was firing at us was using a short-barreled M4 clone. Nick raised up slightly. His revolver boomed twice more. Even before he was back down, the cylinder was open and the empty casings spilling out.

“How many did you get?” he asked as he slapped a speed loader of those monster bullets into the cylinder of the revolver. I held up four fingers. I healed quite a bit, but I was leaking a lot of blood out of my back. There must have been some silver poisoning on the exit part of the wounds, so my body couldn’t heal those.

“Means three more witch-hunters,” Nick said as he swung the cylinder back into the revolver.

“Oh fuck,” I murmured. Of all the fucking things we could run into, Nick and I blundered into a Sword of witch hunters. Witch-hunters organized themselves along military lines. A group of ten witch-hunters was called a Sword. The Sword is the most common group encountered. Usually we ran into a Sword every so often when the witch-hunters were feeling their Wheaties and tried to eradicate the lycanthrope and the vampire. Those fights usually ended bad for everyone involved. Four Swords comprised a Spear, a formation about the size of an Army platoon. Spears were responsible for recruiting and conducting operations over several counties. We’d only dealt with a Spear once in the time I’d been in the Guild. That fight was one of the nastiest in my career. Four Spears were called a Shield and there was thought to be one or two Shields in Florida. More likely two, from our intelligence. This Sword must have been just as surprised by our appearance. It was the only reason Nick and I weren’t dead already. Witch-hunters are not slouches in the killing department.

“Where are they?” I asked, hoping I sounded stronger than I felt. It must not have worked, because Nick gave me that worried look again.

“I think that they are back in the bedrooms,” Nick answered, “There were more in the main room when I came in.” I lifted my head above the splintered edge of the table. Pain seared from my back, and I almost dropped my weapon. It took more effort than I wanted to admit just to push back the pain and keep my focus.

“Are you going to be able to finish this?” Nick asked.

“Yeah, if we do this fast,” I answered, gripping the Commando.Nick nodded and dashed into the main room while I kept him covered with my Commando. There wasn’t any fire as Nick moved. I had a nasty suspicion that we were going to have to dig the bastards out of the rooms. We really didn’t have time for that. At some point, additional witch-hunters would show up. At which point Nick and I would be completely fucked – and probably dead. Nick glanced over at me with a look that told me he understood.

Any more flash-bangs? he hand-signed. I nodded. Throw one, let it go off, and then rush the rooms. The plan made my instincts clang warning klaxons in my head. The witch-hunters weren’t like the leeches. They usually had combat training and experience. They knew how to properly fort up when confronted with real opposition. The first flash-bang caught them by surprise, but now they knew we had them. It was time for something innovative. I raised my free hand and began signing to Nick. He looked surprised by the idea, but nodded in agreement. I tossed the flash-bang in the front of the bedroom. I ducked down behind the table as the flash lit up part of the house and the roar shook the windows. Instead of charging into the doorway, Nick began firing his monster revolver into the wall that separated the main room from the bedroom at about knee level. We heard two distinct screams of pain and surprise. Nick opened the cylinder to reload as I rested the Commando on the edge of the table and let loose a magazine-emptying burst into the wall – right between the holes that Nick had made with his revolver.

A witch-hunter burst out of the room with a shotgun. Nick hadn’t finished reloading and my main weapon was empty. I dropped the Commando and drew my HK45. The witch-hunter shouldered the shotgun at Nick and took a moment to pump a round into the chamber. That was just long enough for me to place two rounds into the bastard’s head. As the witch-hunter fell to the floor, Nick scooped up the shotgun and rushed to the corner of the bedroom. I staggered behind him as he began firing shell after shell into the room. I painfully reloaded my Commando. As Nick ran dry on the scattergun, I pushed him aside and let loose a long burst with the Commando. Nick rushed into the room with his revolver. The two remaining witch-hunters were on the floor bleeding out from hits from either Nick’s Smith or my Commando. Nick dispatched them with single shots to the head. I was starting to get dizzy from blood loss. Nick helped me, half-dragging me, as we staggered out of the house and into the van. I felt the van start and jump as Nick slammed on the accelerator. I slumped down and let the darkness overcome me. This was why Nick didn’t ask me to help him a whole lot. Shit just happened when the two of us did a job together.

Chapter 11 – There’s A Dark Cloud For Every Silver Lining