Category: Badmoon Rising

A novel about werewolves and vampires set in Tampa.

Badmoon Rising Chapter 9 – Leeches on the Left, Ghouls on the Right

The Amalie Arena was a massive structure in the Channelside District of Tampa. It was well within leech territory, but many lycanthropes went there to watch the Tampa Bay Lightning play. Hockey in Florida always seemed bizarre to me, but I had to admit that it was fun watching humans bash each other around while speeding around on the ice. While the Peace was in effect, there was a kind of understanding between the TCV and Lord Vollen. The lycanthropes could attend functions at the Arena as long as they left promptly afterward and did nothing that could be construed as hostile to the vampires. By the same token, the TCV took responsibility to ensure that its members didn’t harass the lycanthropes or cause problems. It worked out fairly well during that time. As far as I could remember, there had been only one problem. I resolved that one by removing the leech in a violent and lethal fashion.

Uptown’s team and me infiltrated into Channelside without incident. That was far more difficult than I expected. The streets were flooded with vampires and ghouls. The job was to escort six lycanthropes that came downtown during the day and stayed far too long. What the hell they were doing in leech territory, I didn’t know. Lord Vollen personally asked the Guildmaster to handle the situation, which meant this was probably repayment of a favor. The lycanthropes were in a bar across the street from the Arena. They were staying as visible to the humans as possible. The leeches knew the lycanthropes were stranded and unarmed, but they weren’t about to do something in front of humans. Vampires hated witch-hunters as much as we did. The vampires were waiting for the bar to close, and the lycanthropes were forced out on to the street. Our plan was to get all six lycanthropes out of the bar, into the two SUV’s we were using, and out of Channelside without stirring up the humans too much. Unfortunately, that last bit was a key part of the job. The shaman were being very adamant the war was coming close to spilling out of the unseen world. At that point, the Pathwalkers would come down and remedy the situation. None of us in the unseen world in Hillsborough would survive the Pathwalkers fixing it. Everyone had a vested interest in keeping the Pathwalkers as far from Tampa as possible. The plan was as KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) as we could make it. First, I would create a distraction. Then Uptown and his deputy, Downtown, would infiltrate the bar. As soon as they made contact with the lycanthropes in the bar, Wiseguy and Trent, the last two members of the hit pack, would drive the two SUV’s behind the bar. Uptown, Downtown, and the lycanthropes would come out the back of the bar, load up into the vehicles, come pick me up, and we would all exit the Channelside area. In addition to creating the diversion, it would be up to me to provide any covering fire while the hit pack was loading the lycanthropes into the vehicles. It wasn’t going to be easy. I was just figuring out how to ask the Guildmaster to let me back out, when he called me into his office and gave me the job to help Uptown’s hit pack.

I was riding with Wiseguy in the first SUV. Sitting next to me was an HK416 with a suppressor screwed onto the barrel. The collapsed weapon was compact, but I needed a trench coat to hide it from casual view. Thankfully, it was January and finally cold enough that native Floridians were bundling up. The trench coat was as close to ghillie suit as I could get for the urban environment. I bailed out of the truck a few blocks from the Arena and moved into grassy areas bordering Morgan Street. I found a nice spot in the shadows and brought up the HK416. The first thing to do was to clear out the leeches in front of the bar. I took careful aim and stroked the trigger. The rifle quietly coughed three times. Three leeches on the far end of the block collapsed to the pavement as the 5.56mm Silver Shok rounds tore through their torsos. Head shots are more effective, but with such short ranges and plenty of humans, I needed to keep the risk of over-penetration to a minimum. As I expected, the leeches in front of the bar thought someone was attacking them from the other side of the street. After all, who shoots past the targets in front of them to hit targets on the far side? Bleeders might have realized what was happening they saw the wounds, but none of these leeches wore the distinctive matte black nails. The leader of the leeches ordered his minions to start searching in the opposite direction of where I was crouched. So far, things were going to plan. Without lowering the rifle, I hit the speed dial on my cell phone.

“Yeah,” came the waiting voice of Uptown.

“Infil in ten seconds,” I reported, placing the reticle of my sight on the thin body of the leech leader. I slowed my breathing down. I stroked the trigger again. The leech was neatly eviscerated by a fourth suppressed shot. Even before the leech hit the ground, Uptown and Downtown emerged from their hiding places and hurried into the bar. Just in time too. The rest of the leeches were returning to the bar. For a moment the half-dozen leeches looked down at their fallen leader in stunned silence. One of the higher leeches came out of his shock first and ordered cleanup. They knew better than to leave a corpse on the street, especially one in true form. I weighed whether or not to just take them all down, but I decided against it, mostly because we did not have the time or resources to quickly clean up ten or so vampire bodies. With some regret, I quietly skulked out and moved up Morgan Street to cover the vehicles when they came for pickup. As I nestled into a copse of palm trees, I scanned down Eunice Street. The area seemed clear, but there was something wrong. My instincts were telling me something bad was in the area, but I couldn’t see anything. My phone vibrated at my waist.

“Ranger,” I said into the headset.

“I’ve got the passengers,” Uptown said over the substantial background noise, “Are we clear to pick up?” I hesitated. I couldn’t see anything that would prevent the pickup, but I hadn’t survived this long by ignoring when my instincts told me something was wrong. Uptown sensed the pause. He asked me again, this time with a more annoyed tone, “Are we good for pickup?”

“I don’t see anything, but I’ve got a bad feeling,” I told him, “I would advise against it until I clear the area.” I began to move up Eunice. I needed a better look.

“We can’t wait Ranger,” Uptown said, “If you don’t see anything, we’re moving. Wiseguy, get those vehicles in here now.” I swore under my breath as the phone disconnected. Uptown was rushing the job. Yes, we needed to get the passengers out of Channelside as fast as possible, but it would take a minimum of another half-hour before the Bleeders showed up to investigate the killing of the vampires. I wasn’t too worried about the regular leeches. The ones milling around out front were alert, but they looked like they were waiting for reinforcements. There was plenty of time for me to do a quick sweep of the area for surprises. I didn’t have time to argue the point because moments after Uptown hung up on me, the two black trucks roared into the parking lot behind the bar. In an almost synchronized motion, the two trucks sped into the lot and quickly stopped directly in front of the back door to the bar. The back door slammed open. An alarm sound filled the empty street. Downtown came out of the door first with his submachine gun was at a low ready. Following behind the young hunter were six lycanthropes in hockey paraphernalia. They’d been at a fucking game in the middle of a fucking war? I thought they got caught up doing an operation. I pushed down my annoyance and focused on the job. I’d vent later. Bringing up the rear was Uptown, also with a submachine gun drawn and ready. They were ten feet from the vehicles when all hell broke loose.

I caught the movement on the roof an instant before four shotguns rained down fire onto the exposed lycanthropes. Damn it, I’d scanned the roof and hadn’t seen a fucking thing. Now I could make out the lines of a couple of targets. They were keeping low and had some sort of covering over them to break up the outlines. Not gillie suits, but something like that. I placed the sight on the one closest to me and gently squeezed the trigger. He went down. The second filled my sight picture. He saw his buddy was down, but assumed the shot came from the two hunters desperately bursting their submachine guns at the ambush team. He never even turned towards me. It was a Darwinian mistake on the vampire’s part. A second shot took the leech out. The last two vampires were smarter and quickly fell back down behind their cover.

“Ranger, we’ve got four critical,” Uptown said over my earpiece. I looked back at the parking lot to see the two trucks speed out of the parking lot. Warriors would have gotten pissed off they were left in hostile territory by their comrades. Hunters knew better. Uptown made the right decision. The job was to get the lycanthropes out, and the job came first. The job always came first. With four of the lycanthropes in critical condition, Uptown had no choice but to get the passengers to immediate medical attention, even if that meant he couldn’t wait for me to get to the trucks. I could save recriminations for later. At the moment, I needed to find a way to get the hell out of Channelside.

Normally, I would have just found a nice place to hole up for the next six hours and waited for daylight. After the sun emerged, I would’ve had to deal with a few ghouls, but the vampires would have cleared the streets. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option this time. The two vampires on the roof of the bar knew there was a sniper covering the trucks. They had to be on their radios and cell phones calling in all of their friends. Hunters used snipers, and hunters were big targets for the TCV. Without a doubt, the TCV would flood the area with as many vampires and ghouls as they could scrounge up. Bleeders would definitely be amongst the reinforcements.

Rustling behind me brought me out of my thoughts and back into the situation. My instincts roared danger. I swung the rifle behind me. The ghoul was caught off-guard, and the butt of the rifle caught the ghoul squarely on the nose. There was a muffled crunching noise and the ghoul staggered back. I dropped the ghoul with a shot from the rifle and turned back to my target. The two vampires on the roof were gone. Things had officially gone to shit-fucked. I quickly changed magazines and slung the rifle under the trench coat. I needed to move quickly. Brandishing a rifle on the streets of Tampa after dark was not the best way to remain inconspicuous. Especially considering Tampa police was starting to come onto the scene. Usually the various law enforcement agencies that policed Tampa and Hillsborough County were kept out of our affairs by both our kin and the vampires’ ghouls. Both sides had reason to keep the humans out of our affairs. Everyone feared the Pathwalkers. The problem was the war had created too many incidents for the kin and ghoul infiltrators to misdirect and keep from the attention of the majority of human authorities. The best our kin was able to do was to blame the increased violence at the human organizations known for such bloodletting. The media picked up on the “Second Era of Blood” and had done scathing exposes on the local mob and cartel organizations. The police, responding to the human public, was racing to handle the explosions of violence that occurred between the lycanthropes and the vampires. So, instead of maybe a couple of police officers responding to the gunfight behind the bar, there were maybe a dozen police cars and plenty of police officers on scene. Getting out of the area with all of my gear was going to be tricky. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to kill a police officer – not because of any sentimentality towards the value of human life, but because it would draw even more attention to us.

The trick was to try and look like I belonged in the area and keep the police from searching me. I didn’t want to lose the rifle in case I needed it to fight off Bleeders. I moved slowly through the shadows of the grassy area, trying to avoid the beams of light stabbing through the safety of the darkness. Getting out on foot was looking more and more problematic. I could swipe a car, except I wasn’t very good at hot-wiring and didn’t want to do anything that might catch the attention of the polic. I was going to need help. As much as I hated it, I hit the speed-dial for the Guildmaster.

“This better be good,” came the gruff and tired voice of my boss.

“Hi boss, I’m in a bit of a bind,” I said, trying to sound light, “I’m, uh, kind of stuck near the Arena.”

“How did you get stuck?” the Guildmaster asked.

“We got ambushed as Uptown did the extract,” I answered.

“Wait one,” the Guildmaster said. There was a long pause. “Kurt just informed me of what happened. I’m assuming that normal procedures are unavailable?”

“I’ve got vampires looking to kill me and human police officers looking to arrest me if they find me with my gear,” I said into the phone, “Now, I would like to get out of Channelside without either of them finding me.” I ducked through a parking lot to avoid a pair of vampires that suddenly appeared out of the darkness. “Hold one, boss.” The vampires weren’t Bleeders, but they would spot me in the darkness. I checked the surrounding area. The police were still searching around the bar, but hadn’t managed to get out to my position. I quickly brought up the rifle, and placed single shots into each of the leeches. Thank the Ancestors the suppressor on the rifle was damn good. “Sorry boss, needed to put a couple down.”

“I would expect my personal hitter to be able to extract himself from such a situation,” the Guildmaster said with an unusual severity, “So, why are you calling me?”

“Listen boss,” I told him, “Normally, I wouldn’t’ve bothered you at all, but I didn’t think that you wanted me to cause even more of an incident.” There was a silence on his end that I took for me to continue. “Now, do you have anyone to pick me up?”

“No, but I’ll see what I can do to get the humans off your back,” the Guildmaster answered, “Just keep away from the leeches and try to get out of there without causing the aristocracy or me more problems than you’re worth.” He quickly hung up the phone. Well, if he could keep the police off of me, I could get myself out of leech territory. I could see the edges of a police cordon. The human police officers looked nervous. I couldn’t blame them. I managed to keep to the shadows. My real concern were the leeches that were walking around. As I scanned the area, I couldn’t see any leeches near me, but that wouldn’t last long. I was going to have to move soon. I watched the cordon hoping that the Guildmaster would be able get the police to back off. When they hadn’t moved after a few minutes, I decided it would be best for me to keep moving. I slinked back into the shadows and headed towards the Selmon Expressway. I wouldn’t be able run on the elevated highway, but the overpass would give me more places to hide. I needed to break the police cordon first, then make my way out of the city proper.

The sudden flash of silver was all the warning I got. It was just barely enough. As the knife slashed out, I turned towards it. I needed to catch it on the trauma plate of my Kevlar vest. The leech’s eyes were wide in shock as I moved into his stab. I felt the thud as the silver blade sliced through the layers of fabric and scraped across the metal plate. I wasted no time and counterattacked. My fist slammed into the bridge of his nose. The leech staggered back. The momentary stun of the blow was all I needed. I rushed the leech, tackling him to the ground. As he struggled against the weight of my body on top of his, my hand found the hilt of my own silver knife. I managed to clamp down his mouth as I stabbed into his side. The pain shocked the leech enough to make him stop fighting. It was a quick matter to stab him through his chest. As the silver punctured the leech’s heart, all movement ceased. I had only a moment to stash the body in the shadows before a light from the police cruiser swept over the area. They might see where the leech bled on the ground, but the black fluid was easily mistaken for spilled oil.

There was a quick way to break the cordon, but it would probably get me in trouble with the Guildmaster. Oh well, it wouldn’t be the first time. I brought up the rifle and took aim. Three bullets shattered the light bar above the squad car. The two police officers went diving for cover, screaming into their radios. I wasted no time and ran north as fast as I could. They might get a description of me, but I was pretty sure they were too busy ducking from the sudden fire. They didn’t even have time to get a shot off at me as I ran from shadow to shadow speeding towards the overpass. For the record, it is not easy to run at top speeds while trying to conceal a rifle under your trench coat. That said, I did manage to make it north of the Selmon and across several parking lots before I was forced to find a place to hide. I ducked behind a row of cars as I saw the convoy of cars. Four cars loaded with leeches will make a lycanthrope hide – even a hunter. I kept the rifle ready in case they decided to come out of their cars to do a more thorough search, but some of my luck was still holding. A sweep with their lights was enough to satisfy their curiosity. I waited a few precious moments as the vehicles moved down the street. The sudden sensation of my phone vibrating at my side was almost enough for me to accidentally loose a round at the vampires.

“You have an odd notion of what won’t piss me off,” the Guildmaster growled into my ear, “I almost opened a hole for you before you decided to blast one of your own.”

“Sorry boss, but I needed to move,” I explained, “The leeches were starting to close on me.” I heard a familiar grunt from my boss. The Guildmaster knew my position and what I was facing. He didn’t like it, but he was willing to trust me. It was what made him a damned good Guildmaster.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“A few blocks west of the SunTrust building,” I answered, using the biggest landmark I could see, “I’m taking cover in one of the parking lots.”

“Okay, JB and his hit pack are a couple miles north of you,” the Guildmaster said, “I’m sending them into retrieve you.” I wanted to groan, but I knew better. Beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially not in my situation. JB and I hated each other, but I knew he was professional enough not to fuck up an extraction on purpose. The county didn’t have enough hunters as it was.

“Tell him to meet me on the north side of the Suntrust building,” I said before ending the call. At this time of night, the streets were mostly deserted. Downtown Tampa was a commercial district. Those who wanted after-hours excitement went to Ybor or Channelside or over to Pinellas. There was enough concealment to make my way to the meet. Police cars passed by, but the officers just made cursory inspections. The police still thought the shooter was within their cordon. I skulked through the shadows and waited for JB.

JB’s van rushed through the streets. It was speeding, but not enough to draw the attention of the police. The side door slid open in front of me and I jumped into the vehicle. I hit the metal floor hard, but I didn’t care. The pain of the HK digging into my side was welcome. With me safely aboard, JB wheeled the van around and headed north back to lycanthrope-held territory. The Crazy Boys ignored me. They were busy watching to make sure that the vampires weren’t pursuing us. Farmer turned to talk to me.

“What the fuck, Ranger?” he asked, “How the hell did you get stranded down here?” I wasn’t sure if Farmer was pissed at having to come get me or actually had some concern for my hide. Or he could have come to the same conclusion that there were far too few hunters for any to be risking themselves needlessly.

“Uptown had a job. I came along. Things got TARFU’d,” I replied, with a nonchalant tone. “How was your night?”

“You know you could have infiltrated yourself out if you just ditched the rifle,” Farmer commented.

“Do you know how few of these Gunny managed to lay his hands on? Would you want to face his wrath at the moment?” I asked holding up the HK416. Farmer just shook his head. Gunny and Boomer had been working almost continuously since the war began. While Boomer was mostly his normal affable self, Gunny had become far less reasonable. The hunters were very cautious around the armory. The Guildmaster wanted to give Gunny a break, but we really couldn’t afford it. He was too essential in tracking the precious silver rounds and making sure there were enough weapons not only for the Guild, but for the packs as well. Farmer settled back down in his seat while I did the same. Thankfully, the rest of the night went by without any more problems. Murphy must have had his fill for one night.

I was resting in my room, reassembling my USP after cleaning the weapon. Guildmaster gave me another three operations in quick succession after the Arena debacle. Two were assists for prominent pack leaders, while the last one was a try at assassinating Silanti. The Inner Councilmember was probably the TCV’s top war leader, and the Guild’s number one target. I missed him by a whisker and ended up tangling with a pair of experienced Bleeders and about a half-dozen of their new recruits. I killed all of them, but I was a bloody wreck afterwards. The Guildmaster forced me to down-check myself for a few days. He pretty much told me he would permanently take me off active jobs if I didn’t take some time to heal, rest, and repair some of my equipment. I healed up, and now was maintenance time. Most of my stuff was sturdy enough to go for long periods without maintenance during normal times. It had been a long few months since Lord Vollen went to war. I replaced my Kevlar vest, which required breaking the new one in and doing the minor alterations to fit it properly. My knives were cleaned and sharpened. The steel ones just needed some scrubbing with WD-40 and a green pad followed by some time with a whetstone. Silver blades needed an in-house cleaner that was just fucking nasty, and they took forever to sharpen properly. Silver just didn’t hold an edge. It was enough for me to consider just carrying wooden stakes. Each of my personal guns were stripped, cleaned, lubricated, and reassembled. I always left my USP for last. Hunters have a special relationship with their handguns. A hunter’s sidearm was by personal choice and considered to be an extension of ourselves. I may use other pistols, but my sidearm was my USP. With long practiced motions, I inserted the magazine and hit the slide release. The familiar chunk of the slide slamming forward was muted by the phone ringing. I picked up and the Guildmaster’s voice came through clearly.

“Get up to my office please,” the gruff voice of the Guildmaster said. I could tell by the tone that it was something important, and immediate.

“On my way,” was all I said. I strode out of my room and up the stairs to the second floor. I knocked a couple of hunters out of the way, but I really wasn’t worried about their sore bottoms. I was worried about the tone the Guildmaster used on the phone. If the Guildmaster was bothering me when he had gone to great pains to make me take some time off, then there was something really bad going on. I didn’t bother knocking as I walked into his office. He looked up me with an odd look of relief. That look almost scared me, but I tried not to let it show on my face.

“Okay boss, I’m here,” I said, “What do you have for me?”

“I received a call from the Knights,” the Guildmaster told me, “They need assistance on a rescue operation. Because of who they are rescuing, I want you to handle this, but you’re going to need help. Take Nicholas and Samuel since you seem to work well with them. Meet with the Knight Smythe at Univeristy Mall. I know how much you dislike him, but don’t start picking fights with the Knights today. There is too much at stake.” He waved a hand to dismiss me. I wondered what was so important as I got up and left. Normally the Guildmaster gave me all the information I wanted, but I could tell from his look and body language he wasn’t going to tell me anymore. The only reason he wouldn’t tell me anything was to keep me from over-reacting to what was happening. I’ll admit, I was a bit on the dramatic sometimes. It worried me when the Guildmaster felt he needed to protect me from myself. I left the office to find Nick and Hangman, get a car, and get the three of us out to the mall. Oh, and get some weapons that could handle all of the possibilities that we were facing. Well, that was why I was the Guildmaster’s personal hitter.

From the Guildmaster’s office, I went down to my room on the fourth floor of the Guild’s headquarters. The barracks were designed in a utilitarian fashion, so the rooms weren’t extravagantly furnished. The floors were covered with a light carpet that matched the off-white walls. The bed was little more than a cot with a thin mattress, and was dressed with simple sheets. A small metal desk and chair stood in the corner of the room with a telephone and computer gracing it. Light was provided by a single bright fluorescent fixture. A small closet held a few of my clothes I brought from my townhouse. The hectic pace of the war kept me from getting more of my stuff. There was also a small gun safe for my personal weapons. I was looking up Nick’s phone number when I heard a knock at my door. I opened the door and let Nick and Hangman into my room. I was a little surprised, but I figured the Guildmaster told them to find me. Nick looked as if nothing unusual was going on. He was dressed in a similar fashion as me, jeans and a shirt. I wondered what happened before he came to Tampa, if a full-fledged war didn’t seem to faze him. Hangman now had the confident stance of a veteran hunter. From the rumors, Hangman distinguished himself not only as a lone wolf, but as a leader. Some of the rumors were Hangman was being groomed for Deadeye’s job. Considering that we lost nearly a quarter of the Guild since the beginning of the war, I couldn’t say that was a bad thing. The pup – no, the lone wolf – certainly proved himself to have the right instincts for that kind of a job. With some more seasoning, I had no doubts that Hangman would be able to lead the lone wolves.

“Are you two ready?” I asked the two of them.

“No,” Nick said as he walked over to the desk and pulled a thumbdrive out of his pocket. Sitting down, he started up the computer and inserted the drive.

“Ranger, I want you to take a look at this. I intercepted this from a lycanthrope courier on my mission last night. He didn’t identify himself fast enough. He isn’t dead, but he’s not getting out of the infirmary anytime soon. He dropped this during gunfire. I was going to give this to our intel section, but after taking a quick look, I decided this would be more useful to us. I wish Skiff was here for this.” Now I knew what he was referring to. That meeting at the rodeo ring to try and piece together Stephen Vollen’s murder. Damn, it seemed like a few years ago, not some months. I popped in the drive. The thumbdrive had quite a few different files.

“This one, “HIST” is a spreadsheet with a compilation of residency files of Hillsborough County going back to the 1950’s. This one is a list of birth records from about forty years ago, with the names of lycanthropes marked,” Nick explained as he opened the files. “This one is strange.” Nick clicked on the file. The first page of the document was a map of Florida, divided into its sixty-seven counties. Hillsborough, Dade, and Broward counties were colored in black, several were colored in red, and the rest were green. No legend appeared on the page. The second page held a second map of Florida, but this one had Polk and Pinellas counties also colored in black, most of the counties red, a few green, and two blue. Orange County and Hernando County. Nick was right. It was strange.

“Since the counties colored in black are the Disputed Territories and Hillsborough, I think the black are in open war with the leeches. The red ones could be allied with the lord who murdered Vollen and the green one allied with the Prince. The blue I haven’t figured out,” Hangman said, his uncertainty showing in his voice. I really had to teach him how to control his tone. Part of being a hunter was keeping your game face in place at all times. The packs needed to believe the hunters always knew what they were doing. It gave them confidence. “I think they may be contenders for the head of the war council that is going to form in Tallahassee if the Prince can’t get control. Again, I’m not sure, and Hernando had a recent change of lords. I don’t think Lord Proset has enough power to challenge Lady MacMurtry or the Prince.” My head was swimming with the dark thoughts. How were we going to follow-up on this? The phone rang and Hangman picked it up. After answering he listened for a moment. His face contorted into anger.

“Alright already. We’ll get right on it,” he said, slamming down the receiver. He looked directly at me. “Were you supposed to brief us on some job for the Knights?”

“Shit,” I said, leading the pair out of the room. “I thought that was why the two of you came down here in the first place. We’re supposed to meet the Knight Smythe over at University Mall. The Guildmaster said it was some sort of rescue job, but he didn’t give me details. We better get outfitted quickly before the Guildmaster comes out and rips the three of us apart.” The elevator toned softly as we reached the first floor. Walking to the armory, we were met by Deadeye.

“Your gear has already been loaded. Hurry up. You have no time to fuck off.” He threw Nick a set of car keys, and then walked back to his office. The tag on the keys told us where to find the car. Parked in one of the houses’ garage was a plain sedan. We opened the trunk and found our gear. Concealable body armor for each of us. Personal radios equipped with throat mike pieces. We left them in the trunk. The strange gear was the three odd sized weapons cases. They didn’t seem big enough for decent submachine guns, which I would have expected. I pulled them out to inspect the weapons in the car. Nick slid in behind the steering wheel, while Hangman took the shotgun seat. It would take twenty minutes for us to get to the mall, and that was before we tried to find the Knights. As we drove, I opened the cases. The weapon was small, compact, and had HK written all over it. So, this was the MP7. It was a little smaller than the MP5K I normally used and configured more like an Uzi. For stability, the MP7 had a collapsible stock and a fold-up foregrip. A Picatinny rail ran along the top of the weapon. Gunny already mounted a small holographic scope. A suppressor was also in the box. I was surprised Gunny or Boomer would have handed us one of these weapons. The Guild didn’t have much silver ammo in the 4.6mm caliber the MP7 used. Gunny sort of remedied that by stacking the magazines with what looked like a three to one ratio. For every three standard rounds, there would be one silver round. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a workable one. Especially for a full-auto weapon.

“All right, do we know where to meet Smythe?” asked Nick as we neared the mall’s entrance.

“The Guildmaster didn’t say,” I answered, “I don’t know if he knew where the Knights were congregating.”

“Isn’t that Smythe there?” Hangman asked, pointing to a group of lycanthropes gathered at one of the restaurants built around the mall. Nodding at his question, Nick pulled the car into mall, neatly swerving through two lanes of traffic around several cars. He parked the car next to the growing group of lycanthropes huddled in the parking lot. It was a mixed band of Red Knights, warriors from a few different packs, and a few shaman. We were the only hunters present, which didn’t make me feel any better. Smythe looked slightly disgusted as he caught sight of me, but he motioned us over. Pushing our way through with our gear, we found the layout of the mall spread out on the hood of the car. Smythe was directing a group of Knights to one of the other outlying buildings.

“Can one of you fill us in?” I asked, “Who are we rescuing” Smythe, the arrogant little prick that he was, looked smugly at us as he answered my question.

“A group of leeches kidnapped some of the pups out of tysach. Your hunters apparently didn’t do their job right. From what the shaman said, there were about five or six leeches, and they seized about twenty pups. The leeches took them inside the mall. We are about to go in and retrieve the pups. You are only here because Lord Vollen wanted hunters on-site.”

“Leeches? What the fuck? It’s still daylight,” I said.

“Leeches took the pups. Their ghouls brought the pups here. We’re not sure why,” another Knight said. From what I heard so far, I didn’t like the situation. The pack warriors gathered around us were fiddling with compact sub-machine guns under long coats. These amateurs would cause more trouble than not with gun fire from those SMG’s. Especially if we were dealing with ghouls. They were fanatical loyalty to their masters and would stand and fight in situations where vampires would retreat. If a fire-fight broke out, it was likely the ghouls would fight until they were all dead, the pups were dead, and/or the rescuers were dead. In such a public place, there would be plenty of dead humans to draw the attention of the Pathwalkers. Nick, Hangman, and I shared a look.

“Where are they?” Nick asked, looking down at the map of the layout of the mall.

“We don’t know. None of us has gone inside.” My head whipped up. If the Knights knew the pups were in the mall, then they should have sent in one of their own in to eyeball where the pups were being held.

“What kind of clusterfuck is this?” Hangman growled. I doubt Hangman saw the angry glint in Smythe’s eyes, because he continued. “You have almost an entire pack here, and not one of you has gathered any real, hard data. What did you expect, to wade into a mall full of humans with all guns blazing? You’ll kill the pups quicker than the ghouls.”

“Listen to me, you little shit. We are doing this by the numbers. First, we secure the outlying areas, then send in a recon team, then we attack once we spot the pups. We will do this the right way., not the half-assed hunter way.” Smythe looked at us with a mixture of smug self-confidence and anger. I decided to step in before Hangman, the crazy pup, got us into more trouble than we needed right now.

“Smythe, how about we go do the recon in the mall?” I interjected, “We’ll spot the ghouls for you. Then, your group can extract.” I was trying to sound reasonable and conciliatory. It wasn’t something I was good at, but we needed results, not bickering with the Knights. I could tell more than a few of Smythe’s team agreed. This was something hunters were better suited to handle. Smythe nodded rigidly. We broke open our gear bags. The Kevlar vests went on under our shirts. Shoulder harnesses went over our shirts with the MP7s secured. Our personal sidearms went into our personal favorite holsters, mine being at my right hip. The radios went on our backs secured to the straps of the shoulder holsters. Throat mikes were put into place and covered with some donated jewelry from the pack warriors. We finished with the last few weapon placements and special coats going over everything. The coats looked indistinguishable from what most Tampa natives wore in the winter all while concealing our weapons and giving us a free range of movement.

I looked over the length of the mall. Tactically, the ghouls should find a nice secluded place to hole up and let the humans in the mall provide them with cover. Fortunately for us, the pups were going to make that difficult. It would look suspicious to have twenty or so teenagers in a group in a store. So, they were probably somewhere in the main mall. The ghouls needed to stay visible in case we came down on them. Everyone knew that blatantly operating in such a public place was fucking dangerous. To complicate matters, there was an annex with a second floor which was home to the mall’s food court and several stores, including a movie theater. We would have to leave that for last, because getting up to the second floor of the annex would have plenty of problems that could be better ascertained once we were actually on scene. That left the west entrance. There were fewer places advantageous for the ghouls on that side, and it was closer to the center of the mall than the east side.

We strolled through the store, occasionally stopping to pretend to browse over some of the wares. Nick did a quick check of the backrooms as Hangman and I checked the second floor of the department store. Progress was slow, as evidenced by Smythe’s impatient muttering over our radios, but we made it to the entrance of the store before an hour was up. The din of the mall invaded us. Scents from hundreds of humans, food stands, and some of the more exotic materials were both intoxicating and nauseating. Nick moved into the mall blending into the crowds. Hangman and I waited for him as he quietly moved up the stream of humans. When he reached about twenty feet, I nudged Hangman on the arm and motioned or him to go up the other side. He nodded and merged into the traffic of human bodies. I waited for him to get twenty feet before I joined the flows. Nick acted as point and would scout his side. Hangman backed him up and scouted the center of the mall. I protected the rear and scouted the left side of the mall. I was also in position to back up Hangman or Nick. We kept tabs on each other as we carefully scouted the mall. Each store was searched by either Nick or me, while Hangman stood outside and waited in case either of us needed him. There was little chance that the ghouls and the pups were in one of the stores, but it was in our blood and training to be thorough, especially where pups were concerned. We searched the length of the mall with no luck. We walked back to the center of the mall and radioed back to Smythe that we had found nothing in the main mall and we were going to check the annex. He was extremely upset with our “slow” progress and told us to hurry it up. If we couldn’t find them, he would start sending in Knights to back us up. That didn’t make us as upset as our normal rivalry would dictate. With Knights in the mall, we could make up roving teams in case the ghouls were moving the pups around behind our backs. The three of us talked about how we were going to deal with the annex. We scanned the visible rim of the second floor. That’s when I caught a glance of her. It took me a moment to recognize her. It was Jennifer Denton, the young pup that Nick and I rescued about and seen into tysach.

I looked over at Nick. His face told me he saw her too. She was standing with another pup just behind the glass and metal banister at the edge of the second floor in the food court. She didn’t look down. I couldn’t see behind her, but I knew her captors were up there also by her posture. Hand signs flashed between the three of us as we moved towards the escalator. We had to get up there, but we were worried that one of the pups would point us out. When that happened, all hell would break loose. We still needed to get into position before we brought in Smythe and his wolves. We could have gone up through the department store at the end of the annex, but the store was about forty yards from the food court, which gave the pups about two to three minutes to see us. The escalator gave them less than thirty seconds. I went up first. Of the three of us, I was the best shot and had the best chance of taking the ghouls out fast and carefully if everything went down badly. Nick stepped on as I was half way up. Enough distance to cover me if I ran into trouble, but also enough to allow him to sneak in. Hangman was about five steps behind him.

I kept my back to the pups as I came up the escalator, quietly prepping the MP7 under my coat. I moved from the escalator over to an unoccupied table on the far east. As I scanned the food court, I picked out the pups. They were in a central group of four tables, five at a table. The tables were in a square configuration, with Jennifer’s one of the closer ones to the banister. A ghoul sat at each table, with another sitting next to the escalator. I grinned as Nick stepped off and walked by the ghoul without him realizing a lycanthrope was less than a foot away. Hangman got off and looked over at me. I rubbed my throat, cuing the mike. He nodded and walked towards the department store, his back to the pups. I heard him in my earpiece.

“Hunter Three to Knight One. Packages in sight. Twenty total. Handlers total five. Location is the food court. Hunter Group will wait for response. Over.” I watched as Hangman walked to the newsstand at the center of the food court and purchased a magazine. He walked over to a false plant behind the ghoul guarding the escalator and pretended to read his magazine. He rubbed his throat in a way to double click his mike telling me he was ready. Two clicks from Nick. After getting off the escalator, he slowly moved to the west corner of the annex’s edge. From there he casually moved from table to table until he was about ten feet behind Jennifer. He was hunched over his table with his hand under his jacket. We were set and ready. That’s when it went all to hell.

One of the pups saw us. Actually he noticed Hangman, and loudly pointed him out for the other two pups. Fucking pups. The ghoul at the table looked at Hangman. He couldn’t see Hangman was a lycanthrope, but he could tell Hangman wasn’t just another shopper. The ghoul stood up from the table and yelled to his companion by the escalator. Hangman dashed to the ghoul and punched him with a concealed blade. The ghoul screamed in pain and staggered back with blood pouring from his neck. There went keeping this operation quiet. Hangman pressed his attack by grabbing the bleeding ghoul and throwing him over the railing surrounding the escalator well. The ghoul fell onto the escalator with the crunch of bones. The humans in the food court panicked at the sudden violence in their midst. Screams filled the food court as the humans stampeded away from Hangman. That was good for Nick and me. As the other ghouls sat stunned, Nick and I drew our weapons and placed suppressed rounds into the ghouls. The ghouls collapsed before they had a chance to react.

“Smythe, things are fucked,” I said over the radio, “Get your ass over to the parking garage for pick up of the packages.” Smythe began screaming at us over the radio, but I wasn’t listening. We needed to organize and evacuate the pups. Amidst the swirling mass of terrified humans, it wasn’t going to be easy. I looked over to Nick, who was already trying to get the pups into some semblance of order. Most of the pups were scared and confused. Fortunately, the pups could see there were three lycanthropes, and they clung to our presence. That was good because it was going to make it easier for us to move the pups when Smythe finally showed up.

Nick was thrown down as thunder boomed through the food court. Hangman and I spun to find a single ghoul with holding a stainless revolver standing next to the stand-alone box office for the movie theater. The ghoul brought the revolver down on Hangman. I snapped up the MP7 and placed a burst into the ghoul. The ghoul collapsed to the floor. The humans scattered as they realized that the food court was a shooting zone. Two more ghouls emerged from the movie theater entrance. Hangman and I turned to take them down. Before we could fire, two booming gunshots knocked down the two ghouls. Nick must have dropped his submachine gun if he’d switched to his sidearm. I turned to tease him about losing one of the rare weapons. My eyes went wide in shock. Jennifer Denton stood over Nick, who was rubbing his chest where the bullet hit him. In Jennifer’s hands was Nick’s monster S&W 629 .44 Magnum revolver. That’s when I saw it. Maybe I saw it when Nick and I rescued her, but I didn’t recognize it then. She had it. The stance, the look, the complete focus on her target – this pup had the makings of a hunter. Maybe I didn’t recognize it before because female hunters were so rare. Some lycanthropes thought females just didn’t naturally have the instincts hunters needed. Most females, maybe, but definitely not all of them. The female hunters I did know were just as deadly as male hunters. It didn’t matter. Jennifer had the instincts. From the expression on Nick’s face, he saw in Jennifer the same things that I did.

“Hangman, cover the pups!” I yelled, moving back to Nick and Jennifer. Nick staggered to his feet as I moved next to him. Jennifer gingerly handed Nick back his revolver without saying a word. Nick’s face twisted into a half-smile that was kind of eerie – at least to me. He holstered the revolver and put his hand on the pup’s shoulder.

“You did well Jennifer,” Nick said quietly, “Now move back with the others. The Knights will be here momentarily. Ranger and I have to secure the area.” Her face turned into stony flint of stubbornness.

“I want to fight,” she said with a familiar determination, “I can do it.” I looked at her. She reminded me of some of the other pups that were later given invitations to the Hunters Guild. She was definitely someone the hunters wanted.

“Jennifer,” I said calmly, “You understand that the Nick and I are going hunting for any other ghouls that may have been with this group?” She nodded. There was still that determination in her face. That was good, because she was going to need it. I reached down to my ankle holster and pulled out my backup piece.

“Okay pup,” I continued, holding out the revolver, “This is a Ruger SP101 in .357 Magnum. It holds five rounds in the cylinder and has a bit of kick. Not quite as much as Nick’s, but enough it might be uncomfortable for you to shoot. Put the front sight on the bad guy, and then squeeze -squeeze, not pull -the trigger. Do you understand?”

“Front sight, then squeeze. Yes sir,” she answered in a calm and confident voice as she took the revolver by the butt. She had the same voice right after her capture and torture by vampires. Then, I thought it was from shock, but now I wasn’t so sure. I looked up at Nick. He nodded – and then was thrown back onto the tiled ground as the sound of a machine pistol stuttered through the annex. I rolled to the side and brought up my MP7. A responding roar came from beside me. I watched as the ghoul’s right shoulder jerked at Jennifer’s shot hit. The machine pistol clattered to the ground as I placed the holographic reticule on the staggering figure. His eyes burned with rage. I put two quick bursts into the ghoul before it finally collapsed. I scampered over to Nick who was coughing, and holding his ribs. The vest saved him from bullet penetration. The bruising and breaking of his ribs would be taken care of by his own healing. I glanced over to Jennifer, who joined us. She looked at Nick with great concern.

“Are you okay?” she asked him, in a soft voice.

“Fine. What the hell just happened?” he asked, a little angry with himself.

“You got shot,” I answered in my best Forrest Gump impression.

“Very funny, asshole,” he replied, staggering up with the help of a chair. I turned to Jennifer with a bright smile on my face.

“Nice shooting pup,” I said to her. “You need a bit more practice, though.”

“Sorry,” Jennifer said, “Do you want it back?” She held out the revolver.

“Why don’t you hang on to it?” I said, “You seem to be able to handle it.” Her blue eyes gleamed as I unstrapped my boot holster and handed it to her. At that moment, Smythe and the other lycanthropes flooded the food court. Smythe didn’t look very happy, but I really didn’t give a flying fuck. The pups came first. Smythe and I could settle any differences between us after the pups were safe. To his credit, Smythe had the same idea. He directed a few of his lycanthropes to surrounding the pups while the Red Knights began opening a path towards the parking garage.

“Ranger, I need your people moving ahead and clear out any of the humans that try to block us off. Lord Vollen asked you keep human deaths to a minimum,” Smythe ordered. I nodded, even though his pompous tone grated on my spine. The pups came first, and I knew Lord Vollen would risk even the pathwalkers’ wrath to protect and secure them. Wars were fought over protecting pups. They were almost as sacred to our society as the Ancestors. I looked back to Nick and Hangman, who both nodded in response. I scampered down the escalator. There were a few human security guards, but they fled as soon as they saw three heavily armed individuals. The security guards didn’t worry me. It was the police that worried me. The gun fight took longer than it should have. By now the police heavy forces were either en route or already on scene. With our luck, both the Hillsborough County Tactical Response Team and Tampa Police SWAT were converging on the mall. We needed to make sure that those police forces would be unable to follow the van holding the pups.

“Got any ideas?” Hangman asked as we ran into the parking garage. We were confronted by a dozen or so police officers leveling pistols, shotguns, and assault rifles at us. My mind raced through our options as the police screamed at us to drop our weapons and surrender.

“I’ll do the distraction. Run for the cars,” I told them, “Form a barricade to draw the police away from the ramp. We fight for a while and then slip away. We might have to leave our stuff.” None of us liked that option, but we would gladly do it to keep the pups safe. I pulled a flash-bang from inside my jacket and tossed it at the police. They opened fire, but we were in motion, and lycanthropes move fast. As the flash-bang detonated, I ran after Nick and Hangman who were behind a line of parked cars. They shifted for true, keeping their true forms out of sight of the police. The last thing we needed was for witch-hunters to emerge from all of this. With the much greater strength of our true form, Nick and Hangman put cars on end to form an impromptu wall between us and the fusillade of police gunfire. The gunfire slackened noticeably as the police tried to figure out what they were dealing with. Fighting people armed with automatic weapons was rare enough. Having to deal with individuals who could upend automobiles was beyond anything the police would normally deal with.

“Smythe, we’ve got the police distracted,” I reported as Nick and Hangman finished the fort of cars and shifted back to human form, “Extract with the pups. We’ll find our own way home.”

“We’ve already exited the parking garage,” Smythe answered, “I don’t anticipate any further problems that the Wolf’s Growl cannot handle.” I snarled under my breath. Smythe could have just told us when he got the pups out of the area. That would have opened up my options for our own extraction. Hangman and Nick looked over at me with similarly annoyed expressions.

“Well?” Nick asked, “How are we going to get out of here?”

“I don’t think we can use another flash-bang on them and hope to run,” I told them, “My original idea was to fight it out with the cops for a bit and then slip out as a wolf. Gunny will kill us for leaving the MP7’s, and I hate losing my sidearm and gear. Any other ideas?” The three of us looked at each other as bullets spanged off the cars forming our barrier. The police were yelling for our surrender, but that wasn’t going to happen. We couldn’t use the MP7’s on the police. The little bullets were designed to punch right through the body armor the cops were wearing. Good for killing ghouls, bad for not killing police officers and sheriff’s deputies.

“Actually, I think we could drop another flash-bang,” Nick said, “Then we run down towards 22nd Avenue. Once we get into one of those apartment complexes, it’s not going to be hard to sneak into the VA hospital, and then across to the university.” It was going to be risky and fast, but it might work. On the north end of University Square Mall was 22nd Avenue, which stretched all the way out to Bearss Avenue, the northern-most east-west road for the majority of Tampa. On either side of 22nd were some apartment complexes. The eastern ones backed into the VA hospital. The hospital had a walkway over Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to the University of South Florida. It was constructed so that the students at the university’s medical college wouldn’t have to brave the barrage of insane drivers that frequented Bruce B. The good part was that we could easily lose ourselves on the university’s grounds until we could get a pickup. It was a somewhat risky, but doable plan. It involved a lot of running, and possibly a lot of gunfire, but that was what made our jobs so exciting.

“First things first,” Hangman said, looking between the cars, “We’re going to need to knock out some of those cruisers. You think these little bullets will screw up an engine block?” There was only one way to find out. Poking our weapons through the small gaps between the cars, the three of us fired short bursts into the centers of a few police cruisers. There were pleasant sounds of metal being shredded as the tiny bullets punched through the grilles of the cruisers and tore through the components behind. Nick’s leaked liquid. We finished off the magazines in the MP7’s and took out four more police cruisers. If they tried to follow us, it was going to be difficult. We made sure the ones we hit would block off the rest of the cruisers. It would give us a short head start. I pulled out the flash-bang. The little device sailed over the barricade as Nick shoved a car out of our way. The thunderous roar echoed through the concrete parking garage, amplifying the effect on the police officers. Nick, Hangman, and I bolted out of our impromptu fortification and ran as fast as we could through the parking garage and out across the rear parking lot. I could hear the distinctive sounds of police helicopters. Fuck. They must have just gotten over us. Those could really screw us over. The helicopters wouldn’t have any problems tracking the three of us and directing additional forces our way. Damn it all to hell. The three of us made it to a copse of trees on the edge of the mall’s grounds.

“Didn’t think about helos,” Nick admitted as we took cover. I looked out as more police cruisers flew towards where we were hiding.

“Guess we shift and ditch,” I said.

“Guess so,” Nick agreed. We quickly made makeshift harnesses out of our belts. It was one of those things hunters are taught at the camp. Escaping using the wolf form was effective. Humans really didn’t think much about dogs, which was how they saw our wolf form. The trick was carrying out as much gear as possible. The biggest things that needed to be saved for us were the MP7’s. Those couldn’t be quickly replaced. Our phones were smashed and the sim cards swallowed. It sounded disgusting, but we weren’t going to get hurt from a sim card banging around inside of us. No silver. The slings were rigged so we could carry the MP7’s close to our bellies. Everything else was left. As the Tactical Response team prepared to storm our cover, we shifted forms for wolf. As soon as Tac Rep tossed in their own flash-bangs, the three of us trotted up 22nd Avenue. A few blocks north, a nondescript van pulled up to us. The three lycanthropes in the van pretended to herd us into the vehicle. Will Leafdancer, the young pup I extracted out of Ybor a month or so back, saw what was happening on the local news and decided he and his friends were going to try and help out. By sheer luck, he and his crew came across Nick, Hangman, and me. As many times as Murphy fucked me over, it was nice to turn the tables on the bastard.

Leafdancer stopped briefly at a Target to pick up some clothes for the three of us. Once we were dressed in some basic clothing, Leafdance dropped us off at the armory. Very few in the packs knew where the Guild was located. Granted, it was a bit of paranoia on the hunters’ part, but we had a long institutional memory. There had been more than one attempt to disband and destroy the Guild since its inception. The armory’s gun shop front was still operating, but most of the Guild’s weapons were transferred to the armory at the Guild itself. If the packs needed weapons, the hunters would transport the weapons to the armory and distribute them there – but only if Gunny approved. The Guildmaster trusted his head armorer’s judgement. With many thanks of gratitude and praising of the Ancestors, Leafdancer and his crew returned to their pack while the three of us walked into the gun shop. I can’t speak for Nick or Hangman, but I was surprised to see Gunny and Boomer standing behind the counter.

“Well, look what dragged themselves in,” Gunny drawled as we stood for a moment in surprise, “I hope my weapons are in good condition being dragged around.” We handed I over the small submachine guns.

“What’s the damage?” Nick asked with an almost grim tone to his voice. The job in the mall was successful in that we rescued the pups, but it had been too open and too loud. If it had gone properly, we should have taken the pups out of the mall and removed the ghouls without any humans noticing us. The problem was that ghouls didn’t take things like the pathwalkers into consideration when they were following out their masters’ orders. They did what they were told to do and they just didn’t give a damn if the humans got in their way or not. Bradon told me once it took intensive work with a ghoul to get them to overcome their basic zealousness. The Bleeders had one vampire whose job was just to train their ghouls. At the moment, we were concerned the job caused enough noise our normal covers would be blown.

“Minimal to us,” Gunny answered, “The humans managed to convince themselves it was a gang fight that got out of control. All part of the current rise in violence, but completely attributable to normal criminals. We didn’t even need to get too involved beyond disappearing the ghoul bodies.” He motioned to a small television in the corner of the gun shop. “Unconfirmed rumors of gun fire, conflicting reports of who was involved, all the good things that keep the humans from looking our way.”

“Well that’s good news,” Hangman said with a relieved expression on his face. I couldn’t blame him. If the humans were blaming themselves, then the pathwalkers would have little reason to come down and restore the balance. “Anything else going on besides all the fun we’ve been having?”

“What do you mean?” asked Gunny, slightly confused by the Hangman’s tone. Hangman did sound a slightly bit suspicious, which even I found odd. Hangman was a gifted young hunter, but he still did and said things that were a bit off. Still, sometimes Hangman could pick up on small details that escaped the rest of us.

“Well you’re here instead of at the Guild,” Hangman answered, “You haven’t been here since the war broke out. If the Guild provides weapons to the packs, the other hunters are the ones that make the deliveries. Yet, here you are.” I had to admit, I was surprised to see Gunny in the armory, but I really didn’t think it was an omen of something going on beyond the normal course of the war. Hangman was getting too good. Gunny gave a knowing grin and walked around the counter.

“The Guildmaster was worried I was burning out with all of the work I was doing at the Guild,” Gunny said, “So he told me to come out here for a day or two. I’ve got a couple of others working the armory in the Guild.” Just getting out of the Guild had done wonders for Gunny. He was smiling with a real amusement, not just his sarcastic grin that he used since the war had started.

“I figured you three lost your sidearms to keep my guns safe,” Gunny said, his voice going serious. We nodded solemnly. “I’ve been thinking it might be time to upgrade all of you. So, I have some packages for you.”

“And it’s not even my birthday,” I replied, dryly. I walked over to the counter where Gunny placed a new pistol on a gun blotter. I picked up the handgun and smiled. The HK45’s lines were reminiscent of my USP, but this was in many ways a whole new pistol. A threaded barrel protruded from the slide. A picatinny rail was forward of the trigger guard. After ensuring the weapon was unloaded, I tested the trigger. Much nicer and cleaner than my USP.

“That is nice,” I murmured, putting the HK45 back on the counter, “How much?”

“No charge. The Guildmaster wanted you to have this as soon as I got a hold of one,” Gunny answered, “It also comes with this nice little kit.” A small black plastic box materialized on the counter. I opened it up to find a suppressor and a laser-light module. Ten pre-loaded magazines were also in the box. Gunny turned from me and looked over at Nick.

“Nicholas, the Guildmaster wanted me to see if you wanted to try this,” Gunny said, hefting a large pistol case onto the glass counter. The weapon inside was one of the largest handguns that I had ever seen. I heard about the Smith & Wesson Model 500, but this was the first time that I saw it up close. Nick hefted the massive revolver with an appraising eye. The S&W 500 was chambered for the enormous .500 Magnum cartridge. The rounds were designed to take down light to medium game. To me, the Smith was like the Desert Eagle .50 AE – an interesting niche weapon, but with very few real applications for the type of work that hunters do. By the look in his eyes, Nick had a different opinion. He had the gleam of a child with a brand-new toy that he had been praying to Santa for the entire year.

“Boomer finally managed to make up some silver rounds for that caliber,” Gunny said, “We made some penetrator rounds so you can take out a leech using cover as well as some anti-personnel rounds that will drop an enormous amount of energy into a target.” Gunny handed hand-built speed loaders of various rounds over to Nick. They were gigantic bullets compared to the .45 ACP bullets that I used, and were even larger than the .44 Magnum rounds that Nick normally carried.

“This is going to be fun,” Nick answered quietly, almost caressing the monster revolver, “It’s going to require some practice, but I like it.” Nick’s fascination with huge, powerful handguns was funny to me. I prefer a larger caliber than most hunters, but Nick didn’t seem like he was satisfied until he had a handgun that would take down a light airplane. Nick placed the revolver back on the counter and waited as Gunny placed it back in a hard pistol case. Nick turned to my smirking face and gave me a nasty look.

“What’s the problem Ranger?” he asked dryly.

“Not a thing Nick,” I answered, “After all, there are so many APC’s in the leeches’ inventory. I am so glad that you can now take them down without a problem.”

“The name is Nicholas,” he answered with a cool tone I knew was mostly faked, “At least I don’t have to worry about car doors anymore.” That was a point.

“And for the youngest member of your little group,” Gunny said, placing a flat black 1911 with dark wood grips on the counter. I saw manufacturer’s name etched into the side and my eyes went wide.

“Is that?” I asked as Hangman gingerly picked up the pistol.

Wilson Combat CQB Lightrail Lightweight,” Gunny said, almost reverently. Among 1911’s, Wilson Combat was the premium pistol maker. My HK45 was considered a high-end weapon, but the pistol in Hangman’s hand cost enough to buy two of mine. Maybe three if the HK45 was on sale.

“Where did you get one of these?” Hangman asked, pulling back the slide, “Ancestors, I thought mine was smooth. This thing is like glass rails.”

“Actually, off of a dead Bleeder,” Boomer answered, “We sent it back to Wilson and they rehabbed it. They added the threaded barrel, so it’s within their tolerances.” Boomer handed over a case with a suppressor and a laser-light module similar to mine. The Bowmasters spent a good hour getting the three of us fitted with holsters and spare magazine holders. Then it was waiting around for a ride back to the Guild.

“I’m surprised the Guildmaster would have our sidearms upgraded,” Hangman said. Nick and I traded a look.

“Hangman, if the boss wants us to have better weapons, exactly what fires is he expecting to drop us in?” I asked.

Chapter 10 – Easy Jobs Are Never Easy

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 8 – Be Careful of What You Wish For

One of the things that took me a long time to get through my skull as I was coming up as a hunter was not all of the jobs were difficult or required an inordinate amount of firepower. Some were very simple. Even important jobs could be very simple and accomplished with minimal equipment. As I grew in experience, I realized that those important and simple jobs were the ones most hunters preferred. Granted, dramatic and harrowing adventures made great stories for the packs, but among professionals, we knew better. The simpler, the better. This was why I was happy when the Guildmaster gave me the job to take out the Bleeders’ armorer.

I knew William “Buddy” Ritchart through Bradon. I actually met the vampire once. Ritchart was tall and rotund with thinning brown hair and deceptively warm brown eyes. The entire time I talked to him, I don’t think he stopped smiling at me with his dazzling white grin. Ritchart played the southern country gentleman, including dressing the part and using an overdone southern accent. None of that affected genteelness fooled me into thinking Richart was harmless. He was not only a Bleeder, but one of those that were as almost as well trained as hunters. Ritchart was also damned good about going to ground when the shit hit the fan. Two hit packs and a lone wolf tried four different times to take out Ritchart since the beginning of the war. Each time was the same. Just when we thought we had Richart cornered, he just vanished. A couple of days after helping Hangman with his job, a kin reported seeing Ritchart in Northdale, in the northern part of the county. The Guildmaster was tired of having Ritchart running around handing weapons out to the TCV members. He asked me to handle the situation.

I knew the troubles the others had with finding Ritchart, and I was pretty sure that I figured out the common factor. All of them did the last bit of reconnaissance themselves. They needed to see him with their own eyes before they would do their jobs. It was one of those things we were taught in camp, and it was hard for hunters to put aside. Ritchart survived because he’d seen the other hunters before they saw him and simply slipped out one of his planned escape routes. To avoid that mistake, I contacted the kin that made the most recent sighting.

The kin was a young housewife who lived in the same subdivision where Ritchart was hiding. It was just by pure accident she saw him coming out of his house. She agreed to keep me updated while I checked the satellite photos to decide on exactly how I was going to take out Ritchart. Getting close was going to be impossible because Ritchart always kept a pair of ghoul helpers/bodyguards. I was going to have to do either a sniper shot or try for a road kill. Road kills were easier in terms of infiltration and extraction, but if anything went wrong, they became the splashy, event-filled affairs the human media loved to bombard all over television, radio, newspapers, and the internet. Considering how close the war was to courting intervention by the Pathwalkers, or maybe some preventative action by Turaki “peacekeepers,” I decided on a sniper shot. There was some luck was on my side. Ritchart’s house was across from a cul-de-sac, which gave me a nice wide hundred-yard shooting alley. The fun part was infiltrating the subdivision, covertly getting onto the roof of one of the houses at the end of the cul-de-sac, and then quickly getting the hell out after I took down Ritchart. After a couple of phone calls, I convinced the kin to drive me into the subdivision, which covered infiltration. According to the satellite photos, I could extract by the simple means of running through back yards until I hit one of the numerous strip malls that lined Dale Mabry. Dramatic, yes, but not uncommon. If done in true form, most humans wouldn’t see me as I ran. My senses would give me enough warning so I wouldn’t drop into the middle of someone’s backyard party and chance the creation of witch-hunters. The part of the job I was having trouble with was securing the roof of the house. So, I ran it by Nick and Hangman. Surprisingly, it was the pup who came up with the answer.

“Don’t we have a kin in one of the local ad agencies?” he asked, which resulted in questioning looks from Nick and me. The pup shrugged. “I think I worked with her before.” Nick and I just traded confused looks as Hangman went searching through his phone for the kin’s number.

“Okay, I give. What the fuck are you talking about?” I asked.

“Ad agencies always have spare promotional items, including something that will get the family out of the house long enough for you to do your job,” explained Hangman. Okay, that was something I would have never considered. I lived way too much in the lycanthrope world. Except for the bare minimum to maintain my camouflage, I just didn’t think about the normal human world. This was the reason we made sure our kin were deeply rooted into human society. Hangman made the call and within six hours, the kin in the ad agency had that side of the job accomplished. Pictures from the kin in the subdivision gave me the front of the house. In a rare stroke of luck for me, the house had a large front window that would make an excellent sniper blind. No shambling up on to roofs.

As the human family left on a grand night out, courtesy of our kin in the ad agency, I slipped into their house and quietly made my way upstairs. The room was the teen-age daughter’s, which made it a little easier for me. Her room was strewn with all sorts of debris, I doubted she’d notice if I moved anything. Even so, I carefully moved a few items so that I could open the window, and then set up the rifle. I wanted a KAC SR-25 for this job, but the Bowmasters didn’t have one available, so they let me use their newest acquisitions. The HK 417 was similar to the SR-25. Both were based on the M16 family of weapons and designed for precision shooting. For this job, the rifle was equipped the with bi-pod, night-vision scope, suppressor, and brass collector. I really didn’t want to rummage around the house looking for spent brass when I needed to be running. I set the bi-pod’s legs on a nightstand and settled in to wait. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait very long. Maybe fifteen minutes after I set up my shooting position, Ritchart walked out of the house. One ghoul was in front screening its master. The other was pulling rear guard. I needed to take Ritchart down with the first shot, which was going to be a cast-iron bitch. Then I’d handle the two ghouls. Best of all, I needed to get all three down in under a minute. Any longer and my extraction would be more problematic. The responders wouldn’t be normal vampires. They’d be Bleeders.

The Ancestors smiled on me because the lead ghoul stumbled and fell to the ground. Simple Murphy on the bad guys. Ritchart just looked down at his servant and laughed at its misfortune. The laughter stopped as the bullet ripped out his throat. Ritchart fell almost silently to the ground. The rear ghoul never came out of his momentary shock before the next bullet slammed through its chest. The front one realized what was happening and took cover behind a tree. I cursed under my breath. The ghoul’s head popped out and looked down the street. It knew where the bullets were coming from. The small radio materialized just in time for the last round to blow apart its head. Job done.

Extraction was simple. No one even messed with my escape car. For all of my concerns about the job, it went remarkably smooth. More smooth than pretty much all of the jobs that I did. As I cruised back to the Guild, I did my normal reflection on the job. Most of the time, it was trying to find out where I made my mistakes, or which of my actions would cause the Guildmaster some grief. This one was different. It went as easy as the instructors promised back when I was young and naïve and believed everything I was told about perfect planning meant perfect missions. If I believed in fate and karma, I might have suspected that the fates were just setting me up for a future cluster-fuck.

As I roared back into one of the garages above the Guild, I saw Gunny glaring at me. I shot him a questioning glance, but he didn’t say anything to me. I wanted to ask him what was going on, but sometimes it was very dangerous to try and pry stuff him when he was pissed. I walked to the back of the car and pulled out my tactical bag. Shutting the trunk, I smiled nicely at Gunny before going down to the second floor to report to the intelligence group that I finished my job and see what happened while I was out. As I got off the elevator, I was almost run over by Smiley. Smiley, so named by his habit of constantly wearing stupid grins on his face, was a part-time member of the intelligence section. Unfortunately, Smiley was also on the hyperactive side, so I often wondered how they got him to do some of the hard work that intelligence required. Smiley looked down at me with that stupid grin on his face and pardoned himself. Then he went back towards the elevator with a single sheet of paper.

“Hey, what’s this?” I asked, pointing to the paper in his hand. Intelligence reports were rarely printed on only one sheet of paper. The intelligence section often tried to cover every possible angle on any data that came in. While it left some of the reports ambiguous, they often made sure that the most probable hypothesis was emphasized.

“It’s a request for assistance from one of the packs,” Smiley replied. He seemed torn between staying and talking to me and delivering the request downstairs. Smiley’s hyperactivity often led him to be chatty, something the intelligence group constantly chastised him about. It was also the reason he was a part-time specialist instead of one of the full time operatives. To relieve him of his moral dilemma, I snatched the paper from his hands and read it. According to the request, a high ranking vampire and his minions – lesser vampires, ghouls, and human sycophants – were holed up in a house on the bottom of a cul-de-sac in the Forest Hills area. This leech was a major player of the independents that worked outside of the TCV. The vampire was supposedly rallying the independent vampires in the city and county. It was unknown exactly why he was bringing in all the freelancers, but it unnerved the TCV enough to have a group of Bleeders and their ghouls station themselves in a house on the entrance to the cul-de-sac. The pack leader wanted to take out the independent leech, but the Bleeders were preventing any operation in the area surrounding the cul-de-sac. A daytime raid by several of the pack against the Bleeder house resulted in the deaths of three pack warriors with another dozen injured by gunfire before they even got close enough to the house to see anything. The pack leader was certain the pack warriors could take care of the leech if hunters could remove the Bleeders. I checked it again to see if I missed any important details.

“Hell Smiley,” I said, looking back up at him with a grin of my own, “We don’t need to bother Deadeye or Sneller with this. I’ll just take care of this little job myself.” Smiley shifted his weight from left to right with barely contained energy. It wasn’t happy energy.

“Ranger,” he said, looking at me intently, “This type of operation is better suited for the hit packs. You can’t expect to pull off a raid that twenty pack warriors couldn’t do. Just give me back the request and I’ll take it back down to Sneller.”

“I can do this,” I responded glibly, deftly avoiding Smiley’s attempt at grabbing back the paper. “Listen, Sneller’s packs are all booked up, and I’m free right now. So let’s go see what the Guildmaster has to say about this.” Smiley’s grin vanished as the rest of his face dropped. There was a tinge of fear in the back of his eyes. Most of the Guild saw the Guildmaster only as their leader, a cunning lycanthrope who rated just under the lord. I, on the other hand, have always known him as a mostly strict father figure, who guided me in the Guild since he selected me as his personal hitter. I turned and began to walk to the Guildmaster’s office as Smiley stood rooted in shock at my audacious remark. Aside from the top hierarchy, most hunters would never thought of going to the Guildmaster unbidden. I was part of that top hierarchy, so I often went directly to him if I had a problem or found out about a job that I wanted to take. I did have the common decency to knock. Smiley didn’t react until I was halfway to the Guildmaster’s office, then he sprinted down the corridor and grabbed my arm. I easily shook off his large weight and walked the rest of the way to the Guildmaster’s office. Smiley pleaded with me through a sad look in his eyes, but I just smiled at him and knocked on the office door.

“Come in,” came the gruff reply. I opened the door and walked in. Smiley slunk in behind me and looked like he would have rather been inside the TCV Hall. The Guildmaster looked up from a report he was reading, looked me over, and then went back to the report. “This had better be good Marcus. The pack that went in behind you had a hell of a time entering Ritchart’s place. Bleeders were leading a recovery team.”

“Ancestors damn it all, I thought I took out all three without them warning the TCV or the Bleeders,” I said. “How bad?”

“Two injured, but not serious. The Bleeder armory is still in play though,” the Guildmaster growled. “Kurt has JB tracking it down.”

“Sorry boss. I know you told me to do that job up close, but there was just no way I could do it. His ghouls were way too good at catching us before we could take him out.”

“I’m not going to second guess you,” the Guildmaster said. “At least Ritchart is taken care of. He was the last of Bradon’s favored subordinates. So, why did you come to see me?”

“I need you to approve me for this job.” I tossed the paper onto his desk. It took me years of practice to pull that off and make it look easy. He snatched it up with an angry glare towards me. The Guildmaster was simultaneously annoyed and amused by that particular stunt. At the moment, he was more pissed than amused, but he decided not to verbally strip a patch of my hide off for it. The Guildmaster scanned the request over, and then looked up at me with a skeptical look.

“You realize that this job is supposed to be done by a hit pack?” he asked me without the normal sarcasm that I usually garnered from him.

“Yeah,” I answered, keeping my tone confident, “But they’re busy, and I’m not.”

“That’s not a good enough reason, and you know it,” he retorted, “You just came off of a day-long job, and I don’t want you burning yourself out, particularly in light of your first couple of jobs. I don’t have a personal hitter to let you put yourself in a bad position simply because you find the job interesting. Now why shouldn’t I wait until one of Kurt’s packs become available?”

“Because if you wait, there’s a damned good chance that independent vampire will either be brought into the TCV or killed by the Bleeders,” I answered firmly. If there was one thing I knew about my boss, if I made my request in terms of strategic importance, he would consider it more carefully. “Either way, we lose a damned good opportunity to eliminate or capture the leech and a bunch of Bleeders.” I waited as the Guildmaster digested all of this before continuing. “I can take down the Bleeder house, if I get enough data beforehand and plan it out right. I’m not going to be stupid on this. You know me better than that.” The Guildmaster thought it over and looked over at Smiley. I couldn’t see Smiley’s expression, but I gathered Smiley was adamantly against my pulling this job. The Guildmaster shook his head and began writing on the request.

“Your job is approved Marcus,” the Guildmaster told me seriously. I could almost hear Smiley deflate behind me. The Guildmaster waved him out before continuing. “Marcus, you will eliminate all Bleeders and their associates. Once that is done, you will allow the local packs to take care of the primary objective. If they want your assistance with the take-down of the primary target, feel free to join in. Weapons are fully authorized, but don’t be too extravagant. Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” I responded, “Go in, kill all the bad guys, report back to the pack leader, help them out if they want it, and then leave. Did you want me to fire the house?” Firing the house would ensure the leeches would be completely eliminated, but it tended to draw human notice. The bonfire in Plantation made the evening news on all the major networks. Risking such scrutiny was sometimes necessary, but not it had its own risks. The fear the Pathwalkers would decide to intervene was always in the back of every hunter’s mind.

“No,” the Guildmaster replied, his voice conveying no leniency on the issue. “I want to keep the humans out of this as much as possible. Our allies and the leeches’ within the human authorities are doing all they can to keep our war in the unseen. What we can do to help in that regards is absolutely necessary.” I nodded, and the Guildmaster handed me the paper. When Smiley and I walked outside the office, the hunter gave me a smoldering glare and stalked back to the intelligence section. I just shook my head in resignation and walked to the armory. I often took for granted my close relationship with the Guildmaster. It annoyed some of the other hunters. I checked the order papers to see which pack I was supposed to meet up with for the operation. I frowned. That couldn’t be right. I checked again. Fuck. What were they doing in that neighborhood. I cursed under my breath. It was my first pack, the one that Discovered me. To say there was some bad blood between the pack and me was a grave understatement. I thought over the operation as I headed to the stairs. The first thing I needed was some sleep. I left the intelligence area and went down to where my quarters were. On the way down, I ran into Nick.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” I asked. He looked at me suspiciously before answering.

“I’m taking down the leech coordinating logistics for the TCV,” he answered with a wary tone, “Why, what do you need?”

“I’ve got a little job in Forest Hills tomorrow and I really didn’t want to drive out there.” He gave me a suspicious look.

“When were you planning on going?” he asked. I looked down at my watch. It was only about eight in the evening. I thought about loadout time and made some fast time calculations.

“I’d say about ten in the morning,” I told him. He thought about that for a moment before answering.

“Yeah, I can probably do that. Hangman and I are running a quickie tonight into the stadium to meet some independent lycanthropes and see if they can provide some support to us. That shouldn’t take too long.” I grimaced at Nick’s job. The lycanthropes who left our society and tried to forget who they were were the most bizarre of our kind. It was rare, mostly from those whose grandparents or great-uncles/aunts were the contributing lycanthrope. There were a few in Tampa, maybe a dozen at most. They kept some ties to the packs – you cannot eat human flesh and not have some help in disposing of the bodies – but their involvement in our affairs was practically nonexistent. I didn’t understand them at all. How could anyone give up the completeness of the world in true form? The Guildmaster believed they did at least have the right to be fully informed about what was going on, and given the chance to return to the packs. I wasn’t so sure, but what the Guildmaster ordered, the hunters carried out. Nick didn’t say anything further about his current job, but did tell me to call him in the morning when I was ready.

Leaving Nick, I went down to my room. I stripped out of my clothing and took a quick shower, thinking over the job. For as much confidence as I showed the Guildmaster, I knew this job wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. The opposition was Bleeders. They were going to be trained and nasty, and they had ghouls to protect them during the day. Bleeder ghouls were well-trained, plus they had that nasty zealous streak in them. Some hunters thought that edged the ghouls over their Bleeder masters. At least the leeches knew when to cut and run. I thought on that for a moment. Ghouls were overprotective of their masters, but they were still human. Well mostly human at any rate. Thinking along that track, I concluded the best time for an attack was about an hour before dusk. Ghouls, even Bleeder ghouls, were still going to have some human limitations, including the fatigue factor. If the Bleeders set up shop in that house for a while, then the routine was probably set. An hour before dusk was the critical time for ghouls in a protection mode. At that point, they began to let their guard down. If there was going to be a time to take out the house, then that was it. I was going to have to be on the ball, and not let any fuck-ups happen. I flipped on computer long enough to send Gunny and Boomer an email that I was going to be up in the armory to pick out my gear for the mission in the morning. With that done, I turned the computer off and went to bed.

I woke up the next morning and continued to ponder over my options for the take-down. The Guildmaster specifically said not to fire the house, which meant most of my normal entry mechanisms went out the proverbial window. I decided on waiting to see what data and resources the pack had before I decided on an entry method. I stepped out of the shower and dried myself off. I put on a simple dark t-shirt and a pair of jeans. Although they weren’t as mission oriented as the usual black jumpsuit, they were far more inconspicuous. I placed the USP in its normal position on my right hip and trekked up to the armory. Gunny was in the armory checking over a pair or badly-mangled Uzis. He looked up as I walked in. He put down the remains of the sub-machine guns and walked over to me.

“What’s up with the Uzis?” I asked him. They looked like someone ran several thousand rounds in full-automatic without bothering to even field-strip the pieces. Ancestors, what stupid-ass hunter had taken such poor care of his weapons?

“I’m trying to cannibalize any of the usable parts out of them. The packs haven’t been real careful with the weapons I’ve loaned out,” Gunny answered. He sounded even more disgusted than I was. I hoped he wasn’t in such a bad mood I would have a hard time getting the weaponry that I needed. His weapons were his pride and joy, and when someone banged them around too much, Gunny became real reluctant to let the rest out of his sight.

“I’m running low on spare parts,” Gunny said, “I’ve talked to some of the pack leaders about it, but they don’t seem to understand that you can’t do all that abuse to a weapon like they do in the movies. So what do you need?”

“I’m taking down a house for a pack. I don’t have a layout on the house, but the Guildmaster ruled out using explosives. I was thinking about an MP5K or maybe an MP 9.” Gunny walked over to a rack of rifles as he thought over my request.

“Why not a shotgun?” he asked, picking up a Mossberg and examining the chamber, “Or your Commando.”

“Not the shotgun because the house I’m going into is going to have a lot of targets, and I want the SMG’s extra ammo and compactness.” Gunny seemed satisfied with that answer and went into one of his chained-off load-out pads. When he came back, he was holding an MP5K with a half dozen spare magazines. Gunny set the weapon and the magazines down on the same table he was working on before I came in.

“Are you going to need leather?” he asked as I began to check over the SMG.

“Yeah,” I answered, inspecting the action of the gun. I had a single shoulder holder for the compact MP5K, but it wouldn’t be practical for this operation. Gunny kept plenty of various tactical rigs to hold all of the weapons, ammunition, and electronics in the armory. He didn’t disappoint when he came back with a nice shoulder rig. As I fit the rig over my t-shirt and fiddled with the straps, Gunny produced a few boxes of ammunition for the guns. I verified that the boxes were nine millimeter Silver Shoks. I trusted Gunny, but everyone makes mistakes. Especially with the tempo of wartime operations. It would be annoying to have to trek all the way back to the armory to switch ammunition boxes.

“Are you going to need rounds for that pistol of yours?” Gunny asked as I began to collect everything.

“No,” I answered casually, “I’ve still got a thousand rounds on hand.” He nodded in acknowledgment and went back to his work on the Uzis. I grabbed everything and headed back down to my room. After settling the MP5K, the spare magazines, and the rig on the bed, I rummaged through my chest of drawers. I pulled out a box of energy bars and munched on one as I pulled out equipment. A Kevlar vest was laid next to the shoulder rig. One of my generic personal radio sets with a throat mike and earpiece were placed on the bed. When dealing with packs, I brought my own comm gear. Too many packs just relied on cell phones. I grabbed a pair of flash-bangs. I damn sure wasn’t going to forget those again. I thought about pulling out my Glock since it was also a nine millimeter, but decided against it. This was against Bleeders and their minions. I felt that I would need the heavier .45 ACP in the close confines of the house. My waist was going to be crowded with spare magazines for the subgun and the USP, so I pulled a thigh holster for the USP. My back up would be my trusted Ruger SP101. My Emerson folding knife would be clipped to my pocket. A pair of silver knives would go in the small of the back. A set of throwing knives, which were little more than oversized silver darts, would go into a shoulder sheath. Those were some last-ditch weapons. The ghouls would have to be decently armed. They fended off the pack’s attack. More than likely they would have assault rifles with shotguns and sub-machine guns to back them up. I needed to see the floor plan of the house to better plan my assault. It was going to be hard and fast so the ghouls no time to react and awaken their masters. With the ghouls down, I could take care of the leeches either with bullets or by driving stakes through their hearts. After the house was secured, I would call the pack down on the independent leech. It was going to be intense, but I was a nasty little fucker. I carefully placed the loaded rig, my Kevlar vest, and the rest of the gear into one of my tactical bags and called over to Nick.

The drive over to the pack’s battle camp was mostly quiet. Nick was going over his own job in his head. Nick was busily thinking through some problem or another and almost missed the battle camp. I wondered if it was such a good idea dragging Nick into my job, but I didn’t want to go into that battle camp alone. There were too many bad memories and I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to react. The battle camp was a motor home park. Several of the packs in and around the Forest Hills and Sulphur Springs areas gathered together and formed a single big camp. It allowed for some cooperation between the packs in missions and skirmishing, but mainly it was a matter of safety in numbers. Maybe a couple dozen motor homes of varying sizes were littered around the park. The big vehicles were covered with antennae and cross connecting cables. A few pack warriors with barely concealed guns patrolled the grounds. I would have hired one of the local kin security firms to provide basic security. Any hunter could have told the pack leaders that, but pack leaders rarely cared what a hunter said until the hunter was doing a job for them. I looked over to Nick and gave him a resigned shrug. He kept his face neutral, but I could read his eyes well enough to know that he’d already done his own estimate of the camp and came to the same conclusions that as me.

I was stopped by a pair of lycanthropes trying hard to look threatening. They were trying too hard, and it took an effort not to laugh out loud. A truly dangerous individual doesn’t have to try to look dangerous. He carries himself with the self-confidence and self-assuredness few can match. More than once, it was how I spotted a Bleeder when I was on a job. We told the two lycanthropes we were hunters and presented my orders. The older one of the two looked over my job orders and then directed the two of us over to where one of the pack leaders and his warriors set up. As we left them, I felt a pang of annoyance. If the Bleeders ever figured out how lax the security was in this camp, they would have the pack leaders’ heads and most of their warriors to boot. If that happened we could lose pretty much everything east of Florida Avenue and south of Fletcher to the vampires. I made a mental note to ask the Guildmaster if he would send a hunter or ask for a Red Knight to help remedy the situation.

The pack who asked for hunter support was near the center of the camp. I didn’t like that one bit. It was bad terrain if a confrontation came down, which was likely. Even with the years behind me, the crushing pain and shame of watching all of the pack warriors stay in their entre when the Spiritmaster asked who stood for me at Discovery flashed through me. Time hadn’t healed the wound as much as built up scars around the wound. The taunts of the other pups in tysach ghosted back up from my memory. I’d made sure that each of the bastards paid – in spades. Still, no matter how sweet the revenge, it did little to fill the hole left over the rejection of my first pack. My first pack wasn’t running around Forest Hills when I was brought in. Back then, the pack roamed the south part of Carrollwood. They watched as their part of Hillsborough rose in affluence only to be eclipsed as newer developments were founded and began the affluence cycle. I never did find out how they knew about me. Because of the close-knit families of lycanthropes and kin, most pups are known well before it is time for them to go to the cravex for the Rite of Discovery. Even pups like Jennifer Denton, whose parents shunned lycanthrope society, were watched to see if they start displaying some signs.

Somehow my first pack found about me and broke into my human parents’ home. They were gone before I awoke from the dream that beckoned me to the cravex. I woke up that night dazed and confused. My entire world changed. It felt more real. It wasn’t until I saw my own reflection that I realized how much my world had changed. As I stared into the mirror to see my true form for the first time, I felt adrift in the sea of what was once reality and lore. Only one thing seemed sure, and that was that I would know more at the cravex. I left my human family that night. I never saw them again. Every so often I wondered what they were like now. How much had they changed because of what happened? Those thoughts came less frequently now. During my first month as a lycanthrope, I thought of nothing else. I staggered into the cravex the next day. It was pretty far away from my human parents’ home, and I didn’t dare get near any “normal” people. Waiting for me was Michael Twisted Knife, the pack leader, and Victor Ghost Dancer, a shaman working with the pack to help collect me. I was tired, hungry, cold, confused, and very susceptible to anything at that point. With a kind voice and a smile, Michael and Victor tried to divine who I was. I didn’t understand what was going on, much less why the two who had been so warm and friendly a few minutes before turned icy cold. I was left in the care of a member of the pack. He was an old lycanthrope who thought I was his personal servant. I hated his grating voice, his demanding and whining personality, and his refusal to treat me as anything but a lowly creature. I did owe him a debt of gratitude. He forced me to forge an iron will and learn not to take anyone else’s crap. Shortly before Discovery, he and I had a little talk. At the end, he was in a corner of the room, shaking in fear. I hadn’t laid a hand on him, but he was the first who realized I could kill other lycanthropes without hesitation. He could see it in my eyes. He died after my Initiation when he heard I was going into the Guild. Whispers among the packs said he was afraid I would return ready to murder him. The truth was that I already proved myself against him. There was no need to do anything further.

My Discovery started normally as any other. I watched as the other pups walked into the circle and shed their forms. When it came time for me, Twisted Knife pushed me into the circle without saying a word. He didn’t say the words dictated in the Rite of Discovery. The Spiritmaster was forced to ask me to shed for true. When I did, the Spiritmaster almost seemed relieved. Then when asked if any would stand for me, none of the pack came forward. I could hear the shocked whispers around the cravex. It was embarrassing and painful to watch the rest of the gathered packs look at me in accusing mystery. It also severed any good emotions I might have had for Twisted Knife and his pack. The Spiritmaster inducted the other pups and me into tysach. The years of the training seemed to fly by as I was busy learning, fighting, and occasionally taking my revenge on some of my enemies. The other pups might have treated me as an outsider, but I was determined not to be defeated by them. The shaman that taught us seemed amused by my antics, but frightened of what I was. The main thing I learned in tysach was just not to give a damn about what the bastards thought. It only mattered what the wolves I respected thought of me. Everyone else could go to hell. If they caused problems for me, there were ways for dealing with them. I finished tysach and was Initiated into the Lordship of Hillsborough County. The night I was Initiated, I was recruited into the Guild by a hunter who died fighting leeches while I was still in Guild training. I never did learn his pack name.

In the years since I joined the Guild, Twisted Knife’s pack had suffered bad fortunes. As the population in their territory grew, so did their pack. Shortly after I returned from the Guild’s training, the pack was large enough some started clamoring for a new pack to be formed. As dictated by law, the first Lord Vollen chose who would belong to the new pack and who would lead the pack. Instead of claiming new territory, the new pack didn’t want to leave the territory of my first pack. It was unusual, but it had happened enough that there were laws and customs to follow. The new pack leader and Twisted Knife faced off in combat. Twisted Knife lost. It was humiliating, and Twisted Knife should have lost his pack leadership. Instead, Twisted Knife managed to regain face by finding the pack a new home in Forest Hills. The actual circumstances were unknown to me, but I heard rumors that it was a political payoff between Twisted Knife and Grant Vollen, the first Lord Vollen. Now, I was face to face with the pack members that forsaken me.

As I approached, the older lycanthropes of the pack recognized me and fell back in silent retreat. The younger lycanthropes watched their elders, and looked at me with hostile looks. They didn’t know or understand what was going on, but they resented a single lycanthrope could make their veterans shirk back. I really didn’t give a damn about what they liked or didn’t like. They requested help from the Guild. I was just there to do the job. One of the younger lycanthropes stood up with a look of challenge in his eyes, but an older lycanthrope I recognized from Discovery put a restraining hand on him. Nick just looked around casually, as if he didn’t notice or was immune to the tension in the camp. Twisted Knife was standing outside an RV serving as his command center and talking to a pack warrior about my age. He either saw me approach or had been warned because he was putting up an effort to ignore me. The warrior looked at me nervously. He was desperately trying to end the conversation and evacuate ground zero. I didn’t blame him. The memories of my past were barely kept in check by the professionalism the Guildmaster beat into me over the years. Other than that, I didn’t feel bound by the normal deference to a pack leader. I spent some time researching Twisted Knife’s war record, or lack thereof. His pack did reasonable well against the few independent vampires in his territory, but their victories were mainly due to Twisted Knife’s able deputies. Twisted Knife was an excellent political fighter, but he hadn’t done so well once the shooting started. As far as I was concerned, that leveled the field between him and me. Finally, he couldn’t ignore me anymore and turned to face me. He didn’t look any different than when I saw him at the Rite of Discovery so long ago. His face and eyes conveyed nothing but utter contempt.

“What are you doing here Badmoon?” he asked as if I was little more than a wayward pup trying to play hunter. The Badmoon came out as a vile curse. A flare of anger passed through me, but I pushed it back down. I had the upper hand, and Twisted Knife knew it.

“Cleaning up your fuck-ups,” I responded in a level voice. There were more than a few sharp intakes of air around us. In matters of lycanthrope pack custom, it was considered most unseemly to swear in front of those who were supposed to be your social superiors, especially in public. It was an entirely separate breach of etiquette to lay blame for failures at the feet of your superior in public. That was reserved for private pack meetings, or when one of the pack was challenging for control of the pack. I kept my glee hidden as I watched his face bloom with deep color as he tried to contain his anger at the effrontery.

“I would watch my tone, if I were you,” he said through clenched teeth, “It might lead to ugly situations.” Ancestors. He was still trying to be intimidating. Either he hadn’t realized I was no longer that scared little pup he first met, or he really thought he was that fearsome. My guess was the latter. It was time to educate him that neither of the assumptions was true.

“My tone didn’t get your warriors killed.” Twisted Knife was on the verge of striking me. I could see the decision flickering in his eyes. I wasn’t too worried about that. What did worry me was the restraining hand Nick put on my shoulder. He obviously thought I went too far and needed to be reigned in before I hampered the job. I took a breath before continuing. “I’m going to clean out that house you failed to take down. I expect full cooperation from your pack on this, and so does the Guildmaster.” Twisted Knife was now in a bad position. He made the request to the Guild. When the Guild sent a hunter or hit pack out, they were expected to be the best for the job. Refusing my services would constitute telling the Guildmaster the pack leader didn’t have faith in the Guildmaster’s judgement. Long tradition held those who turned away hunters were placed low on the priority list. Furthermore, asking for hunters, and then not giving the support that they required to accomplish their jobs was also considered a rebuke against the Guildmaster. I wondered what Twisted Knife was going to do as the tense, silent moments passed.

“Very well,” Twisted Knife said, composed, “If the Guildmaster thinks you’re qualified to take down the house, I guess I have no other choice but to accept his judgment.” It was a careful concession. It didn’t sound right coming from him. I was concerned about what was going through his head. Twisted Knife was just too good a political fighter to accept such a public defeat without a scheme for vengeance. He motioned to a young lycanthrope amongst the group that gathered around Twisted Knife and myself. “Paul, here, will provide you with anything that you require from us.” Twisted Knife clearly considered the matter closed, because he abruptly turned from me and went into the command vehicle. Paul walked over to us in the gangly stride of a green warrior. Twisted Knife may have decided teaming me up with this pup as an insult, but I had a feeling it was better for me. The pup seemed oblivious to the discomfort of the rest of his pack’s warriors. He was wearing an expression I’d seen many times on pups’ faces. Hunters engendered a certain mystique amongst the packs, and many pups found it exciting to work with us. Most of them, fortunately, could easily be taught to put away whatever stories, rumors, and such they heard about us. The others needed to be beaten around the head and neck a few more times before they understood.

“What can I do for you sir?” he asked, respectfully. I looked him over carefully. He was only a year or two out of tysach, still a teenager by human standards. His eyes held a gleam of excitement and enthusiasm. He was taller than me, standing about six-three or so, with the characteristic dark brown hair and eyes that dominated lycanthrope lineage. His frame was thin, but I could see that it was mostly muscle. He was decked out in jeans and a dark t-shirt with a Ruger P95 holstered at his side. What endeared me most to this pup was his smile. It seemed to make his face complete and gave him the look of complete sincerity and innocence. He just looked like someone’s kid brother.

“First thing we need to do is get together all the information that you have on where the ghouls and leeches are holed up. Now, what do you know about the house?” I asked, keeping my voice level and calm. He thought about it studiously a moment before answering.

“It’s a single story house on the corner of a cul-de-sac. Twisted Knife sent a pack under Jeeves. They all disappeared as they attacked. We didn’t find any bodies when the pack investigated. There also was no gunfire when the pack attacked – from Jeeves group or from inside the house.” I stopped him for a moment and asked him to repeat that last part. “Yes sir, there was no gunfire.”

“That does not bode well,” Nick said, rubbing his chin in bewilderment. “Bleeders are good, and their ghouls aren’t shabby either, but I don’t think they could sneak up on a group of ten lycanthropes prepared for combat, kill them with blades, and drag their bodies away without leaving a sign.”

“No, and what bothers me is that I was told there was a gunfight with lots of wounded,” I replied, “If I’ve been lied to, then this whole job is going to be a hell of a lot nastier than I thought.” I turned to the pup. “What happened to the wounded?”

“A doctor came and saw them,” Paul answered, “She said most of the wounds were from friendly fire, but a few of the pack didn’t like that. She just patched them up and sent them back to their packs.” If the doctor was the same one that attended to Hangman and me back in Plantation, then I trusted the information. She was good.

“Does Twisted Knife know what happened?” I asked, hoping the pack leader confided in his pack warriors than he told us.

“He isn’t sure,” responded Paul, “That was why he called the Hunters Guild for help.” The three of us walked back to Nick’s car. Nick was right. I didn’t like the implications. There was something out at the target house I hadn’t dealt with before. I also hadn’t considered being lied to by the pack leader. Considering the pack leader, I should have taken it into account.

“Do we have floor plans for the house, or some kind of internal diagram?” I asked Paul, “It would help to know the layout so I don’t get any nasty surprises.” I was really wishing the Guild’s intelligence section had been able to hack their way into the county offices. We were supposed to have a database with the internal schematics of all the buildings in the county, but that had fallen to the wayside with the war.

“No,” he answered, almost as if he was ashamed that he didn’t. Then, his face lit up with an idea, “I think I can help with that one. There’s a house that has the same, or at least a similar design to the house that you’ll be going up against. It belongs to a friend of one of the other pack warriors. Jeeves asked Twisted Knife if he and his group could go through the house first before the attack, but Twisted Knife was pressured from the Manor to quickly take care of the house, and then hit Bradon.”

“Bradon?” I asked him, my eyes leveling with his. My heart raced at the sound of the name.

“Bradon is the vampire in the house at the end of the cul-de-sac. He’s been organizing some of the independent leeches to work with the TCV. I thought you were told about that.” Paul was confused about my question. I paused for a moment as the shock hit me. Could he have survived? I didn’t know of another vampire in Tampa with the name of Bradon. If he did manage to survive my assassination attempt, why was he here gathering up the independents instead of directing the Bleeders? Since the war began, the Bleeders had been disorganized and ineffective. If we found them, they were still fucking dangerous, but they weren’t attacking any of the high-value targets of lycanthropes like the Guild was doing to the TCV. That wouldn’t happen if Bradon was somehow still alive and in charge. The TCV’s internal politics could force Bradon to work with the independents instead of rallying the Bleeders, but the TCV was very good at putting away their disputes when there was an actual threat. A war with the lycanthropes was a big fucking threat. I shook my head. I put two silver bullets into Bradon’s chest. He was dead. This was probably just a coincidence. I’d just make sure I was on the raid on the house and make sure I listened to my instincts.

“Sorry,” I told Paul, who looked disconcerted, “The head of the Bleeders before the war started was named Bradon, and the commonality caught me off guard. How quickly can you get us over to the friend’s house?”

“I’ve got to ask Mikey to call his friend and let him know that we’re coming, but that shouldn’t take too long. Twisted Knife said to help you out the best we could. Was there anything else?” He looked much more alive with something to do, almost as if that was what he lived to do. Quite frankly, it startled me a bit. I was often considered a fanatical hunter, but I never looked quite so focused and devoted to a specific job.

“See if there are any photographs or specific data surrounding the house in terms of forces inside,” I answered, keeping my voice as neutral as possible, “I need hard information, not any analysis from either the Manor or the packs. It just gets fucked up.” He nodded and walked off at a brisk pace. I looked over at Nick. He also looked worried about Paul’s intensity. Twisted Knife might have done a better job at causing me grief than I previously thought. “Are you going to stay here, or do you need to go back to the Guild?”

“I’m going to stay with you for a bit,” he answered, “There is something about this job that isn’t quite right. Are you sure you still want to do this?” I nodded. For all of my concerns, which were considerable in light of the new information Paul provided, I still asked for and accepted this job. Personal pride wouldn’t allow me to back off of this job. I was still sure I could pull it off without getting killed. As I was mulling over the problems in my head, Paul returned with a manila envelope in hand.

“Here you go,” Paul said in his normal cheery voice, handing me the envelope. I opened it to find some photographs and accompanying documents. The first photograph was a picture of a white single story house. The lawn needed some maintenance and there was a tall shrub wall, about four to five feet tall, surrounding the left part of the house. The shrubbery was dense enough to shield the left side of the house from the main road. The right part of the house held the driveway and a tall tree. Although there were no cars in the driveway in the photograph, there were oil stains that looked fairly recent. The front door was hidden in the photograph by the front porch, which looked like a small indention in the house. I grimaced at the fact that I couldn’t see the door, which in turn made Paul look worried. I was really going to have to settle the pup down before he got one or both of us killed. The second photo was the house where Bradon, the independent vampire leader, was living. The look of the house put my instincts up, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was similar to the house the Bleeders’ house, but lacked the tree and shrubbery. The papers were information on this Bradon and his house. There was no mention if he was related to the Bradon I knew, but it looked like he was as old as my Bradon. My mind flinched as that thought emerged. When did I start becoming possessive of Bradon. I pushed those uncomfortable thoughts aside and concentrated on the scant intelligence. Approximately ten to fifteen known independents were sighted at the house, but conflicting reports made the actual number unknown. This bit came from the lord’s intelligence group run by the Red Knights with assistance from the Guild’s intel section and whatever the shaman could divine. I hoped the data was reliable and not their normal patchwork of rumors and guesses. The last photo was a satellite photograph of the entire cul-de-sac. Well, at least someone in the lord’s intel group was smart enough to download it. Sometimes the aristocracy seemed to forget the human world provided us with useful technologies. Handwritten notes on the photo pointed to Bradon’s house at the apex of the cul-de-sac with the Bleeders’ outpost on the left hand corner. The shrub fence protected the left side of the property from view of the cross street. All of the houses looked similar, with minor size and style differences. I could see signs that the other houses were occupied.

“Before the raid, did Twisted Knife get all of the humans out of the way?” I asked Paul, “The neighborhood looks a little crowded for a raid.” It wasn’t unusual for the packs to clear humans out of the area before a raid. Our kin in the human governments helped us a lot in this area.

“No,” Paul replied, “Twisted Knife didn’t want to involve any humans at all. Jeeves’ group went in totally covert.”

“A bunch of warriors is never covert,” I retorted, “Not even in the dark and in true form. They are a fucking beacon to anyone looking for anything out of the ordinary. Was there any human involvement after the group disappeared?”

“No,” Paul answered, “The humans in the neighborhood didn’t seem to notice. No alarms or calls to the police. Twisted Knife said the lord’s intelligence was sure Bradon didn’t notice anything either because he hasn’t done anything to indicate that he did notice.” I didn’t like the sound of that. Humans could be expected to ignore our actions to a point, but this Bradon should have at least heightened his security around his home. Independents that weren’t slightly paranoid tended to die out quickly, and according to the intelligence I was holding, this Bradon had been around long enough to know better. Unless he was already allied with the TCV. In either case, the Bleeders weren’t watching him. They were his guards. That made taking everyone out very important to the county. If this Bradon allied with the TCV, and he was as influential as his reputation made him out to be, he could bring in a large number of unaligned vampires to fight on the TCV’s side. Independent vampires tended to be better fighters than their TCV brethren because independent vampires didn’t have the Bleeders or the Peace to protect them when they were sighted on our territory. If we killed this Bradon, it would signal to the independents the TCV couldn’t protect them, and they were better off on their own – away from Hillsborough. With vampires, image and perception were everything. This was one of the things that my Bradon stressed with me on more than one occasion. The strategic considerations would have to wait. I still had the initial job to do, and it looked to be a bitch.

“Let’s go take a look at the house layout, then I’ll have a better idea of what we face.” Nick and Paul nodded and the three of us climbed into Nick’s car.

Nick held up his hand as we approached the house. The taxi was stolen by a pack warrior in a raid during the beginning of the war. When we returned to the camp, the pack offered it to for the job. Paul wanted to do the driving, but I didn’t think he could keep his head during the job to pull off his part convincingly. Laying on the seat next to Nick was a twenty-four pound sledgehammer and a flash-bang. Nick pulled up to the curb with a roughness only professional cab drivers seemed to master. I staggered out of the back of the cab, trying not to overact the drunk. I leaned into the driver’s side window pretending to pay Nick. He handed me the flash-bang with the pin pulled, careful to make sure the spoon wasn’t accidentally released. Then, he handed over the sledgehammer. I turned sluggishly back towards the house, keeping the hammer out of sight. I mimicked the stagger of a drunk up the lawn towards the front door. There were no signs of activity inside the house. When I was about three yards from the front door, I dropped the charade and charged the house. I was prepping the throw of the flash-bang in my mind. I hit the walkway two yards from the front door and the world went white.

The white faded. I was standing in the middle of a circle of ghouls and a human who smelled of odd herbs. My mind quickly recognized those scents – wizard. The wizarding community withdrew into their covens since the incident with the Sirens. They had all but disappeared since the beginning of the war. They knew better than to be caught in the crossfire between the lycanthropes and the vampires. I was surprised to see one of the wizards in the room.

“What the fuck?” one of the ghouls asked, “He’s still awake–” When in doubt, attack. There wasn’t time to think, and barely enough to act. I dropped the flash-bang and swung the sledgehammer at the wizard. Why he was in the room wasn’t important at that very moment. At that very moment, the wizard was the most dangerous, and most vulnerable, person in the room. Killing him first was imperative. My being conscious was enough of a shock to surprise him. He didn’t even dodge the heavy hammer as it slammed across to his head. His skull broke open like a ripe melon, spilling grey brains out onto the floor. The flash-bang went off. I closed my eyes as soon as I hit the wizard, but the roar of the flash-bang was still deafening. I opened my eyes and saw the ghouls stunned, holding their ears or their eyes. I shook my head for a half-second, trying to get the ringing out of my head. It didn’t fade. I pulled out the MP5K and ignored my throbbing head. I knew my hearing would return on its own accord. There were targets to handle. I thumbed the selector switch to three-round burst and opened fire. Ten ghouls dropped without a fight as nine millimeter bullets destroyed their vitals. Only the last two managed to bring up their weapons. Only one of them actually got a shot off before he was taken down with the last few rounds in the magazine. As soon as I finished with the ghouls, I finally took a look around the room.

The room was a square about twenty feet on the side. The walls were originally off-white, but now streaked with the black-red blood of the ghouls and the grey matter from the dead wizard. The floor was concrete with a pentagram drawn in black. The floor was stained with blood. Some was the blood of the ghouls and the wizard, but some were older blood stains. I wondered if it was the blood of the pack warriors that originally attacked the house. There were no windows or doors I could see. What the hell happened? Where was I? Tinny echoes let me know my hearing was finally healing from the beating from the flash-bang and the unsuppressed fire from my sub-machine gun.

“Garas,” said a voice from out of nowhere, “What is going on down there?” I fought down the urge to respond. The voice sounded like an intercom, but I couldn’t see the speaker on the walls or the ceiling. “Garas, what the hell are you doing down there? Is that werewolf dead?” The voice was becoming more insistent. My guess was the next thing they would do would be to send down a response group. At least, that’s what I expected them to do. They didn’t seem to have a working video feed. Whoever they sent down was now my only ticket out of the room. The best bet would be to take them by surprise and commandeer whatever they used to get into the room. The room had nothing that could be used as cover. There was only one way to hide – in plain sight. I loaded a fresh magazine in the sub-machine gun. Then, I laid down amongst the bodies, spreading some of the blood and gore on me. I gripped the MP5K in my left hand and drew my USP with my right. This would only work for a short time. I needed to make each second – and each shot – count. I laid amongst the dead, slowing down my breathing. After a minute or two, a concealed door in the wall to my left opened and four ghouls entered the room. Two were cradling sub-machine guns, one gripped a pistol, and the last was carrying a shotgun. Their stances were that of slacking professionals. That fact made me a bit cautious with the plan I had rapidly thrown together. I stopped my breathing as they entered the room. I watched them through slitted eyes. They were dressed in white t-shirts and jeans. I couldn’t see any of the tell-tale signs of Kevlar vests. They paused in shock at the scene. The one with the pistol was the leader, because he directed the others to search the bodies. He stood over me and turned my head to look at my face. He didn’t notice as my arm rose up, placed the barrel of the USP at his side and fired. His face changed to shock from the pain as he tried to figure out what happened, but it was too late. He slid to the ground as death claimed him. I didn’t even have time to gloat.

The other three turned at the gunshot. They weren’t expecting resistance, and the sudden attack gave me a precious moment as they froze. The shotgun ghoul was the first, a victim of a three-round burst from the MP5K. One of the remaining ghouls fired at me at the same time I double-tapped him with my pistol. He went down. My Kevlar vest absorbed most of the impact – thank the Ancestors for trauma plates – but I still had the wind kicked out of me. I fired the MP5K at the last ghoul as I tried to recover my breath. The rounds went wide. The ghoul ran for the concealed door. He dropped his weapon and pulled out a small device that looked like the remote to a car alarm. I put a round into his back. The impact caused him to stumble and slide across the floor. I walked over to the dead ghoul and pulled the device out of his hand. I pointed the device at where the concealed door was and hit the button. The door slid open to reveal an elevator car big enough to hold nearly a dozen people. I did a quick check of the elevator and saw a video camera mounted above the door. I destroyed it with a three-round burst from the sub-machine gun. Satisfied there were no other security devices in the elevator, I got in and looked at the control panel. There were two buttons, up and down. I pressed the “up” button and replaced the magazines in my pistol and sub-machine gun. The pistol went back into the holster. I gripped the foregrip of the MP5K. I was trying to keep my calm, but I was anxious. Where the fuck was I? Why there was a human wizard in the room? There were too many fucking surprises and too few answers. It wasn’t helping the elevator ride was slower and longer than I was expecting.

When the door opened, I saw a pair of shocked ghouls stood at the door with pistols and medical kits. Without hesitation, I eviscerated the two ghouls with quick bursts. I dashed out of the elevator scanning for more targets. I was in some kind of control room. There were monitors on one wall with a workstation and a microphone on a desk in front of the video bank. The monitors showed various pictures of rooms. Some of the rooms held the caskets of leeches. Some just looked like normal, if well-appointed rooms. None of the rooms looked like the rooms that should be in the target house. So where the fuck was I? I didn’t see another door or any other way out of the control room. I replaced the magazine in the MP5K. Four more remaining. Those would go fast in a protracted gun fight. That didn’t appeal to me. I flipped on my radio and clicked the throat mike.

“Ranger to any Tango or Hotel units on this line, acknowledge please, over,” I ordered into the mike. Tango was the call-sign for the pack warriors. Hotel was the hunters. The radio crackled and hissed with static. I was not happy. The radio I was using was designed to penetrate concrete and steel. I holstered the sub-machine gun and sat down at the monitors and console. I played with the keyboard. The workstation monitor turned to a standard operating screen. My computer skills were limited to running applications and a minimum of troubleshooting problems that appeared on my personal computer. This system was in a completely different operating system than the one I normally used. I punched randomly at some keys, hoping to run into something through blind luck. After trying to get it to list options, a door slid open. For a moment, I thought I managed to trigger the door. Then, I saw the ghoul in the elevator car behind the door. He was shocked to see me, and froze in shock. I didn’t waste time. I launched from the chair and across the room. He barely had time to throw up his arms to protect his body as I tackled him. The two of us slammed into the far wall of the elevator car. I picked myself up and pulled out the sub-machine gun. He looked up at me with dazed eyes, and then his eyes locked on the barrel of the MP5K.

“Where the fuck am I?” I asked. His eyes left the weapon pointed at him to look at me.

“Who are you?” he asked. I was pretty sure the question was delaying tactic. He was looking around for a way out. I didn’t give him a chance to think about escaping me. I slapped him across the face with the MP5K. He rocked back with the impact and fell back to the floor. I took a step towards him and then stopped. The ghoul was unconscious. Great, of all the fucking ghouls in this place, I managed to capture the only one with a fucking glass jaw.

“Please step all the way into the elevator, werewolf,” said a voice from a speaker on the roof of the elevator. The voice sounded familiar, but the strange harmonic tones of a vampire distorted it enough I couldn’t identify the speaker. I stepped into the elevator car. My instincts were blaring danger. The door closed and the elevator began to rise. I made sure the selector switch on the MP5K was set to full auto. If there was a greeting party, I’d hose them down to open space up. I’d improvise at that point. I was good at improvising. The ghoul on the floor groaned. I kicked him in the face and he went back down with a grunt of pain.

The door opened into what could best be described as a parlor. Maybe a study. A dark wood floor was covered with a Persian rug of greens and yellows. To my left was a wet bar and a pair of dark brown leather chairs. Off to my right was a bookcase with all of its shelves filled with leather-bound books with gold-lettered titles. They looked like reference books of some type. Next to the bookcase was another of those leather chairs. Whoever I was dealing with must have got a deal on the set. Sitting in the chair was a vampire holding an open book in his right hand and a glass of wine limply in his left. In his lap was a pistol. In front of me was a long leather couch. Lounging on the couch was another vampire. His face was buried behind a book. Next to him was an Uzi with a long suppressor attached to the barrel. Standing next to him were two ghouls, one holding a shotgun and the other cradling another suppressed Uzi. It was like a scene out of some modern gothic movie. My instincts were screaming warnings. The vampires were trying too hard to look cultured and civilized. Well, if they were trying to set the scene, then it was my role to fuck it all up.

I leveled the muzzle of the MP5K and caught the two ghouls with a long burst of fire. The vampire in the chair dropped his book and glass as he went for his pistol. He was pretty fast for a vampire, but I went up against Bleeders. The vampire went down with three rounds to the head. The vampire on the couch didn’t react to any of the gunfire. He casually lowered his book and gave me a level look. My mind froze as I saw the familiar pale features of Bradon. It couldn’t be. I put two silver bullets into Bradon’s heart on the first night of the war. Not-Bradon reached for the Uzi. I snapped out of my surprise and put a small burst between him and the weapon. He looked at me in almost an amused way. He stood up, and I knew instantly he wasn’t Bradon. The grace of the movement reminded me of Bradon, but it was slightly different. It wasn’t something I could put into words. It was instinctual. It was like watching an extremely good actor do an uncanny impression of Bradon. I didn’t know who this fucker was, but it was more than a little unnerving. Even knowing it was an imposter, all of my unease over killing Bradon welled up and mixed with a surprising emotion – grief. I firmly slapped the emotions back down. I’d deal with that later. Being distracted while dealing with a vampire was a good way to end up dead. The vampire grinned smugly. I brought the MP5K up and lined the sights on his china face.

“I assume you’re Ranger,” he said in an eerily similar voice, “Philip said you were a dangerous little werewolf. He was quite right.” He almost sounded entertained by my presence. I was deciding whether or not to crack a smart-ass comment when he continued, “I know what you’re wondering. Go ahead and ask.” I kept my face neutral with my weapon trained on him. He wanted to brag. It was easier just to be quiet and not give him anything. He’d keep talking just to fill the silence.

“Please don’t try the silent ploy with me, Ranger,” he said, with a bored tone in his voice, “Philip taught me that many years ago. I can talk for hours without actually saying anything that would be useful to you. Can we try this again?” I reevaluated the imposter as a threat. He was way too cool and collected than a vampire should be with a hunter pointing a gun at him.

“Okay, who are you and where am I?” I asked.

“An uninspired pair of questions, if not entirely unexpected,” the vampire said, sounding disappointed, “I am Joseph Bradon, leader and mentor of the independent nosferatu in this part of the state. Oh yes, and Philip’s twin. I’m fairly certain you’re sharp enough to figure out where you are from my identity.” Well, he was right about that. He also opened a bunch of new questions. The most important was why would Bradon, the head of the TCV’s elite enforcers, allow his twin brother lead the independents in defiance of TCV edicts. I shelved that for later. I needed to deal with my immediate concerns.

“How the fuck did I get into your house?” I asked. Radio chatter suddenly filled my earpiece. I needed to keep this Bradon talking for a bit.

“Phillip said you were vulgar,” Joseph commented in an annoyed tone. “Think, Ranger. The wizard. They are so good at doing magic, and they owed me a rather large favor. I was unpleasantly surprised you weren’t rendered unconscious like all of the other werewolves. Then, you managed to take out most of my ghouls. They were well-trained, and that kind of training is expensive.” He looked away dramatically. He acted like he was in the middle of some bad television movie. Joseph may have looked like Bradon, but he lacked his brother’s sophistication and subtlety.

“You were robbed. They weren’t that good,” I replied quickly. “I’ve dealt with better. Where are the rest of your ghouls and friends?”

“Around the house. Most of my vassals are still asleep, but I suspect you were already aware of that fact.” Plans worked through my head as Joseph continued to meander around the room. It suddenly hit me what Joseph was doing. I knew what I needed to do, I needed a bit more information first.

“Okay,” I answered, trying to keep a confused tone in my voice, “So are the Bleeders in the house at the corner your allies?”

“There are no Bleeders anywhere near here, my young werewolf,” Joseph answered with a satisfied laugh, “Jean-Mark, one of the ghouls you killed in my security room planted that rumor. Too bad you killed him. He was one of my favorites. Paolo will not be happy you killed his ghoul either.” Kind of what I expected. When Bradon bragged about one of his successful ploys, I was impressed. Joseph’s little monologue was pathetic.

“What’s your end game here Joseph? You know you can’t walk out of here alive. Or your version of alive anyway.” He turned to me with his eyes alight.

“I was worried, and then I saw you arrive on scene. I knew what you did for Phillip. I’m sure you can do the same for me.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked. Joseph gave me a quizzical look.

“Oh, it wasn’t you,” he said. Silver flashed from Joseph’s wrist and a small pistol was in his hand. I reacted instantly. We both fired at the same time. My burst of gunfire stitched across his chest. I heard the bullet crack over my head. I sprinted over to where Joseph fell. His body was undergoing its final change. That left only one thing to do.

“All Tango units, the word is tortoise,” I said into the microphone. The codeword let the warriors know the house was clear, and they could attack the house. Within moments, cars would be pulling into the cul-de-sac and armed warriors would be swamping the house. I waited in the room as the warriors raided the house. I didn’t want to get in the middle of their combat zones. I made sure that all of the weapons in the room were unloaded, as I waited for Twisted Knife and his pack to ransack the house. Finally, a pair of lycanthropes stormed into the room in a very sloppy fashion. I didn’t bother critiquing their performance. I just told them who was who and walked out to meet the rest of the attack crew. There were about twenty warriors in the house. Most of them were busy mopping up the last few ghouls. Those fuckers were fighting to the bitter end. I began searching around the house for Joseph’s office. I needed to search through his files to find any important information for the Guild. In addition to all of the intelligence on the independent vampires, Joseph’s files might have some information on this deal he thought Bradon struck with me. Something about the way he talked about it made my instincts scream.

Paul somehow managed to find me amidst the clean-up. He quickly agreed to help me with intelligence gathering. After about twenty minutes we managed to find the office. It was a small room half-concealed in a corner of the house. There was a desk against the far wall with a computer. There were also a pair of metal filing cabinets and a bookcase filled with books on finance and management. Paul started to open one of the file cabinets, but I grabbed him before he opened the nearest one. He shot a puzzled look at me.

“If this leech was smart, he’ll have booby-trapped the cabinets,” I told him calmly. Paul’s eyes went wide as he realized that he could have just gotten himself killed. “Go check the computer while I see if he left us any surprises in the cabinets.”

“What am I looking for?” he asked, turning on the computer and sitting down in the leather swivel chair.

“Emails, spreadsheets, intelligence write-ups. Especially anything that looks like it might have to do with him and the TCV. Before I killed him, he told me he had a contact within the Bleeders. I think that linked him to the Council as a whole. It’s a guess, but an educated one. We need to know what kind of contacts the TCV have with the independents, and if the independents were coming into the war.” Paul nodded and focused on the computer. I turned back to the filing cabinet. The metal cabinet was a common type. I sniffed around the corners of the filing cabinet, trying to find the “dead rubber” smell of plastic explosive. What I did smell was ozone. Of course it wouldn’t be simple. I found the bolts on the back that were holding the laser. It was a simple design booby-trap. The laser measured the distance between the back of the cabinet to the front of the drawer. If the drawer was pulled before the laser was turned off, the bomb or incendiary device would detonate. I wasn’t sure if turning the laser off would disarm the trap or if there were other back-ups. I didn’t have the luxury of time. I needed to get the files out before Twisted Knife or one of the other pack leaders decided to intervene and do something stupid – like hand over all of the intelligence to the aristocracy rather than the Guild. Quickest way was to destroy the laser. I placed the muzzle of my USP to the laser and squeezed the trigger. The gunshot rang out in a deafening blast. I shook my head to clear the ringing. My ears started healing as I walked to the front of the cabinet. There was smoke coming out from the bullet hole and all of the other crevices. I yanked open the top drawer to see all the hard copies turned to ash. The smoke was full of the scent of the quick-burn liquid. The computer better have the information that I needed. I couldn’t risk opening the second filing cabinet.

I looked to see how Paul was doing. He was staring at me, trying to catch his breath. I mentally knocked myself. I forgot to warn him, and I just scared the hell out of him. I gave him a weak smile and let him get back to work. As he started to pound away at the keyboard, two lycanthropes with shotguns charged into the room. The lead one did the main sweep while his partner did the opposite sweep. It was a standard entrance technique, but these two hadn’t practiced enough. They weren’t supporting each other and left some dangerous gaps. To demonstrate the point, when the second warrior almost had his weapon trained on me, I hit him with a palm strike and pushed him back out in the hall. By the time his partner noticed and tried to react, I had the muzzle of my USP under his chin.

“If I were a Bleeder,” I told him in a quiet voice, “You and your partner would be dead. You do a FULL sweep, not half of a sweep. Your partner is there to see if you missed anything, not to cover a full half of your firing arc. You two need to practice together. Solo bullshit is for hunters. Got it?” He swallowed and nodded slowly. I hit the decocker on the USP and holstered it. The two left the room mumbling all sorts of curses and oaths at me. I didn’t care. If they did what I told them to – either from anger, shame, or dawning comprehension – they would live longer in this war. That was the important thing. There had been too many lost already. Far too many.

“Ancestors,” Paul breathed, watching me go through the two lycanthropes, “Are hunters always so brutal to other lycanthropes?”

“Sometimes the best way to learn is through brutal demonstration,” I answered, “When I was training to become a hunter, one of my instructors let me fall fifty feet to prove a point.”

“What point was that?” he asked incredulously.

“That it is very difficult to do a rapid rappel while holding a weapon, and if I wasn’t watching what I was doing I would fall down and hurt myself. It was quite painful, and very humiliating, but I learned not to do that again.”

“Yeah, but they aren’t hunters. They’re pack warriors,” Paul said. “You can’t expect your level of performance from them.”

“In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the vampires don’t make a distinction between a hunter and a pack warrior. All they see is a lycanthrope that they need to kill. Those two made a very bad mistake. I corrected it.”

“I still think you handled it badly,” Paul said with a wounded tone. I ignored it. The pup needed to stick up for his packmates.

“You find anything?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Paul answered. “I think so anyway. He didn’t really secure his computer. I don’t think he expected anyone but him to be on the computer. His personal documents file is full of spreadsheets, documents, PDFs, and emails.”

“Great. Now we need to get this to the Guild,” I told him. There was too much for the pair of thumbdrives next to the computer. I sat down at the computer and started uploading the data to the Guild’s secure site. That was when Twisted Knife stormed into the room in true form. Rage glinted in his dark eyes. Paul shrank back, but I ignored him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing Badmoon?” he demanded.

“Sending the files on this computer to Guild intelligence,” I answered.

“Stop it now. This is our raid. Everything in the house belongs to my pack. We will decide where it goes,” Twisted Knife said. The laws of the kingdom did say the pack leading the raid had first refusal of all treasures. Assuming I was willing to agree to Twisted Knife’s idea of who led the raid. Not likely.

“Fuck off,” I shot back. I could hear Paul gulp. Twisted Knife snarled and took a lunging step. He stopped as I brought up my MP5K.

“You dare point a weapon at a pack leader? First you attack two of my warriors, then theft of treasure, and now you’re threatening me with murder. I should have the lord’s marshals down here to arrest you,” Twisted Knife said.

“In case you forgot, I killed Joseph Bradon, most of his ghouls, and his pet wizard,” I said. “As far as I’m concerned, I can claim anything in this house for the Guild. As to this,” I waved the submachine gun, “It’s just to keep you honest while we talk.” He snarled in frustration but took a step back. “The Guild gets the files. Everything else your pack can have. Are you going to have a problem with that?”

“Not while you have a gun pointed at me,” Twisted Knife said, “I don’t want to be added to the list of lycanthropes you’ve killed.” I saw Paul back away in terror. Twisted Knife smiled maliciously, savoring his small victory. Paul followed his pack leader out of the office leaving me alone. The young pack warrior had been fascinated I was a hunter and didn’t seem to care that I was a Badmoon. The fact that I had killed another lycanthrope was enough to send him into a panic. Sometimes I just can’t win.

As soon as I got back to the Guild, I went down to the Guildmaster’s office without bothering to take off my mission gear. The intelligence team was busily pouring over the files I’d sent them. They didn’t even seem to notice me as I walked by. I listened at the Guildmaster’s door to make sure there wasn’t anyone in with him. After hearing him just grumbling about some reports, I knocked and walked in before he answered.

“You’re back?” he asked, seemingly surprised at my appearance. I wondered if he expected the job to take longer, or if he expected me to get banged up doing the job. I hoped it was the first.

“Oh yeah,” I replied. I related what happened to the Guildmaster. He listened with his normal blank mask on his face. I could never tell which parts he thought were important until after I was done talking. When I finished, he looked up at the ceiling and let out a long breath.

“You threatened a pack leader?” he asked.

“He deserved it,” I answered.

“Whether he did or not, it’s going to make my job harder. It worries me the vampires are using wizards, but I’m not surprised,” the Guildmaster said, “They need some defense against the shaman, who have been very good at tearing the leeches apart. Especially since we pretty much wiped out their alchemists. What about this Joseph Bradon’s files?”

“The intelligence group is going through them right now,” I answered, and then hesitated. “I want to review some of the personal files.” The Guildmaster looked at me for a moment. His gaze was penetrating, and very uncomfortable.

“Philip is dead, Marcus,” he said bluntly, “You won’t find anything in his brother’s files that will change that. You’re a shooter, not an analyst. I don’t have the luxury of letting you play analyst. Now take what you borrowed back to the armory and get some rest.” I nodded. As I approached the door, the Guildmaster cleared his throat. I turned back to my boss. “If anything interesting is turned up in the files, I’ll have it sent down to you.” I gave my boss a tight smile and left.

Questions swirled around my mind. I wondered if the Guildmaster would send anything from the files down to me. I shook my head. Of course he would. He never lied to me before. Still, there was something odd about my boss anytime Bradon’s death came up. As I was walking back to the armory, I heard my name called. I turned around to see a hunter running up to me.

“What do you want Uptown?” I asked him a little sharper than I wanted to. His eyebrows arched at my tone and he looked like he was about to reply with something nasty. I raised my hand to stop him from saying anything. “Sorry, I’ve had a bad day.”

“Yeah, we heard you disappeared in Forest Hills today. Nick said you suddenly vanished. I think he was about to call in the entire Guild.” Uptown paused for a moment and waited to see if I was going to fill in the details. When I didn’t, he continued, “Listen, do you have any jobs tonight?” Uptown received his pack name because he was very good at blending into the upscale environments and making hits among the vampires that decided to infiltrate the upper crust of human society. His team acted as back-up for him. They were known to have a good reputation for making quick and clean kills.

“No,” I answered carefully, “Why, what do you have in mind?”

“I’ve got a job in Channelside tonight. It’s a rescue operation for some lycanthropes that got caught down near the arena. My boys and I could probably handle it, but I would like a sniper to back us up. Interested?” I thought about it. I should go back to my room and get some sleep, but I was still angry and more than a little frustrated with the day. The thought of having to force myself to cool down by acting as a covering sniper for Uptown’s hit pack sounded good to me. I hated the idea of just sitting in my room and having all my questions just haunting me.

“Sure,” I told him, “Just let me get a few things.”

Chapter 9 – Leeches On The Left, Ghouls On The Right

Badmoon Rising – Chapter 7 – Weird Stuff Just Happens, Even to Me

I woke up in the infirmary of the Guild. The fluorescent lights glared harshly into my eyes. I tried to move my shoulder, but it was bandaged tight. I smelled the wolfsbane mixture used to treat archanal wounds. Moaning from the other stretchers in the room brought me around. The infirmary held twenty beds plus an ICU for five. About fifteen of the beds were filled. Most of the occupants were badly injured and swathed in wolfsbane-soaked bandages. I saw some clothing on the chair next to my bed – a black t-shirt, a pair of jeans, socks, and boots. Putting them on, I walked out of the infirmary. As I moved my shoulder, I could feel the tightening and loosening of stitches. As I stepped out the door, a hand grasped my good shoulder. Wheeling on the heel of my foot, I turned to face the Guild’s doctor, a short stubby lycanthrope called Burn. I gave him a great deal of respect and not just because he patched up some of my more serious wounds. Burn had been attending medical school when he was recruited into the Guild. He somehow managed to graduate both medical school and the training camp at the same time, and that awed me.

“What the bloody fuck do you think you’re doing Ranger?” he asked in his surprisingly quiet voice. Most times, I would’ve stopped. Burn was one of the few hunters I actually respected enough to obey their instructions.

“Going back to work,” I answered, tugging my arm free. “There’s a war on, and it looks like we need every hand on deck.” I motioned to the others in the infirmary.

“You’re still wounded,” he started, drawing his face into a mask of professional authority, “I am not going to let you go back to getting yourself killed before you have had at least some real improvement since your last attempt. That was not just a simple shoulder hit. The bullet nicked one of your main arteries. I don’t know how you didn’t bleed out, but I’m guessing the bullet wasn’t all silver. I’ve cleaned it up a bit and sewn you up, but I can’t just let you walk out half-fixed.”

“Unfortunately,” a new voice behind me said, “Ranger is needed by the Guildmaster.” I recognized the voice. Kurt Sneller, head of the hit packs. I turned to face him, about to ask what was going on, but stopped when I saw him. Kurt was in true form, but his normal eight-foot frame sagged. His normally alert eyes were slightly unfocused, betrayed his fatigue. I wondered exactly how long I was in the infirmary. I must have asked aloud, because Kurt answered.

“You’ve had a nice five hour nap, and now there’s work to be done. Here’s your sidearm.” He handed my USP in a paddle holster. In his other hand was a magazine holder with a couple of spare magazines. I put the magazines on my belt as I followed Sneller out of the infirmary to the elevator. As we got in I ejected the magazine out of the pistol and made sure it was fully loaded. Satisfied, I replaced the magazine and holstered the pistol.

“Exactly where are we going, Sneller?” I asked as he hit the button for the second floor. The Guild was a massive facility. It sat underneath a block of suburban houses, each inhabited by kin. Shaman dug out the five floors about thirty years ago. Florida is one of the few places where the ground, or more accurately, the aquifers, make it difficult to have underground facilities – unless you’re using magick to reform the ground. First floor was administrative, communications, and the infirmary. It also housed an entire bank of power generators that helped to run the place without drawing too much notice from the humans. Second floor was the offices for the Guild’s hierarchy, intelligence, and a small armory. Third floor was a giant training facility, including an indoor range. Fourth and fifth floors were designed for barracks for Guild members during emergencies – like, say, a war.

“Deadeye has something he wants us to see. Including you. The Guildmaster, Ronin, Gunny, and Deadeye are waiting for us.” Sneller was in a hurry, but there was something that needed to be cleared up first.

“How the fuck did you get my gun?” I asked him hotly. He looked at me questioningly for a moment. He almost looked startled by the question, or maybe by my tone. Sneller was not a lycanthrope who brooked insolence or insubordination from those under him. While that worked well with the structured society of the hit packs, lone wolves, like myself, were a bit more informal and independent. Plus, I wasn’t one of his wolves.

“Nicholas and Hangman went to your house. Your go-bag is down in your quarters. Deadeye and I thought you might like your gun.” Okay, that made sense. Nick knew the combination to my gun safe and where I kept my ready gear. I nodded my thanks and waited a moment for my next question. I had a feeling this one might elicit an unwanted response from Kurt.

“How did last night’s jobs go?” I asked cautiously.

“Your hit disrupted the Bleeders, but they still fought hard when we came after them. I have three packs completely down. Deadeye said he was down seven of his wolves, including Skiff. That said, we achieved all but two objectives, and rumors are the shaman picked them up in the second wave. As of right now, the Bleeders are effectively out of the war. The shaman hit the leeches’ alchemy group in their first wave, with both sides taking heavy casualties. Don’t know how many because the Order is being tight lipped, but my pack with them saw at least a dozen badly wounded. The leeches and their ghouls lost more though. The pack warriors are currently attacking some of the known leech strongholds. The humans must be going nuts trying to understand what is going on.” Now, I understood Sneller’s attitude a little better now. As tough and unemotional as he tried to appear, he truly cared about the lives of the lycanthropes under him. It was one of the main reasons the Guildmaster made him the leader of the hit packs. Sneller put his hunters’ lives above everything but the jobs. The downing of three full packs, about twelve or so hunters, must have been almost unbearable for him. Hell, it sounded like a fifth of the Guild had been killed or wounded on the first night of the war. I remembered why I respected this lycanthrope, even when he and I disagreed.

The elevator toned, and the two of us silently got off. I followed as he walked to a conference room on the far end of the floor. The intelligence section of the hunters included two full-time specialists and five part-time helpers. All of them were pouring over the steady stream of information coming in from the hunters still out on jobs, as well as reports from the rest of the county’s lycanthropes. I followed Sneller to one of the conference rooms. Inside were the principle members of the Guild’s hierarchy, sitting around a large table. On the screen at the front of the conference room was a house in Forest Hills. Surrounding the house was Tampa Police’s SWAT unit. I could see the human officers’ tenseness and wondered what was going down.

“Hey, Ranger. How’s the shoulder?” asked Deadeye as Sneller and I strode into the room. I sat down at the far end of the table.

“Okay for the most part. Still hurts a bit. What’s up boss?” I asked. The Guildmaster looked as bad as he did after the death of Stephen Vollen. I don’t think he expected this many casualties so quickly. The Bleeders may not have been as professional or as skilled as the Hunters Guild, but they weren’t run-of-the-mill leeches either. By all rights, we probably should have taken more casualties wiping them out. Fortunately we had surprise and good intelligence on our side. The Guildmaster’s eyes told me he was aware of this, but it still bothered him to lose his hunters. The Guildmaster motioned for Deadeye to talk.

“I got a call from one of my contacts in the TCV. He told me to watch this video feed, apparently one of the police’s cameras. They have a pair of ghouls on SWAT. He said it was important, but got cut off by a Council security sweep before he could tell me why. What we do know is the house doesn’t belong to a leech, or one of our people. Intel’s trying to see if one of the independent lycanthropes lives there, but we haven’t been able to get any answers from that community.” Deadeye stopped as the leader of the SWAT team motioned for his group to move in. The team moved forward a few yards before the front of the house erupted in gunfire. The lead element of the SWAT was cut down by a hail of automatic weapons fire. The few who managed to survive that first onslaught fell to the ground and returned fire. They were quickly joined by the rest of SWAT. Their effort was in vain, as the officers were pinned down by the volumes of fire from inside the house. Then, one by one, the police officers were taken out with precise shots. The whole episode lasted less than three minutes. The quiet of the television matched the silence around the table.

“What the hell happened?” asked Ronin, with surprisingly clarity.

“I’d say TPD just lost its SWAT team,” I answered dryly. The others shot me annoyed looks.

“That much, Marcus, is obvious,” the Guildmaster replied with a stern tone. “What is not obvious is why a member of the TCV thought this was important enough to alert James.”

“What if it was one of the packs?” asked Kurt.

“And risk the involvement of the pathwalkers by slaughtering human police?” asked the Guildmaster, “No, the packs know better. Someone important was in that house. We need to investigate, especially if the pathwalkers decide to intervene. The last thing this county needs is an invasion by the walking gods. Ronin, get a team together and find out what happened. If you can take action, do so, but make sure I have some evidence to take to the lord. I want to be able to prove to the pathwalkers we are taking action if one of their representatives appear. Matric will try to help the aristocracy somehow lessen this in the human media, or at least keep it off of us.” Ronin nodded, stood, and left to do his job. The Guildmaster faced the rest of us. “Kurt, where are those leech alchemists? The ones that got away from the Order.”

“The reports I have from my packs and the kin say that a ragged band of leeches holed in one of their holdings in Ybor. Right now, we have no assets in place down there. The pack holding Ybor is busy fighting the leeches in the area. I can get a team there in about three hours, but it leaves some of our other targets exposed.”

“No,” answered the Guildmaster, “We can’t remove any of the hit packs from their targets. The lord needs those neutralized if we’re to continue to have the initiative. Marcus, feeling up to a job?” There was little questioning in his tone. I was his personal hitter, and it was why I got all the fun jobs. There was only one acceptable answer.

“Yeah, why not? It’s not like I’m doing anything else at the moment,” I answered, with my normal irreverent tone, “What do you want me to do?”

“Eliminate the alchemists,” the Guildmaster answered, his voice full of lethal solemnity. I recognized that tone. This was something the Guildmaster wanted done quickly, efficiently, and with great emphasis, “I do not want leech mystics showing up anywhere they might endanger other hunters. Get all the hard intelligence from Kurt and take them down. Try to stay alive also.” Sneller and I nodded and left. We walked over to the intelligence group. One of the full timers was a hunter called Baser. The pack name was an off-hand reference to a remark the previous Guildmaster made that Baser’s mind was like a giant database running at light speed. He was able to retain gigantic amounts of data and collate them into a useful form. Baser complained he never got to do jobs anymore, but none of the hunters were willing to risk his mind out in the field. He was needed at the intelligence station.

“Ranger, Sneller, what do you need?” Baser asked, his voice conveying how busy he was at the moment.

“The Guildmaster gave me the job to finish off the alchemists,” I answered. Baser closed his eyes for a moment as he plumbed his mental depths to pull up the information. He pounded away at his keyboard.

“A kin in TPD saw what he thought were the alchemists enter one of the clubs in Ybor. He didn’t have a chance to confirm. Had to go break up a brawl at another club,” Baser said, “I was about to send a request to the local pack to send one of their warriors or a kin to confirm.”

“Don’t. If they’re in there, the alchemists will spot a warrior, and they’ll go hide somewhere else,” I said. “Can you send me what we have on that club and let the kin know I need to talk to him?” If the alchemists were holed up in that club, they were likely prepared to repel attackers. The leeches controlled most of Ybor for years. The TCV built defenses into many of the clubs.

I decided to do my recon alone and then try to figure out how to take them all out. Since I was going to have to be inconspicuous during my recon, and I would have to take action quickly, heavy weapons wouldn’t be available. Fortunately, Sneller helped me camouflage myself in the casual clothes favored by many of the upscale party people. Slacks and a shirt that almost felt like a blouse, both in bright colors, were covered by a light jacket that coordinated with them. At least, that’s what Sneller said, but I wasn’t sure if I believed him. However, the jacket was roomy enough for me to holster a B+T MP9 submachine gun. The MP9 was an updated version of Steyr’s TMP. The Swiss company Brugger & Thomet, whose import company was based in Tampa, picked up production after Steyr discontinued the line and improved on the weapon by thoughtfully adding a small folding stock, a Picatinny rail along the top, and an improved foregrip that could accommodate an entry light. Normally, if I needed to use a sub guns, I would take an HK MP5. This job was one of the times when even the smallest MP5 was still too big. With a conformal fifteen-round magazine, the MP9 was just a bit larger than my USP. I was carrying the MP9 in a shoulder holster with four thirty-round magazines. On my left was my USP. On my right, I was carrying three spare mags for my pistol as well as an ASP telescoping baton. I was carrying it in case I found trouble I didn’t want to waste a bullet on. Wielding it correctly, the baton would break bones. In true form, I could decapitate someone with it. A pair of small silver knives completed my arsenal.

Sneller dropped me off in Ybor, three blocks away from the club. The streets were full of humans celebrating the weekend. Most of them were annoyingly intoxicated, but I managed to avoid any incidents. I found a police officer, and he directed me to the kin. He was stationed across the street from the club. When I walked up to him, he was dealing with a pair of juveniles stoned out of their minds. I tapped him on the shoulder.

“What the hell do you want?” he asked, angrily.He calmed down the moment he saw I was a lycanthrope.

“The Guildmaster sent me,” I answered ignoring his earlier outburst. “Can you talk?” He gave me the once over and then hand-cuffed the two kids to a light pole.

“You two stay here for a minute,” he said to them. Turning to me, he said, “We better make this quick. I saw six vampires walk into the club over there. I noticed them because they were stumbling and bleeding. Black blood. They had a couple of others with them, but I don’t know if they’re ghouls or maybe some of the Goth kids they have running around here. My family’s pack told me they noticed the local leeches using the Goths for errand boys and girls.” I kept the surprise off my face. Tampa was known for its goth community, but both the leeches and the lycanthropes avoided the misguided human children – until now. For the leeches to be relegated to using the humans, the pack warriors and hunters knocked off a lot more of the leeches’ normal support structure than we thought. This job just paid its first dividend of good intelligence.

“Thanks,” I said, “I’d suggest you move away. This is probably going to get violent.” The kin nodded and collected his juvenile offenders. As the kin retreated from the area, I sent a quick text message to the Guild about the leeches using goths. I examined the target club. The club was a two-story building with a large balcony filled with human party-goers. They were shouting down to the people on the street. I ignored them and walked up onto the porch. I avoided the drunks lurching on the porch and got into the line that was leading into the club. I could hear and feel the rhythmic beat pulses from the music inside. I kept my face neutral until I reached the door. Two bouncers in “Security” shirts were standing in front of the doors, checking the ID’s of the people trying to get in. As my turn came, I handed them the money for the cover and showed them my driver’s license. The first one, a dark-skinned human bruiser, checked it, and then brought a clipboard out from behind him. The other one, a slightly smaller Caucasian, looked down at me suspiciously. The first one pulled the other over and they looked down at the clipboard in almost shock. I saw recognition in their eyes. Damn, the list was of known lycanthropes, and probably included my name from whatever Bradon kept on me. With his death, all of his secret files would be at the hands whoever was running the remains of the Bleeders. That could mean very bad things for me. My mind began calculating what to do to remove these two and enter the club. I really didn’t want to resort to violence this early in the job. It would force the intervention of human authorities. That would make things extremely problematic.

“Guys, is there a problem?” I said with a deadly calm. I flashed them a predatory look. My hand dropped down to the baton concealed at my hip. The first one shook his head and let me in. The music blasted me into almost deafness. The odd lighting made my recon more frustrating. Clubs were not an environment I spent a lot of time in, and I was paying for my failure for that oversight. It was hard acclimating to the darkness punctuated with strobing lights and blaring, thumping music. I managed to find a small alcove where I could survey most of the dance floor and the bar. I looked around the crowded floor of the club, but I didn’t see any supernatural faces. They were probably in a back room or office. I walked over to the bar and ordered a Jack and Coke. I needed to blend as I tried to find any sign of the alchemists.

As I sipped on the drink, I noticed a pair of young women watching me with an odd intensity. I wouldn’t have noticed them, but they stood out from the rest of the humans in the club. They were wearing tight leather with dyed black hair. Thick black eyeliner and matching lipstick graced abnormally pale faces. These were probably the goth leech helpers. From the way the two girls were watching me, I was betting they’d been sent down to observe me. The door guards must have finally called the alchemists for instructions. Normally, using normal humans as spotters would be considered a smart move. Lycanthropes, even hunters, tend to think of humans in terms of a herd. When was the last time you noticed a specific cow in the midst of a herd. Fortunately for me, these two were sloppy. They were staring too intently and not moving around enough. I quickly downed my drink, left a tip for the bartender, and walked right towards them.

There were very good reasons that the lycanthropes and the vampires didn’t use normal humans in our affairs. These girls were demonstrating exactly why. They stood paralyzed like deer caught in the headlights as I stormed towards them. When I was less than a yard from them, one managed to regain enough courage and bolted through the crowd. The other looked around in terrified confusion before trying to run. Too late. I jerked her close to me, almost yanking her off her feet.

“Don’t try anything,” I whispered into her ear as she struggled against my grip, “I will kill you and anyone else that tries to help you if you don’t do exactly what I tell you.” She looked up at my face. There was that unique terror in her eyes. She knew I wasn’t boasting or making idle threats. I half-pushed, half-pulled her through the throng of patrons and dancers. She whimpered for a little bit, but stopped when she realized it wasn’t having any effect on me. I pushed her up against a wall and looked her in the eyes with as much malice as I could.

“I want to know where your new masters are hiding. Where are the alchemists?” I asked with an icy tone. She stood there trembling, and I could almost her hear her asking herself how she got herself into this mess. I repeated the question, shaking her for effect.

“They’re in the back. They know that you’re here. Now let me go. Please.” The last part came out a whining plea. Humans romanticized both lycanthropes and leeches so much in that when confronted with our true brutal natures they were often shocked beyond comprehension. I would have bet this girl never contemplated that her death would come from an angry lycanthrope instead of a vampire’s “loving” bite.

“Where exactly?” I asked.

“In one of the back rooms behind the bar, upstairs, I swear.” She then looked behind me. Her face changed from terror into hope. Someone was behind me, probably a bouncer. This was trouble I didn’t need.

“Buddy, how about letting the girl go?” came a voice from behind in a tone that made it a command, “She’s a friend of mine, and I don’t know you.” I let the girl out of my grasp. The girl bolted through the club. I watched her as she ran into a “Private” door that was next to the bar. The bouncer was waiting for me to return my attention back to him.

“I think you had better get out of here.”

“I would, but I have something to do first. Would you excuse me?” I began to walk off, but he grabbed me by the arm. I turned to look at him with a look of annoyance.

“I don’t think you understood me,” he answered, “I meant for you to leave, now.” He tugged at my jacket to emphasize his point.

“Remove your hand,” I said, a dangerous edge leaking into my voice. His grip just tightened. This was going to get ugly. My free hand shot down and grabbed the baton. Rather than extending it, I used the collapsed baton as a kubaton. I punched the bouncer in the face. He staggered back as blood flowed from his nose. Another two of the bouncers saw what happened and pushed through the crowd towards me. As they approached, I lowered into a fighting stance. Might as well deal with these fuckers Now. When the first got close, I whipped the baton up, extending it in flight, and caught him in the stomach. Not waiting for him to fall, I cracked him on the head as he doubled over. The other bouncer backed off, but I closed the distance and cracked his kneecap. He fell to the floor, screaming in pain and grasping at his knee. The other bar patrons noticed something bad was going on, and a circle quickly opened around me. I walked towards the door I watched the girl use. Two more bouncers appeared out of the bubble that was forming around me, but they moved back into the crowd when I turned to face them. Their self-preservation instincts were working overtime.

The door was locked, of course. A couple of quick raps with the baton remedied the situation. I looked over at the bartender, who charged me with a cut-off pool cue. I smiled at him and dropped the baton. As it clattered to the floor, I drew the MP9 from under my jacket. I didn’t even have a chance to point it at him before he dropped the cue and fled. With that human dealt with, I kicked the door in – and was nearly sliced in half by a large metal blade. In front of me was a large ghoul holding a fucking broadsword.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said as I side-stepped into the corridor. The ghoul launched another lunge. I stripped out of my jacket and shed for true form. The MP9 shrank to tiny in my hand, but I managed to put a three-round burst into the ghoul’s chest. He staggered back, but then charged me, wildly swinging the sword. I slid under the whistling blade and brought up the MP9. Another three-round burst exploded the ghoul’s head.

As the body fell back, I looked around for the first time. I was in a short hallway ending in a staircase. A door was to my right, which led to right behind the bar. More than likely, it was an office or storage room. I opened the door and found a revolver pointed at me. Behind the revolver was a human, quivering into catatonia. Another human that saw too much of the unseen world without proper preparation. I reached over and plucked the gun from the human and dumped the rounds out of the cylinder. I put a single round into the human’s head. I wasn’t about to let a witch-hunter rise from this job. I shut the door and walked down the hallway. The stairs went up about halfway to a small landing with the remaining stairs going directly above me. It was a common enough structure in a building, but it did make assaults a fucking pain. Conventional wisdom required a team of at least four to properly assault a staircase. I didn’t have a team of four – I just had me. I’d make do, like I always did. That was part of the fun of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. As I reached the staircase, I craned my head around to look up beyond the landing. I couldn’t see anyone, but that didn’t make me feel any better. The alchemists were smart enough to know that their swordsman wouldn’t stop me, so where was their sentry on the staircase? They couldn’t be stupid enough not to see that the staircase was a damned good ambush point. I waited, trying to smell or hear the tell-tales of the sentry. Nothing. Maybe they’d been hurt bad enough they weren’t thinking properly. That would certainly explain why the ghoul was using the sword instead of a fucking gun.

I leapt from the floor onto the landing between the floors, twisting in mid-air to land facing the second floor. Bullets rained down. A few connected, but all they managed to do was throw me to the floor. The impacts flashed pain, but the pain quickly faded. The rounds weren’t silver. Okay, I’d made a bad mistake jumping up to the landing, but that was one stupid motherfucker on the second floor. His burst did one thing – let me know where the bastard was. I made out his shape just beyond the top of the staircase. He had an assault rifle pointed skyward as he was desperately trying to change the magazine. He was fumbling the reload because he was moving too fast with fearful energy. I brought the MP9 up and placed a burst into the stupid fucker’s center mass. Okay, bringing the sub-gun I could fire one-handed was smart. Unlike stupid fucker who was on the receiving end of the three nine millimeter rounds. Lesson Five of Gun-fighting according to the Hunters Guild – never empty your entire magazine into one target. Stupid fucker crumpled lifelessly against the banister and dropped the assault rifle. I jumped the remainder steps, coming very close to hitting myself on the ceiling.

A group of about fifteen humans were waiting for me as I landed. Some of them were armed. All of them looked scared. They didn’t expect me to survive thirty rounds fired at me. They watched too much television. There were too many of them for me to cut them down with accurate bursts, so I decided to take full advantage of human herd mentality. I sprayed the MP9 into the group. As the subgun stuttered, the group ran itself down trying to escape. Two tried to make a stand and fight back with their pistols. I shoved the sub-gun back into its holster and moved in close to use my claws. That kind of attack terrified humans and it saved on ammo. What more could a hunter ask for? The first human was cut wide open by a claw swipe across his middle. I grabbed him by the neck and whirled his body in front of his friend, who instinctively fired his pistol into his dead friend. As soon as he ran out of ammunition, I reached around the bullet-ridden corpse and sliced out the kid’s throat. Hand to hand combat wasn’t always effective when fighting most of the supernatural, but humans were another story. They just couldn’t stand up to the pure speed and terror of a lycanthrope.

I stood in the middle of the carnage. Then, I saw them. Six very battered vampires were standing in front of me. None of them were armed, but all had the familiar brand on their foreheads. It was a symbol in an ancient tongue that supposedly bound the alchemists to their magic. Leech alchemists never stood a chance against even a moderately powerful shaman. The shaman were more in touch with the spirits they commanded. That didn’t mean alchemists weren’t dangerous. Even Bradon respected them. They looked at me with fear and shock in their eyes. I drew my USP.

“You fuckers have caused me enough trouble,” I told them, raising the pistol at them, “I’m glad I don’t have to search all over for you.” They said nothing. The strongest one started waving his hands in intricate motions. Suddenly, it was as if someone put night-vision goggles over my eyes. I saw what looked like green energy pulses surrounding the lead one’s hands. I could see it being fed by smaller energy pulses from the rest of the alchemists. I brought the pistol up and double-tapped the leader. The energy pulses formed a circle in front of the alchemists. My bullets entered the circle of energy and stopped in midair. As the circle moved back to the leader’s hands, the bullets dropped to the ground with an odd clinking sound. I was about to fire again, but the energy shot out at me.

The beam of green energy struck me before I could react. I could feel intense pain as it enveloped my body. It took all of my willpower to keep standing and hold on to my pistol. Ancestors. This was more intense pain than any I had felt before. Just as I was about to fall over from the pain, it was gone. It was as if someone flipped a switch. My gun fell from my hands and a strange calm came over me. I didn’t know what was happening, but I felt like something was surrounding me. It was warm and soothing. I could almost a distinct kindness in the sensation, like someone was nurturing me. The next thing I knew, a giant blast of brilliant white energy, almost nine feet in diameter, ripped through the hallway. As the beam struck the vampires, the lead one disintegrated. The others were picked up and tossed through the building as if the walls were made of paper. As the white light subsided, I fell to the ground, feeling completely drained.

GET UP!” a voice thundered in my head. “GET UP AND GET OUT!” It sounded like every instructor I’d ever had amplified their voices and used my brain as the speaker. I staggered to my feet and picked up my USP off the floor. The voice boomed in my head, guiding me through the building and up onto the roof. Without pausing, I jumped across one of the streets to the roof of another club. I don’t know how I made the jump. It was easily fifty feet, not a small feat even for a lycanthrope in true form. Deciding I could figure it all later, I ran across the roof while reloading the MP9.

I could have holed up somewhere in the area and waited for daylight, but Ybor was leech territory, and I’d just taken out the leeches’ mystical cadre. I needed to get out to Sulphur Springs, which was a lycanthrope stronghold. Two packs roamed that neighborhood. I didn’t know how they had fared since the war erupted. Still, the area should have been safe enough, and it was the closest to me. I pondered my escape routes. The rooftops ended roughly two blocks from the complex. I would have to get down and walk through the busy complex. As tired as I was, that was a good thing. I wanted to use the crowds for cover long enough to find a means of extraction. Getting down would be easy enough. I made my way to one of the city parking garages.

I jumped across to the roof of the garage. As I landed, I noticed shapes moving between the cars. My first thought was I had run into some human thieves. That assumption was shattered as a young lycanthrope in human form darted out from between a pair of sedans. I got a quick glance of bleeding wounds and a long knife with black blood on it. I had a pretty good idea of what was happening and what I needed to do. With the MP9 firmly in hand, I ran to where the lycanthrope dashed out. As expected, a pair of leeches were chasing him. Both were in human form, although one was noticeably bleeding through his dark shirt. The wounded one clutched a pistol, but the other one didn’t seem to be armed. I didn’t want to use the unsuppressed sub-machine gun in the garage. It would guarantee human intervention. That was a complication I didn’t need while I was trying to get out of the area. I reminded myself to make sure to always bring the suppressors for the guns I carried. I needed to be able to quickly deal with problems like this one without having to worry about the pesky human law enforcement agencies.

I placed the sub-gun on the concrete and drew my two silver knives. Both of them were four-inch-long tantos I carried for Murphy situations – gun jams, bad ammo, etc. They could open up a space for me to either get my hands on working guns or to get the hell out of wherever I was. They were not primary fighting weapons or even decent throwers. Still, they were decent knives, and I had the greatest advantage of all – surprise. I waited silently as the two vampires approached. Their fashionable shoes audibly clicked on the concrete of the parking garage. The two leeches were moving too fast for professionals or even experienced fighters. They knew their prey was on the run and were too busy chasing him to think there might be more lycanthropes. It’s called tunnel-vision, and it can be a deadly mistake. It certainly was for these two.

The uninjured one walked to where I was crouched. His dark eyes went wide as he saw me. His momentary hesitation was all the opening I needed. Knife in each hand, I pounced on the hapless leech. His tall form crashed to the floor under the momentum. Slashes to the leech’s neck and stomach released a torrent of black blood. I didn’t wait to ensure he was down for good and leapt at the wounded vampire. This one recovered from the shock of my appearance, but the scared look in his eyes told me he had no idea how to counter the attack I launched at him. The tackle put him on the floor hard. I heard his pistol clatter out of his hand. A quick stab to his heart with the silver blade and his movements ceased in an instant. I looked back to his partner. The other vampire was thrashing about on the ground, feebly attempting to staunch the waves of black blood flowing out of his body. A savage kick to his head stunned him long enough for me to stab him through his heart.

With the immediate fight over, I looked around cautiously to see if these two had friends following them. The roof of parking garage was quiet with only the faint background sounds drifting up from the streets of Ybor. The bodies of the two vampires changed into their true forms with wide pools of black blood surrounding them. Normally I would have left the bodies for the leeches to clean up, but with what just happened with the alchemists, I didn’t think the TCV would be able to clean up this mess before the humans became involved. If they found dead vampires, there were a damned good chance a few witch-hunters would be born.

“Come out warrior,” I called out. I needed help to quietly dispose of the bodies, and the wounded lycanthrope was the only one around. He peeked up cautiously from behind a pair of sports cars. He looked young, maybe late teens. I was willing to bet he was only a year or two out of tysach. His brown hair was cut fashionably short with large brown eyes. His face expressed both hesitancy against leaving his hiding spot and relief of seeing another lycanthrope. He had a lean, wiry build and was dressed in loose-fitting black leather pants and a bright blue silk shirt. His shirt was slashed several times, revealing bright red cuts. The lycanthrope still held the long knife, but he was holding it loosely and without any trace of technique.

“Come here wolf,” I repeated, keeping my voice warm and comforting, “Don’t worry. The leeches have been taken care of, but I need your help with the bodies.” He staggered over with pain. As I watched him, I saw a couple of the wounds looked deep. The others were mainly quick slashes – a bit of pain and some blood, but not life-threatening. The leeches must have used a silver blade since none of the wounds were healing. The two deep slashes needed some attention. I walked over to him and pulled out a small plastic square out of my pocket. Inside was a cloth soaked in wolfsbane. For most archanal wounds hunters receive, those little squares are our emergency aid kit. I opened the square, and we both immediately recoiled at the stench of the wolfsbane. It was our most effective medicine, but wolfsbane hurt so badly to use it most lycanthropes have an instinctive fear of that unique smell. I gave the pack warrior a knowing smile, which he returned weakly. To his credit, the young lycanthrope never screamed or yelled when the wolfsbane-soaked cloth touched his bloody wound. His eyes went wide with pain and he bared his teeth in a twisted, clenched smile, but low grunts of pain were all he uttered as I washed out the silver’s taint. It was a painful, nasty, and generally unpleasant treatment, but when properly done, it allowed our bodies natural healing to kick in. I finished as fast as I could and watched with satisfaction as the slashes began sealing themselves. This kid wouldn’t even have any scars from them. Maybe from his other cuts, but not those two.

“What’s your name?” I asked as he rested for a moment. His adrenaline dump was finished, and he went from nervous to exhausted in the space of seconds. I could sympathize. I was still feeling the effects of whatever the fuck happened with the alchemists.

“Will, Will Leafdancer,” he said with an obvious effort, “I belong to the Livingston pack.” I looked at him with a critical eye. The Livingston pack roamed between the University of South Florida and parts of New Tampa at the northeastern part of the county. Why the fuck was this pup so far from his pack’s home territory?

“Well, you’re one lucky wolf. I’m a hunter who just happened onto the scene. You can call me Ranger,” I told him, “We’re going to have to dispose of the bodies before the humans stumble on us.” Fortunately, Will’s car was in the parking garage. It even had a big enough trunk to stow the corpses. His pack leader would know where to burn them. Will drove us out of Ybor, while I kept scanning for any more leeches. Once we crossed back into lycanthrope-held territory, the last of my energy dissipated. Will panicked a bit when I slumped over. I heard him trying to rouse me, but I just couldn’t make my body move at all. It was like I was trapped in a full body cast – alert, but unable to move. Will floored the gas and sped the remaining distance to his pack’s meeting place, an apartment just north of the university.

Will’s pack leader quickly recovered from the shock of the two vampires in the trunk and the unconcious hunter in the front seat. The pack loaded my limp body into another car and I was driven back to a Guild drop. Most of the lycanthropes don’t know exactly where the Guild is located. The Guild has a number of drops across the county where the packs can leave things for the Guild, including wounded hunters. The drop the pack brought me to was the armory. By the time the car arrived at the armory, I recovered enough from the temporary paralysis that I was able to stand and walk on my own. The two pack members who drove me wanted to stay until one of the Guild arrived to collect me, but I told them it wasn’t necessary. They didn’t seem convinced, but they weren’t about to argue with a hunter. As they left me there, I was met by Skillsaw, one of the young hunters that just joined our Guild chapter right before Vollen’s assassination. He called the Guild for an immediate pick-up. I walked into the back and found a place to lie down. The next thing I knew, a sharp punch to my side startled me awake. It took a moment for me to recognize the smiling face.

“So, this is where you hid yourself. What the fuck did you do last night?” Nick asked. I couldn’t tell if Nick was being sarcastic.

“Why?” I asked, still a little groggy. I stood up and Nick led me outside. The sun was incredibly bright as I climbed into the sedan Nick was using.

“According to reports, that club you raided looked like a bazooka hit it. The top floor was almost carved out like a canoe. Eyewitnesses say that they saw a bright white light, then the top floor exploded. The building was standing, but its insides were torn apart. Now I find you looking like you got hit by a truck. What the hell happened?” I looked at him.

“I don’t know, Nick. I really don’t know.” I just really wanted to know.

I rested for a day, using the time to help out in the armory in the Guild. I was busy repairing one of the Barrett heavy sniper rifles when Deadeye appeared. Unlike the majority of hunters, he was dressed in a business suit instead of a jumpsuit or “working clothes,” such as jeans and t-shirts.

“Subbing for Matric?” I asked slightly joking. Deadeye gave me a disapproving look. He wasn’t happy with what he was doing, which meant he wasn’t doing jobs or planning jobs. It was one of the reasons I didn’t want his or the Guildmaster’s position. I didn’t want to have to deal with the administrative bullshit.

“Fortunately no,” Deadeye answered, “The Guildmaster is sending me to meet with representatives from the lords of the surrounding counties.”

“Odd they’re only sending representatives,” I commented, “Still nothing from the prince?” Deadeye shook his head. For the prince to do nothing was surprising. The harshest criticism of his reign was when he sealed the borders of the Disputed Territories instead of forming an army of warriors and taking Miami-Dade and Broward counties back. Allowing Hillsborough to go to war without any action would bring on even more outrage from the county aristocracies. It could even force the forming of a war council that would be able to remove the prince and offer a nomination for a new prince to the King of the United States to confirm. Since the prince had no heir-apparent, the forming of the war council would be the end of his line ruling the state. From everything I had seen of the aristocracy, this was one of their cardinal sins, like a hunter being unarmed.

“Beyond making earth-shattering revelations,” I said, keeping my voice neutral, “What do you need?”

“The Guildmaster said he wanted you to mentor Hangman,” Deadeye stated. I nodded in response. “I’ve had him doing some simple jobs providing back up to some of the more experienced packs. I’ve got a job that would be good for him, but I think he needs some supervision.”

“All right, that shouldn’t be a problem,” I told Deadeye, “Does Hangman have the job already?” Deadeye nodded. “I’ll finish up here and go see the pup.” The Barrett wasn’t a particularly difficult rifle to work on, but it took some time to finish up. It was time enough for me to ponder a couple of things. From what Deadeye said, Hangman just needed a more experienced hunter to make sure he didn’t make any stupid mistakes. Most lone wolves had a couple of these kinds of supervised jobs before graduating to running jobs completely solo. I had every intention of being as hands-off as possible. The Guildmaster saw something in the pup he wanted to foster. My job was to guide Hangman and show him some dirty tricks to make his life easier.

I left the armory and walked to Hangman’s room. A gruff voice beckoned me in when I knocked on his door. Hangman was sitting at his desk staring intently at an intelligence report on his computer. Gear, weapons, and maps were strewn on every flat surface of his room. His desk had a manila folder open with a small group of papers and pictures. It looked like the job folder.

“Are we planning on invading the TCV Hall?” I asked lightly as I walked into Hangman’s room. I pushed some of his stuff out of the way so I could sit down.

“Ranger, I’d love to chat, but Deadeye gave me this job and I need to get it done,” Hangman said with barely contained impatience. His body was vibrating with barely contained energy.

“Yeah, I know,” I said calmly as I cleared out a place to sit down, “Deadeye asked me to help out.”

“What?” Hangman asked, startled, “Does he think I need a babysitter?” Hangman was agitated and a little ashamed Deadeye didn’t fully trust him on a fully solo operation. Too bad.

“Yeah, you do, or at least someone to help you out a bit,” I answered back firmly, “Look at the mess you have here. You’re trying too hard and you’re going to make some dumb-ass mistakes. This is your job, and it’s going to be your responsibility. I’m just here to help you out a bit and to make sure you don’t make a fatal mistake.” He gave me a suspicious look than nearly made me laugh out loud. I understood what he was feeling completely. I had a similar experience when I first joined the Guild. The difference was my mentor could allow me to make some of the stupid mistakes. The worse that would happen back then was I’d get banged up a bit. I didn’t start getting the jobs that would get me killed until much later. With the war on, the Guild didn’t have that luxury. We needed every hunter operating at full capability.

“Calm down,” I told him, “Tell me the job and what you think.” He took a deep breath and picked up the job folder.

“Okay, a pack leader named Ringston asked for our assistance in shutting down an infiltration route into Carrollwood,” Hangman read, “Apparently there were some problems and he’s worried the leeches have some sort of backdoor directly into his territory.”

“Alright, that’s the facts, so tell me what you think,” I said.

“I think Ringston is being paranoid,” Hangman answered, “It’s not like there’s a set number of ways into Carrollwood. Especially for creatures that can fly in one of their forms. If the pack leader is having trouble, then it more has to do with some sort of weakness in the area.” Not a bad analysis, but it relied on some assumptions of the basic facts. Hunters learn never to rely on any assumptions. Bad things happen when one of the premises of your planning was suddenly knocked out from under you.

“Ringston isn’t paranoid,” I replied, “It was one of his pups that the Bleeders attacked before Vollen’s assassination. Even then, he noticed there were more leeches active in his territory than there should have been.”

“How do you know all of that?” Hangman countered, “The intel reports flatly contradict that conclusion.” Okay, the pup had the smarts to get the relevant intel. The problem with Guild intel was that it relied far too much on what came out of the transcripts of hunter reports to Sneller, Deadeye, or – in my case – the Guildmaster. That left some gaps, mostly because the Guild expects hunters to talk to each other. Lycanthropes have an orally based tradition of teaching, which spills out to the Guild. Hunters learn to trust what one of their own tells them over a written report.

“Nick and I were the ones that did that job,” I answered, “I’ve met Ringston. I think you’re right about the infiltration route, but if there’s an influx of leeches, it’s not because of a weakness of the pack.” I waited for Hangman to come up with the proper conclusion.

“There’s a coven hidden in there,” he said, “The leeches have been waiting to seize Carrollwood, and they already laid down the groundwork.”

“More than likely,” I replied, concealing my surprise. The Guildmaster was right. Hangman had some pretty shrewd instincts. He quickly discerned not only the probable cause of the leeches, but their ultimate goal. Carrollwood wasn’t one of the spectacularly wealthy neighborhoods, but it was definitely well-off and well-established. Control of the area would give the leeches access to resources and give the leeches inroads into many other areas in the county the lycanthropes held.

“Okay, so where the hell is the coven?” Hangman asked, bringing up a satellite map. Damn the humans made such wonderful tools.

“That’s going to be the fun part,” I told him, “You’re going to need a list of known leech holdings in the neighborhoods. Then, you’ll need to go meet with Ringston and get the on-site data. That part is purely investigative and analysis.”

“Guild intel?” Hangman asked, hopefully.

“Maybe,” I answered, “I think the pack will have better data for you. Grab your gear and we’ll head down there.” I waited patiently as Hangman packed up his stuff. The two of us drove out to the Carrollwood pack’s war site. Every pack had a war site. The tradition was as old as our war with the vampire. A war site was a place for a pack’s warriors to plan and conduct operations. It protected our kin by keeping them out of the crossfire and allowed a pack leader better communications with his warriors. It also allowed the lord to talk with his pack leaders without bringing them to the Manor or the cravex. Ringston set up his war site in one of the few remaining orange groves in northwestern Hillsborough. As Hangman and I pulled into the orange grove, we saw where the pack pulled together about a half-dozen camping trailers. As we started walking towards the trailers, we were confronted by a pair of lycanthropes wielding shotguns. Of all firearms, shotguns were the most common amongst the warriors. Shotguns were easier to acquire and a hell of a lot easier to make silver ammunition. The two lycanthropes were holding them in tactical ready positions, butt of the weapon to the shoulder and muzzle pointed down. Ringston must have put his warriors through some training. Not hunter, but definitely some sort of combat training. Maybe from the Guildmaster’s wife’s security shop.

“Who are you two?” the shorter one asked, trying to be menacing. His partner looked at me for a moment longer, and then stood up ramrod straight.

“Show some respect Joe,” the taller one said to his partner, “Sorry Ranger, I didn’t recognize you at first.” I recognized him from the job, but I couldn’t remember his name. The shorter one, Joe, also stood up.

“Hangman, here, was given the job for your pack,” I said, “Would you mind taking him over to Ringston?” The two gave Hangman a look over.

“How come you’re not taking it?” Joe asked.

“The Guildmaster assigns the jobs. Best hunter for the job,” I said, “I’m only here because I have history with this pack, and the Guildmaster wanted me to do introductions.” It wasn’t quite the full truth, but the pack didn’t need to know that. The pack needed to have confidence in the Guild and our operations.

“Okay, come with us,” the unnamed taller one. Hangman and I followed the two into the war site. The pack warriors were grouped around three long tables placed in the middle of the trailers. A map of the county was hung on the outside of one of the trailers, with the pack’s territory outlined in red grease pencil. I just shook my head. The pack had seen too many war movies. A couple of decent laptops with commercially provided satellite photos would have been better and more accurate. The tables were laid out with shotguns, rifles, and ammunition. Ringston came out of one of the trailers. He was wearing jeans, a dark blue long-sleeved shirt with a tactical vest over it. A pistol was holstered at his side. He was smiling as he approached Hangman and me.

“Ranger, it’s good to see you,” Ringston said, stepping over to clasp my shoulder, “I see you’ve brought your protege. Good, I think you’ll need him for this job.” Hangman looked a little perturbed, and I couldn’t really blame him. Establishing yourself as a hunter can be difficult, especially when your mentor is high-profile.

“I’m not your hunter,” I told Ringston. The pack leader looked over at Hangman.

“His assignment?” Ringston asked. When I nodded, Ringson turned to Hangman without missing a beat. “Have you reviewed the information we sent the Guild?”

“Yes, I did,” Hangman said, with a bit more confidence, “I understand your concerns, sir, but I don’t think you’re dealing with an infiltration route.”

“Oh?” Ringston asked, his voice suspicious, “We’ve seen an increase in vampire attacks, even before Lord Vollen declared war. I lost two more of my pack since the war started. Don’t tell me the TCV isn’t targeting my territory.” Ringston was visibly angry. “I needed to hire human combat specialists just to give my warriors a chance.” He gave Hangman a very frustrated look. Ringston was probably right to be frustrated, but it wasn’t helping things right now.

“If you’re done with your tirade, sir, I will elaborate,” Hangman replied with an even and neutral tone, “I’m fully aware of what has happened to your pack. I think the TCV put a coven in your territory.” Ringston stared at Hangman. The possibility must not have occurred to him, but the truth of it suddenly dawned on him.

“I’ll need to go over some things with you and your warriors so that we can start winnowing down the possible locations,” Hangman said, unslinging his backpack full of intel.

“Of course,” Ringston answered, quickly regaining his composure, “We’ll give you whatever assistance you need.”

— – – – – – – – – –

The leech was stumbling and panicked. Hangman was impatient, but he was keeping it in control. The plan was simple, and I only needed to prod Hangman a couple of times to avoid some rookie mistakes. We knew the majority of attacks were centered around the Four Oaks area of Carrollwood. Bordered by South Village Drive to the north and Gunn Highway to the south, the area was a microcosm of Hillsborough as older mobile homes were overshadowed by the more expensive housing developments and growing commercial developments to cater to the newer, more affluent residents. Ringston put out a couple of bait warriors near a park under the watchful eyes of other warriors in the pack as well as Hangman and me. As we expected, a group of vampires took the bait. The leeches obviously felt four to two were good odds. That was, until the rest of us appeared out of the shadows. Then the guns came out. Four pistols to a bunch of shotguns and a couple of sub-machine guns wouldn’t normally be much of a firefight, but we were just trying to wound them, which was a far trickier proposition. The first three were torn apart from just the volume of silver buckshot being fired by the pack. The fourth, fortunately, only took a few hits and tried to slip away. The pack warriors wanted to pursue and kill the leech, but Hangman sent them back to their war site. We would track the leech back to the coven. At this point, the warriors would just get in the way.

The leech staggered along the street talking on a cell phone, bleeding from a half-dozen grazing hits from the shotguns. He was smart enough to take cover when the pack opened fire. Hangman and I patiently stalked him as he made his way to Gunn Highway. At the intersection, the leech climbed into the rear of a waiting van. I smiled because I was right about the direction the leech would flee. The little compact we borrowed from the Guild motor pool was in the parking lot of a small shopping complex not more than fifty feet from where we were standing. Both of us sprinted towards the car as we watched the van head east towards Dale Mabry Highway. Hangman and I followed the van for a quarter-mile as it turned into Plantation, a housing development between Gunn Highway and Linebaugh Avenue. Plantation was a mix of subdivisions that cater every tier of the middle class. The main street of Plantation was a giant loop with subdivisions branching off it. We followed the van as it turned into one of the middling subdivisions. I pulled into the subdivision as Hangman shouldered his MP5 in case we were riding into an ambush. I stopped near the entrance of the subdivision as the van pulled into a driveway about a dozen houses down. The house was a small two-story painted in neutral grays and blues. We watched as two leeches helped their injured friend into the house.

“Well, that’s probably the coven,” I stated, “What’s your idea for taking it down?” Hangman continued to look at the house for a few moments.

“We need more information,” Hangman said, “We have no idea how many leeches are in the house, how they’re armed, or if they have ghouls. Better to wait for daylight.” It was a solid idea. Ghouls would be awake and fighting, but ghouls weren’t nearly the problem leeches were. There was one other thing Hangman needed to address. I watched him for a moment as he continued to watch the house. Ancestors, he was trying to do it himself.

“Hangman, why are we still here?” I asked patiently. The pup had good instincts, but there were still a few things that he needed to learn.

“We’re waiting for daylight,” he answered, looking at me in surprise.

“Two people with automatic weapons in a car that doesn’t belong?” I asked in reply. My tone wasn’t harsh, but I wanted him to see the folly of his ways.

“We can’t just stay here like this,” he said, shaking his head at his own mistake. This was one of the simple mistakes that could get a hunter into a lot of trouble. “How do we wait for daylight and still keep the house under observation?”

“What resources do we have?” I asked, hoping he got to the answer quickly. We were already at the front of the subdivision longer than we should have been. Pretty soon we would be attracting the wrong attention, either from the leeches in the coven or from nosy neighbors in the subdivision.

“Let me call Ringston and see if he can get someone up here to keep an eye on the house,” Hangman said, pulling out his phone. Right answer. The local pack would either have a warrior, or better yet, a kin in Plantation that wouldn’t stick out. I pulled the car back out onto the main loop. While Hangman talked to Ringston, I was watching for either some sign the leeches in the coven knew we were there, or for the yellow lights of the private security firm that patrolled Plantation. The last thing we needed was for the fucking humans to screw things up. Hangman ended his conversation and looked over to me. “We’ll have two kin here in ten minutes to watch the house.”

Hangman was right that we didn’t have enough hard intelligence to attack the coven’s house at night. A daytime raid would be both easier and more difficult. It was easier because we wouldn’t have to worry about the vampires in the house, only whatever ghouls guarding them while they slumbered. The difficulty arose in keeping the raid quiet enough from the humans while dealing with the zealous ghouls. Those bastards just didn’t quit until they were dead, and they could take a lot of damage before they went down. The vampire blood they ingested gave them the same kind of immunity to pain humans received from drugs like PCP. One of the ghouls duties was to be bullet catchers, and they were damned good at their job.

“So what do you think?” I asked after Hangman got the last report from the kin. It was dawn, and we were west of Plantation in the parking lot of one of the many shopping complexes that were scattered among the area. We were waiting for the Publix to open so we could go get some decent breakfast stuff from the supermarket’s fantastic bakery. If you lived in Florida, you shopped at Publix.

“According to the kin, the subdivision should be mostly empty by nine,” he said. That made a certain amount of sense. The majority of families in the area were two-income families. With the parents at work and the children off in school or daycare, most of the homes should be unoccupied for the majority of the day.

“So, what would be the best plan of attack?” I asked. I wanted to see what was going through Hangman’s mind. So far he was doing pretty damn well. I could see why the Guildmaster thought this pup had potential. Now I needed to see if he could get down and dirty.

“Infiltrate the house,” Hangman mused, “Kill everything and get out. The pack can clean up.” In terms of a basic plan, it wasn’t bad. In terms of what needed to be done, it was lacking. Most of that was simply Hangman’s lack of real-world experience. He must have picked up my disagreement. “What’s the problem?”

“How did the TCV get that coven in here?” I asked, “More to the point, how do we make sure that they don’t try to establish another coven out here?” Hangman mulled that over. I reminded myself to be patient as the pup thought. There was time before it would be “safe” to launch an assault against the house, and I needed to see exactly how nasty Hangman thought.

“Well, to your first question, we’ll need to toss the coven for intel,” he said, obviously unhappy with the prospect. I think he was expecting a quick in-and-out assault. In reality, very few raids are like that. If we have to hit a place, then there’s probably a lot of hard data on site that our intel group would want to see. “As to your second question, I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be anything that would deter the vampires from coming right back. They already perceive Ringston’s pack as weak.”

“That’s the key,” I replied, “With leeches, it all comes down to perception. To make sure that the bastards don’t come out this way again, we need to make Ringston’s pack look strong and ruthless.” Hangman digested that bit of information. One of the problems with the newer hunters was they weren’t taught a lot of leech psychology. Good hunters understood how vampires thought and acted. It was one of the reasons the Guild promoted the use of leech contacts. I learned a lot about the internal politics of the TCV from Bradon, as well as the how and why of vampire politics as a whole. One of the things I needed to teach Hangman was how to use that basic understanding of vampire politics and perceptions against our enemies.

“So, how do we make the leeches think this place impenetrable?” he asked.

“Not so much impenetrable as extremely dangerous to operate,” I corrected, “And for that, we are going to need to sow the fields with salt.” Hangman’s eyebrow quirked up as he puzzled out the statement. Then, a wide grin spread across his face.

Ringston’s warriors infiltrated the subdivision. Their main task was to keep the humans out of the firefight. We would also need the warriors to cart away anything Hangman and I found in the house. As we approached the house, I was glad Deadeye asked me to come along on this job. Nothing against Hangman – the pup did have operational instincts that bordered on the frightening – but he would have had to go against the coven alone or with the warriors supporting him. I had a bad feeling that either way would have ended with Hangman dead. I liked the pup too much to let that happen if I could reasonably prevent it.

Both of us were wearing jeans, t-shirts, and light jackets – normal clothes as Florida started into its dry season. Kevlar vests were under our shirts and MP5’s were under our jackets. I looked at the pictures of the target on my phone’s display. The kin hadn’t seen any movement in the house. I resisted thinking everything was going well. I knew Murphy and his fucking law too damn well. We parked the car in opposite of the house. Several of warriors were trying to be inconspicuous as they milled around the are. Hangman and I put on our headsets and clipped our phones to our belts. We approached the house. It was a small two-story house with a large picture window looking down at us on the second floor. We couldn’t see anyone peeping out of it. Our entry point would be through the sliding glass door in the back of the house. For entrance, Hangman and I both wielded ASP telescoping batons.

The gate was secure enough to keep out the local kids, but not against a concerted, violent opening. The two of us walked into the back yard. It was a well-manicured yard with a large square of loose gravel in the center. My guess was a fighting ring of some type. The Bleeders were big into hand to hand combat, and we knew that the Bleeders used this coven before. Standing outside the sliding glass door on a small concrete patio was a ghoul. He was smoking a cigarette with his hand on a holstered pistol. His eyes went wide as he saw the two of us come around the corner, but he didn’t react nearly fast enough. Hangman charged the ghoul with his baton out and extended. The short distance between the two evaporated. Hangman delivered a vicious blow to the ghoul’s head. Even without the added strength of true form, the blow was enough to destroy the ghoul’s jaw and send him down to the concrete. Hangman didn’t waste time and quickly brought up his MP5, letting the baton clatter to the ground. As he covered the sliding glass door, I came up behind him and finished the ghoul with a knife.

There wasn’t anyone beyond the glass door. Directly across from where we were standing, we could see a short foyer to the front door of the house. To the left was a couple of bargain leather sofas an entertainment center against the left wall. The right side of the room was a dining room. I could make out the raised bar dividing the great room from the kitchen. In the right corner was the staircase up to the second floor. No one responded to the death of the sentry, so I wasn’t sure if the others in the house were unaware or laying in ambush. Hangman must have been thinking the same thing.

Use furniture for cover, he hand-signed to me, keeping his weapon trained at the staircase and kitchen area. I nodded in response, biting down my retort. I would save the stating of the obvious for the job debrief. Under Hangman’s watchful eye, I slid open the glass door. As I suspected, it wasn’t locked. What sentry is going to lock himself out of his own house when going for a smoke? Keeping the MP5 aimed to the right, I took up a cover position behind one of the couches. Behind me was an entertainment center with some very expensive electronic toys. The vampires must have been in this house for a while, and they expected to use this as a hub for operations in this part of the county. Even the vampires didn’t put in over twenty thousand dollars of electronics unless they expected to get their money’s use out of them. They expected to use this coven for a while. Oh well, if they weren’t too wrecked, I’m sure the pack would get some use out of all those electronics.

The kitchen was a small affair with two doors. The one off to my right led into the garage, while the one directly in front of me opened up into a side patio. I didn’t see a sentry on that patio, but I kept an eye out anyway. The staircase led up to a second floor hallway, but I couldn’t see anything up that way. I waited for a moment, listening for any sound betraying an ambush. Hearing nothing, I motioned for Hangman to enter the house. Hangman strode in, keeping his weapon trained on the second floor. He placed his back up against the wall at the foot of the staircase, giving him a nice field of fire if anything appeared out of the hallway. I moved up behind him, clapping him gently on the shoulder just before I crouched down and to keep the kitchen in view. My instincts were telling me something was wrong. A coven this deep in our territory should have more ghouls guarding it. Bleeders had staged out of this house at least once before, and Bradon would have demanded the extra security to protect his operatives while they slept.

“Clear the first floor,” Hangman whispered to me, “Take the point to the kitchen. I’ll cover you.” I nodded silently. Truth to be, I would have sent him to the kitchen, but only because I know my shooting skills, and I was pretty sure that I was faster and more accurate than Hangman. This was his job, and Hangman was in tactical control. As I slid out from behind Hangman, a ghoul came into view from the kitchen patio. He was armed and aware there was something deadly in the house. He was either stupid because he didn’t use any of the cover available to him, or he was just panicking at the sight of his dead comrade. Either way, I placed a suppressed burst into him before he could bring his pistol up. The sound of the shattering glass masked the suppressed report of the MP5 and the tinkling of the brass against the wall. The ghouls in the house would have heard the glass breaking, but they would have no idea exactly what they were facing. This gave Hangman and me a very short window for action.

Hangman and I both rushed into the kitchen. I took a quick peek outside and saw no other ghouls. Hangman opened the garage door as I covered him. The garage was clear of ghouls. That just left the second floor. Upstairs would be tight with very bad cover. Ancestors, this was going to be fun. Why the hell did I leave my flash-bangs at home? Oh yeah, I didn’t think they would be needed. I should have known better.

“Well, do you want to go first?” I asked Hangman as the two of us looked up the staircase.

“Yeah, but I’m thinking you might be better for it, Ranger,” Hangman responded. “Let’s go.” I moved up the stairs cautiously. Hangman followed with his back against the stairwell wall so he could engage anything that came from above or below us. Clearing houses was usually a hit pack job for this reason. You needed the extra bodies to secure the house. Lone wolves usually just did simple raid and assassination jobs. Part of the fun of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter is finding myself into these kinds of situations. The top of the stairs opened up to a narrown hallway with three doors toward the front of the house and another door towards the rear. I motioned for Hangman to come up, hoping like hell we didn’t get attacked from both sides. As Hangman passed me at the top of the stairway, he moved to the room at the rear. It was probably the master bedroom and would be where the majority of the leeches were slumbering. Taking it out was a smart move, because that was the most likely place for any remaining ghouls to be hiding. I walked slowly backward to cover him.

I heard him slam the door open and walk in. I moved to the side of the door, keeping my weapon trained on the hallway. If I heard his MP5, then I would move carefully into the bedroom to assist. If I heard any other weapon, I would enter the room in full assault mode. Hangman emerged a few moments later. Clear, vampires sleeping, his hands flashed quickly. Best to leave the sleeping vampires alone for the moment. It wasn’t as if they were going anywhere. I nodded as the two of us crept down the hall. There were two doors to our left and a single door to the right. One of these days, I was going to force Wizard to hack into county records so that we had instant access to all building floorplans. My guess from the door spacing was the closest door on the left was a bathroom. I was worried it was connected to the other room on the left, which brought on a whole bunch of bad possibilities.

“Let’s do this methodically,” Hangman said, “First door on the left, then the next, then the right.” I nodded as we approached the door. I would make sure I explained things to him before we entered. I wasn’t sure if he had figured it out by himself yet.

Be careful, next door, I flashed to him, as we neared the door. Hangman gave me a quizzical look and bent towards me. I whispered into his ear, “The two rooms may be connected.”

“Okay, I’ll go forward,” he said, “You cover the flank.” I nodded in response. The door opened and an overpowering wave of incense rolled out into the hall. The smell was enough to make me blink away sudden tears. Hangman made the same instinctual conclusion as me and charged into the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet was the wounded leech from the firefight. The vampire was hooked up to a device feeding him black blood through at least four IV’s. The leech was conscious, but completely powerless. Once the sun rose, the poor bastard lost almost all of his strength. That combined with his wounds meant he barely had enough strength to lift his head at our entrance. Hangman moved in cautiously and inspected the leech and the machine.

“Ranger, what the fuck is this?” Hangman asked, “I’ve never seen this thing before.” He walked around the machine. It was about three feet tall and maybe a couple feet around. It was smooth white plastic except for a touchscreen readout and hookups for eight lines. Four of these were going to the leech. The others were leading to the bathtub. I pulled back the shower curtain. Lying in the tub were two emaciated human bodies. The humans were alive, but just barely. They didn’t even register our presence as Hangman checked them for pulses.

“Best guess,” Hangman said, “This little machine converts human blood into that nasty stuff so that they can relace what they lost.” I didn’t disagree, but why would the vampires have such a machine? From just a cursory inspection, the device required more work than lower vampires were worth in the eyes of the TCV. That sounded like a question for the intelligence section.

“Other rooms?” I asked quietly, trying to curb Hangman’s fascination with the device. He stared at the machine for a moment longer and then turned back to me. He nodded his head.

“Let’s finish this job,” he said with a slightly tired tone to his voice. The bathroom was connected to the other room, but the door swung into the bathroom. Entering from that side was going to be difficult. Instead, we moved the machine in front of the door. If anyone in that room tried to flee this way, he would be in for a surprise. The two doors were all that were left. Hangman and I decided to do simultaneous assaults on both doors. It would be a bit more dangerous if we both ran into opposition, but it also prevented bad guys from sneaking from one room to the next. Hangman took the left while I prepped the right. My MP5 ready, I slowly unlatched the door, gave a little force to open it just a bit, and then slammed through. The room was a plain bedroom with two coffins were the bed should be. There was no movement. I made my way through the room, making sure no ghouls were hiding around the room. I walked back into the hallway to find Hangman with a similarly disturbed look on his face.

“What the fuck?” he asked, “There can’t be just two fucking ghouls guarding this place.” I silently agreed with Hangman. Even if the vampires in the coffins were just regular TCV members, two ghouls as guards were woefully pathetic. We found a total of eight sleeping vampires and a ninth undergoing a bizarre healing. For this kind of coven, I would have expected at least six ghouls. Part of me being on this job was to help train Hangman how to think, so instead of telling him what I thought, I decided to force his thoughts on the possible reasons.

“Okay, so why aren’t there more ghouls?” I asked.

“TCV thought this place was secure,” Hangman said, “We know that they need all of the ghouls they have. We don’t have to limit ourselves to night-time jobs.” That was true, which was why the vampires always maintained far more ghouls than was probably necessary. It was also why they were using more human assistants to do the normal gofer work normally reserved for the ghouls since Lord Vollen declared war.

“Could the other ghouls be gone on an errand?” I asked, trying to point out a simple reason for the absence of the vampires.

“Maybe, but why would they leave their vampires with only two guards?” Hangman countered, “Ghouls are so zealous in their protection of the vampires. It doesn’t make sense. If we found a couple more ghouls, then I would think the others had gone off to do errands while leaving enough to protect the leeches from pack warriors. This coven is too far within lycanthrope territory for them not to leave enough protection. Unless they had none to give and were counting on the secrecy of the coven for additional protection.” Hangman was getting scary. I came to the same conclusions, but I wouldn’t have at his age. He was thinking far more strategically than I did when I was a brand-new hunter. Now I saw why the Guildmaster wanted me to work with the pup. Few hunters could integrate the tactical and the strategic as easily as Hangman.

“Okay, so what now?” I prompted.

“Fire the house,” he said, confidently, “We salt the fucking earth.” It was a good answer, and it was the last step we planned for the coven. There was just something else that needed to be done first.

“What about intel?” I asked without reproach. Most of the young hunters simply forgot to toss a place for intel after a job. It just wasn’t taught at the camp to the point it became an almost instinctual thing to do. Interrogations maybe, but looking for written and electronic reports sometimes slipped the mind. Again, it was a curse of our oral tradition.

“Oh yeah,” Hangman said, somewhat sheepishly, “Where?” That was a good question. He understood where some of his weaknesses may lay, and he was looking for help in fixing the problem. It had taken a serious mistake for me to start asking help without feeling ashamed.

“Let’s toss the bedrooms first,” I said, “Make sure to grab cell phones or tablets. We’ll worry about the desktops later. Any paper, we need to check.” Hangman looked at me with an almost pained look, and I could tell what he was thinking. “Yes, this is going to take awhile, but your next time will go faster as you learn what could or could not be intel. Generally, we don’t need the junk mail. Utility bills are only needed to see when service started. Credit card bills are essential. Anything that looks like correspondence or even basic notes we take. Anything that looks like operations planning gets bagged. Once we’ve got everything, then we can burn the house down.” We found a few phones, and a pair of laptops. We used the cameras on our phones to send pictures of the wounded leech and the machine to the Guild. The desktop computers were protected. We didn’t have the time to crack them. The few papers were mostly worthless, but there were a few that looked promising. Hangman found a couple of carrying cases for the laptops and we loaded everything into them. We were ready to set the house to burn. As we came down the staircase gunfire erupted.

Before the attack registered, I felt several hits in my vest and the laptop case was jerked out of my hand. I scrambled back up the stairs as a round hit me in the forearm and another slammed into my knee. As Hangman and I collapsed into the hallway, I could see he was bleeding from a hit in his leg. He also had several holes in his shirt that the vest caught. Both of his arms were working properly, so he pulled out his aid kit and began working on me as I drew my pistol and covered the entrance to the hallway. Anything bad rounding that corner would be getting a .45 ACP Silver Shok to the head. Okay, I fucked up and got complacent. We should have extracted with more care. I grunted in pain as Hangman probed the two wounds to remove the silver. Nice thing about the leeches’ silver bullets is they don’t normally fragment. They still hurt like all hell when they’re pulled out. I heard the two bullets hit the carpet, and then came the intense pain as Hangman applied the wolfsbane. I shook off the dizziness from the pain, but I could feel the warm, happy feeling as my wounds – now cleaned of the silver – began to seal up. A moment later, I was healed. I got up to return the favor.

As Hangman covered the hallway with his [MP5](<a href=”, I yanked out the bullet in his leg and cleaned the wound with the wolfsbane. As I holstered my pistol and picked up my MP5, I wondered why our assailants hadn’t pressed the attack. Hangman put a short burst into a ghoul’s head as it popped out of the stairwell. We made our mistake in not being cautious as we left. They made theirs in giving us too long to recuperate. I hit the speed dial on my phone out to one of the warriors who should be sitting outside. I was pissed they didn’t call Hangman or me to let us know ghouls were entering the house, but I needed to know what they saw. I would figure out what went through their heads later.

“Who’s this?” asked the voice on the other side with a confused and excited voice.

“This is Ranger,” I said, “What the fuck is going on out there?”

“Shit man, we’ve been trying to call you,” the voice said, “About six ghouls just drove up and went into the house.”

“Yeah, and now they’re shooting at us,” I replied. Hangman looked over quickly at me. Ghouls – five, I hand-signed to him. He nodded and turned back down. “We need a diversion. Quickly. And don’t get yourselves killed.”

“Two minutes,” answered the welcome voice of Ringston, “Can you hold?” Damn I was glad that he showed up. I looked over at Hangman who was fishing around in his pocket.

“Oh yeah,” I replied, “As long as the bastards don’t start chucking grenades at us.” I didn’t really expect the ghouls to have that kind of high-end firepower, but this job already had far too many nasty surprises. Granted, some of those were simple fuck-ups and some were oversights by me. It was what we would call a “learning experience” for Hangman. I made my own mental note to make sure I asked Gunny to get me some more flash-bangs. They were quickly becoming part of my AMEX kit – things you don’t leave home without. Hangman pulled out a plastic periscope. It looked like something out of a cereal box, but at least he remembered to bring it along. I had an FBI version, but it was back at my townhouse. It was too heavy to bring along normally, but I would make sure it was in the saddle bags of my motorcycle. I motioned to him before he looked down the staircase.

Warriors – two minutes, I hand-signed to him. He nodded in reply. Hangman let his MP5 rest on its sling as he drew his Sig 1911. He held the pistol in his left hand as he looked through the periscope down the staircase. Pistol shots rang out and I heard the bullets slap into the wall at the top of the staircase. Hangman put away his periscope and holstered his pistol as he moved back towards me.

“Four ghouls are at the bottom of the staircase. Couldn’t see the other one.”

“Okay, we’ll deal with that one as soon as we see him,” I said, “Go as soon as Ringston sets off the distraction.”

“Leave the intel?” Hangman asked like he was trying to confirm what he was thinking.

“Yeah,” I answered, “We should we be able to come back for it after we finish clearing the ghouls out. Weapon check.” Hangman and I both checked our sub-machine guns. Full magazines, suppressors tightly attached, rounds in the chambers, and selector switches set to three round burst. It was unlikely we would need to provide suppressive fire, so the three round burst would be all we needed to take down the ghouls. Pistols. Full magazines and ready for quick transitions if the submachine guns ran dry. We nodded to each other.

At one minute fifty seconds, the front door slammed open followed by pistol fire being exchanged. Hangman slid into the top of the staircase and let loose a pair of bursts. I was close behind him and fired my own bursts at the two remaining visible ghouls. The four seemed to fall simultaneously. Both of us scanned the house below as for the remaining ghoul. I could see two warriors with pistols in hand at the front door, but not the last bad guy. The warriors were facing towards the kitchen.

“There’s one more guys,” Hangman yelled down, “Can you see him?” Neither Hangman nor I wanted to traipse down the stairs until we had a good idea of where the last bastard was hiding. At least enough to make sure he couldn’t ambush on the stairs again.

“I can’t see him, but I think he’s either outside or in that door just inside the kitchen,” answered one of the warriors. “What do you want us to do?” I wanted to answer, but I waited for Hangman. It was his job, and I had enough confidence that he could make the right decision. Or ask me if he was unsure.

“Move to the base of the stairs,” Hangman said. He sounded confident, but he looked a little unsure. “When I give the signal, move towards the kitchen and fire at anything that moves.” It was a simple plan of using the warriors as blockers to cover our descent. I didn’t agree. I hadn’t seen enough to prove to me Ringston’s warriors could handle themselves in a gun fight. I would have gone back outside through one of the bedroom windows and came in either through the front door or the back door. It would be another thing to discuss with Hangman when this job was finished. The two warriors made an almost humorous attempt at stealthily moving towards the front of the stairs. I think they were trying to mimic stuff they saw on television. Hangman looked over at me. I gave him a nod. I was ready.

“Go,” Hangman called down to the warriors. They ran the ten feet into the kitchen as Hangman and I scampered down the stairs. As we hit the base of the stairs, the ghoul appeared in the sliding glass door and immediately opened fire. Damn, the ghoul was good. I felt the hammer thuds as four rounds slammed into my chest. Hangman collapsed to the floor beside me. I raised my weapon with one hand and placed a burst into the ghoul. It was quick, dirty, and missed, but the bullets drove the ghoul back and gave me time to regroup. Gripping the MP5, I slipped into the kitchen.

“Go help Hangman,” I whispered to the warriors, “Cover him from that bastard.” They looked terrified, but they scurried over to where Hangman lay on the floor. I needed to finish this fast. I didn’t know how badly Hangman was hit, and I didn’t have any more wolfsbane. It was time to go outside. I slinked out of the kitchen door, keeping my back to wall and my weapon pointed towards the backyard. I waited for a moment and listened. Nothing, so I crept down the wall. I lowered down as I came to the corner. I wanted to be as low to the ground as possible to peek around the corner. The ghoul jumped out from the back. Bullets cracked over me as the ghoul fired at where he thought I would be. I brought my weapon up and placed a three-round burst into his head. It exploded like an overripe melon from the three nine millimeter rounds. The body toppled to the ground. I took a deep breath and thanked the Ancestors.

I stood up and called the Guild. As the phone rang, I walked into the house and headed to where the warriors were standing guard on Hangman. The pup was still on the floor and wasn’t moving. There was a moment of panic, and then I could see him breathing. Relief flooded through me. I doubted the Guildmaster would be happy with me killing the new pup so early in his career.

“Who is calling?” asked the voice on the phone. I didn’t recognize it immediately, and I didn’t waste time trying to recollect whom the voice belonged to. I had more immediate concerns.

“Ranger,” I answered, “Hangman is down and needs immediate medical. We are in the Plantation area near Linebaugh.” There was a pause on the line as original voice was replaced by Burn, the Guild doctor.

“Ranger, I can’t get out there, but I’m sending someone from the Lutz pack,” he told me, “She’s a pretty good doctor. What are his injuries?” I sat down next to me. Hangman looked dazed almost as if he was surprised he’d been hit. A lot of his blood was on the floor.

“Gunshot at the shoulder, gunshot in the knee, grazing wounds on neck and across face,” I reported, as matter-of-factly as I could. “Looks like all wounds went clean through. The wounds are all archanal. He’s lost a bit of blood, and I’m out of wolfsbane packs.” I looked up at the warriors. The senior one shook his head gravely. “The pack doesn’t have any on scene.”

“Start trying to control the bleeding and keeping him from going into shock,” Burn told me. I heard screams in the background. He was advising me while working on someone in much worse shape. Thank the Ancestors Burn was a born multi-tasker. “Penelope should be there in less than fifteen minutes. Try not to let the pup die before she gets there.” As Burn went back to his task, I heard the unique sound of the Guild’s computer system getting a GPS fix on me. All of our phones had the capability, but we only used it in emergencies. I waited for ten seconds, and then the phone disconnected. I looked up at the pack warriors.

“You two, go get me bandages and blankets,” I ordered. They rushed to get me what I needed. I looked down at Hangman, “You’ve been quiet.”

“Didn’t want to disturb you,” he grunted out between spasms of pain, “Taking all of my concentration not to scream. Pain is different. Must have been hit in something nasty.” Hangman was diagnosing himself. I was surprised he kept the presence of mind to do that. Hunters are trained to keep going, even when badly injured. The vest protected him from immediately fatal hits. His wound at the shoulder looked bad and his knee was much worse. Both joints were probably shattered. That was going to make the cleaning worse. At least once the doctor cleaned his up, those wounds would heal up fine. None of the weeks of rehab humans had to deal with. The face wound didn’t look serious. Head wounds always tended to be bloody. The grazing wound on his neck was my primary concern, because it was too close to major arteries. Any heavy moving could tear the wound further. One of warriors came in with what looked like a first-aid kit.

“Get me gauze and tape,” I told the warrior and turned back to Hangman, “How is the pain different?” As he tried to think, I probed the shoulder wound. It looked like the bullet just passed through, but I was worried that the rounds fragmented hitting bone, and there were pieces of silver still stuck in Hangman. The pup yelled out in pain as my fingers desperately searched for the unique feel of metal in his shoulder. No fragments, just the silver residue preventing the wound from healing. The warrior shakily handed me a towel to wipe my bloody hands. As soon as my hands were clean, I bandaged up the neck and face wounds and began trying to plug up both the shoulder and the knee wounds.

“You still with me, Hangman?” I asked.

“Fuck you very much,” Hangman replied weakly, “Quit trying to kill me. Pain’s different because so much broken. Felt bullets go through.” He was trying to maintain consciousness. He knew as well as I did he couldn’t go out until the doctor arrived with her medicines. “Can you do something useful?”

“Okay, what’s the first rule?” I asked calmly. It was an old trick to focus a hunter’s mind, particularly when he was hurting.

“Never fail a job,” Hangman answered, almost annoyed, “Let me guess, what’s the second rule?”

“Come on shithead,” I replied, lightly “You know the drill, odd numbers.”

“Fucker,” was the reply, “Third rule? Never be unarmed.” Hangman grunted in pain as he began thinking about the fifth cardinal rule of the hunters. I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked up. The lycanthrope was in human form, a shapely female figure with long black hair and dark eyes. She was dressed in jeans with a cotton blue blouse. She had a large black satchel at her side with a stethoscope peeking out of the flap. Her stance was that of an impatient professional. She had to be the doctor that Burn sent.

“Back up,” she ordered in a cool soprano as she not-so-gently pushed me away from Hangman. She knelt down beside him, pulling out a glass bottle and a cloth from her satchel without looking. Definitely a professional. The doctor looked over Hangman as she opened the bottle. The pungent smell of wolfsbane screamed out of the bottle and quickly filled the room. The warriors and I took a step back out of learned fear of the medicine. Lycanthropes may have cognitively understood that wolfsbane would heal us by neutralizing the poisonous touch of silver. Instinctively, we remember the pain of wolfsbane’s touch the moment we smelled its unique odor. Hangman grunted as the odor wafted over him.

“Easy, hunter,” she said soothingly, “This is going to hurt. A lot.” She began wiping the wolfsbane-laden cloth across Hangman’s wounds on his neck and face. I heard a strong intake of breath from Hangman as he stifled a scream of pain. The pup was strong, and he was tough. The doctor moved to Hangman’s shoulder. As she wiped the wound with the wolfsbane, Hangman let out a stifled yelp. The wound began to seal itself as soon as the wolfsbane began to take effect. I could see the bones move under the skin as they began to reset and heal themselves. Satisfied that Hangman was under the proper care, I moved to the warriors.

“What the fuck happened?” I asked, hotly, “We didn’t get any intel that the ghouls had left the house or any warning when they arrived back at the house.” I was supposed to let Hangman handle this part also, since he had to learn to deal with the warriors that made up most of the packs. With Hangman still down, I wanted to make sure that it was either carelessness or just fucking Murphy instead of something far more sinister.

“Fuck you Badmoon,” the younger warrior retorted, stepping forward aggressively, “We fucking called you when they were coming in. It’s not our fucking fault you didn’t answer your phone.” I walked over and punched him hard enough to drive him the to the floor. As he lay on the floor, I loomed over him with murder in my eyes. I wanted him to think I was on the verge of removing his vital organs. I watched as the anger that lit his eyes faded into cold fear.

“Let me explain something to you,” I began with a chill tone, “I am not in the habit of letting idiots walk away unscathed. So, let’s try this again, why weren’t we notified?”

“Ranger, stand down,” Ringston ordered from the door, “Unless you have evidence one of my pack conspired against you, I will not allow you to attack one of my pack. Is that clear?” My first reaction was to tell Ringston to fuck himself, but I quickly suppressed the urge. Ringston was just about the only pack leader openly friendly to the hunters since the Vollen assassination. He was also someone who seemed to trust me personally, and that was rare enough for me to give Ringston a lot of slack. He backed his pack, like any good leader, but he also wasn’t foolish enough to immediately discount the fact that there might be a real problem.

“They said they called me, sir,” I answered, backing away from the warrior on the floor, “Neither Hangman nor me ever received a phone call. Both of us had our phones set to immediately pick up if your warriors called us. No way it should have gone to voicemail.” It wasn’t damning evidence, but the Guild needed to know what went wrong. If it was something simple, then we needed to put in procedures to make sure it didn’t happen again. If it was something evil, then someone was going to be dead very quickly.

“Get me the phone you used to call the hunters,” Ringston demanded to one of his warriors, “We’ll solve this little enigma now.” Ringston motioned to another lycanthrope and whispered into his ear. “All of you, evacuate immediately. As soon as the hunter is healed up, we will burn this house to the ground.” His warriors began moving.

“Excuse me, sir, we have a laptop, some cell phones and other stuff. We need to get those things to the Guild before we burn the house down,” I said, “There may be important intelligence on those items. Also, there is an odd device upstairs. I don’t think we can move it, but we need to get as much information on it as possible.”

“What kind of device?” Ringston asked, his voice dropping to a neutral tone.

“Looks like some kind of emergency medical device for the leeches,” I told him, “It looks like it replaces the black fluid leeches use as blood. For a badly wounded leech, it could keep him alive long enough for medical treatment or to purge silver poisoning.” Ringston pondered what I told him for a moment. The doctor looked at me in horror. Ringston turned to the doctor.

“Penelope, if Hangman is stable, I need you to go with Ranger to inspect the device,” Ringston ordered, “All of the items Ranger told us about will go to Dietrich.” He noticed my hand drop down to the grip of the MP5 slung at my side. “Relax Ranger, we have someone that can crack the laptop and the phones for us.”

“With all due respect sir, those need to go to the Guild’s intel section,” I protested, “We have the resources.” Ringston held up his hand.

“Ranger, I know the Guild’s intelligence group is the best in the county, but they are going to be overloaded with all of the intel sent in by all the packs,” Ringston said, “Dietrich is a computer specialist several of the packs use for background searches and such. He’s kin. Better to let him do the hard work and let us send over the data to the Guild.” I wasn’t convinced, but what he said made some sense. Enough for me to let my boss make the final call. I called the Guildmaster and gave him a quick brief before handing over the phone. The Guildmaster and Ringston talked for a few minutes as I went with the doctor to look at the device. The poor doctor had no idea what she was walking into. I heard retching quickly followed by the unique sound of vomit hitting the linoleum floor. She composed herself and inspected the device. Her professional face was firmly in place as she began poking and prodding the wounded leech and the device. As she did her thing, I began to get the upstairs set up for arson. The idea was for the house to burn quickly so the humans had no chance to put the fire out before it burned to the ground and immolated anything pointing to the unseen world. We did not want the slightest chance of witch-hunters being created, or worse. Nightmares of the Pathwalkers were constant since this war started.

“Ranger, here’s your phone,” Ringston said, handing over the device. He looked in the bathroom and his face paled. “Ancestors, that thing was in my territory?” Regaining his composure, he turned back to me. “We figured out what happened with the phones. My warriors had wrong numbers for you two.”

“Fucking Murphy,” I snarled. Part of it was our own damn fault. We never had the warriors test the numbers to make sure they were entered correctly. That was going to be part of the debrief. This wasn’t a shining example of how to do a job properly.

“The Guildmaster released the laptop and the phones to my care. Hangman’s up and ambulatory. We’re ready to finish this.”

“Very good sir,” I said, “Let’s get things moving.” I will say one thing about the job. It was a damned fine bonfire.

Chapter 8 – Be Careful What You Wish For

Badmoon Rising – Chapter Six: All’s Fair In War

After the Rite of Discovery, I didn’t hear from the Guildmaster. What was worse, I didn’t hear anything from Bradon. According to the other hunters, the vampires were laying low. They knew the lycanthropes were out for vengeance. The Bleeders were warning the other leeches to stay in their territory and do nothing to provoke the lycanthropes. Without any jobs coming my way, I busied myself going through my gear. My instincts were telling me I was going to need everything in optimum condition. Hours were needed to go through the mass of electronics, climbing rigs, weapons, and other items I used for jobs. My last tasks were cleaning my primary weapons. With my hands grimy with lubricant, the phone rang. I cursed as I hastily wiped my hands on my t-shirt and picked up the receiver without checking the number.

“Marcus, what are you doing right now?” the Guildmaster asked. I could tell by the sound of his voice something was wrong.

“Putting my Commando back together,” I replied, nonchalantly, “What’s up?”

“The coronation is being held early. The day after tomorrow,” the Guildmaster answered flatly.

“What the fuck?” I asked into the telephone, nearly dropping the upper of my Commando. The coronation was always held on the next Bone Moon after the death of the previous lord. The period between was for the packs to mourn the loss of the lord. For the coronation to be held less than two weeks after the funeral of a lord was unheard of, even during the Discovery War when we first fought the vampires.

“The Spiritmaster approved it. In fact, I believe he came up with the idea,” the Guildmaster said. That didn’t sound right. The Spiritmaster was the most conservative lycanthrope I knew. I couldn’t conceive of him violating tradition.

“What gives you that idea?” I asked.

“Dennis overheard a pair of shaman at the Manor. They were talking about some sort of divine premonition the Spiritmaster received. Two hours later the announcement came down. I don’t believe the two are coincidence,” the Guildmaster explained. As much as I hated to admit it, Dennis could actually produce useful intelligence on occasion.

“Do you think this has anything to do with the package you received after the funeral?” I asked. The Guildmaster let out a dark breath before answering my question.

“Yes, I do. I want you at my office in two hours,” the Guildmaster said, “I’m going to bring in Kurt and James, and maybe a couple of others. I want the Guild to hit the ground running.” He broke the connection abruptly. I set down the phone. As I inserted a magazine into the Commando, my mind raced over the possibilities. I didn’t like any of them.

I roared into the parking lot of the Guildmaster’s office complex an hour and forty-five minutes later. There were a pair of hunters in the parking lot. They looked like they were having a casual conversation, but they were constantly scanning the area around the complex. They made quick eye contact with me and went back to their talking. My instincts were screaming with the tension in the air. I walked in to the reception area. The usual secretary was gone. One of Amber Werstand’s kin employees was manning the front desk. In the lobby were the two more hunters. The kin flashed her eyes up at me and nodded.

I strode up the stairs and entered the Guildmaster’s office. Deadeye and Sneller were sitting in front of the Guildmaster’s desk. Deadeye was reading a sheet of paper. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone else in the room. Turning, I found John Bowmaster availing himself to the Guildmaster’s small wet bar. We did the acknowledgment nod.

“Anyone else joining us?” I asked the Guildmaster.

“Not right now,” he answered. Looking me dead in the eye, the Guildmaster continued, “This county is going to war.” The statement floored me. I tried to keep my face impassive as my mind tried to comprehend what it was just told. Granted, a few weeks ago, I might have relished the opportunity for unrestricted leech hunting, but that was when Stephen Vollen was in the lord.

“Are you sure?” was the only question I could summon.

“Yes,” Deadeye answered. He handed me the paper he was reading. The masthead was from the Lord’s Manor. I read the single sentence. As the vampire infestation is no longer acceptable to the leadership of the lycanthrope society in Hillsborough County, I, the Lord-Apparent, order the Hunters Guild to deploy its strike forces for immediate operations following the coronation. There was only one thing for me to do.

“What are your orders?” I asked, without any trace of my normal flippancy. The aristocracy issued its orders to the Hunters Guild. It was our duty to follow them – whether we thought the orders were sensible or not. The last thing my Guildmaster needed was to try and deal with my normal smart-assedness.

“We will go with Plan Black. John and his brother will be issuing mission weapon packages to the hit packs. They will be at their safehouses until their targets are identified. The lone wolves will also be issued general weapon packages. I want them to act as a back-up measure for the packs in case some of they need additional hands. I’ll also want them available in case some of packs’ targets are missed. Marcus, you and one of Kurt’s hit packs will accompany me to the coronation. Afterwards, you will forego the party and begin your jobs. Any questions?” None of us spoke. The Guildmaster dismissed us with a wave of his hand. I held back as the others left.

“What is it Marcus?” the Guildmaster asked.

“I’m going to exercise one of my roles and privileges of being your personal hitter,” I said. He cocked an eyebrow in surprise. I took that as my cue to continue. “Plan Black? Are you sure you want to go with that?”

“What would you suggest?” the Guildmaster asked. He sounded genuinely curious.

“Plan Orange or Plan Gold,” I said. He gave me an apprising look.

“Of all my immediate subordinates, you were the last one I would’ve expected to recommend I exercise some restraint in our initial strike,” the Guildmaster said. “Could it be that your personal feelings are weighing on your decisions?”

“Of course they are,” I said, “I don’t know why the Lord-Apparent decided to take this county to war. Probably because he believes the TCV was behind his father’s murder. Which we know is not the case, but haven’t told him. I understand your reasons for holding that back. I don’t agree, but I understand. If we find the evidence you want that would implicate another lord in the assassination, we need to be able to stop the war fast. Plan Black would wreak so much havoc in the TCV’s leadership, we couldn’t stop the war quickly enough.” The Guildmaster stood up from his desk and walked over to me. He put his hands on my shoulders and looked at me.

“Marcus, I can’t tell you how proud of you I am right now,” he said. His words caught me off-guard. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say. The Guildmaster broke away from me and sat back down behind his desk. “I considered the same things, but my decision stands. Plan Black will be initiated on the night of the coronation.” I mutely nodded my head in acknowledgement and walked out of the office. I was still trying to figure out what happened as I rode back to my house.

The night of the coronation was crystal clear. The Order’s spells removed much of the haze from the city. I could see more of the night’s stars than I had seen in years. The only marring feature of the night sky was the half-full moon. I wasn’t a particularly religious lycanthrope, but even I couldn’t help feeling the coronation being held so early was perilously close to heresy. I wasn’t the only one. As other lycanthropes passed our small group, I overheard worries of the Ancestors’ displeasure.

I stood in front of the Manor. I felt uncomfortable in my robes. No, that wasn’t quite true. I was uncomfortable with the job I was assigned. I’ve had a few uncomfortable jobs over the years. It’s part of being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. Over the years, I built up my own ritual for dealing with the stress. Having to escort the Guildmaster to the coronation threw that ritual out the fucking window. As I waited for the Guildmaster, I checked the security personnel again. I didn’t expect any trouble. I was pretty sure Whoever our mystery assassin was, it was unlikely he would show up here. Professionals of that caliber wouldn’t waste their time on any of the small targets that were going to be here. At least that was my opinion. The Guild was still unsure if the entire operation was completed with Lord Vollen’s assassination. The hunters assigned to the Manor for the evening were our best defensive hunters, and they backed up by a strong force of hunter-trained pack warriors acting as marshals. It helped the current Manor was built to make it easy to defend.

This house had been the Manor for the past five years. It was built in on five acres of rural land in the southwestern corner of the county. Surrounding the property was an eight-foot high wrought iron fence. The black, one-inch thick posts were topped with one-inch silver spikes. The spikes were painted black to match the iron bars – more to discourage thieves than surprise intruders. In addition to the spikes, low-light cameras and motion detectors were scattered along the fence line, disguised as ornaments. At each of the corners, were hardened turrets with concealed machine guns that were remotely controlled from the house. The front gate was the only entrance to the property. Each half of the gate slid through two more turrets. With a flip of a switch, heavy concrete pylons would pop up across the driveway to prevent a vehicle from trying to slam through the gate. The grounds of the Manor were well trimmed with only a few tall evergreen trees dotting the landscape. Patrolling the grounds were three groups of six. They were a mix of hunter-trained pack warriors and shamans. The house, itself, was built into the side of the artificially created hill. Only about half of the house was visible, with the section that housed the Manor proper well buried underneath the hill. A small half-floor sat on top of the hill, hidden by the sloping roof of the house. No doubt a Red Knight crew was in the half-floor covering the rear entrance on top of the hill. That was one of the main advantages of the house’s design. Instead of the entire rear of the house having to be guarded, only the half-floor needed defense. The only rear entrance was the sliding glass door on the half-floor that faced out onto the hill. The house was upscale, but not grandiose. The roof came down from the half-floor to about twelve feet off the ground, disrupted only by a few well-concealed windows. The front of the house was painted in medium grays and featured lightly done wood work. Behind that wood-work was concrete walls that would withstand most explosives short of a large thermo-baric. There was a good reason for all of this security. The Manor was not just the home of the aristocracy. It was the last bastion for Hillsborough County’s packs. Inside its walls, the lycanthropes of our county could fight off any threat. Well except for Pathwalkers. No physical or magick barrier would protect us if they decided to involve themselves. I shook that thought from my mind. I had enough problems without worrying about the Pathwalkers.

I stood on the walk from the horseshoe driveway to the front door of the Manor. Various pack leaders and important lycanthropes from the surrounding counties walked by me without noticing. About five feet from me was Sneller’s chosen hit pack. I often thought Sneller had a twisted sense of humor. The hit pack he assigned to accompany the Guildmaster certainly led credence to my suspicion. The hit pack was very capable and probably was one of the best in the Guild, but the leader of the group and I had strong feelings for each other; feelings of hatred and loathing. The leader, JB, had been a hunter for about as long as me. He was of average height, and wore his dark hair in a crew cut. His dark eyes smoldered as he glanced at me. Unlike me, he was a dedicated hit pack wolf. When we joined the Hillsborough chapter, there was a distinct coolness between us. That was mostly from bravado and arrogance on each of our parts combined with the normal rivalry between hit packs and lone wolves.  That coolness was transformed to intense hatred about eight years back. Before the current Guildmaster came to head the Guild, the lone wolves and the hit packs didn’t talk to each other. It wasn’t uncommon for a hit pack and a lone wolf to be assigned the same target. It got to the point that when a job was given, one faction went to the other side of the house to make sure that no one else was doing the same job, and if so, to coordinate action. On the night in question, JB’s group and I were both assigned to sanction a prominent member of the TCV who had been recruiting vampires on our territory. Since the TCV couldn’t rein the vampire in, the Hunters Guild was asked by Bradon to do it for them. I didn’t know that at the time. Bradon told me much later. It was rush job and neither JB nor I bothered to check if anyone else had been given the job. It was a simple straightforward job that was perfect for a young hunter like me – at least on the face of it. In all honesty, the leech went down fast, but I fucked up my extraction and ended up starting a firefight with the leech’s ghouls and minion vampires. As I was fighting for my life, JB’s hit pack at the time pulled up at the front gate of the leech’s home. They planned a covert insertion using a basic bluff. It probably would have worked, but not while the guards and I were busy exchanging gunfire. The now-alerted leech forces and the hit pack met in a bloody and violent firefight. I escaped in the confusion thinking JB’s group extracted themselves. The hit pack and the leeches fought each other for the next two hours in a running gun battle all over Hyde Park. It ended with most of the leech forces killed, but with the leader of the hit pack severely wounded and the rest of the hit pack walking wounded. I’m sure JB would have killed me for that, but the battle earned him and the hit pack a great deal of respect both within the Guild and the lycanthrope community at large. JB’s coolness under fire during the fight resulted in him being promoted to the leader of the hit pack. He continued to rise in status and proficiency ever since. The grudge between the two of us was still there.

I didn’t really know the rest of JB’s hit pack, but apparently JB explained our history beforehand. JB’s deputy was a huge lycanthrope by the name of Farmer. He was a wall of flesh and muscle topping in at just over six and a half feet tall with physique of a professional wrestler in human form. In true form, he was terrifying. The other two were more average looking, but both of them held a wild gleam in their eyes. It slightly worried me until JB introduced them as the Crazy Boys. They were brothers with a reputation as dangerous and slightly off-kilter assassins. They earned their nickname from the wild cackling laugh they both used to signal a particularly interesting or difficult kill. The two started in the Guild as lone wolves, but Deadeye didn’t trust them and asked the Guildmaster to switch them over to the hit packs. Sneller agreed to take the Boys, and promptly handed them over to his resident bad-ass hit pack leader, JB. The Crazy Boys had been with JB for almost a year and thrived as hit pack members. They still made me a little nervous. I could do things on the reckless side, but that was calculated. Those two were just fucking nuts.

The crowd flowed by me as I saw the Guildmaster and his wife walk up to the five of us. Both were dressed in dark robes. The Guildmaster’s robes were adorned with golden runes, depicting his position in the ancient tongue. JB’s hit pack and I fell into position around the Werstands and escorted them into the Manor. As our group approached the front door, the two Red Knights on duty tensed up. They were both dressed in the ceremonial robes and holding deskunas. They may be ceremonial weapons, but they were still effective. The senior Red Knight did a pro-forma check of the Guildmaster’s credentials as the other Knight watched the rest of us suspiciously. Upon going through the door, the nondescript facade of the house faded into regal elegance. The floor was constructed of marble tile, covered only by a wide red carpet. Tapestries depicting famous battles from our history were hung along the walls. The ceiling was dominated by a huge gold and crystal chandelier. Standing on either side of the carpet stood two more Red Knights in ceremonial dress and carrying deskunas. As my eyes scanned the hallway, I noticed a shadow out of my eye. Staring at me, with the gleam of unadulterated hatred in his eyes, was the Red Knight from the night of the assassination, Smythe.

“Does anyone know why Knight Smythe is looking at me like he wants me dead?” I asked. I hadn’t interacted with Smythe since the night of the assassination.

“Because he does,” the Guildmaster and JB said at the same time.

“He’s been very vocal to the rest of the Guid that he blames you for not succeeding in putting down the assassin,” the Guildmaster said.

“So, why am I just finding about this right now?” I asked.

“Exactly what would you have done if you’d known?” the Guildmaster asked. I thought about that for a long moment as we walked past Smythe. “At this particular moment, we don’t need my personal hitter antagonizing the thir—in-command of the Red Knights. Just be on your best behavior tonight, and there’s nothing he can do.”

“Sure thing, boss,” I said. JB’s scoff was just barely audible. I chose to ignore it. I had enough stuff on my mind. I followed the Guildmaster and his wife into the Manor proper and marveled again at the splendor of the ancient room. All the items in the rooms were originals from the founding of the lordship almost two hundred years ago. The Manor proper was a huge room, with a domed ceiling painted with several battles from the early times in the Fatherland. The floor was white marble, shining from the reflected light of the gilded chandeliers. About ten feet from each wall ran two lines of marble columns. Each of the twenty columns, ten on each side, was about a foot in diameter and evenly spaced from the door to the throne. On the six closest columns were the banners of the past families that ruled Hillsborough since the lordship was founded in the mid-1800’s.

All of the banners were decorated with brilliant colors and the crests of their line – except one. The one on the closest column on the right of the throne was a pure white. It bore no decorations or any symbols upon it. I’d seen it on the handful of occasions that I came to the Manor. It belonged to the family that held the throne right before Stephen Vollen’s father claimed it some seventy years ago. That was the banner of the Forgotten Lord. What is known of the Forgotten Lord is that he briefly ruled after the end of the Great Fatherland War, known to the humans as World War II. He apparently served well enough during the Great Fatherland War that when the Lord of Hillsborough was killed during the war, the Forgotten Lord was appointed to take over the county by the Prince. During his short reign, he committed some form of grievous offense to the Prince. It wasn’t known what exactly the offense entailed, but some of the rumors involved the Forgotten Lord taking an undesirable mate or betraying the Prince himself. Whatever it was, it was serious enough that the Prince not only removed the Forgotten Lord from the county lordship, but had the State Spiritmaster remove his identity from the memories of almost all lycanthropes in the State of Florida. Only the Prince knew the Forgotten Lord’s identity.

I could feel the angry glares as we walked across the tile floor. The Guildmaster pointedly looked at me and gave a small shake of his head. Our destination was in front of the throne. The throne was a wooden podium about seven feet tall with a narrow staircase in the back. Many lycanthropes likened it to a church pulpit. Directly in front of the throne were areas about twenty feet square laid out in black marble. These were where the family of the lord, the Order, and the Guild stood in the Manor during formal occasions. The family stood in front of the throne, the Order on the right, and the Guild on the left. The Guild took a perverse pride at sitting at the left hand of the throne, especially since we considered ourselves the shadowy part of the trifecta that existed outside the packs. We stood in our area as the Guildmaster walked to the back of the Manor. A pair of Red Knights stood by a door directly behind the throne that led to the Lord’s Room. The actual coronation was held there. Only the Spiritmaster, the Guildmaster, and the three most powerful pack leaders would witness the coronation of the Lord-Apparent. I have no idea what the ceremony was or what it entailed. Like the rest of the county’s lycanthropes, I waited in the Manor. When they came out of the Lord’s Room, Jason Vollen would possess the powerful psychic powers his father and every other lord possessed. That was considered the true sign of being chosen by the Ancestors to be the lord of the county. Once he ascended and took possession of the throne, Jason – now Lord Vollen – would give a speech outlining whatever he planned for the packs of Hillsborough County“. I remembered Stephen Vollen’s coronation speech. Stephen Vollen spoke of unity and restoration of the glory for the county. I wondered what sort of tone Jason would set, although I feared it was going to be a dark tone. War for vengeance is almost always a dark toned course of action. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. I could feel the tension in the air of the Manor.

The tense mood of the room increased as the door creaked open. The first lycanthrope out of the room was the Guildmaster. Carrying the solemn face custom dictated, he strode swiftly across the floor to the Guild’s square. Following him by about twenty paces was the Spiritmaster. The senior shaman strolled to the Order’s square with a casualness that worried me. Just as the Spiritmaster reached the square, he glanced over to us. I could have been wrong, but I swore I saw a smug grin on his muzzle. The three pack leaders joined their packs with neutral expressions. A few moments, the new Lord of Hillsborough County strode into the Manor with a stern expression on his face. He made his path to the throne. There was a dangerous gleam in his eyes that set my instincts roaring with danger warnings. It wasn’t the psychotic gleam I saw in the Crazy Boys. It was something all the more scary. Fanaticism was the only word that came to mind. The door to the throne was a concealed switch that could only be operated by the psychic touch of the aristocracy. This is the first proof to the packs that the Lord-Apparent was now the Lord of Hillsborough County. Jason Vollen – now Lord Vollen, third of his line – closed his eyes. The door clicked and swung open. He walked up into the throne and closed the door with his new powers. The room was silent with anticipation. A smile graced the lord’s muzzle as he looked out among the gathered packs and the few prominent guests. His voice boomed out in the Manor as he began to speak.

“Loyal lycanthropes of my county, I know many of you have worry the timing of my coronation is ill-placed, even heretical. There is a reason the Ancestors decreed the traditions should be put aside. For far too long, our county has lived with the offspring of the cesspool of degradation. We even made peace treaties with them. Even with all of our accommodation and appeasement, they have shown themselves to be completely untrustworthy time and time again. Now they have committed an act of war against our society as a whole. They must pay. As of this night, the Peace no longer exists in our realm.” Lord Vollen paused for a moment as startled gasps echoed throughout the Manor. I realized that although the Guild was preparing for this, none of the packs realized how tense the situation between the lycanthropes and the vampire had become. I doubted they were even prepared to fight. As the packs regained their composure, Lord Vollen continued.

“Our ancient war resumes now.” With those words, JB’s team and I left the Manor. Several shaman followed us. The Knights at the double doors held them open for us. They looked almost envious. Stupid fuckers, this war wasn’t a good thing. I pushed my annoyance down and kept my face an emotionless mask. The shaman raced down the corridor to the door that led outside. JB and I exchanged knowing glances. As I calmly walked down the hallway, I pulled out my phone and told Skiff to bring the car around. I was sure the night was going to have enough excitement without me getting wound up too early. Skiff waiting for me at the front of the driveway in human form, standing next to his pride and joy, a brand-new Ford Mustang. I stripped out of my robe and shed to human form. I opened Skiff’s trunk and pulled out my hanging bag. I unzipped it and an unexpected flood of emotion hit me as I looked at the tailored gray suit. I made sure everything was immaculate as I dressed. Weapons were tucked away in holsters and sheaths around me. I took a few more minutes to make everything was in place.

“Styling,” Skiff commented as he hung up his phone. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in something like that.”

“No, I don’t normally wear this,” I answered stiffly, “This was a gift. I figured it was appropriate.” Skiff cocked a questioning eyebrow at me. I shook my head. This wasn’t the time to go into deep explanations.

“What did Deadeye say?” I asked. Deadeye was coordinating tonight’s operations while Sneller oversaw the security at the Manor with the Red Knights. My job would start the night’s fun and games off.

“Surf’s up, dude,” Skiff answered. He laughed as I rolled my eyes and got into the car.

We reached our destination about twenty minutes later. It was a plain, two-story house in one of the suburbs in New Tampa,, a developing area in the northern part of Hillsborough. When the City of Tampa annexed it in the late 1990’s, it became an area of contention with both the vampire and lycanthropes claiming it. Who controlled what was usually down to a block by block struggle. This part of New Tampa was vampire territory. Skiff stopped long enough for me to get out, and then sped off to his waiting point. My plan didn’t anticipate me getting in without too many problems. Extraction was where I was going to need Skiff’s help. I strode up to the house. Two vampire guards were lounging on the porch. One was tall and lanky with long dark hair tied back into a ponytail. His partner was about my height with a crew cut. They were both dressed in jeans and brightly colored polos. I’m sure to their human neighbors the two vampires seemed to be two young men just hanging out. Two things made them stand out to me: one, the pistols holstered at their hips just under their shirts, and two, their fingernails painted a matte black. This was the home of the Bleeders’ leader, Phillip Bradon, and both of those young men were Bleeders assigned to guard their master. As I reached a couple of steps short of the front porch, their feigned non-interest in me suddenly changed. The tall one leaped in front of me, while his partner trained his pistol on me. I stood face to face with Long Hair as he spoke in the hot, foul-smelling breath of the leeches.

“What are you doing here, doggie?” Long Hair asked, pitifully trying to fill his voice with menace. I wondered if that worked with other vampires.

“I need to see Bradon, immediately,” I replied, coolly. The two laughed at this and Long Hair dropped back a step. I was relieved. His breath could have floored a tank. They looked at each other jokingly, and then turned back to me.

“Now what makes you think we’re going to let a dog go up to see Bradon?” he asked, barely containing his amusement. I folded my arms across my chest and drew my face into a scowl.

“Tell him that Ranger is here to see him. It’s urgent.” Their laughing faces sobered quickly. My instincts roared danger as I recognition in Long Hair’s eyes. I tucked my hand into my jacket and unsnapped the strap on my shoulder holster. Long Hair took another step back and drew his Glock. I could feel the storm brewing around me. With my hand on my own weapon, I plotted how this dance should unfold.

“You know, there’s a bounty–” That was all I let him get in. I didn’t know about any bounty, but that was the start of something. I dropped to a crouch, drawing my own Glock from under my suit jacket. This was why I drilled so damned hard at snap shooting. I double-tapped the leech in front of me. He was hammered to the ground by the nine millimeter silver rounds. Stupid fucker must not have been wearing a vest. I didn’t pay any further attention to Long Hair. I rolled onto the grass as the leech’s partner fired off three rounds at me. I cursed as the bullets screamed by overhead. Their tiny supersonic hisses told me Crew Cut was getting far too close. I came up into a crouch. I placed three shots into the other leech’s head and body before he collapsed to the porch. I swore silently. A gunfight on the front lawn was not what I wanted. I kept my Glock up as I scanned the area for more Bleeders. Instead, an unarmed male ghoul servant came out onto the porch. I trained my pistol on him, but he stood there emotionlessly.

“Mr. Bradon will see you now,” he said in the monotone voice of a personal servant.  As I walked in, a pair of Bleeders stopped me. One motioned for me to hand over my weapons, while the other trained a shotgun on me. I reluctantly handed my pistol to the leech. I expected to be disarmed going in. That was why I brought the Glock rather than my USP. The Bleeder put the pistol onto a side table and then motioned for more. I grimaced. They obviously were going to make sure I was completely disarmed. I gave them my backup piece, and my knives. Thank the Ancestors I’d been carrying stuff I could quickly replace. If they were professional enough to know that I had more than one weapon on me, then there was no point in trying to sneak any through. It would just delay me from my job, and the hunters were waiting for me to finish my job so they could start theirs.

“What is that?” one of the Bleeders asked, pointing to a device on my belt.

“Panic button,” I answered curtly.

“What?” the Bleeder asked.

“In case you decide not to be nice while I’m talking to your boss,” I said. The two Bleeders looked at each other and traded shoulder shrugs. They checked me thoroughly one more time. They lingered at letting me keep my pen and my phone, but handed them back before ushering me upstairs. I walked up the stairs, noticing the lack of any color in the house. The carpet was a dull white, with white walls. The few pieces of furniture I saw were nondescript and lacked any real color except for dull blacks. There were no photographs or pictures along the walls. I was into a large room on the second floor. White double doors marked where the white carpet ended and a luscious hardwood floor began. A large picture window gave a view of the well-cultivated backyard. A modern teak desk was placed in the middle of the room, surrounded by book cases, mostly filled with aging leather-bound books. Bradon sat behind the desk in an antique leather chair, arching his fingers at me as I was motioned to sit by my escort. There didn’t seem to be anything on the table, but I knew there was computer equipment in the room by the smell of ozone and several high pitched wines from cooling fans. Bradon motioned for my escort to leave the office. My escort looked at me, then to Bradon, and then back at me. Bradon motioned for him to leave again, this time angrily. The leech bowed slightly and moved backward out the double doors, closing them as he left. Silence enveloped the room, pierced only by the whine of the computer’s cooling fans. Bradon leaned back in his chair, putting his hands on the desk in front of him. I knew then he wanted me to start our conversation.

“Mark, is that the suit I gave you?” Bradon asked, “What did you do to it?” He sounded almost scandalized.

“Your door guards were less than hospitable,” I answered, “I ended up rolling around to keep one of them from killing me.”

“Even so, that’s no way to treat an Armani. I’m almost insulted,” Bradon chided. “Now, what I should be angry with you for killing two of my Bleeders. Perhaps you could tell me why I shouldn’t.”

“Because those two outside weren’t your real protection,” I answered, “They were the trip wires against really dangerous threats. They sucked, by the way. Although if I know you, both of them belonged to one of your upstart subordinates.” A smile crossed Bradon’s face.

“All that time mentoring you is finally paying off,” Bradon said.  “Do you know how incredibly dense you were when we first met?”

“Something tells me I should be insulted,” I said. Bradon let out a bark of laughter.

“Come now, I just taught a wolf to understand the barest part of nosferatu politics. I’m proud of both of us,” Bradon replied.

“I wish lycanthrope politics were just a bit more like yours,” I said, my tone telling Bradon it was time to get down to business. His face went impassive as he motioned for me to continue, “The Lord-Apparent ascended to the Lord of Hillsborough County.”

“A bit early for that, isn’t it?” Bradon asked, half-motioning to the window behind him.

“I’m sure you already knew what was happening tonight,” I answered. Bradon just nodded in acknowledgement. “What you may not know is his first declaration. Lord Vollen declared that the nosferatus continued existence in Hillsborough is intolerable. War is inevitable unless you get the TCV to do something to convince him to back down.”

“Are you wolves out of your minds?” Bradon asked, his calm, melodious voice slipping into annoyance, “Do you actually think we had anything to do with Stephen Vollen’s murder?”

“I don’t know what the Lord is or is not aware of,” I said neutrally.

“I take back what I said earlier,” Bradon said, clearly annoyed and quickly descending into anger. “You’re getting too good at nosferatu-style politics. I think I’ve made a critical mistake.” Something about the way Bradon said that last bit made my instincts scream danger. My hand shot down to the panic button at my belt. Bradon’s eyes flicked to the small device and looked at me with cold dark eyes.

“Why are you bringing me this?” he asked quietly. I could feel the explosive tension building in him. If I wasn’t careful, I would be seeing him coming over his desk for my throat.

“The Guildmaster wants you and the Bleeders to stand down,” I said. Bradon’s cold eyes burned with an intensity I’d never seen before. “Let us conduct a few raids, kill some of your enemies. Tell us who you’d like for us to spare on the Inner Council, and the Guild will make sure we leave them alone. Satisfy the packs’ bloodlust and then we can reinstate the Peace.”

“Not a fucking chance,” Bradon said. The curt vulgarity startled me. “You can’t control your new lord, and even if you could, I’m not sacrificing the Tampa Council’s power at a critical moment. We’d be overrun by the Clearwater within weeks if you managed to get your lord to call off the warpath.”

“You’ll be overrun with lycanthropes if you don’t. Save what you can,” I replied, trying to sound calm and confident. My instincts were still screaming. I hate to admit it, but Bradon fucking scared me. He was too good.

“You’re too confident in your warriors,” Bradon said. Then, his eyes narrowed. “Too confidant.” He repeated the words with a cool suspicion in his voice. In the blink of an eye, I was thrown against the wall with Bradon’s iron grip around my throat. I couldn’t believe how fast he’d moved. As I struggled for breath, I realized I’d let myself forget how old Bradon was – and all the power his age gave him.

“You sound too confident, my little pup,” Bradon whispered into my ear, “You’re trying too hard.” I could feel the vertebrae in my neck pop under the pressure. “Was your offer even real? Or was it some pathetic attempt to put me off-guard?” He loosened his grip a bit to let me answer. I gasped for precious air.

“Yes,” I managed. I was slammed against the wall. I felt the odd duality of archanal and normal wounds. Pain flashed from my skull hitting the wall and quickly subsided as it immediately healed. The pain from Bradon crushing my throat didn’t stop.

“I don’t believe you. I think you’re here to kill me. Decapitation strike. Brutal and efficient, just like a dog,” Bradon whispered. “Why did you play with me? Why didn’t you just kill me like you did the two fools in front of my house? At least you could have done that much.” Bradon sounded honestly offended.

“Needed to get close to be sure,” I said. My hand snaked down and pressed the panic button on my belt. The panic button did two things. First it sent a signal to Skiff to come get me. Second, it opened to drop a two-shot derringer into my waiting hand. Bradon noticed the activity, but to no avail. I jammed the derringer into his side and pressed the trigger. Two muted thunderclaps boomed as two silver bullets slammed tore into Bradon’s torso. Bradon’s eyes went wide with pain. He tossed me over his desk as he grabbed his side. Black fluid poured through his fingers. Two guards kicked open the door. They paused as they saw their wounded leader, giving me a precious moment.

I shed my human form for true. As the guards recovered, I threw Bradon’s heavy desk on its side. As expected, sitting in a desk holster was a Glock 17. Bradon told me he always kept one tucked away there. It was why I used the pretense of trying to stop the war. I knew getting Bradon angry was the only way he’d physically attack me instead of just grabbing the pistol. I grabbed the Glock just as the first Bleeder hosed the desk with his submachine gun. I felt the heavy desk thrum as the stream of bullets embedded into the top of the desk. The firing paused as the submachine gun ran dry. I popped up and placed headshots into both guards. One just dropped while the other screamed in pain and ran out of the office. I heard the mechanical racking of a bolt cycling and ducked back behind the desk an instant before another Bleeder opened up with a machine gun. The heavy rifle bullets lanced through the desk. I felt splinters dig into me. Then, I heard a screeching crash from outside.

I looked through the large window behind me. Skiff was exiting the pickup he’d just crashed through Bradon’s fence. He was trading gunfire with the Bleeders. It wasn’t the extract we’d planned, but it was good enough at the moment. I snatched Bradon’s office chair and whipped it through the window. I jumped out of the office window as the Bleeder guard realized what was happening and opened fire with the machinegun. The ground rushed up at me, and I felt the satisfying crunch of my body hitting the grassy ground. Pain flashed and quickly subsided as I figured which direction I needed to run. Gunshots cracked overhead as I ran crouched towards Skiff.

“Dude, car’s outside,” Skiff said as he casually emptied his submachine gun into a pair of Bleeders. One fell, but the other staggered back to the house. The Bleeder with the machinegun stood in the window and opened up. Skiff and I scampered out of the hole in the fence as bullets rained down on us. Just as he said, the car was idling at the curb. I climbed in and dropped the magazine out of the Glock to check the rounds. Ten rounds of the vampires’ silver bullets. Not as good as Silver Shoks, but they’d do in a pinch. Skiff jumped into the car. Throwing the car in reverse, he punched the gas, nearly running into a tree on the other side of the street. He threw the car in gear and slammed on the gas. I was whipped back into my seat. I holstered the Glock and looked behind us. A large bat was clinging to the spoiler.

“Shit, one of them got a hold of us,” I said to Skiff. He nodded quietly, which was unusual for him. Then I saw what was in front of us. A pair of sedans set a roadblock up at the end of the block.

“Please tell me you have something heavier than a pistol in here Skiff,” I pleaded with him.

“Scattergun in the back, dude.” I could see him calculating his moves through the roadblock. I reached in the back and found the Mossberg. I leveled the shotgun at the bat still clinging to the spoiler. I squeezed the trigger and was momentarily deafened by the roar of the shotgun. Silver buckshot pellets shattered the rear window and shredded the bat. It was thrown back into the street, slowly changing forms in its final death.

I turned to the front as Skiff jerked his car up onto the sidewalk, around the roadblock, and back out onto the street. The vampires opened fire. Bullets punched into the car. Skiff ignored them and punched the accelerator. Then his head exploded in a cloud of red mist. Grabbing the steering wheel, I pulled the car to my side and slammed it into a tree. Skiff managed to get the sports car up to about fifty before avoiding the roadblock, and even with the speed bled from the sharp turns, the collision was shattering. I was thrown into the dashboard, dropping the shotgun. Skiff’s airbag deployed, cushioning his body’s impact into the steering column. I shook off the momentarily disorientation and pushed back the pain of my body resetting all the broken bones and healing them. I picked the shotgun up and looked out the rear.  The leeches were walking cautiously towards the Mustang. I could make out about five of them, well-spaced out, centering on a very tall Bleeder. Two of them, the center leech and the one on the far right, carried sub-machine guns. The other three were armed with pistols. Well, at least I had my first two targets.

I pumped the action and made a quick shot at the center Bleeder. He crumpled to the asphalt as his middle was torn apart by the silver buckshot. In response, the other four opened fire. Bullets rained into the car. Three went through my seat. Thankfully, two of those were caught by my vest. The last sliced across my left shoulder before imbedding itself into the dashboard. An eerie quiet fell over the street as the four Bleeders reloaded their weapons. Seizing the opportunity, I jumped up from my crouched position in my seat and shot the other leech carrying a sub-machine gun. He was thrown back by a solid slug of silver. Skiff must have staggered the loads. Another slug hit the vampire’s friend on the right. I quickly put the sights of the shotgun onto the other two, pumping the action as I moved. The closest one finished inserting a fresh magazine into his pistol and was bringing the weapon up. A round of buckshot quelled that notion. The last one turned to run as I fired again. His back was quickly filled with tiny holes. I threw the shotgun down as the leech staggered up. Fucking birdshot. I snarled. Why had Skiff loaded that? Silver birdshot was only good for leeches in bat form. I yanked the Glock out of its holster. Putting the white-green front sight on the Bleeder’s back I squeezed the trigger. The bullet threw him forward, but he caught his balance and kept running. A quick double-tap finished the job.

Silence again filled the suburban street. Moving quickly, I tore the trunk open, reached in, and retrieved my two cases. I pulled Skiff’s body out of the car. It was in true form, with the noticeable lack of a head. I left the shotgun in the car and opened my weapons case and pulled out a small metal block with a digital readout and number pad on it. It was a thermite bomb Gunny made for hunters as a last-resort, go-to-hell weapon. When it detonated, it would melt everything in a twenty foot radius. It was a nasty little toy. I gingerly laid the device in the driver’s seat. Placing the shotgun on top of the device, I set the timer for twenty seconds. The idea of leaving a booby-trap for the leeches was tempting, but I didn’t want to give them a chance to disarm it. Hefting Skiff’s corpse over my shoulder, I picked up my two cases with my free hand. I walked over to one of the houses and threw Skiff’s corpse over the fence. The two cases went next. Then I jumped over the fence. At this point, I needed to wait for daylight. Vampires could not come out in the day. They wouldn’t burst into flame or go all sparkly, but they would lose most, if not all, of their supernatural powers and strength. They might send their ghouls, but I could deal with those. They weren’t nearly as tough as their leech masters. Hell, I didn’t even need silver to kill ghouls. I leaned my head against the wooden fence and took a deep breath. I placed the Glock by my side and called the Guildmaster.

“What the hell is going on over there?” he almost shouted over the phone, “The police are going crazy with calls about a gun fight in your area!” I put my hand on Skiff’s corpse and took a deep breath before answering. Before I could, a loud THUMP erupted behind me as the thermite detonated. Screams of wounded leeches filled the street. Apparently a few managed to get close enough to the blast.

“Boss, the job’s done. Target’s down. Skiff’s dead. I got a bunch of leeches around me, and I’m running low on ammo. There are more Bleeders in the area than I expected.” I had ten rounds in the pistol’s magazine, plus another thirty-four in the two spare magazines in a holder under my shoulder. I could barely make out the Guildmaster’s breathing over the phone.

“The police will be out there in five minutes. From what our people have heard, it’s going to be a huge group. Twenty-five officers plus Tactical Response. Stay where you are and avoid contact with the humans. Kin will be in the group to keep them away from you. I’m going to send help, but I don’t know how I’m going to get you out of there as of right now.”

“Okay boss,” I breathed into my phone and terminated the call. I rolled over and peered through the boards of the fence. The street was devoid of vampires, but I could see several humans out looking at the melted wreckage of Skiff’s Mustang. Two had rifles, holding them in a skyward safe position. I shook my head slightly. Physically, I was fine. My shoulder burned from the glancing gunshot, but the rest of my wounds were already healed. That said, I was fatigued to the point of exhaustion. I didn’t know why. I’d been in worse scrapes. I lay back against the fence. Better to wait for the cavalry to arrive. The world faded out.

My eyes snapped open. Shit, I fell asleep. I grabbed my pistol and leaped to my feet. A large dog was standing next to me. Just behind him stood Ronin in true form. Ronin was a welcome sight. I noticed blood coated his claws and I gave him a questioning look. He growled an answer. Unlike humans where sounds are put together to form words, sounds made by wolves, and to a lesser extent by dogs, are used to form pictures in the mind’s eye. Ronin told me the humans who lived in the house discovered me. When Ronin and his group approached, the eldest male was probing Skiff’s body. Since the human wasn’t catatonic, Ronin assumed the human was becoming a witch hunter. So he and his pack of dogs killed the entire family. I growled in frustration.

“What about the cops?” I asked.

“No cops,” Ronin answered in barely understandable English. He growled the Guildmaster managed to divert the police to another of the Guild’s operations. As far as the humans were concerned it, errant fireworks caused a vehicle fire. It was a shaky story, but they were absorbed with the details from the strike on the Bleeders’ armory. I shook my head to clear some of the haze. I fucked up by passing out. Pain flashed as I moved. My shoulder burned more than it should. There wasn’t time to deal with that. We needed to extract from the area as soon as possible to let the kin clean up before the story fell apart.

I walked over to the house, holstering my pistol. The back entrance was a sliding glass door. Shards of glass were scattered around the door. A small human child was strewn across the door. I pretended not to notice as I searched the house. I didn’t always like all of the killing we did, even when it was necessary. The second floor was torn apart. I made my way to the master bedroom and searched around for the car keys. I found them underneath what I assumed was once a bed stand. As I came out in the hall, Ronin was there, directing the rest of his pack out.

“Do you have any lycanthropes with you?” I asked him. I could see him mentally translating the English into wolf. He shook his head. He growled he only had a small pack of feral dogs with him at the moment. I shook my head slowly. Concentrating, I growled I needed his help loading Skiff’s body into the car. He looked at me strangely, like I said something obscene. Then a look came over him, like what I said finally slipped into place.

“Load body in car?” he asked, his voice straining against the human words. I nodded. He looked relieved. I was confused, until I remembered I was in human form. Humans can’t speak wolf effectively. The vocal cords just won’t make the complete sounds. I wondered just what he thought I said. I decided not to press the issue and lifted the body. The load lightened as Ronin joined me and we walked to the garage. The door to the garage was wide open. I could smell death and human blood wafting out. I set down the body and crept in. The morning sun shone into the garage through a small window on a side door. Most of the stored contents of the family were strewn about. There were two cars sitting in the middle, a red sports car and a silver minivan. We loaded Skiff into the back of the minivan. Ronin reverted to his wolf form and crawled into the passenger seat. I climbed into the driver’s seat after opening the garage door. My wound burned intensely as I put the van into gear and pulled out of the garage. As I moved down the driveway, I noticed a large group of dogs leaving the house and moving down the street. A bark from Ronin and the entire group dispersed.

I ignored my shoulder pain as I made my way back to the Guild. Traffic irritably passed me as I slowly drove through the back streets, my shoulder’s burning increasing with each slight bump or movement. I made it about two blocks from the Guild when the ache from my shoulder became unbearable. I pulled over to the side of the road. Leaning back in the seat, I rested a moment.

The car door opened and I was jerked out of the car. The flurry of activity surged me with renewed energy, but before I could reach my pistol, I was thrown over the shoulder of my assailant. Confused, I looked around. Ronin was out of the car. Two other lycanthropes in human form were removing Skiff’s corpse. Hunters. The lycanthrope carrying me must also be a hunter. As a feeling of safety enveloped me, I succumbed to the burning in my shoulder and passed out.

Chapter 7 – Weird Stuff Just Happens, Even To Me

Badmoon Rising – Chapter Five: Rites and Sidekicks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well then, I suggest you get started.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— – – – – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What was that about?” Hangman asked.

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

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

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

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

“Smith,” I answered into the receiver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Six – All’s Fair In War

Badmoon Rising – Chapter Four: Head Shots are Always a Bitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where does this door lead?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll have a job for you.”

— – – – – – –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Five – Rites and Sidekicks

Badmoon Rising – Chapter Three: Dealing with Others

Cafe Verona was a small Italian place nestled in the heart of Soho, or South Howard Avenue, one of the trendy urban neighborhoods. It was also in the middle of leech territory. I moved fast after the raid on the harem – or whatever that place was – to get down to the restaurant. There was barely enough time to change into more casual clothes from the tactical rig I was using for the assault. I needed to get into leech territory before dusk. I didn’t want the bother of dealing with any of the younger vampires prowling the streets. I was here for business, not brawling.

Cafe Verona was like Poppa Gus’s, but for Bleeders instead of hunters. The maître’d of Cafe Verona knew me on sight. It wasn’t the first time I’d met Bradon here. Cafe Verona and Poppa Gus’s were considered neutral ground between the hunters and Bleeders. You don’t pick a fight in the other guy’s drinking hole. Even with the heightened tensions between the lycanthropes and the vampires, I knew I was completely safe in Cafe Verona. Which didn’t mean I wasn’t getting all sorts of nasty looks from some of the other patrons. I was eating a very nice concoction of pasta and Italian sausage tossed in white wine sauce when Bradon finally arrived around nine. Bradon rarely ate during our meetings, not that he actually needed to eat. Rather than having him wait patiently while I ate, we came to an agreement that I was to go ahead and start on my food before he arrived. Bradon was a tall vampire, topping at around six-three. He wore his black hair stylishly long. He probably spent more on his hair than I did on a pair of pants. His dark eyes were animated with amusement. It made me a bit uneasy. Bradon’s idea of amusement rarely matched mine. He was immaculately dressed in an Armani suit of dark blue. I knew it was Armani, because Bradon told me the first time he wore it to one of our meetings. I can identify pretty much any gun at fifty paces and list the manufacture specs and known problems, but before Bradon and I began our “arrangement” I wouldn’t know one suit from another even if I was shown the labels. It just wasn’t part of my world. With vampires, it was all about appearance, both the physical and the political. Byzantine was the mildest word used to describe the vampires’ internal politics. Bradon spent a lot of time teaching me the bare minimum of fashion, if for no other reason than to make sure that I could properly appreciate his wardrobe. I stopped eating long enough for him to take a seat and order a wine.

“I don’t know whether to send my Bleeders after you or buy you that new pistol you’ve been talking about,” Bradon said, watching me with definite amusement.

“Oh?” I asked in response. Bradon was well aware that verbal sparring was not one of my strengths. He never said anything where he didn’t want me to respond. “I kind of figured you’d want to nail my pelt to the wall.”

“Some of the Inner Council would love to do just that,” Bradon answered, taking the proffered wine from the waiter, “The same individuals you just horribly embarrassed. Silanti was most displeased that you attacked our facility.”

“My heart bleeds for Silanti,” I replied sarcastically.

“Don’t tease him if you’re not willing to put out,” Bradon chided playfully. I bit down a snort of laughter. Bradon’s wit was one of the few things that made our meetings more or less enjoyable.

“The alchemists should have known better than to put their harem on our territory,” I continued, trying to keep my tone severe, “Didn’t matter, though. We would have hit the harem if it was two doors down from the Council’s home.”

“First of all, that was not the harem,” Bradon said. I froze in shock for a split second. I hoped I kept my face neutral at the revelation. Intelligence being wrong was not unusual. Intelligence being wrong on this magnitude was very unusual, especially considering all of the hours that went into confirming it. If Bradon noticed my surprise, he didn’t show it. He just continued, “That was an alchemists’ lab. One of their little experiments. Still, it was quite clear to the Inner Council you believed that it was the harem.”

“Really,” I replied, “So why do you want to give me an early Christmas present?”

“Oh, because your little raid allowed me to swat down one of my annoying subordinates,” Bradon said, fully enjoying himself. Of course, he was happy. Bradon was a master game player. The first time we met, Bradon used me to kill his superior and then to ascend to the head of the Bleeders. I knew of at least two other times he used me to take out political rivals. I suspected there were more he hadn’t bothered to brag about. I was willing to play the pawn for two reasons. First, because Bradon gave me good intelligence. Second, because Bradon was aligned with the faction of the TCV that wanted to maintain the Peace. If Bradon pointed out a particular leech, it was probably someone that would threaten the Peace.

“Exactly how did you manage this little coup?” I asked.

“Do you believe that I will let you into Bleeders’ politics?” he countered with a mock severity.

“Yes,” I answered flatly, “Because you can’t refuse a chance to brag when one of your convoluted schemes comes together. Particularly when I’m the one who you used as a cat’s paw. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me. This time, though, a pup was threatened. I know you Bradon. That’s not your normal style.”

“It wasn’t,” Bradon answered, some of his amusement vanishing, “I know it comes as no surprise to you that Silanti is encouraging younger members of the Council to be more aggressive towards the werewolves. One of Silanti’s newest ideas is to have his minions attack the pups when and where they could find them. I was keeping the Bleeders out of that disaster, but Devon disagreed with my decision.” I recognized the name. Devon was a rising star in the Bleeders, and he was aligned with Silanti’s anti-Peace faction. The Guildmaster pegged Devon for removal after the first time Bradon told me about him, but the leech was a careful bastard. “After your little bonfire in front of the Council House, Silanti argued for a strong retribution, and Devon lent his support – and a pair of Bleeders loyal to him.”

“The TCV didn’t ask you about this?” I asked, slightly incredulous. Bradon’s iron-clad control over the Bleeders was well-known, even amongst the lycanthropes.

“I didn’t let them,” he answered.

“You gave Devon enough rope to hang himself,” I supplied, “You knew the Guildmaster wouldn’t let the Bleeders’ presence go without retribution.”

“Of course,” Bradon replied, “So I arranged for him to have two of my most worthless Bleeders. Ones I knew your hunters would have no problem killing. It was a bit of a gamble, but your Guildmaster has been much more ruthless in culling your underperforming hunters than I can with my Bleeders. Then, I waited for the retribution. To be fair, I didn’t anticipate your choice of target. The Bleeders were well aware your people thought that alchemists’ lab was the harem. Do you know how hard I had to work on that bit of disinformation? Now I have to come up with something else.”

“You planted that information for us to find,” I said, still amazed at how Bradon operated so flawlessly. Bradon was a bit of a braggart, but I couldn’t deny his skills. Bradon was, quite possibly, the most dangerous vampire in Hillsborough. He knew how to manipulate events better than anyone I knew. Bradon basked in my quiet admiration for a moment and then continued with his bragging.

“So, when it was reported that you not only wiped out the lab, but then called in shaman to eradicate any trace of us, that shook the Inner Council. Devon reassured them that your Guildmaster would never attack such a high-value target as the harem. Not just because we went after one pup.”

“So, is the Inner Council going to back down?” I asked, finally able to get to the point of the meeting. Talks with Bradon reminded me of a Japanese tea ceremony – hours of build-up for a fifteen second event. It was annoying, but I was willing to endure it for the sake of the job. Plus, Bradon is a charming and entertaining vampire. Although, I’d never admit that to anyone.

“Your lord should be receiving our missive asking for a consultation on neutral ground for the purpose of reducing the tensions and reaffirming the Peace,” Bradon answered, “All in the name of avoiding the wrath of the Pathwalkers, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed, mimicking his tone. With that part of the conversation concluded, I did a little digging. “So you didn’t think we’d hit the ha-, ah alchemists’ lab?”

“Honestly, no,” Bradon answered, “Something of value, but not quite of that high value. Still, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This little raid has your fingerprints all over it.” Bradon chuckled at the surprise on my face. Bradon was too damned good.

“Well, I did assist on the attack,” I admitted, trying to regroup.

“No, you planted that particular target in your Guildmaster’s ear,” Bradon countered, “It’s your style. Straight for the jugular. No shading or manipulation. Your Guildmaster is far more subtle in terms of operations. It was one of the reasons he hadn’t rid me of Devon before I needed to take matters in my own hands. In this case, it worked. You can inform the Guildmaster that such ‘straight-forwardness’ may not be so effective the next time.”

“Don’t involve the pups the next time you play your fucking games,” I retorted, unable to keep my anger out of my voice.

“There’s that vulgar language again,” Bradon said, his voice dripping with sweet condescension, “It really isn’t becoming. Especially in such a nice restaurant.” That signaled the end of the business talk. I remained to finish my meal and to discuss less serious things with Bradon. He was my enemy, but he was always willing to have an interesting conversation, be it art, literature, religion, or even new weapons the humans were producing. Sometimes my relationship with Bradon worried me.


The following morning I waited patiently in the Guildmaster’s office as he finished his morning reports. It amazed me the amount of paper and electronic crap the Guildmaster was forced to sift through every morning. Between going over intelligence and readiness reports, he also dealt with all of the money matters and other miscellaneous stuff that came with running a covert organization without arousing the humans’ suspicion. I checked my e-mail on my phone as I waited. There weren’t any more mysterious messages.

“Well, you’ll be glad to know that Cannon will be back within a week or two,” the Guildmaster said, not looking up from his reports, “The shaman cured him of whatever the alchemists did to him.”

“He’s good, at least from Whisper tells me,” I said, looking up from my phone. “What did you want from me today?”

“Your contact in the Bleeders told you the attack on the pup was an internal power play?” the Guildmaster asked with a slightly suspicious tone, “What makes you think that’s true?”

“He’s always given me good info before,” I answered, holding up my hand to fend off the coming retort, “I know, I know that’s not a good reason, but it checks out with other things. Plus, the leeches did offer to back down.”

“Your source informed you of this?” the Guildmaster asked, his eyebrow arched. I nodded in response. “This isn’t like the leeches. Usually they are far more unified when dealing with us. What is the odd factor?”

“I’ll bet it’s Silanti,” I mused, “From everything I’m hearing, he’s the one causing most of the trouble.”

“All of the Guild is hearing the same thing from their contacts,” the Guildmaster agreed, “Marcus, I want you to get together with James and Kurt. The three of you need to come up with options to remove Silanti. One needs to be covert and with complete deniability for Lord Vollen.”

“Why me?” I asked, “This sounds like something that should be just left to Deadeye and Sneller.” I wasn’t trying to shirk a job. I was trying not to insult the two highest hunters in the chapter. I didn’t work for them, but I didn’t want any bad blood between us. It would just make it difficult if I did need their help on a job.

“I want a strong set of plans for dealing with Silanti,” the Guildmaster answered, his tone conveying he had anticipated my objection, “You have a completely different way of doing things than Kurt or James. Plus, I figure you’ll actually follow a plan if you helped develop it.”

“You’re a funny guy, boss,” I replied with a sour look. He just smirked in response. “Any other jobs for me?”

“Actually yes,” the Guildmaster answered, holding up one of the reports on his desk. “The Sirens have reappeared. The Pinellas Guild is going after them. They want some Hillsborough hunters with them in case they have to cross into our territory during the job. Select two or three other hunters and meet up with their group in the Carrillon Park by the clock tower. I don’t know how much assistance they’ll need from us, but do me a favor and just play nice.”

“I’ll play nice with the Pinellas folks, but definitely not with The Sirens,” I said. The Sirens were a group of wizards that popped up now and again. They could best be described as eco-terrorists with magic. Their leaders spewed something about maintaining the pristine nature of the environment that humans were defiling. The Sirens wreaked havoc on shipping and fishing boats moving through Tampa Bay. Within the unseen world, lycanthropes usually only dealt with the vampire and the occasional Turak noble that came visiting. Wizards, witches, and other human magic-slingers generally kept to themselves, and we were more than happy to let them. The Sirens were a different matter. They had absolutely no problem with throwing too much mystical power around to accomplish their goals. That kind of callous disregard could bring the Pathwalkers, and no sane individual wanted that to happen. Sometimes the demi-gods of the unseen world were very surgical in taking out a problem. Sometimes, they were a nuclear bomb to the supernatural. You never knew which option the Pathwalkers would take if they came to town. For some reason, the local mystic groups refused to put a stop to the Sirens. If they weren’t going to step up, the lycanthropes. We didn’t want the Pathwalkers anywhere near us, and we weren’t willing to wait for one of the other factions to step up to the job.

The Sirens, as their name suggested, worked in and around the bay. I needed a hunter with maritime experience. I’ve used boats in the past, but I’m nowhere near an expert. Dealing with magic-wielding humans while on the water would require an expert. I needed Skiff, the Hillsborough chapter’s resident expert on watercraft and maritime assaults. Fortunately, Skiff was one of the hunters who didn’t give a damn if I was a Badmoon. He was a very laid-back individual, usually adopting the persona of a California surfer. Sometimes his manner of speaking drove me nuts, but I’d seen him working under fire. Skiff was unshakable and professional when everything else was going to hell.

In addition to Skiff, I asked Nick to come along. Since most of our operations were temporarily suspended while the aristocracy and the TCV talked things out, Nick quickly agreed. Nick was like me – he was happier better doing a job than doing nothing. The three of us met up at the armory and threw a bunch of gear into Skiff’s SUV, climbed in, and took the Howard Franklin Bridge across the bay to Pinellas County. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties were close allies for decades. Many of our packs have familial ties between the two counties. The Guild chapters in both counties constantly shared intelligence and often trained and worked with each other. Our traditional closeness was strengthened over the past decade. First it was the Pinellas hunters helping us retrain after years of the first Lord Vollen’s dismal micromanagement. Then, we repaid the debt when we sent hunters to help rebuild the Pinellas chapter after their disastrous Guildmaster was removed. Like any organization, sometimes a Guildmaster is appointed that turns out to be either incompetent or unstable. That rat bastard did a lot of damage in the short time he was in charge. Fortunately, the hunter that replaced that bastard as Guildmaster in was extremely effective in repairing the damage. He also went a long way to fix our relationship and promoted the cooperation between our two chapters to the point where there was no hesitation for one chapter to call upon the other for assistance.

The Carillon Park was a massive development just off of I-275 in the Feathersound area of Pinellas County. It wasn’t too far from the county line that divided the bay between the two counties. Between St. Petersburg and Largo, Carillon was the home of several financial institutions, apartment and townhouse complexes and a small shopping complex. In the middle was a lake with boardwalk and a clock tower. The tower was the usual meet place when our chapters worked together on the Pinellas side. As we walked up to the clock tower, I saw four lycanthropes waiting for us. They were definitely the hunters for Pinellas. There was no mistaking a hunter’s casual alertness as they came out to meet us.

“Shit, we ask for assistance and they send us the Badmoon,” the leader commented. The lightness in his tone belied the implied insult. I recognized him, but I couldn’t remember his name.

“Jetsam, dude, the Guildmaster knew you’d, like, need someone to watch your weak ass,” Skiff replied, “Ranger might be a Badmoon, but at least he can, like, shoot straight.” Once Skiff said the hunter’s name, I remembered him. Jetsam and his crew was Pinellas’s maritime crew. Considering we were going after the Sirens, I should have realized Jetsam’s hit pack would be rolled out.

“So we hear,” Jetsam answered, “Nice job at the harem. We haven’t found the Clearwater Council’s harem, but we’re still looking.”

“You haven’t heard?” I asked.

“Heard what?” Jetsam asked, confused. Was the Guildmaster withholding information from the Pinellas chapter? That didn’t sound right. More likely, the grapevine was working faster than the intelligence pipeline. It was a dangerous aspect of our business. Rumors always travelled faster and farther than facts. Hunters needed facts, not rumors.

“What we hit wasn’t their harem,” I answered, “It was some sort of alchemists’ lab. Don’t know if the CCV and the TCV’s alchemists are working together, but I wouldn’t put it past them.”

“Fuck,” Jetsam’s deputy said, his tone conveying horrified disgust, “As if we don’t have enough problems. We’ve been seeing the alchemists become more active on this side of the bay. I hate to think what they might be cooking up if what I heard about your raid is even slightly true.”

“Are they still hiding among the Scientologists?” asked Nick.

“Yeah, and there’s not much we’re going to do about it,” answered another of the hit pack, “Those Turaki puppets own most of Clearwater. We bitched to the Turaki, but they aren’t going to do anything. They also made it clear that they wouldn’t tolerate us putting any of their followers in danger if we decided to take out the alchemists.” I hated the fucking aliens. It wasn’t unusual for members of the unseen world to hide within human religions and secret societies. The Turaki infiltrated the Scientologists in the religion’s early years. The witch-hunters used both the Masons as well as a variety of churches to cover their operations. Wizards and witches usually had their home in non-traditional religions, such as Wicca and Golden Dawn. Most of the time it was simple camouflage, but the Turaki used their organization to spread their own influence and power in the seen and unseen worlds. Their high-handed manner meant they refused to see real dangers and only dealt with what they considered a threat to their power base. Which is how the Clearwater Council’s alchemists could hide within their followers without fear of reprisal.

“Okay, so what’s the plan for the Sirens?” I asked, trying to get the group back on the job.

“They’ve been operating near the Skyway,” Jetsam said, “Intelligence says they’re attacking small craft all over the bay, but they like sticking near the big bridge. We were going to take a bait boat and the tac boat down there and see if we can arouse their ire.” The plan was simple and useful when dealing with a mobile group like the Sirens. The bait boat looked like the Sirens’ current favor target. The tac boat was low-observable and heavily armed with a couple of machine guns and a grenade launcher. It was a joint purchase between our two Guild chapters. It wasn’t used very often, but the Sirens seemed like a damned good time for the additional firepower.

“Do we have an MO for them?” I asked. In my experience, the small extreme groups tended to stay with a single modus operandi, or way of doing things. Usually, it was a matter of sticking with what worked. Even I used a few basic themes when working jobs. The problem with just sticking with what worked was that it gave an observant enemy the chance to find all the nasty little holes and exploit them. Amateurs like the Sirens never noticed the holes until you put a bullet through them.

“From what we’ve seen, they track a ‘suspicious’ boat,” Jetsam said, “When the boat does something that is an ‘affront to Gaea,’ the Sirens strike. They incapacitate the crew, throw them overboard, and then blow the ship with some spectacular displays of magic. This is according to the Coast Guard reports. The humans, of course, are chalking it up to delusions from shock. So far, the Sirens have racked up a dozen ships and killed maybe ten or so humans. The amount of magic they’re throwing around is being noticed by our shaman, which means the Pathwalkers can’t ignore them for too much longer.”

“How so?” I asked, not understanding the connection.

“Something about realms of magic being crossed,” Jetsam answered, “Our Spiritmaster gave us a long explanation, but most of it went over my head. The takeaway is our shaman believe the Pathwalkers are aware of what’s going on. They’ll give us some time to clean up the mess on our own, but we need to get this done.”

“The wizards?” Nick asked.

“Refuse to do anything beyond giving us all the intelligence we need to take care of the Sirens,” Jetsam’s deputy answered, “As long as they don’t have to do it themselves.” Fucking wizards. It was almost enough for me to wish that Ivan the Terrible had been able to forge the wizards into an actual society with hard rules and discipline instead of the loose society with simple guidelines the wizards used these days. Almost. Jetsam gave me a look that he was thinking exactly the same thing.

“From what the wizards gave us, the leader is Betsy Rose,” Jetsam said, showing a picture. Betsy was a lithe woman with a shaved head and a fierce snarl. “She’s strong enough on her own to make things interesting. Apparently, she was one of their little council of wizards, but something happened about fourteen months ago. She completely changed from a loyal councilmember into a radical, left the council, and recreated the Sirens.  She’s got about twelve or so followers. Most of them are minor players. None of them are strong enough to take over for her if she goes down.” The common theme amongst those of us who live in the unseen world is the tendency to follow the strongest. Wizards are no different with the exception they considered a person’s magic prowess as the measure of strength. Just one of the reasons unstable wizards could quickly grab power and cause trouble for the rest of us – like now.

“I asked for a shaman to come along, but the Spiritmaster’s little bitch boy told us we should be able to handle them.” From Jetsam’s expression, he knew the shaman was probably correct. Betsy was probably the biggest threat, but most wizards suffered from the same basic problem. They were enamored with their own power, so they simply forgot things like bullets and knives could kill them just as dead as one of their spells.

“Who’s on the bait boat?” I asked.

“I’m sending Prop and Gutter,” Jetsam answered, pointing to his deputy and what looked like the youngest member of the hit pack, “I would like at least one of you in the bait boat also. I’ll let you decide who to put in there.”

“Skiff, you’re bait,” I told my companion, “Nick, you and me are going to play with the tac boat.” Skiff was the water fighter. If the shit hit the fan, he had the experience to handle himself, whereas Nick and I would’ve been out of our depths, no pun intended. We all climbed into our respective vehicles and drove out to marina. Something about this operation just didn’t sit right with me. The wizards were the closest of the unseen world to the Pathwalkers. While it wasn’t unusual for them to let us deal with their rogues, it was unusual for them to let the matter go this long before stepping in. I filed those thoughts away as we arrived at the marina.

Maritime operations were always a problem because the saltwater tended to fuck up weapons and electronics. My USP was left behind in favor of a Glock 21. As much as I hated to admit it, Glocks stood up to saltwater a lot better than my USP. I brought along my Commando, but I left it in Skiff’s car when I saw the arsenal the tac boat held. The two machine guns were FN M240’s. They fired the heavier 7.62 mm NATO cartridge, which meant the two machine guns could pretty much slice through most other watercraft. Both were stored under the railings of the tac boat, but could be quickly mounted onto two pintle mounts on either side of the boat. Two big ammo boxes held the belts of standard full metal jacket ammunition. Silver ammo was too expensive to be used in machine guns, so the machine guns were used primarily to disable equipment and knock bad guys down. Against the human Sirens, the FMJ rounds would be effective enough – once we got past the magic. The grenade launcher was a Milkor MGL. It held six 40 mm grenades in its revolving cylinder. The Pinellas hunters modified the MGL to mate with a pintle mount or just rest on a railing. Additional small arms were stored in small weapons lockers spaced throughout the tac boat. There were a few MP5’s, a few stainless Mossberg 590 shotguns, and a pair of KAC SR-25 sniper rifles. I was surprised by those two, because like me, the Pinellas Guild preferred anything with a Heckler and Koch stamp on it. When I mentioned it to Jetsam, he told me that the Pinellas Guild took a look at the tests the American Navy did when they chose the SR-25 for their SEALs. For maritime assaults, the SR-25 was just better.  I made a mental note to relate that bit to the Bowmasters. They had a rabid need for all information regarding our weapons. Our electronics had Motorola stamped on them, but it was a rig I hadn’t worked with before. The transmitters were small encrypted devices, and the headsets came in two versions. For those in the bait boat, the headsets were wireless versions that resembled the Bluetooth sets used for cell phones. For us in the tac boat, we had full headsets with boom mikes.

The bait boat set off first, looking every bit the small-time fishing boat. So far, the Sirens attacked only smaller, commercial fishing vessels. Best guess was Rose was still working out the kinks in her followers and slowly increasing the difficulty of their attacks. Jetsam eased the tac boat out of its mooring and followed the bait boat. As Jetsam maintained the five hundred yard interval, Bull, Nick, and I mounted the machine guns, loaded them, and then covered them with small tarps. The last thing we needed was for Mr. Murphy to give the human Coast Guard a peek at the unmistakable profile of a machine gun. Humans tended to get overly jumpy around fully automatic weapons. As the tac boat cruised, I picked out the lights of each of the main bridges. There are four main bridges spanning Tampa Bay. Going north to south is the Courtney Campbell Causeway, then the Howard Franklin (jokingly referred to as the Frankenstein for the insanity of the drivers), followed by the Gandy, and ending with the enormous Sunshine Skyway at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

“Jetsam, what’s your plan for this job?” I asked, “Once we find the Sirens, I mean.” The first incarnation of the Sirens, true to their namesake, lured its enemies out to a secluded cove where they attacked. These Sirens sought out their enemies and attacked out on the open water. Their aggressiveness meant the wizards were in combat mode, rather than in ambush mode. “Who do we have to take down first?”

“One thing we’ve noticed is that these Sirens like chasing their prey,” Jetsam said, “As soon as the Sirens begin their assault, Prop is going to bring his boat north at full speed. We lie quiet, let them go past, and sneak up behind them. Then we’ll take them down with the aimed fire and grenades. Murphy plan if they take out the bait boat – hit the bitches with everything.” It was left unsaid that if the Sirens got the bait boat, we would assume that Skiff, Prop, and Gutter would be dead. The moment the Sirens realized they were dealing with lycanthropes instead of normal humans, all hell would break loose. Wizards were well aware of what it meant when lycanthropes or vampires became involved in their affairs. We tended to bring a lot of death and destruction. Jetsam’s plan was decent, so I just let him drive the boat and scanned the dark waters of the bay with a pair of nightvision binoculars.

We were about a thousand yards south of the Gandy when Nick picked up small boats racing out to the bait boat. As I oriented on Nick’s hushed alert, I saw three small canoes racing out from the Hillsborough side of the bay. The Sirens were using magic to propel the small craft with the sleek swiftness of racing boats. Damn, I was expecting a single, larger target. If Jetsam was surprised, he didn’t let it show in his voice.

“Bait, three targets at 105 degrees. Range is six hundred yards. Speed is about forty knots,” Jetsam reported quietly into the radio. I watched as a long-haired head in the nearest canoe perked up at the same time as Jetsam transmitted. I don’t believe in coincidence. Before I could say anything, all hell broke loose. My nightvision binoculars went white as a brilliant light turned the night to day. One of these days, I’m going to find all of Murphy’s descendants and torture them for long periods of time before killing them. I blinked my eyes to clear the temporary blindness from the sudden light.

“Ranger, one’s coming in,” Nick called. My eyes were still full of stars. I couldn’t see the target, but I had a machine gun and Nick was guiding me.

“Ten o’clock,” Nick called out with that calm assurance I welcomed. I swiveled the machine gun, leaned in, and squeezed the trigger. My eyes cleared enough for me to watch as the red-white tracers lanced out at the canoe. I could make out three figures in the canoe. The front figure was torn apart by the burst of fire, but her companion managed to bring up some form of shield. The bullets smacked against the invisible wall.

“Ranger, Nick, bait!” called out Jetsam, bounding up to the front of the boat with an SR-25. “Bull, give me a distraction!” I swiveled the machine gun to the front of the boat to bear on the two other canoes. From behind me came the distinctive cough of the grenade launcher. Ancestors, it was coming apart fast. Nicky and I opened up on the two other canoes as the initial light began to fade back into darkness. I tracked the rounds to the other canoes, and watched as they ricocheted off invisible shields.

“Bait, targets have shield up,” I said over the radio. Static filled my ears. I looked over to my partner. “Nick, I can’t get the bait boat.”

“Radios are down,” Nick said over the chatter of the machine guns. “EMP hit.” This is why I fucking hate wizards. If I wanted to make an electromagnetic pulse, I’d need a nuke. They can do it magically. With all of our electronics scrapped by the Sirens’ electromagnetic pulse, our lives got a lot more interesting.

“Jetsam, is our target down?” I asked as the machine gun ran dry.

“Nope. Hang on, we’re going to try something else,” Jetsam answered. As I fed a new belt of ammunition into the machine gun, the grenade launcher coughed again. The grenade plopped into the water some five feet ahead of the canoe. There was a small plume of water as the grenade detonated underwater. Jetsam opened fire with his rifle. It was a smart idea. The grenade would rock the boat just enough to move the shield so that Jetsam could get off a decent shot. It took a couple of tries, but Jetsam finally downed the Siren holding up the shield.

“Ranger, I need a machine gun here!” shouted Jetsam. The Siren driving the canoe was turning her boat around. We couldn’t let any of them escape. I swiveled the machine gun at the tiny canoe and opened fire. The tracers merged with the canoe and the boat capsized spectacularly. Bull joined Jetsam up on the front. He snapped off six grenades at the canoes attacking the bait boat. I could hear the weapons fire as Skiff and the other two began opening up. Dammit, we needed to close and engage. The problem was the Sirens’ EMP took out the fucking engines on our boat. Jetsam came bounding off the front of the boat.

“Ranger, Nick follow me!” Jetsam said loudly as he sped past the two of us. We dropped our machine guns and dashed after Jetsam. At the rear of the boat, Jetsam shed for true form and lifted a section off of the back of the boat. The two large engines were now visible. “Both of you, shed and help me manually start these bastards.” The manual starts were simple pull-cords. The extra strength of true form made starting the damn things much easier. The engines coughed and sputtered to life as Jetsam fastened a manual throttle/steering device to the two engines. This is why maritime specialists are needed. When the shit hits the fan, they know the solutions their unique environment requires. Bull shouted directions to Jetsam as Nick and I grabbed weapons from the locker and headed for the front of the boat. It was time to get up close and personal with the Sirens.

The tac boat leapt forward, and it took a bit to keep my feet. I gripped the MP5 tighter and waited as the distance closed. The Sirens were ignoring us. Without the distraction of the grenades or machine gun fire raining down, the Sirens were only paying attention to the threat from the bait boat. I grinned as the tac boat quickly closed the distance. We were less than twenty yards from the Sirens when Bull launched a single flare grenade into the air. The bright magnesium lit the area. The bait boat was listing to its side. Skiff and the others erected some hasty cover and were firing at four Sirens in the two canoes. The wizards were tossing bolts of mystical energy at the hunters. The last two Sirens were busy holding the two canoes steady in the bay’s water. Everyone froze as the flare exploded over them. Nick cut down the two canoe pilots with short bursts from his MP5. Now for me to do my thing.

I launched myself into the air. I was aiming for the canoe closest to us. It wasn’t an easy target as it was about thirty feet from the tac boat. I heard Nick swear as he saw what I was doing. Nick hated when I did something he considered overly flamboyant and slightly insane. I really didn’t care. I knew what I was doing. Mostly. I emptied the MP5’s magazine at the two Sirens in my target canoe. The one in front threw up some a magic barrier. I smiled. They were doing what I wanted. As I slammed down in the canoe, I let the MP5 drop on its sling and pounced towards the two Sirens. The two wizards couldn’t react against the sheer speed of a lycanthrope, much less a hunter. I carried both of them into the black waters. As soon as we hit water, my knives were out. Three slashes and the two Sirens stopped splashing. I dived down below. As I’ve said, I’m not a maritime specialist like Skiff or Jetsam. That doesn’t mean I don’t know how to fight underwater. In true form, I can stay submerged for about a hundred seconds. I swam underneath the other canoe. I’ll admit, this part I didn’t plan out so well. If I had I would have remembered to bring a limpet mine or a grenade and some duct tape. As I ascended under the canoe, I tapped the bottom of the boat. Good, it was just fiberglass. I placed my ear to the bottom of the canoe and listened. Footsteps were right above me. My Glock punched two holes in the bottom of the boat before it stopped working. I felt the splash as the Siren fell out of the boat. Good, my bullets hit their mark. I heard the other body hit the water. With both Sirens down, I surfaced.  The tac boat was over by the bait boat, taking Skiff and the other two hunters off the boat. Nick was at the side of the tac boat, looking right at me as I surfaced. He waited patiently as I swam over to the tac boat and helped me climb over the side. I just laid there for a moment to catch my breath. Nick loomed over me.

“Well that was one of the most outrageously insane things I’ve seen you do in a while,” he commented in that calm tone that was his trademark, “I hope to the Ancestors you learned from that.”

“Yeah,” I answered, sitting up, “Next time I bring a revolver for underwater work. Forgot autos have a bitch of a time cycling underwater.” Nick looked like he wasn’t sure if wanted to strangle me or just laugh.

Some white phosphorous grenades sank the bait boat and the three canoes. With our activities hidden from casual view, our group returned to the marina. This took a bit of time because the Sirens’ EMP knocked out all of the normal navigation aids, and we were left doing nav by hand. Well, Skiff and the Pinellas hit pack were handling the navigation. Nick and I spent our time policing up the massive amount of brass from the machine guns as well as stowing all of the lethal toys. On the plus side, none of us were dead – just slightly worn and torn.

“So this latest incarnation of the Sirens are all dead?” asked the Guildmaster as I entered his office the next morning. I was still a bit tired, but I did things on his schedule. It was one of the joyous parts of being the personal hitter for the Guildmaster.

“The ones that attacked us last night are all dead and at the bottom of the bay,” I answered, slumping into my normal chair, “As to the group as a whole, I couldn’t say for certain. We killed nine wizards, which sounds about right for a small splinter group. I didn’t see their leader last night, but there was a lot going on.”

“So how are we going to find out if we got them all?” the Guildmaster probed. I thought for a few moments about the problem. I hated these analysis problems the Guildmaster threw my way. Most of the damned time he already knew the fucking answers.

“My guess would be to see how much of an outcry the wizards give the lords,” I answered, somewhat cautiously.

“Oh?” the Guildmaster replied, “Why would that tell us if you killed off the Sirens?”

“If they don’t protest or offer weak protest, then the Sirens are dead,” I answered, feeling more confident of my analysis of events, “The wizards don’t like groups like the Sirens any more than we do. The only reason they would offer more than a token protest would be because there are some Sirens – particularly Rose – still out there that could cause problems for the wizards.”

“Very good, Marcus,” the Guildmaster said, his tone radiating pleased approval, “In fact, Lord Vollen received that token protest this morning, along with the thanks of Lady Thames for your assistance in the job.”

“If you already knew the answer, why did you make me do your analysis?” I asked, a little more hotly than I intended.

“Why would I?” he asked in response, throwing another problem at me.

“You’re grooming me for something,” I said. I shot up in the chair as a sudden thought hit me. “You don’t really expect me to take over for you.”

“No,” the Guildmaster said flatly, “You could make a decent Guildmaster, but you have two faults. First, you’re a Badmoon. Secondly, you’re overly arrogant because you’re a Badmoon.” He paused for a moment, almost lost in thought. “No, I have a candidate for my position in mind. He’s going to take a lot of grooming, but he should do well. You, on the other hand, have another destiny.”

“What is that?” I asked, arching my eyebrow in surprise. This was the first I the Guildmaster said anything about my future beyond being his hatchet man.

“Something for which I will have to spend a great deal of time conditioning you to take on,” the Guildmaster answered, unusually cryptically. “Speaking of conditioning, you are to accompany my wife and myself to a little victory celebration.”

“Huh?” He had caught me off-guard with the non-sequitor. “What are you talking about?”

“Lord Vollen met with the Inner Council last night while you were dealing with the Sirens,” the Guildmaster said, “Both parties have agreed to calm their respective sides. More discussions are planned to set down better rules of engagement. So, Vollen has decided to throw one of his rodeo parties.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I retorted. Vollen recently embraced the country-western culture to the point of converting a warehouse into a miniature rodeo ring. I helped guard a couple of his parties, which mostly consisted of the pack leaders poorly riding wild horses and bulls. The only thing that kept the majority of them alive was a lycanthrope’s healing abilities. “What the hell did I do to you to deserve watching that horror show?”

“Now what makes you think is a punishment?” the Guildmaster asked, a malicious gleam in his eye.

“Because I know that look in your eye, boss,” I replied, “It’s the same one you always get when you found something horribly nasty and evil to do to me. Usually for some breach of etiquette in that deranged mind of yours.”

“Actually, your presence is more of public relations,” the Guildmaster said, “Your actions of late have brought you to the attention of some of the pack leaders as well as Lord Vollen. Matric’s also been talking up your most recent exploits.”

“So you’re having me tag along to piss off the Order?” I asked.


“Well, that could be fun.”

Chapter 4: Head Shats Are Always a Bitch

Badmoon Rising – Chapter Two: I Always Call Him Nick

The next week was a boring. The Guildmaster refused to throw any hunting jobs my way. All I could do was sit in my townhouse and mope. The local media tried to get a hold of me the day after the explosion. After a few hours of “no comments,” the reporters left me alone, thanks to the kin in the local law enforcement agencies letting little juicy bits of “information” leak out. The cover story was the private investigator who owned the car, namely me, probed a little too far into theTampa drug scene. It seemed like a solid story, so I stayed with it. The nice thing about humans was they gave us so much social camouflage to hide in. After seven days of nothing, I decided enough was enough. I called the Guildmaster to demand something to do. I don’t mind a few days of rest after an incident. After a week, I was bouncing off the walls. The secretary told me he did not want to speak with me at the moment and would call me back at a later time. Most days, I would’ve taken the hint. Unfortunately, my annoyance was running high, and my self-control was running low. I decided not to take no for an answer. Hell, I could almost feel the dust collecting on my pelt. I thought about getting into more formal attire, but then dismissed the idea. The Guildmaster wouldn’t chew me out less if I was wearing more than jeans and a t-shirt.  I packed some toys into one of the many duffel bags I kept around for this sort of thing.

I parked the rental car in front of the Guildmaster’s office building. I had a distraction planned for the secretary. I really didn’t want use the Wolf’s Growl on her in person. She would be uneasy around me any time I walked into the building. I watched as my distraction walked into the building. I followed closely behind the man delivering the flowers. For some reason, human females really like flowers, especially when they’re delivered by surprise. Couple those facts with the fact that humans have a natural tendency to focus on the bright, pretty things in front of them, and I had my distraction. I slipped by the ecstatic secretary and up the staircase.

As I neared the Guildmaster’s office, there was an odd scent in the hallway. It was a mixture of incense, wood smoke, nasty cologne, and a hint of swamp. The scent grew a bit stronger as I approached the Guildmaster’s office. The incense, wood smoke, and swamp scents meant a shaman. The nasty cologne meant a high-ranking one. Okay, the nasty cologne didn’t tell me that, but the shaman had to be high ranking to be intruding upon the Guildmaster. As the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, I was one of the few lycanthropes that could barge into his office any time I wanted, but with that privilege also came the responsibility to only do so when it wouldn’t cause the Guildmaster to lose face. One thing I was not going to do was upset my boss by embarrassing him in front of a damned shaman. That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to find out what was going on, especially since I had a feeling it involved me. So, I got out a couple of my toys.

Wizard, the Guild’s techno-geek, designed us some custom listening devices after several hunters bitched that the off-the-shelf ones weren’t worth shit. Called THWHE, pronounced “thaw”, the acronym stood for THe Walls Have Ears, and it was a damned good bug. It was remotely programmed from a smart phone – like the one the Guild issued to all of its hunters – and could be set for either steady stream or burst transmission. The best part was that it looked for the unique harmonics of the human/lycanthrope/vampire speech and amplified those to defeat most counter-bug attempts. I placed the THWHE on the Guildmaster’s door and listened through my ear buds.

“I don’t care what your relationship to the abomination is,” an exasperated voice said. The voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “His actions were inexcusable, and they endangered the Peace in this county. Only the Order can properly sanction the abomination. You must remand him to the Order immediately.”

“Since when has the Order supported anything that maintained the Peace?” the Guildmaster asked, his voice calm, “I don’t know why the Spiritmaster wants my hunter, John, but as far as I’m concerned, this is an internal matter that will be handled within the Guild. I will not hand any of my wolves over to the Order without a direct order from Lord Vollen.” My mind flashed with the voice’s owner. John Yven, the Spiritmaster’s deputy and political hatchet man. Yven was the one covertly spreading dissent amongst the packs in order to discredit Lord Vollen and the Guild. Or at least, that’s what the Guildmaster believed. Fortunately for Yven, the Guildmaster didn’t have good evidence of Yven’s activities. If he did, I would have already been given the job to sanction him.

“Guildmaster, the Order wants the entire state to throw off the Peace as one,” Yven stated, “We all saw what happened in the Disputed Territories and the debacle that followed. The Order supports Lord Vollen, and since we are more visible than the Guild, we think it is more appropriate for the Order to publicly discipline him.”

“Let me be blunt, John,” the Guildmaster said in the firm tone that all hunters knew, “The Guild is not going to hand over any of its members to the Order – ever. The Order’s solidarity line is bullshit. Tell the Spiritmaster that he can maintain the facade of the aloof spiritualist all he wants. I am aware of the Order’s attempts to usurp Lord Vollen’s authority, just like you did with his father. That is not going to happen while I’m Guildmaster.”

“That abomination-” Yven began to protest.

“Is standing outside that door listening to us,” the Guildmaster interrupted, “I will remind you that he’s a highly trained hunter who has killed plenty of vampires – and four lycanthropes. Do you really want to threaten him?” I heard the slight screech of a chair sliding. Yven was leaving. I reached over and grabbed my THWHE before the door opened. Yven and I traded hostile looks, but I could see the tinge of fear in his eyes. Yven was short for a lycanthrope, barely reaching five foot six. He wore his dark brown hair long, bound in a ponytail. He kept a wiry frame, but I doubted there was much muscle on it. The most imposing thing about the little shaman was the intense, but invisible aura that seemed to surround him. I could feel the power of the magicks swirling inside and around Yven. I gave him my best menacing look. He pushed past me and left in a furious stalk down the staircase.

“Marcus, get in here,” the Guildmaster commanded. I strode in and dropped my tactical bag next to the chair that Yven just vacated. The Guildmaster looked angry, but I wasn’t sure if any of that was directed at me. “I told you to stay home. What the hell are you doing here?”

“What the hell are you trying to do to me?” I said, slamming my fists into his desk, “You left me at home for the past week with nothing to do. Dammit, I’m your personal hitter, whether or not I got a little too playful the other night. I’m sorry if my actions got you into trouble with Lord Vollen, but you can’t leave me out of action.”

“Got a little bored, eh?” he asked. My face hit thedesk as he knocked my arms out from under me. I rose up, trying to decide if he challenging me or he was just being playful. I had an odd relationship with my Guildmaster. It was more mentor-student than commander and soldier. “I was wondering when you would show up.”

“Do you have something for me?” I asked, my pride still smarting from landing on the desk. He half-smiled, and turned to face his window. I could tell by his body language that he did. The Guildmaster enjoyed these little games of withholding information from me and seeing when I would bite at the few scraps he let me see.

“One of the packs have a pup outside the normal lines. The pack is going to get her tonight. The pup’s home is inside territory I’m worried is active. I want a couple hunters to guard the pup and the contact team.” Active territory meant there were recent attacks by leeches. While it wasn’t rare for that to happen, it was uncommon. With that bastard Silanti on the Council encouraging vampires to take any pelt they could the attacks were becoming more frequent.

“Why me, and not a hit pack?” I asked.

“First, because this job only needs one or two hunters, and second, because the Order is starting up again about you being an abomination, and that’s never good. Having you associated with bringing in a pup will go a long ways in the eyes of the packs, or at least as much as you can with your surname.” The Order disliked that there was a Badmoon in Hillsborough. They were incensed when the Guild recruited me. I was supposed to be shunned off to some unhabitated corner of the county if I couldn’t be hounded out to infect some other part of the state. Worse, I was the personal hitter for the Guildmaster. Anytime the Order wanted to discredit the Guild, they started publicly calling me an abomination. I really wanted to go find Yven and beat him to a bloody pulp, but vengeance would have to wait. There was a job at hand, and from what I could tell a job I where I needed to be on my best behavior.

“Who’s the contact group?” I asked.

“Local pack warriors, about four or five lycanthropes,” the Guildmaster answered, “In addition, James is sending Nicholas on this job.”

“Nick’s coming too?” I asked. That made the last week more tolerable. I met Nick shortly after I first joined the Guild. He didn’t care about me being a Badmoon. He was only concerned that I could do the job assigned. I proved that during a job with him against some nasty independents. We remained relatively close friends since. It’s hard to be really close with Nick. He’s a little quiet and sullen at times, but he was a fanatical and fantastic hunter. Better yet, Nicky was a kind of outsider in the Guild because of how he came into the Guild.

“Yes, Nicholas is going on this job. You know how he hates to be called Nick, right?” the Guildmaster asked. I nodded, still smiling. The Guildmaster shook his head slightly in amusement. He wrote down an address in Carrollwood, a suburb to the north of Tampa. “Here’s where you will meet the pack. The leader’s name is Peter. You must protect the pup at all costs.”

“Thanks boss. I couldn’t have figured that one out on my own,” I replied with a slight sarcasm.

“Don’t fuck around with this Marcus. Pups are few and far between,” the Guildmaster retorted. I nodded in silent apology.

“Is the TCV really going to go after them?” I asked, “Especially with tensions as high as they are. The TCV spent weeks denying they had nothing to do with the attack on the pups in tysach.

“The TCV is not the only vampire faction in Tampa. There are the independents, and they hate lycanthropes just as much as the TCV.” I nodded my understanding. The TCV did their best to eliminate vampires that didn’t join them, but the independents still persevered. They mainly stayed to themselves, occasionally forming small covens of less than half a dozen. Sometimes one or two of them would go out and make a nuisance of himself. Then hunters would kill them, if the Bleeders didn’t get them first.

“Why does the Order want me?” I asked, referring back to Yven.

“I don’t know. Yven’s line was full of shit. He’s usually a much better political operator than that. Did you do something to upset them and not tell me?” I shook my head emphatically.

“Nope, just been doing my job. In fact, I haven’t crossed any shamans since the attack on the pups.”

“Arguing with one shaman is not enough for them to get that upset at you,” he replied, half to himself. He looked back over to me. “We’ll have to solve this enigma later. Right now, you have to prep for your job. Go to the armory and pick up your gear. I’ll call your authorization over to the brothers. Now get out of here and get to work.” I nodded and left the office without any of my normal retort.  I had a job.


The armory was a gun shop that the Guild owned and operated. The front was a legitimate business that followed the human laws to the letter. It even turned a small profit for the Guild. Better still, the brothers were going to build a range. The Guild owned some farmland outside of Plant City that was converted to ranges and a shoot house, but I couldn’t always get out that way. Plus, indoor shooting was a big part of my work, and it would help to have a place to work in that unique environment. I entered the store and nodded politely at the kin sales clerk. I showed him my “VIP” card, and he unlocked the entrance to the back.  The back, unlike the front, was far from legit. It housed all the spare firepower hunters needed, but couldn’t keep at their homes. Just inside the door from the front of the shop was a reinforced steel door. It slid open with a hiss out of a science-fiction film when I swiped my card. Twin brothers, John and James Bowmaster, ran the armory. They were recruited by the Guild and placed in with the hit packs. The dynamics of hit packs didn’t suit them, so they were tried out as lone wolves. They complemented each other so well, their separation actually was detrimental to the Guild. After many attempts, the Guildmaster finally found a place to stick the brothers. Both were proficient in their jobs of arming the lycanthropes, especially the Hunters Guild. They carried the packnames of Gunny and Boomer.

Gunny was sitting in the main room of the armory. The main room was dominated by four long tables running through the center. There were three or four workstations on each table for different tasks. By going to the different stations, a hunter could do routine maintenance, minor repair, major repair, or complete overhaul. Gunny was reassembling a pistol that he just finished repairing. Gunny was the mechanic, mostly handling the major repairs and overhauls. Boomer was the creative one of the pair. It was Boomer who came up with new load outs and modifications to our weapons. I looked around, but I didn’t see Boomer anywhere. I figured he was in one of the branch rooms. Each of the branch rooms held a mix of weapons, but each tended to be heavier in one type.

“Hey, Gunny,” I said as I sat down across from him. He nodded to me, coolly. It was nothing personal. Gunny wasn’t one of those who held my Badmoon name against me. It was just when Gunny was involved with a project, he tended to regard everything else as a disruption to be ignored. I could see he was busy and waited for him to finish what he was doing. Instead of watching him go through his delicate motions, I decided to avail myself to the cleaning kit at the next workstation. Another of the cardinal rules for hunters was to always take good care of your weapons. I pulled out my USP and laid it out on the cleaning mat. I field stripped the pistol and brushed out the rough spots. Gunny finished the pistol he was working on as I put the slide back on mine. He gingerly laid the big automatic on the mat beside his kit and waited for me to insert the magazine, rack the slide, decock the hammer, and holster the pistol.

“Ranger, I assume you’re here for the gear the Guildmaster called about.” I nodded. “Boomer’s getting it. He’ll be out in a minute. I’ve got an MP5, accessories, and some pre-loaded ammunition for you. Anything else you will have to procure from your own inventory.” As if on cue, his brother came from the far right door with a gun case and duffel bag. Boomer laid the case in front of me. I opened the case, quickly inspected the weapon and gear, and left smiling. I loved new toys. Even those I’d need to return. Maybe. At some point. Gunny must have been reading my mind, because he gave me a warning look. I nodded in acknowledgment, and walked out of the armory. There was a lot more to do before I met up with Nick.


I was trying to pick out the stars I knew from the few that managed to shine through the haze of the suburban lights. I sat on my motorcycle in the parking lot of the strip mall. Waiting beside me on his motorcycle was Nick. Unlike me, he was an impressive looking lycanthrope. His human figure was a full six foot five and well-muscled. He was considered handsome with blond hair and blue eyes – and had been the object of more than a few female attractions. That was, until they really looked into his eyes. They were cold, hard, and without the hint of humor. Rumors about Nick started when he first came to Tampa. He was from somewhere in the Midwest and spent some time in the prince’s court in Tallahassee before coming to our chapter. One of the rumors were that he killed his lord in a gunfight. Another was Nick was a fallen lord that had been banished for some breach of moral conduct. Another story had him insulting the King of the United States himself and was “hiding out” in Florida until the King’s well-known rage settled down. Whatever the truth was, Nick didn’t talk about it, and the few lycanthropes who did know his past wouldn’t either. I didn’t know his story, and I didn’t press him on it. If he wanted to give me his life story, he would tell me.  If not, then no big deal. It was more important to me that Nick didn’t give a damn that I was a Badmoon. Those were few and far between, even in the Guild.

I looked over at Nick. He was watching the stars as well, staring at them with an intensity I couldn’t understand. I took a sip from a bottle of water. It was hot and humid, even this late in September, and wearing a jacket didn’t make me any cooler. It couldn’t be helped. I needed to cover my submachine gun from the view of curious humans, and the long coat was the only thing that did the job satisfactorily. I shifted my weight and checked over my load for the third time since I met up with Nick in the parking lot. My main weapon was an MP5K submachine gun. I liked this version because of the folding skeleton stock and threaded barrel for mounting silencers. One of those was in a coat pocket. I carried the MP5K with a short fifteen-round magazine in a specialized shoulder holster under my left arm. Under my right arm were a half-dozen thirty-round mags for the MP5K. At my right hip was my USP. A few spare magazines were on my left hip. My long jacket also held a few “distraction devices” that I had thought I had lost, but recently found in my attic. Silver knives of various types were spread about my gear. After making that all my weapons were ready and right where I needed them, I looked back over at Nick.

“Nick, you sure you’ve got everything you need?” I asked. He continued to stare up at the stars. He seemed to ponder something for a few seconds longer before turning his head towards me.

“Yes Ranger, and please call me Nicholas,” he answered with a slight warning in his voice. I ignored the warning with my usual shrug of the shoulders. Slowly, he turned back to his celestial gallery as we waited for the pack members to show up. I knew he was sensitive about his pack name, but I just couldn’t call him Nicholas. Anytime I did, all I could think of was Santa Claus, someone Nick never could be. Santa never gutted a leech before and then showed him the entrails as he was dying. Nick had on several occasions when he was working with me. It was almost a signature move for any extreme sanctions he performed. Nick could be a vicious bastard where the leeches were concerned.

About twenty minutes, and four more equipment checks later, a light blue sedan rolled up next to us. Four lycanthropes got out and approached us. All were in human form and had the Germanic features that were common traits for lycanthropes. Their clothes fit into the upper-middle-class neighborhood. One of them took a step towards us.

“I’m Peter Ringston, the leader for this jaunt. You two all set?” he asked. I nodded. Nick turned to face him and gave him a once over.

“Are you armed?” Nick asked quietly. Peter nodded. The four flashed a bunch of pistols. Nick motioned them to come over to us. As they approached, Peter pulled out a map of the area. He set it down on the ground and began pointing out the important parts.

“Okay, this is where the pup lives. Her uncle was supposed to be here to do the bite, but he was attacked a week ago by the leeches. Normally we don’t have a lot of vampires out this way, so I’m not particularly sure how to use you two. My brother insisted you go along though, especially considering what happened to her uncle.” We looked at his map. Although the Peace dictated no hostile actions between the lycanthropes and the vampires, the centuries’ of war before the Peace meant attacks still happened. They just needed to be deniable by the respective leaderships, or in retribution allowed under the Peace.

“What about her parents?” I asked, “Shouldn’t they be brought in as well?”

“Her parents are only kin,” Ringston answered, “At least her father is. He estranged himself from our pack before he married. I guess he didn’t think he would sire a pup.” I nodded. It was uncommon for a kin to sire a pup on his own. Still, pups were pups. They needed to be brought into the packs, at least to be run through tysach. Even full lycanthrope parents can’t teach a pup everything that a lycanthrope would need to know in order to survive in our world.

“How were you going to approach the house?” I asked Peter. He explained he was going to drive up to a spot about a block from the house. Then, they would shed for true and approach the house. Once they knew where in the house the pup was, they would crash the house and implant into the pup’s mind the need to go to the cravex on the next full moon. Nicky and I traded looks and turned back to face the others.

“We can follow that plan,” I told him, “We’ll follow you to that spot. From there, one of us will take the lead to the pup’s house, while the other covers the rear. I want you to keep your eyes and ears open. Anything, and I mean anything, that seems suspicious, you let one of us know. Don’t try to deal with it yourself. We’re the professionals, so let us handle it. Once we get to the house, we’ll take a look around, and then you can enter. Do you guys know how to use your weapons?” I motioned to their pistols. They all nodded hesitantly, which didn’t reassure me. “Can you hit accurately with them?” To this, they just looked at each other with questioning glances. I shook my head in frustration.

“Alright, don’t shoot anything unless you are damned sure you can hit it. And make sure it’s not one of us,” I told them as I started the motorcycle’s monster engine. I remembered something and caught Peter’s attention. “Oh yeah, one last thing. If you have to shoot, don’t stop firing until your target is on the ground.” They nodded slowly in semi-comprehension and got into their car. As Nicky moved alongside of me, I hoped the four lycanthropes did what I told them. Just in case, Nicky and I intended to go over the plan with each of them once we got near the house.

Our three vehicles raced through the streets of Carrollwood, constantly changing our route and formation to lose any possible tails. Not likely, but hunters were always paranoid. Well, that’s what Nick and I were doing. I wasn’t sure if the sedan was mimicking us or if they thought Nick and I were deliberately trying to lose them. We made the trip to the rally point in just over ten minutes. When we parked in the subdivision, Nick and I pulled each of the four off to the side and made them repeat the instructions I gave them back at the parking lot. When the Nick and I were both reasonably sure the four of them had it down, we continued on into the night.

The six of us shed our human forms for true form, or the famous half-man, half-wolf beast of the horror films. Now, instead of six average height humans, we were six huge creatures of the night. This would also protect us from the occasional glance from one of the residents. Humans tended to dismiss the supernatural out of hand. Humans wouldn’t see prowlers, just odd shadows. I could see a couple of Peter’s lycanthropes fiddling with their handguns. I growled harshly for them to stop and walked over to where Nick was standing.

“Point or rear?” I asked. Nick shrugged. I pulled out a penny. I always carried at least one coin on me. It’s one of those things that comes in handy for any number of situations. I flipped it in the air and caught it. Heads. Since it was my coin, I was to take the point, or lead position. The six of us crept up the street. We hid in the shadows created by the orange light of the sodium-based streetlights.  As we approached the house, I drew the sub-machine gun out from under my jacket. Nick and I crouched in a clump of bushes in front of the house next door to the pup, while the others loitered across the street. I screwed on the suppressor as I scanned the pup’s house. If I needed to kill something quick, I didn’t want to wake up the whole neighborhood. Our kin in law enforcement knew what was happening, but there was no need to cause them extra hassles if it wasn’t necessary. At least that’s what the Guildmaster kept telling me. The house was a single-story split room house, common in the suburbs of Tampa. It was painted in contrasting, conservative colors of white and dark brown, with a manicured lawn surrounding it. It looked like a normal suburban home. Something felt wrong. My instincts were roaring wildly with danger signals.

I glanced back over to Nick, who was crouched a few inches from me. He looked back at me and made a half-circle with his hand. Now what? he asked in the Guild’s hand signals.  I laid the MP5 quietly on the ground and hand signaled back that it felt wrong. Nick went still. He respected my instincts. He walked his claw tipped fingers along the ground. Recon? I nodded in answer.

“Peter, there’s something wrong in the house,” I whispered as the pack warriors huddled around me.

“What?” he stammered, shocked and his mind racing with possibilities. “What do you mean wrong?”

“Don’t know yet,” I answered, willing him to calm down, “Nick and I are going to do a little recon. When we think it’s clear, one of us will come get you.” He nodded and started to draw his pistol. My hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. “Don’t. If we need your warriors to back us up, we’ll let you know. I don’t want you playing with guns while Nick and I are busy. Let us handle this.” Peter nodded, but he was still overly anxious. I hated this hand-holding crap, but the Guildmaster told me to be on my best behavior. I tried to be more reassuring.

“Peter, that pup’s safety is our job. Calm down, Nick and I are not going to let anything bad happen to the pup.” I crept back over to Nick. From Peter’s actions and expressions, I was pretty sure that this was his first time leading warriors in the field. Another possible problem to deal with, but recon wouldn’t wait. There was definitely something wrong in that house. I quietly crawled out of the bushes. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Nick’s shape, following me in. No words were necessary. We both knew what was required. The two of us moved from the bushes to the side of the pup’s house. This type of house had the master bedroom in the front of the house and on the other side of the house than the other bedrooms. The master bedroom had sliding glass doors that led into a little patio shielded from the front lawn by an eight-foot brick wall. We’d make our entrance there. As we slowly made our way around the corner, I smelled for the distinctive scent of ozone. Good, the pup’s parents hadn’t installed lasers or some microwave detection systems. Most people in this area of town weren’t quite that paranoid, but every so often hunters ran into a real security-obsessed freak. At that point, things occasionally got interesting.

I turned around the corner and looked into the glass door. Yeah, there was definitely something wrong. Blood streaked the glass. Just beyond the door lay the broken body of an adult human. From my angle, I couldn’t even tell what sex it was. The bedroom was strewn with debris. The bed was broken in half and the insides were littered along the floor. A small lamp in the remains of what was once a bed stand threw eerie shadows on the blood-streaked walls. A thumping noise from inside the house came through the glass.

“Shit,” I whispered, “It looks like we’ve got intruders.”

“I think there’s a hit pack nearby. Let me call Sneller and get us some back up,” Nick said, reaching for his cell phone.

“Not enough time,” I replied.

“Those warriors are not ready to clear a house. We can’t clear it with just us,” Nick said.

“Not following the normal rules,” I said, slipping into the little patio. Nick cursed, but followed me. I grasped the outside handle of the sliding glass door and pulled. It had been locked, but that really didn’t slow me down. The door was slammed back by the sheer force of my strength. The glass shattered as the metal frame rammed into the doorframe. I shrugged at Nick. He glowered at me about the noise but didn’t say anything as we entered the house. The bedroom was even worse than it looked from outside. The smell of death, blood, and ruptured innards laced the air. The figure on the floor had been a woman. Whoever or whatever attacked her tried to see how far back she could bend backwards. When she failed that test, every joint was violently dislocated. On top of that, the head was facing the wrong direction. On the other side of the destroyed bed was a man. His arms and back were laced up and down with deep slashes. Next to him was a small Ruger LCP. I removed the magazine and pulled back the slide. The stupid human didn’t even have a round chambered. I dropped the pistol and magazine into a pocket. I’d turn it over to the Bowcasters after the job. I turned the man over onto his back as Nick covered the bedroom door with his sub-machine gun. The man’s chest was similarly sliced up and he was missing the front of his neck. Nick glanced over at me. With my free hand I made an upside-down “V,” the hand signal for vampires. He nodded. The sound of wild laughter and off-key singing broke through the silence and brought the two of us back to the job at hand.

We made our way out of the master bedroom and through a darkened foyer. We moved carefully, making sure our boots didn’t tap on the cold tiles of the foyer. The rest of the house was as dark as the outside night, but our eyes let us see just fine. To our left was a large room the owners used as a combination dining room and sitting room. I could make out a pair of vampires standing over an adolescent girl was tied up with duct tape. Her hands and legs were behind her, and she was gagged. Yep, she was definitely the pup. Both vampires were cackling and taunting the struggling pup as Nick and I emerged from the darkened foyer. They didn’t even see us as we placed suppressed short bursts into their heads and chests. The rest of the vampires in the house went silent. Contrary to popular belief, silenced weapons are not silent, just suppressed. The CLACK-CLACK-CLACK of our weapon actions were thunderous to supernatural hearing. Those two vampires down, I did a quick scan of our surroundings. The foyer was connected to a hallway linking the large room to another living room. Beyond that living room were two more bedrooms. On the other side of the hallway wall was the kitchen, if I remembered quickly. Out of the kitchen and into the room emerged another vampire. He spotted Nick and me and tried to pull out a weapon. Nick stopped him cold with another burst of his sub-machine gun.

The vampires on the other side of the house were now acutely aware something deadly was in the house with them. The murmur of whispers floated down the hallway where Nick and I were holed up. I nodded my head over to where the pup was still struggling against her bonds. Nick nodded in agreement. We listened for a moment and were rewarded for our patience. We could hear the carpet rustle as another vampire moved down the hallway. Nick was about to round the corner and hose the leech with silver when I reached an arm out and stopped him. With my free hand, I dug out of my pocket a “distraction device.” Often called a flash-bang, these little canisters of fun were used to stun opponents for a few critical seconds. The version I held in my hand would let out a 210-decibel roar and a 2.5 million-candlepower blast of light. The advertisement on the box claimed it was like “having a rocket go off in your target’s face.” This was just the experience I wanted for our sneaking vampire. I pulled the pin and dropped it out into the hallway in front of our stalker. I shut my eyes in time to hear the deafening roar of the flash-bang. As my ears healed from the auditory damage, I heard the vampire screaming in pain from the bright light and shattering blast. He’d heal up from that quick, but it gave us the crucial moment. Nick turned the corner and placed a single shot into the writhing leech’s forehead. As he finished off our stalker, I looked down the hallway into the other living room. There were no others in the room, but I caught a glimpse of a white face peering out from a recess on the other side of the living room that led into the other two bedrooms. It disappeared back into one of the bedrooms before I could bring my weapon to bear on it. The other leeches were holed up in the two bedrooms. Nick and I retreated back from the hall into the foyer. As we put fresh magazines into our weapons, I laid out my idea.

I would throw another flash-bang into the recess. When it went off, I would move into the hall and cover that area. As I did that, Nick would grab the pup and bring her back to the foyer. In case there were more leeches in the kitchen, I gave Nick my last flash-bang. He nodded silently. I pulled the pin on the flash-bang and tossed it. The canister arched gracefully through the air and landed perfectly into the recess with a quiet thump. As it erupted in brilliant light and sound, I scrambled into the hallway from the foyer, falling to the floor as I reached where the hall opened into other living room. I scanned the room. A couch was set against the wall opposite of me, although it looked like the leeches ripped it up a bit. A small couch and a recliner were on the far wall to my right, along with a sliding glass door to the back yard. On my left was an entertainment console with most of the equipment destroyed. I also discovered a set of double doors in another recess to my left. Oh yeah, that was the last bedroom. Deciding the shut doors may hold something a little more dangerous, I gave myself a generous field of fire in the general direction of the doors. I was ready if anything hostile came out of the room behind the two doors. I heard the suppressed stutter from Nick’s sub-machine gun. He must have found another target in the kitchen. So far, so good. Then, the sliding glass door shattered as four lycanthropes came barreling through.

Fuck! I swore as I instinctively turned towards the noise. Peter and his group of lycanthropes staggered up from the floor as the cuts from the glass sealed themselves. While the noisy entrance distracted me, the double doors flew open and gunshots rang out. Peter and the warrior next to him were thrown back as bullets slammed into their chests. Blood poured out onto the carpet, as the two slumped down dead. Silver, my mind rapidly concluded as I turned myself back to the doors. Two vampires dropped empty magazines from the pistols they were holding. As the remaining two pack warriors groped for their own guns, the two leeches smartly inserted fresh magazines. The vampires didn’t see me. They were tunneling in on their targets. That was good for me, not so good for them. I brought up my MP5K and fired short bursts at both of them. They fell back into the room with black ooze covering the front of them. I heard Nick’s footsteps on the kitchen tile coming up to support me. I didn’t hear the girl come up behind me or behind Nick, so where was she? Out of the recess at the far end of the living room came four more vampires, a couple wielding pistols. Nicky and I cut the group down from our firing positions. It was a beautiful killing field for the two of us from our positions. If you ignored us shooting over the pack warriors. One of the vampires was intelligent enough to use his comrade in front of him to shield himself from our gunfire. He leapt over the twitching corpse of his shield to one of the injured pack warriors. The leech grabbed the lycanthrope by the throat and used him as a shield. He put his pistol to the lycanthrope’s temple and smiled. His white face looked like a porcelain mask, just about to crack.

“Throw down your guns, both of you!” he demanded in a falsetto tone. He was scared and trying to maintain a façade of bravado. I heard Nick’s gun hit the floor. Grudgingly, I threw my sub-machine gun from where I was crouched into the room. The vampire relaxed. Dumb fucker. “Now, I’m going to go out this door, and you two asshole dogs aren’t going to follow me. If you attempt to stop me, dweeb-brain, here, loses his head.” The vampire shook the pack warrior by the neck to emphasize his threat. In the darkness, I reached under my jacket and laid my hand on the grip of my USP. I peered at him from around the corner of the hall. He was focused on Nick. I figured he didn’t think I was carrying any other weapons, or that I wouldn’t try anything. Either way, the leech was fucking stupid. He was moving slowly to the shattered glass door making sure that the lycanthrope was between him and the two of us. I drew my USP. I kept my pistol in Condition One with the hammer cocked and the safety on. All I needed to do was snap off the safety to have that nice light single action trigger. The vampire slowly backed up towards the glass door as the other living pack warrior crawled over to where Nick was in the kitchen. I watched the vampire move and made the calculations in my head. It wasn’t going to be easy. Just for once, I wish it would be easy.

As he was halfway out the glass door, I dashed out of the hall. Startled by my sudden appearance, he quickly turned from Nick to face me. I knelt into a crouch and leveled my pistol at him. I focused as the three green dots on the sights of my pistol lined up across his exposed bone-white face. I gently squeezed the trigger, and the pistol roared. The vampire dropped his gun and his hostage as the Silver Shok bullet struck him dead center in the right eye. The leech dropped his hostage as he screeched in astonished pain. As the leech grasped at his shattered eye, I reoriented the sights to his now-exposed body and fired several more times. The bullets forced him back out of the house and onto the concrete porch, but he just wouldn’t go down. I kept firing, unloading into the leech’s chest. He screamed in pain, but he just wouldn’t fall down. The slide of the pistol locked back as the last round fired. My forefinger instinctively levered the magazine release as my left hand snatched a spare magazine from my belt. I was in the middle of changing magazines when a roar rocked the house. The vampire was violently thrown to the concrete back porch. Nick came out of the kitchen pointing a large revolver at the downed leech. The revolver was Nick’s baby, a Smith & Wesson 629 .44 Magnum. Nick strolled over to the leech and fired twice more for good measure.

I retrieved my MP5 and searched the rest of the house for any remaining vampires. Finding nothing, I walked back over to where Nick was helping the pup and the two injured lycanthropes to the liquor cabinet. It took vast quantities of alcohol to get a lycanthrope drunk because of our supernatural healing, but a drink of something strong usually helped relax the adrenaline system. I examined the pup for injuries. She was about five feet tall, her body in the beginning of puberty. She wore her blond hair long. High cheekbones and an even nose framed her blue eyes. I could tell that she was going to become the object of every young male lycanthropes attention in a couple of years.

“What’s your name?” I asked. She stared at my monster form for a few seconds, and then came out of her trance.

“Jennifer Denton,” she answered as Nick handed her a shot of brandy. She looked me up and down with a wide-eyed stare. “Are you really werewolves?”

“We are called lycanthropes. You’re also a lycanthrope,” I answered, availing myself to a glass of vodka that Nick had set in front of me. She sipped at her drink, and then spat it out. Definitely her first time with the hard stuff.

“If you want to finish that, make it quick. We’ve got to get moving,” I told her.

“But what about Mom and Dad?” she asked, beginning to break down over her ordeal of the past few hours. I swallowed my retort as Nick answered. He was much better at this than I was. Sensitivity wasn’t one of my strong suits.

“They’re dead, Jennifer,” he answered with a gentle tone, “I know that hurts so much, but I need you to focus. There’s nothing you can do for them. You must come with us. We are your only family now.” Jennifer composed herself after a few more moments. I had to admit that I was impressed. Too many pups just fall to pieces when first confronted with the brutality of our existence. That was what tysach was for, to condition the pups to deal with our lives. She seemed to already have made the decision to deal with everything later. She pushed the glass away from her and started towards her room. Nicky gently grasped her by the arm and shook his head.

“You’re going to have to leave your things behind for now,” Nick explained in that same reassuring tone,  “Some of us will come back for them later.  The police are going to be here soon, and we need to be gone. Follow those two back and wait for Ranger and me there.” Jennifer nodded without any further words. The two pack warriors led her out of the house as Nick and I called in a contact report to our respective bosses. The Guild needed to coordinate the clean-up with our kin and the pack. With that task completed, Nick and I collected Peter and the other slain pack warrior and walked out the front door. As we made our way through the shadows back to the rally point, we heard the sirens coming closer. A pair of squad cars raced by us as we crept in the darkness, burdened by our heavy loads. Thank the Ancestors for the humans’ blindness.

When we got back to the vehicles, Nicky and I laid the two bodies gently into the back seat of the sedan. Jennifer was sitting in the front seat with one of the lycanthropes. She was almost unnaturally still as she looked straight ahead. The other lycanthrope met with us back from the car in the shadow of a large tree.

“We’ll take them back to the pack,” he said, “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Keep that pup safe,” I said. “Get her to tysach.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll make sure.” The pack warrior took a few steps back to the car before stopping and turning back to Nick and me. “I was angry with our pack leader when he said the Badmoon would be with us tonight. I’m sorry. We wouldn’t have survived if you didn’t do…” His voice trailed off. Part of me wanted to be angry, but apologies were so rare, I forced myself to stay calm.

“You’re welcome,” I said. The pack warrior nodded and quickly trotted back to the car. explained to us that he would take the bodies and the girl back to his pack. —————

“At that point, Nick and I finished extracting out of the neighborhood,” I finished my verbal report to the Guildmaster. We were joined in his office by two other hunters. The first was the hunter who would have been my superior if the Guildmaster hadn’t selected me for the personal hitter slot. James Surebolt went by the pack name of Deadeye and was responsible for the operations of the lone wolves. Deadeye was unique amongst the majority of lycanthropes in that he was a handsome, medium height, wiry African-American. Lycanthropes were mainly Germanic with brown hair and brown or blue eyes, but in the United States, lycanthropy spread in small numbers to other ethnicities. It really didn’t matter to us, a lycanthrope was a lycanthrope, and it didn’t matter what his human form looked like. It was simply a camouflage to allow us to blend into our natural prey. Deadeye was a hunter with a specialty in the art of sniping. Give him a rifle, and there was very little Deadeye couldn’t hit within effective range. Unfortunately for Deadeye, his knack for organizing jobs was noticed by the Guildmaster. After the Guildmaster was appointed, he sent Deadeye to spend a year learning with the Pasco County Guild. Deadeye was chosen to lead the lone wolves upon his return. He was liked and respected by the lone wolves, and worked well with Sneller, who commanded the hit packs. Deadeye was invited because Nick was his subordinate, and the Guildmaster was the type of leader who believed in open communications between the Guild’s leaders and their subordinates. It made corrections easier.

The other attendee was Dennis Matric, a rat bastard of a hunter. Dennis was one of the few hunters with no pack name, so he was known by his hiding name. He was a medium height, dandily dressed, expertly manicured and coiffed hunter with sandy brown hair and blue eyes. He was the Guild’s liaison to Lord Vollen as well as the political advisor to the Guildmaster. Matric and I despised each other, and were barely civil to each other in the presence of the two senior hunters. I wasn’t sure why Matric was in the meeting, but I trusted the Guildmaster had a damned good reason. He didn’t usually put Matric and I in the same room unless it was necessary.

“Why did Ringston’s warriors jump in?” Deadeye asked, half-rhetorically.

“Best guess is that they heard the first flash-bang go off and decided that it was time to fight,” I answered, “Those warriors were looking for a fight. They were armed, and one of their pack had been taken down shortly before the job. I didn’t see it.” In retrospect, I could clearly see all the little physical signals of warriors hyped up for combat, and I wondered why I missed them. It was something I would have to remedy. “Also, what was with the fucking Bleeders being there?”

“How did you come to that conclusion?” asked the Guildmaster. His calm tone told me he was already aware of the fact.

“The two that gunned down the warriors stayed holed up after the flash-bangs, even though they had weapons and surprise,” I stated, “They waited until they had all of the warriors in one killing field. That’s way too much discipline for average vampires, especially for the idiot ones that were in the house.”

“Damn,” Deadeye murmured, “Do we have confirmation?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” the Guildmaster answered, “George’s hit pack went in to recover the pup’s belongings. He confirmed two of the vampires were Bleeders.”

“When we tell Lord Vollen this, he’ll hit the roof,” Matric said, “The Bleeders went after a pup. There’s no way the TCV can write that off to rogue elements. That’s a major escalation.” I rolled my eyes at the obvious statement. The Guildmaster noticed and vigorously hand-signed for me to behave myself.

“We’re going to hold off telling him,” the Guildmaster said. Deadeye and Matric both began to protest, but the Guildmaster silenced them with a wave of his hand. “We are not going to Lord Vollen with something like this without a plan for retribution. I will not allow the Order of Spirits an opportunity to use this against the lord. Now, do you have any suggestions for a target before I call in Kurt?”

“The harem,” I said flatly. All three turned to look at me with some variation of surprise. I focused on the Guildmaster with same level look I always used when he was picking my brain. “They tried to take away one of our most precious things. Let’s take away one of theirs.”

“Are you insane?” demanded Matric, “Attacking the harem would escalate things beyond anything we could hope to control!” The Guildmaster cleared his throat, and Matric bowed his head in recognition in apology.

“I’m not so sure,” Deadeye replied, “It’s been on our hit list since we found it. Attacking it now would send a message to the Bleeders and maybe a strong enough message to the TCV to make them back down from this latest round. We’ve been playing tit for tat for nearly two months. If we can stop it, and make the TCV ‘reaffirm its commitment to the Peace,’ then we hand a pretty nice win to Lord Vollen.”

“Which would give the shaman a nice kick between the legs,” Matric assented, “I’m still worried such an attack would just push things even farther rather than make the TCV back things down. Silanti is growing in power. This could be just the provocation he needs to push the Inner Council fully into his hands.” The room fell silent as the Guildmaster pondered.

“We’ll present the harem option to the lord,” the Guildmaster said, after several long moments, “I’ll have Kurt get one of his hit packs ready. Matric, sell this to Lord Vollen. As soon as the operation is finished, I want every hunter speaking to their contacts. I want it known the Guild would prefer if both sides agree to cool down, but we are prepared to go to war if the vampire refuse to back down or attempt any further retribution.” Deadeye, Matric, and I simply nodded. As stood to leave, the Guildmaster stopped me, “Marcus, stay back for a bit.”

“I have a feeling I’m going to need you on this job,” the Guildmaster said as soon as the door to his office was closed. I gave him a level look.

“Not that I’m complaining boss, but isn’t this a job for a hit pack?” I asked, “Sneller might get a bit pissed if you just use your personal hitter, even for something of this magnitude. Plus, the harem’s really too big for just me. Even if it’s a slash-and-burn job.”

“I fully intend to have a hit pack doing the majority of the work,” the Guildmaster answered, “Sneller’s hit packs are very good, but on a job of this sensitivity, I want my best on scene. I want you there to advise and back-up whomever Sneller sends.”

“As long as it’s not JB’s team,” I replied, “That wolf’s a fucking asshole.” JB was the leader of one of the better hit packs, but he and I had a bad history. Both of us still held a grudge.

“You do realize that many of the Guild have the same opinion of you,” the Guildmaster chided, “You’re good, but sometimes that chip on your shoulder mentality gets to be a bit much.”

“Sorry boss,” I said, contritely. If the Guildmaster was bringing it to my attention, then it was beginning to be a problem. I knew I had some issues arising from being a Badmoon, as much as I publicly stated otherwise. Sometimes those issues caused some friction between myself and other hunters. I was going to have to watch myself and try not to cause the Guildmaster as many problems. I knew the Guildmaster risked a good deal of his personal honor by appointing me as his personal hitter, both because I was extremely young for the position, and because of my status as a Badmoon. I would sacrifice myself rather than betray that kind of trust. “Let me know what you want me to do.” ————————————————

“Ranger, do you have any movement?” Whisper asked. Whisper, proper name George Ghostwalk, was the leader of the hit pack Sneller selected for the job against the harem. Matric did a hell of a job selling the operation to Lord Vollen, because we were green lit barely four hours after the meeting with the Guildmaster. I met up with Whisper’s pack at the Guild and the five of us worked out the plan for the job. I was glad Sneller chose Whisper and his pack. I worked with them before, and I trusted them. Trust was going to be an essential factor on this kind of job.

There are good reasons why Guild chapters are built with a mix of hit packs and lone wolves. Different jobs require different techniques. Lone wolves work singly and sometimes in pairs. They do jobs like assassinations, infiltrations, and sabotage. Hit packs have at least four members, and they are used for hardened targets, protective details, and surgical attacks. Although lone wolves and hit packs trained together, there isn’t the instinctive integration each section fostered amongst their own members. Add to the normal rift between the factions with the fact I was the Guildmaster’s personal hitter, who trained even less with the hit packs, and it meant an extremely high Murphy factor for the job. Trust between Whisper’s pack and me went a long way to quell the gremlins, both during job planning and execution – especially for a job of this magnitude.

The harem was discovered by accident about a year ago. Nick was sent to sanction a leech snatching women on our territory. Nick snatched the leech off the street and took the leech to a safe house for interrogation. It’s not like we can plant spies into the vampire hierarchy, so any vampire we think might have some intelligence we want, we spend a good deal of time extracting it. Most of what we get is worthless shit, but every so often we manage to discover a real nugget of joy. The harem was one of those nuggets.

The harem was part of the vampires’ quest to produce the ultimate vampire. Vampire society has no religion and no deities. What they have instead is this peculiar crusade, particularly among those few vampires that manage to survive beyond a century of being undead, to create a vampire so powerful, it would lead the entire race to victory over the lycanthropes and such. I know of two attempts since I joined the Guild that almost succeeded, but were destroyed. Not by the lycanthropes. The pathwalkers simply wiped the councils of the cities from existence. Why the vampires continued to court destruction from the demi-gods of our world I will never understand, but they always do. The harem was a breeding program where the TCV attempted to produce a human with all of the physical and mental characteristics they think will translate into the ultimate vampire once the human was transformed. When Nick found out about the harem, most of the lycanthrope leadership didn’t consider it important. At least, not that it might produce some sort of super-vampire for the TCV. We were confident the pathwalkers would obliterate the harem if it actually got to the point of possibly producing the ultimate vampire. Plus, the pathwalkers would most likely wipe out the TCV in the process. That would solve a lot of our problems. No, what was important was that the harem was very important to the TCV. That made it a prime target. The Hunters Guild covertly built up its intelligence on the harem, because we knew it would be one of those high-value targets for a political situation such as we were facing.

The harem was located near the University of South Florida, in an area called Suitcase City for the transient nature of many of the residents. It was a high-crime area and a place easy to hide a couple dozen human slaves. The building itself was a converted warehouse surrounded by a chain-link fence and topped with razor wire. The blue paint was faded and there were rust spots on the metal walls. The disrepair was just camouflage. When the Guild was gathering intelligence on the harem, hunters found low-observable cameras, infra-red beams, and motion detectors. Further probing found the chain link fence as well as the ground just beyond the fence were laced with detection devices that would alert the leeches inside the harem as well as lighting off concealed spotlights. Any type of covert entry attempt would trigger the grid. At that point, the intruder would be caught in a suddenly daylight-bright open area, with no cover, while the leeches from inside could cut him down without ever having to expose themselves. It was euphemistically called in the intelligence report as a “non-optimal entry situation.”

Because of all the security, I wanted to be brazen and just blow through all their little safeguards. Whisper, by his nature, still favored a covert entry and extraction. He was the hit pack leader assigned to the job, so it was decided this would be a quiet, daytime operation. It was kind of funny. When humans thought of covert operations, they thought of people skulking around in the dark. We were just the opposite. Night was when the vampires were active. By operating in the daytime, our opposition was limited to ghouls only. Ghouls would fight to the death, but they rarely had the ability to effectively coordinate beyond set patterns. We also set the operation for two hours before dusk, which in early October meant we would be doing the job around five in the afternoon. Our entrance would be covered by human drivers using the back streets to avoid the rush hour backups on Fletcher and Bearss Avenues.

I accomplished the first part of the job during the morning hours. As part of the Guild’s surveillance of the harem, we rented out apartments and homes on the streets surrounding the warehouse. Starting an hour after sunrise, I took out a chosen group of the surveillance cameras with a suppressed M4. The Bowmasters customized the carbine for damn-near silent precision shooting. The sound of the brass hitting the ground was louder than the report of the carbine. From the view of ghouls, it should have looked like the hunters were randomly knocking out the cameras. It wasn’t the first time we’d done it. Not enough to make it look like we knew what was in the warehouse, but just enough for harassment of a known vampire location. The ghouls, almost following a script, responded to my plinking by doing foot patrols and increasing the number of beams on their infra-red emitters. After I completed the destruction of the selected cameras, I parked across the street in a converted van. A switch on the dashboard made smoke come out of the van’s engine compartment. I faked an attempt to fix the van, pretended to walk off, and then sneaked into the back of the van. The van was equipped with a pair of concealed fiber-optic cameras in the side linked to a large monitor. In addition to those, I could tap into the cameras the Guild rigged in our rented apartments around the harem. I watched as the ghouls maintained their vigilant patrols. As hours stretched towards dusk, the ghouls began to relax. The ghouls knew their masters would be rising soon. It was time for us to strike.

“Two patrollers on my side,” I said to Whisper. His hit pack was rolling up on the other side of the harem. “Negative on your side. Negative movement in the target.”

“Initiate in fifteen seconds,” Whisper replied. My part in this job would be limited. The Guildmaster mainly wanted me on scene in case the shit hit the fan. Well that, and because his own personal honor demanded his personal hitter be part of our retribution. The TCV was about to learn what happened when you fucked with our pups. I picked up the suppressed carbine and braced it in the gun port. I took aim and fired twice. Both of the ghouls patrolling on my side of the harem went down without a word. That would draw some attention towards me, but I wanted all the ghouls looking away from where Whisper and his hit pack were infiltrating. For that I pulled out the Bloop Gun.

I put the muzzle of the grenade launcher through the firing port and fired a single round of white phosphorous at the fence. White phosphorous,often called willey-pete, burned like thermite and could catch metal on fire. Fire was one of those things vampires – or their ghouls – couldn’t ignore. A side effect of vampires being so handily flammable. The willey-pete round hit the chain-link fence and exploded, immolating everything in a ten-foot radius. I reloaded the [M79]]( before the first round exploded. A second 40mm grenade hit the northwest corner of the warehouse. The ghouls poured out of the harem. I smiled as I watched the ghouls used huge fire extinguishers on the two chemical blazes. Those would be less than useful.

“Arson accomplished,” I announced, “You’re cleared.” Four lycanthropes in cargo pants and long shirts emerged from one of the nearby houses. As they neared the harem from the southeast, the long shirts were stripped to reveal tactical rigs and stubby, compact assault rifles. I kept the ghouls distracted by a flash-bang round from the Bloop Gun. The hit pack scampered over the fence as the ghouls were stunned by the loud brilliance of the pyrotechnic round. I watched as the hit pack neared the door, shed forms, and entered the harem. This was the most difficult time for me because I would have to watch and wait instead of actually participating in the fun and games. Even worse, I couldn’t see what Whisper and his hit pack were dealing with inside the harem. The Guild always emphasized simplicity of load when doing a job, and the additional burden of proper video monitoring was considered too distracting.

The ghouls realized what was happening as soon as Whisper’s hit pack entered. Some of the ghouls fighting the fires perked up and held their hands to their ears. My first instinct was to land a frag round into their midst, but I caused enough damage with the two incendiaries. Part of jobs was balancing firepower with the need to stay below the pathwalkers’ attention. Using fragmentation grenades would draw unnecessary attention after the fact. [Flash-bangs], on the other hand, were little more than powerful fireworks. So, a second flash-bang round detonated between the ghouls and the harem.

“Whisper, you’ve got company coming,” I said.

“Ranger, kill them all,” Whisper answered. My instincts roared to life. There was something very wrong in Whisper’s voice. “Kill them and then get in here.” There was something about the way he said it that demanded urgency. The precision carbine was left on the floor of the van. I unclipped its nastier brother from the rack behind me. This one was equipped with a shortened M203 40mm grenade launcher attached under the barrel. As I slinked out of the back of the van, I brought the M4 to my shoulder and fired the beehive round from the grenade launcher. The beehive round was a custom load that sent dozens of high-speed flechettes into the mass of ghouls. Several went down screaming. The rest froze in shock at the attack. Before they could react, I reloaded the grenade launcher. I fired another beehive round at the other group of ghouls. The few that could still stand to raise were cut down by precise bursts from the carbine. I shimmied over the fence and ran to the harem.

“Whisper, I’m outside,” I said as I reloaded both the carbine and grenade launcher, “SITREP?”

“Warehouse is an open area. Catwalk on the east side. Multiple alchemists on catwalk reigning hell down on us. Cannon is down. We are pinned down just inside entry.” What the fuck? Alchemists were the leeches’ version of shaman. Magical powers and a bad attitude were their trademarks. Alchemists also had a nasty habit of underestimating opponents that didn’t wield mystical forces. They were also rare enough in vampire society that they generally weren’t allowed into areas that the lycanthropes controlled. I could see one being at the harem, but multiple? I would have to sort that out after the fight.

“Whisper, are any of them oriented towards me?” I asked, changing the round in the grenade launcher. This was going to be damn risky.

“Negative,” Whisper answered, “Plan?”

“Get ready to move,” I replied, “Fire in the hole.” A swift kick knocked down the door. I stuck the muzzle through the door, pointed at where the catwalk should be, and launched the flash-bang. Nice thing about fighting alchemists is they need to maintain concentration to work their magic. Most alchemists could handle some combat distractions like the occasional bullet whizzing by them. Damn few of them can withstand the visual and audio fury of a flash-bang grenade. I was through the door as soon as the grenade detonated, shedding forms as I moved. Shedding on the move is difficult for most lycanthropes because your limbs, strength, and senses are changing between steps. Plus, it just fucking hurts. Sometimes it’s just damn necessary, which is why the Guild trains hunters to shed forms while doing all sorts of fun tasks.

The interior of the harem was dark, almost to the point of being able to defeat even a lycanthrope’s night vision. The main area of the harem was divided by a series of heavy canvas curtains with walkways running between the doors and a central walkway. The catwalk was on the east side of the building. It was essentially a raised viewpoint for supervising. The leech alchemists were slowly recovering from the effects of the flash-bang. Whisper, Patches, and Fencer were up and firing. Between the four of us, the alchemists were cut down within a few seconds.

With the alchemists down, Whisper, Patches, Fencer, and me cleared each individual section. In each partition was a human female on the concrete floor, unconscious, naked, and covered with small cuts that looked like runes of some sort. The whole area made my instincts roar with danger. We methodically cleared the harem. There were about twenty women in the ritualistic poses on the main floor of the harem. On the catwalk were five alchemists. We also found a dead male ghoul with similar rune cuts on his body. All of it confirmed why I hated magicks. It was just too fucking weird. Whisper called me down from the catwalk to meet up with his hit pack near where they entered the harem. They were surrounding their injured member. Cannon was still unconscious and twitching in pain from whatever the alchemists hit him with.

“Let’s burn this place and get home,” Whisper said, looking at his convulsing companion. I could see in his eyes the concern he held for his downed subordinate.

“No,” I replied, shaking my head, “We need to call the shaman out. I don’t know what was going on in here, but I don’t think this was a normal harem. This was something far nastier. We need this place purified, and burning alone isn’t going to do it. We need a shaman to do it right.” I could feel the taint of the place trying to seep into me.

“We do that, and the shaman will take credit for this job,” Patches countered.

“Yeah, I know, but we need to completely eradicate this place. Not only the structure, but all of the nasty stuff they did here. Besides, a good shaman may be able to tell us what the hell was going on here, and what they did to Cannon.” The three murmured agreement, but they were not happy with the situation. In truth, neither was I, but this was why the Guildmaster sent me along for this job. It wasn’t all fun and games being the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. I pulled out my phone and called my boss. He might be able to call out a shaman that wasn’t too involved in the political situation.

A pair of shaman arrived roughly ten minutes later. I didn’t know either of them, but Whisper knew the elder one. They talked for a moment as the other hunters and I kept a look out for additional ghouls or human problems. The shaman looked the scene over and frantically began calling other shaman. From what I could overhear, we stumbled into something big and nasty, magically speaking. Within two minutes, four more shaman arrived. Two took Cannon away for healing, while the rest were discussing some ritual or another. Then Jeremy Ghosttalker arrived. Jeremy was just under Yven in the Order’s hierarchy, and while he wasn’t a friend to the Guild, he wasn’t an enemy either.

“I suggest that you vacate,” he told Whisper, visibly ignoring my presence. Jeremy was one of those who considered me an abomination, but as long as the lord tolerated my presence in the county, Jeremy wasn’t going to do anything against me. He was a jackass, but at least he was a tolerable jackass. “We are going to have to do some intense magicks, and I don’t want any problems. Especially from the presence of an abomination.” He nodded his head in my direction. Whisper and the others tensed, readying for a fight. I was pissed, and I would have loved to put a lead bullet in Jeremy’s back. Unfortunately, it was neither time nor place for a throw down between shaman and hunters. There were bigger issues.

“We’ll just leave you to do the tidying up,” I said, walking back to the van, “After all, we’ve already done the hard work. Not that you’d know what the fuck that is.” I ignored Jeremy’s sputtered retort as I casually walked over to the van. It would be dark soon, and there was another part to this job.

Chapter 3: Dealing With Others

Badmoon Rising – Chapter One: Pay Attention, There’s a Lot of Stuff You Need to Know

If you have read this far, then you probably have guessed what I am. You may have even figured out that my name is Ranger, but that isn’t fully accurate. All lycanthropes, or werewolves as human stories call us, have three names. The first is called the hiding name. It’s the name given by the parents at birth. The second is the true name given to a lycanthrope at Initiation by the lord of the county. The third is the pack name. My hiding name was Marcus Edward Graven, III, but it’s been a long time since anyone used that name. My true name is Marcus Phoenix Badmoon. True names have specific meanings. By tradition, my first name is the same as my hiding name. My middle name was given to me because I played dead during a harsh training in tysach, and “came back to life” at a rather opportune time (i.e., ambush). Badmoon, now that’s the name that has given me trouble for my entire life as a lycanthrope. I am the first lycanthrope in Florida not to have any known lycanthrope roots. Usually one or both of the parents of a lycanthrope are also a lycanthrope. Occasionally, it comes down from a grandparent. Rarely, it comes from a great-grandparent. Then there’s me. I have no known family that are lycanthropes. The shaman have searched the Ancestors, but none claim me. To a society that values its close family connections, I am an intruder. There have been few like me through out the known history of the packs. We are known as Badmoon. My pack name was given to me after I joined the Hunters Guild. To my Guild brothers, I am known as Ranger. I don’t know why I was given that name, but it seemed to suit me.

There are a few misconceptions that need to be cleared up before the story may continue. Lycanthropes are surrounded in human myth and imagination for centuries. Some of what the stories say is true. A great deal is not. For example, lycanthropes are vulnerable to silver, but not wolfsbane; in fact, wolfsbane is actually a medicine. It is painful for us and after the first couple of applications, most lycanthropes flinch from it the way a human child would flinch rubbing alcohol. Lycanthropes do shape-shift to three distinct forms, but we do not shed our forms because of a full moon. Lycanthropes revere the moon. We are a nocturnal race, and as early humans worshiped the sun, the moon is a sacred presence in our own culture. We don’t worship it – worship is reserved for the Ancestors – but we do use the moon to track time between rites. A lycanthrope is born, not created by a bite. That myth probably came from how lycanthropes implant the need to go to the nearest cravex to a new pup.

The truth is lycanthropes are a race that, for reasons still not completely understood, were granted supernatural powers. We were given the ability to blend in with our prey and hunt from within. We are not the humans we appear to be as we walk down the concrete sidewalks. We are not the wolves running through the forests and plains. We are the lycanthrope, the creature of wolf and man that has hunted the humans from the beginning of our time. We do not look for a place to fit in between the two camouflages and their societies, as human literature often depicts us. We are not torn. We know what we are every time we look at each other in true form, feel the world open up to us through our supernatural senses, and continue the hunt. It is the hunt, the true hunt, that defines us and makes us what we are.

The lycanthropes live in a world beyond human vision. We are not alone in this world either. The vampires, the pathwalkers, the witch hunters, the ghosts, the wizards, and the alien Turak all live in the realm of the unseen. Humans, with their shielded vision, interact with us on a daily basis, but never realize it. They see the results of our fighting, but explain it away as natural phenomena, or have a rational explanation. The conflicts within this community of the supernatural have repercussions on the seen world, but rarely the other way around. How do normal humans compete with the supernatural elements? Simple, normal humans have one power that they rarely realize – the ability to create. Technology and its related areas are humanity’s true power, and one, at least until relatively recently, they have been lax in utilizing.

My story is not about the searching the mysteries of the supernatural. It is not looking for my kind’s past or its place in the great scheme of things. My story is about power, pure and simple. Most of the participants in my story just happen to be creatures of the supernatural. My story begins during an escalation in tensions between the Tampa Council of the Vampire, or the TCV, and the Lord of Hillsborough, ruler of all the lycanthrope packs within the county of Hillsborough County in the state of Florida. Since the two races met each other back during that Blood Moon so long ago, there was always war. In the beginning, it was over the humans. The exact reasons changed over time, but the conflict remained. It wasn’t until the beginning of the twentieth century the lycanthropes and vampires realized that human technology was beginning to defeat our supernatural advantages. With the new weapons that were developed at the time, both the lycanthropes and the vampires decided that the centuries-long feud would end in mutual destruction if nothing was done. Assuming, of course, that one of the other factions didn’t finish us both off first. The aloof and god-like pathwalkers threatened our races with such a fate before when the fighting got out of hand. The older generations didn’t believe the truth. Until the First World War. The way humans killed each other with reckless abandon convinced all doubters that the standing open war between the lycanthropes and the vampires was no longer acceptable if either race was to survive. So, the Peace was forged during hard negotiations between the Emperor of the Lycanthropes and the Great Nosferatu Convention. The Peace ruled out the open fighting, but left the door open for covert operations. With that, the Hunters Guild took on their new role as the aristocracy’s weapons. We became the enforcers of the aristocracy’s edicts. My story really begins with enforcing one of those edicts.

I straddled the big Yamaha cruiser I recently “acquired.” The engine rumbled beneath me as I remembered the look of sheer terror on the former owner’s face before I ended his pathetic life. He thought he was some sort of super-thug rider, and he actually attacked me when I asked if I could walk with his group. I gave him my cover story, but something offended him, and he tried to cut me with a fairly decent sized blade. That ended when I used his own blade on him. Humans were fucking stupid sometimes. I couldn’t complain too much. I had a bike which completed my disguise for my job. According to the file that the Guildmaster gave to me, a young-looking vampire was stalking in the lycanthrope section of Ybor City. In the heart of downtown Tampa, Ybor City was originally where the Cuban and Italian immigrants came and worked in the cigar factories that gave Tampa its nickname of “The Cigar City”. Now, it was entertainment district with a strong Spanish flavor. Lycanthropes tended to stay out of Tampaproper, but we secured sections in Ybor City, Channelside, and Westshore. Most of the time, the sections are run like Free Berlin was during the Cold War. They are guarded zealously on both sides of the borders, and leeches are only allowed in to do small amounts of business. Usually it was diplomatic work or something involving the others that populate our unseen world. Leeches did not come onto our territory without permission.  For a leech to be hunting on our grounds was a slap across the face of lycanthrope society by the Tampa Council. A few appeals were made by Lord Stephen Vollen, the Lord of Hillsborough, but the TCV refused to sanction or stop the brazen leech. So, I was given the job to sanction him for the TCV.

I started the job by tracking the leech for the previous few nights. He was a member in one of the local weekend biker gangs that frequent the lively downtown district. As I observed him, I figured he was a young and uneducated leech. Smart leeches congregate among their own kind and on their own territory. They did not venture into enemy-held parts of the city. It was safer that way, both for the leech, and for the two societies as a whole. I followed him the previous night as he charmed three young ladies and fed on them in the darkened corners of Ybor. I knew his patterns, and I knew I could detect his voice when he used his supernatural abilities. This night, I was going to rid the lycanthropes of this insulting pest.

The first part of any hunting job is to blend into the environment, which is why I was in my limited human form. My colleagues in the Guild found some clothing favored by the human bikers. A pair of denim jeans and a black t-shirt was covered with leather leggings and a black leather jacket. Dark work boots completed my outfit. For the kill, I was armed with some of my normal weapons. Under the jacket, in a shoulder holster, was my sidearm, a Heckler & Koch USP in .45 ACP. It was loaded with an advanced type of silver bullet based on the Federal HST design. Hunters called them Silver Shoks, and some kin out in the Midwest made them for the Guild. Two spare magazines loaded with Silver Shok ammunition hung under the other shoulder. A small Ruger SP101 .357 Magnum snub-nosed revolver, also loaded with Silver Shoks, fit inside of my left leg in a boot holster. A silver-plated throwing knife was sheathed in the other boot. To complete my ensemble, I carried a long silver dagger in a small of the back sheath. I was actually carrying less than I normally would have, but this was supposed to be a “quiet” job.

I slowly rode through the streets searching for my prey. The old Cuban architecture of Ybor“> cigar factories melded with the more modern look of Centro Ybor, the large entertainment complex housing clubs, shops, and a movie theater. It was developed in the early nineties in order revitalize the historic neighborhood. A great deal of the complex was within lycanthrope territory. The air was filled with a mixture of smells ranging from alcohol and human perspiration to car fumes and the odd ozone smell created by the streetcar. I stopped as I heard the distinctive harmonics of the vampire’s supernatural voice. The words were indistinguishable, but the tainted tones reached right into my waiting ears.

I followed the supernatural tones to a small restaurant just beyond the lights and glitz of the complex. It was a smaller upscale restaurant, catering to the higher-class of people that came down to Ybor on the weekends. This was a departure from the way he hunted his previous prey. This was why I didn’t plan my jobs down to the tiniest detail, like some of the other hunters. I expected variations and tried to anticipate any opportunities for Mr. Murphy and his infamous law to fuck things up. One thing I didn’t anticipate was a radical shift in the leech’s hunting grounds. Usually, leeches were very finicky about the kind of humans they hunted. A lot of it had to do with their obsession about appearances. As I stood outside the restaurant, I had to make the decision if the sudden shift in the leech’s behavior was enough to make the job too difficult to complete tonight.  The Guildmaster made it abundantly clear this situation needed to be resolved tonight unless there was no other option. The change in the leech was annoying, but it could be overcome. I quickly removed the leather leggings and tried to slick back my hair. It wasn’t perfect, but it should give me some concealment among the humans. At least long enough to spot my prey.

I entered the restaurant, listening for my prey’s voice. Next to the main dining room was a raised bar and lounge. I had my first glimpse of my prey that night. He appeared to be in his early twenties, with sleek black hair that he brushed straight back. His normally pale skin was brightened with his previous kills and the judicious use of cosmetics. The biker clothing was gone, replaced by a casual suit favored by the young men of the business world. His long fingers caressed the shoulder of an attractive young brunette. She certainly looked like his type. Her long brown hair was exquisitely styled, matching with the high-priced red dress she was wearing. From the intelligence I could see in her blue eyes, she wasn’t a bar bimbo, more than likely a professional of some type hoping to meet one of her own class and stature.

Disappointment flushed through me as I stepped into the lounge. Several patrons noticed my out-of-place look, which they acknowledged with either a disgusted glare or an amused glance. The vampire didn’t notice me at all. I crossed the lounge, staring several of the more disapproving looks down, and sat at the table behind him and his intended. Much of the last-minute anxiety disappeared when I walked behind him. An experienced vampire would have immediately noticed a lycanthrope walking in, or at least shown more observance around him. If he simply looked around once, he would’ve noticed me, and known what was going to happen. Those who live in our realm are able to see other members and recognize them for what they are. As I lowered myself into the chair, I allowed myself a small sigh. My hopes for a good hunt ended. Now all there was to do was to end his pathetic existence – violently.

The woman was strong-willed and tried to resist the supernatural voice the leech applied, but I knew that her resistance wouldn’t last for much longer. After a couple minutes of watching him work his charms, I scanned the lounge. I didn’t see any other supernatural creatures in the bar. The humans were enjoying their drinks and the insignificant chatter of their fellow humans. After my original novelty wore off, they promptly forgot about me. None of them noticed me slowly drawing the pistol from under my jacket. I lowered the pistol under the table and flicked the safety off. The damned fool didn’t even hear the mechanical snap. Even without the supernatural hearing of my true form, I know I would’ve heard it, even over the din of the bar. It was too unique a sound for someone in my line of work. Too bad. His mistake.

I silently rose from my table and leveled the pistol at the leech. I double-tapped the USP, sending two Silver Shok bullets into the back of my target. Humans screamed at the deafening sound of the pistol and the sight of the leech’s chest exploding in a mass of bone and black fluid. The bar patrons stampeded for the exit. I ignored them as I grabbed the still-twitching body of the leech off the floor and threw it on the bar. The woman he had been talking to was in shock. She didn’t move at all as I shed my human body for that of the true lycanthrope. I picked up a bar stool and smashed it against the bar itself, liberating a leg. There are very few things that can kill a vampire. Fire, silver, and wood are the most common. The famous staking death of the movies is a fearful and painful reality for the leeches. The trick, however, is getting close enough to do the dirty deed. Both lycanthropes and leeches deal archanal wounds, or wounds that cannot be healed with the supernatural speed of other wounds. So any fight the damned things put up take forever to heal. Most hunters wouldn’t even bother staking a vampire if they’d just put two rounds of silver into it. So why was I going through the trouble? Vampires fear staking. The Guildmaster expressly wanted a staking to properly convey the depths of the lord’s displeasure. After two hits of high-powered silver bullets, the vampire wasn’t putting up any fight as I slammed the wooden leg through his torn chest. The few twitches of his body ceased instantly. His staking was not enough. Not according to my boss, the Guildmaster. The lycanthropes needed to show the leeches we were serious about the vampire’s intrusion into our territory. The Guildmaster foolishly left me in charge of making the statement. It was time to become creative.

I hefted the dead vampire onto my shoulder. It was changing to true form in its final death. All lycanthropes and vampires revert to true form at the time of death. It was a small quirk of the supernatural. The leech’s intended victim was completely still as I put the body over my shoulder. I looked into her eyes. They were vacant, almost death-like. She had seen too much, too fast. Since the rise of reason and the denial of magic and the supernatural by human culture, humans reactively deny the visible consequences of the supernatural. If they see lycanthropes and vampires fighting, humans discount what they see and rationalize. However, if a person who has not been properly introduced to the supernatural sees too much, too close, their mind can’t quite handle it. All of them become catatonic. A few come out of their catatonia and become witch-hunters. The witch-hunter’s fanatical belief in the extermination of the supernatural gives them the ability to cause archanal wounds. Without hesitation, I put a single round into her head, killing her instantly. I didn’t want the possibility of another witch-hunter being born by the night’s fun and games. If the first reaction to this act is disgust and revulsion by the senseless violence, then an encounter with a witch-hunter is recommended. They are a zealous lot with absolutely no moral compunctions when dealing with our kind. They possess a righteous savagery that makes everything I do pale by comparison.

The body of the vampire, now seven feet tall and much heavier than when I first lifted him up, fit nicely over the handlebars of the motorcycle. I kicked the motorcycle to life and sped out the area. Police cars flew by me, racing to the scene, but they didn’t concern me in the least. I knew no police would pull me over, not while I was in true form. As far as their minds were concerned, I was another motorcyclist carrying an extremely large package on my bike. It was how the human mind worked when it came to casual dealings with my world. I drove into a small garage that I rented several days ago when the Guildmaster first gave me the job. Inside was a van and some materials I was going to use for my “statement.” A grin flittered across my muzzle as I placed the vampire’s body into position, finishing my artistic “expression.”

The drive to the Tampa Council Hall was slow and uneventful. The Hall, where the TCV convened its meetings, was one of the more spectacular houses gracing Bayshore Boulevard. It was a small mansion, with white painted walls coordinating with a well-manicured lawn of flowers and natural grass. I parked the van on the street, and lugged the “statement” up onto the lawn. Planting it firmly into the ground, I pulled out a cheap lighter I bought earlier in the night. Out of my jacket pocket came the job file. The file going up in flame caught the attention of the door guards. Ancestors, they were sloppy. They began to walk towards me as I pulled off the cover of my “statement.” They stopped for a moment at the sight of the “statement,” long enough for me to drop the lit file at its base. It went up in flames with a whooshing sound. The intruding leech was hung in front of the house, on a burning cross. I stifled a laugh as the flames enveloped the cross and body. I entered the van as the door guards regained their senses and pursued me. As I drove off, I discouraged that notion with an aimless burst of gunfire from my pistol.

The next morning began with a loud electronic tone sounding, waking me from the warm darkness of sleep. I groggily looked around the room for the source of the noise. It wasn’t the alarm clock. The clock had an unfortunate accident the last time it woke me up while I was in true form. It now sat shattered in the remains of my bed stand. I reminded myself to clean up the splintered wood fragments, which I promptly forgot again. I rose out of the bed and searched out the noise. Several seconds later, I reached the source of the irritation and recognized it as the phone. Stifling thoughts of shattering it, I tapped the receive button. After mumbling some form of greeting into the phone, the Guildmaster’s voice rumbled out.

“Marcus, we need to talk about last night’s activities. Come down to my office promptly.” His gruff voice betrayed an anger I’d heard before. Someone outside the Guild complained, and the Guildmaster was upset that they put their muzzles into Guild business. I mumbled an acknowledgment and set the phone back down on the chest of drawers. I looked back up into the mirror. My brown hair was still tousled from just waking up, and was a bit longer than the normally short style I usually wore. The stubble I neglected for the past four days was now a scruffy-looking splotch of light brown beard. I rubbed at the short, stiff, light brown whiskers. My gray eyes were bloodshot, a result from almost constant activity and very little sleep for the past several days. The rest of my face was pale and looked like it was slightly sagged. I needed a vacation.

A stop in the bathroom to shower, shave, and attend other hygiene problems, and I went to clothe myself. The Guildmaster said promptly, not immediately, which meant he wanted me presentable. Whoever called my Guildmaster was definitely someone powerful enough for him to call me in to “review” what happened. Someone in the aristocracy or the Order. My first suspicion was the Order. They were always looking for opportunities to discredit the Hunters Guild. The fact the Guildmaster didn’t discuss it on the phone leaned more to gave some credence to aristocracy. It was a well-known secret the lord’s security force tried to tap the phones of everyone they felt constituted a possible threat, including the Guildmaster. It annoyed the Guildmaster he couldn’t talk freely on his own office telephone. I ruffled through the closet in my bedroom and found a presentable light gray suit. It was a little wrinkled, but I didn’t think the Guildmaster would mind too much. He knew me too well to expect otherwise. As I rummaged back in my closet for some footwear, I disregarded the dress shoes for a pair of well-worn work boots. The boots didn’t match the semi-professional look of the suit, but they did make it easier for me to wear my ankle holster. The small Ruger SP101 revolver went into the ankle holster. My freshly-cleaned USP went into an inside the waistband holster on my right hip. A couple of spare magazines of Silver Shok went on my left hip, and a few throwing knives were sprinkled throughout. There are several cardinal sins all hunters know and avoid at all costs. Among the top five is that a hunter is never unarmed – or armed with only one weapon.

I walked out of my bedroom and into my living room where I flipped on the television. The morning anchorwoman was describing the horror of last night’s incident. According to the news, there had been early reports of a body on the cross, but no confirmation by the Tampa Police. I grinned as I contemplated the long night that the TCV’s ghouls in the TPD pulled to hide the burned remains of the leech. I walked across the living room into the kitchen and pulled a can of soda from the fridge. I found some deviled ham and some bread and threw together a quick sandwich as I continued to listen to the morning television reports. I relied on them to gather information that the Guild’s intelligence group missed. Guild intel specialists were always too focused on the lycanthrope society and the others in the unseen world, and occasionally missed important information in the human world. Once they missed the fact that the human president was coming into town and a job had to be scrapped at the last minute. Unfortunately, the intel group just chalked it up to an anomaly, so they didn’t bother changing their methods. So, I was left to comb through a bunch of useless information to find the few nuggets of joy. The work required a lot of patience, and that particular virtue and I weren’t exactly on speaking terms.

My computer toned to let me know I had a new message. I flipped on the monitor and punched in my password. The computer automatically entered the website the lycanthropes set up for their use. I clicked on the icon for new messages and the screen went blank. Puzzled, I watched as red, block letters began appearing on my screen. There are wolves who fear what the past may hold. Beware of these. Then the screen went back to the messages menu. There was only the same messages in the queue as last night. What the fucking hell? I rubbed my freshly shaved face as I pondered the message for a minute. I glanced at my watch. There was just enough time to meet the Guildmaster’s demands without pissing him off too much. I climbed into my nice, non-descript silver sedan and drove out to the Guildmaster’s office. The Guildmaster has his office on one of the business parks that grace the sides of the main north-south highway, Dale Mabry. At one time, the building was a mansion. Now it housed several lawyers and CPA’s – and the leader of the deadliest group of lycanthropes in the area. The Guildmaster leased out a sizable office on the third floor. Hunters didn’t like the packs knowing exactly where the Guild, itself, was located, and in the majority of cases, the pack leaders just wanted to speak to the Guildmaster anyway. I walked through the large double doors and into the building’s waiting room. The building’s owners sparsely decorated this area with a matching pair of beige, cloth-covered couches, a small wooden coffee table, and a few paintings. A pair of brightly covered rugs kept the furniture off of the polished hardwood floors. At the far end of the waiting room was a secretary behind a large oak desk. A modern computer and a bank of telephones graced the aged, wooden desk. The whine of the cooling fan was the only artificial sound I heard.

“I’m here to see Mr. Werstand,” I told the young woman behind the desk. I mentioned to my boss that the Guild should have placed one of its own, or at least a kin, in the position, when the previous one left but he rebuffed my idea. This one was new. The young lady smiled pleasantly as she pulled a leather-bound appointment book from below her desk. It was archaic, but the building’s occupants liked the touch. She flipped the pages and found her place.

“Do you have an appointment?” she asked as she scanned the Guildmaster’s schedule.

“I don’t think so. He called me this morning and told me to come here. The name is Marcus Smith,” I answered, using my cover name. Most lycanthropes continued using their hiding names when dealing with human society, but I couldn’t use my hiding name anymore. As far as the humans were concerned, Marcus Graven was murdered almost twenty years ago. Using Badmoon would have raised suspicions, so I became a Smith. Blindingly normal. The secretary continued to scan her appointment book. She motioned for me to take a seat as she lifted one of the receivers and dialed the Guildmaster’s office.

“Mr. Werstand, there is a Marcus Smith here to see you.” I watched her face contort into confusion as she listened to the response. “All of your morning appointments? But you have an appointment with Mr. Vollen in twenty minutes. Yes, sir.” She looked down at her appointment book and began to write in it. She looked up at me, almost as an afterthought, and said, “You may go up now. Mr. Werstand is waiting for you.” I thanked her as she went back to rearranging the Guildmaster’s schedule, and climbed the old antebellum spiral staircase that led up to the third floor. The floor was sparsely populated compared to the two floors below it. Only two other individuals had their offices on this floor – a mid-level personal injury attorney and a financial planner – neither of whom ever seemed to ever be out of their offices. I walked over to the Guildmaster’s office and knocked on the oaken door.

“Get in here,” a deep voice boomed through the door. Without hesitating, I walked into the office. The Guildmaster’s office was a mixture of the opulent and the Spartan. A lush green carpet covered the floor and complemented the ivory walls. To my sides was a pair of dark wooden bookcases that were lined with books of various subjects, ranging from finance and law to demolitions and assassination techniques. On the left hand wall was an antique liquor cabinet, its crystal decanters no doubt filled with cheap whiskey. Unlike his predecessor, the current Guildmaster never developed the taste for fine wines and liquors. He preferred rotgut for some odd reason or another. The Guildmaster was sitting at his desk, a smaller version of the secretary’s desk, also made of oak. The desk was only occupied by a laptop, phone, and the morning newspaper. Its bold headline about last night’s activites seemed to glare up at me. The Guildmaster was sitting in his maroon leather chair, staring out the large picture window behind the desk. He whirled his chair around as I shut the door behind me. Erik Werstand was one of the youngest lycanthropes ever to lead a Hunters Guild chapter, which said a great deal about not only his skill at hunting, but also his political ability. In his mid-forties, his human form was of an average height and build. Neatly trimmed black hair topped off a stern face. His dark eyes flashed with anger as I collapsed into one of the chairs irreverently in front of his desk. His long fingers tapped the newspaper.

“Do you know what you did?” he asked, using the same tone he used when calling me to come to his office. Someone else was angry with me, and laid it down on him. After all, I was not just one of his hunters, I was his personal hitter – the hunter he assigned jobs he didn’t trust to one of the hit packs or regular lone wolves in our chapter. I was an unusual choice for the position, both due to the fact that I was very young for the post, and for the fact that the position normally went to a veteran hunter who had close, personal ties to the Guildmaster. My predecessor had been the previous Guildmaster’s mentor. Before Erik Werstand became the Guildmaster, he was the deputy leader of the lone wolves. I only knew him as a somewhat decent boss, but beyond that, we didn’t have a close relationship. Then out of the blue, he asked me if I would like the job. I accepted it, and over the past five years, the Guildmaster and I formed a mentor-student relationship. At least enough of one that I could tell when he was the one pissed off at me, and when I managed to piss someone else enough that they complained to the Guildmaster. I saw recognition in his eye when he looked at my nonchalant face.

“Who’s angry at me? Lord Vollen or the shamans?” I asked, with an almost bored indifference. I’d worked directly for him long enough that I could be a bit irreverent. At least, I hoped so. Why else had he kept me as his personal hitter?

“Lord Vollen will be here in less than half-an-hour to ream you out for that little stunt you pulled,” the Guildmaster said. He slammed both hands down on the desk and rose to his feet. “Dammit, I even got calls from the TCV’s ghouls protesting your action. A statement does not mean lighting a damned bonfire in front of the fucking vampires’ Hall. Especially with their attitude to fire.” I rolled my eyes at that comment. That was kind of the point. Vampires have an instinctual fear of fire, mostly due to the fact that their bodies are as flammable as three-week-old dried wood that had been soaked in gasoline. I wanted the leeches afraid of letting their overzealous members go out unattended.

“You said find him, sanction him, and make it look good for the leeches. If you wanted to put some constraints on the job, then you should have laid them down when you gave it to me. It’s not like you haven’t done it with me before. Don’t get pissed off at me if I do a better job than you expected.” At this point, I could see the anger rise in him. A small wave of fear passed over me as I saw his eyes flash with a killing intent. One does not become the Guildmaster without being able to fight and kill with the best of them. The Guildmaster had proven his hunting abilities many times over. I backed down, and sat down with an emotionless mask – my signal that I would behave.

“What you did was endanger the Peace in Hillsborough. Your actions look more like a personal challenge from the lord to the TCV instead of just showing extreme disapproval. That is dangerous. I know you haven’t been paying attention to the pack politics, so let me explain this. Vollen is having a hell of a time keeping the Order of Spirits in line. They keep speaking out against the Peace in front of the pack leaders, and Lord Vollen looks weaker in the packs’ eyes because he can’t make them shut up because that damned Spiritmaster knows how to dance right up to the line of propriety and not cross it. That undermines the lord’s power in this county. If the Inner Council of the TCV decides to retaliate in kind to your little statement, Lord Vollen will have no choice but to escalate this conflict to keep the packs in line. That kind of tit-for-tat escalation can quickly lead to open warfare and the fall of the Peace.” This revelation was something new. Vollen had been in power for about eight years. I knew he’d been losing some support from the packs because of his steadfast support of the Peace while the new factions in the TCV became more hostile. However, the constant and vocal backing from the Hunters Guild ensured that Vollen’s power base was still the largest in the county. The Guild strongly supported Vollen because he saved the Guild from one of its most deadly enemies – his father. The first Lord Vollen thought he could be a Guildmaster as well as a lord, and appointed a weak Guildmaster that implemented the first Lord Vollen’s stupid decisions. There was only emphasis on results, not on the necessary ground work areas of intel gathering and coordination between the hit packs and the lone wolves. When the current Lord Vollen came to power, he appointed the current Guildmaster with the instructions to revitalize the Hillsborough chapter and have it take back its position as one of the most feared chapters in the state of Florida. The idea of open war with the vampires being so close to the surface meant that the power was being forced more over to the Order’s side. While the lord is the supreme leader of the county, there have been numerous times where either the Guildmaster or the Spiritmaster has taken covert control. If one or the other become more powerful than the aristocracy in the eyes of the packs, the lord becomes little more than a figurehead whose decrees are spoon-fed to him. The reason for this is simple; the packs follow the strongest leader, whether or not he is part of the aristocracy. The aristocracy is just better at playing the strongest and undermining their competitors. Of course, their own powers help them a great deal. I’d never dealt with such a situation, but I’d seen it in neighboring counties. It was not a good situation for the packs in those counties.

A sharp knock on the door interrupted us. The Guildmaster’s face drew into an expressionless mask.  He motioned for me to open the door. From under the desk came the mechanical snap of a safety on a gun being released. I took that as a cue, and I drew my pistol and moved to the door. Paranoia was a way of life in the Guild. All hunters remembered the lessons of the New York Gang War when a small faction of hunters betrayed the Guild and its leadership to the witch-hunters. They thought they were going to take control in the aftermath, but instead were also killed by the witch-hunters. Consequently, the leeches wrested control of New York City from the lord forcing the Prince of New York to intervene personally. It was not considered a happy time by the lycanthropes. I opened the door with an easy, fluid motion, but made sure to keep the USP at my side. Standing in the doorway was a shorter, wiry lycanthrope with a cool, detached expression on his narrow face. I recognized him as David Bonner, one of Vollen’s Red Knights, the lord’s personal bodyguards and elite warriors. The Knights were good, but they still weren’t as devious and malicious as hunters. There was an uneasy understanding between the Knights and us. They didn’t try to disarm us every time a hunter came in the lord’s presence, and we didn’t do anything that looked threatening. It generally worked, but for some reason, the Knights didn’t seem to think the agreement covered me. Badmoons were supposed to be untrustworthy, and the Knights went nearly pathological anytime I went near Lord Vollen. It was bad enough when I was just a normal hunter, but their unease intensified when the Guildmaster tapped me to become his personal hitter. Unfortunately for the Knights, Lord Vollen refused their carefully worded “requests” to have me away on jobs when the Guildmaster came to the Manor. The lord treated me as he would any other hunter that was the Guildmaster’s personal hitter. With that, Lord Vollen gained my personal respect, not just the proforma respect I gave to the aristocracy. Bonner stared at me, then at the pistol in my hand. Neither of us trusted the other with the safety of our respective bosses. The Guildmaster ended the standoff as he reset the safety on his weapon. I took the cue and holstered my pistol. I stepped back from the doorway. Bonner strode into the office and swept it with his eyes for threats. It wasn’t a casual sweep either. Relatively satisfied, Bonner took a step to the side. 

Lord Vollen stormed into the office under the watchful eyes of two more Red Knights. Those two I didn’t know, but I easily recognized their expressions. They were not happy that Lord Vollen was in the office – with me. Stephen Strongeye Swordfang, Stephen Klaus Vollen, Lord of Hillsborough County, second of the Vollen line, was an impressive sight. Standing a tad over six feet, he was well built, which showed through the tailor-fit dark charcoal suit. His stern, lantern jaw was softened with the recent addition of a beard of dark brown that matched his neatly trimmed hair. Black eyes smoldered as he regally strode into the office. The rest of the Red Knight escort team entered the room behind him and fanned out along the walls. The Guildmaster stood and bowed his head as our leader stood in front of his desk. I stayed at the door, bowing my head as custom dictated. I raised my head as Vollen’s deep voice filled the room.

“What in the Ancestors’ names are you doing here Erik? I’ve been on the phone with the Inner Council’s lackeys all morning, trying to keep this county from going to war. According to Councilman Silanti’s ghoul, the Bleeders want your hitter’s hide nailed to the outside of the Hall. Where is he?” Vollen demanded. The Guildmaster, clearly taken aback by the lord’s early arrival, silently nodded towards me as I stood ramrod straight. Vollen whirled on his heel and moved towards me. His presence wrapped around me. His eyes bored directly into mine. I’d heard of the lord’s psychic powers granted to him by the Ancestors when he was coronated, but I’d never seen them in action. From the descriptions, the lord could reduce any wolf into a blob of babbling jelly. However, I was not gripped by the overwhelming fear described to me by the others who felt Lord Vollen’s powers. I felt their icy touch in my mind, but was not chilled. Vollen stopped about two feet in front of where I was standing.

“Come forward, Badmoon,” Vollen commanded, using his unique variation of the Wolf’s Growl. Anger rose in me as I slowly walked over to face the Lord of Hillsborough.

“Do you realize the consequences of your actions, you foolish pup?” he asked. Invisible tendrils lashed against my mind. I felt the pressure, but it was like they were pushing through a cushion. I couldn’t explain it; I felt his psychic powers, but they weren’t affecting me. I didn’t feel the fear I should have felt, just anger that Vollen was questioning my actions. After all, he wasn’t a hunter. He had no idea how we were trained. He never performed a job. All he did was order us into action, and then had the audacity to question us when we did what he told us to do.

“I did my job. A job that was given to this Guild by you,” I answered, letting my anger leak out in my voice, “If the fucking leeches don’t like it, they’d better keep better control of their people.” I saw a flash of confusion in Vollen’s eyes. He didn’t understand what was happening either. I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or worse. I felt his psychic presence wash over me again, stronger than before. Again, I felt nothing other than some pressure from its presence. The pressure just stopped. Vollen may not know why he couldn’t affect me, but he was an aristocrat. He knew when to use a different tack.

“You are a fool, Badmoon. The purpose of the mission was not to bring our two races closer to war. It was to show our displeasure with the TCV’s lack of control of its younger members. Instead, we showed them the aristocracy has no more control over our own Hunters Guild than they have over one of their wayward vampires. The whole purpose of the mission was lost. Perhaps you better think that over before shooting off your mouth.” I knew my anger was going to get the better of me if I opened my mouth. I took a mental step back, just like the Guildmaster had been beating into my head for the past several years. I could see the lord’s reasoning, especially with what the Guildmaster told me earlier. Unsure of whether this was another of the lord’s psychic powers or my own logic stepping in, I decided not to continue to press the issue.

“My lord is right,” I responded in a respectful tone, hanging my head down, “I apologize, and assure my lord I will take a more cautious interpretation of my instructions.” The lord’s breathing slowed, and the smoldering in his eyes cooled slightly.

“Your apology is accepted, Badmoon,” Lord Vollen said. His head turned away from me briefly as his eldest son, Jason walked in. Jason looked like a younger version of his father. It was rumored that he shared his father’s temperament as well. In that I took confidence, as Jason was the heir-apparent and would succeed his father to become the next lord.

“Guildmaster, I have another meeting to deal with about this incident, with the Order. Confer with Badmoon, here, and make sure he understands the truth about his actions.” The Guildmaster nodded solemnly at the command. “As for you Badmoon, I don’t expect to hear anything like this from Erik again. I see promise in you, but you need to control these impulses of yours. Remember, as a member of the Guild, your actions reflect on me as well as Erik.” With that statement, Vollen strode out of the office. His Red Knights silently followed him and shut the door, almost all glowering at me. The next few moments were dominated by an overpowering silence. The Guildmaster spoke first.

“How did you do that?” he asked. I turned to face him. His face betrayed an amazement I didn’t understand.

“Do what?” I was confused by his question. Maybe the Guildmaster was surprised I actually submitted. I couldn’t understand why that would be, considering how many lectures I endured from him on the subject. Even I can learn if the lessons are beat into me enough times.

“Resist Vollen’s influence like that. I could feel his powers radiating from where I was sitting, but you didn’t seem to be affected at all.” A look of genuine wonder came on his face.

“I don’t know, although I wish I did,” I said. Maybe there was something to those stories. “Why did he tell you to make me understand?”

The Guildmaster’s face sagged upon returning to grim news, and he sighed slightly. “The winds are changing, Marcus. The Peace has held continuously for over seventy years, ever since the Great Fatherland War. Now, it’s breaking down. Not just in the Disputed Territories. Other places in America where there’s open war between lycanthropes and leeches. It’s been only in the lordships, but everyone is wondering when a state will fall into open warfare. The State Guildmaster warned us he may call all of the Guildmasters back to Tallahassee to give us orders. The ramifications of the Peace falling are tremendous.”

“So we go to war with the vampire. I’ve been hunting them since just after Initiation anyway. What’s the big deal about the Peace falling? Here, I can understand that it could cause the fall of Lord Vollen, since he’s supported the Peace so heavily, and a few of the pack leaders could translate that to his station, but truthfully, where’s the danger to the county and state at large?”

“Because you arrogant young pup, it would be the downfall of the Prince of Florida. He’s too old and passive to convene a war council and establish himself as a strong leader. He has no heir to take his place on a war council, and there are several power hungry lords that would try to take advantage of the situation. He used up all of his political capital with that damned fool mistake with not responding to the Disputed Territories. The fall of the prince could lead to a lycanthrope civil war, in addition to a war with the vampire. All of that conflict could damn well bring in the Pathwalkers, who will make Florida’s supernatural world a desert and call it balance. Next time, just fucking leave the body in an obvious place on leech territory because, if Hillsborough plunges into war, the rest of Florida will probably follow it.”

“What would you like me to do now?” I asked. The Guildmaster turned to face me. He shook his head and sat back down.

“Go back home. If I have a job for you, I’ll call you.” I stood up and left the office. I walked down the staircase back into the lower portion of the building. The secretary was hard at work and did not spare me a look as I left through the front door. I made my way through the oppressive heat and humidity to my car. I smiled as my senses picked up the myriad of smells and sounds of the late morning day. Not quite the way the world opened up when I was in true form, but stronger than what any normal human would perceive. Then I detected a familiar scent as I approached my car. Old rubber? I stopped as I tried to place where I’d smelled that before. My mind made the connection as my car exploded about twenty yards in front of me.

The shock wave picked me up and threw me into the car behind me. Pain flashed as I was slammed back. It quickly subsided as my back healed itself with the speed that my race was endowed. I stood up and looked at the burning wreckage. The smells of the burning car permeated the air. I walked toward the remains of my car as sirens screamed in the distance. They must have been close-by when the explosion erupted. The Guildmaster rushed out of the building as several county sheriff deputies roared into the parking lot. One of the deputies walked over to me as more police and fire vehicles joined on the burning mass. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember from where. It wasn’t important.

“Are you okay?” the deputy asked. I nodded absently as I stared at the twisted wreck of my car. I moved towards what was once my car until the deputy’s hand came down on my shoulder. I was not in the mood to talk to him. I whirled around, about to rip his arm off when the Guildmaster reached me. He explained to the deputy I was a private investigator for him and took over answering the deputy’s questions as I walked over to the explosion site. My first thought was the Bleeders retaliating. A look at the crater formation under the car and the blast effect told me differently. The blast appeared to have been centered somewhere near the gas tank. That was definitely not their MO. I gathered mental notes as I walked around the wreckage, ignoring the stares of the deputies and firefighters alike. After I did a quick circle, I walked back to where the Guildmaster was talking to the deputy. Apparently, the Guildmaster made arrangements because the deputy walked off as the two of us moved off to the side, watching a group of unmarked police vehicles enter the parking lot.

“It wasn’t the Bleeders, boss. The charge wasn’t their handiwork.” He merely nodded his understanding, his face showing he already figured that much out. We walked back to his car, a large black Mercedes. As he stood back, I checked the car for more explosives. There were none. He opened the driver’s side door and got in. I joined him in the front seat.

“Don’t we have to stay for the rest of the police and the medical folks?” I asked as he started the car.

“No. The deputy is kin. He’ll cover for us.” In other words, he was related to a lycanthrope and knew it. Kin were the human family members of lycanthropes. They were our contacts and infiltrators into the normal human society. It was through them we established our “shadow empire.” There would be no disturbances for us from the humans. Our kin would deal with all of the repercussions and lull humanity back away from awakening to the supernatural in its presence. The drive back to my house went silently. The Guildmaster solemnly guided the car through the highway until we turned into my suburb. His first words were as we drove into my driveway.

“Do not talk to anyone but me about what happened.” His eyes flashed with authority.

“You have an idea about who did this?” I asked as I opened the car door and smelled the air. Nothing unusual was detectable.

“Yes and no. Until I can find more out, do not speak about this to anyone, including other hunters. The human authorities will be diverted my way by our kin in their service,” he answered. I got out of the car and was about to go inside.

“What about the media?” I asked, popping my head back in the car. He pondered this for a moment.

“Direct them to the authorities, or to me. Say that you have been ordered not to talk about it. Lay low for a few days.” He put the car in reverse as I shut the door. I watched him back out into the street and drive off. I filed the Guildmaster’s instructions in my mind and went into my house. As I changed out of the suit into more normal clothes, I reviewed my short list of suspects. The Bleeders couldn’t be involved. The explosives weren’t set in their fashion. It also went off in my face, not while I was getting into the car. Bleeders kill hunters, not give them a scare. The TCV was a possibility. One of their more zealous members may have tried to off me, but I doubted that possibility. The TCV didn’t know who I was in the Guild. Definitely not enough to perform that kind of attack. I considered those on the lycanthrope side. The Hunters Guild was off the list for the same reasons as the Bleeders; they didn’t use a bomb to scare their members, they just eliminated hunters that they felt were endangering other hunters’ lives. Plus, if the Guildmaster thought I needed to be put down, he’d do it himself. As for the aristocracy, they were another unlikely suspect. Vollen’s political power requires the backing of the Hunters Guild, and killing one of our numbers, even after the incident I caused, would have angered enough hunters the Guild would withdraw their public support. Plus, the lord himself just dressed me down, which was enough for most of the pack leaders and the Order of Spirits. The Red Knights? They hated me, but they never took that kind of pre-emptive action without Vollen’s approval. I discounted the shaman because simply, a bomb was not their style. They would have made it look like I died of natural causes. I couldn’t think of another faction or individual that I pissed off enough that they would want to kill me. At least recently. Long term grudges? As I wracked my brain, the telephone sang out a specific ringtone. Well now, that was very odd.

“Yeah?” I said into the phone.

“Same place, half hour,” a raspy voice whispered. I hung the phone up as I heard the click from the other end. I checked my watch. It was just after two in the afternoon. Something strange was going on. I grabbed a leather jacket out of the foyer and walked into the garage. Under a dirty black cloth sat my latest toy. Harley- Davidson motorcycles have a formidable reputation, even amongst lycanthropes. So when I received a rather large kill bonus in my paycheck – yes, hunters are paid for their work – I decided to buy one of their Fat Boy cruisers. Wizard, the Guild’s resident techno-specialist, heard my interest and offered to sell me one he’d been working on for a rather attractive price. Never buy a motorcycle from someone whose job was the real world application of advanced technology to espionage and paramilitary matters. The only original Harley-Davidson part on the bike was the massive and loud motor. Everything was replaced with newer materials and electronics, including multi-function display gauge dials, radar and laser detector, automatic transmission, and some sort of improved muffler to tone down that distinctive throaty roar on command. Everything was either wrapped in high-impact polymers or reinforced for combat driving. For all practical purposes, it was a hunter’s dream motorcycle. The down side was that instead of an American classic, it looked like it belonged in a sci-fi movie. Wizard called the machine “Akira.”

I climbed onto the bike and started it up. As the two MFD’s lit up and the engine growled to life, I reached over to the wall and hit the button to open the garage door. A small electric motor whined to life above my head, pulling up the garage door. Pulling up the kickstand, I rolled out of the garage and down my driveway. Putting the motorcycle in gear, I raced out into the street to meet my contact. The Cuban café was nestled in one of the many aging strip malls that grace the sides of Tampa’s streets. Poppa Gus’s was a family-owned operation in business for three generations. It was started by a family of Cuban immigrants, and has been the hunters’ eating-place for the last forty years. We also like using it for clandestine meetings, like this one. I roared my bike into the parking lot and set the kickstand down. I walked to the restaurant, enjoying the heat. It was September, and soon the coolness of the dry season would be coming. I opened the door and walked in, momentarily blinded by the sudden shift of bright light to darkened room. My eyes took a brief moment to adjust to the familiar surroundings.

The matriarch of the family was standing at the greeting podium. Mama Sanchez, as her regulars called her, was an aging Spanish woman, with shoulder-length black hair, streaked with gray. She was a bit heavier than her doctors liked, but she wore the extra weight well. It added to her maternal disposition. Her wrinkles increased as she smiled when I approached the greeting podium. When I got within arm reach, she came out from behind the podium and hugged me ferociously. Mama Sanchez considered most of her regulars like family, which included most of the Hunters Guild. That meant that Mama Sanchez was one of the safest women in Tampa. We are very protective of those we consider our own.

Hola, Mr. Mark,” she greeted in her heavily-accented English, “Mr. Bradon called ahead. We have your table set up.” With that, Mama Sanchez led me through the cramped dining area to a corner table. I ordered a glass of iced tea while I waited for one of Bradon’s flunkies. I knew Bradon wouldn’t be meeting me today. It was almost three o’clock in the afternoon, and Bradon was a vampire.

During the centuries of fighting between lycanthropes and vampires, there have always been informal contacts between the vampire and lycanthrope leaderships. Until the Peace, the aristocracy kept informal channels with their counterparts in the vampire councils. Since the Peace formalized diplomacy, hunters and Bleeders maintained contacts in each other’s organizations. Although not officially approved, these contacts are important for the maintenance of the Peace. After all, who better to work the back channel than the best of spies? I met Bradon during a hit job at a party hosted by the TCV for a visiting Turaki noble.  Ancestors, I hate those little aliens. Bradon made me for a hunter almost immediately, figured out my target, and pointed me in the right direction. He even helped me escape quietly after I bagged my target. I discovered later that my target was his political rival, and using a hunter to take out the rival earned Bradon a lot of respect in the Inner Council of the TCV. Since that night, we’ve been semi-friendly acquaintances and contacts. Mama Sanchez came over to check on me, and brought me another glass of iced tea. I thanked her and leaned back in my chair, sipping the cool drink.

The sound of the door opening caught my attention. I looked towards the entrance. A rather statuesque young woman walked in with that unique high-class sway. Bradon always had a penchant for “recruiting” those from the upper crust of society. Mama Sanchez greeted her. I could have picked out their voices over the low din of the other customers, but I was relaxed and there wasn’t any real reason to eavesdrop. Bradon’s ghoul wasn’t going to tell Mama Sanchez anything. Mama Sanchez led Bradon’s ghoul over to my table with a pleasantly neutral face. To those who knew the matriarch, that faced screamed how much the older woman despised the ghoul. As they came closer, I examined my lunch date. Tall for a woman, almost six feet, with long, tanned legs showing under a short business suit. The cream colored cloth set off her brown eyes. Long blond hair stylishly flowed down onto her back. I stood up as she approached my table, at least pretending to be polite. I shook the offered hand. She introduced herself as Rachael Bradon in a confident alto. We both sat down, cautiously smiling at one another. Mama Sanchez collected our orders. I decided on the chicken and yellow rice, while Ms. Bradon ordered a salad. She took a sip of the glass of water in front of her as I waited for her to start.

“Surprised?” she asked as she sat the water glass back down on the table.

“That Bradon knows something? No. That he contacted me this fast? Yes,” I answered. One of the rules was that Bradon and I always told the truth to each other. I extended that to his minions as a courtesy.

“Philip decided that this meeting was rather time-sensitive,” Rachael said.

“Really? I wouldn’t have thought Bradon was aware of time during the day,” I answered glibly. I’d never met this ghoul before, and the jibe was to see how close she was to Bradon,

“He has his methods,” she replied coolly. Her eyes gave me an evil stare as I took a sip of my tea. Ghouls were always zealously loyal to their masters. Some might compare it to the fanaticism of a witch-hunter. Bradon trained his ghouls to tone down that zealotry so they could operate in our murky part of the unseen world. From the barely contained fury in Rachael’s eyes, she was a newer recruit.

“Okay, what does Bradon have for me today?” I asked, getting down to business.

“We heard you had some ‘car trouble’ today. We know who didn’t do it,” she began. Her head came up as Mama Sanchez brought out our food. We thanked her for her quick service and waited for her to get out of earshot. Mama was used to conversations stopping around her. Dealing with the Guild for pretty much all of her life, Mama Sanchez almost expected covert conversation. Of course, she thought we were all spies to overthrow the Cuban government.

“So what about my ‘car trouble?'” I asked, returning to the business at hand.

“The Bleeders were not involved.”

“Thanks, but I already figured that out. Too amateurish to be a Bleeder hit. And how the hell did you know about it so fast?”

“Did you think any incident with your name isn’t immediately sent to Philip? The minute the report hit the police network, we knew. Not only was it not Bleeders, but it wasn’t the work of any vampire.” Her eyes held a look of what could be called triumph or victory. What the hell did she think she was victorious about?

“Oh really.  How does Bradon know that?” I asked.

“The explosion was a result of a timed thermite charge near your fuel tank. No vampire uses that,” she stated. I smiled at her stern face. Of course no vampire would use it. Thermite is an incendiary explosive that burns at two thousand degrees and can cause certain metals to catch on fire. And vampires are deathly afraid of fire. It’s a natural phobia for creatures that are easily immolated. The slight chance of an accident ensured thermite was almost never used by the leeches.

“How did you know what the bomb was made of?” I asked. She smiled in answer. I knew the truth, of course. Just as the lycanthropes had its kin, the vampires had their ghouls. Ghouls were creatures that drank the black vampire blood. It granted them a mind-meld with their master, along with enhanced strength and healing. Although not as strong as the truly supernatural, their ability to hide in the corners of the human world made the ghouls a force to be dealt with. Some of them were liable to be part of the police force. An explosion would have been important enough to report to the TCV and the Bleeders. I still wondered how Bradon got that information so damned fast. I would have to ask Bradon at our next face-to-face. Assuming he was willing to reveal his tricks.

“Do you have any idea as to who did set that thing off?” I asked, probing my food. She shook her head slightly. We ate in silence for the next twenty minutes. I couldn’t read her expressions, but my mind was racing. She was right. No vampire would use that kind of bomb. What was worse, that type of package was not an amateur job as I had implied. Whoever did set that thing in my car was a professional who made a mistake. Amateurs don’t use thermite.

“Philip also has one other bit of information to give to you,” she said, as we were picking at the last remains of our food.

“Oh, what?” I asked, interested. Bradon was stingy with information, but it was always good information.

“This one is a trade. We need the name of the werewolf that lit the fire in front of the Hall.” I almost started to laugh, but caught myself when I saw her tight-lipped expression. She was serious. This meeting was starting to get very interesting.

“Bradon doesn’t know who did it?” I asked, with barely suppressed amusement. I was worried she could see the smile I was trying hard to hide. If she did, though, she didn’t say anything. It was nice to see my work was being appreciated. Even though both Lord Vollen and the Guildmaster dressed me down for it, I was happy that my statement gathered interest in the vampire community.

“Philip knows it was a hunter, but not which hunter. The TCV is asking him to find out. Your Vollen has been extremely protective of him for some reason.”

“Lord Vollen. Always refer to him as Lord Vollen,” I told her with a dangerously serious tone, “And what if I give you this little bit of data? Do you know what is going to be done?”

“No, but I think the Bleeders want to have a ‘talk’ with him.” I nodded my head at that comment. If the Bleeders wanted me, then they probably accepted Vollen’s explanation of the event. They just wanted some retribution. Of course, the idea of having the Bleeders “talk” with me wasn’t very appealing. I respected their capabilities enough. On the other hand, I was pretty sure Bradon wasn’t going to burn me for last night’s fun and games. I pulled a paper napkin off of the table next to us. I wrote down my name and folded it over. I slid the folded napkin to her. She began to pick it up. I grasped her hand.

“Here’s the deal; you tell me your information. I’ll pay for lunch and walk on out of here. When I am out the door, you can open that and read the name. Take it or leave it.” I stared directly into her eyes. I could see the frustration rise.

“Why don’t you let me read it now?” she asked, angrily. I half-smiled at her. She hadn’t been expecting any trouble on this. Ghouls always seemed to have trouble with the unexpected.

“What does it matter? Call it a condition of the trade. You’ll still get the name of the hunter. Although I doubt that you will want to talk to him.”

“Alright. Deal,” she muttered. I had no doubts she wished she had the strength of her master right now, so she could rip me to shreds. I also had no doubts that if this bitch tried to double cross me in any way, I would rip her to shreds. “Okay here’s the information. Something has the hierarchy of the Order of Spirits in an uproar. None of the lower members or their political supporters know what it is. Philip thinks it has something to do with Vollen, but whatever it is, the shamans have been all over the county looking at old records.” Strange, but I was pretty sure the Guildmaster would better understand it.

I thanked her for lunch and stood up from the table. I looked at the bill. I left a couple of twenties on the table, which covered lunch and a healthy tip for Mama Sanchez. I walked through the door and stopped for a moment as the heat of the afternoon enveloped me. The cool, air-conditioned, environment faded as I walked to my motorcycle. As the engine revved up, I heard the door to the cafe open. Rachael ran out of the cafe, looking intently at me. I smiled and sped out of the parking lot and into the traffic. I had things to do.

I roared into my garage and cut the bike off. Without bothering to put its cover on, I closed the garage door and walked into my townhouse. I picked up the phone as I walked into the kitchen. I dialed the Guildmaster’s phone number. “Carrollwood Business Associates, may I help you?” asked the secretary.

“Mr. Werstand, please, it’s urgent,” I answered gruffly.

“Mr. Werstand is unavailable right now. May I take a message?” she asked pleasantly.

“Where is he?” I asked. He didn’t say anything about going anywhere in case I needed to contact him. But, with the explosion right outside his office, I wondered if the aristocracy or a human agency had called him off.

“He’s in a meeting right now, may I take a message, sir?” she asked again. Her voice became more commanding.

“Patch me through right now,” I ordered, using the Wolf Growl. The Wolf Growl is similar to the vampire’s rhythmic charm voice, but it uses fear instead of pleasantry. Some of our more radical scholars have called it flip sides of the same coin. The shaman almost crucified some of the more vocal proponents of that particular theory.

“Yes sir,” she said quickly as the line clicked up to the Guildmaster’s office. Humans are so malleable sometimes.

“I said I did not want to be disturbed!” yelled a voice into the phone. Oh, he was very pissed.

“Sorry boss, but it’s important,” I said calmly. I could hear him slow his breathing down, trying hard not to scream at me.

“Marcus, I am talking to some very important people right now. Can you call me back later?” he asked, using his I-am-trying-to-be-patient-with-you-asshole voice. It was a tone that I heard often enough.

“Hot tip. Something’s really up with the Order. Something that really has a tick up their ass. Call me back if you want more. Bye.” I hung up the phone. I walked out of the kitchen and into the living room. Lying out on the couch, I picked up the remote control for the television. I flicked through the television channels until I passed out.

Chapter 2: I Always Call Him Nick

Badmoon Rising – Prologue: Why I Hate Camping

For the pups of the pack, this was tysach, the time of learning between the Rites of Discovery and Initiation. Tradition decreed that the pups needed to be secluded from the packs during tysach. It was the time for them to learn our traditions as well as the skills they would need in order to survive in our world in an environment away from the politics of the packs. Tradition also said that the three other lycanthropes and I standing guard should not have be there. Necessity changed that part of the tradition. During this seclusion from the packs, the pups and one of the pack’s elder members of the Order of Spirits, or shaman as they were more commonly known, were to come together to learn how to survive the dangers in our world while camouflaging within the human, and indoctrinate the pups into the ways of the packs through the telling the great stories and legends of the Ancestors. The shaman would use their mystical powers from the Ancestors to create small pictures of the past from the flames of the campfire to help in their teaching. The flames were dying down as one of the shamans was finishing another tale to his pupils.

The black, starless sky domed over the campsite, a clearing in the middle of a mangrove marsh on the north end of Old Tampa Bay. The humidity, so common in Florida, made an already hot summer evening into a sweltering one. Sweat laced my pelt. Drops fell from my brow and muzzle. Senses made acute by the supernatural forces that created my race, smelled the salt in the perspiration, and the texture of the sweat as it rolled between the hairs of my pelt. I shifted my weight from one leg to the other and chided myself for even the silent complaining. The pups and the shaman were much worse with the added heat of the fire.  I glanced behind me, watching the orange flames peek out of the pit. I shook my head and went back to my post. This was a good group of pups. The older ones were helping the newer pups. That was always a good sign. It meant fewer deaths. My eyes scanned the tree line. The enemy could blend itself into the darkness, but the darkness was not so black and concealing to my eyes. I knew how to use the full extent of my abilities to find the enemy and destroy it. The enemy wasn’t there, only the small scrub animals were rustling about in the night. I crept back toward my gear bag several feet behind my post. I was careful to move silently, so as to not disturb the pups and their shaman mentor. As I came up on my gear bag, the murmur of voices from the camp floated toward me. The first voice that became understandable came from one of the pups that came into tysach in the last Rite of Discovery.

“Sir, why do we fight the leeches?” the pup asked the shaman. I glanced back at the camp, watching the old lycanthrope prepare for his answer. A grin appeared on the scarred muzzle, the snow-white whiskers ruffling ever so slightly in anticipation. This was probably the most important story in our known history. The members of the Order of Spirits loved telling it, and for the most part, lycanthropes loved hearing it. The shaman’s clawed hands pushed the loose cloth of his black robes up his thin arms as he mystically urged the fire to rise up out of the pit and accompany his words. The first image to arise out of the flames was a globe, slowly rotating. Before the shaman started, the globe’s rotation slowed over the Fatherland and the image zoomed into the territories.

“The war between the leeches and the packs began hundreds of years ago, in the Fatherland, what the humans call Central Europe. As the packs expanded our territories, the kings of the Fatherland placed control of large swaths of territory under their sons, the princes. The princes, in turn, placed sections of their princedoms into the hands of their sons and sons-in-law, the lords.” The fiery image shifted as the Fatherland split up into the first princeships and further into the first lordships. The maps dissolved into the peaceful images of different packs roaming through the Fatherland and blending in with the humans. The next part of the story began.

“During the times the humans call the middle ages, the lycanthropes flourished under King Joseph Strongclaw. Until humans began to mysteriously disappear. At first the numbers were small, and nothing unusual was noticed. This was the time the Black Death was making its way across the Fatherland, and many humans were dying. The humans quickly realized that this was something new. Humans dying of sickness was understandable. Humans just disappearing into thin air was terrifying. Things began to deteriorate rapidly. Fighting over the remaining humans broke out between lords. Soon the princes were drawn into the fighting. The fighting grew to a civil war between the lycanthropes of the Fatherland. Packs that had been friendly with each other for generations were now attacking and actually killing each other.” The packs in the fire changed from scenes of peace to evil scenes of lycanthropes striking each other down with fangs and claws. The repulsive images of such infighting gratefully melted away as a fiery image of a lycanthrope in true form emerged.

“King Joseph, seeing the packs fall into the chaos, turned to his mystic – as the shamans were called during that time – for help. The mystic prayed to the Ancestors for days. According to the mystic’s writings, a raven came to him. Although the raven still chirped in its normal voice, the mystic could understand him. The black bird told the mystic that all the mystics in the Fatherland must come together at one of the great cravexes, or mystic places, and pray to the Ancestors. ‘During this time, answers will reveal themselves,’ the raven sang to the mystic. This stunned the mystic. He raced to the king and related what the raven told him. Deciding that the Ancestors made themselves known in strange ways, King Joseph commanded that all the mystics in the Fatherland to travel to the Russian city of St. Petersburg, where the largest cravex was located, to convene and pray to the Ancestors.

“The princes were so full of hatred and blood-lust that they convinced themselves that the king was siding with one of the others. In addition to the mystics, each prince sent a group of their warriors to prevent such an alliance. The mystics, contacting each other through their powers, concluded that a bloodbath would ensue at St. Petersburg if the warriors came to the city. To preserve their holy mission, the mystics met secretly at Vrasick, a small village about fifty miles south of St. Petersburg. There the mystics decided that the princes would not listen to any revelations while they were fighting amongst themselves. It was decided then that only the Great Rite would provide the answers. That, my pups, was the founding night of the Order of Spirits.” The shaman paused from his oratory to take a sip of his canteen as the images faded back into the fire. The newer pups seemed disappointed. One of the braver – or more foolish – decided to speak up.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything? We asked about the leeches, not the damned Order!” the pup demanded. Anger flashed in the eyes of the shaman and the fire shot up in a spire some ten feet high. The offending pup crumpled to the ground, his hands clamped to his throat.

“I was not finished fool. Be quiet, lest I seal your throat permanently.” A cough rose from the stricken pup, followed by several gasps for air, signaling that he survived the shaman’s punishment. I remembered one of my “classmates” not being so lucky. Tysach was a brutal time for the pups. It needed to be. The world beyond the relative safety of tysach was even more brutal, and very deadly to an uninitiated lycanthrope. The actions of the shaman were not a petty display of power against an insolent pup, but an important lesson for all of the pups. A lesson the older pups had seen before and hopefully would hammer into the younger ones before one of them died. Do not challenge someone more powerful than you. The fire spire died and a depiction of a forest clearing emerged in the flames. The shaman continued his story, “The Great Rite is a very powerful rite. It summons the First Ancestor, the lycanthrope who led our people out of our forgotten Motherland and into the Fatherland. It is almost never done, because to come into the physical world the spirit of the First Ancestor must consume lycanthrope flesh. It was decided by the newly founded Order that their accompanying warriors would be the sacrifice. A fitting use for their worthless pelts.” The shaman grinned maliciously, the institutional memory remembering the cruel joke of the shaman. Personally, I never found the humor in it. Still, I never understood most of what passes for humor among the shaman.

“The Rite engulfed St. Petersburg in colors only the spirits have words to describe. The First Ancestor came down and laid waste to the cravex, killing most of the lycanthropes inside. Only a few mystics survived to make their way back to the king with the message that the First Ancestor bestowed upon them before destroying everything in sight. ‘Soon, the Blood Moon shall rise. On that night, the lycanthropes must go forth into the human cities and slaughter one third of the populace as offering to me. For this gift of blood and flesh, the answers will come forth. Prepare yourselves, my children. ENEMIES!’” With this ending sentence, the flames in front of the shaman roared into the sky once again. A hole opened in the flames. Wisps of fire danced in and around the hole, and within it, a picture appeared. Not the pictures of flame that had accompanied the telling of the story, but a clear image was fading into the hole. A forest appeared and I saw the wolf.

The wolf reached down and retrieved the sword from the ground. Its previous human owner was face down in a pool of his own blood. The human was foolish, trying to kill a lycanthrope with a steel sword instead of a silver one. Well, the human paid for his foolishness with his life. The wolf grinned inwardly at the memory of the sound of tearing of flesh and escaping air as he ripped this foolish human’s throat out. The wolf balanced the sword in his clawed hand. The red moonlight reflected into the wolf’s eyes. The cold steel sliced through the cool night air smoothly. It was definitely a prize. He remembered one of the older members of his pack teaching him a few sword-fighting techniques. Humans may not have our claws and our fangs, but their minds make such useful replacements, the warrior told the young wolf after the exhausting session. The young wolf’s series of practice thrusts and parries were interrupted by the silent emergence of the twenty lycanthropes that constituted the rest of his pack’s warriors from the forest. His pack leader came to him and laid his hand on the young wolf’s shoulder. He smiled down at the young wolf. The pack leader was proud of the young warrior’s demonstrated skill in tracking and dispatching of the human.

The leader motioned for his warriors to leave the dirt road and creep back into the forest. They were needed at the cravex where the rest of the packs would meet with the lord. As the pack silently moved through the underbrush, the leader quickly reflected on the young wolf’s fight with the human. The wolf showed the instincts of a proven warrior during that fight. Instincts like that were too good to be wasted on the traditional position of young wolves in the pack. The young wolf, the leader decided, would take the lead position. Some of the older wolves in the pack would object, but they were not going to do anything more than grumble. More than one learned the hard way what happens to those who disobeyed the orders of the pack leader. The war brought on such harsh measures. As the pack entered the cravex, a rise above the largest human village in the lordship, the leader pulled the young wolf aside and told him of his decision. The young wolf’s eyes lit up with pride and glee. Only the solemn attitude of the cravex prevented the wolf from howling with joy into the night. He joined the rest of the pack in their portion of the cravex, called their entre, while the pack leader met with the lord and the other pack leaders.

As the other pack members swapped war stories and small talismans, the young wolf glanced back to where the lord and the pack leaders were meeting in the center of the cravex. The lord’s mystic created a small replica of the village out of the flames of the fire. The lord was telling his pack leaders how each pack was to go through the village. Unfortunately, the young wolf was too far away to hear anything than a low murmur from the meeting. Slightly disappointed, the wolf turned his head back to his packmates and listened to the oldest warrior talking about a battle with the packs of one of the northern lords.

The pack leader rejoined his pack warriors in the entre and told them that they were going to be the first group to attack the village. The pack would attack by going north through the forest that lay next to the main road. When the forest stopped, the pack would then launch a fast and savage attack on the village. The other packs would be hitting the village soon after from other directions.  The pack leader gave each warrior a position and reminded them of the responsibility that the position entailed. He confirmed what he had told the young wolf earlier by naming him to the point position. As expected, a few heads turned a that announcement, but their faces fell back to neutrality and fell back into line as the leader glared at each of them.

The pack warriors stood up as one and turned to face their lord who had taken his traditional place in the center of the cravex. Instead of the expected rousing speech, the lord simply told his packs, “The First Ancestor has given us a mission, a crusade as the humans would call it. We will do it. Kill every third human you see and any that dare get in our way. No mercy.” With that, the lord drew his ancient silver sword from the scabbard at his side, the odd Roman lettering etched into the blade glittering in the red moonlight. He pointed towards the village. The warriors in the cravex melted silently into the tree line with their lord’s silent command.

The pack moved silently through the forest, staying near the edges of the dirt road. After about an hour of careful movement the pack approached the dark town. The young wolf smelled the dank and musty odors of the village long before he saw the first few buildings on the horizon. He signaled the pack that the village was in sight.  The pack slowed and then stopped as the forest died away, a few hundred feet short of the village. The pack leader wanted to make sure there were no surprises waiting for them, so he moved up next to the young wolf. Although only a few torches were outside of the wood buildings, the two wolves’ eyes easily picked out the few humans that were walking about in the night. Some of them were gazing up at the red Blood Moon in amazement and fear. The young wolf grinned at his pack leader. A low growling signal from his pack leader launched the young wolf into a racing attack. Speeding on his hind legs, the young wolf closed the distance in a matter of seconds.

The first to fall to the young wolf’s blazing attack was a young female. Her heart was split open when the wolf thrust his sword through her chest. The blood gushed out of the human’s chest and onto the wolf’s arms. A group of five men saw the attack from across the dirt street and attacked the wolf with pitchforks as the body of the young woman slid off of his blade and crumpled to the ground. The wolf launched himself into the air. One of the village men was decapitated as the wolf landed amidst the group. Another, recovering quickly from shock at the wolf’s speed, charged  with his pitchfork. The wolf sidestepped the attack and grabbed the man’s throat with his claws. A quick yank tore through the man. The wolf heard the man fall into the soft dirt behind him. He threw the flesh and gore that had been the human’s throat down with slight disgust. The sound of gurgling came from behind him. The wolf whirled to face the other three to find them cut down by the pack leader and another member of his pack. A short bark from his leader reminded the young wolf of his mission. The pack leader shook his head slightly at the wolf in anger. The young wolf made his first mistake of the mission, and the pack leader hoped it would be his last.

The pack continued up the dirt street. They mercilessly raided the houses and shops that stood alongside it. Screams of fear and pain from the humans became commonplace, as did the red blood on the claws, fangs, and scattered weapons of the wolves. The few humans who attempted to resist the pack’s carnage were immediately slaughtered. At the north end of the village, the pack came upon a small house that almost stood by itself, away from the other buildings. No light came from inside, making the whole house darker. The smell of death and blood drifted out to where the pack gathered in front. The wolf read his leader’s expression. They were the only lycanthropes in this part of the village. Why were these smells coming from this house? The leader ordered his pack to stay in front of the house while he investigated. A few of the pack looked as they were going to object, but the leader’s scowl made them reconsider. The pack leader leapt over the log fence that surrounded the house and quickly moved up to the front of the house, using the darkness and shadows to cover his movement from anyone inside the house.

With a swift kick, the leader broke down the door and entered the darkened house as the pack watched. The pack members were already using the time to rest from their night of killing. A short moment later, the pack leader’s piercing howl of pain startled the pack. The young wolf was the first to respond. He jumped over the log fence and made a direct run for the doorway of the house. Leaping through the darkened doorway, the young wolf’s eyes turned the darkness into visibility. What he saw stopped him dead in his tracks. The pack leader was on the floor in a crumpled heap, a bloody stump where his right arm should have been. Lying next to him were two broken human bodies. Standing above them were two creatures the likes of which the young wolf had never seen before.

Both of the creatures were well above seven feet high, fully covered in matty, brown fur. Both had flat faces, accented with mouths full of sharp teeth and particularly long fangs. The hands and feet looked human, except for the sharp claws ending each digit. Under each arm was a flap of what looked like the leather. They smelled musky, like a rat or a mouse, but mixed with the familiar scent of blood. As the wolf stared in shock at these two monstrosities, the larger one leapt at him. Awakening to the attack, the wolf jumped to the side. He swung his sword as the brown-black thing flew past him. The wolf was ecstatic as he felt the sword bite into the creature’s side and slice through it. He landed a few yards away and turned toward the howling creature. The wolf’s eyes went wide as the deep gash made by the sword sealed itself quickly.

Ancestors, these creatures could heal themselves like lycanthropes! the young wolf thought. The creature again took advantage of the wolf’s surprise to launch another attack. This time the young wolf wasn’t fast enough to protect himself from the attack. The wolf’s body flashed in pain as the creature’s clawed fist picked him up off the floor and threw him against the far wall. As the wolf slowly picked himself up from the floor, he felt the hot, sticky flow of blood spread across his chest. He waited momentarily allowing his body to quickly recuperate from the attack, like the wolf’s pack members had taught him. Although his back healed at the supernatural rate with which he was accustomed, the gashes on his chest stayed open, releasing more of the wolf’s blood onto his body and the wood floor. His head began to swim slightly as the creature charged him yet again. The wolf barely managed to throw up his arm to defend himself from the vicious blow. He howled as his arm cracked under the strike and the claws bit deep into his flesh.

The intense pain of the strike cleared the haze from the young wolf’s head and threw him back into the fight. Finding a reserve of strength, the wolf attacked. His uninjured arm shot out into the creature’s stomach. His claws pierced the skin and sunk deep into the creature’s innards. Satisfied that they were going as deep as possible, the wolf yanked his arm upward, slicing open large sections of the creature’s front. The creature stumbled back, grasping its stomach, trying desperately to keep its entrails inside of it, and howling in pain. Thick, black fluid oozed between its fingers. It seemed an eternity before the creature gave a final cry and slumped to the floor. Black fluid leaked from the body out onto the floor. The wolf rose to his feet, the wounds on his chest punishing him for every inch that he moved. He began to slowly stagger toward the other creature. Smiling at the young wolf, it turned away from him and ran for the window. The wolf stood transfixed as it transformed into a bat and smashed through the glass.

A shot of pain from his chest awoke him from his shock. The wolf stumbled over to his pack leader. The older lycanthrope was dead. The creatures not only cut off his arm, but they also removed his heart. Silently mourning, the wolf grabbed the leader’s remaining arm and dragged his body outside, ignoring his own pain. There he saw his pack engaged in a fight with several more of the bizarre creatures. Anger made the pain of his wounds and grief over his pack leader’s death melt away. He gripped at his side. The sword wasn’t there, having been knocked away from him during the fight with the strange creature. The wolf bent down and grabbed the leader’s silver dagger, given to the leader by the King himself. Armed now, he turned and joined his packmates in the fray.

The picture suddenly vanished and the flames died down. The shaman began his oratory again, finishing the story.

“Encounters like what you have seen happened all over the Fatherland. From what we have learned since, the leeches saw the Blood Moon and smelled the blood of the slaughtered humans. They followed their hunger for the blood into the villages and towns where the lycanthrope packs were carrying out their sacred mission. The two races clashed for the first time.  As it turned out, the Blood Moon fulfilled its name. Many lycanthropes and vampires died during that first night. Many packs were completely destroyed by the leeches. However, the fight and the shock of a new enemy in their midst united the princes and lords behind their king. From the ensuing wars between our two races, we learned the leeches’ true nature as supernatural creatures – and their weaknesses. With that knowledge, we learned to kill the vampires. We even created a special group of lycanthropes that specialize in the extermination of the vampires. You may have heard of the hunters from your packs already. Our guards here at this campsite are hunters. These are highly trained vampire-killers, much as my brethren and I in the Order are skilled in the use of the magicks.”

I turned back toward my post as the shaman continued. His mention of the hunters reminded me of my job. I cursed at myself for lapsing, even for a moment. To hunters, when a job is given, it becomes the most important part of our lives. We live – and die – to complete the jobs that the aristocracy hands down to us. The top cardinal sin of the hunters is to fail the job, especially because of carelessness or incompetence. I quickly looked around, relieved because there were no leeches around, and more so, because none of the other hunters around the marsh noticed my lapse.

In the structure of lycanthrope society, the hunters belong to the Hunters Guild. In the Kingdom of the United States, the Guild has chapters at the national, state, and county levels. Like the Order of Spirits, we are outside the packs, sworn to the aristocracy. The Guild takes pups from all over the nation that have shown promise during tysach and sends them to a preliminary training camp. Those who don’t die during the preliminary training are then taken for extensive training in a secluded camp. Not even the King of the United States knows where it is, although past kings have tried to find out. The end result of it is a lean mass of lycanthrope that is dedicated to the eradication of the vampire.

Which was why the other hunters and I were in the swamp. The vampires in Florida recently began trying to take out our pups in tysach. Of course, the vampire councils blamed the attacks on rogue vampires coming up out of the open war between the vampires and the lycanthropes that in the Disputed Territories in southern Florida. Neither side wanted that to spread across the state, and there was never enough evidence to point to one of the councils. Still, since the lycanthropes were currently the dominant power in the state, Guild intelligence believed the vampires wanted to change the equation in their normal slow and long-term style. So, the Hunters Guild decided to provide protection for the pups in tysach. A job, as the missions are called in-house, we were more than happy to fulfill. Pups are one of the most sacred parts of our society, and we take any threats to them with the deadly seriousness that any mother would have for her child.  This explained what I was doing in the middle of a lost campground, armed with a stubby Colt Commando carbine, and, strangely for me, hoping to avoid combat tonight. I didn’t think these pups would know what to do if an attack came, and hunters do not trust the magicks of the shaman. Okay, that was an institutional bias due to the political infighting between the shaman and the hunters. I knew that it had no actual grounds. Especially considering the number of times that the Order and the Guild cooperated to deal with various threats that the vampire and others brought to the packs. That didn’t stop me from feeling wary of the old shaman’s powers.

As I returned to my original position, I noticed a small flock of birds settle into a nearby tree. My instincts roared warnings. Something was wrong with this flock.  I could feel it, almost taste it. The wind blew across my face. Now, I was sure. I put the butt of the carbine to my shoulder, flipping the selector switch from SAFE to AUTO. I was going to have to hose the entire tree, which wasn’t going to be easy with only a thirty-round magazines. However, luck was in my favor. The leeches hiding in the treemust have no longer felt safe in the tree, because they launched themselves at me, shedding their bat form for true form.

The campsite exploded in sound as I emptied the magazine of my Commando into the lead vampire. Thirty silver bullets slammed into the vampire’s head and torso. It looked like the leech stopped in midair as the impact of the burst forced it backward. The body made a soft thump into the mud below as it fell from the air. Its two companions landed in front of me about thirty feet away. Both stood in true form, a strange mix of bat and human. I didn’t feel I had time to switch magazines in the Commando, so I dropped it and opted for my Glock 17.

One of the damned things decided not to let me get my pistol. The leech launched at me with surprising speed. It tackled me just as I got my pistol out of its holster, crossing the distance between us in a second. I heard my Glock land in the mud as my attacker and I sailed through the air. The soft, muddy ground cushioned me slightly as the vampire plowed me into the ground. My attacker kneeled above me, his white claws gleaming in the moonlight. This action told me a good deal about my attacker. First, it wasn’t a Bleeder – the vampire counterpart to Hunters Guild. They have an older, more Gothic name, but only a handful of the modern Bleeders remember it. They did keep some of the traditions from the original Bleeders, one of which was painting their claws a matte black or blue color. So now I knew that my opponent, whose claws were unpainted, was probably some lowlife vampire trying to make a good impression with the Tampa Council. Second, the way its claws glinted in the moonlight telegraphed its next attack. Hunters are extremely proficient in the lycanthropes’ variation of akijitsu for just this sort of occasion when our normal weapons of choice – guns and knives – were unavailable. I waited as the vampire thrust its claws at me. I grasped its arm at the last second, and forced it into the ground next to me. While it was momentarily off balance, I shot my other arm up into its throat. I was rewarded with a scream as it tried to jump back to avoid my counterstrike. Unfortunately for the leech, I still held its arm firmly in the ground – and I was much stronger in my true form than it was. There was a sickening, popping noise as its shoulder dislocated. The leech fell to the ground as I rolled away. I scrambled to my feet and faced the leech. As it tried to get up, I attacked savagely. Both of my arms reached out and cut out the front of its neck. The black fluid that had once been human blood coated my claws.

I felt claws rip into my back. I somersaulted forward, silently berating myself for forgetting the other leech. That and not wearing my Kevlar vest because it was going to be too hot. Sometimes I’m a fucking idiot. My back burned as the salt-laden marsh mud ground into the open wounds. I tried to face it, but this leech was smart enough to press the attack. A blow to my left side forced me back into the mud. I felt my right arm crack as I landed on my side. Unlike the claw cuts on my back, the broken arm reset itself and healed right away with the supernatural speed I was accustomed to. Then, the leech did something foolish.

Instead of continuing to press the attack, it stood to its full height and cackled. I almost smiled. Fucking amateurs. I straightened my right arm out along the ground. In one fluid motion, my left hand reached to my right shoulder and flung the small silver throwing knife into the leech’s chest. It howled as I scampered up to my feet. My right hand hit something as I stood up. My Glock. I greedily snatched the pistol off the ground and leveled the muzzle at the vampire, who was too preoccupied with removing the knife protruding from its chest too notice. I half-grinned at the leech’s pain. Silver wounds burn like hell; I know from experience. I also know from experience not to lose track of what your opponent is doing, such as when this bastard caught me off guard. Oh well, its mistake. I squeezed the trigger and the pistol roared five times. The leech crumpled to the ground.

By this time, the other hunters, the shaman, and the pups came into the area. To me, the battle felt like it lasted for a half-hour. Really, it lasted only about forty-five seconds. As the other hunters sorted out the scene, one of them inspected my wounds for a moment, and then pulled out his medicinal pack. He treated my back with an herbal mixture that enhanced the healing of archanal wounds, or supernatural wounds that can’t be healed as fast as normal ones. I tried to calm down, ejecting the magazine out of my pistol and inserting a fresh one.

“Jeez Ranger, when you get sliced up, you don’t fuck around!” he said. I turned to face him, remembering at the last second that he was still green. He joined the Guild only a few months ago.

“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on, Christian,” I murmured as I gritted back the burning pain of the herbal cleansing solution. Wolfsbane was good for a lot of things, but it burned with an intensity that I was almost willing to risk infection instead of treating my wounds with it. Trying to block out the pain, I looked out at the recent battlefield. The pups were probing the bodies of the three vampires.

“Bleeders come to take our young!” declared the shaman dramatically. The other hunters and I rolled our eyes at that comment. Shamans were always trying to rouse the packs against the vampire, even when there were no packs to rouse. The Order of Spirits hated the Peace since its inception. They claim because the Peace reeks of apostasy against the Ancestors. A lot of lycanthropes suspect the Order opposes it for more political reasons. When the Peace came into effect, the Hunters Guild was elevated from just above common pack warriors to the equal of the Order. After all, if your warriors can’t openly fight the leeches, then the assassins and spies that do it quietly become more valuable. Because of this, over the years, the Hunters Guild has become more politically involved. Many Guildmasters have skillfully manipulated themselves into becoming the power behind the throne. Positions that the Order of Spirits previously dominated.

“Not Bleeders. Just some amateur leeches. The TCV probably ‘suggested’ that they should see if they could find some young pelts to prove themselves.” I needed to make this point clear in front of the pups. They may be secluded during tysach, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some messages back to the packs. If the Bleeders were responsible for the attack on the pups, the packs would consider it a personal challenge to my Guildmaster from the leader of the Bleeders. The Bleeders knew hunters guarded the pups and to try us on our most sacred job was such an insult that retaliation would have to be swift, violent, and very well ending whatever support for the Peace the Guild held.

“Are you sure?” asked the shaman, “After all, they did attack us in a place we that is secret.” His eyes held mine as the contest waged. I hated this political infighting, but I was damned if I was going to lose to a fucking shaman. I walked over to the leech bodies, still holding his gaze. Grasping the nearest’s wrists, I raised the hands so that the white claws gleamed in the moonlight.

“Bleeders paint their claws so they don’t reflect light. Besides, Bleeders are smart enough not to land upwind of a hunter. Furthermore, if this spot was totally secure, me and the others would not be here doing guard work. I know. This is my job.” I raised my voice during the last sentence, challenging the shaman to continue. I noticed the other hunters and the pups backing up. Hunters are the best fighters around. Shaman, however, can manipulate the mystic forces of the Ancestors. Fights between members of the Hunters Guild and the Order of Spirits are always nasty. Most of the time, it was whoever struck first. This shaman decided not to take up the gauntlet. He quietly motioned for his pupils to return to the fire. He shot an evil glare over his shoulder. I embarrassed him slightly in front of the pups. Lycanthropes followed the leader we perceived as the strongest, and he knew that some of the pups might begin to wonder who was stronger, him or me?

“Ranger, would you not pick a fight with the shaman we gotta guard for the rest of the night?” asked one of the other hunters. The others murmured their agreement. I could see by their expressions where I stood. After all, I was not a member of this hit pack. I came up from the lone wolves. The quiet rivalry between our factions in the Guild chilled the air. The only reason I was here was to replace the last member who came down with a severe case of silver poisoning. He took a full burst during a skirmish with some vamps. The others were not all that comfortable with having me with them on what they considered their most important job. I backed down and returned to my post, picking up my carbine along the way. As I changed its magazine and cleaned it up a little, I had a feeling it was going to be a long night.

Chapter One: Pay Attention, There’s a Lot Of Stuff You Need to Know