Friday Quote – Shackleton

Inveniam vaim aut faciam” – I shall find a way or make one.

My brother first came across this phrase when reading about Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic. Mr. Shackleton had this phrase carved into the wall near his hospital bed. According to the linked Wikipedia article, it’s been used by many others as a motto, which is how I use it. We are surrounded by people who will live in their little cocoons and never try to find a way to better themselves or in how they work. I’m a big believer in system improvement. What can I do to make my products easier to produce, better than others, etc.?

In terms of writing, that means I no longer have to just go the traditional route with the big publishing firms. There are new models, or I can make my own model. I shall find a way or make one.

Homeopathy – Magic Water, Magic Sugar

Most skeptics have a few real push-button issues. The ones whose practice absolutely infuriate us. For me, I have three: homeopathy, the anti-vaccine movement, and the 9/11 “Truthers”. Homeopathy and the anti-vax movement because I can see the body counts from them. The “Truthers” because their assertions degrade the heroism of the people involved and obscure the real lessons from the horrific day. I’ll discuss each of these at length in different blog posts. In this one, I’ll tackle homeopathy.

Many of the prominent science and skeptical blogs have done excellent takedowns of homeopathy. One that I like is Dr. Stephen Barrett’s in his Quackwatch blog. I would highly suggest reading his article. Here’s what I don’t think most people understand when it comes to homeopathy.  Borrowing from Dr. Barrett:

Homeopathic products are made from minerals, botanical substances, and several other sources. If the original substance is soluble, one part is diluted with either nine or ninety-nine parts of distilled water and/or alcohol and shaken vigorously (succussed); if insoluble, it is finely ground and pulverized in similar proportions with powdered lactose (milk sugar). One part of the diluted medicine is then further diluted, and the process is repeated until the desired concentration is reached. Dilutions of 1 to 10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (1X = 1/10, 3X = 1/1,000, 6X = 1/1,000,000). Similarly, dilutions of 1 to 100 are designated by the Roman numeral C (1C = 1/100, 3C = 1/1,000,000, and so on). Most remedies today range from 6X to 30X, but products of 30C or more are marketed.


A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times. Assuming that a cubic centimeter of water contains 15 drops, this number is greater than the number of drops of water that would fill a container more than 50 times the size of the Earth. Imagine placing a drop of red dye into such a container so that it disperses evenly. Homeopathy’s “law of infinitesimals” is the equivalent of saying that any drop of water subsequently removed from that container will possess an essence of redness. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., a prominent physicist who is executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth. Continue reading “Homeopathy – Magic Water, Magic Sugar”

Signs my nephew may become an evil overlord

Since my nephew and niece were born, their parents and my group of friends have joked that one will become an evil overlord while the other will be the savior of humanity. This is probably due to the immense amount of fantasy we all read, but sometimes possible hints slip out. Or it could be because he’s almost seven.

Scene: Nephew and I are returning from a scout activity

Me: Let us go forth…..

Nephew: To a date with death!

It’s one of those times I’m not sure whether to be proud, terrified, or both.

Medicating with lead and gunpowder

I took today off because I was expecting to see my favorite band, Sabaton, down at the Brass Mug. Then I received an email informing me the concert was cancelled. There were entry visa problems with the new band members.

So, I decided since I have the day off to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a bit. Pull out my shotgun and take it down to the range for some practice. It’s the first time I’d played with my Mossberg since I installed the Blackhawk collapsible stock.

So I first tried it at seven yards with six shells of 2 ¾” buck.

That’s with me aiming roughly at the stomach area. Then I tried again with my last three shells at 15 yards.

I was aiming too high and got yelled at by the range master. I really need to take a shotgun class. On the bright side, if I’m shooting with the shotgun, it’ll most likely be in my house. Everything’s within 7 yards in my house.

Then I went on to my Diamondback DB9. The first time I fired this pistol, it jammed damn near every time. I even had a couple of times with a live round being “stove-piped.”

That was with Winchester white box and Magtech 115-grain JHP. The second time I took it out, I switched to Remington UMC and Hornady Critical Defense. The little pistol ate both loads up nicely. So today I figured I’d see what I could actually do with this pistol.

First attempt was at 3 yards with Remington UMC.

Not a bad group, but I was shooting a bit low. Then I tried at seven and fifteen yards.

I so need to take a class or two.


Welcome to the world of Derek Ward. This is where I let my imagination and my opinions run wild.

I am a writer of fiction. Urban fantasy, science-fiction, or whatever just happens to strike my fancy. Some of you may have come here because of my work on Zombie Strike with Kenn Blanchard.

Here is where you will find chapters of my novel Badmoon Rising. It’s best to start at the beginning. Other denizens of my imagination will also crop up on occasion.

I am also a bit opinionated. For the low, low cost of nothing, you will also get to see my opinions on current events, guns, science, skepticism, atheism, and whatever else I think is cool. Feel free to leave comments. Usual rules of civility apply. Trolls will be hunted down, destroyed, their heads put on pikes, and their skins used to make my war drums. Or I’ll just block you. Whatever I’m in the mood to do.

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