Ten miles north of Redencion, Panama, 3 February 2011, 1600 hours local: Countdown: 10 months, 28 days

Eric Stahl froze as he felt the vampire’s eyes on him. He couldn’t see the creature in the dense mountain forest. The creatures were already evolved enough to be scary effective predators in this environment. His little hodge-podge of a team was already down a sorcerer and a Truth soldier learning that particular lesson. Stahl patiently looked around with the bare minimum of movement. At least one of the monsters, probably more like two. They showed a habit of hunting in pairs or teams of four. Time to put Tredegar’s hypothesis to the test.

"Sandoval, I want you to run past me. As soon as you see movement, hit the dirt," Stahl whispered to the man a few yards behind him. The nice thing about having religious zealots on the team was you didn’t have to do a lot of convincing for them to do suicidal things. All in the service of their god. And people wondered why Stahl had been an atheist. Sandoval sprinted from his position. The kid would’ve made a pretty decent track athlete. Two dark blurs launched out of the trees. Stahl pointed more than aimed his carbine at one of the blurs and squeezed the trigger. The relative quiet of the forest was shattered as nearly a dozen guns fired at the targets. The two blurs materialized on the ground. The creatures were seven feet tall and covered with matty, brown fur. They were slim with a wiry build. Their faces had a passing resemblance to human, if you could get past the bloated features, red eyes, and large fangs protruding from an almost comical overbite. The two creatures were bleeding black fluid from dozens of holes on their pelts. They looked surprised that humans managed to hit them.

"Jane, now would be a good time," Stahl said as he quickly replaced the spent magazine in his M4. These things were getting tougher by the hour. The sorceress stepped to the side. With intricate hand movements and words in a long-dead language, a brilliant white bolt of lightning lanced out and struck the left monster. Its shriek of pain was drowned out by the booming thunderclap. The other monster was moving. Stahl had barely a moment before the long arm slammed him with the force of a small car. Stahl was thrown several yards before crashing into a tree. He felt his breath whoosh out of him as he collapsed to the ground.

The Steve was already crouched next to him with McLintock covering the pair. Evans, the leader of the Truth’s soldiers, was issuing orders to the shooters. The light pops of M4’s and F2000’s were mixed with the louder booms of the cowboy’s big lever action. Stahl watched as the monster leapt at the Slim. The tall Brit blocked a blow with his rifle, but the force was enough to knock Slim off of his feet. The monster went after Montgomery next. Stahl knew the fight was over in that instant. As soon as the monster inched towards Montgomery, a brilliant streak of white erupted from next to her. Stahl hadn’t believed that the dog was actually a physical manifestation of the Native American totem of Wolf. That changed once he saw the wolf glow a brilliant white and tear apart a monster with all the effort of a puppy with a newspaper. The spirit wolf and the monster blurred as their fight moved faster than the human eye could track. Screams and howls filled the area and then silence. Billy stood atop the torn carcass of the monster, his muzzle and front claws covered in black ichor. Billy leapt off the monster’s corpse an instant before it was consumed in a brilliant flash of flame and heat. The only traces of the two monsters were the two blackened scorch marks on the ground.

"You should be fine once the Happy Juice hits," The Steve said, looking down at his PDA. "You were lucky Chief. No broken ribs or a concussion." Stahl nodded absently as he let The Steve and McLintock help him off the ground.

"Tredegar, about how much time do we have before more come to investigate this?" Stahl asked the FBI agent.

"Maybe ten minutes," Tredegar answered.

"Ambush them like last time?" Evans asked. Stahl nodded. Three teams spread out along a ninety degree arc. Each team had a soldier and a sorcerer along with three from the Zombie Strike team. Stahl’s team consisted of the sorceress Jane, Sandoval, Montgomery, and Billy. They were at the center of the arc. It was their job to initiate the ambush. They would also probably take the brunt of any counter attack. Stahl crouched behind a thick conifer tree. He kept his M4 pointed in the most likely direction the other vampires of this hunting pack would approach. Sandoval crouched next to him. The young Truth merc wasn’t much older than Montgomery, maybe nineteen or twenty. He was solid, and pretty handy with that F2000. He kept the Belgian bullpup pointed in roughly the same area as Stahl’s carbine. A tree over to Stahl’s right, Montgomery lay prone with her suppressed SCAR on a bipod. Billy was lying down between her legs, ready to pounce on the first thing that came near her. Behind the three shooters, Jane was hidden. The three sorcerers were easily the most powerful offensive weapons on the team, but also the slowest to employ. The team learned that lesson when a vampire ripped the sorcerer Wallace apart in their first encounter after leaving the small village. That battle left Stahl in charge of the team. His first order was for the sorcerers to stay back until the shooters slowed the monsters down with weapons fire.

Two shapes emerged from the trees. Stahl wished in vain that the sorcerers could have raised some of those nifty shields. No joy as he’d learned. Those required an artifact, as the Truth called them. An object imbued with a deity’s power at some point. The Truth only brought two artifacts with them to Panama. One had been destroyed in the brief firefight between the Truth and Zombie Strike. The other was in Giant’s possession, and he was still back in Redencion with Cortez in accordance with the truce. Stahl pushed those thoughts away as he focused on the two vampires. They paused just at the edge of the ambush, maybe fifty yards from Stahl’s tree. Their heads jerked around, searching for something. The caution was something new. In the past battles, the vampires charged right to where their comrades fell. What new capability were the monsters evolving? Better to attack now before they sniffed out the ambush.

Billy leapt from Montgomery’s position and charged towards Jane. Montgomery rolled and opened fire as two more of the vampires appeared from behind. She placed a dozen bullets into the lead vampire. It ignored the holes the sharpshooter was drilling into it and sped down on her. Then, the lead vampire collided with Billy. That was that, as they say. Jane screamed in terror as the other monster attacked her. The scream was cut off abruptly. The sorceress’s body slumped to the ground. Stahl twisted and fired his M4 at the monster. It looked shocked as three streams of gunfire struck it. Surprise could work both ways. Then Jane’s death knell hit.

A bolt of black-purple light erupted from the ground and incinerated the vampire. When one of Xipe Totec’s sorcerers died at an enemy’s hands, their god called them back to him violently. In some ways, it was the ultimate booby-trap. Jane’s soul streaked up, and then swept through the other two vampires. They were immediately incinerated. Her final work done, Jane’s soul shot up into the sky and vanished. Stahl rose from his crouch and walked over to where Jane died. Just like Wallace, there was no body. Just some ash. Evans cursed as he walked up next to Stahl. From what Stahl gathered, the soldiers were supposed to guard the sorcerers. Now they’d lost two of them in less than four hours.

"Tanesh, will we have the same protection as we did when Wallace bought it?" Stahl asked one of the remaining sorcerers. The sorcerer nodded in stunned silence. "Okay, that gives us maybe a half-hour to rest and reload. McLintock, you and Sandoval are on ammo detail. Try and spread out what we’ve got left. The rest of you check your gear and get some food and water. Evans, you’re with me." The two men walked off to the side of the group.

"With these four, there’s maybe another thirty or so vampires left," Stahl said quietly.

"At the cost of three dead, everyone else walking wounded, and probably about half of our ammo shot up," Evans said, "At least Sport’s got all of his grenades left. I’ve got a feeling that may be our ace in the hole."

"Not Tanesh and Harold?" Stahl asked, surprised.

"Oh, those two could rain down torment and death on the Little Death. If they have enough time to call for the Flayed One’s blessings. All Sport has to do is squeeze the trigger to send down all sorts of nasty things." Stahl nodded in agreement. He reached under his armor and pulled out the little amulet Father Rodriguez gave him. He held it out at arms’ length, trying to discern what the magic item was telling him.

"I think the next pack is that way," Stahl said pointing north.

"You’d think that amulet would be more definitive," Evans mused.

"I think it works better if a believer is using it," Stahl conceded, "I don’t know why the priest insisted I was the one who needed to carry it."

"You’re not a Christian?" Evans asked in surprise

"Nope. I was an atheist until I started up with the Army’s anti-zombie task force," Stahl answered, "Kind of hard to keep being one when confronted with deific power being thrown about all the time. Extraordinary evidence and all that. God and me still aren’t on speaking terms though. And don’t think about trying to convert me to your cult either."

"I’d love to you, but I know you too well. I’m not going to insult you by trying. I’m still hopeful you’ll see the Truth and join us though." Evans said. Stahl gave the soldier a sidelong glance. Evans was sincere. Sometimes there were honorable enemies.

"Well, we aren’t going to be able to ambush them again," Evan said, breaking the silence between the two men. "They sniffed us out and counter ambushed us."

"We made the mistake of trying to pull the same trick twice," Stahl said. "We’re going to have to assume each vampire knows how we killed all of the others, and figured out to counter the tactics we’ve used so far. We’ve got to outpace their learning if we’re going to kill them all and survive."

"Makes sense," Evans agreed. He paused for a moment, thinking. "I’ve got an idea." A predatory grin spread across Stahl’s face as the soldier laid out his plan.

Zombie Strike Part 7 Chapter 71