Fifteen miles north of Redencion, Panama, 3 February 2011, 1915 hours local: Countdown: 10 months, 28 day

Eric Stahl slid through the darkened forest. For the first time in a long time, he felt alive. He barely kept himself from grinning as he crept through the trees. The vampires were good. They might have even detected him if they weren’t busy escorting the prisoners. Apparently, entranced humans tended to make a lot of noise tromping through the forest. More than enough noise to hide Stahl. At his heart, Stahl was a true LRRP. He might have been a US Army Ranger, but most Rangers were little more than jumped-up airborne soldiers. Stahl made his bones in recon, and had been mentored by one of the few remaining LRRPs. The old sergeant trained Stahl to be silent, steady, and deadly. Ninjas were rank amateurs compared to LRRPs. They just worked at night. LRRPs owned the night. Now, it was his turn to pass on the traditions.

Montgomery and her wolf were about twenty meters behind Stahl. The girl mimicked Stahl’s movements through the forest. She wasn’t as quiet as Stahl, but she was quiet enough. The raw talent was definitely there. Then, there was her wolf. Stahl didn’t know how Billy went from a mottled white coat to the brown-black pelt. He was pretty sure it had something to do with the wolf’s origin. Stahl also suspected the wolf was somehow helping Montgomery creep through the forest. He’d made the mistake of dismissing the wolf as a simple pet. If he got out of this forest alive, Stahl would figure out exactly what was going on with those two.

The trio trailed the vampires and their prisoners. The Zombie Strike and Truth people shuffled along behind a new vampire. This one looked like a traditional vampire, instead of the seven to eight-foot man-bat monsters the team had been fighting. The vampire was very tall, easily six-six, with the stereotypical pale skin and black hair. His features were smooth, reminding Stahl of a long-list of pretty-boys he served with over the years. Except for his eyes. Human eyes tended to show up like bright orbs in nightvision, but the vampire’s eyes didn’t show up at all. There were just pockets of black in the white-green face. The vampire was talking constantly in a low, even voice. It was probably part of how he controlled the others.

The vampire and the group continued up the mountain. Stahl and Montgomery followed cautiously. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to free the prisoners. Heck, he wasn’t even sure they could be freed. Mind control was new territory for Zombie Strike, much less the mechanics of it. All Stahl could do right now was follow the group and hope for an opening. It was maddening, but that was part of the job. He learned that lesson the first time he watched a hostage die in a place not too far from this forest. The air started to warm noticeably. Musky scents floated through the air like invisible clouds. Stahl instinctively slowed down. He was picking up something from the six vampires guarding the prisoners. They weren’t as tense, and their gait opened up. Stahl stopped behind one of the thicker trees. Montgomery almost ran into him when he didn’t move. Instead she just slid past him and took up a position behind another tree five meters away. The girl was good.

Montgomery flashed the question hand sign. Okay, she needed work on her patience. He hand-signed back for her to wait. Stahl could make out her grimace as she took up her position. Stahl ignored her expression. He scanned the trees in front of him. They looked like a big clump of dark with a few shadows of green from the tiny bits of starlight. Did vampires act like humans, or was that just normal for them?

There was a sudden glint from a tree to Stahl’s eleven o’clock. The branches rustled. Something big just landed there. A sentry. They just wandered into the home of the vampires. Stahl waited patiently, intently watching the tree. He couldn’t see the vampire. The creature was hidden in the blackness of his nightvision. There were other ways to figure out where it was. The vampire couldn’t hide from the entire physical world. One of the branches was much lower. Stahl guessed the vampire was about halfway out. It looked like a good vantage point. Minutes stretched out endlessly as Stahl watched the tree. It always amazed Stahl that something could be exciting and boring at the same time. Finally, the tree shook again as the sentry continued his rounds. This time, Stahl did smile.

Montgomery followed as Stahl hustled towards the tree the vampire just vacated. Stahl didn’t know how many vampires were on guard duty, but he wanted to be inside their line before the next sentry came round. After about a hundred meters, the trees became sparse. Stahl could see where the vampires cleared out the forest. Jagged stumps littered the clearing. Carcasses of dead animals were strewn carelessly about. Stahl found a standing tree next to one of the carcasses. The putrid smell turned his stomach, but it should cover his own scent. Montgomery followed his lead, and dragged what had once been a panther next to her position. He couldn’t see the wolf.

About a dozen vampires were clustered in the center of the clearing. The prisoners were lined up in the center facing away Stahl and Montgomery. Pretty-Boy looked like he was talking to someone on the other side of the prisoners. Someone short and powerful from the way Pretty-Boy was bending over with his head pointed directly at the ground respectfully.

“These were the ones sent after us?” asked a beautiful soprano voice from the other side of the prisoners. Stahl almost dropped his weapon at the sound. The amulet burned under his chest plate, snapping him out of his stupor. Montgomery shot him a sidelong glance.

“They look different from the last time we came to this world,” the voice said, “Why aren’t any of them wearing crosses? Aren’t they supposed to be knights?”

“I don’t think so,” Pretty-Boy said, his voice finally loud enough for Stahl to hear. “These ones here are tainted.” He pointed at the Truth soldiers and sorcerers.

“Tainted, how?”

“I don’t know. Something is protecting them. Something we haven’t dealt with before,” Pretty-Boy answered. “The others are just common thugs with very good weapons.” He waved dismissively at the Zombie Strike team.

“No paladins or clerics of this world’s god?” the voice asked surprised.

“Not amongst this group. Just the one cleric in the village when we came in this world.” Pretty-Boy quickly stepped to the side as a small form emerged from behind the prisoners. She was barely five feet tall with a slight, but definitely feminine, form and cascades of black hair. As she turned, Stahl could see her doll-like face with the black abysses where the eyes should have been. An evil smile darted across her lips. She gently laid a hand on Pretty-Boy’s forearm, and then brought the tall vampire to his knees with a powerful jerk.

“Then where is the little bauble causing all of the commotion?” she asked pleasantly. The smile returned as Pretty-Boy gasped in pain, unable to answer. Stahl swallowed. The little form’s head snapped up. Her face locked onto Stahl’s.

“Oh never mind, I found it.”

[Zombie Strike Part 7 Chapter 73]