St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 1830 hours local; Countdown: 5 hours, 30 minutes

The vampire scout walked out onto the apartment’s balcony and looked out at the City of the Dead. Finally, the hateful sun left the sky. The scout and her companions could now fulfill the master’s mission. A chorus of moans from below brought a snarl to her all-too human face. There were too many of the animated corpses shuffling about the darkened streets. The human army’s attack drew a large portion of the zombies south. The mindless things were attracted to the incredibly loud noise of the human weapons. She hoped the leader of the master’s guard listened to her. Those slow moving abominations were deceptively dangerous. That much she figured out on her own.

"This will be a good world to plunder," the leader of the master’s guard said, stepping out to join the scout. The balcony creaked with his weight. The guard hadn’t been on this world long enough to evolve to a human form. He was still the seven-foot tall, fur-covered demon. The scout didn’t say anything.

"Yes. Even now, it teems with life," the leader continued, as if the scout answered him. "We just have to kill these foolish clerics before they cause mischief."

"Don’t underestimate the humans or their gods," the scout warned the leader, "Their weapons and magic have evolved greatly since our last attempt. They also control the hordes of undead that inhabit this city."

"Your constant bleating about the danger of these humans grows tiresome," the leader said, striding back into the apartment. Almost against her will, the scout followed him.

"Your scouts may have fallen to their pathetic forces, but we are the elite of the master. We have nothing to fear from them." He motioned to the rest of his team. "Come. Now that the hated sun is gone from the sky, we can begin the slaughter." The scout watched helplessly as the ten vampires sprinted out the apartment’s window and into the city.

Mississippi River, St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 1830 hours local; Countdown: 5 hours, 30 minutes

Mateo Cortez gratefully accepted the thermos from the naval chief petty officer. He’d forgotten how bloody cold it would get. Too many days working on a South Pacific tropical island. The armor’s insulation only helped so much. Mateo needed more heat. He took a swig from the thermos. Expecting bitter coffee, Mateo was pleasantly surprised by the taste of chicken noodle soup. Mateo greedily took another gulp of the soup before handing back the thermos and thanking the naval noncom.

"Figured you’d need it," the CPO said, tucking the thermos away. "You folks looked a mite ragged when we fetched you up." The CPO spoke with an almost unintelligible southern drawl. From the accent, Mateo thought Louisiana. Mateo nodded to the CPO’s comment, letting the warmth of the soup in his stomach radiate out to his body. The Truth didn’t send anymore of its minions or gollums after Zombie Strike, but there were still plenty of zombies. The team had been playing hide and seek with the hordes still milling around downtown St. Louis. Too many of the zombies hadn’t been pulled by the army’s offensive. His team went past crush twice. The first time attack helicopters strafed the horde a couple of times. That was enough for Mateo and his team to slip away. The second time, the Navy’s small squadron of riverine boats provided cover fire while the team climbed aboard two of the small craft. Chief Stahl, The Steve, Tredegar, Evan, and Quentin were riding with him. Sport, Billy, and the ladies were in the boat some twenty yards closer to the bank of the Mississippi River.

"Mr. Cortez, we’ve recovered and replenished your team," the young officer in command of the boats said, his tone full of patient condescension, "Now, where exactly are we supposed to put you off? My boats are needed back down the river for actual operations." Mateo took a deep breath and looked out over the eerily dark city.

"That’ll be up to either Mr. McLintock or Special Agent Tredegar," Mateo answered, "I’ll let you know as soon as I know. In the meantime, your orders are to assist us. So quietly assist us over there." Mateo pointed to the back of the boat.

"My orders may be to assist your team, but I am still in command," the officer shot back. He was about to continue, but Quentin suddenly bounded into the group.

"Found it," Quentin said, a broad smile across his face, "Pretty sure anyway. Jess’s checking some of my guesswork, but I found where the ritual will need to be completed."

"And that is?" Mateo asked with practiced patience.

"INCOMING!" yelled Chief Stahl. Everyone on the four boats scrambled to a weapon. Powerful spotlights lit up the night sky. Mateo looked up and saw two forms diving on the boats. He flipped down his nightvision and his mind froze for a moment. It was impossible. They’d wiped those creatures out back in Panama. They couldn’t be here. There couldn’t be vampires in St. Louis. Not right now.

The crackle of small arms fire brought Mateo back into the action. One of the vampires was angling to hit his boat. He brought his M4 up to his shoulder and opened fire. The vampire somehow twisted in midair and dodged most of the team’s fire. It landed at the front of the boat hard enough to catapult some of the navy people into the river. Mateo barely managed to keep his feet as the boat suddenly heaved upward. Evan stepped up to the creature and unloaded his Benelli shotgun into it. The vampire screamed in surprise and backhanded the kid into the black river.

"MAN OVERBOARD!" yelled The Steve. The medic unlocked the M240 machine gun from the front mount. Swinging the big gun around, The Steve fired a full belt of 7.62mm NATO into the vampire’s back. Black fluid and chunks of meat littered the deck as the creature fell.

"Back up," Chief Stahl said, pushing Tredegar and a couple of navy ratings back, "Those things go up when they die." He didn’t see the vampire wobble back up to his feet. Tredegar’s warning almost came too late. Stahl spun as the vampire lashed out with its claws. As the talons scraped across the armor’s plates, Stahl slapped his hand down on the vampire’s arm. It screamed in terror and pain. It flung the chief into the side of the boat.

Mateo and Quentin finally had clear shots. Quentin fired his submachine gun’s entire magazine of 10mm while Mateo did the same with his M4. The vampire snarled in pain and frustration. It must not have expected to deal with this kind of resistance. It leapt the length of the boat and landed in front of Mateo and Quentin. Mateo let his M4 drop on its sling and drew his Sig. Quentin yanked out his warhammer and slammed it into the vampire’s hip with one swift movement. The monster screamed in pain again and savagely punched Quentin in the face with enough force to knock the big man off of his feet. Mateo fired his pistol into the vampire until the slide locked back on an empty magazine.

"Boss, down!" yelled The Steve. Without thinking, Mateo dropped to the boat’s deck. The M240’s thud-thud-thud filled the night. A second M240 joined in and the vampire was nearly torn apart by the sheer number of bullets puncturing its body. With a gurgling moan, the vampire tried to jump off the boat. One of the navy folks turned the rear M2 on it in midair. As the big .50 BMG bullets hammered into it, the vampire let out a last scream and burst into flames.

"Steve, Quentin’s down," Mateo yelled. The medic dropped the smoking machinegun and dashed to his fallen comrade. The medic lost his trademark smile as his hands danced over their fallen comrade.

"You, get us a priority medevac," The Steve said, pointing to one of the navy ratings. He was talking in that scary calm voice that only came out when the fecal matter was impacting the turbine. The Steve carefully pulled off Quentin’s helmet. "I need a collar right now!" Mateo’s heart fell as The Steve gingerly put the rigid cervical collar around Quentin’s massive neck. The medic tapped a flurry of commands, dumping numerous drugs into the big man’s system.

"I’ve got this Matt," The Steve said, "Make sure the rest of the team isn’t dead." Mateo cursed as he realized he’d lost track of the other vampire. He reloaded his M4 and trotted down the deck.

"Where is the other one?" Mateo asked, helping Chief Stahl to his feet. As if on cue, a thunderous boom echoed across the river. Mateo spun to the sound, half-expecting to see the fiery pyre of the rest of his team. Instead he caught the last glimpses of a flaming seven-foot tall form arching away from the other boat and into the cold, black waters.

"Are you all okay?" Mateo called over the radio.

"Yeah, just a little deaf from Sport’s grenade," Jess radioed back, "Some of the navy guys didn’t make it. Is Quentin okay?" Jess was trying to sound calm, but Mateo could hear the fear in her voice. Before Mateo could answer, The Steve waved him back over.

"His neck is snapped," the medic said in a low tone, "I’m doing what I can, but if we don’t get help, he’s not going to make it. I need to put him under, but he needs to tell you something first. Make it quick." Mateo swallowed and nodded. He cautiously knelt down next to his friend.

"The Arch, Matt. It’s going to happen at the Gateway Arch," Quentin managed to say before he went limp. The Steve pushed Mateo to the side as he desperately fought to save their friend’s life. For what seemed an eternity, The Steve coaxed, cajoled, and screamed at Quentin to stay with them as he did everything he could. It just wasn’t enough.

Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 114