He marked the cloud, but remained a distance from it. Ruslan would have coached his vampires. He would warn them of Zacarias's personality. He was a fighter and unlike Ruslan, he didn't hesitate to face his enemy. The master vampire would have told his pawns that Zacarias wouldn't run, that in fact, he would go straight for trouble. The giant storm cloud, looking so very evil in the otherwise clear sky, was merely a calling card to draw him out - and a rather weak one at that.

He sent an illusion streaking toward the cloud, a mere replica of himself that was more air than substance, but he was embedded in that vague shape, just as a master was in all illusions. He felt the puppet of himself hit something unseen, something solid and sharp. His illusion shredded. Instantly he grew one long nail and tore a laceration in his wrist. He called a soft breeze and shook droplets of blood into the wind, sending it out over the battlefield he'd chosen, that smooth field where Ruslan had so carefully arranged a trap with his foul plant.

His blood was powerful. He was ancient Carpathian, unquestionably one of the most powerful hunters alive. The scent of his blood would draw the vampires like hounds. They would sniff those droplets and the power contained in a single drop of blood would be a prize to fight for. They would also transmit triumphantly to their master that Zacarias was indeed wounded and that they had scored the first coup with their simple trap. Ruslan would believe that Zacarias was still hurt, but he would know the ruse of a storm cloud had not drawn him out.

He hovered over the field, allowing the breeze to take more droplets of blood into the air and scatter them wide. It was a call that would be irresistible. A newly made vampire would have already crawled out of the bushes to try to find a precious bead and lap it up quickly before it was taken from him. The fact that there was no stirring right away told Zacarias that Ruslan had sent experienced fighters after him.

Instincts rose. The primal hunger for the fight. He lived for it. Knew the rush as intimately as he did the kill. He waited with endless patience born of a thousand such battles. It took seven minutes and the first of the three vampires showed himself. The brush just inside the rain forest nearest the fence withered, turned brown and shrunk away from the unnaturalness of the undead as he parted the long fronds and peered into the field.

Zacarias had seen this one before, only a few years earlier, or perhaps it was more - time passed now and meant nothing - but even then, before the Carpathian had turned, Zacarias had known he was already lost to honor. Zacarias had avoided him, as he did all Carpathians. He was a hunter, no friend to any of them. He didn't want to know them before he killed them. This one was no more than five or six hundred years old and someone turning at that age was beneath even contempt. What could possibly drive a Carpathian who had not suffered the full ravages of time to turn away from honor?

The vampire raised his nose and sniffed the air, drawing the potent scent of ancient Carpathian blood into his lungs. His tongue flicked out greedily, his nostrils flared. He grimaced, showing the rotting, pointed teeth, already blackened and sharp. His name had been something to do with the forest - Forester, or something close. It mattered little. Before, Zacarias thought of him as man of little honor ; now it was man of no honor.

Zacarias allowed the breeze to cease, so that the air became very still, the potency of his blood-scent increasing. Man of no honor shrank back into the withering ferns, his head turning first one way, and then the other, a wary, animalistic gesture, before he again found the courage to stick his head out into the open.

Zacarias studied the battlefield. Nothing else moved. Not a single blade of grass, or the leaves on the trees. Two of Ruslan's undead pawns had enough discipline to resist the call of such potent blood. They believed him wounded, but still, they were patient enough for him to show himself, and intelligent enough to use their more impatient partner as bait.

Zacarias recognized that his trap could easily become one for him. The ice chilled more, a blue glacier adding layers as the chess game progressed. This was his world. He understood it. He watched the man of no honor crawl from the shelter of the dense shrubbery, a mere shadow sliding across the field. In his wake, the light-hued grass turned a murky dull brown, creating a swath of destruction the vampire didn't notice. He was so caught up in collecting the drops of blood on his tongue that he had forgotten how nature rebelled against such an unnatural being, creating a path that pointed straight to the undead.

The shadow stretched as the vampire slithered on his belly, lapping at the blades of grass, eager for the powerful rush giving him a dangerous high. Careful to keep every movement so small that it was impossible for the two hidden vampires to detect the stir of power, Zacarias sent a sudden massive wind shooting through the field of grass. At the same time, he edged the inpidual blades, turning them to vicious saw grass.

The vampire screamed and rolled over, holding his bleeding mouth as a thousand cuts streaked his blackened tongue and lips. Zacarias didn't bother to look at his handiwork, he studied the ground and trees and even the sky. A shadow moved in the dark roots of a kapok tree, just the slightest of movements, but it was enough. Zacarias closed the laceration on his wrist and removed all scent of blood. He allowed the shifting winds to take him in the direction of the rain forest, right to that tall, imposing tree rising like a sentry above the canopy emerging into the night sky.

No bats clung to the roots. No birds rested in the branches. The leaves drooped and shivered. There was no telltale sap running down the trunk, no hint of tree cancer, just that vague movement he'd caught out of the corner of his eye. The wind had died down to a soft breeze and he let himself drift right into that large root cage. The foul stench told him he was close to his prey.

Once in the shelter of the spacious enclosure, he was painstakingly cautious to remain very still. The dirt floor had bat droppings and small fruits scattered over the dirt. He studied the root system. He could see where the undead had entered. As careful as he'd been not to touch the tree itself, he'd brushed against one of the thick fins reaching out over the forest floor, slightly blackening it. The blight on the root was faint, indicating the vampire was cunning and much more careful than most.

Zacarias knew he was in a small confined space with another predator, one evil and cunning, one willing to sacrifice his hunting companion to the hunter in order to kill a Carpathian. One wrong move and he was dead, yet there was no fear, no apprehension. He was in full warrior mode. He understood kill or be killed - and he didn't make mistakes. He had endless patience. Sooner or later, this vampire would stir to check what was happening on the field. He would see his companion crawling through the saw grass, cutting his legs and belly. By now, man of no honor had had a taste of Zacarias's powerful blood and the subtle compulsion would be working on him, growing his addiction until nothing mattered but another taste of that blood.

Zacarias waited there in the darkness, trying not to breathe in the stench of the undead's rotting flesh. The tree groaned, the only sound other than man of no honor's continual weeping as he continued to quarter the ground, seeing the elusive droplets of blood. The saw grass cut his hands, his arms and belly, even his face and tongue, but the compulsion was on him now, the terrible need for more of that precious blood.

A careful stirring just to the left of Zacarias gave away the position of the enemy. The creature moved silently forward in order to get a better look at the field. He was growing tired of waiting. Zacarias knew he was beginning to question whether or not Zacarias was really there at all. He hadn't rushed to the storm cloud as Ruslan had said he would. He hadn't shown himself. They had followed the blood trail and scented fresh blood. Zacarias might have fled to find another place to heal what was most likely a mortal wound.

As a Carpathian hunter, Zacarias had seen it all, he knew the workings of the minds of his opponents. Patience was never a strong suit of the nosferatu , although, so far, the third conspirator had not given himself away. He moved into position behind the foul-smelling vampire, careful not to disturb the air in the now rank cage of roots. The air was so still, the slightest draft could warn his enemy. Once in the perfect location, he positioned his fist a scant inch from the back of the undead and slammed through bone and sinew, straight to the heart. At the same time, he trapped the vampire's throat, preventing him from crying out.

The acidlike blood, thick and black, poured over his hand and arm as he slowly extracted the pulsing, withered, organ. His fingers of his other hand dug into the throat, ripping out the voice box, so no sound could emerge and betray his presence.

Overhead, in the sky, whips of lightning began to strike the field, hitting the open meadow where man of no honor crawled. Hundreds of strikes shook the ground, lightning rained from the sky, great jagged swords slamming again and again, a dizzying attack that was everywhere. It was impossible to see where every strike hit, the range was so wide, yet none exploded the trees, only struck near them.

One of the whips hit the heart just outside the cage of roots where Zacarias flung it. The heart incinerated immediately. Ruthlessly, Zacarias tossed the vampire carcass through the bars of the thick woody fins, allowing the lightning to burn that as well. He rinsed his hands and arms in the white-hot cleansing energy, allowing the lightning strike to continue a few more moments over the field, so as not to give away his location.

All went dead quiet again. The sky cleared, stars shining above, and only the single rolling mass of turbulence indicated there was trouble. The grass appeared blackened in spots and there were a few small burning blades that sent sparks along with spiraling black smoke into the air. The fire leaped and danced, multiplying quickly, just tiny little blazes sending that wispy black smoke into the air. Several fires sprang to life around man of no honor.

Zacarias allowed the breeze to slide over the canopy so that the leaves on the trees rustled and stirred along the fence line a hundred feet away from him. Instantly the ground burst open near the tree with the glittery leaves, the dirt rising like a geyser, a tangled vine exploding upward, wrapping around the tree, strangling the trunk and rising higher, toward the canopy, smothering everything it touched, everywhere it reached. It wound tighter and tighter, choking the tree so bark popped off in strips and with alarming force, shot from the tree. Limbs cracked under the weight, eventually shattering into pieces and falling to the forest floor.

The vampire had struck quickly and precisely, but he hadn't given away his position. Impressive. Ruslan had sent one who was possibly a worthy opponent. Zacarias allowed the breeze to expand and blow out over the field so that the plumes of smoke began to stretch over the area and join together, partially obscuring vision. He drifted into the smoke, his color identical to the smoke, nothing but grayish-black, nearly transparent vapor that merged more and more together from the small fires until the smoke became a solid veil,nearly impenetrable, obscuring all vision.