Cultist Temple, Central Jungle of Target Island, 200 Miles West of Hawaii, 1800 hours Local, 26 July 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 5 months, 5 days

Sissy screamed as the snarling gollum leapt at her. She clawed for her MP7 as the hurtling creature crashed onto her, knocking her to the ground. The gollum’s wooden club came down on her prone form. Quentin grasped the gollum’s wrist before it could strike again. Quentin yanked the gollum off of Sissy and slammed it into the tunnel wall. The gollum wasn’t even fazed, but did let go of its club. The gollum wriggled out of Quentin’s grip. Quentin barely had enough time to get his arms in from of his face and body before the gollum raked across him with its claw-like nails. Quentin screamed in pain as the gollum attacked again. He felt the bite.

The tunnel exploded with sound. The gollum jerked to the side. Collin fired again. And again. And again. Each bullet drove the gollum back a bit more. Collin kept firing until his Glock locked back on an empty magazine. The gollum lunged as Collin reloaded, but Mateo’s first round landed a bare instant after Collin dropped the magazine out of his pistol. Mateo’s fire wasn’t the steady staccato that Collin used to drive the creature off of Quentin. Mateo’s fire was slower. Mateo wasn’t trying to drive the gollum off his teammate. He was aiming at the stone talisman the gollum wore around its neck.

“Hold your fire!” Quentin yelled over the gunfire. Mateo dropped his Sig P226 to a ready position. Quentin charged the gollum. A deep guttural roar erupted from Quentin. The warhammer flashed in the reflected light. The hammer shattered the stone talisman before picking up the wiry gollum and flinging it clear out of the tunnel. The gollum crashed into the zombies still meandering at the tunnel’s opening. Strangely, the zombies began shuffling away from the gollum as fast as they could. Granted, it was like watching turtles running away from a ferret. The gollum ignored the zombies’ retreat as it scrambled to its feet and sprinted back into the tunnel. Mateo and The Steve opened fire, but the gollum’s zigzagging run threw off their aim. The gollum bounded off the tunnel’s wall to launch itself at Collin with its claws outstretched. Collin casually brought up his Glock and fired. The gollum’s body fell lifelessly at Collin’s feet.

The Steve holstered his weapon and sprinted to Sissy. The team sniper was curled up whimpering. The Steve whispered into Sissy’s ear as plunged a syringe into her. The medic laid Sissy down on to the dirt floor and began splinting her left arm. As The Steve tended to Sissy, Quentin walked over to Mateo. Quentin’s face was pale.

“Matt, the gollum bit me,” Quentin whispered to his team leader.

“Damn. Are you sure?” Mateo asked. Quentin could only silently show the wound. Mateo fought back sudden grief. The team just lost Jack. That was bad enough. This was every zombie hunter’s worst nightmare. Not getting turned into a zombie. Having to put down your friend before he turned into one.

“Collin,” Mateo said quietly, “Take over for Steve, please.” Collin gave Mateo a level look before nodding. The medic looked up at his name. One look at Quentin’s face was all the explanation The Steve needed. Mateo, The Steve, and Quentin walked a few yards further into the tunnel. The light was dimmer and the shadows danced around the three men. The Steve said nothing as he drew his Kimber.

NO, NO DISPARA!” shouted a voice in the darkness. The three men spun to the voice. Out of the darkness emerged a disheveled Hispanic man. The man was short and thin, with unkempt black hair and a ragged beard. His clothes were stained and torn. The man took another step closer and began speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. Mateo motioned for The Steve to put his weapon away. The man spoke for a couple minutes before Mateo silenced him.

“He says his name is Dr. Miguel de Castilla,” Mateo translated, “He says a bite from a gollum doesn’t turn a man into a zombie.”

“How?” Quentin asked, his voice breaking with sudden hope.

“The gollums are some sort of special warrior for Zie Pay Toe Teck,” Mateo said, uncertain of the translation. “They were created using some sort of special ritual. They’re some sort of recreated Aztec warrior, not really zombies.”

“Xipe Totec?” Quentin asked, carefully enunciating the name. “Is that what he said?” The disheveled man nodded. Even in the dim light of the tunnel, Mateo could see Quentin pale.

“Okay, so who’s this Zippee Tictock?” The Steve asked.

“Xipe Totec was an Aztec god,” Quentin explained, “He was known to the people as Our Lord, The Flayed One.”

“Flayed?” Mateo asked, “Like what the Romans did to Jesus before crucifying him?”

“Similar. For the Aztecs, Xipe Totec was a god of life, death, and rebirth,” Quentin said, “Those statues at the front of the tunnel were of him. This is starting to make sense.” Dr. de Castilla grabbed Mateo and began speaking again.

“Okay, the doctor is an archaeologist who was working a dig in the Yucatan when someone snatched him,” Mateo said, “He woke up here. Apparently the person in charge of this calls himself Xipe-tzin. This guy snatched a bunch of Aztec specialists and forced them to help create the zombies. The doc escaped yesterday during some consecration ceremony. He thinks all of the others are dead. Killed by Xipe-tzin. He’s terrified of this guy, but he’ll lead us back to the temple room.” Dr. de Castilla nodded furiously.

“Matt, this sounds exactly like what we’re looking for,” Quentin said, “We’ve got to stop Xipe-tzin before it gets really bad.”

“How bad?” Mateo asked.

“End of the world bad,” Quentin said.

“Oh, is that all?” The Steve asked.

Xipe Totec Temple, Central Jungle of Target Island, 200 Miles West of Hawaii, 1900 hours Local, 26 July 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 5 months, 5 days

The soft, green light from the team’s chemlights was overshadowed by an angry red light illuminating the tunnel. The sloping switchbacks meant the team was burrowing deep underneath the pyramid. Collin was in front with Dr. de Castilla. About fifteen feet behind the pair, The Steve was creeping along with his M4 up and hunting for targets in the shadows. Mateo was another fifteen feet behind The Steve. He knew he should be paying attention for threats, but his thoughts kept going back to the woman holding down the rear guard.

After Mateo, The Steve and Quentin returned to the others with Dr. de Castilla in tow, Mateo went to check on Sissy. She was trembling uncontrollably. Mateo was about to call for The Steve, but Sissy grasped his hands. Her brown eyes were alight with terror.

“Relax Sissy, everything’s going to be alright,” Mateo said quietly, trying to get his hands free. Sissy shook her head and pulled Mateo close.

“No, you don’t understand,” Sissy said in a hoarse whisper, “I’m not like the rest of you. I thought I could hide it. I thought I could just push it down and do my job, but I can’t.” Sissy choked back a sob. “I can’t face the fear anymore.” Mateo was at a loss for words. There was something desperate in Sissy’s pleas. Instinctively, he hugged Sissy close and rocked her like he had done for his daughter a lifetime ago. The others politely ignored the two.

“Sissy,” Mateo said quietly, “I need you to push it down once more. I need you to fight just a little more. We’re almost done.” She nodded slowly. Her hand reached into a pocket and pulled out one of Jack’s pearl-gripped stainless Browning Hi-Powers. She thrust the weapon into Mateo’s hands.

“You keep this,” Sissy said with a pleading voice, “I’ve got the other. Jack will keep us both safe.” Mateo nodded and tucked the pistol into the small of his back. If keeping the pistol as some sort of talisman would get Sissy back into the game, then Mateo would hold on to the weapon. He needed every shooter he could get. Mateo motioned for The Steve to finish bandaging up Sissy.

Sissy couldn’t use her rifle. The gollum broke her left arm with the club strike. She could one-hand the diminutive MP7 if it was kept to short bursts. Mateo ordered her to stay next to Quentin. The big man acted like a protective big brother to Sissy. He wouldn’t let anything get close to her. Still, Mateo was second-guessing his decision. Something about the terror he saw in those brown eyes. Something that said he made the wrong decision by not leaving her behind.

The tunnel narrowed down to a door-sized opening. The red light poured out of the opening. An indistinct male voice emanated from the door. Dr. de Castilla whispered in urgent Spanish to Mateo as the group formed up outside the door. Mateo nodded and fired back with chopped Spanish. Dr. de Castilla nodded and ran back up to where the team came into the temple.

“Okay team, this is it,” Mateo said, “Xipe-tzin is in that room with a bunch of gollums. The gollums are bound to Xipe-tzin. Kill him, and they drop, according to the doc. There may be some hostages, so we have to do this carefully.”

“Would you stop whispering at my door, and just come in hunters?” boomed the male voice. “Come in nicely, or I’m going to have to finish off the hostages.” Mateo scowled. He motioned for Collin to enter. Mateo followed Collin into the room. The temple room was huge. It was at least a hundred feet on a side. In the middle of the room was a ten foot wide trench. From where the team stood, Mateo could see the tops of sharpened stakes sticking up in the trench. Evenly spaced were three stone arch bridges spanning the trench. The temple room was completely covered with small, reflective tiles. Mateo couldn’t tell the color because the eerie red light bathed the room. He couldn’t even tell where the light was coming from. It was almost as if the room just emanated from the walls.

Xipe-tzin was on the other side of the trench. He was standing on a raised dais. Next to him was a stone altar easily the size of a large dining table. Xipe-tzin was a tall man, topping six-and-a-half feet tall, and whip-cord thin. The cultist had his long dark hair tied back and was wearing what looked like a leather cape. He held a glistening whip in his hand. There was an amused smile on his strong Native American features. Surrounding the platform were six gollums. Something was wrong.

“Where are the hostages?” Collin demanded.

“I was lying about that,” Xipe-tzin said. His voice held just a faint hint of a Spanish accent. “I just didn’t want you coming into my beautiful temple with guns blazing.” There was something boastful in his voice. Mateo made a quick mental decision.

“It looks more like a bad movie set,” Mateo said nonchalantly.

“Trying to provoke me? How amusing,” Xipe-tzin said, “Exactly who do you think you are?”

“BIG DAMN HEROES!” The Steve yelled. Xipe-tzin stared at the medic with consternation. It was the opportunity Mateo wanted. Simultaneously, Mateo and Collin brought their weapons up and fired. Xipe-tzin bellowed in rage as the bullets slapped harmlessly against his exposed skin. The deformed bullets clinked as they fell on the tile floor.

“Fools, I am Xipe-tzin!” he yelled at the team, “I am the favored son of the Flayed One! He gave me his blessings! I can raise his blessed warriors! I cannot be harmed by the weapon of any living person! I will harvest your blood and bring the Flayed One into this world! He will save us from the coming Death.” Xipe-tzin cracked the whip. The six gollums stood up straight. “Seize them! They will be sacrificed to Our Lord.”

The gollums ignored the bridges and simply leapt across the trench. Mateo snapped his weapon up at the gollum boring down on him. The M4 spat out a long burst. The force of the rounds forced the gollum to land short. As it stood, Mateo emptied the rest of the magazine into the gollum’s torso. The gollum staggered from the impacts before falling back into the trench. That one should be out of the fight for a bit. Mateo was slapping another magazine into his weapon when Sissy screamed.

Time slowed as Mateo whipped his head around to the sound of the scream. A gollum was in close with Sissy. She was trying to bring up her MP7. She wasn’t going to make it. The gollum easily knocked the weapon aside – just as Sissy pulled the trigger. The MP7 let loose a stream of bullets straight through Quentin’s right leg. Mateo watched in horror as the big man collapsed. Two gollums leapt on Quentin’s back to ride him down as he fell to the tiled floor. Mateo started running to his teammates as the gollum in front of Sissy knocked her to the ground with a savage blow.

Mateo stopped for a brief second to place a burst into the gollum looming over Sissy. The creature snarled at Mateo over its shoulder before grabbing Sissy by her web gear and leaping over its brethren attacking the rest of the team. It landed on one of the bridges. Right where Mateo was aiming. Mateo hammered the gollum with five quick shots. The last finally shattered the stone talisman. The gollum realized it was no longer invulnerable and leapt into the trench. Mateo ran through the raging battle between Collin, The Steve, and the other four gollums. He slid next to the woman who had so befuddled him on this mission. She looked so helpless. She didn’t even look at him as he cradled her in his arms. She just stared glassy-eyed into the distance. Mateo looked back at the team. Collin was down to his pistol, and it looked like one of the gollums managed to break his other arm. The Steve was hunched in pain, but dispatched a gollum that managed to fall to the pair’s teamwork. The last two gollums were cautiously approaching Mateo and Sissy. Quentin wasn’t moving. For all Mateo knew, the friendly giant was dead. Just like Jack.

The sudden realization hit Mateo with all the force of a hammer. It couldn’t be that simple. Mateo looked up at Xipe-tzin. He was watching Collin and The Steve fight it out. He turned to face Mateo. His smile was smug. He knew that the team wouldn’t be able to stop him. Mateo reached back to where he’d tucked away Jack’s pistol. What did Xipe-tzin say when Collin and Mateo attacked? No weapon of a living person could hurt him? What about the weapon of a dead person? Mateo flicked off the safety. Xipe-tzin gave Mateo a condescending look as the team leader leveled the pistol at him in a classic Weaver stance.

Xipe-tzin was still smiling smugly as the double tap ripped out his heart. There was no chance for the cultist to question how a mere mortal slew him. No chance for him to realize the Achilles heel of his god’s blessing. The shot was perfect and instantly lethal. Xipe-tzin toppled off of his platform to the sudden screams of his gollums. The screams cut off as the gollums dissolved back to their skeletons.

The temple echoed with the sudden silence. A tiny whimper dragged Mateo’s gaze away from Xipe-tzin’s body. He snapped the safety back on and tucked Jack’s pistol back into the small of his back as he knelt back to Sissy. She was curled into a tight ball, rocking herself and letting out small unintelligible sounds. Mateo wrapped his arms around the woman who once so intimidated him.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered into her ear, “It’s going to be alright.”

[Zombie Strike – Part One Chapter Nine – Part One Epilogue]