Aztec Ruins, 150 miles south of Mexico City, 1730 hours local, 1 December 2009, Countdown: 2 years, 1 month
Quentin McLintock desperately wanted to scratch the itch on the bottom of his right foot. There was just one problem. His right foot wasn’t there anymore. Everything from the knee down had been amputated after Sissy O’Connell put a burst of 4.6mm bullets through his knee during the battle with Xipe-Tzin. During the long rehab, the doctors warned about phantom itches. For the most part, Quentin could ignore them. When he put in a hard day’s work excavating recently discovered Aztec ruins, the itch was bad enough he had to focus to get them under control.
Quentin didn’t complain. He was lucky. More so than Sissy. The poor woman was still in a mental hospital, and probably would be for the rest of her life, according to the doctors. She didn’t even acknowledge Quentin’s presence the last time he visited. She just sat staring at nothing. Quentin, on the other hand, was almost back to his former self. Mackenzie & Winston, the insurance firm that recruited Quentin to fight zombies, hired the finest doctors, prosthetics designers, and physical therapists to help him. The result was three months of hell that made him strong enough to work on the archeology project. M&W even footed part of the bill for the expedition.
"Itch started up again?" asked Dr. Stone. Kevin Stone was Quentin’s academic advisor for Quentin’s doctoral program. Quentin nodded stoically. During his undergraduate years, Quentin had been part of West Virginia’s powerful offensive line. He could endure the phantom itch. Dr. Stone clapped the massive man on his shoulder. "Well the Californians found something last night that they’re having trouble identifying. They’ve asked us to take a look, if you can believe that."
"Oh?" Quentin asked, his curiosity piqued. The contingent from the University of California had been more than a little condescending to Dr. Stone and his little group of Mountaineers for the entire expedition. They tended to avoid Quentin altogether. It was annoying to deal with, but Quentin couldn’t deny the Californians’ expertise. If they couldn’t identify what they unearthed, it would have to be something truly rare. Quentin just hoped it wasn’t what he feared finding in these ruins.
Quentin followed Dr. Stone to the UC building. The prosthetic leg felt both alien and natural at the same time. Even after the intensive work, Quentin still wasn’t as nimble on his feet as he once had been. His pride mourned that loss. He knew he shouldn’t. The doctors kept telling Quentin his recovery was amazing considering the extent of his injury. In the darkest hours of the night, Quentin still felt weak, and then felt guilty about feeling weak.
The sun was setting as Dr. Stone and Quentin stepped into the prefab building. The sudden chill of the air-conditioner felt good after the long day in the Mexican sun. The two senior Californian archeologists were inspecting the object under a large magnifying lens. Dr. Stone traded good-natures quips with the pair as Quentin inspected their find. Quentin’s body froze as his eyes locked onto the small stone medallion. It was a flat disc maybe three inches in diameter and a quarter inch thick. The carvings were barely visible after centuries of erosion, but Quentin could make out the familiar runes. Old instincts flooded through his mind. Quentin’s hand grasped for a weapon that wasn’t there. Memories of terror flooded his mind. Desperate battles on a small island against almost unstoppable creatures.
"Where did you find this?" Quentin asked, flatly. His eyes were transfixed on the talisman.
"Grid three-two, by the temple," answered the younger archeologist. He walked over to where Quentin was inspecting the medallion. The archeologist had the look of a man with a newborn child. "The carvings are extremely faint, but it’s not like anything else we found around that area. Completely unlike any of the other artifacts. Almost as if it’s from another period of Aztec history. It’s fascinating."
"I need to inspect everything you extracted from the temple and the surrounding area," Quentin demanded, his normal jovial tone replaced by a cold and commanding voice. Dr. Stone and the two archeologists stared at him with shocked looks. They didn’t know how to handle the sudden shift in the man they assumed to be the prototypical gentle giant.
"Doctors, that wasn’t a suggestion," Quentin said, forcefully, "Get me what I asked." Something in the look on Quentin’s face scared the two Californian archeologists. They scurried to comply with Quentin’s orders. Dr. Stone cautiously approached Quentin, looking as if he were about to stick his hand in a beehive.
"Quentin, what in God’s name are you doing?" Dr. Stone asked, in a low whisper, "You can’t order full professors around like undergraduates on their first dig, much less look at them like you are about to eviscerate them if they refuse. You’re going to ruin your career before you have one. What is going on?"
"I think we may have stumbled onto what we were looking for on this dig," Quentin answered.
"Wait, what do you mean ‘what we were looking for?’" Dr. Stone asked.
"Why do you think we got that last minute donation to fund this expedition? It’s related to how I lost my leg." Dr. Stone froze for a moment. The doctor didn’t have all the details surrounding the loss of Quentin’s leg, but he pieced enough together to know it wasn’t in the automobile accident that Quentin told everyone else.
"Okay, now I understand why you were pushing so hard for our team to join this dig. What I don’t understand is how this dig connects to zombies," Dr. Stone said, quietly. The doctor’s conclusion surprised Quentin. It never occurred to him that the doctor could possibly know what Quentin was really hunting for.
"Not zombies exactly," Quentin said, carefully choosing his words, "I think the Aztecs had methods of creating different types of undead. From some stuff I found, I think this site is where they created them. I needed to find it before someone else did." Dr. Stone looked as his student with a look of stark terror on his face. Just being close to an ancient place tied to the undead was enough to evoke the familiar primal horror in the experienced archeologist. Quentin was lucky, or cursed, to be one of the small percentage of humanity who didn’t experience that terrifying panic when dealing with the undead.
"What are we going to do?" Dr. Stone asked. His eyes darted about, looking for places to hide. Quentin laid his hands on the man’s shoulders.
"Don’t worry Doc," Quentin said calmly, "Remember, this is why I came here. I just need to confirm my suspicions, and then I make a phone call. The problem gets dealt with." Dr. Stone nodded, but there was no comprehension in his eyes. The doctor was still trying to process the sudden revelation.
At that point, the two UC archeologists returned with a laptop. Quentin sat down to look through the items excavated near the medallion. Most were simple everyday items. Pottery, tools, and such. Nothing that appeared to be linked to the creation of the undead, or worse, the gollums he fought on that Pacific island. Quentin flagged a few items so he could go back and study them in more detail. Quentin opened the files to examine the human remains. Then, someone hit him over the head.
Buried reflexes came alive as Quentin lashed out against his attacker. He felt his fist connect against flesh and bone and heard a grunt of pain. Quentin fell into a fighting stance, but nearly collapsed when he misjudged his prosthetic. As he stumbled, Quentin clearly saw his assailant for the first time. His attacker appeared to be an average height and build man, but it was hard to tell through what looked like a bad ninja suit. The man was armed with what appeared to be an old-style police billy club. A tonfa, an old memory supplied. The wannabe ninja took advantage of Quentin’s misstep to strike with the tonfa. Quentin blocked with one of his massive arms. There was pain, but it was dulled. Years of being in the crush of the offensive lines, followed by rigorous training allowed Quentin to soak pain that would cripple lesser men. The assailant was stunned when Quentin shrugged off the blow. He never saw the punch coming. Quentin’s fist crashed into the side of the assassin’s head and drove him to the ground. The assailant half-bounced off the floor before crumpling into a heap. Quentin did a quick check. The man was alive, but unconscious. So, where was Dr. Stone and the two UC archeologists?
Quentin opened one of the toolboxes in the stacked against the wall and found a roll of duct tape. A few strips later and the assailant was secured. Quentin took several deep breaths as he thought about what he needed to do. Quentin was sure the assailant wasn’t alone. The dig site had no security beyond the numerous cell phones amongst the students. Well, that and the few items Quentin stashed in his tent. Quentin crept out of the building. The camp area was dark and deathly quiet. Quentin cursed silently. There were always students around campfires to BS about the day and do other things young men and women did when far away from home. Quentin barely made out a few shadows darting about the dig site around the temple. Best guess was at least three other individuals around the temple. Quentin needed to get to his tent.
Quentin stepped out into the night. There was no sign the intruders noticed him. His breathing slowed to a familiar rhythm as he dashed to the nearest tent. Quentin snapped a glance towards the temple. Still no reaction from the shadowy figures. Emboldened, Quentin dashed to his tent some forty yards away. For the first time in months, he felt like his old self. Charging into his tent, Quentin tossed the clutter hiding his "special" trunk. He punched the combination into the pad and threw open the lid. The weapons somehow managed to gleam in the almost nonexistent light.
The rig took a few minutes to put on. It had been some time since the last time Quentin wore this gear. The warhammer was a familiar weight. It went into its scabbard on his back. The Glock was holstered at his waist. Finally, Quentin picked up the M4. The weapon always felt so tiny in his hands, but it was effective. He had expected to need the weapons in the crate against narcos. He didn’t know who the intruders were, but they damn sure weren’t narcos. Quentin stalked out of his tent towards the temple with his M4 up and ready.
The nightvision showed Quentin the camp wasn’t quiet, it was deserted. Quentin knew when he was working, he was mostly oblivious to the rest of the world. That said, how did fifty people vanish without Quentin hearing a sound? Quentin suspected the three individuals rooting around the temple held the answers. Quentin crouched about thirty yards from the three intruders. The three were dressed in dark clothing from head to toe. More ninja costumes like the assailant trussed up back in the lab? They weren’t talking, just frantically digging around the temple in silence. They didn’t even seem to notice Quentin’s presence. Quentin didn’t see any weapons other than the small spades the intruders were using.
"Freeze!" yelled Quentin, breaking the silence. There was an instant of embarrassment at his choice of challenges, but he forged ahead. The three intruders were looking directly at him, as they were also wearing nightvision. "Lose the shovels and get on the ground!"
"Leave interloper," the nearest said with a coldness that brought a touch of chill to Quentin’s bones. The speaker paused, as if to watch his words have their desired effect. When Quentin didn’t move, the speaker drew something from his sleeve. Quentin wasn’t sure what it was, but he wasn’t taking any chances. He squeezed the trigger. The area rocked with the sound as Quentin placed a burst into the speaker’s chest. The other two charged before the first’s body hit the ground. Quentin lined up the carbine on the closest.
"Stop!" boomed a voice. The two intruders stopped in their tracks. Quentin swiveled to where the voice originated. An impossibly huge person walked out of the temple. He was easily seven feet tall and dressed in the same black ninja-like clothing as the other intruders. Gripped in his right hand was a long whip. This new person strode out into the open with an unnatural grace.
"This one killed two of you," the giant said to his two minions, "I’m sure he is wondering where all of his colleagues went. Let us answer his question." The giant cracked the whip. The sound echoed eerily through the camp. Quentin was suddenly queasy from what felt like a sudden wave of sickening power. The three intruders walked away from Quentin. He knew they were dangerous, but Quentin just couldn’t bring himself to shoot a human in the back. Quentin stood up to tackle them, or anything he could to stop them.
Quentin stopped cold when the first hand shot out of the ground.