Twenty miles north of Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1830 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins stared at the horde of zombies as they emerged from the darkness. The movies always made a zombie horde so much cleaner. Jim shook his head to clear the fogginess from being bounced off the mine’s stone floor and walls. It helped a little, but his body and mind protested all of the abuse he had taken since Jim arrived in Wyoming. Jim forced himself off the ground and began to crawl back to his team. Where was his carbine?

"Form firing lines," bellowed Mateo Cortez, "Jim, you’re on stopper detail." The team fell into position at their leader’s commands. This was one of those drills the team practiced rigorously. Billy, Sport, and Jessica crouched down in front with carbines up. Standing behind them and interspersed were Quentin, Collin, and The Steve. Mateo’s job was to watch the flow of the horde to make sure the team didn’t hit crush – the point when the sheer numbers and mass of the horde would overcome all defensive actions. Jim just needed to recover and be ready to jump in if one of the team needed him.

The firing line opened up with full auto fire. With the suppressors, it sounded to Jim like a chorus of angry typewriters. Full auto wasn’t a good thing for fighting zombies. The only reason for the disciplined team to unleash that kind of fire was to open up space between the team and the horde. The leading zombies were less than twenty feet from the team. A normal human could cross that distance in a couple of seconds. Zombies did it in five to eight seconds. Jim saw the first few zombies quickly brought down, and then a barrage of fire tear apart the next group. Zombies collapsed as bullets shattered their legs.

For the first long seconds, Jim feared they would hit crush, but Mateo held the team in place. Then, the horde suddenly thinned, allowing the team to shift from opening distance to engaging the zombies with aimed head shots. The whole fight took less than a minute to finish. Jim realized the horde was less than fifty zombies strong. Billy and Quentin did a routine check to make sure all the zombies were put down as the rest of the team reloaded and prepared for going deeper into the mine. The Steve gave Jim a shot of his infamous "Happy Juice," a concoction of a pain killer and stimulant. As the injection hit Jim, he felt his head start to clear and some of his pain fell away. He realized Mateo was talking to him.

"Jim, how is this mine laid out?" Mateo repeated his question.

"I don’t know," Jim answered, "The kids don’t go beyond the first fifty feet or so. I know the parents always tell the kids the mine was closed down because it wasn’t stable. You could get trapped in a collapse and all that."

"Okay, we’ll take this slow," Mateo said, "I don’t want to run into in any more surprises if I don’t have to." He looked over at Jim with a sympathetic look. "I know you want to get down there fast, but we won’t do her any good if we get dead." Jim nodded. Something felt wrong. He pushed it down to focus on what he needed to do. Still, something was tickling the back of his mind.

The team descended into the icy blackness of the mine. Jim came up to the mine many times when he was a kid, but he never remembered the old mine being this eerie. The team’s weapon-mounted lights pushed back the inky darkness only about twenty yards. Not even the team’s nightvision could penetrate the darkness. Gusts of wind blew out of the mine. On the tails of the gusts were haunting moans. At first, this caused the team to tense up for a fight. The tension turned into annoyance as they continued down. There was little doubt Alan was behind the parlor tricks. It felt almost juvenile from a person who demonstrated the ability to bring down helicopters and drones.

Billy stopped and crouched. The team froze in place. Mateo moved up next to Billy. Jim looked down the mine shaft, but he couldn’t see anything beyond the edge of the team’s lights. Jim didn’t personally like Billy, but he trusted the kid’s instincts. He saw the flicker of movement just on the edge of the light. It moved too fast to be a zombie. Jim brought up his carbine. The weapon was torn out of his hands as something shot out of the darkness. Jim spared a momentary glance to see the black-bladed axe protruding out of his carbine before transitioning to his revolver.

A withered corpse covered in blue runes shot out from the darkness. It let out a howling screech as it attacked Billy with a primitive axe. It looked like a gollum, but it was missing the stone medallion that bestowed its mystical powers. Billy blocked the creature’s flurry of blows long enough for Quentin to slide to the creature’s side and bring down his warhammer on its head. The blow sent the gollum to the mine’s floor and left its head a broken, soggy mess. The corpse just sat there instead of withering away to a skeleton. The group exchanged looks. First the goats and yeti at the mouth of the cave, now a bad copy of gollums. What other new horrors were they going to run into?

"Form up," Mateo ordered. The team fell into its normal lineup, but the annoyance was gone. Alan conjured up things none of the team had ever fought. If he used that much power just to play with the team, what would happen when they finally confronted him? The moaning winds started again. The cold cut straight to Jim’s bones. Everything ached and keeping up the pace grew harder. As the team continued to descend into the mine, Jim decided this was going to be his last field mission. He was getting too old to do this, and he was pretty sure he did some permanent damage to himself on this mission. If what Mateo said about having the proof that Sheriff Jones framed him, then maybe Jim could just stay in Salem. Maybe he could go back to being Nate West and—

The floor fell out from under Jim. His mind had just a second to realize he was falling before he slammed into the floor. He felt the breath whoosh out of him. As he gasped, Alan loomed over him with an insane grin on his face. As Jim looked into the face of his friend turned enemy, the only thought that crossed his mind was how badly Alan had aged. The man’s face was gaunt with sunken features. He sort of looked like a corpse.

"Why Nathan, so good of you to drop in," cackled Alan. He laughed maniacally at his own joke. Jim didn’t bother with a retort. He managed to keep a hold of his revolver after crashing onto the floor. Without a word, Jim whipped the revolver at Alan and fired twice. Alan jerked as the heavy bullets hammered into his torso. He dropped to the ground.

"NO!" screamed a woman’s voice. Before Jim could look where the voice came from, someone leapt on top of him. He felt the padded thumps as the person unleashed a flurry of futile blows. Jim pistol-whipped the person off of him. It wasn’t until she rolled onto her back that Jim recognized his assailant as his daughter. Guilt hammered through him as he saw the angry purple bruise forming up on her cheek. She looked stunned, as if trying to figure out what had just happened.

Jim looked around. He was in some sort of cavern. The chamber was maybe fifty feet wide and lit with a combination of glow sticks, torches, and fluorescent lanterns. A pair of bedrolls and camping gear was in one corner. As he looked up, he couldn’t see the hole he fell through. He glanced at his PDA. The shattered face looked blankly up at him. He mentally shrugged. He had done okay before Mateo foisted all of those gadgets on him. What he needed to do was find the way out.

A wave of excruciating pain washed over him. Every part of him screamed in agony. As the pain faded, he found himself on the ground unable to move. Alan was crouched next to him, just barely within Jim’s peripheral vision. Alan turned Jim’s head gently so the two were looking at each other. Alan had taken off the robes. He was almost naked, except for some sort of underwear and what looked like a conquistador breast plate. The long knife was balanced in a loose grip. Alan’s body reminded Jim of the pictures of the Jews who survived the concentration camps. Jim wanted to scream and vomit at the same time. Unable to do either, he tried to find his hands and feet.

"For the record, that hurt," Alan announced, pointing at two small dents in the armor. "My own fault, really. I didn’t think you had it in you. You’d think after the last time, I would know better." Jim glared up at him. He wanted to throw every evil curse he could think of at Alan.

"Oh, don’t look at me like that," Alan said with a righteous indignation, "You still don’t understand what this was all about." Alan waved dramatically at the cave. "I did this all for you, my friend. All of this for you." He kneeled next to Jim’s paralyzed body. There was a look of compassion on Alan’s face. The look terrified Jim.

"I’m going to explain this to you Nathan, not because I want to gloat, but because I want you out of this. I owe you that much," Alan said. "I know what you’re thinking. Why do I owe you? Because you didn’t kill me all those years ago. Thanks to your mercy, I found out what I was supposed to do with my life. I found my calling. Because of Zombie Strike, I was recruited by the one you call Giant. We find that nickname amusing, even if Mikhail won’t let us use it around him. Anyways, when I was told to retrieve the artifacts here, I knew I had the opportunity to help you, and repay you for your kindness." Alan paused long enough to sit down cross legged next to Jim.

"When Giant told me to get these," Alan said, motioning to the breastplate and the knife, "I knew I could force you to come back here and face your past. I may be insane, but even I can spot a frame-up when I see it. I also knew that your comrades had the proof to clear you. I just needed to push you to confronting your past. Now you’re name’s been cleared, you’ve reconnected with the lost love of your life, and managed to rescue your daughter. Well, what’s left of her. I owed you for killing my son. I took my pound of flesh from her, so to speak." Alan got up from the floor and walked to one of the walls.

"Your team will find you soon," Alan said, "Quit Zombie Strike. Just because some of your teammates are fated to fight us doesn’t mean you have to join them in death. Your daughter is going to need your help. Stockholm Syndrome combined with being used to unleash powerful magic does horrific things to a young woman’s mind." Alan almost sounded remorseful. He stabbed the knife into the wall of the cavern. The cavern filled with bright white light as Alan opened a slit in the wall. There was one more sorrowful look before Alan slipped into the wall and vanished.

Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 33 – Epilogue