Salem, Wyoming; 9 October 2011, 1300 hours local; Countdown: 2 months, 23 days
Quentin McLintock had attended far too many of these over the past couple of years. He felt the tears flow down his cheeks as Jim’s coffin was lowered into the Wyoming soil. Jim’s death still didn’t feel real to Quentin. Even after seeing him laid out, Quentin half-expected the gregarious cowboy to be waiting for the team when they got back to Skull Island.
"Doesn’t seem like he’s gone," Sport said quietly.
"Nope," Quentin agreed, not trusting his voice for more. Quentin pulled his overcoat tighter. After the heat in Jerusalem, the cold of Wyoming seemed to bite even harder.
"At least his kid’s right in the head again," Sport said. The appearance of Jim’s former lover and daughter surprised Quentin. Coyote and Raven, the Native American totem spirits, came through with their end of the bargain. Quentin wondered if they knew their bargain was going to cost Jim his life, and if they told him.
"They didn’t need to tell him," an unfamiliar voice said from behind. Quentin turned to find a young Native American man in a dark suit. Billy trotted up to the newcomer furiously wagging his tail. Jess strode over following the pup. The man knelt down and rubbed the spirit wolf’s head. He looked up at Jess with disturbing golden eyes.
"You’ve been taking good care of him, little sister," the man said, "He looks ready for the fight."
"Wolf," Jess breathed. Quentin fought the urge to step back as he realized he was in a deific presence. If he noticed, Wolf didn’t show it.
"Why are you here?" asked Mateo, joining the small group, "Are you going to send my people harrowing off on another mission and culling another?" Everyone except Wolf shrank back at Mateo’s barely controlled fury. Wolf just stood as stoic as the mountains surrounding them.
"No, Mateo. From everything my brothers and sisters can see, this is the calm before the storm. None of the sides will be doing anything until it is time for the ritual. That is the only good news that I can give you," Wolf said.
"You didn’t answer my first question," Mateo said.
"No, I didn’t," Wolf answered. "The truth is I’m here to see my son and my little sister. This will be the last opportunity I have before you all travel to the City of the Dead. After that, I don’t know who will survive." Wolf knelt down and stroked Billy’s fur with an apprehensive look. He looked back up to Mateo. "You have almost three months before the fight. Take some of that time and make sure you go see your daughter. All of you should try and see your family. I don’t know who, or if any, of you will come back out."
Chicago, Illinois; 15 October 2011; 2100 hours local; Countdown: 2 months, 16 days
Castle sipped his cup of tea as he looked out across the Chicago nightline. He could feel the pull from the City of the Dead, even from this far away. It seemed almost unreal. After so long, so many machinations, the final day was so close. The sensation was almost intoxicating. So very soon, the entire world would be reborn and he would lead them as Xipe Totec’s chosen acolyte. Castle almost didn’t hear the door sliding open behind him.
"I hate this city," Mikhail grumbled, walking out to join his leader. The leader of the Champions had been in a foul mood since the death of Alan. Castle found that odd. Mikhail never seemed to get along with the now-deceased leader of the sorcerers.
"As much as I hate to admit it, this is the one place close enough to the City of the Dead where we could hide," Castle said, annoyed at admitting the truth to one of his subordinates. "The Americans are too talented at investigation to risk anything closer. We needed to get into America before they started shutting down the borders." Mikhail didn’t say anything for a long while.
"Damn the Guardians," Mikhail spat out, breaking the silence. "If they hadn’t interfered, the path would be set."
"That was my gamble. The Guardians warned me against doing it, but I decided to chance it," Castle said, correcting his subordinate, "I wasn’t expecting those meddlesome totem animals to involve themselves even more. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been wrong. Xipe Tzin comes to mind."
"You should have let me kill him as soon as he tried to usurp you," Mikhail said, leaning against the balcony.
"Maybe. That’s neither here nor there at the moment. How are our forces?" Castle asked.
"Good. We know have a hundred Champions backed up by nearly that many Warriors. The sorcerers have nearly two dozen ready to accompany us into the city. That should be plenty to deal with anything the Great Death decides to throw at us."
"And anything from Zombie Strike as well."
Washington D.C.; 20 October, 2011; 1000 hours local; Countdown: 2 months, 11 days
Jess hesitantly knocked on the door. The phone call asking her to come to Washington came out of nowhere. Mateo was reluctant to let her go scampering up to the capital while they were visiting Mercedes in Tampa. Jess had been forced to remind Mateo that she was an adult now, and one who fought the undead on a regular basis. A side trip wasn’t something she couldn’t handle on her own. Mateo grumbled, but still drove her to the airport.
Robyn Adams beamed at Jess as she opened the door. Jess almost leapt into the woman’s arms, but was frozen as her eyes swept Robyn. The bulge in her middle was small, but noticeable. Robyn solved the issue by grabbing Jess’s arm and dragging her into the apartment. As soon as the door was shut, Robyn engulfed Jess in a warm embrace.
"It’s so good to see you again Jess," Robyn said.
"You’re pregnant?" Jess asked, still in shock.
"Yes. That was one of the reasons I needed to leave Skull Island. And Mateo," Robyn said, her voice dropping to neutral as the two walked to the living room. Jess stopped as she saw the other woman. The woman was blonde, tall, and vaguely familiar. Jess hadn’t met her before, but she knew she’d seen this woman somewhere.
"And this is one of the other reasons I left," Robyn said, motioning to the woman, "Jess Montgomery, meet Sissy O’Connell." Jess took Sissy’s outstretched hand with trepidation. Sissy was a skilled zombie killer even before she’d joined Zombie Strike. After her recovery from the team’s first mission, Sissy became an even more feared zombie killer amongst the various zombie militias that dotted the American landscape.
"Hello," Jess said, not sure of how to handle things. From what Mateo said Sissy had been pretty emphatic about not having anything more to do with Zombie Strike.
"Relax, girl," Sissy said with a bright smile, "We’re not ambushing you. I’m not here to cause trouble. If anything, I’m here to help." Jess gave the two women a quizzical look.
"Jess, I know what’s coming," Robyn said, "I knew I couldn’t stay and distract Matt when he needed to be focused the most. I also know that Zombie Strike needs every trained person it can lay its hands on. So, I found Sissy and convinced her that her help was going to be needed for this as well."
"So why did you call me and not Matt, or even Quentin?" Jess asked.
"Because I missed you, silly," Robyn said, hugging the girl again. "Plus, I was pretty sure that you could use some ‘girl time’ before things got ratcheted back up." Robyn let Jess go and sat down. "Also, I just couldn’t handle talking to Matt right now. I get pretty emotional quick. It would’ve been bad." There was an uncomfortable silence as Jess tried to figure out what to say next. Fortunately, Sissy spoke next.
"Listen, none of us are ready to deal with the menfolk right now," Sissy said, "So let’s get some lunch and shopping in while we can. Tomorrow’s going to be too busy."
"What happens tomorrow?" Jess asked.
"That’s when we start teaching each other everything there is to know about shooting," Sissy said. "It’s okay if you didn’t bring your rifle. I made sure that we had one set up just for you."