Southern outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 0730 hours local; Countdown: 16 hours, 30 minutes
Mateo Cortez ducked as the gollum swung its axe. He felt the obsidian blade whistle over his head. Mateo tried to bring his M4 up. The added weight of the underslung shotgun made him slow. Suddenly, Quentin was standing next to him. The big man caught the axe on his reinforced forearm armor. A hammer blow to the hip drove the gollum to the ground. Mateo saw his chance and fired. The 5.56mm round shattered the gollum’s stone medallion – and its mystical protection. Its unearthly scream was cut short as Quentin decapitated it with a single blow.
"Thanks," Mateo said. Two rifle cracks told him Sissy and Jess were keeping those minions’ heads down. Stahl, The Steve, and Sport were dealing with the small horde of zombies drawn by the crash of the tilt-rotor. Tredegar was talking into a radio with Evan standing over him. Billy had disappeared, chasing after the other gollum. Mateo moved next to Sissy behind the wreckage of the tilt-rotor.
"Any luck?" Mateo asked.
"Jess may have gotten a piece of hers," Sissy stated calmly, her eyes never coming off her scope. "Mine seems to have learned from his friend." Mateo peeked over the shattered wing. The first minion was lying dead. He’d been the leader of the Truth team sent to collect Zombie Strike. From the way the minion stormed into the crashed tilt-rotor, he expected to find the team knocked out. Mateo’s shotgun blast threw the minion out of the cargo compartment and sent his force scurrying.
"Well back to the original plan before those gollums interrupted us," Mateo said. "Tredegar, quit playing with that radio and get over here!" The FBI special agent scowled, but complied. Evan trotted behind Tredegar.
"As soon as I give you the word, I want you to run to that drugstore. Jess and Sissy’ll cover you," Mateo said, pointing at the building maybe a hundred yards from the tilt-rotor’s crash site. "Evan, you stay with Quentin and me."
"What do you want me to do when I get there?" Tredegar asked, clearly unsure of Mateo’s plan.
"You’ll know when you get there," Mateo said. Tredegar cautiously moved to the edge of the wreckage. With a weak smile, the FBI special agent gave Mateo a thumbs-up. Mateo and Quentin readied grenades. Mateo took one last look at the small wall the two remaining minions were using for cover.
"Now!" Mateo said. Tredegar sprinted out as Mateo and Quentin tossed their grenades. Quentin’s grenade started spewing bright blue smoke, blanketing the area. Mateo’s arched over the wall and detonated. His was a concussion grenade. Mateo, Quentin, and Evan stormed the wall. One of the minions stood up to attack the trio. A rifle cracked, and the minion’s head exploded into red mist. Quentin vaulted the low wall as Evan and Mateo brought their weapons over. Mateo swore. The last minion must have been too close to the concussion grenade. The side of his head looked like Quentin hit it with his hammer. Mateo wanted the last one alive. He needed intelligence.
"Why did you have me run towards the drugstore if you were going to just assault them?" Tredegar asked as the FBI agent rejoined the team.
"Because he was using you as a decoy," Sissy answered with a caustic tone. She shot Mateo an accusing glare. Tredegar just looked hurt and surprised.
"Sissy, in case you missed it, we’re trying to stop the end of the world," Mateo said. "I’m going to try and get us out of here alive, but I’ll spend your lives if I feel it necessary."
"Of course you will," Sissy said in a biting tone. She walked off to help the rest of the team finish off the zombies. Mateo swore under his breath.
"Tredegar, see if you can find us some vehicles. The minions would have to transport us in something," Mateo ordered. Quentin stood next to Mateo as Tredegar and Evan started their search.
"You could have handled that better, Matt," Quentin said.
"Maybe, but something about that woman," Mateo said, unable to say what was going through his mind. Ever since Sissy rejoined the team, she was like a splinter under Mateo’s skin.
"Just try to keep that infamous temper of your under control," Quentin said. "I’d like to see the New Year."
St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 0800 hours local; Countdown: 16 hours
Castle nearly shot the television. It was bad enough to watch Zombie Strike casually pick off Mikhail’s hand-picked retrieval team. Listening to Collin laugh as each of his Champions fell was maddening. If he didn’t need the ebony Brit, Castle would have put a bullet into that smiling face.
"Well that didn’t go as planned?" Collin said as Zombie Struck piled into the two cars the Champions brought to bring in the prisoners. "Be glad the ladies didn’t notice your boy with the camcorder. You’d have another of your boys in a body bag." Castle shot up from the chair and stormed over to where Mikhail was talking with another of his Champions.
"Your chosen team failed," Castle said his voice cold.
"No, they are still in place and following the Zombie Strike team," Mikhail said, turning to Castle. "Now, please go sit down until it’s time for the Golden Ritual."
"What did you say?" Castle demanded.
"You are letting your hatred of Zombie Strike affect your thinking," Mikhail said, his voice a careful neutral, "The last time we tried to capture Zombie Strike, they nearly killed you. Better to let them think they’re running free while keeping them under surveillance."
"Hate to admit it, but Giant’s right," Collin said, joining the two. "If you want Mateo, you’re going to need to let him come to you." Castle bit down the angry retort. Mikhail was his senior subordinate and ally. The Great Champion had already seen some of the path. He knew what would happen if they succeeded, and if they failed. Mikhail would not jeopardize the path the Truth had been walking for these many years.
"Mikhail continue your surveillance, but try to winnow off some of them." Castle said, not willing to fully relent against his need for revenge. Mikhail graciously accepted his partial victory with a slight bow.
"We shall do as ordered."