St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 1930 hours local; Countdown: 4 hours, 30 minutes
Castle woke with a start as the acolyte burst into room. He was surprised when he realized he actually fallen asleep. He checked his expensive wristwatch. The gold timepiece was one of his few vanities. The acolyte was almost vibrating with excitement as Castle settled himself back into the waking world. The acolyte serving as Castle’s attendant handed him a thermos of coffee. With the steaming liquid working its magic, Castle motioned for the messenger.
"My lord, Zombie Strike came under attack by the two of the Little Death," the acolyte said, "Both of the Little Death were destroyed, but the Great Champion believes there are more in the City of the Dead." Castle nodded at the news, but he didn’t say anything. He needed to maintain his appearance as the wise chosen leader of the Truth. Why did Alan have to get killed in Ukraine? Castle needed the wizard’s ability to know which of the prophecies were coming to pass. Alan would have warned him of the Little Death. Castle put away the recriminations and stood up. He would deal with the path as it was, not as he wanted it to be.
"If there were only two that attacked Zombie Strike, then there are definitely more," Castle said, getting up from the recliner, "Did they manage to kill any of Zombie Strike?"
"We think so, but the Great Champion didn’t allow our people to get too close," the acolyte answered, leading Castle to Mikhail’s impromptu command center in the center of the abandoned department store the Truth was using as their headquarters. Mikhail, the Great Champion of the Truth, stood at the center of the command center. He was dressed in his fighting clothing, the tight fitting jumpsuit Zombie Strike mockingly called his "ninja suit." The Whip of Xipe Totec was coiled at Mikhail’s waist. The seven-foot tall man stood completely still as he studied two large monitors.
Much to Castle’s surprise, Collin DuBois stood next to Mikhail. The former Zombie Strike second-in-command had been the Truth’s prisoner for many months, although his teammates thought he was dead. That was going to be a nasty shock for them. Collin was the worst type of prisoner – intelligent, trained, and utterly ruthless. All of his resistance stopped the moment that the Truth’s force came into St. Louis. Collin wasn’t a believer in the Truth, but he was a believer in stopping the Great Death. For the moment, Collin believed the only way to stop the Great Death was the Golden Rite. That was fortunate, because Castle was sure Collin would be the Betrayer, one of the four Pillars. The four Pillars – the Champion, the Betrayer, the Undecided, and the Chooser – would be needed to channel the power of Xipe Totec unpicked by the Key. They would do so by sacrificing their very lives. Castle reached into his satchel and drew out the baseball-sized orb of obsidian. According to the prophecies, the orb was supposed to be the Key, but Alan couldn’t get it to work to test it. Perhaps it would only activate when the Pillars were in place. Castle replaced the Key into his satchel as Collin and Mikhail noticed him.
"My lord, we’re searching for the rest of the Little Death right now. I have several of my Champions spread out between here and the ritual site," Mikhail said.
"How many do you have guarding the site?" Castle asked.
"None," Mikhail answered, "We don’t need to." Castle wanted to scream at his Great Champion, but kept his calm. Not trusting himself to speak, Castle made a motion for Mikhail to elaborate. Before Mikhail said anything, Collin cut in.
"Zombie Strike’s pretty well forted up where you wanted to cast your magic spell," Collin said, motioning at one of the monitors the pair were studying when Castle walked in. "The boys and girls dragged a bunch of weapons and ammo off those boats and some other stuff. They managed to cobble up a pretty impressive little fighting position. Quentin’s missing though. I imagine he bought it when those two vampires attacked." Castle nodded. Quentin was the walking mountain of a man who was Zombie Strike’s primary resource on the deciphering the prophecies. Castle almost smiled at the man’s death. He knew better to do so if he wanted to keep Collin in line for the time being.
An explosion from the front of the store ripped Castle from his thoughts. Castle started to look down the main concourse, but he was pulled back by a pair of gun-toting acolytes. More explosions rocked the store punctuated with screams of pain and terror. Castle could barely make out yelled orders from his Champions guarding the front. The dozen or so Champions manning the command center grabbed their various artifacts and braced for whatever was attacking their comrades. Mikhail uncoiled their god’s whip and let it dance in his hand. Some of the Champions were emboldened by their leader’s easy confidence, but Castle knew better. The constantly moving whip showed Mikhail’s discomfort like the tail of a cat. The only one in the room who truly seemed to be calm and ready was Collin. Three bodies were tossed clear across the command center before smacking into the far wall. Castle watched as they fell to the ground like meat sacks. They were dead, but that didn’t mean they were useless. Speaking a few words under his breath, Castle reached out to their corpses with the powers given to him by the Flayed One. The three rose and waited for his command like flesh statues. Sharp intakes of breath around him brought Castle’s attention to the front.
Four un-evolved Little Death stood in front of the command center. Three were the normal seven-foot tall furry demonic mix of man and bat. The last one was much taller. Its head was barely below the ceiling. It was more powerfully built. Castle could feel the otherworldly power radiating from the quartet. There was a tense moment of almost silence as the two forces stared each other down. Castle wasn’t sure which happened first, but one of the smaller creatures lunged at the Champion nearest to it as the Champion unleashed a blast of mystic energy from a small silver scepter. The bright blue beam struck the Little Death but did little besides some singed fur. The monster lashed out with a clawed hand and neatly decapitated the Champion. Castle growled. That one was useless. The Champions unleashed their various artifacts as the Little Death attacked. Castle didn’t pay attention to the melee. He was too busy reaching out with his powers. There was something different about these creatures. They were not like the previous Little Death he encountered. Some of his power was animating the corpses of his fallen Champions. The rest was calling his warriors to him.
"Give me that bloody gun," snapped Collin, snatching the assault rifle from one of Castle’s guards, "Your magic isn’t slowing those buzzsaws down much." Castle didn’t have to look up to know Collin was speaking the truth. The various artifacts didn’t seem to have much effect on these Little Death. Collin brought the weapon to his shoulder and unleashed a burst of fire into the closest Little Death. The creature screamed in sudden surprise as the bullets tore into it. Black blood spilled out onto the linoleum floor.
"Attack them physically," Mikhail ordered, his voice booming over the screams and snarls. He snapped the whip across another creature’s back leaving a three-foot black gash in its pelt. Castle smiled as his few remaining Champions attacked using their artifacts as impromptu weapons. Collin changed magazines and poured another torrent of gunfire into the same Little Death. Then, the screeching battle cries of the warriors filled the command center.
"About time you used the gollums," Collin commented, using Zombie Strike’s nickname for his warriors. The half-dozen wiry, slate-skinned creatures, blue runes painted over their bodies, leapt at the Little Death. Their obsidian-bladed axes bit deep into the creatures’ bodies. The Little Death Collin shot was brought to the floor by two warriors. They kept chopping at the monster as it fell. Less than a second later, the Little Death was consumed in a ball of fire. Collin stepped back from the intense heat and brightness. The warriors, protected by the Flayed One’s power in their stone medallions, staggered away from the ashes and promptly leapt onto the large monster. The three remaining Little Death managed to throw off the warriors besieging them. In the blink of an eye, the three creatures disappeared. Collin gasped in shock and started pointing his gun around the command center. Castle stepped up and put his hand on the weapon.
"They’re gone," Castle said.
"Those weren’t like the Little Death we fought before," Mikhail said, surveying the carnage around him. All but two of the Champions were dead and most of the equipment was destroyed. Castle could feel a few more of his Champions fighting to stay alive. They wouldn’t make it.
"Yes, they were something altogether different," Castle agreed, focusing on raising the corpses around him. As soon as he accomplished the task, Castle turned to Collin. As much as Castle hated the thought, the path must be followed.
"I think it’s time for you to meet back with your former allies. We’re going to need Zombie Strike’s help in finding these Little Death and exterminating them before they can stop the Golden Rite." Well, if Castle was lucky, most of them would be killed in the process.