Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 2300 hours local; Countdown: 1 hour

Mateo Cortez watched as the Truth’s minions constructed the site for the Golden Ritual. He hoped none of his nervousness showed through his impassive facade. He looked down and read the notes on his PDA. Quentin wrote most of them. A small pang of loss echoed through Mateo as he remembered the gentle, giant scholar. Mateo hoped they were correct. If they were wrong, the best outcome would be St. Louis turned into nuclear glass and the America’s heartland subject to some nasty fallout. The worst would be the conquering of the world by an army of inter-dimensional vampires or a human-sacrificing death cult. The worst part was that in all possibilities, he wouldn’t be there to protect his daughters.

Mateo had been pretty sure that Quentin had been wrong. As he sat silently across from Giant, Mateo had been planning the man’s death and resigning himself to dying in the nuclear fires. He understood Collin’s decision to help the Truth in those bleak hours. Then, his team returned from wiping out the vampires’ advance guard and the last puzzle piece fell into place. It felt like Quentin looked down from heaven and drew back the curtain on the path. Mateo hoped Quentin was still smiling down on the team. They were going to need every bit of edge they could get.

The site was actually quite impressive. The Truth’s minions and remaining gollums cleared an area maybe four hundred yards in front of the Gateway Arch. The minions were using a gold-flecked powder to draw several interlocking designs. The whole thing was maybe three hundred yards wide. From the recon feed on Tredegar’s computer, the site reminded Mateo of the Nazca lines in South America. Five gold pedestals were placed in an arc maybe fifty feet wide in the center of the ritual site. At the focal point of the arc was what looked like a golden book stand. A baseball-sized orb of obsidian was resting on the stand. A pair of minions stood guard over the orb.

"Are you sure about this Mattie?" Collin asked softly.

"Sure? No. But Quentin and Jess poured over the prophecies we stole from the Truth. Quentin was reasonably sure about it. To be honest, I’d rather trust Quentin than Castle," Mateo answered. Collin simply nodded. In the short time since the combined Zombie Strike-Truth team returned from dealing with the vampires, the two men mended their relationship. It helped when Mateo revealed their plan to his former second-in-command. It was a gamble, but it paid off. Collin leapt to help with the plan like a drowning man to a piece of driftwood.

"Everyone’s been briefed," Chief Stahl informed Mateo as he casually strolled up to the two men. Mateo half-expected the chief to go ballistic when he found out Mateo brought Collin in on the plan. Instead, the chief simply nodded as if he was checking off a list of things the team needed to do.

"Any issues?" Mateo asked.

"You need to talk to your daughter," Stahl said. Mateo nodded and walked over to where Jess leaned up against Billy. The spirit wolf was now the size of a Clydesdale horse and glowed with pulsing power. She looked up as Mateo approached. She’d learned to mimic Mateo’s expressionless face, but he could see the tension in her body.

"I hate you. Quentin and you both," she said flatly. Mateo sat down next to his foster daughter. He wrapped his arms around her. She resisted at first, but finally relented and leaned into him.

"Since this whole thing started, everyone’s been so worried about me fulfilling my destiny. They should have been worried about you. Of all of us, you got the worst role of all. I wish I’d seen it before it was forced on you."

"You’d still let it happen," Jess snarled.

"You’ve been spending too much time with Sissy," Mateo observed. He continued before Jess could interrupt, "She hates me, and she has every right to. I pushed her too far in order to win. I knew it, and I did it anyway because I was trying to stop an evil man."

"So why is it different with me?" Jess asked.

"First, because you’re my daughter and I love you. I can’t tell you how proud I am of the woman you’ve become," Mateo answered. Jess looked down, and Mateo could almost see her ears glow pink with sudden embarrassment. "I also learned that some sacrifices aren’t worth the cost."

"So how come-" Jess started before Mateo laid his finger on her lips.

"Because sometimes they are worth they cost," Mateo answered, a sad look in his eyes. Father and daughter silently wept as Billy curled around them protectively. The three of them just sat there for a while, ignoring time as best as they could.

"Matt?" a cold, feminine voice said, breaking the spell. Mateo looked up at Sissy O’Connell.

"What’s up?" Mateo asked in reply as he stood up.

"Those funny old men just appeared," Sissy said, jerking her thumb behind her. Mateo looked over her shoulder and nodded.

"It’s almost time. Go get in position," Mateo ordered. The female sniper unslung her L96 and ghosted into the darkness. Mateo gave Jess a quick peck on her cheek before striding over to the growing group.

As Quentin guessed, the Guardians had appeared. The path was nearing its end. It would be their duty to witness and guide the mortals through the Golden Ritual to harness the power of the god Xipe Totec. It would be the Guardians that confirmed who was to fulfill each of the roles. Mateo and Quentin’s plan rested on when the Guardians would make the confirmation.

"It is time Mateo," Giant said smugly as he approached. The Guardians hovered wordlessly as Castle, Collin, and Chief Stahl stood by. Stahl and Collin nodded imperceptibly at Mateo.

"You’re right. It is time," Mateo said. Something in his tone must have alerted Castle. The leader of the Truth suddenly looked concerned. "It’s time I killed you Giant."

"Haven’t you figured it out? I am invulnerable to your pathetic weapons," Giant roared with frustration, "Even if you could kill me, I am the Champion. I am one of the five for the Golden Ritual."

"Been thinking about that," Mateo said, reaching behind his back and pulling the strap. "One of the things we learned in that sojourn across Europe is that the roles aren’t set until the moment of the ritual. I’m thinking right now isn’t the moment. As for killing you, that took a bit longer to figure out." Giant lashed out with his whip. In one fluid motion, Mateo, yanked Quentin’s warhammer and knocked the whip away.

"You think that hammer will do anything to me?" Giant snarled, "It hasn’t yet."

"Normally, no. Then, I remembered how I killed Xipe Tzin," Mateo said. Giant’s eyes went wide as he realized what Mateo was saying. "A warhammer alone couldn’t do a damn thing to you. The hammer of a slain hero. That’s another thing altogether."

Mateo and Giant bellowed their battle cries an instant before the entire ritual site exploded in gunfire.

Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 118