Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 2350 hours local; Countdown: 10 minutes

Mateo Cortez watched at the Gateway Arch exploded in light. In the air midway between the top of the arch and the ground, a hole appeared. Mateo’s mind recoiled in horror as he saw the very edge of the Great Death’s home world. He could feel the Great Death pushing its unnatural presence into the world. A tendril of otherworld terror seemed to wrap around Mateo. Then, a pulse of energy shot up from the golden pedestal and drove the tendril away. Brilliant white-gold light sprang up from the ritual lines drawn around him. In front of him, an arch of shimmering gold energy rose up from the ground.

Bolts of blue-white lightning erupted from the Gateway Arch. Gold-white lanced out from the energy arch. As the two energies collided, brilliant explosions lit the area brighter than the day. The attacks ceased just as quickly as they started. The two energies pulsed angrily at each other. The few surviving minions and gollums walked to the edge of the ritual area. They began a low chanting in the Aztec language. Mateo didn’t know what the words meant, but he’d heard Quentin and Jess speaking it enough to recognize the sound.

Two beams of energy erupted from the hovering Guardians to the top of the energy arch. A tear in the air appeared and a man floated out. The man was dressed only in a long leather cloak, loincloth, leather leggings, and a gold feathered headdress. His bronze skin and long black hair reminded Mateo of the Seminoles in Florida. The man held out his hand. The whip next to Giant levitated and the shot into the man’s waiting hand. Not man, this was a god. The god Mateo had been fighting for the last two-and-a-half years. Xipe Totec floated to the ground. He casually strode up to Mateo.

"I sense the fight in you against the path," the god said in a voice that nearly tore Mateo’s mind apart. "You chose correctly in pillars of the Golden Ritual. Now, stop your futile struggle and take the next step. I will protect your line. Your adopted daughter, your daughter, and your unborn son." Mateo’s eyes went wide at Xipe Totec’s words.

"What?" Mateo asked, his mind reeling.

"Focus, Mateo," Billy said, "Father reminds you why you’re standing there."

"Pup, your father and his family failed each time the Great Death threatened your worshippers. Your power may be necessary for the Golden Ritual, but your words are worthless." Xipe Totec turned his gaze back on Mateo. "The artifacts are in place. The shield has been raised. Initiate the Key and seal the Great Death from our world for another thousand years."

"Yes, Mateo, initiate the Key," Castle pleaded. "Take the Key and release the power of the Golden Ritual before they break through."

"Mattie, stay true," Collin said from his position, "If you falter, that bugger will siphon enough power from the clash of energies to dominate every god on our world."

"It is my right!" Xipe Totec yelled, and all of the humans fell to their knees. The gollums screeched in pain. "I let my people be decimated by the followers of your god. I let them die so that they would be reborn now. I set these events in motion. I set the path."

"They knew what you did," Stahl said, "That’s why they forced you to set the ritual like this. As powerful as you are, it will be a human who finally decides the fate of this world. It will be humans who either protect or damn this world. You, in your arrogance, decided that you’d make the path in such a fashion that when the human ascended to the moment, he’d think there was only one way to complete the ritual. That he’d have to give you exactly what you wanted."

"There is only one way to complete the ritual and protect this world. Even your pathetic atomic weapons will not stop the Great Death. You must do what is needed Mateo, or everyone you love will be consumed by the Great Death." Mateo met the intense gaze of the god with his cool countenance. Mateo was in this place for a number of reasons. One of those was his stubborn refusal to believe he was fate’s puppet. A malicious grin slowly spread across Mateo’s face.

"I am the Chooser," Mateo stated, "I choose that the Key is the woman known as Jessica Montgomery, bound to me in love as my daughter."

"What?" Castle asked in surprise. Jess slung her SCAR sniper rifle and crossed the threshold into the ritual area. She walked to the pedestal and picked up the obsidian orb.

"Command her, Chooser," Xipe Totec demanded. Mateo held his foster daughter’s sad gaze. He desperately wished he could spare her this. No one should have to take this on their soul.

"Initiate the moment of the path Key," Mateo said. She looked mournfully at Mateo, Stahl, Collin, and finally, Billy. She took a deep breath and started into Xipe Totec’s laughing dark eyes.

"I am the Key," Jess said formally, "I initiate the moment of the path." Mateo and the other pillars levitated above the pedestals. A beam of energy shot from Mateo’s chest to Xipe Totec. The god’s presence filled his mind. Mateo looked and saw similar beams from each of the other pillars. Xipe Totec glowed with power.

"I am the Key," Jess said, with a determined voice, "I configure the power to seal the tear between this world and the other." She held the orb aloft and stretched the obsidian like it was Silly Putty. Jess pulled it into a long thin spear.

"What are you doing?" Xipe Totec demanded.

"You made a very bad mistake in focusing on the Chooser," Mateo said, "The real power of your Golden Ritual laid with the Key." Mateo looked down at Jess. "Throw it!" Jess nodded, tears streaming down her cheek.

"No!" screamed Xipe Totec and the Guardians. Gateway Park rumbled like an earthquake.

"Screw you," Jess said and flung the obsidian spear into the Great Death’s entryway. Mateo smiled as the spear entered the dimensional tear. Then, there was a flash of brilliant light. That was the last thing Mateo saw on this world.

Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri; 1 January, 2012, 0000 hours local; Countdown: 0 minutes

Jess watched as the Gateway Arch turned to pulsing red energy. The entire six-hundred foot structure shook and convulsed, and then shrank down to a floating circle maybe a hundred feet wide. Hundreds of streams of purple energy shot across the night sky into the circle. More streams erupted from the minions and gollums. As their energy was sucked into the hole, the minions and the gollums dissolved into dust. Then the circle quivered one last time and vanished into the night.

"This is the way the world will end, not with a bang, but a whimper," The Steve said in an uncharacteristic soft tone.

"What?" Jess said, her eyes torn from where the circle had been.

"Some poem The Steve read a long time ago," The Steve said, "Probably not the correct words." Jess could only stare at the team medic in bewilderment. The Steve simply shrugged and then spun around. "Hey Tredegar, get on that fancy phone of yours and tell the bombers to abort before they make The Steve glow in the dark."

Jess sank to the cold ground. She’d done it. When Quentin, Mateo, and Chief Stahl told her what she needed to do, she’d nearly ran away. Even until the last moment, she didn’t know if she’d have the strength to go through with it. Jess felt a warm arm go around her. Sissy tucked the girl’s head under her chin and gently rocked her.

"It’s okay, sweetie," Sissy breathed, "They knew what they were doing. They gave up their lives to save all of us. I’m sure they’re in a better place now. Even the chief." Jess let out a hysterical laugh. It dissolved into torrential sobbing.

"You don’t understand," Jess managed between sobs, "I didn’t kill them. I sent them and Xipe Totec into the Great Death’s world. We didn’t seal the tear. We launched a counter-invasion."

"What?" Sissy asked her entire body paralyzed with shock.

"It was the only way to make sure those vampires never came to this world again," Jess answered, her voice barely controlled. "I sent Xipe Totec, Mateo, Collin, Billy, the chief, and Castle into their world to fight. It will be a war the Great Death never expects, and they’ll never recover from it. They’ll never threaten our world again."

"What will happen to Matt and the others?" Sissy asked.

"They’ll be trapped in that world forever," Jess said, "Even after they die, they’ll stay there. So no, they aren’t in a better place. And they never will be. That was the cost of protecting this world from the vampires forever." Jess erupted into more sobs. Sissy could only rock the girl as her own tears fell down her cheeks.

Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 120 – Epilogue