Category: Monday Fiction

Monday Fiction – Promise To The Magic Heart Snippet

I’ve been working on this novel for a while. Picked it up. Set it down. Changed multiple times. Figured I should at least put up a snippet.

Below is the beginning of the novel.

In the Republic of Marei, it was an accepted fact the Badlands should not be entered if one wanted to remain alive – or sane. It wasn’t because the Badlands were the largest stretch of desert on the continent of Torra. People survived and thrived in deserts for thousands of years. No, the reason no one went willingly into the Badlands was because they were a cursed land twisted over the last two centuries by unnatural magic. Most people went mad in a few months. Rin was one of the few who could work in the Badlands and keep his sanity. There were times he wasn’t sure if it was a blessing or a curse.

The magic might not make me insane, but seeing things like this might, Rin thought. After nearly eight years working in the Badlands as a Republican Ranger, Rin thought he’d seen pretty much all the horror the cursed lands could throw at him. He should have known better. Rin climbed down off his horse and carefully stepped on the sandy ground. His horse refused to go any closer. Forti Equo was a born-and-bred Badlands horse. Those didn’t speak easily. If Forti didn’t want to go near the scene, common sense was for Rin to gallop back to Fort Killian as fast as he could and return with as many of his brother rangers as he could grab. Sometimes, unfortunately, common sense needed to be put aside to get the job done. Particularly when dealing with demons.

Ghosts of the long dead daemon, demons were the rarest of the monsters in the Badlands – which was a very good thing. Demons were the most dangerous creatures in a land known for its dangers. Two centuries ago, the daemon invaded the world. They opened gates from their own cursed world and went about slaughtering all that stood on the land they craved. The races of the world threw everything they could conjure or forge at the daemons, but nothing could stop the tide of the monsters. In the end the daemon threat ended because of one human wizard. Killian and his Benevolent Betrayal. Standing somewhere in what would become the Badlands, Killian sealed away almost all of the world’s natural magic. Without the streams of natural magic, the daemons’ power was ripped from them. It made them vulnerable to the weapons of the races of the world. That was the benevolent part. The betrayal was the destruction wreaked upon the world.  Hundreds of thousands died when the center of Torra continent collapsed, and the waters of the rushed in forming the Little Sea. It was much worse for the Crystal Empire across the Jeweled Sea. The betrayal nearly destroyed their entire civilization.  

“Told you,” hissed the foul creature, shimmering into visibility, “Told you truth.” Rin ignored the demon as he studied the scene.

“Done what was required. Fulfill the bargain,” the demon said, with a voice like a loud, malicious whisper. Most people thought demons were dangerous because the monsters could tear through an army platoon without effort. Some demons could, but most of them were little more than shadows. The real reason demons were dangerous was because they still had some of their own magic. Enough to channel the trickles of natural magic into powerful spells. Demons used their magic to lure idiots looking for power. Those idiots never understood that the demons’ magic also allowed them to enforce a bargain. Any demon’s ultimate goal was to gain a shard of a person’s soul. The power of a soul allowed the demon to fully come into the world with all the power and terror of the long-dead daemon. A souled demon was immensely powerful in its own right, but it could also bind any other demon and use their power. Most Rin’s job was stopping the fools looking for demons before the demons found them. That didn’t mean he was above bargaining with the demons when needed.

“Not until I’m satisfied,” Rin replied. The demon tried to look more threatening. Demons could look however they wanted. They ranged the gamut from simple innocent-looking tricksters to true horrors that hurt a person’s mind just by looking. Most demons tried to mimic humans when dealing with people, but for some reason they could never get the details quite right. The eyes were too big, or the hair was a metallic color, or there were tentacles instead of fingers. There was always something off. This demon didn’t bother with pretenses. Rin wasn’t a short man, but the demon’s three-meter frame towered over him. Its current form was a slimy, bulging mass of gray flesh, tentacles, and claws. There was only a small protrusion with eyes and a mouth to talk with Rin. Usually, these kinds of demons just slaughtered anything around it until it was put down. Rin was surprised when it approached him the night before to bargain for information.

Rin’s hard gaze made the demon shrink back. It wasn’t going to do anything too stupid while Rin still held the bait. Demons were often depicted as wily, cunning foes in paper novels. They could be – if you forgot what they were after. Above all else, the demons wanted soul shards. All their promises, all their gifts, all their magic was devoted to gaining those precious shards. Hold that out as bait, and a demon will agree to damn near anything.

Rin covered his mouth and nose with a bandanna. The cloth cut down the stench to bearable. Torn human innards smelled bad enough. After baking in the hot sun, the odor was strong enough to make most men wretch. Unfortunately, that wasn’t what was causing Rin’s stomach to flop over like he’d drunk an entire bottle of rotgut. According to the demon, this scene was two days old. Badlands scavengers never passed up a free meal, but there weren’t even any flies on the bodies. Eighteen people were tied hand to foot in a large circle, including the half-dozen children. From their features and clothing – and the two burned wagons – they were probably refugees escaping the Northern Kingdom’s civil war. Maybe they were hoping to find refuge in the Republic or even the insane patchwork of bandit fiefdoms in the Southlands. It didn’t matter now. What mattered was finding who did this to them. Instinctively, Rin undid the leather lashes on his scimitar and revolver. As he neared, Rin realized what was causing his queasiness. Rin could feel the wrongness from the remnants of a powerful spell. Damn, the demon was telling the truth.

Rin swallowed again and took another step to inspect the bodies. From the bruises and scrapes on the men’s faces and knuckles, they tried to put up a fight. It hadn’t helped. From the expressions on the faces, these people were alive when the ritual symbols were cut into their flesh. Just looking at the symbols gave Rin a headache. As Rin circled the scene, he guessed the perpetrator killed them to fuel the ritual. Rin had seen it before. Use the demon to bring in the trickles of natural magic and then use the death to intensify it.

“What was this ritual for?” Rin asked as he stood back up from his examination. The demon’s flesh pulsed quizzically.

“What about the bargain?” the demon asked, ignoring Rin’s question. It must have sensed Rin knew something was wrong. It started floating backward. That made it greedy, not stupid.

“You told me you watched a human attack these people two nights ago, tie them up, and do a ritual.” Rin said, keeping his voice calm as he stepped back to his horse. The demon floated back a little further.          

“You promised a shard!” the demon yelled, its whisper turning into a thunder boom.

“If you want me to give you a shard, then you need to tell me everything. That was the bargain,” Rin said.

“Told you everything,” the demon retorted, but it was back to whispering. It almost sounded pleading. The promise of a shard was too strong. Rin revised his opinion of the demon. It was greedy and stupid.

“The sorcerer needed help to gather up those people. I’m guessing that was you. I doubt very much that you would participate in a ritual that you hadn’t taught him. So, you will tell me everything as we agreed or the bargain is forfeit,” Rin told the demon.

“Shard! Give me shard!” the demon wailed. Rin’s hand reached back and yanked the grapegun from its scabbard on his saddle. He brought the double-barreled weapon up to his shoulder and touched off the first barrel. The demon let out an otherworldly howl as the shards of obsidian lanced into its form. The gray flesh darkened. It was now stuck between this world and whatever one they came from.

“Everything, now!” Rin demanded, “Or you get the second barrel – and it’s silver.” The demon quivered as it realized the danger. Obsidian anchored demons into the world without the protection of a soul shard. While it was anchored, silver could put down the demon. For a time, at least. There was only one way to put down a demon permanently.

“Human said it would trade a shard for help,” the demon croaked, “Helped get these humans. That all! Human already knew ritual.” Rin quirked his eyebrow up in surprise. Since the near elimination of natural magic from Killian’s Benevolent Betrayal, there was only two sources of the knowledge of magic rituals – the dieties and the demons. No religious order would use such a horrific ritual, and no demon would have told a human about a ritual that powerful without getting a shard in payment. The rangers would have known if there was a souled demon. If the sheer carnage didn’t alert them, other demons would have been tripping over themselves to do so just to keep from being enslaved. Still, the demon was bound by the deal to tell Rin the truth. It could leave out parts, but whatever it told Rin must be true or the bargain would be forfeit. Demons who forfeited their bargains suffered the same fate as those who were bound with obsidian and hit with silver.

“What was the ritual for? What did this do?”

“I don’t know. The human was talking foolish things.”

“What did the human say?”

“It would wake up the world.” The demon pulsed with terror as Rin considered the words. Wake the world? What under the Protector’s gaze would that mean? Rin studied the demon. It wasn’t lying. It wanted the shard too badly.

“You helped the human. So why didn’t you get a shard?” Rin asked, looking up at the demon.

“Ritual broke the bargain!” the demon exclaimed. The words sent a chill down Rin’s spine. Demon bargains were unbreakable. The sky was blue, water was wet, and you couldn’t break a bargain with a demon. A person who didn’t live up to his end forfeited all of his soul to the demon. Not much scared Rin, but a human wielding magic that could break a demon bargain terrified Rin.

“Where did he go after this?” Rin asked, motioning to the human corpses.

“That not the bargain,” the demon protested, “Give shard!”

“The bargain was you lead me to this place and tell me everything you observed,” Rin said, “If the sorcerer said or hinted anything about where he was going, then you would have observed it.” The demon snarled as its flesh pulsed angrily.

“Hate humans. Especially hate you,” the demon said, “Demanded human give shard. It said no. Tried to invoke bargain. Magic broke bargain. Threatened to kill human. It laughed. Said it was too busy to deal with demon. Had to catch a ship to elf lands.”

“So why didn’t you kill him?” Rin asked, ignoring the sudden pulsing from the medallion around his neck. Rin ignored it. Damn thing started up anytime someone mentioned the elves.

“Tried. Nothing worked. Magic didn’t work right,” the demon admitted, “Told everything. Now give shard.” Rin scanned the flat sandy area. His eyes locked on to the light glinting to the north. Well, it was about damned time. Rin looked at the demon.

“I, Rinaldo Batista Acciaio, give you a shard of my soul,” Rin said. The formal words sealed the demon bargain. As soon as he uttered the words, a wave of weakness hit him. Rin collapsed to the ground. The demon screamed in exaltation. Rin felt the unnatural shift in the air as the demon absorbed the shard. Rin rolled over and flashed his signal mirror with the little strength he could muster. It was at that point, the demon realized its mistake. It should have known not to make a deal with a ranger.

The demon bellowed in rage. A clawed tentacle shot out at Rin. He barely managed to block the strike with his mirror. The blow shattered the glass and tore the steel backing from Rin’s hands. Black fluid erupted from the demon’s body as the bullet struck a second before the report of the rifle. The demon quivered indignantly before screaming in agony. A second bullet slammed into the demon. Silver could temporarily put down a demon once it was anchored in the world, but the demon would reappear anywhere from a month to a few years later. To permanently put down a demon, it needed to be pierced by star-iron. Star-iron destroyed the demon. Which was why every ranger carried a few of the precious bullets.

The demon went into a fit of spasms as the star-iron expelled its unnatural presence from the world. The demon’s body went still as the daemon ghost struggled to remain in this world. The fight lasted a few seconds. The demon’s body splattered across the ground as the daemon ghost was shoved out of reality. Rin felt his strength come back as the shard of his soul returned to him. The gamble paid off better than he’d expected – and much worse. Rin knew what he was going to have to do. As much as he wished he could shove this duty off on anyone else, Rin knew he had the best chance of catching the sorcerer responsible for the horror in front of him. He staggered over to Forti Equo and pulled out his writing tablet.

Rin was finishing his short report as his partner trotted up on his horse. Like Rin, Sergeant Nico Ignaccio had what were considered traditional Republican features. Nico’s hair was straight and black, but unlike Rin, Nico kept his long enough to be tied back. Rin found short hair was much cooler in the heat of the Badlands. Nico was short and heavily muscled, where Rin was of above average height and slim. Both had skin darker than the normal olive tone due to long days in the Badlands sun. Nico’s dark eyes normally twinkled with amusement.

“You were late with the shot,” Rin growled as Nico approached.

“You know, most other people would start with ‘that was a great shot, Nico. Especially from that distance with a star-iron bullet’,” Nico said. All of his humor evaporated as soon as he saw the ritual site.

“Sweet Protector, what happened here?” Nico asked. “I’ve never seen a demon ritual like this before.”

“That’s because it’s not a demon ritual,” Rin said.

“The Protector would never condone such a thing in his name. Not even the elves’ god would do this. Even to humans,” Nico said. Rin stopped himself before correcting his partner. The elves worshipped a goddess, not a god. He didn’t have the time to explain to Nico how he knew that. Nico was already too inquisitive about Rin’s past. The man absolutely refused to take the hints to leave well enough alone.

“Agreed. I don’t know what this ritual was for, but I intend to find the bastard who did this and find out,” Rin said. He held out his account of what the demon told him. “Nico, I need you to take this to the major. He’s going to need to get some of the scholars down here. Maybe they can figure out what happened.” Rin hoped they would find something that contradicted what his instincts were telling him.

“If I’m supposed to be taking this to the major, then where are you going?” Nico demanded.

“Fools Port, as fast as possible.” Rin climbed up on his horse.

“Fools Port? Are you insane? They’ll kill you as soon as they see your badge. Why under the Protector’s gaze would you go there?” Nico asked, perplexed.

“Only place in the Republic I can find a ship that will take me to the Elven Empire fast enough to catch the bastard who did this,” Rin answered. He spurred his horse into a gallop as Nico’s jaw dropped. The medallion around Rin’s neck pulsed happily.

Monday Fiction – State Of the Writer

Now that Zombie Strike has wrapped up, I thought it would be good to go through my current writing projects and their statuses:

Promise to the Magic Heart – This is my fantasy novel I’ve been working on. Initial draft had flashback sequences, then I realized those were distracting and not adding what I wanted. So I ripped them out to do a "prequel" novel. That will still happen, but I really want to finish the main story first. Part of that is the main story is more fun, I have more done for it, and I want make sure that the prequel foreshadows. This may turn into a trilogy, but I’m not sure yet.

Irregulars 3 – No working title for this. It’s kind of stalled as I’m trying to figure out how to muddle to some of the conclusions I need to do in order for this one to lead into Irregulars 4. I’m thinking this will be a five-book series.

Avalon – I have plans to go back, do a directors cut of the original stories, and at least wrap that one up. It was originally supposed to be a writing challenge to see if I could turn out a 1,000 word chapter every week.

I have a few more ideas in the notepad that I might flesh out. If I can dedicate some time to just writing. Which is part circumstance and part self-discipline.

Let’s see where I’m at this time next year.

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 120 – Epilogue

St. Louis, Missouri; 3 January 2017, 0900 hours local

Jess Montgomery handed the Secret Service agent her ID. She waited patiently as the serious man examined the picture and compared it to Jess. Another agent checked her purse and wanded her. Jess tried to keep the grimace off her face. She felt naked in just the simple dress and pocket book. She didn’t even have a pocket knife on her. Her dismay must have shown on her face because the smaller hand in hers squeezed reassuringly. Jess looked down at her ten-year-old sister and gave the girl a smile. The Secret Service agent repeated the procedure with Mercedes before ushering the two women to a waiting Special Agent Tredegar.

"Sorry about that, but, well, you know," the tall thin man said, shrugging his shoulders.

"No weapons. I was told. Repeatedly," Jess replied, smiling to soften the tone of her words.

"Everyone else is here," Tredegar said, leading Jess and Mercedes into hotel. They bypassed hordes of aides, press, and security. Two FBI special agents fell into position to block them as Tredegar steamrolled his way through the standing people. Some looked like they wanted to protest, but they shrank back from Tredegar’s stern countenance. He’d certainly developed a harder edge since he’d taken over the FBI counter-intelligence group. A final door opened and the group hustled into the small ballroom.

"Matty!" squealed Mercedes as she saw her half-brother. The boy looked up and uttered a matching squeal. The two children sprinted over and hugged each other like they hadn’t seen each other in months instead of the few days. Jess sighed as Robyn walked over.

"We should have expected that," Robyn said, as she embraced Jess.

"Where’s Tom?" Jess asked, looking for Robyn’s husband.

"Watching the twins," she answered. Thomas Halford was MacKenzie and Winston’s vice president for American operations. He and Robyn met during a deposition which led to a promised date after the case concluded. Six months later they were married. Less than a year later, they were welcoming home a set of twins. Robyn looked back at Matthew and Mercedes Cortez. "Today’s about their father. He felt more comfortable staying at the hotel." Jess just nodded.

"About time you showed up," Sissy said, "We were beginning to worry about you." Sissy wore a gray dress suit that somehow managed to be conservative and daring at the same time. Maybe it had more to do with the aura of danger that surrounded the woman.

"I’m glad you made it home alive," Jess said, clasping Sissy hard, "We heard it went sideways in Paris."

"It was a bit exciting, but we finished it," Sissy said, "And that’s all I can tell you. My current employers would have enough of a conniption knowing how much you already know." Technically, Sissy O’Connell was a security consultant. In actuality, she worked with a small multi-national task force working to eliminate the last vestiges of the Truth from their positions of power.

"Where’s Steve and Evan?" Jess asked, suddenly noticing the pair’s absence.

"The military has their own ceremony, they’ll meet up with us later," Sissy explained. "C’mon, let me introduce you to Quentin’s family before the President gets here."

Gateway Park, St. Louis, Missouri; 3 January 2017, 1100 hours local

Jess shivered in her heavy coat as a cold wind whipped off the Mississippi. She wished she were standing in the packed crowd of people instead of sitting up in the grandstand. At least then she could use their bodies for warmth and protection against the wind. The Secret Service could have at least let her have a cup of coffee up here. Those people rose paranoia to an art form. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the President walked to the podium. The crowd roared as the President waved. A hush fell over the people as the President began speaking.

"My fellow Americans, we are here for an event our nation has waited five years to happen. We have watched our young men and women toil, bleed, and even give their lives for it. It is now my greatest honor to declare that the city of St. Louis is free of the zombies. As of this morning, the exclusion zone is lifted." The President waited as the crowd cheered.

"These past several years have been hard for our nation. We have been besieged by threats from within as the zombies rose. We have been besieged by threats from outside as we saw so many of those we called friends turn against us." The crowd went quiet at they reflected. The President continued, "Even with all of these threats, America persisted. Our true friends stood by us and we have formed the new Alliance of Free Nations. We and our AFN partners stood against the darkness of tyranny. We are finally seeing some of those that succumbed to the terror throw off their shackles. The new French Revolution is frightening, but we welcome any people willing to take back their freedom from those governments that stole it from their hands."

Jess quit listening and gripped the small silver medal pinned to her dress. Mercedes had one just like it pinned to her dress. Small tokens of the thanks of a grateful nation. That’s what the President said when he’d given them to Mercedes and Jess. A nation that would never truly know what happened on this spot five years ago. What their father and friends sacrificed to protect them. Jess wanted to scream at the man when he’d uttered those words, but she just meekly accepted the silver medals for heroism, just as she meekly accepted the stern warnings that she could never tell anyone what she had done. She snapped out of her reverie as the President finished up.

"So now, we dedicate this new Gateway Arch to signify the rebirth of a great American city and the resolution of the American people to stand against those that would try to pull us down into the darkness."

Gateway Park, St. Louis, Missouri; 5 January 2017, 2200 hours local

"Here, this will warm you up a bit," Sergeant First Class Steven "The Steve" Mountain said. Jess gratefully accepted the flask from The Steve. The harsh liquor burned as it went down her throat. The Steve laughed as she handed back the flask. "She handled it better than you did Evan."

"You probably gave her better liquor than that rotgut you gave me, Top," Capt. Evan Torelli said. The two Special Forces soldiers shared a private laugh. Jess had been surprised when The Steve returned to active duty after the Golden Rite. She was even more surprised when little Evan disappeared and came back as not only a Green Beret, but an officer to boot. The two soldiers had been more or less permanently assigned to the forces clearing out St. Louis. What started as a diversion for Zombie Strike to stop the Truth and the Great Death turned into a full blown liberation campaign.

"Just for you Evan, I brought the good stuff," Tredegar said, holding up a bottle of expensive Scotch. The FBI special agent poured everyone a glass.

"To absent companions," Kenn Blanchard said, raising his glass.

"Absent companions," the others chorused. So many of their team were gone. Jack Winchester, Billy, Slim, Jim, Quentin, Chief Stahl, Collin, Billy, Mateo. Even Sport managed to get killed back in fourteen during a battle with some Truth holdouts. There was a quiet moment as the remaining Zombie Strike members reflected on their fallen.

"So what has M&W have you doing now?" Kenn asked Jess.

"Well now that I’m a full-fledged college graduate, they’ve thrown me in their Unique Risk Management Division," Jess said.

"Wasn’t that the same group that ran Zombie Strike?" Kenn asked.

"Yep. Apparently my previous experience fighting zombies was something of a plus," Jess answered. "For right now though, I’m just a junior researcher. They still pay me great, which helps now that I have Mercedes." The others grunted happily. Getting Mercedes away from her aunt and uncle had been hard and cost most of the money Jess managed to save while fighting zombies. Jess didn’t dwell on the memory. "Plus, they have me working in DC, so Mercedes can play with Matt and the twins."

"That is good Little Sister," a voice said out of the darkness. Weapons appeared in hands as two men walked into the light. Jess recognized one as Wolf. He looked like an older Native American in faded jeans and a button down shirt. The second man was unearthly handsome and an impressive light gray suit.

"What are you doing here?" Jess demanded, storming up to Wolf, "I haven’t seen you in over five years, and you show up now? And who is this?" Jess jabbed a finger at the other man. Wolf didn’t answer. He just engulfed Jess in a hug.

"I’m sorry Little Sister. I was grieving for my son. In my sadness, I neglected you. Forgive me, my Little Sister," Wolf said.

"Doesn’t answer who he is," The Steve said, keeping his Kimber trained on the newcomer.

"I am Michael. The arch-angel," the man said. Everyone flinched as the angel’s voice seemed to flow through down to their bones. "My father asked Wolf to bring me to you."

"Why?" Kenn asked.

"We received a message through the amulet embedded in Eric Stahl’s hand," Michael said casually.

"How?" Sissy asked.

"We don’t know," Michael said, "We did know that you should hear it." The group was silent, unsure of what to do. Jess stepped away from Wolf.

"What’s the message?" Jess asked, her voice trembling.

"We are still alive, we love you, and we’re winning."

END OF ZOMBIE STRIKE

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 119

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

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 118

Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 2320 hours local; Countdown: 40 minutes

Mateo Cortez’s war cry was drowned out as his team launched their surprise attack on the Truth. Mateo felt the bullet snap over his head before it struck Giant in the middle of the face. The seven-foot tall man stumbled to the side as his head snapped back from Sissy’s shot. It gave Mateo a precious few seconds. He sprinted at his nemesis with Quentin’s warhammer held aloft. The weapon felt alien in his hands as Mateo desperately tried to remember the rushed lessons from Quentin in the past six weeks.

Giant’s whip snaked out and tripped Mateo. The Zombie Strike field leader swore as he fell to concrete walkway. His armor protected him from leaving bloody streaks on the concrete, but not from the pain of the impact. Mateo felt as The Steve remotely triggered his armor’s dispensary released the infamous "happy juice" into his system. Giant loomed over Mateo as he stood back up. The mystical whip lashed out and wrapped around Mateo’s neck. Mateo’s hands grasped at the whip as he suddenly couldn’t breathe.

"You pathetic mortal!" Giant seethed. "You will doom us all with your selfish foolishness!" Mateo felt his vertebrae crack as the whip yanked him off the ground. Giant brought Mateo close so the two were looking eye to eye. Giant’s dark eyes flashed with fury. The Truth’s greatest warrior started to bellow something before a rolling explosion drowned him out. Mateo was whipped through the air as Giant turned to see half a dozen of the Truth’s minions consumed in a brilliant fireball that lit up Gateway Park.

"How? You have no magic!" Giant shrieked in surprised. The whip loosened allowing Mateo to gulp a precious breath.

"We called down the Hellfires on your people, Giant," Mateo said, reaching down for his handgun. Giant looked at him, clearly perplexed. Then another explosion ripped through the park.

"My lord, they’ve got air support!" screamed a minion, shooting brilliant energy beams into the night sky.

"Predators, to be exact," Mateo said, yanking his Sig out and bringing the weapon up. Giant turned back just in time for Mateo to fire an entire magazine into his nemesis’s face. Mateo’s body was wracked with pain as Giant unleashed a pulse of evil magic through the whip. There was another jarring pain that Mateo belatedly realized was him hitting the ground. As the stars cleared from his eyes, Mateo found himself a good thirty yards from Giant. Pain and confusion faded away as more happy juice was pumped into his body. Mateo slowly stood, testing his body with each movement. Satisfied, Mateo charged Giant.

Giant snarled and lashed out with the whip. Mateo ducked as the ancient leather cord snapped over his head. The power of the whip’s crack nearly knocked Mateo over. Mateo focused hard on his target and pushed himself harder. There was a flash of excruciating pain as the whip tore off his left bracer. Mateo smiled as he reached down and scooped up the warhammer. Still sprinting, Mateo barreled into Giant like a tackling dummy. The two crashed to the ground. Mateo rolled off his opponent and brought up the hammer. Just as with guns, Mateo aimed for center mass. The whip slashed at Mateo’s side as he brought Quentin’s warhammer down. Giant’s scream of pain almost covered the sickening wet crunch as hammer landed solidly on Giant’s chest.

"Matt, finish it!" screamed Chief Stahl, "We’re about out of time." Mateo looked over to his second-in-command, and then saw the Gateway Arch. The six-hundred foot tall structure was glowing and multi-colored lightning was dancing inside the arch. The Great Death was starting to push into this world. Mateo turned back to Giant who was staggering up. Mateo heard the gurgling gasps as Giant tried to breathe through collapsed or punctured lungs. Part of Mateo screamed for compassion, but it was beaten down as Mateo remembered what this man had cost him. Mateo strode over to Giant with a grim look on his face.

"Yes, Mateo, hurry and finish me," Giant said with a stoic look on his face, "I pray to the Flayed One that you’re right." The whip stopped dancing as Giant dropped to his knees. Mateo nodded once, acknowledging Giant’s courage. Then, with a mighty swing, Mateo decapitated him with the warhammer. Michael MacKenzie, the Great Champion Mikhail, the nemesis known as Giant, crumpled to the ground.

"No!" screamed Castle as he watched his closest ally and friend fall. The leader of the Truth had been in Collin’s care during the firefight against the minions and the gollums. Castle looked up at Mateo in rage. "What have you done?"

"Hopefully, saved this world," Mateo muttered. He nodded to Collin. The tall Brit yanked Castle up to his feet. "It’s time to do your part Castle." The Truth leader looked completely confused. Mateo and Collin traded knowing looks. Mateo walked over to the ritual site. The Guardians were floating next to the stand with the obsidian orb. Behind them the Gateway Arch grew brighter. The lightning was constant. Mateo could see the beginnings of the tear between this world and the world of the Great Death. Mateo took a deep breath and stepped onto the center golden pedestal.

"I am the Chooser," Mateo announced.

"You are the Chooser," the Guardians echoed. "Fulfill your duties on the path."

"I choose the Champion," Mateo said, "The spirit wolf known to his friends as Billy. He is the Champion of his pack." The spirit wolf dropped the corpse of a minion and trotted over to the pedestal to Mateo’s right.

"I choose the Betrayer," Mateo continued, "The man known as Collin DuBois. He betrayed his friends and enemies to continue down this path." Collin handed Castle over to The Steve and stepped onto the pedestal to Mateo’s left.

"I choose the Undecided," Mateo said, "The man known as Eric Stahl. He has chosen no deity to protect and guide him." Chief Stahl slung his weapon and stepped on to the pedestal at Mateo’s far right. Mateo looked back to Castle. The leader of the Truth looked smugly pleased.

"You don’t know what the fifth person is, do you Mateo?" Castle asked. "It wasn’t in any of the prophecies you stole from me. Only someone deeply steeped in the mysteries of the Golden Ritual would know it." Mateo smiled.

"I choose the Prophet," Mateo said, watching as Castle’s smug face fall into disbelief, "I choose Juan de Castilla, known as Castle, the acolyte of Xipe Totec."

"How?" Castle demanded, as The Steve marched him over to the pedestal.

"Quentin was leading a team of the finest Mesoamerican authorities backed by the best cryptologists and computers the American government could provide. Prophecies are little more than mystical codes. They brute forced it." Still in shock, Castle stepped onto the pedestal.

"The five have been selected," the Guardians intoned, "Now the Golden Ritual may begin." The energies under the arch pulsed angrily.

Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 119

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 117

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

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 116

Concord Apartment Building, Downtown St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 2110 hours local; Countdown: 2 hours, 50 minutes

Former Chief Warrant Officer Eric Stahl braced as the small female vampire blurred towards him. The amulet in his hand burned and glowed. Time slowed, and the vampire went from a blur of motion to a sprinting girl. Stahl spent a precious moment to study her attack. Her body posture told him what he was facing. The vampire wasn’t a skilled fighter. Probably a brawler used to using her speed and strength against those who had no defense. Stahl knew had to deal with those.

Evan opened up with his M-240. The normal rattle was slowed down to a steady pounding, reminding Stahl of the old World War II pom-pom guns. Tracers lanced behind the oncoming vampire. Evan just couldn’t keep up with how fast the vampire was actually moving. As the vampire crossed the line in his mind, Stahl exhaled and launched his attack. The vampire’s large brown eyes went even wider in surprise. Her pace slowed as her mind tried to catch up with the shock that Stahl was moving just as fast as her. Stahl took half-a-dozen steps, crouched, and launched his attack. The vampire tried to dodge, but she was about a half-movement too late. The hand with the amulet jabbed hard into the vampire’s middle. There was a blinding flash as his fist contacted and the vampire was thrown back like she’d hit a cement wall.

"Who are you?" the vampire hissed as she leapt to her feet, "You are no cleric. You have no god to protect you. How do you make me hurt?"

"The fun part of being a free agent is that I have all the teams bidding for me," Stahl answered. The vampire gave him a quizzical look. She didn’t like being confused and immediately attacked. Stahl easily dodged her first punch, but didn’t even see that he’d stepped neatly into her second. The tiny fist cracked his armor’s hard ceramic breastplate and drove it into his chest. The amulet burned and Stahl felt his rib cage compress from the blow. Stahl staggered back gasping. The vampire was smart enough to press her attack. She hopped up and Stahl’s head exploded in stars and pain as the vampire nearly ripped his helmet off with the blow. Someone managed to tag the vampire with a burst of gunfire giving Stahl a much-needed second. The stars cleared from his eyes.

"Stahl, get her to hold still for a moment," Collin called out. Stahl nodded and closed with the vampire. The vampire snarled as Stahl grabbed her. She bared long fangs and snapped at his neck. Stahl jerked the vampire around and locked her arm behind her back. She slipped the lock and tossed Stahl to the ground. He felt the air whoosh out as he hit the asphalt. Then Collin was standing next to the vampire with a monster revolver in his outstretched hand. The gun boomed twice. The vampire’s head and chest vaporized into a black mist as the bullets shredded through her.

"What did you use? High explosive?" Stahl coughed, getting to his feet.

"Silver," Collin answered, "Once the Little Death evolve that far, they become like traditional vampires. Much more powerful, but vulnerable to little things like stakes through the heart, fire, holy water, and silver."

"I thought that was werewolves," Stahl said as The Steve checked him over. The team medic gave Stahl a thumbs-up and triggered the armor’s on-board drugs. Pain started to melt away as the happy juice started flowing into his blood.

"Don’t know about werewolves. Never came across any," Collin replied. Stahl half-chuckled at the Brit’s dry tone. He started to put the amulet back around his neck. He stopped as he realized two things. One, the chain snapped sometime during the fight. Second, he didn’t need the chain because the amulet was now melted into his hand. It didn’t hurt. If anything, Stahl felt a warm pulse from the slightly glowing piece of bronze in the center of his right hand.

"Dude, you have the Hand of God now," The Steve said. Stahl wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or just punch the medic. If he survived this, Stahl was definitely going to find one of the angels and demand some answers – and not the cryptic BS they always seemed to give him. Stahl solved his dilemma by walking over and picking up his machinegun.

"Casualties?" Stahl asked.

"None of ours," Jess answered.

"Three of my Champions and the two warriors are dead," Collin said. When Stahl gave him a level look Collin translated, "Three minions and the two gollums. Another four of the gollums are missing their medallions."

"They’ll still be useful as fodder," Stahl grunted. Collin answered with a barely perceptible nod. Stahl looked up at the building. The small battle was bad enough. He didn’t want to think about fighting in the close confines of the apartment building. Fortunately, the vampires decided they didn’t want the same fight.

Eight of the tall, massive monsters burst from the front of the building in a shower of glass and concrete. The minions reacted better this time and threw up mystical shields to deflect the fragments. As the dust settled, the eight vampires were standing before the assembled group in a V-formation. At the front was the biggest vampire Stahl had ever seen. The others standing behind him were between seven and eight feet tall. The one in front was easily over ten feet tall. There was something about its bearing that screamed "leader" to Stahl. Collin took a step towards the monsters.

"Leader of the Little Death, I have been tasked with giving you a chance to stop this without further death," Collin said, "The Golden Rite can send you back to your horde without injury. If you refuse, we will have to kill you, and you will be separated from your people for all eternity." The lead vampire made a sound that could generously be called laughter.

"You have few paladins with you, and most of your little constructs are no longer invulnerable to us. The avatar with your allies might pose a problem, but there are eight of us. We are the Master’s Guard. You will not defeat us. Prepare for death." Stahl hated pompous speeches.

"Okay Burger King, you can have it your way," Stahl retorted. On cue, Sport rapid fired all five grenades out of his XM25. As the explosions tossed the vampires back, the gollums launched into action. They swarmed over one of the vampires like wolves pulling down a caribou. They hacked wildly at the monster as it fell under their mass. Stahl realized the mistake a moment before the vampire was consumed in fire. Six of the gollums simply staggered away before attacking their next victim. The gollums without the protection of their medallions were charred skeletons before they themselves melted away. In an odd twist, Stahl found himself leading Billy and the minions as they closed with the vampires while Collin directed the gun fire of Zombie Strike. The spirit pup leapt at a vampire, growing from his normal wolf to the size of a Clydesdale. The vampire froze perplexed as Billy landed on it with a thunderous crash. As he attacked, Billy glowed brighter and brighter. The other vampires backed away, even the leader. Stahl motioned for everyone to hold. Something new was happening. Then, the spirit pup spoke.

"Abominations, we will no longer tolerate your presence on this world," the spirit pup said. From the reaction of Jess, it must have sounded exactly like the pup’s namesake, her fallen boyfriend.

"Avatar, you will fall now," the lead vampire spat out, shielding its eyes from the light emanating from Billy.

"I am not an avatar of my father. I am now my own being, a full member of the Pack of Wolf," Billy said. One vampire lashed out at the glowing spirit pup. Billy looked at the creature and howled. The vampire disintegrated under the sonic power. The vampires cowered, unsure of how to deal with this new threat. All except the leader. A blade of shimmering black energy suddenly formed in his hand. Without a sound, the leader sprinted at Billy. The spirit pup tried to dodge, but the leader was much faster than even the evolved vampire Stahl fought. The blade danced around and slashed at Billy’s shoulder. The moment the blade touched Billy’s pelt, Stahl was blinded and deafened by an incredible blast. When his vision cleared, he realized he’d been thrown several yards from the battle. He looked up to see Billy and the lead vampire staggering up.

"Sport, HE!" Stahl called out.

"No, Billy needs to do this alone," Jess yelled back.

"We’re a team girl," Stahl replied.

"If Billy doesn’t prove himself worthy of his dad, we’ll all die," Jess said forcefully. Sport looked back at Stahl. The chief waved him down. He had to trust the girl knew what she was talking about. Billy and the lead vampire circled each other. Simple feints were ignored. Probing attacks were launched and countered. The tension in the air felt like hydrogen gas waiting for that fateful spark. Billy darted in. The lead vampire slid to the side and brought down the energy sword. Stahl smiled as the sword passed harmlessly through the air as Billy completed the feint. Then, Billy bellowed a roar louder than anything Stahl had heard in his entire military career. Including the time his squad got a little too close to a BUFF’s carpet bombing. The lead vampire stood like a statue, bracing against Billy’s attack. Except this wasn’t the main attack. Stahl couldn’t hear the gunshot over the roar, but he could see the puff of black mist as it struck the vampire perfectly between the eyes. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The lead vampire was engulfed in a brilliant fireball. Without stopping, Billy turned his roar against the remaining vampires. There was a brief wall of fire and then an odd silence filled the street.

"I thought he had to fight this one on his own," Stahl said as his hearing recovered. Jess just smiled at the chief as she slung her suppressed SCAR.

"Slight exaggeration," Jess admitted as the spirit wolf trotted over to her, "He had to lead the pack against the vampires. I’m part of the pack. The rest of you aren’t."

"Thank you Little Sister," Billy said as he nuzzled against Jess. Turning his golden eyes on Stahl, the spirit wolf said, "It’s time for us to return. If my father is correct, then the path is about to take a very interesting turn."

Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 117

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 115

Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 2000 hours local; Countdown: 4 hours

Former Chief Warrant Officer Eric Stahl unconsciously rubbed the melted bronze amulet between his fingers. The metal was unnaturally warm in the cold night. That wasn’t really surprising considering the amulet was some sort of holy artifact that could burn vampires like a brand. It did something to him as well when fighting those monsters. Stahl was faster, tougher, and more capable. Which was a good thing in the chief’s opinion. Zombie Strike fought two of the vampires, and Stahl was sure there were more running around St. Louis.

"Well that’s odd," Special Agent Tredegar murmured, looking at the monitor of his C3I device. The C3I looked like a netbook computer, but it was wired into the U.S. military’s battle network and gave Zombie Strike access to the latest intel feeds as well as the ability to call for support. As Stahl looked over the lanky FBI special agent’s shoulder, he could see the countdown until the military unleashed the Omega directive, the continuous nuclear bombardment of St. Louis if Zombie Strike failed.

"Define odd," Stahl said, looking out at Zombie Strike’s small defensive position in front of the Gateway Arch. They cobbled up some pre-fab armor into a four-foot wall around their position. Stahl and Tredegar were in the center. Tredegar was there because he was the one who would call for air and fire support. Stahl was acting as the team’s defensive commander. Mateo, the field commander, was working on exactly how Zombie Strike was going to finish this. Stahl let him cover the team’s rear facing the cold, black waters of the Mississippi.

"There’s some weird distortion according to the AWACs," Tredegar answered. The FBI special agent froze for a brief second before launching into furious tapping on the C3I’s keyboard.

"What?" Stahl asked quietly, searching the darkness. He knew that the Truth’s minions and gollums were out there somewhere. Were they coming in to attack?

"I looked at the direct feed. Same kind of distortion as when someone’s throwing around a lot of magic," Tredegar said, manipulating a video clip. From the angle, it was taken either from a recon plane or satellite.

"Was Quentin wrong about the site?" Stahl asked, keeping his voice barely audible outside the two of them.

"I don’t think so. I think this is the Truth fighting off more vampires," Tredegar said, almost excitedly.

"Too bloody right," answered a familiar voice from just past the perimeter. Stahl’s head shot up as he berated himself for not watching the perimeter. Not that he intended to be nice to the ones who were supposed to warn him. Stahl was paralyzed for a moment as he saw the man standing in front of them. That was impossible. The man was dead. He was killed by the biggest non-nuke bomb the Air Force could throw.

"Collin?" Mateo asked from behind, his voice shaky. The rest of the team was staring in muted shock. Well, everyone except Evan. The young soldier had been looking the wrong way and was quickly bringing his carbine to bear on Collin.

"Yes Mattie, I’m alive. Been in the care of the Truth since that little episode in Italy," Collin said with that typical British understated tone.

"You finally escaped?" Jess asked excitedly.

"Not exactly," Collin answered, cryptically. "Would you ask the boy to lower that gun? I worked hard to stay alive just to have him scatter my brains about this night." Stahl motioned and Evan brought his weapon to low ready.

"What are you doing here Collin?" Stahl asked, finally overcoming the shock.

"The Truth was attacked by vampires. Tougher than the normal ones the Truth have been skirmishing with for a while now. We think these were sent here specifically to stop the Golden Rite from being initiated."

"We? Are you working for the Truth now? Is that how you’re here now?" Mateo said his voice a tightly controlled neutral. Collin knew the rage behind that tone better than most.

"In a matter of speaking," Collin said. He held up a hand to forestall Mateo’s eruption, "Mattie, I’ve been fighting them since they took me. Until we came here. We need the Golden Rite to save the world from the vampires, and the Truth is the only ones who can do it. Castle asked me to trot down here and ask for your help in hunting down these vampires before they can stop the Rite from being performed."

"Well, I guess we know who the Betrayer is now," Jess said.

"It’s not the role I wanted girl, but it’s the role I have," Collin replied. He turned back to Mateo. "So what’s your answer?"

Concord Apartment Building, Downtown St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 2045 hours local; Countdown: 3 hours, 15 minutes

Chief Stahl looked up at the tall, dark building and swore under his breath. If what Tredegar told them was correct, he was going to be lugging the heavy machine gun up ten stories. The M-240 weighed enough on its own. Add four hundred rounds of 7.62 NATO in the box and another box on his back and Stahl was feeling his forty years. It didn’t help that Evan didn’t even look bothered under the same weight.

"Why couldn’t we have just let the Air Force drop twenty or thirty JDAMs on this place?" Stahl muttered. Tredegar turned to answer, but Stahl stopped him. He already knew the answer. They had to make sure this nest of vampires was wiped out, and that meant invading their little hidey-hole. At least they had a pretty heavy force. Like the last time they fought the vampires in Panama, Mateo wasn’t with them. He and Giant were back at the Gateway Arch acting as sort of mutual hostages. Stahl was commanding the Zombie Strike contingent as well as in overall command. Collin was leading the Truth’s ten minions and dozen gollums. Shattering glass brought everyone’s heads up. Two forms were plummeting out of what looked like the fifth floor. Zombie Strike and Collin immediately spread out. The gollums screeched with battle lust. The minions stood in the street unsure of what to do.

"Get out of the bloody way you pikers!" Collin yelled at the minions. They were barely moving when the two vampires landed with an explosive thump. The vampires cut down two minions before anyone could react. The minions stampeded away from the monsters.

"Let ’em loose," Stahl told Collin. The tall man nodded and pointed his ring at the two vampires. The gollums launched themselves at the two monsters. Stahl finally understood why the gollums were created. The five-foot tall wiry humanoids were almost as fast as the vampires, completely fearless, and almost indestructible. Zombie Strike learned how to take away their mystical protection by breaking the gollum’s stone medallions. The vampires couldn’t do that. The medallions were holy symbols of Xipe Totec. When one of the vampires managed to grab ahold of one, it burned like Stahl’s amulet.

The slightly shorter vampire was quickly buried under eight gollums. Each of the Truth’s attack creatures hacked wildly at the vampire with their obsidian-bladed axes. Finally taking enough damage, the vampire collapsed to the street. It was engulfed in a burst of intense flame. The gollums wobbled off the burnt shadow of the vampire but were otherwise unhurt. Stahl was impressed. If the Truth’s gollums could dispatch a vampire this easily, why did they need Zombie Strike? His question was answered as something blurred into the fight. Stahl heard the familiar screams of gollums who’d lost their medallions and their protection. Two of the rune-covered creatures were torn off the last vampire by something moving too fast to be seen. The rest jumped back in what seemed to be terror. Nearly half were missing their medallions. The amulet suddenly blazed with heat. The blur stopped and dropped two decapitated gollums.

The girl standing before his team was so perfectly beautiful, that it almost hurt to look at her. Even covered in the messy remnant of gollum, she looked exquisite. Her dark straight hair framed a china-white face. Large dark eyes scanned the people around her. As soon as she saw Stahl, her eyes locked on to him. The amulet burned hotter forcing Stahl to take it out from under his armor. The girl – the vampire – cringed when the amulet came into view.

"I thought you might be down here," the girl said, with a slight Spanish accent. "I saw what you did to my sister in the jungle. I will not make the same mistake she did." The girl fell into a fighting stance.

"If you’re thinking you can fight me, then you’ve already made the biggest one," Stahl said, unslinging the machine gun. As he did, he slipped the amulet from around his neck and held it in his hand. He raised his fists just as the girl blurred into action.

Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 116

Monday Fiction – Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 114

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.

Zombie Strike Part 11 Chapter 115