I’m cheating this week by using a prompt I saw on the Book of Faces awhile back.
Can you tell a story in one sentence?
Starships are rarely prepared to handle trained martyrs.
I’m cheating this week by using a prompt I saw on the Book of Faces awhile back.
Can you tell a story in one sentence?
Starships are rarely prepared to handle trained martyrs.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 1830 hours local; Countdown: 5 hours, 30 minutes
The vampire scout walked out onto the apartment’s balcony and looked out at the City of the Dead. Finally, the hateful sun left the sky. The scout and her companions could now fulfill the master’s mission. A chorus of moans from below brought a snarl to her all-too human face. There were too many of the animated corpses shuffling about the darkened streets. The human army’s attack drew a large portion of the zombies south. The mindless things were attracted to the incredibly loud noise of the human weapons. She hoped the leader of the master’s guard listened to her. Those slow moving abominations were deceptively dangerous. That much she figured out on her own.
"This will be a good world to plunder," the leader of the master’s guard said, stepping out to join the scout. The balcony creaked with his weight. The guard hadn’t been on this world long enough to evolve to a human form. He was still the seven-foot tall, fur-covered demon. The scout didn’t say anything.
"Yes. Even now, it teems with life," the leader continued, as if the scout answered him. "We just have to kill these foolish clerics before they cause mischief."
"Don’t underestimate the humans or their gods," the scout warned the leader, "Their weapons and magic have evolved greatly since our last attempt. They also control the hordes of undead that inhabit this city."
"Your constant bleating about the danger of these humans grows tiresome," the leader said, striding back into the apartment. Almost against her will, the scout followed him.
"Your scouts may have fallen to their pathetic forces, but we are the elite of the master. We have nothing to fear from them." He motioned to the rest of his team. "Come. Now that the hated sun is gone from the sky, we can begin the slaughter." The scout watched helplessly as the ten vampires sprinted out the apartment’s window and into the city.
Mississippi River, St. Louis, Missouri; 31 December, 2011, 1830 hours local; Countdown: 5 hours, 30 minutes
Mateo Cortez gratefully accepted the thermos from the naval chief petty officer. He’d forgotten how bloody cold it would get. Too many days working on a South Pacific tropical island. The armor’s insulation only helped so much. Mateo needed more heat. He took a swig from the thermos. Expecting bitter coffee, Mateo was pleasantly surprised by the taste of chicken noodle soup. Mateo greedily took another gulp of the soup before handing back the thermos and thanking the naval noncom.
"Figured you’d need it," the CPO said, tucking the thermos away. "You folks looked a mite ragged when we fetched you up." The CPO spoke with an almost unintelligible southern drawl. From the accent, Mateo thought Louisiana. Mateo nodded to the CPO’s comment, letting the warmth of the soup in his stomach radiate out to his body. The Truth didn’t send anymore of its minions or gollums after Zombie Strike, but there were still plenty of zombies. The team had been playing hide and seek with the hordes still milling around downtown St. Louis. Too many of the zombies hadn’t been pulled by the army’s offensive. His team went past crush twice. The first time attack helicopters strafed the horde a couple of times. That was enough for Mateo and his team to slip away. The second time, the Navy’s small squadron of riverine boats provided cover fire while the team climbed aboard two of the small craft. Chief Stahl, The Steve, Tredegar, Evan, and Quentin were riding with him. Sport, Billy, and the ladies were in the boat some twenty yards closer to the bank of the Mississippi River.
"Mr. Cortez, we’ve recovered and replenished your team," the young officer in command of the boats said, his tone full of patient condescension, "Now, where exactly are we supposed to put you off? My boats are needed back down the river for actual operations." Mateo took a deep breath and looked out over the eerily dark city.
"That’ll be up to either Mr. McLintock or Special Agent Tredegar," Mateo answered, "I’ll let you know as soon as I know. In the meantime, your orders are to assist us. So quietly assist us over there." Mateo pointed to the back of the boat.
"My orders may be to assist your team, but I am still in command," the officer shot back. He was about to continue, but Quentin suddenly bounded into the group.
"Found it," Quentin said, a broad smile across his face, "Pretty sure anyway. Jess’s checking some of my guesswork, but I found where the ritual will need to be completed."
"And that is?" Mateo asked with practiced patience.
"INCOMING!" yelled Chief Stahl. Everyone on the four boats scrambled to a weapon. Powerful spotlights lit up the night sky. Mateo looked up and saw two forms diving on the boats. He flipped down his nightvision and his mind froze for a moment. It was impossible. They’d wiped those creatures out back in Panama. They couldn’t be here. There couldn’t be vampires in St. Louis. Not right now.
The crackle of small arms fire brought Mateo back into the action. One of the vampires was angling to hit his boat. He brought his M4 up to his shoulder and opened fire. The vampire somehow twisted in midair and dodged most of the team’s fire. It landed at the front of the boat hard enough to catapult some of the navy people into the river. Mateo barely managed to keep his feet as the boat suddenly heaved upward. Evan stepped up to the creature and unloaded his Benelli shotgun into it. The vampire screamed in surprise and backhanded the kid into the black river.
"MAN OVERBOARD!" yelled The Steve. The medic unlocked the M240 machine gun from the front mount. Swinging the big gun around, The Steve fired a full belt of 7.62mm NATO into the vampire’s back. Black fluid and chunks of meat littered the deck as the creature fell.
"Back up," Chief Stahl said, pushing Tredegar and a couple of navy ratings back, "Those things go up when they die." He didn’t see the vampire wobble back up to his feet. Tredegar’s warning almost came too late. Stahl spun as the vampire lashed out with its claws. As the talons scraped across the armor’s plates, Stahl slapped his hand down on the vampire’s arm. It screamed in terror and pain. It flung the chief into the side of the boat.
Mateo and Quentin finally had clear shots. Quentin fired his submachine gun’s entire magazine of 10mm while Mateo did the same with his M4. The vampire snarled in pain and frustration. It must not have expected to deal with this kind of resistance. It leapt the length of the boat and landed in front of Mateo and Quentin. Mateo let his M4 drop on its sling and drew his Sig. Quentin yanked out his warhammer and slammed it into the vampire’s hip with one swift movement. The monster screamed in pain again and savagely punched Quentin in the face with enough force to knock the big man off of his feet. Mateo fired his pistol into the vampire until the slide locked back on an empty magazine.
"Boss, down!" yelled The Steve. Without thinking, Mateo dropped to the boat’s deck. The M240’s thud-thud-thud filled the night. A second M240 joined in and the vampire was nearly torn apart by the sheer number of bullets puncturing its body. With a gurgling moan, the vampire tried to jump off the boat. One of the navy folks turned the rear M2 on it in midair. As the big .50 BMG bullets hammered into it, the vampire let out a last scream and burst into flames.
"Steve, Quentin’s down," Mateo yelled. The medic dropped the smoking machinegun and dashed to his fallen comrade. The medic lost his trademark smile as his hands danced over their fallen comrade.
"You, get us a priority medevac," The Steve said, pointing to one of the navy ratings. He was talking in that scary calm voice that only came out when the fecal matter was impacting the turbine. The Steve carefully pulled off Quentin’s helmet. "I need a collar right now!" Mateo’s heart fell as The Steve gingerly put the rigid cervical collar around Quentin’s massive neck. The medic tapped a flurry of commands, dumping numerous drugs into the big man’s system.
"I’ve got this Matt," The Steve said, "Make sure the rest of the team isn’t dead." Mateo cursed as he realized he’d lost track of the other vampire. He reloaded his M4 and trotted down the deck.
"Where is the other one?" Mateo asked, helping Chief Stahl to his feet. As if on cue, a thunderous boom echoed across the river. Mateo spun to the sound, half-expecting to see the fiery pyre of the rest of his team. Instead he caught the last glimpses of a flaming seven-foot tall form arching away from the other boat and into the cold, black waters.
"Are you all okay?" Mateo called over the radio.
"Yeah, just a little deaf from Sport’s grenade," Jess radioed back, "Some of the navy guys didn’t make it. Is Quentin okay?" Jess was trying to sound calm, but Mateo could hear the fear in her voice. Before Mateo could answer, The Steve waved him back over.
"His neck is snapped," the medic said in a low tone, "I’m doing what I can, but if we don’t get help, he’s not going to make it. I need to put him under, but he needs to tell you something first. Make it quick." Mateo swallowed and nodded. He cautiously knelt down next to his friend.
"The Arch, Matt. It’s going to happen at the Gateway Arch," Quentin managed to say before he went limp. The Steve pushed Mateo to the side as he desperately fought to save their friend’s life. For what seemed an eternity, The Steve coaxed, cajoled, and screamed at Quentin to stay with them as he did everything he could. It just wasn’t enough.