Category: Monday Fiction

Monday Fiction – Irregulars 3 Snippet

I’ve been working on the third installment of the Irregulars series. Here’s a snippet to whet your appetite. And maybe remind me to finish the thing.

When the Americans turned me into their spy to infiltrate Liberation’s Praetorian teams, I don’t think they expected me to make Team Blue. After all, how could they plan for their little experiment to be placed on the premier demi team? The one that not only fought in the nastiest combat against the aliens, but also took down the worst demi criminals. For as horrific as the alien war was, there was something undeniably satisfying being the a part of the team that did the whole “saving the world” thing. It was something I missed in the years when the world thought the Metal Ghost heroically perished during the last battle on the Demnisen flag ship. That probably explained the mixed feelings I felt as EMERGENCY CONTRACT flashed across the freelancer network. Holy shit. Emergency contracts were a general call for any demi freelancer in range to assist Liberation’s Praetorian teams. It was usually something very big. Based on all the zeroes on this contract, the emergency was one of the worst the government faced since the end of the war.

Rene’s pinging us, Delph informed me. Rene Descartes ran the largest freelancer firm in North America. He was also my main employer. I guess you could call him a friend. As much as we could be friends in the freelance business.

Put him through, I said.

“Kevin, did you see the emergency contract?” Rene asked. His accent was thicker than normal. That didn’t bode well.

“Let me guess. The powers that be specifically told you not to let me anywhere near it,” I said. Since Liberation’s upper layers found out that one of their minor freelancers was, in fact, one of their dead heroes, they let their displeasure be known. At first, there were a few assassination attempts. When those failed, Liberation did something far more sinister. They just stopped giving me government contracts. For a freelancer, that was more deadly than ninjas.

Non. I was told to make sure the Metal Ghost showed up at Freedom Tower.” Rene fired off some rapid French to a subordinate. It sounded like “Bring all the heavy guns.” Fuck. Rene came back on the line.

“Kevin, there’s something very wrong with this contract. It’s not just freelancers. They’re offering immunity to any Irregular who participates. When have you ever seen that?”

“Never.” Oh, holy fuck. Liberation made it clear that it considered any person who still worked with the Irregulars as a potential insurgent. They could turn themselves in to be rehabilitated, but “unrepentant” Irregulars were preferred dead than captured.

“I want to put you under contract for the duration. Not for the commission, mind you. I’m worried you might need the protection.”

“Normal commission contract with standard agency rate,” I said. Rene and I weren’t exactly friends. He wouldn’t hesitate to throw me to the wolves to protect his firm under normal circumstances. Business was business. That being said, he also knew when he needed to stand with – and provide the legal protection for – a demi who would be considered an ally. Reputations were important in the freelancer world.

“Be careful Kevin,” Rene said as the emergency contract details came over the link. Except this one was different than the one on the net. This emergency contract was written especially for the Metal Ghost. As I scanned the details, I could hear the ghost of an old comrade laughing at me. She was the one who told me to be careful what I wished for.

Rene was kind enough to provide me with a ride over to Freedom Tower. The huge monstrosity dominated the New York skyline. Even the new five-hundred-meter-tall habitation towers were dwarfed by the wreck of the Demnisen flagship. I stepped out of the back of the cargo truck along with a dozen other Descartes Solutions freelancers. The streets in front of the tower were cleared of all the regular civilian traffic. Regular freelancers were being directed by Relief Force constables to help with evacuation or setting up weapon emplacements. The Praetorians were putting the freelancer demis into strike teams. The scene brought back flashbacks to the alien war.

“Metal Ghost.” The voice boomed across the square. Everyone around the front of Freedom Tower stopped what they were doing and looked at me. I was looking at the man who called my name. Praetorian Primus Novus Americana. The Team Blue leader was one of the most powerful demis in the world. Normally, he wasn’t as tall as my fully armored form, but he was wearing his own shiny new armor. The red and blue armor was emblazoned with the stylized globe sigil of Liberation. The helmet tucked under his arm was styled to look like a Roman centurion. His handsome face was taught and unreadable. He motioned for me to join him. The crowds of RFC, Praetorians, and freelancers parted as I walked across and entered Freedom Tower. Primus said nothing as we walked across the mammoth entryway of Freedom Tower. We bypassed the personnel lifts and got into a waiting cargo lift. As soon as we got in the lift, Primus put his helmet on and stared at the doors. I saw his fingers flash a familiar sign. It took less than a second for Delph to make the secure connection.

“What the fuck is going on Brian?” I asked. My oldest friend didn’t say anything for a long moment.

“Rajesh went insane,” he answered. “He destroyed Lyons.” It was like he slapped me across the face. I couldn’t process the words for a long few seconds.

“What do you mean he destroyed Lyons?”

“The entire city is gone. Everything in a ten-kilometer radius was wiped away.”

“How? Rajesh doesn’t have that kind of power,” I said.

“He does now,” Brian said. “And he’s coming here.”

The doors hissed open. We stepped out into one of the shuttle bays. Team Blue was waiting for their leader. I didn’t know anyone on the current Team Blue. They were all post-war Praetorians. Besides Team Blue, there were also a couple dozen other demis. Most were lower-ranked Praetorians wearing standard battle armor, but there was a sprinkling of freelancers. Those folks I recognized. Most I knew by reputation, but I’d worked with a couple of them. Both were powerful blasters. It looked like Liberation was getting all the big guns together to take on one of the great heroes of the alien war. Brian walked into the middle of the group. A hologram of the world appeared over the group. There was a red dot in Europe. Delph helpfully told me that was where Lyons was. Or had been if Brian was correct. Another red dot appeared on Iceland. What the fuck happened there?

“People! We are on short time. We are defending this city against Pantheon.” The gathered demis went silent. Most wore shocked expressions. I couldn’t fault them.

“There’s more,” Brian continued, “Somehow, Pantheon’s abilities have increased exponentially. According to reports, he laid waste to the city of Lyons. Fifty thousand people are believed dead.”

“How could he do that?” Mirror asked. She was Brian’s deputy on Team Blue.

“I don’t know,” Brian said. Although Brian was wearing his “game face,” I could see the bewildered hurt on his face. Rajesh had been a reluctant warrior during the alien war. From what I’d heard, he spent the post-war years helping with Liberation’s humanitarian efforts.

 “There’s more. Team Gold intercepted Pantheon in New Reykjavik. Details are scarce, but it looks like Pantheon killed them all. Along with most of the city.”

“Holy sweet Jesus,” one of the Praetorians muttered before crossing himself. Team Gold was the super-elite of the Praetorians. These were the Praetorians who guarded Nova Paris – the capital of Liberation. They were led by the Praetorian Primus, and he was the scariest demi I’d ever met. If what Brian said was accurate, the only other demi I knew of with the raw power to level a city was now dead. I saw the worried looks the others were trading. If Team Gold couldn’t stop Pantheon, what could they hope to do? The only ones who didn’t have that look were Brian and Jade Ray – one of the freelancer blasters. She fought as an Irregular during the alien war. The three of us knew about going up against impossible odds.

“Pantheon is coming here,” Brian continued, “We don’t know what he’s after. We are going to stop him. The other teams down there will help to contain and try to take down any of his avatars that get past us. Our job is to stop him – any means necessary.” I could see the pain buried in Brian’s dark eyes as he uttered those words. Almost as if on cue, alarms blared through the shuttle bay. Brian put on his helmet and strode to the opening of the shuttle bay. A couple of techs raced up to me. I was handed a comm unit and a huge rifle case.

“Is this what I think it is?” I asked the tech as I opened the case.

“One destabilizer rifle,” the tech confirmed. Damn. I didn’t know Liberation kept any of the Demnisen destabilizers. You know since they were considered “weapons of great inhumanity.” Still, if Rajesh somehow got super powerful and then went off the deep end like Brian was telling us, maybe it was a good thing Liberation kept a few around. Not that I intended to give this one back. Or at least, not in repairable condition. I sent dozens of nannites into the alien weapon to tie it into my systems. Destabilizers were tricky weapons, and I’d need all the help I could get from my AI’s to control this thing. Plus, it would make it easier to wreck the weapon later.

I clipped the comm unit to the side of my head. The nannites that made up my armor interfaced with the Liberation tech to hook me up into their comma network – and let Delph in. A new window appeared in my Heads-Up Display. I was designated as Cyan-Two. It looked like Team Cyan included all the demis not on Team Blue. Fine with me. At least they weren’t stupid enough to make me the leader of this rag-tag bunch. More indicators appeared in my view. It looked like we were going to intercept Pantheon at the New South Dockyard. From the green icons, there were already Liberation Praetorian units and RFC units surrounding the docks. God, I hoped they had that place cleared out. I thought about the destruction Rajesh already accomplished. Maybe they should clear everything in a ten-block radius.

Team Blue launched out of the shuttle bay. They all had flight powers or were using those nifty Liberation jet packs. The Cyan flyers took off after them. I hopped onto an assault shuttle with the six Team Cyan demis who couldn’t fly. Sure, I could do the whole leap over tall buildings in a single bound thing, but why waste the energy? The assault shuttle made the short hop in a few minutes. Each of us were dropped off onto different buildings in the port complex. I was put down on a massive cargo crane with a clear view out to sea. A small glaring red dot was coming towards us – fast. Way too fast for it to be Rajesh. It was almost as fast as Brian when he went all out. Maestro immediately started throwing up combat courses. This was what the AI was designed for, and he loved every minute of it.

Easy, Maestro, I told the AI. We don’t have enough data. He grumbled and went back to his combat computations.

Got him, Delph announced. A new window appeared in my view. I’m pulling this from a Liberation drone. The blurring image slowed and resolved. An unearthly handsome man in a brilliant white toga with huge three-meter wings coming off his back. He was gripping a giant flaming spear in his hand.

Oh joy, he’s wearing his Archangel Michael avatar, I mused. I can’t imagine what sort of hellfire a super-charged archangel can rain down.

Why would an angel rain down hellfire? Delph asked.

I was being sarcastic, I answered. I get that way when I’m about to fight an insane old friend.

I hadn’t noticed, Delph answered with a dry haughtiness. I felt her refocus on her pirated feed.

He’s splitting. Four more red dots appeared next to Rajesh. There was a pinprick of an explosion. Damn it, he killed the drone. I have no idea who he summoned.

Rajesh was one of the rare summoners. Those demis could create creatures (avatars) or forces (elementals). The limitations were how complete a mental picture could the demi form and how much strength they put into their creation. Rajesh had been a literature professor with a focus on mythology when Purgatory hit him. He had a mind full of avatars, and he had a lot of power to give them. Where most summoners could bring one or two creations out to play, Rajesh was known to spawn a half-dozen. To top it all off, he could “wear” one of his avatars like armor – like he was doing with his Archangel Michael avatar.

Maestro, keep your aim on Rajesh, I reminded the AI, Let the rest play with his other avatars. Maestro scoffed. He was the ultimate combat AI. He didn’t need my reminders. Okay, he really didn’t for this. Reminding him was more me trying to settle my nerves.

The first two avatars arrived on scene. A Norse Valkyrie riding a winged horse and Thunderbird. Damn. Rajesh wasn’t fucking around. Those were a couple of his more potent avatars. Brian ordered Team Blue to take the Valkyrie while Cyan’s flyers were to take out Thunderbird. Maestro and I mentally looked at each other. What the fuck? Team Blue had more blasters. They should be dealing with the giant bird raining down lightning bolts. As the teams engaged, avatars three and four arrived. Artemis and Athena. Those two were a couple of Rajesh’s favorites. Also, very scary when they worked together.

Orders flashed in my comm screen. I was to hold position while the Cyan non-flyers and the Praetorians on the perimeter dealt with two goddesses. Well, that was a better call. Sort of. It left me to concentrate on the closing red dot that had once been a very good friend. Of course, that’s when it went all to hell.

Red dots multiplied. Where there was one Valkyrie, there were now four. Thunderbird was joined by Crow, Eagle, and Hawk. Artemis was surrounded by two dozen wolves while Artemis was commanding a full square of Macedonian hoplites. Holy fuck. I’d seen Rajesh do that with a single avatar. Never when he was bringing out a full team. Where was he getting all this power?

The battle on the ground was a massacre. The hoplites marched straight through the gathered Praetorians while the wolves hit them on the flanks. Any time one of the more powerful demis managed to slow the hoplites or wolves, either Artemis put an arrow into the demi’s head or Athena cut him down with her spear.

It didn’t make sense. Rajesh didn’t have that kind of power. The Praetorians should have torn through the smaller avatars without a problem. Hell, regular RFC’s should have been able to take them. The hoplites and wolves ignored the attacks as if they were as powerful as Rajesh’s full-strength avatars. If that was true, we were in real trouble. Desperate calls filled the comms net. Every Liberation unit near the docks raced towards us. I hoped it would be enough. Based on what was happening in the air, I wasn’t sure.

Thunderbird, Crow, Eagle, and Hawk dove on Team Cyan’s flyers. The Cyan Praetorians formed a flying wall, unleashing multi-colored blasts at the birds. Thunderbird scattered the beams with a wall of electricity. Damn, that was a neat trick. Then, it was the birds’ turn. Screams filled the comms as the Praetorians were ripped apart by talons and beaks. The freelancer with them died spectacularly. She waited until Hawk’s claws were deep in her. A massive explosion consumed both of them.

Team Blue was faring marginally better against the Valkyries. Both groups swirled around trading Demi blasts and blows with the arrows and sword strikes of the Valkyries. Finished with Cyan’s flyers, Thunderbird, Crow, and Eagle joined the remaining Valkyries. Nine powerful demis should have made quick work of the six avatars. There was something very wrong with how this battle was playing out. First, Brian wasn’t fighting with his team. He just hovered a hundred meters from the edge of the port as if he was waiting for something. He wasn’t even commanding the different elements in the battle. As strange as that was, the more important problem was the new intelligence of the avatars.

The avatars swirled away from Team Blue. One of the Valkyries traded her bow for a long spear. Eagle and Crow flanked her, and the trio dived at Team Blue. The elite Praetorians wordlessly came into one of their practiced formations. The formal name was Bravo Two. During then alien war we called it bruisers blocking blasters. God, Brian’s predecessor hated it when we used the slang terms. The formation was a balanced and tight flying wall. Or would have been if Thunderbird didn’t unleash a localized hurricane. Rajesh managed that only once before – and it  required him wearing the Thunderbird avatar and all of his strength to pull off. Yet none of the other avatars even so much as flickered as sudden winds lashed out at Team Blue.

Lightning and arrows rained down. Mirror created dozens of her trademark floating shields. She caught most of them, but her teammate Prism took three arrows and a lightning bolt. The light blaster fell from the sky. Team Blue’s blasters went to work. Again, Thunderbird created that electrical shield. Blue Two was a devious woman. She’d seen that little trick before – and she was a half-decent summoner herself. From behind Thunderbird and the two Valkyries appeared dozens of missiles. Thunderbird dodged as the two Valkyries shot arrows at the missiles like two buzzsaw guns. They almost blunted Blue Two’s attack. Almost. There was a brilliant flash as a half-dozen missiles struck one of the Valkyries.

At that point, Eagle, Crow, and the Valkyrie lancer met Team Blue’s bruisers. The Centurion Twins raced out to meet the trio followed quickly by Samurai and Blue Three. Crow stopped in mid-air and flung out its wings. Hundreds of black birds appeared in the midst of the Team Blue bruisers. It was if a swirling, pulsing, squalling ball of darkness surrounded the four demis. Thunderbird and the Valkyrie archer kept Team Blue’s blasters busy as Eagle and the Valkyrie lancer dived into the black ball. I couldn’t see the fight. One of the Centurion Twins’ green icons blinked orange an instant before his body fell out of the ball. Then his brother joined him. Samurai fell next, leaving Blue Three to face the avatars alone. I heard muffled explosions as Blue Three triggered his “dynamite punches.” There was the faintest glimmer of hope. Blue Three was one of the ten most powerful demis for a reason. The black ball erupted in a blinding flash of energy. When it subsided, Eagle was still flying, but Blue Three and the Valkyrie were nowhere to be seen. The four remaining Team Blue members tightened up, which wasn’t an easy task in the still raging hurricane winds.

“Blue One, what the fuck? Go help your team!” I screamed at Brian over the radio.

“Cyan Two, please stay off the radio,” Brian said. The voice was flat and emotionless. There wasn’t even a hint of command authority.

Delph, get me a direct link to Brian.

I can’t. All his comm ports are active, Delph said. I tried to establish one when he let Cyan’s flyers die. She was just as confused as I was by Brian’s actions. Delph probably knew Brian better than I did. For an AI, she was incredibly perceptive about humans.

Knock one of them off.

Don’t you think I tried? Delph replied, frustration leaking into her voice. Before I could say anything else, Rajesh entered the combat zone. I couldn’t see the thin man under his avatar. The archangel looked like a Renaissance painting come to life. I let Maestro take command. Destabilizers needed to be handled carefully. I felt Maestro make micro-adjustments as he lined the weapon up with Rajesh. An instant before Maestro opened fire, Brian shot across the sky at Rajesh. Maestro cursed as I grabbed control. I didn’t care. I didn’t know what Brian was doing, but I wasn’t going to shoot him. Maestro would just consider Brian collateral damage. Maestro is ruthless like that.

“Cyan Two, hold,” Brian ordered as he engaged Rajesh. Brian easily deflected Rajesh’s spear thrust. He closed and slammed a hammer blow across the archangel’s face. Unperturbed, the archangel flew back and spun the spear as a shield. Brian closed carefully. He was taunting Rajesh, but they were too far for me to hear the words. Rajesh attacked again, slashing with the flaming spear. This time Brian sped back away from the attacks. Something about the fight was tickling my instincts. I’d seen Brian fight more times than I could count. Even against more powerful foes, he wasn’t this cagey. It was more like Brian was sparring with Rajesh.

Veils dropped and a dozen demis surrounded Rajesh. I recognized their leader. Kate. I suddenly realized what just happened. Brian coordinated with his Irregular girlfriend to spring a trap. Okay, that was an interesting turn of events, but what was the point? Brian could’ve taken Rajesh apart if he had tried. As the Irregulars attacked, Rajesh shot into the sky. They chased, but they weren’t fast enough. Rajesh brought his hands into a prayer motion. He was summoning. Maestro lined up the shot.

“Kevin, don’t,” Brian said, every bit of command in his voice. Before I could ask, the new avatar formed. It was huge – at least twenty meters tall. I didn’t recognize the multi-armed form. Delph quickly supplied the missing information.

Shiva. I recognized the name.

Rajesh never used any Hindu gods, I protested, despite the angry blue god in front of me, He always said it was blasphemy.

He’s obviously changed his mind.

“Kevin, I need you to engage Shiva,” Brian said, “That’s what he used to kill Team Gold.” I wanted to ask how the fuck he knew that, but there wasn’t time. If this avatar was that powerful, I needed to kill it fast. Maestro gleefully took control and reoriented towards the huge form as it floated towards Manhattan. Maestro took a few moments and then unleashed the destabilizer. The orange beam struck the Shiva avatar dead center. Perfect.

Elation turned to dread. The avatar didn’t even stagger from the beam. It just turned and looked at me as if I was a mosquito that just bit it. One of its hands waved towards me. Fortunately, Maestro didn’t have the incomprehension plaguing Delph and me. He leapt down as the crane disintegrated. It was like a wind just blew the massive structure to dust. Maestro reconfigured the nannites as we landed. Rolling, Maestro brought the destabilizer back up and fired again. Once again, the beam merely annoyed the avatar. We sprinted as Shiva laid waste to a quarter of the port. Massive cargo cranes and the even more massive cargo ships crumbled under the assault. How the hell was the most powerful weapon in the Liberation arsenal not doing anything?

No, the destabilizer’s doing something, Delph said. It just has a limited effect before the avatar dissipates the alien energy with its own. We sprinted across the port. Two of Artemis’s wolves appeared. Maestro formed a particle pulse pistol as the wolves attacked. Two careful bursts and the wolves disappeared in flashes of energy. Okay, the destabilizer wasn’t enough. We needed something stronger.

Tell Liberation to open fire with the guns on the tower, I told Delph, Those’ve got to have enough juice behind them. I felt her dive into the comm network.

Maestro, let’s lead that thing into our own trap. Maestro doesn’t giggle with glee. He’s incapable of doing that. Still, I could feel the impulse in the AI. I reminded him to try and limit civilian casualties. I’d been in this business too long to think this fight wouldn’t cause some. We jumped over the port’s wall and onto one of the low buildings around the port. I expected Maestro to fire again, but he leapt to another building just as Shiva unleashed another wave of destruction. The port wall and damn near half a block worth of buildings were wiped away.

Maestro slid across the roof, bringing up the destabilizer again. He fired and caught Shiva in one of its arms. There was a small hole in the forearm where the beam lanced through. So, it could be hurt. Unfortunately, that little bit of knowledge made Shiva take us more seriously. We sprinted as Shiva lashed out with another wave of destruction. Two city blocks and part of a third were leveled – along with God knew how many people. There was no way the RFC managed to evacuate everyone. The screams of the hurt and the dying filled the air as we sprinted towards Liberation Boulevard. That wide main thoroughfare led right to Freedom Tower. It would be a perfect place for Liberation to open up with the alien cruiser’s weapons.

Landing in the middle of the street, we paused. Shiva sneered as it floated towards us. Maestro hit it again with the alien weapon, just to keep its attention on us. A five-meter-long blade appeared in one of the avatar’s hands. Yeah, it wanted us dead, and it wanted to make damn sure we were dead. Just a bit longer, and the cruiser would—

They’re not going to fire, Delph told us as she popped back into our consciousness. Maestro immediately sprinted back towards the tower.

Why not?

They wouldn’t say, but from what I could delve out of their systems, the Freedom Tower staff may not be sure the guns will fire.

Just wonderful. The sword came down. Maestro jinked, and Shiva dug a trench down the center of Liberation Boulevard. Water sprayed into the air as the underground pipes were severed. The blow was close enough that damage alarms blazed in my HUD. The top layer of my armor was gone. Including a lot of the nannites I used to form weapons. The destabilizer was still working at least for a few more blasts. Then it would have just enough power for me to slag the thing. The thought spurred an idea.

Maestro, get us to one of the gun mounts on Freedom Tower. The nice thing about sharing my mind with the AI’s is they immediately know what I’m planning. Vocalizing orders was redundant. Maestro was already aiming us towards the tenth floor. He still had the schematics of the cruiser from when we boarded it during the last battle of the alien war. A monomolecular blade formed in our left hand as Maestro leapt up the side of the Tower. Shiva’s blade tore apart the main entryway as the avatar tried again to swat us. As we landed on the nondescript outcropping, Maestro sliced away the facade. Just underneath the concrete was a small turret that once housed an anti-missile laser. This was going to be the tricky bit.

Delph, can you give us a distraction? Delph didn’t answer. She was busy ordering her children in the dozens of drones hovering over the combat zone. The drones dove at Shiva en masse. The goddess avatar looked confused by the attack from all sides. The look was like someone caught in a surprise rain. I wasn’t expecting the swarm to damage the avatar. I just needed it not looking at me for a few moments. I left Maestro to position us as I opened up with my demi power. There was a reason I could control a cybernetic body cludged together with human and alien tech, along with the two AI’s in my head. I was a machine whisperer. They did what I needed them to do. In this case, I reached directly to the nannites coating my body. I felt the alienness of the nannites as I coaxed them into a new form. It was intricate and unlike anything they had a pattern for. I was improvising, which was dangerous when dealing with nannites and alien power sources.

Kevin, she’s attacking! Delph screamed in our shared mind. The nannites weren’t formed perfectly, but it should work. Maybe. Hopefully. Snapping the last bit into place, we were flooded with power from the alien cruiser. Maestro channeled the power through our cybernetic body and into the destablilizer emitter – which he augmented with more nannites. Instead of the standard five-centimeter beam, we were now firing a fifty-centimeter beam – with all of the power inside Freedom Tower channeled into the blast. I poured repair nannites as fast as the Freedom Tower’s energy tore through my systems. Ten seconds lasted an eternity.

Shiva vanished in an explosion of energy. I was flung off Freedom Tower and down the boulevard for probably two or three blocks. Every fucking alarm and warning was blazing in my head. I was pretty sure the destabilizer melted into my arm. I looked around wondering why none of the Praetorian or RFC units around the tower had come after me. If to retrieve the alien blaster if for no other reason. Instead, I didn’t see anyone. Shiva’s death didn’t have the same destructive power as its attacks, but it was nasty enough. Bodies, vehicles, and building debris were scattered around like a giant’s discarded toys. The Tower lost a good bit of its facade, but the avatar’s destruction hadn’t even scratched the warship’s armor.

Kevin, as bad as this is, it may be a good time to escape, Delph said.

Escape? Rene said they wanted me on this contract, I answered, my mind feeling muzzy from the strain. Fucking biologics.

Yes, but do you think they wouldn’t take advantage of our current state to take you apart? Delph asked in reply. Okay, she had a point. Maestro, the ever-helpful bastard, put a course into the HUD. It wasn’t a direct course back to the American base, but it would get me there fast enough. Which was good, because I wasn’t sure if I had enough nannites or power to repair all the internal damage. I plucked the Liberation comm unit off and staggered down the Boulevard.

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."


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