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“All right, listen up you monkeys.” Star Boy leaned forward dramatically, eyebrows raised, and waited as if daring the Blue Light crowd to react. When nobody responded he resumed slowly pacing back and forth on the stage. “As Colonel Hackworth just finished saying, we won a big victory out there today. Fourth Wave-level crazy. We’re talking millions of the bastards, shut down, denied, kicked out of town.”

James looked over to where Hackworth stood with Jessica and the rest of his staff. The colonel’s expression was blank. Was he regretting asking Star Boy to give this talk? Maybe, maybe not. Probably just resigning himself to working with what he had.

Star Boy paused, considering. “A big win, except for the few symbols where we didn’t come out on top. But those losses are why I’m up here dispensing wisdom right now. Just because we had some big wins doesn’t mean we can relax. Hold up on that Doña Juanita, yeah? We need to evolve if we’re to be ready for Nemesis 3. Which, according to our synchronized swatches, are coming in twelve days. Sure, sounds like a vacation, but you’d be dead ass wrong.”

He paused again, raised his eyebrows as if daring someone to contradict him.

“Now, being ready for Nemesis 3 is far more complicated than what we had to do for Nem2. For one, we’ve a host of new abilities to incorporate into our battle plans, second, we’ve a limited number of XP left in the hives to distribute optimally across our troops, and third, we’ve got a national movement to develop. It ain’t gonna help nobody if New York survives the next round and we lose Philly, Miami, Detroit, LA, Chicago, Houston, and, uh, New Orleans. Which means we need to start thinking big. We need to take the Blue Light ball and run with it. We need to go from tactics to strategy, yeah?”

James shifted in his seat. Crimson Hydra was seated about him, with Bjørn one seat behind. The CFO had been affable, relaxed, had apologized elegantly and even made some jokes at his own expense. But James wasn’t fooled and was aware of the man like a constant ping on a radar.

“So, let’s start off with our new abilities. Apologies to our non-Christians in the crowd we’re going to keep things simple by using the terms appearing to the greatest number in the crowd. We’re at twenty-seven Benedictions now, folks, and that’s a lot to keep track of.” Star Boy turned and clicked a little controller in his hand. A projector clicked on, revealing a simple PowerPoint slide with three words written across the center:

 

Shield of Faith | Smite | Bless

 

“Fucking classic.” Star Boy turned back to the large crowd. “You gotta imagine the powers-that-be running this shit are classic MMORPG players. We got our tanks, our DPS, and our buffers. Classic fucking split. Right here we run into problems. When you were dealing with the Nem1’s - remember those good old days? - almost half of you went Smite at Level 5. I mean, why the fuck not, right? Hulk smash is instinctual. To be precise, 45.12% of you went Smite. 30.39% went Bless, leaving only 24.49% to go Shield of Faith. Now, I could talk your ear off about the psychology behind this, but the immediate problem lies in the unequal distribution of Benedictions, and how they’ve bottle necked our ability to create synergizing groups.

“Now, since the Google Form went live, courtesy of the inestimable Warrant Officer Miles, we’ve received 13,233 viable applications, which means only 3,241 Shield of Faith’ers. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but as you know, less than half are locals, and of those locals, only one third have actually shown up, giving us a pool of 540 Shield of Faith candidates, of which just over 342 are currently in operating teams. That’s right, we have 198 Shield of Faith candidates waiting to get in on the action, and Cindy’s been processing them while you righteous bad asses have been out there kicking butt. Great news? Maybe. Remember the bottleneck. That’s enough Shielders for 66 new teams. But we also have 653 Smiters ready to go, enough for 217 teams, which means a whole bunch of them can’t get in on the action in an optimal way.”

Star Boy paused and studied the crowd. “You guys with me so far?

Serenity raised her hand. “You’re saying we ain’t got enough Shield of Faithers.”

Star Boy snapped his fingers and pointed at her. “That’s right! A+ to the Major. Folks, and by folks I guess I mean James, we need to start actively recruiting more Shield of Faith and Bless people so we can round out our teams. Which ties into the third step, which we’ll get to, but, for now, let’s keep digging into our new powers.”

He clicked his button.

Under each main Benediction appeared three more:

 

Shield of Faith
Circle of Protection | Healing Grace | Remove Fear

 

Smite
Dark Vision | Sacred Strike | Deadeye

 

Bless
Dark Energy Siphon | Aura Mastery | Inspiration

 

“Already we see specialization. Shield of Faith can lead to a defensive area, healing, or removing hexes. Smiters can specialize in melee, ranged, or what seemed at first rather oddly the ability to see in the dark?” Richard shrugged. “Was confusing at the time, but now we know. Finally, Bless led to becoming a Sith Lord - sorry, Dark Energy types - Aura Mastery, which combines aspects of Circle of Protection and Sacred Strike, or Inspiration, which I like to call the Alexander the Great/Hitler power.”

Richard turned back to the crowd. “Nine specializations, and each required to form a squad. For those of you who never caught on, that’s a term I’m borrowing from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. Great series, check it out, I think it’s on Kindle Unlimited on Amazon, so no excuses. But you need each one of those to get that experience sharing synergy that has allowed so many of you to rank up so quickly.

“Beyond that, we’ve seen that groups who include all nine sub-specializations also function better as a team. All those powers mix-and-match beautifully, allowing each squad to excel. Now, there’s an argument to be made that you could cherry pick specializations for any given mission, ditching, say, the Remove Fear, Dark Vision, or Inspiration members for more firepower, but that’s because we don’t know what’s coming with Nem3 and beyond. The existence of these specializations tells us we should be expecting more darkness and terror, and soon.”

Richard paused; lips quirked into an apologetic grimace. “It’s gonna get dark and scary out there, is what I’m saying. But now we know more.”

Again he clicked, and more information came up.

“First let’s look at the Shield of Faith options.”

 

Shield of Faith
Circle of Protection
Angel’s Armor | Aureate Buckler | Communal Benediction

 

Shield of Faith
Healing Grace
Mass Solace | Martyr’s Cry | Indomitable Resilience

 

Shield of Faith
Remove Fear
Remove Curse | Dispel Illusion | Soul Bastion

 

Richard studied the projection, then turned a knowing glance to the crowd. “Sick. We’ve been testing these all afternoon and have some pretty exciting results. Quick review. Somebody hit me with Angel’s Armor.”

Immediately the air about Richard’s body began to glimmer as motes of gold light coalesced about him. They swirled, and in an instant had formed into a slightly translucent set of full plate that encased him from head to foot. The armor was beautiful, ethereal, and looked to be made of glowing golden light, ivory, and steel.

Richard raised an arm and considered the armor. “Weightless, unable to stop mundane attacks, but we’re guessing this is some Grade-A defense against demons. Duration and durability seemed dependent on Arete levels, though spending a point of Aeviternum seems to max out those properties. Very sweet. You can remove it now, benevolent stranger.”

The suit glimmered and fell apart, disappearing a second later. “Then we have Aureate Buckler. Someone want to hook me up?”

A gold disc appeared a few feet to James’s side. It was a foot wide, composed of concentric circles of platinum and gold, and hovered easily in the air.

“Now this one is interesting.” Richard considered the buckler. “It moves with me, and also moves to intercept attacks. Cindy?”

Cindy stepped up onto the stage, clearly expecting this summons, and threw a stone at Richard. Hard.

The buckler swung around smoothly and intercepted the projectile, which clanged off its gleaming face.

“Couple of things we’ve noticed. One, the buckler intercepts all attacks that come within a certain distance of me, about three feet, even if its trajectory would mean it would miss. Second, as you noticed, it blocks mundane attacks. Pretty sweet. We’re guessing it’s also great against demons, but probably not as good as the Angel Armor, which provides 360 protection. The buckler can only be in one place at a time. Useful against shitty humans, though. Thanks Cindy. And we can drop the buckler now.”

The gleaming disc faded from view. “As before, the buckler’s strength and duration seem keyed to Arete, and maxed out by Aeviternum. We think both the Armor and Buckler are also boosted by Stamina, but we’ve not been able to verify yet. Finally we have Communal Benediction, and this one is great. From what we can tell, this allows the caster of Circle of Protection to pick one second-tier Benediction currently being used within the Circle and bestow it on everyone else that’s also in the circle.”

A buzz of interest went up at that.

“That’s right folks, for only $9.99 you too can be the proud owner of Deadeye, or Aura Mastery, or Dark Vision or what-have-you. Leaving the circle ends your use of the shared Benediction, and again, duration seems keyed to Arete and Stamina. But that’s a huge game-changer right there.”

“I will take that one,” whispered Olaf. “Though the Armor was great. And the Buckler.”

“This final Benediction means that a squad moving within a Circle of Protection can all enjoy the benefits of Smite-enhanced firepower,” continued Richard. “It means everyone can use Dark Vision to prevent darkness-based powers from nullifying us moving forward, or the same for fear spells. Everyone can gain access to healing, or even Sacred Strike. What does this mean in turn?”

Richard pauses as if awaiting an answer. Some hand went up cautiously, but he just plunged on and answered the question himself. “That’s right. That means Circle of Protection folks just got handed the team tactics hat. They’re going to need to know when to switch Benedictions, how to call out the plays, and to ensure everybody’s aware of what’s coming down the pike. The only Benediction they can’t bestow is Circle of Protection; a pity. I got real excited there when that one occurred to me.”

Murmurs as the nearly thousand-strong crowd broke into quiet conversation. James glanced over to the military folks by the ASOCC: they also seemed to be taking notes.

“Buckle up, buckeroos, because that’s just one of the nine new power-sets. Angelic Armor, Aureate Bucklers, and Communal Benediction. On the face of it, everyone should just get Benediction Share, and I may even advise that one, but consider this: none of our powers currently defend against normal people or even thrown rocks. A buckler could make a big difference when shit gets really Mad Max out there. And the Armor allows for protection independent of the Circle; it’d be a trap to become too dependent on it, as it would mean the squad is always clustered together. Food for thought.”

James nodded slowly.

“Then how do I make my pick?” demanded Olaf.

“The next set are much more straight forward,” said Richard, cutting back in over the conversations. “Check it out.”

 

Shield of Faith
Healing Grace
Mass Solace | Martyr’s Cry | Indomitable Resilience

 

“In short, we have a mass healing spell that’s about 50% as potent as a straight-up Healing Grace but can target the whole squad and maybe even more folks, the ability - apparently - to prevent someone from taking a mortal wound and taking half the damage yourself - can I say ouch? And this one’s pretty great, the ability to turn everyone in your group into a low-level Wolverine. That’s right. Indomitable Resilience seems to bestow an enhanced healing factor which lasts a very long time. We’ve some folks who are still enjoying the benefit several hours later, though again, I’m sure there are correlations between Arete and that Benediction.

“Which should you pick? No strong guidance here. Indomitable Resilience sounds cool, but it’s not strong enough to get you on your feet right away. In the heat of battle, a Mass Solace would allow a number of hurt people to get back up and keep fighting. But Mass Solace uses much more power and taps out after a couple of uses. Indomitable Resilience is like the Energizer Bunny. It just keeps on giving and would allow folks to stay in the field much, much longer. As for Martyr’s Cry, we all know how you only get to use your Aeviternum to heal from a mortal wound if you’ve got the seconds of time to spend it. A head shot? That’s when it would make the difference. They’re all good, they’d all make a huge difference in different circumstances, but we’re currently still too generalized to make those calls. Pick what appeals to you, and we’ll match you down the line to the missions that would benefit most from your selections, yeah?”

Nods all round.

“Finally, the Remove Fear power set.”

 

Shield of Faith
Remove Fear
Remove Curse | Dispel Illusion | Soul Bastion

 

“Not gonna lie to you, these are the least sexy Benedictions out of all twenty-seven thus far. I’ve heard a bunch of you grumbling about feeling useless in battle up to this point, but let me emphasize, that’s up to this point. All of these would be absolutely crucial against the attacks they’re designed to negate. What do they imply? That future foes are gonna hit us with fear attacks, curses, illusions, and nighttime corruption. That’s all some heinous shit, folks, and I personally hate that we can’t take all of these defenses. Right now your Remove Fear team members may have taken a back seat to everyone else, but I promise you this: the day will come when they make the difference between us surviving this apocalypse or succumbing to it. So yeah, let’s give our brave Remove Fear folks a round of applause. C’mon. Let’s show them some love and appreciation.”

And Richard clapped, nodding to the audience, which slowly at first and then ever louder started to applaud as well, till some folks started whistling and hooting and the applause became thunderous.

Joanna grinned, raked her short blonde hair back, and shoulder bumped Olaf who’d whispered something to her.

“Well all right, go team Blue Light. Now. I want to move on to my personal favorite group of Benedictions. The Smite crew.”

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