James piled into the oncoming gremlins. Swung his skillet once but didn’t bother drawing it back. He ran on a carpet of dread bodies, small, scaled forms that shifted underfoot, making purchase hard, making it so that his blind charge turned into a dive.
His aura flared to life. He barged into the gremlins and they lit up. Smoke surrounded him immediately, screeches.
James crashed to his knees. He was roaring, screaming hoarsely as he rose, gremlins swarming him, falling right off, burnt to the bone.
He had to keep moving. He had to hit them first.
James rose, bellowed, plowed on.
Broken glass underfoot. His aura didn’t fade. It felt like somebody upstairs had flicked the switch to ‘on’. He swung his arms, smacking gremlins, waded amongst them, punched them out of the air.
“Die, motherfuckers!” It was his mantra. His pimp coat flared around him as he spun, and every gremlin that its hem touched charred over. The stench was horrific. He felt delirious. A final high.
There were so god damned many of them.
Serenity was screaming his name. He wanted to assure her everything was fine. That this was a perfectly good way to go. He kicked, strode, smacked gremlins. Whomever he touched his aura torched.
But they got in their licks. Cuts and slashes across his legs, his back, bites on his forearms, his calves. They paid the price, but he was rapidly becoming a mangled piece of shit. His leg gave out and he went down on one knee.
Blood ran into his left eye.
Gremlins lay dead all around him. The others had momentarily drawn back, but at his drop they grinned and smiled.
How were there still so many of them? And more outside?
“Come on then,” he whispered. “Let’s end this.”
The gremlins threw themselves at him.
He went down under a carpet of scaly limbs and wiry bodies. His aura lit them all up a cool gray, but sheer weight and mass drove him back. He screamed as they slashed at him, died, then those on top reached through to bite and rend, then died in turn.
Your rank is now Mendicant 3
You have 5 unspent points.
He couldn’t breathe. Coal ash filled his mouth. His mind was a spark of consciousness locked in a bottle that was hurled by waves of pain.
It was the hardest thing in the world to not just let go.
But James was an ornery bastard. Even when he’d let everything go, he’d refused to just quit and die.
So with the last of his reserves he opened the menu. He couldn’t make anything out, but he willed the unspent points into his Arete.
The effect was immediate.
His aura brightened, and a chorus of pained shrieks rose to an even higher pitch. The mass writhing atop of him went inert, and then his aura flicked off.
James shifted onto his side. Charred corpses fell apart and toppled off him. With supreme effort he rose to one elbow. Didn’t even bother looking at his body. Instead, he stared at the circle of gremlins that surrounded him.
“What?” he rasped. “Turned chicken?”
One of the gremlins snarled and leaped at him.
His aura flared to life a foot beyond his skin.
The gremlin charred in mid-air and hit him as little more than a cloud of black dust.
“Well,” he said. “Will you look at that now.”
The gremlins shifted uncertainly, glanced at each other.
With a grimace James pushed himself to all fours. Remained still for a moment, waves of darkness swamping his vision, and then rose to his knees.
Passing out wasn’t an option. Who knew if his aura would work when he was knocked out.
“Coming to get you.” It felt like trying to stand on a pair of rotten steaks, but he somehow got his feet under him. He knew he should be unable to stand. His pants were shredded and soaked with blood. But he managed, stood swaying, then staggered back around the Camry to the hallway.
Serenity stared at him, wide eyed. “How the fuck you still alive?”
“God loves me. C’mon. We’re getting out of here. I need medical help.”
“No shit.” She looked him up and down. “You… I mean, how…?”
“Mendicant 3. Hurry before I collapse.”
She climbed over the corpses that choked the hallway and moved to his side.
The cupcake shop was still packed with gremlins, but they were shifting about, hissing, infuriated, keeping their distance.
James felt positively loopy.
“I’m going to grab a cupcake,” he told them sternly. “Get in my way and I’ll fry your brains out.”
Serenity followed him to the broken counter. He reached inside to a pretty stand and took the topmost cupcake. The frosting looked crimson in the orange streetlight. The gremlins watched as he ate half the cupcake in one bite. Sugar and rich carrot cake flavors swamped his palette.
“What?” asked Serenity, wide eyed and raising her empty gun.
“Good cupcake. Let’s go.”
He put his arm around her shoulders, leaned down to collect his skillet, and then together they hobbled out onto the sidewalk.
“So they can’t touch you now?”
“I’m like a… deep fryer. A walking deep fryer. If they attack me, they get…”
“Yeah.” James hung his head and grimaced. “Let me heal up and I’ll come up with a better metaphor.”
“Look,” she hissed.
He raised his head. Through his ropy hair he saw that a hundred gremlins spread out across the street. Some clung to the face of the buildings, others crouched on parked cars, others simply sidled along the sidewalk and street.
His heart skipped a beat and then he pulled Serenity in closer. “Don’t step away. My aura’s only strong a foot or so out.”
She hugged him tight, then relented when he hissed.
“You’re like a fucking sponge filled with blood. How you still standing?”
“Like I said. I’m on a mission from God.”
“You really think so?”
“No. Blues Brother’s quote. Let’s… let’s go.”
They started making their way to the bus stop. Slowly the gremlins faded away, retreating into the shadows, hissing and obviously pissed.
“Drop the skillet,” said Serenity. “You don’t need it now.”
“Sentimental value.” Was it just him, or was he feeling better? He sucked in a deeper breath. No, he was definitely feeling better. “I think my aura’s healing me.”
“Tell it to hurry the fuck up. I feel like I’m slow dancing with a badly cooked Sloppy Joe.”
“Heh. Quit flirting with me.”
“Oh, you’ll know when I’m flirting with you. Trust me, this ain’t it.”
A gremlin burst out of the shadows under a car and leaped at them. It was a glorious leap, flea-magnificent, and it torched as it fell upon them, his aura frying it but good.
Ash blew across them both.
“So, they can’t sense my aura,” he mused. “Shit, that’s great.”
“Great? What are you talking about?”
“It means that as soon as I heal up I can start hunting them down.”
“Oh.” Serenity stopped and stared at him. “Oh.”
“Now, wounded as I am? It should take me a week in the hospital to recover. I’ve got the kind of bites that they put dogs down for. But I’m not feeling it. I mean, it hurts, but not like it should. And I sure as fuck shouldn’t be standing.”
“You didn’t raise your stamina?”
“No. I don’t feel like I could run anywhere. Right now a wind could blow me over. But it’s more like… I dunno. Maybe higher Arete improves your ability to heal or resist pain?”
“And I sank all my points into Agility,” she moaned. “Why? Why do I make the wrong choices even during the fucking demon apocalypse? My ma always said I was cursed, and -”
“If you hadn’t, we’d be dead.” James held her gaze. “Seriously. I’d never had hit Mendicant 3 without your Jesse Jamesing those fuckers to pieces.”
“Annie Oakley,” said Serenity morosely. “Not Jesse James.”
They hobbled on. A gremlin leaped down from a window to land atop a car with a thump and hiss at them.
“Hurry up,” James called to it.
For a moment it looked confused, but then it let out a little shriek and leaped.
“Amazing,” said Serenity. “We should tie you to the back of a car, like newlyweds do those cans, you know? And drive slowly through town, drawing out all the little shits. It’d be glorious.”
Screams sounded from a brownstone above them. They stopped, looked up. An old woman was wrestling with a gremlin behind her curtains, their silhouette all that was visible. She screamed again then fell and went silent.
“Forget what I said.” James felt a cold hatred well up inside him. “Let’s go with your plans. Tie me up.”
“I got no ammo.” Serenity glared at the window. “Hey! You little piece of shit! Demon! Get down here!”
Serenity scrounged around, then let go of James and stepped down to pick up a loose corner of the paver. She worked it free, aimed, then hurled it with remarkable precision at the window.
The glass shattered.
A moment a gremlin appeared, face gleaming with fresh blood.
“Yeah, you!” Serenity flicked it off. “Get down here!”
It crouched on the window ledge then obliged.
Hit James’ aura and ashed.
“Fucking demons,” hissed Serenity, spitting into the cloud as it dissipated.
“Let’s keep moving.”
They hobbled on, but soon James felt strong enough to walk without help. He bent down beneath a streetlight and examined his legs. His wounds were closing up. Nothing perhaps that a regular person would notice, but to his trained eye he could see improvements that would normally take a day of careful rest and treatment in an ICU. No bleeding, little pain.
“Doesn’t make medical sense.”
“Guess it don’t have to,” said Serenity.
“Bus stop is around the corner. We going home?”
Home. The word jarred him. He’d not used it in forever. While part of him wanted to correct her - an old, angry instinct - he knew what she meant. “Yeah. We need to rest a little before we resume our vigilante shit. Actually, you know what? I should post another video. People need to know what this aura can do.”
“True. But we should do it with an example. Make it more credible, you know? A lot of lies and shit online.”
“Right, right. Keep your phone handy.”
“Lost my purse, remember?”
“Here, use mine.”
She took it. “You’ve got 7% battery and no connection.”
“So make it count. We’ll upload when we get Wi-Fi.”
They walked on, heard shouts, screams, and ran.
A bus was parked obliquely across the lane beside the stop. People were falling out the accordion doors in their haste to get out. Inside they saw a couple of gremlins wreaking havoc, leaping and slashing at the people still trapped inside.
More gremlins were emerging from the shadows.
“All right, record me, fast!”
James hobble-jogged toward the bus. A gremlin came bounding toward him. He ignored it, and it ashed against him. Moving quickly brought the pain to life, and he had to grit his teeth against the jagged agony that shot up his legs.
But he couldn’t go slow.
Two more gremlins ashed against him before he reached the bus. People were shouting, sobbing, screaming, but he shoved his way through them to the doors.
“Phone’s dead!” Serenity yelled as she ran to catch up.
“You!” James turned to point a finger in a bearded emo dude’s face. “Record this shit!”
The man’s eyes widened, panic giving way to a reflex to obey orders, and he raised his phone.
James hissed in pain as he hauled himself onto the bus. The closest gremlin was attacking a burly dude in a bomber jacket, who’d turned away and wrapped his arms about his head as the creature slashed his back to ribbons.
“Hey. Hey!” James staggered forward. The gremlin froze, looked up at him and snarled. James hefted his skillet then reached out instead to touch it.
It went to bite his finger off, his aura flashed, and it ashed.
The second one saw the flare of light, ceased chewing on the stomach of a fallen woman, and bounded toward him, leaping at the last in their signature style.
It hit James’ aura and ashed.
James fought the urge to collapse into a seat. The emo dude was still recording. James got off the bus, walked up.
“Listen up. Got an update from my last video. Dump all your points into Arete. It’s what levels up your aura. I know strength and agility and whatever sound like good options, but this?” He held up his hand, realized his aura was off, shook his head. “This aura just saved our lives. My first five points got me to thirteen, and my aura activated, Lead, level 1. Just strong enough to burn any Nemesis that touched me, though they could still fuck me up. Five more points got me to eighteen, and they started charring. But now at Level twenty-three they turn to ash before they get close.”
The emo dude moved his head to one side so he could stare at James. “Who the fuck are you, dude?”
James looked down at himself. He still wore the ankle-length caramel furred pimp jacket, had a black iron skillet covered in blood and imp brains, and was covered in blood and gashes. For a moment he thought he should say his name, but what would that mean to anyone?
Serenity had told him hashtags were what worked online.
Hashtags were what allowed you to go viral.
He had to get this information out there.
Had already blown up with one hashtag in particular.
Voice heavy with exhaustion and pain, expression grim, he stared into the phone’s camera. “I’m the sexy lumberhomelessjack dude.”