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James felt a surge of cold panic that made him want to stand rooted to the spot and stare, wide-eyed, at where the kid had gone down.

Maybe the old James would have done that. Given Yadriel up for lost, turned away, blamed himself.

But instead he powered forward, fire-axe swinging, aura surging, knowing it was too late, but unwilling to give up on Yadriel without a fight, to lose a member of their new group so soon.

Maybe it was his Arete 50.

Maybe it was just his being tired of the world taking everything from him without doing his damnedest to take it back.

“Bless James!” he roared.

Bjørn and Denzel responded immediately.

James’s cumulative +6 bonus leaped to +10.

It felt as if he’d just chugged a potent mix of steroids, adrenaline, gasoline, and fire. His muscles grew dense with power and explosive potential, his feet light on the road, his reactions refined almost to the point of absurdity.

He ran forward as if in a dream, one where he was transformed into a bullet and the enemies made as delicate and insubstantial as soap bubbles.

James raced forward, unable to duplicate Yadriel’s leap, and swung his Smite-enhanced fire-axe like a madman, finishing off what his Aura 9 had begun.

The demons that had begun to char and curl in upon themselves like husks of paper were blasted apart by his strikes, and he powered through the charred remains, bowling into the center of the demons. Six demons leaped aside, slashing at him even as their arms charred and fell apart, but shimmering shields appeared to fend off the blows, Joanna, Sarah, and Denzel forcing foes back and blocking attacks with glimmering walls of force that leaped from spot to spot faster than James could track.

The demons parted and there was Yadriel, curled up on his side and hugging his entrails into his stomach, blood painting the street a gleaming black as it flowed out of him, his expression slack, his eyes glazed.

Dead.

One hope. One chance.

James crashed to his knees beside the body and lifted Yadriel up and turned so that everyone in Crimson Hydra a score of yards could get a direct line of sight on them.

White light enveloped Yadriel’s body, so bright James had to narrow his eyes, and then Yadriel’s’ organs slid back into his gut, intestines spooling, skin sliding over the terrible wound, and Yadriel came to with a convulsive gasp, healed from afar by whichever teammate had hit Supplicant 1 and acquired Healing Grace.

“Oh shit,” rasped the kid as James set him on his feet. “Que paso - what -?”

“Look sharp,” said James, hopping smoothly up to standing in a way he’d not been able to do since his 20’s, axe swinging around. Nemesis 2’s closed in on them from every side, but gunfire tore through their ranks, the three Hydra teams moving forward now as one, filling Franklin Ave, Becca and Serenity mowing down the fiends as multiple shimmering walls of ineffable power blocked and guided the demons, frustrating their attempt to overrun James and Yadriel.

“Back to the crew!” shouted James, and Yadriel nodded and followed behind.

James’s blessings dropped to +6, but that was enough; a moment later they were back in Sarah’s protective circle, and James turned to face the horde.

The realization hit him: they were winning.

The battle was being fought on fifteen fronts, and the First Wave demons just didn’t have the numbers to swarm them all. Already the press was thinning, bodies blasting apart beneath Smite-enhanced bullets, Nemesis 2’s slamming into shields, and those who managed to reach them hitting Sarah’s circle and flailing as James’s aura torched them till he used his axe to bring them low.

The synergy was perfect.

The plan had been to enter the closest building and seek out civilians, but on the fly James decided to leave the other triads to execute that part of the mission. He raised his radio. “Stokes, this is Kelly, I’m taking Crimson Hydra to the dead zone center. I want to see what they were doing there.”

“Kelly, this is Star Boy, understood.”

Good. Stokes had the wits to not argue with him. James turned to where Golem was bringing up the rear and pointed toward the closest residential building, a three-story brick building on the corner of the intersection. “You guys take that one! We’re going in deeper!”

Max, the Crimson Golem leader, gave him a thumbs up and shouted her command to her team. Golem moved toward the entrance.

“Ivory and Ebon Hydra, you guys take that building there. We’ll be back shortly.”

Both triads moved to comply.

“How we doing?” James called to his own people.

“Alive,” croaked Yadriel. “Somehow.”

"What the hell was that?" demanded James, turning on the kid.

Yadriel scowled. "Whatever, man. Not my fault. That Benediction made me feel crazy."

"Crazy?" asked Serenity, eyebrow raised. "I've seen crazy. That was suicide."

Yadriel flushed. "I felt this huge rush, like I was invincible, and... Yeah. I felt like I could tear them all apart with my bare hands."

"Maybe you shouldn't use your power till we get a better sense of what it's doing to you," said James. "Next time you might not be so lucky."

Yadriel's scowl deepened, but he nodded.

“in other news, I made Supplicant!” Denzel’s satisfaction was obvious. “Feels amazing.”

“Supplicant here, too,” said Joanna, grinning widely. “What the hell is going on? We sharing the kills or something?”

“Looks like we’re all Supplicants now, sir.” But despite Jason’s attempt at soldierly self-control, he wasn’t quite able to repress his grin.

James caught Serenity’s eye, and she winked at him. All good.

“Sarah?” he asked.

The homeless woman inhaled deeply and rubbed the back of her wrist against her lips. “Was touch and go there for a while. Haven’t faced that much pressure since this party started. But I’m fine. Supplicant Level 3.”

“I want to go in all the way.” James paused as Serenity raised her bullpup to drill a Nemesis 2’s mask apart as it rushed at them from a doorway. “They’re building something there in the center under the demon symbol. I want to know what it is. Serenity, you make anything out?”

Serenity aimed her Tavor up Franklin at the pink construct two blocks north of them. “Definitely made of human paste. Fills up the whole intersection, size of a huge house. Looks to be open on top, sloped walls with large holes in them. More Nemesis 2’s milling around, looks like they’re freaked out but refusing to leave it. Can’t make out more.”

“Let’s go see what they’re guarding. Save your energy till we need it.”

James led the way, Sarah canceling her circle, and occasionally either Becca or Serenity drilled a Nemesis 2 as it appeared on a rooftop or burst out at them from a doorway.

The radio chattered.

“This is Nakalanzi with Crimson Bugbear, we’ve secured seven people. They’re non-responsive but alive. We’re bringing them out, over.”

“Kälin with Crimson Mothman, we’ve cleared our building, bringing out three, over.”

“Carvajal with Crimson Dragon, building’s empty, moving to next one.”

James drowned out the words. He refused to let his guard down. Black blood dripped off his axe’s head. “Sound off on which Benediction you took.”

“Healing Grace,” said Denzel, tone proud.

“Inspiration.” Bjørn sounded contemplative. “Haven’t used it yet.”

“Remove Fear,” said Joanna. “Just as I was told.”

“Dark Vision,” said Becca, never ceasing to move her rifle back and forth.

“Dark Energy Siphon,” muttered Yadriel.

“Excellent. With my Sacred Strike, Sarah’s Protective Circle, and Serenity’s Deadeye, we’ve got all nine. I’m sure Stokes will have plenty to say about this. All right, here we go. Let’s approach nice and easy.”

The intersection was filled by a great crown of brittle flesh, tiered like some horrendous birthday cake from hell, the first six feet of which were made of what looked like crude bricks of crimson flesh that had run and squeezed into each other, and atop of which were placed receding walls composed of dry, leathery jerky. Archways were placed atop these tiers, most ornamental, but one central archway, larger than the rest, gave access to the dark interior. The peak of this… construct… was a mass of bone spars like some evil crown of white thorns, their edges fibrous, the whole of it some forty feet tall.

“What the everlasting fuck,” whispered Serenity, momentarily allowing her bullpup to sink.

Nemesis 2’s crawled over it like wasps over a hive, their masked visages turned always to track them, their movements frantic, upset.

“A nest?” Jason’s voice was blank with an almost helpless horror. “A flesh-nest?”

“We need to call in the military,” said Becca. “Carpet bomb this into oblivion.”

“First we find out what’s inside,” said James, forcing his tone to remain calm, unruffled. “They built this beneath the demon symbol for a reason. We need to know what it is.”

“You can’t be serious,” protested Denzel. “You want to go into that motherfucker?”

“Don’t think we’ve have much choice, unfortunately.” James rolled his shoulders. “The exterior walls they were trying to finish were to defend their turf, with this in the center. Whatever they’ve got going on inside is important to them and worth defending. So we need to destroy it.”

Bjørn stepped up beside James and frowned at the structure. “I can’t find much fault with that logic. Still. Wish I’d brought some wading boots.”

“Sooner this is over the better,” said Serenity. “And it looks like we need to add flamethrowers to our Christmas shopping list.”

“Let’s get this done.” James began moving forward. “Serenity, Becca, how you both doing for ammo?”

“Running low,” said Becca. “Couple of mags left.”

“Four mags for me. Helps that I can’t go full auto.”

“You should try it some time,” said Becca, her tone darkly amused. “Nothing like it.”

“That just means you need to get out more, honey,” said Serenity, earning a momentary scowl from the dark-haired merc before she returned her attention to sighting along her Bushmaster.

“Then save your ammo for what’s inside. Sarah, you got enough juice for a circle?”

“Aye, that I do.” The homeless lady gathered her coarse honey-colored hair and swept it over one shoulder. “Leveling always helps.”

“That it does. Let’s see if I can’t aura torch the external Nemesis 2’s when they come at us, then we’ll climb to that main archway and head on inside.”

“Better not be a bunch of winding spelunking tunnels,” said Jason. “I don’t know if I can go in there if we gotta crawl.”

“One way to find out. Let’s go.”

They advanced, and when they were within a stone’s throw of the hive the Nemesis 2’s came scurrying as one down toward them as if they’d all received the same signal. Sarah raised her circle of burning white fire, its edge brushing against the base of the flesh hive, and when a Nemesis leaped atop them the whole of it shimmered into a white hazy hemisphere upon which the demon stood, slamming its scythe-arms down.

Serenity raised her Tavor and blasted its mask off, and the demon slid down the curvature of the hemisphere to crumple upon the ground.

There was no time for talk. The shields started deflecting other leaping demons, blocking them in mid-air, and James stepped forth to sear them with his aura and hack them apart. There were only a dozen, and in moments they were all dispatched.

“There,” he said, yanking his axe out of the last demon’s head. “Let’s get climbing.”

“How you want to do this?” asked Serenity, moving up the hive’s base and looking up at the entrance some eight feet above them. “Looks wide enough for two of us to enter at a time.”

“Denzel, Joanna, plug the entrance with your shields, and keep them there till Serenity and I climb up. Bjørn, focus your blessings on Serenity, Denzel, Yadriel, you both focus on me. My Agility’s shit compared to hers. When we see what lies within, I’ll give fresh orders and we’ll move further into the passage to make room for the rest of you to follow.”

“Sounds good,” said Denzel. Joanna just nodded, her usually cheerful demeanor now pale with disgust.

James felt his +6-blessing bump up to +10, bringing his Agility to 15. Light and nimble, he reached out hesitantly to one of the cinderblock sized meat bricks. Despite its appearance it was hard to the touch, like marble, textured but thankfully not sticky in the least.

“Least it’s easy to climb,” said Serenity, slinging her Tavor behind her back and reaching up for the higher bricks. “But seriously, James, this is the worst date ever.”

“You’re telling me.” He leaped, his Power of 20 carrying him nearly four feet straight up, and latched onto the wall, then climbed swiftly to the entrance, over whose lip he peered into the hive’s interior.

“Pitch black,” he called out.

“Lovely,” responded Joanna with an audible quiver in her voice. “Just lovely.”

James hauled himself up neatly, Serenity joining him, and together the peered into the gloom. Light penetrated perhaps five feet before giving way altogether.

“Becca,” called James. “Get up here and see if your Dark Vision helps. Bless Green”

“Affirmative.” She climbed up and James shifted aside so that she could hoist herself up and crouch at the edge of the passageway, Bushmaster coming round in an instant and aimed into the darkness.

“I’ve got perfect visuals,” she said. “Wish I didn’t. Passageway’s about five feet deep, opens to a huge central chamber, must be the entire inside of the structure. Flesh spire in the middle, like Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park.”

“Nemeses?” asked James.

“Negative. Want me to take point?”

“Move slowly, yeah? Don’t jump in there. We’ll follow. Sarah, you’re up next, get that circle protection going. The rest follow as you can.”

Becca rose smoothly to standing and crept past Serenity and James, moving into the darkness which began to leach her of color. James took a steadying breath. The darkness was cloying, made it hard to breathe, though that had to be his imagination.

“Getting a wider point of view,” said Becca, almost completely swallowed by the shadows now. “Chamber’s empty but for the… no, wait. I can see civilians on the floor. Just piles of them, eyes open. And…”

She swayed to one side, as if looking around a corner, and then went rigid with shock.

“Becca?” asked James hoarsely as Sarah scrambled up into the passageway.

“Jesus Christ,” she whispered. “There’s something in there, and it’s huge.”

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