An hour later they were back in the Marriott. It was surreal to enter that spacious, clean, luxurious building after their expedition into the heart of horror, and there blood-spattered and battle-weary appearances drew startled stares from guests and staff alike.

But nobody moved to intercept the thousand armed warriors as they trickled back into the Grand Ballroom, rifles and baseball bats and pistols in hand.

James walked through the crowd, forcing himself to acknowledge greetings and congratulations, to return nods and smile stiffly in return to euphoric shouts, but he felt conflicted.

Was that right? He sought to analyze his own emotional state. No, not conflicted so much as aware of the scope of work before them, the horror being perpetrated against his species, and the fact that Nemesis 2’s were out there right now under the other symbols continuing their grizzly work.

That thirty-two other demonic symbols revolved over untouched hives at this very moment, where human flesh was being crafted into walls and Nemesis queens were siphoning souls into their dark gems.

He tried to imagine the anguish and terror of those captured by the demons, and simply couldn’t.

But that awareness lay upon his spirit like a lead cape, smothering all flickers of joy from their victory.

People milled about the huge ballroom, set weapons down, gathered by the leftover pizza where Manna bread baskets had been set out as well. Water dispensers were swamped, and James saw that the nine-man teams were sticking together, loose collectives with a vague us-versus-them attitude that spoke to some measure of trust earned in combat.

A good sign.

Serenity and he left Crimson Hydra with the promise of a swift return and made their way to the control area next to the stage where tables covered in electronic gear were being set-up. A half-dozen men and women in military fatigues were connecting computers to servers and other black boxes James couldn’t identify.

Probably the ASOCC system Hackworth had promised.

Richard and Jessica were standing and speaking with the leader of the military tech team but excused themselves and strode to meet them as he and Serenity approached.

“So much to tell you,” said Richard, clearly uncertain as to whether he should smile or be serious. “About the military strike, improvements I’ve come up with for our next raid -”

“Did you bring the gem?” asked Jessica. “And congratulations. I’m really thrilled you all made it back in one piece.”

“Gem, then us, got it,” said Serenity tiredly. “No, just keeping things clear.”

Jessica flushed. “I’m sorry. It’s entirely possible I’ve become obsessed with saving humanity from a demonic invasion. Still. You’re right. I really am glad you both made it back alive.”

“I’m just messing with you,” said Serenity with a wan smile. “Haha, funny Serenity.”

“We’ve got the gem,” said James. “It’s back with my team wrapped up in a jacket.”

“We should deliver it to the proper authorities,” said Jessica firmly. “We need to have it analyzed in a lab.”

“Orrrrr…” said Richard, dragging out the word, and from Jessica’s immediate irritation it was obvious this was an argument they’d been having. “Or we examine it and see if there’s some benefit our team can get.”

“Benefit?” asked James.

“Yes. Look, in any raid or whatever, there’s always a big boss guarding treasure. You kill the boss, you get XP - experience points - and then you get loot. That’s the way this works. But all you guys found was a huge black gem, right? So that’s the loot. The last thing you want to do is give it away to other people.”

“This is not World of Warcraft, Richard,” snapped Jessica. “That gem was quite possibly created with the souls or vitality of thousands of innocent people.”

“Right, and being shoved up as close to the demon symbol as possible, yeah? Like an offering? Or - and this is my pet theory as of fifteen minutes ago - a battery. Like, what if the symbols are dormant, and require the sacrifice of a certain number of souls to evolve, or open up, or whatever? That would explain so much, including the demons’ need to place the gem as close to the symbol as they could get.”

“Plausible, but how does that change our responsibility to hand it over to qualified scientists?”

“Because, Jess, that means it’s full of what I like to call ‘power’.” He annunciated the last word with exaggerated care. “Our dudes here run off power too, right? As fueled by your Arete?”

“Sure,” said James dubiously.

“So the way this works is that this gem is full of that power. I’m guessing. We hand it off to the scientists, we’ll not only never see it again, but most likely someone else will get that reward.” Richard shook his head. “That’d be a serious mistake.”

“Dude,” said Serenity. “That gem is full of human essence. You saying we should - what? Drink it down?”

Richard spread his hands. “What I’m saying is that this is a war, and we need every edge we can get. Educated guesses based on a lifetime of seeing how these things play out. Also, think of it this way: if you could ask those people what they’d prefer to see happen with their essence, do you think they’d rather it be wasted in a lab, or used to empower their avengers who plan to go right back out and kill more demons?”

James rubbed his heavily callused palm with his thumb. “I hear what you’re saying, Richard, but…” He shook his head slowly. “You weren’t there. You didn’t see the things we saw. What was done to those people. Even if you’re right and that gem contains power we can use, I don’t… I mean, I can’t use it. Not given what it is, and how it was… harvested.”

Richard frowned, hung his head for a moment, then sighed. “I hear you. You’ve got qualms. Morals. You’re a decent guy. Whereas I’m a cutthroat gamer who only sees logical angles and means to get ahead in this war. Obviously I can’t force anybody to take my advice, but if we’re going to win this thing in the long run, we’re going to have to start taking advantage of these situations when they appear.”

“For all we know that gem could be filled with demonic poison,” said Serenity. “Or corrupt whoever uses it and turns them into a demon. Or explodes when cracked, taking out a square block and everybody in it. Or it could open a portal to the demonic realm, or literally anything at all, given that we’re dealing with demons and magic here. I’m with James on this one. Sure there’s video game logic to what you’re saying, but honey, this ain’t a video game. We’re liable to get our asses killed fucking around with demon artifacts.”

“Look.” James raised a hand to forestall Richard’s response. “We’re going to wipe the city clean of these hives. Which means acquiring many more of these gems. I’m happy to have the first one analyzed by professionals who can blow themselves up if it turns out this thing is a bomb. Or find a way to restore this supposed energy to the rightful owners, who are currently lying comatose.”

“That’s… a good point,” said Richard, rubbing the back of his neck. “I guess it’s their energy in the first place.”

“Right.” James pinched the bridge of his nose. “Which brings us to the next point. Jessica, we’ve got almost a thousand survivors in the cleared dead zone, which will be soon overrun by Second Wave Nemeses. What do we do with them?”

“Where are they?”

“I’ve got the triads who saw the least combat evacuating them, but it’s slow, hard work. We’re collecting them at a high school three blocks south of the dead zone, but that won’t work for long.”

“I’ll…” Jessica frowned. “I’ll let the right people know. Maybe FEMA or Red Cross can step in. Though everybody is already way past capacity.”

Richard rubbed vigorously at his face. “Thirty-four symbols remain in our area. If we rescue at a least a thousand people from each, that’s thirty-four thousand comatose victims that will need care. I don’t see how that’s possible.”

“Which means getting the energy back into them somehow from these black gems,” said James.

“Maybe the energy will just flow back into them if the gem’s broken,” said Serenity.

“Maybe.” James felt exhausted despite being physically refreshed. “Any word on the Second Wave?”

“Global clusterfuck,” said Richard. “Though word’s gotten out, and people aren’t fighting the Nemesis 2’s as they appear. Which means they’re all heading to reinforce the symbols in enormous numbers.”

“We’ve got our work cut out for us, that’s for sure.” James forced himself to stand up straight. “What else?”

Jessica tapped her tablet, frowned, then looked up. “Word is going round that the military strike was a success, but we’re obviously not in the loop. A debrief is going to be made public to elected officials shortly, and we’ll learn the details then.”

“Good,” said James.

“So much to talk about.” Richard rubbed his hands energetically on his hips. “First off, we’re going to need to call in all triad leaders for our own debrief and upgrades I want to implement. Huge learning curve, trying to run things from here. I want to implement drone surveillance and have everybody carrying an Apple AirTag so that I can monitor things more accurately. Getting everybody in position and ready to go at the same time was a nightmare this first-time round. We can definitely improve it.”

“AirTag?” asked James.

“Yeah, like a GPS tracker, they’ll allow me to keep a rough estimate as to everybody’s location in real time. That way if a team gets lost, or a member gets separated, we can track them, and I can guide them back via drone and radio.”

“Fancy,” said Serenity.

“That and I need data like yesterday on this leveling madness that took place. I’ve got Cindy working on getting forms synched with our database so that we can pass iPads around and have everyone update their levels and Benedictions. It’s crucial that we figure out how this synergy works, and whether they’re all on the same playing field or certain team compositions are better.”

James nodded thoughtfully. “It felt right, working as a team of nine. Things slid into place, like we’d already fought together.”

“And we need a better name for these groups,” said Richard, irrepressible. “Teams is too…” He made a face. “Weak sauce. I was thinking maybe ka-tet, like from Stephen King’s Gunslinger series. A group brought together by fate or god to work his will upon the Earth, you know?”

“If we’re going that route,” said Jessica archly, “I’d prefer Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘karass.’ He described it as a group of people who work together to do God’s will, as if each person in the group were a finger supporting a cat’s cradle.”

“Classier, sure, but ka-tet has a better vibe,” said Richard.

“I’ll let you guys figure it out.” James rubbed at this face. “I should talk to everyone. Where’s the mike?”

A moment later he climbed up on the stage, and the murmur that filled the ballroom subsided. People remained standing, but everyone oriented on him.

On some level it was weird. They’d all just gone through an incredibly intense battle, but nobody was injured. Here and there he saw torn clothing, obvious signs of bloodletting, and quite a few people were spattered in Nemesis blood, but otherwise everyone was hale.

Aeviternum and Healing Grace plus overwhelming numbers had seen them through the battle.

“Hey everyone, I’m going to keep this short.” James moved to the front of the stage and stared down at nothing in particular, frowning. For a drawn-out moment he didn’t say anything, but then he inhaled deeply and raised his gaze. “We did it. We went in there and killed every fucking demon we could find. We’ve got people still there extracting the last of the victims, and with a little luck soon either FEMA or Red Cross will take care of them. We also brought home a black gem from the heart of their hive, and are going to hand it over to the experts so they can find a way to get those people’s souls back.”

James pursed his lips.

“What I should do is go into the NYCEM to talk to military folks and politicians about the gem, how their attack went, and share data on what we’ve discovered about working together. But…” He hesitated, then his resolve firmed. “I’m not going to. I’m going after our second symbol. There are good people right now in need of our help. We’re low on Aeviternum points, so we’ll play this one more cautiously, but the Second Wave’s going to be coming in, and this is our last chance to grab a gem and extract more folks before the site gets swarmed.”

Nods, frowns, people turning to glance at each other.

“You all don’t have to come. You’ve earned the right to rest up and catch your breath. But if you’re ready for more levels, more power, and kicking some more demon ass, I’d love to have you along.”

“Hell yeah,” someone shouted.

“Put me in, coach!” yelled an old lady.

“We’re leaving in fifteen minutes,” James called out. “If you’re down for round two, I don’t know, move to the left side of the ballroom. If you want to wait this one out, move to the right. Good? Good.”

He walked off the stage and handed the microphone to Jessica. “Guess I’ve made my decision.”

“Indeed.” She switched the mike off and handed it to Cindy. “I’ll be heading to the NYCEM with the gem. We also need to maintain cordial relations with Major Hackworth, at the very least, and while you’re in the field my time is best spent there, regardless. I’m looking to hire another five assistants and need Commissioner Morgan to sign off on my new title, Deputy Commissioner.”

“Promoting yourself?” asked Serenity.

“I have to. Waiting for James to sign off on all the docs I’ve got lined up is holding back too many important developments. This way we can expedite matters.”

“You should be the CEO, far as I’m concerned,” said James.

“There’s only one CEO in government,” said Jessica, “and he’s in the White House. But thank you. I appreciate the sentiment.”

Richard rubbed at his bristly scalp, buzzed down out of necessity due to his hair loss. “Well, OK, I’ll stay here and make sure the ASOCC’s up and running ASAP. Cindy, you get a handle on that Red Bull cooler situation I asked you about?”

Cindy lowered her chin to stare at him over her librarian glasses. “No, Star Boy. I haven’t.”

“Damn.” He snapped his fingers. “How am I supposed to work without a constant supply of sugar and caffeine? No, don’t worry about me. I’ll find a way to survive.”

Cindy blinked primly at him and turned to James. “If you’re heading out in fifteen minutes, I’ll hold off on collecting the new leveling information till you get back. Which is fine, that gives me a few hours to make sure everything’s as it should be. How many people are planning to spend the night? Jessica told me she only reserved three floors.”

“Only,” said Serenity.

“I don’t know. Most people here are locals, so…” James shrugged. “Grab another couple of floors for the folks who aren’t from Brooklyn?”

“I’ll take care of that,” said Cindy, looking to Jessica for confirmation. “You head on down to the EM.”

“Sounds good,” said Jessica. “Look into dinner if possible, see what the Marriott kitchen’s capable of producing and then just call everyone and anyone who’s still delivering. These people are going to come back hungry. Richard -”

“Star Boy.”

“- have an updated version of the guidelines on the site by the time we reconvene for our evening debrief, say at p.m. I’ll share what I learned from the government, and we’ll review plans for tomorrow as well as how people can get room keys. Everybody clear?”

“Yes, Deputy Commissioner,” said Serenity, snapping a salute and grinning.

“You’re the best thing that happened to us,” said James. “Thanks, Jessica.”

“Thank me once the apocalypse is over. Good luck, everyone.”

“May the Force be with you,” said Richard.

“Peace out sign,” said Serenity, looping her arm through James's and turning him away. “Let’s find the hotel bar. We’ve got nine minutes.”

James chuckled. So much was going on and all at once that he felt almost gratefully overwhelmed. It kept him from fixating on one thing at a time and growing panicked. “We need to check in on Herman.”

“Fuck, we should hire him. The DRC’s gonna need a drink’s guy.”

“Done,” said James. “I’ll get Jessica on it when we return.”

“Perfect.” Serenity beamed. “Now let’s go hunt down a Singapore Sling.”

A note from pwtucker

I'm back from DragonCon, and somehow managed to write chapters each morning while there. I'm pretty sure they're loopy as hell. But I can always edit the Gundamn piloted by Cheetara out, right?

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