“I was just leaving anyway,” the man said insincerley and rose from the table to quickly disappear into the deeper parts of the hotel. Derrick sat down.
“I'm sorry, I don't remember your name.” he opened with.
The short blonde woman gave him a sour look before replying.
“It's Clara,” she answered.
“I was thinking Sarah,” he lied. With her pale skin and spiky hair, she didn't seem like a Clara to him. “So, what brings you here? I thought this was the ambitious scene? You picked safety I thought.”
Derrick watched her give him a questioning look. She looked like she'd expected something else from him than polite conversation.
“Just needed a drink,” she replied and took a drink from her glass. A complicated look flitted across her face. “And as rough as the clientele is here, it's rougher out on the streets.”
Derrick nodded. Very true. This had to be the safest place in the city. As long as nothing dropped a bomb on them or something. Thankfully, humanity seemed to be the only people dropping bombs at the moment. That would probably change far too soon.
“How'd you even get in?” he inquired further.
She made a face.
“Knowing the right people,” she said unenthusiastically. “At first, I was recruited by the System to help organize shelters and supplies for non-Users. Basic stuff. Keeping the city running and people in safe zones. That wasn't so bad, things got worse after that though.”
She took another drink and Derrick took the chance to interject.
“You remember my axe?” he asked with smile.
“Vividly,” she answered with a small smile. “It set the tone for this whole fucking thing didn't it. Get much use out of it?”
She asked as if she still couldn't imagine that was the case. To be fair, now that he was all dressed and groomed, he didn't look like someone who had spent the last two days fighting for his life. The only sign would be his scarred face, and he was far from the only scarred person in the hotel.
“Oh yes,” he replied casually. “Just an hour after we split up, I was ambushed in a men's room by the Grey Legion. That mission was actually quite easy. The apartment the System sent me to clear out next had dozens of the creepy fuckers in it. Some of them had guns and some were dogs. A lot of Users died there, at least a dozen.”
He ran his fingers over his face. Feeling the roughness of his burn scars.
“A window exploded and sent shards of glass into my face. Then a wall exploded, and I got alien acid all over my face. I'm thinking of investing in a mask.”
He was trying to shock her, or at least impress her. She didn't respond in the way he'd hoped though. His story just seemed to make her thoughtful. Maybe his adventures had been about average.
“We have it easy you know,” she said and he almost interrupted at the 'we' part. Like her last two days were comparable to his. “West Hills that is. As bad as things seem here, we're winning. Chances are that the city will cleared of the Legion in days. The Tyrant Spores are harder to get rid of permanently, but they can be suppressed.”
“You don't sound happy about it,” he said. This was a fascinating subject.
“The world is a lot bigger than West Hills,” she replied with a sour smile. “We can win a thousand battles here and still lose the war for the country, never mind the whole planet.”
She took another drink, making Derrick wish he had one of his own. He spared a glance back at the bar and saw Blake flirting with a woman, beer in hand.
“The Support System seems to know what it's doing,” Derrick offered. “It's giving us all kinds of tools to fight back with.”
“The Support System is keeping our communications lines open and organizing the survivors,” she said. “Without it, we'd have already have fallen apart to be picked off one by one in the dark and most of the world is dark now. All the small towns around us are almost deserted now, the people there desperately fighting towards the city and safety in numbers. They're only the beginning, the two closest cities, Bluewoods and Kittel are failing. Their User population was only a fraction of our own, for whatever reason. When things went bad there, the location was as likely to dealt with by bombs as Users. That's a half million deaths, just in out little corner of the world.”
“This doesn't seem like common knowledge,” Derrick said with a frown. He'd heard about almost none of this. Most Users he'd talked too had very limited access to information, at least trustworthy info. Conspiracy theories abounded of course.
“I was recruited as an assistant to one of the human organizers of this whole mess,” she replied with obvious mixed feelings. “Gathering data so that what passes for leadership can get ahead of the next round of crisis.”
That was topic he was curious about. Obviously, the System was both long term strategist and field commander. What power did human leaders have now and who were they?
“And who is in charge?” he asked.
“Same people as before the Scourging started really.” she said. “The Users among them anyway. From what I've heard, a lot of people suddenly found themselves promoted as their bosses hid in bunkers or didn't make the cut to become a User.”
“So, the System is taking over?” he asked.
“It's already in charge,” she replied. “Mostly it is using human officials to interpret and adjust its commands. Make them more human friendly. It tends to give broad commands and use people to fill in the details. Supposedly this is just temporary until the city is through the worst. After that, it'll allow elections or something. No one is really sure, but they don't want to argue.”
Huh, interesting. Not immediately useful but interesting. A long moment passed as neither of them spoke. He was about to break the silence himself with another question, but Clara beat him too it.
“Have you heard anything from Brian,” she asked hesitantly, as if she was afraid of the answer.
“No,” he said, surprised by the question. “Last time I saw him was with you. He never replied to any of my texts either.” He raised an eyebrow at her and let a hint accusation into his voice. “Neither of you did.”
The short woman gave him an awkward smile. She seemed more embarrassed than sincerely repentant. Like she'd blown him off for a casual meetup, not in the face of a crisis.
“Sorry about that,” she said with a sigh. Her voice quickly filled with bitterness. “The System split me and Brian up almost right away. Support personnel have less control over who they get to work with than the ambitious. We talked twice, but after the first day, he just seemed to drop off the face of the planet.”
So, Brian was likely dead. That hit him harder than he'd thought it would. He'd seen a lot of death in the last two days, but Brian was the person he was closest to in the city. Well that probably wasn't true anymore, his new allies deserved that distinction. Still, he'd known Brian for weeks. His easy friendship had made his last job bearable.
He closed his eyes, sighed and felt loss flow through him, a familiar ache. He heard a chime and opened them to see Clara frowning down at her phone.
“Apparently, I have to go,” she said with a puzzled frown. “Take care of yourself.
She gave his arm a squeeze and headed off. The intimate gesture from a near stranger caught him off guard and he failed to respond beyond a look of startlement. Well, that had been sudden. Something felt off about it, but he didn't think she had faked the text.
Suddenly alone, he looked to the bar, founding Blake and the promised drink missing. Why was he not surprised? He was just about to head up to the bar when he heard someone sit down across from him. He looked back to see the glasses wearing business woman from the hotel entrance giving him a cold smile. He noticed she had two beers in front of her and seeing him notice it, she pushed one across the table to him.
Somehow, he didn't think this was because she was trying to get into his pants. He gave a guarded smile in return and greeted her.
“You honestly didn't seem like the party type,” he greeted honestly.
“I like keeping people on their toes,” she said seriously and offered her hand. “I'm Greta and you're Derrick. Enjoying the party?”
He shook the offered hand and took the sight of the woman offering it in. She was no beauty or even particularly interesting looking. She exuded an aura of competence and ease though. Even sitting across from him with a beer in her hand, she seemed like she was working at something. In fact, she probably was. This wasn't about him, it was about Blake, or at least his family.
He smiled. No, this was about power and the future. It was no coincidence that Clara had been called away. Someone didn't approve of her talking to one of Blake's associates. Somehow, he'd ended up caught in political drama. Funny.
“It's very interesting,” he said approvingly and looked over the gathered Users. He'd never been a very ambitious person himself, but it was a trait he admired in others. Especially now, in the post Scourge world. “I can't think of a harder time to do something like this.”
“I've thrown better parties,” was her reply, her face showing the same mild expression as always. “And the effort was nothing compared to what the fighters have been putting in.”
Derrick took the cap of the beer off with his bare hands and took a drink
“Just getting all these combat Users in the same room is an accomplishment,” he praised easily. “Keeping them connected to each other and to the rest of humanity. Establishing authority early and making your face known. Honestly I'm surprised you didn't end up a fighter. I can't imagine you choosing anything but ambition when you became a User. ”
As the lights went out and blood flowed in the streets, as people were being hunted down in their own homes by alien monstrosities, here was a person who was concerning herself with preserving civilization. Not the physical necessities of it like food and electricity but the delicate illusion that was society.
It took a very selfish and cold type of person to do that but also a competent one. The city could probably do worse than her.
The object of his scrutiny gave him a strained smile.
“I joined up with the System late,” Greta replied. “Violence was never a particular strength of mine before the Scourges came.”
But it was now, eh? Comments like that made him think she wasn't here to secure his vote.
“Oh,” he replied and nodded. “I was... recruited before people knew what was going on. I keep forgetting most people must have been more informed as they joined up. I've been bouncing from one desperate fight to another, so I haven't really had time to process a lot of stuff.”
“And one of your... bounces acquainted you with Blake Demnol. You may want to take that time and process your thoughts, you seem to have a knack for getting yourself into trouble.”
Ah, here it was. Stay away from Blake if you know what’s good for you. Earlier he'd told Blake to take this seriously but was having the same problem himself. Oh, he was sure she was a real threat. He had no illusions that he was untouchable. If anything, it was more likely he would be killed by gunfire now that the Scourges and the System had arrived. There were a lot more guns around now. But honestly, he was just annoyed at how she was interrupting his hard earned time off.
He let out a pained sigh and pushed his drink away.
“I don't know what your problem is with Blake is and I don't really care,” he said. “You should have much bigger problems to deal with than Demnols or whatever. As far as I know, he and his cousin have no plans beyond survival and fighting to save the city.”
He was about to stand and leave when he noticed a bouncer looking man step towards the booth to block his exit. When he settled back into his seat, the man stepped back.
A quick scan of the man didn't reveal any obvious weapons. Was this just intimidation? A bodyguard? Was she worried about ruining her party? She'd hardly want an all out brawl kicked off
“Cousin?” the woman said and the surprise in her voice caused him to turn back to her. “She's alive? That's unfortunate.”
Derrick slowly blinked.
Fighting Grey Legion Agents, trusting in Kate to prevent him from being overwhelmed.
A mad dash, cutting his way down the stairs to see Kate struggling, pinned to a wall.
I drowned for a long time.
Anger. No wait, rage.
It flooded him, and he slowly stood up. It took an actual effort to stop himself from reaching across the table and trying to rip this smug bitch apart with his bare fucking hands.
Perhaps the only reason he didn't, was how surprised he was at himself. Kate did not need his protection, certainly would never ask for it. But to treat her life as an inconvenience, in the face of everything that was going on? What could she possibly have done to deserve that? She'd spent the last two years in a coma.
This seething rage was just too uncharacteristic of him, he was choking on it. In fact his emotions had been weird all night but he'd just dismissed it as apocalypse related stress. What if it was something more?
... Was this love? Did he...
Universal Support System
Congratulations on successfully activating your Auril Heart. Your body is now experiencing elevated levels of Auril energy, this may effect your emotions until your mind adapts.
Auril energy is a powerful and mysterious force, once mastered, its utility and powers of biological enhancement are near limitless.
You are the 46th Human from Earth to access Auril Energy. You have unlocked the title Auril Pioneer.
Be among the first 100 member of your race to unlock Auril Energy. + 200 USSP
Huh. This was good, right? His were emotions a mess, he dismissed the notification and all related thoughts for now. He was in the middle of something.
A return to reality, showed him that his host was giving him an odd look but didn't seem worried. His internal struggles apparently hadn't shown on his face beyond a twitch and a thoughtful look. The bouncer had moved closer but almost ten feet still separated him from their table.
Derrick took a deep breathe but didn't sit down. The anger hadn't left, but now it was simmering and controlled.
“... something you'd regret.” Greta finished.
Did he miss anything important? For a second he considered asking. No, this was stupid and he was leaving now. It wasn't diplomatic but he didn't trust himself to sit across from her without doing something worse than just walking away.
“Do you know why so many Users came here tonight?” he asked.
“Enlighten me.” was the response he got. Greta, did not seem to be taking the question with the seriousness he'd asked it in.
“Because they understand that they could lose anything and everything in a single moment,” he answered and rose to his feet. “Consider that and maybe just enjoy the party?”
That had come of more like threat than he'd liked. It had been honest advice, heartfelt even. His host just gave him a blank stare, her mind obviously working hard behind it and just as obviously not taking his advice. As soon as he moved to leave, the bouncer of course, moved to stop him. The large man raised his hand to push Derrick down into the seat that he had just left, a confident smirk on his face.
His own face still thoughtful, Derrick grabbed the bigger man's wrist, yanked it down to his waist so he could grab the back of the mans head and slam him face first into the table. He didn't bother putting much power into the move, as satisfying as it was, he didn't want to kill or maim anyone.
There was a loud cracking noise that rang out and brought a wave of silence following it. All the Users stopped talking and took in the scene, just in time for a pause in the music. The pause lasted only for a second, the Users and the music continuing on as if nothing had happened.
That ended the fight before it could really start. He'd been both faster and stronger than the other man, despite the size difference. The bouncer had struggled to avoid the table but it had been far to late by the time he'd realized what was happening. Apparently, even fractions of levels made a difference. Maybe the bouncer hadn't even been a combat role? Or just a lower level, it was hard to imagine someone achieving a higher one than him yet. Even if someone completed more missions than him, his stay at the hospital had taught him there was a limit to how fast the System could upgrade a body.
His greatest achievement so far was in the very specific field of unlocking Auril Energy quickly. 46th might seem unimpressive, but that was across the entire world. Honestly, he was surprised so few people had the trait, Scrappy didn't seem like that hard of a title to unlock. Perhaps most people just didn't buy the Auril Heart trait or perhaps they just didn't have as many points as him? The trait was the only rare or interesting option he'd unlocked so far, it was probably smarter to buy something like a laser gun. He wasn't going to defeat the Scourges by slamming their heads into tables.
Now, where had Blake gotten to? He surveyed the restaurant portion of the hotel but didn't see him. He noticed the table behind him was empty, his host having disappeared impressively quickly.
He doubted his blond ally had left the hotel, that meant he must have gone deeper. He moved to exit the bar but five Users in casual clothes rose from their table to block his way. Four men and a woman, all wearing too much black for it to be anything but intentional. Blocking his path wasn't a coincidence either, he was clearly the focus of the group. One flashed him a toothy grin as he stood between Derrick and the deeper parts of the hotel. They were unarmed but something triggered his instincts. These Users would not go down as easily as the bouncer had.
This was a real problem. Not only was he in trouble, they clearly didn't want him going after Blake. Which no doubt meant the blond User was a target too. Once again, he tried to spot Blake but only confirmed that he was without friends here.
Retreat? No, that probably wouldn't work, he doubted showing weakness would stop the fight at this point. He'd already drawn first blood. Oh, and also he guessed it would be bad to leave Blake behind. The System would be sending him back to fight Spore Tyrants again tomorrow and the blond swordsman had a real talent for that. Besides, he doubted anyone would go so far as to kill or maim him.
Ultimately, he was much more afraid of the Scourges than these guys. He felt a strange tingle of confidence as he took in his opponents. He tried to repress it but found a grin on his face. Fucking Auril Energy.
“Why don't you sit back down,” the older man, who he guessed was their leader asked Derrick. He was flanked on each side by two minions.
“Ha,” exclaimed Derrick dryly. “I was just going to say the same thing to you.”
He watched the group spread out as he walked up to them. He was giving them time to spread out, hoping they couldn't match his trump card, Lash. No point in holding it back, he needed to do as much damage as fast as possible if he was going to fight 1 vs 5. He might even be able to scare them off if they didn't know how Lash worked.
For whatever reason, the stocky fellow to the leader's left felt like the most dangerous. At least according to his eyes and stance, he was both the most wary and the most balanced. From a casual walking pace, Derrick suddenly Lashed and lept forward. Immediately, the world slowed down, it was just a little but it was enough. Catching them by surprise, he faked going after the leader with a roundhouse kick that when dodged, turned into a spinning back kick that caught the shorter enemy in the ribs.
His attack caught everyone of guard, even himself. It had been a long time since he'd even tried a spinning back kick. He seemed to be riding some kind of Auril high. Well, it worked. The leader only looked stunned as Derrick grabbed him and improvised a knee strike to the man's chin.
They both stumbled away from each other and Derrick felt hands grab at him from behind. The closest standing User was sending a haymaker his way and only the Lash Drug allowed Derrick to throw himself to the floor while avoiding the blow. It was a clumsy landing, and the panic he felt only made him recover slower. He'd apparently burned through all his reserves of grace, he was surprised it had lasted for those first two hits.
He tried to get to his feet but blocking a kick aimed at his head caused him to fall back down to the ground. He rose again and saw the same foot flying at him once more.
This way not a pattern he wanted to get stuck in. Wincing, he caught the kick and managed to pull the man to the ground by viciously twisting his ankle.
He felt rising panic as Lash faded and the world sped up. Fuck this was bad. He'd only managed to take the leader and the stocky guy out of the fight. The former was unconscious on the floor while the latter was kneeling and gasping. That left him fighting three Users, only one of which was even a little wounded.
Leaving the fallen User beside him, he scarpered backwards to avoid getting surrounded. There was still two standing and they were moving to attack him from the sides.
He was in the process of standing when his back hit something very solid. He froze and a second later a hand gripped his shoulder, holding him in place with strength much greater than his own.
Slowly, he looked up to see a huge dopey grin topped by a bald head. A very familiar grin. He'd only known the man it was attached to for about an hour, but he'd left an impression.
“Hey, Buddy.” Bruce said cheerfully. “Thanks for inviting me to the party!”