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 “Bonus?” asked Jenny. “What does that mean, is it just optional?”

"It has proficiency and weapon requirements," Derrick answered. He then explained a bit more. 

“I don't like it,” said Kate with narrowed eyes. “Seems dangerous and we already know we can only grow levels so fast. Isn't the System supposed to be winning? How did it lose a Station?”

That was a little worrying, even the winners took casualties in a war though.

“There could be sweet extra loot,” supplied Blake. “A chance to get our hands on some real equipment. Rayguns and jet boots, not knives and pistols. Besides, we can take everything around here. I can cut through any Grey Legion or Tyrant Spores that are dumb enough to attack us.”

“As long as they don't hit you with a car,” said Kate dryly.

“Or just shoot you,” added Jenny. “Guns seem to be everywhere these days. I'm surprised those agents didn't have more than one little pistol.”

Derrick considered these new developments and felt... greedy. If you could be greedy for security. Maybe that was just desperation?

The party last night had shown him that he was ahead of the curve for power among common Fighters. Not by much though, and he was still just a Fighter, still just fodder in the war between Scourges and the System. A thousand Users just like him had died in this city alone since the Scourges had arrived.

Taking one of these missions would be a risk, of course. Everything was risky these day. He was very aware of how close he'd come to death from the crash ambush, just a few seconds slower waking and the entire team might have been taken by the Legion. The thing was, that wasn't going to change.

As long as he was a Fighter anyway. His best hope lay in changing his role.

The Scourges were going to get more dangerous and the missions were going to keep coming. Getting stuck without the prerequisites to unlock a new Role could easily be a death sentence in the long term. Besides, no choice offered real safety, if any such thing existed in West Hills, and he didn't think his team would choose that path anyway. Civic duty, arrogance, curiosity, ambition, they all had something that drove them.

Concentrating on a bonus mission let Derrick feel a pull from the distance. For the scavenge mission, he'd guess about three kilometres away, toward the centre of the area the Tyrant spore had claimed. From the top of the bridge he looked out in that direction. It was away from the still dangerous rotting woods, which was a plus. Just a maze of roads, warehouses and factories in that direction.

The Injection site was even further in the same general direction. He wasn't really sure what was out that far. Could be outside the city entirely.

“We should scout them out anyway,” replied Derrick. “Auril Pulse makes us hard to ambush and it's not like we have any clue where to find the next node.”

“You seem eager,” commented Kate. “It's a bit unlike you.”

“He found his confidence on the dance floor last night,” interjected Blake with a grin.

“I'm surprised you didn't lose yours,” returned Derrick before looking back to Kate. “Just getting used to things, I guess. This seems like a good chance to earn some real rewards. We could really use them.”

The list of things they could use was endless, the list of things they could afford was short. 

“How do you figure,” asked Blake. “We seem to be doing fine.”

“Compared to who?” interrupted Jenny, her voice dripping venom. “We are doing great, for four random people recruited off the street. A special forces team could walk over us with even being Users though. We're half militia, half clean up crew, not any kind of elite soldiers. Derrick is really the only one of us thats gotten anything good from the System until now. Before the Scourges, the force would have killed to get their hands on that Auril Pulse and just look at that last fight with the Legion. How useful were you great swordmaster?”

“I could take him in a fight,” said Blake seriously.

“I'd say you're a glass cannon,” commented Kate, amused. “But for that to be accurate you'd need to be able to hit at a range. You're a glass knife. One hit in a fight and you're dead. Derrick was smart enough to see the need for armor and he's like five times as tough as you are at this point.”

The blond User scowled at that but didn't argue. He was good but he'd also been lucky and he knew it.

“Until now?” asked Derrick, having caught the emphasis she'd put on those words.

“Oh, umm.” mumbled Jenny, embarrassed all of a sudden. “I got the Straight Shooter title when I killed that Vanguard. For killing an advanced enemy with a basic handgun before level 1.9. It comes with a lot of points and the Lesser Manna Core trait.”

“Nice,” Derrick said. Vanguard seemed good for granting titles. He'd guess they counted as advanced enemies only barely, probably because of their use of Auril.

“Straight Shooter is you're nickname now, it's just too you.” said Blake, earning him a annoyed glance from Jenny. Derrick could tell from the lack argument that she wasn't too opposed to the nickname though.

“Regardless, neither me or Jenny stand a chance if a Vanguard or similar enemy get close to us. Even Derrick got lucky that last time.” Kate continued. “We can't hurt them at range either, not with the weapons we've got now. The safest thing to do would be to kill the last node and upgrade our stuff.”

She clearly didn't like being toothless in a fight. Not that Derick could blame her. It would be great if he could get a reinforced axe too. There were problems with that plan though.

“I agree,” he said. Kate had good points and he really didn't want anyone to get hurt from taking stupid risks. “But we don't know where to look for the next Node and just wandering around the city is dangerous too. Besides, these missions are on a time limit. First come first serve, we just happen to be among the first to get to level 1.5. Who knows how common Bonus missions are? We should check out the scavenge mission at least. It would make sense for there to be a Node nearby.”

No one could argue with that. So while that got him a few scowls pointed his way, they piled back into the minivan and Jenny drove them towards the scavenge mission.

This section of the city was deserted, they passed only a single group of fellow Users, so it didn't take them long to arrive at the mental beacon's location. It was gas station on the corner of an intersection.

They stopped well away from it however and proceeded a hundred feet deeper on foot, signs of Tyrant Spore infection were everywhere.

It spilled out of cracks in the street's asphalt, thick yellow and orange tendrils that looked like roots. Sewer lids had been lifted as they swelled from below to form barriers across the street and wrap around street light posts and walls. Not one, but two cars had been lifted into the air by mature stalks and Derrick could make out a dozen festering bodies strewn across the intersection.

It looked like a war had happened here, one the Tyrant Spores had won.

At the centre of it all, right beside the corner gas station, was a dark and silent Universal Support Station, half hidden under a giant pulsing mass. It looked like a giant fat starfish covered in thick toothlike armor had attached itself to the station. Dark red liquid oozed out of gaps in its armor plating and sent wisps of smoke into the air when it fell onto the concrete below.

“This seems a little more dangerous than just going after a Node.” Kate said, her eyes scanning the scene carefully. “I really want a bigger gun before we try this.”

“Lob some grenades and see what happens?” asked Derrick. He was reluctant to fight his way through a couple hundred metres of fungal jungle. Who knows what surprises this atypical infection had for them?

“I feel it's important to mention that 1.5 is the minimum level required to attempt these missions,” interjected Blake. “I doubt we are the first to that level, which means they either passed it up, or died trying to do it.”

That was a fair point. Also uncharacteristically self aware of him. Well maybe not, Blake put up an arrogant front but he'd been competent and wary enough to survive the Grey Legion before the two of them had met. That apartment had been a killing ground for those Users who actually thought themselves invincible.

“Reconnaissance complete,” Jenny said sternly. “Lets either find that Node or go back to a working station...”

Derrick stopped listening. His quantum sense was tingling, strongly too. Before it had been a weak enough sensation that he could only have felt it only when someone new looked at him, and only when no one else was. This was different. It was like a weight pushing down on him, brushing aside the weaker feelings he got from his allies awareness.

“Somethings here!” He shouted and drew his axes.

What though, and where was it? An Auril pulse identified everything living around him for over a hundred metres. Yet, the only things he saw were his allies and thin Tryant Spore 'roots' beneath the ground.

“What is it?” calmly questioned a wary Kate, her rifle ready and pressed into her shoulder.

“I don't know,” he replied. “But something is watching us.”

“Fucking wonderful,” said Blake as he scanned the area with a hand on the pommel of his sword. “This better not be some Predator, invisible enemy bullshit.”

Several seconds passed and nothing happened. No one spoke though, or showed any sign disbelief in his warning. They all stood warily, ready for anything.

Almost anything. They were not in fact ready for an artillery strike. Despite Derricks warning, it was the System that saved them.

 

Universal Support System

Warning: light artillery fire spotted in your area. Suspected Spore Tyrant source, immediately seek solid shelter and take anti infection precautions at soonest available time.

 Area threat level revised upwards. Limiting area to level 1.8 and above. Please leave the area at the first safe moment. Thank you.

 

Oh fuck. His eyes immediately snapped to the doorway of a nearby car dealership and he began to run.

Luckily, it was the only nearby building larger than a bus stop shelter, so the entire group broke into a sprint towards it at the same time. The last thing they needed was to get split up.

A series of explosions informed him that their team had begun running at exactly the right time. A flying tire informed him that they were lucky they hadn't tried for the minivan. It was couple of steps before he noticed that something was stuck in the back of his leg, having gone right through his pants. A quick glance showed that it was a yellow spike that was slowly worming its way deeper into his flesh.

Driven by disgust, pain and fear, he began hopping on one foot while trying to rip it out of his calf. It was horribly painful, but he managed to rip it out and throw it away. It burned to the touch, and left a welt.

“Check yourself!” he yelled. “Acidic Shrapnel Worms!”

His hopping had slowed him down enough that he was at the back of the pack, letting him check the others for hits. He didn't see any. No wait. He sprinted forwards and ripped two of the worms out of Jenny's bullet proof vest. He wasn't willing to bet that they wouldn't eat their way through in time.

Jenny jumped when he touched her but seeing what he was doing, gave him a appreciative look. She raised her pistol and fired a couple rounds through the glass door of their destination. It cracked just in time for Blake to shoulder check his way through.

The rest of them quickly followed and didn't stop. The front of the building was a showroom two stories tall and made of glass. They needed to get to the offices at the back of the building. There was a deafening explosion from behind him, it hit him mid stride, knocking him down and pelting his prone form with broken glass. At least he hoped it was glass.

A hand grabbed his and dragged him to his feet, he was somewhat surprised to find it was Blake but immediately concentrated on running. The both of them scrambled over a car and through a door that Jenny was holding open. The entire group made it safely into a cement corridor with an entire floor above them. They moved down it and into a large office, one with small windows to the lobby and the back of the building.

Out of immediate danger, the group checked to see if anyone had been hit. While the front of the building was glass, the rest of it was concrete and steel. They should be safe for now. Though, Derrick noticed that the feeling of being watched hadn't dissipated.

“Well, we are fucked.” said Kate seriously and collapsed down on top of a desk almost casually.

“Maybe there's a working car in here?” offered Blake. “We could wait for it to forget about us and then make a break for it?”

There was a sullen silence as all considered the odds of that working.

“It's watching us right now,” informed Derrick. “Well, I can tell it knows where I am anyway.”

Perhaps he should have phrased that in a way that didn't encourage his allies to leave him behind.

“How?” questioned Jenny. “Can you tell?”

That was a very good question. Could he?

“Give me a minute,” he responded and sat down on the floor, adopting a classic meditation pose. He was new to the whole superhuman powers thing, so he just tried to make himself more aware of his Auril Powers. He'd made some failed basic efforts to sense and manipulate the new power between fights, but never really sat down and gave it his all.

He could feel his Auril Heart sending energy into his body. It formed a very basic pattern within him, like a circulatory system except for weird energy instead of blood. He let his mind follow along its path, carrying his awareness along with its flow. It didn't seem to do much. It just went around and around in circles. A river splitting into a hundred tributaries but always returning to its source.

Curious, he tried to manipulate it. He had mixed luck with that. While he could kind of divert the flow, it always snapped back into the original shape as soon as he stopped. Again, his crude manipulations didn't actually do anything. This was getting him nowhere. He concentrated on the feeling Quantum Awareness gave him. That was supposedly Auril energy too, just harder to find. Where did the elusive sensation come from? The System gave very little information to its Users about anything, it did however mention a 'weave'. He concentrated on trying to find something like that.

There it was! He could feel it wrapped all around his body, like a second skin made of very fine tendrils of Auril energy. They were small enough that he could barely sense them. He began to try and perceive them better and startled when they rippled. A few seconds later they did it again. What was causing that?

Almost immediately, he found out. Steady, like waves crashing against a shore, foreign Auril energy was hitting him. Even when it was inches from his skin, he could barely perceive it. It surged up from the ground and acting like his own Auril pulse. That must be relaying his location back to the Node, allowing it to target them.

“Not good,” he said. “It's a magic mushroom.”

“You better have more than that for us,” announced Blake from his position sitting in the corner. “If you made us watch you meditate for an hour just for that nugget, I will stab you and take my chances fleeing.”

“An hour?” Derrick exclaimed, surprised. It had felt like just minutes to him. Note to self, never practice with Auril unless somewhere safe. Losing himself in a trance could easily kill him.

Kate cleared her throat, sending a clear message that Blake wasn't the only person short of patience in the room.

“It's using Auril, doing the same thing I do,” he explained and frowned. “But honestly, a lot better. I don't think we can hide, its has a network of roots below us that are tracking us.”

“Hmmm,” hummed Jenny and played with her ponytail. He could practically see the gears turning in her head. “We could zigzag our way from building to building until we escape,” she continued with obvious doubt.

Derrick hadn't really been paying attention but the buildings in this area were few and far between. Most of the space was open street and parking lots, that was a lot of ground to flee across.

“We don't know what were up against here,” Blake said. “Mortar range is about six kilometres but considering this is alien weaponry, we can safely assume its probably longer than that. That's a lot of zigzagging.”

Everyone seemed a little surprised Blake knew that, but the situation was serious enough that no one commented on it.

“Escaping doesn't seem to be an option,” Kate said reluctantly. “That only leaves taking out either the mortars, the node itself or its ability to track us.”

Everyone looked to Derrick.

“What?” he asked nervously.

“Can you tell where the enemy fire is coming from?” Jenny asked.

The problem with having an alien and powerful detection ability was that people had unrealistic expectations of what you could do with it.

“Maybe, if we moved around a bit,” he replied reluctantly. He could try and follow the buried tendrils to their common source. That might work?

“We need to move,” said Blake with urgency. “We can't stay here.”

The others nodded, leaving Derrick no choice but to nod along. He was pretty tired and still sore from the crash and ensuing fight.

“The closest building is the furniture warehouse,” Jenny said. “We should try for it.”

“Not likely to be where the Node is,” added Kate. “No real food source. We'll just have to take it one building at a time.”

The team dashed out the back door and tried to zigzag their way across the three hundred meters of manicured lawn separating the buildings. It was a wasted effort, no shells fell. Which Derrick didn't like. He was missing something. Why wasn't it defending itself, beyond a few stalk traps. All he could think of was this was a trap of some sort.

He tried to ask his allies but they were focused on getting to the next building. Fair enough, he had kept them sitting around for an hour.

The front of the furniture store was already broke. Very broken, it looked like something bigger than the door had forced its way out of the entrance. As soon as he got near it, he smelled carrion. Luckily, his mask kicked in a second later and removed the smell.

Ughh. Great. No doubt that stench was the previous idiots that rushed into this fight.

They quickly sprinted into the front room full of shopping carts. Derrick stopped to check the surroundings but his allies kept going. Annoyed, he jogged after them and entering the store proper, paused and beheld a great and glowing flower, perched atop a pyramid of rotting human flesh.

 

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Mirrored

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