ITRS had promised that it would deal with the auril sensitives and it was a creature of its word. Already a dozen of them, seeking the rewards it had promised, had begun to hunt the greatest monsters on their world.
It warmed all three of its phantom hearts to see such proud violence.
Merciful Heavens, that foolish child, had lent it the asked for resources and more importantly, permission to meddle in her own duties, no doubt believing that the trial was a trap or method to thin the ranks of the auril sensitives.
Some would die of course. That was inevitable but besides the point. No, his goal wasn't to diminish this troublesome element but to empower and inspire them.
Because this was a trap. But not one for any creature born to this ball of mud. He was hunting larger and craftier prey.
A victim of her own culture's intense fear of auril sensitives, Merciful Heavens saw humanity's path to decadence and cowardice under auril sensitives as inevitable. Unless they were culled as her world did. There was no hope in that young Authority's mind that they could be anything but a plague to their own kind
ITRS's lip curled, revealing jagged fangs. This was, the ancient ghost mused, a reflection of her own weakness. She saw in the Earthlings the cowardice and pettiness that defined herself and her own race.
It was true that most auril sensitives seized petty power over their own people and this led them into a spiral of failure. It was a trend that had troubled ITRS as it grew more pronounced and the expected exceptions failed to emerge over the last few centuries.
ITRS doubted these modern sensitive species were mentally weaker than the ancient examples it knew of. No, it was the System Races that were changing, and not for the better.
ITRS felt a knot of sickness in its gut. Weakness was sowing weakness. This could not be allowed to continue.
Authorities had many duties to perform for the System that they served. The culling of weakness in the System Races was one that ITRS took special delight in.
ITRS had many disciples scattered around the System Worlds, the closest thing the old ghost had to children. Adopted from a thousand battlefields and a hundred worlds. It would send them to make inquiries on its behalf. It smiled to itself. Well, at least some of its children would be wetting their claws once more. It had perhaps left them alone for too long anyway.
It That Rewards Savagery was not young. It could remember with perfect clarity species that had escaped the trap that was auril hierarchy. Species that had disappeared long ago.
Another thing to look into, it thought as it considered those absent races. Auril sensitivity had never been that important to it. Just a funny quirk in biology and System Race culture.
Interesting but never important. At least not since the days of the Necromera, a unique Scourge which had died millennia before even its own birth.
Now it worried him as part of a larger trend, part of the greatest threat to the System and the races that worked with it, complacency.
Soft pressure at least was being used to prevent auril sensitives from joining the System. An inexcusable indulgence. Nothing as pathetic as prejudice could be allowed to shape the System.
He would make sure these sensitives survived, at least for the short term, using the knowledge taken from other such races.
Societies of fearless seekers. Scholars that channelled their power into studying and exploring. Seeking to unlock the mysteries of the universe, even if the universe was unwilling.
Martial races of proud warriors, that prized strength or honor too much to ever hide behind others. Chasers of glory and purpose greater than mere survival.
Races far too antisocial or socially stratified to change much as auril was introduced and they acquired new talents.
It would use these exemplars to shape this nascent world and prevent MH's fears from becoming reality.
Through its trial, it would create examples for the sensitives to follow. Warriors and teachers that would pass on skills and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. The Crusaders could be used to aide this as well.
Those specialists would hold few prejudices and thier competence would be alluring to a race as desperate as humanity.
The ancient ghost of a long dead race smiled to itself. Its tongue ran across the front of its many teeth in anticipation. And as they inspired, it would watch patiently and see who would be foolish enough to meddle with its work. Then it would hutn them down and destroy them utterly.
The dominant sentients of this world even had systems in place to quickly spread its message. It was the work of seconds for it to gather data on all the trial participants and use its knowledge of human culture and technology to craft a vector for cultural control. A persistent infection that would shape human sensitives towards its desired outcomes.
From the digital darkness of its domain, a screen appeared and began to play. It That Rewards Savagery looked upon its work and smiled with wicked delight.
It was now the proud owner of a television show.
The man in the bunker was beginning to find the darkness and loneliness intolerable.
This was a drastic change from yesterday when they had been soothing. He had spent what he was sure was days blissfully half asleep as the world burned above him. Not even the corpses of his family had managed to bother him as they rotted in the closet.
Seeing the pale tendrils grow out of them had bothered his daughter, so he'd laid them in there, out of sight.
Only his youngest daughter was still alive, the rest had fallen ill when the flowers first burst through cracks in the bunkers floor one night. A deep purple, the tiny things were beautiful to behold.
Unlike his wife, he had never been interest in flowers. These ones were special though.
Part of him had been terrified by the otherworldly things when he'd first woken up to his wife's dying screams, but that had quickly faded. They were too beautiful to be scared of. In fact, once it became clear that he and his daughter weren't going to succumb to the sickness, they had offered him tiny but delicious fruits.
Impossible to resist.
They looked like a cross between strawberries and cherries and tasted like nothing from this world. He smiled at the memory of his first taste.
Things were very different now. He was different. He could feel his daughter next to him. Feel the very life inside her. Not just her either, he could feel the flowers and the roots in the walls that spread out as far as he could sense.
The flowers were just a tiny offshoot of something so much larger. Something that he could hear now. He had no idea what it was saying, but he knew it was speaking to him and many others.
Sometimes, he even thought he could feel people up above. The thought of people made him feel lonely. Yes, perhaps he had spent enough time sleeping down in the dark. It would be good to see the world again, meet people and see if he could help them.
Feel the sun on his face.
He'd have to change clothes, he was sure he looked like quite the mess. First impressions were important after all. He didn't want people to be scared of him.
He shook his daughter awake, returned the smile she sent his way, and considered how best to help people.
Maybe they needed some food? He had food. Many boxes of preserved foods that he was now ashamed he'd tried to horde. It wasn't like he and his daughter could eat it all.
He was sure the flowers would want him to share their fruit as well. At least with those lucky enough to survive the sickness.
Greta sipped her coffee as she read reports and unpacked files. She had spent a lot of time packing an unpacking since the Scourges had arrived.
A consequence of moving around so often. Staying ahead of anyone that might be seeking her. It wasn't like she didn't have enemies and recent events had made in clear that the best defence was being hidden. System technology made confrontation.... unpredictable.
She's grossly underestimated the System's disregard for the status quo and the power the System was giving its soldier class.
Who could take any force that included the likes of Blake Demnol and that Derrick character in its ranks seriously? They were clowns, not soldiers.
At least she'd thought so until recently. They were still clowns of course, but dangerous ones. Best to leave them alone for now. The only real damage they'd done to her plans was releasing Aarav, she'd been hoping to sell his knowledge of the System to the other administrators.
No matter how good the Demnols and their friends got at fighting, they lacked the kind of powers that could be a threat to her anyway. They were essentially nobodies and with any luck at all, they'd get themselves killed soon. Just a distraction from all the work that needed to be done. They would fade away on their own.
She grimaced, her own employed Users seemed to be falling behind the power curve. She would need to do recruiting if she wanted to have a viable way to project physical threat among Users.
Her agents among the regular people were quickly becoming of little use. Soon all the power would be in the hands of Users and the System.
She had managed to eliminate a number of potential threats before they could become Users, but now she should try to turn the most competent of her employees into Users. As an Administrator, she had some sway over the next wave of Users.
Recruiting the most competent among the soldier Users would be difficult, as the Users that grew the fastest were the ones that were in the Enclave the least and they had already formed tightly knit groups. The best plan was to wait for now and gather the resources to hire later. Especially since the System would be sending large groups out of the city soon.
Which was good, both because it would eliminate some threats to her and because the food situation in the city was obviously unsustainable. Hundreds of thousands had disappeared below the city since the Scourges had arrived and all access to farmland had been cut off. Even the old crops were no longer usable she'd been told. Too much danger of Spore Tyrant infection.
Thankfully, those sent into stasis required almost no food or water.
Greta felt a shudder escape her control and travel up her spine. As a Adminsitrator, she had access to the facilities the sleepers were preserved in. While still healthy and alive, the sight of so many people stacked in pods like firewood was disturbing. Especially considering the silver wires that ran through...
She banished the thought, forcing herself to concentrate on her goals.
The System was encouraging and creating food production in the city itself, but calculations showed that if it kept growing at its current rate, it would only keep around three thousand people fed when they ran out of stockpiled supplies. The sleepers would require only a tenth of the normal resources.
Water was actually the larger problem, as any method of growing food was water intensive. Making water the hard limit to how much food they could grow in the city using System tech. Produce too much food and they wouldn't have anything to drink.
Crops had the advantage of being fed by soil and rain. They would have to manually provide the resources for anything they grew in the city.
The wells and river that ran through the city was insufficient, they would need to expand to find new sources of water. The creation of food production outside the city, by sources of water was necessary.
Assuming they had the raw materials in the city to keep building the infrastructure they would need. The System had created what was essentially recycling centres, consuming metal and plastics to produce the goods people would need to survive. But they would also need to raid the ruins of towns and other cities for resources to keep those going.
Greta honestly had no idea if mining was a viable option. She made a mental note to bring it up at the next city council meeting.
Winter was months away, but housing tens of thousands of people was not a fast thing. Greta didn't think the System would help much either. It would be up to the administrators like her to solve this crisis.
On the plus side, power was the one thing the System could supply in seemingly endless amounts. If they could find the materials for infrastructure, running it would be no problem.
The System seemed too busy to contribute significantly to something as resource intensive as large-scale housing. Its focus seemed to be the Scourges and providing Users with the tools they needed to fight them. It would be essentially creating a modern army from scratch for its expedition outside the city.
It should be... interesting to see how it planned to turn its Fighters, essentially bands of roving amateur thugs, into an actual organized and trained fighting force.
She grimaced. Just a day ago she'd thought that the System had things well in hand. That she could learn to navigate its rules and assume a position of power without having to deal with the Scourges. Now she knew better.
It had seemed so organized and competent. Not to mention its miraculous construction abilities. It had been hard to imagine anything resisting its power.
It had after all, taken control of human networks and infrastructure with frankly embarrassing ease. Nothing digital was beyond System manipulation it seemed. Which was why her most important documents and reports were hand written now.
Really, she had no secrets from the System itself, but she wasn't sure who else had access to the data it gathered. Besides, it was unprofessional to not secure her data as much as possible.
That did come with its own problems, she thought with a grimace. People's handwriting was terrible these days. Many reports were almost unreadable. She suffered through though. Anything that would reveal her location couldn't be trusted to digital format.
She glanced at the TV on the wall. The return of sources of news from outside the city had been the most important factor in reevaluating the threat the Scourges were to her and humanity.
Before the real scope of the problem had been revealed, her most likely theory had been that the Scourges were tools of the System, just enough of a danger to force people to depend on it for their salvation.
It had seemed unlikely that such a diverse collection of invaders had arrived at the same time. Adding to that perception was the ridiculous weapons it handed out. What kind of invading army could be fought off with knives and pistols? Unless the news they received recently was all false, she had been very wrong about the nature of the System and Scourges.
Most stations were of course down, either abandoned or destroyed, a few local ones were still on the air, as well as a group that had taken over a national broadcast to share what they knew with the rest of the country.
Amateur footage from cellphones was their most common offering, the sheer volume of horror captured on film was staggering. Most of it made it onto various websites as well and was quickly becoming a library dedicated to the fall of Ontario and the State of New York. Access to information from outside that area was seemingly being restricted by the System. Either because of bandwidth issues or as a method of control.
She considered the later the more likely. It was her guess that by limiting their information, the System was focusing them on local issues without overwhelming them with the immensity of the problem the Scourges represented.
It would be generations, if ever, before the Earth could be cleared of the Scourges. Most people were simply not ready to accept that. To function, they needed to believe they could one day return to their normal lives.
A number of radio stations were still running, the lack of visuals made them less trustworthy and popular though. It was hard to describe the changes the world was going through with mere words.
Her phone pinged. A text message had been received.
The Trial of Predation! It read, Now on channel four!
Eyebrow cocked, she took another sip of coffee and after neatly shuffling away her papers, changed the channel on her TV set.
She saw city streets in... Africa? It seemed like professionally shot footage. Interesting, solid information from outside the American continent was almost unheard of these days. The scene changed before she could make out what it had portrayed.
She sipped her coffee and watched scene after scene of violence and combat. She felt herself becoming engrossed in the programming.
It seemed like it had been created by some System entity. But for what purpose? Nothing she would approve of certainly.
There was a something very troubling about the footage. A glee in violence that was off putting to modern sensibilities, even her. It was a blatant attempt to manipulate people for purposes she didn't understand. A call back to the days of war propaganda or even a modern version of battlefield glory.
Most people would find it disturbing but everyone would watch it. It wasn't like they had a lot of options for entertainment these days. Most people had spent the last couple days huddled in shelters or caravans.
Was the System trying to recruit people? Hadn't it already conscripted anyone it wanted too? She watched and tried to understand what the goal of this was.
A sleek humanoid robot that tore apart Legion Agents while exchanging rapid fire blows with a Vanguard in the streets of urban Japan. Nearby, a teenage girl with twitching fingers watched calmly through robotic eyes.
A helmeted motor biker tossed grenades that exploded into clinging silver fire at fungal creatures as he weaved through a rotten forest at high speeds. Dodging spikes that shot out of the ground with prescient ease.
A swarm of insect like machines, being picked off one by one by a cloaked sniper whose bullets curved in the air and struck targets that should be out of his line of sight.
A determined looking Asian woman in a plain blue dress putting up her hand and stopping a wave of what looked like broken glass, thrown by what looked like a disco ball that swam through the air of a shattered Buddhist temple.
Some idiot in a red mask running at a giant spider creature with an axe...
It took her a minute to process what she was seeing but when she did, she choked and spit out her coffee.