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Being submerged in an uncontrolled torrent of blinding sludge wasn't any funner the second time. The only mercy was that the sudden transition back to reality meant he was too disoriented to panic much. In fact, it felt like only a few seconds to the confused User, before he was slammed into something that felt like a concrete wall and he flopped onto the ground, motionless.

Laying face down in a puddle of clinging sludge, one leg twitching uncontrollably, Derrick grinned. Well, grimaced anyway, he was in a lot of pain. It was a very mundane sort of pain. Which suggested that he was both alive and had escaped the Canvas.

Now, if only he had the strength to move. Ah, screw it. He was just going to lay here and read the System notifications that were popping up. 

Universal Support System

You have reached the Level Cap. Level locked for 2.3 hours to prevent damage from excessive modification.

Mission Complete

+ 220 points for successfully preventing Feral Artisan from consuming Siviril Source (Illegal Probe).

+ 100 points for earning Emergency Activation II title

+ 250 points and manna core unlocked for earning Fold Survivor title

Titles Earned

 

Emergency Activation II: User has twice survived emergency activation.

Fold Survivor: User has survived exposure to another layer of the Fold with their sanity mostly intact.

The Fold

The most common term for the many layers of reality accessible from this one. These alternate realities enable both manna technology and FTL travel. Travel through the fold is unpredictable and dangerous. Manipulation of fold layers can affect reality, such as manna shields.

Fold Layer: Canvas

(Named for human Users by User Derrick)

A remote layer of the fold used by the Scourge known as Feral Artisans. It is speculated that their access to this layer of the fold is at least partially responsible for their strange abilities.

Another theory is that it is merely along the path they take through many other realities to reach our own.

This layer is notable for having a very low survival rate.


He finished reading but didn't really process all the information.

While he read, he could hear the sounds of what seemed to be a dramatic battle taking place nearby. Impacts so heavy the ground shook and weird zapping sounds filled the air.

“If that hardens soon, you'll be in a lot of trouble.” A somewhat familiar female voice informed him.

“Oh, Hey Derrick!” another, deeper voice added cheerfully from directly above him. “Funny running into you here.”

Bubbles escaped the puddle he was lying in as he groaned deeply. Not from the pain, but from the pun. Apparently, the wall he'd hit was Bruce. The utter bastard.

“Our young friend seems to have gone through quite the ordeal,” an older male voice commented. “I do not think your attempts at levity are helping.”

“Don't worry, he's tougher than he looks,” Bruce said with cheerful sadism. “He can take a little punishment.”

How he wished he had the strength to stand. Or, even better, psychic powers, so he could kill with his mind. Wait, he did have auril power. Oops, he should probably be using that. Somehow, he had forgotten about auril. Mind still fuzzy.

He activated regeneration and felt the pain very slowly diminish as that strange energy rampaged through his flesh. He ran out of auril long before he ran out of injuries but he did feel  better. He shakily climbed to his feet and tried to wipe the gunk of his mask so that he could see.

“So, he's still alive. But is he sane?” the female voice questioned, who Derrick identified as Bruce's friend and his one time ally, Anita. “My money is on not. He seemed a little mentally fragile to me when we first met.”

Failing to remove the gunk from his mask with his equally gunky hands, he removed both parts of his mask and took a deep breathe of fresh air before he responded.

“I have been caught in the wake of cosmic leviathans and sent spiralling into depths of unreality so alien it crushes souls.” Derrick explained patiently, as if he was talking to children. “I have seen things. Terrible things.”

Fragile? He was not bloody fragile. Doubtful that any of these posers could withstand half the horror he'd witnessed today. An hour ago, he was on fire while fighting a goddamn spider mecha!

“So, no then.” Concluded the small Indian woman dryly as she looked him over and clearly conveyed how unimpressed she was.

She seemed the same as their first meeting, he noted. Deadly calm and very still, like she was tightly wound. She was wearing a coat like the Users he'd run into earlier, if a shade darker. No obvious scars either. Overall, she seemed to have done well for herself.

Oh, how he hated her. A ball of simmering hatred formed in his gut, but quickly faded. It wasn't really her he was angry at, not really. Still, he wasn't going to let that comment go.

Instead of acting out, Derrick met her eyes and gave her a sincere smile, all wide eyes and bloody teeth. He was rewarded with a flinch. That was probably just because he was still bleeding from the eyes though.

Still, it was nice to get a reaction other than dispassionate scorn from the woman. Women seemed so hard to impress since the Scourges arrived. He would have to work on his game.

He puffed out his chest and tried to project both strength and nobility.

The effect was somewhat lost when, a second later, his strength fled and he folded like a puppet with its strings cut. Only, Bruce reaching over and holding him up by the shoulder with one hand, kept him from hitting the ground.

“I have seen enough, I think,” the older voice said. “We should take our friend to safety.”

“Hello, Aarav.” Derrick replied as he spun his head to look in the direction of the speaker. “We're not doing any more fighting?”

The Indian man gave him a kind, if somewhat condescending smile.

“No, we are a bit out of our league here.” The older man replied good naturedly and holding out his hand, summoned a shimmering barrier to deflect a stony spear that had been aimed right at him. The spear turned and vanished into a nearby building, melting its way through the brick wall without slowing.

“I am here merely as a witness and an envoy,” he continued, as if nothing had happened. “With these fellows as my bodyguards.”

Huh, apparently the Feral Artisan had been just playing with him. All it would have taken was one of those spears to end him. It probably had a whole bag of tricks it hadn't bothered to use against him. Well then. He would just have to spend all his new points and become stronger. Shields seemed pretty great. That would be his first priority.

He wondered how many times Aarav could summon that shield. Even with his special Role, he should have some pretty hard limitations. Kate's kinetic barrier had been capable of stopping just a few bullets before needing time to recharge.

But wait. If it was so tough, who was it fighting now?

From behind him, he heard an orchestra of odd sounds. Weird splashing sounds, whistling sounds and impacts that made the ground shudder. A lot of something was happening. He couldn't see anything however. The way Bruce was holding him up, made it impossible to easily turn and look.

Well, whatever. He'd figure it out soon enough.

“We should move,” Anita said cautiously. “Third Striker, seems to be doing fine on his own and I don't want to....”

Derrick lost focus before she finished talking.

Third Striker? Was that a name? He looked towards the battle again, but a shooting pain caused him to stop. Before he could ask, Bruce threw him over his shoulder and unconsciousness hit him like a hammer.

Groggily, Derrick made his way back to consciousness. He awoke from a restless but thankfully dreamless sleep, to find himself laying on a hard vibrating surface. He immediately recognized the movement as the kind a car or truck made. Judging by the hard plastic he was laying on, he bet he had been thrown in the back of one of the city's endless supply of pickup trucks.

God, he was so fucking tired. Both mentally and physically. He hated the idea of even trying to move. He didn't bother to open his eyes, just lay there and activated regeneration, feeling the soothing healing energy at work.

That was the stuff.

It was entrancing, to feel the threads of power dance and weave as they worked on his bruised and battered flesh. Pulsing cords of power that left his new heart and dispersed into every muscle and organ in his body.

“You have a Champion's Flesh” said an unfamiliar and unwelcome voice. It was deep and very matter of fact. More observation than compliment.

“Thanks, I workout,” he replied and turned onto his stomach, hoping that would be the end of the conversation.

“I speak of the quantum catalyst,” the voice continued. “Auril. You have talent for it, have empowered yourself skillfully considering the scant time you have had.”

That was an odd enough speech that Derrick cocked a single eye open. What he saw was a little stranger then he was expecting.

In the corner of the cargo area of the pickup truck, a bald teenager was sitting with his eyes also closed. He didn't seem very comfortable, every bump and jitter of the truck caused him to tense or overcompensate.

The teenager looked about fourteen and was wearing a thin suit of blue plate mail that covered every part of his small body but his head. Weird black markings covered the most visible places on his armor. Derrick had no idea what it said, but it was clearly meant to be read. It reminded him of medals but carved into the armor instead of pinned to his chest.

As if sensing his gaze, the odd teenager smiled, revealing a mouth full of tiny and inhumanly sharp teeth. A second later, his eyelids opened and he looked to Derrick with eyes that were solid light blue, except for a thin vertical black line that bisected each eyeball. It was almost as if he had two solid blue eyes in each eye socket.

Cheek pressed into the plastic floor, Derrick just calmly returned the creature's gaze. He was too tired to be surprised. Besides, he'd seen far weirder things today. Demon children were pretty vanilla at this point.

As long as there was only one and it didn't start singing or anything, he was just going to relax.

 

User Tag

Name: Third Striker

Titles: Pilgrim II

Veteran III

Investor

Roles: Page

Shield Carrier

Crusader Warder

Level: 3.7

Race: Bound Mwin/Human Hybrid

 

“You're a User,” mused Derrick aloud.

Ahh, so neither demonic nor an actual child then. He was looking at the first alien he'd met that probably wouldn't try to kill him. A high level User too. His tag alone was full of interesting tidbits.

“User?” the alien hybrid child thing repeated and narrowed his eyes. “Crudity. I am not some parasite or addict. I am a Citizen Ennobled through Strife. A knight of the Mission.”

“Oh. Sorry,” offered Derrick, surprisingly intimidated by the small act of aggression. There was something larger than life about Third Striker now that Derrick had a good look at him. He seemed inhuman and unpredictable. Human for the most part, but his instincts were picking up small things about the self proclaimed knight that confused them. “Err, The terminology actually comes from someone who has access to resources from a computer or network.”

This was officially the first time his background in computer science had come in handy.

Reluctantly, he pulled himself together, unwilling to pass up an opportunity to learn about the System and afraid of offending this higher level User. He seemed a little formal, so he might not appreciate talking to someone who was sprawled out on the floor.

The alien User seemed to consider Derrick's words carefully.

“I cannot say it is not somewhat fitting,” Third Striker responded solemnly. “You are barely neophyte. No doubt overwhelmed by the revelations and challenges to your world. You will come to reconsider the nature of the System. Apology accepted.”

Derrick just shrugged. He was getting some very strong fanatic vibes. Which was to be expected he supposed, considering Third Striker was a Crusader. Which was a little odd. Like most people, Derrick had considered what alien life would be like and this was pretty far from what he'd imagined.

The human hybrid thing was also a little outputting. How was that possible? Some Captain Kirk? Alien abduction and experimentation?

That seemed like it might be a sensitive question though, especially if it involved Greys and probes. Not the Grey Legion, just regular Greys. That in mind, he tactfully asked another question first.

“Speaking of challenges. Did you win? Is the Feral Artisan dead?” he asked hopefully. Anita had said that he was holding his own in the fight. Which was impressive as hell considering Derrick had eight inches on him.

“I triumphed. Yet, It was never the beast itself, so I could not strike a finishing blow.” the teenage looking alien said dramatically from his corner of the pickup truck. “Just a hungry shadow. Triumph over it was temporary.”

“So it will be back?” asked Derrick. Did you have to enter the fold to actually threaten a Feral Artisan? That would make it difficult. Hopefully destroying their shadows was more than an annoyance.

“Yes, but thanks to your interference, no stronger than it was before it manifested. Your glory earned is greater than my own today.” Third Striker answered and reaching behind himself, rolled something at Derrick before resuming his death grip on the sides of the truck. “ Here, your prize.”

Derrick caught the object. It was the probe the Feral Artisan had trapped. Now lifeless and inert. His desperate fuck you to the Artisan, when it had created that wave, must have worked. The probe had escaped the Artisan, only to be captured by this guy.

Not quite as good as being safe from that particular Feral Artisan, but still nice.

“Thanks,” said Derrick sincerely. Judging how it resisted the Artisan, this thing must have a manna gate or core. Probably a core, if he understood how those worked. A gate would require a core nearby to leech power from.

“No thanks is necessary,” Third Striker replied. “It is your due.”

“So, it was trying to eat this?” he asked as he examined the silver orb. “It eats Siviril?”

Third Striker seemed to consider the question.

“It takes it into its shadow,” The alien said uncertainly, as if he was unsure of the wording. “By its nature, Siviril is key to the Fold. Never the more so, than when in the hands of the Feral Artisans.”

"The shadows are... are... blind." Third Striker continued. "It sensed the probe's use of manna. The connection to the Fold that the probe drew power from and pounced on it. Your approach, mere flesh that you are, was unnoticed. It could only thrash out at our world blindly once it knew a thieving irritant was nearby. You have a fools luck."

Hmmmm. So it hadn't been toying with him exactly.

The two sat in silence for awhile before Derrick asked another question. It took a minute to formulate his question, it was a little more... ambitious.

“Don't me wrong, I am grateful to the System and know its saving us from the Scourges. But I need to ask.” Derrick explained first. He didn't want to offend the Crusader again.

“Why?” he asked and waved a hand towards the ruined streets they were driving through. “Why all of this. Why Users? Why vending machines. Why all the secrets and the lack of communication? It seems like the System is holding back, almost hiding form us.”

“Because you're wrong,” Third Striker said and grinned at Derrick. When he spoke, it was with fervour. “The System will not save you. It is not here offering salvation. It is merely offering support because there is no salvation to be had.”

“Your world is insignificant, one of a thousand infected balls of mud the System wars on. Even if the System dealt in salvation, the resources to save them all do not exist. For every Injection it sends to challenged worlds, it could build the better part of a small fleet to shield the Core Worlds of the System Races. So, the System hedges its bets. The System has no place for dependants. The only species worth saving are the ones who can save themselves.”

That was mostly what he'd guessed honestly. It seemed like Third Striker may be a bit biased in his outlook though. No doubt, the fact that surrendering worlds to the Scourges was a bad idea in the long term played a part.

Two facts stuck out.

One, they had fleets, Derrick thought and smiled. He wondered how much a small spacecraft would cost. Probably a lot and you could hardly pull one out of a vending machine.

Less fun, was the fact that them having fleets meant the Scourges probably had their own as well. Fighting Grey Legion Agents in the streets was one thing, fighting a Grey legion fleet in orbit was another. No matter how great he got with an axe and auril power, he'd be useless in a space battle.

Two, Third Striker spoke of the System and the System Races as two different things. He asked about that.

“It is above and apart,” agreed Third Striker with a mean smile. “A silent supporter, older than any living System Race. We all rise and fall, either devouring ourselves or crushed by the relentless assault of the Scourges. Yet the System endures, puts weapons in the hands of the challenged and remembers the honers we have earned on our eternal Mission. ”

Ya... He definitely wanted a different perspective on this. Third Striker seemed to consider the System as some kind of war god. Third Striker seemed like a good ally to have but he didn't like what he implied about the System Races.

Derrick was skeptical that the System, a advanced AI, would work the way the hybrid said it did. It seemed primitive to him.

“Why are you called Third Striker?” Derrick asked, changing the subject to something lighter.

“Because my dominant sire named me that when I had earned the privilege,” It replied proudly but unhelpfully. The Mwin continued a second later. “It was the third Strike Ship that broke the crest of the first Simmerlight wave. A victory grand enough to spawn a hundred names, to bless a thousand Pages.”

Derrick slowly digested all this. So, a real alien. Huh. Confusing alien culture included.

Heavily wounded, barely conscious and lying in the back of a pickup truck, he was not going to try and unravel an entire alien culture from the overly dramatic speech of a bald alien hybrid teenager.

“I assure you, your own name, Tower That Raises, is as odd to me, as mine is to you,” Third Striker added. “Less than flattering in the culture of my race, the Mwin, either Bound or Defiant.”

Tower That Raises? Did the hybrid actually hear it that way? He decided to just add that to the long list of things he was ignoring in this conversation.

“Humans just like tall things.” Derrick explained easily. “For evolutionary reasons, height is associated with safety and authority. They also rectangles for some reason.”

“I had noticed,” Third Striker responded dryly as they drove under the shadow of ruined skyscrapers.

Ya, he probably got a lot of funny looks. Even Derrick had a little trouble taking him seriously and he knew the diminutive User was the most powerful thing he'd met.

“You're not really half human are you?” asked Derrick, getting to the question he wanted answered the most. It might look mostly human, but Derrick got the impression the mind in the teenage body was completely inhuman.

“Only recently,” Replied the Mwin hybrid with a toothy smile. “It is both practicality and courtesy to walk a challenged world in a native form.”

The small alien in a boyish body shrugged. A very human gesture for an alien.

“It is not as if I could bring my own body through an unsupported Injection. Even if I could, I would require the System to give breath and sustenance to a body unused to the weight, brightness and unnatural height of this savage world.”

The space knight thought the Earth was savage? It had seemed civilized to the point of pointlessness to Derrick. Well, the Crusader hybrid, probably had a very different idea of what civilization was from the average office worker.

“Skill, bravery and power make the journey through the Fold. Such is the glory of our eternal Mission. The System's blessing to those who take the Role of Crusader, to fight and die in alien flesh. A small price, to defy the Scourges.” He said reverently, like a prayer.

He was wearing new body then. Third Striker must have arrived on Earth the same way the Scourges had. Reduced to a sphere about a foot in diameter and then regrown into an entirely different species by the System.

No wonder he was the first alien Derrick had met. He couldn't imagine that was a popular way to travel.

By power, he was guessing the Mwin meant auril and manna. Possibly some other rare resources, he'd yet to encounter. Injections; the weird teleportation aliens all did, seemed to always bring some of that along.

“It's that easy to walk around in a completely different body?” he asked. “And is that why you look so young?”

“No,” replied Third Striker with a scowl. “Though the System Implant aids me greatly, It is still difficult to display my practised prowess. I have the wrong number of... everything, again. It was only the dire threat to the Enclave that made me move with such haste. The seeming youth is because your species is so very tall. I wanted time to get used to this height before I become taller still.”

Derrick was impressed. It seemed like this five foot and a few inches tall Crusader had beaten the Feral Artisan that had basically slapped Derrick into another dimension and he wasn't at full strength. He was impressed enough that he decided it would be in bad taste to make fun of the Crusader's obvious fear of heights.

Also, he got distracted by fantasies of the Mwin. Which were clearly a powerful race of warriors, wielding terrible powers granted by the System in an endless war against the Scourges. From Third Strikers comments and biology, he pictured them as two foot tall, four eyed anthropomorphic mice people wearing platemail while wielding little laser swords.

No doubt completely wrong but the first thing that popped into his head. Thinking of their epic battles, he couldn't keep a smile off his bruised face.

“Tower That Raises,” Third Striker interrupted and his serious tone banished Derrick's lighthearted imaginings. His oddly bisected blue eyes studied Derrick seriously. “I have answered your questions. Now answer mine.”

Derrick froze. He detected danger here. Not hostility exactly but definitely danger.

“You touched one of the darkest levels of the Fold. Were dragged into a realm ruled by the Artisans for hours. And yet, you sit before me, lucid and barely mad at all.” the tiny fanatic said with brittle kindness and leaned toward the human User. “What did you see?”

 

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Mirrored

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