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Derrick considered the question very carefully. He had to immediately discard the idea of lying. He simply didn't know enough about this situation to even start to come up with a believable lie that would be less incriminating than the truth.  He decided to just downplay his experience and hope for the best.

“It's not very clear. I was lost and confused,” Derrick answered truthfully. “Something was horribly wrong, but I couldn't tell what, so I just kept trying to escape the places I found myself. Which were just mundane places? Hallways and forest paths? It felt like if I stared at one place too long though, something horribly would happen. No, not happen. It felt like something terrible would be revealed. Which is probably why everything kept changing until I stumbled to the exit.”

He scratched his nose.

“Other than that, I don't remember much,” Derrick said slowly and untruthfully. “Which, I'm pretty sure, is because it would be unhealthy to remember. It's that whole dream thing, you know, where your brain makes some memories impossible to remember clearly. They fade the moment you stop thinking about them.”

Third Striker calmly watched Derrick as he spoke. His face was still and gave away nothing of his emotions. A long second after Derrick was finished, he finally spoke.

“What is a dream?” The hybrid asked carefully.

Derrick opened his mouth. Then closed it. Opened it again and closed it again. Ok, wow. Ummm, how was he going to explain this?

Wait, Third Striker was half human now... would he dream? Had he already dreamed but forgotten it?

“It's complicated,” he informed the alien hybrid. “Honestly, I think someone else should explain this to you.”

Third Striker looked around the otherwise empty back of the pickup and then considered him for a long moment.

“Try,” he said seriously.

Derrick did. He gave a rambling speech about REM sleep and hallucinations. Memories and the random firing of synapses.

“So, you're trying to convince me you don't remember touching the Fold because your brain interpreted it as a hallucination from a type of altered consciousness your mind enters when you sleep and is effectively quarantining those memories.”

“Yes?”

“OK.” said Third Striker and moved back into his corner, seemingly at ease.

“OK?” Derrick repeated. Caught off guard by the tiny hybrid's easy dismissal of a subject he'd been clearly very interested in.

“Yes. Ok. I was simply curious. My curiosity has been prevalent lately,” Third Striker responded contemplatively. “I think it might be a human racial trait. Like your inability to focus on more than one thing a time, which half the time is sex. It's very distracting.”

“Yes,” agreed Derrick easily. “Yes, it is.”

He considered the teenage hybrid in front of him. He seemed oddly laid back, which made him seem trustworthy. Derrick decided his own massive ignorance was probably more dangerous to him than this Crusader was at the moment.

“So, I'm not in any danger of being corrupted or mind controlled? You're not secretly watching to see if I start worshipping hungry space gods?”

Third Striker just smiled at him, showing pointy little teeth. He was clearly amused by Derrick's concerns.

“Hardly,” the alien replied. “The Feral Artisans are infamous for the manipulation of reality, not living things. I doubt the creature even noticed you exist. Touching the Fold might have damaged you, subtly driven you mad to the point you will be a danger to yourself and others in the future, that however, is not my problem.”

“Oh good,” answered Derrick. That was a little distressing, but he did appreciate the honesty.

“Besides, it's not my place to judge you. You remain a User.” Third Striker explained.

“And there's no judgment among Users?” Derick asked hopefully. “One big happy family fighting the Scourges together?”

That was encouraging. The hybrid seemed civilized enough but since he'd met Third Striker, he had been concerned about a bunch of super powered aliens running around. Life under the System was heading in direction that was a little more 'law of the jungle' than he was comfortable with considering how low humanity must be on the totem pole.

“What? Blessed Blades of Bwedo no.” exclaimed Third Striker. “It was my meaning, that if the System implant nestled in your very brain has been fooled, what chance does a humble Crusader have of spotting such corruption?”

Oh, right. That. Well, at least the System was probably the only eldritch power influencing his thoughts. He really had no choice to trust the System.

But these Crusaders? What did they want? He asked his fellow passenger.

“I already told you. We desire the same thing you have been chasing so desperately since the System blessed you, little Fighter,” the Mwin hybrid spoke. “The completion of missions and the gaining of levels. To claim power and glory through the slaying of monsters. Those that take the Role of Crusader, no matter their race or the exact Role, come from worlds where the Scourges have been defeated. That makes it difficult to rise under the System, so we must earn our way to challenged worlds.”

Blessed by the System was not how he'd describe himself.

“What about your fleets?” Derrick asked. “Couldn't you attack the Scourges with those?”

That seemed safer than Injecting yourself onto a strange planet.

The once Mwin looked at Derrick like he was an idiot.

“While there is honor in Fleet service, they are a defensive force.” he said. “No one has fleets to waste attacking lifeless worlds fortified by the Scourges. What they take, they keep until another Scourge wrestles it from them. Trying to match a Scourge in a competition of weight in the black is a fool’s errand.”

Oh. That was less glorious than he'd thought. Probably no epic space battles for him then. Although, space was big enough that territory probably mattered less than in a terrestrial war. Even a single solar system contained enough resources it would take thousands of years to strip mine it.

“No System Races ever attack the Scourges or even each other?” he asked.

“Not with anything as expensive as a force of warships,” replied Third Striker with iron certainty, before switching to a more thoughtful tone. “It is rumoured however, that the System has a Black Fleet. A secret force, manned by ancient and powerful Users, that strikes at the Scourges and any race foolish enough to break its rules. It is the secret wish of many Crusaders to join it, if it does indeed exist.”

“The rumours around the System and its most glorious Users are endless however,” the hybrid said with a shrug. “One should not take them too seriously. Especially if one has yet to have earned a single Role.”

It was good to know the System wasn't just keeping secrets from humans. It seemed like the bastard AI thing loved being mysterious.

“I have a Role.” Derrick said defensively.

Third Striker rolled his eyes. “Yes, I can see that, little Fighter.” he replied with a smile. “It was bestowed however, without having been earned. It is a stopgap to preserve your race. Barely a Role at all.”

What was this? Role elitism? He hadn't earned it? Fuck that. He was just about to give Third Striker a piece of his mind when the hybrid pre-empted him. No doubt seeing the anger on his face.

“It is no judgment on you. It is merely the way of challenged worlds. The first Roles gifted by the System to a challenged species are... simple. How could they not be? The System has had no time to craft Roles to your nature and talents.”

“What does a Fighter or even a Guard do?” asked Third Striker, before answering his own question. “They Fight and Guard things. That is all.”

“Real Roles are more complex and demanding things, requiring years to advance through, not mere days. It took me a dozen years of training and competition amongst my siblings to even earn my first Role, Page. A Role that the System has refined for my people over centuries. The majority of my brethren never even make it that far, they live and die at tier zero.”

What? So, all human Roles would be weak for the next couple decades at least? It made sense but was so unfair. Fighter was obviously kind of basic, just increasing muscle and bone density, plus the drug package. He'd thought that was because it was a common and low-level Role, not because all human Roles were bad. The Universe was truly a cruel, cruel bitch.

“There are upsides for you,” Third Striker continued. “The sheer number of fighting Roles available to a challenged world is an opportunity to be seized. In time, any human with an ounce of courage will have the opportunity to fight under the System. And also, the rate in which you have levelled is madness, even for a challenged world. I laboured as a Page for two years. Learning under the tutelage of veterans and practising skills given to me by the System. Another decade was spent as a common mercenary, fighting in petty border skirmishes and putting down Tyrant Spore outbreaks before finally earning the right to become a Crusader. You've been a Fighter for a week and already are on the cusp of a new Role.”

“It has been a long week,” responded Derrick as he reminisced.

Grey Legion. Grey Legion. Greta. Spore Tyrants. Spore Tyrants. Greta. Grey legion. Feral Artisan.

Such a very long week. He had no time for whining though. He had one more important question to ask this oddly helpful alien hybrid.

“So, my next Role will be important, because I will probably be stuck with it for a long time. What kind of Role should I take? How do I become strong enough to fight and survive?” he asked.

Just a day ago, he would have asked about a non-combat Role. A way to avoid danger. Things had changed overnight.

The modern world had trained him to understand that he was a replaceable cog in a dizzyingly complex world. Anything he failed or refused to do, was easily accomplished by some other nameless grunt.

Looking back over the last week, he was not so sure that was still the case. He had possibly saved the city when he had taken the probe from the Feral Artisan. The empowered Feral Artisan may not have destroyed the city itself, but it would probably have dealt a blow it would not have recovered from.

Not a stranger, not few people, but an entire city. Who knows how many of those the human race even had left? His choices had a real effect on the survival of the human race. It was frankly a mind-blowing change. Not to mention he needed the city to survive so that he had a place to live.

“A complicated question,” answered the youthful looking alien hybrid from his corner of the truck. “The quickest and shallowest way to become stronger is to seize and purchase as much Manna as you can and a weapon to channel it into.

“With the right weapon or tool, something indirect and medium ranged, your auril stealth and detection abilities could be used to dominate the Scourges for at least a month,” the Crusader continued. “A custom 'grenade launcher' with Manna enhanced ammunition, in your hands, could be used with great effectiveness against the lesser forms of the Grey Legion and Tyrant Spores.”

That made sense.

“But you don't think I should do that,” said Derrick, because even with his brain bleeding out of his eyes and ears, he wasn't an actual idiot.

“Even in my original body, I am no master of auril,” the hybrid continued. “I have fortified my flesh through prayer and pattern, to better resist my enemies. A technique completely unlike your own innovations and much more limited. You have a rare gift and luck. So, my answer is simple. Take whatever Role the System offers that increases your auril capacity, as that will be the greatest limit you face in the future.”

The alien peered at him for a second.

“I'm surprised you have as much auril flowing through you, as you do,” the alien said with a hint of curiosity. “Either your Fighter Role has a higher capacity limit than most level one Roles, or you have already boosted your capacity limit somehow.”

There was a limit on how much auril he could have? Crap. It was already impossible to buy the stuff, but knowing the System soon wouldn't even let him add more scavenged aurilin to his auril heart was bad news.

He quickly brought up the relevant information and did some calculations. If he was already above the average allowed Auril Capacity at eleven point four, that would put it around ten. A nice neat number that was as good a guess as anything.

 

User Profile

Name: Derrick

Show Title: Auril Pioneer II

Role: Fighter

Level: 1.8

Titles: Scrappy III, Emergency Activation II, Auril Pioneer II, Multi Killer, Fold Survivor, Auril Cultivator, Counteragent, Ambitious

Traits: Curative Blood (D) (Defensive)

Standard Auril Heart (D) (Auril)

Combat Drug Package (E) (Offensive)

Crude Quantum Awareness (F) (Survival)

Breathless (F) (Survival)

Auril Capacity: 11.4

Auril Style: Red Law (E)

Active Auril Skills: Regeneration

Pulse

USS Manna Pool: 0

USS Manna Skills: None

 

The only thing he had that affected auril capacity was the second and third Scrappy titles. Each granted, what must be, a maximum capacity boost of three. Making them a lot better than he'd first thought, considering he could use one hundred and sixty percent of the auril most Fighters could. A nice starting boost anyway.

For all he knew, most level two roles had a limit of a hundred. This was all prettty much pure guesswork.

It would totally suck to be stuck at a capacity of ten. His chances of ever overpowering the defences of any auril using enemy with an auril strike would be pretty much non-existent. Not to mention it would make his subtle pulses limited to an unusably short range.

He reached into his pocket and played with the two stolen Vanguard hearts there. Assuming his theories were right, those would probably take him right to the limit of his current capacity of sixteen. The larger stone, from the Combat Drone, was probably overkill. He kind of wanted to hold onto that one anyway.

This was just another reason to reach level two as soon as possible.

“Sorry for ignoring you,” Derrick said as looked back to Third Striker, who was back to sitting with his eyes closed.

“You have much to think about, I'm sure.” The hybrid replied dismissively. “I will leave you with another piece of advice. You will have unlocked access to Manna in your victory over the Feral Artisan. There is a strong correlation between Fold Survivors and talent with Manna. Resist the temptation to use it as merely a way to empower System weaponry. I have been teaching Aarav the more demanding methods to use it. Ask him to teach you as well.”

With that said the hybrid remained silent. Derrick just relaxed and activating regeneration again, managed to doze off.


When he woke up, he was unsurprisingly back in the hospital. The nice doctors seemed to have even reserved his bed for him. At least it seemed like the same bed. It was hard to tell because while the bed next to him was occupied, it wasn't by Blake, but by someone whose body looked like it had been on the receiving end of a bear mauling. They were basically just a mass of bandages.

He sighed. He was once again alone. It would have been nice if one person had been here for him. Maybe left some flowers?

He supposed everyone was too busy fighting for the survival of the human race.

Derrick stretched cautiously. He felt good?

Checking himself over, he wasn't bleeding anywhere or suffering from headaches. He just felt good. Odd. He must have been out for awhile if he had healed this much.

He looked to his side. Someone had done him the huge favour of washing or replacing his clothes.

Checking his pockets, let him know that he hadn't been robbed this time either. That was nice.

What a wonderful morning. Err, midday? The light streaming in corners of the window suggested it was around noon. He waited for the other shoe to drop. Nothing happened.

He didn't feel like leaving the bed to be honest. It was comfortable and safe. His only missions were the Trial and the bonus to find the Grey Legion Factory. Neither were urgent enough to get him to move.

It would be a waste to do nothing though. He reached over into the bed stand and grabbed a scavenged Vanguard auril heart.

He sent his own auril into it, studying and looking for inspiration. Third Striker had told him the System was still learning about humanity, he couldn't count on it to give him powerful traits or abilities. So, he would make his own. The Grey Legion Vanguard were the ideal place to start. They were transformed Earthlings. Logically much easier to steal upgrades from than a spider construct or a fungus monster.

Carefully, he explored the fragments of the vanguard auril style in the hearts. Growth, that was what came to mind. Growth and to a lesser degree… Seeking?

Seeking was easy. It was unsurprisingly similiar to the Examination patterns from the drone. He played with the strands of that for awhile, trying to work out the knots and learn more about how to use Auril Pulses.

The style contained pretty much exactly what he was trying to learn. The Vanguard Dogs were low powered hunters. Capable of an efficient auril pulse. Not a subtle one, like the Spore Tyrants used but efficient at low power. Rather than a unique method of sending out auril, the pieces of their style he saw concentrated on sensitivity to the pulses return. On gathering more information from it.

He would definitely play around with that later. It might even help him with Crude Quantum Awareness.

Now back to growth. He was really hoping he could find a way to make himself tougher. He was tired of bleeding so much and that was the specialty of the Vanguard.

He let himself fall into the stones in his hand. Blending the broken styles together in his mind.

There was something there. Something that dealt with toughness and protection. A way to speed up the changes a vanguard underwent.

Ah, it was how they grew that grey armor so fast. A physical process boosted by auril.

Hmmm. He didn't want to grow an exoskeleton.

Could he limit it in some way? Instead of growing new bones, he just wanted the process that changed existing bones. Could that even be done with just Auril or did it need the physical and chemical components offered by the Drones? Well, worse case scenario, it just did nothing or was so slow as to be useless.

He spent another few minutes fine tuning and pruning the auril style of useless junk. Then finally, he gathered his own auril energy and tried to shape into the imagined pattern.

The first few times, the energy just failed to set, falling apart and diffusing. Eventually however, he got it to stay in place. Wrapping around his bones and flowing evenly.

Carefully, he watched it. It did not appear to do anything. Well, that was a waste of t...

Ah, shit. Derrick thought as his heart skipped a beat.

The energy inverted. The threads shifting and assuming an entirely different but still miraculously stable form. Still wrapped around his bones, they began to eat away at them.

Shit. SHIT. This was bad. He could feel the alien power spread through bone and cartilage, attacking them in ways that reminded him of acid.

 

Universal Support System Implant

Dangerous auril mutation detected. Adapting...

Failed. Cleansing...

This again. Well whatever the System Implant was doing, it seemed to have slowed down the damage anyway. He still had malignant auril patterns inside him, doing who knows what to his bones. Which he needed.

Panicked, he tried to crush them. To smash them with his will, so that they unravelled. No Luck. They were annoyingly resilient little knots of power.

He felt his limbs beginning to acquire a sore numbness. It was a very worrying feeling.

Maybe Regeneration could overpower them? He gathered power and sent waves of regenerative auril through his body.

It was like mixing oil and water. And now his fingernails were bleeding. Probably his toes too.

A spike of electric pain shot down his spine and he slammed his hand into the bed. He felt something break, and it wasn't the bed.

Why the fuck had he thought this was a good idea?

He needed this auril gone. Right now.... gone. That gave him an idea. Instead of just destroying it, what if he expelled it. Like an auril pulse. He tried to gather the offending energy and force it outside his body.

It worked, partially. The energy exited his body and unravelled almost immediately into the air. It took a dozen monumental efforts of will before it was all gone but it worked.

Leaving Derrick with two broken fingers and tiny droplets of blood around his fingernails. Oh, and he tasted blood too.

Well he'd fucked that up royally. He thought he would been safe to experiment because of Curative Blood and the fact that he was in a hospital. A few more seconds and things could have gotten really bad. From superhuman to cripple in under a minute...

“Fuck,” he said aloud and winced from the shooting pain in his broken fingers. “I guess no one is as tough as they think they are.”

 

Universal Support System Implant

Cleansing Successful!

You have created a unique auril ability: Splintering Strike!

Splintering Strike

An auril striking technique that near instantly weakens hard organic materials such as wood, bone and cartilage. Especially effective on organic, harder and carbon based materials undefended by auril. It can have a short lived cumulative effect.

No one is as tough as they think they are - Derrick the Red

 

He ran his tongue over bloody teeth, as he read the notification. The flavor text was back and taking him completely out of context. It made his humbleness sound like a threat. He frowned and his head cocked to the side.

Who the fuck was Derrick the Red?

 

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Mirrored

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