After his deep personal revelations, Derrick decided to chill and work on his Auril power.

Obviously, he wasn't going to be as stupidly ambitious as before and put himself back in the hospital. His plan was to take it easy, to just work on pulses and try to make Quantum Awareness more useful.

The System had hinted the trait could become much more useful, which considering how unhelpful the System usually was, made it worth exploring.

Assuming a meditation posture in the middle of the User plaza, he concentrated on the thin and complicated membrane of auril that was Crude Quantum Awareness. The strange ability that had saved his life more than a few times now.

Concentrating, he could feel it every time someone looked at him, there was even a sense of roughly the direction they were in. It was like the thin strands of Auril on his skin were so sensitive even the lightest gaze caused a reaction.

Right before his trip to the hospital, he had theorized he could use what he'd learned from the Vanguard hearts to try and upgrade it. Time to test that. He recreated the weave he'd memorized earlier and tried to add it beneath the auril that danced across his skin.

It took a good hour of experimentation but it worked. Surprisingly, without any horrible side effects at all.

One moment he was bashing the two weaves together and the next, the auril trait evolved and the gazes he felt on him... sharpened. Eyes still closed, he could feel exactly how many people were looking at him and where they were before they lost interest in him and moved on.

It was a very weird sensation, the fleeting awareness offered by the trait. Like having almost blind eyes he didn't control that opened and closed all across his skin. Or was it like a very convenient but limited sense of hearing?

Derrick shivered but smiled. If he concentrated, he could even sort of tell what part of him they were looking at. That could come in handy.

Crude Quantum Awareness (F) has upgraded to Quantum Awareness (D)

Universal Support System Implant

Quantum Awareness (D) (Survival)

A weave of Auril energy that responds to awareness of your self and position. Allowing you to know when other sentients are directly aware of your position and the focus of their attention.

“Excellent,” Derrick congratulated himself. He must really have a talent for this. He felt great that at least one of his plans hadn't backfired. It reaffirmed his decision to avoid any more ambitious auril experiments. At least ones that tried to make physical changes to himself. Obvious talent aside, he was still a beginner in using what was clearly an insanely complicated and dangerous force.

Baby steps for now. Like his auril pulse's incremental growth. Sending out a few subtle pulses let him know that he could now feel living things as far away as ninety some feet. Extending his range to a level where he could scout small buildings or across streets.

Using the pulser item, he felt it reach out a good hundred and fifty feet. It had gotten a little stronger just from his increased auril. The extended range let him feel two other auril users in the gym or dojo. His Quantum Awareness let him know that one of them managed to detect his pulse and even use it to pinpoint Derrick himself.

Huh. Was the gym some kind of auril meetup spot? That would make sense. He should check it out later, right now he just wanted to sit here and relax.

A few seconds later, Derrick frowned as he felt a half dozen gazes lock onto him and begin to move closer. Their laser focus on him, making their destination clear.

He frowned but didn't move, just continued sitting. This had better not be more trouble from Greta.

When he guessed they'd enter his range, he sent a subtle auril pulse at them. It seemed to go unnoticed but informed him that two of the approaching men were the auril users he'd pulsed. Both seemed unimpressive.

Had he broken some kind of etiquette here? Was it bad manners to scan another auril user? Had he accidentally challenged the dojo?

Derrick felt a ripple of auril wash over him but fail to pierce his defenses. As soon as the first one failed another was sent out but it was as unsuccessful as the first. Both pulses had been kind of pathetic really. As bad as his original experiments with the skill.

As they closed the final dozen feet, he slipped off the concrete block he was sitting on and into a standing position.

“Hello,” he greeted them with a smile.

No one answered.

Oh wait, his eyes were still closed. He opened them and looked over his visitors.

They were obviously all Users and particularly fit looking ones. All Users had started off pretty healthy and only improved over the last few days. Well, the surviving ones had improved anyway.

The half a dozen men and women in front of him all had the hard muscles of serious athletes however, displayed by cut t-shirts and karate pants. Sweat glistened on their exposed flesh. They had clearly been in the middle of a workout before rushing out here to confront him.

So why had they bothered? What did they want with him.

“Can I help you?” he asked the man at the front of the pack who looked like the leader. A seven foot tall lanky fellow with almost ink black skin and a deadly serious gaze.

“Yes, ya can.” the man said with a slight accent. He rolled his shoulders and displayed a smile that didn't reach his eyes. “I've been looking for a sparring partner. You seem like someone who knows a thing or two about fighting.”

“Never sparred in my life,” said Derrick as casually as he could manage. It did not escape Derrick's notice that his buddies from the dojo had moved to encircle him.

He didn't want to fight this guy over whatever macho bullshit this was. Derrick had taken family karate for awhile. This guy looked like he'd been born and raised by third generation MMA fighters.

As Derrick examined the leader, a notification popped up.

User Tag

Name: Dominic Sargel

Title: Scrappy

Role: Guard

Level: 1.5

He was a lower level than Derrick would have thought. He guessed that was because of time spent in dojos and not doing missions. It would be a mistake to think that meant he couldn't take Derrick in a fight though.

“How about some pointers then,” the bigger man asked insistently. “You seem to have a lot of auril and know how to use it.”

Derrick heard something intense in the man's voice. Was this really about, getting some pointers? Or maybe he was just jealous or trying to maintain his cred as a teacher in this dojo. Training others could be a way for him to avoid fighting himself. A decent plan.

He looked to the 'students' making up the encirclement. They were watching him carefully. Not exactly hostile but very wary of him. Which was weird because he was the one that had been minding his own business before they showed up.

Something odd was going on here and whatever it was, it was far more complicated than someone picking a fight.

Could he esca.... Derrick felt a wave of anger wash over him as he looked over the other Users. Not at the auril using Guard but at himself. He was letting himself be intimidated. After all the horrible experiences he'd been through, he was losing his nerve because of schoolyard level User bullshit.

Fuck it, if they wanted a fight, he was going to fight. It wasn't like his life was in danger or anything and he didn't care if he got his ass handed to him. Not that he should, he had three levels and probably several traits and skills more than this guy.

“You know what? I changed my mind,” Derrick said and broke into a series of elaborate stretches. “I could use a good warm up.”

Watching Dominic carefully as he stretched, Derick saw the other User's face go still for a second before the other man nodded once and took a fighting posture. With his hands, almost blocking his vision, Derrick thought the other man to be trained as a boxer of some kind.

Derrick stopped stretching and took a balanced stance of his own, causing Dominic to attack almost instantly.

He was fast. He seemed to just appear in front of Derrick and launched a flurry of jabs. Derrick shuffled backwards, blocking or avoiding them but was unprepared for Dominic ending the combo with a lightning fast kick at his thigh. Derrick barely managed to take the weight off that leg and twist to reduce the strike's force.

He felt the impact through his entire body. Dominic wasn't holding back. If the other User was trying to do real damage though, he was wasting both their time. With a three level advantage, Derrick was pretty sure his bones wouldn't be breaking any time soon.

And the pain? Barely noticeable. Derrick had become somewhat of a connoisseur of pain since the Scourges arrived. Compared to acid, impalement and sanity destroying headaches, this was almost nothing.

Derrick took the hit and pushed forward, catching the other User off guard and delivered a jab followed by an uppercut that actually managed to land.

He wasn't an experienced fist fighter however and failed to press his advantage. Dominic grimaced from the body blow but danced backwards with impressive agility, easily doging a hook from Derrick.

Ya, the difference in footwork was going to hurt him. He just couldn't match Dominic's ability to strike and retreat while maintaining perfect balance.

As they eyed each other, Derrick shuffled forwards. A tougher body wasn't his only advantage, he was pretty sure his endurance was at least as good as well. It was to his advantage to keep the fists flying and prevent Dominic from trying anything too fancy.

Seeing Derrick step forward, the taller man glided out to meet him. Derrick blocked the first punch but tried to turn the second into an exchange of blows. Dominic didn't want to play that game, he executed a perfect counter punch using his longer reach.

Derrick staggered but didn't have time to collect himself. He saw Dominic launch a side kick at his chest, his long leg stabbing out like a spear in slow motion.

A combination of a karate block and a step to the outside let Derrick barely avoid the hit. He moved in to attack but only managed to hammer at the other User's defences before he skillfully backed away.

At least his strikes had been fast and hard enough that he'd forced Dominic to retreat. A small victory that.

Well, Derrick thought, he hadn't won that round. Although, his opponent didn't look happy either. He was also breathing heavily already, which was normal for something as strenuous as a spar. Derrick was slightly better off, no doubt due to Breathless.

He activated auril regeneration for a few seconds, taking the edge off.

“Had enough yet?” Derrick asked. “How about we call it a draw?”

The larger man didn't reply. Instead he closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breathe, before launching himself towards Derrick.

They exchanged blows again, both fighters sending out jabs. Although, the jabs couldn't hurt him, Derrick was careful not to let them block his vision. The body blows, he just ignored or tried to counter. A strategy that failed as often as it worked but seemed to annoy his opponent.

He thought he was doing pretty well. At least until a hand snaked out and grabbed him by the wrist and a knee came flying at his face. He blocked with his free hand but Dominic just launched another strike, Derrick failed to block this one completely.

His hand was sandwiched between his chin and the attackers knee. A spike of pain flared through his neck and face.

To Derrick's surprise, that wasn't the end of it. Still another knee was sent flying towards him. Blocking again seemed like a bad idea. Instead, acting on panicked instinct, he pulled with all his strength on his captured hand, forcing Dominic closer and headbutting his assailant even as he was kneed in the chest.

Derrick saw the other User's eyes go wide in surprise for a second, before everything went white.

Derrick blinked. Ahh, there had probably been a better way to avoid that. Focusing, he shook himself and was surprised to find he was still on his feet. That was good.

Less good, his opponent was also still conscious. Actually no, that was good. It meant he could still fight. Except it would be less a fight now and more Derrick taking him apart.

“Line crossed,” Derrick said and spat out bloody saliva onto the ground.

It had been almost fun until the knee strikes. That was just dirty, especially the third one. Multiple knee strikes to the face? That was more no holds barred street-fight than a friendly spar. If the gloves were coming off, this bastard was going to find he didn't like what Derrick could do with just his bare hands.

Derrick sent out a subtle auril pulse, getting a feel for his enemy. In less then a second he'd confirmed what his earlier pulse had told him.

His auril defences were practically non existent. He doubted this guy even had a style.

Derrick moved forwards and gathered auril energy again, this time in his hand. Something must have showed on his face because the other User hesitated before stepping up to meet him.

Derrick's strike was heavy but easy to block, which was the point. A blast of auril entered Dominic's blocking forearm and caused it to spasm, which allowed Derrick to clock the stunned User in the face.

Dominic recovered fast. Derrick's next strike was blocked again but clumsily enough that Derrick got a gut shot in right after.

He smiled as his victim staggered back. He grabbed a hand to prevent a retreat and gathered another pulse of auril energy. This time though, he twisted the power into a knot. A seething ball of energy just waiting to eat someone from the inside out.

He raised his hand and prepared to shatter the bastards collarbone. Or maybe some ribs? He hesitated as he considered the best place to strike.

“Ya, that's enough,” a voice called out from right behind Derrick. “He's not who you're looking for you idiots.”

Derick ignored that, but then something red fell to the ground at his feet.

He frowned. It was his mask. Some bastard had been going through his stuff while he'd been fighting. These people were just asking for it.

He turned to find Blake Demnol standing there. The sword wielding User positioned himself between Derrick and Dominic's friends. Oh, oops. He'd forgotten about those people. A couple head blows and his situational awareness went right out the window. They'd been about to jump him from behind but now seemed stunned by something. They eyed each other nervously instead of attacking.

Did they know Blake?

There was a lot of eyes on him now, a small crowd of Users had gathered to watch the show. Two dozen people but that was enough that he couldn't sense them with Quantum Awareness, they all blurred together. He made note of that weakness.

Derrick let his Splintering Strike go, ejecting the energy into empty air and stepping away from Dominic.

“What's going on?” Derrick asked Blake, his irritation clear. “Why am I the target of an amateur street lynching? This better not be Greta again.”

The blond User seemed to have made a full recovery from his injuries. He wore his sword on his hip and had a green jacket of obvious System design. It reminded Derrick of his own.

“We..” one of the nameless Users started but stopped when Blake spoke over him.

“Nothing to do with that bitch. They just thought you were a serial killer,” Blake cheerfully explained, as if that was the most hilarious thing he'd heard all day.

Why the hell would they think that? Just because he ran around the city wearing a mask and carrying an axe while covered in blood? That was... sadly reasonable. Wait a second. There was a serial killer loose in the city? One that looked like him?

“There's a serial killer around here that looks just like me?” Derrick asked incredulously. It seemed ridiculous, even in a post Scourge world. Was it some kind of murderous doppelganger?

“We don't know what he looks like.” Dominic stated, causing Derrick to look back to him. He seemed a little groggy but calm. “Just that he's a powerful auril user that uses auril to identify and kill other auril Users. Three bodies so far, probably more we don't know of.”

The very dark skinned User had risen to his feet, seemingly recovered from Derick's blows. He showed no sign of wanting to continue their fight. Instead, he seemed tired and mildly ashamed. Like he'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar instead of trying to cave in Derrick's head, in the middle of a crowded street.

This did explain why they'd thought the killer might be him. They must have felt his auril pulse and thought he was scouting for victims.

“Well, it wasn't me,” Derrick stated sourly.

“Ya, that is obvious now,” The dark skinned User answered with a sigh and wiped blood off his face. “Should have known who you were when I read your tag. Ya just look very different without that,” the User finished and pointed to the ground.

He was pointing at Derrick's mask, causing Derrick to become confused. What did that have to do with anything?

Oh, right. The show. He rolled his eyes. Apparently, these were members of his adoring fanclub. Well, at least the show was a rock solid alibi. Not that a User should need one.

“How can there be a serial killer?” He asked. “Shouldn't the System stop anyone from killing?”

If there was loophole, he wanted to know what it was. To defend himself of course. Proactively.

Dominic shrugged while he played with his bleeding nose.

“Bodies are being found with bullets in them and their valuable System stuff carved out of them.” He explained. “In safe zones, where no Grey Legion could be hiding. If it not a person, is doing a good imitation.”

“Wonderful,” said Derrick as he considered this fresh threat. “Just what we needed.”

So, it was either someone who, for whatever reason, could ignore the System's no killing rule or a Scourge that looked and acted just like a person. He was guessing it was the former, the second option didn't seem like something a Scourge could or would want to do.

Unless it was part of the Grey Legion? Some kind of infiltrator? No, couldn't be. If they could pass off Agents as Users they would have a lot more than one and they wouldn't give themselves away over something as small time as a few weak auril Users.

Auril was valuable but not that valuable. Rather than some galactic monstrosity, this felt like simple human greed.

“You should be safe,” a nastily smiling Blake added. “You're too high profile, Mr Derrick the Red.”

Derrick the Red flinched at the sound of his new nickname, which only made Blake's smile grow. Derrick recovered quickly though and returned fire.

“Is that jealousy I hear,” asked Derrick innocently. “Don't worry, one day I'm sure you'll get a moniker as well. I could help you out. How does Naked Blake sound?”

Derrick, was pleased to see that memory wiped the smile off his allies smug face. At the same time, remembering finding Blake tied to that bed did wonders for his own mood.

“Ha ha, you're hilarious.” Blake said dryly. “Why did I come over here again?”

“Thanks for stepping in,” Derrick said sincerely. “Things might have gotten a little out of hand if you hadn't.”

In the heat of the moment, he might have done something he would regret. He was going to have to watch his temper. Quite possibly, he was getting too used to lashing out. He was already high profile. Publicly taking someone apart with Splintering Strike could lead to problems later.

Besides, he should keep that ability hidden for now. As an ace up his sleeve. It was interesting to know that the System would have let him use it though. He could imagine several ways to use the ability lethally or at least to cripple someone horribly.

“No problem,” Blake replied. “What are friends for?”

... Were they friends? He seemed sincere when he said it. He probably wanted something.

“I am very sorry,” interjected Dominic.

He also seemed sincere. His anger having faded to mild annoyance, Derrick decided to forgive him. Being a likely target for a serial killer during an alien apocalypse had to be pretty stressful. It was no wonder he had lashed out. If anything was to be blamed here, it was his fucking terrible luck.

He'd basically been tripping over every horrible monster within the city limits. Being mistaken for a serial killer was pretty much par for the course.

“Don't worry about it,” he answered and saw the other User relax.

“Ya,” Blake added. “What's a couple more blows to the head to Derrick the Red?”

Derrick sighed.

“Anything else I should know about this auril using murderer?” he asked.

Dominic shook his head.

“So far, all the victims have been weak but there aren't many actually strong auril users around. It might be just you and the killer?” Mused Blake. “I'd make sure you sleep somewhere secure. I know a couple of places that could work.”

Derrick liked to think he wasn't weak. Not to mention he was hard to find with auril. That could give him an advantage if he wanted to tango with this mystery killer. He didn't though. Too many unknowns. Would the System even let him fight back? Where would he look? He'd be keeping an eye out but he wasn't a police officer, trained to catch killers. If he wanted to save lives, there were more efficient ways for him to do so.

“It's true,” Dominic said, his face displaying his embarrassment. “We don't know really know what to make of auril. Honestly, with the killer on the loose. I think most people would rather not even have the stuff.”

“Maybe you could give some tips?” the larger man asked and had the decency to look even more embarrassed. It was almost comical to see the tough looking User so shamefaced.

“And we could do some sparring,” Blake added and patted the sword on his hip.

Derrick eyed them both skeptically. Really? They wanted his help and some more sparring. Immediately after a spar where Dominic tried to bash his head in.

Fine. He had to admit it did make sense. He could teach them auril tricks. Improving pulses was easy enough and would provide both enhanced senses and a useful combat trick. Obviously, Regeneration and Quantum Awareness couldn't be taught and Splintering Strike was going to remain his secret for now.

It was better for him in the long run if he could both empower the Enclaves Users a little and make some useful friends. Plus, it was nice to be appreciated. Compliments were rarer than injuries these days.

As for Blake, the blond was very good with his sword and as the fight with Dominic had reminded Derrick, he wasn't actually that great of a fighter. He'd been coasting on his talent with auril and high level to fight the Scourges. He could use the practice and the professional coaching.

“Alright,” he said and grabbed his bag. “I suppose I've got a couple hours to spare."


A note from Mirrored

Thanks to all my readers!


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