Derrick considered Kate with a mix of emotions.
He wasn't worried about her having killed the Slave Node. He doubted it meant anything much to the System. Levelling, like most of what the System did, was opaque. What he did know, was that you only levelled at the end of missions and experience was shared amongst groups. Groups seemed to level at about the same speed as well, so unless he'd just been robbed of a title, there was no real loss.
It was probably just her way of making an entrance. An unnecessary reminder of how good a shot she was.
Looking at her, she seemed to be doing well for herself. She was wearing a black and dark green System Soldiers Coat, not unlike his own red one but without the grey pentagon plates around the one shoulder and it had both sleeves still attached.
Custom System Soldiers Armor
A customized coat designed for human use. Guaranteed to fit any human.
Made from dense carbon threads and armored plates layered over an Esthisium frame. It offers a slightly greater defence than a standard Soldier's Coat.
It has limited self repair and security features. Structural framing allows for the comfortable attachment of weapons to the back and hips as well as the ability to carry heavier loads.
A Sam Wilst Creation
She was also sporting a green mask that was very similar to the one he was wearing. Framed by her short blonde hair, it had a pattern of thin black ripples covering it, instead of stubs on the forehead. Which made sense as she'd been the one to design his own mask, it had been a gift from her and Jenny.
She looked good. Even when standing in a room full of dangerously mouldy furniture and unnaturally fast rotting human corpses. Even though he couldn't see her face.
To his auril senses, she glowed like only people who had aurilin did. That also made sense, considering what she had stolen from him and where she was. The most basic use for auril energy was to provide a defence against diseases, poisons and the auril abilities of others. No one without it would stand around inside a sweltering swamp of infection like this place.
She seemed to be beyond just the basics, the energy inside of her was strong and organized. The threads of auril energy following a clear pattern.
She had a style. How interesting... solid bands of defence? Some kind of very specific healing woven through her muscles. Ah, that would be a sort of stamina boost. It reminded him of Third Striker's style more than his own or the Scourges.
Potent but simple. Still, he was happy to see another competent auril User. Really happy. Someone else to bear the burden of discovery. He was beginning to think the Tyrant Spores had killed or turned them all.
A deep silence, as the two of them looked each other over. The only sound was the drip of slime falling from growths on the ceiling.
“It's always nice to know someone has your back,” Derrick said. “I've been kinda doing my own thing lately.”
“Well, I'm here now,” Kate informed him. “I was doing my own thing too. Running into you is a happy accident.”
“Come for more aurilin?” he asked her. He didn't even really mean it as an insult, it was just the first place his mind went. An honest question.
“I suppose I deserve that,” she said, not sounding particularly upset. Getting guilt from Kate was probably like getting water from a stone. Not worth the effort.
“Why?” he asked patiently. “What did you do?”
“This isn't the best place or time for a chat,” Kate answered after a second. She seemed to be getting annoyed, which made Derrick angry. He was the one who should be annoyed.
If they left the building, they would need to find somewhere secure. That might take a while and Derrick wasn't too worried about being ambushed. The Tyrant Spores didn't seem to create 'minions' with auril abilities. He'd only run into nodes with auril so far, meaning their forces probably depended on numbers and infection, not auril abilities.
He considered the dead Slave Node, drained of auril energy, he could sense its aurilin. It contained surprisingly little aurilin and what it did have was hard to get at. Instead of a single core like Users and Grey Legion had, it had a number of small ones woven into its spine. As desensitized as he was, he wasn't going to pick a human spine apart for pieces of aurilin barely bigger than grains of sand.
Even if he wanted to, it seemed like it could take hours and would be really really messy. Instead of leaving, he grabbed a stool from a display and under Kate's annoyed gaze, wiped the slime off it and sat down.
“You're being childish,” Kate said, standing in place.
Derrick sighed, he wasn't happy with how this conversation was going. Two people just being passive aggressive at each other was probably close to the last thing he wanted. Especially considering they were both in a battlefield.
“You stole two auril hearts from me,” he said and she didn't deny it. “Explain why or leave.”
“You knew I wasn't a nice girl.” she said, in a tone that made him think she was fluttering her eyelashes. Derrick considered her admission a bit of an understatement. Since they'd met, she had seemed perfectly happy to loot the corpses of her allies and had a complete indifference to the suffering of others.
She's also seemed brave and willing to risk her life to fight by his side. He wanted that.
“You can be mean and still avoid being stupid,” he answered. He didn't think either of them were interested in the morale high ground.
“Stupid,” she repeated slowly. Apparently uncomfortable with that accusation coming from him. She ran her hands down her pant legs. Passing it off as checking them for grime. Derrick saw her fingers twitch when they passed by her knives though.
“Yes, stupid,” he replied. “Are you going to pretend you didn't know I wouldn't have given them to you if you had just asked? Raiding my pockets and running away was fucking silly.”
“I like you Derrick,” she said after a second. “But not everything is about you. Other people's opinions aren't the most important thing to me right now. I have my own goals.”
“Right. So, how's 'being worth remembering' going for you?” he asked, without obvious emotion.
Kate flinched a little that. Derrick wished that her mask didn't hide her face so completely.
The two of them returned to just looking at each other. Derrick heard gunshots in the distance but didn't move. They were both tense and angry. Kiss or kill territory. Finally, Kate let out a deep sigh.
“You're right,” she admitted. “What I did was stupid. I was not in a good place when I woke up from the Siren Nodes attack. It hit me right where it hurt.” Derrick could hear pain in her voice and had to empathize. The Siren Node's mental attack had been brutal. “However bad the Siren was for you,” she said, hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. “It was worse for me. I... I would do.. would have done anything to not to get pulled under again.”
Derrick remembered the two of them in the hospital together, sharing mental scars.
If she was being sincere Derrick couldn't hold her theft against her. If she was being sincere. He liked Kate. She was competent and had been a decent ally for all her rough edges. Also, she was good looking and an... interesting person. Both her personality and her history. He decided to forgive but not forget.
“So, I'm sorry.” she repeated and gracefully stepped closer to him. “How about I make it up to you?”
Derrick just lifted an eyebrow. This was probably the wrong place for sweet talk or seduction. Rotting corpses and protective clothing were hardly romantic.
She stepped past him and a knife appeared in her hand. One, twice, three times she struck the suspended corpse and each time another tiny grain of valuable aurilin was stuck to the knife.
Huh, he knew the Esthisium weapons could be selectively adhesive but using them that way had never occurred to him. Well, the other cores had been too large to take out that way anyway.
“That's less than you stole,” he informed her, matter of fact. “Maybe a quarter.”
“I'm not done,” she answered, holding the grains in her hand. “You brute.”
“Brute?” he said, thrown off by the insult.
“I've seen your fights, Derrick the Red.” she replied with a teasing voice. “You're one hundred percent brute. No finesse at all, just luck and an enthusiasm for violence.”
That was actually hurtful. It wasn't like he had chosen his fighting style. It had just sort of happened. A combination of talent for auril and System recommendations.
“Neither of those are bad things to have,” she continued. “You're going to run out of luck though. You need some subtly. The ability to avoid fights instead of just going from one slugging match to the other.”
He narrowed his eyes. Quantum Awareness was subtle, he thought defensively. His auril pulses should be pretty good too. Those weren't obvious to an observer though. From watching him fight, it would seem that he was lucky instead of skilled. He was about to defend himself but stopped. Actually, he was OK with being underestimated. It annoyed him that his strengths and weaknesses were being broadcast on television.
“Here,” Kate said and held out her hand. Derrick mirrored her and she dropped the aurilin into his open hand.
Curious, Derrick examined the aurilin and the pattern within. It was completely different from what he was expecting, from all the other cores he'd found so far. The grains contained a single complete pattern, spread across all three tiny hearts.
He looked to Kate, who was standing smugly beside him. He could tell she was being smug because of the way she cocked her hips. Her hips... No, not the time for that.
“What did you do,” he asked. “What is this?”
“I just fixed an auril technique in the hearts for you.” she said, nonchalantly. “It was already in there, I just brought it together. Made it obvious enough for a dumb brute.”
“What does it do?” he asked cautiously, remembering the unfortunate and almost fatal bone melting incident.
“Puts Spore Tyrant minions to sleep,” she said casually. “Doesn't work in a fight but it helps to avoid one. Let's you walk right through their defences as long as nothing is controlling them directly. Might take you awhile to get it to work but you should be able to learn it.”
An external technique then. An auril pulse that put stalks and sporelings into sleep mode. No wonder Kate was so clean.
He grinned. Combined with his natural stealth, this was incredibly useful. Even if it had been completely useless, it would still have been worth learning. He was not content to learn just a few auril techniques, he wanted to understand auril. To master it. This was a solid step in that direction.
Already, he saw several similarities between this technique and Splintering strike. How it travelled and lingered inside targets. He wondered what else he could learn from other auril Users. He had to force himself to focus on the situation he was in. He didn't have an hour or two to experiment. With his luck, he'd learn it just as the last other human life in the city was snuffed out.
“This is impressive,” he said honestly. Both the technique itself and the ability to both read and modify aurilin hearts. She must have gotten it from another Slave Node. He hadn't any idea how she'd managed the second one. He'd never even tried altering an existing heart's pattern. He wasn't sure where he would start. It would be like trying to change the words in a book by staring at them really hard.
“So, am I forgiven?” she asked confidently, his fascination with her gift obvious to her.
Her arrogance grated on him but maybe he could learn some things from her. What did he gain from turning her away?
He did not want to be alone. Not again.
“You still owe me a favour,” he answered. “But I'm willing let you earn my forgiveness.”
“How magnanimous of you,” she said and gave him a funny look. He could tell because they had both removed their masks.
“Does that mean we can get the hell out of here? Because I don't want to get all slimy and I don't think the Enclave is going to save itself.”
Ya, the city was being attacked. All the drama had made him forget that little fact. Reluctantly, he pocketed the grains. He was surprised the System had let him take this break. Although, he could feel a beacon tugging at his mind insistently, the location of the next Slave Broadcast Node. It seemed to be further away from the centre of the city but not that far. Reachable by foot.
The two of them made a mostly silent journey across the city, passing between deserted buildings and and down crumbling roads. Several times, he got to see Kate's technique in action. It allowed the pair to safely pass through roads blocked by Tyrant Stalks.
They managed to catch the Slave Node by complete surprise. It turned a street corner, running from some other Users, and was knocked unconscious in a single punch.
He would have felt proud if it hadn't been another teenage girl. This one dark skinned and maybe just a few weeks past her sweet sixteen. The baldness made it hard to tell, making the Spore Tyrant's victim look a little younger by making her look boyish.
What did the Spore Tyrants have against hair? Why did it infect teenage girls so much?
He received a notification from the System that the couriers were on the way to pick up the node. What he didn't get was a new objective beacon. He needed the beacon. His chances of finding a node by wandering around the entire city were basically zero.
Derrick disarmed her, then grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder. The node was ridiculously light. He noticed Kate giving him a funny look as he carried the node to the intersection.
“What?” he asked, taken aback. “It's fine. She's evil.” Kate was the last person he would have thought would have problems with violence against the childlike slave nodes.
“What did you used to do before the System?” she asked.
“Network Engineer,” he replied with narrowed eyes. One of his many very short-lived jobs in the field of programming. “Why?”
“Huh. Not what I would have guessed.” Kate Demnol said. “You just reminded me of some people I used to know. People who worked for my family.”
The Demnol family? Either a monstrous criminal organization or landscapers, depending on who you asked. He doubted anything in the last few seconds had reminded her of landscapers. Well, technically you could consider fighting the Spore Tyrants as weeding. Sort of?
“I once spent a summer cutting grass,” he informed her dryly.
“That must be it,” she replied with a toothy smile. “You reminded me of the kind of worker we used to get. The kind that didn't last long. The ones that held back. Desperate or ambitious but soft.”
So, they were definitely not talking about any literal form of gardening then. It was his turn to shoot her a funny look. Hadn't she been like sixteen herself when she'd fallen into a comma? What kind of criminal organization let a sixteen-year-old girl help run the family business?
“Landscapers aren't survivors or even preservers,” Derrick replied, keeping the tortured metaphor slash code phrase going. Honestly, he just wanted experimental subjects, but he wasn't going to admit that aloud. For all he knew, thousands of people were watching him right now, thanks to the invasion of privacy that was the Trial of Predation. “They're parasites, weakening an already threatened host. To survi...”
“Yes, alright. Fine. You win, please stop” interrupted a wincing Kate Demnol.
Derrick scowled. What was her problem? That had been a perfectly fine speech. He was going to put that down to her poor upbringing. Possibly brain damage from her coma.
What was probably the same courier vehicle he’d seen two nodes ago pulled up next to the both of them. They watched as armored Users identical to that vehicle's took the girl away without a word. They didn't even leave him any useful items this time. It was probably the same bunch though, one of them gave him a familiar and professional nod as they loaded the girl into the back of the armored ambulance.
As he watched them drive away, he felt Quantum Awareness kick back to life. The giant presence beneath the earth, the Spore tyrant, once again spread its awareness directly across the surface.
Beside him, he saw Kate flinch as if struck. The weight of the thing hitting her without warning.
Its massive pulse of alien energy tore through Derrick's defences and located him. Practically pinned him down. At the same moment, Quantum Awareness returned the favour. For a single second, Derrick felt the monster below. Knew where it was.
Now he just needed to tell the Sys...
Recording auril signature and data
Something tore through his mind, something very different from the Spore Tyrant. More like a stray thought than an alien presence.
Universal Support System
(1) Capture Slave Broadcast Nodes (Complete)
(2) Discover and Destroy Slaver Node
(3) Report to Secure Facility Westhills WK2
Good. If all the Slaved nodes were defeated, that meant the chance that the city would fall to the Spore Tyrants were small. All that was left was the Slaver node itself. The final boss of this horror show.
He felt a mental beacon form in his mind. It wasn't even that far. He was going to finish this.
Warning: User is within bombardment hazard radius.
Seek shelter immediately.