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“This is just sadism.” said Kate testily. “All that hard work and the System just nukes it from orbit. I'm beginning to think the Universal Support System doesn't respect the on the street level User.”

“You want to crawl down into the sewers to fight a Spore Tyrant Node?” Derrick asked as he scanned the surroundings, looking for sturdy shelter. “I feel like my luck has pretty much run out at this point. I just want to get some training in before the next attack. At this rate, I'll be fighting a new and terrible Scourge tomorrow morning anyway.”

He was mentally worn out. Too much... horror and... exercise. He just wanted to work on some ways to use manna, maybe learn to use a gun. Simple everyday things that would help him live a longer healthier life in this new world order.

Kate paused in her own attempts to choose a destination. Something he said seemed to have caught her by surprise, judging from the look that flashed across her face. Had she not realized the Slaver Node was deep underground?

She let out a little giggle, the bubbly sound shattered the silence in the abandoned and abused section of city they were in and caused Derrick to flinch from sheer surprise. Confusingly, she shot Derrick a fond look.

“Yes,” she said serenely. “There's always the next monster. It's not like we are ever going to run out. We can probably skip the sewer battle. Save ourselves a decontamination.”

Not that the sewers would be anything like deep enough to reach the node. He had felt the Spore Tyrant though Quantum Awareness and the impression he got was that it was at least a hundred feet underground. Westhills wasn't some ancient European metropolis, it had no tunnels beneath it. Unless the System was going to rip the node out of the ground, this was one problem the System couldn't solve by throwing Users at it.

The closest building that looked like it could provide cover from any kind of bombardment was a parking garage. It was made of thick concrete at least. What it lacked in airtight walls, it made up for in sturdy construction. I was all steel fencing and concrete pillars. So while dust or poison might leak in, at least he shouldn't be hit by flying glass or caught in a burning building. And with their equipment and auril, he wasn't worried much about poison.

He wondered how he would fair against radioactivity. Hopefully, he would never find out. The Universal support System probably wasn't going to nuke them anyway.

... right?

Ugh. That would be the worst. Both because of the fallout and how cheap it would feel. If he was going to be caught up in an Alien bombardment, it should at least be high tech.

He demanded a laser on the moon, or at least in low orbit.

He was smart enough to not let his random thoughts slow him down. By the time he’d finished that thought he was right beside the shelter of his choice. His movement was barely slowed by the chain link fence that blocked access to the lowest floor of the parking garage. Cutting his way through with an Esthisium weapon was much faster than making his way to the actual entrance. The chain link fence might as well of been made of cheap plastic for all the resistance it offered his descending axe.

Three slashes and he was in. OK four cuts, he missed a link in one corner.

He dropped down into the building and spotted a double-parking spot protected by concrete walls on three sides. That seemed like the safest spot to him. He didn't want to go deeper, lest the building collapse on him. Kate must have agreed, she followed him in and crouched beside him and a supporting pillar. Both of them were nervous and trying to hide it. He could feel her auril pulses as she used the alien power to detect any nearby living things. It was reassuring, maybe even a little soothing. He was doing the same, so he knew that the garage was completely empt...

Derrick's head turned behind him and a second later Kate followed the obvious movement. Considering that behind them was a solid wall of concrete, she must have detected the same thing he had.

A small group of three humans had entered the garage. No auril Users among them. They seemed to have weapons, but it was hard to tell with auril. Non-living things were very hard to detect. The snapshot that his auril gave him of them, made them seem to be exploring the garage.

Well, it was the closest thing to a bomb shelter available. No surprise other Users would hide out here.

“Grey Legion,” informed Kate, her tone cold and sure.

It was impressive that she could tell. How could she tell? He asked.

“How can you not,” she replied, eyebrow cocked. “They're not even a little bit human at this point.”

Derrick decided not to answer her and just concentrated on getting ready to attack. His pulses didn't give any real information on the makeup of the living things he scanned beyond a sense of how much auril they had and how organized that power was. Which just made them stand out against the colorless and opaque background made of unliving matter that was most of the surroundings, like they were more alive and therefore even easier to detect than other living things.

The short haired blonde User turned away from him and raised a hand, motioning him to stay in hiding. No doubt to set up an ambush. With her new rifle, she could probably take out most of them before they could fire. Grey Agents tended to be poor to average when it came to using guns. As far as he knew, their bodies had been upgraded, not their minds. The Legion transformation didn't magically make trained fighters, just tough and fearless ones.

He had spent all his time obsessing over expanding the range of his auril detection. It didn't give him any in-depth info. No, actually that probably wasn't true. From what he understood of auril, the problem was that he couldn't interpret the information it contained. Apparently, Kate could. Which was both encouraging and worrying. Just how good at auril was she? Like x-ray vision good? He had to stop himself from turning his hips away from her.

This was really not the time for such stupid thoughts. Beside him, Kate had drawn her rifle and tensed up, waiting for the Grey Agents to enter a large empty section of the garage, where she could ambush them.

Derrick, axes in hand, prepared to leap out of hiding. He tensed up, ready for the fight but not the impact that came instead. He almost fell over when the ground shook and a light shockwave hit them. A wall of dust and air that hit like an air cannon. He managed to remain standing by driving an axe into a nearby wall as the ground jumped beneath his feet. The Esthisium weapon easily bit into the concrete and stuck there, making it pretty much a perfect handhold.

Beside him, Kate wobbled after the ground's second attempt at flight, dust raining from the ceiling, she reached for the wall but missed as her fingers just scrapped its rough surface. Faster than thought, Derrick grabbed her other hand, that had shot out for balance. He slowed her fall and held her up.

A third impact hit them and Kate fell into him, her shoulder hitting him in the chest lightly. A second later, one of her hands shot down to his thigh for balance. That caused him a complicated surge of emotion. Amongst all the dust, larger pieces of concrete were now falling. Judging by the noise, parts of the ceiling had to be caving in. The part they were in though, was a small room supported by thick walls on three sides, so it stayed mostly intact.

Derrick's heart skipped a beat as Kate scrambled against him. He hesitated. Ah fuck it, he needed to man up here. At some point you just had to stop using survival as an excuse. Derrick reached his free arm around her waist and pulled her into him, keeping the both of them balanced. He was rewarded by a chunk of concrete the size of his fists bounced off his head. It luckily hit him on an angle his mask protected and did no damage beyond a stab of pain in his neck muscles.

Two more impacts rocked the area before they stopped for good. An auril pulse revealed that the Grey Agents were unharmed and now moving away from the two of them.

“Thanks, but you can let go now. Or..” started Kate and moved her face closer to his. Derrick felt a shiver run down his spine.

“Or?” Derrick asked, intrigued. He'd already discarded caution. Might as well go all out.

“Or... I could cut myself free,” she continued brightly.

Derrick decided that he didn't believe her. Maybe he should. There was evidence to support her claim but he found that he didn't care. In fact, he just found her threat strangely endearing.

He held her for another few seconds before letting let go with an internal sigh. Kate immediately moved to pick up her fallen rifle and sling it back over her shoulder.

“We should take those Agents out,” Kate said and Derrick nodded. Leaving them around was a bad idea. The concrete labyrinth they were in was one of the best places to fight them anyway. Limited visibility and solid cover were to their advantage considering their skills, weapons and auril sense.

Together the two of them crept after the retreating trio of Agents, remaining undetected according to quantum awareness. When the hunted trio entered an empty section of the garage, one devoid of cars, Derrick and Kate strolled out of cover at their backs.

The good news was they caught the Agents by surprise. When Derrick turned the corner and sprinted at them, all he saw was the back of their heads. The transformed humans should not have seen him coming.

Spoiler alert; they saw him coming.

His quantum awareness instantly kicked in as he turned the corner and saw that there were four enemies, instead of the three his auril pulses had found. He'd trusted his auril pulse so much that he was caught flat footed by this undetected fourth Agent. He paused mid assault, his mind trying to decide what to do with this new information.

“We see you,” came a calm voice, coming in clear even though the inhuman speaker had its back to them.

Kate fired and hit one of the normal agents, her new silver and white rifle barely making a noise as it fired. Despite the unimpressive sound, a short but stocky agent crumpled as a bullet found its spine and left through the other side of the agent, taking splinters of said spine with it as it left. The others had already started to turn however and before the next bullet the pair of users found themselves facing armed attackers.

Despite the guns pointed his way, Derrick couldn't help but look at the stealthy agent. That undetected Agent was very human looking. At least compared to the more extreme transformations he'd seen so far. It was no giant brute and it had no grey claws growing from its flesh. It also had no eyes or ears. Instead, a single plate of smooth grey armor-like bone grew out of the upper part of its face. It was almost like a helmet except almost paper thin and sculpted to its flesh. On the forehead, a single glowing silver diamond had a network of glowing veins branching from it. Oddly, it was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. More importantly, it was also holding a longer than normal barrelled Fragment Gun in its hands. Although, it might just have seemed longer as it was pointed right at him.

“Submission is salv...” it started and was interrupted by Kate hitting it with two shots from her rifle just as it stepped towards them. The bullets hit it but Derrick saw a heat haze spring up on its skin at the moment of impact. It stumbled but caught itself before hitting the ground, apparently more stunned than injured.

Derrick threw an axe at it, his aim perfect. It missed anyway. Still turned away from the Users because of its stumble, the Agent dodged the axe perfectly anyway from its awkward pose, the movement looking more like a puppet having its strings pulled than anything a human could do. Its allies turned their guns on him and Kate, forcing Derrick into an awkward backpedal back into cover.

Luckily, Kate grabbed his shoulder and yanked him onto his ass and back to safety just as they opened fire. With a loud crack, the lip of the concrete wall exploded into dust and gravel, showering his mask with gravel and dust.

“Keep going!” hissed Kate, grabbing his collar and heaving him further into cover. Another shot broke through six inches of concrete effortlessly and caused him to flinch. Why the hell had he thought an advanced alien species's weapons would be stopped by concrete? Whatever that strange Agent was packing, it was a miniature cannon.

Fuck, this had gone south quickly. This bastard. It was like it was designed to piss him off. Derrick grimaced. It totally was designed to piss him off. This thing was the Grey Legion's answer to the annoying human auril Users hunting its troops in the city. Sent to hunt down either him or Kate.

Not only was it stealthy, it was somehow using manna to shield itself from auril pulses and bullets. Plus it had some kind of three sixty vision and a probably manna powered gun powerful enough to end a fight in one shot.

When a third shot broke through their cover, Kate leapt forward and fired again. Luckily, the shooters slow reload time hadn't been a bluff and she wasn't smeared across the garage. This time her gun boomed loudly compared to its normally quiet sound. Hopefully, she'd hit it with something a little meaner than what it had just walked off.

Seizing the moment, Derrick stood and sprinted out of cover. Hoping to take advantage Kate had either stunned or distracted it. He emerged from hiding to see two agents still standing. He raised one gauntleted hand to his throat and channelled manna into it. It was a better shield than nothing. He tried to get a sense of where the Agents were aiming but couldn't pin it down.

A cloud of fragments hit him, fired by the normal Agent. Grimacing, Derrick felt the tiny shards dig into his flesh in a half dozen places. After a sharp stab of pain, a sensation of numbness spread from the wounds. Neither the pain nor the weakness stopped him though. Both just made him more determined. He easily fell into himself, time stopping for a second as he sent a wave of energy out from his auril heart, shaping it into regenerative power that flowed through his entire body. The numbness stopped its spread and spurred by the alien energy, Derrick pushed forward. The offending Agent backed away from him, trying to buy time for another shot. It was too slow. Muscles screaming, the angry User hit it with his axe.

Derrick found himself staring into a Grey Agent's unblinking eyes as grey fluid spurted from the deep neck wound that he'd just inflicted. It crumpled and Derrick turned to the last standing Agent.

It was the manna using one. The one that was probably designed to kill him or Kate. Fuck this guy. While removing the last Agent from the fight he'd sent out a routine auril pulse and gotten a response from the manna equipped one. Not sensing the creature exactly but he could feel slight distortions in his auril where it was. It seemed like the stealth was imperfect. As long as he knew what to look for, he could still use auril to detect things hiding with this trick. The closer he was to it, the easier the distortions would be to feel.

He marched towards it, unafraid because Kate had exploited a weakness in its powerful body reinforcement. Its defensive ability hadn't extended to its gun. And so, it was holding a venom dirk in its bloody fingers while the twisted remains of its gun lay discarded on the ground behind it. Derrick noticed that the fingers that had been holding the gun were bleeding and somewhat twisted too. It was making itself tougher using manna, not invincible.

Confident, Derrick strode forwards with one of his knives in one hand and his axe in the other. A half dozen feet between them, he dashed forward and swung for the enemies neck.

With a grim smile on its pale lips, the transformed human stepped back, slashing at his fingers.

Damn, it was fast. Derrick's own speed had improved since becoming a User but not to superhuman levels like this Grey Agent. His fingers were saved by his gauntlets, the glancing blow not leaving a scratch on Third Striker's gift. Off balance from his evasion, a kick came flying out at Derrick's knee.

It never landed though, a soft buzz heralded the arrival of a bullet into the Agent's eyeless face. A ripple of energy partially negated the blow, but its kick lost its force as the eyeless head snapped back.

Fucking Hell though, Kate was right behind him! How close had that bullet's path been to his own head? He would need to check and make sure he had both ears when this fight was over. Speaking of which, he repeated his first strike. Hoping to hammer through the stunned Agent's defences

The blow was easily deflected by its lightning fast dirk, but Derrick just stepped in and tried to gut the agent with eleven inches of Esthisium knife held in his other hand. The blade scrapped against plates of armor hidden beneath the Agent's skin. Grey blood was drawn but his target ignored the stomach wound and grabbed for his retreating wrist. The once human thing was fast, so fast that it managed to grab his wrist and attack again with its venom dirk at the same time. It was aiming its attack at his throat faster than the red wearing User could defend with his axe. So, Derrick dropped the weapon and grabbed at the Agent's wrist. He didn't manage a clean grab, but he did deflect and slow the blow, stopping it from doing anything but tearing his fancy new vest, the blade grinding against hidden plates that protected his chest.

Face to face with the Agent, he squared his stance and headbutted the alien monstrosity as hard as he could. The stumps on his mask's forehead slamming into the Agent's own armoured forehead with a loud crack that resounded throughout the parking garage. It might have just been the headblow but he swore he saw dust fall from the ceiling. Both of them staggered backwards from the improvised impact.

With distance between them, he heard two more bullets slam into the agent. The first failed to pierce it but the second left a hole in its t-shirted shoulder.

Derrick smiled, adrenaline and joy overriding mere pain. This thing was designed to fight him by an alien force more advanced than anything humanity had ever faced. And he was winning. They were winning. Thin cracks were running across his opponents face and the agent began to let out an inhuman scream. It was the first time he had seen any Grey Legion creature care about anything as human as pain.

Just as suddenly as it started, it stopped and its face fell back into the look of detached happiness Agent's usually displayed. The quick change from extreme agony to contentedness was more than a little off-putting.

It leapt, not at Derick but at one of its fallen allies fragment guns. A bullet slammed into it, but only slowed it down. That was enough. Derrick rammed an axe blade through its shoulder, almost severing a grey skinned arm. His knife scrapped against the side of a reinforced spine, sinking all the was up to the handle. He pulled the blade out and the once human slumped at his feet, grey blood pooling around its still body.

Fight over. It had been over since he landed that headbutt. The creature's dive for a new weapon had been a desperate Hail Mary.

That was probably because his headbutt had sent a wave of Splintering Strike auril into its face. Weakening its armor and probably blinding it. Considering the glowing jewel lodged in its forehead, it was probably using some kind of manna ability to see. Aarav had said that auril didn't like sharing the same space as manna, so injecting his own auril might have blinded it temporarily. That had been the plan anyway.

Or it could have just been distracted by the trauma of its skull fracturing. Either way, Splintering strike had done the job. This was a win for dangerous human experimentation.

Reasonably sure that there were no other threats around, Derrick took a moment to bask in the afterglow of his victory. His heart was beating like a hammer and he couldn't help but grin. It felt good, winning.

“Bet you didn't see this coming,” announced Derrick, standing over four broken alien bodies. Maybe 'I saw this coming', would have been better? He blinked, trying to dismiss a dull ache between his eyes. His System tech mask was amazingly comfortable but not perfect, he had felt that headbut and would still be feeling it tomorrow. Panting, he took it off to catch his breathe.

Another win for Derrick the Red. That counted as an advanced enemy right? It had manna.

 

Universal Support System

Trial Update: Target Defeated!

Congratulations on defeating a difficult opponent. 110 points earned.

Target contains a manna core.

Grey Legion Proto-Agent

(Sentry)

Grey Legion Agents serve as both conscripted forces and experimental bodies. It is not uncommon for them to have prototype modifications suited to the nature of their original species. If successful, these modifications will be refined and added to Legionnaire arsenals.

 

This Proto-Agent maintains a veil of manna that can be used to reinforce its naturally armoured flesh and provide protection from unsophisticated detection methods.

 

 

Unsophisticated detection? That was hurtful after all his time spent improving his pulses. Well, he'd been at this less than a week. He imagined the Grey Legion had been doing this for a lot longer than that. As he was reading the notification, one of the bodies at his feet twitched, so it got an axe to the throat.

It's OK, he thought to himself, there was an elegance to simplicity. It just meant he had room to grow. That was a good thing.

He gazed at the cracked and eyeless face. Manna wasn't his area of expertise but maybe he could get Aarav to set up some kind of imitation of this thing he could practice detecting. That seemed like the kind of thing the old man would be down for.

“Thanks for breaking its gun,” Derrick said to Kate, who he heard moving up behind him. “That was an amazing shot.”

“No, thank you,” said Kate sincerely, having removed her own sea green mask. “That headbutt was a thing of beauty. I hope it makes it onto your little TV show.”

Derricks face spent several seconds going through a series of contortions, before settling into normalcy. No, even the mention the Trial couldn't break his euphoric mood. It just felt so good to be alive and to be working with competent people. It felt like having a future. It said something that he and Kate could be ambushed by an alien monstrosity in a depopulated city and come out of it feeling optimistic.

Something important.

“Not as beautiful as you,” he said. Unable to stop himself and immediately cringing internally.

Kate froze mid step, all emotion leaving her face in an instant. Which seemed like a very strange reaction to Derrick. His impulse compliment had hardly been the smoothest line ever but...

All of a sudden, Kate broke the silence by small letting out that adorable giggle. Seconds later, small but strong hands gripped his collar and dragged his face forward into hers.

He saw a flash of pale skin, brownish green eyes and blonde hair before a pair of hungry lips met his own. For the second time that day, he found Kate in his arms and her laughing eyes unflinchingly staring into his.

 

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Mirrored

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