He had no one to blame but himself for this. He'd wished for alien women and now one had shown up. Blaze so Bright, was that. A lot of that. Over seven feet tall and clothed in armor that made his own red vest seem plain, she was obviously alien and as intimidating as hell. Something made Derrick really doubt this was going to be anything like his fantasies of a few hours ago.
The tall Crusader jumped down from the top of a car with surprising grace, considering her size, seemingly so she could look down on them from less of a distance. Her face revealed no emotions as she gazed at them. This allowed the human Users a closer look at her in turn.
“This is an ally?” asked Gregory. “Why is it... she a.. such a she? That's a lot of woman. Not that I'm complaining.”
The nearby Users seemed to be somewhat overwhelmed by the new arrival. Derrick decided to give them a quick info dump. Most of them had had no interactions with the System beyond the Stations and missions.
“Crusaders are high-level Use... Warrior Citizens of the System brought to earth and reborn as human hybrids by the System, so that they can breathe the air and open doors and stuff,” he said loud enough that everyone nearby could hear. The last thing he needed was for one of the nervous Users nearby to try and shoot her. At this point, a dozen Users were unabashedly staring at her from windows and rooftops. He didn't blame them, though he was grateful that both Kate and Blake were in a watch post at the moment.
“Huh,” commented Gregory eloquently, the fingers of his fleshy hand fidgeting. “Hybrid you say.”
“You are well informed, Tower that Raises,” The lean hybrid commented casually. “That is good. It will save me the tedious chore of explanation that most neophytes require. Finding the right words to explain such unique concepts is difficult at times. Also, as both our species are speakers, you may just call me, Scynil. Your words lack harmony, brevity is best.”
Derrick nodded, smiled and tried to subtly put some distance between them. The hybrid's dark blue armor looked like it had been grown around her in solid pieces, which was a real possibility he supposed, as her entire body was new. Maybe it just never came off, or maybe it turned into a liquid and flowed off.
It had inch thick plates on her knees, chest, and thighs that looked like blue shell, yet left the purple and skin of her feet, hands and stomach completely exposed. What she was wearing wasn't quite boob armor as it didn't highlight the space between her breasts, it did have a low neckline however and had to accommodate her massive breasts. Well, they weren't particularly large for someone of her size, but he wasn't used to seeing anyone her size. Especially not from so close. The offending mammaries were about eye level with him and no more than two feet away, which made it hard to look at anything else. She did not seem to have any respect for personal space.
Her face was unmasked, with no obvious way to quickly change that. He supposed any creature with as much auril as her probably didn't fear breathing poison much. She was wearing a twisting half-band of the same organic material as the rest of her armor on her forehead, just under her white hair. He didn't want to call it a tiara but it was basically a thick and smooth tiara with tiny stubs running along the top and bottom.
With long muscular limbs ending in talons and a natural grace, her body screamed beautiful predator in a way that was very confusing to his monkey brain. Meanwhile her armor and tone presented her as both disciplined and professional.
The towering woman's exposed skin was light purple with mottled green markings on her features. Weirdly, that wasn't the strangest things about her. She was.. oddly put together, her hips were broad compared to her slender shoulders and her legs were also longer than any humans, accounting for a good part of her height.
From his distance, he noticed her hair wasn't actually white, it was transparent, almost glass-like and each 'hair' was many times thicker than a human's, like straw or bristles. Unlike Third Striker, her eyes looked human and were a normal brown colour. Her feet and hands though, were alien, long digits with large transparent claws on her toes and smaller ones on her fingers. The contrast between the colorful skin and the transparent parts of her made them seen ghostly as they caught the artificial light. You could almost forget they were there until the light caught them in just the right way.
Her face was beautiful, just not in a way you associated with humans or sexuality. It was more like an interesting abstract painting of a person, the proportions just slightly off. Small things like the broader shape of her nose and sullen cheeks added together to make her... not ugly, just, well... alien. Her features were different enough to be oddly androgynous despite her... bountiful chest and wide hips.
That said, he was sure more than a few people would find her attractive. Even he might after awhile to get used to her.
The target of so many stares didn't seem to mind the gawkers, she ignored the dozen Users and focused on Derrick and Gregory.
“Greetings benevolent alien visitor. Did you perhaps mean make the defences literally higher?” asked Gregory, raising one hand above his head as he stared absentmindedly. “Or was that a more of a metaphor? Like, we need to reach the next level of defence.”
“You have butchered yourself,” she said, instead of answering his question. “Welded poor substitutes in place of true flesh. Why?”
“Ain't got time to bleed.” the older scarred man said, as if that explained everything.
“You both will make cripples of yourselves,” She replied seriously, her eyes unblinking. “The body knows what it should be, it cannot be deceived or so crudely altered without consequence.”
“You're talking about auril,” Derrick guessed, amused despite himself at how she sounded like a disappointed schoolteacher. “It doesn't work with artificial limbs or just missing limbs?”
“Auril makes you more of what you are. To diminish what you are is to weaken the Exalted Flesh.”
“I've never had any Exalted Flesh,” Gregory replied with a grin. “Just the regular failing kind. I'll definitely look into it though. Sounds like an interesting research subject. Quantum catalysts and their interaction with artificial enhancement. The System itself uses implants so it's not an impossible branch of research. Some kind of carbon matrix that carries neural signals? That's the main theory as to the process the Grey Legion uses to overwrite consciousness but retain useful memory. Not so much overwriting the brain as caging and feeding on it. Is the limit degrees of transition across the mediums? Perhaps auril itself can be regulated or altered to increase adaptability through artificial means.”
The Crusader stood perfectly still, staring at the scarred man for a few seconds. Then she looked away, taking in the ruined scenery for a few seconds before looking back at him. An almost invisible clawed finger was tapped against a scarred forehead. It drew a drop of blood but Gregory didn't even appear to notice.
“Undermind. You have a splinter of secrets buried in you,” she said with a frown. “And yet you are here, on the battlefield? Oddity. Though I suppose such a recently challenged world needs every champion it can get.”
“No idea what you're talking about.” Gregory said playfully, not bothering to sell the lie. “And if I did, I couldn't say anything due to it being a company secret.”
“Splinter of secrets?” Derrick asked without much hope. That certaintly sounded interesting. He waited for a response but was ignored. It seemed like this splinter of secrets was just another thing to add to the list of things no one was going to explain to him. He was getting really tired of being in the dark about what the System was doing on Earth. He had some guesses though. From context, it sounded like some kind of database addition to the System implant?
Scynil spent a few more seconds meeting Gregory's wide-eyed look of innocence before turning to look at Derrick.
“And you are even more the masochistic oddity,” the towering Crusader accused. “You are blessed with enlightenment and merit both but have chosen to warp yourself. In what footsteps do you follow? What blasphemous hymns have you sung to alter yourself so?”
“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Derrick admitted carefully. This Crusader was even harder to understand than Third Striker. She gave off a somewhat animistic impression from how she moved and her natural weapons. At the same time, she was almost monk-like in her attitude and words. From what her and third Striker had said, it was implied that 'hymns' and 'prayers' were a way to change ones internal auril pattern in an attempt to build a style.
“Your aura is... twisted,” she continued, her frown growing. “It resists scrutiny and yet I can sense its potency is matched by its instability. I reach for it and yet it draws back. How did this come to be? Did your world know the Exaltation before it knew the Supporter?”
“No, aurilin is new to us,” replied Derrick, guessing at what she was talking about and deciding to be honest. That had worked surprisingly well with the first Crusader. “My auril mutated into a Style after a Spore Tyrant Siren Node tried to will me to death. It's not anything I did intentionally. I've been having trouble just improving my ability to pulse auril.”
“Any tips on that?” he added hopefully and fidgeting uncomfortably as more awkward staring ensued. After a moment, she looked down at his hands and like magic, her fingers were wrapped around his wrists. He couldn't help but flinch in surprise, not that it did any good, she was fast when she wanted to be. The clawed fingers twisted his wrists until his armored palms were displayed. Derrick was very careful to not resist or make sudden moves.
“Where did you get these devices?” she asked. “These are not common to neophyte worlds.” It was hard to tell if she disapproved of him having them or if that was her default emotion. He took a moment to imagine an entire race that spent all their time sternly reprimanding each other before being empowered by the System and launching a crusade to let the universe know how it was doing everything wrong. It was depressingly possible.
“A Crusader named Third Striker gave them to me after I ran into a Feral Artisan. Long story short; It kicked the crap out of me and he saved me,” he answered mostly truthfully. “Do you know him?”
He was not above name dropping if it kept his hands attached to his wrists. The half alien's full and very human lips quirked, displaying a flash of human seeming teeth and suggesting, for the first time, an emotion other than disdain.
“The Endless Mission has Crusaders in the thousands and across a dozen Orders,” she said proudly. “I have never heard of this Third Striker. My Order of Flourishing Humility do not use such tools. They would not help our Wardens or Shrouded in their missions. Manna is a useful tool but it remains Other, auril is of the self.”
And yet you have to take it from others, Derrick thought to himself as he mused over the rest of what she'd said. So many names without context... It didn't help that she was still right in his face. Well, at least he was still in one piece.
“So, the Orders all have different specialties,” he asked, then did some informed guessing. “Based around the Scourges you fight and how you do it.”
That got him a nod.
“I would guess that you fight the Spore Tyrants,” he said, looking at her lack of obvious weapons and powerful auril. Spore Tyrants were masters of auril but at the same time seemed somewhat weak to it. Probably because they depended on it for basically everything, it was the cheat that allowed them to get around the limitations of biological life.
“Fight? No,” she replied. “War cannot be waged on either of the Primal Scourges. Not in the way you mean. Such a war would be less than a footnote to history, one of countless failures. Other Orders do aim for such victories over lesser Scourges. Not so mine, we are the humble. Our goal is simply the improvement of the self. Resistance through the seeking of wisdom and the spread of Exaltation.”
“Then what are you here for?” asked Gregory, grim amusement on his scarred face. “Because I think we need weapons more than wisdom at the moment. I hope you didn't come all this way to spread the word of how submission is salvation. We get enough of that from our grey friends out there.”
“You lack perspective,” Scynil responded calmly before turning her emotionless face to Derrick. “Victory, like life itself, is temporary.”
That was not what the human Users wanted to hear. Derick could see Gregory holding himself back. He was beginning to doubt he and this Crusader were going to be friends. What was the point of fighting without hoping to win? Even foolish hope was better than nihilism masquerading as humility.
“Still, this Third Striker correctly identified potential in you.” she continued and finally withdrew her hands from his. “This Dungeon is your work I take it? Such a level of discernment is a rare and valuable skill.”
“Dungeon? Discernment?” A very confused Derrick asked. “I don't follow.” This Crusader was even harder to understand than the last one.
“Through rare perception, you revealed a greater node to the Supporter,” was the answer he got. “It is rare to outmanoeuvre a greater node so completely; the Supporter struggles to perceive them. It is a powerful boon to the world of your birth to accomplish such, so quickly. Almost always, it is a member of my Order that accomplishes this and there are always far more challenged worlds than Wardens of my Order.”
Well that was nice to hear. Maybe he would be getting a fancy title once the System finished killing the Spore Tyrant then. This Crusader must be here to help with that.
“Speaking of survival. You were offering suggestions for our defences I believe?” Gregory injected. “That seemed like it was important, I want to hear more about that.”
“I and it was.” The alien hybrid said, failing to offer clarity. “It seems like the time for that has passed. We are already under attack. They seem to be altered members of your own species for the most part, with some other creatures as well. How interesting.”
Immediately after that warning, the System gave its own. A notification telling him and other Users of multiple targets approaching from the North. Just seconds after that, the sky was lit up by a ball of fire that dropped from the sky and crashed into the northernmost barrier of cars and barbed wire. Metal and glass immediately began to warp and melt under the alien fire.
“How good are you at fighting?” Derrick asked as the barrier he'd been so proud of melted before his eyes. They were lucky to have such a high-level User for this fight. He was guessing, based on how fast she was, that even a humanoid Grey Legion Vanguard wouldn't give her much of a fight.
“I do not know,” Syncil answered. “I was brought here for a different battle. Wardens of Flourishing Humility exist for a very specific purpose.”
The towering User joined Derick in watching the burning barrier for a second.
“Probably poorly,” she admitted as she watched dozens of grey bodies march out of the flickering shadows cast by a second fireball arching overhead. “I am too valuable to spend against mere flesh thieves.”
Great, it seemed like she was hyper specialized in fighting the Spore Tyrants and had been brought here to help kill the one they were standing above. Derrick sighed and considered his options.
“Can you stop those fireballs?” he asked, more than a little annoyed. “Because we need to stop those if we want to prevent the Grey Legion from having their way with us and stopping your oh so holy mission.”
“They won't spare you just because you have a greater purpose,” Gregory added caustically. “They're not that picky about their food. You should have seen the shit that went down at the zoo.”
“I'm aware of the stakes,” the Hybrid interrupted with a grim grin. “All Scourges are a horror and blight. I shall play my part, but this form of competition is not a strength of mine. Find a better solution quickly.”
As a ball of fire began its descent, Scynil took a solid stance and almost casually swiped her hand. Derrick was expecting a shield but instead the descending fireball simply fell apart. The pieces scattering mostly in the direction of her movement and fell from the sky on an empty building instead of their base.
That definitely wasn't auril, Derrick mused. She had at least some ability with manna. The raw stuff at least. Her defence looked like a simple transfer of force, if at an impressive range.
“Get people up on the walls and returning fire,” Derrick told Gregory. Did they have enough ammo for that? Probably. It should be fine. They just needed to last until he... someone came up with a plan.
“With pleasure,” the older man said, gave a salute and ambled away to make it so. Derrick heard him mumble something about, 'uking space munks' before he moved out of hearing.
More gunshots began to sound out and Users began to stumble out of buildings, staring wide eyed at the burning cars and clutching weapons. Derrick was happy to see that Gregory immediately began barking orders at them.
Derrick sprinted into one of the four buildings he'd had fortified, trying to get a better view of the action and looking for a specific User. This building was the one she should be in. He sprinted up the stairs and found her and another User sneaking glimpses out of a reinforced window, rifles in hand. He could hear impacts against the side of the building, nothing penetrated the walls though. His target saw him and scowled.
“What do you want, glorious leader?” Anita mocked. “Come to see if I've run away?”
“Can you stop the fireballs?” he asked simply. Ignoring her drama. “The Agents don't matter, if you can do anything about those fireballs. Concentrate on that,” Derrick pressed. Anita had gotten the same lessons from Aaarav as him but had shown actual talent in using manna. From what he could tell just by observing, the fireballs were very easy to block using manna, probably because they were a weapon against the Spore Tyrants more than humans.
The Indian woman took a second to peer out the window, her eyes tracking one such fireball's arc across the night sky.
“I can't,” she admitted. “I'd need to track it for too long. I'd be out in the open and defenceless. If they were just a little lower I might...”
Derrick nodded, stopped listening and peeked out the window himself, taking in the situation below. There were holding easily but that was because the Grey Legion weren't actually trying to break their defences. They were going for attrition, correctly assuming that they could wear down the Users with artillery and shots from cover. Any Agents they put down would get back up a lot faster than Users that took a bullet from their fragment guns. Especially if they were dragged back to the Drone that was playing the role of artillery.
It was a winning strategy for the grey bastards, all they had to do was play it safe. They had the numbers, the organization and the heavy guns. The frail humans were going to lose. He could feel it. He was failing. He's stepped up and was going to fail. A wave of depression and anxiety hit him.
No. He was moving forward. He was going to fight. He was still so far from where he wanted to be. From the things he needed. He felt phantom fingers dig into his shoulder, sending shivers down his spine. Anxiety faded, smothered by a euphoric clarity as an idea came to him.
The fight against the Scourges itself, this battle couldn't be won by playing it safe. He needed those shots blocked.
Derrick the Red closed his eyes and took a step, right into the open window. He stood there, in his stupid red jacket, right in the open. He ignored the anxious voices around him, the ones telling him to take cover. They just didn't understand the stakes here. It was do or die time.
Quantum Awareness buzzed to life, warning him of alien attention. As second later, something clicked. He felt what was coming and grinned from behind his devilish mask. He tore a stream of manna from the Fold, taking every iota of power he could from every source he could and forcing it into his gauntlets.
Faster than human thought, an alien bullet tore through the air at him. Fired by strange weaponry in the hands of a Grey Legion invader.
Derrick the Red: Auril Pioneer and Fold survivor, swatted it out of the air like it was an offending insect. Mostly by accident, he'd been trying to block it and missed slightly.