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Derrick hesitated, for a moment the alley wall loomed like an impassable obstacle. This was impossible... but no, it wasn't at all, was it? It would actually be pretty easy to get up there. Shrugging, he drew and threw an axe, the blade biting into the brick perfectly parallel to the ground and just below the window Scynil had disappeared into. A jump let his fingers grab the embedded weapon and he pulled himself up to the window and into the building. Even with his new strength to weight ratio, he was much less graceful than Scynil's entry via wall run had been, but he would have felt stupid walking around to the front of the building and using the door. He rolled over the window ledge and found no enemies waiting for him.

Huh, that had been kind of fun. A useful trick too. Using manna, a simple spike of Esthisum could be thrown as either a weapon or climbing tool, it made more sense than throwing away a much more expensive reinforced weapon. Especially if you were in a hurry and needed to be doing some quick urban movement. He was sure there was some fancier way to accomplish this, like a grappling gun but the simplicity of just throwing things resonated with him.

Leaning back out the window, he retrieved the axe from the wall and moved to the next room. Scynil was there, standing partially hidden by shadows. His mask took a second to adjust from the lights outside to the blackness inside of the ruined building.

When he got a better look at her, he almost didn't recognize her. The gaps in her armor had been filled by what looked like thin dull silver wires that had grown from the blue plates. They wrapped around her exposed flesh to form a seamless barrier. Only her hair, upper face and claws were uncovered, the transparent body parts looking like glass growing out of steel. She definitely looked more like a sleek android than a living creature. He was guessing it was Ethisium, that malleable System material that let its weapons self-repair.

Derrick wondered if he could get armor like that, it made your abs look great. No, on second thought, he looked ridiculous enough already in his red mask and now sleeveless red armor. The mask was especially ridiculous with its little stub horns. Not that he considered getting rid of it, as a gift from both Jenny and Kate, it had sentimental value. It was the only... huh, at this point his clothes and weapons were the only things he owned. He was technically homeless, although arguably he'd been 'investing' in himself and his 'business'. AKA, alien extermination.

His trophy armor was growing on him, the pattern of stolen grey hexagons around his shoulder was both modern and delightfully primitive. You couldn't run around axing things to death without gaining an appreciation for savage aesthetics. More importantly, it had saved his life a few times. Oh, and the System made boots were very comfortable.

Finished with his musings, Derick silently joined his ally while letting out a few auril pulses. The rest of the building was empty, probably because it provided no good vantage to shoot at their base from. The second story was an apartment with only a few windows, none of them facing the street. The next building over though, had at least three agents in it, spread across both floors. They did not seem to have noticed their allies’ sudden death.

“Did you stop them from communicating?” Derrick whispered. The Grey Legion seemed capable of some kind of silent communication, the basis for which he had no clue. Could be anything from radio to telepathy. Probably not auril though, that was the one thing he'd checked for.

“No,” Scynil responded, her faint reply somehow amplified by his mask. “How do these flesh thieves communicate?”

They must have just gotten lucky then. It would be a pointless ploy for nearby Agents to play dumb if the Crusader's auril pulses were half as discerning as he guessed they were.

“How about you go high and I go low, hit both floors at once?” Derrick whispered from behind his red mask. That would be better than him just chasing after her.

The amazonian Crusader nodded and held up a finger, the universal gesture for wait. When it dropped, Derrick did too. He fell through the window, hitting the ground running and immediately tearing open a small side door that led into the next building. Overhead, the Crusader managed to leap out a window and clawed her way a dozen feet across the facing wall, into another window.

 

She seemed to really like doing that, not that Derrick could blame her. He was definitely going to be working on his parkour skills.

As he burst through the doorway, Quantum Awareness warned Derrick that the two Agents on the first floor had not been caught unaware by his sudden entrance. He really hadn't been going for subtle anyway, the glass and rubble would have made that more difficult than it was worth. One of the agents immediately turned a corner and caught a thrown axe with her stomach. The blow was timed and aimed perfectly due to his auril senses. Without slowing, he sprinted forward, cutting the wounded Agent's throat before it could even fall and pulling his axe free at the same time.

Just as he was wondering which way to go, projectiles burst through the walls, tiny fragments easily tearing through the buildings interior as they were propelled by two more Agents from across the building. Derrick grimaced and stifled a shout as one fragment managed to lodge into his bare forearm. The Agents were adopting a spray and pray strategy, filling the whole area with shrapnel. Wary of more hits, he grabbed his recent kill and held it in front of himself as a shield, feeling the corpse absorb a few more of the tiny projectiles. He was definitely investing in some sleeves when he got the chance.

Luckily, the Grey Legion's Fragment Guns on this mode were designed to disable, not kill. He was tough enough that he could shrug off a few fragments despite their paralyzing effect. They hurt like a bitch though and he'd need to be careful to avoid any unfragmented shots, those would probably go right through him.

A pulse of auril washed over him and he prepared to run. However, his stealth worked, keeping his position secret. So, he walked forward with the corpse still up until the bullets stopped. Quantum Awareness was telling him that he was undiscovered, so they must have given up on hitting him through luck.

He moved towards the remaining Agents, breaking into a full sprint when his auril told him they were retreating out a window, unwilling to fight him where he held such an advantage. One escaped into the street but the other had only just started climbing out the window and was an easy kill for Derrick. It managed to block his axe with its own Venom Dirk, but the impact of the manna propelled weapon was enough that it stumbled into the window frame. Exploiting that second of weakness, Derrick smashed his way through its defences with a second manna empowered blow with his second axe. He had to step back a second later though, as the Agents hidden in the surrounding buildings peppered the window with fire. One bullet even landed in the thigh of his target, creating a gaping wound with a sickening wet sound, but none were lucky enough to mark him.

Spinning out of sight, he pulled his latest victim to the floor, then hacked the body to pieces with a series of downward blows. Gruesome and tiring but they needed to make sure the Agents they put down couldn't be resurrected and sent back into the fight. He would have to dismember the rest on the way out.

Scynil appeared behind him, still covered in silver and blue armor but now with patches of grey fluids all over it. It certainly looked like she was doing her part. He noticed that a part of her armor was dented enough that it had to be pressing painfully into flesh, if not breaking the ribs beneath.

“Should we continue?” she asked, seemingly unbothered by the wound. “While these Grey Legion are no real challenge, they are gathering to attack together. In numbers they could become... difficult.”

Derrick considered this as he wiped his bloody gauntleted hands clean on the carpeted floor, avoiding the broken glass and weird stains that covered it.

Something was bothering him that he couldn't quite place. Something in the air? Familiar but unnerving... hostile even. Maybe it was just all the smoke or the constant exchange of advanced weaponry.

 

“No, I don't think so,” replied Derrick. Without stealth they had no chance of actually taking out the Combat Support Drone, it would just fall back while shielding itself. That was the only real target worth risking their lives over. It was enough that they had taken out a few Agents permanently and disturbed the Legions plans to wear them down. Both his and Scynils weakness was massed fire and the legion was more than smart enough to use it. “Full speed retreat and then we do this once more if they try to surround us again.”

The raiding pair managed to make their way back to the first of the buildings they had cleared without anything but pot shots being taken at them from the lightless windows of neighbouring shops. The only one that came close to hitting him was blocked by a gauntlet. Which earned him a raised eyebrow from Scynil. Apparently even she couldn't use auril to predict ranged attacks.

As they moved, he could feel more enemy gazes fall on them and he detected some Legion dogs skulking about. He felt like they were holding back, probably scared of sending rarer troops against an unknown Crusader. Wise of...

As he was sprinting through the last building between them and safety, a projectile flashed through a window and took him in the shoulder. A grey bullet hit his armor and lifted his feet right off the ground. He couldn't even try to keep his balance, falling right on his ass, too surprised to do anything but let out a hiss of pain.

Fuck, where had that come from? An attempt to sit up sent him into a spasm of pain. Using his other arm, Derrick scrambled away from anywhere an Agent might be able to see him. He didn't get very far before a hand gripped him by the collar and threw him across the room. He was sent sprawling head over heels to slam into the far wall by the exit with an excruciating thud.

It was Scynil, 'helping him'. He hurried to stand, fighting off the stinging pain. The Crusader dashed to his side and pushed him out the door. He felt a powerful buzz as her auril filled flesh made contact with his. He ignored it and sent out a pulse, trying to find his attacker.

No luck. He did discover the group of dogs was headed towards them at full speed now. No doubt smelling weakness. Luckily, they were just a dozen metres from safety. He could hear shots being fired by Users at the Agents that must be chasing them. All they had to do was make it across the alley and through the steel door that separated the base from the outside.

He stumbled into the street and then the ally, about to shout at the Users inside to open the door. Instead, his shout turned into a scream as he found himself leaving the ground once more. This time he got much more air, flying through a second story window and into safety. He made it through the large window and crashed onto the floor for the second time in less than thirty seconds. A groan escaped him as he adjusted his position to reduce the agony of his shoulder pressing into the ground.

“You! Are you alright?” a male voice asked, after peeking into the small room. No doubt alarmed at the noise and his unusual entrance.

“No, get someone who knows something about broken bones,” the base's leader demanded and heard the other User scurry off to follow his command. Before they were even out the door, he heard someone with claws on their feet land beside him with much more grace than his own landing.

“That is no way to treat a wounded person,” Derrick gasped out. He was in enough pain to make talking difficult. Fuck, was his collarbone broken? That was supposed to be a special kind of painful. Something in his shoulder must be broken. He was tempted to try use Regeneration but held back. If the damage was great enough, regeneration might just fuse the bones back together the wrong way, crippling him.

“I chose the course of action I believed to be the surest path to survival,” Scynil answered, a hint of defensiveness in her voice. “Waiting for access was unwise considering we were under attack from an unknown source. Whatever struck you was powerful enough to avoid my detection.”

I'm not used to fighting things I can't sense, so I panicked, was how Derrick interpreted that. However, he just grimaced and didn't argue, it wasn't worth the pain it would cause him.

“It was probably a Grey Legion Sentry,” he answered instead as he pulled himself to a sitting position. Scynil had retracted her armor, showing off her green and purple skin once more. “An Agent that uses manna to hide itself partially from auril pulses. Has some kind of enhanced senses of its own too.”

There was a pause, so he looked to the Crusader. On her broad face there was a strange look of mild... disgust? Annoyance? Surprise? It was hard to tell with her.

“You are positive of this?” she asked after a second.

“Yes, that’s from the System's own description of one,” he replied and watched her scowl grow. “Why, what does that mean?”

“It is simply a rare ability, requiring knowledge of both auril and manna.” Scynil answered. “If this Scourge is capable of producing such specialists in any great numbers, it is more formidable than I had guessed.”

 

“Still nowhere near as dangerous as Spore Tyrants, I'm sure,” he replied.

“Yes,” answered Scynil. “The universe is theirs; it always has been and always will be. These Grey Legion are a neophyte horror. Their kind of Scourge burn bright but fast, rarely lasting more than a millennium.”

Oh, was that all? Nothing to worry about then.

Derrick opened his mouth to argue but just grunted and turned to watch a Teslaforce User enter the room. The User helped Derrick through the painful process of getting out of his armor and began to examine him. After being poked and prodded, the other User declared that his shoulder probably had a hairline fracture and that he wouldn't be able to use it for a few days. The User then scurried back to where he came from, he seemed uncomfortable around Scynil and Derrick for some reason.

Hearing that his bones were mostly in one piece, Derrick gathering auril and began using Regeneration. It would take at least an hour for him to heal the damage he estimated, as auril wove tissue and bone together. So much for going back out right away.

Scynil's own stomach wound was noticeably smaller as well. Her armor and flesh both repairing themselves.

“How are the Grey Legion responding to our little raid?” he asked. He'd tried the sensor hub but only a few sensors were still active, giving him no real bigger picture. Scynil's auril tricks seemed better than the hubs anyway.

“They are gathering to the west,” she responded. “Dozens of living bodies, the large many limbed construct and at least one of those Agents I cannot easily detect. No, two creatures are shielding themselves. Another has just arrived with even more bodies to throw at us.”

The Crusaders blunt and colourful face twitched before settling into a serious glare.

“This one seems even better at hiding itself.”

Good thing he'd begun healing, it seemed like they would be facing a more serious attack. He'd kicked a hornet’s nest with is little raid. Although, they should have some time before it started. He sent out some text messages and turned to look at his new alien friend. She was just standing a few feet from him, almost perfectly still and glaring out at the dark.

Suddenly, she focused on him.

“You are wounded, hold out your arm,” she said emotionlessly.

This was about the hit he'd taken, he realized after a few seconds. He eyed her carefully before complying. It wasn't like he had any better options, there were no surgical tools in the base that he was aware of. He could regenerate anyway if she made a mess of his arm.

Fast as thought, his bicep was wrapped in fingers that felt like they were made of steel. The hybrid's other hand extended two clawed fingers and pushed them into the small wound on his forearm. He let out an involuntary hiss and jerk but was easily held in place. A second later, a tiny and very bloody grey object was casually dropped on the floor. Derrick immediately forced auril into the area.

Scynil moved away from him and resumed her silent vigil.

“So, what's your favourite thing about Earth so far?” he asked to pass the time and satisfy his monkey curiosity.

“You have a generous sky,” she informed without looking at him, just staring ahead. “Celestial light never truly abandons this world.”

Huh. It was weirder now that he had some idea of what she was talking about. He remembered hearing that the Earth's moon was larger than normal. That meant it must reflect more light than most other planets’. Short of having two suns, that meant their nights were about as bright as any.

He watched her muscled legs drag a clawed foot against the ground.

“Despite the brightness, it was never our time,” he replied, the strangeness of the situation drawing him in. “We've spent most of our history afraid of the dark. Building walls and towers to get away from it and banishing it with glowing cities. A lot like this base really.”

“That is a common reaction,” the alien Crusader said softly in a rare show of emotion. “My own species fought the night with fire as well. Although, we feared it for the things that travelled in it.”

“What is your species like,” he asked, somewhat emboldened by his fading adrenaline and the auril dancing through his body.

“Why?” She answered. “The challenges faced by 'The People' were completely different from what you face now.”

“Perspective,” Derrick answered, using the word she had thrown in Gregory's face. He really wanted to know what the universe was like. What the other species that inhabited were like. How they overcame the Scourges and what he should be aiming for. Practical knowledge aside, who didn't dream of what life around other stars was like?

Petty assholes, that's who.

“Was. What was my species like,” Scynil replied, emotionless. “Time passes in bursts and spurts for a Crusader and my service has lasted far longer than most. Long enough that the life was choked from my homeworld long ago by the Tyrant Spores.”

Foot meet mouth.

“Ah, I apologize if I brought up bad memories.”

“It happened long ago and came as no surprise. A fate more complicated than simple extinction,” she responded calmly, as if talking about the weather. “The planet and its people were known to be doomed by the time I was born. All my people knew it, they could taste it in the earth and air. The Tyrant Spores were spreading across it slow but unstoppable, unchallenged by us or even other Scourges. We had no armies and no Metropolises to raise them from. Slowly more and more of the world turned against us. It used to be my role to guide families to safety, using wisdom and Exaltation granted by the Supporter. When my people began to sicken and die, the Supporter put my people to sleep and wreathed the planet in purifying flame. They sleep still, until the world can be repaired enough to support life again. Rather than join them, I and a few others took Roles as Crusaders. Even with the constant renewal bestowed upon Crusaders, I doubt I will live to see them freed from sleep.”

Heavy stuff. A species of alien nomads and a way to cheat death. He'd never considered that upside of getting a new body on every planet you visited. Becoming ageless at the price of being a front-line soldier in an unending war was kind of self defeating though. Hopefully there was another, easier way. Not that it mattered much right now. Getting murdered was much more likely than dying of old age, he thought as he cradled his broken shoulder and willed the bones to mend.

“Couldn't the System build them habitats to live in?” he asked. Why not slap up a couple domes for them to live in.

“My kind was not born to live in boxes,” she replied, distastefully. “We were simple compared to most races. Foragers, not farmers or warriors. We loved our world, but we never thrived and conquered the way your and other species have. We walked under blazing sunlight and slept under faint starlight, our Elders, were our only shield from the blind things that hunted from the dark. This Grey Legion Scourge reminds me of those old enemies, eyeless and sharp of tooth and claw. We smoked them from their caves and burnt back their encroaching forests. We survived, until one day our shrines spoke, telling of the Scourges and offering us champions to fight them. We were grateful to the Supporter, but it is not the gods whose shrines it stole, we did not want it to define us. The elders decreed that if our land was to die, we would die as well. Reborn only if it was as well.”

Fair enough, he supposed. Not wanting to exist in what was essentially a zoo was understandable.

That speaking shrine comment was interesting. A different form of System Stations? If they took the form of shrines, was that because they didn't have a vending machine equivalent? She must be from a race of technological primitives then, ones not quite in tune with nature. Unless you counted forest fires as natural. Which they were really. Well, even if she was from a primitive species, she'd been travelling from world to world for centuries. It would be silly to consider her stupid or unsophisticated.

“Us Earthlings did the same also burned our way to the top,” he commented. “Using fire to keep predators away and make room for fields.” Aboriginal Australians had been especially prone to pyromania and every civilization he could think of had many myths about fire.

The Crusader raked her feet across the floor, tearing grooves into the tiles.

“And you will do it again,” she replied. “If you want to survive. This world is no longer ruled by humans. Your cities are ruins and you are once more prey.” Scynil scowled, revealing broad teeth. “Both the Spore Tyrants and the Inoculation will have robbed you of your fields. The Inoculation will make dangerous mockery of what was once your home. The Grey Legion turns your own people and your allies of millennia against you. Your only advantage is your cities and artifice were fertile ground for the Supporter.”

“We seem pretty fucked, is what you seem to be saying,” Derrick offered, unworried at the dark turn the conversation had taken. This was not a surprise to him; he had been fighting monsters in the ruins of cities for a week now. Even before that, modern life was full of doomsayers. From the rapture to global warming. The end of the world was closer to a fetish than a fear for humans. Most were far more worried about the end of their small everyday world.

“What would it take to save them?” Derrick asked. “You don't seem to have given up. If you will never see your people or world again, why are you fighting?”

“To preserve other worlds. To seek an understanding of why the Universe is the way it is. The System…”

A nearby explosion interrupted their chat. From a window, he saw flickering flames consuming one of the four buildings that bordered the base. That wasn't great. His raid might have pissed off the Grey Legion, but it hadn't stopped the fireballs.

“Could you...” he started but realized the Crusader was already gone. She'd silently stalked off, hopefully to help defend the base from further Legion pyromania. It left him alone on this floor of the building.

Warning: Sensor Hub disabled

That... wasn't a good sign. If it wasn't for Scynil's auril abilities, ,they would be totally blind as to what the Grey legion were up to. It took a lot of work to find and destroy the dozens of sensors they'd hidden in the streets around the base.

How were the defenders doing?

Subordinate User Status

Disabled: 7

Fatalities: 2

Uninjured: 11

Minor Injuries: 9

Missing: 2

Total: 31


Twenty combatants left. Better than he'd guessed, his raid had definitely slowed their attrition. It was the new missing person that worried him the most. It should be pretty hard to go missing in the base unless something grabbed and ran off with you. That this had happened twice didn't fill him with confidence, especially since they were soon to be attacked by dozens of enemies, including two snipers and a giant fire spitting spider tank.

He sighed and stood up, flexing his injured arm. His auril senses told him it should hold for now, although it was not at full strength yet. As long as he didn't take any more bullets or try to punch something in the next fifteen minutes, he should be fine.

He heard shots began to ring out, all from the same direction. He guessed it was time to see what needed to be done and how much of his base was on fire.

 

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Mirrored

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