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 For a couple seconds, Derrick just lay there, hoping he was just crazy, that the noise had been in his head and he could just continue to relax. Honestly, at this point would insanity be that remarkable?

It would be stranger if he was sane. Which he obviously was, perfectly sane in every way. Could a crazy person have been as brave as he’d been? Would a crazy person fight off an alien invasion with nothing but unknown drugs, axes and mind affecting energies from beyond space time? Obviously not.

He didn't get up. He had a lot to think about. Like Roles, pain, Traits, The Canvas, Auril, pain, Scourges, Authorities, other Users, hunger and more.

Well, the hunger he could solve easily enough. His red jacket was next to him on the floor. He managed to get a System Soldier's Ration Bar out of its pocket and begin chewing on it before the next round of yelling assaulted his ears.

It didn't sound like the Scourges were attacking again, he considered as he chewed on what might have been his favourite flavor yet. Interestingly minty. The voices sounded more angry than scared, and he didn't hear any weapons going off. This might not be anything he had to get involved in.

Lying there, his line of thought forgotten, Derrick wiped his mouth clean and tried to chill.

He quickly found that he couldn't ignore the faint noises coming from above now that he'd noticed them. Because he was quickly becoming angry. Too angry to just lay back down; it was obvious that all he would end up doing way stewing in his anger.

He was pretty sure he'd saved the day. Hell, the entire city and the thousands of survivors in it too. Him. Basically, by himself. Sure, it had involved a stupid amount of luck, but no one else knew that. Waking up in a basement with only the wounded for company seemed like a snub to him. It was far from a hero’s reward.

He wasn't being arrogant; he just felt that a thank you card or even a quick personal congratulations when he woke up was warranted. His fight against the Lurker could be the most dramatic and impactful moment of his life. Of anyone in the city’s life. But instead of a parade, he got shoved in a basement, without them even bothering to let him rest in quiet.

Where was Kate, lately lover and comrade in arms? Where was Scynil, the 'humble' and intimidating alien monk lady who he had snatched from a fate worse than death?

He would have settled for a fist bump from Blake.

Gah, it must the auril that was making him freak-out, he realized. Or maybe just him being cranky. He was pretty sure he'd used up a lifetime's worth of humility and reasonableness in the last week. After that last beatdown, he felt like indulging both emotionally and physically. He wondered if anyone had gotten a spa up up running. He'd never been to one before but he felt like it now.

He took a deep breath and calmed himself. It only partially worked; a ball of simmering anger stubbornly remained in his chest. Enough to make just sitting around even more unpleasant than the pain moving around would cause him.

Derrick put on his gear, mostly to hide the mess he'd made of his skin. Since the scream earlier, the voices from above had become more angry than afraid. He couldn't make out the words, but people were definitely talking, something he doubted they'd be doing while under attack by a Scourge.

After his tired and aching legs carried him up the stairs, he opened the door and emerged into the light.

He was glad he'd put on his mask, as the sun had risen and was in its full glory. Light was streaming through the broken windows and more than one hole in the walls.

He didn't see anyone around and didn't want to spare the auril for a pulse, so he just trudged out the front door to see what the hell was going on.

He took in the scene and felt that ball of anger boil and swell. Muscles twitched in a wave across half his body as he fought the anger back down.

What he saw was Scynil was standing in the middle of the heavily damaged intersection, lifting a somewhat familiar User in the air with one hand. Ah, it was one of his students, the auril user who always wore the mask. That mask had fallen off to reveal the face of a young Asian woman with atypically sharp yet delicate features and light scars on her face. She was cute enough that seeing her in obvious danger raised Derrick's white knight instincts. That particular instinct barely registered on Derrick though. He was too pissed off and besides, he wouldn't be the first to have jumped to her rescue.

At Scynil's taloned feet, two other Users lay motionless. Those he recognized as the young woman's allies from the group of younger Users. A lack of blood suggested they had probably survived their idiocy.

On the edge of a meltdown, Derrick tried thinking happy thoughts. Butterflies. Sex. Superhuman powers. The brutal and creative murder of every single ingrate who was forcing him to deal with their shit when he had so many better things to do.

Hmm, that plan failed. No, wait. He did feel a little better.

Still taking in the scene. Derrick saw a dozen other Users, including Blake, Anita and Tim... Tom were watching the scene warily. He didn't see Third Striker anywhere. He hoped the diminutive Crusader was still chasing the Lurker.

The smart play here was to ask them what was going on, to see if he could deescalate the situation with reason and a call to their shared civility. Fuck that noise though.

He was only wearing the top half of his red mask so the wide grin on his face was visible as he stiffly walked towards the conflict. He quickly became the centre of attention, his Quantum Awareness buzzing like a hornet as the gazes of Users and Scynil fell on him. Most of them seemed very confused and more than a little relieved to see him, glad someone was taking charge he supposed. Even Anita shot him what seemed like a grateful look.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Tom give him a salute. Which was actually kind of nice, at least one person appreciated him. As he moved closer to Scynil, a half dozen other Users followed in his wake.

“So, what's this about?” Derrick asked with false cheer and a toothy smile. Standing right in front of Scynil, close enough to reach out and touch her. Well, her ample chest anyway. The rest of her was very out of reach. The busty Warden was looking healthy. Assuming that purple and green were healthy colors on her. A few dents and scuffs on her armor were the only damage showing. She must have been taken down by the Lurker instantly, no doubt stunning her with its manna propelled auril and then stabbing her with some kind of specialized Venom Dirk. She'd bounced back though and could, no doubt, end him with a single swipe of her subtly clawed hand.

He didn't get a response right away. Instead the Crusader looked over him with a professional gaze that at one point flickered with something like pity. That did not go unnoticed. Oh, no.

“You are not well, Tower that Raises.” Scynil, with furrowed brows. “You would be best served by rest.”

She seemed genuinely concerned for his well being at least. No doubt she could sense his unstable auril at least. Maybe even the point where the manna and auril were still duking it out in his brain. That had to look interesting from the outside.

She was also, he was sure, inconvenienced by his presence here. Well, that was too bad. Maybe she should have had the decency to kill these Users quietly.

“No, I'm not well. And I should be lying down,” Derrick agreed caustically. “I actually was lying down when a bunch of petty, violent and inconsiderate people began fighting. Was I just supposed to pretend to sleep and guess what was going on? Although, if I'd known it was just a bunch of squabbling children, I would have stayed down there.”

“We...” began Blake before Derrick interrupted him. He was, nowhere near done.

“Which brings me to another thing,” he continued. “I feel ill used. Why was I dumped on the floor and forgotten? When you all were passed out, did I just leave? No, I did not. I got the shit kicked out of me protecting you all. Would it have killed you to post a guard? What if Spore Tyrants had crawled out of the floor and were eating the wounded down there?”

That was pretty unfair but it caused Scynil to stiffen and provoking a reaction was satisfying to the pissed off human.

“I am a Warden Crusader, Neophyte. No tendril of the Primal Scourge could catch me unaware,” she replied darkly.

“But the Greys sure d...” Blake started, eyes locked on Scynil and a mean grin on his face. A grin that faltered when Kate kicked him. The blonde woman had appeared from nowhere at just the right time to shut her cousin up. On her face was a look of bemused expectation.

“Yes, I've seen some of what you can do. I'm sure you're right.” Derrick said, finding himself strangely talkative. “As long as you were paying attention.” A pause. “Which you weren't because you were too busy doing whatever this is.” Still smiling, his eyes narrowed, a movement that sent a spike of pain through the wound on his cheek. “What is this? I feel like you people killing each other is somewhat disrespectful to the effort I put into saving you all.”

“No fatal blows have fallen.” Scynil replied tensely. “A crime had been committed and these neophyte citizens called for the criminal’s release. I was forced to disable them when they grew violent. They could not be trusted to be rational, they had been influenced. She has abused exaltation by using it to alter others. A poisonous slyness.”

And that was bad was it? He did that all the time, mostly to break bones, but she seemed to be talking about something very different from that.

The Asian women she was holding tried to say something, but she was being held up by her collar and it just came out as a gurgle.

Derrick was not so tired he couldn't put two and two together. He'd felt the woman do something subtle with auril multiple times after all and he'd been on the receiving end of some very sketchy auril powers himself.

Just remembering how the Spore Tyrant Siren Node had tried to shut him down mind, body and soul sent a shiver down his spine. The Lurker had been scarier than the Siren Node, but that soul eating fungus had a special place reserved in his heart when it came to hatred.

Just the memory caused his auril to react, releasing a pulse of power that reinforced his more subtle abilities.

He'd felt nothing when the girl had used her ability though, just the faint sensation of auril itself. That was probably because of how weak she was compared to the Node. His auril Style had been forged on the anvil of that monster's contempt. Whatever this skinny chick was packing, it had probably just bounced right off him. He was very curious as to what she'd been trying to do. As far as he could tell, it hadn't affected other Users much either.

His eyes looked to the struggling woman and felt greed. He was not about to let any auril technique escape him. Criminal or not, he could learn from dissecting the technique.

It didn't seem like getting his hands on her would be easy though... her secrets, not her.

Gah, stupid brain. Why was everything so complicated? He needed more insight into this clusterfuck.

“How about you let her down,” Derrick offered. “This seems unnecessarily violent. We can deal with this peacefully. I'm kind of in charge here, so I would appreciate it if you respected that.”

Scynil may be a centuries old warrior monk but she was also new to her human body. Although she came off as cold and calm most of the time, her face and body language were strangely easily read others. He could see her waver and then snap back to a determined set of mind.

“Be that as it may. I am not under your authority,” she responded. “And I have been given a mission to deal with this one.”

Derrick's eyes narrowed dangerously.

“Have you? How interesting,” Derrick mused with false cheer. “Because you might not be under my authority, but she is, and I've received no such mission. How odd.”

He was pretty fucking sure he'd been on the receiving end of one though, delivered via Greta ambushing him in a medical tent. This could explain that attempt on his life, plus the earlier attempt to smother him with his own auril. Shit.

Huh, this put the Sensitive Role in a new light. As influential off the battlefield as on it, eh? He supposed mind fuckery was a kind of influence. He was not sure how he felt about a Role that seemed to encourage mind control. He found it interesting from a personal standpoint, but was well aware of how easily abused such an ability would be. How did abilities like mind control work anyway? If he picked Sensitive, would that inevitably lead to a lot of Users having such techniques or was there more to the Sensitive Role?

Interestingly enough, the first attempt on his life had backfired on the 'authority' that had tried it and the second had failed as well. He sent out some mental command, hoping to get the ruling AI itself to clarify or step in. No luck, it remained silent. Well, this was confusing.

“What exactly is the nature of her punishment?” Derrick asked. “Is there a trial by her peers? Is it a slap on the wrist? A fine? Maybe just a quick snap of her neck and you throw her onto a convenient pile of bodies?” he questioned while making a series of lazy hand gestures.

As he talked and gestured, Derrick kept his eyes locked on Scynil. She was wavering again, he saw. Yes. She didn't want to do this. Well, she did want to do this, but she knew something was wrong at the same time.

Aha! This was just like the incident with Greta. She was being bribed.

“I am simply to deliver her to other natives at the Enclave,” she said stonily. “Then I will return and finish my work here. She is capable of influencing your kind, so my presence is necessary.”

Derrick snorted, letting his disdain show.

“We both know I am beyond her 'influence' and that the System is not involved directly. This is the work of an Authority,” he bluffed. “Please let her down now, she's the wrong color. The System put me in charge of this facility’s defence, and I think that includes defending its defenders from sketchy missions given by Authorities,” Derrick said and began to work his auril into a boiling knot, so that he could launch it as a Sapping Strike.

Angry as he was, this was pure bluff. He was outgunned by Scynil in every way, but hopefully she didn't want to escalate either. Judging by what had happened the last time an authority almost killed him because of auril, the System itself might actually jump in on his side here if things escalated enough. Besides, Sapping Strike was a harmless technique, it simply weakened the target. He might be able to surprise her with it and get the woman out of her grasp. He wasn't angry enough to burn a bridge with someone as knowledgeable and powerful as Scynil but neither was he going to just let Scynil take the woman, considering he could be next.

Besides, Kate was watching and he didn't want to seem like a coward. Hell, maybe if he worked this just right, he could manoeuvre things into a three... Stupid tired brain.

He should probably hurry up, he considered, the hanging woman was turning very blue and her occasional struggles were getting weaker.

Faintly, he heard the sounds of weapons being drawn from behind him. His first reaction was alarm but he quickly realized that the Users were backing him up. Which was strangely comforting and caused his anger at this whole situation to settle somewhat.

His hard work was appreciated. It just seemed to annoy Scynil though.

“This is foolish, you cannot hope...” she started to say as she made to push Derrick aside. It should have been an almost gentle tap but when she touched him, it was obvious she'd meant to use some kind of auril trick on him. Their auril connected and hers flooded into him, immediately it was devoured by the gathered Sapping Strike energy inside him. Which caused it to swell and grow out of control.

A look of comical surprise on his face, Derrick grabbed hold of Scynil's hand and tried to get rid of the amped up auril. He managed to eject most of it into a very surprised Scynil. Despite his 'surprise attack', some still remained inside of him and he found it almost impossible to get rid of or destroy. He really should have played around with the technique more before using it, he realized belatedly.

A dozen Users watched as both Derrick and Scynil fell to their knees, the Asian User escaping as Scynil stumbled and weakened. Blake and Anita stepped forward to grab her and lead her away.

Derrick barely noticed that because it turned out he'd been wrong about his latest technique. Weakness is not harmless; weakness is a death sentence it turned out.

On his knees and unable to feel his arms, Derrick tried desperately to keep his own auril from stopping his heart. Shit. It was all he could do to slow down the creeping auril. Like it was designed to do, it resisted his attempts to slow it down, consuming his auril and spreading through him like an angry tide. He unravelled it as fast as he could but...

“Really? A suicide attack?” an unamused voice came from nearby and he felt himself jerked back upright. A second later someone began punching him in the chest. One, two, three blows hit him, aimed at his shoulder where Scynil had touched him and his heart.

Gasping for breath, Derrick felt manna flood into him and cleanse sections of malignant auril. It hurt like a bitch, but he wasn't going to complain. With most of the auril pounded flat, his own auril rallied and his heart began to beat again.

He looked to his saviour and found that it was Kate. Weird, for some reason he had thought it would be Scynil. The Crusader was still kneeling, an ashamed look on her face. Whether she was regretting her actions or her failure, he couldn't tell.

He took a second to make sure the canvas manna was still bottled up. Yup, all good.

“Thank you,” he emphatically told Kate and because they were already so close, gave her a hug. The shorter blonde woman accepted the show of affection and whispered in his ear.

“Any time,” she replied dryly and then more warmly. “You really need a shower, find us one and I'll call it even.”

As tired as Derrick was, the emphasis on 'us' did not go unnoticed. Derrick mentally swore to hunt down a working shower even if it cost him a hundred points. Feral Artisans couldn't stand in his way.

Next, because they were still mid-crisis, he gazed around to see that the 'criminal' was already out of sight but a half dozen angry looking Users were still hanging around with hands on their weapons. He recognized a dangerous glint in their eyes. This could still get violent he realized, which was the last thing he wanted. Unless they slit her throat right now, Scynil was perfectly capable of slapping them all aside and hunting down her quarry.

It could be out of his hands. He prepared himself and turned to Scynil. With a scowl, the Crusader rose to her feet but made no move to go after her target or Derrick. Pulling himself away from Kate, he met her glare.

“I apologize for that,” Derrick said. “I take my System given responsibilities seriously,” he lied brazenly, it seemed like something a Crusader would want to hear. “I didn't actually mean for that to happen. I respectfully ask for forgiveness.”

There was a long pause as Scynil stared down at him. Derrick tried to smile non threateningly while at the same time avoiding staring at any skin she was showing. His eyes kept being drawn to her abs and the movement of her hips for some reason. Her muscles shuddered lightly as he watched, no doubt fighting off the last of his attack. She'd been hit by much more of the amped up Sapping Strike than him, and yet, had fought it off despite never having encountered the technique before.

“I do not accept,” said Scynil and let out a tiny sigh. “Because there is nothing for me to forgive. You acted in the defence of your kind and under the direction of the System, displaying reason, skill and courage. It is I that allowed myself to err.”

“The System can be unclear at times,” Derrick offered. Which was very possibly the greatest understatement of his life.

“Never-less, I offer redress,” the eight-foot-tall hybrid stated. “I allowed my greed to sway me and twice under the same cycle of the sun, it led to my downfall. First, when I thought myself the hunter and found instead that I was the Lurker of Loving Purpose's prey. I craved its secrets and put my purpose here in great peril.”

“Understandable,” Derrick said. He was more than a little interested in those secrets himself. The Lurker had hidden itself very very well. There had never been any reason to believe it anything but another Sentry Agent.

“Arrogance,” accused Kate with obvious glee. “Abandonment of duty. Unbecoming of a member of the Order of Flourishing Humility.”

Derrick turned to her and saw a wickedly sexy smile on her face. He raised an eyebrow but didn't interfere with whatever she was doing. He'd been hoping to just get this all behind him, his anger having stopped at about the same time as his heart. If Kate wanted to shame or extort Scynil, he wasn't going to try and stop her.

“Yes,” Scynil agreed. “Your mate is correct, Tower that Raises. I betrayed the code of the humble.”

Derrick winced.

“Her name is Kate Demnol,” he said hurriedly. “And the more polite term is lover or girlfriend.”

“Pretty much anything but mate will do,” Kate said brightly. “But don't worry about it. You were offering an apology?”

Scynil nodded, seemingly somewhat confused at their reaction to her earlier words.

“A rare opportunity, one that would help make right my wrong to both you and this world. I was not sent here to fight in this facility’s defence but to help complete its purpose. The Spore Tyrant below has been wounded but still lives, bound beneath our feet by the Supporter. It is a Warden's purpose to finish this task, robbing the Primal Scourge of its will and turning it into a Dungeon, a potent resource.”

This was all said very dramatically. Her speech reeked of stoicism and regret.

“A Dungeon?” Derrick asked skeptically. “A place where people go to fight monsters and earn loot?”

Despite how weird life had gotten. That was a little too Dungeons and Dragons for him. Having something like that around just seemed unnecessary anyway. They did not lack for monsters, even loot was pretty plentiful. Though his experience may be atypical. The other option was an old fashioned prison. Which could fit as well he supposed. Though why anyone would bother chaining a Scourge to a cell wall was beyond him.

“There will be only one monster and I will be the one that fights it,” Scynil said. “Unless you wish to aid me. Once bound it will continue to produce Aurilin, needing only minor upkeep to keep the beast from escaping.”

“Your apology is that you're inviting me to go hundreds of feet underground and fight a Spore Tyrant Node?” Derrick asked. That sounded more like an attempt to kill him.

From behind him, Derrick heard his backup panic as the ground shuddered. Not sure what to expect he looked over his shoulder to see the human Users dashing to safety as the ground beneath their feet began to rise and twist. In a couple of seconds, what had first been a hole, then a circular smooth patch of System material, now revealed itself to be an elevator large enough to hold two dozen people.

A pair of doors opened with a familiar bell sound, revealing a comfortable and modern looking interior.

 

Universal Support System

New Optional Mission

Assist Crusader Warden Blaze So Bright It Reflects From Above in the creation of a Dungeon.


“Can I get some sleep first?” Derrick asked. “Please.”

 

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Mirrored

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