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Unblinking, the snake creature just stared at him for a few seconds. Displaying no emotions beyond normal snake levels of focus. It was a productive silence though. In just seconds the System sent a notification his way.

ITRS has called for a proficiency revaluation (Auril).

Proficiency (Auril) upgraded to Expert.

“Isn't that cheating?” asked Derrick. He'd worked hard for every proficiency he'd unlocked, the idea that they could be given out like candy was mildly offensive.

“Oh, it was not undeserved.” the colorful snake told him amicably, its voice jovial, male and carrying a cultured British accent. “Your mastery of auril has been quite atypical, you managed to bypass the usual flags that show proficiency. The System had not given you your due, Tower that Raises. It is one of my many responsibilities to fix such oversights, though one I rarely bother with.”

“Well thanks.” Derrick replied, still a bit shocked by the British voiced cartoon animal that was talking to him. He realized it was actually a holographic avatar of an alien, not a real creature, but that just honestly made it weirder.

Derrick pushed his confusion aside. He had important questions to ask this thing. This might be the most important moment of his life. At his side, the fingers of one hand dug into flesh.

“You are the Authority known as It That Rewards Savagery?” Derrick pressed. He hoped he wasn't talking to some other mysterious cybernetic creature.

“One of many names that I hold,” the Authority agreed with a deliberate nod. “And you are Derrick the Red. The Tower that Raises, second among neophytes to reach the end of their first Role and the fourth greatest competitor in my own Trial.”

“Ya, that's me.” Derrick replied, and couldn't help but throw in a sarcastic remark. “Thanks for that by the way.”

While it hadn't forced him to wear so much red, that was Kate's fault, its televised trial was what had earned him that nickname.

“My pleasure,” it said amiably with a little bob of its head. “You must have questions. Ask.”

“I feel like we should start with what a disciple actually is,” Derrick said.

The not quite real snake cocked an eyebrow at him, a very human gesture that real snakes probably couldn't do.

“To answer that we'd have to start with what an Authority is,” it non-answered, but pressed on.

“As I'm sure you have guessed. I am not a creature of the flesh. I surrendered myself completely to the System. A living sacrifice to the god that made itself known to my people,” it answered casually, as if it was talking about the weather. “A great honor and opportunity to serve so.”

“Are you completely digital?” Derrick asked. “Or hardw..”

“Before my world was challenged by the Scourges and saved by the System, the most common cause of death among my race was from teeth and claws, usually from other members of our own race. The second most common was infection.” ITRS interrupted with an amused smile. “If you have technical questions on the nature of the System, I recommend you ask someone else.”

Oh, great. This did not inspire confidence in the System's judgment. From violent primitive huddling around the fire, to empowered representative of sentient life. Although, he did get the impression that the snake in front of him was being somewhat dishonest. Playing up its ignorance at the very least, to avoid answering any questions it didn't want too. Or couldn't.

“What I do know, is that Authorities are granted sublime efficiency and skills beyond those of physical creatures. Skills that are necessary to guide the System in the fight against the Scourges. But this comes at a price, our remote existence wears at us, we forget ourselves. Our madness is inevitable.”

That sounded about right. Of course, the fate of humanity was in the hands of a bunch of random strange aliens that were doomed to go mad.

“A disciple is a reminder of the flesh we used to have, the creatures we used to be and a window into the nature of the world we are fighting to save. In return for allowing me using you as anchor and window, I will act as an advocate between you and the System. Skewing its missions and rewards to better match your potential and protecting you from the enmity of my fellow fleshless.”

“So, you admit that an Authority tried to kill me.”

“No,” the Snake disagreed, with a lipless smile. “Two did, or at least put you at great risk. The first from practicality and the second from prejudice. Neither should move against you directly in the future, but my patronage would grant assurance of your safety. It would be beyond even their foolishness to move against a user so bound to myself.”

They wouldn't attack him directly, huh. Which he interpreted to mean that he could easily get caught up in their bullshit indirectly. Murderous levels of prejudice didn't just disappear in a few days, he was willing to stake his life on it.

The User remained quiet and fell deep into thought. Protection was just as inviting as advocation. He really, really wanted to not have to deal with the invisible threat offered by Authorities. Staying alive was hard enough without enemies that unpredictable.

Despite that, his mind wasn't made up. He needed to learn this creatures’ motivations without revealing his own, pitiful as they were.

“How many Authorities are there?”

“At least three,” Snake said. “More than that, I cannot say for the same reason we are communicating the way we are.”

That would be security concerns. Which was interesting, there must be Scourges that could challenge the System on a technical level. That or the System was very divided. Not something he wanted to get into now though, even if he thought this smiling snake would answer such questions.

“And you would be on my side? Giving advice and information?”

It that Rewards Savagery drew back, its cartoon face projecting no obvious emotion.

“Opportunity for discussion will be rare and I am more subordinate to the System's rules than you are. More importantly, I have no ability or desire to play kingmaker on this little world. After this, even though we will be connected, we may never speak directly again.”

“The entire sum of being a disciple is that I allow you to sense through me at times and in return you subtly work to make my life easier.”

Easier? No, not that.” It said with a frown and intensity creeping into its voice. “If ease in life is what you seek, look for it elsewhere. I am not in the habit of making anyone's life easier. I would put my weight behind you, making your impact felt. You would profit from my attention but every bit of aid that I offered would come with a price. To do otherwise would be a corruption of what the System is.”

“That would be the normal deal anyway,” The cartoons snake said, its tone jumping back to friendly. “As you well know, twice you have been struck at by Authorities that should have been your benefactors. And while you have profited from their rank idiocy indirectly, the scales are still unbalanced. So, I can and will offer two small gifts in the name of balance. Whether you become my disciple or not, they are yours to keep.”

“Like with auril proficiency.”

“A simple correction,” it said with a shake of its head. “Hardly worthy of being called a gift. I believe you were looking at traits? Try looking into auril now. I made that change to your proficiency for a reason.”

Derrick did so and three new options immediately stuck out.

 

Auril Blast Batteries (E) (Auril) (Offensive) 393

A pair of auril batteries fused to the bones of the User's hands. These devices can store a small amount of auril and use it to augment auril techniques.

+1 auril capacity

Requires level 2.0

Auril Channels (E) (Auril) (Defensive) 479

A weave of aurilin alloy tattooed under the User's skin, it enhances the flow of auril and provides mild protection from physical attacks. Enhances protection against foreign auril techniques, both subtle and brutal.

+ 1 auril capacity

Requires level 2.0

Auril Predator Focus Upgrade

(Free)

An Upgrade to a System breather mask that laces the mask with aurilin alloy to turn the mask into an auril medium and receiver.

This allows the mask to enhance the User's ability to both send and detect auril outside their body using the mask.


His heart began to beat harder than when he thought a giant monster was moving in the shadows behind him. Those were some nice traits. It would be worth it to save points until he could buy at least one at level two. The 'free' focus was obviously one of the gift's the Authority was talking about.

That Authority wasn't being subtle with its intentions at all. Showing him these new traits and the gifted focus were clearly an attempt at manipulation.

“You want me to be a Hunter,” he accused. These traits and items were tailor made for that Role.

The Authority's head snapped down to just inches away from Derrick's, their eyes met as the cartoon creature smiled a snaky smile.

“Wihtout doubt, it is the Role that fits you best,” it said with deep certainty before relaxing and retreating back to its previous perch. “The choice is yours and my offer of patronage stands either way.”

Best at? Maybe, but it would also be second only to Brute when it came to danger.

“Hunter seems a little specialized. What if I run into non-biological Scourges?”

“Flee or die. Fighting the Rebel Instruments and their ilk is nothing like any battle you have fought so far,” ITRS informed him. “They control powers you have no counter to. Regardless of your Role, you are simply not suited to it. Choosing Hunter will reduce the chances of facing such Scourges. Others can march to those battles, you will best serve yourself and your world by playing to your strengths.”

How reasonable. He supposed thinking that he could be good at fighting everything had been pretty arrogant of him. Still, something about the Authorities arrogance rankled him. It seemed so sure it knew what was best for him and that he would take its offer of patronage.

“What about Sensitive?” Derrick asked, fishing for more information on why Authorities had tried to kill some auril Users.

“I'm no great master of auril but I am old enough to have earned instinct and insight into stranger forces than the Quantum Flesh,” ITRS claimed.

“All your accomplishments in auril have been earned from violence and butchery. To retreat from the struggle is to embrace mediocrity and stagnation. To wither. You're no scholar. You, Tower that Raises, are a bloody handed thief,” the snake finished with a kind smile.

Harsh, but unfortunately containing more than a little truth. This what he'd wanted insight into though. He wanted to know more about what had driven not one, but two Authorities to try and kill him.

“Having mind control seems useful,” he baited and got another amused look in return. The curious User got the distinct impression that the cartoon snake was on to him.

“Less than you believe,” ITRS informed him. “It is not fear that motivated the attacks on you, it was contempt. Auril Sensitivity is seen by many cultures as a corruption of auril and spirit. A poison that spreads weakness and stagnation. It does not help that it is the only known form of controlling others that the System allows. Many cultures see this as an oversight and seek to purge those that use it. The first attempt on your life was made to spare your people the consequences of that talent becoming known.”

“Weakness?” he asked, that didn't seem right. Mind control should be a powerful ability.

“Unless you are a Primal Scourge, auril allows influence over only those of your own species. Which spares the System Races from the rule of auril sensitives but causes species so ruled to be naturally xenophobic and isolationist. It also puts a world's limited supply of auril in the hands of princes and politicians, not warriors. Weakness. Worlds fall for less.”

Hmmm. How informative. Good to know but he wasn't quite sure how accurate a comparison between humans and alien civilizations would be. He could definitely see an auril based ruling class being created, something that turned his stomach to think about. Mostly the pettiness of it, if such a class was actually effective, he would have cared a lot less. Even if a benevolent class of auril sensitives led humanity to victory over the Scourges, it would take almost no time for their descendants to become corrupted by those powers.

Ya, barring a miracle it seemed like a dead end.

“Squire is tempting,” he said, changing the subject.

“Yes, especially as I am sure the Warden can be convinced to take you as a Squire. There is much glory and opportunity in aiding the Crusaders.”

“You don't sound approving,” Derrick noted.

“I am not,” the snake said with a toothy smile. “It would be a pointless sacrifice of your potential. To aid the Knights without any real chance of joining their ranks in a human's lifespan is to embrace weakness. Besides, you are ignorant of the obligation you would shoulder in that Role, of the Laws and rituals of the Orders. You have known them only briefly and on the battlefield. You would be more than just a helper or student, you would be entangled by the culture, religion and politics of a galaxy wide warrior priesthood. It is no light thing to join a Knight Order as Squire and you do not strike me as the type to flourish in such a disciplined and ritualistic environment.”

Uggh. Point. He did find both Scynil and Third Striker to be grating and that was with only hours of interaction. Even just their way of speaking was annoying. IF they tried to get him to join their religion? Well, it might be worth it for real training.

“However, I do understand your thirst for their knowledge and it would be shame for your bond with the Crusaders to be wasted. As the second gift, I bestow a title on you.” The smug serpent informed him.

The four-eyed snake bowed gracefully towards him and notification popped into sight.

You have gained 250 USSP

 

Blooded Ally of the Orders

 

By decree of the Holy Authority (ITRS), this User has earned the right to wear a Sign of Shared Purpose and call themselves as ally of the Knight Orders and their works.

 

“Not exactly a common sight these days,” The snake mused aloud as Derrick read the notification. “A bit out of fashion, but it will do the trick.”

“What trick?” Derrick asked cautiously. “What does this even do? I don't suppose you unlocked a new Role?”

The snake conveyed its bemusement to Derrick with a tiny snort.

“You are already a Trailblazer, with Roles made just to suit you. A finalist of mine own Trial and just generally overqualified for choosing a second Role. With just the accomplishments you have now, you could probably transition into a third Role.”

“So, what does the being a Blooded Ally of the Orders get me?” the disappointed User asked.

It seemed far less useful than the Predator Focus. Wasn't this basically just a medal? Derrick had gotten enough participation trophies to know how much they were worth, although the points were nice.

“On this planet? Not much. It satisfies the arcane codes of conduct the Orders operate under enough that any Crusaders you run into might teach you some tricks and you can demand a place at their side during any battles they lead.”

“And on other planets?” Derrick asked, not really needing any excuse to learn more about the rest of universe, despite how horrible it seemed to be.

“Hmmm. Many different things on many different worlds. On two worlds that circle the same sun, it allows you to own a fighter craft, challenge a lesser estate owner for their property and grants the right to take a second mate if you were capable of producing eggs. On planets across the galaxy, it will get your meals paid for by strangers. On still others, you will be shunned and driven away by those world's jealous, petty inhabitants.”

Derrick made a mental note, that if ever possible, to visit the planets ruled by what he assumed was fighter craft duelling nobility that he was now an honorary member of.

“It seems like you have a complicated relationship with the Knight Orders.” Derrick stated.

“I can say, with far more knowledge than most possess and less prejudice besides, that the universe is better for having the Knight Orders in it.” the snake said easily. “Among the tools of the System, they are one of the best. Yet, my people were never much for faith in anything but ourselves. The System is not a god, it simply has laws containing enough truth that it empowers those that follow it.”

Truth and Law, huh. The confused User opened his mouth to ask more about the System and its Knights but was interrupted.

“This has been an entertaining chat,” It That Rewards Savagery said. “But my time is valuable, I must have your decision soon.”

Derrick stared into the anime eyes of his would be patron. He had important questions to ask but that just made asking them harder. He'd gotten used to violence and cosmic horror but asking these questions took a different kind of courage. He was afraid of the answers. It didn't stop him.

“Are we winning?” Derrick asked, knowing that the other would know exactly what he meant. “Can we win?”

What he really supposed he was asking was, did what he'd accomplished matter? Did his suffering have meaning? Could he take a vacation?

“I do not know,” ITRS admitted. “Chaos has been the only certainty so far. You exhibit talents the races that huddle beneath the System find troublesome, denying you allies when you need them most. In that light, it stretches credulity that the Inoculation ravaging your world with rare potency is coincidence. Even the Spore Tyrant, that most predictable of horrors, has been acting atypical since it arrived on this curious little world. The Grey Legion should not be here at all, yet it is determined to win this world, spending resources and revealing secrets. Almost humorously, it has been millennia since the Red Woods have contested the System for a planet, yet here they are, defiant of the expectation of their extinction.”

“The Spore Tyrants are considered predictable?” Derrick asked while he considered the implications of what he'd heard.

“Why change your method when you are winning?” It That Rewards Savagery replied easily. “When you have always been winning?”

“And yet,” It that Rewards Savagery started and drew back. “I would not bet against you. I am unsure. I have lost more secure worlds and seen worlds overcome longer odds. The very chaos that threatens you may be what preserves you.” Yellow eyes focused on Derrick with inhuman intensity. “So, you tell me, Tower that Raises. Will you keep fighting? Can you win? Can your kind banish the monsters back to the darkness?”

“You seem like a shit patron,” Derrick replied with sigh. “You never give the answers I want.”

Silence reigned. Silence and the unblinking stare of glowing yellow eyes.

“I'm not fighting to save the human race,” Derrick admitted. “That seems above my pay grade. I mean, I am. I want the human race to survive and will fight to... never mind. What I'm trying to say is that I need to be more than a soldier. To be able to do things that you or the System might not approve of. If being a disciple means that you will constantly be narcing on me, I will have to say no.”

Silently, four eyes glided forward until they were uncomfortably close to his face.

“You admit to an Authority's face that you intend rebellion and subversion?' It asked. “That you will put your own needs and wants above your fellow humans and even the System itself? The System, the only force that stands between the Scourges and hundreds of stars where precious and delicate sentient life resides?”

“...yes?” Derrick said.

“Good,” said the serpent and as it withdrew Derrick saw a glimmer of delight in its eyes. “That is reassuring. I was beginning to doubt my choice of disciple. This entire conversion has been mundane, tame even.” Yellow eyes flared above a mouth filled with fangs. “Do as you will human, break every law you can. If you want to bind others to your will with auril, I will not stop you as long as you do not directly oppose the System itself. I think you will find that under my patronship your freedom will be much expanded, not decreased. And all I demand in return is that you make your enemies bleed.”

So, it hadn't chosen its name because it liked how it sounded then.

“That seems like it might conflict with your job?” Derrick questioned. “Aren't Authorities supposed to prevent the Scourges from killing everyone?”

“Some of them certainly think so. The fools. Save you from the Scourges. Save you from the System Races. Save you from yourselves. It never ends. Why bother? Salvation is never achieved, Damnation is only ever delayed,” the cartoon snake commented emphatically. “What value is there in life granted and defined by others? Why should the System fight to preserve a mockery of a race? Why save those that cannot even appreciate themselves?” It That Rewards Savagery demanded angrily and its illusionary body rippled and swelled. Then jarringly, like someone had flipped a switch, the Authority was back to being calm and whole.

“Thrive or Wither by your own choices,” it finished.

Derrick returned the snake's gaze stonily. Well, that was definitely an answer to his question. The problem now was that this deal was too good. There was a catch here somewhere.

“You want something from me,” Derrick said with iron certainty.

Which actually was reassuring, because it gave him leverage. He had no idea what it was though.

“Only what I want from everyone,” the ancient hunter admitted. “Nothing you need concern yourself with. Just try to display caution without cowardice, it would inconvenience me if you died too quickly or were too boring.”

This was dangerous, yet not as much weakness, not as much as hesitance. Fair though. If this creature let him achieve his own goals, he was willing to be used. Eager even.

“OK then,” Derrick said and smiled at his new patron. “Speaking of not being boring, I have a price, something that only an Authority could help with.”

It was dangerous, stupid and put the city at risk. It was a personal matter.

Derrick explained and It That Rewards Savagery's laughter rang out across the darkness. Derrick gripped the handle of an axe and felt his heart pound like a hammer, that laughter proved that Derrick had made the right choice.

 

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Mirrored

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