“Hey,” A voice strange voice called out. “Hey! You alright buddy?”
“Mwaa?” Derrick replied smartly, before reality caught up to him. He looked behind himself to find an unfamiliar User shaking his shoulder with a look of equal parts annoyance and concern on his dark skinned face. He was one of those older Users, Derrick saw, whose exact age was hard to pin down because the System was... well literally smoothing out the wrinkles. Not to mention the muscle gains. What he hadn't gotten back was his hair, the man was still bald.
The newly minted disciple's hand dropped away from the Station, free from whatever force had been holding it there.
The darkness was gone and morning light filled the alley.
“Err ya, sorry.” Derrick apologized and stepped away. “It's been a long night.”
That earned him a snort.
“I'm hella impressed that you still on your feet,” the dark-skinned stranger said and gave him another hit to the shoulder, this one friendly. “Guess you weren't on that show for nothing, you beautiful bastard.” A sly look came over the older man's face. “You win anything,” he questioned with a wiggle of fat eyebrows.
“Best Dressed,” Derrick answered and earned a guffaw.
Checking his new phone, as the other man ordered from the Station, the User found that only a minute had passed while he was talking to his new patron. It should have been much longer considering the long chat they'd had after he accepted being its disciple. He thought about what he'd learned and waited for the man to leave before returning to the machine.
It was time to make some purchases, if his suspicions were true, he would need every scrap of power he could get his hands on.
On that note, he brought up everything he intended to purchase.
Breathless (E) (Survival)
Modified blood increases oxygen carrying capacity, decreases muscle fatigue and allows the User to hold their breath for longer periods of time.
Allows cutaneous gas exchange from the neck, chest, and back, enhancing Users ability to oxygenate blood.
Advanced Combat Drug Package (D) (Offensive)
An advanced gland in the spinal column that allows controlled release of powerful drugs. Refined by the System from data gathered from Human Users, this upgrade allows a subtle and balanced release of drugs, granting a small passive bonus to reducing bleeding, reaction time, endurance and focus.
Devil Skin (F) (Defensive)
A dermal mesh of carbon fibres that increases skin toughness while capable of quickly transforming to insulate the body and radiate away heat. When activated, the trait protects against damage from exterior heat sources and detection from heat sensors.
Auril Predator Focus Upgrade
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.
System Soldier's Ration BarSystem Soldiers Ration Bar x12
A dozen bars designed to replace a meal while supplying the body with what it needs to level quickly. Effect on level cap growth minor (7%).
Customized to encourage muscle growth. Fruit, cake and pickle flavoured
Basically, all the cheap stuff, which would leave him fifteen hundred and twenty nine points he wasn't sure what he would do with yet. He just needed these traits now, as they took time to kick in.
Derrick bought them all and immediately downed the white can full of mysterious liquid that popped out of the machine. It tasted a bit like coffee, he noted, but without the bitterness and with a hint of unknown spices.
Next, Derrick exchanged his latest manna and auril spoils for upgrades to those pools. He'd received a cut of the Drone, due to the fact that it had been his brilliant plan that felled it.
Once more, he downed a can of liquid, this time tasting of... he wanted to say blueberries?
That drink should easily jump him up to ten manna. Auril would be limited to sixteen, proving that the normal cap for Fighter was ten for both powers. His Scrappy trait was what let him go as high as sixteen with auril.
Only one thing left, the upgrade to his mask that had been gifted to him. Quickly checking that he was alone, he deposited his red mask into a suspiciously masked sized slot in the side of the Station and felt a powerful humming build up.
Derrick ran his fingers over his now bare face. What he touched didn't feel familiar, the obvious culprit being the circular scars on his cheek. That might not be the largest change though, he felt smooth patches of tiny scars all across his face, scars from acid that hadn't quite healed away. The shape of his face might even be different from the new cords of dense muscles under his skin. Hell, for all he knew his bones were a different shape now. The System had been upgrading those too. He needed to find a mirror, hopefully there would be one by the shower he was going to hunt down.
Derrick forced himself to eat another bar, to keep himself healing as fast as possible, he imagined even auril needed something to repair his body with. He even ate a second one, despite it tasting of pickle, he was in a bit of a race against the clock now.
With a friendly chime, the Station announced his mask was finished. Picking it up, he felt a different texture to it, whereas before it had been smooth and thinner, it was thicker now with a barely perceptible ripple feel to it. Like weathered stone. He slapped it back on his face before anyone saw him without it.
Having stuffed himself with strange foods and beverages, he left the alley, looking for someplace to meditate and digest. There were only a few minutes until he needed to meetup with Scynil but that didn't matter now.
Ah, but there she was now. The large hybrid was just standing beside the elevator with her eyes closed. The only part of her that was moving was her chest, as she breathed deeply.
She was either meditating or literally asleep on her feet. The Crusader was half alien, so it was quite possibly the latter.
Shrugging, he moved to a raised concrete flower bench near her and assumed a cross legged sitting position. He drew more than a few gazes as he walked, which let him know his mask didn't noticeably effect Quantum Awareness.
Time for some training and emergency patching up of his soul, for lack of a better term. Whatever happened next, he was going to face it without manna lea...
What was his problem again? Something to do with manna from... not the raw stuff but from... ah, right. The Canvas. Remembering it wasn't quite the gut punch it had been last time, probably because he still half remembered.
Time to put a cork in that bottle. The leaking manna was having a disruptive effect on his regeneration, something he needed to be working at full power. Nevermind whatever it was doing to his brain.
Focusing, Derrick fell into himself, concentrating on his auril heart and manna core at the same time. It was difficult, auril alone was a complicated enough sensation that just being aware of it was very distracting.
He was glad to feel that his auril was already growing stronger form the aurilin he'd just bought, his auril heart putting out slightly thicker cords of power that spread and untangled throughout himself.
Derrick the Red, Auril Pioneer, began to pull at threads and nudged the largest channels into slightly different directions. That was the trick with auril, you needed to think about the bigger picture, you couldn't just grab what you needed, you needed to change the entire pattern.
Soon, auril began to pool in his head, the threads lashing at the invisible energy from the Canvas and in seconds he was only aware of his faulty core as a tiny point, almost immeasurably small.
This solved his problem but required constant effort on his part. He needed to create a self-perpetuating solution. It was a good thing he had a couple examples of this already, each of his Strikes techniques. Using an attack on his own brain though... This was going to be delicate work.
In order to even try this, he was going to need to divorce the negative effects from the self-sustaining reaction. Which might not even be possible, he was kind of new at this.
But what the hell, it wasn't like he was trying brain surgery.
He started with Sapping Strike, because as bad as weakening his brain might be, turning his skull to dust would be worse.
He created the technique’s pattern, holding it so it couldn't initiate, and stripped pieces from it until it collapsed between his mental fingers. Once, twice, a dozen times, until he learned where the very edge of failure was. Then he took those wisps of power and moved them where he needed them, shaping his auril Style to accommodate this new pattern. Once, twice, a dozen times, his delicate work was washed away. Derrick barely noticed, he kept shaping auril until... he began to get annoyed. He had reached a mental block, a point where he was no longer learning. Just failing in the same way.
Was it impossible? No, he was simply going about it the wrong way. Auril was more than just patterns to be shaped by skilled hands guided by memory. It was, as Crusaders kept telling him, a reflection of himself. An Exaltation.
His Style, his Exaltation would not be marred by any other, either Artist or Lurker. He needed to stabilize it and to accomplish that, he needed to widen the foundation.
Bite, howl, claw and kick until the last beat of the heart. Own every moment, every drop of blood.
It just clicked. Watching it was like seeing a flower grow and then bloom in reverse. The petals sprouting and collapsing around a dark point of invasive nothingness, shrinking and locking it away. Carefully he withdrew his mind's eye to the rest of his auril. It was subtly different from what it had been before. He could see nothing wrong though, everything was still working.
Perfect success, thought the Auril Pioneer, with this, his style and regeneration were back to peak efficiency. Honestly, that went much better than he was expecting. He half expected to have to fight off a Feral Artisan to do what he'd just done with a lot of squinting and some minor internal drama.
More tests, to see exactly what had changed would have to wait.
Changes to auril Style (Red Law)(D) detected... Recording... Rank unchanged.
Red Law (D)
An Auril Style that grants regeneration and auril defences.
Regenerative abilities based on the Grey Legion's allow the rapid healing of wounds that the human body is not normally capable of healing, such as the regrowing of extremities or organs. This places a high level of physical stress on the cultivator however, requiring already greatly enhanced healing abilities and large amounts of auril energy.
Combined with the Quantum Awareness trait, this Style grants an adaptive and subtle defence against foreign auril. Subtly repulsing it without needing the direct control of the style's cultivator. An effective means of avoiding detection against weak auril detection.
Auril defences have been enhanced to resist Enigma infections.
Bite, howl, claw and kick until the last beat of the heart. Own every moment, every drop of blood.
This was... accurate, if underwhelming. Derrick mentally shrugged. Oh well, it might have been too much to hope that he'd boost the grade of his Style that easily. It did seem kind of undervalued compared to normal traits though. Styles were probably held to a higher standard, that or the fact it needed support from traits was downgrading it. Without Quantum Awareness and a physical healing boost, his Style was useless.
“Impressive,” came a voice from right beside him. Derrick couldn't quite stop a jolt of panic before he recognized Scynil's voice. Which caused him to feel a different type of panic as he realized he'd been examined. “I must admit though, that I'm not quite sure what you have done.”
She sounded, Derrick thought, almost sad. A quick glance upwards at her face confirmed this. While she wasn't crying, she did have a pout going on. Derrick wondered if she even knew how expressive her face was now.
“I assume this is some inspiration granted through your battle with the Lurker of Loving Purpose.”
Yes, the alien killing machine was definitely sad. Also, completely wrong about what was going on. Why would she think this had anything to do with the Lurker? Ah, because that monster had used manna and auril together and from the outside, that could be mistaken for him putting an auril lock on his manna core. He had no idea how it had managed its tricks though. If forced to guess, he would say it must be some unique level of the Fold and not something you could just imitate.
“I wish,” he said, not bothering to stand. “You were right when you said that my auril is unstable. I noticed something like sympathy between the Lurker and I. I'm just making sure I can't be influenced or thrown off balance.”
Not even a lie, if a little misleading. It wasn't the Lurker he was worried about at the moment.
“Overdue prudence,” Scynil said with a nod. “I suppose I will just have to take its secrets from it when next we meet on the battlefield.” A pause. “I have been a Warden for a long time. It is strange to me, having an enemy and a goal that does not come from that Role. Strange but invigorating. It is what I hoped for by joining this Crusade so early. The chance to earn new achievements and advance to a higher level of citizenship.”
He did remember that she was level three point nine. Did she have no new roles available or did she just not like the ones she had?
“Well, I hope you kill it,” Derrick replied honestly. He certainly never wanted to fight it again. “If Third Striker manages to learn anything, I'll ask him to share.”
Maybe his new title would come in handy for that.
“That would be a great kindness on your part, after my failures.” Scynil said. “In you, your people are blessed with a strong and benevolent champion.”
Derrick blinked. Not really sure how to take that. Usually, praise like that among modern humans was sarcastic, that was obviously not the case here though. It made him uncomfortable to be praised so highly by someone as experienced and competent as Scynil.
“They are lucky to have you too,” he said, complimenting her the first way that came to mind. He immediately felt like that had been too lazy “It is nice to know that there is more to the Universe than monsters and machines. You have helped and I'm sure you will do more in the future.”
Derrick was not sure how well that had gone. Scynil was not responding, just staring at him in what seemed to be thoughtful silence. He didn't mind. With her looming over him, it was hard not to be fascinated by how well she was put together. From her almost transparent claws and hair, to the patterns of color on her skin, all of it was... interesting. The way her alien features blended with the human was intriguing, and he was pretty sure, not a coincidence.
What better way to get a species to accept aliens amidst them than making them attractive? It was simple fact that repulsive allies would have a harder time. Like how he was pretty sure the System was subtly making Users, especially the older ones, more attractive to encourage people to become Users.
Huh, if older Users were getting back in shape, they would probably find their youthful libido returning as well. Muscles growth and hormones were tied too closely to easily isolate.
Hadn't Third Striker said that he'd been given a human sex drive? Something he and probably every other Crusader had no relevant experience with? If all Crusaders were gorgeous, the future was going to be very strange. Never mind strange, it was going to be... honestly he didn't have the words.
He was already afraid of tripping over some cultural or emotional landmine, when talking to the Crusader, for all that she was polite and an ally, she was still far more alien than human in her experiences. An alien that had dedicated her life to violence.
He couldn't help but think their nonstop sex drive would be in humanity's favor though. And not just from a hedonistic point of view. Emotional bonds with the Crusaders could help the embattled people of Earth. Especially if they had reason to dislike them, like a bias against auril sensitivity.
Part of the System's plan? Derrick thought not, it seemed more like a lucky break than anything an AI would come up with. If anything, he was pretty sure the System and even the Authorities were going to be unpleasantly surprised by how friendly the natives and the Crusaders got.
“Isn't it about time we get to work?” He asked to end the silence, even though he knew the answer.
“My work has been postponed, it is odd, but what has not been recently? Every moment the Tyrant below is only partially bound should be a real risk. Yet we dither. Odd.”
“How mysterious,” Derrick deadpanned. “I can't complain. This gives me a chance to heal and prepare. If you want to talk, I'll be around.”
The Crusader nodded and wandered off, leaving him to his meditation. Which, he was actually done with. While there were many things he could work on while sitting here, he felt like some exercise now. He didn't feel good, but he was feeling better. Besides, he could regenerate while sparring.
He just needed to find Blake. Actually, he could just bring Blake to him, he was still the leader of this burnt and broken intersection. He could feel a sense of acknowledgement as he mentally sent for Blake.
Taking in the battlefield, something occurred to Derrick. Yes, he was the leader and he'd been too unconscious to perform his duties. There should still be over two dozen people in the base, including the wounded. The only people who had left where Gregory, most of his employees and the most damaged of the Users, those with injuries that required medical attention.
Which was fewer than you'd think because the Grey Legion aimed to disable, not kill and even at level one Users were hard to finish off.
“What's up,” inquired a voice from beside him. He didn't need to turn to know it was Blake, answering his summons.
“Did anyone say anything after the fight was over?” Derrick asked.
“Anyone?” the confused blond asked. “We talked a bit, mostly we just dealt with the wounded and put out fires.”
“Excellent,” Derrick said, and with another mental command, sent out a call for nearby Users to gather. “Then someone still needs to give a victory speech.”
That caught his friend off guard but after a second an amused smile grew on his face.
“Something for posterity?” he said, obviously amused. “Remember to lie, that's the secret to great speeches.”
“We already did the impossible,” Derrick replied with an air of stoicism. “Why would I need to lie?”
“That's the spirit!” Blake said and clapped his hands together twice. “I'm getting excited already!”
“What's this?” Kate asked, a worried look on her face as she approached the pair. Gracefully she approached with her green mask covering the top of her face and her rifle slung over her shoulder. “Another attack?”
“Only on our ears. Derrick's giving a speech,” Blake informed her.
Derrick shot Blake a glare of disdain but said nothing, it would have been beneath the dignity of a victorious leader such as himself. He was obviously just jealous.
Other Users had begun to answer his call, stepping out of buildings and alleys to see what was going on.
Derrick watched them gather with a sense that something was missing. Exactly what occurred to him when he looked to Scynil and saw her towering above the human Users. He needed a stage. But what to use. A pickup truck or concrete slab? Too pedestrian. Moving to the second story of a building was too extreme, it would make him seem arrogant and apart.
His eyes fell on the elevator created by the System. The gate that led down below, where he and Scynil would attempt to bind... monsters. The circular platform had sunk back beneath the ground, fitting in perfectly with the rest of the street. Yes, it would do, If he could just...
The elevator twisted until it was a foot higher, causing the gathered Users to talk amongst themselves. Wonderful, he could feel energy picking up. Derrick stepped onto it, sending it even higher as soon as he was firmly planted. It rose again, taking Derrick in a full revolution and bringing his feet to waist height.
Derrick looked down at the small crowd in front of him, many of whom were still basically strangers to him. Despite the hours they had spent fighting side by side. He was pleased to see a half dozen of the Users that had literally fought at his side earlier, and couldn't keep a small smile from going their way.
There was Tom and his friends. Anita too.
He decided to open with why anyone should care about anything he had to say.
“I had an opportunity to have a talk with a ghost in the System's machine today. It was mostly about personal stuff, I'm sure you all know how much the System loves explaining things, but one thing it did let slip stuck in my head.”
Silence reigned as he stopped talking, they were definitely listening, so he continued.
“We should not be here,” he said. “We should have failed or fallen. We are just men and women, wielding knives and pistols in the face of horrors that devour worlds.”
“Beneath our feet, lies a wounded monster that we should not have been able to corner. But we did, because it infected men, women and children, sowing chaos and pain, leaving them just alive enough, just human enough that they could be used against us. It thought it could do this and hide from us. As the chaos it sowed led us right into its hungry maw.”
He heard a smattering of chatter as Users talked. It seemed like not all of them knew why they had defended this place. In the future, if he did more of this leadership stuff, he was having fucking explanatory pamphlets made.
“It was wrong,” he informed the watching Users. “It was resisted and hunted down for its arrogance. Now it lays bleeding below our feet. And we're not done with it yet, this loss will cost it more than it knows. A difference was made.”
“We should not be here,” he repeated. “We should have been driven back by the soulless soldiers of the Grey Legion. Countless cities have fallen to them across hundreds of worlds, but we didn't let them have this one. And make no mistake, they wanted it. They threw everything they had at us and they lost. They sent one of their greatest champions and instead of crushing us beneath its feet, it fled as fast as its wounded body could carry it.”
“We did not defy the odds, we broke them totally. Earning victory against foes that never considered us anything but a resource to be gathered. After breaking our cities and poisoning the earth, they for the first time, feel the sting of defeat. Even the System didn't predict us winning. But we did, and we can again and again. I'd bet on it.”
Derrick looked around at the ruined city, scorched and broken from alien powers. He took a deep breath and felt power flow through him, mirroring and enhancing his pride.
“If humanity survives, it will be because of days like yesterday. We might be decades away from winning, but we made it a fight.” exclaimed Derrick the Red with a heartfelt smile. “Well done.”