Derrick didn't recognize the person in the mirror. A stranger looked back from the reflective surface hanging on the wall in the bathroom that the System had repaired for him. He'd been too distracted on the way in to take a peek, but Kate had strutted away just a minute ago and he'd taken the opportunity to indulge in a little narcissism.
It was a thinner, yet stronger looking face he saw, with scars both big and small covering it. He ran a finger over one small scar, feeling where the flesh was still blotched from a drop of acid. That had been what? Six or seven days ago? The white patches didn't seem like they were going anywhere.
On the other hand, the circles he'd carved into himself were fading nicely thanks to Curative Blood. He'd been worried they might fester or scar messily because of Canvas bullshit but no, they were just thin white lines now.
He'd obviously not kept his mask on in the shower, so Kate had seen and asked about them, seemingly more interested than concerned. He'd told her he fell down the stairs. She'd given him a funny look but just nodded and agreed that stairs were dangerous. She had her own scars after all and Derrick doubted that she wanted to explain them to him either.
He'd enjoyed seeing them all, he thought with a smile.
Derrick flexed and watched new muscles ripple. Were his arms longer? Holding them out, his fingertips seemed further away. That could just be because of the new shape of them, new scars and muscles had reshaped them as well. There was more surface area to his arm for sure, his eyes following a winding path to his fingers. At least his chest was unmarred, small comfort though that was.
Light wisps of steam came off of him as he examined himself. He looked like a gangster, he realized, or the meaner kind of prisoner. Maybe that was what Kate liked about him? No, he was pretty sure the change in looks was relatively new, much later than when they'd first met and the flirting had started. He doubted the new look had hurt though.
Overall, he liked it. This was a Derrick that meant business. Network Engineer no more. This was... well, Derrick the Red. A man who got shit done, a man with plans. Plots even.
He did need a haircut; his hair was beginning to get in his eyes and curl around his ears. A quick cut with knife fixed the first issue at least.
Grr, he thought and made an effort at an intimidating glare. He wasn't impressed. He'd work on it later. Now that he was clean and relaxed, it was time to throw himself back into dirt and danger.
He armed and armored himself, sent the System a brief message, then left the small tiled room.
A notification popped up and was quickly dismissed, it contained nothing new to him.
Universal Support System
Move to Dungeon entrance and assist Crusader Warden Blaze So Bright It Reflects From Above.
Hmm? What was this? Something caught his eye. He bent over and picked up a package that someone had left by the door. The lightning and gear emblem was a bit of a giveaway to who. It was off putting that Teslaforce had chosen to deliver it while he and Kate were in the shower, but whatever. The moment he touched the steel case, it popped open, letting him shove the contents into some of his jacket's many pockets.
He made it to his destination without distraction. The recessed elevator was fully revealed and the doors on its front were fully open, revealing a circular chamber.
Striding down the street, he passed Blake, who gave him a mocking salute from a doorway he shared with a pretty blonde. Tom, rifle over shoulder, also gave him a smart salute from a nearby second story window, right before dramatically fading out of sight.
It was good to know he had a crack team guarding the base while he was gone.
Scynil was already inside the elevator chamber and she at least looked professional. The tall Crusader was just short enough to stand without hitting the elevator's ceiling. She gave him a nod and greeted him as he joined her.
“Greetings and thank you for your patience,” she said as she sat down in a cross-legged position.
Was he supposed to sit down too? He looked around the space, but it was just an upright tube, about eight feet tall and six feet wide. He decided to just stand.
“It was no problem,” he responded, the delay had been his fault after all. He would apologize himself, but didn't want anyone to know that. The Trial of Predation had made him kind of paranoid about... things listening in on him.
A moment after he'd entered the System device, it began to descend into the unknown.
Heartless (E) Trait active
As they descended into the belly of the beast, Derrick noticed a complete lack of elevator music. It made the ride kind of awkward. There was just a busy hum and the sensation of falling. At least there seemed to be climate control, somehow.
He looked to Scynil. She seemed, irritatingly content, letting him know that if he didn't say anything, he'd spend the ride in silence, sneaking peeks down her armor and feeling a little guilty about it.
Well, it wasn't like he didn't have questions for an expert on Spore Tyrants.
“What can you tell me about the Spore Tyrants?”
“They are one of the two Scourges that the System races call Primal,” answered Scynil. “Called so because they are older than can be known. They have simply always been, unchanging and undefeated. Infesting every corner of this galaxy. I believe you have some experience with the other as well?”
Derrick the Red had run into a few Scourges since the world had been invaded. Unchanging and undefeated though? That could only be one Scourge. The one that mocked physics simply by existing.
“The Feral Artisans,” Derrick drawled. “Yes, I ran into one of those and the Crusader sent to... banish it.”
“Many horrors plague sentient life, but these two are the most pervasive and at the same time, the least understood. Some believe the Spore Tyrants are as old as the universe, born at the dawn of reality. Others believe they are older than that. That they are a survivor from whatever came before. So resilient and evolved that they survived the extinguishing of everything.”
Which really drove home, once more, that no amount of axe proficiency would let him protect the Earth from the Scourges. It was a good thing he had made plans to step up his game.
“Fascinating,” he admitted. “No one understands the Spore Tyrants? Aren't they pretty straightforward?”
He could understand people being confused by Feral Artisans, they were confusion incarnate. Comparatively, the Spore Tyrants seemed much more mundane. They were killer fungus, they spread and ate. Throw in some simple mind control and that was about it.
Scynil gave him an amused and somewhat condescending look. Which he supposed he deserved.
“Their intent is clear, it is true. Yet at the same time their nature is alien. It is common for challenged worlds to think that auril is a creation of the System or some ancient sentient race,” she explained. “This is simply not true. It is too useful a tool to waste but it is not from us. All aurilin that exists comes from common source, the Spore Tyrants. No one has ever succeeded in understanding the process by which they create that part of themselves. The System and mechanical instruments can barely perceive auril energy. Its creation and powers defy the galaxies greatest minds.”
Alright, so aurilin was a mystery that defied examination. A miracle of life, he supposed, angry hungry life.
“It is not what the Tyrant does though that makes them mysterious, it is what it does not.”
“It spreads through the fold, casting spores by Injection onto every world revealed to it. Yet, it does not use manna, instead it cages entire stars, hiding them from sight and through processes unknown, uses them as engines to cast its spores across the galaxy.”
“That is impressive, but manna seems like it would be... easier,” Derrick grasped. “And it has had millions of years and piles of the stuff to learn the trick. It's choosing not to use it.”
Scynil nodded approvingly.
“Almost certainly, it destroys all siviril it comes across,” she said. “It is alive and grows, yet holds itself back. Which brings us to the second mystery, choice. Even after millions of years of adaption and growing, the Spore Tyrants are not sentient, or even consistently intelligent.”
“What about the nodes,” Derrick asked. “Aren't they intelligent?”
The siren node had certainly felt like it had intelligence. Maybe that was just because he hated it so much though. It was hard to hate a mindless thing, easier if you anthropomorphized it.
“Only as much as they need to be and never sentient,” she replied “Besides, they are not so common as you believe them to be. Your short experiences with the Scourge will make you believe it a voracious and energetic predator,” She continued. “This is not true. You have been dealing with sprouting seeds, struggling to take root in rich but dangerous soil. The Primal Scourge took centuries to make the world of my birth uninhabitable to my people. At the end, there were no thrashing minions and few nodes of any kind, it did not need them and so did not bother with them. It had already robbed us of what we needed to survive, withering the grasses and covering the land in forests of thorn.”
“On purpose?” he asked “It ate your world out from under you?”
“Its is a truly alien mind, but one that moves with purpose. It does not devour all life from worlds it conquers. It inserts itself into an ecology, careful not to bring about collapse of the ecosystem it has infested. Most native life finds itself killed and replaced with living machinery, but not all. For all its strange power, it remains a living thing that requires a living world to truly thrive. Ultimately, a world’s biosphere, its ability to support life, becomes more stable. Only direct challenges cause it to abandon the stability and lethargy it prefers.”
Ah, that was interesting. Derrick had assumed that the Spore Tyrant would spread like a cancer, devouring every living thing. A B movie monster basically. It made sense that wasn't true though, the Spore Tyrant was all about the long game, it couldn't have a sense of time that was anything like a human. Victory in a thousand years might be as good as victory today to it.
“How intelligent can they... nevermind.”
It has FTL, he realized, not to mention Dyson Spheres and war fleets. He imagined some pretty crazy things were going on at the biological level as well. The Scourge was essentially pumping out bioweapons and had survived despite what must be uncountable attempts by species to beat it at its own game.
A chime filled the air and the elevator doors slid open revealing an expansive lobby. Clean white tiles that he doubted had ever been stepped on, covered the floor, supporting eight tall and round pillars. The ceiling was a swirling pattern of black and white, emitting light from no clear source. It was all very bright and minimalist.
Three doors stood out from all the white. One Green, one blue and one red. All of them were smooth and solid looking, giving no clue as to what lay beyond. Except for a word printed above one.
His guide and teacher looked at them in turn, clearly confused.
“Something wrong?” he asked, innocently. “Are we lost already?”
“No,” she answered. “I know where we must go. It is merely one more oddity. There should be only one door, leading us to our foe, what purpose these other doors serve is beyond me.”
Derrick made a mental note that his guide couldn't read English, the red door clearly had his name carved above it in the same red color as the door itself. The third door was a mystery to him.
“It probably has to do with how early this dungeon was created or because it was attacked by the Legion,” Derrick said. “A fallback position or storage area? The System could be turning this into an important base.”
Scynil paused her examination of the room to examine Derrick instead. Quantum awareness informed him of the impressive depth of her scrutiny. It was one of those moments where he was reminded the busty woman could probably knock his head clean off his shoulders with one hit. Derrick gave her a happy smile from behind his devil mask, saying nothing.
“Perhaps it is as you say,” She said, clearly not convinced. “It matters little to us now. This place is already... overripe. I can feel that the node has cracked its prison. Every moment of distraction has a price. Follow.”
Derrick did, but not before examining two of the pillars in the room from all sides.
While he was doing that, the Crusader swiftly strode to the green door, which silently opened to let them through into a hundred-foot corridor. They strode down it, reaching another green door, which opened to reveal a mass of writhing tentacles, each as thick as his wrist. They burst towards the pair as if they had been pushing against the door from the other side when it had opened.
Derrick was caught completely by surprise, having sensed nothing beyond the door with auril. You bloody idiot, his brain scolded him, how many times would he fall for the same trick. Like the Lurker, here was a creature that could resist his scouting pulses. In hindsight, he recognized the odd blankness behind the door as a creature hiding from auril detection. That realization was cold comfort as yellow and white flesh shot towards him at gunshot speed.
Luckily for him, Scynil was not caught off guard.
As the half a dozen thick tentacles shot towards her, she almost casually slid to the side and raised one foot into the air. The foot caught a reaching limb in its talons, crushing it into the floor at the same time as she grabbed two more out of the air with her clawed hands. A yellow ooze bled from all three tentacles as she dug her nails into them, the one at her feet looked like her talons had nailed it into the floor.
Derrick managed to leap back and move a leg out of the path of a bony tentacle that had tried to spear his thigh. Another was chopped by his axe as it tried to smash into him, arriving a second later in a whipping motion.
That just left one more. The tentacle speared directly towards Scynil's chest. Her wide pose, preventing Derrick from even trying to stop it.
The spear-like point hit her in the centre of the chest with a loud crack and Derrick saw the tall hybrid rock back from the force of it.
He moved to help but before he covered half the distance between them, one of the Crusader's hands grabbed a second alien limb and pulled. There were loud and very gross ripping sound as Scynil began to methodically tear apart the Spore Tyrant minion's body with her bare hands.
Derrick watched as she ripped at the mass of flesh that was blocking their path, clearing the way with methodical fury. Her victim looked like a less armored and longer limbed version of a Bleeding Tooth Behemoth. It made no move to defend itself as she tore it from the doorway.
His pulses informed him the creature didn't have an auril heart, but was connected by thin cords of living flesh to the ceiling. It must have had auril pumped into it, hiding it from his pulses. He also noticed that he was right to cut the whipping limb before it hit him, those tentacles were covered in hooked thorns that blended into its flesh.
Scynil turned away from the gory remains of her victim, dispassionate wrath turning to a professional displeasure that was obvious even through the silver armor that had expanded over her in the fight.
Burstgrasper destroyed, Unlocking Database.
“Overripe indeed,” she snarled. “This is... messy. We must finish this quickly.”
He was a few steps behind Scynil and so had had longer to react. Still, he was impressed with his reaction, the tentacles came at him fast and with no warning. This must be the passive reflex boost from the upgraded combat drug gland at work.
When the door had been cleared, it revealed a natural looking stone tunnel with veins of many colors and textures working their way through the wall.
“Lead the way,” Derrick said while putting on his mask. He was very aware that the blow she had just walked off would likely have smashed every rib in his chest, despite his armor.
Derrick gazed down the tunnel they were entering. The distance was hard to see because a light yellow haze filled the air. Toxic spores, no doubt. It was a good thing he had confidence in his resistance to that kind of thing. Even if they didn't get in his lungs, they could infect him through cuts.
Also undaunted by the hostile environment, Scynil sprinted a dozen feet forward and came to a sudden stop, stomping one foot into the ground with casual strength. It sank in deeper than Derrick would have thought and a second later, the why was revealed. More yellow ichor bled from the ground, revealing a mass of tendrils below.
Derrick felt a pulse of auril, at the same time and recognized it as something not too different from his Sapping Strike. A disabling pulse that spread through the Spore Tyrants own auril network. That was a trick he wanted to learn later.
Security disabled, the two of them ran down the tunnel, ignoring the living traps all around them. The tunnel was winding and oddly sized, widening and shrinking for no clear reason. In places, milky white roots were exposed. Scynil ignored them, so Derrick did as well. He took in the scenery.
It seemed like the tunnel had been originally dug by the node and the System had just widened it to give its Warden access to their target. He would bet the silver and white lines in the walls were put there by the System and not for the light they were giving.
They quickly met the next obstacle, a solid object. A mass of yellow and white threads that appeared to have grown down from the ceiling and woven together into a barrier before exuding some kind of hard armor that bound them together.
Without slowing, Scynil slammed her foot into it with a mighty running stomp. The Crusader bounced off, leaving only deep scratches. The wound she'd left in it, quickly bleeding a yellow liquid that healed the wound instantly.
“It will be faster to...” the Crusader began before seeing that her guest wasn't listening to her.
Derrick sunk his axe into the living wall and smiled to himself. Excellent, it was alive, he noted. That meant Shattering Strike would work on it. He withdrew his axe and pressed his hand against the obstacle.
Shatter, he mentally commanded the wall and whirling knots of auril poured out of him. He could feel the whirls of power devour the auril inside of the barrier and use its own power to fulfill his command. He would not be stopped so easily, this was just the beginning.
“Try the kick again,” he said, pleased with what he was feeling.
Wasting no time with questions, Scynil did, and this time it was like she was kicking Styrofoam. She lost her balance as her foot sunk into the obstacle and sent deep cracks running through it. The small crater bled again but this time the liquid just ran down without healing the wounds. Whatever healing process it used required auril.
The Crusader became a blur of motion as she tore her way through the wall, leaving a hole that was more than big enough for the smaller pure human User.
They passed another of the living walls, but this one wasn't even complete. It lacked the hard coating. Scynil tore her way through it herself in seconds and they were off again.
Their next challenge was when another Burstgrasper, this one bursting from the dirt of the tunnel's floor when Scynil got within range of its grasping limbs. Too bad for it, the pair of auril Users were too competent to fall for the same trick twice. Derrick's pulses revealed the subtle signs of the ambushing creature and he didn't even bother to warn Scynil, seeing her own awareness in the way her lithe body shifted to deal with the threat. During the frantic melee that resulted, Derrick got a better look at the dirt colored creature.
It was a lamprey like mouth with three specialized spearing tentacles growing from the flesh around it. Growing from behind those tentacles were another row of limbs that seemed like they were for whipping and movement. It lacked anything that looked like eyes or ears and was connected to tendrils that disappeared below it. He did notice that the spearing tentacles had needle-like tips that dripped flower bright yellow liquid. Derrick got the sense that it was even more of a puppet than most Spore Tyrant creatures, requiring a connection to a node to use its auril stealth. The creature when taken as a whole, was more like a murderous flower than anything.
“That was well done,” Scynil told him when the fight was over. “Your perception is astounding for one with so little experience with auril.”
“Perception is my specialty and the mask helps,” he replied modestly.
“Even a virtue like humility can be exaggerated,” said the Knight of the Order of Flourishing Humility. “You are exceptional.” Scynil paused and looked him in the eye. “I do find your mask a pleasing addition to your countenance.”
Derrick couldn't help but smile at that. Was he exceptional? Probably, honestly he didn't have enough data to know for sure. How many auril users had he met, a dozen? Of those, only Kate showed anywhere near as much progress for auril and he was pretty sure it wasn't from talent. The Trial of Predation had shown him at least a half dozen Users at his level though. It was hard to know exactly how good that diverse group was at using auril from just video.
“Met a lot of human auril Users have you?” he asked, which caused the Crusader to frown. He didn't want to actually start a conversation about this now though, so he changed the subject. “There's an open space just ahead.”
“We approach our goal,” Scynil informed him. “It is important I am not disturbed after we have disabled whatever defences remain. Binding such a creature is an intricate and delicate process.”
Derrick nodded in agreement and the pair of Users made their way to the room that contained the Spore Tyrant Node. They emerged from the tunnel and into one of the strangest sights Derrick had seen. The space was about two hundred feet across and filled with randomly placed pillars. The walls, floor and the pillars were made from tendrils of yellow white and silver wrapped around each other. Tendrils the color of old bone were choking and being choked by wires that gleamed in the room's harsh light, despite the yellow tinge to the air. Some tendrils hung from the ceiling like curtains or formed knots that grew from every surface.
The room, Derrick realized, was the result of a wrestling match between the System and the Spore Tyrant Node.
As soon as the Hunter sent out a pulse to scout the room, he felt something become aware of him in return. A massive awareness that froze him in place.
He heard something large move from the far side of the room, something as big as the Siren Node had been but more mobile. He couldn't see it well as the pillars and hanging tendrils blocked his vision of anything that far away. At the same time the room writhed. The bone white tendrils stirring as the Node detected a threat. From all across the room, Derrick heard the small explosions and the sound of movement.
The Hunter and Scynil dodged to the side as nearby knots exploded, sending tiny pieces of shrapnel at them.
One of the pieces managed to hit his arm but it just scratched his enhanced skin. What had been the point of that, he wondered, until he saw the projectiles had just been a side effect. From the knots, a stream of bright yellow mist was pouring out. The yellow haze quickly reduced his vision to just a dozen feet and he felt the air begin to burn his exposed skin.
Crap, this wasn't ideal. Derrick turned to Scynil for advice but found her vanished into the rising haze. His gaze was drawn back to the thickest haze where he heard movement. He recognized the sounds as tiny tentacled limbs propelling tiny fungal bodies across the ground.