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 “That is inconvenient,” Scynil said, trusting Derrick at his word. “The ways humans express emotion are new to me but I do not think this fact comes as a surprise to you.”

There was just a hint of accusation to her voice, although he couldn't tell if it was just a hint because of her iron self-control or just a lack of ability to clearly express emotion.

“Well, I suspected something might happen,” Derrick answered truthfully. He didn't want to poison whatever their relationship was. “Someone has invested a lot of resources and time into getting between humanity and auril. It would be weird if they just let a Dungeon be created. So, I left some sensors behind us as a precaution and they're telling me someone has decided to join us down here. I don't know who would...”

“Homunculus,” Scynil spat out with very clear distaste, her lips curling into a snarl that revealed perfect white teeth. Just another advantage of wearing a body that was days old. “It must be a slave of the Hollow Majesties. Through strife, we have earned victory. Binding is a sacred task and neither the Authorities nor the System itself would allow it to be interrupted. Only the Rebel Instruments and the Hollow Majesties could subvert the Systems Laws and the former has no interest or fear of aurilin.”

Well shit. He had really been hoping it was just more shenanigans from Authorities. The Authorities attempts to kill him had been sorta... bad? Whatever a Homunculus was, it was probably more dangerous than a pistol wielding Greta ambushing him in a tent.

Plus... other reasons. He did not like that slave comment or what the word Homunculus suggested. Best case, it seemed like he was dealing with some kind of controlled User, which promised to be messy. He'd gotten this far without killing another human being. Technically anyway.

Derrick let out a deep sigh and using his axe as walking stick, rose to his feet. When he stood, he threw the axe over his shoulder. He stood still for a second, just letting his mind go through the options. It was good that he'd just fought a defensive battle. That fight gave him some ideas for shifting the odds in his favour.

“Can you stop them from using your subterranean pulse technique?” he asked. He was confident in dealing with regular pulses but the Warden's ability to send scouting auril through the ground was beyond him.

During most of their conversation, Scynil hadn't bothered to look at him. She'd been too busy gazing into the Spore Tyrants soul or whatever. After that question though, Derrick felt her gaze lock on him.

“No,” she replied. “But I can let the Spore Tyrant do it.”

“Will a Homunculus be able to track that back to the source?” Derrick asked and immediately received a very unimpressed look in return. He was going to take that as a no. Good.

“Do it,” Derrick replied as he gazed at the yellow mist that filled the cavernous room.

He would love to ask more questions but his time was short. The enemy might already be in the room with them.

The Hunter rolled his shoulders and stretched his sore stomach. This was an ideal place for an ambush. It had been designed that way by the Spore tyrant. Now it belonged to them and Derrick was more than happy to make use of it. It would take their attacker a while to adapt to the acidic and auril disrupting mist.

Not to mention it would keep Scynil hidden while he dealt with the interloper.

Silently, Derrick crept forward, keeping at least one pillar between himself and the door. It didn't seem like the trespasser had entered the room...

The Hunter went perfectly still as one of his auril pulses revealed something alive in the mist by the entrance. It was blurry even considering the effects of the mist, it just showed up as a warped sphere to him. He ignored that and focused entirely on Quantum Awareness, on picking up the slightest sign that he had been discovered.

He felt nothing, until a second later, a weak pulse of auril washed over him. His innate stealth almost contemptuously shrugged it off, effortlessly keeping him hidden. It seemed like his natural stealth was enhanced by the mist. Lucky for him.

Reduced visibility and sound, reduced auril coherency and soft floors. The only way he could get stealthier was if he wasn't wearing bright red clothes.

The Hunter moved to the side and behind a different pillar, allowing his target far enough into the room he could conceivably attack from behind and cut off a retreat.

From that spot, he watched for his target, focusing on where his auril senses told him a powerful auril User was. He saw nothing there. Nothing at all. Even when auril told him something was slowly advancing through the mist just twenty feet away, he saw only empty air.

Dammit. Was his auril being fooled again? Why even give the stuff out if it was so easily fool....

The mist moved in a way that his eyes told him was unnatural. A little too fast, almost as if there was something moving it there.

He was dealing with an invisible enemy, Derrick realized. His mind went back to items that the System offered. One of which, was a limited stealth. Was this a better version of that or did it just work better in the mist?

He crept closer, trailing after the enemy, who he was glad to see was heading in the wrong direction if Scynil was their goal. It seemed like they had no cheat detection powers. They were forced to fumble blindly through the mist like Derrick had.

As he was trying to sneak within axe throwing range, he felt Quantum Aware ping him. Forewarned, the Hunter dove behind a pillar.

The mist was disturbed as bullets filled the spot he'd been just a second ago. He also saw most of a rifle sprout from thin air, a very human looking rifle. Definitely not Grey Legion then. It would be best to think of this as a fight with another User.

Careful to keep out of sight, Derrick let out a weak pulse that went just far enough to return with the information that the shooter had retreated behind a pillar. They didn't seem to know where he was, having lost track of him when he dodged.

Derrick moved further back, keeping his target at the edge of his auril range and himself between them and Scynil. He didn't attack. If they wanted to play cat and mouse, he was game. He wasn't the one on a time limit. This fight got a lot easier when Scynil finished up and joined him. Hopefully, realizing they had lost the element of surprise, they would just leave.

They didn't. The blur began to move deeper into the room, so Derrick once again circled around to strike it from behind. This time though, he threw one of his two remaining Tangler grenades before he was discovered. He was planning on following up with an axe toss, aiming to disable his target, but didn't have the time. The second the grenade left his hand, he felt a pulse of auril hit him.

At this point, his throwing arm was far above any normal human's, which made his opponent shooting the grenade out of the air very impressive. The grenade disappeared into the mist with a loud crack and Derrick caught two bullets with his gauntlet as he was forced into retreating once more. He felt the force of the bullet across his whole body, more than enough to be dangerous if he was hit anywhere unprotected by manna reinforcement.

This was going nowhere, the Hunter thought, as he faded back into the mist. Which was technically good but still dangerous and annoying. He didn't actually want to keep this game up for hours. Maybe next time he should tank the bullets and try to get closer?

No, too dangerous. He couldn't assume bullets were the limit of his enemy's resources. Besides, his auril workaround for manna was still limiting him to short bursts of manna. All it would take is sustained fire to fill him with holes. He would just waste time and look for an opportunity to some damage. At least this had to be as aggravating for the enemy as it was for him.

Maybe the third time would be the charm. He'd be extra sneaky though and use a simple trick Kate had taught him.

Derrick carefully followed his target through the mist, keeping at just the right distance. The last enemy pulse that had hit him, gave him a pretty good idea of how close he could get before auril would reveal him. About fourteen feet.

He positioned himself at that distance, careful to keep a pillar between them in case the mist thinned. It took a few minutes but the perfect opportunity came. A pulse hit him when he was just out of sight and failed to detect him.

Throwing an axe at a blur would be too dangerous but another Tangler grenade could work. At least to buy him enough time to....

The second Derrick began his third attack, Quantum Awareness screamed at him that his stealth had failed.

Dammit, the Hunter swore internally, they must have been looking right at his hiding place. He couldn't tell because of their stealth. The enemy was just a barely discernible blur to him.

As he backpedalled, Derrick saw the rifle appear in midair again. This time though, there was a cylinder attached to it that hadn't been there before, positioned under the barrel. Derrick was no gun expert, but he knew a grenade launcher when he saw one.

Somehow, he didn't think he was dealing with a Tangler. There was a crack of sound and the cylinder disappeared.

Derrick raised his hands and covered them in protective manna. He caught sight of a metallic silver object landing just four feet away from him. Well damn, this could hurt.

It did.

The air was driven out of his lungs as a wave of superheated air lifted Derrick off the ground and threw him across the room. After a moment of intense heat, the sensation faded and Derrick found himself oddly aware of himself and what was happening.

Everything had slowed down as Derrick felt himself spin uncontrolled through the air. He mentally thanked the System for his combat drugs, which had to be responsible for this, and tried to right himself before he slammed into a pillar or something.

Working on pure instinct, Derrick kicked at the ground, only to end up almost doing a backflip instead of stopping himself. He protected his head though by extending his arms and through a series of accidental gymnastics that would make an Olympic athlete jealous, somehow landed on his feet.

The second he found his balance, bullets ripped through the air, missing him by quite a bit. No doubt aimed where the explosion had tried to send him.

Shocked by his lack of injuries, Derrick checked himself. Mild burn and scraps were all that he saw on his arms. His head felt weird, his mouth tasted of blood and his auril warned of wounded flesh all through himself but he didn't feel that bad all things considered. Did he just walk off a grenade?

Looking a bit pretty he could understand, Devil's Skin gave him some heat resistance, that trait must have kicked in to protect him from the fire and force of the grenade, combined with some organ redundancy and all the enhancement to muscle and bone that came with being level 2.0, his body was tough.

Where was all the shrapnel though? He'd felt a couple hits to his chest but that was it. His hurriedly thrown up gauntlets must have blocked most of fragmented pieces of grenade canister. He caught sight of something black and silver from the corner of his eye. A quick check revealed it to be shrapnel that was lodged in the cheek of his mask.

Some part of his brain had trouble believing it was possible, despite the evidence. A different part commented that if he had trouble believing it, the enemy would too.

Indeed, it seemed like the grenadier had sent a wave of auril at him and was headed his way fast when that once more failed to discover him. Thinking fast, Derrick dropped one axe and move forward, stepping into a thick bank of fog that was hovering around a nearby pillar.

The blur arrived just seconds later, stopping close enough that he could see a vaguely human outline and the end of a rifle. He was pretty sure his foe wasn't looking in his direction this time; they had to be looking deeper into the room or at the axe he dropped as a distraction.

Almost casually, Derrick stepped out of hiding and lobbed his last Tangler at the dangerous blur. His throw sending it spinning above where he guessed one shoulder was.

With a pop, the sphere exploded into a mass of white cords and ribbons. He half expected it to fail but it didn't. Those ribbons made contact, grabbing some unseen fabric and tangling it up.

Fast as thought, his foe abandoned the stealth cloak they were wearing, a knife appearing with superhuman speed and cutting themselves free. Derrick was glad to see both a rifle and cloak entangled by his grenade, revealing a somewhat short and thin human wearing sickly yellow armor. Said human had a pistol in hand and already rising in Derrick's direction.

Two bullets rang out, only to be caught by Derrick's gauntlet as he strode forward. The Yellow wearing User tried to back up, but Derrick was far from slow, the same Gauntlet that had stopped the bullets closed around the hand holding the pistol and yanked the User forward. His clutching fist unleashed a Sapping Strike, he felt that technique meet the enemy's auril and almost fail. Tiny knots of it did manage to pierce his attacker's auril defences.

His other gauntlet struck out just as fast, the manna empowered punch knocking away a warding arm filled with manna and making contact with a yellow mask. A loud crack filled the air and the mask snapped back from the force of the blow.

He didn't have time to enjoy the hit. The corner of his eye revealed a knife trying to gut him, so he stepped back and drew his axe.

The yellow User drew a second knife and faced him silently. It was obvious that they knew how to use those knives. They moved so fast and precise, he had to be fighting a manna expert.

Derrick banished hesitation and attacked savagely. Using the length of his weapon and arms to keep his attacker back. Right up until his enemy managed to block a swing and stepped into his guard, aiming to put a knife into his thigh.

Derrick didn't even try to block the knife, just prepared himself to catch the hand after it had sunk the knife into him. His spars with Blake had taught him that he couldn't match a gifted manna User when it came to speed. Especially considering the limitations of his own manna. If he could get his hands on someone though, the fight tended to end quickly.

His body language must have given something away because the blow never came, instead his attacker turned it into a feint and retreated.

Was It strange that watching the figure retreat, he almost felt disappointed? Well, this next part should be fun anyway.

Derrick spun the abandoned pistol in his hand and pointed it at the retreating figure. The trigger guard and his gauntlets made it awkward to pull the trigger but he managed. He emptied the clip at the smaller User and was unsurprised when a shimmering three foot across barrier appeared midair.

When the bullets bounced back at him, that caused some surprise though. Luckily the bounces seemed uncontrolled and each bullet missed him. The closest was inches from him.

Well, ranged attacks seemed pointless, Derick mused, as he digested this latest trick. It was a good thing he hadn't managed an axe throw yet.

Derrick dropped the empty pistol to the ground and casually went to pick up his second axe from where he'd left it. That was apparently not allowed, as he found himself under attack again, frantically blocking and dodging thrusts and slashes. Tiny wounds began to build up, wounds less than a quarter inch deep but still painful in the mist. In return, he'd hammered through the other User' defences a few times, dealing one cut to the shoulder and a number of bruises. Cuts and bruises were nothing to Users. The important part was the Sapping auril that went with each of his blows.

His foe had a very solid defence, but they were no Spore Tyrant and had less auril than him to begin with. Derrick's unique technique was an insidious thing, spending the enemy's physical and auril strength. Despite his numerous bleeding wounds, he was winning. The enemy couldn't commit to a serious attack without risking an exchange that he would use to end this fight. Unless they were willing to try for a killing blow. A strike at his throat, heart or one of the many organs a human couldn't live without. Derrick was very happy to see that they weren't willing to risk everything on such a strike.

If things stayed the way they were headed, he wouldn't even need to string a finishing blow. The enemy would just fall at his feet, defeated and helpless. As if.

No, Derrick wasn't waiting for them to fall. He was waiting for the twist of the knife. The trick that would put them, at best, back on even footing.

It didn't take long for his expectations to be met.

When the two Users separated for a second, a familiar voice rang out.

“Congratulations,” the trespasser said and pulled off her mask. Revealing a shock of short blonde hair and look of bemusement on a face that was still mostly sharp angles. “I didn't think you had that much fight in you.”

Derrick watched patiently as the yellow armor changed into a deep-sea green color.

“How long have you known?” she asked.

Derrick didn't answer immediately, instead he slapped away a lightning fast knife strike and forced his opponent away with a low kick. Only after watching his lithe and smiling foe sidestep his counter and keep her distance did he respond.

“Know? Minutes,” he responded with surprisingly sincere calm. “Suspect? Days.”

He had run the options through his head a thousand times over the last few days. This was far from the worst he'd imagined. Which was not to say that he wasn't angry. He was, that anger was being held at arm's length though. It felt cold and distant to him and tasted like ash.

“Oh?” responded Kate with equal wariness and amusement. “What gave me away?”

 

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Mirrored

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