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 Derrick worked to keep an angry frown off his scarred face. He knew that was not a good look on him and he wanted to seem calm and confident. He was still hoping they could stop this fight here. Or, at the very least, waste as much time as possible.

“You weren't as subtle as you seem to think,” he replied. “A better question would be when did you do anything that suggested it wasn't you.”

“Ah, well I have been busy.” Kate admitted.

“With the murders and petty theft” Derrick replied.

“Petty? Hardly. Aurilin might be easy to find right now but that's because of very special circumstances. It's one of the most valuable commodities in existence.” She explained easily.

Well, that was good to hear considering he owned part of an auril mine. Hmm, if she was trying to talk him into letting her destroy the Dungeon, she was doing it wrong. She must not realize he had a claim to the aurilin mine. He wasn't sure how he could use that, but it did imply hard limits to her knowledge.

“But the murder part is accurate?” Derrick asked.

“Yes,” Kaye said with a shrug. “It wasn't just about the auril though. It was also about the people. You should know what kind of person unlocks auril so quickly?”

People as sexy as they were brave. Though that seemed like the wrong answer. As far as he could tell, there were two types of people that had unlocked auril so far. Auril sensitives and those with a talent for jumping headfirst into fights with superhuman aliens and coming out alive. He supposed he was both.

“You're saying that they were probably bad people and that's why you carved them up like pumpkins and ran off with any valuable organs they had?” Derrick questioned.

Even ignoring that she was a Homunculus, whatever that meant, and therefore untrustworthy, that seemed like a flimsy justification to him. His utter lack of belief must have shown on his face.

“Dangerous people,” Kate said. “I'm familiar with the type. Two of them were even sent by that bitch Greta. It seems like you and my idiot cousin made an impression on her. We're all better off without them around.”

Gregory, of Teslaforce fame, had mentioned that a few of Greta's minions had gone missing. Derrick had even kind of suspected Kate of that at the time. If only because no one else had any reason to do it. Gregory had said they were supposedly just watching him and the Demnols though, not actually attacking. It checked out that they would be more likely to have auril if they had a history of professional violence, like they would if they were associates of the Demnols.

More than two aurilin equipped Users had gone missing though. He was willing to bet the others had been sensitives, not thugs. Users whose only crime was having the potential to manipulate others with auril. Considering he was pretty sure he was an auril sensitive, Derrick kept his guard up.

“Speaking of thievery. How are you so quiet anyway?” Kate asked. “I have very good hearing and even with you right beside me, It's like you're not there. Is it the armored vest? I'm pretty sure you're not using manna to dampen sound. Combined with your freakish stealthy auril Style, you actually managed to scare me a few times.”

Her question confused him for a second, until he realized it must be a side effect of his traits. Breathless and Heartless, by supporting his heart and lungs must be reducing the sound they made. Huh, he was even more stealth focused than he'd thought. He wondered how much that had helped him without his knowing. Had the System done that on purpose?

Wait, that meant she could hear heartbeats? That was creepy. Not to mention very convenient for hunting down other Users.

“I have mastered Ninjutsu. Thanks for noticing.” Derrick replied, because only an idiot would actually explain those traits to an enemy. By the way Kate, I might be able to survive with punctured lungs, so make sure to keep stabbing until I stop moving.

“Oh, you too?” Kate said with a smile.

What? That was weird response. It was almost like she was the one wasting time. Which made no sense to him. She gained nothing and had everything to lose from delay as far as he knew.

He focused on the woman that had been his lover and was probably now an enemy. Was that fear she was hiding? No, he didn't think so. She was nervous about something; he was sure of that.

As flattering as it would be, he didn't think she was intimidated by him in any physical way. Or you know, intellectually.

Huh. Was she was delaying because she was reluctant to start fighting again, for purely emotional reasons? He felt a ping of hope that Scynil's 'slave' comment might not be one hundred percent accurate. He really wished he knew what a Homunculus was.

He needed to know if Kate was even human. If she could be talked down. Or if she needed to be put down.

“So, you're here out of civic duty? Is there something horribly dangerous about Dungeons that demands you stop this one from being created? Something you couldn't be bothered to explain with words?” he asked.

“It's made from a living Spore Tyrant,” the blonde replied. “Of course, it's dangerous. It's a giant target painted on this Enclave. We already had to fight off the Grey Legion, that will just be the start.”

 

And he was back to being angry at her. Another emotional appeal? Did she think he was a child? And her argument was just bad, humanity was under threat of extinction. There was already a target on the heads of every living person because they were basically food to the things that had invade the Earth. Auril was too useful a tool to throw away because it attracted attention from creatures already hunting them down.

“I'm going to stop you right there,” Derrick the Red said. “I think I'm done being treated like an idiot. Explain why you hate auril sensitives so much that you’re eager to risk human extinction just to reduce their numbers.”

Kate let out a deep sigh and gave him a sad smile.

“You lack the perspective to understand the real threats. Earth itself is one tiny world among thousands. Auril sensitivity will hurt humanity in the long term. There are unspoken rules about joining the System.”

Most of what she said seemed like generic bullshit, but the use of word perspective was interesting.

“And you have this superior perspective? Does serving the Hollow Majesties come with an educational video about how irrelevant humans are? Why should I care about anything you or... it says.”

Her eyes shot to meet his own when he revealed his knowledge of who she worked for. He saw worry there but also dedication, neither of them backed down.

“Noble Virulence saved me from a fate worse than death. It hasn't lied to me. How could it when what it has given me is a piece of itself. That's all it has done, given memories and secrets that have made me enlightened. Its great sin is revealing knowledge the System keeps from those it conscripts.”

Oh wow. The Hollow Majesty was called Noble Virulence, that wasn't the kind of name pompous psychopaths used at all. Even if every word Kate said was true, knowledge could be manipulative especially when it was controlled. Dealt out piecemeal, it could be used as a way to manipulate. You didn't have to lie to fool others, just reveal select truths.

Sure, he knew that the System loved keeping people in the dark but there could good reasons for that. Not letting embattled primitives know how incredibly outgunned they really were was one. The System depended on races fighting to save themselves. Derrick imagined that most people, when confronted with the true power of the Scourges and the basically endless horrific battles the future held, would have trouble finding the will to fight. It could also just be wary of shaping their culture too much.

It occurred to him that Kate had probably been chosen by this Noble Virulence because her time spent in a coma would make her emotionally detached and easier to control. That theory didn't make him think well of the Hollow Majesties in general or Noble Virulence in particular.

“Enlightened, that's a flattering way to describe yourself. Guess what people who aren't controlled by Hollow Majesties call their servants.” Derrick asked. “Homunculus or just slaves. It's a Scourge, I believe it about as much as I believe submission really is salvation.”

Kate shrugged.

“It's no mindless monster like the Primal Scourges. No body thief like the Grey legion. The words of the System's barbaric servants, fanatics and mercenaries, are no damning evidence against it, lover. You can be the enemy of the System while being an ally of the sentient life it protects. Every Hollow Majesty started out as a citizen of the System.” Kate said with worrying surety. “The System is no benevolent god. It a flawed and soulless thing that does more good than harm but sometimes it needs to be resisted. One day it will need to be destroyed.”

This might even be true, but it didn't really matter that much to Derrick at the moment. He wasn't going to rip out his implant and join team Hollow Majesty. Whatever that meant.

Ughhh. This was a horribly complex topic of conversation for another time and place. It was a confusing mess he really didn't want to puzzle through here and now. One thing was for sure though, she wasn't doing a good job of convincing him to walk away and let her kill Scynil.

“I know this is confusing.” Kate said. “But I'm asking you to believe I know what I'm doing.”

“No,” said Derrick instantly.

The speed of his response seemed to catch his lover off guard.

“No?” Kate repeated. “Just like that. You have to...”

“Shut up,” Derrick interrupted scathingly. “Mind control. Auril sensitivity. System Race politics. Blah Blah Blah. Arrogance from parasitic wannabe Scourges that call themselves Hollow Majesties. Are they so great that as one of their Homunculus slaves, you think yourself more than human? You didn't sneak down here weapons drawn and in disguise because you trusted me. You didn't kill those Users because you loved the human race. Why should I trust you?”

He hadn't meant to interrupt but the presumption of his ignorance from someone who should know better was infuriating. He'd been around the block since the Scourges had arrived. Hell, he was willing to bet he'd had more conversations with aliens than anyone in the city. Especially if you included his little chat with the Lurker.

He tended to keep himself moving and his opinions to himself, but he was always paying attention. Since this whole cluster-fuck of an apocalypse had started, he'd been collecting every hint and detail of the bigger picture he could.

“Homunculus slave,” she repeated slowly, after a few seconds of silence. “I don't think you really know what you're talking about but was cruel.”

“You threw a grenade at me,” Derrick replied with narrowed eyes.

“You attacked first and you're fine anyway,” she said with irritating dismissiveness. “That slave comment hurt though, even though it's not at all accurate. I must admit that I do think of myself as more than human because that's exactly what I am. Nothing was taken from me, not my humanity and not my free will. I was simply given knowledge and... broader priorities. You are, frankly, not qualified to judge if this Dungeon should exist.”

Derrick ground his teeth together. Where was this speech about how dangerous Dungeons were before he had to crawl into this hole and punch a Spore Tyrant unconscious? No, she'd thought it would be easier to follow them down here and put a bullet in Scynil when she was distracted with the binding.

“Let's talk about qualifications then. Do you know what I am qualified for, professionally?”

“...Programming?” Kate said after a pause, obviously not quite sure and a bit puzzled at the change in subject.

“Network engineering.” Derrick corrected. “It was my job to install, optimize and secure networks. Now, the System does not at all need my help with that. However, the experience does help me understand the System and you. Fancy titles and playing mysterious benefactor just makes you seem silly. You're a User given unauthorized access and stealing network resources. You and the Oh So Noble Virulence are parasites.”

Well, his ex definitely did not like the parasite comment, hard lines formed on her face for a second. She calmed right back down though.

“It is a little more complicated than that,” she said. “I can't blame you for being ignorant. I truly don't want to hurt you. Please move aside.”

“This is a trap,” Derrick stated. “The Dungeon, that is. Our meeting here is not a coincidence. I set it up a day ago with my Patron Authority.”

Bit of a lie there, it hadn't been a full day, but he was trying to shatter her annoying confidence.

“I bring this up so you understand that you are not in control here. You're not operating on some higher level than me, the mere human. I'm glad..” Ugh, so pretentious. “...Noble Virulence 'saved you', I really am, but I am not impressed by you or your boss an I'm not putting my life in your hands, never mind the city or the entire human race.”

“Authorities are constrained by the System. The System is incapable of considering me anything but a User, its pet Authorities can't change that. Even with a Patron, you're still on your own.” she said not quite confidently enough. Derrick could tell he'd gotten to her.

He smiled predatorily. He didn't even mean too, it just felt right.

“There are loopholes that allow interference. Bullet sized loopholes, as we both know. You should leave now while I let you.”

Kate was quiet for a few seconds.

“You're not going to get out of my way, are you?” she stated coldly. “Your willing to risk your life on this? Not to mention ending our relationship.”

“It's not like we had the kind of relationship that lasts long term.” Derrick answered and cracked his neck. “Besides, from the beginning of this conversation, you've been treating me like an idiot. An inferior. You obviously don't think much of me. Hell, a good fight might be healthy for our relationship.”

“Cute,” Kate said. “But I'm not going to hold back anymore, this is bigger than us. You're perfectly fine with the idea of killing me? You seemed like you had some problems with loss.”

Ah, there it was. The inevitable reference to the events that orphaned him. It would be maddening if it wasn't so predictable. This is why he usually kept that shit to himself. Well, he wasn't the only person with emotional scars.

“I have no intention of killing you,” Derrick said, honest surprise showing on his face. “Luckily, medical technology has gotten quite the boost recently. Anything short of complete brain death, you'll recover from easily enough. You're tough, I probably won't have to hold back at all.”

Honestly, that was mostly bullshit. He had no clear idea what he was doing, besides not backing down.

Funnily enough though, there was a 'medical' facility with his name on it just down the hall. There should even be some empty beds there, complete with restraining straps.

“Although,” he added with cheerful venom. “You might be spending a very very long time in a hospital bed. By the time you recovered, it might be like becoming a whole new person. Who knows what the System might...”

“Enough,” Kate said. “I'll just make you move.” She placed her mask back over her face. As soon as it was covered, two knives appeared in her hands like magic.

Negotiations seemed to have broken down. Worse yet, she hadn't bought his bluffs.

Seeing the woman he'd fought beside a dozen times and twice slept with, move towards him with naked killing intent, Derrick hesitated for just a second. Just for a second though. Her smug attitude stirred up something mean inside him. Despite his confusion, he wanted this fight. There was a mean part of himself that refused to be talked down to, that didn't really care that this latest enemy wore a familiar and human face. He embraced that part of himself because really, what was the other option?

Surrender? No. He'd come too far to back down, and with that thought, alien energy flooded him.

Besides, he thought, he hadn't been lying when he’d said he’d predicted this, and Kate wasn't the only one who had been holding back. The fight before their little talk? Foreplay.

He felt his confusion vanish and his fingers twitch with tense energy. Armed with with an axe in one hand, a knife in the other and a smile on his face, he glided forward to meet her.

 

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Mirrored

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