For all his bluffing, Derrick knew he was outmatched. Oh, he had a few tricks up his entirely metaphorical sleeves, but he needed to be sure those wouldn't be countered by Kate's own tricks. So, he needed to force her to use her own first. Tricky.
However, she had come by her skills, he knew Kate was a better fighter than him. Faster, more precise and not limited to just using short bursts of manna. Not to mention ruthless. If he let her stay close to him, she could overwhelm him in a flurry of cuts easily enough. His mastery of Auril just couldn't match manna when it came to direct threat.
An auril attack could be easily countered by manna reinforcement, while a manna accelerated fist still hit just as hard. It seemed like manna was just better at that sort of thing, using auril as a weapon was... well, not what it seemed to be for.
Watching Scynil fight the Spore Tyrant had driven that home for him. Auril was an exaltation, not a blunt weapon. Sure, he could use it to dominate the undefended, but against those of equal or greater strength, its usefulness as a weapon was greatly diminished. Especially when that enemy had both auril and manna as well. Which wasn't to say his strike techniques were useless, far from it. They were just situational.
So, his advantage was the endurance granted by his traits. Including the chance that Scynil would join them eventually. He really wanted to drag this fight out.
Luckily, he had Quantum Awareness, without that trait she would have no trouble taking him apart. The warnings that trait gave him were basically mind reading. His very own spider-sense, allowing him to know where Kate was targeting as soon as she did. It almost evened the playing field.
Almost, a wincing Derrick admitted, as a knife blade once again cut a bloody groove into his flesh. His axe cleaved the air where she'd been standing a second ago, but she'd leaned back. Derrick knew from painful experience that in just a moment she would be attacking again.
He turned to the side and prepared to swipe at her stabbing arm with his knife but Kate turned her attack into an attempt to slap his hand away. Derrick let her and continued turning, unleashing a powerful low kick that hit only air but did force her back a few steps.
“I have no idea how, but you're cheating somehow.” Kate said pensively, as she eyed him.
Really? She'd had expert fighting skills downloaded into her brain but he was the one that was cheating.
“Ninjutsu,” he said and twirled his axe. “You have already fallen into my trap.”
“I'm not going to slip on your blood, if that's your plan,” Kate answered dismissively.
The axe wielding User spared the floor a glance.
There were more than a few splashes of blood on it. Not much though, because his cuts, while stubbornly refusing to close like they used to, still stopped bleeding quickly. Also, because the living tangle of root-like growths that was the floor seemed to absorb any blood that fell on it.
A follow up glance at his arm had him wincing. It looked... messy.
His Devil's Brand technique worked exactly as described. It made his skin extremely tough, he could tell because even Kate's razor sharp System knives slowed down as they dug into his flesh. So instead of cutting cleanly, they tore painful jagged wounds. Yay for him. If he didn't have Curative Blood and the Weld drug, he would no doubt be bleeding out. As it was, he had bright red wounds carved into him that he suspected were going to leave some really nasty scars. The kind of scars that were three dimensional. Especially since the mist was still searing his wounds.
Derrick managed to dodge her next two lightning fast swipes and forced her back with a ringing blow that almost overpowered her defences. She could use manna to defend against his normal swings, but when both of them gave it their all, he came out ahead. He was just good enough that he could land a solid hit every now and then, as long as he didn't mind risk adding to his growing collection of cuts.
Slowly, Derrick's grin grew as her own diminished. He was glad to know that when it came to pure explosive muscle power, he dominated at least. Instead of just dodging his next attack, Kate surprised him by retreating instead, she gracefully glided backwards, not quite in the direction of her discarded gun.
Derrick had no choice but to follow. As much as he needed to keep his distance, he also needed to stop whatever it was she was trying for. The rifle was still tied up with Tangler threads, but he couldn't be sure it was useless to her. He slipped his mask back on and dashed after her.
One foot had just touched the ground when the slightest of sensation warned him of imminent danger. Not one, but three intertwined Spore Tyrant Stalks burst out of the ground and shot at him. Kate must have just disabled them and then woke them back up when she was past them. Thanks to the warning from his auril trait, his axe was already intercepting the attacking tentacles.
When his Shattering Strike made contact with the sharp heads of the stalks, it didn't block them, instead the stalks exploded into a small shower of yellow-white gore. Energized by his annoyance, his auril attack had pumped enough malignant auril into the stalks that they'd torn themselves apart. Robbed of their toughness, the living weapons had just burst like balloons under the incredible force that launched them.
Stoically, Derrick ignored the mess and kept walking towards Kate. He hoped that had come off as intimidating and not just gross. It did seem like Kate had been going to attack but changed her mind when he reduced her distraction to paste. She frowned and began to move towards her fallen rifle again.
As if he was going to let that happen. As soon as she began the movement, Derrick was sprinting to intercept. His feet sinking into the ground under the weight of his dash. During one such stride, he let out a pulse that disabled another Spore Tyrant Stalk cluster. The technique Kate had taught him, Disabling Pulse, still worked.
Seeing that her trap bought her no time, Kate swivelled in place and faced him.
Derrick noticed the knife in her right hand had been switched and his eyes immediately focused on the revealed weapon. It was unlike any weapon he'd seen so far. It bore the telltale signs of being System made but alien at the same time, something about it made the Hunter's skin crawl. The wicked-looking blade was a good nine inches long and clearly designed for stabbing. There was also an odd green tinge to the serrated edge and the blood grooves that ran down to the hilt.
Wary, Derrick slammed to a halt under a dozen feet from Kate.
Of course, she had some kind of new evil space knife. The most alarming part was that it disturbed his auril pulses enough that he could actually sense it using that energy. A weapon designed to fight auril Users? He was flattere... No, it would be for Scynil, an opponent Kate couldn't hope to beat in a fair fight.
Shit, prepping to fight Scynil was the same as prepping to fight a tougher version of him.
“Zausite,” Kate informed him when she saw him eyeing her weapon. “A dangerous cousin to siviril. Nasty stuff made by a mechanical Scourge you haven't met yet. Noble Virulence found one in the city, it was corrupting a System Station, not even the System knew what it was doing. I had some bullets made too and they would have made short work of your Crusader friend but you ruined that plan when you ambushed me.”
“I guess you've been as busy as I have,” Derrick said cautiously. “How many different Scourges felt the need to attack this city anyway?”
Derrick was disappointed to see that Kate didn't answer. Apparently, she was done wasting time. Instead she shook the hand holding the green blade as if loosening the muscles and darted at him, her sea green mask on her face and a blade in each hand.
It started just like every round they'd fought so far but when his axe was blocked by her new knife, he felt the edge dig into his weapon just a hair. It must be a ridiculously sharp weapon.
After a few exchanges, she threw up a shield in front of his attempt to hammer through her defences. The two foot across blur, appeared just inches from his weapon, far too late for him to avoid hitting it. This close, he noticed ripples play across its clear surface, like the surface of a pond.
Dammit, he'd gotten predictable, throwing around the equivalent of haymakers.
Panicked, Derrick felt everything slow down as he furiously tried to think himself out of this dilemma. He was willing to bet that the rippling shimmer in front of him was a bouncy shield. When his manna accelerated axe hit it, the manna shield would bounce it back, guaranteeing that he would be stabbed multiple times by his ex-girlfriend's scary new knife.
How did this manna ability work? It must somehow redirect kinetic energy in objects. So, unlike basic manna shields that used a manna effect to create a physical shield, this one must affect objects that touched an area.
If that was the case, auril was the obvious solution, any weapon or body part filled with his auril should be immune to the redirection. Like when he used auril to press through the weird shield the Feral Artisan had put up on the probe.
In the less than a second before his attack hit the barrier, Derrick let the manna in his weapon fade and switched it to auril. Weaving the complex auril pattern of Sapping Strike in is hand and filling his weapon with it in less time than it took to breath.
His axe hit something soft in the air, but was barely slowed down by it. Although she was masked, Derrick saw Kate's body stiffen in alarm as she desperately tried to block the blow. It was too fast and strong, the axe came down and tore through the armor on her shoulder, leaving a bloody wound almost a foot long until the weapon snagged on the armor above her ribs. Having used her manna to create her shield even her fancy knife couldn't block the power and weight of his attack. Her defence crumpled and her right hand was pushed to the side.
Shallow, Derrick observed clinically. He'd hit mostly armor so it was not enough to take her out of the fight. In fact, she was still in the process of stabbing him. So, he ignored the incoming knife and switched his grip on his axe. He then pulled her into an auril filled knee strike. His knee landed with only a mild impact, but Shattering Strike ensured that at least one rib snapped.
The two of them were practically hugging now, so he didn't see her drive the knife into his ribs. He sure as hell felt it though. Instinctively, he dropped his own knife and grabbed her arm to throw her away.
Before they separated, Derrick felt something sink into his arm, the one holding his axe. It was her other knife, the eerie green one. It bit deep into his arm, just below the shoulder, deep enough that it felt like it scrapped bone. Shit, and that was with broken ribs.
Kate stumbled back but caught herself and stood with surprising poise considering how much pain she must be in. He took the opportunity to switch his axe to his left hand, his right was disabled for now, the cut still bleeding thick dark blood that ran down his arm and onto the floor.
Derrick could see her armor attempting to repair itself, its silver threads very slowly pulling the tear together and hiding the brutalized flesh underneath. Whatever repair feature her armor had, it was better than his own. Could it stitch flesh back together? He couldn't think of any reason why not.
Looking at that wound, Derrick felt black anger. The pain made him angry. He was angry at himself for hurting Kate. Angry at Kate for hurting him. Most of all though, angry at the thing that had convinced Kate to fight him here.
Cautiously, Kate went to lift her good arm to her wounded side but a full body wince stopped her. A second later she was rolling her bad shoulder, no doubt thanks to combat drugs.
“Ah fuck. You actually fucking cut me,” she said through clenched teeth. “Ha, I suppose I deserved that. I should have just taken you out fast, but I tried to keep my goodies for the Crusader. Fuck, I thought this would be easier.”
Derrick didn't like her tone; it wasn't the tone of someone who was giving up. He respected that almost as much as he hated it.
“I don't usually give much thought to what people deserve.” Derrick said. Not beyond a punch to the head anyway. “I would say that complaining that murder isn't easy enough is kind of bitchy though.”
“Fair enough. This isn't about you or me,” Kate said. “It's about Noble Virulence and the Crusader you seem oddly determined to defend. Grown attached have we?”
He briefly considered a comparison of Kate's and Scynil's curves but decided against it. He didn't want this to get all high school. That would probably bite him in the ass.
“It feels kind of personal, I think it might be a little about me.” Derrick said with deceptive cheer as he ran his fingers over the knife wound in his side. Beneath his calm surface, Derrick's hate was a boiling sea of acid that wanted to be let loose with a primal scream and a shower of blood. That hate had no real outlet at the moment though. Noble Virulence was beyond his reach and as angry as he was, hurting Kate further wouldn't make him feel better.
That said, he watched her for weaknesses anyway. Eager to end this before he ran out of blood.
Kate stopped, knife dropping to her side.
“It's not personal,” she said and let out a pained sigh. “If it was about you, I wouldn't be here. Please, step aside. Let me do what needs to be done. I know what I'm doing and you are making powerful enemies, not just for yourself but the entire human race.”
Ah, she wanted to talk now? He would play along. He could use that time to let Regeneration... Huh, that was weird and disconcerting. Regeneration wasn't working on his arm.
“No.” he said, hiding his worries. “Trust me enough not to kill anyone today and if I'm wrong, I promise to admit to it and work with you to fix it. I'm not going to trust some parasite on the word of a woman who it can influence to the point where I let it murder someone who is fighting for me.”
Kate scowled at him, clearly both annoyed and disappointed in his answer.
“The System is not a god and the Crusaders are no angels,” she said. “They came here for themselves, to fight for the scraps of power the System grants to its more useful fanatics. You think the System couldn't save the Earth if it wanted to? It could but chooses to help just enough to keep us alive.”
There was a lot of confidence in her accusation, something that had to come from the memories Noble Virulence had gifted her with. But even if it was true, so what? The accusation that the System could be saving them better if it wanted to was not one that meant much to Derrick. It just came across as whiny.
What did an ancient alien made AI owe the human race? Nothing, that was what. Certainly not salvation. It had saved millions of lives and prevented, at least for now, the extinction of all life on Earth. If it thought binding a Spore Tyrant Node beneath Westhills was a good idea, he would give it the benefit of a doubt.
“They're the closest things we've got,” Derrick answered. “Besides, this is not about the character of Crusaders. It's about not betraying those who trust you and it's about saving lives. The resources this place produces will be going to humans who will desperately need them. Used to protect Users from some of the nasty shit that the Scourges will throw at them. We both know how bad that can get, without the auril you have now, would you even be alive?”
It would take a lot for Derrick to discard something humanity needed so much, and not just because he got thirty some percent of its production.
“If not for Noble Virulence, I would be worse than dead. Even if you win this fight it won't change anything. It has a half dozen other homunculus on this world alone. Crusaders, Authorities and even the System itself can't stop the forces you're picking a fight with. Besides, depending on auril will get you killed. How's your arm doing? I notice it's still bleeding.”
It was true, Derrick admitted to himself, her green knife had injected something into the wound. Zausite probably. Whatever it was, traces of it were stopping his regeneration from getting anywhere near the cut. In fact, it seemed to be getting worse. The flesh around the cut very slowly sickening somehow, dying for reasons he couldn't sense.
Gods, he hoped it wasn't radioactive. He had no idea how his System given healing would work with cancer. Well, at least it was painless. Terrifying but painless.
“I'm still winning.” Derrick the Red said simply. “I don't need to beat you up, just stop you from being able to beat Scynil. Frankly, I'm not impressed with you or Mr Virulence, where are these perks you mentioned? You can't even beat one regular User.”
“Noble Virulence is a Hollow Majesty, a Power in a universe more hostile than you can imagine.” Kate said and looked into his eyes. “A Power that rules a dozen worlds and a thousand souls. It will empower its homunculus beyond what the System will allow normal Users to achieve. I don't think its scared of you.”
Derrick met her gaze for a few seconds, until he was forced to look away. Forced to look away by the laughter that overtook him. All the tension of the situation faded as the Trailblazer laughed until his sides hurt. Honestly, if Kate had attacked then, he would have been defenceless.
“All of a dozen worlds? Oh, my.” Derrick mocked. “I never considered the Grey Legion, the Spore Tyrants or the Feral Artisans brave, but now I realized they willingly fight an enemy that rules a dozen worlds and has half a dozen slightly stronger than normal Users. Makes sense, if the Hollow Majesties were actually dangerous, they wouldn't need you. You keep telling me to give up because I'm ignorant but I don't think you understand how close to the bottom of the food-chain your boss is.”
“Men.” Said Kate with a tired sigh. “You're letting your small achievements get to your head. You have a real talent for auril, one in a million even. That's nowhere near enough to win even this fight though and you think your resistance matters to a Scourge? You have one trick and it wasn't enough. Well, credit where credits due, you're right, I can't afford to take any more risks now.”
Kate reached intoon of the pockets that covered her armor and withdrew an object that fit in her palm. Derrick didn't react, he wasn't close enough to stop her anyway, he might as well watch from a safer distance. It was a white orb that fit in the palm of her hand. A sphere of obvious System manufacture.
It was invisible to his auril pulses, so not more Zausite or anything auril based. It also didn't seem like a weapon, so a manna gadget then? Maybe another grenade?
Palming the device, Kate began to walk towards him. Her stride purposeful despite a rather obvious limp.
Warily, Derrick took a step back. He really didn't like the confidence the blonde was displaying. She seemed really confident that this orb thingy was more than he could handle. Which made sense if, like her knife, it was a tool that was supposed to be used to defeat Scynil.
Derrick was considering throwing his axe and making a run for it, when Kate raised the orb towards him. Wary, Derrick managed to get both arms filled with a burst of manna and in front of him. For a second, nothing happened. Then the manna in his arms was violently dispersed and Derrick felt his feet lift off the ground.