Derrick slammed into a pillar, the air forced out of his lungs. He tried to breathe but found it impossible to fill his lungs with air. He was pinned to the pillar, some invisible force holding him there. He tried to struggle but there was no give to it, just a constant smothering pressure.
“Sorry about this,” he heard Kate say. He looked at her and saw the now shimmering orb in one hand and a green tinted knife in the other. “I didn't want any of this. I tried to prevent it. You shouldn't be here. Just... give the word. Back off and I'll stop. Please. Do it now, I don't want the batteries on this thing to run out. It takes forever to charge with my limited manna.”
Derrick watched her limp closer and felt despair, a familiar ache. All it would take was one stab with that knife and he'd lost. Scynil would probably be killed and the Dungeon would be destroyed. Destroyed by Kate Demnol because he was too weak to protect anything. Because the batteries on her orb thing were more important than him.
He clawed at the invisible force that held him but found no purchase. Even his own manna had no effect on it. He hadn't been this helpless since he fought the Lurker. What was that, yesterday?
He'd learned a trick then. The ability to sense the flows and sources of manna around him. He'd even practised it a few times successfully. It was like riding a bike.
Derrick reached for his manna core and sent his mind into the Fold, trying to realize the state of awareness he'd touched when fighting the Lurker. It was easy enough to reach, just out of phase with this reality and he'd gone much deeper than that.
It was ultimately unhelpful though. He could sense the power Kate was using to suppress him, but seeing the chains didn't give him power over them. The Lurker had woven a complex web of manna and seized the flow of manna across a city block. Its creation had been a complicated and delicate construct.
The focus Kate was using was so simple and direct it was impossible to affect at all. Just an overclocked shield generator. A flow of manna from Kate, to the orb and then to his chest. A circuit that served no purpose beyond pressing him into the pillar behind him with such force that he tasted blood.
Nearby footsteps caused him to snap back to reality. Kate was almost in reach of him now. She stopped and took her mask off.
“Goodbye,” Kate said with a sad smile. “I don't think we will meet again after this.”
Derrick met her eyes and knew she was telling the truth. That hurt. It hurt him badly.
So he'd lost the fight and she was just going to disappear. He felt his despair grow, mixing with his pain and weakness. It was so very wrong and yet so very familiar. The same sense of powerlessness that had plagued him most of his life. A sense of meaninglessness.
You fought so hard for what you thought mattered but life always found a way to screw you. Built yourself up, only to be knocked down by forces beyond your control.
Why was he even here? Why couldn't he just give up? Spare himself the pain. He watched her come closer and knew that, theoretically, he could stop her with a word. His lips did not move though. Despair was just one of the emotions he was feeling.
Surrendering would save him blood and pain. It might even keep Kate in his life. Maybe he could work for Noble Virulence... He couldn't do it. And not just because of the second set of instincts his auril Style gave him. He felt that power humming through him and demanding he fight and defy. He could almost feel it behind him sometimes, pushing him forward. He felt that now but also something more.
Breathing in ragged gasps of slightly poisonous air, he knew the price of surrender was too high.
Monsters were eating his world. Noble virulence was just one more of them. He had not surrendered to the Grey Legion when it offered him salvation in a men's locker room. He had kept fighting even when the Lurker of Loving Purpose had preached to him with its fingers wrapped around his throat.
He had not surrendered to the Siren Node when it had made its contempt known in a cake factory. Nor to any of the other minds of Spore Tyrants he'd fought. He'd made that Primal Scourge pay for its crimes by helping to bind it.
When he'd gazed upon a Feral Artisan after being sucked into the Fold, he had not begged or succumbed to madness. He had resisted and pushed on. Persevered despite an endless maze of illusion and confusion.
He would not surrender to this Noble Virulence, the least intimidating enemy he'd fought so far. Noble Virulence wanted to save them from themselves and Derrick would rather die than let it. To do so would be an insult to all the people who'd fought and loss. The countless men and women who'd raised a weapon to defend, right or wrong, what it meant to be human. He would accept no shackles on himself or humanity when so much was at stake.
It was too difficult for him to speak. So he didn't. Instead he took a deep breath and marshalled his strength. Letting regeneration fix the wounds it could. At the same time, he silently swore that he would hunt down every fucking servant of Noble Virulence in the galaxy. One by one until the Hollow Majesty begged him to stop. Then he would crush that wannabe Scourge under foot as a warning to others of its kind. He didn't care how stupidly ambitious the idea was or how long it took, he would do it anyway.
His personal ghosts demanded it of him. The living that fought beside him demanded it of him. Facing a future filled with endless strife, it was the only way he could imagine a life worth living. It might even be fun.
Derrick reached deep into his core and pulled out every spec of power he could. There was no time or room for anything fancy. He just channelled that power into his gauntlets. It wasn't just raw manna though, the kind that controlled kinetic energy. It was the stranger stuff he wanted. He didn't understand it but he was hoping its disruptive nature could be counted on a second time.
He sent out a call to the deepest parts of the Fold and after a moment of reluctance, power poured out eagerly, pushing aside his mostly spent auril and filling his mind with indecipherable whispers.
He ignored those and got to work. He reached out with both hands and gripped the invisible force that pinned him in place. It still didn't budge. Oh, he felt his fingers dig deeper than before, but it was in no danger of being destroyed. It was just too compact and powerful. Even the Canvas manna couldn't get a grip.
Shit. He was probably doing this wrong. He was just fumbling. He could feel his manna just failing to do what he wanted. He tried to get a feel for what was going on. Trying to sense some kind of a weakness in his shackles. Instead, all he felt was a mass of hostile power much greater than his own and indecipherable whispers spreading through his brain.
Indecipherable and yet somehow he knew what he needed to do. Of course, he did, it was a thing of symmetry. Obvious through its artfulness. Inspiration.
He was attacking the effect, the pressure holding him in place, he needed to attack the cause. The power that twisted reality enough that Kate could draw power from another layer of reality and smother him with it. He needed to destroy the conduit, not the power flowing out of it.
Whereas before his fingers had found no purchase, now they sunk deep. Ripples of eerie light danced in complicated patterns across his gauntlets, searing and dancing like sparks until they reached the tips of his fingers and bled together at the armored tips.
Interesting. He had felt the alien energy react to his strong intent, to his desire to rip apart manna that bound him. Felt it carve a channel in his core and mind. Even now as his mind wandered, it still kept the same shape and purpose. He didn't think he could stop it if he wanted to.
Hmmm, looking at the intricate lines and folds that made the conduit, he had no idea how it worked. Good thing you didn't need to understand something to destroy it. He sunk his fingers in deeper until he felt something solid and at that moment a flash of light that might have been all in his head burned a ring into his eyes.
Derrick blinked and looked up from his hands, glimpsing Kate. There was a look of surprise on her weary yet attractive face but the more important fact was that the point of her knife was just inches from his thigh. By all rights he should have an alien knife buried hilt deep in him by now.
She had hesitated. How heartwarming.
He smiled at her, completely unconcerned, and twisted the wheel. He felt something snap, heard a scream and fell to the ground. He immediately scrambled to catch himself, seeing Kate stumbling back empty-handed. Whatever it was that he had just done, he had freed himself and given himself time to counterattack.
He quickly took stock of himself, concerned about side effects using raw and Canvas manna. He seemed fine. The mix of other-dimensional powers was behaving. Reduced to a trickle, it was flowing into his hands without any of the instability he'd seen in it so far. He could feel that all it would take was a thought and he could amp it back up to full power.
It definitely felt like something had changed, maybe permanently. Before, it had been chaotic and disruptively whimsical. Now, it was like it wanted to be flowing into his gauntlets and twisting apart invisible forces. Like it approved of how it had been used. Even the whispers were mostly gone. Mostly.
On the other hand, his right arm still wasn't anywhere near fighting fit and he had dropped his weapons when Kate had hit him with that invisible truck.
Well, that was all the time for introspection he had. Derrick launched himself forward, kicking the now blackened orb that Kate had dropped deep into the mist. The Hunter then focused on the blonde herself. Like her orb, black burn scars covered her armor and touched the bottom of her neck. The orb had more than just stopped, it must have exploded. He couldn't see her face, she had put her mask back on, but he doubted it had gotten off untouched.
Good, he thought, it was time to end this. He was going to win this little fight.
Kate was backpedalling fast but thanks to a higher level and some physical boosting traits, Derrick's charge was much faster. Kate prepared for another round of high-speed combat but instead, Derrick just grabbed the hand she tried to stab him with and pulled her into him. Her weapon exploding must have really affected her because her reactions were visibly slower.
Still, her Zausite weapon came at him in retaliation but Derrick yanked her captured hand to the side and grabbed her other hand too, holding it just inches from his ribs.
He was glad to see that her flesh didn't start melting or anything. So far, this new ability of his seemed to be mostly the same as basic manna acceleration but with some kind of manna disruption added.
They just stood there chest to chest, masked faces watching each other for a few moments.
“I might have...” Kate begun.
With a loud crack, Derrick headbutted her. The two tiny horns on his mask impacting hard enough to crack the surface of her mask. He was done with talking for now.
He took advantage of the seconds this bought him to rip her zausite knife out of her hands and throw her to the ground.
He honestly considered giving her a few kicks but he knew the fight was over as long as he took her tools from her. Without them, she was no threat to Scynil and there was no point in her even being here. The perfect ending to this for him was still her leaving.
After that, he left his Homunculus ex on the ground and went to get those Zausite bullets she'd mentioned earlier. He'd barely gotten a dozen feet when he heard her pick herself off the ground. The tired Hunter turned to look at her without stopping. She was far away enough that yellow mist robbed her of some color but it had thinned somewhat since he and Scynil had taken out the Spore Tyrant.
She didn't look to be doing so well. She was unsteady on her feet and her once sea blue armor was marred by blood and burns.
“I don't really have any use for zausite personally,” he said, while pointing the knife at her. “Is it worth a lot? Like an even exchange with auril or closer to siviril?”
“You will regret this,” Kate said. “This... will complicate things.”
“Yes, well I bet you already regret this.” He was calm as he watched her step towards him. “And I did this to keep things simple. You're the one that came here with murderous ambitions, questionable loyalties and vague mutterings of sinister conspiracies.”
“Ha,” Kate spat out. “When you're right, you're...”
Derrick stopped listening to her because she'd reached into her clothes, her hand disappearing into a pocket at the same time that a shield sprang up between them.
He wondered what weapon she was going for as he reached into his own pocket and pulled out the other half of his purchase from Teslaforce. It was something he'd wanted since the System had arrived but had been unable to purchase from the System Stations because of their stupid proficiencies. He had a brief flashback to talking to Brian about it. Nothing had stopped him purchasing it from Gregory's company. It was mostly human technology anyway. Not the kind of thing you saw outside a lab, but still human technology.
Thus, at the same time her hand came out of her pocket with a grenade, his own hand had drawn a pistol from the recesses of his jacket. He had to aim with his left because he didn't trust his right, but it was an easy weapon to aim.
It was a crude thing, single shot, slow to reload through an embarrassing inefficient manna system and likely to explode when fired. Yet, it was also a poetically human weapon. Without hesitating, he fired it. Setting her thigh on fire with a flash of light and carving a hole through flesh and System made armor instantly. At most his aim was off by an inch, he noted clinically.
Kate screamed, her pained voice echoing through the chamber. Screamed and collapsed motionless onto the ground. Like a puppet with her strings cut.
Only after he'd fired and was sure she wasn't getting back up, did he let himself wince. He'd fought too many zombie-like enemies to take an unconscious enemy for granted.
The laser pistol was a weapon mean enough that he'd hesitated to use it at the start of their fight. He hadn't been able to reach it when Kate had him pinned or he would have used it then, no matter how dangerous. Hell, the Teslaforce envoy had praised him when he explained his request. He was sure they were being handed out among Teslaforce Fighters now.
He was no manna prodigy, Anita had been more talented with it than him and even now he couldn't reinforce anything but his gauntlets. And those were tools designed to be easily affected by manna. He did know enough to understand manna's obvious weaknesses. Manna was very specific in what it did, the raw stuff made it easy to counter kinetic weapons like guns and explosions. A laser though, did damage purely with light converting to heat on contact though, and shields designed to drain kinetic energy or effect solid objects might as well not even exist when trying to stop a focused beam of light.
He was surprised no one else in the city had thought of this. Maybe they had, it was more effective the less it was advertised. The barriers Users and Scourges used so far were transparent. Oh, once the cat was out of the bag, it would be easily countered, he was sure, but for now it was a devastatingly effective counter to the basic shields everyone had.
Seeing how effective it was, he could have saved himself a lot of pain if he'd just used it at the start.
Sighing, he went to retrieve his weapons and after that he spent a few minutes trying to comfortably support Kate's weight as he limped to the exit. Her wound had been cauterized and was barely bleeding but he didn't want to take any chances. He was once more glad that his mask blocked most smells, he didn't really want to have to smell burnt human flesh again.
No, despite her loyalty to a Hollow Majesty, he wanted her to survive and so he carried her away from Scynil and to the medical facility he'd had built into this Dungeon.
That was more than a little bit lucky on his part, he thought as he trudged up the tunnel that led to the entrance of the Dungeon, he hadn't bargained for that facility because he predicted needing on site medical treatment. Although, he really should have. He'd done it because he'd wanted a safe place to study auril and store valuables.
His thoughts were interrupted when the door to the Dungeon's main hall slid open to reveal a grinning humanoid figure wearing what looked like a black wetsuit.
It was no one he knew. He was sure didn't know any tall, thin and marble white dudes with long ears and sharp teeth. More importantly, he was sure that no one was supposed to be here besides him and Scynil. That suggested he'd gotten here the same way as Kate.