Derrick had been laying in a ditch and waiting for an opportunity to strike for over forty minutes now. Tracking his prey with enhanced vision when possible and weak pulses of auril when it moved out of his line of sight.
Of all the sentries that guarded this place, the Vanguard Dog he was tracking was the most alert and the only one with auril. It would need to die first. So, while Derrick danced around the three Grey Agents that were also acting as sentries, he kept his focus on the enhanced dog.
It was a big one too, its frame swelled and armored by the Grey Legion's biological mastery. All the Agents Derrick had encountered in the last week, were the same. Fully 'clothed' in grey armored carapace with swollen muscles beneath it. Its mouth seemed to have grown larger, occupying some of the area its eyes used to be with teeth the size of human fingers.
They were very different from the zombie forms of the Grey Legion had during the first few days of their invasion. Tougher, faster and better armed than any human or animal before the Scourges arrived. Regular bullets just bounced off of them at this point. Especially the Vanguard, both the canine and the human variety. Their auril let them grow and toughen themselves faster than the regular garden-variety Grey Agents. That biology boosting energy also seemed to let the Vanguard carry more armor than the regular Agent’s. Derrick hoped that this was as 'improved' as they would get, but he wouldn’t count on it. No doubt this was still just the tip of the weaponized mutation iceberg.
Next year he would probably be fighting Vanguard Dogs with laser eye beams and sonic cannon barks. If he survived that long.
Right now though, despite their improvements, the human Users held the advantage. Since the end of Phase One and the creation of the West Hills Enclave, he had only grown two levels, putting him at level two point two. That meant his raw power or speed hadn't improved as much as that of Legion's soldiery but he’d improved in other ways.
Ways such as his equipment and skills. Already his partnership with the Velorie outcast, Deleterious, was bearing fruit. Derrick and the dozens of Users newly employed by his System Licensed Company, Red Works had hunted down every scrap of Legion Carapace they could get their hands on. Which turned out to be a lot.
No one else wanted the stuff. Either having no use for it or they didn't have the stomach to to pry it off of the Grey Legion's unwilling converts. Derrick himself had gone through enough that he didn't even give carving up a converted human's corpse a second thought. Not if it saved lives and filled his pockets by allowing Red Works to produce tougher armor at competitive prices.
The Nomad armor, as Deleterious had christened it, added more than just Grey Legion carapace. It provided a reserve of chemicals that helped fight off both Grey Legion paralysis weapons and Spore Tyrant infection. As well as regenerative and nourishing fluids. Derrick himself had little need for the boost, but it was a literal life-saver for lower level Users that lacked resistance giving Traits.
It also came with one feature that was very helpful to Derrick. Scent reducing materials built into it were the only reason the Vanguard Dog hadn't detected him yet. Both the Spore Tyrants and Grey Legion had enhanced senses of smell, so Derrick had prompted Deleterious to study the methods old school human hunters had used to reduce their scent and upgrade them as much as possible.
The result was armor that was cheap, effective and popular, at least with Users that expected to be fighting the more fleshy Scourges.
Universal Support System
Red Works's Nomad Armor
A set of full body gear designed by Red Works to provide increased physical protection and aid Users in fighting biological Scourges. It has a standard Esthisium frame but with Legion carapace and activated carbon materials that reduce scent interwoven throughout it.
Jacket contains a medical unit that can be loaded with helpful drugs and supplements. Medical unit capable of communicating with User Implant for emergency treatment.
Warning: Armor's ability to self repair is greatly diminished due to exotic materials and complex systems
The System seemed to have a few problems with it though. The ancient AI appeared to prefer to equip its Users with weapons and armor that was robust to near indestructibility, rather than specialized gear. Derrick thought it was a little too focused on the long term. He suspected it was used to dealing with primitive civilizations and races that couldn't maintain or repair their gear, even with System help. No doubt an efficient use of resources, but personally, Derrick was more worried about his survival than his armor's.
The axe-wielding User's thoughts were interrupted by the faint sensation of an auril pulse hitting him and being shrugged off by his defences. It was time, he realized, as he mentally checked the positions of all known Agents.
His implant sent out a directed signal and he rose from the ditch he was hiding in. He went from standing to full sprint instantly and threw himself at the oblivious Vanguard. At the same time, two other figures revealed themselves and moved to attack targets of their own.
The Vanguard was alerted at the last second by the noise from Derrick's charge, it sprang to the side and swiveled to attack him. Its move effectively took it out of reach of Derrick's axe but not his foot. The toe of a boot filled with malignant auril smashed into the canine's jaw. The weakened armor cracked loudly under the blow, sending tiny fragments falling to the ground.
A faint itch gave Derrick just a second of warning before a slug was fired at him, aimed at the center of his body by a nearby Agent. That second was all Derrick needed to position his palm in the way of the projectile. Silver light exploded from that palm as the slug hit that light and stopped dead without a sound. Derrick’s entire body swayed but his arm didn’t even jerk. He grabbed the stopped slug and threw it to the ground while looking his attacker in the eye. He and the shooter continued to make eye contact until a bullet took it in the side of the head, courtesy of one of his allies. The Agent flopped to the ground, lifeless. Even the Grey Legion couldn’t recover from that.
Derrick turned his attention back to the Vanguard.
Somewhat defanged, the canine had twisted further away but Derrick glided forward to keep the pressure up. He knew that even with traits like Breathless, that increased his sprinting power, the Vanguard dog was faster than anything on two legs when it got up to speed. It would try to run because while the Grey Legion used canine Vanguard as raiders, this one was a sentry.
With practiced ease, he threw an axe at the escaping Legion minion. His aim was true and would have hit the creature in the hindquarters but the dog twisted at the last second and it turned into a glancing blow, which failed to penetrate its thick armor.
Dammit, his only chance was to get to it before it got further away. Gathering manna in his gauntlets and using it to boost himself, The Hunter made a leaping tackle that brought his shoulder slamming into the canine's own with unnatural and unexpected force.
A second of flailing later, his axe bit into the enemy's armor. Not deep enough to do damage but enough to prevent it from escaping. The mutant dog bucked and writhed beside him, raking him with its claws. All of that was easily stopped by his own armor though and a second later he drove a dagger between two plates of carapace. Then he did that two more times. The Grey Legion were tough and it didn't pay to take chances.
Finished with the Vanguard, Derrick looked for another target, only to find all three other Agents were already down. Taken out by his two allies and fellow Hunters. None of the other members of the enemy patrol had even tried to retreat or managed to fire their weapons before the User ambush had brought them down.
Not unexpected, this was hardly the first time they had taken out small groups of Grey Legion soldiers together.
Stacy, a Teslaforce employee who he'd first fought beside against the Lurker of Loving Purpose, had taken down two with a specialized pistol. A Teslaforce manna fueled design that was powerful enough to pierce weak spots in Grey Legion Carapace and made no sound when firing, unless it exploded.
The last Agent had been been taken down by Mathew, a recent addition to the Users that had joined Derrick in hounding the Legion's retreat from the West Hills Enclave. The kindly older man had overpowered the furthest Agent with his brutal looking machete.
It looked like the first part had gone according to plan. The patrol had been eliminated, most likely before it could send out a warning. Derrick sent out a pulse of auril, just to be sure. It confirmed their complete victory.
“All clear,” he announced to both of the Users beside him, and to their other allies. “Success, send in the Tempests.”
Honestly, they were close enough to the road that their allies had probably watched the fight. Redundancy was half of professionalism it seemed though.
“Silence,” Mathew confirmed, referencing his unique trait. He still wasn't great at auril pulses but he made up for it with his superhuman hearing.
Because they still didn't understand how the Grey Legion communicated. Sometimes killing one would alert other nearby Agents, other times not. Their standard procedure was to blitz and hope for the best. It worked more than it didn't, even if they didn't know why.
He’d asked Third Striker and the Crusader had simply told him they weren’t using any layer of the Fold known to him.
With that in mind, it wasn't that important if the Grey Legion outpost they were attacking knew about Derrick and his fellow Hunters picking off the patrol. The important thing was that they didn't expect the followup.
Six Tempests crested a hill and moved past Derrick. A dramatic name for what was basically a pimped out pickup truck. He would have just called them Haulers or something. No one had asked him though.
The only sound of their arrival was the tread of their tires and the sound of the air they displaced. Powered by System technology, each of the vehicles was actually just a heavily converted pickup truck. After being stripped of their body and engine, System designated Mechanics had replaced them with upgraded versions. The Mechanics of West Hills had converted over a hundred of the grey and black vehicles. They were the main mode of transportation of both Users and supplies. As Users swarmed out of West Hills and into the countryside, they were being carried by Tempests.
Some of them also carried mortar batteries, Derrick noted as a series of blurs quietly shot overhead from three of the vehicles.
The entire point of the Hunter's attack had been to get the Tempests in range and undetected. Their payload was near silent right up until the guided shells exploded throughout the Grey Legion outpost.
Derrick couldn't see it from here, as the entire point was that this location was out of sight of the outpost, but dozens of shells must have exploded and peppered the gas station and shops the Grey Legion had occupied. Any exposed Legion would be at least wounded and even some of the Agents inside buildings might have taken a hit. The projectiles were all guided by System tech and were networked to the Tempests, even after being fired. They would be dropped right on enemy heads and some would be sent right through open windows.
After firing, all the vehicles but one shot ahead. That one had slowed enough that Derrick and his allies could jump aboard, then it accelerated until it was just behind the others. Derrick and his allies weren't needed for this next part. They were the only Users in the back of the vehicle, most of the space was taken up by the mortar launcher and bundles of supplies.
In what felt like seconds, he heard the now familiar sound of weapons fire. Both that of Users and the Grey Legion. The truck then turned the corner and revealed brightly colored but heavily armed Users charging through a hole blown in the Legion's perimeter barrier. That creepy looking fence looked like it had been woven by giant spiders rather than having been produced in any factory. It probably had been.
In fact, every building bore the subtle touch of grey legion architecture. Which was to say that something had oozed all over them and that ooze had hardened into grey shielding. Not that it was helping them much.
Wounded Agents were quickly overwhelmed and the smaller buildings like the convenience store attached to the gas pumps cleared. He heard the sound of return fire from the main building though, a food court with a few shops for travellers attached. That building was by far the most fortified, almost every window having been replaced with a panel of rippling grey material.
Derrick watched the last visible Agent be brought down and was satisfied. His tactics had proven effective. Kill the sentries, shell the place and then run in and kill everything the shells hadn't already murdered.
If he'd ever met a strategic genius, it wasn't in a mirror. The simplicity of his plan a feature, not a bug.
“Feels wrong to just watch this,” Stacy said from Derrick's side.
“It's not a job for Hunters. Let the Brutes and Fighters do their job,” Mathew replied. “And I'm thankful for the break. My bones are stiff for laying in that blasted ditch for so long.” He sighed.”I want to do my part and..”
“...get back to your family,” the tall woman interrupted with mild annoyance. “I can't believe you've gotten this far with that attitude. Besides, your family benefits more from your work here than from your visits.”
“I did what I was asked by the System. I still do,” Mathew replied seriously. The heavyset man showing not a hint of annoyance, instead his focus was on the ongoing fight. “I imagine we will have more of a part to play here before all is done.”
“He's right.” Derrick said. “Stay put.”
Stacy was more than a bit of a go getter, Derrick had learned over the last few days. Always inserting herself into any missions he took and encouraging him to go on more. She was almost as high a level as him, only her lack of a regenerative trait held her back. She was also a pretty obvious spy for Teslaforce's master, Gregory. Not that Derrick cared about that. What few secrets he had wouldn't be discovered by looking over his shoulder.
Besides, she was competent and came with both an auril heart and manna core. This far from the Enclave, they needed all the manna cores they could get. Especially if they were good in a fight. She had been the User that had wielded the Buckler cannon against the Drone, before the Lurker showed up.
Her spying was almost funny to Derrick. The annoying thing about her was her tendency to challenge his decisions. Like right now. It was no surprise that Gregory had unloaded her on him.
Derrick eyed his allies and then turned to the ongoing invasion. Everything seemed to be going well, he couldn't see any Agent's still active and no drones had appeared. A wave of rifle armed Users had pushed them inside almost instantly. If the Users currently attacking the bases main building hit serious resistance, they were supposed to pull out and let the Hunters scout it out.
Just over a hundred km (62 miles) outside West Hills, this was a waystation for the Grey Legion, not a real base. It was a fallback point that had funnelled captured humans out of the area and weapons into it. His hope was that destroying it would trap the remaining bands in the area, letting the User teams coming from West Hills to pick the stranded raiding bands off.
Further west, he was sure a major stronghold for the Legion was being created. There were entirely dark towns and small cities in that direction. How small the world had gotten, he mused. Three weeks ago he could have taken a plane around the world. Now reaching the next city over would be the work of weeks of dangerous fighting.
“It got quiet,” Mathew said suddenly.
It had, Derrick confirmed, he could no longer hear the sounds of battle. Even moans of pain were absent.
“Too quick,” Stacy said as Derrick thought it. “This was supposed to be important. There should be dozens of Agents here.”
Yes, there should. As of late, more traffic had flowed into the base from the local area than had been sent west. It was one reason he had pressed for this raid. This had been too easy so far. Not that they hadn't suffered casualties. He saw wounded being carried from the building in front of him.
On queue, his mask beeped at him.
Secure Com: Blake Demnol: Hit a wall. Needs a special touch.
Sighing aloud, Derrick sent a reply and moved towards the main building, leaving the vehicles behind. He stepped through a hole in the fence and approached the main building. The two other Hunters followed him and other Users gave him deferential nods as he passed.
He stepped inside the building and let out a pulse of auril that reached two hundred feet away. It wasn't great for telling Users from Grey Agents as it still only gave a fuzzy outline of living things around him. It did however let him know there was no fighting going on in the building. Most of the humanoids in the building had moved below ground and gathered together. Stepping over a few grey bodies, Derrick moved to join them in the basement.
“Stay up here,” Derrick told his fellow Hunters. “Keep an eye on things.”
“Yes, Glorious Leader.” Stacy said with obvious sarcasm. She found it funny that though he was the leader of this and many other missions, he had no official title or position. Her previous group. Teslaforce, still used corporate positions as ranks. Derrick was resisting her suggestions that he was 'The Director,' so she called him even more absurd titles.
He quickly found a service door that led to a hallway, that in turn, led to the basement.
Blake was waiting for him down there in the mundane looking basement hallway. He was wearing dark blue Red Works gear with white highlights.
There were half a dozen heavily armed Users that also belonged to Red Works beside him, Fighters and a couple of Brute’s that specialised in close quarters combat. None of them were Hunters, but all of them were either level two or close to it. Most of them had been at the fight versus the Lurker. Each wore armor and masks of a different color.
“What is it?” Derrick asked. It couldn't be anything immediately dangerous. There was no panic on anyone's faces, so it wasn't anything particularly dangerous.
“A door,” Blake said. “It won't open for us regular color folk. We can blow it, of course, but we thought it better to let you tell us what's on the other side first.”
Blake, sword resting on his shoulder, led the way around a corner and the obstacle became obvious. It looked less like a door and more like an airlock. Even the cement walls around it were coated by grey. No doubt to stop intruders from digging around the door. There were already explosives stuck to the door he noted, three separate devices.
Derrick pressed his hand to the door and let out a pulse of auril. That strange energy passed through the door and found half a dozen living things on the other side. All of them were prone and far from the door. It was unlikely to be an ambush or trap. Unless it was a mechanical or explosive one. The Grey legion rarely used those though and they almost always tried to take people alive.
“There are bodies in there but nothing that looks like a threat,” Derrick announced and moved away from the door. The System's breecher charges were very good but no one was willing to take any chances. Within seconds, the entire group of Users was around the corner and a boom filled the air.
Derrick peaked around the corner to see the twisted remains of the door still blocking the way. He carefully moved forward and when Quantum Awareness failed to activate, he began smashing his way through. His axe was sharp enough that he cleared the wreckage in a minute and stepped inside a room that was definitely not part of the original building. The entire thirty foot square must have been dug out by the Legion.
“Well, shit,” Blake said, taking in the same scene as Derrick.
It seemed like this hadn't just been a supply outpost. It looked like... well, it looked exactly like what it was, an alien laboratory. Nothing of human origin was here, every object and wall was made of the grey material the Legion used to make their own devices. The middle of the room was dominated by a large pillar that looked like it had been an important device at some point. The mechanical heart of this place. Now it was obviously disassembled, with loose cords dangling from it and pieces missing.
The walls and floor were covered in tubes of clear material that showcased the horrible oddities inside.
Most of them displayed what seemed like experiments on human bodies. Mostly intact corpses floating in whatever liquid filled the tubes. Most were grey skinned but some just had weird growths under their skin or spurs of bone sprouting from their flesh.
One tube, to Derrick's great concern, was filled with giant bees. They didn't even look like something the Grey Legion had made, just three bees the size of his fist floating lifelessly in a tube of clear liquid. Oh, and a single white flower that seemed normal if a little on the large side.
Right below that, in a tube built in the floor, various chunks of fungal matter floated. Obviously taken from the Spore Tyrants. Looking closer, he saw some of the fungus was growing from what seemed to be chunks of human flesh. Lovely.
As gruesome as the scenery was, it affected neither Blake nor Derrick much. They had both seen worse.
“They saw us coming,” Derrick mused aloud. “The abandoned lab, the lack of real resistance. They predicted our attack.”
“Still a win for us,” Blake said as cautious Users peered into the room. “The mission is a success and this place is a bonus.”
“True,” Derrick agreed. “Considering how hard it was to sell this attack though, I was hoping it would at least surprise the Legion.”
He stepped deeper into the room and peered down at the tube at his feet.
“Well, let’s see what we have here.” He said and immediately began smashing the see through material apart. Super hard glass shattered and milky liquid splashed all around. He ignored it though and once he had removed the top, abandoned his axe for a knife.
He began cutting the barely visible cords in the tank. After that, he reached inside and pulled out a body. A woman of average size and just one of the half dozen living bodies he sensed with auril.
Blake moved to his side as he wiped the milky liquid off the naked woman, revealing pale but definitely human skin. The System immediately offered a User tag.
Name: Sherry Woods
Which meant she was not infected or altered by the Grey Legion in any real way yet. The System monitored its Users closely through their implant. It would warn them if it could detect any contamination.
“Up to six Users saved,” he said, and gently laying her down on the floor, moved to the next tube. This at least took the bite out his attack being anticipated, both because of the net gain of Users and the optics of it. Among all the User groups that controlled West Hills, his was the most aggressive. Or at least they tied for that honor with the Breaknecks. The more successful his raids were, the more easily he could sell them.
“The ranks swell with your every victory,” Blake said, half joking and half serious. No doubt some of these Users would join his little start up. The Users that had been cut off from civilization when the Scourges arrived tended to be almost pathetically eager to join with larger groups, even his poor imitation of an army.
Derrick continued looking around at the collection of horrors that filled the room. Deleterious would love to get his hands on some of this. Too bad none of it looked like something he could trade to Teslaforce. Still, things were definitely looking up.
He heard a tapping sound and jerked to look that way, thinking that something was trying to escape a tank. But no, it was just Blake tapping on the ‘glass’ of the tank full of bees.
“We’re going to have to start carrying bug spray,” the blond said jokingly. “You think they were designing a gun that shoots attack bees?”
Derrick was about to inform Blake of how unfunny he was when a message from Stacy requested immediate help.
They were under attack.