Third Striker was an annoying little alien hybrid most of the time, Derrick mused.
As the first Crusader Derrick had met, he’d worried Derrick with how enthusiastic and strangely ignorant he was. Third Striker was not a scholar outside the narrow subject of using manna to kill things that defied the System. He wasn’t a leader or a diplomat because the Feral Artisans didn’t negotiate and teamwork were useless against them anyway.
He was a warrior and frankly a zealot. From what little Derrick knew about his past, his life had been about becoming a Crusader and now that he was one, his life was about being the best Crusader possible.
This was especially off-putting for most humans because he looked like a teenager wearing blue armor that was thin enough that it looked more than a little like cosplay. It was hard for humans, even Users, to take him seriously. To ignore his youthful looks and recognize the ancient alien killer underneath.
Derrick did not have that problem, because unlike other Users, he had seen what the diminutive Crusader could do. He’d missed the hybrid’s fight against the Feral Artisan in West Hills, but all it had taken was a few lessons and demonstrations to let Derrick realize how dangerous manna in the hands of a master could be.
A split second after a spiked harpoon had penetrated his new ride’s walls, Third Striker pointed a seemingly empty palm towards the offending weapon and annihilated it with a burst of blue light.
Force and heat were drawn from other layers of existence and collected in his small armored palm. Then, those energies were refined into an attack, that propelled by his will, could punch through tank armor.
It looked like blue lightning but Derrick knew it was more of a plasma bullet.
Name: Third Striker
Titles: Pilgrim II
Race: Bound Mwin/Human Hybrid
Derrick winced at the hole this attack left in the Abomination’s side. It didn't hit anything important, just destroyed a screen, but the hole was almost big enough to stick his head through. He had just bought the damn vehicle, this was his first time taking it for a spin.
“This will be a difficult but important battle for you,” Third Striker announced, a look of contemplation on his face. “Yes, you are lucky neophyte. Your slow growth under my tutelage has been aggravating. This could be just the challenge you require to better yourself.”
Derrick didn’t wait for him to finish talking, there was a fight going on after all. He could hear, if not sense it going on. The Hunter peeked out the still open door on the side of the vehicle and saw his fellow Users struggling to fight off the Rebel Instrument scavengers.
The murderous machines were fast, maneuverable, had erie situational awareness and were capable of shielding themselves with some kind of manna screen. Now that they were among the User convoy, it was almost impossible to damage them. Their own harpoons had less difficulty punching through the human’s own shields. Derrick assumed this was because the zausite tipped weapons were designed for just that purpose.
The cables connected to the projectile would let be fed manna much more efficiently. Why hadn't he thought of that?
In fact, these high speed constructs seemed like they had been designed for this exact fight.
Once their harpoons bit into something solid, the Scourge pounced. Reeled itself towards its victim with blinding speed and began trying to tear it apart with its pointed metal legs. Meg’s riders and Derrick’s own allies in the Tempests were mostly fighting them off for now , thanks to their skills in hand to hand combat, but the resilient machines weren’t taking any casualties either. They would abandon a fight if they thought they were in danger, effortlessly gliding along with the caravan and choosing a new target.
The Abomination itself was only under light attack, the noises from above reassured him that Blake and Stacy had that mostly under control. He saw one scavenger scamper up the side of the large vehicle, only to be shot off by the buckler cannon a second later. Sadly, the six legged robot was dented but not destroyed, it landed on the street with catlike grace and circled around behind the truck and out of sight.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to learn to shoot plasma in the next couple of minutes,” Derrick argued as he watched the fight going on with aggravating impotence.
This was very much not his choice of grounds or enemies. He lacked the mobility or weapons to threaten these machines in any real way. His specialty, Auril, was completely useless and his pistol would be just one of dozens of such weapons being fired. The idiocy of throwing an axe was obvious. He did have one more weapon, a very recent acquisition, but he had no idea what it would do.
“Of course not,” Third Striker scoffed as he joined Derrick at the door. “No, we will be working on the most fundamental skill of all great manna wielders, warding. The defensive use of domains.”
“How is that going to help?” Derrick asked, growing annoyed. His allies and employees were in danger while Third Striker lectured. A domain was just when one seized control of a piece of substrate, the closest layer of the Fold to reality. Warding was just when you did so to prevent others from using it. The Rebel Instruments didn’t seem to be using manna offensively at all, for him to ward against their shields, he would have to be hugging them.
Considering they were made of sharp pieces of poisonous, possibly radioactive, metal, that was a spectularly dumb idea.
“I recognize the source of their unnatural grace and perception.” Third Striker began explaining. “They have created a soul network in the substrate. A trick that not only lets them communicate unheard but also lets them wield manna with abnormal deftness. As long as this ghost mind rules them, they will fight as one creature.”
Now Third Striker had Derrick’s attention. That was useful information. The small hybrid swung out the door and grabbed the ladder, he continued speaking as Derrick shut the door and followed him up.
“I will lay siege to this network, weakening its minions and drawing their ire. It will send its mechanical host to destroy me. You and your allies will stop them.”
Just that easy, huh?
“Stop them how?” the Crusader’s disciple asked skeptically. From what he could see, Derrick could maybe fight off two of the machines. Even if you added Stacy and Blake, they would be overwhelmed in seconds if even half a dozen of them all attacked at the same time.
Well, at least this was something he could do. Just watching the fight was not acceptable. He was very used to contributing to every battle against the Scourges. He made a point of it.
All of a sudden, Derrick saw a scavenger change direction. It launched itself towards them and once it was within ten feet, It unfurled, it’s legs launching it towards the climbing pair.
Before it had even left the ground, Derrick began unloading his pistol into it. The first bullet hit and dented dark metal armor, but the rest were blocked by a shimmer midair.
A second later, a bolt of blue light burned through the shimmer, hitting the machine in the middle of its round body and smashing it into the road below. Robbed of momentum, the scavenger was left behind by the moving vehicle they were riding.
How often could Third Striker do that? It couldn’t be as easy as it looked.
“Though hale and valorous, your fellow Users cannot triumph over this enemy as things stand. I will weaken their ghost mind enough that the parasites will be unable to wield manna so adeptly. Once i’m doing so, even a weak warding from you should shatter their unity entirely. You must use your domain as a weapon for this purpose, stunning them and striking them down a sthey approach. Prepare yourself,” the Crusader said as he finished climbing.
Derrick was right behind him, joining him on the top of the Abomination. At the front corner of the vehicle, Stacy was wielding her Buckler Cannon on a turret, her lower body was hidden below. Under her guidance, the turret mounted gun was one of the few weapons they had that was causing the Rebel Instruments any real trouble. Its steady fire could pound through their shields if the Rebel Instruments held still too long. This at least forced the machines to keep moving.
Derrick had to admire her courage, firing at any targets that appeared in front of their ride while ignoring the loud fight that was going on at the back of the vehicle.
There, Blake was determinedly beating back two of the spider like machines, their persistent assault was being met with a flurry of superhumanly fast sword swings. They probed and jabbed with their razor sharp limbs but Blake was always ready with a dodge, block or counter.
Derrick could see that one of them was missing most of a limb, severed by the reinforced blade Blake used. That one was wielding the spinning vertical ring that surrounded its body as a weapon. It was essentially a walking circular saw.
His ally was clearly in a lot of trouble. Derrick was impressed he’d held out this long. The second he moved to help, a weapon was almost casually turned on him and a harpoon was launched right at his chest.
Even without a warning from his auril, instinct kicked in and Derrick grabbed at it. Intending to snatch it from the air like he did with most projectiles that were launched at him.
Right before it his fingers closed around the lightning fast spike, a soft but powerful blow to the calf had him collapsing backwards instead. From that awkward angle, Derrick saw Third Striker grab the cord connecting the Scourge to its thrown weapon and give a powerful tug that snapped it free.
“Zausite, do not try to catch it. Do not touch the tips of Rebel Instrument weapons at all if you can help it. Those gauntlets you are wearing are a gift I will not replace if you ruin them,” Third Striker said, the ancient alien warrior knight sounding like a smug and overly dramatic teenage brat. “That perversion of siviril is designed by these parasites as a weapon against the System and those it supports. It easily pierces esthisium and other common materials the System uses, as well as disrupting raw manna.”
“Noted,” Derrick said as he regained his balance. Logically, he’d known how dangerous the stuff was but his carefully honed instincts had kicked in before he recognized the danger. The last time some of this stuff had touched him, he’d had to go through a several hour long decontamination procedure under Deleterious’ ministrations.
“I’m going to start my assault on the network,” the Crusader continued. “I’d clear up these enemies quickly. More will be here soon. My challenge will not go unanswered.”
That said, the diminutive hybrid sat down in a meditation pose, right in the middle of the vehicle’s roof, just ten feet from a pair of murderous robots.
“Yes, any time now.” Blake said, voice dripping with acid as a powerful clash of alien metals filled the air with sparks.
Derrick gave the surroundings a quick glance before once more charging in to help Blake. The two scavengers didn’t have any help incoming, so a blitz attack would be perfect. The out of place Hunter drew his axes and launched himself forward, using the tiniest bit of raw manna to anchor himself to the moving vehicle he was running across.
He was halfway to the fight when he felt something change. Like a pressure he hadn’t known was there had been removed. A weight taken off his shoulders. At the exact same time, he saw Blake’s opponents flinch. It was just for a single moment but it was unmistakable.
A second later, one of them peeled away from Blake and launched itself at Derrick, or Third Striker who was behind him anyway. The machine that had stayed to fight Blake abandoned its caution and attacked the sword wielder with suicidal abandon, jumping forward and attempting to grind him apart under its spinning wheel ring.
Well, it’s do or die time, Derrick thought to himself, as the green and grey machine touched its body to the ground and used the wheel ring to launch itself forward like a giant cannonball with spider legs.
He had only an instant to remember Third Strikers advice. The latest advice from the alien sage had been to dodge instead of block, but that was useless. If he did dodge, the scavenger machine would just hit Third Striker.
That left his tiny sensei's other advice for this fight. Which was using his domain to disrupt the enemy. Derrick the Red extended his will into the substrate and claimed as much territory in the direction of the charging enemy as he could. It wasn’t much. His life being in imminent danger failed to make him a master of manna. Instead, he managed his usual two feet.
Unimpressive, but it did the trick. When the ball of jagged limbs reared up to strike at him, it hit his domain and was stunned for another split second. It was still moving forward but it seemed confused for a single moment. That was enough time for Derrick to dodge one limb, and batter another to the side with an axe blade. His other axe blade used the metal creature’s own momentum and his weight to pierce its armor. The crescent blade sank right into the orb body of the machine with a horrible screeching noise. His weapon jerked wildly in his hand but he held on, pushing his other axe against it. A second later, he was forced to retreat when his wounded foe pointed its gun right at his face. He couldn’t take the chance. Retreating, he dodged a flurry of stabbing limbs only mostly successfully.
Luckily, the creature only hit his armor and that armor wasn’t System made. Like all Red Works items, it was at least partially made of scavenged Grey Legion carapace The zuasite tips of its limbs seemed to have much less of an easy time piercing that stolen grey material. Derrick idly wondered if he could use this information to sell more armor.
Seemed a bit niche. It was a big world though. Some Users somewhere would find that valuable.
He expected his enemy to give chase but instead, it just jerked back and forth until it collapsed. Like a malfunctioning toy. It seemed like he’d hit something important. If he had to guess, the same weird machinery that made them so graceful and quick was also a bit on the delicate side. Didn’t take well to being axed, and once that broke, there wasn’t much left.
“Two down, a dozen more to go.” A voice said from the front of the vehicle. It was Stacy shouting over the noise of the battle. “No time for a break.”
Blake was done with his fight as well. A collapsed scavenger at his feet, he moved to Derrick’s side with a scowl on his face.
“I take it we need to protect our protector? Isn’t this like the second time this has happened?” the blond User asked. “At least it’s not a rescue this time.”
“Yes, but to be fair, he’s apparently weakening the spider bots.” Derrick said as watched for the inevitable second wave. “And Scynil was actually a lot of help before the Lurker showed up.”
His blond ally let out a long sigh.
“This fight is less fun than I thought it would be. I just got used to this manna buckler and these fuckers can cut through it like nothing,” Blake complained.
“Shut up! Incoming from the back!” Stacy shouted.
While they had been talking, five of the scavengers had met up and were approaching from an angle she couldn’t cover with her gun.The body of the truck was in the way.
They seemed less coordinated than they had been just minutes ago, he noticed. Whatever Third Striker was doing was working it seemed. In about fifteen seconds, Derrick and Blake would be trading blows again. This time with much less even odds.
Surprisingly, one of the skittering pack was brought down by a heavy hail of bullets at the last second. These came from a biker that zoomed by before going to help out a besieged Tempest. The scavengers ignored their fallen ally.
“Four is still too many,” Blake yelled to Stacy. “We need help.”
“Everyone needs help. I’m busy!” she returned. Emphasizing her point with the rhythmic barking of her gun.
Derrick heard the sound of a volley of harpoons piercing the hull of his new truck. Blake readied himself to receive their attackers.
Derrick knew the other was right though. Even using his stunning trick, four was too many for the pair to fight off. Derrick reached inside his red jacket and pulled out a grenade.
A device containing a tiny unstable manna gate. Can have a wide variety of effects depending on the skills of the User.
It was the grenade he had taken from the User he had killed at the farm. Now seemed like pretty much the perfect time to use the expensive explosive. There wouldn’t be a later unless he did something.
He connected his core to it, careful to channel raw manna only, and lobbed it in the middle of their attackers. It landed among them just as they were leaving the ground to jump onto the side of the Abomination.
Explode, he commanded the device and things went very wrong, very quickly.
The second he felt the grenade trigger, a tiny pulse of Canvas manna flowed out of his core without warning. Because it was moving through the substrate and not reality, his auril Style couldn’t stop it.
A hush fell over the battlefield as a ring of silver light a dozen feet across exploded into existence. It devoured the space occupied by three of the scavengers without obvious visible effect on them.
Derrick felt time slow as he gazed upon the expanding silver ring. It flickered in his eyes like static on a television set. He could even hear something not too different from static. Although it was more like fingers gently clawing at some unseen barrier.
He reached out his hand towards it, he felt the noise grow subtly louder and saw the ring grow a hair larger.
He heard shouting but ignored it. Whatever was being said couldn’t be as important as the subject of his gaze. What was it doing? It was still connected to him, so he could feel it doing something. It didn’t feel like an attack. It could not be something as base as an attack. No, this would something far more beautiful and important...
Blake punched him in the face. Maybe coincidentally, at that exact same time, the ring disappeared.
The fourth scavenger, the one untouched by the grenade, hit the side of the Abomination and began to climb. The other three failed the jump and their still forms were dragged behind the vehicle, still attached to it by their harpoons.
Before they were pulled behind the Abomination and disappeared from his view, Derrick though they looked somewhat melted.
“Blessed blades of Bwedo,” Third Striker swore angrily. “What in the name of the Darkest Spaces was that?”