Walter Tye’s shop was relatively crowded today.
More than ten clients strode through its shelves, each more sinister than the last: a golden, crowned skeleton sorcerer floating in the air through magic; some kind of Dracula cosplayer in black finery; a four-armed, archaic robot; and so many more. Basil and Vasi stayed clear of them all. Half of these visitors looked straight out of a horror movie and the rest minded their own business.
Besides, they had come for a delivery first and foremost.
“What a fascinating device.” Sitting behind his counter with his dullahan bodyguard watching over him, Walter examined the laptop with the joy of a child opening a Christmas present. “A portable library machine… truly fascinating. I’ve heard that it can capture cat souls with pictures too.”
“It’s the other way around,” Basil replied with amusement. “Cat pictures entrance viewers into giving up their souls.”
“Mmm, sounds like an oversight to me. Still, your world’s people are an ingenious lot. I would have loved to visit your civilization at its peak.”
“I haven’t seen you this curious since we discovered Nastrond, chief,” Hagen mused.
“How can’t I? This ‘computer technology’ presents a new field of science unknown to me.” Walter offered Basil a nod of genuine gratefulness. “You have done well to bring me this.”
“A deal is a deal,” Basil replied with a shrug.
“A man of his word,” Walter said with appreciation. “Good. The business world runs on trust. You will go far, Basil.”
Quest: Forever Serpent’s Errands I completed. Your party earned 1500 Bonus exp (250 for you).
Bordeaux had roughly been a two-hour car drive from Seignosse before the apocalypse. Unfortunately, the world’s end shot down France’s transport system. Roads suffered damage from monster attacks or lack of maintenance, forcing Basil’s party to take detours. And for all of her might and determination, Rosemarine couldn’t pull the Steamobile at his old Renault’s speed.
The two-hour drive had swiftly transformed into a two-day one and the party stopped to scavenge supplies. Basil had found the laptop in an abandoned town’s shop. It was relatively old as far as Dell wares went, but Walter looked happy with it all the same.
“I usually pay my suppliers in rubies or gold, but I doubt you’re looking for money right now.” Walter set the laptop aside. “What do you need? Spellbooks?”
“Maybe later,” Vasi declined politely. “Our holomachine contains enough spells to keep me busy until Tier VI.”
“Can it teach necromancy spells too?” Walter smiled when the witch nodded in affirmation. “Excellent. Then contact me once you reach Tier VII. I will lend you manuals to continue your progress. Congratulations on your successful ritual by the way.”
“I will need to form a coven for any future transformation,” Vasi replied before putting an elbow on Basil’s shoulder. “My darling will assist me in my quest.”
It said something about how comfortable the two had gotten with each other that Basil didn’t repel Vasi’s invasion of his personal space. “We’re still one person short,” he pointed out.
“Not really,” Walter replied. “You can fill the gap in a coven by enslaving a hag’s soul. If you don’t mind the screams, it makes for an acceptable substitute.”
He said that the way a normal person might comment about the weather.
“Come to think of it, I think I have an extra one in storage somewhere.” Walter looked into his counter’s shelves. “Where did I put that hag’s soulstone?”
“Maybe in the attic with Thor’s head?” Hagen suggested.
“Oh right, I forgot about it…” Walter turned to his disturbed customers. “If you give me a minute, I can fetch the soulstone for you.”
“Thank you Walter, but we’ll pass,” Vasi said. Behind the politeness and fake smile, Basil could tell that the idea of using an enslaved soul as fuel for power unsettled her as much as him. “I would prefer a willing participant. More laughs, less pain.”
“Suit yourself,” Walter replied, taking the rejection in stride. “Anything else I can offer you?”
“I’m looking for alchemical components and information.” Basil presented his Jekyll & Stein manual to the shopkeeper. “I’m trying to craft a potion of invisibility, but I'm missing some ingredients.”
“Good book,” Walter complimented them. “Sure, I will reward your delivery with reagents. What information do you seek?”
“Have you heard of the Deathknight and Dragonknight classes?” Basil asked him. “I’ve unlocked them both, but I don’t know what Perks they possess.”
“Deathknight?” Hagen chuckled darkly. At his side, Walter smiled ear to ear; an expression that Basil found immensely terrifying. “You’ve knocked on the right door.”
“You unlocked it yourself?” Basil guessed. He should have expected it from a headless undead knight.
“Of course I did. It might work a bit differently in your world but I can teach you the ropes. And as the most chivalrous warrior to ever live, I’m also familiar with Dragonknights.”
“All the brave warriors you stabbed in the back might disagree about the chivalrous part,” Walter mused.
“Details, details,” Hagen replied with a hand on his chest. “I would not be so bold as to call myself an expert at killing knights, but I’ve slain enough of them to learn their tricks. Do you have a dragon pet, Basil?”
“I have a giant flower lizard,” Basil replied. “Does it count?”
“Can it fly?” Hagen asked.
“Oh.” The headless knight sounded deeply disappointed. “A shame. Any dragon-type will help, but you gain more benefits from that class if you own a flying mount.”
“A flying mount?” Vasi’s eyes widened. “Are you suggesting that he try to ride a dragon?”
“Uh, yes?” Hagen sounded puzzled. “What about it?”
“I can count the number of dragonriders on one hand,” Vasi replied. “It’s already amazing that Basil managed to earn a dragon follower, but to ride it in battle… he would be pushing his luck. Those creatures are deeply proud and easily offended.”
“Come on, they aren’t gods. They’re big lizards that like gold. Or magpies that breathe fire, depending on your point of view.” Hagen shrugged his shoulders. “If they won’t let you climb on their back, you beat them into submission like any horse.”
Vasi covered her mouth in shock as if the headless knight had suggested killing the Pope. “Beat… beat a dragon into submission?”
“Yes. You don’t do that in your world?” Hagen chuckled. “No wonder your dragons have behavioral issues if you pamper them.”
“I feel like I encountered a culture clash,” Basil noted as Vasi’s face lost all color.
Walter interrupted the discussion. “What Hagen means to say is that dragons are far less of a threat in our world than yours, Vasi. Great wyrms are extremely rare, and many lesser breeds have been domesticated.”
“Classes like Dragonknights are optimized to deal with the unruly ones,” Hagen continued. “The level 5 Perk grants them the Dragonslayer effect with all melee weapons. If you haven’t slaughtered dragons before, Basil, you will kill them by the dozens afterwards.”
“Level 5?” Vasi tried to regain her composure, but this new information sent her back to square one. “That’s early for such a powerful ability.”
“Higher Dragonknight levels mostly focus on dragon-riding, breath attacks, and bypassing that unfair damage reduction all ancient wyrms possess.” Hagen grunted. “Truly dangerous dragons often take less than fifteen percent damage from attacks. This de facto multiplies their health and makes them incredibly difficult to put down. And let’s not talk about the critical hit and instant death immunities.”
Fifteen percent damage?
Basil thought back of his fight with Steamslime. It had taken a lot of bombs and firepower to take down the snail-dragon; far more than opponents with a higher level like Apollyon and the Lalande Empire. Basil had blamed the beast’s resilience on a high Vitality score and, well, him being a giant snail dragon, but the existence of damage reduction abilities explained it better.
Steamslime destroyed a city at level 20, so Basil shuddered to imagine what a level 50 dragon would be like. Yes, he would definitely invest in a class meant to slay them.
Blackcinders. The name echoed in his head. The astronauts’ video indicated that at least one Unity dragon was active on the moon and Basil doubted she would stay there forever. If she ever comes down, I’ll be ready. The dark side of the moon will look like a happy place compared to what hell I’ll welcome her with.
Speaking of dragons, one of Walter’s customers—the strange crowned skeleton from before—approached the counter with a serpent-shaped bottle of cologne.
“I have a question,” the skeleton asked. “Does this dragonbane cologne work on godlike ones too?”
“It does, yes,” Walter replied with an annoyed expression. Hagen chuckled darkly for a reason Basil couldn’t fathom. “The potent smell of poverty and lead repels them. You will be satisfied or reimbursed.”
“Good, I’ll take it.” The undead snapped his finger and a pile of colorful, skull-shaped gems appeared on the table. “Here’s your payment.”
“Thank you for your purchase, Mr. Furibon,” Walter replied politely. “Always happy to do business with you.”
“I can’t wait to see the wyrm’s face,” the customer replied before vanishing with a maniacal chuckle.
“I…” Vasi cleared her throat. “I need to reassess some of my beliefs.”
“You should,” Hagen said. “Anyway, you’ll never find a better dragon-hunting class than Dragonknight and its Perk will synergize well with Deathknight’s ones. You can do no wrong with these two.”
“Necromancy is the true path to freedom, Basil,” Walter said with surprising passion. “Deathknight will grant you the greatest power in the world: mastery over death itself.”
“Can you write down these classes’ Perks?” Basil asked with a frown. “That way I can see if they are truly a fit for me.”
“With pleasure,” Hagen replied. “The classes’ abilities might differ in your world, but you’ll have the gist of them.”
“Thank you,” Vasi said with a polite nod. “We are glad for your kind help.”
“I’m always happy to support those who walk the path of necromancy.” Walter sank in his chair, his gaze calculating. “I have another errand for you two, if you’re up for it. The delivery will be more complicated than the last, but I will pay you handsomely for it.”
“Sure,” Basil replied. “You want a mobile phone next?”
“What’s a phone?” Walter asked with a puzzled face.
“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” Hagen said with enthusiasm. “They’re metal birds that send letters instantly.”
“We enjoy a good ghost postal service, so I will pass.” Walter shrugged. “I will spare you the details, but the magical energy on which my world runs comes in a limited supply. My realm will slowly decline across centuries until one night, it shall shrink to nothingness.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Vasi said softly.
“Sounds like the heat death of the universe,” Basil replied with a frown. “What can you do about it?”
A flash of disaste appeared on Walter’s face. “You have seen the dead rise, Basil. If death can be overcome with little to no consequences, then is it truly inevitable? Or even necessary?”
“Point taken,” Basil conceded, although he wasn’t entirely sure about the ‘no consequences’ part. All the undead he had crossed paths with had either been enslaved by sorcerers or fueled by hatred. He couldn’t call their existence anything but a half-life. “Have you found any solution?”
“Not yet,” Walter admitted, “but your Trimurti System might hold the key to solving my conundrum. The incredible energy needed to transform your universe, to raise your dungeons, and create matter from nothing has to come from somewhere. This untapped power could save my world.”
Vasi immediately guessed what was on his mind. “You want a neurotower.”
“Yes,” Walter confirmed. “Studying one of your dungeons’ cores would let me figure out where their magical energy comes from.”
“I actually have a theory that respects conservation of mass,” Basil said. Walter squinted at him with interest. “A lot of matter is lost in the crafting process and disappears. I suspect it’s transformed into energy to fuel dungeons. That or…”
The memory of that great and terrible eye looking down on Earth flashed through Basil’s mind. “That, or they draw their power directly from the Trimurti.”
Walter Tye observed him in silence for a few seconds, his eyes cold and unblinking. Basil was certain that the shopkeeper read his mind somehow. He felt Vasi’s stare at his back too.
As promised, Basil had given the rest of his party an account of their Halloween discoveries on the way to Bordeaux. Vasi had taken the news surprisingly well, all things considered. Perhaps she had seen weirder things on her homeworld. Still, he could tell that knowing the entire world was held within a deity’s palm had spooked her a bit.
“You are afraid,” Walter whispered. “Of what you’ve seen.”
“I am,” Basil confessed. There was no shame in admitting. Anyone saying they weren’t scared of a creature whose eye was bigger than the freaking moon was a goddamn liar. “And I’m scared of what it will do if Kalki dies.”
Lovecraft said that man’s oldest and greatest fear was that of the unknown. He was wrong.
Basil was scared specifically because he knew exactly what to expect. He would die, his friends would die, his entire civilization would die. All of mankind’s history would end, its existence forgotten, its world blown away like dust to the wind.
And besides finding Kalki before he endangered himself, he could do nothing to prevent it.
He sensed Vasi’s warm, comforting fingers on his arm. “Basil, don’t feel down,” she whispered. “We’ll find him.”
“I hope so,” Basil replied without much enthusiasm. Tracking down Kalki would have been a hard task already without Dismaker Labs looking for him. He could only pray that they would meet again in Bordeaux.
“Basil.” Walter Tye intertwined his fingers, his expression one of utter seriousness. “I am many centuries older than you. I will not pretend that with age comes wisdom, but I’ve gained a certain degree of perspective over my long years. Allow me to share with you an observation that, I believe, you will find all the more relevant in due time.”
Basil’s head perked up. The sheer intensity radiating from the man before him commanded his entire attention. Whatever Walter was about to reveal, he believed in it from the bottom of his heart.
“Our universe is full of powerful beings that like to present themselves as omnipotent and worthy of our worship,” Walter explained. “They pretend, sometimes rightfully, that they are deities. That as mortal beings weaker than them, they are entitled to our veneration. But their power only comes from our perception of it. Any creature that demands your respect without earning it is not worthy of anything. For this creature is insecure. It knows it is vulnerable, physically or emotionally, so it projects strength where it is lacking.”
Basil struggled to imagine a creature larger than Jupiter having a weak point.
“That’s where your imagination fails you,” Walter said, all but confirming that he was indeed reading his customer’s mind. “If we believe these entities are invincible, then they have defeated us in our souls. If we mortals think they can be beaten and overthrown… then we will inevitably find out a way to succeed. Remember that, Basil: no matter how powerful or overwhelming the danger ahead of us, there is always a path to victory. The road may require great sacrifices, it may be paved with blood and sweat; but if you have the strength of will to see it through, then even the gods will fold.”
His words brimmed with such confidence… Basil shivered at hearing them. Walter Tye was no charismatic speaker, but his unshakeable belief infused each of his sentences. Basil could almost feel it. It was reassuring in a way.
When a Superboss believed he could survive the game, how could Basil argue against it?
“I hope you’re right,” Basil replied. “I’m skeptical… but I’ll try to keep faith.”
“Faith is a poor substitute for determination.” Walter locked eyes with him. “Lend me the shell for a minute.”
“The shell?” Did he mean Kalki’s gift? “So you were reading my mind.”
“The circumstances demanded it.” If he felt sorry, Walter didn’t show it. “Please lend me your shell.”
Since he asked so nicely, Basil opened his inventory and selected the Conch Shell he received from Kalki. It surprised him that the personal inventory feature worked even across dimensional boundaries. Perhaps he carried the pocket dimension with himself somehow?
Walter examined the instrument carefully for a moment. He then traced a circled arrow symbol on its surface with his left index finger; somehow his nail left a black blood trail where it touched the shell.
“When you play a song with it, the Conch Shell will show you the direction of its previous owner,” Walter explained as he returned the instrument to Basil. “This should help you on your quest to find the avatar.”
“Thanks,” Basil replied. He wasn’t certain what to make of the man’s generosity. “What’s the range?”
“It will point the path as long as you share the same world,” Walter replied. “This is not generosity, Basil. This is an investment. I cannot study a world bound to destroy itself, can I?”
Basil shrugged his shoulders. He should have seen it coming.
Walter proved to be a generous employer. Besides the class information and the Conch Shell upgrade, he also provided Basil with pouches full of alchemical reagents for the Jekyll & Stein recipes and notes on knight classes.
“Your theory about matter transformation is certainly plausible, but I would like to examine a neurotower server and confirm it to myself,” Walter said before his customers could leave. “My research could help explain why your world was transported out of place… and hopefully, how to put it back in its proper place.”
“The server will be protected by Crafter Encryption,” Vasi warned. “I struggle to study the Unity’s runetech because of similar protections.”
Walter scoffed. “Crafter Encryption only affects individuals with a lower level than the crafter’s. Unless their creator is already a god, then I am overqualified.”
“Don’t mind the chief’s arrogance,” Hagen commented lightly. “It’s part of his charm.”
“It’s not arrogance when you can back it up,” Walter countered.
“Pride before a fall,” Basil and Hagen said almost at the same time; Basil lightly, Hagen somberly.
New Quest: Forever Serpent’s Errand II
Recommended Level: 25.
Walter Tye’s journey down the cat video rabbit hole continues. Further the cause of online necromancy by providing him a neurotower server!
Reward: 60,000 Bonus EXP.
Basil wasn’t certain how he felt about handing a reality-altering device to someone as sinister as Walter Tye. The shopkeeper had acted fairly in his dealings with the party so far, but he remained a cold and dangerous creature.
Still, he was perhaps the only person short of Dismaker Labs’ board capable of unlocking the neurotower’s mysteries. Basil would cross that bridge when they reached it.
Basil and Vasi teleported back to Earth with their new gifts right as the sun started rising over the horizon. The group had stopped in an abandoned parking lot close to an empty village. Rosemarine rested on the pavement, her petals oriented at the shining dawn. Shellgirl took stock of scavenged supplies and Bugsy melted metal plates onto the Steamobile to reinforce the armor. As for Plato, he should return from his scouting mission shortly.
We should be close to the Garonne river by now, Basil thought. Bordeaux will be right around the corner.
“Vasi, Partner, you’re back!” Shellgirl welcomed them with a smile. “How was your shopping trip? Did you get a gift card?”
“Maybe next time,” Basil teased her. Knowing Walter, he would have to sign it with his blood.
“I’m surprised you didn’t come with us,” Vasi said with a grin. “I thought you would enjoy pestering Walter for advice.”
“I prefer to learn by experience, and our current business models are completely different. He caters to an exclusive clientele while Partner and I intend to service impoverished masses.” Shellgirl’s smile faltered. “That and… I didn’t feel like it.”
As the Mimic Booty’s eyes turned to look up at the sun, Basil realized he wasn’t the only one questioning his place in the universe. Shellgirl had always struck him as the smartest of dungeon-created monsters, the quickest to develop a personality and ethics of her own. Of course the astronaut video would affect her.
Bugsy noticed Shellgirl’s unease and immediately moved to cheer her up. “Hey, it’s all right!” he said with enthusiasm. “It doesn’t change anything.”
“I will eat it one day,” Rosemarine promised. Her tongue licked her fangs as she looked at the sun. “One day…”
“I know, I know,” Shellgirl replied, though her tone implied otherwise. “It’s just… I got an awesome new body and abilities, but I still feel small. If that makes sense.”
“You’re not small,” Vasi reassured her. “You’re a start-up. You need time to scale up.”
Shellgirl chuckled weakly. “There’s always bigger business out there though.”
“I mean, even if that thing closes its hand, does it matter what we might die from?” Bugsy asked. “We could end up swallowed by the earth, drowned in a swamp, slain by the Apocalypse Force, maybe even eaten by bigger monsters. There are so many ways to die at any time, so what’s one more?”
His reaction drew everyone’s attention. Bugsy and Shellgirl looked at him in fear, Rosemarine with bloodthirst, and Vasi with curiosity.
“It’s rare to hear you laugh,” the witch noted. “A shame.”
“Speak for yourself,” Shellgirl said with terrified eyes. “He sounds like death itself!”
“Sorry…” Basil calmed himself. “It’s just… you’re completely right, Bugsy.”
The centimagma blinked in confusion. “I-I am?”
“I can’t argue with your logic,” Basil replied with a grin. “With everything in that damn world trying to kill us, what's one more danger?”
On the list of potential threats to his life, he would put universal annihilation right before Apollyon and after cancer.
“Here’s my advice, Shellgirl,” Vasi said. “Drink and forget about it.”
“Will it help?” Shellgirl asked hopefully.
“Not the drinking part,” Basil replied dryly. “The forget part, maybe.”
“Killjoy,” Vasi taunted him. “Where’s your alcohol police badge?”
“In my inventory,” Basil deadpanned back.
“Oh, can I see it?” Bugsy asked naïvely.
Shellgirl nodded, a frown on her face. “Okaaaay… I’ll try one piece of advice and see about the other.”
Basil was about to chide her for even considering drinking on the job when Plato bolted into the parking lot. The cat breathed heavily on arrival, which immediately worried his owner.
“What’s happening?” Basil asked with a frown. “Plato? Did you sense danger?”
“Ah… ah…” The cat caught his breath. “You won’t guess who I smelled on my scouting.”
Basil’s heart skipped a beat. “Kalki?”
“No, your police girlfriend!” Plato sneered. “Her and her silly dogs!”
“Neria?” She was alive? The thought came as an immense relief to Basil. He feared she might have died after they lost contact. “Where?”
“A few minutes away up the wine river.”
The wine river?
Guided by Plato, the group immediately traveled on foot towards the Garonne. The sky darkened as they approached the river. Sinister, dark purple particles floated among the clouds and tainted the entire horizon. The effect superficially resembled a dungeon’s aurora, but more diffused. Basil likened the phenomenon to a drop of poison spreading into a sky blue sea.
A notification confirmed that something unnatural was at work in the region.
Dionysus-Orochi’s [God-Field: Liber Pater] changed the field to [Shinto Bacchus].
- [Mind], [Corrosion], [Water], [Earth], and [Mythic] elements are strengthened.
- [Fire], [Frost], and [Lightning] elements are weakened.
- Chances of inflicting the [Berserk], [Charm], [Drunk], and [Madness] ailments are doubled.
- Drinking alcohol will replenish HP/SP, and the [Drunk] ailment will buff up [Strength] and [Vitality].
Dionysus? God-Field? Basil had a terrible terrible gut feeling upon reading these words, which a look at the Garonne only reinforced.
Larger than the l’Adour and taking its source in Spain, the river was almost synonymous with the Gironde French region. Bordeaux was located at its mouth and in ancient times drew its wealth from the trade it brought. The river made the land fertile enough for wine production.
But now, Bordeaux’s people only had to take a sip to get drunk.
Basil stared speechlessly at the riverbank. The Garonne’s waters had turned into a deep red wine streaked with white bubbles. An unnatural current carried dead fish away. The whole place stank of rot and alcohol.
“This…” Vasi put a hand on her mouth. “I love wine as much as the next gal, but this… this doesn’t look safe to drink…”
“Is someone polluting the river?” Shellgirl asked with a scowl of anger. “Fools! I can’t even swim in it safely!”
What the hell is going on here? Basil didn’t even dare to touch the wine; it looked a little bit too much like blood to him. He glanced up the river. Whatever phenomenon affected the skies spread from distant Bordeaux. Did a special dungeon pop up in the city?
“Master Bohen!” a female voice called out his name, followed by barks of happiness. “It is you! It’s really you!”
Basil turned at the other side of the riverbank. Two dogs looked at him from the other side: a doberman and a basque shepherd. Basil immediately recognized them.
The Elissalde Sisters’ hounds of war.
“Girls!” Bugsy snapped his mandibles in happiness, as if meeting up with old friends. “So glad to see you again!”
“I told you I smelled them,” the doberman told her companion. “The cat’s stench is unmistakable.”
“Hey!” Plato complained. “It’s you dogs who smell worse than the wine!”
“So big…” the basque shepherd whispered upon noticing Rosemarine.
“I killed a dinosaur!” Rosemarine replied proudly. “And I ate it!”
Basil sighed in relief. If the dogs were alive and well, then officer Elissalde should be too. “Is your mistress safe?” he asked them. “Is Kalki?”
“Mistress Neria is safe and sound!” The basque shepherd replied, her canine expression darkening. “But mistress Maya…”
“Your Kalki friend fled the city,” the doberman barked. “They were after him.”
Basil grit his teeth. Damn it, as he feared Kalki’s visit to Bordeaux triggered a disaster of some kind. “They?”
“Those Metalolypus jerks!” The basque shepherd growled. “Traitors, all of them!”
“Metal Olympus,” her fellow dog corrected him. “Their priests went berserk at the sight of your friend. They said he had to surrender to them immediately, or they would take him by force!”
Basil clenched his fists. Shit. He knew the Apocalypse Force was looking for Kalki, as was the Dismaker Labs’ board. He should have expected other factions to know of his significance and try to claim him for themselves.
Letting him leave my house alone was a mistake, Basil cursed himself. Damn it, I should have followed Kalki the moment I saw that Main Quest notification.
“But the big human chief, General Leblanc, he’s big inside and out!” the doberman shouted. “He told them to shove it and let your friend go!”
“Where?” Basil didn't know whether to feel relieved that Kalki escaped with his life or frustrated to have missed him. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know,” the doberman apologized. “But Mistress Neria will!”
“We will lead you to her,” the basque shepherd said. “She’ll be so happy to see you!”
“She will.” The doberman nodded ferociously. “We need your help to rescue mistress Maya! The city is in chaos!”
Basil didn’t need to be a genius to put two and two together. “I suppose Metal Olympus didn’t take the affront well?”
“They didn’t,” the doberman confirmed. “They were furious. They cursed us and then… and then...”
The hound glanced at the wine river and whined.
“They called one of their gods.”