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Tamura's Field effect faded away with his death.

The sky was cleared of the sinister aurora that once infested it. The red mist covering Bordeaux slowly faded away, revealing neo-classical buildings and a cathedral’s towers. The vines and Shinto archways crumbled to dust into the Garonne, whose wine current slowly returned to its natural state as a river of water.

The curse of Bordeaux had been lifted. Yet Basil couldn’t find it in himself to rest yet. His skin itched even after returning to human form and healing from his wounds.

“You’re sure he won’t eat my Rosemarine from within?” he asked Little Nessia. The young oracle and her griffin had landed on the bridge after the battle. Now they examined Rosemarine with Zachariel, to make sure Tamura wouldn’t return in any way.

“I do not detect any hint of demonic possession, sir,” Zachariel insisted. “Though I do notice that your dragon is way overdue for a baptism shot.”

“I feel warm inside, Mister,” Rosemarine rejoiced.

“The god is free,” Little Nessia added. “I don’t feel him inside your plant. His spirit was cleansed and returned to the heavens, but he left a little of himself behind.”

“Like what, a grape?” Basil asked. Would his dear tropidrake transform into a vineyard dragon? “I don’t want her to start drinking so soon. She’s not even one year old.”

“This was a gift,” Little Nessia insisted. “It would be rude to refuse it.”

“Sir, I’m afraid I know no way to remove the essence anyway,” Zachariel said. “There is no indication that it might affect her negatively either. If it does, it won’t do so until she reaches the level required for metamorphosis… which is a long time away.”

After considering the arguments, Basil conceded the angel’s point. His team struggled greatly to reach level thirty and Rosemarine wouldn’t transform until they reached twice that number. It might take years for her to reach that threshold, if at all.

As for Tamura… he indeed appeared to be dead for good in spite of his best efforts to avoid his fate.

Tamura couldn’t teleport away, although he was a faction’s core member. This had come as a surprise to both Basil and the old dickhead himself. Is there a limit on in-battle teleportation or… was he blocked from fleeing?

Basil reread his Guild’s guidelines in the Logs. As he remembered, a Boss or Guildmaster could deny a member’s teleportation back to a dungeon base. This implied someone higher than Tamura in the Metal Olympus hierarchy knowingly sabotaged him.

That kind of backstabbing disgusted Basil, although it didn’t surprise him. The board’s executives formed an alliance of convenience; if one of them hoped to become Earth’s new Overgod, it made sense to get rid of potential rivals whenever possible. That, or Anton Maxwell was cleaning up loose ends.

Basil had the feeling he could exploit this information later. It was bound to sow distrust among Metal Olympus.

Basil surveyed the area. Neria and her dogs stood in front of the dissipating fog with anxious faces, as if afraid of who or what would emerge from it. Zachariel healed their wounds, although he couldn’t regrow the maimed doberman’s missing legs; something in the Saké Breath attack interfered with his abilities. The rest of the party formed a defensive perimeter in case any of Tamura’s monsters survived their master’s destruction.

And then there was Plato. Basil’s cat licked his fur as if he hadn’t died minutes ago. His wounds had healed, and he seemed more concerned about the wine sticking to his fur than the fact Basil killed him.

The memory of his body laying on the ground, weak and bloodied… it chilled Basil to the bone.

Plato sensed his owner’s guilty gaze and looked up at him in confusion. “What?”

“I am so, so sorry,” Basil apologized. “Plato, I—”

His cat cut him off before he could finish. “You want to make up for your heinous, treacherous deed?”

Basil closed his mouth and slowly nodded.

“Then pick me up.”

Which Basil did. The cat felt light and fragile in his hands.

“Now pet me behind the ears.”

Basil obeyed. He scratched Plato’s head as if his life depended on it.

“Do that every day for the rest of your pitiful life,” Plato purred. “And I’ll forgive you.”

“That’s…” Basil squinted. “That’s it?”

“Oh yes, since you asked, you must rub my belly twice a day and thrice on week-ends. But no more than a minute each time. I’ll count.”

“Plato, I killed you.” There, Basil had said it. “I… slammed you against the pavement.”

“It’s my third death,” Plato replied with a shrug. “The reaper was scary the first two times, but I’m used to it by now. Like a vet appointment.”

“But you don’t have a limitless amount of lives.” Didn’t he realize the seriousness of the situation? “That lost life might be the one to make a difference down the line.”

“Basil, you sound like an old bachelor planning for early retirement.” His cat looked up at him with his big, beautiful yellow eyes. “What happens happens. Maybe it’s the last life I’ll ever lose. Then I’ll die of old age at a venerable twenty and revive young again.”

“Plato, how can you be so…” Basil frowned in utter confusion. He hadn’t expected this kind of reaction. “So chill with it?

“Because I’m your best friend, Basil,” Plato replied with a deep, serious tone. “I have seen you in the worst positions imaginable. Being mind-controlled by a Jurassic Park cosplayer is a new low, but I don’t hold it against you. You’re human. It’s in your nature to fuck up.”

Basil squinted at his best friend. “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to take that.”

“With grace and dignity,” Plato mocked him. “Just like that time I peed in your bed.”

Basil wished he hadn’t been reminded of that particular disaster, but Plato’s response lifted a weight off his shoulders. He valued his cat’s friendship above all else.

“I know you’re blaming yourself, but it wasn’t you.” Plato locked eyes with his companion. “Like the poison that killed Kuikui and the fire that burned our house, the fault lies with our enemies and not our inability to prevent it. If you have to blame someone, blame them.”

“I could have—”

“I could have become king of dogs with ‘coulds’ and ‘ifs’,” Plato interrupted him. “Don’t overthink it. It happened, you learned a lesson, and now you’ll take the correct course of action.”

“Which is?”

“Please don’t transform into a werebear in battle again.” Plato shuddered in dread. “I’ll never look at Winnie the Pooh the same way ever again.”

“I…” Basil cleared his throat. “I’ll try, but I make no promises.”

His cat nodded and purred in his arms. Knowing Plato, it meant that he considered the matter settled. Basil felt a little guilty still, but his friend’s carefreeness cheered him up a bit.

“Guys!” Bugsy shouted. “Someone’s coming from the other side!”

Basil immediately assigned his new levels… just in case.

Tamer level 17, 18 & 19 Stat Gains: +1 STR, +3 AGI, +2 VIT, +1 SKI, +1 MAG, +3 INT, +3 CHA, +2 LCK. You earned 70 HP and 45 SP.
Monster Cure II (Active): 50 SP, [Support], [Life]. The tamer heals a medium amount of HP for all monster members of his party (HP recovered: (Tamer Levels+MAG) x 2); the Tamer and other Players do not benefit from the healing, but the effect applies regardless of distance. Additionally, the spell will heal status ailments affecting the targets. This replaces Monster Cure I.
One for All II: you can now summon all monsters in your party at once instead of one at a time, though you must pay 1 SP x level of the target monster for each individual you are trying to summon. This upgrades One for All I.
[Monster Cure II] and [One for All II] will apply to your entire Guild.
Congratulations, you are one level away from capping the [Tamer] class (20 Levels max). Once you’ve capped a class, you can no longer gain levels in it; but in exchange, you will receive a powerful capstone ability.

One more level and Basil would have to consider what next class to invest in next. Deathknight, Dragonknight, Runesmith, Alchemist, Gardener or Fisherman? He needed to examine Hagen’s notes on the first two as soon as possible. And One for All II… if Basil hadn’t misread, then he could potentially summon his entire Guild at once if he spent enough SP.

Come to think of it, how was it that he gained experience from killing Tamura at all? Rosemarine had been temporarily added to the Artzain Ahizpak party rather than Basil’s own to make place for Nessia, and she was the one to deliver the coup de grâce.

A Guild’s parties are interlocked. If multiple parties from a Guild participate in a battle, the experience is shared between all members even if they didn’t land the killing blow.

Excellent. That kind of setup prevented internal warfare in the organization. Still, Basil wondered why he wasn’t made aware of that feature when he created the Homeowner Revenge Association.

Your Intelligence—

“Don’t you dare to finish this sentence.”

—wasn’t high enough to obtain this information beforehand.

Goddamnit.

Basil looked at Bordeaux as a shadowy form emerged from the clearing fog. The half-crumbled bridge trembled at its approach. The tip of a cannon pierced through the mist atop a mighty Leclerc tank, followed by a dozen armored soldiers on foot. They warily raised their rifles at Basil’s group, especially the non-humanoid members of the party, but thankfully didn’t open fire.

“What kind of automaton is this?” Little Nessia asked, a finger pointed at the tank. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Her gesture caused a few soldiers to tense up and point their weapons at her. Basil immediately dropped Plato on the ground, much to the cat’s chagrin, and prepared to summon his halberd in case things went sour.

“It’s all right!” one of the soldiers said, a woman. Basil recognized her voice before she even removed her helmet. “They’re friends!”

Officer Elissalde beamed with joy upon recognizing her sister. “Maya!”

“Sister!” Maya Elissalde rushed to embrace her sibling. Her dogs howled in support. “Thank God you’re alright!”

Basil breathed in relief. A part of him suspected Maya Elissalde survived—if her class worked like his Tamer one, her dogs would have perished with her—but the doubt remained. That dickhead Tamura couldn’t follow through with his bluff.

The tank stopped a few meters away and an old man emerged from inside. Dressed in a white military uniform covered in medals, he reminded Basil of Ed Harris; albeit ten years older and with a graying beard. A kepi sat comfortably atop a receding hairline. Yet in spite of heavy signs of aging, his blue eyes remained spry and alert. They glanced at each member of Basil’s group, swiftly assessing them. He smiled warmly within seconds, having correctly guessed that they were allies.

General Richard-Philippe Leblanc
Level 26 [Humanoid] (General 10/Pilot 10/Tanklord 6)
Guild: European Liberation Front (High Command).

Finally, Basil thought. Now he could complain about the misuse of his taxes to the proper authority!

“General.” Neria gave him a military salute. “I’m glad to see you alive and well.”

“Our apologies for the delay, Brigadier,” the general said with a grandfatherly voice. “It is difficult to drive a tank in wine fog. We kept running in circles within it.”

Basil watched on in silence, trying to assess the general’s character. He appeared strangely relaxed for a military leader. Basil expected him to come with a stick up his ass, maybe a whole broom.

“What’s the situation, Brigadier?” the general asked Officer Elissalde, a little less warmly than before. “Report.”

“The Bohens and my team neutralized Dionysus,” Neria explained. “He’s dead.”

“My gurgling are his ghost’s screams,” Rosemarine whispered. Soldiers pointed their weapons at her in response, but the general only chuckled.

“Truly? Then you have my thanks. I hope he did not taste too bitter.” General Leblanc glanced at Basil. “You are the Tamer boy from Bulgaria, are you not? I have heard about your exploits."

“The good ones I hope,” Basil deadpanned.

“I have yet to hear of the bad ones. Did you truly shout ‘witness me Saint-George’ before slaying a dragon?”

Basil squinted at Neria, who cleared her throat. “I was asked to write an extensive report,” she defended herself.

“I admit I laughed upon reading that part,” the general said with a charming grin. “Though I assume battling a god probably tops that particular story.”

“Handsome,” Vasi whispered into Basil’s ear. “The flash drive.”

“Oh, right.” Basil cleared his throat. “General, I have an important delivery for you straight from the ISS.”

“The ISS?” The general frowned, but seemed to take Basil at his word. “Come to my office then. We can discuss it in a warmer place.”

“Hey, what about us?” Ever the opportunist, Shellgirl immediately tried to negotiate a payout. “We rescued your city, you owe us a reward!”

“Shellgirl, shush,” Vasi whispered. She looked at the tank warily.

The general took the remark in stride. “Of course, I will discuss your compensation with your leader. Brigadier Elissalde, see that our guests are granted accommodations for their stay.”

Maya Elissalde glanced at Rosemarine. “We don’t have a bedroom big enough for her.”

“A hangar will have to do,” her sister replied with a sigh.

“We owe you a great debt for your help, young man,” General Leblanc told Basil. “You can relax now. You are among friends.”

“You better negotiate with a knife in your mouth, Partner,” Shellgirl said with a grin. “I didn’t get pummeled by a dozen drunkards to leave empty-handed.”

Basil relaxed a little. Although he would never admit it out loud, a part of him did miss a friendly neighborly human civilization…

“No seriously, what kind of automaton is this?” Little Nessia chewed her lip in childish frustration as everyone ignored her. “I am a princess! Somebody answers me or I’ll tell my dad!”


Basil spent an hour in the general’s office alone with the man.

Although located in the middle of Bordeaux’s heavily fortified air force military base, the room reminded him more of a headmaster’s lair than a general’s redoubt. The white walls were covered in various photos representing lakes, pine forests observed from above, and wild birds instead of medals or diplomas. The only things referencing the air force were a French flag and a painting representing a group of young pilots dating from 2021. Basil assumed they must have been the last graduating class of the local French Air Force. He wondered how many had survived the Apocalypse so far.

The office had only one window, which the general warily closed before beginning the interview. The door was locked, and two steaming cups of coffee awaited on the general’s mahogany desk next to a phone. General Leblanc had offered Basil snacks, but he had politely refused.

He only fed on vegetables, Vasi’s pastries, and the flesh of his enemies.

The interview was surprisingly cordial. The general invited Basil to sit on a chair and then asked questions calmly without raising his tone. He occasionally wrote down notes on a paper sheet, but spent most of his time listening in respectful silence. Basil had expected him to freak out upon seeing Captain Valentino’s video, but his eyebrows barely furrowed. The man had either nerves of steel or one hell of a poker face.

General Leblanc asked precise questions about the Apocalypse Force, Walter Tye, the elves, and the flash drive found in the Soyuz. Basil answered honestly and delivered his findings. He even forwarded the general the video of Dismaker Labs’ final board meeting through the Logs feature.

“This is worrying.” General Leblanc joined his hands, his expression was thoughtful. “And hard to believe.”

“But you don’t seem all that surprised,” Basil noted with a frown.

“Our astronomers noticed multiple anomalies in the cosmic microwave background, solar rays, and movements of celestial objects. Strange as it sounds, the possibility that Earth had been teleported to another dimension was seriously considered at one point.” The general shook his head. “Still, to imagine Earth in the palm of a god’s hand… and a Hindu one at that… It stretches credibility.”

“A Greek god besieged your city for days,” Basil bluntly pointed out. “You can believe in an European deity but not in an Asian one?”

“I do not believe, I think. But I concede your point.” The general leaned back in his chair. “We’ll analyze the flash drive to see if its files match your tale. Considering the services you’ve done for us, I’ll take you at your word for now, but I’ll need proof before acting up on it. I’ll require the camera too.”

“You can make copies.” Basil held the general’s gaze. The man sounded honest, but he remained a member of the French establishment. Basil distrusted them on principle, and their poor track record at dealing with the Apocalypse so far didn’t help their case. “I’m okay with cooperating, but I ain’t one of your soldiers. I intend to go after Kalki on my own after we’re finished here, and I might need these videos later.”

Basil expected the general to argue. Instead, he simply gave him a short nod. “I figured as much. Very well, my crafters will make copies and return the original to you.”

“What happened with Kalki?” Basil changed the subject. He wondered if the general knew more than Neria on the matter.

“Your friend had to flee Metal Olympus in a hurry after we refused to hand him over… though I suppose I should call them Dismaker Labs now.” The general’s lips curled in anger. “To think I almost formed an alliance with the very people who put us all in this mess…”

“On the bright side, we know where to look now,” Basil replied. “If they stick to the Greek theme, we’ll just have to knock over Mount Olympus.”

His response amused General Leblanc. “According to my sources, Metal Olympus’ headquarters are actually located in Athens. We don’t have the means to launch a campaign to Greece yet, but I’ll have our intelligence division keep an eye on it. I’ll also grant you access to the files we gathered on Dismaker Labs’ board of directors. Perhaps it will shed more light on your confrontation with Tamura.”

Basil accepted the gift with gracefulness. “I’d be thankful.”

General Leblanc let out a heavy sigh. “If I had known about your friend’s importance, I wouldn’t have allowed him to leave Bordeaux unsupervised.”

“You would have jailed him instead?” Basil deadpanned.

“Jailed?” General Leblanc raised an eyebrow. “Who do you take me for, young man?”

“A politician.”

“Aren’t we all? Politics means ‘affairs of the city.’ Anyone involved in the life of a community is a politician and should aspire to be. Those who don’t participate in the public debate will suffer others’ decisions in silence.” The general smiled thinly. “I see. You believe that because I command this place, I must be a self-serving rascal only interested in my personal power and lining my pockets. A bit reductive, don’t you think?”

“Let’s just say I don’t have good experience with authority figures.” Both in France and Bulgaria. “But go on, what would you have done with Kalki? I’m curious.”

“Nothing. I would have offered him bodyguards and asked for his cooperation in solving the current crisis. If your tale is true, he might be the key to returning our world to normal.”

Basil crossed his arms. “Do you think the world can return to normal, general?”

“I must,” he replied. “Or at least a new normal that mankind can live with.”

Basil didn’t quite agree with him. He knew mankind would survive the crisis if it adapted, but he doubted things would ever stabilize. The board’s words came to mind. They’ll spin the wheel of death until an Overgod is selected.

The general rose from his seat and moved to his window. He looked through it, hands behind his back. The morning sun shone high in the sky above Rafale planes lined up on a gray runway.

“The Soyuz you saw,” he said without looking at Basil. “The monster inside survived atmospheric reentry undamaged according to your report. Do you think others might possess the same resilience?”

“Probably,” Basil admitted. “Once you claim a dungeon, you can command the monsters it spawns. If I were an evil dragon alien, I would rain down soldiers from the skies upon my enemies.”

The general raised his chin. His voice deepened. “You must know that France is one of the few countries with a nuclear arsenal.”

Basil tensed up. “What about it?”

“It is common policy to have nuclear submarines with inter-continental ballistic capabilities patrolling the Atlantic,” the general explained. “Dungeons are rare across the sea, so one of them returned safely to Bordeaux with its cargo untouched.”

It took Basil’s mind a moment to process what the general was implying. When it did, he all but jumped out of his seat. “You have nukes?”

“We have a stockpile of nuclear and experimental neutron warheads with long-range offensive capabilities.”

Yes, he had nukes.

“Considering your experience with dungeons and the Unity so far, young man…” General Leblanc marked a short pause. “Would you recommend that we blow up the ISS?”

“Is this a joke?” Basil blinked. “Are you serious, General?”

“Let me rephrase it.” The man looked over his shoulder. “Considering your experience with dungeons and the Unity so far, should we, in your opinion, target the ISS with a nuclear warhead and blow it the fuck up?”

Were they truly discussing whether or not to launch a nuke in space? That discussion wouldn’t have looked out of place in a video game or a Michael Bay movie.

“General.” Basil cleared his throat. “With all due respect, I don’t think I’m the best counsel on the matter.”

“On the contrary, you have conquered a dungeon and destroyed another, so you’ve observed both sides of the process closely.” The general shook his head. “I will not make a decision until after we analyze the flash drive, but your input would be appreciated.”

God be merciful, the man was completely serious.

Basil fidgeted in his seat. He hadn’t even considered the possibility of blowing the entire ISS up from the ground. Now that the possibility was on the table…

Basil thought back to what Walter said about halting Incursions, of what he had seen the Unity achieve in Dax, and his battle at Château Muloup. The place recovered from a full-on assault within minutes.

“General, I think you should blow up all the dungeons you can’t take over or don’t need,” Basil said after a moment of consideration. “The fewer of them, the more a new Incursion is delayed. Now that the Unity controls the station, I’m sure they’ll use it against us somehow down the line. However…”

“Everything before a ‘but’ or a ‘however’ does not count, young man.”

“But I’m not sure a nuke will be enough,” Basil admitted. “Dungeons self-repair in minutes. You might fail to blow up the ISS or cause the station to crash down on Earth and spawn monsters there.”

“That’s what I feared,” the general grumbled. “We have the means to shoot down the ISS if needed, but I’m afraid of the potential consequences. Blasting that dungeon might cause monsters to rain down from space or worse.”

“What about the moon?” Basil asked. “The Unity is building a freaking James Bond villain base up there. I think we’ll be fine Fat Manning the reptilians.”

Much to Basil’s sorrow, the general denied his brilliant plan. “First of all, our missiles can’t reach that far,” he explained. “Second, the Unity possesses space-faring capabilities. It’s not unlikely to imagine that their base has countermeasures against bombardments.”

“It’s exactly why you should hit them before they complete their preparations,” Basil argued. “It could be your only chance. Can’t your crafters figure something out?”

“Mayhaps. I’ll consult them and have our astronomers track the Unity’s progress.” The general sat back in his chair. “At this point, we don’t have the means to interfere with their lunar operations.”

Basil clenched his jaw, but he didn’t have any better plan to offer.

Unless…

“What about the neurotowers?” Basil asked. “I lent your army one.”

General Leblanc chuckled at the ‘lent’ part. “You want to bring it to your… magician friend, is that it? Do you trust him?”

“No,” Basil admitted. Walter Tye struck him as a reliable and pragmatic man, but one without a conscience. “But I trust his expertise.”

The General remained silent for a moment, his expression indecipherable. Basil was certain he considered the pros and cons of offering this piece of dangerous technology to a foreign sorcerer.

“I’ll agree under one condition,” he finally said. “I want one of my representatives to have access to this shop between worlds. To track progress on the device.”

From his response, Basil guessed his crafters hadn’t made any progress on cracking down the server’s secrets. The general had precious few options left.

“I can’t guarantee anything,” Basil replied. It was up to Walter whether or not anyone could access his pocket dimensions. “And it’ll have to be Neria.”

She was the only one he trusted. He knew she would behave in Tye’s shop and avoid pissing him off.

“I accept,” the general replied. “Finally… please keep most of what you told me today to yourself. The ISS, the hand, your friend’s importance.”

Here it was. The reason why Basil struggled to trust officials. They always thought they knew better than everyone else.

“People deserve to know what’s up there,” Basil argued.

“Do you intend to scream it out atop Bordeaux cathedral?” The general asked with a scoff. “Inform the whole city at once?”

“No,” Basil replied with a frown. Largely because he didn’t see the point. “But I will tell the truth if I think it’s relevant. I won’t shut up because it’s easier that way.”

“Neither will I.” General Leblanc locked eyes with Basil. “Do you know how many people took refuge in Bordeaux since the government crumbled?”

Basil frowned. “If you’re trying to pull my heartstrings—”

“To be honest, I do not know the exact number myself yet. A census is underway, but I can already imagine the results.” The general sighed. “Thousands? Millions? We faced a few looters here and there, but for the most part, our citizens have shown surprising solidarity. Do you know why?”

“No, but I’m sure you’ll tell me.”

“Because they believe we can come back from all of this. That we can turn things around. That we’ll keep them safe. That one day, their children will be able to grow without the threat of a monster eating them.” The general marked a short pause. “When people stop believing in a better future, Basil, no community can survive. Families put their own safety first over their neighbors. It’s the war of all against all, with everyone out for themselves. The worst of mankind crawls out of the woods to reveal their true, ugly self.”

Basil fidgeted in his chair. The image of Lalande and his group immediately came to mind.

“The people of France have already gone through many terrible ordeals,” the General lectured him. “They have seen the very rules of physics overturned. Their cities are in shambles. Food is scarce and evil is everywhere. Their willpower is like a bowstring. Too much pressure and it’ll break. I’m afraid discovering Earth is no longer in its place and that our existence is bound to a single man’s life will be one stress test too many.”

“I could take it,” Basil replied gruffly. “So can they.”

“Yes, you could take it,” the general conceded. “Because you already went through great distress in the past. I can see it in your eyes. But not everyone had the benefit of hardships toughening them up. For many, this is their first and greatest crisis; it might very well be their last. Do you think a young you, naïve and foolish, could take everything at once? Could you see your home destroyed, your people killed, your civilization crumbling, your world abducted, and not… break?”

Basil gritted his teeth, but kept his mouth shut. His silence was an answer in itself.

“I am not asking you to ‘cover-up’ the truth,” the general whispered. “I’m asking you to wait for the right moment. We will tell them the truth, but after our people have time to breathe. To get used to a world that has gone mad.”

“They’ll learn the truth anyway,” Basil replied with cynicism. “The Apocalypse Force and the Unity must know. Someone will spill the beans. If you let them take the initiative, it’ll make them gain more followers.”

“Which is why we will reveal the truth ourselves at the right time. Besides, word of your friend’s cosmic importance might cause other factions to target him. The fewer people are aware of his true nature for now, the safer he will be.”

Basil grumbled, but conceded the point. Too many factions already knew about Kalki and some nihilistic psycho might get the wrong idea.

“Okay, I’ll keep quiet for now,” Basil agreed. “But if you don’t walk your talk…”

“You have my word,” General Leblanc replied. “I am not one to fold under pressure, as Metal Olympus could tell.”

“Why didn’t you surrender Kalki to them?” The question had bugged Basil for a while. “From what I understand, you wanted to form an alliance with them to retake France.”

“I did,” the general conceded. “Until they wanted me to surrender your friend without trial nor due process, that is.”

“A single life compared to a faction’s might,” Basil pointed out. “Many others would have gladly made the deal in your position. Why didn’t you?”

General Leblanc leaned back against his chair. He appeared lost in his thoughts for a few seconds, as if remembering days that had long passed.

“My father was a gendarme who committed heinous crimes during the German occupation,” he confessed with a sad, sorrowful tone. “On the 16th of July 1942, he helped round up thousands of Jews in the Vél d’Hiv stadium, parents and children alike. Less than a hundred came back alive from the death camps.”

Basil held his tongue. The man’s voice brimmed with guilt and shame.

“I spent my entire childhood being called a collaborator’s son,” the general explained. “A single idea has always driven my military career: to wash France’s sullied honor and make sure this kind of horror will never happen again on my watch.”

The emotion in his voice was too deep to be faked. “I see…”

“Sometimes we are tempted to abandon our principles in the name of pragmatism and safety. There is no greater mistake. It is our values that drive us and make our life worth living. We must stand resolute in the face of evil, not only for ourselves, but for generations who will look back on our actions. For they will carry either our shame or our pride.”

The man brimmed with charisma. Basil half-expected him to declare ‘and this is why you must vote for me’ at the end of his speech. He did not.

He’s not that bad, Basil thought with a kernel of respect. And he did let Kalki flee at tremendous risk to himself. Basil owed him one.

The Apocalypse unveiled the worst of humanity… and its best.

“You have family back home?” The general changed the subject. “You are far away from Bulgaria, young man.”

“My mother lives back home,” Basil confirmed. “We’re… estranged.”

General Leblanc didn’t ask for details on that front, for which Basil was thankful. “What’s her name? Perhaps my contacts in eastern Europe will have heard of her.”

“I doubt that,” Basil replied. His mother was a maid and shopkeeper, not a fighter. If anything, she had likely perished on the apocalypse’s first day. “Her name is Aleksandra Olga Bohen.”

“A kind name,” the man said softly. “I will keep an ear out for any mention of her.”

“You might as well look for a needle in a haystack,” Basil pointed out.

“Perhaps, but it costs us nothing to ask. Do not be so quick to give up on your own kin.”

Basil crossed his arms and changed the subject. The words he heard while under the Berserk ailment still haunted him. “You said you have contacts in Eastern Europe? How?”

“We are not the U.S. military, but the countries of Europe have powerful fighting forces all across the continent. Some of them survived the Apocalypse.”

Basil wasn’t too confident about Bulgaria’s army, since the post-Soviet governments downsized it after joining NATO. Still, Bulgarians were a proud people. Even if the military failed, militias would fight back against monsters invading their lands. The forests would make it easy to hide and strike in the night.

“Over the last months, I have been steadily trying to contact these forces and integrate them under a single command as per NATO protocols,” General Leblanc explained. “I dare say we’re on the right path. We’re overhauling our doctrine to take the System into account. Trying combined-arms parties, adapting our command structure to Guild features, and so many other things…”

“Did you hear anything from Sofia?” Basil asked. He hadn’t heard anything from his homeland since the apocalypse. Now that he had lost the house, perhaps he should visit it after finding Kalki.

“I admit Bulgaria wasn’t too high on my list of importance, but I will keep you informed,” the man replied. “Your ability to tame monsters also makes me thoughtful. If there is an alternative to constant warfare with them…. I might need to explore it.”

“I know for sure you can breed dinosaurs with chickens,” Basil thought it wise to mention.

The general chuckled. “Perhaps we should trade our horses for a pack of tyrannosauruses.”

“You should.” A soldier with a sense of humor? Basil thought they were an extinct species. “Are we done for the day, General?”

“We are, for now.” General Leblanc cleared his throat. “But I would like to talk to you again later. Since your group intends to travel to Paris to pursue the avatar, you’ll need supplies and support. I can offer you these.”

“Like food and ammo?”

“Intel too. We have established friendly contact with other communities in the north of France, who will offer shelter and guidance. Our armories are open to you too.” The general smiled. “I understand you fight well with your halberd, but I have the feeling you will find our flamethrowers, gatling guns, and AK-47s most appealing.”

“Flamethrowers?” Basil’s heart skipped a beat. “You would lend me one? I told you, I’m not interested in joining the army.”

“I would have called it madness once,” General Leblanc conceded. “But I didn’t think dragons existed six months ago and you have one pulling your carriage. Your victories, however you earn them, are mankind’s victory. I’ll send other squads after Kalki to hedge my bets… but I’ll grant you all the support you need to prevail.”

Basil couldn’t help but smirk. “Careful, general. You’re starting to make me like France.”

Slava na Bŭlgariya,” Leblanc replied with a smile and a surprisingly good Bulgarian imitation. “Now go take a rest. You look like shit.”

After respectfully saluting the general, Basil left the office and closed the door behind him. He found Vasi waiting for him outside under a glamor that had disguised her horns and whitened her skin.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“I’m glad not all of my taxpayer money was wasted,” Basil replied. The meeting went much better than he expected. “I might even cautiously say it was wisely invested.”

Vasi chuckled. “Good to know. They offered us quarters for the night at a hotel near their ‘airport,’ whatever that means. With real beds.”

“Is that where the others went?”

“Plato wanted to question Zachariel about his ‘agnostic cancer’ and the others went along.” Her smile faltered a bit. “The soldiers wouldn't let the others close to the base either. They’re still wary of monsters.”

Ah, that explained the glamor. “Were you worried about me?”

“I was,” she admitted softly. “What happened at the bridge weighs on your mind. I can see it clearly.”

Was that so obvious? Basil thought about his mother. So many issues he never had the chance to settle with her, and now… now it might be far too late for that.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Vasi reassured him. “It was the snake’s. No one else.”

“You’re wrong.” Basil bit his tongue, but decided to be honest. Vasi made for a good listener. “When I go Berserk, I don’t hear anyone. Instead, mental voices do their best to push all my buttons. They open old wounds and then salt them.”

“I didn’t know.” Vasi scowled. “That’s awful.”

“Yeah, but that means the anger and rage comes from my own heart.” Basil’s teeth grit in frustration. “The Berserk ailment pulls out what’s already simmering beneath the surface. I ain’t got any excuse for not handling my own shit.”

“Basil, everyone has issues they try to bury in a mind closet,” Vasi replied. “Does any of these demons involve anger at your cat?”

“Well, he does wake me up too early for breakfast,” Basil joked.

“But did you ever want to hurt him?”

“No.” The response came immediately. “Never.”

“Because that wasn’t all of you back then.” Vasi shook her head. “The magic didn’t bring out the worst of your person; it canceled the best of it. Yes, mayhaps your anger came from your heart. But it doesn’t define you, no more than a finger rules a hand. It’s part of a whole. I don’t like my new horns, but I have to live with them all the same. You’ll have to live with your anger too. It’s a part of you.”

“Even the emotional shit?”

“Anger is a normal reaction to the feeling of having our boundaries violated,” Vasi replied. “Sometimes it clouds your judgment… and sometimes, it gives you the strength to defend what you care about. That’s no excuse not to work on your issues if you feel the need to, but between us, your zeal is half the reason I find you so charming.”

Basil laughed. “You do?”

“Of course,” she teased him. “You are a passionate man, Mr. Bohen. Yes, sometimes you go overboard, but I find your excesses entertaining. Even inspiring.”

“I do my best,” Basil replied. His heart felt lighter in his chest. “And I find you quite charming myself, Vasi.”

“Thank you,” the witch replied. Her warm smile caused blood to flush to Basil’s head.

Oh, and to hell with it.

“Vasi?” Basil asked.

“Yes?”

“Wanna visit Bordeaux together? I know a few good spots. You’ll love them.”

“With pleasure,” she replied. “Shellgirl wanted to do some shopping with the locals too. It should be fun.”

“No, I meant…” Basil cleared his throat. “Just the two of us.”

Vasi observed him in silence for a moment, her expression unreadable. Basil held his breath. Did he overstep? He thought he had read the signals she sent him correctly, but perhaps he had mistaken her light flirting for something more serious…

“Are you asking me out on a date, Basil Bohen?” she teased with a grin. “A romantic date?”

“Yes,” he replied bluntly. “If you want.”

They had been dancing around the subject for a while. Basil thought he might as well bite that bullet. He wasn’t sure how it would turn out, but at least they would clarify where each of them stood.

Basil liked Vasi. She was fun to hang out with, and unless he had misread her, she was interested in him too. He didn’t want to take it too seriously in case their flirting led nowhere, but after what they went through together, Basil felt right in asking her out.

Vasi let out a long, long sigh. Basil briefly worried that she would let him down gently, but instead, she put a hand on her waist and smiled at him.

“About time you took the hint, you dense bear of a man,” Vasi said. “Very well, handsome. I accept your offer.”

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About the author

Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald)

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending all his time writing tales and forbidden scrolls.

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