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“Ah Basil, always reliable.” Walter Tye stared at the neurotower’s wreckage with great interest. “Though I would have preferred the sample to be in a better shape. This one has seen better days.”

“Send me the bill,” Basil replied. Major Elissalde stood at the server’s side clad in a military uniform. She kept a straight face even as her gaze darted from one corner of Walter’s shop to another. Hagen faked being a lifeless statue, before waving a hand and spooking her. “It's in the best condition that I could get.”

“Unfortunate, but acceptable.” Walter raised a hand at the server. Black miasma surrounded his hand as he cast a spell. “Restore Item.”

The miasma spread to the neurotower and swiftly covered the damaged parts of its structure. A second later, the mist dissipated to reveal a pristine black tower of a server.

Quest: Forever Serpent’s Errand II completed! Your party earned 60,000 Bonus EXP (10,000 for you).

Nice. Basil checked his status and smirked. He was only four thousand experience points away from leveling up and completing the Tamer class.

“Thank you for your delivery, Basil.” Walter turned to Major Elissalde next. “I see you brought a friend too. Neria Elissalde, is that it?”

If Neria was unsettled by the fact he already knew her name, she didn’t show it. “Walter Tye, I presume?” She gave him a military salute. “I am Major Neria Elissalde of the French Armed Forces. I’ll be your contact with our organization.”

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” the shopkeeper replied with a polite nod. “I will grant you a device to teleport to my shop anytime. I’m always happy to find more respectful customers.”

“I must make a few things clear first.” The major cleared her throat and, if Basil wasn’t mistaken, her hand briefly brushed against the handgun around her belt. She feared the shopkeeper as much as he did. “This device is French army property. We are lending it to you for now, but we may requisition it back at any time. Additionally, we ask that you share the results of your investigation with us without holding anything back.”

Walter gave her a bemused smile. “But of course.”

“You won’t find any better rule-abiding citizens than us,” Hagen said with a hand on his chest. “We love the law.”

The lie was blatant, but since Neria lacked any other option, she pretended to believe it. The army was scraping the bottom of the barrel for answers.

“I’m wounded by the comparison, Basil,” Walter mused with a thin smirk. “The bottom of the barrel, truly?”

“Says the guy reading minds uninvited,” Basil replied with a snort. Neria winced at his words. She must have realized that she couldn’t keep any secret from the shopkeeper.

“I am a man of my word, Major,” Walter told Elissalde, blatantly ignoring Basil’s remark. “I accept your terms. I’m also willing to trade magical items for samples of your world’s technology. I’m something of an expert at pest extermination.”

“Or extermination in general,” Hagen said with a thumbs up. “Corpse disposal included in the package.”

“I… I will take your proposal to my superiors.” Major Elissalde frowned at the shopkeeper. “But I doubt they will give you anything sensitive.”

“Who do you take me for, some closet conqueror eager to stab you in the back later?” Walter shrugged. “I have no interest in your world, and far better things to do than managing people.”

“Like holding the counter,” Hagen joked. “He doesn’t trust anyone with the duty.”

“I suppose you won’t take interns then?” Basil mused.

“Only those we kill ourselves,” Hagen said with a laugh. Neria winced at his words, which seemed to delight the dullahan. By now, Basil was certain that Hagen simply relished unsettling others.

“I will need time to analyze the device fully.” Walter put a hand on the server. “Come back to me in a week or so. I should have preliminary results to present by then.”

“Oh, I know that face,” Hagen commented. “You’re going to be working overtime on the case.”

Basil didn’t notice any change in Walter’s facial expression, but then again he was always creepily unexpressive. The Tamer still wasn’t used to the shopkeeper’s utter inability to blink.

“Are we done?” Basil asked.

“One last thing before you go,” Walter replied. “I’ve noticed a trend about the portals which I believe you should be informed of.”

Neria Elissalde exchanged a worried glance with Basil. The same thought had crossed both of their minds. “Do you have information on the next Incursion?” the Major asked Walter. “Anything would help.”

Walter nodded sharply and raised a hand in the air. A holographic representation of a network materialized above his open palm. A red sphere at the center connected to four others through crimson links.

“Basil, I’ve told you once that Systems usually connect to others to create bridges between worlds,” Walter said. Basil nodded in confirmation; he remembered very well. “What I forgot to mention is that this is usually a limited phenomenon. A world rarely connects to more than four or five others at once.”

“Usually?” Basil didn’t like the sound of that. “That’s not the case for ours?”

“I’m afraid not.” More links appeared in the network at Walter’s urging and the central nod became the center of an enormous web. “Your Trimurti System actively tries to create as many portals as it can in a short amount of time. It is currently connecting to dozens of universes across the cosmos, inviting demons and warriors to use your planet as a battleground.”

“Why?” Major Elissalde asked with a confused frown. “I mean, why summon more competition? There can only be one Overgod, or so the System says.”

“My hypothesis is that the people who created the neurotower network were trying to speed up the leveling process as much as possible,” Walter replied calmly before dissipating his hologram. “By comparison, it took Hagen and I years to reach level thirty in my world, yet our common friend here has achieved the same in the span of months. By constantly applying pressure, your System enforces quick level growth.”

Basil snickered. “They’re trying to speedrun their way to godhood?”

“I do not know the term ‘speedrun’, but yes, I suppose the designers intend to select an Overgod as quickly as possible. If previous competitions were indeed terminated early for one reason or another, it makes sense to hasten the process… no matter the bloodshed required to do so.”

Neria Elissalde gulped. “What difference will it make compared to the first Incursion?”

“The number of portals and invaders,” Walter replied calmly. He didn’t sound too bothered about the fact Earth would become an even worse battleground than it already was. “The first Incursion connected to a limited number of worlds. The second one will connect to an exponential amount with higher level individuals, and the third—I assume there will be a third—should multiply that amount furthermore.”

Basil and Neria digested the news in silence. Both had expected the worst, but to hear an outside expert confirm it made it feel all the worse.

“The person responsible for this mess said he was only interested in opening a gate to another world,” Basil said, thinking of Maxwell. “Do you think that’s the System’s real goal? Opening a specific pathway?”

To Basil’s surprise, Walter shook his head. “It may be an anticipated side-effect, but no, I don’t think so. Your Trimurti System’s purpose is to select an Overgod first and foremost. Perhaps your enemies created the neurotowers to build a bridge to a high-level world they couldn’t reach otherwise, but the System will not stop functioning after accessing this world. It will keep creating monsters until someone reaches level 100.”

Or until someone managed to slay Kalki and summon Shiva. Basil feared to learn which option was the most likely.

“That, and if my suspicions are correct…” Walter marked a short pause, as if carefully picking his words. “Your Trimurti System must continuously keep summoning creatures to your planet to function. It requires constant conflict to grease the wheel, so to say.”

Basil scowled as he remembered Tamura’s words. How Quests encouraged destruction and where experience came from… “Walter–”

“I know you already have your hypothesis about how the Trimurti System works, Basil,” Walter interrupted him. As always, the shopkeeper must have read his mind. “But do not be too hasty in assuming the worst. When magic is concerned, nuances can matter a great deal.”

Basil chuckled darkly. “Are you saying this to cheer me up?”

“In a way.” For once, Walter Tye’s thin smile seemed genuine. “A clouded mind cannot think rationally. Let me analyze this server first, and then we can discuss facts rather than assumptions.”

It didn’t help Basil feel better, but at least he had found a good way to cope with all the terrible truths thrown at his face lately: by not thinking about them. He would cross that bridge once they reached it.

Neria glanced at him with a thoughtful look. She must have drawn her own conclusions from the fight with Tamura, but thankfully didn’t voice her suspicions out loud. Instead, she simply patted Basil’s shoulder in silent sympathy.

No matter what the future held for them, at least they were all in it together.

“Be careful, my friend,” Walter whispered before they left the shop. “I have the feeling the competition is about to escalate greatly.”


The Bohens left Bordeaux immediately afterward. The goodbyes were short and to the point; on some level, everyone knew they would meet again soon. Even Little Nessia seemed to think this wouldn’t be the last time they crossed paths.

And so Rosemarine pulled a new and improved Steamobile onto the road to Paris, with enough food in storage to last weeks and enough weapons to blow up a small castle. Basil rode on her back to give her directions, shaking at each bump on the ground.

“Take the left road at the next junction, Rosemarine,” Basil said as he tried to understand the map. “We’ll leave the A89 for smaller roads and avoid the town of Perigueux. According to our intel, there’s a dungeon near it.”

“Yes, Mister.” Rosemarine trampled an abandoned car. They were few and far between on the roads around Bordeaux. The army and locals had gathered all vehicles they could transport back to the city, leaving the path ahead clear and easy to traverse.

Besides a few military checkpoints, this part of the journey was utterly uneventful. They passed by villages somewhat undamaged by the apocalypse and even watched farmers along the road growing vegetables the size of horses. Basil wondered how many of them would grow teeth like House Garden once did. He promised himself to check on Ronald through the Logs later today.

A group of army soldiers stopped them at the next road junction, where the A89 national road bifurcated towards the northern mountains. They had been warned by their HQ about the Bohens’ arrival and allowed them to continue after a quick check.

“This is the safe zone’s limit,” a soldier warned Basil. “Afterwards man, you’re on your own.”

Basil raised an eyebrow. Rosemarine turned her colossal head in the grunt’s direction, her shadow looming over him.

“Yeah…” The soldier trailed off before taking a step away from Rosemarine. “I don’t think you guys will need protection. Good luck.”

Basil heard him sigh in relief when they left the outpost in the dust.

The quality of the road considerably degraded after that last checkpoint. Not only did more abandoned cars pop up on the way, but so did holes, plants overrunning the bitumen, and rocks. Even worse, a raindrop fell on the map. Basil clenched his teeth as he looked up at clouds gathering in the sky. “Oh, that’s just great.”

“I’m here, Boss!” As if on cue, Bugsy emerged from the Steamobile. The centimagma carried a metal plate between his mandibles. He leaped on Rosemarine’s back and swiftly raised his makeshift protection above Basil’s head. “Here!”

Basil was thankful for the ‘umbrella’, but he noticed raindrops turning to steam upon touching the centimagma’s body. “Bugsy, you’re weak to water,” he pointed out. “You shouldn’t be out in the rain too long.”

“It’s all right, Boss,” Bugsy said. “It’s uncomfortable, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. I’m tough enough now.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to spend the whole journey holding a plate above my head.”

“I told you, Boss, everything is okay.” Bugsy giggled to himself. “I finished building the nest, so I have nothing better to do anyway.”

Basil raised an eyebrow. “The nest? What for?”

“For Vasi’s eggs.” Bugsy squealed in happiness. “Now that she kissed your cheek, she might lay her eggs at dawn anytime now!”

Basil blinked a few times, and then struggled against the urge to facepalm. “Bugsy, that’s not how babies work.”

In fact, Basil wasn’t sure he could even have children with Vasi at all considering their different species. She had horns for God’s sake.

“But… but I’ve seen it in the chicken coop!” Bugsy protested. “The hens laid eggs in the morning! Unless… unless babies spawn from dungeons too?”

“That’s not how it works with humans.” As Bugsy looked at him in confusion, Basil cursed fate for forcing this conversation. “You need a few more extra steps in between.”

“He needs to spray her with his pollen first,” Rosemarine ‘enlightened’ Bugsy with her plant wisdom. “Then she will make seeds to grow in the ground after feeding them with blood.”

“That…” Basil chewed his lip, before realizing that any answer would be even more embarrassing. “Yes, something like that.”

“Oh.” Bugsy sighed in disappointment. “I’m sorry Boss, I thought it would happen more quickly.”

“Why are you so fixated on me and Vasi anyway?” Basil found it a little creepy.

Bugsy’s answer made him reconsider. “Because I want you both to be happy, Boss.”

These simple words were said so earnestly that Basil couldn’t muster an answer. He looked over his shoulder at Bugsy, who winked back. To think that they first met trying to kill each other…

“Thank you, Bugsy.” Basil smiled. His chest felt warm and fuzzy for some obscure reason. “You know, you can stop calling me Boss. You’re my friend, not my subordinate.”

“Can’t I be both, Boss?” Bugsy asked as the raindrops turned into a faint, sustained rain. “You should smile like that more often.”

Basil chuckled. “I’ll try.”

True to his word, Bugsy spent the next hour protecting Basil and the precious map from the rain. The centimagma left a trail of steam behind him due to his body’s heat, yet remained unperturbed and instead hummed to himself. Basil was thankful for the company. It broke the monotony of the trip.

The countryside slowly changed as they progressed. Flatlands turned into woody hills and then stranger things. On the side of the path ahead, a mound of dirt resembled a giant’s face. A forest of jagged spikes of stones covered a hillside and stinking fumes floated out of noxious mud pools.

Both fauna and flora became barely recognizable. Purple grass off the road receded at their approach, as if afraid to be stomped by Rosemarine. Electric hedgehogs and weasels with blades for claws watched them from afar. Fiery ants the size of dogs briefly peeked out of a hole off the side of the road, before hastily retreating underground at Rosemarine’s approach. Flocks of black-winged creatures with a single eye for a body flew over the Steamobile without a sound.

The sight filled Basil with both wonder and sadness. On one hand, the landscape and fauna reminded him of the times he explored Bulgaria’s forests in his youth; there were always wonders and new life to look for. But on the other hand, it was a sore reminder that Earth’s ecosystem had changed forever.

“Boss, look up.”

Bugsy’s words drew Basil out of his reverie. A trio of red demons flew towards the Steamobile. They resembled stereotypical imps with forks, bat wings, and wicked grins.

Diablotin
Level 13 [Demon]

The creatures took a good look at Rosemarine and then flew away in the opposite direction as fast as they could. Basil couldn’t help but smile. They were fifteen to twenty levels above the local monsters and none dared to take a shot at the party.

How good it felt to be a shark among small fish for once.

“Do I blast them, Mister?” Rosemarine asked while licking her fangs.

“Nah,” Basil replied. “We won’t get any exp from it. If they won’t attack us, we’ll return the favor.”

“We could eat them,” she argued.

“Your laser doesn’t leave anything behind.”

“Oh, right.” Rosemarine glanced at the fleeing demons with longing. “Next time…”

“You know, I expected attacks on the way,” Bugsy said. “But the trip is very peaceful so far.”

“It’s natural selection, Bugsy.” Basil grinned. “All the idiots died early trying to take on tougher foes. Now only the cowardly, the crafty and the strong remain.”

“So… you think we will reach Paris without a fight?”

“No.” Plato’s voice echoed behind them. “He says most marauders will avoid us and the few who dare attack us will present an actual challenge.”

Basil looked over his shoulder. His cat emerged from the Steamobile, ran through the rain as quickly as he could, and swiftly took refuge under Bugsy’s umbrella.

The centimagma blinked in confusion. “Mr. Plato? What are you doing here?”

“You’re walking in the rain?” Basil taunted him. “Have you burned your cushion? Or did you grow waterproof fur in your sleep?”

“Aha, we’ve got a comedian here.” To punish Basil’s taunts, Plato took over his lap and wouldn’t move from it. “I’m bored. Vasi spends her time playing that holomachine game and Shellgirl does nothing but rub her face against our new rifles. She makes the same noise you often do in the toilet.”

“What noise?” Rosemarine asked naïvely.

“Nothing.” Basil’s cheeks reddened a bit, but he swiftly changed the subject. “There’s a portable TV if you want to kill time.”

“It’s boring to watch alone. I need an audience to criticize every show I disagree with.” Plato looked at Basil’s map. “Are we in Paris yet?”

“No,” Basil replied.

“Are we in Orléans yet?”

“No.”

“Are we in Limoges yet?”

“Tomorrow at the earliest,” Basil said absentmindedly. “We’ll make a stop in the Périgord Limousin natural park for the night. We can watch Major Chicken then, if we aren’t attacked on the way.”

Plato looked up at Basil with an annoyed look.

Basil sighed upon realizing his mistake. “I jinxed it, didn’t I?”

“Yes you did, you madman,” Plato replied before touching Basil’s nose with his tail. “When will you learn? What will it take?”

“Boss?” Bugsy squinted at the horizon. “Are those normal clouds?”

Cursing his tongue for tempting fate, Basil glanced west. The white rain clouds were slowly pushed aside by a familiar aurora. This one was dark blue and filled with countless points of light. The sight reminded Basil of a clear night sky, except this one showed up in the middle of the afternoon.

He would have mistaken the phenomenon for the telltale sign of a local dungeon, if it wasn’t spreading across the horizon.

“Boss…” Bugsy trailed off.

“Yeah, it’s moving closer.” Basil frowned. “Rosemarine, pause. Bugsy, recon.”

Rosemarine stopped in the middle of the road. Basil stored his map in the inventory as Bugsy leaped off Rosemarine to apply his antennae to the ground. Deprived of protection from the rain, Plato shrieked and hid under Rosemarine.

“Warn me next time!” Plato complained. His fur was already wet. “I’m like sugar, I can melt from this!”

“Oh, poor thing,” Basil teased him. Plato hissed in response.

The rain didn’t last long anyway. The aurora dissipated the clouds as it floated above their heads. Yet the following notification warned Basil of greater danger ahead.

Artemis-Apollo’s [God-Field: Orion Belt] changed the field to [Huntress’ Dream].
  • [Fire], [Water], [Frost], [Light], and [Mythic] elements are strengthened.
  • [Corrosion], [Earth], and [Darkness] elements are weakened.
  • Healing and Regen effects are doubled.
  • Weather effects are canceled.
  • Players and Monsters with a Strong [Light] affinity have their Magic buffed.

Basil blinked upon seeing the Artemis-Apollo name, and Plato said out loud what they were all thinking. “No way, them again?”

Metal Olympus. Of course. Tamura didn’t represent all their forces in the region.

“Hey, why did we stop?” Shellgirl shouted from inside the Steamobile. She hopped out of it with an AK-47 in each hand, both covered in slime. Basil wisely didn’t ask questions about it. “What’s up in the skies?”

“Gee, what do you think?” Plato deadpanned. “Trouble! The answer is always trouble!”

“Boss, I sense wheeled vehicles approaching from the east,” Bugsy warned. His antennae trembled as they gathered information from vibrations in the ground. “They make the same sound as our old car.”

Cars meant human drivers. Basil clenched his fists. Monsters he could deal with, but humans with classes presented a far greater danger.

“Shit.” Basil cursed under his breath. “How many, Bugsy? And how far are they?”

“I sense a dozen, maybe two.” Bugsy squinted as he tried to pick up subtle vibrations. “They’re two hours away, maybe three.”

“Wait, are they moving towards us or simply traveling west?” Shellgirl asked. She didn’t sound eager for another fight. “Maybe they’re moving to Bordeaux for a shopping trip.”

Basil doubted they would be that lucky, and Bugsy swiftly confirmed his suspicions. “I think they’re after us. They turned in our direction when we entered the field.”

“Then it’s not a raid, but a hit job.” Basil summoned his halberd. “Looks like they didn’t appreciate us killing their golf buddy.”

“But how do they know we’re here in the boonies?” Plato asked. “It’s not like we advertised which road we would take.”

“Maybe they can detect us from afar?” Shellgirl suggested wisely.

Basil’s eyes widened as he quickly found an explanation. He turned in Rosemarine’s direction, who stared back at him in incomprehension.

“The Dionysus essence,” Basil whispered. “They must be able to sense it.”

“I’m sorry, Mister,” Rosemarine apologized. “Maybe I can digest it?”

“If Zachariel couldn’t remove it, I doubt you can.” Basil grinned ear to ear. “Looks like we’ll have no choice but to fight.”

Plato squinted at his owner. “Why are you happy about it?”

In response, Basil glanced up at the Steamobile’s new howitzer. Shellgirl looked at her AK-47 with a blank look and Rosemarine licked her fangs in anticipation.

“Bugsy.” Basil laughed with bloodthirsty glee. “Go fetch me the rocket launcher.”

Angels wielded swords of fire, but a bazooka of justice would suit Basil just fine.

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A note from Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald)

Hi guys, another shout out from my friend Mecanimus, the author of A Journey of Black and Red and The Calamitous Bob (both of which I recommend). He has released another entry of the latter on Kindle, so I'm putting the link here for those who are interested:

 

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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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