Basil had found two ways to deal with a clouded mind: playing games and cooking.
Since Apollyon’s forces had treacherously destroyed his Nintendo Switch and ruined over five hundred hours of intense playtime, Basil had no other option but to pour his heart into the sacred art of Bulgarian cuisine. Thankfully, today’s bounty allowed him to experiment with traditional recipes.
As it turned out, you could do many things with two dead pegasi and a dose of imagination.
The Steamobile’s kitchen couldn’t compare to his old house’s, but slicing a winged horse’s flesh wasn’t a question of tools and comfort; it was a matter of patience and love for a job well done. Whenever Basil doubted his kitchen chef ways, he remembered the smiles of his monsters as they swallowed a dish of his invention. Their smiles, and the victorious thrill of devouring one’s enemy, made the pain and frustration worth it.
After a good two hours of work, Basil was proud of the final menu. First a bob chorba soup of delicious beans, onions, tomatoes, and pieces of pegasus hearts for starters; then, a kebab sliced from the beasts’ mighty legs with spicy rice as the main dish; and finally, strawberry gelée served with cream cheese for dessert.
Of course, Basil wouldn’t let the rest of the pegasi’s remains go to waste. The feathers would make for some fine pillows and the leather shall be turned into fine clothes to keep his friends warm in winter. For Basil was a gentle, caring soul. As for the bones, he would find a way to craft them into tools. Disney’s Hercules would have screamed at the sight of Basil’s hard work. And it was all right.
Basil had come to hate Greek mythology as of late.
With the meals completed, he allowed himself a moment to breathe. It was almost eleven in the evening and his group would soon stop for the night. They should reach the city of Limoges tomorrow with bellies full.
Now that Basil had cleared his head through hard work, it was time to assign his two new levels.
“It’s the end of an era,” Basil whispered as he opened his status screen. His eyes lingered on his Tamer class; his first, the one that started this entire journey into monster madness and the unknown. To finally fill it out made him feel strangely nostalgic.
Less than half a year had passed since that strange morning when he woke up with a screen stuck between his eyes, but it felt like a lifetime ago.
Level 20 Tamer Stat Gains: +1 STR, +1 AGI, +1 VIT, +1 MAG, +1 CHA. You earned 30 HP and 10 SP.
All for One (Passive): Tamer class Capstone. You have proven that the bond uniting you to your monsters is unbreakable. All buffs and beneficial status effects affecting you apply to your monsters; however, status ailments and debuffs also carry over.
[All for One] applies to your entire Guild.
The rush of power filled his bones, gentle as a dopamine rush. It was the warm feeling of completing a race, of achieving a milestone on a journey. As for that new Perk… the sheer tactical possibilities it presented gave Basil pause for thought. The potential rewards were as great as the drawbacks.
Congratulations, you have completed your first class! For this achievement, you can select one of your stats except for HP/SP; it will receive a one-time bonus chosen at random (maximum +6).
“What?” Basil clenched his jaw in annoyance. “Do I gain a bonus each time I complete a class?”
“Why didn’t you inform me sooner?!” If Basil had known there was yet another incentive to class specialization early, he wouldn’t have spread out his levels so much!
Your Intelligence was too–
“I select Intelligence,” Basil said before the System could finish its sentence. “System, invest in my education!”
You have gained +4 INT and 20 SP. You can now remember up to 6 Spells.
“Take that, Dumbledore.” For his second level, Basil finally decided to take a level in Deathknight. His current plan was to alternate with Dragonknight afterward, progressing in both classes at once. It might have been suboptimal, but he would need additional firepower to deal with dragons in the near future.
The noise of shattered glass echoed in Basil’s mind, much to his surprise.
Congratulations! Through your unshakable faith and unusual choices, you have unlocked a rare class variant of Deathknight: Deathknight of the Sepulchre! A formidable champion of the faith defending holy resting places. STR (A), AGI (B), VIT (B), SKI (B), MAG (B), INT (C), CHA (A), LCK (B).
The Sepulchre? As in the Holy Sepulchre? Basil knew there was once a crusader order dedicated to protecting Christ’s tomb, but to think the System would make it into a class…
Or perhaps the System had finally recognized his neighborhood crusader’s vow.
Level 1 Deathknight of the Sepulchre Stat Gains: +1 STR, +1 VIT, +1 SKI, +1 MAG, +1 CHA, 1 LCK. You earned 30 HP and 15 SP.
Soulbound Weapon (Passive): Select a weapon in which you have an advanced or perfect proficiency. This weapon will be bound to you, allowing you to teleport it to your hand at will as long as you both remain on the same world; it will also gain new abilities and improve in quality as you progress into the Deathknight of the Sepulchre class. You can only select one Soulbound Weapon and cannot select a new one until the first is destroyed beyond repair.
Of all of today’s surprises, this one might have been the first good one. Basil counted all the weapons in his inventory, from his humble pistol to his rocket launcher. In the end though, only one was worthy of this Perk.
Basil summoned his trusty halberd and raised it with both hands. “I shall bind this holy weapon to my soul!”
The System answered his decision with a burst of energy. Burning light swallowed his halberd and reforged it into a new weapon. The hand-forged steel making up its structure gained a red and yellow hue, much like a young fire. The axe blade sharpened and the spear tip took on the shape of a stylized flame. The halberd still felt warm to the touch even after the light dissipated.
Family: Soulbound Weapon (Axe/Spear).
Power: +17 STR.
Effect 1: Ignores half of a target’s defensive stats during damage calculation.
Effect 2: [Blazing Rune]: Inflicts an additional 30% [Fire] damage.
Effect 3: [Ghostbuster]: Inflicts Deadslayer supereffective damage against the [Undead] Type (x3 damage) and can harm incorporeal targets.
If there’s something strange in your graveyard, who are you gonna call? Croque-Mordeuse! She’ll keep hidden bodies out of sight and your dead wife out of mind! Croque-Mordeuse!
“Deadslayer?” Basil chuckled. Walter wasn’t going to like this development. “Beautiful.”
Vasi had told him that he would never become a Paladin… but a holy fire halberd-wielding knight made for a pretty nifty consolation prize.
Rosemarine stopped the Steamobile near a small river. A large hill overshadowed the area, its surface covered in stone and boulders. Basil noticed facial shapes dug into the granite formations; with their long tusks and small eyes, they looked a lot like fantasy trolls. Bugsy hadn’t noticed the presence of enemies nearby with Tremorsense, so Basil assumed that whoever created these decorations had either perished or fled at the party’s approach.
The cold wind of early November blew among the leaves of distant trees. Bugsy started a fire from coal and harvested wood, the flames illuminating the darkness and comforting the group with their warmth. Rosemarine had coiled around the campfire and fallen asleep from exhaustion before the dinner was even served. Plato swiftly sat against her belly, exploiting her warmth for his own comfort.
“Hey, Partner!” Shellgirl called out to Basil near the fire. The mimic booty held the two essence spheres in her hands close to Vasi. “Check this out!”
The entire party watched on as Shellgirl started juggling with the two spheres. Basil winced as he watched the godly essences move from one hand to another, half-expecting his friend to drop them. But Shellgirl proved herself skilled enough to keep them in constant movement.
“Impressive.” Vasi giggled and clapped her hands at the spectacle. “You’re good at this.”
“I could make money this way,” Shellgirl replied with a grin. “For two wares bought, a free five-minute performance!”
“For the love of God, please don’t drop the dead gods’ souls,” Basil pleaded. “I don’t want to know what will happen if you break them.”
“I don’t think any of us can, handsome,” Vasi reassured him. “We could reshape or transform them, but destroying a god’s essence is almost certainly beyond our power.”
“Any idea what to do with these spheres?” Basil asked as he let the starting soup stew on the campfire. If Vasi allowed Shellgirl to play with the essences, then his girlfriend had already taken a good look at them.
“I suppose we can either eat them like Rosemarine or use them for crafting,” Vasi replied.
“Or we could sell them,” Shellgirl stated the simple solution. “I mean, I’m sure Walter would trade us one of his legendary spears against these two big balls. Look at the size of them!”
“He might,” Vasi conceded with a chuckle, “but I couldn’t teleport to his shop to ask him directly. I suspect he has temporarily closed his shop to study the neurotower.”
Of course a necromancer would find a device powered by tormented human souls fascinating. Unfortunately, Metal Olympus’ ability to track down the essences made them a liability. Carrying three of them was the equivalent of painting a target on their back.
“You were wise not to let Rosemarine eat them, handsome,” Vasi said as she warmed her hands near the pyre. “She would have ended up like that woman, torn apart from within. A body can’t handle more than one of these essences.”
“I’m still not sure eating one is a good idea at all,” Basil replied. He glanced at Rosemarine, who snorted adorably in her sleep. His poor tropidrake was exhausted after carrying the Steamobile for a full day and a deadly chase. “I’m waiting to see what her new metamorphosis will do.”
Vasi scowled when Basil served the team their soups. He briefly thought she didn’t like his cuisine, which would have wounded him deeply, but it became clear that something else weighed on her mind.
“I don’t think that what happened to our foe was an accident,” she finally said.
“The teleportation misfire or the failed cancer chemotherapy?” Plato asked in-between bites. “Basil, cook more flying horse hearts next time. They’re delicious.”
“If we find more,” Basil replied before sitting next to his girlfriend. “You were saying, Vasi?”
“Hypathia’s breakdown was preplanned.” Vasi shook her head. “I’m a good witch, Basil, but I’m still a work-in-progress. Yet even a cursory examination of these essences tells me that mixing them would be a terrible idea. I can’t imagine someone with the resources and intellect to summon the Trimurti System would miss this detail.”
“Hypathia might not have realized the danger,” Basil pointed out after sipping his soup. It tasted nice enough, but he should have added more pepper. “She was an investor, not a technician… but yeah, Maxwell must have known and didn’t care.”
“Or he fully expected her to self-destruct,” Vasi pointed out.
“Maybe.” It wouldn’t surprise Basil much. When you make a deal with the devil, you should always expect to see the short end of the stick. “And now it's been twice that a member of the board was prevented from teleporting away. Once is a coincidence, two is a pattern.”
Hypathia mentioned her colleague Ashok during her breakdown, calling him a traitor when she failed to teleport. By simple deduction, this Ashok was almost certainly responsible for Tamura’s inability to escape his own death.
It worried Basil. From the information he had received from the French army, Ashok was by far the most dangerous member of the board behind Maxwell himself.
“How many of these board members are left?” Shellgirl asked after getting tired of juggling. She set the essences among her treasures and slouched on her hoard like a dragon queen. “Two?”
“Three.” Basil summoned a file from his inventory and tossed it to Shellgirl. It was a copy of the French army’s investigation into Dismaker Labs. “Chief Technical Officer Benjamin Leroy, Chief Operating Officer Ashok Acharya, and Chief Executive Officer Anton Maxwell himself.”
“COO?” Ever the studious gal, Shellgirl read the documents with attention. “Oh, that’s the big boss’ right-hand right?”
“Yes, he’s like my Basil,” Plato said. “Dutifully fulfilling my every wish.”
“I’m still waiting for my paid vacation,” Basil joked back.
“You can always dream.” Plato snickered. “What next, a minimum wage? Shouldn’t the joy of humble work be a good enough reward?”
“Of course it is, king of cats,” Vasi mused before petting Plato behind the ears. “But perhaps we should talk about starting a union.”
Shellgirl lay down on her back to better read the document. “I’m not sure if I remember this right,” she said with a thoughtful look. “But didn’t the snake say that this Ashok was the only one in contact with their big boss?”
“He did,” Basil confirmed. “Makes sense. If he was COO, then Maxwell trusted him above the rest.”
“Then is he killing his allies for himself, or on his boss’ behalf?” Shellgirl asked.
“What difference does it make?” Plato belched after finishing the starter. “They’re dead anyway.”
“I don’t understand how it all fits,” Shellgirl explained. “What’s the point of granting your allies immense power if it is to eliminate them later?”
“Maybe they’re not useful anymore, Shellgirl,” Vasi suggested. “Sometimes, it’s that simple.”
“They stopped being useful when the System started, no? Why not give them a severance package at the very start then?”
“Good point.” Vasi crossed her arms. “I see two possibilities: either Maxwell couldn’t kill them then, or the board members served a purpose in the early days of the Apocalypse.”
“Mmm…” Bugsy snapped his mandibles. “Boss, I have an idea, but… I’m not sure if I’m on the right track.”
“Nobody is, Bugsy,” Basil replied kindly. “Go on, there’s no right answer.”
“Emperor Veg—I mean, Emperor Maxwell.” Bugsy cleared his throat as the rest of the team looked at him strangely. He had clearly watched too much Major Chicken. “I mean the villain. The villain wants to open a portal to another world, right?”
“That’s the most likely possibility, yes,” Basil confirmed.
“But portals don’t open unless everyone on the planet becomes strong enough,” Bugsy said. “That’s why the Apocalypse Force is killing low-level people. What I mean to say is… maybe it’s the same thing with Metal Olympus too? They were supposed to cause as much damage as possible until levels rose high enough for gates to open.”
“That…” Basil trailed off with a frown. “That’s plausible.”
“You mean he used his employees in the early stages to build capital, and now he’s trying to get rid of them now that the money’s coming in on its own?” Shellgirl frowned. “That’s disgusting and unethical. You can’t build a good work culture with that kind of attitude.”
“But why not let them run around then?” Plato asked with skepticism. “They aren’t useful anymore, but they aren't dead-weight either. Why bother killing them?”
Vasi quickly guessed the likeliest answer. “Because they know too much.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Basil frowned as the situation started to clear up. “All members of the board were privy to the System’s inner functions and true nature. If any of them were to be interrogated, they could allow enemy factions to understand how the whole machinery functions.”
Including the ghastly parts. Basil tried to follow Walter’s advice and not to think too much about Hypathia’s revelations on the fate of souls, even if it bothered him greatly. He needed to obtain more hard facts before drawing fearful conclusions.
Basil would wait for Walter’s conclusions on the neurotower. Crossing their respective findings would help them uncover the whole situation rather than pieces of it.
“Before he entered the business world, Ashok Acharya started out as an Indian army officer involved in the Kashmir conflict,” Shellgirl read the army’s file out loud. “He was court-martialed after accusations of extrajudicial torture and murder of civilians, though his culpability was never proven. Afterward, he started a private military company mostly known for protecting questionable rare ore extractions in Afghanistan, Mali, and other third world countries.”
In short, he was a nasty piece of work.
“Private Military Contractor?” Vasi frowned. “You mean mercenaries?”
“Like adventurers?” Bugsy asked naïvely. “He took on quests too?”
“More like he bullied poor people out of their lands on behalf of corporations, all so they could exploit their natural resources,” Basil replied grimly. “For money.”
“A thief then,” Vasi summed it up. Shellgirl sneered in disgust too; she didn’t believe in making money through foul ways. “How did he end up with Dismaker Labs?”
“The company needed specific rare ore to create advanced batteries and computer technology,” Basil explained. “The army suspects that Maxwell brought him in to secure the supply. That, and I suppose Ashok helped cover up what his organization was truly up to. If he had experienced mercenaries to act as security, it would have been child’s play to make witnesses and whistleblowers disappear.”
That worried Basil the most. Tamura and Hypathia had been rich oligarchs, but Ashok was a merciless killer with military training and experienced troops. He would make far better use of his newfound divine powers than his colleagues; and if he sabotaged them on his own behalf rather than Maxwell’s, then he was probably shooting for Overgod too.
“What about Emperor Maxwell?” Bugsy asked. “Which planet does he come from?”
“Unknown,” Basil said with a snort. “The army could barely find any verifiable information on him before he started Dismaker Labs. It’s almost as if the company came to life and then grew a human face out of nowhere.”
“Or he came from another world like I did and infiltrated your society,” Vasi suggested with a smile. “Perhaps he has horns too.”
“All I hope is that he’s not a reptilian or worse, a devil in a suit,” Basil replied grumpily. “Too many of them already.”
“Personally, I’m betting on an alien,” Plato said. “Gray with shades of green.”
Shellgirl continued to read the document to herself, her expression turning from curiosity to sadness. “That’s awful,” she whispered.
“What is it, Shellgirl?” Vasi asked.
“I’m reading the CTO’s entry, Benjamin Martin Leroy.” Shellgirl flipped a page of the document. “His daughter was killed seven years ago in a place called Tunis.”
“There was a wave of terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015,” Basil said with sorrow. He still remembered watching the events on the news with a lurching stomach. “Dozens of tourists were murdered by madmen with assault rifles. Leroy’s daughter was among them.”
Vasi chewed her lip. “Hypathia said he was trying to ‘bring her back.’”
“I thought the same,” Basil admitted. If Dismaker Labs’ technology could indeed influence the souls of the dead, then Maxwell must have enlisted Benjamin Leroy’s assistance with the promise of bringing back his daughter to life.
“I’ve heard some of my world’s gods could revive the dead, and not as walking corpses,” Vasi said. “But only under very specific circumstances. I’m not sure how it will work on this planet though.”
The thought of bringing back René, Kuikui, and Orcine immediately aroused Basil’s interest. “What circumstances?”
“From what I understand…” Vasi smiled sheepishly. “You had to pay for it.”
Basil looked at her silence as he struggled to find his words. Too late. Shellgirl beat him to it.
“I knew it!” she shouted in triumph. “The afterlife runs on money, yo!”
Some said death was the great equalizer. They were lying to themselves. The rich always had it better.
After dinner, the group spent a little time outside rather than retreat inside the Steamobile. The campfire hadn’t died down, so its warmth protected them from the cold wind.
Vasi rested against Basil’s shoulder as the couple watched the sky. “The stars are beautiful tonight.”
“They’re all fake,” Basil grumbled.
Vasi rolled her eyes. “I know that, my grumpy bear, but they’re still beautiful.”
“How does the night sky look in your world?”
“The moon is made of gold,” she replied. Shellgirl’s head immediately snapped in the couple's direction. “So many adventurers are mining it for material that astronomers wonder if it’ll eventually fall out of orbit.”
“It’s still less dangerous than ours,” Basil mused. The dungeon auroras on the moon’s surface grew more noticeable with each passing night. “Do you intend to return there one day? To your world?”
“Eventually, but I’m in no hurry. I gotta visit my mom someday.” Vasi smiled at him. “Will you follow me there, handsome?”
“I suppose, if the opportunity presents itself.” It wasn’t like Basil had a house to return to, since the last one went down in flames. “How would your mother react?”
“She would try to eat you for taking her dear daughter away.” Vasi chuckled. “Honestly, I don’t know. How would yours?”
“She would ask ‘when are the children coming?’” Basil’s mother had always been obsessed with his reproductive future.
“I’m afraid she’ll have to wait a long time for that,” Vasi replied with a grin.
Basil distinctly heard Bugsy whine in the background, but paid him no mind. “General Leblanc said he would be looking for my mom.”
“And what will you do if he finds her?” Vasi asked sharply.
“I don’t know,” Basil admitted. His mother, if she still lived, was always across the continent and he already had enough trouble to deal with in western Europe. “I would try to give her a call at least.”
Vasi nodded in appreciation, but thankfully didn’t press the subject further. After today’s exhausting events, they easily fell into a comfortable silence. Basil found the sensation of her slow breathing on his chest more peaceful than any word. He held Vasi tightly against him and started to fade into the dreamlands...
At least, until something cold fell on his cheek and jolted him back to consciousness.
“What is it?” Vasi glanced at him with a frown, before turning to stare at the sky.
White crystals fell from the heavens above their heads, carried by the autumn wind. They were so small Basil almost missed them in the dark. First there were only a few, then many more dropping from white clouds. They melted when they approached the campfire and melted against Bugsy’s carapace, much to his displeasure.
“It’s snow,” Vasi whispered with a smile. “It’s snow, Basil!”
General Winter had come early.