Basil had never speedrun a season before.
The snowfall started out as faint and amusing, but the situation quickly degraded. The temperature dropped twenty degrees in less than an hour, to the point Basil had to put on a scarf, a winter hat, gloves, and a mantle to cover his feathered armor. He still felt cold afterward.
The blizzard that followed was just the coup de grâce.
The party spent the whole night bunkering inside the Steamobile. It was terribly difficult to squeeze Rosemarine inside and they had to use a good chunk of the coal reserve to keep the heating at full power. When they crawled out of their vehicle in the morning after the storm subsided, the entire region was covered in a soft layer of snow. Glaciers and icicle curtains had taken over the hills. Sleets of ice cracked under the group’s feet wherever they walked and the Steamobile’s wheels struggled to advance on the frozen road.
“I hate frost,” Basil grumbled while sitting with Vasi on Rosemarine’s back to guide her. With his tropidrake slowed down by the frost and the snow, Bugsy had to stay at the front and melt obstacles with his firebreath. “I hate it so much.”
“You’ll get used to it, Handsome.” Vasi was the only one happy with this state of affairs. She looked very cute with a fur mantle and a red winter hat over her horns. “It’s not that cold.”
“It’s minus fifteen and dropping still.”
“I was born in a place called the Winter Kingdoms,” Vasi replied with a grin. “To me, this weather is a warm spring.”
Basil was starting to have second thoughts about visiting her home.
“Besides, you can always turn into a bear if it’s too cold,” Vasi pointed out.
“We might all turn into werebears if I do that, thanks to my new Perk.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing. Bear fur would help everyone with insulation.”
Basil locked eyes with his girlfriend. “What do you think dragon and centimagma werebears would look like?”
“I don’t know.” She held his gaze. “But don’t you want to find out?”
When she put it that way… now Basil was dying to see the potential results.
“All right, but only because you asked.” Basil activated his Pèth’s power. Fur grew all over his skin as he transformed into a mighty werebear, his clothes stretching and adapting to his new morphology. It helped with the frost, but he greatly struggled not to fall off from Rosemarine’s back; as it turned out, men made for better dragon riders than bears. “So?”
Vasi raised an eyebrow. She didn’t transform into a she-bear, nor did Rosemarine grow fur over her leaf scales.
“It’s not working,” Basil noted the obvious. “System, explain yourself.”
Unique effects and exclusive Perks, including were-transformations, will not be shared by [All for One].
“You said the Perk applied to all buffs and beneficial effects,” Basil pointed out. “So isn’t it false advertising?”
Dismaker Labs wishes you a happy apocalypse!
“Vasi, the System doesn’t want a werebear party.”
“Saddening,” Vasi whispered as she leaned against his fur. “But I can make the most of–”
Basil had transformed back into a human before she could finish. “You were saying?”
“Why did you change back?” she asked in disappointment. “Your fur is so comfy.”
“Sorry, but it’s really painful to ride Rosemarine in bear form.” Basil checked his map. The wind almost swept it off his hands, but he managed to hang on to it. “Sweetie, take right after the glacier.”
“Which one, Mister?” Rosemarine asked. His tropidrake had undergone a few physical changes since the drop in temperature. Her Harvest Perk no longer provided fruits and she had lost her foliage. Her facial petals were also taking on a dark shade of blue. Perhaps it was meant to absorb more light or regulate her body temperature. Basil had little idea how a tropical flower dragon’s biology worked. “The pointy one or the round one?”
“The pointy one, I think.” Damn it, almost all these glaciers looked the same. Basil couldn’t see anything under the ice.
“We should test out your All For One’s limits as soon as we can,” Vasi suggested. “Imagine if I were to cast Hasten on you and we all benefit from it. It would divide the SP cost by six and make it much easier to manage buffs.”
“And imagine if I’m targeted by a Berserk ailment again, or worse, brainwashed.” Basil still had nightmares over what he had done to Plato under Tamura’s influence. “All for One is a double-edged sword.”
“I say it’s worth the risk.” Vasi put a finger on her lip, her expression thoughtful. “If we can find an item that grants you immunity to status ailments, it’ll negate the downsides of your Perk and let us abuse the good parts.”
“Probably,” Basil agreed. “We need more elemental weapons too. Half of our attacks couldn’t damage Hypathia.”
“We can expect future enemies to be immune to or resist multiple elements,” Vasi agreed with a nod. “Maybe you should take more levels in Runesmith and Technomancer? If you can empower our equipment until we cover most elements, then we’ll have the means to target all potential weaknesses.”
“I’m working on it.” Thanks to his Intelligence boost, Basil had finally, finally managed to learn the Savage Rune spell; and he still had space for one more. “The more elemental runes I have to infuse our weapons with, the better.”
“I’ll help. I intended to remove some of my low-tier spells from my spellbook and replace them with higher ones, so we can kill two birds with one stone.”
“Basil, Basil!” As if triggered by the word ‘birds’, Plato bolted out of the Steamobile to join the couple. “What’s happening to me?!”
“What’s the matter?” Basil looked over his shoulder and gasped in shock. “AH!”
His black cat was now white as snow.
“Basil, what’s happening to me?!” Plato asked in panic. His hair had switched colors and more than doubled in length, giving him a puffy, Siberian cat look. He didn’t appear happy with it at all. “I’m getting fat and snowy! Like white chocolate!”
“I, uh…” Basil stared at his cat in shock. Plato’s hair often lengthened around December, but it was the first time he had seen such a drastic change. “I don’t know, maybe it’s a Cait Sith winter camouflage.”
“So cute…” Vasi whispered before petting the cat. “So soft too…”
“Don’t get used to it.” Plato sulked. “I hate winter.”
After recovering from his shock, Basil smiled at his cat’s misfortune. “If you ask me–”
“If you say white is an improvement over black, then you’re a racist,” Plato complained. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
“You’ll be the first white panther,” Basil taunted him.
To his surprise, his words gave Plato pause. The cat’s eyes widened, a terrible idea no doubt crossing his warmth-deprived mind.
“Snow leopard,” Plato whispered, his yellow eyes full of hope. “I am no longer a dwarf panther. I am now a snow leopard cub.”
“Where are your black spots?” Basil asked with amusement.
“I'll gain them in the spring.” Plato hissed at his friend. “Doubter. Doubter!”
Bugsy sneezed loudly at the caravan’s vanguard. Flames burst out of his mandibles and swiftly turned to smoke. Rosemarine briefly stopped her advance to wait for him to recover.
“Bugsy, are you all right?” Basil asked in worry.
“I’m zorry boz,” Bugsy apologized with a nasally voice. The centimagma’s sheer resilience allowed him not to take damage from the snowflakes and low temperature, but the lava making up his blood had hardened on the surface. “I’m not uzed to getting a cold.”
“Here, I can heal you! Sunbath!” Rosemarine glowered and showered Bugsy in healing light. He answered with a scoff of smoke. “Oh? Why isn’t not working?”
“It’s not an ailment,” Basil noted after checking the team’s status. “The cold must be messing with your metabolism, Bugsy.”
“Go rest, brave bug,” Vasi said softly. “I can warm up the path with fire spells.”
“I’m all good Mamz…” Bugsy coughed and sneezed smoke. “Ugh… I’m zorry.”
“No, don’t be.” Vasi climbed down from Rosemarine’s back. “I’ll take over.”
“But I can still work!” Bugsy protested with pride.
“Bugsy, you will help Shellgirl inside,” Basil replied. The last member of their party stayed inside the Steamobile to fuel the engine with coal and water. “That’s an order.”
“I… alrizght, Boz.” Bugsy nodded obediently as he crawled back inside the Steamobile. “Thank zou, Vazi!”
“You are welcome,” Vasi replied before summoning a flame in the palm of her hand. She walked in front of Rosemarine, blasting off icicles and snow mounds on the way. Basil watched her move before focusing back on the map. The sun was barely visible in the sky as white clouds obscured it.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Plato said. “But isn’t global warming supposed to increase temperature instead of lowering it?”
“Climate is complicated,” Basil replied. “It’s a very complex machinery.”
That was already true without the System’s involvement. With the Trimurti System, video game logic prevailed over science. The weather had changed one month earlier than normal to fit the season’s stereotypes.
“Can we migrate south after we blow up Paris?” Plato pleaded. “There’ll be warmth and birds to hunt.”
“We aren’t blowing up Paris,” Basil replied.
Plato looked up at him with skepticism. “Basil, you have a nuke and an attitude problem. It’s not a good combination.”
“We aren’t intentionally blowing up Paris.” Basil grumbled at his cat’s lack of faith. “Oh come on! The USA and Russia had like ten thousand of those things and never used them!”
Come to think of it, Basil wondered what happened to all the leftover weapons of mass destruction in those two countries. He hoped lack of maintenance would disable them before they could transform that winter into the nuclear variant.
The journey carried on in monotone silence across the snowy wasteland. New monsters popped up around the countryside—including flying giant snowflakes, white rabbits with icy horns, and adorable, white glowing worms the size of dogs—but none of them proved aggressive nor strong enough to threaten the group. The Bohens eventually reached a frozen river, which Basil identified as the Vienne. Limoges shouldn’t be far now.
“You know what we need, handsome?” Vasi asked at the caravan’s front in between casting fire spells.
“A blanket?” Basil deadpanned. Plato had taken over his lap and provided a sliver of warmth.
“A bard,” Vasi countered. “To entertain us on our journey.”
“I can sing, Miss!” Rosemarine boasted. “I have invented a song!”
Aww, she was a budding musician!
“We’re all ears, Rosemarine,” Basil encouraged her. “But don’t use the ice as drums like you did with Bordeaux’s bridge, please. We don’t want to start an avalanche.”
Rosemarine cleared her throat, gathered her breath, and then started singing a song of her own devising. “We pray all night to get holy! We pray all night to get holy!” The tune reminded Basil of a certain techno band’s hit song. “We’ve come far enough, on the road to the holy land! Let’s kill all the infidels, and take back Jerusalem!”
“How does she even know about Jerusalem?” Plato asked in confusion.
“I read her Bible bedtime stories back when she still fit in a greenhouse,” Basil explained with fondness. Ah, the nostalgia… “She loved the Crusade sequels.”
“Don’t be like the dinosaurs and the megafauna!” Rosemarine sang. “Who died because they didn’t believe in Christ!”
Rosemarine proved to be a surprisingly good singer. The flower lass had a talent for music, and Basil would make sure to nurture it in the future.
“I smell food,” Plato said. “And a fellow feline!”
Basil looked up from his map and squinted. He noticed the smoke of chimneys from houses in the distance, which he assumed to be Limoges’ suburb. A blue dungeon aurora floated over the town, bright and beautiful.
After a minute’s walk, Plato’s warning proved correct. Basil caught sight of a massive mammoth coming in their direction, with two great tusks that could impale ten men at once and soft brown wool covering its body. A man with a hooded fur mantle and a spear of ice rode the beast much like Basil mounted Rosemarine.
Level 25 [Humanoid] (Cryomancer 6/Oliphaunt 10/Cavalier 6/Bartender 3).
Party: Bar Gaillard.
Odo, Mammoth Patriarch
Level 22 [Beast/Giant]
Party: Bar Gaillard.
After squinting, Basil noticed stripes of black in the snow. A sabertooth white tiger walked next to the mammoth, its fur so well-camouflaged that the naked eye struggled to follow its movements.
Sasha, Snow Smilodon
Level 21 [Beast]
Party: Bar Gaillard.
“Howdy, travelers!” The mammoth rider raised his ice spear at them, albeit in a friendly way. He wore armor of stuffed leather and wool under his mantle, alongside a tusked mask covering most of his face. The only exposed parts of his body were his two blue eyes. “I assume you’re the Bohens brigade?”
“We’re technically auxiliaries rather than a brigade, but yes,” Basil replied before having Rosemarine and Vasi stop. The tropidrake and the mammoth examined each other, the latter whiffing the former with its trunk “You’re our military contact?”
“Yep,” the man replied. “I thought you might have lost your way in the blizzard, so I came to find ya. Don’t worry, the dungeon is ours. The monsters here are friends or food.”
That explained his utter lack of reaction at seeing a giant flower dragon carrying a steampunk carriage. It pleased Basil greatly. He had yet to see a city that actually welcomed monsters in its midst instead of just tolerating them like Bordeaux.
“Hey, another cat,” the smilodon said upon noticing Plato. She sounded like a female. “What’s that metamorphosis? First time I've seen it.”
Plato squinted in response. Basil could tell his friend was spending all of his willpower not to show jealousy. “Cait Sith. Half fairy, half winner.”
“Nice. Is it an English variant?” The smilodon chuckled to herself. “I got the snow smilodon metamorphosis ‘cause I had a strong Frost affinity. Pretty nifty, uh? I even got stripes, like a tiger.”
Plato looked at the smilodon, then at his new fur, and finally back at Basil. After holding his owner’s gaze in silence for a few seconds, the cat silently walked back into the Steamobile with an empty, traumatized stare.
“Did I say something wrong?” the sabertooth tiger asked in confusion.
“He’ll get over it with time,” Basil replied evasively.
“I could have been a smilodon,” Plato whimpered before he vanished from view. “Damn it, damn it, damn it!”
“Anyway, name’s Patrick,” the mammoth rider introduced himself. “The big guy is Odo and the tiger is Sasha, my former house cat. Come on, say hello.”
“Sup’ strangers,” Odo the mammoth said with a grunt. He didn’t look like the talkative kind.
“A pleasure to meet you.” The smilodon gave them a polite nod. “Always glad to meet newcomers.”
“Basil Bohen,” Basil introduced himself and his group. “This is Vasilisa Yaga, my girlfriend, and the beautiful dragon is called Rosemarine Eglantine de la Barthe.”
“Each of my scales is a tormented soul,” Rosemarine said chirpily.
“Another undead?” Odo grumbled. “Great, as if we didn’t have enough of them already with the Mammoth Graveyard.”
“Anyway, welcome to Limoges,” said his rider. "We’ve got a place set for you and supplies too, but uh, you want to wear masks in town like I do.”
“Why's that?” Basil asked with a frown. “Is the air toxic?”
“Sort of.” Patrick sighed. “My good friend, have you ever heard of Covid-19?”
“I have, yes.” Basil squinted. “Please don’t tell me–”
“Well, there’s a new variant and the whole town caught it. Covid Winter Edition, we called it.”
“Is that a joke?” Basil seethed in annoyance. The world had ended and Covid was still a thing? “Patrick, are you kidding me?”
“I wish!” Patrick grunted in annoyance. “The System made it into a variant Disease ailment. It’s not deadly, but it knocks you out real good and makes you shiver for days. We’ve been looking for remedies since the outbreak started.”
“Oh, are you in need of a good wood witch’s brew?” Vasi asked with a smile. “If so, I’m your gal.”
“I’m also an alchemist with a pharmacovigilance Master’s degree,” Basil said. “Maybe we can help.”
“That would be great!” Patrick rested his spear on his shoulder. “Out of curiosity, did you ever eat goblins?”
“Yeah, why ask?” Basil asked with eyes full of hope.
“‘Cause there’s like, two dozen snow variants running around the tundra and harassing our trappers. We intended to hunt and cook them for dinner, if you’re up for it. I would understand if you wanna pass though. Not everyone is fine with eating the little buggers.”
Basil grinned ear to ear. “My good man, I have the feeling you and I are going to get along just fine.”
After such a long journey, he had finally found a cultured community.