They found Bucharest turned to stone.

Basil was almost used to the sight of petrified men and women. Every city invaded by the Unity ended up with a new statue park to artificially keep worldwide levels as low as possible.

But it was the first time Basil encountered petrified buildings.

The Bohens had reached Bucharest after slaying a few dozen Unity Watchers on their way. The creatures were level 2, not even a threat by now. Basil assumed they had been scouts, but when they found Romania’s capital in ruins, he realized they were instead stragglers and survivors. The city’s outskirts were littered with destroyed gearsmen and the leftovers of a great battle.

In its heyday, Bucharest had been Paris without the flaws. The neoclassical architectural style of many buildings was similar between the two cities, but Romania’s capital was no overpopulated ant hill crumbling under the weight of its own population. Great green parks helped its streets and boulevards breathe. Communist megalomaniacal projects like the colossal Parliament House stood side-by-side next to ancient cathedrals and the delightful Ateneul Român. Bucharest was a center of the arts, of culture, a melting pot of the past and the future. So many great artists and composers had performed in its marble halls.

Bucharest had been a city of the young, of songs and renewal; so to walk its silent streets filled Basil’s heart with melancholia. The petrified frames of gearsmen lay broken inside parks of stone trees and granite grass. Teams of armored warriors, cloaked wizards, and fearsome gunslingers stood frozen in the streets, their victory forever denied to them. The steel frame of buildings and concrete city blocks had all turned into the purest stone.

“This is so sad,” Kalki whispered as he touched the cheeks of an embracing couple. A man and woman of stone held each other in grim resignation, their eyes looking straight at the city center. “What happened here?”

“I don’t know,” Basil replied. The group had split into smaller teams to cover more ground and look for survivors. He and Kalki explored the eastern side of town, with Garud and Shesha having left to survey the sky and check the sewers respectively. “I’ve never seen anything like this. The Unity usually stops at petrifying people, not houses and trees.”

“Their machines have been frozen as well,” Kalki noted. “Friendly fire?”

“Across an entire city?” Basil scratched the back of his head. “Did they misfire a nuke of their own?”

Garud chose this moment to return from his reconnaissance flight, while Shesha erupted from the pavement. The snake shook dirt off her scales before hissing at Kalki.

“Shesha says we’re the only people left in the city,” Kalki translated. “Neither she nor Bugsy found anything underground. Whatever turned the city to stone also affected its sewer system.”

“I found statues of pigeons too,” Garud said. “From how they looked, they must have been petrified while flying and fell out of the sky.”

“A blast then,” Basil guessed with a scowl. “Damn, they really did use a nuke of some kind… and here I thought General Leblanc might have jumped the gun when he gave me one.”

Speaking of the French, Basil soon received a notification from his Logs. He opened it and a holographic video screen widened before his eyes.

“Basil.” Benjamin Leroy, former programmer of Dismaker Labs and incarnation of Pluto, stared back through the screen. His red-rimmed eyes were blackened by fatigue and contrasted greatly with his pallid skin. Basil noticed two armed guards in the background, ready to gun their prisoner down at the first opportunity. “It’s been a while.”

“How are you doing that?” Basil asked. “I’m limited to chat messages with everyone else.”

“Ex-moderator privileges,” Benjamin replied evasively. “Are you in Bulgaria yet?”

“No, but we’re close to the Danube Bridge.” One of the two that linked Romania to Bulgaria. “How about you, Benjamin? Is everything good in Paris?”

“I am under constant surveillance in a computer lab with even less freedom than a North Korean slave, but otherwise I am fine. Officer Elissalde is of pleasant company, and I’m growing strangely fond of her talking hounds.”

“Glad you’re making friends,” Basil replied. Considering the man’s unstable state of mind, he truly needed emotional support from others. “Anything I can help you with?”

“I’ve received word that you were looking for a voice modulator or translator for one of your monsters.”

“Yeah, we can’t understand Steve otherwise.”

Benjamin squinted. “Steve?”

“Our car,” Basil explained.

Benjamin paused for a few seconds as he processed the answer. “Didn’t you install loudspeakers on it?”

“We did,” Basil confirmed. “He can play music quite well.”

“But then he should be able to vocally communicate with you,” Benjamin insisted. “I created the translation program myself. All monsters’ thoughts and intents are translated into a language that the listener understands, even when they do not possess the physical attributes required for speech.”

“Well, your program isn’t perfect,” Basil replied. “We can’t understand Shesha either. All I hear when she talks are hisses.”

“But that’s…” Benjamin frowned in confusion. “That shouldn’t be possible.”

Basil turned to Kalki and his allies. “Shesha, can you talk to this man?”

The golden cobra responded by hissing at the holographic screen, much to Benjamin’s confusion. The man scowled behind the screen, his surprise swiftly turning into worry.

“Benjamin?” Basil asked.

“I need to go,” the programmer said. “I’ll come back to you shortly.”

He abruptly cut the connection without explanation.

“Charming, and so very reassuring,” Basil deadpanned.

“He is sounding better than before,” Kalki noted. He materialized a glass bottle filled with white liquid from his inventory, removed the cork, and let Shesha drink from it. “His mental health is improving.”

It said something about Benjamin Leroy that a de facto prison sentence under armed escort had been the best way to rehabilitate him. Still, Basil was hopeful. The former Dismaker Labs programmer had a lot to atone for, but he was putting in the work to redeem himself. That counted for something.

“Is that a milk bottle?” Basil asked as he observed his friends.

“Yes, it’s Shesha’s Christmas gift,” Kalki explained. “It magically never runs out and the milk is quite nutritious.”

Basil realized he should have better worded his question. “Why a bottle of milk?”

“Because Shesha likes milk,” Kalki replied with a smile, as if it explained everything. His cobra responded by sipping from the bottle in a way that looked strangely Freudian. “She never had a mother, you understand?”

Basil did not, but he politely nodded not to offend anyone. He turned to Garud next. “And what was your Christmas gift?”

“An umbrella,” the giant bird replied. And to prove it, Kalki summoned one from his inventory. It looked woven with gold rather than fibers, and apparently protected the user from weather effects from what Basil could see, but otherwise, it looked utterly underwhelming.

“An umbrella?” Basil repeated, slowly processing the word as if it were a foreign one.

“Have you ever tried to fly under the rain, human?” Garud replied with a grunt. “Trust me, this umbrella will save lives one day.”

Basil suddenly realized that Kalki’s band was almost as eccentric as his own, and that he should simply go along with the flow. He patted Garud on the shoulder with a short nod and asked no more questions.

Afterward, the group gathered in Bucharest’s old town area, which appeared to have been the epicenter of the petrification blast. The famously beautiful Lipscani Street had turned into a pile of rubble, at the center of which lay the wreckage of a truly colossal gearsman.

In fact, Basil mistook its hand for a house at first. A giant, cyclopean robot more than fifty-meters tall had collapsed on its back and onto the street, crushing unlucky restaurants and neoclassical buildings under its weight. Statues of Romanian soldiers surrounded the wreckage alongside stone artillery pieces. Stranger monsters like reptilian humanoids and alien spiders the size of elephants were common in the area. Some of the latter even had wings.

“I’m glad we didn’t have to fight these things in Paris,” Plato noted from atop one of the giant arachnids. Bugsy, Rosemarine, and Shellgirl overturned the rubble in search of survivors or supplies, while Vasi walked over the giant gearsman’s ruptured chest. “At least Apollyon stuck to wasps and beetles.”

“Mister, why is a bug trying to eat a robot?” Rosemarine asked as she found a petrified arachnid in the middle of tearing apart a smaller gearsman. “Can I do it too?”

“I wouldn’t recommend it, Rosemarine,” Basil replied. “As for why… I’m starting to think this disaster must have happened during the last Incursion.”

“That would make sense,” Kalki concurred with a nod. “The Unity’s troops must have poured through the portal alongside monsters hostile to them.”

“The big bot must have been the boss then,” Shellgirl said. From the explosion and cut marks on the rock frame, the adventurers in Bucharest had brought down the colossus before blasting open its chest. “Vasi, my dear, what do you see up there?”

“A fractured runic core,” Vasi replied back from atop the colossus. “I think it must have been booby-trapped. When the locals brought it down, the machine unleashed a pulse that petrified everything in a large radius in a last-ditch effort to defeat them.”

“These sore losers!” Bugsy complained with a sneer. “They didn’t even spare their own troops!”

Since Unity Watchers could petrify any creature with a lower level, a high-level gearsman giant should have no problem doing the same with a large population. If that monster had been as powerful as Apollyon, then no one could have resisted the blast. Considering how it affected buildings, it might even have bypassed immunity to Petrification.

Basil supposed it made a twisted amount of sense to equip a high-level gearsman with such a devastating weapon. Anyone capable of destroying such a colossus was a threat to the rest of the Unity; petrifying the winners meant soldiers could come later to harvest their experience.

“Can we salvage anything?” Shellgirl asked Vasi.

“Yes, rocks,” the witch replied as she gracefully climbed down from the colossus to join the rest of the team. “Everything has turned to stone, and the petrification effect is too powerful for me to lift. I can’t turn these poor people back to normal, let alone metal pieces.”

“Then we’ll set up a lair with a teleportation ring in the area,” Basil decided. “Zachariel and other medics will cure the population.”

Kalki crossed his arms, his expression somber as he observed the fallen colossus. “This isn’t good at all,” he said. “If the Level Barrier has grown weak enough to let this metal abomination through, then more will follow.”

The thought of one of these giants rampaging across Bulgaria filled Basil with dread. Unlike the likes of Apollyon, machines could be mass-produced. How many of these creatures did the Unity keep on standby?

A new notification from Benjamin popped up in his Logs.

Would it be too much to ask for good news? Basil thought as he opened it. The holographic visage of Benjamin appeared before him with the look of a doctor about to announce that yes, the illness was cancer.

“Basil,” he said. “I have bad news.”

For a change… “What’s up, Ben?”

“I’ve run a scan of the neurotower network and… where should I start…” Benjamin’s expression turned melancholic, as if reminiscing about some great work he was no longer proud of. “The Trimurti System is a wondrous thing, a cosmic phenomenon summoned to our reality by our technology. But no human design is perfect. Maxwell and I did our best to debug everything before the launch, but some minor errors slipped through.”

“Like inconsistencies in the translation program?” Basil guessed. It sounded quite minor as far as errors went, but Benjamin’s subdued reaction told him the situation was grimmer than it looked. “It’s getting worse, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Benjamin replied bluntly. “Do you remember what I told you in Paris? That I couldn’t destroy all the neurotowers without endangering the entire System?”

Basil clenched his jaw. “But you kept damage to a minimum.”

“We did… we did.” Benjamin sighed. “But minimum damage is still damage. With the last incursion, the Level Barrier is low enough to let monsters as dangerous as Apollyon through. The Trimurti System has never been so well-fed in terms of powerful souls, but this also means a greater bandwidth to deal with. These two elements stress a faulty infrastructure that no longer functions at peak capacity.”

Basil didn’t need twenty years of programming work under his belt to understand the implications.

The Trimurti System, the cosmic machinery that held Earth in one piece, was starting to bug.

“And then there’s the Unity,” Benjamin continued. “From what I see, they are using their manufactured neurotowers in an attempt to hack the larger System. If they succeed, they might gain enough influence over it to rival Maxwell’s privileges and trigger Incursions at will. In the short-term, they’re disrupting the bandwidth and automated processes.”

The group exchanged worried glances and a tense, short silence stretched between them. Vasi cleared her throat and asked what was on everyone’s mind. “What will be the consequences?”

“In the short term, some monsters will be generated with the wrong Perks or abnormalities,” Benjamin explained. “Spells might occasionally misfire. Eventually, error-riddled areas will be deleted by the System.”

“Wait, wait, what do you mean by ‘deleted’?” Shellgirl asked in panic.

“Exactly what the word implies,” Benjamin replied darkly. “Bugged areas will be erased to preserve soul energy bandwidth and safeguard the larger cosmic infrastructure.”

The more he listened, the more Basil found himself glancing at the giant crater in front of him and the gearsman at its center. The neurotowers’ power had terraformed the entire planet by now. Each speck of dust, every lifeform on Earth, had been touched by the System’s influence by now.

“How do we stop the decay?” Basil asked.

“We can’t.” After marking a short, heavy pause, Benjamin tried to soften the blow. “I need time to find a fix. The best we can do for now is stabilize the Trimurti System. Start by destroying all Unity neurotowers you can find. It’ll be easier to debug the originals without the dragons’ interference.”

“I’ll do what I can, but most of their neurotowers are up there.” Basil pointed at the moon above their heads. “Unless you have SpaceX on standby, going full Apollo 11 will be difficult.”

“Portals could do the trick,” Vasi suggested with a grim look. She didn’t believe in her own proposal. “But we would need an archmage of immense power…”

“Wait, I have an idea!” Bugsy raised a pincer like a child asking for a teacher’s attention. “The holomachine!”

“What about–” Basil stopped mid-sentence as he caught on to Bugsy’s idea. “Oh right, it was trying to connect to the Unity’s network when we first activated it!”

“That’s what I was thinking, Boss,” Bugsy confirmed with a nod. “I don’t understand much about computers, but maybe we can use ours to sabotage the Unity?”

“Holomachine?” Benjamin asked with a befuddled look.

“It’s a gaming and training device a Unity dragon kindly gave us posthumously,” Basil told Benjamin. “It uses gems to run programs.”

“I use it to learn new spells all the time,” Vasi added.

“Can you forward me one of these gems through the Guild Inventory?” Benjamin asked. Basil did so, and the programmer blinked on the other line. “‘My minion can’t possibly be this cute!’?”

Vasi shuddered. “You really don’t want to play that game.”

“I’ll take you at your word,” Benjamin replied with a sharp nod. “Yes, I see how it works. It’s a complex piece of data processing, but not one beyond my understanding.”

Basil smirked ear to ear. “You can hack the Unity through the holomachine?”

“Of course not,” Benjamin snorted, dashing Basil’s hopes. “There is no way I can access military installations through a gaming console. If they’re smart enough to build robot armies, then our enemies will have partitioned their network to prevent that kind of attack.”

“Aww…” Bugsy lowered his head in disappointment. “I thought I was onto something…”

“You are,” Benjamin replied, much to Bugsy’s surprise. “What matters is that we now understand how the Unity’s access points work. I’m almost certain they use these gems as chips.”

“All their gearsmen possess runic corestones,” Vasi pointed out. “Could this be the same technology?”

“Almost certainly.” Benjamin nodded sharply. “It’s highly probable that the Unity’s neurotowers use similar access ports as this holomachine. Unlike us, they will want to tune and update their machinery manually.”

“So what’s the gig?” Shellgirl asked.

“I can modify the gem you sent me and turn it into a viral vector. If you can integrate it into a Unity neurotower, I should be able to infiltrate their network. We’ll see how we can proceed from there.”

It sounded like a risky plan, but Basil was used to them by now. A System notification appeared before him to confirm it could work.

New Quest: Mooooonwreckers!
Recommended Level: 70+
Objective: If only people knew the power of the dark side (of the Moon)! It is up to you to make sure the Unity learns of it first-hand. Find a way to destroy the faction’s lunar stronghold, wreck their global ambitions, and return to Earth in one piece.
Reward: 7,630,000 Bonus EXP + [Moon Shield].

“Let’s go,” Basil told his team. “We’re a few hours and one bridge away from my homeland.”

The dragon hunt was on.

A note from Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald)

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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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