After many years of wandering, home was in sight.
“It is said that at the dawn of history, when God created the world, He gave each piece of the world to the tribes of men,” Basil addressed his flock of believers. They had stopped on the Danube River’s shore half an hour away from the bridge that would lead them into Bulgaria proper. “To some, He offered the mountains, to others the sea’s shore. When He had assigned everyone their due, one last person arrived; a farmer. When God berated him for his lateness, the man answered that he had spent all his day humbly sowing fields to feed his own. God was merciful, but He had already given away all pieces of the land; so He took a piece of Heaven and brought it to Earth. The farmer looked upon the most beautiful country in the world, and called it…”
Basil dramatically waved his hand at the land beyond the Danube River. “Bulgaria!”
“It’s a beautiful story, Boss,” Bugsy said with tears in his eyes.
“Is it a real one though?” Plato asked mirthfully. “Seems embellished to me.”
“It is true to me, and that’s all that matters,” Basil replied proudly. “There are so many places I’ll have to show you. Rila, Sofia, Kaliakra, Varna…”
Kalki smiled demurely. “Must be nice to return to your roots.”
Basil frowned upon realizing his error. Kalki was an amnesiac with no past of his own, much to his frustration. “I’m sorry,” Basil apologized. “I didn’t mean to sound insensitive.”
“It is fine, my friend. I am not so thin-skinned.” Kalki brushed off the subject. “What is our plan of action now? This river is far too large and too deep for us to cross on foot.”
“We’ll use the Danube Bridge,” Basil said. The Soviets had called it ‘the Friendship Bridge’ like so many others across the world—a stunning show of imagination by their standards—and though it was but one potential crossing point among many, it was one of few large enough to let the Steamobile ride on it. “Afterwards, we’ll go to my hometown of Varna. The Unity attacked it according to General Leblanc, so we can expect resistance on the way.”
Varna was also his mother’s last known location; it might have sounded selfish, but Basil wanted to ensure her safety before dealing with the Unity. If the dragons had gotten to her first, then the following rampage would make Kill Bill look tame.
“We’ll move in attack formation,” Basil decided. “Vasi, Kalki, and Garud scout ahead. Plato and I will ride Rosemarine. Bugsy, Shellgirl, Shesha, you stay atop Steve to provide long-range support. We’ll buff up at the first sign of a gearsman.”
“I can’t wait to see you in action, babe,” Shellgirl told the Steamobile as she patted the metal frame. “You and I are going to shower them, and not with gold.”
Steve answered with a roar of its engines and a cloud of steam. The team moved in position without wasting time, though Vasi remained behind a bit longer.
“Here.” Vasi presented a belt to Basil. It was relatively simple, a ring of leather bound by a metal piece representing a winged bear. “A little gift I’ve crafted for you on the way from Bucharest.”
“I love it,” Basil replied without even asking about its effect. He put it around his waist. It meshed well with his armor and the Pèth cloak. “Looks great.”
“It’s a Hastened Belt,” Vasi explained with a proud smile. “It allows you to cast the Hasten spell on yourself three times per day before a recharge. It should come in handy if I’m incapacitated.”
Her pride still hadn’t recovered from the Krampus fiasco. Basil guessed she wanted to show it wouldn’t happen again; his girlfriend might not show it too often, but she could be adorably competitive in her own way. She didn’t take failure well and strived to improve constantly.
“That’s kinda funny,” Basil said. “I have something for you too.”
Vasi raised an eyebrow as he summoned an item from his inventory: a shining silver ring encrusted with blue crystals.
“I’ve asked Shellgirl to mobilize our merchants to look for a specific item,” Basil explained. “And guess what? They managed to find what I was looking for.”
“Are you offering me an alliance ring?” Vasi chuckled coyly. “Has our relationship progressed so far already?”
“It’s a bit too early for it,” Basil mused. He very much loved his girlfriend, but whirlwind courtships rarely ended well. They had agreed to take things slow, to know each other the right way. “It’s an SP Storage Ring. You can stock up to five hundred Special Points and use them to regenerate your reserves in a pinch.”
Vasi chuckled. “I asked for an SP regenerating item yesterday, and you found one in twenty-four hours?”
“You deserve nothing but the best,” Basil replied charmingly.
“My, such a gentleman.” Vasi presented her left hand with a sly grin. “I’ll let you put it around my finger.”
Basil obeyed his lady’s command; slowly, softly, and gently. The silver ring looked good on her dark purple skin, yet he felt her hidden uneasiness when he touched it.
“What’s on your mind?” Basil asked his girlfriend in concern.
“Basil, I…” Vasi took back her hand and cleared her throat. “I’m not sure I’ll go to the family meeting,”
Basil would have lied if he had said it didn’t surprise him. He would have been anxious too. “Are you certain?”
“What am I going to say?” Vasi asked with a forced smile. “‘Hey Dad, I’m the daughter you’ve never met. You’ve missed the first two decades of my life, but I hope we can reconnect without all that pesky child support getting in the way?’ It will be uncomfortable at best and a scene at worst.”
Basil knew enough about jerk dads to provide some advice. “Vasi, you know the correct way to spell my name in Bulgarian would be ‘Vasil,’ not Basil?”
“Oh?” It amused her. “We should be thankful that your parents decided on an uncommon spelling. Conversations would have been awkward for us otherwise.”
“My mother fought not to give me my current name,” Basil confirmed. “Basil is actually Greek in origin, and not very popular in Bulgaria.”
Vasi raised an eyebrow. “Why is that?”
“One of our most reviled figures is Basil II of Constantinople, nicknamed the Bulgar Slayer. You don’t get a nickname like that one for opening orphanages.” Basil sighed. “My mother wanted to go with Vasil, but my father insisted on Basil. I got picked on at school over it, because children are cruel and adults don’t care.”
On the plus side, it had taught Basil that you could get farther in life with kind words and a hard punch than with kind words alone.
“That’s awful,” Vasi said with a frown. “Why did your father make such a choice?”
“Because Dragan Bohen was a dick who thought it funny to give his son a ‘controversial’ name,” Basil replied bluntly. “He was a drunk, a cheat, and a loser. I don’t miss him. But at the end of the day… he was still my father, you know? He took me fishing every so often, and sometimes he would do nice things like buy me candy. I do have some good memories of him buried under all the shit.”
Vasi crossed her arms. “What are you hinting at, Handsome?”
“You don’t choose your family, but it’s still a part of you,” Basil said. “Yeah, maybe going to that gathering won’t be pleasant. Most probably. But if you don’t go, you’ll live with that gnawing feeling of doubt and leaving something unfinished. Like a book you’ve never learned the ending from.”
Vasi scowled. “Meeting my father would at least give me closure. That’s what you’re implying.”
“Yes,” Basil answered with a nod. “I mean, if it goes badly, at least you’ll know that branch of your family is made up of jerks you shouldn’t bother with. It’ll be a bittersweet ending, but an ending all the same.”
His girlfriend mulled over his words without answering.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll support you whatever you decide,” Basil said. “I just don’t want you to regret anything.”
Vasi gave him a sharp look. “Are there things you regret never saying to your father?”
Basil sighed. “Yes.”
“I see.” Vasi smiled thinly. “Thanks for your advice, Handsome. I’ll think about it.”
Afterward, she kissed him on the cheek and took flight on her broomstick. Basil climbed atop Rosemarine’s back with Plato as she pulled the Steamobile along the shore of the Danube River. The group advanced through empty fields retaken by trees and nature. The twilight sun was setting beyond the horizon, heralding the fall of night. The clouds were red in the sky, though no dungeon-fueled aurora polluted them for once.
They soon should reach the Romanian city of Giurgi and its Bulgarian counterpart, Ruse. The latter was home to an industrial area. Basil didn’t know how the System could have changed it. Would its factories churn out war machines now? Or had a sea of sand drowned the city like Paris?
He wouldn’t have to wonder for long. The shape of a colossal bridge slowly appeared in the distance; linking the shores of the Danube with its thick metal frame. So close…
“How do you feel, buddy?” Plato asked Basil.
“Somewhere between peachy and excited,” Basil deadpanned.
“Dog, I’ve listened to your rambling for years. I know more about Bulgaria than any other cat in the world.” Plato shrugged. “Yet you preferred to stick to France. I don’t buy your peachy disposition.”
“Can’t hide anything from you, eh?” Basil let out a sigh. “To be honest with you, I feel… conflicted, I guess? It’s been years since I’ve left.”
“You’re afraid everything will have changed in the meantime?” Plato asked wisely. “Or that it hasn’t changed?”
“I’m not afraid, I’m worried,” Basil countered. “Bulgaria has survived things I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it’s always possible for things to worsen. What happened in Bucharest… I hope we won’t see it again in Varna or Ruse.”
He didn’t want to find his homeland in ruins.
Basil had considered René’s house his home for a while, and it had been one until the Apocalypse Force burned the place to cinders. But as he gazed upon the verdant shores on the other side of the Danube River, he realized no walls of stones could replace his homeland in his heart. A seed carried by the wind cannot forget the tree it sprang from. Humans were no different.
Yes, he had often complained about Bulgaria in the past. His country wasn’t perfect—which one was?—with its laws only applying to little people, the whole mafia issue, the drunk driving, the poverty, the dead journalists now and then… but at the end of the day, Bulgaria was beautiful in spite of all these issues. Its people were his birth tribe in a way. He wanted them to be safe, to survive through the apocalypse, and come out stronger than before.
“Hey, Basil, don’t be a downer,” Plato reassured him. “Even if we find cities turned to stone, we can make them right.”
“When I evolve, I will heal everyone that you like, Mister,” Rosemarine chirped. “And I will eat the rest! Feet first, so they can see me chewing them!”
“Thanks, darling,” Basil replied as he patted her on the head. “I appreciate the sentiment.”
He did wonder what she would look like with one more level. Something both nice and mean? Would she grow wings like so many other dragons?
Plato squinted at the Danube River. “I’m not sure she can digest metal.”
Basil didn’t even need to ask him what he meant. Vasi floated above him and shouted a warning. “I see Unity watchers patrolling the other shore,” she warned. “And gearsmen in Ruse.”
And like that, Basil’s hopes to find his homeland in one piece fell apart.
The situation became all the clearer as they approached the bridge. Basil picked out his binoculars to get a better view of it. The Bulgarian shore remained an industrial area, but not the kind he remembered. The modern factories and warehouses from his youth were now steampunk castles of gears and pipes. Iron towers spewed green fumes while gearsmen patrolled the streets of Ruse. Faceless android workers moved crates of coal, iron ore, and other raw material into burning forges. Military checkpoints backed with artillery cannon protected both sides of the bridge.
The Unity had repurposed the region’s industrial installations for their own goals.
“These metal cockroaches…” Basil’s jaw clenched as he summoned his halberd. “How strong are they?”
“Most gearsmen I saw were around level twenty,” Vasi replied. On paper, they shouldn’t be a threat to the Bohens. “The factories might contain stronger ones though. Kalki went up farther ahead and should return shortly.”
Basil agreed and spent the next few minutes observing the shore with his binoculars. A cursory look confirmed his girlfriend’s intel: the Unity had deployed their mass-produced weak gearsmen to patrol the shore. The sight of these cyclopean machines brought back memories of the occupation of Dax in France. The Unity only fielded a handful then, while dozens of them protected this industrial area.
Level 13 [Artificial].
Unity Gearsman Mk III
Level 20 [Artificial].
“They’re like ants,” Basil thought. “Individually weak, but organized and numerous.”
“Do we take them on, Mister?” Rosemarine asked with undisguised enthusiasm.
“It shouldn’t be too difficult to scrap these bots,” Basil said with a scowl. “But it would alert the Unity to our arrival.”
“Let’s sneak past them and not dirty our paws,” Plato suggested. “I could turn everyone invisible.”
“But I can sense invisible people with Tremorsense,” Bugsy pointed out from atop the Steamobile. The craters on his back fumed with power, ready to fire magma bombs at the first sign of danger. “What if they have monsters with the same Perk as mine?”
“Maybe I could try to chat them up,” Shellgirl suggested. “Pretend we’re merchants eager to sell them stuff. Or war profiteers! I’m sure they would let us in easily!”
“I’ve never heard of the Unity peacefully interacting with outsiders,” Vasi pointed out. “Announcing our presence will only give them the first shot.”
Basil nodded sharply. Unlike the Apocalypse Force, the Unity wasn’t interested in recruiting outsiders into their organization. They either killed or petrified everyone they came across.
Kalki chose this moment to return from his scouting atop his bird, sneakily landing next to the group. “We’ve tried to sneak around the factory, but watchers quickly caught on to us,” the bard explained. “It took us a while to lose them.”
Plato snickered. “Of course the bird was seen.”
“Watch your tongue, feline,” Garud grumbled. “No one can see me when I soar high above the clouds. They sensed our presence some other way.”
Basil clenched his jaw. Bugsy had guessed correctly. “They must have radars.”
“Did you see another crossing we could use?” Vasi asked.
Garud shook his head. “They patrol the entire shore with watchers. If we couldn’t sneak past them, you won’t either. Your car isn’t exactly built for stealth.”
Steve’s lights flickered in embarrassment.
“The situation is worse than you think.” Kalki locked eyes with Basil, his expression grim. “They keep people inside the factories.”
This took Basil aback. “Collaborators?”
“No, Basil.” Kalki shook his head darkly. “I think they are slaves.”
Basil’s blood boiled in his veins as he digested the answer. He clenched his fists in his anger, so tightly that his fingers hurt beneath his armored gauntlets.
The Unity had enslaved his countrymen.
Kalki took it as an invitation to elaborate. “These people were under armed escort and collared. I could only get a glimpse of them, but they had Crafter classes from what I gathered.”
“People get in, gearsmen come out,” Garud added. “Ain’t too hard to guess what’s happening.”
The Unity was using enslaved Crafters to fuel their war machine. That settled it. Besides the human cost, each day this factory remained active meant more robots for mankind to fight later.
“This calls for a bloody oath, after the battle is done,” Basil decided. “We’ll fight.”
“You’re sure, Partner?” Shellgirl asked, slightly worried. “Shouldn’t we gather more intel first?”
“They detected the bird,” Plato pointed out.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Garud insisted.
“No one said that, my friend,” Kalki reassured him. “But I see the cat’s point. They must be suspicious after detecting our intrusion. Another slip-up and they will sound the alarm and ruin our chance at taking them by surprise.”
“I’ve already lost a home to invaders.” Basil stood on his legs atop Rosemarine’s back. “I’m not going to sneak in while trespassers despoil this one. When someone squats in your place and calls it their own, you don’t enter by the backdoor. You fling the main one open, beat them up, and throw them out through the window.”
The team would follow the same strategy they used against the Apocalypse Force in Hungary: strike fast, secure the hostages, and wipe out the enemy in short order before they could coordinate.
Vasi chuckled. “So we start with the three Ds as usual? Disrupt, divide, destroy?”
“This tactic worked well enough so far, so why change it now?” Basil mused. “Let’s start an attack on multiple fronts.”
“Oh, I have an idea!” Shellgirl suggested. “We have large reserves of explosives in the inventory. Vasi and Kalki could drop them from above to sow chaos.”
“We can’t afford to hit the factories or we risk hurting their captives,” Kalki said with a nod. “What we do is damage the gearsmen outside and damage the roads. Hopefully this should disrupt their communications.”
“A targeted blitz?” The idea appealed to Basil. “Let’s do that. Plato, you’ll cover our flyers with illusion spells. Shellgirl, Bugsy, Shesha, you take the bridge. Rosemarine and Steve will bombard the gearsmen from the Romanian shore and move on to the other one once the crossing is secured.”
“What about you, Boss?” Bugsy asked.
Basil smirked in bloodlust. “I’ll go test my new Dragonknight Perks.”
The team split up to begin their plan. They buffed, as they always did before battle. Vasi carried Plato on her broom and vanished alongside Kalki and Garud. Rosemarine and Steve took position for a bombardment. The rest slithered into the shadows towards the closest military checkpoint.
He leaped once in midair, then twice, then thrice as if the clouds were solid ground. It reminded him so much of platformers like Metroid, except he could feel the wind blowing against his armor, the air pressure, the disgusting smell of toxic fumes coming from the Unity factories. The experience was exhilarating as it was strange. He crossed half a football field in a single bound, then another until he reached the other shore.
Basil set foot on his homeland for the first in years by stomping a gearsman.
The creature that had given him so much trouble in Dax half a year ago was crushed by the landing. Its metal frame crumbled under the weight of Basil’s feet, of his power. Gears and bolts flew all over the concrete street.
Basil had landed in the shadow of a factory overseeing the Danube River. His arrival was met with screeching alarm bells echoing across the district. Four level thirty and twenty gearsmen immediately rushed to intercept him; he blew them all out with a well-aimed Elemental Orb in passing.
A roar echoed and a shadow flew over Basil. The Dragonknight raised his eyes to watch a winged beast land in front of him; a creature twice as tall as an elephant and longer than a blue whale. The dragon reminded him of an ancient dinosaur; a mane of white feathers covered a body of thick scales and claws sharp enough to cut through anything. The creature glared at him with vicious yellow eyes.
Here came the A-material. Basil gave it a passing look.
Roarwing, Bishop-Rank Commander
Level 45 [Dragon/Avian]
Faction: Unity (Sector 7)
More like B-material.
“You have some nerve to show yourself here, ape,” the dragon said with condescension. He expanded his wings and cast a long shadow under the twilight sky. It would have been halfway fearsome if Basil hadn’t fought a monster a hundred times larger not so long ago. “Who are you to challenge me? A dragonlord!”
Basil held the dragon’s gaze. “Are you good at math, handbag?”
“Math?” The dragon snorted. “What gibberish–”
“Throughout all my school years, I disliked mathematics the most,” Basil said, interrupting the reptile’s answer. “The chemistry and biology classes saved my grades. I never really believed in the power of math… until the Apocalypse. Now I pray to Saint Hubert each night before sleep, so that he may bless me on the morrow.”
“What are you talking about?” the dragon asked, utterly confused.
“I inflict three times more damage with a spear like this one,” Basil explained as he raised his halberd. “And when I’m in the air, this power is doubled. I have Perks that inflict triple-damage on dragons like yourself and ignore all your defensive Perks. Stop me if I’m wrong, but the result should be eighteen. A minimum damage multiplier of eighteen.”
“You’re bluffing,” the dragon insisted, though a brief flash of fear in his eyes betrayed his shaken confidence. He had gleaned part of Basil’s stats. “You’re disguising your level. No way one of you monkeys is anywhere close to sixty.”
“I also have an additional thirty percent chance of inflicting critical hits with this weapon, and a teammate buffed my chances further,” Basil continued his explanation. “That’s another multiplier of three for a total of fifty-four. Add that to all the other buffs my team stacked on me, my high level, or the fact my halberd ignores half a target’s defensive stats. When you take all of these elements into account, I’m pretty sure the final damage multiplier is in the three-digit range. And that’s before I turn into a bear.”
Basil raised his halberd, challenging the creature to battle.
“So tell me, baby Smaug.” Basil grinned wickedly. “Who are you to challenge me?”
The dragon answered with a roar and a breath of mighty flames.
A second later, a sharp blade severed his head from his body.
The hastened Basil had leaped across the street in a blink before the monster even finished exhaling. The beheaded corpse loudly fell behind him, slain in a single blow.
Basil had defeated the dragon with logic.
“Guess it was too early to teach you multiplication,” he mused as explosions rocked the district. Bombs fell from high above while twilight-powered beams and artillery shells flew from the other shore. “I suppose I should start with the basics.”
He charged into the fray and at the closest gearsmen.
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Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald)
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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.