The battle was won, the dragons were dead, the slaves were safe. All in all, Basil called it a good day.
“You know, the last dragon we encountered took my second life,” Plato said as Rosemarine dragged a beheaded white wyrm’s corpse outside the factory. The creature had been called Scalefrost from what Basil gathered, and was killed while attempting to kill all his captives. No matter the gruesome nature of the monster’s death, the Dragonknight couldn’t bring himself to pity him. “This one folded in two blows. Do you think it’s a coincidence?”
“Not when you possess a dragonslaying blade,” Basil replied. Plato’s singing sword Joyeuse was the only weapon in the team’s arsenal even stronger than his halberd. “I’ll admit fighting dragons has lost its luster though.”
Steamslime had been the hardest challenge the team faced during the first Incursion and his defeat cost Basil’s team two casualties. Roarwing and his compatriot possessed over twice his level, yet died pitifully easily. Although Basil was loath to thank it considering the damage it had done to his world, the System was the great equalizer; it let small humans and cats stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the mightiest of monsters.
Rosemarine laid Scalefrost’s corpse next to Roarwing’s; both of them had been beheaded. The tropidrake glanced at her two distant cousins, an idea clearly forming in her mind. She swiftly grabbed the heads of the dragons and switched them on the other’s body. The final result was as morbid as it was absurd.
“Do you like it better this way, Mister?” Rosemarine asked. Her tail wagged behind her in anxious anticipation.
“You have a future in taxidermy, Rosemarine,” Basil encouraged her crafting aspirations.
Rosemarine chirped in delight. “I have created art! I have made something, with my own two hands!”
Basil had the feeling this was the beginning of a tale both great and terrible.
“So what do we do with them?” Plato asked while licking his ass; grooming himself was the only thing he took off his Simba costume for. “We parade them before screaming children to raise funds?”
That was something Shellgirl would probably do, but Basil was more practical. “The scales will make for good armor,” he said. “The claws, fangs, and bones can be used to forge weapons. Now that I think of it, I wonder if I could find a weapon Crafter to help refine my halberd further…”
“And the meat?” Plato asked.
“Mmm…” Basil considered many recipes. Steamslime’s flesh had tasted like a mix of snail and chicken. He supposed Roarwing and Scalefrost probably leaned towards the latter, but he would have to run tests to be sure. “It’s been a while since we’ve eaten burgers, and dragon meat should make for nice steaks once fried… we’ve got enough cheddar and vegetables from Hungary for everyone.”
“Can I have one too, Mister?” Rosemarine pleaded. “A very big one, with toasted bread?”
Plato chuckled at Rosemarine’s suggestion. “Wouldn’t it be cannibalism if you were to eat another dragon?”
“Goblins were Beast types like you,” Basil reminded him. “That didn’t stop you from eating them roasted.”
Plato mulled over his words for a few seconds, before raising his paw and examining it quizzically. His head turned to face Basil himself with a truly worried look.
Basil stared back at his best friend blankly. “What are you imagining?”
“Can you swear to me it was always goblin meat?” Plato asked with a low, dreadful tone. “That it wasn’t… some other meat? Feline meat?”
What the? “I’m never going to cook cats,” Basil protested. “Even my palate has standards.”
“You were considering it, the day the System appeared,” Plato said, his eyes squinting at his former owner. “I remember it clearly.”
“I wouldn’t mind eating myself,” Rosemarine thought it wise to add. “I would taste sweet with all the sugar in my veins.”
“Is that truly how you see me, Plato?” Basil complained. “Someone who will eat anything and anyone?”
Plato held his gaze without answering.
“Okay, I’m out of here,” Basil said as he walked away, with Rosemarine following him dutifully. “Let’s check on the workers and forget this conversation ever happened.”
“I can’t,” Plato said gloomily as he remained behind, paralyzed. “The doubt consumes me.”
“If you become a vegetarian, Plato, I’m kicking you out of this team,” Basil grumbled as he left. He could tolerate the pee on his bed, the constant meowing during the mating season, the rude awakenings, but he had to draw the line somewhere.
After claiming the factory, the Bohens had swiftly claimed a warehouse as a Lair and added it to the ever-expanding portal network connecting them to their allies across Europe. The European army had deployed a group of EOD agents to help remove the slave collars keeping the workers bound to the premises. As it turned out, the Unity had installed multiple layers of failsafes on the devices; taking control of the facility helped Vasi remove some of them, but not all.
As odd as it sounded, the dragons made it harder for outsiders to free their slaves than to take over their gearsmen.
I guess that makes some twisted amount of sense, Basil thought grimly. Crafters can help make gearsmen. They’re more valuable, more dangerous.
The EOD staff had gathered the workers in a line outside a warehouse. Half a dozen men in heavy armor worked around the clock to disable the slave collars around the former slaves’ necks. Basil watched the process happen with a quizzical look; one soldier started by using a spell to suppress the runes around the collars, while two others used specialized shears to remove it from the victim. A fourth man then disposed of the disabled devices into a black box covered in magical symbols, while a fifth gave the freed slave a quick medical checkup.
Kalki was also present, using his charming demeanor and music to put the workers at ease during the procedure. Quite a few sweated and held their breath as soldiers worked on their collars, fearing for their lives. Twenty former slaves were now free to breathe at last, but ten times their number remained enthralled for now.
“Hello!” Rosemarine introduced herself to everyone with a toothy grin. “I am Rosemarine Eglantine de la Barthe! I am so happy to meet you all!”
Her words and dragonliness were met with screams of terror from the slaves; even those who had been liberated. A slave in the middle of having his collar removed tried to escape, but only succeeded in tripping on a soldier. His collar started beeping the moment he landed on the ground, much to his horror.
“Shit, shit!” An EOD agent promptly tackled the worker and pinned him to the ground. “Gary! Gary, cast the suppression spell!”
“Neutralization, Neutralization!” shouted one of his comrades—Gary, Basil assumed—as he bombarded the collar with white waves of energy. The runes flickered, yet the collar kept beeping. “I’m sorry, I can’t! We… we’ll have to amputate!”
“Amputate what, the head?!” his fellow soldier snarled at him, while the worker started to sweat in fear. Basil could smell the piss between the latter’s legs from here. “Gary, you stupid ass, stop spitting shit and do your job!”
“I’m sorry, boss, I’m sorry,” poor Gary apologized, trembling as he cast his spell. “Neutralization, Neutralization, Neutralization!”
The runes flared to life… only to switch out like lamps running out of energy. The collar promptly stopped beeping. The worker responded by bursting into tears, with the soldier holding him gently patting him on the head as if he were a kitten in an attempt to calm him down. Poor Gary received no applause for his efforts.
The spectacle did nothing to pacify the rest of the workers. Basil raised his hands and tried to reassure them. “It’s okay everyone, Rosemarine is one of the good ones! She helped free you!”
“You can feed on my blood, if you’re hungry,” Rosemarine said kindly. “Like Jesus!”
It greatly pleased Basil that the tropidrake remembered her catechism, but her words only agitated the Crafters further. Kalki brought his silver flute to his lips and played a slow, soothing song. His music relaxed everyone present, even Basil himself. He felt the stress he had accumulated during the battle flow out of his body like sweat.
Kalki’s melody cured everyone of the [Terror] ailment!
“Thank you, Kalki,” Basil said before addressing his countrymen. By now they had calmed enough to listen. “We’re all friends here! I’m Bulgarian, like you! Basil Bohen, born and bred in Varna! Accept no substitutes!”
His words—and his noticeable native accent—seemed to reach their hearts. “Are you with the Swords of Saint George?” one of the collared workers in the line asked, a male in his fifties. “The resistance movement?”
“Uh, no,” Basil admitted. He had heard of the organization since his mother had taken refuge among them, but he had yet to encounter them. “I just returned all the way from Western Europe.”
“An expat?” The worker sighed. “Should have guessed. All the young people went abroad to work before that System shitshow… my son was in Austria when… when everything went to shit.”
“Hey, it’s alright,” Basil reassured him. “Austria is mostly fine… well, by post-apocalyptic standards at least. We have allies there. Maybe they can look into finding your son.”
“Fuck Austria,” another slave, a woman, cursed. “How’s Spain? My sister lives there!”
A chorus rose from among the workers. Basil struggled to keep track of all the questions. “I have a brother in Germany!” “Is Italy still standing?” “Is Queen Elizabeth still alive?” “Are the French still colossal dicks?!”
Basil realized he might have started an expatriate reunion business without meaning to. “Everyone calm down,” he said. “We’ll do everything we can to help. Just let the gentlemen here remove your collars so we can evacuate you somewhere safe.”
Vasi had forwarded the gearsmen’ schematics to General Leblanc and the Bohens’ allies across Europe. They had been very interested in seeing how they could produce robots loyal to humanity rather than invaders. No doubt the Crafters here today would soon find themselves back at work again in the near-future; except this time, they would trade their collars for an honest paycheck.
“We’re moving to Varna and hoping to meet the Swords of Saint George,” Basil addressed the workers. “Does someone among you know how to contact them by happenstance?”
One of the collared slaves, a man in his forties with a Tom Cruise-like cleft chin and short black hair, raised his hand. “Name’s Zlatan,” he introduced himself, his voice coarse. Basil noticed a scar on his neck, and his left leg limped slightly. “I’ve worked with them in Shumen. Got caught during a raid near the city’s gates. I can introduce you to the Swords’ leadership, if you want. Boss Simeon will hear you out once I put in a good word.”
Excellent. “Okay, then let’s talk after your collar is removed.”
“Might want to keep your tamed reptile out of sight though,” Zlatan said, glaring at Rosemarine. “She ain’t gonna be popular around here. Saint George didn’t kill crickets, you get me?”
“Aww,” Rosemarine lowered her head in shame. “I’m sorry, Mister.”
“It’s okay, we’ll find a way,” Basil reassured her. “I’m not leaving you behind.”
Shellgirl and Vasi teleported in a puff of smoke next to his position; the latter carried a crystal skull in her hands, a token used to reach Walter Tye’s shop between worlds. The appearance of Basil’s girlfriend drew a few ugly looks from the workers, much to his annoyance. “That horned witch saved your lives,” Basil announced. “It’s thanks to her that you still have your heads on your shoulders. Show her a little respect.”
“It’s fine, Basil, I’m above it,” Vasi replied with a sigh before checking her surroundings. “Where are the others?”
“I sent them to patrol around the factory with the gearsmen under our control,” Basil replied. “Since the Unity knows we’re here, it’s only a matter of time before they send reinforcements to retake the factory.”
Basil didn’t fear retaliations, but most of the people present on the base had little to no military training. He couldn’t risk the Crafters dying in the crossfire.
“Agreed, we shouldn’t linger for long,” Shellgirl said, her arms crossing. “Shame to leave the factory behind. So much infrastructure we could use…”
“We should teleport everything we can, destroy what we can't, and evacuate the hostages,” Vasi suggested. “Perhaps we could restart the gearsman production in Bucharest or at the Vampire Castle? Both aren’t too far from here, but far safer.”
“That’s up to General Leblanc. I’ll leave the military logistics to the professionals.” Basil glanced at the crystal skull. “So? How did your shopping trip go?”
“Perfectly,” Shellgirl replied with a grin. “This new loot will come in handy.”
Vasi gestured at Kalki and invited him to come forward. The bard joined the Bohens as they walked away from the workers for privacy. Once they had it, Vasi whispered a word to the skull. Its orbits burned with ghostly flames and cast a human-shaped shadow in front of the group.
“Basil.” The pale shade of Walter Tye, shopkeeper between worlds and necromancer extraordinaire, nodded politely at the Bohens. “It has been a long time since we last met. I was wondering if you were avoiding me.”
“So it’s true.” Basil crossed his arms with a scowl. “The barriers have weakened enough to let people like you and the Maleking project themselves in our world.”
“Indeed, though I am limited to scrying and illusion spells for now,” Walter confirmed. “I don’t think the next Incursion will raise the bar high enough to let me through… but the one afterward might.”
Considering Walter Tye was level 99 or close… That didn’t bode well for Earth.
Kalki appraised Walter for a while, his expression neutral, his eyes calculating. The necromancer noticed and matched his gaze.
“So you are the godly avatar I’ve heard about,” Walter mused. He spoke with his usual courtesy, though Basil could sense an undercurrent of disdain underneath his words. “I am not impressed.”
“I can smell the blood soaking your robes from here,” Kalki whispered with a dark look. “How many have you killed, cold one? I shudder to imagine the number.”
“Does it matter who perishes, when you can bring the dead back?” Walter shrugged. “I wonder how many pointless wars were waged in your name. Your kind never takes responsibility for their followers’ crimes.”
“I would gladly discuss morality if I could remember what I have done,” Kalki replied calmly. The necromancer had clearly rubbed him the wrong way, however. “I was told you could help.”
Walter shook his head. “Sadly, I’m afraid I cannot.”
“Why is that?” Kalki asked.
“If you were suffering from missing memories, then mind magic would help me unearth them easily enough,” the shopkeeper explained. “The truth of the matter, however, is that only a part of you was summoned to this reality. It is not that a portion of your memories is missing; instead, your current self is a small bit taken from a greater divine whole. You are, to put it bluntly, a finger in a keyhole.”
Walter nodded at the starry sky above them.
“The real you,” he said. “Is out there, waiting.”
The memory of Brahma’s eye peering at Earth flashed in Basil’s mind, causing him to shudder. Kalki bit his lower lip after he digested the answer. “What will happen if I perish?” he asked. “Will it affect my… my other self?”
“I suspect you will reunite with your greater divinity upon perishing,” Walter suggested. “Which will destabilize this reality, as you act as its lynchpin.”
“This is nothing we didn’t know before.” Kalki sighed. “I am still as lost as before.”
“All I can offer you is my sympathy,” Walter said insincerely. “However, there is information you should all be privy to.”
Vasi clenched her jaw. From her reaction, Basil assumed they were in for a rude surprise.
“Vasi informed me of your encounter with this Anton Maxwell, if that truly is his real name.” Walter’s shadow opened his hand and shades danced to his tune. Darkness gathered in the vague form of a network of black spheres bound by strings. “In light of the information you’ve gathered so far, I’ve been reassessing what I know of the multiverse. I believe I have identified a worrying pattern.”
Basil observed the hologram. “This is a map of the multiverse, isn't it?”
“This is your world,” Walter pointed at a shadowy sphere and then at another linked to it by a string. “This one was once known as Elysium. I believe you’ve encountered survivors from this lost plane.”
“Oh, the elves!” Rosemarine said, remembering.
“Yes,” Basil confirmed with a nod. “Their world was destroyed by Shiva when the Overgod competition was interrupted.”
“I have found traces of it, if you can call a pile of cosmic dust that,” Walter explained. “I am almost certain that Elysium was connected to your planet a few years ago, long before the apocalypse happened.”
This caught Basil’s full attention. “Maxwell?” he guessed immediately. “That’s how he made his way to Earth?”
“I assume so.” Walter traced a path from one sphere to another. “This is a chain of worlds that have been linked together by the Trimurti System in one form or another, starting from Elysium. Every single link in the chain has met a violent end, without exception. They’ve exploded into smithereens, collapsed on themselves, or simply vanished.”
Basil’s blood boiled within his veins. He had expected to hear something like this ever since they encountered Maxwell in Paris, but to have it confirmed filled his heart with anger. The atrocities happening to Earth weren’t a one-time thing.
They were part of a much larger, cosmic pattern.
“He’s destroying worlds,” Shellgirl guessed in disgust. “Like a snake oil salesman, he ruins a place and bails out before consequences can catch up to him.”
“How many?” Kalki asked, his voice weakening.
“Hard to say,” Walter admitted. “I’ve identified at least ten links in the chain, but the final number must be exponentially higher. If this is truly Maxwell's work, then he has been doing it for a very long time.”
Kalki looked at the ground, his gaze empty. Basil winced at the sight. “Hey,” he said, putting his hand on the bard’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault.”
“I…” Kalki shook his head and held Walter’s gaze. It didn’t seem he had heard Basil’s words; or rather, they didn’t register. “Why? Why is he doing it? What purpose could all this destruction serve?”
“He’s told us once before,” Vasi said, her voice dripping with disgust. “It amuses him.”
“I suspect there is more to it,” Walter countered. “The System summoning process does not have to be as violent as the one Dismaker Labs used, bringing it at all to a new world demands immense preparation and resources. If Maxwell is truly responsible for this devastation, then he has been repeating his modus operandi for centuries. I simply cannot fathom someone working so hard to set up such a complex operation, repeatedly, only for one’s amusement. He must gain something from it.”
“What?” Shellgirl asked with a skeptical frown. “Souls? Loot? Does the world drop a treasure when it dies?”
Walter shrugged his shoulders. “I cannot say without further data. I suspect you will figure it out in time, and once you do, we can put an end to this pattern.”
“We?” Basil scowled. “I thought you said you didn’t care for Earth?”
“I do not,” Walter replied without skipping a beat. “However, the pointless, repeated destruction of worlds is not something I can tolerate. Whatever phenomenon follows this Anton Maxwell might one day reach my home or planets in which I have a key interest.”
“It’s always about business with you,” Basil said with some scorn. He was thankful the necromancer was considering helping them further, but his utter lack of compassion disturbed him.
“Once you reach my age, if you do, you will learn that emotional detachment is the key to happiness.” Walter shrugged and changed the subject. “Otherwise, I have studied the gearsman schematics Vasi so kindly brought to me. I’ve told you before that any creature with levels has a soul. After a few tests, I’ve concluded this machine was no different.”
“We use a special substance called powerstones in my world,” Vasi mentioned. “They are pure magic made solid, harvested from the fossilized remains of dragons and fairy lords.”
“The runestone cores that power these golems function under similar lines,” Walter confirmed. “They are the coalesced remnants of souls and emotions once carried by powerful magical beings.”
“So gearsmen are sentient, like Steve?” Basil squinted in skepticism. “Why haven’t they shown any hint of it?”
“Free will is a complicated thing, Basil.” Walter smiled thinly. “You cannot cherry-pick the parts you want from those that you don’t. If you grant a golem the ability to grow and evolve beyond its boundaries, then you also give it the ability to think for itself. You give it the ability to ask questions, and most importantly, to disobey.”
Kalki, who had seemed lost in his guilt so far, snapped his head in Walter’s direction. “They’re slaves,” he whispered in horror.
“Of a sort,” Walter confirmed without any hint of emotion. “From what I can tell these gearsmen are deliberately deprived of free will during the construction process. Their souls are born shackled. They give experience, but they cannot gain any nor take levels. It’s standard golem-creation procedure, really. The Unity’s construction process only differs in its scale and industrial standardization.”
Basil asked how this could be possible to starve someone of experience, since it went against the Trimurti System’s very foundation… until he remembered his first day. “When I gained my first level,” he said, reminiscing, “I was offered the possibility of increasing difficulty. I could even remove the ability to gain levels.”
“The Unity must exploit this feature during the construction process,” Vasi theorized. “Is it possible to awaken the soul inside a runestone core, Walter?”
“There is a Tier VI Necromancy spell that can do exactly that,” the necromancer confirmed. “Awaken Soul. I can teach it to you, if you wish.”
The witch scowled. “I am still locked to Tier IV.”
“At level sixty-three?” Walter frowned in disapproval. “I’m surprised. At your level, I could cast Tier VI spells and beyond.”
“I need a new metamorphosis ritual,” Vasi conceded. “I intended to run it after the New Year.”
“Run it earlier,” Walter chastised her. “Infinite magical power can never wait.”
“This is only a thought, but what if…” Kalki squinted. “What if we could spread the spell to everyone?”
Basil raised an eyebrow in confusion. “You mean, share knowledge of the awakening spell?”
“No my friend, I mean spread it. Like the flu.” Kalki shook his head, his eyes burning with anger. “I mistook these machines for mindless weapons, but I was wrong. They are no different than the people we freed from this factory. Their slave collars are only better hidden.”
The idea sounded absurd on paper, but Basil gave it thoughtful consideration. Whereas the Apocalypse Force was a band of marauders in finite numbers, the Unity could afford to produce an infinite number of gearsmen from off-world factories. Destroying their base on the moon would cripple their operations but leave the wider empire unscathed. They were bound to come back for another round eventually.
“What you suggest could wound the Unity,” Basil conceded.
“Or it could backfire,” Vasi pointed out. “We would give war machines self-awareness. Some might remain loyal to their masters, except now they would gain the ability to grow even stronger.”
“Why would the Unity enslave them all then?” Kalki asked. “A single elite robot with ten more levels than usual is worth a hundred of its mindless comrades; look at how quickly we’ve dealt with this factory’s defenders. Yet the dragons don’t even take the risk.”
“They are afraid,” Walter conceded. “Perhaps rightfully so. The larger an empire is, the more brittle it is; they require a constant influx of tributes to keep functioning. A revolt weakening the very foundations of their war effort might cripple them, perhaps even destroy them.”
“The machines could do worse than rebel against the Unity,” Vasi pointed out. “They could become hostile to everything and everyone.”
Basil had seen enough Terminator movies to understand her worries. They couldn’t ignore the risk, though the Unity’s dragonlords and the gearsmen were equally likely to wipe each other out. This plan would be a leap into the unknown.
“And is it possible at all?” Vasi asked in skepticism. “Unless we can actually run the necessary ritual, this discussion will lead us nowhere.”
“To make the Awaken Soul spell contagious would be a magical challenge worthy of an archmage.” Walter smiled thinly. “I might take up the challenge, but you have already asked much of me. Shellgirl kindly explained to me your commission.”
“Did the price match the work required?” Basil asked.
“It cost us all of today’s loot,” Shellgirl lamented. “But it did.”
“I will see how to collaborate with this Leroy,” Walter said with a smirk. “I've never opened a portal to the moon before… but there is a first for all things.”
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Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald)
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- Internet-powered Wizard
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.