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How good it felt to be home.

After warring in the mud and the dust for days, Basil could finally relax. After trading his damaged sweatshirt for a bathrobe and his shoes for slippers, he had evolved into the ultimate form of the Homo Sapiens: the sedentary man.

Like any good stay-at-home person, Basil did his research from the safety of his sofa. His laptop occupied a cushion at his side while he studied the user manual. The name ‘Dismaker Labs’ appeared among the companies listed.

“I knew it, they built the next-gen chips.” They had also provided a few of the laptop’s applications. The geolocalisation, the visual interface… Dismaker Labs even provided some components used in his TV. “Chips made in India, huh? I would have bet on Taiwan.”

The notice pointed to a Maltaise child company of a larger consortium in charge of European logistics. It didn’t surprise Basil, since Malta had become a favorite destination of tech companies in recent years. How did a multinational corporation producing chips in India come to install a monster-summoning server in the middle of nowhere, France?

I’m sure the police will investigate the connection, Basil thought. Are there any police left?

A part of him was tempted to visit the nearest city and check how the rest of the country was faring. A day after the dungeon’s destruction, the auroras borealis above the Barthes were gone. The world seemed to slowly return to normal.

You have earned 600 EXP (45 each).

Or not.

Basil opened his front door in case the house was under attack. Instead, Plato greeted him on the threshold. His fur was drenched in blood, and the feathers of his latest kills were stuck between his claws.

“You’ve been grinding?” Basil asked. At this rate, Plato would single-handedly expel the bird menace from the Barthes.

“I needed to blow off some steam.” Plato hissed at his owner. “Especially after your twisted betrayal!”

Basil raised an eyebrow. “My betrayal?”

“After all we’ve gone through, how could you do this to me?” Plato looked adorable when he sulked, especially with his new little boots on. “I, who lovingly woke you up each morning with a gentler touch than any alarm, who gracefully allowed you to live each morning, who selflessly saved your hide from bugs and goblins!”

Either Basil had contracted Alzheimer's or Plato misremembered things. “Is it about the favorite pet argument? Or Bugsy’s new bedroom?”

From the glare Plato sent him, Basil had guessed right.

“I was the only one allowed to sleep in the house before,” the cat said, incensed. “And how could you say that I’m not your favorite in public? That I am not the center of your universe?”

“Because you’re not?”

“See? I should leave for a gentler owner and let you stew in your regrets!”

Fat chance of that.

“Plato, you’re not my favorite pet,” Basil replied calmly. “You’re my best friend.”

His cat remained silent for a moment, his tail stiff as an iron rod. “Come again?”

“I know you think friends are for other people, but it doesn’t matter.” Basil shrugged. “We’ve lived together for over two years; and after René died you were the only person I shared my home with. You’re in a league of your own.”

Plato sat on the threshold. From his expression, Basil’s declaration had left him speechless. The cat locked eyes with his owner and tried to find his words.

“Wow,” Plato said, probably because he didn’t know how to react.

“Yeah.”

“What does it say about you that your best friend is a talking cat?”

“That I’m an introvert and a cat person,” Basil replied with a deadpan tone. He always felt closer to animals than his own kind. “Yeah, Bugsy will have his own bedroom… but you’re the only one I’ll tolerate in mine.”

The cat muttered something under his breath, so low that Basil couldn’t hear him clearly. “Plato, what are you mumbling about?”

“I’m sorry.” Plato’s tail wavered in shame. All traces of arrogance vanished from his voice. “It was my abandonment issues talking, alright? I hate it when you pay more attention to another animal. It makes me feel inadequate.”

He sounded so vulnerable, so afraid…

“I didn’t mean to make you feel that way,” Basil apologized. “I won’t abandon or replace you even if I take new pets in. You don’t have anything to fear.”

“I know,” Plato replied with a sigh. “My head understands that I can trust you, but my gut tightens on its own.”

Some scars healed with magical pollen and others remained with you all your life.

“So René was right?” Basil asked before petting his cat behind the ears. “You had a previous owner?”

Basil and Old Man René had found Plato off the side of the road one night after returning from a shopping trip to Bordeaux. The cat had been so skinny they could see his bones and fleas infested him. Basil and René had stopped the car, taken Plato in, and never looked back. It had taken weeks to get the scared cat to recover and trust them.

“Do you think he’s a stray cat?” Basil remembered asking René once.

“He would have run away from us if he were,” the Old Man had replied with his usual cynicism. “No Basil, he’s like us. An unwanted burden dumped out of sight, out of mind.”

Basil could never confirm his theory before, but now that his cat could talk back…

“Yes, I had another owner.” Plato looked away and avoided Basil’s touch. “I don’t want to talk about it, Basil.”

“I understand.” Everyone was entitled to a private life. “I would rather forget the bad times and make place for the good ones too.”

“How about a Major Chicken rerun in the evening then?” Plato suggested. “We can invite the entire party.”

“Sure, but I won’t let you inside the house if you don’t clean yourself first.” Basil pointed at the cat’s bloody fur. “I just cleaned the floor.”

“Give me a few hours to groom.” Plato licked his shoulders. “Don’t you dare tell the others it was my idea. I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”

“Sure.”

Since he had a few hours to kill before the evening, Basil decided to finally explore the crafting side of his personal menu. He hadn’t yet managed to repair his rifle on his own and hoped that the System would help with it.

Players can use the Crafting subsystem to make, enhance, or break items using four options.
  • Craft: Create items using raw materials.
  • Repair: Repair a broken item.
  • Refine: Upgrade an item.
  • Salvage: Break an item to harvest its materials.
Players without an appropriate Crafting Class or Perks must use the appropriate Recipe to work on an item. You can access the following Crafter Classes: [Alchemist], [Trapmaker], [Merchant], [Chef].

None of the classes available specialized in firearms, but they could still prove useful and Basil had three levels to assign. He immediately eliminated Merchant since he had nobody to trade with and he could cook well enough on his own to ignore Chef. Trapmaker appealed to Basil, but he could already build traps on his own.

He couldn’t say the same for medicine. Basil considered Rosemarine’s healing abilities astonishing, but they might not always suffice. She couldn’t heal diseases nor poisons.

Alchemist should help compensate for her limits.

Alchemist: A class specialized in making potions and transmuting matter. STR (D); MAG (B); VIT (C); SKI (C); AGI (D): INT (A); CHA (D); LCK (B).
Alchemist Level 1 Stat Gains: +1 STR, +1 AGI, +1 VIT, +1 SKI, +1 MG, +1 INT, +1 LCK. You gained 40 HP and 15 SP.
New Passive: Alchemy I: You can craft alchemical items without a recipe and create your own through experiments. The list of items you can craft includes potions, alchemy tools, mutagens, poisons, chemical mixtures and bombs.

“I suppose firearms don’t count as alchemical tools?” Basil joked as he summoned René’s old rifle in his hands. He soon ate his words upon seeing the ‘salvage’ option available.

Salvage [Duckslayer, Old Hunting Rifle]? 73% chances of harvesting the following materials: Ancient Barrel, Gunpowder Dust.

“Ancient barrel? It’s not even forty years old.” Basil decided against destroying his only firearm. Even more strangely, the ‘repair’ option wasn’t available with the rifle. Did the System allow Basil to salvage it because the gunpowder counted as an alchemical material?

The System’s strange reaction aroused Basil’s curiosity. Although he considered the screens annoyances disturbing his peaceful life more than anything, he was stuck with them for the foreseeable future. Destroying the dungeon had brought peace to the Barthes, but there were so many unknown factors: Megabug’s organization; the ‘incursions,’ whatever that meant; Dismaker Labs… Any of them could disturb Basil’s peaceful life in the near future, not to mention marauders or wandering monsters.

There were other problems to address too. Basil had all the water and food he would ever need, but he couldn’t manufacture medicine or repair tools like his lawnmower if it failed him. Crafting could help offset his dependence on the outside world.

Failing to prepare was preparing to fail. The more he understood how the System worked, the fewer headaches he would face in the future.

Basil retreated to the kitchen to experiment further. He traded his rifle for a water bottle and checked the crafting options available. His menu informed him that he could salvage the container to harvest water and plastic, use it as a crafting material in combination with something else, or refine it.

Basil selected the last option. The bottle in his hands shone brightly for a moment before returning to normal.

[Water Bottle] refined into: [Purified Water Bottle]. The water has been cleansed of impurities, diseases and parasites.

Oh, that was great! With the ability to purify the stream outside, Basil could eliminate the risk of disease in his household!

It tastes better than before too, Basil thought as he sipped the water. For his next experiment, he held the bottle in one hand and a pill of paracetamol in the other. The ‘Craft’ option showed him a 74 percent chance of success. Let’s try it.

Both items shone when Basil started crafting. When the lights died out, the paracetamol pill swiftly vanished. Meanwhile, the water inside the plastic bottle turned into a green liquid similar to mint syrup.

New Recipe Unlocked: [Green Medicine].
Green Medicine
Family: Potion (Consumable)
Quality: D
Heals 1 HP per milliliter for those who drink it.

Astonishing. How the hell did this mechanism work? How did the inventory teleport items around? How did the dungeons alter reality? Even if magic existed, it had to follow laws of some kind. How did Dismaker Labs’ server tap into a cosmic force? So many questions, so few answers.

Basil repeated the experience three more times to gather more information and noted a twenty percent drop in his crafting chances when he used unrefined water. The quality of the base material influenced the odds of success.

This takes me back to the pharmacovigilance classes, Basil mused as he twice combined paracetamol and refined water into healing medicine. The ones with teachers, not screens.

As probabilities forewarned Basil, his fourth crafting attempt was a bust. Both the paracetamol pill and the water bottle vanished without a trace when he failed to craft.

Warning: Crafting failure will destroy the materials used.

“But where do they go?” Basil asked, incensed. “Where did the bottle go? Matter can’t be destroyed, only transformed! Where did it go? Up my ass?”

Dismaker Labs wishes you a happy apocalypse!

The answer only made Basil more determined to get to the bottom of this mystery. He spent the better part of his day analyzing everything he could, starting with the remains of monsters collected from the dungeon. Basil quickly confirmed that he couldn’t craft anything from the goblins nor Ogremoche, but the System did react to Megabug’s stingers. Although the chances of success were around thirty percent, Basil combined one of them with a green syrup.

New Recipe Unlocked: [Venom Bomb].

The two items fused into a hand-sized orb filled with green liquid. A short fuse stuck out of its plastic shell.

Venom Bomb
Family: Bomb (Consumable)
Quality: C
Effect 1: Inflicts weak corrosion damage to those exposed to its toxic gas.
Effect 2: Gas has a 10% chance of inflicting the [Poison] ailment when breathed.
A bomb crafted from a monster’s venom; environmentally unfriendly.

“A bomb?” Basil frowned in confusion. He had expected to produce an antidote. “Note to self, crafting is a gamble. I can’t predict what a combination’s result will be until I try it.”

Basil noticed a trend: that the higher an item’s quality, the more abilities it had. Further experimentation showed that he couldn’t refine items ad infinitum either; the option was unavailable with green medicine and Megabug’s last stinger. Neither could he use ‘salvage’ on either.

The ‘repair’ option proved itself the most straightforward. After scratching a plastic bottle with a knife, Basil undid the damage with the ‘repair’ option. When he outright removed a piece of the container, the option became unavailable until he held another piece of plastic in another hand. Yet the crafting result was lighter than both of its components.

Why did the System obey the law of conservation of mass in some cases but not in others? Where did superfluous mass vanish?

Basil had the gut feeling that Dismaker Labs’ server could help him answer the mystery. He would have to return to the water control station and bring the husk back home for study.

After further experimentation, Basil confirmed that his Alchemist class allowed him to use the crafting subsystem on medicine, liquids, containers, salts, and cooking utilities like cauldrons. The System also counted anything related to the house’s plumbing as alchemical tools for an obscure reason. Basil wondered if he could rework the pipes to pump water from the stream directly; if so, he could set up his own water station in the basement. Maybe even a sweet little lab too.

New Quest: They called me Mad!
Recommended Level: 1.
Objective: Build your own alchemist laboratory and show them all.
Reward: 100 Bonus EXP + New Alchemy Recipe.

“Challenge accepted,” Basil said. “But it will wait for tomorrow.”

It was cooking time and his pets were starving.

As usual for Major Chicken reruns, Basil prepared a bucket of fried chicken seasoned with spice. He meticulously removed the bones to leave only the sweet tender meat. Considering his pets’ appetite, he prepared double the usual ration with homemade golden fries. Coke brought out of cryogenic storage in the fridge completed the set.

When Basil brought dinner to the main room, he found the whole gang waiting for him. Plato had taken over his favorite cushion and the larger Bugsy occupied most of the sofa. Rosemarine took root in a plant pot.

“Do you want some of my dirt and water, Mister?” Rosemarine asked. “You need it to grow!”

“The sofa is the only land I need,” Basil replied. Bugsy coiled to give him the space to sit. “I’m sure the others will agree too.”

“Beds and sofas are so much more comfortable than the grass outside.” Bugsy had tears in his eyes. “I’m so glad I proved myself worthy of a bedroom, Boss.”

“Don’t cry,” Rosemarine said, mistaking the bug’s tears of joy for sadness. “You can use my room too! I have glass walls!”

“This is kind… this is very kind.” Bugsy wiped his tears. “After all the pain and sweat, I’m finally moving up in the world.”

“Well, trying to kill me left a bad first impression,” Basil replied. “But I believe in second chances. You’re part of the household now.”

“Can I… can I decorate my room, Boss? With shells and trophies?”

“As long as you clean up after yourself.”

“Less talking, more TV,” Plato hissed. “Gimme the chicken.”

“I’m hungry,” Rosemarine complained. Bugsy tossed her a piece of fried chicken which she caught in midair before devouring his own. “Thanks!”

“So we’re going to watch events that happened in the past?” Bugsy asked, being unfamiliar with the concept of television.

“Sort of,” Plato said before biting his chicken piece. “The series is fiction, but it’s entertaining.”

Enough that I recorded the whole series and made TV marathons a ritual under my roof, Basil thought. He attributed the cartoon’s entertainment value to the fact that its scenarists had embraced the nonsensical premise and over-the-top nonsense.

“Will it increase our stats too?” Bugsy asked naively.

Basil opened his mouth to say no, before realizing that the System had given him experience with weirder stuff.

“Maybe?” Basil replied before opening a can of coke. “It didn’t before the System arrived, but it could have changed in the meantime.”

Bugsy nodded with excitement. “I hope we get levels.”

Whether they did or not, Basil knew they would have a good time.

Major Chicken was the archetypal 70s cartoon: heavily censored, horribly offensive to modern sensibilities, full of filler, and yet so utterly absurd that it looped back to funny. Its original fifty-episode run hadn’t been allowed to air in Bulgaria, but the reruns after the fall of communism in the nineties became surprisingly popular. Basil had grown up with the series and enjoyed watching it again even in his adult life.

“A warning,” Basil said as he pressed the remote’s play button. “The cartoon was funded by a fast-food company to sell meat dishes. You might notice a few subtle subliminal messages.”

“What does subliminal mean?” Bugsy asked with a puzzled expression.

“That you’re going to love it,” Plato replied. The screen turned black, a song echoing in the background. “Now shush.”

“It’s starting,” Rosemarine whispered.

The first episode opened like almost all the others: with the sight of spaceships soaring the cosmos under the direction of a shadowy conqueror.

“Once the universe knew peace,” said the voiceover. “But everything changed when I, Emperor Vegan, unleashed my army across the cosmos!”

The picture of Earth appeared, a bastion of meat consumption standing strong against hordes of vegetable aliens.

“Yet one insignificant planet resists my conquest! Only one hero and his friends dare to oppose me!”

The whole cast of heroes appeared. Frail but brave Sergeant Chick. Loyal and motherly Private Piggie. Big Beef and Little Lamb. And of course, the strong, inimitable, charismatic star of the show…

“Major Chicken and the Meat Brigade!”

The series’ eponymous title appeared across the screen in shiny letters.

“But can they truly prevent the future that is… Emperor Vegan?”

The party spent their evening chilling out on the sofa and enjoying good television. It didn’t give them any exp, but it did bring them a moment of happiness.

That was all that mattered.

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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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