Of all the things Basil disliked about his university days, the terrible nights spent studying boring subjects had topped his list.
Alas, history always repeated itself. Basil struggled to focus as he skimmed through pages after pages of useless information. A pile of books stood on his table like an ominous mountain and the coffee in his cup shrank with each passing minute.
He would have found the information he was looking for already if the goddamn internet still worked! Couldn’t the apocalypse spare his wifi connection? When Plato walked into the main room with a triumphant look, Basil welcomed the interruption.
“Yo dog, we recovered the server,” Plato said. “Bugsy is moving it to the garage.”
“Wonderful.” Maybe it would offer Basil more insight on Dismaker Labs than the books.
“What are you reading?” Plato leaped on the table. “You look bored to death.”
“Because I am. These are tourism books and my old history-geography school manuals.” They were the only works mentioning Malta and India in Basil’s private library. “I’m trying to find more info on the company that created the server.”
“Any success so far?”
Plato leaped onto his owner’s lap. “If you have time to complain, then you have time to cuddle me!”
Plato’s words brought a smile to Basil's face and he started scratching his pet’s ears. The cat purred in response. It made Basil’s research less boring as he skimmed through the text. He didn’t find anything interesting, at least until he caught the word ‘Trimurti’ on a page.
“History of India: the hundred faces of the Hindus,” Basil read the chapter with renewed attention. “Although the Hindu faith’s sects and gods are beyond count, most recognize the existence of three deities embodying the universal cycle: Brahma the Creator; Vishnu the Preserver; and Shiva the Destroyer. The three form the supreme triple deity: the Trimurti.”
What were the odds? Basil didn’t believe in coincidences.
“Other popular Hindu deities include Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva… the Tridevi goddesses called Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvati… the dreaded Kali…”
Unfortunately, school textbooks rarely went into depth about important subjects. Basil couldn’t find any other mention of the Trimurti besides the occasional Hindu festival picture.
The System had said that the server channeled the power of the Trimurti to alter reality. Did it mean that it harnessed the power of Hindu gods? Did they even exist?
As an Orthodox Christian, Basil respected other faiths but he couldn’t bring himself to believe in the existence of multiple gods. It went against everything he had been taught in his life.
Perhaps he should revise his beliefs. The Bible never mentioned the System’s arrival and a goblin invasion.
Plato looked up at his owner. “You’ve found something?”
“A potential lead, but not much.”
“Then find a bigger book.”
“We would have to go to Dax or Bayonne to find the nearest library.” Dax was the closer city, but Bayonne was bigger. Alternatively, they could go to Mont-de-Marsan or Biarritz.
Basil was half-tempted to visit one of them. It would let him check on how the rest of civilization was faring and he needed medical supplies to fuel his crafting.
There were risks to consider. Cities made for larger targets than isolated houses lost in the woods. Monsters could have turned the nearest towns into nests unless the army or police managed to fend them off. Basil couldn’t leave the house undefended either. A wandering beast would break through the fence and eat all of Basil’s animals.
If only they could recruit an immobile security force…
Basil shelved the thought in a corner of his mind and snapped his book shut. Plato squealed as his owner rose up and held him in his arms.
“Are we going on an adventure?” the cat asked, his tiny paws dangling in the void.
“Yes, we’re going to the garage.” The one place even dustier than a dungeon’s basement.
Bugsy had beaten Basil to the room. The centipede exhaled after pushing the server’s wreck into a corner of the garage, right between shelves full of tools and the shiny Renault Kangoo. Basil noticed a small piece of Megabug’s flesh stuck in the forefront wheel. The hours he had spent washing the car hadn’t been enough to clean everything.
“It’s heavier than it looks, Boss.” Bugsy coughed in utter exhaustion. “Much heavier.”
“I’ve got pills against fatigue in the basement,” Basil replied. His crafting experiments with medicine other than paracetamol had produced a wide array of different results: anti-paralysis drugs, poison antidotes, even a potion healing SP rather than HP. “Thanks for your work, Bugsy.”
“You’re welcome, Boss…” Bugsy said before collapsing on the floor. “Nothing to report…”
“We haven’t met any monster in two days,” Plato said with a look of disappointment. “Not even silly birds. I fear they may have fled south.”
“Gee, I wonder why,” Basil replied with a deadpan tone as he examined the server. It proved a fool’s hope. Basil knew little about computers and the System refused to help repair the device. He couldn’t even use the salvage option.
Did he lack the right crafter class? Or did the server’s creators put in safeties to prevent people from identifying where it came from?
Basil decided to keep the server intact in the garage just in case. “Guys, why didn’t you store it in your inventory instead of carrying it around?”
“Uh, because we can’t?” Plato replied with a shrug. “We don’t have a pocket treasure dimension.”
Basil raised an eyebrow in surprise. “You guys don’t have an inventory of your own?”
“No, Boss.” Bugsy had recovered enough to rise up again. “I don’t even have your crafting option in my menu. Just Status, Party, Logs and Settings!”
Monsters had access to half a Player’s menu? The other features were probably meant to give humans an advantage over the inherently stronger monsters.
If none of his party members could craft, then Basil couldn’t scale up his production. He had hoped to teach Bugsy or Plato how to make medicine in case they faced an emergency. How disappointing.
Since Basil had run out of paracetamol pills, he would have to harvest the few medicinal plants growing in the greenhouse. It would let him check on how Rosemarine fared with her new home too.
Basil walked into the garden. His chickens and rabbits wandered freely among the grassy terrain without fear of goblin invaders. Although Bugsy’s presence spooked them at first, the animals had grown used to his presence. The centipede coiled into a half-circle shape when he crossed paths with the chickens.
His action made Plato curious. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t you recognize the gesture?” Basil chuckled. “He’s doing the ‘C for Chicken’ sign.”
“I’m honoring Major Chicken,” Bugsy replied with big naïve eyes. Last night’s TV night had converted him to the cartoon religion. “The way he threw Spinach Lord into a volcano to counter his regeneration after realizing chicken fries at a higher temperature… That was so smart, so brave! I hope the chicks will grow as strong as Major Chicken one day!”
Basil almost replied that Major Chicken could never exist in real life, but his thoughts came to an abrupt stop first. His mind struggled to process a detail his eyes had just noticed.
“Plato?” Basil asked.
“Why does this rabbit have a horn?” Basil pointed at one of his pets eating grass near the fence with his chin.
Plato squinted at his fellow animal and noticed the tiny yellow horn growing on its forehead. It was so small Basil almost missed it.
“Don’t rabbits grow horns naturally?” the cat asked innocently. “Like cows?”
“What’s a cow?” Bugsy asked. “It sounds delicious.”
Basil locked eyes with his cat. “Are you kidding, Plato?”
“No, of course not,” Plato replied with a tone that implied otherwise. “Does it matter? You aren’t supposed to understand me either and centipedes don’t grow two-meters long. Just go with the flow. Thinking too much will give you headaches.”
“I’ll manage.” Basil stared at the rabbit. “Can you understand me?”
The rabbit looked up at his owner, but it didn’t say a word.
“Since I can’t understand it, that rabbit mustn't fully count as a monster yet,” Basil said. “But he’s clearly transforming into one.”
“Even after we blew up the dungeon?” Plato raised his chin at the clear skies devoid of magical auroras. “The area returned to normal.”
Bugsy suggested an interesting theory. “Maybe the rabbits had started to change before you destroyed the dungeon, Boss? You’re only noticing now.”
“Maybe,” Basil conceded his point. “The System’s ‘magic’ could work like ambient radiation. We destroyed the local nuclear reactor, the dungeon, but its influence has already mutated the wildlife.”
Plato tensed up in his owner’s arm. He looked up at Basil with his big, fearful yellow eyes.
“What?” Basil asked.
“Do you think I could lose my tail?”
Basil smiled smugly.
“H-Hey, don’t joke about this!” Plato hissed. “It happened to other cat breeds! I’m an Earth animal too, I could be mutating as we speak!”
“Just go with the flow,” Basil echoed “Thinking too much will give you headaches.”
Plato spitefully wagged his tail in his owner’s face, which only made him laugh.
Basil worried a bit about the implications though. If a rabbit could grow a horn in less than a week, how would he have looked after a year of exposure to the dungeon’s influence? Basil dared not to imagine the resulting abomination. For all he knew, his pet rabbits could have mutated into murderous plushies.
At least none of the greenhouse’s flowers had transformed since Basil had last visited it. A sweet aroma filled his nostrils upon passing through its glass gate. Shrubs, vegetables, and flowers grew in rows of pots and small fenced enclosures. Basil mostly cultivated tomatoes, peas, lettuce, and strawberries to cook with, but he had also tried his hand with medicinal herbs like ginseng and urtica.
And then there was Old Man René’s special weed… although Basil had never consumed it himself, he could never bring himself to get rid of it. Too much nostalgia.
As for Rosemarine, she had made her nest in a pot. To Basil’s astonishment, a perfect copy of her minus the pot stood next to her.
“Hello, Mr. Who-Feeds-Me!” Rosemarine and her double clapped with their vines. “Welcome, welcome!”
Basil struggled to tell them apart, as did his pets. Plato leaped from his owner’s arms to smell the two flowers closely. The cat then swiped the one on the left. The false Rosemarine instantly vanished in a shower of colorful sparkles.
“Easy peasy,” Plato said with pride. “This one smelled fresher.”
“Was that your seed decoy Perk?” Basil petted Rosemarine on the head. The flower wriggled in pleasure, but Plato brooded over the lack of acclaim. “It was beautiful!”
“When I evolve, I will fill the world with my brood!” Rosemarine chirped.
Aww, she wanted to become a mommy!
A brilliant idea suddenly crossed Basil’s mind. He had found the perfect solution to the house’s security problem, the ultimate defense that would allow him to hunt far from home without worry.
“Pure genius,” Basil whispered.
“Oh no.” Plato sighed. He knew his best friend too well. “Oh please no.”
“We’re going to build a flower hedge of plant monsters all around the house!” Like every confident visionary, Basil ignored all skeptics. “They will protect the household when we leave and we can harvest their pollen for medicine!”
No invader would dare to step on his lawn ever again!
While Plato sighed in surrender and Rosemarine yipped in happiness, Bugsy’s faith proved lacking. “Boss, are you sure this is a good idea? How are we going to find so many plants, let alone feed them? That sounds too ambitious a plan—”
“Are you doubting my wisdom, Bugsy Alphonse Venture?” Basil’s tone turned colder than ice and sharper than a kitchen knife.
“N-No, Boss…” Bugsy immediately submitted to his owner’s authority. “You’re always right…”
“I love democracy.” Basil felt proud of his open-mindedness. “I love unanimity.”
“Yay, new friends!” Saliva dripped from Rosemarine’s maw. “New food!”
“Must we really pick flowers in the wild, Basil?” Plato didn’t hide his utter lack of enthusiasm. “Don’t you know I’m allergic to work?”
“I can craft a cure,” Basil replied with a deadpan tone. “Give me time to figure it out.”
Bugsy lowered his head. “Boss, uh… can I ask you something?”
His embarrassed tone made Basil frown. “What is it, Bugsy?”
“I have two extra levels, but I can’t use them before you assign yours.” Bugsy shrunk as if scared. “I know you said that we shouldn’t pursue experience for its own sake, Boss, but I still want to get stronger, Boss. I’m...”
The centipede didn’t dare finish his sentence.
Basil tried to coax the last words out of his mouth with a reassuring tone. “Bugsy, you don’t have anything to fear. I’m not going to hit you if I don’t like your answer.”
“I’m tired of losing!”
The greenhouse trembled from the strength of Bugsy’s voice.
“I’m tired of losing,” Bugsy confessed, his voice lower and weaker. His antennae pointed down and he avoided Basil’s gaze. “You beat me and then Mr. Megabug… when we fought him, you… you and Mr. Plato didn’t hesitate to charge where I froze in fear. I didn’t know what to do.”
“Hey, don’t beat yourself over it,” Plato comforted the centipede. “Basil is a grumpy bear in human form with the temper to match, and I’m a cat. We were born to win.”
Basil’s jaw clenched at the bear comment, but he didn’t say a word. It was rare for Plato to have kind words for anyone.
“If I had acted immediately, you wouldn’t have lost a life Mr. Plato,” Bugsy protested, tears forming in his eyes. The cat’s words had only worsened his mood. “Everyone must pull their weight in a swarm and I didn’t. Miss Rosemarine healed everybody, but I couldn’t even slow Mr. Megabug down!”
“Please don’t cry,” Rosemarine whispered before spraying Bugsy with healing pollen. “Here, your wounds will heal!”
“Thank you,” Bugsy replied, even though the pollen couldn’t heal emotional scars. “I want to win fights like you, Boss. Or like Major Chicken. I need to become stronger, to get more levels.”
Basil, who had listened in respectful silence, finally answered. “Bugsy, levels will help make you stronger, but strength isn’t your problem. What you need is more self-confidence. You’ll start by asserting your ideas, even to me.”
“But Boss, you said if I questioned your wisdom—”
“It was a joke.” Well, sort of. Basil intended to go hunting for flowers no matter what, but he wouldn’t force anyone to come along. “I was teasing you, nothing more. If you think I’m doing something wrong or stupid, you shouldn’t hesitate to call me out on it.”
“I do it all the time.” Plato nodded in confirmation. “Of course, Basil never listens to reason, but that’s on him.”
Basil ignored the jab. “I’m confident enough to know what I want, but sometimes I listen. Next time, I want you to assert yourself and stand for what you believe in. Eventually, you’ll do so naturally.”
“I…” Bugsy wiped his tears. “Alright, Boss. I’ll try.”
“You won’t try, you will,” Basil replied as he opened his status screen. “And to honor your resolve, I’ll grant your wish.”
Basil considered investing in his Alchemist and Tamer classes for their utility, but with the rifle broken he had to rely on his axe to defend himself. Assigning his two last levels into Berserker to obtain a new combat-oriented Perk sounded wiser when preparing for a monster hunt.
Berserker Level 2 & 3 Stat Gains: +4 STR; +2 AGI; +1 VIT; +1 MAG; +2 CHA; +2 LCK. You gained 70 HP and 25 SP.
New Active Perk: Warp Spasm I: Technique, 10 SP. You can apply the [Berserk] ailment to yourself at will for 5 minutes. While under a [Berserk] effect, you relentlessly attack the closest target in melee with no regard for your safety, friend or foe, and cannot cast [Spells]. In return, your strength is greatly enhanced and you feel neither pain nor fear.
Basil shivered as the System empowered him. He sensed his muscles turn to steel and his breathing strengthen. His enhanced stats improved his body and mind both. The rush lasted mere seconds, but it brought Basil immense pleasure.
It felt like a drug. Basil briefly wondered how many would grow addicted to level–ups before the sight of Bugsy combusting brought him back to reality.
Bright red flames covered the centipede in the blink of an eye. From his mandibles to his tail, a mantle of smokeless fire obscured every inch of his carapace. His antennae became two bright rods.
“Bugsy!” Basil shouted in alarm. Yet the centipede uttered no scream of pain nor fear. The flames consuming him didn’t spread to the greenhouse’s flowers nor raise the temperature. Plato hissed in surprise.
“He’s evolving!” Rosemarine alone rejoiced. “He’s evolving!”
Bugsy grew. He grew larger and larger until his head hit the greenhouse’s roof and broke through it. Basil and the rest of the crew stepped back to avoid falling glass shards.
Only when Bugsy reached over three meters in length did he finally stop growing. The flames cleared on their own to reveal a beast of legend. The new Bugsy retained the vague shape of a centipede with a crimson exoskeleton and hundreds of legs, but the resemblance with an insect stopped there. Lava flowered through the natural armor’s chinks. The antennae had transformed into long blue whips and the tail ended with blades of bone.
As for the head… Bugsy still had mandibles, but his yellow mouth and slit eyes belonged to a reptile rather than a bug. Flames burned behind rows of sharp fangs. When the maw opened, Basil faced a fiery gullet that could swallow a man whole.
Congratulations! By reaching level 7, Bugsy Alphonse Venture metamorphosed into a centimagma ([Bug/Elemental])! Bugsy Alphonse Venture learned the [Firebreath] Active Perk!
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Bugsy apologized, his whiny voice now a thunderous roar. His mighty skull accidentally shattered a glass panel when it moved. “I’ll repair the roof Boss, I swear! I swear!”
Basil was too shocked for anger. Only Rosemarine welcomed the strange event with applause.
“Do you think he can fit inside the Kangoo now?” Plato asked at Basil’s side.
“We will have to find a trailer.”
And widen the doors too.