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Six hours.

It took the party six hours to escape with their lives. Bugsy spent all his SP casting Agility Up over and over again as Basil guided him through the Landes forest. The gearsman stopped hunting the party before the watchers, but eventually, all of them gave up. Only when Basil was convinced that nobody would follow them to the house did he and his pets return home safely.

“I am fire…” Bugsy collapsed in exhaustion on the house’s lawn, under the faint light of the sunset. “I am… death…”

“You’ve done well, Bugsy,” Basil thanked the centimagma before stepping down from his back. “I’ll cook anything you want tonight.”

“Mister, I don’t want to go to human cities anymore,” Rosemarine whined. “They’re scary!”

“I need a sofa,” Plato declared. The cat didn’t look as winded as Bugsy, but he clearly wanted nothing more than to sleep. “My kingdom for a cushion!”

Basil helped Bugsy drink a potion to satisfy his thirst. He had believed the Unity lacked forces to properly defend Dax, but when a single watcher sounded the alarm, dozens answered the call. The machines could mobilize quickly. Now that they knew of the party’s existence, returning to the city to scavenge for supplies would grow even riskier.

And worst of all, Basil didn’t find any monster to build a flower hedge!

“We need a better defensive perimeter.” Basil would set traps in the forest in case the watchers sent hunting parties. “We’ll keep our heads down and stick to the wilderness from now on.”

It was for the better. Monsters prioritized cities and Basil didn’t need urban infrastructures. Modern medicine and technology mattered, but he could probably replace both with crafted substitutes given time.

He had work ahead of himself. Bugsy’s new transformation meant that the centimagma would consume more food than before. Basil kept sizable reserves in his basement, but he would rather avoid tapping into them unless strictly necessary.

I need to enlarge the garden, Basil thought upon entering the house. Plato fulfilled his oath and bolted to the sofa. Bugsy tried to squeeze himself through the entrance, but his new size prevented him from succeeding. And widen the doors too.

“You can sleep in the garage for now,” Basil told Bugsy. “We’ll go chip wood and pull down the entrance’s wall tomorrow. I don’t know much about woodworking, but it can’t be that hard.”

“I’m so sorry, Boss,” Bugsy apologized. “I didn’t want to become a burden.”

“You never were one and never will be,” Basil reassured him. “You saved us all back then. Without your enhanced agility, the bots would have caught up to us.”

When the watchers failed to petrify the group because of their higher levels, they had started throwing themselves at them like kamikaze drones. Failure to escape would have spelled the party’s death.

The errand might have been a bust, but they at least gathered information and the cathedral’s holy grimoires could perhaps procure a solution to the petrification ailment. And if normal books transformed into spellcasting manuals with the System’s arrival, perhaps a few in Basil’s library had gained magical properties too.

There was much work to do, but Basil was too tired to start it now. He would cook for everyone and then go to bed right afterward.

His party had earned a moment to rest.


Basil barely enjoyed a few hours of sleep before Plato woke him up.

“Basil, Basil!” The cat kneaded his owner’s back. “Come on, wake up!”

“What?” Basil groaned, his head half-buried in a cushion. The sun hadn’t yet risen and the world was dark beyond his windows. “I put leftovers on the kitchen counter…”

“I know, I ate them already.” The cat hadn’t woken up his owner to satisfy his craving for food. “Rosemarine found a clam in the garden.”

“A clam?” Basil locked eyes with his cat, his vision blurring from the sleeplessness. “The mollusk?”

“Yes, the mollusk. In the garden.”

Basil slumped back into the pillow. He didn’t have time for this nonsense. “Just kill it.”

“I tried, but it has cannons pointed at the house!”

Basil listened to his cat’s sentence, his sleepy mind failing to process the words properly. When it did, he bolted out of bed, summoned his axe from the Inventory, and prepared to clobber his way back to slumber.

Nobody woke Basil Bohen before noon and lived to tell the tale!

“Where is the victim?” Basil asked upon stepping outside the house with Plato. A sleepy Bugsy and Rosemarine surrounded a giant shell that washed up on the stream’s shore. Indeed it looked like a clam on a closer look, albeit bigger than a cow, light blue, and with a set of steel barrels sticking out of the carapace. The System immediately identified it as a monster.

Shellgirl (Clam Mimic)
Level 6 [Aquatic/Slime]

A girl? Fine by Basil. He was a true feminist: the kind that would hit a female monster as hard as a male one.

“Mister, I can’t eat the food inside!” Rosemarine complained. “When I evolve, I will break the shell with my teeth and gorge myself on sweet blood!”

“Do I cook it with my breath, Boss?” Bugsy asked. The shell’s barrels immediately pointed at the centimagma, startling him. “Hey!”

“Could be a spy from the city,” Plato muttered. “Or dangerous.”

Since the monster hadn’t opened fire immediately, Basil gave her the benefit of the doubt.

“You’ve got five seconds to explain what you’re doing here or get the fuck off my property,” he warned the clam. “Starting right now.”

A silence stretched on for one second, two seconds, three seconds…

“Psst, psst.”

A squeaky, girly voice came out of the shell. Basil lowered his gaze as it opened slightly, two red eyes peered through them.

“Wanna trade?” the creature asked. “Wanna make some sweet money?”

Basil stared back without a word. His mouth went dry from the lack of sleep and the surreal nature of the conversation.

“When I saw your shiny house, I knew you were a potential customer with taste,” she tried to sweet-talk him into lowering his guard. “The kind of person who won’t settle for anything but the best!”

It’s even worse than I thought, Basil told himself. Much worse.

“I’ve got quality stuff to trade in this new brand shell of mine. Weapons, shinies… the real deal.” The creature winked at Basil. “My fares are so low you’ll have to sit down!”

Basil didn’t answer. The tense silence stretched on. Shellgirl winked repeatedly, as if it would break the deadlock.

“Bugsy?” Basil broke the silence.

“Yes, Boss?”

“Throw this thing back into the stream. She’s the worst kind of monster.” Basil glared at the giant clam. “A door-to-door saleswoman.”

“I can’t believe this vermin managed to slip in, Basil.” Plato hissed at the clam mimic. “I swear, I was on the lookout for these pests!”

“Hey, hey, come on!” Shellgirl protested. “I swear, I’m not that kind of gal!”

“You’re sure, Boss?” Bugsy asked, ignoring the clam.

“Throw her down the stream,” Basil insisted. “Salesmen are an invasive species. You feed a single one and then they start breeding all over the neighborhood.”

Rosemarine slumped in the grass. “Can’t we eat her for experience first, Mister?”

“Salesmen don’t give exp, they give calls.” Basil remained unmoved. “Throw her down the stream.”

Bugsy pushed the salesmonster back with his tail towards the river, much to her chagrin. “Stop!” she protested with a shrill voice. “I’ll make it worth your time, I swear!”

“They all say that,” Basil replied before turning his back on the scene. “Now, if you excuse me, I’ll go back to sleep and—”

Boom!

The noise of a gun firing stopped Basil where he stood. When he hastily turned around, Bugsy and the others had backed away from Shellgirl. One of her barrels pointed at the skies and steamed mist.

A warning shot.

“Everybody calms down!” The clam’s eyes vanished inside her shell and she started muttering to herself. “Where did it go wrong… flatter the customer, I did it… tempt them with elusive promises about your product to foster interest, done… oh, introduce yourself to the customer to build trust! I skipped that part!”

Basil resisted the urge to pinch his nose in annoyance. “Are you reading a business book inside your shell?”

Her brief silence, followed by an embarrassed answer, confirmed his theory. “No, I’m not… Okay, I’m trying to figure it out alright! I’m a, a… what do humans call it…”

Basil picked up the sound of flipping pages. His pets sent him confused gazes, unsure how to react to this nonsense.

“A startup! I’m a startup!” said the clam monster. “Okay, let’s start over.”

The clamshell widened further to reveal the creature inside: the slim figure of a female humanoid made not of flesh, but translucent green slime. She had arms and breasts, but tendrils growing from the shell below the waist. Hair made of goo flowed down her head above two crimson eyes and a wicked, impish face.

“I’m Shellgirl. I’m the owner of a small import-export business with high potential for growth.” Her lines sounded straight out of an MBA seminar. “You wanna invest in the future?”

She stressed out the last word as if it had magical properties.

“Do you sell tickets to Mars?” Basil snorted, utterly unimpressed.

The slime girl squinted at him. “Where is this ‘Mars’? Is there money to make there?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Then no, I’m not going to Mars.” She put a hand on her breasts and grinned. “My only journey is the journey to the grind! I let the current carry me to new opportunities!”

“I don’t get it.” Plato didn’t hide his skepticism. “You want to make money, not levels?”

“I have the urge to level-up too, but it doesn’t compare to the joy of filling my shell with wealth. When I add a new treasure inside me, I feel…” Shellgirl gave the party a perverted grin and exhaled. “I feel satisfied.”

Basil suddenly remembered that she was a clam mimic. If his experience with roleplaying games applied here, mimics were monsters acting as living treasure chests. A clam with its pearl made for a fitting aquatic version.

“You know, I tried to kill humans and monsters for their money,” Shellgirl admitted. “But fighting is so risky! I figured I should work smarter, not harder. Get it?”

“By becoming a saleswoman and annoying people in the middle of the night?” Basil asked. “I’ve waged wars for less.”

“Well, uh…” She snapped her clamshell shut and muttered to herself again. “Okay, make jokes to defuse tension… impress them with your past deals as proof of concept…”

Shellgirl was so busy studying that she missed Plato whispering at his owner. “Basil, you give the word and I will silence the pest on the spot.”

The cat mimicked a gutting motion with his claw. Rosemarine salivated hungrily, and Bugsy snapped his mandibles in annoyance. Basil only had to give the order and they would tear the shell mimic to pieces. At four against one with higher levels on average, the fight should end quickly.

Basil almost gave the go-ahead when a brighter idea crossed his mind. “You said you traveled across the river?”

“Yes, I did!” The slime girl came out of her shell again in record speed, smelling the opportunity. “I traveled far and wide, collected treasures from the world over—”

“I’m looking for information,” Basil cut through her crappy self-promotion attempt. “If you have it, then we could make a deal.”

While she was annoying and a pest, Shellgirl was one of the few monsters Basil met that didn’t try to attack him on sight. If she wanted to trade with humans rather than kill them, then she must have heard interesting rumors.

Basil couldn’t rule out the possibility that she was a spy infiltrating human society either. If she failed to earn his trust, she wouldn’t live to reveal the house’s location to anyone.

“Information?” The exuberant mimic suddenly became far more reserved. “Depends, I can’t discuss where my merchandise comes from or how much money I make. It makes people violently jealous.”

I doubt that, Basil thought. If she had to threaten him into buying her stuff and spill common sales bullcrap, she had to be dirt poor. “I’m looking for intel on two groups calling themselves the Unity and the Apocalypse Force.”

“Oh, those guys?” Shellgirl stroked her chin and goo slipped from her cheeks. “Yeah, I might know a thing or two. Not much about the Unity, since they attack on sight… but the Apocalypse Force...”

Basil exchanged a glance with his pets. Rosemarine whined upon realizing that she wouldn’t eat the clam anytime soon, and the others looked more skeptical than anything.

“Start talking,” Basil all but ordered.

“Well, where should I start? Back to the beginning of my illustrious career!” Shellgirl cleared her throat, mostly for dramatic effect. “I was born in the Water Sanctuary dungeon in Lourdes. A pretty nice place full of undead and aquatic monsters.”

“Lourdes?” Plato glanced at Basil. “Didn’t we visit that place with René?”

“We did,” Basil confirmed. Lourdes was a pilgrim hotspot whose waters had supposedly miraculous properties. They didn’t cure René’s cancer as he had hoped, but he enjoyed his stay in the city all the same. “It welcomes millions of pilgrims each year.”

“Yeah, when I checked the humans’ shops I just knew I had to open my own business,” Shellgirl said. “Unfortunately I was born one day after the dungeon appeared, so I couldn’t find a good mentor. A zombie’s belly is never full, if you catch my drift.”

Basil suppressed a wince. “They slaughtered the city’s population?”

“Mostly. Some priests managed to fight back, but then the bugs showed up.”

“The bugs?” Bugsy’s mandibles snapped in dread.

“The Apocalypse Force.” Shellgirl shuddered as if remembering a bad memory. “Three of them, level 10 each. They went into the dungeon like big hornets in the beehive, killed the old Boss, and took over the place.”

The story sounded a bit too familiar to Basil’s liking. “What happened afterward?”

“They split us into two halves and ordered that we wipe out the other,” Shellgirl admitted without any cheerfulness. “They had no time for weaklings. ‘Levels must go up,’ they said, ‘so the Horsemen can cross the barrier and crush the Unity’s forces. Low-levels must be eradicated.’

The mention of a barrier again… and it appeared the Apocalypse Force and the Unity pursued completely opposite goals. It made sense for them to fight.

“The horsemen?” Plato asked in confusion. “Horse riders?”

A chill went down Basil’s spine. The words sparked a memory of his childhood, back when he listened to a fiery sermon.

“And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth,” the priest had declared, “to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”

“The Horsemen of the Apocalypse?” Basil dared to ask, his voice breaking.

“Dunno, I bailed out after the first elimination round,” Shellgirl replied. “Way it went, I figured I would end up on the wrong side of the culling sooner or later.”

It didn’t dispel Basil’s doubts. Megabug mentioned a certain Apollyon, and now the name sounded so familiar. Basil must have heard it in a sermon before too. It could be a coincidence, but… somehow he couldn’t bring himself to believe it.

Okay, this may be slightly above the French army’s paygrade, Basil thought. But things won’t degenerate so much, right? Right?

Basil dealt with his anxiety about mankind’s future the healthy way: by repressing and trying to forget about it.

“And that’s how I decided to retrain professionally,” Shellgirl continued her tale. “I wandered around Lourdes when I received a revelation: I could become a merchant and fill my shell with wealth without tempting death!”

“You found a business book in the city’s ruins?” Basil guessed, trying to focus on smaller details rather than the scarier big picture. “It’s okay, you don’t have to hide it. I have a few in my library.”

Shellgirl tried not to look too interested, but she lacked the poker face needed for it. “I see, I see,” she said evasively, “I also heard rumors of a third faction on the block too. Metal Olympus or something. My best customer advice, don’t get involved with Big Business when you’re small.”

“Wise words to live by,” Basil replied. “Have you traded with other monsters?”

“Plenty! A witch in the woods, hobgoblins, an orc clan, spellcasters… Some tried to rob me too, but I shot them right between the eyes!”

“But no humans?”

“Alive? Nope, you’re actually my first living human customer! I’m super excited to make this sale!” Shellgirl clapped her hands. “So, what do I get for answering your questions? I’m looking for potions to resell to a witch, but I could settle for the business books you mentioned. For another client, of course.”

“You misheard.” Basil smirked. “I said that if you had the info I’m looking for, then we can make a deal.”

“You got her, chief!” Bugsy complimented him.

“That’s just a devious move!” To Basil’s surprise, Shellgirl nodded to herself as if taking mental notes. “I like it. I learned something tonight!”

“Seriously?” Plato complained. “Can’t we just kill her and steal her stuff?”

“I made a promise,” Basil replied with a tone that brooked no disobedience.

“Just try to kill me, kitty cat.” Shellgirl pointed at her cannons with her thumb. “These babies aren’t just for show.”

Basil showcased his old iron axe. “Mine is bigger.”

“Is it?” Shellgirl answered with a coy grin. “What if I told you I could make it longer?”

Basil raised a single eyebrow.

The mimic merchant answered the challenge by joining her hands. An item appeared between her fingers in a familiar flash of light: the same that flared whenever Basil opened his Inventory.

An enormous axe materialized in Shellgirl’s hands, as long as a spear and topped with a spike. A cutting half-crescent blade protruded from one side and a cruel hook from the other. The staff was made of strong polished wood, the rest of stainless steel.

La Ravageuse, Swiss Halberd
Family: Weapon (Axe/Spear).
Quality: C.
Power: +13 STR.
Crit: +5%
Accuracy: 70%
Effect 1: Ignores half of a target’s defensive stats during damage calculation.
Effect 2: [Empty].
Switzerland’s third most popular invention after banking secrecy and pikemen, shamelessly copied by French and English alike.

It was love at first sight.

Even though Basil had been married to his old iron axe for years, the divorce happened in the blink of an eye. He dropped it on the ground without a look to seize the newer, prettier weapon. Shellgirl relinquished the halberd and let Basil examine it. His hands traveled down the shaft with desire.

Bugsy didn’t hide his jealousy for Shellgirl’s ability. “Hey, how is it that you have an inventory?”

“Unique mimic perk,” she gloated.

Basil mentally noted that specific monsters could access Player-exclusive features with the right Perks, but he could scarcely focus on anything but the beauty in his hands. His fingers trailed along the sharp curve of the blade. He needed to own it, to possess it, to make it his.

“Mister, are you alright?” Rosemarine asked with concern. “Mister?”

Basil’s ears could hear her words, but he didn’t listen to them. His doubts about the merchant’s motives vanished like the night before dawn. Someone with enough taste to carry such an exquisite ware couldn’t possibly be a bad person.

Plato wagged his tail. “I think we’ve lost him.”

Oh my God, Basil thought as he struggled to suppress his ardent desire. It’s handcrafted.

“Mister Plato, what’s happening?” Bugsy asked. He sounded somewhat worried. “I’ve never seen the Boss like this.”

“It’s a Bulgarian thing,” Plato replied. “You can’t understand.”

That was one way to put it.

“One of my ancestors,” Basil whispered softly, “was a Swiss mercenary who fought in the armies of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Shishman against the Ottoman Empire. He brought his halberd with him, and after the Turks finally conquered Bulgaria, he settled down with a local priest’s niece. The weapon has been passed down my family for centuries since.”

At least, until Basil’s father sold the halberd for booze. His son never forgave him for the blunder. He knew the weapon in his hand wasn’t his family’s heirloom, but it was probably the closest thing he would ever get to a replacement.

“The shaft is firm.” Basil waved the halberd. It felt so light between his fingers. “It’s got a long reach too.”

“It can pierce through even the moistest shells. I traded it with an undead knight for a sword. He couldn’t last fifteen seconds before polishing it.” Shellgirl’s grin widened further and further. “Know what? If you take this beautiful baby, I’ll give you a performance enhancer as a freebie.”

“Mister, is she talking about weapons?” Rosemarine asked innocently. “Could I have one too?”

“Yes, of course,” Basil replied before deciding he couldn’t resist the halberd’s lure. “You win, Shellgirl. How much do you want?”

“Now we’re talkin’.” Shellgirl rubbed her hands. “What do you offer, big guy?”

“Can I pay you in liquid assets? I still have euros stashed away.”

“You mean human currency?” Shellgirl wagged her finger at him. “Sorry baby, currency fluctuates too much nowadays. Although I can accept shiny gold and silver.”

“I have tools, extra gasoline...” Basil counted what he didn’t need. “Spinotter furs…”

“Ogre bones too,” Plato said. “Ogremoche’s corpse is rotting in the fridge.”

Somehow, Basil kept forgetting about that. “If you’re looking for potions, I have a few homemade ones too. Mostly healing elixirs.”

“Homemade?” Shellgirl’s expression turned from cautious to excited. “You’re a crafter?”

“Yes, but I can’t sell too much of my stock,” Basil haggled. “I have a limited supply of raw material and I still need to complete my lab.”

It didn’t deter Shellgirl. If anything, it only made her more curious. A frog-like tongue of slime stuck out of her mouth and licked her lips.

“Show me everything,” she whispered.

Upon seeing the naked greed in the mimic’s eyes, Basil couldn’t shake the feeling that he had made a terrible mistake.

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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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