The battle for the garden ended with a decisive loyalist victory.

The rebels nearly overwhelmed Basil and his allies through sheer numbers, until Bugsy returned from his woodcutting excursion. The centimagma decimated the left tomato wing with his fiery breath, allowing Basil to collapse the pumpkin cavalry's right flank. They cut the rebels down to the last sprout.

When Basil lowered his hoe at last, a harvest of fresh and crispy vegetables lay at his feet. Only five plant loyalists kept their heads; one individual for each breed sowed today, from the ghostie pumpkin to the demon tomato.

Your party earned 4000 EXP (320 for you).

The experience penalty was starting to show. Basil had slain the equivalent of a goblin army with no new level to show for it.

“Well, that was unexpected.” Basil checked his half-full bag of fertilizer. They had enough of it left to seed a second plot of land, but he wondered if it would be worth the risk.

“It must have been a ploy of the Vegan Empire, Boss!” Bugsy glared at the vegetable loyalists with suspicion. The Major Chicken marathon night influenced him a bit too much. “They’re infiltrators sent to turn us into herbivores!”

The plant monsters cowered in fear of the much larger centimagma. Rosemarine protectively moved between them and Bugsy. “They are good seeds!” she declared with motherly pride. “I won’t let you hurt them!”

Aww, she looked so brave snapping her fangs at a much larger monster!

“She’s correct, Bugsy.” Basil patted the centimagma on the back. “They fought to preserve our meat dictatorship over the menu. As promised, I shall water them every day and spare them from the kitchen knife.”

The five plant monsters let out screeches of happiness, but none as loud as Rosemarine.

“If you say so, Boss,” Bugsy said without complaining. “So uh, do they join the party too?”

“I never close the door to new minions,” Basil replied. However, he failed to add the newly born plant monsters to his party.

Registration attempt failed. An active party can only have six members. If you want to expand your organization or create interlocked parties, you must create a guild by conquering a dungeon.

Six members? With Shellgirl now included in the active party, that left only one spot. He could add and expel the vegetables from his party in short succession to grant them the extra Tamer Perk, but they would miss out on the improved stat growths.

“Mister?” Rosemarine asked in confusion. “Is something wrong?”

“Change of plans,” Basil replied. “The System won’t allow me to recruit everyone into my party, so they will form one of their own under your supervision, Rosemarine. They’ll be your interns and you will teach them our way of life.”

“Yes, Mister!” Rosemarine took the smaller vegetable monsters in her vines like a mother hen. “I will raise them to eat the meat of our enemies!”

“Hey, why does she get interns?” Bugsy complained with clear jealousy. “Mr. Plato and I are the seniors!”

Speaking of Plato, the cat rushed out of the woods and towards the garden. Basil knew his pet’s body language enough to realize something terrible happened.

“Basil, we’ve got a probl—” Plato froze upon noticing the new vegetable monsters. “Am I hallucinating, or does that tomato have fangs?”

“When we all evolve, we will eat the goblins to extinction!” Rosemarine boasted, the plant monsters making noises of approval. Basil suddenly realized that they lacked the intelligence to actually speak, at least until they gained a few more levels.

“Boss, will meat dishes attack us too?” Bugsy asked with a worried tone.

“They shouldn’t,” Basil replied, although he suddenly experienced a moment of doubt. With the System, anything could happen. He brushed off the subject before he could tempt fate any further. “Plato, what’s happening?”

“The robots.” Plato sat on the garden’s grass, a serious expression on his face. “They’re patrolling the forest.”

A tense silence fell upon the garden and Basil realized that he would never find peace. “How many?” he asked. “How far?”

“A gearsman and five watchers.” Plato gathered his breath. “They’re checking every spot of land, but the bog’s terrain slows down their progress. I’d say we have a few hours.”

“You’re sure they’re after us?”

“Who else, Basil?” Plato replied ruefully.

Had Basil misread the situation? He thought the Unity lacked the numbers to patrol areas beyond Dax’s riverbank and that his party could safely stick to the wilderness. Or did the robots mistake Basil’s group for enemy reinforcements? In this scenario, it made sense for them to secure the forest and prevent a pincer attack.

Basil cursed his rotten luck for letting himself be seen in Dax. He shouldn’t have overreached.

“What do we do, Boss?” Bugsy asked, his antennae applied to the ground. “I don’t sense them yet so we have time to flee.”

“We can’t run this time,” Basil replied. “We must destroy them before they can find the house.”

“Hello?” Plato put a paw on his chest, right where Megabug once stabbed him. “Last time we fought someone with a level higher than ours, I lost a life. I would rather keep the other eight.”

“I would rather avoid unnecessary fights too, but the situation is fundamentally different,” Basil pointed out. “We didn’t expect Megabug so numbers and initiative were our only advantage. Today we have time to prepare, we know the terrain, and the robots don’t expect an ambush.”

Would it be enough to make up for the level disparity? What other options did Basil have available? He could make Molotov cocktails from his gasoline reserves or craft bombs from the leftover gunpowder René stockpiled for his rifle, but how could he deliver the payload without blowing himself up?

A brilliant, terrific idea suddenly crossed Basil’s mind. He glanced at Rosemarine, the adorable plant fretting at her owner’s attention. “Mister? Why are you looking at me like you want to eat me?”

“Could you show me your cute little decoy Perk again?”

Rosemarine nodded and duplicated herself, a perfect copy of herself appearing at her left. The double wore its own version of the pink ribbon, which turned to pollen dust the moment Basil attempted to take it off.

Rosemarine’s decoy could duplicate the equipment she wore before activating her ability, but the fakes disappeared when no longer in contact with her body. Basil took it in stride.

“Okay, I have a plan.” Basil started giving orders to the party. “Plato, Bugsy, you keep us informed on the robots’ movement. Hopefully, Shellgirl will return in a few hours to reinforce us. Rosemarine, you drill the vegetables for battle. I’m going to craft you something in the meantime.”

“A necklace, Mister?” she asked.

“Better.” Basil grinned wickedly. “A shiny belt.”

Shellgirl returned early in the afternoon, which suited Basil just fine. He was just finishing his batch of Molotov cocktails and Rosemarine’s new fashion piece.

New crafting recipes: [Molotov Cocktail] & [Explosive Belt].

The Old Man’s stock of gunpowder had proved barely enough to craft a single explosive belt. Tiny bottles filled with flammable substances jiggled on a leather bandolier. A single fuse could set them all alight.

Basil doubted it would suffice to destroy the gearsman in one attempt. But the neat thing was, he could repeat the performance.

“Hey, buddy!” Shellgirl hopped into the basement by slamming her shell shut and open in quick succession. It was a primitive mode of locomotion, but it worked. “So, the bug outside told me we’re going to fight off intruders?”

“Something like that,” Basil replied. “We’ll repel the Unity.”

“The robots?” Shellgirl’s expression deflated. “I wouldn’t mind driving them off since they kill competition and customers alike, but… remember what I told you about not messing with the Big Businesses? Can’t we skip this one?”

“Not unless you want us to go our separate ways. Nobody will take this home away from me so long as I draw breath.” The Old Man entrusted the place to Basil and it was his home. “You can run away if you want, but don’t expect a warm welcome afterward.”

“You drive a hard bargain.” Shellgirl grunted. “A deal is a deal, so I’ll help defend our market share as promised. Can I stay at the back though? As a brilliant mastermind, I do way better in a command position!”

Basil suspected cowardice played a bigger role than tactics in her mind, but with her barrels she should perform better as support artillery. His party had enough frontliners already. “How far can you shoot a target?”

“I never checked my limit,” Shellgirl admitted. She put a finger on her slimy lips, her expression thoughtful. “Three hundred meters maybe?”

Farther than expected, less than Basil would have liked. “Alright, let’s go then. We don’t have time to waste.”

“Don’t you want to see what I bought first?” Shellgirl waved her hand and a pile of items materialized in a flash of light. “My witch contact was super impressed by your potions and traded me tools to complete your lab!”

Basil gave the bounty a cursory glance. Indeed, Shellgirl brought useful stuff: white pestle and mortar; a ceramic crucible; a copper alembic; safety goggles; and even a sand bath device to heat up liquids. Combined with his cauldron and ovens, Basil held all the tools to build a functional, if primitive, alchemy lab.

Quest: They called me Mad! completed! Your party earned 100 Bonus EXP (20 for you) and you learned the Athanor alchemy recipe.

Quest experience didn’t suffer from the usual level penalty. Interesting.

“Good job,” Basil complimented Shellgirl. He put on the safety goggles after the System confirmed that it would make him immune to the ‘Blind’ ailment, whatever that meant.

“Good?” Shellgirl sounded downright insulted. “I did an excellent job. All that stuff should have cost us twice as much as what I negotiated!”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Basil said as he stuffed his travel bag with the explosive belt and Molotov cocktails. “Who is the witch you traded for these tools with?”

“Sorry partner, my clients expect a certain degree of confidentiality. Nobody wants to be hunted for their exp.” Shellgirl winked at Basil. “In her case though, I’m sure we could arrange a meeting. She looked very interested in what you could craft for her.”

Developing a trade network with monsters would wait until after they destroyed the gearsman. Basil and Shellgirl left the basement for the garden outside. Whereas Bugsy surveyed the area with his tremorsense, Rosemarine was busy teaching the new vegetable guard the basics of human language.

“Murder,” Rosemarine said. “Repeat after me. Mur-der.”

“Mur-der!” the vegetables repeated, all of them carrying improvised weapons such as wooden sticks with pointy ends. The pumpkin sounded the most articulate of the group in stark contrast with the quiet bean ninja. “Murder!”

Aww, they looked like such a cute deathsquad! Basil’s dream of a plant-based house security appeared to be more and more credible.

“Boss, I’m starting to pick up tremors,” Bugsy warned. “They’re closing in.”

As if on cue, Plato returned from his scouting. “They’ve reached the bog in the southwest,” he warned. “The clearing with the putrid pools.”

Then they were less than half an hour away from the house.

“We’ll ambush them there. The terrain will favor us.” Basil summoned his new halberd from the inventory. “The new recruits will stay here to guard the house in our absence.”

“We don’t take them with us, Mister?” Rosemarine asked. The vegetables let out grunts of disappointment.

“I welcome more cannon fodder,” Plato argued.

“Too risky. At their level, a single watcher could petrify them all.” Basil pointed his halberd at the vegetable guard. “You will stay here and protect the house in our absence.”

“House!” The pumpkin leader of the team repeated. It reminded Basil of a child learning to speak. “House garden!”

Your vegetables formed a separate party: House Garden.
Party Leader: Ghostie Pumpkin.

“House Garden?” Basil frowned at the message. “Wait, you can name your party?”

“Yes, you can!” Shellgirl yelled at him. “And I can’t believe you left our company unnamed, buddy! How am I supposed to convince people to believe in our brand when we don’t have any?”

“Good products should speak for themselves, should they not?” Plato asked mirthfully. “Now let’s go, dogs. I can hear them coming.”

He didn’t need to say it twice. Basil stepped into the marshlands beyond the house first, followed by the rest of his party. The vegetables waved their vines and leaves at the party as they ventured into the wild.

Unfortunately, one member of the team dragged behind.

Basil looked over his shoulder in annoyance at Shellgirl. The rest of the party walked at a steady pace, even the clumsy Bugsy, but the merchant struggled to hop a few meters forward.

“It works better in the water!” Shellgirl protested, utterly shamed.

Basil sighed. “Bugsy, please carry our artillery piece around.”

“Uh, okay boss.” The centimagma coiled his tail around Shellgirl and lifted her above the ground. Only the slime’s crimson eyes peered through the gap in the shell. “Like this?”

“Good,” Plato commented. “If we must run away again, you can throw her in the enemy’s face to buy us time.”

“Just try, kitty cat.” Shellgirl pointed a barrel in the cat’s direction. “I don’t have to hop fast, just faster than you.”

I’m glad they’re already getting along, Basil thought with amusement. Plato guided the team through the woods surrounding the house. The faint twilight colored the leaves and tall grass with an orange tint. The odious smell of putrid mire grew thicker and insects made their nest on the remains of broken trees. Hopefully, they will coordinate well in the heat of battle.

Only the song of insects and the faint noise of snakes slithering in the grass broke the woods’ quietness. The party moved stealthily. Bugsy had grown comfortable enough with his new body to walk without shattering trees.

Unnerved by the silence, Shellgirl muttered words to herself. “Shellgirl Incorporated… Sea Commerce Enterprises?”

“Still trying to find a party name?” Plato whispered. If the cat felt comfortable talking, then the watchers were still somewhat far away.

“How about…” Shellgirl marked a short pause, as if suddenly inspired. “Shell?”

“Already taken,” Basil replied with a shudder. “And it’s not a good brand at all.”

“La Bande à Basil?” Plato suggested with an amused tone.

“Taken too, with an ‘e’ at the end.” Basil suddenly wondered if copyrights and trademarks still mattered in a post-apocalyptic world. He would avoid treading on the big business’ shoes, just in case they returned to power.

“The Axes of Heaven, Mister?” Rosemarine suggested. Aww, she remembered Basil had used that term!

“Too violent,” Shellgirl vetoed the proposal. “Customers will take us for weapon merchants instead of a future worldwide consortium.”

“How about Plato’s Perfection?” Plato said. “The Plato Connection? Let’s be honest with ourselves, I’m the team’s mascot, the band’s face.”

“Cats aren’t market juggernaut material,” Shellgirl replied.

“Tell that to Garfield.”

Basil glanced at the only member of the team who hadn’t offered a suggestion yet. “Bugsy? Any ideas?”

“I, uh…” Bugsy cleared his throat, his eyes blinking in short succession. Clearly, he was afraid of a negative reaction. “The Bohens?”

Basil immediately loved the suggestion. It was new, innovative, and powerful!

“Uh, it sounds like a sitcom show.” As usual, Plato answered this genius proposal with skepticism. “Why, Bugsy?”

“Well, we’re living in the Boss’ house for free. That makes us the Bohens, no?” Bugsy’s eyes widened with hope. “Like a family!”

“Good boy.” Basil patted Bugsy on the back of the head, which the centimagma liked very much. His antennae wriggled in pleasure.

“I didn’t know you kissed asses for a living,” Shellgirl said without a hint of sarcasm. “Does it pay well?”

“If Mister Who-Feeds-Me likes it, then I like it too,” Rosemarine chirped. “I will eat anyone who makes Mister unhappy.”

Shellgirl swiftly voted for the proposal. “I love the family-friendly company branding.”

“Looks like you’re outvoted, Plato.” Basil glanced down at his cat. “Do you feel the pull of democracy?”

The cat sighed in despair. “We are going to die before we can regret the name anyway.”

Your party name has been changed to: The Bohens.

Bugsy tensed up. “Boss...”

Basil didn’t need a warning. His eyes noticed crushed branches along the trail and his ears picked up the sound of splashing waters. The group crawled in the tall grass, Bugsy included, to the border of the woodland path.

The trees stopped where the heart of the bog began. A thick tangle of reeds formed the frontier between the forest and a sodden, marshland clearing. Muddy ground surrounding a large pool of water and the gearsman examining it.

The machine that forced Basil’s party to flee Dax stood on the mud shore, one of its tentacles wading through putrid waters. It found the remains of a spinotter’s skeleton and pulled it out of the pool. Five watchers scanned the bones. They lost interest in seconds and floated around the gearsman as it continued its examination.

The sunlight briefly broke through the clouds above the bog and reflected on the mighty robot’s shielding. It dwarfed Bugsy in size, and Shellgirl’s barrels looked like toys compared to its cannon. “Wow,” said the latter with a fearful voice. “Level thirteen?”

“Not so brave now, huh?” Plato whispered. He watched the robot pull corpses from the pool in confusion. “Do they think we have an underwater base?”

“I could build one,” Shellgirl said. “To stash our gold.”

“Shush, they will hear us.” Basil opened his bag and brought out the explosive belt. “Bugsy, put Shellgirl aside in the grass where she can take a shot unseen.”

Plato looked at the explosive belt with concern. “Basil, when I said I had eight lives left—”

“It’s not for you,” Basil attached the suicide bandolier around Rosemarine’s neck and Bugsy quietly dropped Shellgirl in the grass. “Rosemarine, use your seed decoy.”

“Yes, Mister.” The plant duplicated, suicide belt included. “How do I look, Mister?”

“Like the cutest suicide bomber ever.” Basil handed Rosemarine his lighter. “Bugsy, at my signal you’ll throw the duplicate at the gearsman. Shellgirl will provide cover fire and the rest of us will act as frontliners. Rosemarine, you will set your clone’s fuse alight before Bugsy throws it and create a new one as soon as—”

Basil’s mouth went dry. The gearsman pulled a metal piece out of the pool, the paint nearly intact in spite of the acidic waters.

A helicopter's tail rotor.

“CRASH SITE CONFIRMED!” The gearsman tossed the vehicle part back into the pool. Its steel tentacles tensed in alarm. “SEARCHING FOR SURVIVORS!”

They weren’t looking for us, Basil realized. The watchers immediately dispersed in all corners of the clearing, all of them on high alert. One flew straight towards the party’s location.

“Damn it!” Basil hissed. “Bugsy, throw the double now!”

The watcher noticed the movement in the tall grass and unleashed a strident sound. The screeching made Basil wince and immediately caused the gearsman to turn its cannon in the group’s direction.

With the element of surprise wasted, Basil jumped out of the grass and roared into the fray.

A note from Maxime J. Durand (Void Herald)

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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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