The sun was setting on the horizon when the group reached the church.
The ancient wood building remained elegant in its simplicity. Although locals called it a church, it was closer to an abandoned wayward shrine. Ivy grew on its walls and windows. The Catholic cross atop its roof oversaw a dozen tombstones and a stream ford. In spite of its dilapidated appearance, the place breathed peace and quiet. The air was fresh and only the sound of running water broke the silence.
No wonder the Old Man had been so fond of the place. He used to rest in the shrine’s shadow after a walk in the woods before his death, reading a book under the fading sunlight.
Woe to whoever would dare to despoil this sanctuary. Basil’s halberd would separate their head from their body.
“I’m surprised you came along,” Basil told Vasi. “It’s not your fight.”
“If I have to summon your angel in this place, it makes sense to help clear it out first.” The witch followed the party, but didn’t walk. Instead, she rode her broomstick as it floated a meter and a half above the ground. “It’s saddening to see a place like this in ruins.”
“I don’t remember it any other way,” Plato commented. The cat followed after Basil on foot. As for Shellgirl, she hid in the stream. She could move more swiftly in the water than on land. “It’s part of its charm.”
“The shrine was abandoned decades ago as locals moved away from the countryside to cities,” Basil said. “A friend of mine met his wife at this place almost sixty years ago.”
“Is that why he’s buried here?” Vasi asked.
Basil answered with a sharp nod and froze in place as Plato raised a paw. “I’m smelling corpses,” the cat warned, “and fish.”
Basil clenched his jaw. If the mermaid had dared to raise René’s corpse, he might activate Warp-Spasm out of sheer anger.
“You two, stay behind,” he ordered. “I’ll act as bait.”
“I would rather follow you,” Vasi said. She climbed down from her broomstick and carried it with one hand. “I work better with a brave warrior covering me in melee.”
“As you wish.” Basil glanced at Plato, who sneakily hid in the tall grass near the wayward shrine. “A shame you’re a higher level than me. I could have added you to my party and given you a new ability.”
“Hold your horses, handsome, no man can tame me,” the witch replied with a chuckle. “But I wouldn’t mind sharing spellbooks if you own any.”
“I have Prayer grimoires, but you can’t cast them.”
“That doesn’t make them valueless, for all spells are precious. I try to keep an open mind.” They walked toward the tombstones without encountering any enemy. “It’s a waste you didn’t take levels in a Spellcaster class. You have pretty strong and rare affinities.”
“How do you know that?” Basil asked with a frown.
She winked at him. “I have enough Intelligence points to see your stats.”
It took all of Basil’s willpower to keep a straight face. If that cursed System dared to mock him…
Your Intelligence is too low to see the full stats of—
“I hate you, screen,” Basil rasped. “I hate you so much.”
Vasi smiled in response, but her amusement quickly turned to worry as they reached the tombstones. To Basil’s relief, they didn’t look damaged in any way. Moss and ivy had grown over the stone because he hadn’t taken care of them in a while, but the graves remained undisturbed; René’s included.
However, someone had done a little decorating. A crudely carved wooden idol stood in the middle of the graveyard. It represented a hand with the thumb missing and a fanged mouth inside the palm. A reptilian, slitted eye glared from within the maw. Basil wasn’t afraid of symbols, but something about the totem left him vaguely unsettled. The eye seemed to watch him with malevolence.
And according to the System, someone did.
Effect: Allows the Maleking to observe the world through his symbol.
An idol heralding the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the coming of Hell Unending.
The four horsemen? Basil tensed up upon realizing who was behind this mess.
“That’s creepy,” Vasi said.
Basil responded by vertically splitting the idol in half with his halberd. The weapon sliced a line through the hand symbol and caused both halves to fall on the sides. Smoke came out of the device before it turned to dust in the blink of an eye.
“Show yourself,” Basil declared loudly. “Come out now!”
“If you say so,” a lovely voice answered.
Two shambling corpses emerged from the waters and stepped onto the shore. They had been men once, but water had bloated their bodies and turned their rotting skin pallid. A nauseating, unbearable stench followed them. A layer of barnacles covered their chests. One of the zombies was slim and wielded a rapier. The other was big and strong, with rusting iron gauntlets for weapons.
Level 9 [Undead].
Faction: Apocalypse Force.
Basil immediately moved in front of Vasi to shield her from the undead. The witch didn’t seem concerned. Flames flickered in her hand, ready to ignite her foes.
“Shielding your girlfriend? How romantic!” A new creature hopped out of the waters after the undead and stayed along the rivershore. “That’s it, you’re now my new boyfriend.”
As Shellgirl warned, the necromancer turned out to be a mermaid. The upper half of her body belonged to a naked woman of great beauty, with long red hair, startling green eyes, and a shell necklace. The lower half belonged to a giant trout. She lay on the shore, arms on the ground, tail in the water.
Disa the Mermaid.
Level 13 [Aquatic/Fairy].
Faction: Apocalypse Force.
I knew it, they belong to Megabug’s faction, Basil thought. However, the undead and mermaid felt nowhere as threatening as the insect drone himself. They lacked his palpable aura of menace and lethality.
“Careful,” Vasi whispered to Basil. “Her kind can charm men into obedience.”
“I assume you’re from Lourdes?” Basil asked the mermaid, trying to stall until Plato and Shellgirl were in position to flank their enemies. The former was crawling in the grass, while the latter hid in the waters nearby.
“You’re well-informed. I was indeed born in the Water Sanctuary dungeon.” The mermaid gave Basil a sensual smile. The two undead moved to Basil’s left and right, waiting for a signal to attack. “The new Boss sent me here to raise the dead and kick the Unity out of the region, but the old geezers in the ground won’t answer my call. They’ve been goners for too long I suppose. It works better when I drown them myself first.”
Basil promised to drown her himself like an unwanted puppy. She’s just a pawn of a greater evil, he thought. A newborn monster sent to test the waters as cannon fodder. She’s what Shellgirl would have become if she’d stayed in Lourdes.
His eyes wandered from one undead to another, trying to figure out which of them would be the weak link. The fencer appeared to be a safer bet than his bulkier counterpart, but striking him would expose Vasi to retaliation… better deal with the bigger threat first.
“Now, you owe me an apology,” Disa said. “You’ve committed sacrilege by destroying the hand of the Maleking.”
“Who?” Basil asked. He’d better get as much information as possible.
“The Maleking! It is he who will become the new Overgod after his Horsemen pave the way for his arrival! He shall rule the Earth and only his chosen will survive!” A malevolent light flashed in the mermaid’s eyes. “There’s a place for good warriors like you in his army. You should join as I did, trust me. Everybody else will die.”
“Don’t…” The draugr fencer gargled words. “Hell… Unending…”
“Don’t mind them,” said their mistress. “These two are my ex-boyfriends. They won’t get in the way of our relationship. If anything, they support me in all of my endeavors.”
“Kill… us…” the bulky undead rasped.
“Already did that,” the mermaid replied with a smirk. Basil felt a strong urge to wipe it off her face. “I hope you’ll last longer than them. It takes a lot to satisfy me.”
“And here I thought I treated my paladin suitors harshly,” Vasi said with a disgusted expression.
“You know what they say, sister. Love them, leave them, kill them.” The mermaid shrugged. “Does it matter? I give them untold pleasure, so they owe me eternal gratefuln—”
Basil struck without warning.
His halberd split the bulky undead’s skull with enough force to send him stumbling backward. No sooner did he make a move than the fencer draugr flanked him. His sword lunged at Basil’s neck with deadly intent.
Vasi spoke a word of power and snapped her fingers. A burst of fiery embers erupted from a fingernail and burned the fencer’s face. The undead let out a snarl of pain and barely missed Basil’s carotid artery.
“Calm down, my boy,” the mermaid said, undisturbed, before clearing out her throat. “How about a song to soothe your furious heart?”
She started humming to herself.
Basil had bigger fish to fry. He slashed the bulkier undead in the chest once and dodged a retaliatory punch. The draugr’s fist hit the ground with enough force to send dirt flying in all directions.
Plato leaped out of the grass by surprise and struck at the bulky undead’s spine. His claws cut through flesh and bone alike as if the monster’s back was made of butter. The fencer draugr switched targets from Basil to Vasi, but an ice pearl hit him on the side of the face before he could reach the witch. Shellgirl’s barrels peered out of the stream’s waters and began bombarding the undead with projectiles.
The mermaid’s song grew higher pitched. Her voice drowned out the noise of battle until Basil could only hear her. The song affected his brain in a way few of them ever did.
Basil abandoned the fight with the undead to approach the mermaid. It was stronger than him. Something pushed him to her. She smiled and extended her hands at Basil, as if to take him in her loving arms.
Basil punched the mermaid in the face.
It failed! It failed miserably!
Basil Bohen doesn’t find mermaids attractive!
“Stop singing off-note!” Basil snarled with anger. “It’s unbearable!”
The blow sent the mermaid head-first into the ground. One of her teeth flew into the river with a ‘plop’ sound. She looked up at Basil with astonished eyes and river mud all over her cheeks. “Y-you hit me! You hit me, you little shi—”
Basil slapped her hard enough to break her nose.
“I am a feminist,” Basil boasted proudly. The half-fish put a hand on her mouth, blood dripping between her fingers. “I will defend gender equality to my last breath.”
“By hitting a woman?” the mermaid asked incredulously. Her smug expression had turned into one of shameful anger.
Basil remained unshaken by her accusation. “Chivalry is the truest expression of sexism! It demeans women by implying they need a man to protect them!”
When in fact, everyone had the fundamental right to a punch in the face.
“I’m not sure I agree,” Vasi said as she blasted the draugr fencer’s face with volley after volley of embers. The undead simply couldn’t get close enough to strike her with his rapier. The witch thoroughly trounced him, his eyes burning in his skull.
His bulkier ally struggled to hit Plato at all. His powerful fists shook the ground with each blow, but none of them managed to strike the agile cat. Shellgirl supported her allies by blasting one undead or the other with ice pearls whenever they threatened to break the deadlock.
Finally realizing her situation had grown precarious, the mermaid tried to escape into the water. Basil grabbed her hair first. He lifted her out of the stream and threw her at the shrine like a piece of ham.
“I only hit you because I respect you as a half-woman,” Basil informed the mermaid as she hit a wooden wall with enough strength to crack it. “Because I know you can take it like a man.”
The mermaid tried to sing again, but it only made Basil wince in pain. By God, she sounded like a tortured cat! As if her desecration of the dead wasn’t enough!
He attempted to silence her with a halberd strike to the face, but she managed to roll to the side. His blade carved wood and nothing else.
“What is that song supposed to do?” Basil asked the mermaid, raising his halberd for a new attempt on her life. “Anger me?”
“To make you fall in love with me!” she replied in shock and humiliation. Blood ran down her broken nose. “I don’t get it! It worked on all my other boyfriends!”
“Really? Damn, this world is full of sexual deviants.” Basil looked at her fish tail with disgust. “You’re half-trout! Fucking you would be an act of bestiality!”
It must have been why the Charm ailment failed to affect Basil. He simply couldn’t find it in himself to become a fish furry.
“Sleep!” The mermaid pointed a finger at Basil, a surge of magical light erupting from her finger. “Sleep at once!”
[Sleep] ailment negated by [Coffee].
So much coffee ran through Basil’s veins that he might as well have bled caffeine.
“Help!” the mermaid shouted. Whereas Vasi had long turned her fencer into a burning crisp, her bulkier servant powered through Shellgirl’s suppressive fire to flank Basil. Plato clawed at the undead’s heel, making him stumble, and his owner welcomed the draugr with a swing of his halberd. The strike bisected the monster and felled him on the spot.
Deprived of backup, the mermaid slammed her hands and pointed them at Basil’s group. A stream of water erupted from her palms. Plato and Vasi took cover behind the tombstones, but Basil wasn’t so fast. Pressurized liquid damaged his clothes and forced him to cover his face with his arm.
His opening came when Shellgirl fired an ice pearl at the side of the mermaid’s skull. The attack interrupted her water spell, allowing Basil to recover. He glanced at the battlefield, and noticed to his fury that René’s tombstone was drenched in water.
“Wait, wait!” the mermaid panicked upon seeing Basil’s furious face. She raised her hands in surrender. “We, we can talk this out! I can make it worth your while, I swear!”
Basil grabbed his foe by the neck with one hand, dragged her to the stream screaming, and then drowned her face in the water. The mermaid’s tail strummed the shore and her hands tried to get Basil off her.
“Die fishwoman!” he shouted. “Die!”
“Basil,” Plato said.
“You’re waterboarding a mermaid.”
Basil froze for a moment and watched bubbles rising to the surface. The mermaid kept struggling against his grip, her nails scratching ineffectively at his arms.
“Aren’t they like whales?” he asked naively. “As in, they can stay underwater for long periods of time but eventually have to go to the surface to breathe?”
“No,” Vasi replied. She sounded somewhat exasperated.
Basil sighed, tossed the mermaid on the shore, and gave her the Marie-Antoinette treatment. His halberd cut her pretty neck cleanly and sent her head rolling.
“You’re not the gentleman I took you for,” Vasi commented with an amused look.
“No,” Basil confirmed, his bloody halberd resting on his shoulder. “I’m just a man.”
It sounded far better in his mind than in his mouth.
Your party received 13,400 EXP (2612 for you). You earned 2 levels.
“Well, that was easy,” Shellgirl commented. She hopped on land with a pleased grin. “I expected more from a level 13 foe.”
“We’re getting better at fighting,” Basil replied. They also had a balanced group including a frontliner, a long-range sniper, a sneaky cat rogue, and magical artillery. In contrast, the mermaid overspecialized in ailments and could only count on two meat shields. She would have done far more damage if her song had worked on him. “Some of the experience is missing though.”
“I landed the killing blow on the undead fencer, so his experience points went to me rather than your party,” Vasi explained. She searched the mermaid’s corpse without any emotion, at least until she grabbed her seashell necklace. “Do you mind if I keep it?”
“Not at all,” Basil replied. She had contributed to the battle so she was entitled to part of the loot.
“You’re sweet,” Vasi replied with a charming smile. “I’ll return the favor.”
“I call dibs on the corpses and the weapons!” Shellgirl declared.
Plato grabbed the fencer’s rapier with a curious look. The sword matched the cat’s entire body in length, but he wielded it with grace. “Nice,” he commented with a few thrusts. “I’ll stick them with the pointy end.”
Basil glanced at the mermaid. “Do you think it would be cannibalism if I cooked her? She is a monster, but she looks half-human…”
“I would say that it only counts if you eat the upper half,” Plato replied. He licked his lips with anticipation. “The lower half smells like tasty fish.”
Basil decided it was an acceptable compromise, though he wouldn’t partake in the feast himself. His monsters deserved a treat.
“Sorry, Old Man.” Basil cleaned the water off René’s tombstone. Fortunately, the mermaid’s spell barely sprayed it without inflicting damage. The epitaph ‘In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer’ remained intact. “At least you can rest in peace. I’ll clean your stone and bring you flowers later, I swear.”
“I’m sure he’s okay with waiting.” Plato sat at Basil’s side. “He always took his time with everything.”
“Was he your father or something?” Vasi asked Basil. She swung her broomstick to remove moss and dust off the tombstone, for which he was grateful.
“Fathers?” Shellgirl scratched her head. “Ah right, humans have those. I still find the concept weird.”
“He wasn’t my father, but he was a mentor to me,” Basil replied with a smile. He had fond memories of the Old Man. “A dear friend too.”
He still remembered the day they met; Basil was still a university student then, looking for a summer job to pay his rent. Eventually he’d noticed an offer for a personal caretaker on his university’s website. The salary was good, so Basil didn’t mind spending months in the wilderness.
“I don’t need help all that much, actually,” René had confessed soon after they met. “I’m old, but not so much that I can’t walk.”
“Why did you call me then?” Basil had asked.
René had answered with the saddest thing Basil ever heard. “Because I feel lonely, young man. Because my family forgot me. Because I haven’t had a visit in years and it kills me more than age ever did.”
The Old Man had been so devoid of human contact that he was willing to pay someone to spend time with him. After hearing that, Basil returned to visit him whenever he had holidays to spare.
Free of charges.
“I hope he feels less alone on the other side than this one,” Basil said. If there was another side. “Anyway, let’s bury the dead and be done with it. How much time do you need for your Ritual, Vasi?”
“Well.” The witch cleared her throat. “I guess we’ll have time to watch the sunset.”
Basil wouldn’t mind.