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The D824 departmental road was silent in the night.

Oak trees bordered it on both sides, three of them having fallen onto the asphalt. Basil waited with his back against his Renault Kangoo, while Bugsy, Rosemarine, and Plato surveyed the area for any sign of trouble. Shellgirl had remained at home to protect the house alongside the House Garden party and Basil hoped they wouldn’t need her artillery support. Officer Elissalde had informed her comrades through phone calls that the party’s monsters were friendly, but he couldn’t rule out the possibility that this meeting might degenerate anyway.

How is it that I’m more disturbed by the idea of meeting fellow humans than monsters? Basil glanced at Elissalde. The police officer had put on her riot gear and recovered a handgun which she kept ready to fire at all times. She looked tense as Zachariel gave her a medical checkup, as if expecting the angel to transform into a demon at the first sign of trouble. Unless I’m the exception that proves the rule?

“You are in relatively good spiritual health, officer,” Zachariel delivered his analysis. “But don’t forget to pray three times a day to stay in good shape.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Officer Elissalde replied politely. Basil could tell that she accepted the angel’s request for a check-up out of curiosity, but didn’t put much weight in his judgment. “You… you are unlike how I imagined an angel to be.”

“I understand,” Zachariel replied. “My division gets that all the time since the boys in marketing messed up the last healthcare campaign. I told them black plague imagery scares patients away, but they cling to the nostalgia market.”

Officer Elissalde listened to the angel’s words in silence and bit her lower lip. Basil hadn’t dared yet to explain that Zachariel came from a world other than Earth. She would break if confronted with too much information at once and hearing the feathered doctor talk was a lot to take in already.

Zachariel was a one-man test of faith.

“Nothing yet, Boss,” Bugsy said, his antennae against the road. “Are we too early?”

“I don’t know.” Basil turned to Officer Elissalde. “Are we?”

“My party should arrive soon.” She inhaled sharply. “Unless… unless something unforeseen happened.”

“Unless the Unity happened,” Basil corrected her. He had brought his halberd, Plato his sword, and Rosemarine a handgun for each of her vines, but he hoped they wouldn’t have to use them. The road would make a deadly location for an ambush and Zachariel didn’t look like much of a fighter.

“It’s all right miss, we’ll deal with it,” Bugsy tried to reassure Officer Elissalde. “We’ve reached level twelve now, one short of the gearsmen! They don’t scare us anymore!”

“I…” Officer Elissalde cleared her throat. “That’s good.”

“Levels don’t mean everything, Bugsy,” Basil warned. They had slain far too many monsters above their weight class to rest on their laurels. “It does feel good to close the gap in power though.”

“I’m a few levels away from metamorphosis,” Rosemarine whispered. “I can feel it. And when I evolve… when I evolve…”

The plant giggled to herself, which made Officer Elissalde take a step away from her. Basil found it adorable.

Come to think of it, he should assign his newest level so his allies had a better chance of transforming into stronger forms. Basil didn’t hesitate about his choice for long. The Technomancer class looked tailor-cut to help fight the Unity and more crafting options would make his team more self-sufficient.

Level 1 Technomancer Stat Gains: +1 VIT, +1 SKI, +1 MAG, +1 INT. You gained 20 HP and 10 SP.
New Perk: Magitek (Active): You can use the ‘refine’ option on a technological device to forge a rune on a selected item. The device must have an unused effect spot and you must know a rune spell to assign to it. This ability can apply to pieces of technology from forged tools to machines and vehicles, but cannot work on Consumables, Lairs, or Key Items.

An unused effect spot? Didn’t his halberd have one?

You need a rune to refine: [La Ravageuse, Swiss Halberd].

So Basil could strengthen his weapon once he learned to cast runes. Vasi had given him a spellbook about them, but he didn’t have the time to check it out yet.

The witch had declined to help further. Vasi was fine trading magical tips and items, but waging war on a machine army went beyond the call of good neighborhood relationships.

Basil checked Officer Elissalde one more time. To his surprise, a System screen appeared over her head.

Neria Elissalde
Level 11 [Humanoid] (Guard 10/Gunslinger 1)
Party: Aztain Ahizpa.

Officer Elissalde raised an eyebrow at his insistent stare. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Because now I’m smart enough to,” Basil replied with great satisfaction.

“Nerd alert, nerd alert,” Plato replied mockingly. Officer Elissalde smiled in embarrassment, probably because she didn’t know how to answer.

“Also, Aztain Ahizpa?” Basil asked. “It’s Basque, right?”

“It means shepherd sisters,” she explained. “I didn’t come up with the name. My sister did.”

“You formed a party with your family?”

“If you can’t rely on your family, then whom can you trust?” Officer Elissalde asked. Basil made a face at her answer, which she immediately noticed. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Yes, a lot of bullshit,” Basil replied. Her words had left a bitter taste in his mouth. “Shared blood is just that: blood.”

Her lips twisted at his venomous words. “Is this about the Lamont case?”

Partly. Basil’s family wasn’t a model of dependability either.

“His children didn’t see him for ten years. Ten. Years. Not a visit, not even a single call.” Basil spat on the ground. “They didn’t even visit his grave when he died. No, they went straight to the notary and to the judge a fortnight later. They sued me for showing basic human decency.”

“I… I see.” Officer Elissalde cleared her throat. “There are always rotten apples.”

That was one way to put it. René’s children had accused Basil of having ‘exploited an old man’s vulnerability’ to steal his house and inheritance. The bitter fight that followed had soured his opinion of the justice system. Although Basil won his case, the monetary inheritance René left him went down the lawyer drain.

“If he had lived to see it, I don’t think René would have been disappointed,” Basil said. Plato listened to the conversation on the side, utterly silent. “Just sad.”

“Is that why you live in the woods so far from the city?” Officer Elissalde sighed. “I’ve been doing this job for five years, Mr. Bohen. I’ve seen men beat their wives, someone shooting a neighbor over a hedge’s size, and more human stupidity than you can imagine. But I’ve also met single mothers struggling to send their children to university. I’ve witnessed people working hard to support their aging parents so they wouldn’t die in a heartless retirement home and a woman rescuing a child from drowning at great risk to herself. Whenever I’m confronted with crime, I try to remember these good men and women.”

Basil snorted. “If you’re making a point about mankind’s inherent goodness—”

“My point is that there are rotten apples and good apples, and that you shouldn’t throw out the full fruit basket to get rid of the former.” She cleared her throat. “If it makes sense.”

She looked about as good at conversation as Basil himself; which was to say, not much.

Thankfully, Bugsy spared them from further embarrassment. “Boss, I hear a large object approaching us.”

“Me too,” Plato said, his sword raised. “A big, heavy car.”

Headlights flashed at the end of the road. Basil held his breath as he began to distinguish a large shape through the darkness. Officer Elissalde took a few steps forward and stood in the middle of the road, waving her hand and indicating at the vehicle to park itself next to the Renault Kangoo.

Basil identified the incoming car as a VAB: a wheeled, amphibious troop transporter. The vehicle made surprisingly little noise even though it dwarfed his Renault Kangoo in size. Its thick shielding showed steely scars along its left flank. An armored gunner manned a mounted machine gun on the VAB's top. The front windows were marred with traces of bullet impacts.

Although the vehicle parked itself peacefully, the gunner cautiously pointed his weapon at Bugsy. The centipede raised his head as high as possible in an attempt to look intimidating.

“Basil, I smell a dog and other humans inside the vehicle,” Plato whispered. “Two, maybe three.”

Basil remained on his guard and ready to strike. The gunner hid his face behind a goggled helmet and a black facemask, his expression unseen.

Major Matteo Lionel Grange
Level 13 [Humanoid] (Soldier 7/Gunslinger 6)
Party: Aztain Ahizpa.

That man didn’t look like a sister to Basil, but he was too classy to make a joke about it.

Officer Elissalde saluted the gunner. “Major Grange.”

“Officer.” The gunner surveyed the party before settling his gaze on Basil himself. “And… Mr. Bohen, is it?”

“Lower your weapon,” Basil replied. “Don’t get twitchy.”

“Step away from the vehicle,” the major replied, his voice flat and authoritative. “Now.”

Bugsy snapped his mandibles and Rosemarine raised her guns, but Basil stopped them with a glance. The party stepped away from Officer Elissalde and closer to the trees. At no point did the gunner stop pointing his weapon at them.

The tense standoff stretched on for a minute. The Major broke the silence by muttering something to his VAT’s driver which Basil couldn’t hear. A hatch opened at the back of the military vehicle, and a teenager no older than sixteen in riot gear stepped out alongside a doberman. An eyepatch covered her left eye. Basil immediately noticed a family resemblance with Officer Elissalde; same nose and hair, similar cheeks. She carried a whip instead of a firearm.

Maya Elissalde
Level 9 [Humanoid] (Houndmaster 9)
Party: Aztain Ahizpa.
Mylène, Doberman
Level 8 [Beast]
Party: Aztain Ahizpa.

The young teen’s grim expression disappeared upon seeing Officer Elissalde. “Sis!” She dropped her whip and immediately moved to embrace her sibling. “Thank God, you’re okay!”

“I’m here, Maya.” Officer Elissalde clearly struggled to hold back tears. “But Thomas and the others… I’m so sorry…”

The female doberman sniffed the air left and right before turning her head in the Major’s direction. “I don’t smell anyone else, chief.”

The gunner seemed to relax a little, although he kept a tight grip on his machine gun. He nodded gratefully at Basil, his deep voice softening. “Thank you for saving my teammate. You’ve done the army a great favor.”

“But you’re still going to point your weapon at us,” Basil guessed. The vehicle’s driver didn’t come out either.

“I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. Don’t push your luck.” The Major turned his mounted weapon in Rosemarine’s direction. “One of these things ate one of our men not two weeks ago.”

“Did he taste good?” Rosemarine asked innocently.

The Major’s hands nearly pressed his weapon’s trigger, but he held back at the last second. “And worst of all…” he glanced at Plato. “You have a trained cat with you.”

The grim, almost fearful way he said it surprised Basil; as did the rest of his crew’s reactions.

“Cats are dangerous,” the hound mistress whispered, her doberman glaring at Plato. “They kill without mercy.”

“I was scared a bit at first too when I saw,” Officer Elissalde admitted. “But this one is well-trained and obedient.”

“Do you have something against cats?” Plato asked in outrage. “That’s racism!”

“I don’t understand either,” Basil said. “What’s the problem?”

“You don’t know?” Officer Elissalde frowned. “Cats have an inherently advanced proficiency with claws. They inflict a lot of damage at early levels.”

“Yes, we’re born winners,” Plato replied. “What about it?”

“What about it?” the Major nearly choked. “Since the System arrived, fucking stray cats aren’t afraid of humans anymore! They fight us for territory, raid our food supplies, and attack those who resist! A group of them wiped out a full squad by slitting their throats in the night!”

“They kill so many birds that they soar in levels quickly,” Maya Elissalde added. “I saw one reaching level fifteen. Fifteen.”

Basil wanted to say that he was surprised, but after all the dead flyers Plato brought home, he had half-expected that scenario.

Speaking of Plato, his kindred’s dark deeds pleased him greatly; almost as much as they scared Bugsy.

“Basil, the feline revolution has started,” the cat said proudly. “It’s not too late to submit. I’ll make sure you’re well-treated as my slave.”

“Don’t force me to give you the river puppy treatment,” Basil joked with a cruel smile on his face. “With eight lives left, you can drown more than once.”

“Oh yes, we live near a river and cats are weak to water!” Bugsy realized with relief. “We’re safe!”

“Anyway, fair, keep your gun ready,” Basil told the Major. “But press the trigger and we’ll respond with deadly force.”

The Major snorted. “You’ll try.”

“Sir, I swear these people are on our side,” Officer Elissalde said upon gently pushing her sister away. “I owe them my life. One of them can cure petrification.”

“That remains to be seen,” the Major replied with skepticism. “We have a petrified teammate in the back. If they cure her, then we’ll talk.”

“We also have a server in ours.” Basil pointed at his Kangoo with his halberd. “You can take it… if you answer some questions.”

“About the Dismaker Labs shitshow?” The Major snorted. “Fat chance with that.”

“Because you won’t tell us?” Plato asked.

“Because we don’t understand much ourselves. Whole world turned into some freaky video game. How can you explain that? It makes no fucking sense!”

“Major.” Officer Elissalde straightened up. “I request permission to share information with Mr. Bohen. I promised him as much.”

Her superior shrugged. “For all it’s worth…”

“Does the name Anton Maxwell mean something to you?” Officer Elissalde asked Basil.

“Vaguely,” he replied. He remembered seeing the name floating among his news feed before the System arrived.

“He was the CEO of Dismaker Labs before the System came along. Some half-Indian tech entrepreneur with a big bank account and an even bigger ego, a pioneer in cryptocurrency, the Metaverse, etc…”

“So, a hype man,” Basil said. His words made the Major chuckle a little, although the Elissalde sisters remained stone-faced. “Is he behind the dungeons?”

“We think so,” Officer Elissalde confirmed. “Dismaker Labs is a multinational corporation specialized in hardware and software, especially microprocessors and next-gen chips. According to our investigation, they started cooperating with UNESCO on a cultural project two years ago.”

“The Trimurti Initiative,” Maya Elissalde whispered. “That’s the name.”

Basil clenched his teeth. “Continue.”

“Dismaker Labs partnered with UNESCO to create a, I quote, ‘cultural metaverse.’” The very name made Officer Elissalde shiver. Basil guessed he wasn’t the only one skeptical about the technology in question. “They would set up new-generation devices in all current and candidate world heritage sites, historical landmarks, and nature reserves.”

“Nature reserves?” Basil immediately caught on. “Like the Barthes?”

“Yes, like the Barthes,” Officer Elissalde confirmed. “When you told me where you found the server, I immediately made the connection.”

“We’ve heard reports of similar devices to your server in Bordeaux, Biarritz, and other towns,” said Major Grange. “All of them were found in dungeons that spontaneously formed over a historical monument or museum.”

“According to our investigation into Dismaker Labs, the devices would digitally reconstruct landmarks at the apex of their glory,” Officer Elissalde explained. “Put on a VR headset at home, and you could bet on gladiator fights in a reconstructed Roman Colosseum, visit the Taj Mahal, or hunt digital mammoths in Siberia. At least, that’s how Dismaker Labs presented their project.”

“Well, I can’t fault them for false advertising,” Basil replied with a deadpan look. “If anything, they overachieved.”

“That’s one way to put it.” Officer Elissalde smiled bitterly. “But it doesn’t look like the company’s employees knew what would happen. Those who we managed to interrogate were as lost as we were. They didn’t even understand how the servers work.”

“We smelled no lies from them,” the female doberman rasped.

“What happened to Anton Maxwell?” Basil asked. “Where is he?”

“Do you think we would be here if we knew?” Major Grange asked. “Man turned into a ghost. He’s probably hiding in a hole on the other side of the world.”

“The French army and police are actively searching for information on Anton Maxwell’s whereabouts,” Officer Elissalde said. “Studying your server could help us with a lead.”

Basil doubted it would yield much information. The sheer degree of secrecy around Dismaker Labs’ leader and operations implied that the System’s arrival had been long-premeditated. It must have taken years to spread the servers across the globe and to earn the trust of an institution like UNESCO.

No world-ending mastermind worth their salt would leave a lead for investigators to find. And although the company’s lower employees were probably innocent, Basil suspected that the higher-ups had been on the plan. A single man couldn’t hide a secret so large from everyone else. He must have had accomplices.

What bothered Basil wasn’t how Dismaker Labs pulled off the apocalypse, but why. What did they hope to gain from destroying the world? Unless the apocalypse was a mere stepping stone to reach a greater prize.

“The jackass wants to become the Overgod,” Basil guessed. “It’s all clear to me.”

“That’s our running theory for now,” Officer Elissalde replied. “But we can’t confirm it yet.”

“It’s big work and we’re small people dealing with shit on the ground,” Major Grange said. “Killing all the monsters we find.”

“You aren’t even good at it,” Bugsy muttered under his breath. “We scrapped the gearsman ourselves.”

If the Major heard the remark, he didn’t show it. “Neria, Maya, bring the other dog out of the hold. We’ll put their cure to the test.”

The Elissalde sisters moved to the back of the military vehicle. When they returned, they carefully carried a petrified Basque Shepherd dog and set it on the road. Plato looked back and forth between the stone animal and its handlers.

“Seriously?” he asked. “This is your teammate?”

Maya Elissalde grit her teeth. “Stupid cat.”

“Let’s be honest here.” Plato stared at the doberman with a smug face. “Do you have an advanced proficiency with claws?”

The dog’s ears lowered in shame. “Medium with bites.”

“And that’s why cat lovers will inherit the earth.” Plato put his paws behind his head. “Dog thralls denied our inherent superiority. They gave canines the lion’s share of love instead of gaining our favor with treats and hugs. Now you will pay the price for your arrogance.”

“But we buff masters with our barks!” the doberman defended her species. “We help each other!”

“That is so cute!”

“Plato, stop demeaning dogs,” Basil chided his pet.

“I’m not demeaning anyone, I’m stating facts,” Plato declared with pride. “All I’m saying, Basil, is that once we felines have cleansed the Earth of birds and taken back our rightful place as masters of the universe… you’ll be on the winning side.”

Basil couldn’t argue with that. “Zachariel?”

“I’m not sure how to tell him the truth, sir,” the angel whispered back while staring at Major Grange. “It’s terminal.”

That wasn’t the answer Basil wished to hear. “You can’t cure petrification?”

“No, I cannot cure coronatheism. He caught a militant variant.” Zachariel let out a sigh of despair. “At this stage, I fear the disease is incurable.”

Basil rolled his eyes. “Yes, Zachariel, France is one of the countries with the most atheists in it. Big deal. You can coexist with coronatheism.”

The angel looked at him as if he had grown a second head. “You can?”

“Yes, I can,” Basil replied with a shrug. “If they respect my faith, I respect their complete absence of it. I’m free to live my life as I see fit and so are they.”

“I see…” Zachariel scratched his mask with his hand. “You are aiming to develop herd immunity among the population by exposing them to the virus. The losses will be terrible, but it could work.”

“Sure, let’s go with that,” Basil lied through his teeth. “Would you follow them to Bordeaux if your magic works?”

“Of course, if it can help cure the sick. I have a large quota to fulf—” Zachariel coughed. “I mean, it is my holy duty as an angel.”

Basil was seriously starting to wonder what kind of heaven this weirdo came from. He had the feeling the truth would induce a tremendous crisis of faith.

The angel proved as good as his word though. Zachariel touched the petrified Basque Shepherd’s head, his fingers glowing with green light. His magic turned stone to flesh and fur in an instant.

“—stress, get down!” The Basque Shepherd leaped in alarm, starting Zachariel. “Huh?”

“Diane!” Maya Elissalde hugged the confused dog. “You’re back.”

“Mistress? Where are the robots?” The Basque Shepherd looked around and immediately barked at Bugsy upon noticing him. “Danger! Danger!”

“H-hey, calm down!” The centimagma snapped his mandibles at her. “Don’t bark at me!”

Officer Elissalde observed Zachariel with a pleased smile. “Major, it worked.”

“It doesn’t change anything,” her superior replied gruffly. “Even if we succeeded in destroying the machines and freeing the civilians from stone, what then? The countryside is overrun by monsters, food is scarce, and the whole region is in shambles. We would have to evacuate Dax’s panicked population to Bordeaux, which will stretch our resources thin.”

“We can’t leave the population at the machines’ mercy either,” Officer Elissalde argued. “Not when we have a cure.”

“I don’t like it either, but the orders from the top were clear. We are to abandon the region and retreat to Bordeaux.” The Major remained uncompromising. “This is bigger than either of us, officer.”

Basil sneered in contempt. Of course, he wouldn’t get a return on investment with his taxes. Why should he have expected anything else?

“I should have known the French army was better at retreating than fighting back,” he muttered.

A tense silence set on the road, until Major Grange slowly turned his machine gun in Basil’s direction. “Dare to repeat that out loud, smartass?”

“Where is your resistance spirit? Where’s Joan of Arc?” Basil admonished him, refusing to cower. “The gearsmen aren’t even German!”

“France won more battles and wars than any other country except the British!” Major Grange raised his head to better look down on Basil. “Aren’t you a Bulgarian citizen? Your fucking country only exists because the Russians took pity on you!”

“What?” Basil saw red. His jaw clenched so hard he thought his teeth might shatter. “What did you say?”

“Please, please, everyone calm down,” Officer Elissalde tried to defuse the situation. “Don’t—”

“Russian military help was a small detail of Bulgarian independence!” Basil snarled. “We could have kicked the Ottomans out of our homeland alone!”

“By burying them under your dead and incompetence?” The Major replied with a mocking tone. “You haven't won a war since the Byzantine!”

“At least we didn’t need a Corsican immigrant to win ours!”

“How dare—” Basil’s response left the Major burning with rage. “We’re throwing a pointless battle to win the war! That’s the very essence of strategy!”

“That’s the very essence of surrender, yes!” Basil taunted him.

“Don’t force me to come down and kick your ass!”

“Come if you dare! I’m the one paying your minimum wage!” Basil tossed his halberd aside and pulled up his sleeves. “You’re not shitting on me, you’re shitting on Bulgaria!”

“Fine!” the Major rose from the VAB's top, leaving his machine gun aside. “I’ll colonize your face… with my fist!”

“Yes!” Rosemarine chirped. “Blood!”

“Kick his ass, Boss!” Bugsy encouraged Basil. “I believe in you!”

“Do your best!” Zachariel gave them thumbs up. “I can cure anything short of death and dismemberment!”

Plato looked up at Officer Elissalde, his face one of utter indifference. “So, is yours always like this?”

The policewoman let out a long, deep sigh as Basil prepared to defend his country’s honor.

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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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