They blew up the entrance as the opening salvo.
By the time the patrolling Apollyon drones noticed Rosemarine rushing across their bridge, she was already halfway through charging her Sunbeam attack. A ray of light poured out of her maw, crossed the causeway in the blink of an eye, and blasted a hole in the castle’s iron gates. Smoke rose into the skies and a horn sounded the alarm.
There was no subtlety in the Bohens’ assault, no declaration of war, no call to honorable combat by champions. They showed the bugs no more courtesy than they did during their own surprise raid.
Apollyon’s soldiers could only expect relentless fury today.
Riding on Rosemarine’s back with Kuikui and Orcine, Basil surveyed his troops’ positions. Bugsy followed Rosemarine on foot as she charged across the bridge with the Steamobile at her back. The causeway trembled under their weight, but held strong. Vasi flew high in the skies on her broomstick with Plato desperately hanging on to her back; the cat looked quite afraid of falling. As for Shellgirl and House Garden’s vegetables, they occupied the Steamobile’s sniper nests with a treasure trove of bombs to throw.
The Apollyon drones immediately moved to intercept the invaders with stingers and wind blasts. On the walls, dozens of bipedal wolf humanoids showed up with bows, crossbows, and even a few rifles.
Level 14 [Beast/Humanoid]
Faction: Apocalypse Force.
Raising his halberd with his right hand and his gun with his left, Basil shouted a war cry.
He opened the hostilities by shooting down a drone in the head with an icy bullet.
Shellgirl followed suit with a bombardment of her own and House Garden’s vegetables assisted her by throwing bug spray bombs. Clouds of poisonous fumes choked the Apollyon drones to death, their corpses falling into the lake. As for Vasi, she attacked the defenders on the walls with a fireball.
Still, Rosemarine soon entered the archers’ range. They immediately let loose a volley of arrows and quarrels at her from the walls.
“Behind me!” Orcine shouted, raising her father’s tower shield to protect Basil and Kuikui. Most projectiles bounced off it, but Basil sensed a bullet graze his shoulder enough to draw blood. Bugsy avoided the projectiles by burrowing into the ground.
“Brave Howl!” Kuikui buffed all his allies one after the other. “Brave Howl!”
Your Strength and Magic have been buffed for five minutes.
Rosemarine winced as a few bullets hit her precious scales, enraging Basil further.
“Vasi, Plato!” he shouted as loud as he could. “Take down the gunners!”
Vasi hovered above the walls, just low enough for Plato to jump off her back. The cat skewered a wolfman’s face with his rapier before he even landed. Soon he massacred the archers in a whirlwind of claws and slashes.
The bombardment abated, allowing Rosemarine to heal herself.
“Sunbath!” Rosemarine’s leaf scales glowed brightly, her light bathing Basil and all their allies. He immediately felt his shoulder wound closing on its own.
You have recovered all your HP.
So the Cursed field effect didn’t extend outside the walls. Excellent.
Rosemarine finally reached the open gates, with a squad of wolfmen with spears and swords at the ready. The tropidrake stomped them to death without even noticing their presence. However, Rosemarine was clearly too large to enter the dungeon, especially with the Steamobile at her back.
“Mister, do I go inside?” she asked, her voice barely covering the noise of Shellgirl’s artillery barrage. A new group of Apollyon drones emerged from the castle’s central tower to relieve the defenders.
“No, you would bring down the dungeon on yourself,” Basil replied. He, Orcine, and Kuikui climbed down from Rosemarine’s back, with Bugsy emerging from the ground. “Stay outside, tear down the walls, and heal our allies when needed.”
“Hang them by their guts, Mister!” Rosemarine advised cheerfully. She used the walls to support her forearms, her head rising to face the defenders. “Fire Seed!”
Rosemarine spat dog-sized seeds at the walls one after another. They immediately grew root legs and a crown of flame burst out of their tips. The newly born creatures screeched as they sowed flames across the fortifications. Their mother watched on with delight as she gathered energy for another Sunbeam attack.
Level 2 [Plant]
Not as useful as a clone, but those don’t fade away at least, Basil thought as he walked through the gates, trusting his team to clean up the trash outside and rejoin them inside the dungeon afterward. Not so funny when you’re the ones being raided, uh?
“Okay guys, ignore all the treasures you might find,” Basil said. “We must make a beeline to the Boss before they can teleport in reinforcements.”
“You got it, Boss,” Bugsy said with determination. Kuikui leaped on his back and shrieked his support. “It’s our house now.”
“I’ll clear the scarlet path,” Orcine added, her heavy shield in one hand and her corrosive mace in the other. “Just cover my ass and we’ll be fine.”
Basil nodded at his team and took the first step into Château Muloup.
An invisible pressure fell upon his shoulders the moment he crossed the threshold. A ghostly dark cloud swirled around Basil’s body and chilled him to the bone. All his teammates suffered similar treatment.
[Curse] ailment! You cannot recover HP/SP and your chances of suffering from critical hits are doubled.
“Can’t heal?” Orcine scoffed. “They would have to damage us first!”
It was a good one, so Basil let her have it.
An entry corridor flanked by guard posts awaited the group beyond the threshold. The black stone walls showed dents, nicks, and other signs of damage; including a carved heart with the initials ‘L+D’ inside. Purple fumes rose from the cracked floor and carried a terrible smell of rotting flesh.
A pack of ten suicidal wolfmen formed a spearwall in the party’s path, protecting a closed set of wooden doors. “Don’t let them pass!” one of them howled. “The baron will have our heads otherwise!”
“Don't worry!” Basil roared as he charged with his halberd. “I will behead you myself!”
A swing of his weapon broke the spears raised at him. Orcine and Bugsy smashed into the wolfmen, the first with her shield, the other with his mandibles. Kuikui supported both with thunderbolts.
Basil couldn’t call what followed anything but a massacre. His halberd chopped heads left and right, Orcine’s mace smashed skulls hard enough to paint the walls with brain matter, and Bugsy incinerated the survivors with his fire breath. The fight lasted less than two minutes.
It felt good to be the one with the level advantage for once.
“Strange we didn’t receive a quest from it, Boss,” Bugsy commented amidst the broken corpses of their enemies. “We got one with the first dungeon, no?”
Basil wondered as well. He wondered what parameters dictated when the System awarded quests; perhaps it only sent them to entice Players without a clear goal of their own, or a party could only accept a limited number of them. Basil had already three of them sitting in his logs.
It didn’t matter. The party was slaughtering pro bono today.
Orcine smashed the next set of doors with her mace and shattered them into splinters. The group walked into the next room, an immense central hall large enough to put cathedrals to shame. A dark gray rug covered the floor, its texture tainted with dry blood. An intricate wolf motif relief dominated the ceiling.
Three sets of doors stood on both sides of the hall, all of them locked and topped by a burning skull. A central, Y-shaped stairway leading to the upper levels faced the group on the other end of the room. The sunlight pierced through a sinister stained glass window looming over it.
Basil couldn’t tell why, but the window’s design disturbed him to his core. It represented a black demonic horned face, with four crimson eyes and two maws on top of the other. A magnificent field of flames surrounded the visage alongside familiar symbols of hands with fanged maws for palms.
“Kui scared,” Kuikui admitted upon seeing the visage.
“I feel eyes watching us,” Orcine said. She tried to look cool, but Basil could tell it was a front from the worry in her eyes. The stained glass’ design spooked her.
Maybe they were indeed being watched. Basil had clashed with a mermaid trying to set up an Apocalypse Force altar near the river shrine. The description said that it allowed the Maleking to watch through it. The stained glass was covered in similar symbols.
“Enemies incoming,” Bugsy warned, head raised at the stairway. “Here.”
Two men walked down from the upper floor, under the glass window’s stained sunlight.
“I warned Eric we should have kept the famine worm at least.” The first was a gaunt caucasian young man no older than twenty, with well-groomed short hair and an elegant face twisted into a frown of worry. His refined dark jacket, fleur-de-lys brooch, gloves, and elegant boots reminded Basil of a noble stereotype. He carried a black violin with a sinister skull motif. “We don’t have the numbers to push them back.”
“Who needs numbers when we’ve got levels.” His compatriot was a tall, medieval knight in heavy plate armor. Light reflected on the shining, lustrous surface of his triangular shield and his sharp longsword’s blade. The visor was up, revealing the mustached face of a middle-aged man underneath. “That fool’s build is all over the place. We can take him.”
Basil focused on these two, the System quickly confirming his suspicions. What he read from the screens made him want to puke.
Level 25 [Humanoid] (Mercenary 20/Knight 5)
Faction: Apocalypse Force (Empire Lalande).
Level 25 [Humanoid] (Bard 16/Gambler 9)
Faction: Apocalypse Force (Empire Lalande).
They were humans.
“Shit.” Orcine’s eyes widened in dread upon seeing the knight climbing down the stairs. “A capped Mercenary!”
“You’re human,” Basil whispered in astonishment. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He had long wondered what kind of monsters supplied Apollyon with white phosphorus bombs, but now he realized that he might be facing them. “You’re Players.”
“So are you,” the knight shot back, his voice deep and heavy with contempt. He put on his visor and his black eyes glared at Basil through the slits. “Beat me.”
“You’re humans fighting for the Apocalypse Force!” Basil snarled, stretching the last two words. The dungeon’s walls quaked from the explosions outside. “Don’t you know? They want to kill us all!”
“You know what they say,” the knight replied, his sword and shield raised for battle. “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
“What my friend means to say is that when asked to throw our lives away for nothing, we chose to take the higher road, the better road.” The bard smiled ear to ear. “The road of friendship and collaboration.”
Basil almost choked at the man’s blatant cynicism. His pulse quickened with anger and his uneasiness at the thought of fighting fellow humans immediately vanished.
“You betrayed mankind to bugs?” he snarled at them.
“I resent that wording, Boss,” Bugsy muttered under his breath.
“‘Betrayed’ is such a dirty word.” The musician stopped in the middle of the stairs and tugged a string of his violin with a black bow. “We prefer the term ‘switching to the winning side.’”
“Veni, Vidi, Vichy, huh?!” Basil taunted them before pulling his gun’s trigger. He aimed for the bard’s head, but the knight managed to intercept the ice bullet with his shield. “Give them no quarter!”
“Vichy this, sassy bitch!” The violinist started a fast-paced melody as his teammate rushed down the stairs. “Bardic Song II!”
“Bodyguard: Dominique,” the knight shouted, a blue glow shrouding his armor. “Vitality Up!”
Dominique’s [Bardic Song II] buffed his allies’ physical stats!
Allies? Basil noted, much to his confusion. Plural?
“Kill the bard first!” Basil ordered as he ran across the hall. It would be easier to defeat the knight once his buffer was defeated. “I’ll take the other!”
“No, big man, we must finish the Mercenary off first!” Orcine shouted back as she and Bugsy rushed after him. “If the class works like it does in my world, then he has a busted Perk!”
By the time her words registered, Basil had crossed the hall and the knight reached the stairway’s bottom. Basil’s halberd clashed against his enemy’s shield but failed to cut through it.
“Strong,” the knight commented before pushing him back with a thrust of his shield. He raised his sword to counterattack, but Basil didn’t give him the chance. Exploiting his longer reach, he struck the shield again and again with the top spike, forcing the knight on the defensive.
Orcine assisted her teammate by flanking their enemy. The knight’s sword parried her mace as his shield did the same with Basil’s halberd. Although outnumbered two-to-one, the man held his ground. Not a single blow went through his defense and he blocked the stairs with his body.
This left his teammate exposed to long-distance attacks, however. Kuikui and Bugsy attacked the violinist from afar, the former with a lightning bolt and the other with a fiery breath.
The knight noticed the attack and suddenly vanished. Basil’s halberd cut through the air as his foe teleported away in a flash. The knight suddenly reappeared in front of his violinist teammate, blocking the thunderbolt and fiery breath with his shield. His ally kept playing undisturbed.
It suddenly occurred to Basil that they weren’t fighting monsters, but a Player party. What they lacked in power, these two made up in class synergy.
“You ain’t getting past me, punks,” the knight declared as he lowered his shield.
“Watch me!” Orcine snarled as she climbed the stairs after him. Kuikui howled again, reapplying his buff to his allies.
Basil almost followed Orcine up the stairway when he heard Bugsy shout a warning. “Boss, enemy to your left!”
Basil turned his head in the right direction, but saw nothing. He heard a crackling sound and suddenly noticed slight inflections in the carpet.
Panicking, Basil swung his halberd vertically and hit something. The blow dispelled the illusory veil, revealing a hidden opponent.
Much like her teammates, the newcomer was a human; a lovely young woman with long red hair, cruel blue eyes, and a black cloak covering her shoulders. She wielded a longsword in one hand and a shorter dagger in the other. Both crossed under the shaft of Basil’s halberd, preventing his blade from cracking her skull open.
Level 25 [Humanoid] (Outlaw 12/Poisoner 13)
Faction: Apocalypse Force (Empire Lalande).
The woman grinned, her teeth white as snow. “Shocking, isn’t it?”
Electricity coursed through her sword and traveled through the halberd. The feathers of Basil’s mantle absorbed the lightning harmlessly, much to his joy.
[Curse] ailment negated your [Lightning Rod] SP recovery!
Basil savored the incredulous look on his would-be assassin’s face before pushing her back with a thrust of his weapon. The woman leaped back, only for Bugsy to breathe fire at her from the side. Flames consumed her cloak and threatened to spread to her flesh.
“I thought he was weak to Lightning?” the assassin snarled angrily. She threw her burning cloak away before it could consume her, revealing a black leotard underneath. An array of knives and potions were attached to her belt. “Fucking fake news!”
“You don’t need it anyway, darling!” Her bard ally shouted over his own music. Basil suddenly realized who the carved initials outside stood for. “I believe in you!”
Unwilling to fight an assassin in close combat, especially one with a Poisoner class, Basil opened fire at the woman with his handgun. Empowered by the bard’s song, the woman dodged the bullets. She rushed at Bugsy, grazing his exoskeleton with her blade and nearly beheading Kuikui with another swing.
“Forget the monsters, Lucine!” the knight shouted, his sword clashing against Orcine’s shield. Being higher on the stairway, he held the ground advantage over the orc and pushed her down. “Crit the Tamer to death and they’ll all perish with him!”
“Don’t give me orders, jackass!” The assassin ignored her teammate’s suggestion and slashed at Bugsy’s exoskeleton with her lightning sword. The blow drew blood, but the centimagma remained undeterred. “That freak burned my cloak!”
“You stupid bitch, do as I tell you!”
“Don’t you dare insult my girlfriend, you asshole!” his bard teammate shouted back.
They’re strong, but they don’t get along, Basil realized. The enemy party exploited their class abilities to cover their mutual weaknesses, yet failed to coordinate effectively. If they had focused on Basil as the knight suggested, they might have won by now. They were a gang, not a tight-knit unit. We must pick them one after the other. Their formation will fall apart afterward.
But who should he start with? The knight’s defense was impenetrable, the bard’s music strengthened his allies from a safe distance, and the assassin moved too fast to hit.
And although the knight was clearly better at defending than attacking, he was slowly pushing the lower-leveled Orcine into a corner. Basil himself, with all of his Berserker power, had failed to get past his guard. Walter Tye had warned him that specialization offered better rewards than versatility, and this fight illustrated it well; the enemy party had Basil's own beaten in term of raw power.
But specialization meant an inability to adapt quickly. It could be a strength and a weakness.
Basil remembered what that man, Malherbe, had said earlier. Bodyguard: Dominique. Assuming the first was the Perk allowing the knight to teleport around to shield his teammates from danger, the fact he needed to specify the target meant that it only protected one ally at once.
“Gang up on the rogue, long-range!” Basil shouted, an idea crossing his mind. He dashed behind the assassin with his gun raised. “Orcine, keep the knight occupied!”
Bugsy and Kuikui followed his lead by attacking from multiple directions. Lucine Lalande dodged a stream of flames, avoided a bullet hitting the wall behind her, and saw her luck desert her on the third try. Kuikui’s thunderbolt hit her in the chest.
The lightning sent the assassin tumbling back on the carpet, a shroud of darkness briefly surrounding her body.
I knew it! Basil rejoiced. They suffer from the castle’s curse too!
That explained the knight’s determination to take hits for his team. His armor and defenses mitigated the danger critical hits posed, allowing him to soak damage for his team. Perhaps he was the only one immune to the castle’s curse.
“This is the end,” Basil said. He pointed his gun’s barrel at the assassin’s head, right as Bugsy activated Agility Up to finish her in melee.
“Lucine!” her violinist boyfriend shouted in alarm. “Paul-Oc, save her!”
“You stupid whore!” the knight snarled in anger upon seeing the tide turn. “Bodyguard: Lucine La—”
Basil turned his gun away at the last second.
Basil pulled the trigger right as the knight teleported in Bugsy’s way, stopping the centimagma’s charge. His bullet crossed the room and hit the surprised bard in the chest. The violinist dropped his bow, the bullet in his body freezing his blood as it poured out of his wound. A shroud of darkness briefly formed around him.
Critical hit! You [poisoned] Dominique Grard!
The assassin’s eyes widened in panic. “Dommy!”
“Nice shot, Boss!” Bugsy cheered Basil, only to be pushed back by a thrust of the knight’s shield.
“His bullet fucking poisoned me!” the bard complained. He neglected to recover his bow to instead cover his wound with his hand. “I need healing!”
“Don’t you dare run away, you pussy!” His knight teammate showed him no sympathy. He charged at Basil, but slower than before. His allies’ buffs only worked so long as the music carried them. “Power through and keep singing!”
The bard grit his teeth and moved to pick up his bow… only for Orcine to crush it underfoot as she climbed up the stairs. The man’s eyes widened in horror as he faced the orc without anyone to protect him.
“Nope,” Orcine said casually.
Then she bashed the bard’s skull with her mace.
It was a testament to his level that the blow didn’t kill him instantly. Orcine’s mace shattered his jaw, sent his teeth flying, and hit him hard enough to throw him down the stairs. The bard laid at the bottom and didn’t rise up, blood flowing from his mouth.
“Dommy, hold on!” His assassin girlfriend abandoned her knight ally to Kuikui and Bugsy, her expression one of utter panic. She rushed at the bard as soon as she could. “I’m coming!”
She found Basil standing in her way.
“You know what people I hate more than tax collectors?” Having run out of bullets, Basil stored his handgun in his inventory and carried his halberd with both hands. “Traitors. You didn’t just betray your nation, you betrayed the entire human race!”
Filth of their sort deserved no mercy.
“Climb down from your horse, you filthy immigrant!” The assassin snarled as she lunged at Basil with her sword. “When the dust settles, we’ll be alive and you shall be dead!”
Basil brought down his halberd. The assassin dodged by rolling to the side, but he didn’t give her any breathing room. He forced back with a flurry of swings, buying back Orcine time to climb down the stairs.
The assassin deflected one thrust with a well-placed strike, only for Basil to quickly follow with a swing. His joy turned to despair as the knight suddenly teleported in his way. Shield and halberd clashed, a crack appearing in the former.
“What did I tell you, Lucine?” The knight attempted to skewer Basil with his sword. “Headshot the Tamer and you kill them all!”
Basil blocked the blow, but this gave the assassin an opportunity to flank him.
“Kui!” Kuikui shrieked a warning. “Kui!”
The assassin threw her dagger at Basil’s skull.
The weapon moved at lightning speed, cutting through the air with a whirring sound. Basil’s eyes widened as a flash of steel crossed his gaze.
The dagger splattered blood all over the carpet.