Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Bathrobe Knight- Chapter 3 (Deal me in, Poker Bear)

The Bathrobe Knight
Written by: Charles Dean, Anon
Edited by: Joshua Swayne 

Notes: Super Special thanks to all the readers, seriously! I didn't expect to have this many, ever. Nor this cool/ helpful of a group of commenters. Regular Special thanks to- John Nest (Zectas Volume 2 just came out! It's worth checking out)- Lastly thanks to Justin Case for the boss monster idea [I changed bits of it, but he inspired it.]
Edit Notes: The site format is being improved bit by bit, but thank Haikai for helping me figure out some basics. 

Questions that I need help with this time: Who is your favorite character? What playable race with black wings would you like to see added [currently only two exist, vampires and incubus/ succubus]? Is the character screen okay this time (Thought maybe a table format would be better)?

Ps. I promise to have a much longer Darwin section next chapter, my apologies on this one. Character development stuff required some extra words be allocated elsewhere.

Site Update: Feedburner was giving me serious issues so I desynced it. Sorry. I'm looking for an alternative for "subscribe via email"
Darwin admired himself in the mirror as he did a sort of mini spin in the black iron armor he was trying on. I look awesome. This is just like how the jousting knights from the medieval times used to look. Sure it has a huge penalty to speed, 60%, but it’s so cool looking! I’m like a dark knight in one of those medieval fantasy stories. Now all I need is a cool flaming sword or maybe an ice sword! I could be the Frost King of the North! Darwin hadn’t felt this happy since he first came to Tiqpa. Going through the hundreds of outfits that he could possibly wear felt great, but each one had a problem that stopped him from committing to any set -the stat penalties.
“I just can’t buy it. Let’s look around for something else” Darwin said, causing Kass to almost throw the dress she was holding at him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like the look, it was that the average human warrior received 6 stat points per level, the bonus one point was one of the benefits to picking the human race. That meant that they could put 4 points in power and 2 points into vitality all the while ignoring speed. They not only didn’t need it but the better and better sets of heavy armor had higher and higher percentage speed reductions. This meant if he took the route of heavy armor he would lose his racial advantage of gaining 3 power, 3 speed, and 2 vitality and be left short 1 point against other humans. A fact he couldn’t ignore given the insane advantages that some of the other races had early on.
    “There aren’t any shops left! What was it you said this morning, ‘don’t needlessly waste time shopping when we have quests to do.’”
    “Young man, there is another option. Do you mind if we lend you an outfit and hold on to your robe and slippers for a while?” The old shopkeeper who had been watching Darwin try to find gear that suited him decided that it was about time to help the young man out.  “In fact, why don’t you try this on until we’re done making this robe better, he said handing him green street clothes.”
    “Ok, that works. Thank you sir, your kindness is appreciated.” Darwin thanked the man and went into the backroom where he changed into the street clothes he had been given. They were simple clothes, but the style wasn’t too bad. The shirt was like a T-Shirt with a button on the collar and the pants could best be described as white suit pants. When he came out, Kass gave him a happy smile of relief. Did he look okay in the outfit, or was she just happy to see him out of the bathrobe?
    “Don’t thank me yet. This will cost you 400 gold. Come back when you finished shopping, and I’ll have this robe battle ready,” he said, grabbing the bathrobe before Darwin could argue about the price. 400? 400 Gold pieces? All 8 dresses that Kass bought earlier put together weren’t even 300 gold.
    “Isn’t that a bit mu--”
    “Nope. It’s not. The good man is helping you out, so don’t be stingy and let’s get going.”
    “Fine, fine.” Darwin said, handing the man 400 gold coins and leaving with Kass. They had been shopping for over an hour, and he was sure that Kass was starting to get a bit antsy at having to watch him indecisively move from one outfit to another. The irony was that before he had started trying on gear himself, he had the exact same feeling watching her go through forty-odd dresses. Especially when  every dress had looked like the same white dress she was already wearing; and, yet, she insisted they were different and that one was ‘cuter’ than the other. I know every snowflake is actually different but they all look the same to me.
After finishing their little shopping expedition Darwin was pretty happy with his loot. Kass was obviously very happy with her loot because she had the type of smile he had only seen on girls playing with kittens and puppies. She had not only gotten a new, slightly-longer dress that Darwin thought looked the same as the first one, but she had gotten a few rings, earrings, a new staff and no less than three pairs of boots. Apparently each pair of boots added a special effect when going across specific terrain, but Darwin saw no real reason to have boots for crossing the desert.
Due to the iron shortages Darwin didn’t see any new weapons that he had liked, but he actually had fun talking with the shopkeepers and helping Kass pick out a beautiful dark wood staff with a bright rich blue sapphire as big as a clenched fist on the top and six streams of eight tiny sapphires no bigger than a fingernail coming down off it. It even came with +15 to spirit and +10 to concentration. The only problem was that it was 250 gold, 150 more than she had wanted to spend, but Darwin had managed to assure her it was worth the investment. An act that made the shopkeeper, a new friend of his, very happy.    
When they came back to the armor merchant, they found the vendor ecstatic to see them. “Darwin! You won’t believe what I’ve made! It’s perfect! Come on! Come on! You have to try it out!” he said, almost tripping as he rushed to the door to greet Darwin.
“Okay, okay, I’m coming. So where is it?”
“It’s in the changing room. I had to contact the tailor, the enchanter, the apothecary and the jeweler to get this perfect but you’re going to love it. I’ve never put together a finer piece of armor, or one as strange for that matter.”
In the changing room his bathrobe and slippers were hung up for him to wear. The bathrobe had gone from green to snow white. The back now had a black and gold drawing of a spoon. He picked it up and examined it further. Enchanted Bathrobe of Valcrest, adds +15 to power, speed and vitality. Reduces incoming damage from all sources by 10%. +35 Damage when wielding spoons. +10 damage versus french onion soup.  Is this game trying to make me dual wield spoons? 35 damage is a lot but it needs to be way higher to tempt me…  The slippers were unchanged. He had been made to walk around barefoot for nothing.
As he was putting it on, he noticed little cloth button latches in the interior of the bathrobe that would hold it securely on him. Kass must have complained to him when I wasn’t watching about the robe flying open that one time. Looking at himself in the mirror he couldn’t tell if he looked ridiculous or amazing. He put on his snug slippers and decided he needed to deck out and check his stats. He hadn’t checked them since the tutorial. He put on the new rings he had gotten --the Captain’s Ring that Elmont had given him and the Ring of Power he had purchased-- and brought up his character menu.

Job Class
117 + 35
117 + 25
Phys Damage Res
83 + 25
Elemental Res
49 + 0
Increased Speed
78 + 0
Maximum Hit Points

    Not too shabby at all. The items almost add a 30% bonus to my primary attributes, makes up for the fact that without armor to reduce damage taken I might die in one hit from someone who has sunk a lot of points into power.
“Cool, you changed it to white,” she said, looking at the merchant for a reason.
“Of course I changed it white! I figured a young couple like you would like to match.” he said, drawing a blush out of Kass that made her face redder than a chili pepper.
“What, what makes you think we are a couple? Who would ever want to date this weirdo?”
“Oh, I didn’t know you didn’t like him. I’m sorry. My mistake. Anyways, how do you like the bathrobe, Darwin?” The merchant gave Darwin a sympathetic look.
Darwin, who stood dumbfounded by the exchange, finally replied. “Oh, yeah, it’s great. You did amazing work. I don’t think I will ever be able to repay you.”
“Nonsense, that’s what the coins are for. Now, I believe Elmont told you about our silver mine issue... “
“Right, right. I’ll go take care of that now! Have a good one,” Darwin said, walking out the door without waiting for Kass.
“Hey! I was still tal--don’t leave without me!”
“Oh? But I’m just some weirdo.”
“Good, so you know.” Kass smiled at him, almost as if she was sticking out her tongue too.
“Fine. You’re not some undateable weirdo . . .  it’s just I wouldn’t date you.”
    “Who says I would date you either? This is a video game after all. Who dates someone they met in a video game? Anyways, we’ve got to get you to level 30, and we have to get this town a silver ore mine.”
    “Alright, I wonder if I’ll get a class promotion at 30,” Kass said, the mood finally feeling light again.
I’ve been wondering that too. When and what will be my class promotion?

The soft crinkling of well-cropped grass being trodden upon was the only sound that marked the stranger's passing.  A fine coat of dew coated the ground in the predawn morning causing stray tendrils to cling to the sides of a pair of tan boots.  Well worn, comfortable, and as inconspicuous as the rest of his garb.  Nothing of the man's appearance gave either hint or indication of the man's intentions.  Nothing he wore or the way he carried himself would give anyone a reason to give him a second glance if he were to pass through a large crowd.
Working his way to the top of a small grassy knoll just outside the town of Valcrest, he lowered himself in to a crouched position and surveyed the scene below him.  It had been growing rather quickly as of late as more and more players had chosen it as a bind point in order to gain access to the easily farmable mobs in the surrounding areas.  The town’s positioning gave it perfect access to a variety of mobs whose levels ranged up into the mid-twenties.  As a result, the town seemed to have prospered.  Almost thrived, even, despite the rumors and varied reports that the human race was struggling as a whole.   By all accounts, their war against the White-Horns and Black-Wings had been a losing effort.  The King was even reported to have almost completely emptied his coffers in hiring out NPCs to fight for them in the last battle.
A small wind kicked up and over the rise causing the man to wrap his heavy traveling cloak a little tighter around him.  This late at night --or early in the morning depending on how you looked at it-- the town was still cloaked in darkness.  It was too early yet for merchants to be hawking their wares in the market or craftsmen to begin working the forges within their various shops.  There were a few small explosions of light around the center of the town where the bind point was located indicating that a few players were still awake and screwing around.  Somewhere below him the sound of a dog momentarily barking drifted up towards him before settling itself down again.  Otherwise, everything sat silent, stretched out below him.  Even the rowdiest of the town's bars had kicked out their drunkest of patrons and closed their doors for the night.
Taking a deep breath of cool night air and slowly exhaling, the man watched his breath slightly fog up the air in front of him.  It billowed out of his nose and mouth and rose up to circle around his head in a cloud before disappearing upward into the air.  He carefully considered his options.   He could either move forward or go back.  Simple choices in life.  Choices were always simple:  yes or no,  backward or forward,  right or wrong.  Consequences were the hard part.  Having to deal with the results of one's actions and what came next.  Watching how it affected those around you.  Living with the knowledge that it was your choice that brought you here.  That's what complicated things.  Choices were the easy part.
Raising  a hand up above his shoulder he waved forward with his hand, the motion indicating that everything was clear.  It was also the signal for the rest of the group that waited down below to join him on the top of the hill.  Out of the darkness he could suddenly hear the clangor of steel weapons as they bounced against armor, metal on metal.  The soft creaking of leather accompanied it as the group slowly made its way forward.  The man never took his sight off the city below him, his eyes constantly dancing back and forth across its expanse looking for any signs of life.
"You're ready for this, then." The voice was low and quiet behind him.  It wasn't a question.
Maddock nodded in response anyway from where he still sat in a crouch.  "Choices are easy," he thought to himself as he rose and began walking down the rise and towards Valcrest's main gate at a quickened pace.
           As he approached the large wooden gates of the town, one of the two guards in chainmail with spears standing duty approached him, blocking his path. “Greetings, citizen. What is the nature of your visit to Valcrest?”
Maddock slowed to a stop before the guard and reached up to pull back the hood of his cloak revealing the face of a human.  The dark stubble on his cheeks showed that he hadn't shaved lately.  It was hard to tell whether it was the beginnings of a beard or a scraggly five-o’clock shadow.
"I'm here to kill you and all the merchants in the city.  I plan on completely emptying out the shops of any useful materials, looting all the coin from the town's coffers, and disappearing into the night without ever being caught."  He grinned broadly as he said it, showing a perfect row of teeth.
The two guards exchanged a look between them that Maddock caught easily.  Before the guard who had approached him could turn back around he slammed the heel of his hand into the guard's chest, knocking him backwards, staggering off balance.  Maddock seized the spear from the guard's outstretched hand, turned it backwards, and rammed the butt of the weapon into the man's face sending him to the ground unconscious.  Taking two quick steps forward, he flipped the spear around as he went and lunged it business-end first into the throat of the second guard before he could react.  The body thumped as it hit the ground with a slight rattle of the chainmail.
"Consequences," he thought to himself as he used the spear to smash out the lanterns hanging from either side of the gate, casting the area into darkness.  "That's the sign.  Point of no return."  He turned back to finish off the first guard before he could awaken and cry for help.
Turning back to the town, he shoved the gates open and sauntered inside.  The town was still cloaked in darkness and no alarm had been given.  Despite the hour, it was easy to follow the path right through the center of town towards the merchant's quarters.  Like all towns built up without thought, it was easy to pick apart the layout with what little scouting he had done from the hill above.  He vaguely remembered someone calling him crazy for agreeing to raid an actual town without properly scouting it first.  But they were all the same.  This was a cake-walk, not a siege.
Behind him, he could hear the sounds of his guildmates passing through the main gates now.  He pulled the hood of his cloak back up over his head and stopped to wait.  The party quickly approached him and slowed to a halt.  A small figure with obvious curves, despite the dark robes she wore, stepped forward.  The massive black staff she carried with her was even taller than she was.  A gnarled black wood embossed with flakes of gold curled upwards till it ended in a dragon's skull.  Two dark rubies that seemed to suck light out of the darkness, rather than reflect it back, sat embedded in its eyes.
"Elaine," Maddock softly spoke, "I'm leaving it up to you to deal with the scrubs playing around at the bind stone.  I know how well you get along with others.  Try not to make too much of a mess.  Remember, we don't want to burn the place down.  Not yet, anyway."
The small girl practically cooed as she set off towards the square.
Turning to the others, he said, "As soon as she drops a spell the whole town will know we're here, so try to make it quick and get into position before then.  I don't want to spend all night fighting my way out this place if ---"
Maddock trailed off as a thunderous boom shook ground.  He could feel it in his chest and braced himself for the accompanying rush of air he knew from experience was coming next.  He could actually hear the wooden buildings groan in protest as boards shook and window panes rattled as the gust rushed by.
Turning towards the square he caught sight the last half of Elaine's spell.  A massive pillar of fire rose of from where he knew the town bind point to be.  It quickly rose up above the roof tops before coalescing into the form of a massive winged serpent.  Turning over and over upon itself in the air the shape seemed to take on a life of its own, soaring upwards and casting a nightmarish glow upon the surrounding blocks of buildings.
"Damn her," Maddock growled. "LET'S GO!  MOVE!  SWORD!" he shouted, taking on the voice of a commander leading a battle he was sure would come now.  A burly minotaur quickly passed him a massive two handed sword and then then charged off down the street with the others quickly following.  Ahead of him, he could see the minotaur unstrap his own double-bladed war axe from his back as he charged towards the town square. Above him, he could see the fiery dragon turned upon itself for the final time and begin plummeting towards the ground at a rapid rate.
"BRACE!" Maddock shouted.  The group unanimously slid to a halt and threw up arms to cover their eyes and noses.  The dragon crashed into the bind stone sending barrels of flame pouring down the adjacent side streets.  Rivers of ash flurried in the flames’ wake, driven by the tremendous wind generated from the spell.
Standing up and moving into the square he could see Elaine's small form crouched over the charred form of a dead player, looting its corpse.  She was quickly joined by the rest of the group who made quick work of relieving the dead of their goods.  A fountain nearby hissed steam upwards into the night, its waters completely evaporated in the aftermath of the massive fire spell.  Small fires still burned in various places throughout the area, and he was sure at least one building would soon catch fire as well.  The walls of all the structures facing the square were charred black beyond recognition.
"Seriously, Elaine?" he asked as he trotted by her.
"They should have been wearing fire resist!" She giggled in response.
"Xane! Bear!" Maddock shouted, turning towards the two towering minotaurs who had just finished looting the last of the dozen corpses that lay littered about the space.  "You two stay here and camp the bind stone.  Don't let anyone who respawns make it out.  The last thing I want is a bunch of newbies bind rushing us over and over.  Everyone else with me!"
He turned and ran into the merchants quarters with the rest of the group following closely behind. "Elaine, which blacksmith's shop did you purchase those axes at?" he asked as he ran down the street.
She quickly veered off from the group and stopped in front of the door to a shop.  Placing the head of her staff against the door, he could hear her mutter a few words of power and the door flew backwards off its hinges. She took a step back and bowed slightly with a wave of her arm gesturing inwards.
"This girl and her theatrics," he thought as he stepped into the shop.  The rest of the group continued on outside, and he soon heard the battering of other doors as they went to work looting the rest of the shops.
Stepping into the shop, Maddock was surprised to find a burly blacksmith staring at a smoldering door which had come to rest behind his counter.  The artisan's look quickly changed from one of shock to anger as he saw the man forcibly entering his workplace.
"I've no idea what yer playin at, comin' into mah shop in the wee hours of the morning like this, but I won't be havin’ it!"  He grabbed a large hammer from where it sat nearby on an anvil.  It was clear from the size of the blacksmith's arms and chest he had spent many long hours pounding away with that tool fashioning weapons.
With a yell the blacksmith rushed forward swinging at Maddocks head.  Not quite expecting this sudden turn of events he was forced to duck under the other man's swing and side step further into the shop.  The area was too small to properly wield his massive two-handed sword, so he was forced to drive it tip first down into the floorboards and draw a long-knife from his belt instead.
The blacksmith turned and swung wildly, catching Maddock on his opposite shoulder with what felt like a crushing blow.  He hadn't heard any bones break but that didn't mean much.  The resulting force from the blow drove him back a step until his back was pressed up against the counter.
He quickly ducked down under the blacksmith's next swing and stabbed at the area above the man's knee.  The knife easily cut through muscle and tendons, severing the man's ligaments.  The blacksmith roared in pain as he wrapped his massive arms around Maddock's body from above, clearly intent on crushing the life out of him if he couldn't first beat it out.
Maddock struggled against his grip but it was no use.  The blacksmith had spent too many hours pounding away at his forge and his grip was too strong.  Getting his feet back under him, Maddock suddenly shoved forward and threw their combined weight against the blacksmith's bad knee.  The two went over backwards into a heap and Maddock rolled free towards the door to the shop, quickly coming up into a crouch with his knife in hand.
The blacksmith lay dead, still clutching his hammer.  His head had been split open as he fell by the blade of the sword Maddock had left planted in the floor.    Maddock walked over and wiped off the blade of his knife on the dead body before returning it to his belt.  Planting his foot on the face of the dead blacksmith, he gave a quick tug and pulled his sword free to a sick sucking sound.  "Consequences."
Glancing around the it was easy to spy out the shop's coin box.  He quickly gathered all the coin from it and began the process of looting all the weapons and materials he thought would be useful from around the shop as well.  Outside, he could finally hear the sound of fighting now.  "The town must finally be waking up."
    Walking back into the street and turning towards the center of town he was greeted with a grisly sight.  It looked like most of the towns inhabitants hadn't been as prepared as the blacksmith was.  Bodies littered the street.  Most of them were half clothed and few of them looked like they had even tried to put up a fight.  Piles of charred remains gave him a good indication that Elaine had taken out more than a few of them.  Up and down the street, buildings were starting to give up to her unholy fires.  Flames were starting to burn on several roof tops and smoke was beginning to billow out from the doors and windows of several others.  It probably wouldn't do enough damage to raze the buildings entirely, but it was definitely going to cause a mess.  
Maddock couldn't help but smile to himself as he walked back into the center of the town.  The area around the bind stone had become a kill zone that no one was going to make it out of alive.  The charred black ground was a desolate backdrop to a blood stained patchwork of blood, bodies, and discarded weapons.  Flames from the burning buildings cast an eerie flickering glow that bathed the area in a hellish light.
The two massive minotaurs, Xane and Bear, had clearly been proficient at camping the bind point.   The pair was now happily dancing around the broken bodies of players who had yet to wait out their respawn timer, taunting them as they did so.  Off to the side of the square closest to where they had originally entered, several others of his small cadre had were quickly piling looted goods into the bed of a wooden wagon.
When he was planning tonight's raid, he had never intended to let things get this far out of hand.  Raiding into the heart of a player-controlled city was something no other guild had attempted so far--at least as far as he knew.  That's part of the reason he had wanted to lead the raid.  The guild was far from starved for cash or resources.  He had no doubt that the small company was probably as rich as many of the larger guilds playing the game.
The problem was that there were only so many mobs a man could kill without being bored.  Who could possibly want to stray from zone to zone and camp to camp all day long killing mobs?  The AI was exceptional.  There was no doubt about that.  No fight ever proved to be the same even against the same mob type.  In the end, however, who remembered the farmers?  There weren't signs erected over buildings proclaiming who donated the most to build up a town.  There were no statues built to Zergling No. 132, who helped win a battle.  No one ever sang the ballad of "The Man Who Spent His Time Killing Bears in the Newbie Forest" or "The Guy Who Finished His Quest First."  So why bother?  The way Maddock figured it, you could either spend five hours farming mobs or five minutes farming the farmers; and, so far, their farming efforts had paid off far better than anyone had expected.  "Plus this way I get to listen to them scream," he smiled to himself again.
A tall figure wrapped in a heavy black cloak with the hood drawn noticed Maddock taking in the scene and quickly detached itself from the group that was loading items into the borrowed wagon.  Walking towards him, the archer was careful to step around the broken remains of dead NPCs that weren't going to disappear.  Coming to a stop in front of Maddock, the archer leaned casually on his inky black bow.
"Looks like you got into a bit of a scuffle."
"Hah.  Not really.  Blacksmith wasn't as willing to part with his coin as willingly as some of these others seemed to have been."
The archer laughed. "Hasn't been much of a fight, really.  Most of the townsmen trickled in either one by one or in small groups and we cut them down pretty fast.  None of the players have figured out yet that they can wait out their death timers and respawn at the same time, so they haven't even put up a proper bind rush yet."
"What scrubs,"  Maddock laughed shaking his head, "I can't believe it was this easy.  What happened to the rest of the town guard?"
"Oh, your favorite little pyromaniac has them trapped in the barracks.  We found a couple of wagons near the tavern and used one of them to block the doors before they could ever get out.  Elaine lit the building up, and we just left them there.  Once we realized we might actually make it out with more loot than we could carry we hauled the other one back here and began filling it up," he jerked a thumb over his shoulder indicating the wagon that was looking mostly full now.  "We cleaned out every bit of gold, ore, or metal we could find.  I doubt there's a useable scrap or decent weapon left anywhere in the town."
As he finished the report, Maddock could hear the delight in his voice.  He couldn't see into the darkness behind the archer's hooded face, but he was certain the smile there matched his own.  I think he enjoys this as much as I do."
From across the square, he could see the lithe form of Elaine walking back towards them as she exited one of the adjacent side streets.  She was accompanied by an enormous warrior who walked with his two-handed axe propped over one shoulder and a giant mug of what Maddock assumed was beer in the other.  Sitting atop the axe was a helmet, swaying slightly back and forth as the giant walked.
“It wouldn't be right to leave the bar without having a drink first!" The man called as he hoisted the mug into the air.  "Wouldn't want to be rude, now would we?"  His laughter bellowed out before he took a long pull from the mug.  Beer sloshed out and ran down his face and onto his armor as he walked.
"Looks like you've been having some fun."  Maddock pointed to the helmet riding atop the warrior's axe.
The warrior grinned in response.  "Found good ol' Captain Elmont at the tavern.  We were happy to relieve him of it."
"What in the world are those two doing?  Seriously?"  Elaine asked, pointing to Xane and Bear who were crouching up and down while standing over the fallen bodies of a couple of players.
"Looks like they're having some fun of their own," the archer laughed.
"Yeah, we're done here." Maddock said with a shake of his head.  "XANE! BEAR! Grab that wagon and let's get out of here!"
The two minotaur stopped with their game and lumbered over to the wagon.  Grabbing a hold of either side of the yoke, the pair began pulling it down the street and towards the town entrance.  The archer quickly trotted out in front, assuming an easy pace to scout the way out, while rest of the small party fell in behind.
"The King's going to be pissed when he realizes he isn't getting his taxes this week," Elaine said as they walked out of the town gates.
"Or the week after,"  Maddock replied.  "I guess he should have thought about that before pulling all the legions to the front and leaving such a small force here."  Consequences.

    When councilman Wilhelm entered the tiny, hole-in-the-wall room, his face went pale. Didn’t expect me to know where your hideout was, did you? Didn’t expect me to be waiting for you, did you?
    “Have you ever killed a man, Mr. Wilhelm?”
    “Oh don’t be shy. Councilmen are elected, and we both know what happens to saints in politics. That’s why we both know you didn't get elected without committing a few sins, right? I know you’ve taken bribes. I know you’ve given out bribes, and I know your actions have caused men to die. I’m just wondering if you’ve killed a man with your own hands. Have you tortured one? Have you committed adultery? Have you ever stolen anything?”
    “What are you getting at Qasin. I’ve done no such thing. I’ll have you kn.. AHHH!!!” but before he could finish his sentence the King had crossed the room and jammed a small short sword into Wilhelm’s shoulder, pinning his back against the wall.
    “DO NOT LIE TO ME AGAIN!” he shouted as he wrenched the sword deeper through Wilhelm's shoulder and into the wooden wall behind him.
    “You, you can’t do this. You won’t get away with this,” Wilhelm said as best he could, his face twisting in pain. That’s right, pig. Squeal.
    “I already have. Now where were we? Oh yeah, have you ever stolen? Did you sleep with another man’s wife or did you sleep around on your wife? Have you ever actually killed a man with your own hands?”
    “No. No I never did any of those things.”
    “So you’ve lived a pretty model life then?” the King tilted his head to one side, then the other while maintaining eye contact with Wilhelm. “I mean, other than trying to overthrow me and marching men to their deaths.”
    “I have no regrets. If the deal had gone through this kingdom’s future would be safe for generations to come.”
    “Safe? You would give our kingdom away to those White-Horns and Black-Wings and pretend that we’d be safe?”
    “It wasn’t giving away, we were going to sign an agreement to form an alliance.” Wilhelm said, his defiance not slipping an inch.
    “Does it hurt?” The King took out another sword and shoved it into his other shoulder blade eliciting another scream from Wilhelm and leaving him firmly pinned against the wall on both counts. “Does it hurt, Wilhelm?”
    “Of course it hurts, you madman!”
    “What do you think it would feel like to be cleaved in half by a minotaur’s axe? To be burned alive by one of the satyrs? Do you think it would hurt more or less than these swords?”
    “Just get it over with you monster.” So impatient. So eager to die.
    “If you insist.” the King said, pulling out a third and final sword. “Any last wishes?”
    “Just, just leave my wife and children alone. They had no part in this.”
    “Done, though I wasn’t going to harm them anyways. I’m just planning on sending them to Valcrest to live with the other councilmen’s families. After all, we can’t have them in the capital when I publish the evidence of your treachery.” the King took one final sword and shoved it right into Wilhelm’s heart.

You have reached level 74!

    He had been worth a lot more experience than the others. The King pulled the swords out of Wilhelm and sighed. With the messenger, Anthony, he had felt bad. It was a hard thing to even consider killing a man for being born a pawn. With the councilmen, he had felt no remorse or pain of conscience at all. It had even felt a little good. It had given him the same warm feeling he got from helping a homeless person find shelter or a child find his parents. Am I really a monster? Does doing what is necessary count as an atrocity? Or is it that I took pleasure in it that makes me a monster?
    “Anthony, you can come in now,” he called to the man waiting outside. Anthony came in and turned his head immediately away from the sight.
    “You’ve done good work tonight, Anthony. Their deaths have saved many lives.” The King couldn’t help but feel bad saying it. It’s the same weak excuse the councilmen all gave. One person’s death saves another’s life.  “Now there are only two pieces left on the board. We need to meet with the White-Horns and our champion. Take care of it.”
    “Yes, Your Majesty.” Anthony said as he bowed. He seemed to leave the scene quicker with every kill. Were his legs leveling up with his cowardice?
    Wilhelm might not have had the wrong idea. Instead of focusing only on the Human Empire, perhaps I should be expanding.
    Even after reaching the silver ore mine a few hours later, Kass was still curious about what was going on with Darwin. The clues kept piling up in her head, but she couldn’t figure out the one crucial detail she was missing. Each interaction with the merchants had felt real. It hadn’t felt like they were in a game at all. In fact, her entire time in town shopping with him had felt just like it would if she had dragged one of her old boyfriends shopping.
    She had taken especially critical note of the interaction with the armor merchant who had customized Darwin’s bathrobe. Had any merchant before made a custom piece of gear that may as well have qualified as a unique boss drop for someone? Had any merchant before offered this service in response to a player’s own visualized uncertainty? The game had only been out a week so it’s not like anyone had a lot of experience in the area, but she could almost say with certainty that the answer was ‘no.’ No merchant had done that for anyone. Something was definitely weird with Darwin, but she didn’t have all the clues yet.
    Before they stepped into the cave, which was a simple unlit hole on the side of the cliff so dark it looked like a portal to the void, Kass cast her spell ‘Binding Light’ on the top of her staff. The spell, a level one spell usable by all caster classes, did no damage but instead created a luminescent globe of light that now sat on top of her staff’s beautiful sapphire allowing the staff to double as a super-effective blue torch.
    “There, this should hold us for two hours before I have to recast it.” she said, wearing an ear to ear grin. The Frost Mage really is the most useful class in the game.
    “Thanks, I really didn’t plan ahead about the light, glad you’re here.” Darwin patted Kass on the back.
    “No problem.” Kass said, stopping in her tracks as she saw the first monster of the silver ore mine. She had expected to see goblins or orcs or one of the other grotesque monsters she knew from any one of the thousands of dungeon crawlers that used the same enemies. Instead she was greeted by what could only be described as the product of spilt coffee on a game designer’s notepad, Turtle-Wolves. They had the shell and awkward necks that one expects of a turtle, but their limbs were hairy wolf like appendages and their face was a gruesome wolf’s face with the signature yellow eyes and mangy snout included. Kass could see four of them in total, all standing on their feet and holding spears like they were guards to a town.
    “A turtle and a dog in one? I can see this as a tribute to asian soup chefs. ” Darwin said, showing no shame for his ignorant and culturally insensitive comment as he equipped his axes and began to charge the level 35 Turtle-Wolf guards. Kass could practically count out how long it would take for him to reach them since she had seen the charge so many times.
I should probably help the goof. she thought, slamming her staff into the ground and activating her spell ‘Winter is Coming.’ It was a high level bind that shot ice chains out of the ground and around the ankles of the Turtle-Wolves, leaving them both chilled and stuck in place. She was happy to have such a high damage tank when casting it though because often the spell could get you killed with how much aggro it drew. By the time the chains had worn off Darwin had killed all four Turtle-Wolves and was already charging the next camp.
How does he run so fast with two axes in slippers? He’s like a deadly pajama sprinter in those slippers. Kass complained, trying her best to keep up as he ran from mob to mob. Most of her spells took a few seconds to channel. Some even took almost a minute. Her deadliest spells with the most AoE could take up to two or three minutes. This meant that when she was chasing after the Bathrobe Knight, she simply couldn’t cast them and had to rely on her signature spell ‘Snowball’s Chance’ to freeze the enemies. On one hand, it made Kass really sad because she wanted to see the ‘Ice Dragon’s Dance,’ but on the other hand, it meant that they were getting EXP way faster than the other players.   
As the pace slowed down, Kass decided to break the silence. Darwin seemed to always get too wrapped up in his work as a cheap but premium quality Kass-leveling-bot to remember that he could talk. “So what do you do for a living? Or are you like me, currently unemployed?”
“You’re unemployed?” Darwin asked, dodging the question.
“Yeah. I just graduated college and everyone tells me I need five to ten years of experience to get jobs I want. I did get a sterling offer to work at Pizza Hut though.”
“Not a big fan of getting your crust stuffed?”
“Something like that. Anyways, what about you? What do you do?”
“What did I do before Tiqpa? I was something of an accountant, though on most days it felt like I was just a glorified data entry clerk. Anyways, if you don’t have a job, do you live with your parents?”
“Dad. I live with my dad. My mom passed away when I was young.” Is it just my imagination or did Darwin say “before Tiqpa” and “was” Did he quit his job because of the game?
“I’m sorry.” Darwin stopped walking and turned around to face her. “It must have been real hard on you. Did you want to talk about it?”
“Well… No. I’m good. Anyways, where do you live?”
“Ah, I lived in Georgia, what about you?” he said.
“Oh, me, I lived there too! We moved from San Francisco a while ago.” He said lived not live. It’s past tense again. Why is it in past tense? What am I missing? What is the clue I am missing?
Kass wasn’t sure what to ask next, but she didn’t have time to think about it. A group of 7 Turtle-Wolves had spotted them and the conversation came to a grinding halt as she pointed them out, and Darwin turned around and did his same reckless charge as always. Kass raised her staff and leveled it at the one in the far back. Forget it, if these guys are going to ruin my fun, then I’m going to ruin theirs, ‘FRIGID BLAST!’ The spell did nothing at first, but after a dozen or so seconds it shot out a strong gust of wind carrying a series of icicles.
You have done 550 damage!

    Wow! That’s way more damage than my usual spell, too bad it took so long to cast that it only hit one player.
    “So, what games did you play before Tiqpa?”
    “Oh, I used to be really into the MMO Emerald Gardens. I was commander of a good group of guys.” Darwin paused in speech and movement like he had a sudden thought and then just fired the question back. “What about you?”
    “Oh. I wasn’t too into games before Tiqpa. Tiqpa just looked super beautiful. But I did occasionally play Emerald Gardens. My character name was Smiling Grumpy Cat. I never got to top level though. That said, I used to play all the time with my friends from the university.
    “I’ve been wondering. Kass, do you …” he stopped mid-sentence as a spear came hurling at him.
    Been wondering what? Can’t you kill and talk at the same time? Ugh! The first time he initiates the conversation with what sounds like a very serious question, he gets interrupted by stupid TURTLE-WOLVES? ALL OF YOU HAVE TO DIE! Kass thought, angrily shooting one Snowball’s Chance after another at the enemies until halfway through her attack they were all dead and the only thing left was a status message window.
You have Reached Level 30! You may now take on a specialization for your Job Class. There are three different specializations the Frost Mage can choose from:
Enchanter: An enchanter specializes in improving the abilities of his or her allies. An enchanter can temporarily imbue allies with his or her spells. Allies imbued with an enchanter’s magic will receive major boosts to their combat abilities.
Sorceress: A sorceress specializes in harnessing the offensive abilities of her element. A sorceress is given a boost to all offensive spells. Some standard spells will also be given an AoE effect.
Magus: A magus specializes in harnessing the defensive abilities of her element. A  magus is given spells to reduce incoming damage and escape tough situations. The magus is also given the ability to summon familiars of their elemental alignment to defend them.

    “Darwin, hold up a moment. I have to pick something for my Job Class before we can keep going.” Kass called up ahead to Darwin, not wanting to rush this decision.
    “Ok. I’m going to play around with my status menu too,” he said, pulling out a pen and the piece of paper she had secretly read at the tavern.
Hmm. Now what to pick. I wonder, if I picked the Magus, could I create an elemental summon that looks like Darwin and let it die a few times whenever he opened his mouth about dresses or fashion. Actually...
“Darwin, are you going to be on this game a lot?”
“Yeah. I don’t see myself logging out much at all. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” she said, trying to hide her wicked smile. Just that I plan on leaching so much EXP From you that other players who see my level growth will demand a nerf. Tiqpa, I pick Enchanter.
You are now a Frost Mage with the Enchanter Subclass. You have been granted the spell Frost Edge.

    Kass looked at Frost Edge, it added bonus damage to an allied party member in the form of cold, based off their existing damage. That’s not bad at all. A 15% damage increase in the form of cold already and I just got the spell? Kass cast the spell on Darwin and his two axes slowly grew coats of ice on their blades that seemed to radiate an aura of cold. I wish I could have cast that on myself at the bar for +10 cold shoulder against creepy frat guys, or I could have cast it on my drink glass. Mmmmm, instant frosty beer.
    “Wow, that’s pretty neat. So I take it this is the only compliment I’m getting from you for a while?” Darwin interrupted her pondering with his admiration of the ice dripping off his two double bladed iron axes.
    “Yeah, it’s one of the new spells I get. I can’t wait to find out what the rest are, but I should be getting a ton of buff spells as we level.”
      “Cool. I wonder what happens if I … “ Darwin said, putting his weapons down for a second and watching the ice disappear off his blades and appear on the knuckles of his hands. “Now that’s amazing.” He picked back up his axes and kept on down the path.
       He does look pretty cool with those axes.
       Other than the promotion, their journey through the silver ore mine was rather uneventful, that is to say until they hit the end of the dungeon. For some reason Kass had thought, hey, it was an entire dungeon that was no more than one story high and narrow corridors full of Turtle-Wolves, the boss is either going to be a wolf, a turtle, or a Turtle-Wolf, and he’s probably just going to be bigger than the others by a bit. That’s why when she finally stepped into the boss chamber she was so surprised she forgot to even breath for a minute.
       “What in the . . .heck . . .is that?” she asked Darwin, who, equally dumbfounded, had stopped moving as well. While the whole cave had been a series of long, tight, narrow corridors only lit by the glow of her Binding Light spell, the boss chamber was a massive square room with torches lining its long silver walls. The chamber had to be at least 3 stories high, and it was filled with circular tables and chairs lined around them. Only one of the tables was occupied, the one in the middle, and it was occupied by four Turtle-Wolves and a giant two-story-tall white bear with an accountant hat, all playing a game of cards. When the bear spotted them, he stood up and roared, prompting the Turtle-Wolves to drop their hands of card and head towards Kass and Darwin in their usual spear chucking attack mode, minus the spears. They were unarmed.
       “Is, is this real Darwin?” Kass asked. A little dumbfounded. “Did we just interrupt the Boss playing a game of cards with the minions?”
       “I think we did . . . was he winning?” Darwin didn’t wait for her answer, charging the Turtle-Wolves and killing them while the bear was still standing up. Kass wanted to join, but for some reason she was too stunned to realize what was going on until after Darwin had dispatched the four Turtle-Wolves.
    Here goes nothing! Kass thought, slamming her staff into the ground, her favorite caster pose, and casting ‘Winter is Coming’ on the bear. The snaring effect didn’t work, and the bear began to charge Kass at a blinding speed.
    Just before the bear hit Kass, Darwin slammed into it with barely enough force to push it off its course and into the silver wall on her right. Kass kept casting, scared of what was going to happen next. She did her best to channel her most powerful spell, ‘Ice Dragon Dance.’ The cast time might be long but she closed her eyes and did her best to channel it as fast as she could while Darwin fought. She couldn’t run, the bear was too fast. She couldn’t cast snow balls, they wouldn’t do anything if ‘Winter is Coming’ didn’t have an effect. She only had this and the Frost Edge that was already on Darwin’s blade.
Almost done . . . Almost done . . . Almost done . . . Th . . . Just before the channeling finished, she felt something kill the entire spell. Her eyes popped open, and she felt fear grip her heart with a chilling hand like none of her ice spells could.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t have you finish that spell. You’d ruin the show,” a voice said from behind her. “You have no idea how much effort I put into making it here on time. You wouldn’t want to take away my fun now, would you?”
She had been silenced. There was nothing she could do to help Darwin, so she turned around to see who was talking. The voice’s owner was a tall woman with skin pale as the moon, and her eyes the same crimson red that Darwin’s were. She was wearing a black cocktail dress that flowed into the floor and wasn’t even carrying a staff.
“It’s okay, little thing. Don’t be scared. I won’t hurt you yet. He’d be mad at me for that,” the woman said, patting Kass’s head. “Just watch the show.”
And so she did. The show was brutal too. With every second that passed Darwin seemed to somehow get faster. He grew stronger as the battle wore on. His axes came cleaving from side to side and the bear did its best to turn, maw and swipe at the oncoming attack. It was beautiful. Darwin wasn’t fighting like he was trying to kill a boss--he was fighting like a seasoned warrior clinging to life. She had been petrified by the giant bear, and he had dived to save her life. She thought it was over, and here he was fighting on like death wasn’t an option.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the woman asked. It was, but Kass’s voice was as silenced as her casting ability.
As the bear made its final death cry, bleeding from the hundreds of small cuts and rips of Darwin’s axe, Darwin gave it mercy and buried his axe right between its eyes. The battle was won, and the only sound left was the gentle golfer’s clap that the woman was making next to Kass.
You have reached level 31!

“I’m sorry, dear, I know you’re looking forward to seeing what it dropped, but I can’t have you interrupting a family reunion. This is my first time meeting brother after all,” she said, patting Kass on the back and causing a spell to ring through her body.
It was a sleep spell, and Kass did everything she could to hold onto consciousness as she hit the floor. She could only make out a few words clearly as the woman called out to Darwin, waving at Darwin like a mother trying to get her kid’s attention after a soccer game. But she could make the words out. “Why would you . . . ” “Bring a player . . . ” “our home . . . ” That was all she could make out before the blackness of the sleep spell overtook her.
You have been knocked unconscious. You have two hours before you will regain consciousness.

          Crap. Two hours? What kind of sleep spell is that? The death timer isn’t even that long. Well, I might as well log and get some food and sleep. We’ve been at this all night. 
          Valerie felt like an angel as she took slow short steps into the church of the Sun God. She always had the appearance of an angel, a perfectly normal human body with giant wings sticking out of her back, but now more than ever she felt the celestial touch. She felt like the Sun God was real and filling her mind with awe for this fleeting moment.
It was the temple’s impact on those who entered. The temple was a massive glass building that, unlike all the other glass buildings in the city, had color-tinted glass. In fact, it had more colors and shades of purple, red, orange and all the other colors of the rainbow than Valerie had ever seen before in the real world. They littered the thousand interlocking prisms of glass making up the surface of the giant dome. As Valerie took each step into the massive dome she felt ever more in awe of the spectacle. The inside of the dome was like walking through a giant kaleidoscope as the sun’s and the cloud’s movement twirled the colors through the room leaving no two inches of the floor the same color and no color staying in the same space for more than a minute at most. Even the air seemed to share in the everlasting rainbow that themed the sanctuary.
          She had to steady herself though and not get lost in the swirl of beauty dancing around her. To be here was an honor unlike any other. She was the first player to have entered the building. The first player to have been selected for promotion. Herald of the Dawn. The title that many players had been aiming for, she managed to earn first.
          “Valerie, it’s okay. It’s okay to take in the wonder of the Sun God and all his beauty,” her commander said, noticing her eyes struggle to stay fixed on the objective waiting in front of her, the First Light of the Sun God.
          “It’s magnificent.”
          “Yes, it is, and you’ve earned the right to be here,” he said, putting his arm comfortingly on her shoulder. He was a NPC, but sometimes Valerie forgot that with how apt he was at being there for her. “Go on, take your time. He will wait for those who have been chosen by the Sun God.”
            It’s so pretty. she thought, doing exactly as her commander suggested and taking her time as she walked down her path to the First Light of the Sun God. By the time she reached the end and was standing before the him she had completely lost herself in the colors.
“Valerie, Scout of the Sun God Empire, do you know what has brought you before me?” the tall white winged man in front of her asked. He was wearing white robes with a yellow sun drawn on the middle and orange rays drawn in an odd zig zag out from the sun. He lifted his hands in some odd ceremonial gesture that brought Valerie back to reality and made her want to laugh.
What is he doing? Oh yeah, I was told what to do here, she thought, taking a knee before the man as if she were a soldier before a King, waiting to be knighted.
“You have been chosen by your betters to join them as a peer. You are here not just for your abilities in combat, but for your proven and tireless dedication to the Sun God. For this, you have been awarded the rank Herald of the Dawn,” he said, making a blessing motion with his hand. “Rise child, and may the light of the Sun God protect you henceforth.”
When she stood up, he didn’t have any more words or gifts or gestures. He just turned around like they had already left the building. Well this is awkward, he must be fun at parties, she thought, not able to wipe the smile off her face though. She had done it! She was Herald of the Dawn!
“So you know this means I’m not your commander anymore,” her former superior said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“And you know that means you’re going to have to call me something else right? ‘Commander’ would sound strange given we’re the same rank.”
“Well, how about ‘Raven’?” she said, suggesting his wing type.
“What? No, that’s ridiculous. It’s Tim.  I’m Tim. Now do you want to go get a bite at the tavern?” he asked, giving her a sly smile at the same time.
Valerie wasn’t an NPC so she didn’t need the food but she still took him up on the offer. Even though he was a figment of the game’s imagination, he was still the first guy who had ever asked her to anything. In real life, the accident had taken away more than her legs. It took away her friends, her suitors and even the ability to talk to her parents without being crushed by their pity. At 25 years old Valerie had never left the house except to go to school or the doctors, so even though he was just a NPC, she happily accepted. “Yeah, sure! Sounds great! But you’re buying.” She had made a friend, and at this point she didn’t care that he wasn’t real.
“Sure, can’t have a girl like you pay for her own drinks.” he said, winking.
“Thanks. I mean, whatever, anyways, what do I do now that I’m a herald?” she asked, her face changing colors like the temple’s floor.
“Oh, that’s easy. You recruit. You need to find 10 people to join your command and sign them up with the office. You can technically exceed 10 but only with players that aren’t born of service. There is no cap on how many of those you can get. Then your company has to complete the missions and jobs it is assigned everyday. You can take as many bonus missions from HQ as you like for extra cash, but the cash goes to your command, not you personally.  If you don’t complete the base mission assignments by the end of each week, then you’ll lose your command,” he explained. She was basically a guild master now for a 10 person NPC guild that could add on as many PCs as it liked.
“I see, so I don’t actually have to work as long as I have enough minions to do it for me…” she thought aloud.
“I suppose you could say that. After all, I had you do all my work for me. Screw the heavy lifting when you can make a tiny, naive girl do it for you.”
“Isn’t it supposed to be me who takes advantages of big handsome men?”
“Handsome? You must really want that free food. Anyway, first drinks on me; you’re on your own for the second one. Let’s go,” he said, walking towards the tavern.
When Valerie finally made it into the tavern she looked around at everyone. She used to see people, but her promotion was making her nervous. Which one of these guys will be a good soldier, will raise my rank higher? she thought as her eyes darted the room.
“You’re doing that thinking thing again, aren’t you?” Tim said, noticing her eyes darting from NPC to NPC. “You know it’s not good for you. It’s why you keep getting stuck with more and more responsibility.”
           “Maybe so.” Valerie laughed, still not sure which one of the NPCs she should recruit or how she was even supposed to do it--things she probably would have kept thinking about if Tim hadn’t bumped her wing with his and raised a glass.

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