Sunday, November 1, 2015

Volume 3 - Chapter 1 - Darwin

So uhh . . . it's about that time, isn't it? November 1st. If you're wondering why this isn't out by 6 pm, it's cause of Charter internet. Apparently when I clicked "Publish", well, that was the very moment Charter decided not to work, and then not tell me it didn't work.
So, here you go =D Sorry you guys had to wait so long.

Part 2 is "in the real world?"
Part 3 is "dark turn"
Part 4/5 start with "giggled"
Ps. This is only part 1 + 2 + 3

Also, you need to thank one of the readers for pointing this out to me (the fact the publish didn't go through). I'd have never known and no one would have found out until tomorrow when people went (Hey, how come you're posting part 1 without 2?)

Ps. As answered below, Highlighted portion is just me being too lazy to remove notes and then re-add them.  This is not for any affect, read it as if it was all white, but the intent is "Charles, come back to this section later to work on it." or "Do these two sections contradict with something in book 1? Investigate and return"


    “Why are you being so nice?” Darwin finally cut to the chase as his eyes darted back and forth between Stephanie and Charles. “You couldn’t have had this welcome feast prepared just out of the kindness of your heart.”
    Charles laughed. “Kindness of my heart? Oh, dear. That is rich,” he chortled at the idea. “No, I’m doing this to help you out. Not out of kindness, but out of familial love.”
    Darwin blinked. “You’re . . . not my dad, are you?”
    “Well, actually . . .”--Charles stared at his guest of honor--“Darwin . . . I am your father.”
    “No. This is a joke, right?” Darwin started scooting his chair back from the table, his brain refusing to comprehend what he had just heard. The news was too much to take. It couldn’t be the case. Could it? He knew he wasn’t a human, that he had never met another demon outside of Tiqpa, but Charles didn’t have red eyes, he wasn’t exceptionally muscular and his tan was far too impressive to match the usual demon complexion. There is no way that Charles could be like me. Is there?
    Stephanie burst out laughing, clearly unable to contain herself. “Darwin . . . the look on your face right then . . . priceless,” she managed to get out as she double over in a fit of laughter, her eyes watering as she fought to regain her breath.
    Darwin let out a sigh of relief. So it was just a joke. “Alright then, why are you giving me the royal treatment?”
“When I told you to do the joke, you were supposed to do the breathing! Without the weird breathing, the line totally fails though,” Stephanie, who was turning red from laughing too hard, said to Charles.
    “Ah. So it was like that.” Charles had a pensive face for a moment, then looked at Stephanie. “You still owe me. I kept up my end of the bargain.”
    “Right. It’s all yours, old man.” Stephanie pulled out a small, black object, no bigger than than a golf ball, and tossed it to Charles.
    “Yeah, so, I may have lied about the father part, but we are family. I’m your brother-in-law,” he smiled, pocketing the item Stephanie had tossed him. “You’ve probably already met my wife Eve--your sister--in Tiqpa.”
    Darwin smiled as the memory of meeting Eve surfaced in his head. It was a conversation he would likely never forget, one that lead him both to Stephanie and the Creation Stone and also set him down the path that helped him create the new StormGuard Alliance within Tiqpa. It was also the first time that he had known that someone else out there was like him, from his world and with his unusual pale skin tone and red eyes. It had been a great and unexpected comfort in a world that tried its best to not offer him a moment to breathe. The only thing he couldn’t put together was why Qasin, during the beach battle, had told him that Eve was trying to save him from the Stephanie, especially since Darwin’s new personal cheerleader was working with Eve’s husband.   
“Yeah, I did.” Darwin looked at Stephanie, trying to still make sense of the fact that no-one was turning into stone as continued to address Charles. “But, if you two are married, why isn’t she here?”
    Charles’s good humor seemed to sour just slightly as his face hardened for an instant, an instant that would have been entirely unnoticeable if it weren’t for Darwin’s keen eye. “We’ve had differences of opinion, you might say. Different ideas on how best to take care of certain things: like our daughter, for example.”
    I have a niece? Eve is a mother? Darwin was getting bombarded with one revelation after another, leaving him shell shocked and a little too overwhelmed to come up with a proper reaction.
    “Don’t forget my part. Family ties or not, you still might not have helped him without me,” Stephanie said as she tossed a piece of candy up in the air and caught it in her mouth.
    “What? There is more?” Darwin was unsure if he wanted to know. He remembered someone saying that there was still stuff to discuss before the fourth member arrived.
    “To our relationship? No. You’re my brother-in-law, and that’s the end of it,” Charles said flatly. “What she means to say is that another reason we’re here is that she asked me to help you. I don’t know much about her personal history, but we’ve worked together a great deal professionally. I owe most of my fortune, the development of Tiqpa, and the finishing of our AI models in a great part due to to the aid rendered by Stephanie. So, naturally, when she asked me to help you out, I knew I had good reason to trust her.”
    Darwin closed his eyes for a minute. “Wait, how old are you, Stephanie?” He had to ask. He knew he should have asked more important questions. How did she know he would need help? What had she ask Charles to do for him?
    “What? Can’t date an older woman?” Stephanie just laughed. “Well, if you must know, I’m over a century old. For our people, demons and all . . . I’m actually kind of young. Don’t go ditching me just cause I’m a little older than you. Especially not after all the trouble I went through to help you.”
“Wait, what exactly did you ask Charles for help with? Was it just getting us out of Tiqpa?” Darwin put the drink he was holding down and shifted uneasily in his chair. He was starting to feel like a rat in a cage. He had trusted Stephanie, but now he was finding out that more and more bits and pieces of the story he had been been fed weren’t exactly right. She hadn’t ever said she was young, nor did she say she wasn’t a demon. He had just taken it for granted that she was young because she spoke and dressed like she was ten years his junior, and he had just assumed she was a gorgon because that is what she was in the game. All that really could have been just her in-game character, and Darwin had known that. What had really convinced him she was younger than him was the fact that she had said he was her first. True, there were women who made it to fifty, or even to the grave, without ever being with a man, but it hadn’t even crossed Darwin’s mind to put her in that category. The way the information was being handed out in bits here and there didn’t feel right, and the pieces weren’t fitting together correctly--something was missing.
“She hasn’t told you? Hmm. I suppose if I were stuck in Tiqpa, I would wait until I was free too before giving the you the rundown about your condition.” Charles took a napkin out of his lap and neatly wiped some crumbs his lips off before continuing. “Well, this is directly related to the matter I wished to discuss with you, so we might as well put it on the table now. Darwin, you’re going insane. You’re slowly going to start feeling the effects of a bloodlust that is genetically passed down from one male to another throughout your kind.”
“I’m going insane?” Darwin mouthed more than spoke. “Bloodlust?”
“Bloodlust. Battle hunger. There are a few words we could use to classify it, but the end result is the same. You’re going to find it increasingly more difficult to control your craving for bloodshed as time progresses; and, eventually, you will find yourself entirely incapable of distinguishing friend from foe.” Charles explained this all calmly, sipping his root beer as if it were a fine distilled whiskey. “I’m sure you’ve already begun to experience this to at least some small degree.”
“I have.” Darwin nodded, the recollection of his irresistible desire to kill in the last fight still fresh. “It was rather severe.” He studied his beverage with a sullen resignation as if there were answers in the soda that weren’t to be found anywhere else.
“About that, Dar Dar,” Stephanie said, once more tossing a piece of candy in the air and catching it in her mouth. “That’s just the start. You’ve only had the symptom for, what, a week?”
“Isn’t it game related though?” Darwin had to ask. The only reason he was feeling that type of thirst for blood was because of that awful skill in the game; it’s not like it would necessarily exist outside of Tiqpa.
“A bit?” Stephanie’s face contorted as the third attempt to catch candy in her mouth failed, and a piece of milk chocolate struck against a nostril before bouncing off and landing on one of her now-closed eyes. “But only in the sense that there are soul charges, a timer and a health bar quantifying its effects. Otherwise, it would be permanent.”
“If you knew all of this, how come you didn’t say anything sooner? How come I never met you before Tiqpa?” Darwin was still desperately trying to make everything in his head fit together.
“Well, that may be because your sister kind of hates me. Like, to the point where she wants to kill me. Maybe both of us. I don’t know. Charles, did you forget to send her chocolate chip cookies this year for Christmas?” Stephanie joked as she wiped the dark trail of shame off her nose and eyelid with the back of her wrist.
“I doubt that any amount of cocoa-filled treats will make her hate me less.” Charles said it in such a flat and matter-of-fact way that it almost felt like he had no personal attachment to the matter. “Tiqpa only added a timer and some other measuring mechanisms to your hunger. It didn’t change it at all.”
“How is that even possible?” Darwin couldn’t decide if the science fictionesque plot device of blood rage being transformed by a video game was more cliché or more ridiculous. Stephanie’s explanation was definitely both, and it was starting to become harder to swallow than an uncracked walnut.
“Darwin, we can talk about all the details later. There’s still more to the big picture. You’re going insane. Tiqpa was built specifically for you by Stephanie and myself. It’s there to help you curb your rage so no real people get killed. That is why we’re going to need you to eventually go back.”
“I need to go back?” Darwin looked at the delicious food in front of him, then to Stephanie, Charles and finally at the portal. When Stephanie had mentioned that all the NPCs in his faction could be brought through the portal, he had just assumed that he wouldn’t have to continue risking his life in Tiqpa to take care of them. He had thought he and his people would be happily and safely spending their hard-earned gold in the real world.
“Well, there are other options. We could arrange for you to kill livestock. Perhaps we’ll get lucky and one butchered chicken won’t result in you murdering everyone in the building, or hunting down human victims until your appetite is sated. We won’t be able to constantly monitor your vitals or accurately track your hunger-related brain patterns until we can figure out the source of the problem, but it’s up to you. I just want you to be informed before you make a choice.” Charles laid out the options professorially, his voice devoid of any form of emotion.
“DarBear,” Stephanie reached out an arm and touched him. The familiar feeling was a little comforting, but also a little unsettling. There was so much about her that he didn’t know, yet she had still put forth so much effort for his sake. “You can’t tell me the idea of playing video games to manage a condition is really a bad one. I thought the solution was cool. Can you imagine how few people would have cavities if brushing their teeth was as exciting as a 2D platforming console game was when we were kids? If exercise were half as fun as most MMOs, Americans would never have diabetes.”
Truth. Who actually likes to do cardio? he thought, entirely agreeing with her. “So I have to go into the game everyday and kill stuff and hope that I don’t die in the game?”
“Well, actually, if you die in the game, you should appear at the portal. It’s your bindstone. If you had died earlier, say at level ten, this would have been the case. I don’t know when you came under the impression that dying in the game meant dying in real life. It wouldn’t be much in terms of a treatment if it had such a high chance of getting you killed.” Charles’s top lip pulled up into a lopsided smirk that made him look a bit like Elvis as he said this. “More details Steph forgot to share, I take it?”
“Yes, something like that.” Darwin kicked himself mentally several times. He had gone through jaw-dropping trials, emotional drama and what felt like very real agony trying not to die in a video game that apparently had no penalty for death. It was like showing up to school thinking there was a horrible test waiting for you only to find out it's a Saturday, and you don’t even have to be there. Then, staring down Stephanie, he found his annoyance redirected. “Someone apparently forgot to tell me a lot.”
“Well, would you have done anything differently?” Stephanie returned his gaze. “I mean, would you have gone the exact same ‘Save the world and rescue the innocent humans’ route? I thought not telling you was putting you in the right frame of mind to do what was necessary.”
Darwin couldn’t argue with her logic. “No, I probably wouldn’t have, but I would have been much less stressed along the way.”
“Psh, you’re a gamer. You have to play on hardcore mode, or it isn’t fun.” She just laughed, discounting all of his near-death experiences as nothing more than a simple set of challenges in a game, a fact that somewhat bothered him. Nevertheless, the weight of the conversation bore down on him and left him with too much to think about to be mad.
“So I have to go back in there.” Darwin sighed, coming to the conclusion that the other option really wasn’t an option. He had felt Hunger’s pull, and although he had only been experiencing it’s sudden cravings for a week, they were already frighteningly powerful.
“Yeah, but this time we’ll be prepared to start monitoring your brain activity to see if there is a cure. The entire program just went operational last week. Theoretically, the only way you should have been forced into it is if your condition had started to trigger in real life, and you had killed someone, a situation we didn’t entirely expect to happen so soon. Now that we can chat, and prepare you for what's to come, I don’t think there should be any problems. That said, it is still your choice as to whether or not you want to go back into the game. No-one will force you.”
    “Sure, no-one will force you. Who could? But I imagine your guild would be pretty bummed out if you just quit on them,” Stephanie shrugged. She had gone from playing with candy to fiddling with wrappers, twisting them around and making some sort of candy wrapper origami. “I mean, that weird redneck samurai, the anime kid on a sugar rush and your three unfried chicken wings might all take offense at you just randomly quitting.”
“Yes, and you must still consider your quest. Do you want to give up on the hopeful multitudes you have just brought together under a free, unrepressed banner?” Charles asked, sipping his soda again in the same genteel way he had before.
Stephanie is right, but as for Charles . . . Is he being sarcastic? Darwin pondered the man’s intentions as he watched the unemotive man across from him. Darwin felt like the NPCs were real, but did Charles share the sentiment? There was no way to be sure whether or not the man across the table from him simply viewed Darwin’s growing faction as a crazy man tilting at windmills or as a worthwhile endeavor. Trying to figure it out was like trying to tell when a deadpan comic was actually telling a joke or when he was simply stating a fact without realizing it was funny.
Are they even real? . . . He found himself still torn on the topic. Sitting at the table, it was easy to dismiss the hundreds of game characters he had helped. They were NPCs; this was real life. But just a few minutes ago, coming off that battlefield, mourning the dead with his fellow faction mates, it was real. They were as real as any person he had ever met, and their grief wasn’t something to be discounted in the least.
“You know, it’s kind of funny,” Stephanie interrupted his contemplation, drawing the attention of both gentlemen.
“Well, your name is Charles, and his name is Darwin.” Stephanie cracked a big smile. “If it wasn’t unintentional, it wouldn’t be as amusing.”
Even Charles hinted at a smile for a moment before straightening out his face again. “Yes, it is amusing. Especially given the way he’s evolving before our very eyes.”
“Evolving? I don’t know, the only change I can see is that he has gotten really horny lately,” Stephanie laughed as she reached out a hand and flicked one of Darwin’s horns. “Though I’m not sure they help with the reproductive success of our species.”  
Darwin flinched as the vibration traveled through his head. “Wait, they are still here in the real world?”
“Why wouldn’t they be? Your original body was the one that gained them, not a game avatar.” Stephanie chuckled as if this were some common sense piece of information that even a two year old would know. “You actually, physically, went in and out of Tiqpa. Most, if not all, of the changes that took place there are going to carry over into the real world.”
“Even the--” Darwin was about to ask more about the portal situation, when a question sprang back into his head. One he hadn’t been able to shake off. “You knew I was going to go insane for a long time. How?”
Stephanie’s tone, despite all her usual amusement and pep, flattened out like a boring professor’s voice at the end of a lecture. “Because all men of our kind do. A few women too, but every man. It’s inevitable.”
“Huh?” Darwin needed more of an explanation than that. It was like she was answering that the sky was blue because everyone sees it as blue. It didn’t tell him anything.
“Darwin, do you know why we’re called demons?” Stephanie probed, obviously knowing that he didn’t.
“Because we have red eyes and horns?” He poked the bones protruding from his head. “Kind of seems like an appropriate term actually. The only thing that could make us more demonic would be is if we were given accountant visors,” he said, trying to make light of the situation as the tense atmosphere started to feel like it was closing in around him.
It worked. Stephanie smiled, but then she went further, “Hmm, that is one way to look at it, but you’re one of the first to have horns in centuries, and the truth is a little more gruesome. You see, our father, or rather our creator, was once hailed and praised as if he were a god in our world--a world that already had religions almost identical to the ones this one does. We even had similar concepts of good and evil supernatural beings, which is how the naming ended up being so convenient. But, as those religions faded, he ended up being a god to the people there in his own right. After all, thousands of years before you were born, he had done the incredible. He had created the perfect man: a man who wouldn’t age, get sick, grow fat or suffer from any health problems. It wouldn’t matter what he ate, what he did or didn’t do. He would always have the perfect body, sculpted like Greek deities. His creations, modeled and perfected from the DNA of humans, were also almost infinitely kind and patient with humanity. It caused people to jokingly call them ‘angels,’ as they stood above man in every way. Of course, there was still a hitch. You have watched B-movies from the science fiction genre, right?”
“Yes.” Darwin already saw exactly where this was going. It wasn’t hard at all to guess what would happen next, but he still needed to hear the details. “But go on. Please do explain how this leads to me going insane.”
“Sure, sure,” she said, taking a deep breath. Both he and Charles listened intently to the story she was telling. He had a feeling from the way Charles didn’t react at all that this wasn’t the first time he had heard the story, but the man’s eyes still gleamed with curiosity. It was as if he were searching out the wording for any new pieces of information that he didn’t get during the last however many tellings.
“You see,” she continued, “the first two or three hundred years, these kind, immortal beings raised families, built homes and integrated themselves slowly into each community. They did everything they could to make the world better. But as time kept passing by, one by one, they returned to the country of their creator. Years passed and the population of the country naturally shifted until it was comprised almost entirely of angels. Procedures were even done to gradually convert the children of normal human citizens of the country into angels.
“Then, after centuries passed, the people of other countries started to covet the angels’ wealth, prosperity, and immortality. Cursing them, people began to say that the angels’ charity was nothing more than misguided pity, and that if they really wanted to make a difference they should share everything. People said that if the creator could make himself immortal, he should do the same for them too. When it finally reached the point of war, it was disastrous for the angels. They weren’t the type to do violence at all. In fact, the idea of ending a human life was so offensive to them that the first angel to kill someone in combat ended up shooting himself later out of guilt. That’s when the creator used something in his technology to tweak the angels; he made them into killers. After the adjustments, every angel over thirty years old, which was an incredible number of them, was faster, stronger, quicker and better at war than any of the best-trained military personnel from the opposing countries. These modifications resulted in the angels slaughtering their enemies at first, but then the war took a dark turn.
“The small tweaks became big changes, and the men who had gone to battle, who had tasted blood for the first time . . . They started to kill each other after a battlefield was cleared of enemies. What began as a one-sided slaughter of humans slowly turned into crazed angels murdering anything and everything in sight. When a group of the male angels who hadn’t gone insane yet due to their youth saw this, they went to the creator to seek guidance and help, but he was already affected by the curse and ended up killing several of his own children before dying in a brutal fight himself. That’s when our title of angels was stripped. We had fallen from our heaven, cursed by humanity to suffer the carnage of war. Our people had gone from being peaceful, perfect beings to demons, and our god was damned as a devil by his own kind.”
“So . . .” Darwin began adding up pieces of the information, “we came from a different world?”
“It’s the easiest way to explain it, but yes. It became a world where we demons were almost non-existent. We did our best to hold on, but a lot of things were hard. The humans kept hunting us year after year, wearing away at our dwindling numbers. Then, as if it weren’t hard enough to keep our numbers up anyways, reproduction was also very hard. After all, when our men hit thirty, they had to be exiled and thrown like sheep to the wolves, or they would start murdering everyone in the group. It was like a race to have males father as many children as possible before that happened. Sometimes, out of every few thousand men that were kicked out, one would turn into a special kind of crazy: he’d grow horns, his skin would strengthen over time to the point that bullet wounds could only slow him down, and he’d hunt us down like an animal hunts prey. He wouldn’t go after humans. He’d only come for us. Your father, Darwin, he almost killed half the neighboring tribe, or so we heard.”
“I’m a genetically-altered immortal that was modified to transform into a bloodthirsty murderer sometime after I turn thirty years old just so I can take part in a war that my ancestors apparently lost horribly?” Darwin suddenly wished that his soda was actually something stronger. At first, he could have gone for a scotch and cola; on second thought, he decided he didn’t need the cola. He had never drunk alcohol before, yet this somehow felt like the perfect time to try it out.
“That’s about the sum of it,” Stephanie nodded.
“But, if the genetics were changed to make me into a killer, couldn’t they also be undone? Couldn’t the change be reverted?”
“Well, theoretically? Absolutely. The problem is that the one who first initiated the change died, and no one else knew how he did it. That is why I’ve been working with Charles for the past few decades to develop a way to study your brain and figure out exactly what was changed and how we can save you.”
“Can one of these guys bring me a handle of bourbon,” Darwin said as he gave into the sudden allure of liquor.
“Won’t do you any good. We don’t get drunk. It’s kind of a health problem, and we don’t suffer from those, remember?” Stephanie laughed as Darwin’s face fell. Immortality without the ability to enjoy alcohol. Despite never having thought booze was necessary before, he somehow felt like this was a huge downside to the entire being immortal thing.
“Yeah, and . . . that means you’re really old, doesn’t it? At least older than me if you’ve been working with Charles for so long,” Darwin poked at Stephanie. “Do I have to call you grandmother?”
“Hey! You better not! You’re the old man, remember? Ignore the age. I’m a woman. It doesn’t count,” Stephanie protested Darwin’s line of inquiry immediately. “Darwin, I’ve been around longer than most people will ever live, and I haven’t met a nice demon guy . . . well, not until now,”--Stephanie winked at Darwin--“so while Charles and I can’t force you back into Tiqpa, I’d really like you to give it a try,” Stephanie pleaded, stretching out the word ‘really’ a few more counts than necessary. “After all, when you go insane up here, and we have to kill you, the death will be for real.”
“And if I lose it in the game, what’s to stop me from staying in that state? Would walking back through the portal help?” Darwin remembered the feeling of wanting to kill very starkly. It was like being forced to eat nothing but stale, leafy food for a year and then coming face to face with a juicy hamburger--except a hundred times stronger.
Charles smiled reassuringly. “Well, that’s also one of the beauties of the game. If you die while going berserk in the game, it won’t let you fully revive until the condition fades. Hopefully, even if you stay in it permanently, that will just mean that we have more time to research and more data to draw from. During your first forty levels we were able to isolate the condition and label it as ‘Hunger,’ a name of my choosing.” Charles was mid-sentence when Stephanie shot her hand up as if she were waiting to be called on by a teacher.
“Actually! I named the other skills! Every time we started to identify conditions related to our race and its natural development in the game, or came up with skills for your class, I got to name them! The boss was only insistent about hunger since he said the name I picked was too vulgar,” she excitedly interrupted him.
“Yes, and it was. Anyway, we have isolated key parts of the neurological pattern, chemicals your brain seems to release when it goes into a rage, and we marked them so that the system we use to control Tiqpa will hold you until it fades. But, you may still want to avoid being around non-respawnable NPCs or basically anyone you invited into your faction that isn’t a player. While the players will respawn no problem, the NPCs won’t. Given your predilection towards saving them, I am recommending that you stick to player-only groups before battles and let the NPCs in your party live out a peaceful life.” Charles looked over at one of the staff before finishing, “I am also highly recommending you keep this between us.”
“Is there any reason we can’t tell Kass and them? Would it jeopardize something?” Darwin had to ask. The whole ‘let’s keep huge important pieces of information a secret until the secret causes a misunderstanding that results in something awful’ trope was so aggravating to watch on television that he didn’t have a strong desire to live it out.
“Well, you can tell them,” Charles answered, “but we’d rather the information not go public. I don’t see your guildmates Minx or Kitchens telling anyone, and if they’re going to fight next to you within sword's reach, it might be best for them to know. But Kass, well . . . just recently we had to stop a live interview on G.O.R.N. where she was talking to a camera, and you were the subject.”
“She was doing an interview on me?” Darwin’s mouth hung open. What the--Kass was doing an interview about me on national T.V.? What was she trying to tell them? There is no way she would tell them my secret . . . is there?
“If you don’t believe me, you can ask her in a minute. She’ll be here very soon.” Charles nodded his head towards the door.
“I see.” Darwin waited for a moment, staring in the direction Charles had indicated.
“Darwin, I am not sure why you’re looking so intently at the door. It’s not going to make it open any sooner. Frogs don’t boil faster if you watch them,” Stephanie laughed.
“I think you mean water,” Charles corrected.
“Did I?” Stephanie just brushed off the correction. “Anyways, the choice is yours, but you don’t have to make it now if there is too much pressure. I mean, you and I discussed some plans earlier in the cave if I’m not mistaken. You owe me some donuts and TV in our underwear.”
Charles didn’t say anything at Stephanie's mention of scantily-clad couch potato-ing, but Darwin, still somewhat naive in regard to certain subjects, shifted again uncomfortably in his chair. “Well, since you all have worked so hard on Tiqpa for me”--Darwin had already decided that he didn’t want to sound ungrateful to people who had clearly spent a great amount of time and effort on preparing a reality for him that didn’t involve him dying from insanity--“then I’ll be taking you up on that offer. Just let me know what I need to do to make the experiment a success.”
Charles grinned, his pearly-white teeth flashing as Darwin conceded. “We can go over it all in the morning. For now, just enjoy the night. Stephanie has already set you up with a room, unless you want to stay in Tiqpa or here. We can bring out any type of bed or accommodations you might need.
“No, I think I’ll be fine in Stephanie’s room.” Darwin smiled as he reached out and grabbed Stephanie’s hand on top of the table. It wasn’t that he fully trusted her--there had been a lot that she hadn’t told him--but none of it sounded like she had hid something for the sake of harming him, and he needed to trust her because right now his world was still spinning on its axis. He might be free from the fear of being stuck in a game for all eternity, but he still wasn’t home, sitting in front of his computer eating ramen. He knew that place was long gone and lost to him. “I’m sure she’s got some fun games too.”
“Yes, she is really into them. One time she made an entire board of directors wait and watch for an hour while she played some weird game about stacking differently-shaped boxes,” Charles chuckled. “I don’t think anyone in that room had ever taken five minutes off work to even play a game, much less been forced to watch someone else play. Most of them spent the entire time staring awkwardly at the floor.”
Darwin laughed at the thought of Stephanie playing games in front of a bunch of rich pompous businessmen who were forced to watch her.
“Psh. It’s not like they were going to do anything worthwhile in that meeting anyway. I swear, the only reason to show up to those stuffy rooms is to see all the frustrated faces when you catch those pretentious people playing on their phones and then pretend like it was a big deal. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ they’ll say. ‘So sorry I got caught’ is what they mean though,” Stephanie giggled.
“I’ve always wanted to know, what’s with the cookies and tea in those meetings? Were they originally supposed to just be tea time get-togethers to take a break from work, and some jerk tried to make them into something more?”
“You’re supposed to serve tea and cookies during business meetings?” Charles reached up and rubbed his chin contemplatively.
“Haven’t you ever seen that gag in a movie?” Darwin looked confused.
“No, but I have seriously erred in life. I waited through an entire meeting the other day at Tiqpa’s main headquarters without a single chocolate chip cookie.” Charles frowned at idea of the missed opportunity.
“Hey, if you’re going to start eating cookies at the meetings, you have to schedule the meeting around lunch and then not let anyone else bring their food or eat beforehand. Promise a meal afterwards or something. Then eat the cookies right in front of them while you drag the meeting on for a couple of hours. Yeah, this is brilliant, Darwin. Good job!” Stephanie held up her hand, inviting Darwin for a high five, which he took.
“You really like to torture the businessmen, don’t you?” Charles chuckled too.
“It’s not just them. I like the idea of tormenting a lot of humans.” Stephanie’s flat tipped pearly whites somehow seemed like a set of fangs as she smiled. “It’s nice to watch them squirm.”
“Only humans?” Charles raised an eyebrow.
“Well, now that Darwin is around, maybe I’ll be able to conduct a study and see if I enjoy tormenting demons just as much.” Stephanie’s wry smile curved across her face in a manner that sent a slight chill down Darwin’s spine.
Is she joking? He was curious, but decided he had best not think about it too much.
“Well, I don’t think there is anyone here at the table that needs U.S. diplomatic treatment tonight, so let’s just enjoy ourselves while we wait on our guest.” Charles’s mouth spread in a smile even as his eyes stayed still. “After all, I have a feeling this will be the last time I ever get to meet a brother-in-law.”
    “Yeah, it doesn’t sound like, with my family history and all, I’ll have a lot of male siblings.” Darwin shrugged. He wanted to feel bad for his family members, especially all the guys who probably suffered gruesome fates before he came along, but it was like trying to get emotional over finding out one of your Internet forum friends had passed away. You never really met them to begin with, and, even when you finally did, you still never really got to know them. The fact is that the relationship just didsn’t really matter that much anyway. You’ve already moved on.
    “True, and with Darwin being the only male left right now, let’s not have him go making brothers for himself. That would just be super creepy,” Stephanie shuddered.
    “The creepy part would be the only part that would bother you? You wouldn’t worry about the cheating part?” Charles had the most serious face possible as he asked this question, but as he attempted sipping of soda from a clearly empty can, he may as well have been questioning Stephanie while drinking from a twisty straw.
    “Nah. I encourage him to sow his oats. The more demons running around, the better. He just needs to remember whom he has to come back to.” Stephanie’s brilliant smile flashed again, the impression of fangs still clearly there.
    It was every anime-watching guy’s dream, the open-ended possibility of a real harem, but it just caused Darwin’s stomach to turn a loop. Even though it made sense--he needed to save his entire species from extinction after all--he still wanted her to be the moderately jealous type for some reason. He wanted her to be upset at the idea that he might fancy another girl or two.
    “Interesting.” Charles didn’t say anything more. His question hadn’t killed the conversation, but Stephanie’s answer did.

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