Sunday, November 8, 2015

Volume 3 - Chapter 2 - Darwin (Full)

Yeah, as the title says, this is the full section. I averagely release 1500 or 2000 words a day, but I'm going to be busy this coming week. Rather than risk NOT getting the material out in time, I decided to just give you guys the unedited Darwin section in its entirety [also why it isn't 1.5 spaced yet, since I do that as I edit to let me know where my place is]. It's a full 4 to 5 days worth of stuff, so I'll see you again Thursday to Friday. Also, enjoy the reading!

Please wish me luck in the coming weeks. I have to get a bunch done before a father in law visit!

“Does this look like a dungeon to you all?” Darwin asked his friends as the group stumbled across a hole in the wall.
Normally, when they were going out to conquer dungeons, they knew exactly where they were before they even started. It was always a mad rush to reach the dungeon as quickly as possible. This time was a bit different. Everyone in the group was still drunk off the joy, excitement, money and levels that had come with throwing off the Panda King’s oppressive rule. Since the freshly-dead tyrant’s army had been mostly made up of NPCs around their level, the EXP Darwin’s faction had gotten was phenomenal. It was enough to make any true leveler jealous and keep the players in the StormGuard Alliance ahead of the curve. The boost made them feel as if they had spent an entire day gaining experience after the battle without stopping, not just partying in game and going to sleep for the night. That being the case, this time they were just meandering along and leisurely killing everything in their path.
    “Yeah, it definitely seems to be one. I can’t tell for sure, but I think these guys are around Level 60. We’re almost there. Seem about right for you guys?” Daniel asked as he crept closer to the door. Like Darwin, he was completely failing to address the anomaly that was the entrance standing before them.
    The door itself, like most dungeon doors, was nicely cut out of the side of a mountain. But unlike any of the other dungeons before it, it didn’t seem to match the weather or terrain around it at all. Just over the mountain to the south of them, they had been happily trudging through their new volcano lair. Not more than fifty feet away, they had been doing battle with lava elementals and rogue fire bugs. Yet here before them was a giant wooden door with green leaves sprawling up and down the sides of it, a tiny peek hole and snow, lots and lots of snow, covering the area around it as if it were a new type of fake, roll-out grass that the cave owner had insisted on buying after several failed attempts to naturally cultivate it.
    “How can you be sure that it’s around Level 60?” Kitchens asked, looking at the white stuff littering the entrance way with a strange expression that made Darwin wonder if he were allergic to it.
    “Ah, I cheated.” Daniel grinned. “I checked the forum while you guys were gawking. One of the regular information specialists, Nir, had a posting about this area. Said a few people tried to tackle it around the time we were having our big ‘defend the town’ battle, but it was around Level 60, and they weren’t even well into their 50s yet. But they did leave good notes on the first set of monsters before they turned tail and ran.”
    “That’s two good pieces of information.” Kitchens scratched his chin as he pondered for a minute. “We know the level, and we know that it’s not hard to get away if we can’t handle it.”
    The others looked at him. The idea of fleeing hadn’t actually crossed any of their minds, but now that he mentioned it wouldn’t be hard, for some reason that was a comforting notion. Nonetheless, it felt downright odd for someone like Kitchens to immediately consider the option of fleeing when earlier he had always embraced death in the game as ‘something that just happens.’
    “Well, what do you think, boss?” Mclean asked, everyone turning to face Darwin this time.
    “We really shouldn’t give this dungeon the cold shoulder,” he punned poorly. When no-one laughed, he couldn’t help but smile and follow it up with an even worse attempt at wordplay. “Come on guys. Don’t leave my joke in the cold.” Still, nothing but crickets followed his remarks. “You guys will warm up to puns one day.”
    “Okay, let’s stop the old man with the dad jokes before we hear any ‘call me a doctor’ jokes,” Daniel said, shaking his head.
    Darwin sighed. “Let’s just do this.”
“You sure you don’t know when Kass is going to be on though?” Kitchens asked this time as they opened the door. “Kind of strange to see Valerie and Kass both missing at the same time.”
“Kass isn’t missing. She’s probably just asleep . . . ” Darwin didn’t know how to breach that subject exactly. Do I tell them, ‘oh, yeah, Kass, no, she came over to join me for dinner last night, took a few looks at my face and fainted from how horrendous I must appear, or do I just keep pretending she’s an Internet-only friend? Kass had not only fainted, but had still not woken up even though it was well into the next morning. She hadn’t missed anything, however. As soon as she passed out, the dinner was wrapped up, and Darwin, unable to actually get to sleep even after entering the real world, had ended up watching ‘just one more episode’ over and over again with Stephanie until light creaked through the bedroom windows, and he figured it was about time to enter Tiqpa and farm before Hunger got ahead of him. He had checked to see if Kass would want to wake up and join them, but when he entered the room and tried to get her out of bed, all he was greeted with was a type of snoring that was somewhere between two sawmills competing against each other and a T-Rex trying to blow his nose even though the tissues wouldn’t reach. After several failed attempts to speak over the possessed woman’s slumber speak, he finally gave up and left the room defeated, figuring it was for the best. He doubted that the first thing she’d want to be greeted with would be the very thing that made her pass out in the first place. “What about Valerie though? Do you guys know where she is? Isn’t she always the first one on in the mornings?”
“Yeah, boss, no idea. I sent her two messages through the in-game forum, telling her where we were going and what we were doing, but I haven’t seen her on all morning, and she didn’t mention anything yesterday about having plans. I’m actually really concerned about her.” Daniel was the one to sigh this time. His face looked like that of a father whose daughter had stayed out all night partying and forgot to call and check in.
“You geasers are too worried about nothing,” Minx said, rolling around in the snow. She had somehow managed to turn herself into a sort of Minx-filled snow burrito with Fuzzy Wuzzy’s help while the others debated whether or not to enter the dungeon. The only thing not covered by rolled up snow was her head as she stuck her tongue out at them. “Old men shouldn’t worry so much about young ladies.”
“Hey, I’m not that old!” Daniel protested, packing a ball of snow and tossing it at her undefended face.
“Hey! Dad! Stop him!” Minx tried to use the time-honored dance technique, the worm, to move her human-snow-cone self away as Daniel hit her with another powdery projectile.
“Hmmm. Did you make your bed this morning?” Kitchens asked as a third snowball hit his daughter, this one from Mclean.
“I . . . I’ll get to it! Just--just help me!” she protested, clearly guilty of failing to do her chores.
“Hmm, and will you clean the bathroom too?”
“Ugh, no no. I’d rather suffer the balls of snow!” Minx protested with a frown, resigned to her fate.
Fuzzy Wuzzy, who had been watching this with a rather bemused look on his face, rolled up a giant snowball the size of Daniel, and tossed it at Minx too, leaving only a giant ball where her face was and the snow line where her body had been rolled up still visible.
“Mphh!!!” came a muffled sound from the Minx snowball.
“Should one of us like get her out?” Darwin asked as he stared at the snow covered teen.
“You’re going to tell me she’s strong enough to stab through a Blue-Drake’s skull with one thrust, but not strong enough to clear away a few pounds of snow?” Kitchens looked at the spot where his daughter lay. “She’s just being Minx.”
Darwin, not entirely sure what that meant, used his fiery blade to melt away the top layer of snow and free the frozen teenager.
“Ah! I can always count on Dar Dar to free the cute and pretty princess!” Minx cheered as her arms and head shot out through the thin remaining layer of snow.
“I thought you rescued him in the last big fight?” Kitchens chuckled.
“Shhh, quiet quiet. Don’t you know? Men get embarrassed when you have to carry them through the threshold instead,” Minx joined in, stabbing Darwin’s ego as she reminded the whole group how she had been the one to catch and carry him to victory when he almost died during the dragon boss fight.
Daniel and Mclean, both of whom had been absent, exchanged odd glances. “You two tied a knot?” Mclean asked, mistaking the ‘carry through the threshold reference.’ “Strange, didn’t expect you to rob the cradle, Darwin.”
Kitchens’ face went uncharacteristically red at the joke. “They did not,” he insisted firmly.
“Hey, easy there, grandpa. A girl has to make her own choices,” Mclean threw another dagger in Kitchens mood, all the while beaming a big bright smile at him. “And there are worse options than Darwin, you know?”
“Alright, enough!” Darwin decided to end that conversation before he found a Kitchens katana in his backside. “You two trying to get me killed?” he asked the two girls, both now wearing the most fake innocent faces they could muster.
“Ooo, I love it when he gets mad. So cute when he’s serious.” Mclean was having a field day at Darwin’s expense.
Kitchens exchanged a glance with Darwin, then gave him a wink letting Darwin know any malicious intent was gone. “Darwin, I think you need to spank one of your guild members before she causes you to lose too much face. Can’t have a naughty angel embarrassing you.”
“Mmm, you think that would work? She looks like the type that might enjoy being disciplined too much,” he laughed.
While the shameless comments left a puzzled Minx blushing a bit, Mclean just laughed.
“So we have to be a little careful going in here. Nir’s information says that the mobs are color coded, so assigning targets should be pretty easy,” Daniel said, bringing the subject back to something entirely unsexy before the joking got too inappropriate.
“They are color coded?” Darwin’s face contorted at the strange notion of color-coded mobs in a game that tried to maintain realism. “Like most difficult to least difficult?”
“No, they are color coded by class and ability,” Daniel began to explain. “Apparently, the blue ones are the tanks and will try to get in your way and block you at every chance, the yellow ones are the healers and the red ones do the most damage.”
“So we need to kill the yellow ones, then the red ones and then the blue ones and in that order if possible?” Darwin understood the tactic that would be needed right away. Games, even ones like Tiqpa, were still heavily centered around number exchanges, even if the numbers weren’t visible. If they couldn’t do more damage than the healers, then the fight would go nowhere. It’d be like trying to pay off credit card bills when the interest exceeds the income. There’d just be no point in trying. That is why it would help to kill the healers first. They take more damage than tanks, and once they are dead, the entire fight will take a lot less time since, every second they are alive, they are undoing valuable damage done. It’d be like removing the possibility of interest expenses when paying off debts.
“Yep, when we get in there, we just need to take out those yellow guys first, and the rest should be smooth sailing,” Daniel said with a nod.
“Alright, that shouldn’t be hard if they’re only Level 60.” Darwin clapped Daniel on the back. “Let’s do it!”
“Wait, you don’t want to make snow angels first?” Daniel teased for a moment, flapping his wings once as an obvious taunt at Minx.
“No no! Kill kill!” she replied, brushing off the remaining snow and pulling out a pair of fresh daggers. “Stabby stabby some yeti!”
“I don’t think the bad guys will be yetis,” Kitchens said, patting her on the hat as they walked up to the dungeon door and slowly opened it. “But they might be . . .”
“Snow cones with sprinkles on top!” Minx shouted enthusiastically as the door swung open, to indeed reveal a set of mobs that could only be described as floating snow cones with sprinkles and cherries. As Daniel had mentioned in his briefing, the baddies were indeed color coded. Before the intrepid band of warriors stood an assortment of devilish desserts--three blue snow cones, two red and two yellow. There was also an ominous black snow cone behind the colorful ones.
The mob design matched the theme of the dungeon, which seemed to be something of a winter wonderland. Each section of the dungeon was covered with snow flakes that migrated from the floor to the walls and back up to the roof, where they would fall and repeat the process. It was as if the dungeon was comprised of automated snow globes.
“Great.” Darwin facepalmed. Please tell me this was randomly generated from weird search words thrown together, and someone didn’t actually design this dungeon. Darwin sighed, not understanding how they could go from fighting hideous insect monsters to snow cones with sprinkles in less than five minutes after only walking through one door. This was too much.
“Okay, now I know you said that the yellow ones were the healers, and we needed to kill them first . . .” Mclean started, but Minx immediately I finished her thought.
“Ewwwwww, I don’t want to touch the yellow snowmen! I know how they’re made!” She pointed her finger at her mouth and made a gagging motion as she complained.
“So you want to fight the blue and red ones first because you don’t want to touch the yellow ones?” Darwin laughed. This snow cones with sprinkles on top mob set was already becoming more problematic than he had first expected.
“Uhhh . . . what is the black one?” Minx asked instead of answering Darwin’s question.
    “Daniel, did Nir have any information about that?” Darwin looked at the black snow cone. Even though it was the same size and shape as the other floating icy delights, this one gave off a weird vibe that left Darwin on edge, almost making him want to pull back from the attack altogether.
    “No . . . which is rare. The guy has a guide on everything. It may just mean that the dungeon hasn’t been attempted more than once, and those that did gave a spotty report.”
    “Or that a group of people got murdered before they could finish the report,” Kitchens offered with a shrug. It wasn’t the most positive possible outcome, but it was still very likely.
    “Or it could be a ZombaCone!” Minx added, more giggly than usual even after her grossed out reaction. “Maybe that is their fallen friend, risen back as a delicious dessert to be eaten. Every time he kills another player, a new topping is added. Soon, he’ll be granted nuts and chocolate chips!”
    Darwin was almost tempted to join in her wild speculations, but instead decided to just get the dungeon going before any guessing about the blue or red snow cones’ origins came into play. “Alright, you know what, I’ll just kill the yellow snow cones with Mclean and Daniel. Minx, if you don’t want to help with them, how about you work with Kitchens and Fuzzy Wuzzy to keep those red and blue snow cones off us. Daniel, I know you’re going to be fighting with me, but try to watch the behavior of that black one. Let me know if anything funny starts to happen or if you have a guess as to what role it has.”
    “Wait, you’re going to make me put my hands into yellow snow cones?” Mclean gasped. She obviously wasn’t hot about the idea either.
    “Hopefully it’ll just be your daggers,” Daniel chuckled.
    “I’m just happy it’s not my job,” Kitchens patted Minx on the head. “Good job, Minx.”
    Fuzzy Wuzzy growled his approval too.
    “Okay, go pull them, you two. We’ll sneak through and gank their healers,” Darwin gave out the orders, pulling out his giant, flaming zweihander and expecting the fight to start right away. But Kitchens held up his hand as if to pause and stop everyone from their action.
    “Wait, what does ‘gank’ mean?” he asked, showing his age.
    “You’re not too old to play, are you?” Mclean smirked at him. “It means gang shank, group kill, surprise stab. I don’t know. It’s something like that. It just means that Darwin, Daniel and I are all going to go attack the same target at once while everyone is focused on you three.”
    “Ah, fair enough. Carry on then.” Kitchens pulled out his sword and began his samurai march into the first enemy.
    Darwin and his group of yellow-snow-cone-killers waited patiently as Minx, Kitchens and Fuzzy Wuzzy each went up and started attacking the enemy snow cones. At first, it looked like Kitchens was simply going to do his usual trick where he walked up and cut one of the enemies in half, but as his blade made contact with one of the snow cones, a giant hexagonal shield blocked his katana before it even got close to shaving any ice off his target. At this point, two giant icicles appeared behind one of the red snow cones and flew at Kitchens, forcing him to step back and deflect them with his blade. Minx and Fuzzy Wuzzy ran into the same bad luck, except Fuzzy Wuzzy couldn’t dodge and ended up being impaled by one of the ice blades. Fortunately for Fuzzy Wuzzy, it didn’t seem to do much damage, but the roar he let out when it hit sounded pretty bad.
    “Crap, I’m going to sub for Fuzzy Wuzzy,” Darwin decided after he saw the event, “you two go hit that healer. Fuzzy Wuzzy! Retreat until they stop attacking you.” Darwin almost said, ‘until you lose aggro,’ but didn’t know if the bear could understand commands that were laid out in gamer speak. ‘Aggro’ was a common word among gamers, but he couldn’t be positive it was put into the game’s lexicon for recognizable phrases, and he still wasn’t sure what type of system gave Fuzzy Wuzzy intelligence or even how intelligent he was to begin with.
    Darwin jumped between Fuzzy Wuzzy and a series of fresh icicles coming from the red snow cones just in time to block them before his pet took any more damage. Then, after having deflected the red snow cone’s attack, he swung at the blue cone to try and inflict some damage, but, just like with Kitchens, his blade just harmlessly clanked off a magical set of yellow hexagons that popped up and protected the blue ice cone.
    He swung a few more times, and he could see the shielding slowly start to grow fainter, losing color and opacity like a picture fading away on a television set. Unfortunately for Darwin, before he could the pesky hexagons from existence, they renewed, regaining all the luster they had lost under his barrage. What the hell? he wondered, having never run into a real party combo, this healer shield was foreign to him. Most mobs--and players, for that matter--that he had encountered thus far had only been focused on damage-dealing.
    “DarwinDar dar, the yellow guys are spreading yellow stuff everywhere. I can’t do damage,” Minx complained on the other side of the battle field.
    “Just a moment,” Daniel called to them as his and Mclean’s daggers dug into the snow cone over and over again like four straws all trying to position for the last bit of liquid in a movie theater slushie. “There!”
    Sure enough, as soon as Daniel had signalled them, Darwin’s drove his burning blade right through the snow cone, melting the creature into a mess of blue liquid. He still had trouble deflecting and dodging the red icicles, but without the shield up protecting the tanks, they had the job finished easily enough. One by one the three cones went down and the battle was almost over, but just as they finished off the last snow cone, the black snow cone creature condensed into a small black snow ball that was tiny enough to fit in one’s hand with room left over for two or three more.
    “What do you think we do with that?” Mclean asked, pointing at the floating black ball.
    “I . . . I don’t know. It looks like an item. Want to just put it in the inventory and figure it out later?” Darwin asked rhetorically as he stashed the item. They were gamers, of course they were going to take something that had the option to be looted.
    “Hey, boss, in the next fight, I need to take your place,” Daniel said over to him.
    “Do you not think you can do damage fast enough?” Darwin misunderstood Daniel’s motivations.
    “Those yellow ones, their shielding spell is stronger than any player version. We need them to turn into red-eyes. Our team has no healers at all right now,” Daniel reasoned. “What if we run into a boss that does damage we can’t avoid? A few of those yellow guys would keep us all from dying instantly.”
    “Well . . .” Darwin was about to answer with ‘your the boss,’ but figured that might be in poor taste since that was still technically his own role. But, sometimes, with the way Daniel came up with layouts and formats for battle strategies, group tactics and general logistics related plans, it did feel like he was more in control of the planning than Darwin. “That does sound about right. You sure you don’t want to just steal a whole group and play chess while they level us up?”
    Daniel raised a finger as if he had something to say, then lowered it. “I guess not. Maybe just the yellow guys.”
    “Alright then, that should be easy enough. Let’s go get us some yellow snow cones,” Darwin laughed as he started to walk to the next group of mobs.
    He hadn’t taken more than ten steps though before he heard Kitchens behind him. “Minx, put that down. What are you eating?” Kitchens scolded his daughter.
    “But red means cherry. It’s tasty,” Minx whimpered. “Fuzzy Wuzzy even thinks so!”
    Darwin turned around to see Minx holding a ball of red snow. She was still licking and taking bites of it even after her dad had chastised her.
    “Come on! Try it!” she said, holding out a handful of the enemy’s slushy, red remains.
    “I’d rather not. It might be poisonous, and I don’t think any of us have an antidote type of potion,” the ever-vigilant Kitchens replied sternly, not at all swayed by his daughter.
    “DarwinDar dar, you try then!” Minx produced from her inventory a giant ball of the red snow that she had obviously saved up for later and tossed it to Darwin.
    Darwin looked at the red ball in his hands with suspicion. Half of him wanted to just agree with Kitchens and toss it back to her, but everyone was eyeing him like he was the first one in the group to test a rickety bridge. While this did nothing to assure him that the snow cone wasn’t poisonous, it did make him feel an intense peer pressure to try it. They’re going to think I’m a chicken if I don’t, aren’t they? he sighed, sticking out his tongue and giving the red ball a lick. Holy crud! It is cherry flavored! “This is wonderful. You guys have to try it,” he said, breaking the giant ball he had been given by Minx into smaller balls and passing it around to everyone except Fuzzy Wuzzy. He had already gotten his own blue snowball which Minx promptly decided was a good hat for him.
    “I didn’t realize dungeons in this game came with snacks,” Mclean said, biting into the red snowball, “but you are right. This is tasty.”
    "Why wouldn't they come with edible delights?” Darwin laughed. “I’ve been using most dungeons as food sources for the NPCs since the very first one.”
    “Well, I mean, there is still one question regarding these snow cones.” Daniel greedily took another bite of his. “Do they have enough sugar to be served in an American restaurant? Will they make our guildmates grow wider more quickly than they grow stronger?”
    “You’re worried about weight gain in a video game? If you want to put on pixels, why didn’t you just alter your character’s appearance in the creation menu?” Mclean shook her head. “Also, aren’t girls supposed to be the ones worried about putting on pounds?”
    “Well, new day, new standards. Can’t be chubby cheeks and pull all of the mad ladies like me,” Daniel flexed once or twice in the most over-exaggerated manner he could.
    “You have a girlfriend?” Darwin asked curiously.
    “Um, no, but I have the body to get one at least!” Daniel flexed one more time.  
    “Yeah . . . that’s not how it works,” Mclean popped the back of Daniel’s head. “Dufus.”
    Now is as good a time as any, Darwin sighed, not wanting to actually broach this subject with the gang yet. “Actually, there is something I need to talk to you guys about,” Darwin took another bite of his own red snow cone. The dungeon hadn’t even started, yet the whole group, other than Kitchens, was quietly eating away at their dessert as if they were celebrating a hard earned victory over the entire dungeon.
    “Wait, you’re not gonna tell us you’re actually a fat forty-year-old with hygiene problems, are you? I mean, I did have my suspicions, especially with how much you like cookies and milk, but I wasn’t gonna say anything, boss,” Daniel joked as Minx and Mclean both cringed at the image.
    “What? No. Heck, no.” Darwin did his best to defend against the suggestion, but once it had been put out there, he knew the image would still be in the other’s minds for a good while. “I was going to tell you, I kind of have a skill problem.”
    “You mean how you don’t have any? Yeah, we all saw you practicing with Alex. You’re getting a lot better at it. Don’t worry about it. It’s okay to be really bad at the beginning of the game. Most people only know how to swing a sword from watching some space opera or medieval fantasy where they just thrash around in a way that looks pretty for the camera,” Daniel continued to guess wrongly, likely on purpose.
    Darwin sighed. “No, I mean one of my Job Class skills is causing me a lot of trouble,” he said, trying to finish this time before Daniel could volunteer something more embarrassing or insulting.
    “A class skill?” Kitchens’ eyes opened. “Tell me more about it. I have been meaning to select one, but haven’t been able to decide.”
    “You don’t have a class skill yet?” Mclean’s eyes practically popped out of her head as she asked him. “How in heaven’s name do you do so much damage without one?”
    “I just use the same sword art I have been studying for the last twenty years. It seems to do fine on its own, so I haven’t felt the need to pick out a skill.” Kitchens just shrugged again as if everything he said were normal. He hadn’t been awesome because of his class, but rather twenty years of classes.
    Fuzzy Wuzzy let out a roar of approval and patted Kitchens on the back. So he can understand us, Darwin reasoned form that interaction. “Anyway, the thing is that I need y’alls help. My skill, it will cause me to lose my sanity. It’s hard to describe, but everything goes red, and it’s hard to control what I’m doing. When that happens . . .”
    “You need us to restrain you again? Just like we did on the battlefield?” Mclean interrupted and then began licking the remainder of her red snow cone off of her hands.
    “Or kill me.” Darwin frowned defeatedly. He hadn’t died yet, but he knew it was inevitable now. Until his condition were treated, restraining might not work at some point. “Just stop me from hurting any of the NPCs or continuing the blood bath. I’m worried the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to come back to grips with reality.”
    “It could be the other way.” Kitchens put on the oddest contemplative look, which made Darwin think he was trying to wink but with the entire right half of his face. “Sometimes when you encounter a river of blood, you will find it’s easier to wade through it than turn around.”
    That statement said by anyone else would have been taken somewhat half-heartedly. It might even been just brushed off as vague sententiousness spilled out from some random book from three centuries ago written by someone who wanted to sound smart. But with Kitchens, and knowing his past, and seeing how calm he was about everything, it made even Darwin shudder a bit. Someone from a military background who could very well have seen live combat telling you to just continue wading through the river of blood until you get to the other side-- it was slightly terrifying.
    “Well, either way. I’m going to need help if the skill gets out of control. Think you guys can handle it?”
    “Easily. After all, you still haven’t finished those lessons with Alex,” Daniel grinned. He was in really high spirits today.
    “Thanks, I guess.” Darwin wasn’t sure exactly how to take that. “So . . . on to the next set of mobs?”
    “Sure, I need more of this red snow cone,”
    “I’m going to try a different color next time,” Mclean said and smiled happily.
    “Not the yellow one, right?” Darwin teased.
    “No, you need to turn those into minions, remember?” Mclean took the air out of his joke with a serious answer.
    “Alright, let’s get going then,” Darwin said, leading the group on to the next fight.
    When they finally reached another group of enemies, the numbers of blue, red and yellows were the same as before. This time, as suggested, Darwin was back on yellow snow cone duty, except he had the help of Fuzzy Wuzzy, a member who hadn’t taken part in the last fight after he had been impaled with icicles.
    Nothing felt different at all about the fight, that is, until the yellow snow cone was converted into one of Darwin’s red-eyed followers. Since the snow cone didn’t really have eyes to begin with and was literally just a floating cone of snow that used spells to try and dodge and defend, there wasn’t anything to noticeably differentiate it from the enemies. If Darwin’s team hadn’t been all attacking the same creature, then his friends have accidently killed it without realizing it was a resurrected cone. However, the second it did come back to life as one of Darwin’s zombies, the entire battle changed. Where once Kitchens, Minx and Daniel were trying to get through the giant yellow shields that were preventing them from killing the blue snow cones, that same defensive spell was now shielding the trio from danger. Although for everyone else, the shields would only appear when they were struck, Darwin could roughly see the outlines of where the hexagons were and a small green bar in the middle. Is that the health meter for the shield? he wondered.
    “Woah, neat,” Minx said as she stood still a minute and let the icicles coming at her bounce off the hexagon. “Kinda defeats the purpose of doing anything, almost,” she said with a frown. “I can’t stop them from hitting the shield since its block radius is further than my arms. I’m like a bubble princess now!”
    “But you can do damage, right?” Darwin asked as his own sword effortlessly passed through his newly formed shield to stab the remaining yellow snow cone. His sword had a much length length than her daggers, so the possibility of a barrier pushing the enemies out of his zone of damage wasn’t much of a concern.
    “Yeah, it lets me stabby stab good times,” Minx said, “but his shield stops the daggers, so now it feels like an easy mode game of waiting.”
    “Not a fan of cheat codes then?” Mclean asked as she helped Darwin push through the remaining yellow snow cone.
    “Nuh uh. My dad says cheat codes are for people that are lower than politicians,” Minx, no longer restricted in her attacks tore right through her opponent as if it were pinata at a birthday party.
    “You know I have to admit, Minx’s complaint aside, this feels way more like an MMO than before since we have the class roles met now,” Daniel said and smiled. “It’s like we’re actually playing a game and not just some hackathon.”
    Mclean laughed, but then, picking up the black ball and tossing it to Darwin after the fight was over, she just shrugged. “I’m still wondering who came up with the artwork and creatures for this place. I think someone must really enjoy drinking while working and has a boss that’s just like ‘meh, if that’s all you got, then that’s all you got.’”
    As time went by in the dungeon, Darwin’s group picked up two more yellow, healthful desserts to help them out, just for safe measure, and proceeded on their merry way, going about business as usual until they came to the typical tell-tale signs of a boss room. Along the way, they had managed to bag what felt like a hundred, but was probably less, black snow balls and still had no idea what they were for. That is of course, until they ran into the boss.
The room that housed the bosses, as there were actually three different ones, didn’t follow the same layout as the rest of the dungeon. Instead of a floor made of snow, everything under foot and every wall was covered with the same white ice, on top of which were giant, black, empty holes, an entire matrix of them. Each of the holes was around two feet in diameter and was separated from the other circles by at least five feet.
And there, standing gloriously in the center of the dungeon’s ultimate challenge zone, was the boss, or rather, the bosses. The loot hoarders this time were, in keeping with the theme, snowmen of sorts, but it would be more accurate to say they were snow unicorns. They had a string of five snowballs for each leg, two fat snowballs for the body, another string of fifteen tiny snowballs for the tails and a few snow balls upon which a horse-like head sat. On top of the horse head were candy bits for the eyes, strings of candy for the unicorn’s mane and a long carrot sticking out just so no one mistook it for a normal horse. The three Snow-Icorns  were each identical to the other in almost every way except their color: one was red, one was blue and one was yellow.
The Snownicorns, who were using their front hooves to make snow cones of their color, turned over to look at the the group as soon as they came into view.
“Sunny, I told you not to leave the door open. Look at the bugs that got in,” the red one practically spit as he complained at the yellow one.
“And I told you that I closed it, Burny,” the yellow one protested, not even looking up from the snow cone he was working on. “How come you blame me though? Why don’t you ever point the finger at Blizzy?”
“Cause Blizzy doesn’t do anything but work. Work, work, work--he makes way more than we do and never goes outside once,” Burny, the red Snow-Icorn said, finally taking a break from his little project and looking up. “See, he hasn’t even noticed them! Blizzy! Blizzy wake up! We have company! We need to teach them a lesson.”
    The blue Snow-Icorn looked up, then looked at the entrance, then looked back at his work. “I don’t wanna. You do it.”
    “Blizzy, help us out, or I’ll kill one of your little precious children myself after the fight,” Burny shouted.
    Darwin, looking over at his friends, wasn’t entirely sure what to do here. “Should we . . . maybe take advantage of this?”
    “Hold on! I’ve never seen this cutscene before!” Mclean hopped in front of them and extended a hand to block Darwin so he couldn’t charge.
    Kitchens nodded. “This is new to me as well.”
    “Alright, fine. We’ll let them prepare for us and then fight them instead of catching them with their pants down,” Darwin grumbled. He didn’t like the idea of the enemy being more difficult than it should be, especially given how tough the dungeon had already been.
    Blizzy finally put down his snow cone craft work and stood up. He, along with Sunny, joined Burny as the three Snow-Icorns started laughing and then began shooting balls of ice at Darwin that matched their respective color and looked almost identical to Kass’s favorite spell. Before the projectiles could hit him, they shattered across Darwin’s newly-formed yellow shield as the four yellow snow-cones behind him successfully protected him.
    “How does he have my bots working for him?” Sunny looked puzzled. “They stole my bots! Burny! BURNY! THEY STOLE MY BOTS! How come they didn’t take yours? Why mine?” The yellow Snow-Icorn stamped its little snow feet, and, when it did, a giant burst of yellow snow went all over the place, but still didn’t break through the appropriated snow cones’ defensive spells. “This isn’t fair!” Sunny shouted again.
    “Yellow first, guys! Kitchens, Minx, keep the other two off us. Let’s just run the same drill we did with the coneys!” Darwin shouted, the rest of the group rushing in to attack the yellow boss. Unfortunately, as soon as Darwin’s sword, which reached first, swung at Sunny a giant black hexagonal shield deflected his blade. “I can’t hurt it. What about y’all?”
    “Nada yada, boss boss!” Minx replied as her blades also bounced off a dark pane of the spell.
    “No luck here, either,” Kitchens frowned, sheathing his sword. “It seems we are at an impasse with them.”
    Black shield, black snowballs, Darwin thought, looking around for more clues as to how they were supposed to handle the three Snow-Icorns. “Do you guys see anything?” he asked the others. With his yellow shield flashing, his teammates darting around next to him and two terrible excuses for a fight going on nearby, it was hard to make out what was going on.
“Are we really going to have a chat in the middle of a fight? That just doesn’t seem right,” Darwin grumbled. It wasn’t that people didn’t talk during boss fights, but when he had been a raid leader before, conversation generally meant the group was slacking off and not doing what they should. Though this wasn’t the case here, the memories still irritated him.
“I think we could bake cookies and have tea, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference right now,” Daniel joked at the mutual helplessness of both sides in the battle.
Darwin kept swinging, but the black shield didn’t dim at all. It didn’t slowly start to fade before resetting either. It just sat there unmoving, unflinching and unwavering in the face of every bit of damage he could muster. The bosses’ balls of ice weren’t damaging his group, but his zweihander wasn’t melting a single enemy snowflake either. He was about to give up hope when he finally noticed that one of the circles on the ceiling wasn’t black like the others, but yellow. He looked around to see if any others weren’t black, and he managed to spot both a blue and a red one. However, as soon as he noticed them, they faded.
    “Guys, did you see it?” he asked the others.
    “The circles? Yeah. Pass me a snowball,” Daniel said, catching one as soon as Darwin tossed it. “Let’s give this a try.” Daniel wound up his arm like a baseball bat and threw the black snowball at the yellow circle, hitting it dead center just as it moved to a new location again. As soon as he did it, the black shield dropped and Sunny’s bright lemon-colored face shone with horror.
    “Help!” he screamed as Darwin’s zweihander lopped off part of his flank. “He--!” he tried to scream again, but it was too late. He had been chopped up and melted by a flurry of blades.
    “Red next!” Darwin called, pulling out another black snowball and throwing it at a red circle. Unfortunately, it missed. Really? I can nail a guy charging at me dead in the eyes with a spoon, but I can’t throw a snowball properly? he cursed himself, knowing the others were probably laughing at him on the inside for his failure.
    “Let me get it. I used to play baseball,” Daniel volunteered, and Darwin obliged. He didn’t want to fail twice in a row and make a complete fool out of himself in front of his friends. “There!” Daniel called out as the black snowball made contact.
    “This, this isn’t fai--” Burny tried to protest, but like Sunny, his life ended far too quickly under an onslaught of blades and furry claws.
    Blizzy, seeing what was going on, just frowned. “I should have kept working. I could have finished another before I died,” he grumbled, and then sighed as Daniel pitched a ball right into the blue circle on the wall and left the last snow pony’s shield down. Unlike the other two, Blizzy didn’t make a sound as he collapsed into a pile of slush.
    “I think that’s the first prebuilt fight that actually had specific event triggers and a basic strategy,” Darwin noted as his eyes darted between the three ruined foes.
During the battle he had finally reached Level 60, another milestone, and was eager to check out what he’d receive, but he figured distributing loot should probably come first. Most of his level-ups tended to come with decisions that required a lot of thought, and making the whole group wait for his choice didn’t seem right, so he put it off till later. “Alright, nevermind that. Let’s divvy the spoils!” he said, going through the chilling scene and picking through the corpses. It was a common practice in gamer etiquette for a party to let the group leader do all of the looting, so it could be divided fairly and evenly. While no one was worried about that within the party, the tradition wasn’t about to die.
“What’d we get?” They all peered over at Darwin as he looked at the three items.
“Well, we have a red dagger that seems to be made of that red ice stuff. It’s called ‘Burny’s Ironic Blade.’ It seems to be made out of ice but has a property which causes it to burn enemies kinda like my sword. Who wants it?”
There were three dagger users in the group, Minx, Mclean and Daniel, so naturally three hands shot up. After much discussion between the three, Mclean ended up getting the dagger. “What’s next?” Daniel and Minx both looked in anticipation.
“Well, we have another dagger called Winter’s Ethic. It doesn’t do much damage, like almost none at all, but the damage doubles with every strike. Who wants it?”
Since Mclean had gotten the first item, she wasn’t in the conversation for the second one. It ended up going to Daniel who seemed both very happy and very confused about the dagger. In terms of quick killing, it was worthless. In terms of fighting tough players or enemies with tons of health, it would be invaluable. It was a unique dagger he could only use in special circumstances.
“And the last item?” Kitchens asked, the remaining unlucky individuals still curious.
“Sunny’s Son, a yellow belt that stops one attack from successfully landing every minute,” Darwin tossed it to Fuzzy Wuzzy. “I think he’s the one that needs it the most. Anyone disagree?”
Fuzzy Wuzzy looked at the belt with a bewildered face. Everyone just kind of nodded their approval as he put on the silly yellow belt that had an obnoxiously large buckle in the shape of a sun on the front.
“I don’t think I’d want to wear that anyway,” Kitchens laughed at the belt buckle. “I haven’t seen a buckle that big since I last visited Texas.”
“Yeah, probably the case. Let’s just head back to Lawlheima and see if Valerie and Kass are back yet.”

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