Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Volume 3 - Chapter 4 - EVERYTHING

So, I know you guys hate it when I post a BUNCH OF STUFF AT ONCE! (prefer it to be sectioned out by player)

but.. this computer thing is becoming a real problem. My Ram isn't registering correctly, on top of the front io issues. So =/ More work for a playtoy!

Anyways, to save me the chance of causing you all to miss out on reading, here's chapter 4 in its entirety. Deal with it.


    Kass had never been more happy to see the front of her house in her life than she was when Charles’s driver dropped her off right outside of it after that incredibly awkward breakfast, so when she finally got home and logged on, the euphoria was still very much present. That break from the tension and drama gave her a sense of feeling lighter than a feather as she booted up her character. Today will be a better day, she told herself, trying her best to put behind the heavy topics and ignore the conversations and events of the last twenty-four hours.
    As she logged in, finding herself still inside Lawlheima, where she had logged out the night before, she saw an NPC clearing away the Blue-Drake camp that had spawned right next to her. Then, as she was walking to the entrance, she noticed Valerie, who was staring down at her legs and moving them around a little.
    “Hey, Valerie! What’s up? Did you just log on too?” Kass asked as she ran over to her winged friend. She wasn’t exactly close to Daniel, Mclean and Valerie, but she still did her best to make friends with them.
To Kass, it sometimes felt like the guild was broken into three groups. The first was Minx, Fuzzy Wuzzy, Kitchens and herself, the second was Daniel, Valerie and Mclean, and the third was Alex and the rest of the NPCs. The only common factor in each group seemed to be the horned hero himself, Darwin. It wasn’t exactly like she had planned it this way, or anyone had, but it’s just how the groups had locked in due to who hung out more, and she was kind of happy that, with the last big battle, apparently everyone other than herself had bonded together. That’s why she was putting on her best smile and was stopping to chat with Valerie before rushing to go meet up with Darwin. Though being around Darwin is kind of my job now, isn’t it? she grumbled to herself. She had only told Charles that she would think about it, but, while they were eating, Charles had insisted he was going to act with the assumption that she had already taken him up on his offer and send a stipend to her account. God it feels so dirty thinking that hanging out with my friends is just a job I’m being paid for, she lamented to herself.
“Oh,” Valerie, who had been lost in her own thoughts, looked up at Kass with a kind of surprised expression. “I guess I’m fine? Maybe? Do you see anything different?”
If you get sick in real life, does your avatar in the game even show it? Kass wondered as she tilted her head. She was about to respond with a joking answer like ‘No, you could definitely use more makeup than a DIY zombie kit would even have,’ but then she stopped herself. Am I even close enough to her to make that joke? she wondered as she inspected Valerie’s face. “I . . . I don’t know? Did you cut your hair?” she asked, knowing that was generally the physical change most people failed to notice about a girl.
“My hair?” Valerie looked up, “No, no, it looks fine. Oh well, let’s um . . . Let’s not worry about it then. I just thought . . . Nevermind. Let’s go meet up with the others.” She forced a rather painful looking smile and started heading outside. Kass really didn’t know where the others were. She forgot more times than she remembered that she could track Darwin using the map feature, but it didn’t matter.
“Yeah, sounds great,” Kass replied, catching up with her. “I’m looking forward to getting some levels. Level 60 should give us some great new skills.” She grinned ear to ear. Just thinking about the awesome abilities she might get made her mouth water more than the smell of a well-marinated tenderloin barbecuing on a hot day.
“I just can’t wait to see the dungeons! Or can you imagine the next towns we will run into? First that city of glass, then the cool walled city--I wonder what we’ll see next. It’s like going through an architectural wonderland!” Valerie seemed, at least to Kass, to be a bit too enthused about the layouts of different cities. “I wonder what the City of Light will look like . . .” She trailed off for a moment. “But, yeah, even this place is going to look so great when it’s finished!”
Kass, who had never seen Valerie talk about something with much enthusiasm, had to kind of shake her head at the poor girl’s interest. “Well, if you’re really into that stuff, I suppose  we could talk to Darwin about going north and checking out that Arabian-themed city? It’s supposed to feature some of the most intricate, beautiful buildings. I hear a lot of them have ornate and gold capped roofs.”
“Arabian city? They’re not going to make us cover up, are they?” Valerie laughed, pulling her wing over her face in lieu of any cloth.
“Nah, it’s just the design theme that’s arabian. The culture is more European. The races have a nordic touch like Jotunn and Earth-Walkers rather than Djinn,” Kass said through a chuckle at Valerie’s joke. She’s not a bad person to hang out with. Kinda funny in her own way, Kass noted.  
“Earth-Walkers . . . ” The words made Valerie look like she had lost her footing for a second as she considered what Kass had said. “So I guess Fire-Walkers weren’t the only elemental stompers. I’m kind of surprised though. I thought they might use a different body part for the description even if Fire-Walkers could summon fire from pretty much anywhere. Maybe switch it up with the naming? Something like Earth-Hands maybe?”
“Or Ice-Cro-” Kass began to add onto Valerie’s thought, but Valerie quickly interrupted her lude comment.
“No! Not going there! Clean thoughts, Kass!” Valerie was laughing at it even as she stopped Kass. “Hey, what the-- Holy crud, what happened?”
When Kass and Valerie exited the cave, they were greeted by a full phalanx that stood quietly facing forward and blocked them as if it were a closed gate. In front of the phalanx was a raised earthen wall of sorts with one part of it broken down and traces of smoke coming up in the distance behind it. Kass couldn’t see what Valerie was talking about though as Valerie had flown up a bit the second she had seen the wall block their entrance.
“Lady Kass.” Alex appeared at Kass’s side almost as soon as she saw the phalanx. “Would you like me to escort you through the men to the Great Lord Darwin?”
Ah, yeah. I guess Alex could help me walk through this phalanx. “Sure, if you don’t mind,” she answered. Though when do I get ‘great’ added to my title, she laughed to herself, remembering how important that was to her at one time. Now she’d just be happy to play the game without worrying about evil, scheming teenagers stealing her man before she could get a first date and destroying humanity. How exactly does playing a game help someone to undo humanity though? I still don’t get it. Something isn’t adding up. Kass frowned. Am I just too dumb to understand what she could ever possibly be plotting, or is it a lack of information?
“Right this way, Lady Kass,” Alex gave a half bow then shouted to the phalanx, “Line Row 12!” at which point one of the rows around the middle of the phalanx shifted, men scuffling about, to reveal an opening big enough for a person to easily move through.
    She was wondering why the phalanx was so well formed when there had been so many undead soldiers and what was going on with all the fortifications around Lawlheima, but, when she exited the area, it all became clear. There were bodies littered about all over the place just two hundred meters away, almost all of them around her usual group of players. Darwin was even covered in blood to the point where his horns and face, probably wiped off at some point, were the only part of him not dripping red.
    “Ugh, was there another large fight? Did we miss out on a big battle?” Valerie complained as she flew above Kass and Alex.
“Another big fight?” Kass asked aloud, very confused. “I don’t understand, was there a first one?”
“Oh, yeah, you weren’t here. Darwin and Alex put together an incredible defense against thousands of the Panda King’s toughest and meanest soldiers. We were kind of confused because the Panda King never showed up in the fight, but it was a clear win. I don’t know all the details, but by the time I logged on yesterday most of the defense was already prepared by Darwin and the NPCs. I think that guy never logs off or sleeps, and all we had to do was help with some finishing touches before crushing the Animal Kingdom’s army,” Valerie explained.
“You mean . . .” Kass looked at the bodies around the group, knowing that if what Valerie said was true, and they had already gone through two battles, that meant everyone in the group but her was already probably Level 60.
“Yeah, sorry, Kass. You missed out on a lot of EXP. But apparently there was another fight, so maybe it isn’t your only shot. Maybe there will be many more opportunities for you to level up off the Panda King’s army if he is still attacking,” Valerie tried to sympathize with Kass.
Kass looked at one of the bodies she and Alex had to step over on their way to Darwin. “No, these aren’t beast men. This one is clearly a Jotunn,” she said, making sure not to lose her footing in the blood.
“Weird, but I thought you just said that their town was in the north. It isn’t close to us, is it?” Valerie asked.
“No, it isn’t. It’s almost half a day’s ship ride if you go by boat. For them to be this far south, and this many races mixed in, something’s not right.” Kass’s frown deepened, sagging more than clocks in a Dali painting.
“You’re not wrong there,” Darwin, who was now close enough to hear her statement, responded. “Apparently there is a quest to clean out this dungeon.”
“Really?” Kass’s eyes perked up. “That means we’ve already done it. We cleared it like two days ago. Can we go collect the reward? Is it a big reward? It must be. I mean, it drew people from so far away.”
“Well, we did clear the dungeon, but I meant a quest to clear it now. I’m apparently the one listed as the boss.” Darwin’s face seemed to cheer up at that statement. “Apparently I’m now classified as a great dungeon boss, the King of Demons,” he laughed.
Ugh, don’t you know that anyone can tell that laugh is forced, Darwin? Your normal muffled chortle is definitely not that loud. She sighed. “Wait, so players are going to keep pouring in to try and collect the reward? What the heck are we supposed to do then?”
“I proposed that we try to recruit more players,” Daniel piped up. “Alex could give a quest to kill other players in defense of Lawlheima. It would easily beat most people’s normal leveling. We could pretend like it’s a versus quest and try to raise a bigger army than the ones attacking, but given how much of a head start this current quest giver has had on us, there isn’t a guarantee the force we raise will be big enough to stand off against the oncoming waves of raiders. You know, as soon as those guys respawn, they’re going to try to gather together and come again with a bigger force.” Daniel scratched his head.
“Great Lord Darwin, I think that our current force should be adequate to handle any ruffians that try to penetrate our barriers,” Alex stated proudly, dismissing Daniel’s suggestion. “We don’t need the help of outsiders or foreign powers. We will stand strong and weather the storm.”
    Kass didn’t know what to make of Alex’s brazen declaration. In her experience, Alex wasn’t the type to put pride first, especially if it could cost people their lives.
    “Alex, how many men did we lose today?” Darwin asked him.
    “Scouts included? We lost roughly eleven total, Great Lord Darwin,” he answered. He wasn’t frowning, but he wasn’t smiling either. He had a serious expression that Kass thought made it look like he was challenging Darwin and Daniel.
    “Alex, how many people are born every day in our town?” Darwin said, continuing his line of questioning.
    “Every day? Well, maybe one or two a week. There there isn’t a guarantee that someone will be born every day,” Alex confirmed the numbers without having to hesitate.
Kass was kind of astounded by how fast Alex replied. It was as if he had studied that piece of information for a test he knew was coming. Does he know every detail of the population?
    “Great, so do the math, Alex. If we lose even a fourth of the number we lost today, do you think we can survive a year? Will we survive the eighteen years it might take for the infants to grow old enough to replace the warriors on the battlefield? We need help, Alex, not pride,” Darwin said clearly.
    Kass watched the back and forth between the two, and she couldn’t help but think about how Darwin seemed even more mature now than he did when they first met. It was like he had grown wiser and . . . did he grow taller? No, that’s . . . He does look bigger and taller though. Am I just imagining things?
    Alex’s defiant look didn’t fade. “Darwin, you weren’t there at Valcrest. The newcomers to this land, I don’t want anything to do with them. We opened our taverns, our homes, our shops and our hearts to them, and they burned it all to the ground. They butchered our fathers and sons in the street. I won’t forget that. I put up with the ones you brought along because they are honestly good people. There were even good people among the newcomers we welcomed to Valcrest, like you, but not everyone. Will you promise me that, if we ask them to come to our defense, we won’t just be inviting wolves into the sheep pen?”
    Everyone was silent. No one had a smart comeback to that. While only Kass and Darwin knew the full story, the weight of the words and the palpable ire that Alex’s voice were sufficient enough to install a solemn mood in the group. It put them all on edge because each of them was probably thinking the same thing Kass thought: We’re just like the ones that butchered Alex’s people. We’re just players who look at NPCs and see vendors and EXP or quest givers, not people. Such reflection on personhood of NPcs had been a running cause of self-doubt for her the entire time she had been on the first island, constantly faced with computer-generated characters that had more emotional depth than almost every guy that had ever hit on her.
    Then, Darwin took a deep breath that was loud enough to break the silence as stared down at Alex, his new height difference even more visible as he towered over the now smaller man. “When I was young, I remember how many times people slighted me and hurt my feelings. Every time I complained about it, the teachers used to tell me some nonsense story about how we should forgive them because forgiveness is divine. One of the quotes that a teacher of mine used all the time particularly grated on my nerves. He used to quote a great man and say, ‘The weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.’ I didn’t understand it back then when he first said it because I didn’t have a choice on whether or not to I should forgive people. It felt like I was only forced to forgive because I was weak.
    “But this time I think I’m starting to understand it. After all, in this instance, you’ve really only got two options. One, you can stay angry at us newcomers. Curse the ground we walk on and hold up here in Lawlheima. Wait for your numbers to dwindle as the attacks grow larger and more powerful every day--and believe me they will--until finally you don’t have a force strong enough to survive and are wiped from existence, or . . . there is a second option. You can forgive us. You can use us as if past animosity never existed and let us build numbers and die in your place. You can watch as we do our best to summon more and more of the people you call newcomers until eventually there isn’t a single member of the Demon Race that has to perish on account of this stupid quest. You can make the choice to not forgive and stay weak or to let bygones be bygones and, through forgiving, grow strong. That said, this time I’ll listen to your counsel. I won’t force the decision down everyone’s throat. I want you to think long and hard about the people serving under you, the women and children relying on you, and whether or not your grudge is worth their lives. ”
    Where does Darwin pull these speeches from? It’s like he had an entire night with a keyboard and a search engine to figure out the best thing to say. Kass was quite surprised. The whole group shifted their gaze to Alex, waiting for him to respond. He had gone from an angry defiant look to a contemplative one, almost like a standing version of the thinking man or a man with nothing better to do than look out a bus window. “Fine, you can seek help from the newcomers, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.”
    “No, but it does mean you’re going to have to give out quests. Not me, not Daniel--you,” Darwin pressed, exploiting the moment of weakness in Alex’s hatred.
    “Fair. I’ll do what must be done to protect our people. I trust you can summon them without my assistance though?” He looked positively grumpy as he stood there.
    “Yeah, we can handle it,” Darwin nodded. “It was hard, but you’ve made the right decision.”
    “I hope I have. Now may I be dismissed, Great Lord Darwin?” Alex asked, his tone still sharp.
    “How about while we work on this, you pull back and reorganize the scouting squads into lumber harvesting. The phalanx won’t work on this type of enemy, so I’m going to need you to put together some new defensive ideas in case the newcomers we gather fail. If they die, we can get the numbers back quickly, but we don’t need to be taking chances. The mountain above this entrance has a lot of lumber and the the inside has a lot of stone. Make use of both,” Darwin ordered. “Also, you’re dismissed.”
    As soon as Alex left, the immediate dispersal of tension made it feel like everyone had just come up for air after holding their breath for five minutes. “Well, that was unexpected,” Daniel said. “I knew players messed things up, but I didn’t realize how bad we had impacted the world. It kind of makes you wonder, how does the NPC respawn work?”
    “Yeah, their whole town was sacked. It was all over the boards for our island when it happened,” Kass filled Daniel in with as briefly as possible. “But let’s focus on the problem at hand.” She puffed up her chest and tried to sound regal and authoritative like Darwin had moments ago. Unfortunately, the only effect was that Kitchens, Darwin and Daniel’s eyes looked south of her face for a moment when she stuck out her chest. Ugh, men . . . I should have known, she grumbled to herself and aborted the straight back posture. “We need to figure out how to actually handle this problem, not just agree to let other players help us,” Kass said grumpily.
    “Hmmm?” Mclean looked over at Kass, not understanding what she meant. “I thought letting other people fend off the gates was the solution?”
    Ha! I finally get to be the one to explain the str-- Kass began to think triumphantly until Daniel opened his mouth.
    “What she means is that, while players aren’t exactly a commodity that needs producing, there still will be a delay until a sufficient number of players show up to handle the request. In the meantime we can guard the gate, but are the lot of us enough to hold off any and every enemy?” Daniel looked worriedly at the gate then at Darwin. “And I also don’t think we can rely on Darwin to defend the entrance. By the way, what is to prevent players who take the quest from betraying us and confirming Alex’s fears?”
    Ugh! I was going to say that! Kass mentally kicked herself for not speaking faster. First Darwin got the title up on her and then the authority, but it didn’t make sense sometimes. I’ve been with him the whole time. Why do I feel like we’re getting further and further apart? The thought slowly shifted through her head until she was distracted by something Daniel had said. “Wait, why can’t we rely on Darwin to help defend the next fight? I know Kitchens and Minx are amazing at dealing damage, but Darwin’s zweihander gives him the most brutal Area of Effect, right? He’s like a wrecking a ball sometimes.”
    “Darwin is having trouble controlling himself during battles due to a skill. It’d be better if he distanced himself until he gains a better understanding of its mechanics,” Kitchens answered for the others. Darwin just sat there with a hollow look on his face as his empty eyes seemed to settle on a body in the distance.
    Where was the passion and strength you had a moment ago as you lectured Alex? Why aren’t you still in this conversation? Kass wanted to ask Darwin, but it felt like he wasn’t even there, much less listening to anything that was being said.
    “Hmm, if we can’t use him in the battle, he could go investigate who is giving out the quest then? The forums have that secret quest address plastered all over them. It’s actually really close, but he’d have to sneak into the Panda King’s city to get to the place,” Daniel suggested. “Given that he’s not one of the beast races, and he has giant horns sticking out of his head, it might be a little difficult.”
    “Ah, those.” Mclean looked at them. “Are there no animal men that have giant horns like that?”
    “I’d say some form of man-goat or man-bull, but both of those are actually covered by the Minotaurs and Satyrs, who are White-Horns, not actually part of the Animal Kingdom. Even if he were a Minotaur, he’d stick out like a world-famous basketball player showing up to pee-wee football tryouts.” Daniel shrugged. “We could try making him super cloaky like he was a beggar and hope the game’s designers are too deep into poorly-written and inaccurate assassin history to program the NPCs to notice such an obvious disguise.”
    “Hmmmmm, actually, about clothes, Darwin, you are taller, aren’t you?” Kass asked, sizing him up and down for a moment.
“Yeah, I guess I am?” Darwin snapped back to reality when his name was mentioned, and after a moment he answered the question.
“Well, I’m just gonna say it: You need a longer bathrobe again. I think your flap protection isn’t sufficient to save our poor eyes!” Kass jokingly covered her eyes with her hands. “If we don’t get this fixed, my poor retinas will be ruined for life.”
“I don’t think the view is so bad.” Minx looked over at Kass with a weird, almost innocent, childlike grin. “It’s almost like what you see when you go to the Internet and type--”
Kitchens took one horrified look at Minx, then at Darwin and then stopped Minx and declared without hesitation: “We fix this RIGHT AWAY! No questions asked! Darwin, go to a tailor and solve your wardrobe malfunction, or the next fight we have is to the death!”
Everyone was chuckling at the poor father as Kitchens guided Darwin with a murderous aura all the way back inside the dungeon. Poor guy, his daughter has probably done way more than he even realizes, Kass almost giggled out loud, but managed to stifle the urge and only smiled.
“Tee hee, see what I did there? You all do, yes?” Minx had an ear-to-ear, mischievous grin that let the whole group know that that was planned.
“What? So it wasn’t a nice view?”
“Oh no, it was. Kass, Valerie, Mclean,” she listed off the names one by one while scrunching up her eyebrows and putting on a serious face, “Do you want to know details? I saw everything.”
“Oh, really? Tell me more,” Mclean started until Kass smacked her right arm.
“We are not having this talk!” Kass said, “Right, Valerie?” Valerie, however, had frozen up. Wow, your face is as red as your . . . Wait. “Valerie, when did you get red eyes?”
“Yeah, did you put on contacts in real life, and they bled over into the game?” Mclean asked. “Does that mean I could get purple eyes in the game?!”
“Oh umm . . . I don’t know how this happened,” Valerie said as she self-consciously touched her face. “It just happened, and I don’t know why.”
Is she sad or happy about it? Kass wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. It seemed like she almost wanted to cry, but all that had been mentioned was that she had red eyes. Was this what she was asking about earlier when I first ran into her? Was this the difference she was expecting me to notice? This is so weird. If she knew it could happen, why does she look like she’s about to tear up?
“It’s probably from being in this guild so long. Maybe over time we’ll get red eyes too,” Daniel laughed and patted Valerie on the back like her new crimson irises were no big deal. “Don’t sweat the details. Anyways, back to this whole quest deal, I think our best game plan is to make a post on the forum and then pray for the best. We can offer EXP and items as rewards for those who join our cause, and, hopefully, if we pitch this correctly, players will see us as a good source for both of those, but how do we stop the potential betrayal?”
“Yeah, they may treat this as an event where they can get both quest rewards,” Mclean said with a frown. “Unless we kill them all and do it properly.” After saying that, she pulled out her daggers and stabbed the air a few times. Minx joined in with her, shouting ‘yeah’ and mimicking Mclean’s knifeplay. “Just leave it to me. I’ll cut everyone of them down, and the EXP will be all mine!”
“And mine!” Minx enthusiastically agreed. “You have to share with me too!”
“Enough, guys. This isn’t really the time to joke around,” Daniel almost scolded as he tried to stop the two, his face as stern as ever.
“Daniel, it’s just like Darwin said: We don’t have a choice in the matter. We have to have faith in the players that sign up with us, that they won’t kill NPCs. But it’s not like it’ll be hard to make sure they don’t successfully go turncoat, you know?” Mclean shrugged.
“Huh?” Daniel asked, and even Kass found her face twisted up.
What am I missing? How will this not be difficult? Kass wondered, desperately trying to put the pieces together.
“Look, avoiding them backstabbing us for this specific quest is going to be easy. It’ll be just like that time I gained five pounds over winter and wanted to lose weight by cutting out all the sugar in my diet.” Mclean pinched her belly. It wasn’t certain how her real-life figure looked, but her in game avatar didn’t have an ounce of fat to pinch. “I don’t have any willpower, so when I wanted to make sure I didn’t eat any sugar, all I did was not buy any. That simple.”
“That’s . . .” Kass’s eyes shot open wider than a lawyer’s mouth when she was trying to defend herself. “That’s brilliant!”
“Oh . . .” Daniel grimaced, almost like he was cursing himself for not figuring it out sooner. “So all we need to do is move the objective out of reach, and then we won’t have to worry about people turning on us to achieve it,” he said and nodded. “Mclean, don’t let anyone tell you you’re not the smartest one in the group.”
“Psh, you talkers always think that violence first makes for slower wit. It just means I don’t bog myself down with unnecessary details. Right, Minx? Now all Minx and I have to do is stab them all to death!” She threw a few more air stabs and then helped toss Minx back on top of Fuzzy Wuzzy.
“Alright, so, since the two objectives are a non-existent hell portal and Darwin, we really just only need to get rid of Darwin without him realizing it, I take it? So we don’t offend him?” Kass confirmed their line of thought. “Like we’re trying to throw a surprise birthday party for him and we can’t let him home until the place is set up?”
“Right, and since Daniel and Kitchens already talked him into going to check out the town, we don’t have anything left to do.” Mclean’s boastful face further let them know that a lack of brains wasn’t one of her shortcomings and that she had already spun an entire web while they were trying to catch the fly with chopsticks.
“Well played, well played,” Daniel laughed softly. His expression was hard to read, and Kass couldn’t tell if he was kicking himself or just admiring Mclean, but there was also a good chance it might have been a touch of both.
“We should probably also send dad with Darwin,” Minx suggested.
“Any particular reason?” Kass asked, not entirely seeing the logic in giving up both of their most defensively-capable, front-line fighters.
“I think playing by yourself is lonely, that’s all.” Minx didn’t even look up from petting Fuzzy Wuzzy.
“True, but I could go with him too?” Kass remembered Charles’s warning to stay by Darwin. But I haven’t accepted the offer yet, so it’s not like I have to.
“Ah, I see your plan. Just the two of you, a nice quiet adventure by yourself, him relying on you for support, and you acting like the damsel in distress at just the right moment.” With each word Mclean used to lay out the romantic encounter, Kass could feel her face start to heat up and grow flushed. The only way that Mclean could have been more obvious is would be if she started singing, ‘Darwin and Kass, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.’
“I . . .” Kass wanted to cover her reddening cheeks. She could feel them blushing more by the minute. “That wasn’t my intention at all! Besides, he’s way too old for you to be joking around about us like that!” she said, falling back on a long-retired excuse.
“Are you sure he’s too old? I mean, if that WERE your game plan, well, I suppose Minx, Valerie and I could make do. Otherwise, I agree that Kitchens should probably be the one to go with Darwin.” Mclean’s lips slowly curved up into a devilish grin. Kass could almost hear Mclean laughing behind her teeth as if the smile was to say ‘your move, Kass.’
“Why Kitchens though?” Kass decided to switch attack routes. Why am I fighting for this anyways?
“Dad spends all his free time with me. It’d be nice to see him hang out with friends for once,” Minx replied. As Minx was talking, Fuzzy Wuzzy nuzzled his head into her and almost knocked her off her feet.
“Alright then, that’s settled. We’ll just tell the two when they get back that they’re off on a fancy quest by themselves, and the rest of us will hold down the fort and try to save the NPCs from evil questers!” Daniel’s face had lost a bit of color over the course of the conversation, but he turned things back to safer ground with a good helping of gusto.
Kass, realizing that Darwin would be spending the entire day away from her, was about to speak up and just take the bullet when Mclean’s grin split all the way into a laugh, and Daniel and Minx joined in as well. “Kass, you are way easier to tease about Darwin than Valerie,” Mclean said, chuckling to the point that a snort escaped.
Hmph, there’s really no shot of staying close to Darwin to get more info on Stephanie now, is there? Kass deflated like a spent balloon.


    “Do you guys really have to change the logo and the color scheme?” Darwin grumbled at Justin Yoo. “Can we not just extend the length and reinforce the flap so Mr. Katana doesn’t kill me?”
    “I want to see his bathrobe look longer than a dress! It needs to go all the way down to his ankles!” Kitchens almost barked at Justin.
    “Sir, we can’t do that. He still has to be able to move in combat,” Justin protested, and Darwin found himself agreeing, but wasn’t sure how to calm the angry parent’s ire.
    Did Minx even really see anything? he asked himself, sparing a glance south before looking back at the furious father. “I’m actually going to agree with Justin. I don’t need it that long.” He felt his life expectancy drop with each word.
    Kitchens, glaring at him, didn’t seem to want to budge on his demands. His left eye twitched twice, and then he finally just let out the breath that he had been holding in, causing Darwin to do the same. “Fine, fine. Make it like it was before with the new height consideration in place,” Kitchens said, giving up. Then he looked at Justin and started speaking as if Darwin weren’t there. “But if our fearless leader flashes my daughter one more time, you and me are both going to be looking for a new commander.”
    “Uhh . . . Okay, sir.” Justin just shifted where he stood and then looked back at Darwin. “And yes, the new design is necessary. We have picked out one that is perfect for you. What do you think?” He handed Darwin a scroll.
    Darwin opened the rolled-up parchment up to see a design in the middle of it. The image was still a circle, but this time, instead of two swords crossing over a spoon, it was an image of his zweihander stabbing into a mountain over the background of a spoon. So I guess the mountain is Lawlheima, and this is the sword. “Are you guys going to make me get a new symbol for the bathrobe every time I switch up my weapons?”
    Justin looked at one of the other demons, the tailor he had called over when he had first asked for help. They both just shrugged simultaneously and looked back at Darwin with such perfect coordination that a mirror would have struggled to mimic better timing. “Absolutely,” they said together.
    Kitchens’ frown cracked upwards a bit on the sides. “It must be great to have such enthusiastic followers,” he said as he nudged Darwin.
    Yeah, just great. “Wait, how come you got onto me but not Daniel?” Darwin voiced an obvious question he hadn’t thought about until just now.
    Kitchens paused for a moment and then looked at Justin. "We need to also make sure that Daniel’s bathrobe is long enough too."
Ah, so it's just because you didn't think about him at the time, Darwin chortled to himself a bit. You didn't come to my defense, so don't expect me to come to yours, he thought as he found himself unable to suppress a smile over Daniel new predicament.
"Alright, well, Justin, the design looks good. Just, try to get the bathrobe back as soon as possible, will you?" Darwin pleaded with Justin to rush the process as Justin darted off into the dungeon. He technically didn't need to. The bathrobe they had lent him to change into so they could work on the one he had been wearing was perfectly adequate to get the job done. The reason for the rush was only that Darwin greedily wanted the bathrobe with the higher stat bonuses back so he wouldn't have to choose between the extra attribute points or the time needed to make a return trip. Well, I suppose one of them could easily bring me the bathrobe wherever I'm at like it was a pizza being delivered between spaceships in some futuristic movie . . . But that probably would lead to risks of its own, and I don't want to put tipping culture into this untainted video game world or be the first guy to stiff the delivery boy. Neither option would make me the good guy, would it? He laughed at himself again. Oh well, I can wait a few minutes, I guess.
"So are you sure that searching out this quest giver is such a good idea?" Kitchens scratched the side of his face. "It just seems like a bad idea, like you're upset a few worker bees are trying to attack you, so you're off to assault the hive."
"We can hope that it goes a little bit more smoothly than that, can't we?" Darwin chuckled. "But, who knows? Maybe if your metaphor holds up, I'll find myself some honey."
"Are you sure that's okay to say? What if one of the girls finds out you were talking about risking your life for some new honeys?" Kitchens was the one to laugh this time. While he hadn't been doing it much earlier, Darwin should have guessed that Kitchens, being a dad, would be very comfortable with bad wordplay and puns.
"Who says I am risking my life? It's not like dying in a video game will kill me in real life." Darwin felt very happy to be able to say this with confidence.
    “Ah, that’s right. We have a few minutes, right?” Kitchens asked as he watched Justin fully disappear into the distance.
    “Yeah, I suppose we do. Why?”
    “Well, there’s still something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about . . .”
    “Oh? What’s up?” Darwin wasn’t entirely in the mood for a serious conversation, but Kitchens had always been patient and heard him out so there was no justifiable reason not to extend the same curtousy.
    “Ah. Here. Hold this.” Kitchens handed him a giant wooden sword. It wasn’t large like a zweihander. It was rather more accurately in the shape of a wooden katana, but with at least a foot in length over what someone might expect from such a blade and three to five times heavier than he had ever remembered a practice blade being.
    “What’s this for?” Darwin looked at the sword, thinking that it might be a gift or something, but no sooner did he open his mouth to ask why he was handed the blade than Kitchens had already brandished his own and attacked him. The attack was simple, right down the middle with an overhead blow. Darwin raised his own weapon up to stop it, and stop it he did, but the assault continued with Kitchens hitting the wooden edge and sliding his own off to Darwin’s left. Darwin backed up and shifted his large bokken so that his hands, both of which were gripping the hilt, were on his left too.
    “To help us talk,” Kitchens said as he pulled the sword in an upwards cut at Darwin, hitting his downwardly-angled blade and glancing off to the side.
“Kind of hard to talk like this though.” Darwin did his best to get out a few words as he shifted his blade upwards while still firmly positioning the hilt on his left to block Kitchens’ next blow.
“That’s a matter of perspective,” Kitchens said with a smirk as he slammed his bokken into Darwin with a downward slice on Darwin’s right at the same time he used his own right foot to kick Darwin in the stomach. Darwin momentarily dropped his defenses after being stunned by the kick, so Kitchens popped him on the head with a quick tap of his bokken right between Darwin’s horns. “To me, this seems rather easy, wouldn’t you say?”
    Darwin rubbed the spot on his head and then gripped his sword again. “This isn’t the best place to be doing this. What if I lose it again?”
    “Lose it? The only thing experiencing a loss will be your sloppy form.” Kitchens showed all his teeth when he smiled at Darwin after saying that. Darwin found it a little disconcerting. “Again,” Kitchens demanded, extending his blade out with both hands.
“I don’t want to do this here,” Darwin pleaded, but his hands had already sprung into action as he struck Kitchens’ extended bokken and followed it up with a strong right to left slash. Kitchens, parrying from his left, as Darwin had before, easily diverted the force and then matched it with his own pressure, attacking with the same motion he had used to parry, but this time his weapon went all the way through and knocked Darwin in the stomach whereupon Kitchens followed it up with a hit to Darwin’s back.
“You say that, but you attacked first that time,” Kitchens wasn’t just laughing and smiling: His whole face was curling up towards his eyes and ears with such a happy look that it almost looked like a kid discovering candy for the first time--or like that same kid finding out twenty years later that he no longer has diabetes. Then, before Darwin could fully straighten himself out and recover, Kitchens extended his bokken once more. “Again,”he said.
“I’m telling you this isn’t the right place to do this. What if something bad happens?” Darwin complained again. This time, he held his ground for a moment, but Kitchens broke that moment with a sudden swing coming diagonally at Darwin from his lower left. Darwin wanted to back up and parry it, but his instincts came in, and this time he moved to his left, rotating around Kitchens, and made a thrust that nailed Kitchens right in the sternum. He expected Kitchens to grow upset, grimace or even make at least one grunt at the blow, but Kitchens just chuckled again. What is with this guy? He’s taking all of these risks unnecessarily. And why is he so happy right now? Has he gone mental?
“Darwin, you’re lying to yourself,” Kitchens laughed.
Where is this coming from? Why is he laughing so much? Darwin didn’t understand the sudden shift in Kitchens’ personality as the usually-zen tank top samurai held his sword up again, extending it straight out with both hands. Again. Yeah yeah, I get it. Again, he grumbled to himself as he dashed forward to grab the blade with his actual hands, but the blade shifted higher as Kitchens shifted his hands upwards and to Darwin’s right. Darwin then met the bokken with his own slash and knocked it even higher and farther to his right. Taking advantage of the gap and the fact his blade was already there, he went in for a lunge, but Kitchens, upon his blade being struck, had freed his right hand and then used the palm to knock the flat of the weapon such that it spun off with his own sword. The only problem for Darwin was both his hands were still on the detouring piece of wood, leaving him wide open for Kitchens to dart in and use the already available elbow on his right arm to strike Darwin in the solar plexus.
Crap, he’s good, Darwin thought, wanting to sigh, but finding it a bit hard between wheezes as he tried to recover his breath. “What happened to us talking?” Darwin tried reason one more time, raising his bokken to defend himself as Kitchens assumed his open fighting stance. Right foot only slightly forward, left foot back, knees bent--is this his fighting stance always? He just walks at enemies? Darwin pondered as he waited for the incoming attack from the jubilant madman, who was again oddly still cackling in front of him. “I’m not lying,” Darwin insisted one more time. “I really don’t think this is the time or place.”
There was a sharp cracking sound. Darwin’s bokken was hit so hard with a fast downward cut that it almost fell out of his hands as Kitchens advanced again, following up the blow with a straight jab. “Lies, lies, lies,” he said and let out a snicker as Darwin deflected the wooden sword jabbed at him with his left hand and followed it up by shoving his own elbow into Kitchens’ chest this time.
“Why are you laughing so hard?” Darwin finally let his confusion escape his lips in an exasperated sigh.
“Why am I laughing?” Kitchens paused and scratched his left cheek for a minute. “Well, it’s because you’re over thirty years old and you’re not even a real person. You’re too busy lying, covering yourself with this shell of other people’s identities, stringing it together through some series of expectations on how you’re supposed to behave. It’s funny.”
“I am not,” Darwin grimaced. Am I?
“Darwin, I already know who you are. You are fire. One who has never made peace with himself, a flame that exists by burning the spirit of its own being, raging against itself endlessly,” Kitchens held his bokken out and looked up and down the blade, the cackling laughter gone, but the grin remaining. “You are a murderer,” Kitchens moved his bokken like he was going to adjust to Darwin’s left, but it was a feint as he twisted it around in a quick circular motion, Darwin’s own weapon being led astray by the fake-out until the tip of Kitchens’ sword was pressed against Darwin’s throat. “I can see it in your eyes.” Kitchens stepped back, reassuming his stance. “You’re like I was, a pyre fueled by your own soul.”
“I thought you were water?”
“Water? Hmm, yes. I am. A man’s nature changes when he has a daughter. I was fire; now I am water. You . . . You’re still fire though. You’re still lying. It’s okay though. I never told myself the truth until long after I had changed, which makes it funny to me to see it in you,” Kitchens finally lowered his blade, sighing but not losing his joyful expression. “Darwin, he’s about to be back, but I think you should consider our conversation.”
Consider what? All you did was attack me! “What’s there to think about?”
“You are fire. You recognize that it is your nature, but you don’t understand it. The heat is generated by the wood it burns. If you rely strictly on your own soul, you’ll wither away and die. You must consume others.” Kitchens extended a hand. Darwin wasn’t sure if he was supposed to shake it or return the extra-large, solid-oak-colored bokken, but he figured the latter was a good bet.
“What am I supposed to do about it then? Just go ahead and eat other people’s souls? I am a Demon . . . but I think even that seems excessive.” Darwin wasn’t making heads or tails of this advice. Not to mention, I was explicitly warned not to let NPCs in the game die, not to continue NPC on NPC bloodbaths like I had previously been doing, so what is he trying to tell me to feed off of?
“When man gave up wood, there was electricity, oils and other plants to burn. We went from year-old dead trees to million-year-old exploding dead dinosaurs and all the way to giant streaks of lightning captured in cheap finger-nailed-sized storage devices. If you don’t want your own soul to burn up to feed the flame, you don’t need to burn someone else’s. You just need to feed it somehow, and there are plenty of ways,” Kitchens had finished storing both bokken and pulled back out his real sword.
Wait, he’s not going to start fighting me with a true blade, is he? Darwin felt a bit nervous, but also a bit excited. “So if it isn’t souls, then what is it?” Dreams? Ambitions? Should I . . . Darwin began to understand the warning perfectly. This hadn’t been out of the blue. Kitchens hadn’t worried about my bathrobe or been concerned about the flap . . . Well, maybe he had, but, more importantly, Minx’s complaint had given him the opportunity to split away and get out of sight of the others, so he could explain this.
“There you go, fire, I can see from that look you’ve already started figuring it out. Now, when Justin comes back with your new bathrobe, let’s change and get moving. If I know my daughter, she’s already paired us off to go figure out who this quest giver is. So, since there is no changing that stubborn woman’s mind when it’s set to scheming, might as well go with it,” he softly chuckled.
“Any reason why she paired us in particular?” Darwin didn’t realize Minx was a schemer, but, on all things Minx, Kitchens would obviously be the authority. So behind the overly-cutesy, fake personality is yet another plotter. He tried to think of what machinations Minx might have carried out upon him already. Why does this super cutesy personality covering up a mastermind remind me of Stephanie . . . Actually, no, don’t think about it. Darwin stopped himself before that thought went too far. After the dinner party with Charles, he knew something was up, but in this case, a bit of ignorance was bliss.
“Oh, well, she’s still been trying to get me a new friend since I lost my usual fishing buddy.” Kitchens put his hands on his lower back and popped his spine all the way down.
“You lost your fishing buddy? Is it because you spend so much time on the game with Minx?” Darwin took a stab in the dark at what the reason might be, knowing that, between work and gaming, it was unlikely Kitchens had much free time to hang out with anyone.
“Hmm, no. What happened was we playing a shoot-‘em-up on the big TV. Minx walked by, and his whole head turned, and his eyes locked on like her rear end was steak being strung in front of a starving dog. I punched him out and then threw him out of the house. Haven’t talked to him since.” Kitchens said it with such an easy-going tone that it sent chills down Darwin’s spine.
Note to self, don’t even look at Minx below the nose, he carved this rule into the very core of his memories. Don’t even look at her juicy, well-formed, bouncing bubble b . . . NO! Oh no, just thinking about how I shouldn’t think about it is making me want to think about it. You twisted human psyche, what’s wrong with you? he panicked. Kitchens can’t tell I was just imagining his daughter’s . . . Can he? Darwin hoped for the best, closed his eyes and counted to three.
    “Don’t worry Darwin. You haven’t looked at her once. That’s why I like you. You’re safe and have plenty of other girls to keep you occupied.” Kitchens patted him on the back.
    Other girls? Why is ‘girls’ plural? I only have Stephanie right now! Wait, was that in response to my inappropriate thoughts or my silence at the fact he had knocked out his friend over just looking at her caboose? I never thought a callipygian woman would be so deadly. Darwin chortled to himself. “Alright. So I’m not good with tracking people through the forum. Do you want to just head right there and let one of the demons tell the others where we’ve gone, or do you want to stop and make sure that Daniel and them give us the best directions?”
“For starters? Make as many of those Blue-Drakes into slaves while we wait, and then I say the two of us just head out and not worry about the others. There will be plenty of time to spend with them when we get back, right? You’ve understood my lesson, correct?” Kitchens pointed to a spawn camp that was about to reappear. There were already five spear-wielders waiting to finish them off as soon as they were tangible enough to stab, but Darwin called out for them to hold off and let him do it.
“Yeah, I get it,” Darwin ran over and shoved his burning zweihander right between the eyes of a Blue-Drake as soon as the materialization had completed enough for it to take damage. I get that what you’re saying is if I’m to control this beast in me, I don’t just need the self confidence. I need to also feed off my people’s dreams and hopes, feed off their need to survive and their will to live on peacefully. They are my strength.
There would still be time before the dragons’ AI booted and it fought back, but by then they would all be his pets. I guess I wasn’t a hundred percent honest with Alex, we do have an infinite number of recruitable defenders that aren’t players, but I can’t be doing this all day, every day and still advance enough to protect them.
“Good,” Kitchens said as he watched Darwin go on his Blue-Drake farming escapade, slaughtering camp after camp.
When Justin finally came back, he had an extremely anxious face. “Oh, thank goodness!” he exclaimed when he saw Darwin converting another one of the flying azure lizards.
“Hmm?” Kitchens and Darwin both looked over at the frantic face of of Justin.
“Just, we already put the design for Darwin’s new sword on the logo, and then we heard from a scout that he saw Darwin fighting in the cave with you using a different weapon, a wooden one with an entirely different shape. Considering how hard we had worked on the new logo--we had started preparing it long before the new bathrobe request came in--there was concern that it would have to be scrapped before it ever got worn,” Justin explained.
Why does he care about this logo so much? Is this an everybody but me thing, or just an NPC thing? Does Kitchens think it is that important as well? Ugh, when it comes to this stuff I could give less F's than an asian printing T-shirts in English.
“So when do I get a custom logo?” Kitchens asked, almost answering Darwin’s question immediately with the good, old-fashioned, Kass-like response.
So if she’s not here, someone will always step in to fill her place and have status envy, Darwin thought, mentally accusing Kitchens, before the man elaborated further.
“I mean, shouldn’t there be a separate one for those who fight, those who build and those who cook or fill other occupations?” Kitchens’ line of questioning repainted as acting less like Kass and more like Daniel.
“Hmm,” Justin thought for a moment, the scout coming up on his side also looking contemplative with a tense expression on his face. “There is much wisdom in what you say. I think we shall consult Alex about this after the two of you depart,” the scout nodded.
Crap, this is supposed to be a fighting fantasy game! Not a dress up game! Darwin thought. While the words would have com across as scolding had he said them aloud, he was actually just happily joking to himself about the whole ordeal. It appeared that no matter which companion he got slotted with for a mission, they’d still be concerned about appearances. Then again, he also had spent a lot of time checking out black armors when he was in Valcrest because they looked cool. Wait, would Fuzzy Wuzzy also be concerned about this type of stuff? Would he, if he could speak, be demanding top hats, monocles and bear-sized tuxedos? Maybe he would want one of those dancing bear costumes instead . . . Or worse, no costume at all, just like a certain child lov-- Darwin silenced the awful thought before it reached completion. While the first steps down that trail of thought made him laugh, Fuzzy Wuzzy’s over-familiarity with Minx definitely gave him pause to worry about the dark place to which the path had led. After all, Minx was the youngest looking one in the group with an age that wasn’t clearly discernible. She just looked somewhere between thirteen and twenty, and Fuzzy Wuzzy was definitely attached to her. We can never let Fuzzy Wuzzy see anime, Darwin quickly decided, pushing the subject out of his head yet again, hopefully once and for all.
“Hey, Justin, one more note real quick before you head out,” Darwin called out to Yoo, who had turned around and was already deep in conversation with the scout. They’re already trying to figure out which emblems would look best for each class, aren’t they?
“Yes, Great Lord Darwin?” Justin turned around sharply, immediately straightening out his posture.
“Can I trust you to send word to Kass and the others that we departed to find out who assigned the quest? They’ll understand what I mean.” Darwin turned to Kitchens. “Let’s get a move on. All that fighting made me want to kill something tangible.”
“Can’t run out of firewood, can we?” Kitchens laughed. For someone who had spent most of the time Darwin had known him with a very calm and unmoving expression, this change was almost unsettling. Not exactly chill-up-the-spine unsettling, but that weird guy on the bus with the funny odor who you think may or may not be looking at you or out the window behind you uncomfortable. “Anyways, make sure to drop off the shield bots we picked up earlier with Alex. They’re definitely going to need them in the battles to come.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea to drop them off without us being here to protect them from being eaten?” Darwin kidded at Mclean’s expense. Mclean may have been generous to eat only certain ones, saving the best for the rest of the guild, but she had still chain eaten snow cones all the way from the dungeon back to the mountain.
“It’ll be fine,” Kitchens said and then waited a moment. “It should be fine. Right?”
“Hey, speaking of snacks, if we’re going back to the main town, we should really look into getting some more of those chocolate chip cookies.”
“Indeed. We should get enough for the whole group.”
“We’re not going to have to share with them all though, are we?”
“Of course not. I won’t tell if you don’t.” Kitchens and Darwin laughed as they began their adventure back to the city that lost its men trying to kill them.  

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