Friday, November 20, 2015

Volume 3 - Chapter 5 - Darwin

So, your answers weren't dead on the money, but they were interesting, and some were close close. That said, no one tackled the Darwin encounter properly =(  Either way, that was amazing. That was fun! I enjoyed reading, seeing what my world looked like through your eyes, and as a reward I'm going to do two things.

or not.
Maybe just one.

THE DARWIN SECTION STARTS HERE - next post my be after Thanksgiving.



    “Have you picked your Level 60 skills yet?” Kitchens asked as the two made their way through the forest.
    “No, not yet. I usually do it when I level up, but I’ve put it off until I have time to think about it without making an entire group wait on me,” Darwin shrugged.
    “How about now then? You might end up needing the skill if the encounter proves to be violent.” Kitchens stopped running and waited for Darwin to do likewise. As Darwin also broke pace and came to a halt, Kitchens walked over to him.
    “Alright, are you going to do the same?”
    “Maybe, I still am not sure what I want to do with my class system. On one hand, I am compelled to maintain the most challenging gameplay possible and see how far my blade alone can carry me. On the other hand, I’m also hungry to be the most powerful player in existence. Currently, when you’re in your transformative stage, I can’t match you. I did everything I could just to stay even with you on the battlefield last time. But if I were to pick a focus and some skills, perhaps I could give you a run for your money.” Kitchens looked at his blade. “It just still feels like it would be admitting defeat. Perhaps I’ll get one later.”
    “Fair enough, but since I’ve already picked up a few there doesn’t seem to be an issue with grabbing one more, right?” Darwin said, opening up his skill menu to see what the Level 60 options would be.

Please choose between one of these abilities.
Cheap Dining and Quick Eats (Passive) - Consuming the flesh or blood of players during combat will restore 25% of missing health and boost damage by 5% (fades after 300 seconds out of combat, damage bonus does not stack).
For some people it’s hard to tell the difference between when they’re having a meal on the run and when they’re running down a meal.
The Five Second Rule! (Passive) - After killing an enemy, restore 50% of all damage the enemy inflicted in the five seconds prior to his death.
People always say that, if you drop the ball, just pick it up and try again. Why do they insist on the same not being true for food? If you pick the food up within five seconds, it’s still good, right?

    “Something wrong?” Kitchens asked, probably noticing the grimace Darwin made as he read the first option. Consuming flesh or blood from a player? Darwin wanted to feel sick. He didn’t, but he knew it was the right reaction. Who eats their enemies during combat? he started to ask himself until he remembered the last fight. He had a sudden remembered the feeling of his teeth sinking into his prey, ripping the flesh free. So maybe it wouldn’t be a useless skill after all . . . He sighed.  
    “I have to choose between one skill that seems overpowered and one skill that doesn’t,” Darwin said to Kitchens with a frown.
    “And you don’t want to pick the overpowered one because . . .” Kitchens looked somewhat confused.
    “Well, it requires me to eat my enemies during combat.” Darwin laughed at his own situation.
    “Ah, and you’re worried you’ll get indigestion?”
    “It could also taste bad?”
    “You won’t know until you try though?”
    “I’m pretty sure I already have.”
    “Come now, don’t say that. Haven’t your parents ever taught you? Every person is unique. Why wouldn’t their flavor be too?”
    “Sadly, I hope it’s not the case. The last one didn’t actually taste bad . . .”
    “In real life, you’re not a therapist or a fan of chianti, are you?”
    “No, why?”
    “No reason, but I’m still going to avoid your dinner parties. Either way, you should probably just go with the skill that’s stronger.”
    “This coming from a guy who hasn’t picked a single skill yet so that the game would be harder?”
    “Well, that’s different. I’m not the leader of a guild that’s counting on me to win every fight so their morale doesn’t shake,” Kitchens responded with a shrug. “If I were, well, I probably would have made the decision a long time ago. Or if they had a class that allowed for the production of infinite sake and tea . . .”
    “Your priorities are pretty set in stone, aren’t they?”
    “As long as family is first, I shouldn’t be judged for what comes second, should I?” he mused, pulling a bottle out of his inventory as he said it. “Think we have time for just one glass while we travel?”
    “I don’t think so.” Darwin pointed at a wall in the distance. It wasn’t too close, but it was still clearly visible. “I think we’re already here.”
    “I see. Then you should probably stop loligagging and pick the skill already,” Kitchens said, putting the bottle up. The disappointment in his eyes was clear.
    “Alright,” Darwin agreed. Tiqpa, I pick the skill Cheap Dining and Quick Eats. The skill glowed for a minute as the other option turned gray and then both of them floated back to their respective places on the large skill tree.
When they finally reached the town, Darwin stopped and asked Kitchens, “So, how do you expect we get in? Do you just wanna climb the wall and hope a sentry doesn’t notice us?”
    “We could wait for a caravan to go through and hop in the back? I’ve heard that works pretty well in some movies.” Kitchens pointed to the gate where merchants were bringing their goods in and out.
    “You sure you don’t just want to climb the wall? I still think our odds might be better.” Darwin wasn’t even suggesting it out of stubbornness. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find a densely populated section on the ramparts. He was actually very confident the two of them could sneak over unnoticed, perhaps due to a shortage of troops after the Panda King’s disappearance.
    “If you’re asking me if I’d rather sit in a nice comfortable wagon and sip my sake while someone drives me through the gate unnoticed by the sleeping guards or spend the better part of half an hour struggling to sneak over a wall unnoticed like we were playing a console stealth game that forgot to add the oddly well-placed stack of cardboard boxes to hide behind, then I’m going to have to go with the cart.” Kitchens shook his head as he chuckled at Darwin.
    “You really have given up that need for a challenge today, haven’t you?” Darwin said resignedly. Kitchens was right, but the plan mostly hitched on the driver not minding the extra passengers and not recognizing their faces. If he even started to put up a protest, well then Darwin would have to stab him where he stood just to be on the safe side, and the idea of needlessly killing an NPC just didn’t sit well with him.
    “Just stay quiet and follow me,” Kitchens said as they got closer to the road. Darwin crouched down and did his best to mimic Kitchens’ movements as he almost hugged the ground while walking, moving in and out among the trees without making a sound. It was all rather graceful, but for Darwin, who was a lumbering oaf due to his of size and weight, Kitchens’ sneakiness was almost impossible to duplicate.
    As they finally found themselves only a dozen feet at most from the road, Kitchens stood still and waited as one wagon or carriage after the other passed. Finally, without giving any prompt or notification, he stood up and walked in front of one of the vehicles. “Good sir, my friend and I are rather tired from walking all day. Do you mind allowing us a lift on the back of your wagon?”
    “Not at all! Hop on in!” The driver, an old Feline man, didn’t even look the slightest bit agitated as he ushered the two into the wagon.
    “Thank you so much. We’ll be happy to pay you for the trouble. You’re a real life saver after all.” Kitchens lightly bowed his head, Darwin mimicked, and the two hopped in the back. As soon as they were comfortably seated, Kitchens pulled out his sake. “See, no problems at all,” he said as he took a sip.
    “How did you know he’d say yes, or that the other ones wouldn’t?”
    “He’s a Feline, so he’s more likely to be friendly to me in this game with the way racism is built into this beast city. Not to mention his load was non-existent, so he’s on the return trip after selling everything off. He has to be in a good mood. Lastly, he doesn’t have a ring, so no wife. Might not seem like an important detail, but a man without a wife to return home to isn’t going to be in as big a rush.” Kitchens nodded to his own arguments and then took another sip of sake. “Also, he just seemed like a nice guy.”
    Darwin had to admit he was rather impressed with the reasoning. “You done this type of thing before?”
    “A few times.” Kitchens didn’t offer any more details than that, but he did pull out another bottle of sake and offer it to Darwin instead.
    Once they actually made it into the town, it didn’t take more than ten minutes of wandering around the city for Darwin to find the right place. Even with the difficulty of looking around while wearing the painfully obvious brown hoodie he had made quickly out of a sleeping merchant’s mat, he was still able to spot the brown door from what felt like a mile away. “So this is the place?” Darwin stopped at the wooden door.
    “It would seem so,” said Kitchens and turned his head a few times, “and I still can’t shake that feeling that we’ve been followed.”
    “Just a feeling though, right?” Darwin knew that while sometimes worries like this were driven from overlapping experiences--like wondering if you left the door unlocked today or if it was yesterday that you forgot to protect the entry way. The memory of forgetting is real, but when it happened isn’t, and that often made Darwin triple and quadruple check his front door. Sometimes he would even turn around, going back home and then checking one more time to make sure that the door was secure. This is why he felt that Kitchens, someone who had clearly experienced war, might just be acting paranoid when he said that he thought they were being followed, but, then again, Kitchens hadn’t said that during any of their previous journeys. So maybe he’s not just being paranoid. Darwin glanced at him. But I haven’t seen or heard anything since we left.
    “Just a gut feeling. One I can’t shake at that.” Kitchens’ eyes darted side to side again, head swiveling as he checked one more time for someone who might be trailing them, and then placed his hand firmly on the door, ready to push it open. “Are you ready for this?” He said as he looked over his shoulder at Darwin.
    “You mean do I have enough control over myself to not rip one of the guys trying to kill my people in half before solving my problem?” Darwin asked, familiar with the lecture. ‘Don’t kill people in the city if you can help it. You’ll get us found out and stir up more trouble than good and might spark even more quests to kill us,’ Kitchens had warned. But the warning was so I wouldn’t stir up trouble with the city. If I can kill this person without getting caught . . . The thought curled Darwin’s lips upwards into a fiendish smirk. No, don’t think like that. We’re just here to stop the quest, he checked himself.
“Something like that, yes. Let’s go.” Kitchens pushed open the door to reveal an entirely wooden room. Every surface was plain brown and lacked any sign of the ornate designs that littered the walls of the surrounding buildings. Then, smack dab in the middle of the room, he saw a dark-haired woman sitting and holding a tall glass of wine.
“Sister . . .” Darwin’s lips moved in unison with his brain, the shock breaking the filter between the two.
“That’s your sister?” Kitchens said in a hushed aside to Darwin.
“What are you doing here?” Darwin finished the thought, slowly coming to grips with her betrayal. “It’s you, isn’t it? It’s you that assigned the quest to kill my people, but why?  Why would you kill what you set me on the path to create?”
Eve’s mouth hung half open as she stared at Darwin. A long moment passed between the two in silence. Darwin probably would have felt upset, angry, or even properly emotional about the topic if he had known her in any capacity. She was his sister after all, but to him those were just words. Even her husband--his brother-in-law, Charles--wasn’t more than his acquaintance at the moment.
“Other people’s family reunions aren’t something one goes to by choice, so I’ll be right outside.” Kitchens turned around, opened the door and left the way he came in. “Give me a shout if you need me,” he managed to say right before the door shut behind him.
“You stink of that woman,” Eve finally said, taking a gulp of her wine. “Her smell is all over you.”
“That woman? You mean Stephanie, my girlfriend?” Darwin hadn’t exactly slept around, so the number of options were small, but the disdainful comment still might have referred to one of his party members. Darwin remembered vividly how much Eve had disliked Kass.
Eve’s rigid face cracked into a loud cackle. “Your girlfriend?” she managed to spit out with obvious vitriol between the breaths of her overdone bursts of laughter, “Your girlfriend . . . That’s rich.”
“What’s wrong with her? Wasn’t it you who told me where to find her?” Darwin walked up and took the seat opposite to Eve. “Didn’t you send me to her for a favor?”
“Send you to her?” Her gigglish cackle never ceased. “I sent you to kill the medusa boss of a dungeon, not to meet with that backstabber.”
“You’re calling her a backstabber, but last I checked she didn’t put together a quest that encourages players to kill my people and destroy my home while I was out raiding.” Darwin must have hit a note because, as soon as he said that, Eve’s face twisted back into the mouth-half-open expression of shock he had seen when he first walked in.
“I tried to give you the happy ending, Darwin. Let you have a people, let you spend the rest of your days in this world worry free. You would have had an eternity to play games with your niece, a wonderful happy-ever-after for you. She is the one who forced my hand.” Her words seemed half filled with regret, half filled with anger. “If that portal gets destroyed, then I’ll even stop anything from killing that guild of yours myself, but if not, don’t worry too much. After a century, the death of people today will seem like nothing more than a few whispers in a wind. You’ll regret only that they died without even remembering their faces or who they were. Trust me on this.”
    “What kind of offer is this? You want me to destroy the ride home and live the rest of my existence in a game just because a sister I’ve met once in my entire life said so?” Darwin couldn’t believe the woman’s gall.
    “I want you to do it because I know you care about humanity. You’re not like her. You don’t want to see every man on earth killed or turned into one of us, cursed with the endless cycle of bloodshed that stains our people’s past.” Eve’s words may have been spoken calmly, but her squinting eyes and the gritted teeth that followed them let Darwin know exactly how riled up she was.
    If she’s asking me to do it, then that means she can’t do it herself, Darwin thought to himself with a grin. She needs me to betray my people because she can’t touch them. I have the upper hand as long as I say no, he felt rather confident in his conclusion. “You mean the insanity? Charles is solving it. I’ve been controlling it with his help,” Darwin knew what her concern was, he felt it every time Hunger drove him mad, but it wasn’t something he couldn’t handle anymore. He needed to call Kitchens in and kill her if she wouldn’t cooperate, but trying might not hurt to persuade her to call off her quest wouldn’t hurt. Obviously, if she were Charles’s wife, she
    “Have you? Have you actually managed to control it? The horns, your size--how many times have you completely lost control? Ten? Twenty? Those few demons we know who grew horns barely managed to grow even half of what yours are, and yet you stand on virgin ground, going through one metamorphosis after the other from the madness while still telling me you have it under control?” Eve spat out at him, disdain dripping from her voice.
    “I am.” Darwin could feel his brows furrowing downwards into his eyes “Or else I’d have tried to kill you already. Things wouldn’t have made it to point of talking after what you did.”
    “What I did? Darwin, you’re trying to go back to the real world with a disease that will result in countless deaths. She’s using you to make more demons, more people to kill humans, can’t you even see? You’re being played like a puppet, and you blame me for trying to take you out of the game?” Eve’s voice trembled with anger.
    “Out of the game? This isn’t a game, this is my life we’re talking about. Were you even going to tell me it didn’t matter if I died or not? Were you going to let me rot in here, worrying every moment of my existence when my death would come? So what if she played me? At least she freed me from your prison.” Whatever tiny piece of control Darwin had over his anger when he had entered the bar, it was already gone. The only thing stopping him from reaching across the table and choking his sister to death where she sat was irresistible compulsion to win the argument. Is this what Internet trolls feel like? he paused momentarily to wonder when he realized this. Wait, why don’t I just try to kill her? he began to ask himself, but the the first inklings of an answer quickly coalesced into the perfect reason. Because if she’s like me, she can just respawn. So it will accomplish nothing, huh? he lamented.
    “She only freed you so that she could use you.” Eve’s face had long lost its pale white color as it began turning a darker red by the minute. “Why can’t you see that what I’m doing is for the good of humanity?! How can you not care about the billions of humans who might die from your recklessness?”
    “Because I’m not a human!” Darwin’s words raged out of his mouth as his feet planted in the ground, and he stood up so fast it pushed a shocked and wide-eyed Eve back as the table slammed into her. He had said it before he even realized what his own words truly meant, not fully grasping how he felt until the words had left his mouth. Because I am not a human. His own words echoed in his head, giving him a feeling he didn’t quite understand, and would have kept echoing if it weren’t for a sound that broke his train of though--the sound of someone slowly clapping coming from the corner of the room.
    “I couldn’t have said it better myself, darling!” Stephanie continued her clap from the corner. Without Darwin even noticing it, she had stacked a chair on top of a table where she was sitting in her new outfit, a set of Knight’s armor made of burnished steel that glimmered under the light of the few, sparse candles that illuminated the establishment. After she finished clapping, she stood up and walked down off the table, using the chair placed in front of it as if it were a set of steps, and she was descending from her throne. “You’re absolutely right, honey. You aren’t a human. You aren’t one of those filthy, greed-ridden philistines that drove us to this state.”
    “Stephanie!” Eve, who sat pinned between her chair back and the table that Darwin had shoved into her when he had stood up, threw both the table and her own chair to the floor as she also shot to her feet and backed up in surprise. “What are you doing here?”
    “You know what I love to do? Watch a little television while I play my video games. It’s just fun, isn’t it? You get all the drama and plot of a good story from whatever show you’re watching, and all the mindless fun and entertainment of a nice button-mashing game. See, one of the reasons it works is you can rewind the show if you miss anything from being too into your game,” Stephanie rambled on, ignoring Eve’s question. “The problem with real life is you just can’t do that. I can’t record one show and watch it after another one is over, well . . . maybe I could, but it’d be such a big hassle. That’s why I was disappointed that this, this little nuisance of a conversation, had to occur at the same time one of Eve’s little group of questers attacked Darwin’s home. I can’t just record one event and go back to watch it later.”
    “Another group is . . .” Darwin let slip as he suddenly realized what Stephanie was hinting at.
    “Oh, stop worrying, Darwin,” Stephanie interjected, intercepting his concerns before they could even finish. “There is another player demon who is there to take care of things for the moment, and by the time that moment is over, I’ll be back to make sure nothing bad happens to your guildmates. I’ll keep them safe for you, dear Dar Dar.” Stephanie finished walking up to Darwin, gave him a kiss on the cheek and then snuggled onto his left arm.
    “Another player demon . . . you got it to . . .?” Eve started. Her mouth, which had opened to speak, didn’t shut again, giving Eve the most cliché look of stupefaction possible. The look was, nevertheless, entirely genuine.
    “Got it to work? Of course I did. Now, even if you did manage to seal Dar Dar here, it’s useless. Tiqpa has worked stunningly. You should see her too, poor little girl. She was a cripple that actually was laughed at for being one! In this day and age, who would think that there are some humans who still make fun of crippled people,” Stephanie said and chuckled a little bit. “It’s no surprise she was the first to start the transformation.”
    “You . . . You . . . You . . .” Eve stammered, her eyes opening wider than her mouth as she stumbled backwards.
    “Come on, Eve. You were just so full of words. Don’t tell me you’ve lost them all so quickly?” Stephanie cackled. “Dar Dar, no matter what we say or do, she’s not going to take away the quest. She’s out for blood--yours, specifically, because you’re like me, a demon. Being her brother means nothing. I mean after what she could do to her fellow people and her own child? It’s best not to get mixed up with her kind,” Stephanie shot a quick glare at the still-dumbstruck Eve.
    What she did with her own child? I thought she said I’d be playing here with my niece, which has to be her child, right? I don’t have any other brothers or sisters, do I? He studied Eve intently, trying to figure out a clue to the character of this obviously twisted person. “Your own daughter?” he mouthed at her.
    “Yeah, her own daughter,” Stephanie nodded, reading his lips perfectly. “I mean, you did notice how she wasn’t at Charles’s place when we had dinner the other night, no? Her daughter, unfortunately, has the same problem we thought afflicted male alone in our species, so Eve had to make sure she would never see a waking hour of life on Earth.”
    But that still doesn’t answer where she is now . . . or what happened to her. Is she in the game with us? Darwin started to wonder, staring at Eve.
    “Look, I need to get back to check on your little fort, and you need to start implementing your new recruitment policy. You did agree with the others on that, right?” Stephanie broke off the arm snuggle and headed to the door. “We’re both pressed for time, and this conversation wasn’t going to go anywhere at all. This woman, she’ll kill everyone close to her, so try not to spend too much time in her company, right Qasin? Oh, sorry. I mean, right Eve?”
    Eve’s face, still slack jawed and clueless, was now also as red as a fresh Washington apple. “I . . .” she started then stopped.
    “It’s okay, I’m not judging you. Everyone has man problems where they feel like killing their companion.” Stephanie opened the door and stared at Eve, Darwin now standing next to her. “Just stay the hell away from mine.” She held up her hand as if it were a gun and then pulled an air trigger. “Or else” she said with a wink.
    Darwin, both deciding he had well enough of visiting his sister and not wanting to leave Stephanie waiting as they left, went up and held the door for Stephanie in an attempt to be gentlemanly. However, no sooner had he gotten close enough to her to prop the door open than she jumped up on him, wrapping herself around his body so that she was eye level with Darwin, and then gave him a three second kiss that felt like two minutes. Her soft lips that felt like clouds and marshmallows had children, the cherry flavor from whatever she had been chewing on, the way her tongue danced around his mouth, and the feeling of her chest pressed up against him left him more breathless than a clown in a balloon shop. But the kiss, not much different than the many they’d shared before, this time left him feeling used. Maybe Eve’s right. Maybe she’s always using me, he thought. But he didn’t care. Stephanie was getting him to where he wanted to be. It doesn’t matter if you get used. If both parties are getting what they desire, isn’t that fine?
    “Alright, see you tonight, Dar Dar,” Stephanie said as she landed back on the ground, wiped her mouth off and disappeared as quickly as she had come.
    “Later . . .” Darwin said at the fading figure as he too started to go through the door.
    “Wait!” Eve called out after him, but Darwin was going to heed Stephanie’s advice for once. Her own kid? Her new man, Qasin, when she’s already married? He couldn’t help but think of how vile his sister must actually be. I have the madness, but so what? Charles was able to offer a solution in no time. One that probably would have been available to her own daughter too by now if she was still around.
“Stop, you have to h--” Eve called out, but the door had shut and Darwin was already walking over to where Kitchens was haggling with a merchant.
    “Hey, what are you getting?” Darwin asked as he sidled up to Kitchens.
    “Getting? I was thinking of acquiring some tea since there aren’t any merchants for it at Lawlheima, but this man clearly doesn’t know his stuff or his prices,” Kitchens grumbled and bemoaned the man right in front of him, but the fellow’s face stayed as chipper as always regardless of the complaints. “He can’t even tell the difference between earl grey tea and lady grey tea. Not to mention, he’s trying to charge me 30% over market price for the oolong.”
    “Well, let’s head out then. I know a better place,” Darwin suggested. “I remember seeing at least one nice tea shop in the central square where I met Minx first.”
    The shopkeeper, who had kept a cheerful, yet slightly apologetic face the entire time Kitchens had insulted his abilities suddenly panicked. “No, no need to do that at all, dear treasured and honored customers. I assure you I can offer you a much better deal than any of the hacks you’ll find in the central square! Even if I have to go out of business doing it, I promise you I’ll be able to beat his prices and still offer you a higher quality product!”
    “No,” Darwin answered, sincerely believing they were bothering the poor merchant, “I am sure you would, but there really is no need. This other guy offers better prices all the time. Perhaps he has a cheaper supplier? We really don’t need to inconvenience this poor guy. Let’s just go, Kitchens.” Darwin once urged his friend to leave with a slight tap on the arm. This time, Kitchens actually turned around like he was going to take his friend’s counsel.
    “Fine! Fine! Young man, I’ll give you 35% off! Just please don’t leave to buy from that charlatan. You wanted 3 bags of earl grey and a bag of oolong? I’ll give you 35% off and throw in half a bag of that lady earl grey tea you seem so enamored with! Honored customer, I assure you he won’t offer any better price than this!” the merchant pleaded at Darwin and Kitchens’ backs.
    “Well, if you’re going to beg,” Kitchens sighed. “I suppose it would be mean of me not to.” He fidgeted with his inventory for a minute and then pulled out some money before handing it to the merchant and grabbing the five bags of tea in return.
    “Did that player just haggle with a store owner?” some of the other players, onlookers
    “Wait, doesn’t that one guy, the one with the horns, look a bit familiar?” another one said. “I could have sworn I’ve seen that face before.”
    “Now that you mention it . . .” the first one who spoke up about the haggling, a brutish looking lizard man, said, pondering the familiarity of Darwin’s face and scratching his scaly chin with his tail. “That’s . . . That’s the secret quest boss from Mt. Lawlheima!”
    As soon as he shouted that, every player in earshot stopped what they were doing and looked over.
    “It really is him.” The players began to talk, their voices carrying over to Darwin.
    “He’s way bigger than I imagined. I mean, I saw the clip, but I didn’t realize how big he looks.”
    “What’s he doing in the city? Are bosses allowed to leave their lair?”
    “Who is that traveling with him? Is that one of the side bosses that was mentioned on the forum?”
    They rattled on, one after the other as Darwin looked around him for an exit. Given that this was a city and not a dungeon, the type of people who would usually congregate here weren’t the same ones that would spend their lives leveling in dungeons. They probably weren’t as strong or high a level as the players he fought earlier, but there was an almost endless number of them eyeing him up for the chance to zerg him.
    “Can we . . . Can we try to kill him here?” the rambling crowd stopped as the natural conclusion of their thoughts was voiced aloud by someone among them.
    “Darwin, I don’t know what you’re going to do, but we better do it fast. If we run down that alley to the left and jump a few buildings we might be able to make it over the wall before the fighting gets too heavy, but . . .”
    “But there is no guarantee?” Darwin found himself grinning, licking his canines. Hunger wasn’t even close to setting in, and no-one here looked like they were a challenge, but he had an idea that just sounded fun in his head. Why not, ey? he giggled to himself before bellowing out a menacing laughter that reverberated off the walls.
    “What are you doing, Darwin?” Kitchens asked, his feet shuffling backwards towards the alley he had mentioned earlier.
    “What am I doing?” Darwin looked at Kitchens and then at the crowd of players and NPCs that was gathering around him. “That’s what I was wondering. What am I doing! I’ve been lied to, swindled of my precious time with a wasted trip. I heard this was the greatest city in the lands to begin my journey towards world domination. That here I could find an army! Men and women who would fight with me for gold, riches, glory and power. People who would forsake their country for the chance to ride dragons into battle and scour the earth with death and destruction, and what do I find here? Cowards. Weaklings not even strong enough to sweep away the good-for-nothing, holier-than-thou, peasant rabble that bangs helplessly on my door, waiting for death. Look at them, claiming they want to kill us, surrounding us by the hundreds but not daring to step forward and meet the slick sickle of death that awaits!” Darwin was having too much fun with himself as he did his best to imitate the trite and redundant speeches of the villains he knew and loved from the games he once played. He had brandished his flaming zweihander and was swinging it around with every line to emphasize his points. Everyone wants to be the bad guy. Everyone wants to burn the world at least once, he mused to himself, watching the crowd grow. You just have to make it worth their while. “Do you see even one soul worthy of casting off his mortal coil and joining the ranks of the Demons? Is there even a single man brave enough to face the tribulations that come with the quest for glory?”
    Kitchens, sporting a stern look that was just as fake as Darwin’s impromptu speech, shook his head. “I see not a single one, Great Lord Darwin.” Kitchens was doing a superb job at imitating Alex with his formal speech and tone. “It seems that the saddles of our Blue-Drakes will stay empty for yet another year, and we will be forced to keep the honor of conquest to ourselves.”
    Darwin smiled, Kitchens had caught on to his plan. Daniel might be trying the forum, but this might be even faster. It all hitched on just one, gullible, desperate role-playing player to make his move.
    “Lord! I will ride the Bl--” a player, one of the dogmen managed to get out before being cut short. He had quickly sheathed his sword and thrown his shield over his back as he had dashed towards Kitchens and Darwin, but was stopped instantly as Kitchens moved so fast it seemed like he teleported to the man, and his katana simply appeared at the man’s neck.
    “Lord? Even I, the Great Lord Darwin’s most trusted blade, do not forget his full title. If you wish to speak to the master, you had better remember your manners!” Kitchens shouted so that everyone could hear.
    Darwin was doing his best not to burst out laughing as he heard Kitchens lay it on thick.
    “Ah, I’m-I’m sorry. I mean,”--he tried to look past Kitchens at Darwin himself--“that is, Great Lord Darwin! I wish to join your army! I too wish to ride the Blue-Drakes into battle with you!”
    Darwin walked over to the man and made a point of taking his time to eye the mutt up and down. “You wish to ride with us, but are you worthy? Do you have what it takes? Are you going to prove yourself with strength or with weapons that mask your weakness?”
    “Strength, s-- I mean, Great Lord Darwin,” the mutt was stuttering as Kitchens kept his katana’s edge barely a quarter of an inch away from the man’s throat.
    “Are you willing to cast aside your weapons, your armor, your family, your guild and your people to become one of us? To pave a road of corpses that you might walk upon to join us? To become one of the great Demons that decimated the White-Wings’ fleet and the Panda King’s hordes and tamed the dragons of Lawlheima to make our mark upon the land?” Darwin continued his boisterous recruitment speech. He already knew the man would say yes, but he needed to lay it on thick and loud for everyone else who was listening. He knew from his experience in other guilds that, the second he left, the forums would be alive with chatter. If he played his part well and executed his theatrics properly, then, by the end of the night, everyone would know about the offer he was making.
    “Yes, Great Lord Darwin! I am!” the Canine shouted with confidence.
    “Then do so. Strip yourself of weapons and armor, make the journey to Mt. Lawlheima, and tell the War General Alex that you wish to become a Demon, to become the tip of the sword that will stab the heavens and slay the world! If you do this, you will be granted a position among us. Indeed, if you pass his test, you will be granted a position among the Blue-Drake Riders!” Darwin thrust out his own sword in the man’s direction, but his blade stayed several feet away from him. “Lower your weapon,” Darwin said to Kitchens. “This brave man has a long journey ahead of him and a road to riches, glory and victory should he choose to take it. As for the rest of this lot,”--Darwin waved his blade in a circle, making sure to keep the point eye level with the crowd as if he were singling out each and every one of the now two hundred plus listeners around him--“I don’t see anyone else brave enough or hungry enough for power to join us at Mt. Lawlheima. Let’s go.”
    “Great Lord Darwin!” not one, but several people called out, although none entered the ring of empty space that had formed around Darwin. “We too wish to join you!”
    “Me too, Great Lord Darwin!” some others stacked on their requests.
    “I see. Kitchens, am I wrong? Are there others worthy of our cause? Are there others who wish to unite the world under one banner?” Darwin asked, staring into the crowd.
    “Perhaps they should all be given the chance to test their metal and show their valor?” Kitchens said, sheathing his sword.
    “Then I will give them all the same chance that I gave this man.” Darwin smacked the back of the Canine who had first volunteered so hard it knocked him forward, and he almost face planted into the ground. It was on purpose though. He needed to exaggerate his standing and his strength for this ploy to properly carry its weight. “Any man that comes to Mt. Lawlheima, and shows himself before the War General Alex without guild, weapon, armor or the vestiges of his past shall be granted the chance for a great and mighty future as one of the chosen!”
    “Is it wise to give so many of the riff raff a chance to share in our riches?” Kitchens asked, his voice dripping with anything but true sincerity.
    “Of course it is! It is the heavens that decide a man’s fate, choose his destiny the moment he is born. That is the duty of heaven, and it is our duty as the foil of heaven to undo this forced path and offer mankind opportunity! We will give them a chance that no man or woman has ever had before!” Darwin shouted. “Come tonight, those who are brave. For now, we’ve said what we needed, Kitchens. Let’s be off. For the next time we visit this city, it may be the last day this city isn’t ours!”
    With that, Darwin used every ounce of his strength and speed to push off the ground and into the air, running across the roofs of the town as if he were part cheetah, part parkour master. He had to beat anyone who might go straight there from arriving before he could explain everything to Alex and the rest of them. He had to make sure this plan went off without a hitch because he couldn’t let Eve win. Of course to her, this was probably just all part of Stephanie’s plan.
    Kitchens, who had taken off with Darwin the second he bounded up onto the rooftops, struck up a conversation as the leapt from building to building. “So if this guild idea fails, I imagine that we can always find work with an acting troupe,” Kitchens teased Darwin.
    “Hey, did you have a better idea?” Darwin laughed, still remembering the faces of the players who were watching. Worse yet, he could only imagine how frustrated players on the other side of the continent must be, watching one ‘game event’ after another occurring so far across the world they’d have to give up leveling for a couple of days just to reach it.
    “I was still ready for the runaway plan,” Kitchens admitted with a shrug. “Running away as fast as you can has served a lot of good men very well.”
    “Everyone with half a brain is always ready for that plan,” Darwin agreed. “I just figured I’d wing it. You don’t have any complaints do you? You seemed to play along pretty well.”
    “Of course I played along. It was fun to watch too. But I do have a question: Why are you having them show up at Mt. Lawlheima unarmored and without weapons? Hoping to see what some of the female players look like without clothes?” Kitchens said, for some reason reminding Darwin of Daniel.
    “No, I just don’t want to deal with someone taking the offer up just so they can get close enough to us to stab us. The quest was only given out to guild leaders, right? So if they are in our guild, then they can’t be completing that quest on behalf of another guild. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. Maybe the game has a mechanism to prevent guild members from killing guild NPCs.” Darwin turned to Kitchens slightly and shrugged. They had both made it past the outer wall and were running side by side back through the forest outside the town. “Either way, we’re better off if they don’t have access to a dagger when they are inches away from Alex, especially with how he has been talking about players lately.”
    “Not a bad idea, not a bad idea. You’re getting rather good at this leadership on the fly thing, Darwin,” Kitchens complemented him as the two continued running.
    “Let’s hope so, and let’s hope it’s enough.” Darwin gave a rather weak smile.
“You know you’re going to have to come up with devilish plans and evil schemes to keep the player base you’re recruiting though, right? I mean, they are going to expect you to sack cities and burn players to cinders. They’re going to be joining for blood, and you don’t want to be the monarch who buys mercenaries but doesn’t pay them. It never turns out well for that prince.”
“Well, I have a few ideas. Let’s just see how many people we get, but I’m thinking if we can stop the assaults on Mt. Lawlheima, then perhaps the next step is to secure some weapons and blacksmiths.” Darwin thought back on the royal armory. “Perhaps we take over more than one dungeon too, have one just for the players.”
“That’s not a bad idea, give them their own little player town in the middle of a dungeon, let them build and develop it without risking them being too close to our NPCs,” Kitchens said and nodded his agreement. “You’re improving indeed, Darwin. If you keep it up, then maybe you’ll actually be the leader you think you’re just pretending to be.”
“Let’s hope so, Kitchens. Let’s hope so.” Darwin left the conversation at that, focusing on his running as he and Kitchens made their mad dash towards Mt. Lawlheima. He may have forgotten about it for a moment, but Stephanie did mention a fight going on back at the base, one he wanted to get to as quickly as possible.

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