Thursday, December 17, 2015

Volume 3 - Chapter 8 - Darwin

Don't you hate it when you have an annoying amount of stuff to read coming into the weekend? Sorry =P I'll be guilty this time of contributing to that. Serious question though:
Would you like consistent updates, or a bunch at once on Christmas as a present?

Ps. Most of this chapter was written on my phone waiting for 4 hours for sears auto to do a stupid oil change and check my suspension. Apparently, even if you schedule an appointment you still have to wait? What's the point of an appointment?
Garages and Doctors, I'd rather them meet their appointments than overbook for a profit margin. Anyways, grumbling aside, here is a Darwin section. Leave your thoughts, also, leave your thoughts on the outcome of
Kass? How do you think Darwin will react when he hears about Kass's untimely fate? (Whatever that fate may be). Will Steph even tell him?  Why was Steph there to begin with? DUN DUN DUN!!!!!! (Cue dramatic soap opera music).


“So . . . what’s the plan?” Darwin asked Kitchens as the two of them approached the beast city.
“I would normally say we just storm the gates, murder everyone in sight who’s pointing a weapon at us and then go from there, but I imagine we need to be quick, don’t we?” Kitchens replied and looked at the gates. “Drawing attention will slow us down, and, if we get slowed down, then we’ll end up failing to accomplish our goal before the crowd arrives.”
“Yeah, we should probably treat it like it’s a sold-out venue and assume that they’ll be showing up early. Even if Daniel does a good job of stalling them out for a bit, Alex is expeditious and efficient in everything he does. He’ll cut right through that forest like a knife through butter.”
“Don’t you mean a hot knife through butter?” Kitchens corrected his simile.
“Really, Kitchens? Your sword goes through people, monsters and armor, and yet you’re worried that, if your knife isn’t warmed up, it’ll be slowed down by the butter?” Darwin chuckled.
“That's . . . You do that to people a lot, don’t you?” Kitchens observed.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Darwin said, feigning ignorance.
“You leave out bits and pieces of sentences to bait people into verbal traps,” Kitchens elucidated.
“So if we can’t use the gate, do you think we should try the whole sneaking in through a caravan thing?” Darwin asked, changing the subject.
“You don’t think that would take too long?” Kitchens looked at a few of the caravans going through the gate. “It would work, but the gate is understaffed and crowded, so we’d end up having to wait half an hour to an hour just for the caravan to get permission to pass, assuming they didn’t catch us.”
“So it’s a risk that could put us behind schedule and push us back to your Plan A an hour late?” Darwin summarized Kitchens’ explanation.
“Yeah, it is. Do you have any other ideas?” Kitchens asked Darwin without turning his head from the city.
“Well, how about that wall? I don’t know how much you weigh, but . . .” Darwin looked over at one of the walls. How do the strength and speed stats work in this game exactly? I can carry a sword that should weigh 20 pounds like it’s a feather, so what about a person? If I can toss a spear hundreds of yards, how far can I--
“One of us could try throwing the other over the wall?” Kitchens said, finishing Darwin’s sentence.
“Yeah, it doesn’t sound too ridiculous, does it?”
“Not too much, but it will be noticed. You will be noticed. Once we get over--assuming we can actually get over--what’s your plan?” Kitchens asked.
“Well, we can’t just go with your door plan on the roof?”
“You mean kill everything?”
“Yeah, it seemed good. It had a solid lack of thinking that I really appreciated,” Darwin laughed as he struggled to actually plan past the initial landing.
“Except it would still put us back to being bogged down in the time consuming task of killing everyone in the town before we make it to the council chambers,” Kitchens pointed out.
Logic, annoying and pestilent logic. “Alright, you know what? We’ll just wing it and try to sneak in. I’ll toss you up. You silence the guards and then toss me down a rope, and we’ll go from there.” Darwin was annoyed with the fact that a better strategy just wasn’t coming to mind. I’m usually a lot better at thinking up a quick tactic, but how am I supposed to put a game plan together when I don’t know the first thing about what the wall security is even going to be? Darwin frowned. This was either going to be a really tough or a really easy day, but, no matter which of the two it ended up being, it promised to be a long one.
“If you say so, boss,” Kitchens said, stressing ‘boss,’ as if he were only going along with the half-cocked plan because Darwin had ordered it.
Darwin, sensing that twinge of insubordination, grumpily grabbed both Kitchens’ arms, did a spin and hurled him. They weren’t exactly close to the wall, and it wasn’t exactly like Darwin had taken the time to carefully calculate the trajectory in his head beforehand. He had done it so quick that even Kitchens looked surprised as he rocketed towards the top of the wall. Darwin could almost make out Kitchens’ attempt at waving the cat-man flew up and actually landed--most likely on his feet as Darwin figured--on the other side, disappearing from sight altogether in the process. Darwin waited a few minutes and then a coil of rope shot over the tiled mud and plaster wall that topped the massive, stone barrier.
Darwin grabbed hold of the rope and started to pull himself up. Kind of wish we had brought Daniel, Valerie or Mclean. They would have been able to just carry us to the top and that would have been that.
When Darwin got over the side of the wall, he wasn’t met with a gruesome scene of corpses, severed limbs and a wall sprayed with enemy entrails. Instead, the only thing he saw was Kitchens holding onto a rope, the one Darwin was using to climb up, and an armored Feline next to him giving a slightly impatient look.
“So is that all you need it for?” the guard asked Kitchens as Kitchens handed the rope back to him.
“Yeah, thanks a lot for the help,” Kitchens gave the other Feline man a smile and a shallow bow as the soldier took his rope.  
“No problem. When I heard that our kind was part of the group that did it, well, you can imagine how happy I was.” The guard gave Kitchens a pat on the back and then turned to start leaving.
“That was strange, wasn’t it?” Darwin observed as the sentry disappeared.
“Yeah, when I first came up here, he looked more shocked that I didn’t take the front door than the fact that to him I had apparently leapt over this ridiculously tall obstacle. He didn’t seem to even consider for a moment that I was an invader trying to conquer his kingdom.” Kitchens looked a bit disappointed.
“There, there, buddy.” Darwin patted him on the back in the best over exaggerated comforting manner he could pull off. “There will be plenty of other guards to use your blade on in the future. Let’s get a move on.”
“It wasn’t that. It’s just . . .” Kitchens gave Darwin a strange concerned look that Darwin couldn’t make out.
“Something feels off?” Darwin understood his concerns. He felt the same way a bit. The guard hadn’t just been complacent and incompetently trying to ward off invaders; he had even helped the invaders by lending them rope so they could climb up.
“Yeah, you could say that. This feels like we’re taking a trojan horse.”
“It might be a trap, admiral, but what are we going to do about it? Actually, I have a serious question: Why didn’t you have rope?”
“Why would I carry around a rope?”
“Why wouldn’t you? I mean, what if we were in a dungeon with a super-steep wall, or we were trying to invade a town full of beasts with really tall fortifications? Did you never play board games? Always carry a pole and a rope. It’s not like it would eat inventory space with Tiqpa’s storage system,” Darwin said as he shook his head. How does he play an MMO without knowing the golden laws of the original dungeon games.
“A rope and a pole?” Kitchens asked as the two of them descended the flight of stairs to the ground level of the city, walked past two guards as if nothing were out of the ordinary and continued on through the marketplace towards the capital without a single person noticing that the giant, horned man was out of place or in any way noteworthy, which was quite odd, given that Eve’s quest should still be active, and Darwin had forgotten to raise the hood on his outfit.
“Yeah, a ten-foot pole to be exact,” Darwin specified.
“What would you even do with a ten-foot pole?” Kitchens cringed, his mind likely farther in the gutter than
“The uses for a ten-foot pole are . . .” Darwin paused. He knew at least a hundred, but he also knew that, in most MMOs, there wouldn’t be any. Creativity had dropped off in the gaming world ever since things were standardized by gaming scripts. Trying to explain how a ten-foot pole could be used as anything but a weapon in most videogames would be as fruitless as explaining the differences in red wine to someone who refuses to drink alcohol. “Nevermind.”
“If you say so,” Kitchens responded accompanied by conceding shrug. “By the way, you didn’t bother with a disguise?”
“Well, I’m a nearly seven-foot-tall, humanish guy with horns and red eyes. Not much you can do to cover that up,” Darwin answered and frowned. “I’m just surprised none of the guards have even bothered making a move to stop us--or none of the players for that matter.”
“Yeah, does this mean the quest is no longer in effect?” Kitchens’ brow furrowed as he looked around squinting, likely trying to find a clue as to what could be causing the lack of defense.
“So I know we planned to go into the town acting like assassins, sneak in and murder the council, but . . . what exactly are we supposed to do if this keeps up?” Darwin nervously looked at one of the guards waving at him as he passed through the market on his way to the town center.
“If they keep acting like it’s a quaint country town, and we’re here to drop off pie for the new neighbors?” Kitchens said as one of the town’s trusted defenders gave the two of them a little bow of the head.
“Yeah, that.” Darwin sighed. It’s much easier to go around maiming and butchering the hateful attackers than it is to do it to the friendly, pie-wielding neighbor. “We could ask them what’s going on.”
“Ask them why they aren’t attacking us? You’re not concerned that might make them actually attack us?” Kitchens laughed. “It’s like asking your girlfriend why she is still dating you. Even if she has plenty of reasons, you’re making her reconsider it with every inquiry.”
“Hmm, that’s a good point, but we don’t have to ask one of the guards. We could ask a townsman?” Darwin looked around. “We could even ask one of the players. Since neither of us read the forum, maybe we are missing out on some information?”
“And deal with what might happen when the players remember the quest reward to gang up and kill you? Stick with an NPC trader. Traders will look at a dangerous pair that they should, under all law-abiding and nationalistic notions, attack or apprehend and instead try to barter with the deadly duo. We’re much less likely to encounter any problems if we go to one of the vendors to find out what’s happening,” Kitchens suggested.
“Can we not refer to ourselves as a ‘deadly duo’?” Darwin asked and then remembered that previously Kitchens had kept calling him ‘fire’ after some elemental affinity and cringed. I really hope he doesn’t go around referring to me as a flamer with the usual serious and unaware mentality of most fathers either, he grumbled to himself. “That said, a shopkeeper does sound like the safest option. Let’s go with that one,” Darwin said, agreeing with the suggestion quickly in hopes that the name-calling situation would be forgotten.
“Whatever you say, boss,” Kitchens used a stress condescending tone for the last word this time.
His feelings didn’t get hurt about me rejecting the title ‘deadly duo,’ did they? Darwin sighed as he walked up to the closest shopkeeper. It was a rather tall Reptilian that was yelling around to every passerby that his ‘wares’ were the best in town. His wares of course were oils, specifically beauty creams. Does this make him a bonafide snake oil salesman? Darwin mused to himself, trying to decide if he could actually get away with that loose interpretation of race and occupation. He's not actually a snake, but it's close enough to call him a snake oil salesman instead of lizard man oil salesman, right? He assured himself of his pun, only to hear a chuckle from Kitchens.
“Snake oil salesman. This stuff just writes itself.” Kitchens face showed the effot he wa putting into suppressing a louder laugh.
“Let's just hope none of his beauty creams are labeled salacious secretions or exotic excretions,” Darwin said snidely.
“We have both of those in stock,” the lizard man said, tipping his narrow-brimmed fedora with his tail as he spun around holding two jars of questionable looking gunk. “Just name your pleasure and buy your miss the perfect treasure, an age reversing lotion or a weight reducing potion.”
“Uhhh . . . I'll pass.” Darwin thought for a minute. Wait, does he have any potions that might increase my effectiveness in combat? Have I gone days inside this game without researching alchemy? “We just came here for some information.”
“Oh, well in that case I have the perfect set of lists for any young man if you catch my gist!” The vendor reached under the table and pulled out several books worth of lists. “So let's cut straight to the coin. What's your type?”
“My type?” Darwin stepped back, a bit shocked.
“No need to be shy. You name it, and I've got the info on it. Looking for a pretty panda? I got books. Only looking for a certain age? Don't worry, we can narrow that down too. We even have books based on just the face. You name your type, and I'll find you the perfect date.” The lizard winked.
“Are you trying to pimp out girls?” Kitchens put his hand on his katana and started to unsheath it. “Or are you just gonna kidnap them?”
The salesman, seeing the aggressive gesture and Kitchens’ ready stance, put up both his hands and started giving his defense “Oh, no, sir! I only trade in information. What's their favorite flower, where they like to hang out . . . I'm just a simple merchant who compiles information. If you already have a girl in mind, I can tell you what her choice dish is and what music she likes. I can't assure you a date or even a smile.”
So he's worse than a pimp. He's an assistant pickup artist. Darwin facepalmed. “We are just wondering why no-one has attacked us,” Darwin said, deciding to cut to the exact information he wanted.
“It could be those gaudy muscles or that terrible fashion sense. Maybe what you need isn't creams or info, but a stylist and a tailor. For a small fee, I can close up the shop right now and take you to the best tailor in town. Mark my words, by the time the sun sets, women will be lining up to pounce you. My boy is real good, hooked me up with this fancy coat and hat to match the northerners.”
“That's not what I meant,” Darwin, explained, facepalming for a second time. “I mean, wait, do you have any information on us in those books?”
“Oh, not really. You're a total mystery to everyone, except for the fact your tastes are more lacking than the paper bag boy,” the salesman scoffed.
“Paper bag boy? That seems like an odd thing to pick out. Do they have another option for groceries? Like a plastic bag boy?” Darwin asked.
“Option for groceries? Plastic? I don't know what you're talking about. I meant the boy who runs around wearing a paper bag. Don't tell me that ragged-up buffoon’s name is ‘Plastic,’ and that's the new kings type,” the salesman hissed scornfully.
“Huh? The new king?” Darwin’s mouth hung open a minute.
“Well, aren't you? Last we heard, the Panda King went to kill you and turned up dead. He did try to kill you, right? There isn't another giant human with horns running around, is there?” The indignant scaled salesman continued his scoffing.
“So, wait, your monarch dies trying to kill me, and that makes me the king?” Darwin’s mouth opened even further.
“It's not like the decision doesn't make sense. It's not like this was a democracy, and their king was some beloved and chosen ruler they would fight for long past death. No, the only people who fight for a monarch’s name after his death would be the nobles with something to gain,” Kitchens began to elucidate. “Given that no matter which race was in charge, there would always be tension, it's likely the people didn't have a super strong attachment to him or any of his predecessors. So a society that wanted to avoid unnecessary civilian bloodshed during these types of conflicts might adopt a policy like that just to avoid further fighting after their army was defeated. A kind of ‘well if we follow them, they probably won't stab us’ kind of mentality.”
“That . . .” Darwin wanted to point out how silly it was--that, if anyone attacked and killed his country's president, his countrymen would fight to the bitter end, but then he thought about it a little further. There wasn't a chance in hell he’d fight for a leader he didn't care about. As long as the new rulers were generous or didn't change anything, he'd be fine with the result. “That does make sense. So I'm the king of Mt. Lawlheima and the beast city?”
“It appears that way,” Kitchens laughed.
“But what about the whole ‘kill the head honcho’ part of our plan? I mean, unless you're feeling a bit suicidal, we need to think of something quick,” Darwin groaned. This was going to be a lot more complicated than he had anticipated.
“Well, what plans do you have in mind?” Kitchens asked, but his look was the knowingly smug one that made Darwin understand he already knew what Darwin was going to suggest.
“A king should meet his council, don't you think?” Darwin grinned. Forget complicated. I'm just overthinking things.
“A king should indeed meet his council.” Kitchens smiled too.
“I'm surprised no-one told you about it sooner,” the uppity lizard chortled while shaking his head. “Hey, you're the new boss. See? Wasn't hard to say. Why hasn't anyone done it before? Well, forgive my rude compatriots and their inability to inform you at the gates. If you want to meet your new advisors, they should be waiting in the main chamber of the palace for you. They usually stay there all day and night gossiping and bickering like boys trying to decide which fighter is better.”
“Why does that need to be debated? I'm the best one there is.” Darwin gave a hearty egotistical laugh, complete with an opening ‘Muwahaha.’
“Maybe today, maybe the best alive today, but what about if you were compared to the warriors of old from centuries ago?” the merchant asked.
“Doesn't matter. I win,” Darwin said with a laugh and then flexed his royal authority, “or are you questioning your king?”
“Sir, I'm a humble trader. I may pay taxes to the crown but my only king and god is the coin. Now, if you buy enough of my products, I'll call you whatever you want.” The lizard-man’s tongue snaked out as he spoke the last phrase before punctuating it with another wink and a slap on Darwin’s arm.
“Alright, well, let's get moving. We still have a schedule to keep before all hell breaks lose, and we start losing our own townspeople to our own troops.” Darwin thought about Alex breaking through the door and attacking everyone indiscriminately under his own orders.
“Yeah, good point. See you round, Liz.” Darwin waved and left. He knew where the palace was. Who didn’t? It stood out more than that one girl with a callipygian figure and yoga pants in the gym trying to do bent over rows off a squat rack.
“Are you sure you don’t have time to buy some skin treatment creams before you leave? You don’t want to show up to your coronation with dry and flakey skin, do you? I can even try to get some hair growth for you if you want to try regrowing your fur!” the salesman called out as Darwin and Kitchens walked towards the palace.
“You have to admire his tenacity at least,” Kitchens remarked. “If I were younger, I might have been tricked into buying one of his products for the wife. She used to love that expensive stuff.”
“Really? You’d think, with a game like this, no-one would be conned. I mean, can’t you just edit your skin texture in the character creation screen?”
“I meant if I met someone like him in real life.”
“Ah, well, in that case, yeah, he does seem good. But for a moment I thought you were going to tell me you would have been conned into buying information off of his list,” Darwin laughed. “I mean, I don’t know . . . Maybe back in the day that’s just how things were, old man.”
“You realize it’s a bit hypocritical to call me old man, right? I am almost positive that, when I log off, you’re the old man in the group,” Kitchens correctly assumed. “You calling me old man is like the two babies in the group arguing over who is the whelp.”
“Yeah, but, while you’re still here, I need to take the pot shot before I lose the opportunity,” Darwin chortled more. “Not like we’re recruiting people who know what a flip phone is on a regular basis.”
“That’s true, whipper-snapper,” Kitchens returned fire. “So you think there is something preventing the other players from attacking us here? Because the king title might explain why the NPC guards have been treating us well, even if they seem annoyed to do so, but it doesn’t explain why the players haven’t been doing anything.”
“Have you actually seen any players?” Darwin noticed that while there were a few players, one or two, here and there, there weren’t any significant numbers in the streets like there had been last time. He couldn’t be entirely certain, however, as the players may have just disguised themselves very well, but it was quite evident most of the time who a player was by the way they clustered, the odd garb they considered fashionable, or their insistence on holding weapons and wearing armor in town as if they were going to be forced into a brawl at any moment. The NPCs, for the most, part were dressed like they were professional role players and never broke character like a struggling extra afraid he’d lose his last paycheck if the director heard him say one word without a fake accent. The last big give away, one for which you had to be close enough to listen to the NPCs talk to tell, was the sentences. Most of the players spoke in choppy, to-the-point sentences that featured as few words as possible put together in an order that would make a 7th grade language teacher cringe, whereas the NPCs always spoke in full sentences that were somehow magically grammatically correct even though Darwin hadn’t seen a single school his entire time in Tiqpa. How did they even learn to read and write? He found himself baffled after thinking about it.
“Not enough for a city this size. Did we scare them all away?” Kitchens’ head turned quickly around this way and that. “Do you get that eerie feeling we are walking through a bad horror movie too? That there might be some weird terror waiting for us around the next corner?”
“You go to the paranoid option quick, don’t you?” Darwin observed.
“Well, you know, war and winter. Those that don’t worry over the small possibilities either end up dead or turn out lucky when one of those two hits. Last I checked, we are in a war . . . or at least we were,” Kitchens noted.  
“That is a good point, but maybe you’re overthinking it.” Darwin didn’t actually think he was. ‘Eery’ was an understatement, he felt as creeped out than the only girl at an anime convention, and, even though he didn’t see anyone looking at him, he had the strange sensation of eyeballs following his every moment. He just knew that the only thing he could do was operate on the knowledge he had at hand and trust in his zweihander. “Maybe the good players all just joined our guild, and that’s why the city is mostly bare. The ones that are left are just the crafters.” And let’s hope you believe that because I don’t want to put too much time into worrying about something I can’t change.
“So that’s how you think it is?” Kitchens looked at Darwin for a moment, an odd flat glare as the two continued walking. “Then I suppose it wouldn’t hurt one way or the other if we just dashed at full speed. After all, we do have a schedule to keep up with.”
“No. No, it wouldn’t,” Darwin replied and nodded, and the two sprinted. It wasn’t just the ordinary sprint, but it was like a game as Darwin ducked, weaved and spun around the people walking through the market. He was going so fast he could feel the wind pressing against his face stronger than any natural breeze or gust ever had as he gave it his all. At one point, failing to find a path between a rather obnoxious group of hippo-sized bear people, Darwin jumped over them and didn’t land until he was dozens of feet past them on the other side. He was having so much fun playing his little impromptu game of ‘dodge the pedestrian’ that he almost didn’t notice when they reached the gates of the palace. He would have kept going right past it if Kitchens hadn’t yelled ‘stop’ at him once or twice.
“We’re here,” Kitchens said one last time in a voice that made Darwin think that his statement of fact was more than just that and had the purpose of making sure Darwin didn’t keep barreling down the road. “In excellent time, I might add.”
“Yeah, I kind of hope we didn’t knock too much over on the way.” Darwin looked back at the wake of his run. The people behind him were still staring at the two strangely as if a celebrity and a famous axe murderer had showed up at the same time.
“Should we call a guard, have them get all prepared for us, or just go in unannounced and make them nervous?” Kitchens questioned, looking up at the rather large building.
“You mean like a dad who wakes up too early and catches his kids still playing games at 5:00 a.m.?” Darwin asked as he scaled the marble stairs toward the ornately-gilded, double-door entrance at the top.
“Angry father catching the kids gaming it is,” Kitchens said as he followed Darwin up the stairs.
“Might as well get the persona right. I’m told heads will roll at this meeting if we don’t get all eight copies of our Monday TPS reports from each person in the department.”
“TPS report? That sounds computery. Have you worked in an IT department?”
“No, but it just seemed like an appropriate line. If I was to go into how ridiculous and redundant some of the military procedures can be, well, you might have a real hard time believing me,” Kitchens laughed. “I mean, we had a guy show up late by half a minute at the beginning of the month once, and, by the end of the month, they had us showing up at 4:00 a.m. just to make sure we didn’t miss the PT that didn’t start until 7:30 a.m. My cursed punctuality had me there at 3:45 that time. And that’s just an average day for the enlisted.”
“Remind me never to join the military.” Darwin’s gamer instincts caused him to recoil at the thought of all the potential EXP wasted from sitting around and doing nothing for two and a half hours.
“Nah, it’s good. I’d go on about how it enforces discipline or some other mumbo jumbo, but, to be honest, its the dental and health insurance that really sells it. They have great dental,” Kitchens replied and shrugged.
Darwin, having reached the top of the stairs, opened the door to find nothing. It was just a large empty chamber with fancy, elaborate paintings of everything from waterfalls to cherry blossom trees on every wall. There were all the kinds of nature paintings in which a few leaves would be beautifully laid out on the canvas, and then there would be nothing else but blank space surrounding the painted the leafy bits. It was eye-catching enough to make both Kitchens and Darwin pause until a guard interrupted their thoughts. “Can I help you?” the halberd-carrying lynx hybrid said, pulling the two men back to reality.
“Yeah, we’re looking for the council chambers,” Darwin said, not seeing any marked doors or guiding placards in the room.
“Right this way, King Hornsenstuff, and, might I say, you are dressed impeccably,” the guard turned and took the two of them towards one of the walls.
“King Hornsenstuff?” Darwin asked, then touched one of the horns on his head.
“Oh, that’s just what the council calls you since no-one knows your actual name,” the guard said without even turning around to address him. “We were told you won a tournament and proved yourself the noblest and greatest fighter in the city before overthrowing the king, but, for some reason, the previous tenant to the crown threw away all the records of the event, so we only had hearsay to go on.”
And no one remembered my name? Well, I guess the primary witness and many of the other secondary witnesses probably died in the ring that day or in the big battle later, Darwin thought to himself and sighed. Oh well. I can enter it in the records later. That is the prerogative of the victor, right? To alter the records to ‘best’ reflect history?
“Now, I will warn you,” the lynx-man continued, “I’ve been told not to let anyone into the council chamber because they are currently in the middle of a serious debate discussing important matters of state.”
“But you’re taking us to them regardless?” Kitchens asked.
“Of course! Have to follow the line of authority after all. My mother always taught me to do whatever the boss says unless his boss says different,” he chuckled as the three of them approached a wall with a waterfall painting on it. “Here you are,” he said, pressing a petal of a flower painted near the waterfall. When he hit the button, a clicking sound was heard, and the entire wall slowly slid open to reveal an even larger room with what looked like fifty different were-beasts eating finger foods and drinking what Darwin could only assume was wine or sake were huddled around the floor in groups of five or six  and rolling dice.
“Who dares disturb a council meeting! Can’t you see we’re up to important work!” one of the men yelled as they all turned to see why the door had opened.
Up to important work, are they? Darwin glanced around at the strange markings, the old-fashioned character cards and the high numbered dice. They are! They’re playing board games! “Very, very important work, I’m sure,” he said as sarcastically as possible.
“I don’t know. Maybe they’ll learn the importance of a ten foot pole,” Kitchens mocked with a laugh. “Perhaps they’ll even be sure to carry rope.”
“This is because of the old man remarks, right?” Darwin laughed.
“Yep,” Kitchens snickered. “Us old men have to have a good memory, or there would be no point in a long life.”
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, but we are deeply immersed in serious matters of state,” the loud-spoken one who first assaulted Darwin’s ears with his snappish complaint about being interrupted replied in a much softer, but still condescending, manner.
“Matters of state, huh?” Darwin remained skeptical as he looked around.
“It’s really quite simple. We break into groups of five--or six if we have leftover people--and play as the opposition. We run simulations on all possible attacks or outcomes over and over again in a safe and secure game setting. We try our best to conquer the town, and then, if we win, we talk about what weakness was exploited,” a rhino-man said without even looking up. He looked as if he were too busy with his character sheets to be bothered by anything around him.
“That’s . . .” Darwin considered if this would count as red teaming. “That’s actually pretty ahead of the times. What scenario are you running now?”
“Well, we were, at least until you interrupted us, carrying out simulations on what would happen if you rejected the crown and came to butcher us all. We had to shore up our defenses and do what is best for the peasants, but we’d much rather have you just accept the crown and move on like every other good-natured king before you. After all, you clearly don’t have any issues with the beast-born servants as your right-hand man seems to be one,” the rhino said as he put on some spectacles and turned around to face Darwin. “You are going to take the crown, right?”
“Where is the crown?” Darwin looked around for it, wondering if he were speaking literally or figuratively.
“Oh, Tompkins, go fetch him his crown,” the rhino said while waving his hand like he was brushing dirt off some imaginary object hanging in the air.
“Yes, Councilman Tato.” The guard that had shown the new king into the room bowed and then disappeared. While he may have said that Darwin was higher up on the food chain, he treated the council with more pomp and circumstance than he did Darwin.
Tato? Like Potato? Darwin pondered for a second as he looked at the rhino-man, but, as soon as he saw the shape, he understood immediately where the name came from. Whoever programmed him must have had a good sense of humor to name that poor guy Tato, he laughed to himself.
“Is something funny, King . . .  Well, what is your name?” Tato asked, the others still staring at him, one or two even trying to sneak in more gaming.
“Just this whole situation,” Darwin honestly said. Then, seeing Tompkins returning with a crown, he reached out. “Let me see that thing.” The crown was as ordinary as crowns came. It was solid gold, but didn’t have a single jewel to it, and the sides looked like they had different thicknesses throughout. “Is there a reason this has no decoration and kind of looks beat up?” Darwin asked as he stared at the odd, junky crown. He had never anticipated that a solid gold object could so closely resemble a piece of trash.
“It gets resized a lot,” Tompkins answered before Tato or one of the other dice-rolling fogies could finish clearing their throats to interject with their own--Darwin could only assume sarcastic--response.
“Oh.” Darwin looked back at the misshapen piece of head jewelry.
“Differently-shaped heads always taking power and whatnot. We will need to get a smith to fit it to your head of course, because I am pretty sure yours isn’t the size of a panda’s, but that can take place before the coronation or whatever fancy event your kind do to mark the occasion of claiming regency,” Tato said with a sneer, talking down to Darwin again, his tone filled with condemnation and disgust.
Don't like being ruled by someone who looks like a Human, ey? Darwin guessed at the reason. Every race represented in the council probably held the same ire toward Humans and anything that resembled one as the Panda King did. While the townsfolk and merchants he had stumbled across were very clearly humanoid in appearance, these councilmen were as close to looking like their original beasts as could be. They didn't have any traces of humanity on them. “That's fine. I'll figure it out. Actually, there is another problem we need to address. How is this little group put together?”
“I beg your pardon, sir?” A new voice, one coming from a giant polar bear who had looked up at Darwin, said tersely.
“Are you elected? Do the people come and choose you to represent them?” Darwin clarified his question.
“Those plebs? Of course not. We were hand picked by the king himself as the finest representatives from the royal families of beast city.” The polar bear couldn't have spoken with a more snobbish accent if he tried.
“The king? You mean me? I don't remember picking any of you,” Darwin’s sighed. It wasn't out of frustration, but rather relief at how easy they were making this on him.
“He meant the old king. You're not daft are you?” the rhino groaned, and then, almost as if realizing too late that he had said this to the king and not one of the other humans he considered scum, he tacked on, “I mean, not that I think you are. I am just saying, if you are, that's why we are here, umm . . . Just in case.”
“You were loyal to him, right?” Darwin asked the room. They all nodded, some even verbally acknowledging the question with a ‘yes’ or an ‘of course.’ “Well, then that makes three reasons I have to kill you all,” he said as he calmly pulled out his zweihander.
“I was worried you'd spend forever talking to corpses,” Kitchens started his usual slow walk toward his first chosen opponent.
“Tompkins, if anyone escapes this room while we are busy, I will hunt you down and kill you,” Darwin threatened before turning back to the paling group of old, snobby aristocrats.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Tompkins readied his halberd like a staff as he guarded the only exit to the room.
“You're not going to make me do all the work, are you?” Kitchens asked as first blood was drawn, and a fat ape lost its head. The second it happened, the cowering, quaking crowd, which had sat frozen in place like a shocked deer caught in the headlights of Darwin's initial declaration, burst into high-pitched screams, pleads and sniffles as they panicked and started fleeing towards the exit.
As understandable as their noisy, frightened flight was, it was also grating on Darwin’s ears and his patience. The room almost echoed their pitiful screams. Why won't any of them just fight back, he complained internally as he chopped one of them in half. On the battlefield, they come to you. It makes it easy. Here there is so much more chasing and effort involved. He felt malice boil in his blood as his second swing fell half an inch short of a good clean cut through a fleeing pig. It still killed the pig, but it just wasn't the crisp, down-the-middle cut he had wanted.
“You feel like barbeque after this?” Kitchens asked, likely inspired by the smell of pieces of Mr. Bacon being roasted on Darwin's flaming blade. After all, it had definitely made Darwin hungry.
“I am, and I think there should be enough here for everyone in Daniel and Alex’s group to eat.
“So this will go from company murder retreat to a nice guild picnic?” Kitchens chuckled as his sword cut through another one of the sniveling bureaucrats.
“Sure,” Darwin nodded as his sword sliced cleanly through the arms Tato had held up in self-defense.
“Question, boss: I get that they were loyal to the previous king, and we need something for the guild, but what's the third reason we are killing them?” Kitchens asked over the screaming councilmen as he methodically whittled their numbers down. It had been less than a minute, and Kitchens and Darwin had already wiped out well over half of them.
“Have you ever heard the story of Agathocles?” Darwin asked.
“I may have. The name sounds familiar. But then again, every Greek name from the old days sounds familiar.”
“Well, throughout history, there have been tons of evil rulers who have risen to power through violence or cruelty, but for the early part, they mostly end up with a fate that I’d prefer not to have: They died. Just look at how many times the Italian city states changed hands. That is, of course, with a few exceptions in the early chronicles, my favorite being Agathocles,” Darwin said, beginning his story as his sword sliced and diced through the dwindling crowd of politicians. “Agathocles was the lowborn son of a good-for-nothing potter, but he went the military route instead of following his father’s footsteps. Through merciless tactics and a cunning mind, he was able to rise to the position of Praetor of Syracuse. Now, this normally would be the end of the career path for most military men of his low birth, never having another step up to take, but he was smart about it. He, under the guise of a concerned citizen and respected military commander, assembled the people of the senate as if he was going to tell them of some important strategy or matter of business that needed to be addressed to help them deal with the Carthaginians. Except, when they all got there, he butchered them. He had well-paid mercenaries and men loyal to him waiting for his order, and they massacred what is said to be the ten thousand richest citizens in Syracuse that night, making Agathocles both rich and uncontested. Essentially, he went from praetor to dictator with a single command, and, since there were no dissenters or men loyal to the previous senate left alive, there was no one to challenge him in times of hardship during the war with Carthage that followed. He lived a long and happy life, dying a rich and fat man with many heirs, something I hope to do myself.”
“Die from obesity?” Kitchens replied with a smirk.
“No, live a long and happy life,” Darwin responded, a bit miffed.
“So you read a lot of history?” Kitchens asked. “If you did, you’d have that in common with half of my old barracks. They used to read all the time. Kind of surprised me. I expected to be serving with dumb grunts, but the free time had us all studying something.”
“Nah, it was something I read as a required summer reading for one of my haughty, better-than-thou English teachers. I was one of the dorky kids that actually did the reading,” Darwin shrugged. “But the point remains. We need to butcher everyone here and every family that had close political ties to the previous Panda, or we’ll end up like Cesare Borgia.”
“I take it that one didn’t properly kill off his dissenters? Or at least, in the fifty television shows made about him, he didn’t.”
“And for his mercy, he paid a price I’m not too eager to share,” Darwin sheathed his zweihander. Everyone in the room but Tompkins was dead, and their blood was making it so that Darwin and Kitchens were having to slosh more than walk across the room as they returned to the entrance. “Tompkins, how many guards do we have nearby?”
“There is only me and nine others on duty in the palace at the moment. The garrisons surrounding the palace are a bit understaffed too.” Tompkins let a big smile spread across his face. “Apparently some maniac killed off all the poor tigers and bears that used to work there.”
Man, this race stuff is a big deal here, isn’t it? Darwin noted the guard’s joy at the bears and tigers dying. “Alright, well, find as many people as you can. I want these bodies taken to a butcher and every part of them turned into steak-sized slices for cooking.”
“The heads,” Kitchens reminded Darwin.
“Oh, yeah, except the heads. Leave those intact.” Darwin’s eye fell on one of the men whose head had been split right down the middle. “Well, as intact as they are now. Just put them in a bag and bring them to the gate. Kitchens and I have to go greet our new military wing.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Tompkins’ tone was much more reverent after Darwin removed the acting advisors from their positions.
“So this may wrap up the NPCs, but we still need something for our men to kill, and we still need to handle the players who may be after us, and . . .” Kitchens stopped and looked at Darwin, “and you already know what you’re going to do, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Let’s just go have a nice feast. Hey, Tompkins, before you take care of this meat, I need one more thing from you,” Darwin said as he looked over at the lynx. “I need you to tell every citizen of this town to stay inside and lock his doors for the next few hours. Tell the bars to close up their doors and not let anyone in who isn’t a citizen or resident of this city.”
“Umm, Your Highness, I’m not entirely sure how easy it will be to do that,” Tompkins replied hesitantly with a frown. “I can try though.”
“You have one hour, I need all these tasks done, and I don’t care how you do it. Here, take this.” Darwin handed Tompkins a hundred gold pieces. “Go hire criers if you have to. Those doors better be shut, and the streets better be empty.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Tompkins bowed and then practically darted out of the room.
“You think he was afraid you were going to make the list of things to do longer?” Kitchens asked as he stared at the dust trail Tompkins left.
“Maybe. No point in worrying about it now though. Let’s go enjoy a barbeque,” Darwin laughed, and the two of them headed to the gates where Alex and Daniel were supposed to meet them soon.

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