Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Bathrobe Knight - Chapter 1 ( Deadly Spooning)

Author: Charles Dean, Anon
Edited by: Joshua Swayne 

Notes: Start of the series. I hope you enjoy. 
Please let me know how you like the formatting. Publishing of volume 1 is soon, I hope you enjoy.

Darwin felt as though he had two major secrets in life. The first was one that he knew would probably get him laughed out of the office. The other was the type sci-fi movies and bad books had made him too scared to ever share, lest he end up in a lab somewhere.
That's why every morning before work Darwin had a ritual that he couldn’t deviate from. Blue contacts. Tall men’s suits that hung a little loose. Extra-worn nail files. These items were Darwin's mask. The mask that stopped anyone from finding out his first secret. That his eyes were red. That his muscles were embarrassingly large and that his nails had come pre-sharpened.
The second secret Darwin kept, the one he was most worried about breaking his cool guy persona, was ironically one shared by many people at the same office. He was a gamer. He spent his nights with a complete group of strangers in a mystical world of magic and swords where he and every one of the 10 million people playing were there to save the day. He was a hero. He was Arch Lance Ser NightVale, the great level 72 White Knight Commander of the StormGuard Alliance and leader of the 2nd Hope raid group. He smote vile criminals at the tip of his spear and in his free time saved damsels in distress. This, he knew, of all the facets of his otherwise rather tedious existence, would bring him the type of shame that lasts for generations.
No matter how much shame his secret would bring, though, he just couldn't stop playing. Day in and day out, he was at the computer. He didn't even pause his game to eat. It was always ramen, spaghetti, or rice at the computer. The only things that let him know when holidays were coming up or his birthday was near were the in-game notifications and prizes that gave uneventful days like Christmas a meaning. After all, games offer double rewards for grinding on Christmas.
Grinding in games was something he looked forward to so much that he even got off on little inside jokes about the activity. For instance, he had told his coworkers that this particular Christmas he was going to spend the entire time grinding with his special girl. They asked if he had any other plans, and he just winked, nudged, and said, "Yeah, we're going to go to the mountains where there will be plenty of staff usage." He thought he sounded cool, and no one had the heart to tell him otherwise. And that's exactly where Darwin was on Christmas. Grinding in the mountains. In fact, after reaching Mount Horandur, he had managed to kill more Frost Drakes than any other Knight on the server, which may have had something to do with the little detail that he never slept and wasn't hampered by those ridiculous burdens like family dinners or having Christmas presents to open.
It was for this reason that he was stunned when around 8 pm Christmas Day, there was a knock on his door. He moved to get up from his swivel chair then stopped himself. He was in a robe and slippers, his contacts were sitting in solution in their case on the bathroom sink, and his unfiled nails were starting to resemble claws. Anyway, who would be going door to door at this time, and on this day? Darwin wondered if he should walk quietly over to the front door and peek at who his visitor was. But . . . no. Without his mask in place, it was too risky. He looked around quickly to reassure himself that all the lights were off and then for good measure turned the volume on his computer all the way down. The quiet persisted for a few minutes, punctuated only by the clicking of his mouse and keyboard, during which time he couldn't bear to look away from the game for more than a few seconds at a time. Until the knocking began again. Three taps, and then the doorbell, which no one had ever used. It was a sound he felt he should have recognized though he couldn't recall a time when he had merited any visitors. Go away! He wanted to call. I'm not home.
Whoever it was did not go away. Darwin had almost decided that it must be Mrs. Old Lady from across the street bringing him leftover Christmas cookies and was seriously considering that they might be a treat delicious enough to warrant putting in his contacts. Another knock came, more forceful, and then a sound as if someone had body-slammed his door followed by the sound of splintering, cracking wood. Darwin stood up sharply. He thought he heard footsteps in the front hall. Darwin froze and then grabbed the only pointed object he could find: a butter knife. He made his way through the hallway as quietly as possible. He chastised himself about how each step he took towards the unknown assailant was too loud. He should have changed the floorboards. Why did I have to go with a hardwood floor? Carpet wouldn't creak like this, he thought.
Unfortunately for Darwin, his worst fear about the burglar having a gun and having heard him were both true. The burglar's footsteps sounded out in a terrifying jaws-soundtrack-like vibrations as they approached him in the hallway. *Thump Thump. Thump Thump. Thump Thump.* Darwin clenched the dull, edgeless blade while frantically looking around for anything that might be more effective than his butter knife, +1 against spaghetti. *Thump Thump. Thump Thump.* How long does it take to cross the living room into a hallway, you idiot? Just get this over with already! He yelled in his head, jumping out and throwing the butter knife as hard as he could at the direction of the footsteps.
The surprising thing, to both the burglar and Darwin, was that the blade had hit the burglar directly in his right eye, not penetrating but causing him to fall over and squeeze the trigger on his gun a few times. The shots missed. Not waiting for the burglar to get back up, Darwin dashed at him and kicked the burglar's face as the would-be thief made a comic attempt to hold his eye, get up, and not lose the gun at the same time. Success! He probably should have stopped kicking, but Darwin had seen far too many action and horror movies to not make his best attempt at a "double tap" as he kept kicking the man over and over again in the face. Slippers of +10 face-smashing.
It was then that something even more extraordinary than the robbery happened. A small blue status window popped up in the corner of his field of vision. “You have gained 285 experience points!” it read as a ding sounded inside his head “You have reached Level 2!” “You have reached level 3!” Have I lost it? 285 experience points? Th . . . this isn’t a game. Level 2? Level 3? Wha . . . what is going on?
No sooner had the questions popped into his head than a status window appeared. It showed a picture of him silhouetted with his arms spread wide like  Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and his clothes off to the side with lines connecting them to the appropriate body parts. Is this . . . me? he wondered, looking at the numbers and “attributes” listed to the left of the image of him in the status window. Upon seeing all the numbers next to each attribute, his gamer instinct kicked in. He highlighted each attribute looking for the "benefits" and trying to read what each did. Darwin's gaming nature would likely have kept him fiddling around with the status window until work started the next year if it weren't for the sudden white light that shot up from under his feet. A ding sound occurred and then one final message window appeared in front of him before the light consumed his field of vision.

Welcome Home Darwin

The King adjusted the Crown on his head for the 17th time in the last 10 minutes. It wasn't that the Crown didn't fit right--it had always been too big for his head--but the adjusting was more of a nervous reaction than an actual need to get it properly set on his head. He couldn’t help but be nervous given the circumstances. Any minute now one of his ‘loyal’ Scouts would eagerly, and probably cheerfully, present news of the 8th Legion’s defeat on the eastern front to the White-Horn army. Just perfect. If he couldn’t find the right way to spin the news, then the Council that had been plotting against him for the past 4 years would finally have its victory. He needed a way to gain control of the situation before it became out of hand. He desperately needed to keep them from gaining any more footholds with the public against his authority.
Before he could come up with a plan though, the large wooden double doors at the other end of the stone chamber finally opened and the bearer of bad news happily began sauntering across the red carpet that stretched in a line from the door to the throne. A thousand men over level 20 dead, and this fool is one pep in the step away from a hop, skip and a jump. The traitor. The King just couldn’t get it. He saw the Councilmen as rats and fat pigs grubbing over the Captain’s chair of a ship they were sinking in order to kill the Captain. He didn’t care for the chair. If he thought any of them had the slightest idea of how to save the Kingdom, he’d have happily let them take the throne, but he just knew that giving up would only sink the ship quicker, and the White-Horns didn’t have his sense of mercy or justice. If they took over, it’d be Hell on Tiqpa.
“Your Majesty! I bring dire news from the north!” the Messenger said, doing his best to fake a solemn tone.
“I trust it is not too dire. I’m sure if it was I would have received word of it sooner than the weekly update, no?” the King said, half to stall and half to make the happy fool squirm.
“Er . . . that is . . . Your Majesty, the dates just coincided.”
“I see. So the news is that dire, and you waited for the appointment day? I should have you hanged. What if I had wanted to take action upon hearing the dire news?” The King said as his eyes darted around the room looking for inspiration. Minutes. This was only giving him minutes but it had to be enough.
“Sire, if I am to be punished for delaying the news, then please do not let the punishment grow! May I speak?”
King Qasin relented. There wasn’t hope for him, and these minutes served as nothing more than time used to humiliate an idiot soldier who picked the wrong side. “Fine. Deliver the news but be brief as I have news of my own to deliver afterwards.”
“Yes, Majesty. I’ll be brief then. The 8th Legion has been decimated. They fought valiantly against the White-Horn’s threat to Valcrest, but upon failure, they tried to recoup their forces and retreat to safety. Unfortunately, they were routed and destroyed to the last man by the Black-Wings hidden on their southern front between them and Valcrest. There were no survivors.”
“Did you survive?” The King asked. Finally breaking what little confidence the soldier had that he would stay out of prison. The King knew the soldier and the Councilmen likely had either used their own forces to kill the retreating legion, or been in on the Black Wings’ ambush plot.
“Only because I . . . I left the fight early to . . . to make it to the meeting!” the soldier stuttered, his eyes looking to the Councilmen gathered at the front of the crowds that flanked his left and right sides for help. They just smiled though. His purpose had been served, and the King knew they would do nothing to save a used-up pawn.
“But you’re certain it was Black-Wings then?” He pressed. Victory was his. If this day was going to wound the King’s authority, it would need to end the Messenger’s life too.  
Yes. Because of the . . .” his lie that had run so far from truth had come full stop against the wall of his stupidity, cornered by his lack of wits.
“Guards. Thank this man for his news and drag him to the dungeons where he will await execution for desertion during combat.” Unlike the Messenger, who had faked it, the King was genuinely solemn as he issued the order. This small win of the day would do nothing to stop the effect of the news.
“Yes your Ma--” One of the Guards began to approach the soon to be prisoner while speaking when he was cut off by a bright white flash coming from the summoning circle next to the giant wooden double doors.
When the light faded, all that could be seen by the curious silent crowd was one man standing in the center of the golden-gilded summoning circle. The summoning circle, usually only used by court magicians, had never activated without at least three magicians to complete the process, and it certainly had never created such a bright light before. Yet here it had done both, and there stood a man that had left even the battle-hardened soldiers surprised and awestruck.
The King, quickly sizing the man up, saw an opportunity. The people needed hope after the bad news, and he needed a distraction. Here was both. The tall, muscular man’s red eyes looked like the Devil’s, his feet were covered in so much blood he had obviously just come from an incredibly intense battlefield, and he had showed up without needing summoning . . . or had he? This could work.
“Ah, the man of the hour has come sooner than expected!” The King shouted to the crowd, standing up now and walking toward the new arrival. “This man, my friends, is the battle hardened hero I have summoned to win back our front lines! This man will bring us victory where just moments ago we had only defeat in our mouth.”
The man looked more confused than the Councilmen at throne side of the room trying to get a better look at him.
“I will?” The red-eyed man asked, looking around like it was his first time ever seeing a castle.
“Good. Glad to hear it.” The King, still not certain the barbarian wasn’t going to murder him on the spot as he approached, pretended the question was a declaration and just carried on, ignoring Darwin’s concerns entirely. He doesn’t have to win. He just has to buy enough time for the 7th Legion to report a victory. If I can make a big enough spectacle of him, the Council will be too busy trying to figure out who he is to keep meddling in my army’s affairs. Now I just have to make a scene and make him disappear before it gets unwieldy. “So, great warrior, before we send you on your holy quest, what is your weapon of choice? What have you killed the most men with?”
“Killed . . . I killed a man with a butter knife?” He responded, leaving the entire crowd stricken for words.
“A . . . butter knife you say? Wondrous! You see, my people, we have nothing to worry. This man, a man who casually kills with butter knives and salad forks, has traveled great distances to save us from the monster invasions plaguing our borders! We have nothing to fear anymore. Breathe easy and know that fortune has shined on us today. All of you here have born witness to the strength of his summoning. All of you have seen his dreadful visage. So go! Spread the news of coming victory!” The King’s speech rattled out in the manner he knew would leave the peasants gossiping for days and the Councilmen furious. See, you fools? It’s my Kingdom. Even fate doesn’t like the idea of filthy uncooked bacon wearing a Crown. “And you, brave warrior from afar, do you have any words before we send you out to the battlefield, unfairly resting our burdens on your shoulders?”
“Well . . . about the weapon . . . you see actually--” he abruptly stopped before he finished his thought. One of the bodyguards loyal to the King had, unbeknownst to even the King, left the courtroom and returned with a beautiful 6 piece set of golden dinnerware laid neatly on a white silk napkin that he held out in front of him for the red eyed man to pick from.
You’re going to be eating better than me for a month, you brilliant man, the King thought as he saw the Guard presenting the dinnerware. The Guard had saved precious moments that this man could have used to say something that would discredit the story he was building, but the man still had to choose a weapon.
“Go ahead. It’s okay. Choose one of your weapons, and take with it our eternal gratitude, hero.” The King sometimes wanted to throw up in his own mouth as he spouted out such terribly fake lines. He did his best to signal the court mages without alerting the man to what was going on while he spoke, but his nervousness didn’t fade until he saw the circle begin to glow a faint white light.
As soon as the man grabbed a utensil, the King smiled and said, “To the front lines! To victory!” and quickly queued the court mages to finish the final step of the spell and teleport the red-eyed man out of the court. The white flash covered the room and when it was gone, so was the King’s worry. Today had been fortuitous. Not just to him, but to his Kingdom and everyone that wasn’t a filthy, piggish Councilman.
“Well, do we have any more business to attend to?” he asked, but the crowd said nothing. They were all still shocked by the devil-man’s sudden appearance. “No, does the Council not even have a request?”
None of them spoke. The noisy clatter of whispered gossip was gone, and everyone was just staring at the circle until finally one of the youngest Councilmen managed to ask, “What weapon did he take, Sire?”
The King, having forgotten to check himself, finally looked over at the five utensils to see which one was missing. “He took a soup spoon. Is there anything else?” The quiet was broken with muffled murmurs again. If someone had asked another question he hadn’t heard it.
What type of madman goes into battle with a soup spoon? the King thought, looking at the Guard whose face was just as twisted in thought as his was. He adjusted his Crown one more time and left the courtroom. I’ve got work to do, and I don’t know how much longer I have to do it.
Darwin rubbed his eyes as the light faded from around him to find himself in the middle of a rather beautiful grass field. The front lines? What front lines is he talking about? This is just a plain, empty field. Though, it's probably for the best. I'm not sure I'd be able to get myself even a proper death with just this spoon? If only it hadn’t had such a pretty emblem on it, I would have grabbed the knife first, Darwin thought, looking at the weird dragon crest that sat on the top of the tiny spoon. God, this field is beautiful though. It’s just like the field in one of the video games, except with much better graphics. Is it always this beautiful outside?
As Darwin stood in the middle of the seemingly-empty grass field, he began to hear a faint scream in the distance. "Aaaaahhhh!!!!!!" What in the heck is that? he wondered. "Aaaaaaaaahhh!!!!" The noise kept coming closer and closer to Darwin. Is that a man coming at me? What is he doing? Is he holding an Axe? Holy crap! He's holding an Axe! What the hell, man? He's holding an Axe, and all I have is . . . is a Spoon? What the heck do I do? Is he still screaming? How does he keep screaming for so long? I’d have run out of air a while ago. It’s at least been a minute. Darwin was not wrong either; it had been at least a minute since the gray skinned, Axe-wielding bald man had shown up in dented iron plate mail and started charging him while yelling.
As the man grew closer, screaming louder and waving his Axe like an idiot, Darwin started to get even more annoyed with the noise. First the robber, then the pushy, short Burger King kid who thinks a spoon is a weapon, and now this annoying man ruining a perfectly peaceful field with his loud, obnoxious screaming as he charges from like a mile away. Darwin’s face reddened, and he looked at his Spoon then at the man who was now almost five meters away from him and decided to use the only tactic he knew: he threw the Golden Gilded Dragon Spoon of +10 SHUT THE HELL UP right at the bald Axe Knight.
  Critical Hit! +100% Damage!

Criti . . . it worked! The spoon had done exactly like the butter knife and hit the charging psycho right in the eye, leaving the man, much sturdier than the thief, awkwardly stumbling backwards and trying to rub his eye with the same hand that was holding the Axe. Darwin charged the remaining distance and punched him as hard as he could in the face, causing the man to finally fall on his back where Darwin finished him off with his Blood Soaked Slippers of +10 Face Kicking. Darwin couldn’t help but notice that each kick to the enemy’s face produced a red number above his head. 32, 32, 32. Is that how much Damage I’m doing? If that’s how much Damage I’m doing, does that mean the Spoon doesn’t do any Damage at all?

Unarmed Combat Proficiency has improved
Skill “Weapon Throw” has improved.
Dull Iron Axe has been added to your Inventory.
You have gained 1117 EXP.
You have reached Level 4!
You have reached Level 5!

This again? Darwin thought as the dinging sound queued the annoying pop-up windows. He wanted to know more about what the heck was going on, but he couldn’t take his eyes off his feet. No? Annoying white circle, you’re not going to send me off to meet another crazy guy with a weapon or Ronald McDonald?
He waited a few minutes and then, finally deciding the white lights weren’t going to interrupt him again, he sat down and did what any good gamer with years of experience playing MMOs would do in his situation: he tried to figure out how to hit the C button and bring up his character screen. “Stats! Character Screen! Abilities! Information!” he kept chanting out loud, expecting another ding and status window. Then, in a final act of desperation, shame and humiliation he caved. “Help Menu.”
-    Welcome to wonderful world of Tiqpa! Would you like to take the beginner’s tutorial?
Every bone in his body wanted to scream no and Go die with a thousand other obscenities at even the thought of a tutorial, but he just couldn’t think of another way around it. “Yes . . . I want to take the tutorial.” Deep down, a part of Darwin died as soon as the words left his mouth.

Great! In the world of Tiqpa, controls are accessed through thought rather than action. It may take getting used to, but if you look directly in front of you and think “Tiqpa Character Screen,” a character screen will appear.

It was the world’s name that he had been missing. Tiqpa Character Screen. No sooner had he thought the words than a blue gamer box appeared, much like the ones that read out his level ups, and the beginner’s tutorial began.

Think “P” to pause at any time or “Rewind” to rewind the tutorial at any time. Now, if you will notice at the top of your character screen, your Name, Race, Job Class, Level and Current EXP and how much EXP you will need to reach the next level are listed in the main status bar.

Job Class
EXP until next Level
Total EXP
Energy Source

    Race Unkown? This stupid screen, I’m human. How do I enter human? Or is it white? Do they do races like video games or election booths? Darwin was about to try to edit in the missing information when the tutorial interrupted him.   

Below the Character Information Readout (CIR), you’ll find a list of each one of your primary attributes.

The first attribute is Power. Power adjusts the player’s muscles and density to increase strength and collision Damage when in combat. Each point in power roughly increases one’s mass versus the player’s standard frame.
Your Current Power is 45.
Power increases Melee Physical Damage. Current level adds an 18% increase to melee physical Damage and increases base physical Damage by 9.
Power reduces Physical Damage Taken. Current level reduces physical Damage taken by 8.26%.

Does that mean if I get a ton of points sunk into Power I’ll do a lot of Damage, but I’ll also be super heavy? I wonder how high this stat goes.
The second attribute is Speed. Speed directly increases the speed at which a player may move, making it an important attribute for both offensive and defensive players in physical combat, allowing the player to do more Damage and evade attacks.
Your Current Speed is 45.
Speed increases Melee Physical Damage. Current level adds a 9% increase to the Damage of all melee attacks.
Speed increases Evasion. Current level adds 8.09% chance to evade targets with 1 Speed. [Note: this attribute is based on the difference in speed between two opponents and is used only in NPC vs NPC combat calculations. For players, skill and decisions in combat will be required to dodge.]
Speed increases Melee and Ranged Attack Speed: Current Level adds a 9% increase to the attack speed of all melee and ranged attacks.

Ha! So speed is basically agility except instead of boosting ranged Damage it only boosts melee Damage? Well at least there aren’t any new concepts to understand so far.

The third attribute is Vitality. Vitality determines the amount of health that a player will have as well as how much Damage a player will take from all Damage types. Vitality also reduces the effectiveness of diseases and poisons.
Your Current Vitality is 35.
Vitality increases Health. Current level adds 350 Health.
Vitality decreases Damage from all sources. Current level reduces Damage by 6.54%.
Vitality reduces the effectiveness of diseases and poisons. Current level reduces the effectiveness by 6.54%.

    Yeah, yeah, vitality. Of course. I wonder if I have a lot of health for my level or barely any.
The fourth attribute is Spirit. Spirit increases the player’s Magic Effectiveness and Magic Defense.
Your Current Spirit is 25.   
Spirit increases Magic Effectiveness. Current level increases Magic Effectiveness by 10%.
Spirit increases Magic Defense. Current level reduces Damage by 4.76%

What? There is magic in this game? I wonder if I have any spells. Does that mean I could get a spell to throw fireballs or call down lightning?
The fifth attribute is Concentration. Concentration increases the player’s speed when casting spells and their magic defense.
Your Current Concentration is 30.
Concentration increases casting speed. Current level adds a 12% increase to casting speed.
Concentration reduces Magical Damage. Current level reduces magical Damage taken by 5.66 %

If this stat and Spirit were high enough, I could chain chain-lightning spells. This game is going to be amazing. It’s too bad I’m probably a super noob at the moment.
When a player levels up, the player is given 5 to 6 stat points depending on race that the player may then allocate towards the stat they desire. Due to a racial penalty, this function is currently locked.

    What? I don’t get to decide where my points go?
    While Darwin was getting aggravated at not having the ability to customize his character, a short brunette in a white Dress that didn’t properly flow past her ankles tore out of the woods to his left, running from three giant 7 foot white-horned Minotaurs carrying much nicer Axes than the madman had tried to kill him with just moments ago. P--!!! Pause the tutorial! Darwin began to think over and over again until the ding finally sounded.
You have paused the tutorial. If you would like to end the tutorial temporarily you may do so now by thinking, “End.”

    End! Darwin quickly looked around for the corpse of the man he had just killed moments ago hoping to find the Axe he was using, but only found his Spoon lying where the man had been just moments before. Oh yeah! Hope this works: Equip Dull Iron Axe! and no sooner had he finished thinking it than the Axe appeared in his right hand. He grabbed the Spoon too with his left hand for safe measure. Utensils had been working well so far after all.
    “Over here! Run towards me!” Darwin yelled at the girl as he charged in her direction. She obviously heard him because as soon as he said it, she scrunched up her face as best a person could while running and charged in his direction with the tail of Minotaurs hot on her trail.
    The Minotaurs were staggered out a bit with at least a car length between them as they ran towards the girl. Darwin took his trusty Spoon and threw it again at the Minotaur closest to her left, but it only hit one of his horns and bounced off. Darwin’s heart began to pound at this turn of events. He was fully counting on the Spoon hitting the Minotaur directly in eye, but instead it just bounced off his horn harmlessly. Not knowing what to do next, he grabbed the Axe and held it up like he was holding a flag. It helped calm his nerves for a moment as the white-Dressed girl ran past him full speed and didn’t even bother to turn.
As soon as the girl passed him, he lifted the Axe all the way over his head and then did a running downward swing at the closest Minotaur. He didn’t really know what to expect next, but after 20 years of playing medieval video games and wishing he was the main character cleaving enemies asunder, he figured he might as well die trying.
*CRUNCH* The Minotaur hadn’t even bothered to dodge or even change his course as the Axe came cleaving down and split the enemy’s skull in half. As soon as the Axe hit the enemy, red numbers popped up right above the enemy’s head.
Critical Hit! You have done 242 Damage!

    Then came the ding sound, but no window popped up. I’m still in combat. Figures it wouldn’t tell me anything until the fight is over. One down, two to go. Darwin kicked the dead white-horned Minotaur and pulled his Axe free from its skull. That went way better than planned, Darwin thought, looking at what he hoped would be his next victim. Oh well, here goes nothing!
    As the second Minotaur entered range of Darwin’s Dull Iron Axe, he immediately swung his much better Double Bladed Axe in a long horizontal sweep. Darwin was barely able to take his own Iron Axe and use it to block in time, but the blow still sent him back a step.
You have taken 72 Damage!

    This time when the red Damage numbers popped up Darwin knew it wasn’t the Minotaur but him who had taken Damage. As the Minotaur swung the Axe a second time in the same horizontal fashion, Darwin decided to try something different: he dodged. Then as fast as he could, he swung his Axe out to where it caught the Minotaur’s leg with the middle of the Axe’s shaft, and he pulled it with all his strength. It worked. The blade dug into the Minotaur’s knee and pulled the Minotaur right onto his back.
You have done 124 Damage!

Having finally gotten a hang of the combat mechanics, Darwin took his Axe and cleaved the second Minotaur’s head in two just like he had the first one.
Critical Hit! You have done 248 Damage!

    The ding sounded again so Darwin turned his attention to the last Minotaur on the field. Even though he had killed two of the giant Minotaurs, his nerves started to give way as the third one came closer. The first one had been too easy, but the second one had almost killed him and that fact was starting to sink in. The fact that he could die. He got back into his awkward Axe stance where he was holding the Axe handle inches from his chest, and the blade was almost touching his face. Just one more. You’ve killed two already; you can kill one more. Don’t wimp out on me now.
Darwin readied himself and was preparing to dodge the final Minotaur’s impending attack when a giant ball of ice zoomed over his head and hit the Minotaur square in the center of its hairy chest. The ball of ice didn’t disappear either. It slowly expanded from the spot it hit on his chest, growing ice all over the Minotaur’s body as the Minotaur dropped its Axe and began using both hands to try to get it off him. Now is as good a time as any.
Critical Hit! You have done 248 Damage!

    *Crunch* This time when Darwin’s Axe dug into the Minotaur, the sound wasn’t the same bloody, bone-breaking crunch as the first two times, but it was close enough. It was still the sound of victory, a sound quickly followed by the now annoying *Ding!*
You have gained 550 EXP!
You have reached Level 6!
You have gained 550 EXP!
You have gained 550 EXP!
You have reached Level 7
2 Sharp Double Bladed Iron Axes have been added to your Inventory!

    This time all the messages that had been stored during combat flooded his field of view as one giant update. I’m alive! And … Level 7 ey? Unequip Dull Iron Axe. The Axe vanished, confirming Darwin’s theory on how the Inventory system worked. He turned around to see if the girl he had tried to help was okay.
    “Thanks for the save. I thought those White-Horns had me. You know, they had been chasing me for almost 10 minutes before you showed up?” The girl was fine. In fact, she was more than fine. She was beautiful.
    “You don’t say . . .” he said, trying to keep his words to a minimum. He always made mistakes when talking to attractive girls.
    “I do. Most of the NPCs of the 8th Legion were decimated when they first pressed. I think I’m one of the few PCs to have made it out okay.” So it is a game. It’s a game and there are both playable characters and non-playable characters. NPCs he could kill without feeling bad to help him level. He wasn’t a murderer; he was a farmer. The grinding side of his gamer personality suddenly pulled a smile across his face.
    “Are you going back?” If it’s a game then that ball of ice was probably a spell she cast. With her, we should be able to kill the White-Horns. We should be able to level. I don’t know where I am, but I’m definitely not going to die out here because my name was gray to some PK.
    “Yes. I have a quest there. Did you want to join? I can share it?”
You have been invited to Kass’s Party. Would you like to Accept or Reject?

    “Yes.” Accept.
You have been invited to join Kass’s “Subdue the White-Horn Horde” quest. Would you like to Accept or Reject?

Accept. Darwin smiled the same smile that even his mother had once said was creepy. Equip Double Bladed Iron Axe. Equip Double Bladed Iron Axe. “Lead the way.”
    “Umm . . . before that. It’s jus . . . do you have any other clothes? Your Bathrobe may have opened up once or twice during the fight.” Darwin had forgotten entirely about his wardrobe since the event at his apartment had first taken place. No wonder he looked strange to the girl, he was standing there with only his blood-soaked Bathrobe and Slippers holding two giant, Double-Bladed Axes that had looked normal when carried by 7-foot-tall Minotaurs.
    “Oh, uh . . . no. I just started playing. Maybe you have some spare pants or shoes?”
    “No. Sorry. Let’s just go.” She pulled a staff out of thin air and started walking back to the woods she had just run out of minutes ago.
    “Sure thing, boss.” Darwin smiled. He not only wasn’t a murderer, but he was in a video game. He was in a video game with EXP and items!  While most people would probably be terrified at the idea of needlessly charging into life threatening scenarios, Darwin’s gamer instinct to grind had fully taken over. He wasn’t Darwin. He was Arch Lance Ser NightVale off to conquer another world.
The quiet hum of machinery filled a room that had otherwise gone silent hours ago.  Normally, this time of night would have found the small room completely empty, everyone already having gone to bed. Working late nights was nothing new to Robert. Not only was it something that was expected of him as part of his job, but it was also something that he secretly relished. The day times were filled with the hustle and bustle common to any office space.  Coworkers chatted away, keys were smashed in a noisy and often imprecise fashion, and the barely-audible sound of music traveling through headphones that was just loud enough to be a distraction but too quiet to make out any lyrics or enjoy were common.
Not that Robert hated music or the people he worked with. He just found it rather impossible on most days to focus and accomplish anything meaningful with so much going on around him. The truth was he loved joking around as much as the next guy; but, he also loved his work and that often meant staying over long hours into the night to finish his projects on time.  There was something about the quiet solitude of a cavernous room and the lulling sound of machinery and computer fans that really let him focus and get into his work. Since beta testing had begun a few months ago, he seemed to be spending more and more time at night tapping away at the keys to his computer trying to get everything to work right. As with any program, no matter how well constructed, faults were inevitable. That's what the beta was for--finding out all the bugs and quirks from development and closed testing and figuring out how they would be fixed before the launch date. A launch date that was quickly approaching.
Robert clicked the button to save his work and began the process of pushing his newest changes to the live servers. "I don't know how in the Hell these kids keep causing so many problems?" he thought to himself as he sighed and arched his back in the computer chair, listening to the sound of his vertebrae crack under the stretching movement. A few weeks ago after beta testing began, one particular clan had figured out a way to exploit a design flaw that would allow someone to duplicate items by transferring them rapidly between the bank vault and the player’s Inventory. The code controlling the process was pretty shoddy, and there wasn't a redundancy check in place to prevent an item from existing in both places at the same time. The result was a massive influx of gold into an economy that had previously been fairly stable. Fortunately, another developer had caught on quickly as to what was going on when he watched market prices skyrocket suddenly and had implemented a hotfix designed to take care of the problem.
Unfortunately for Robert, however, it wasn't a permanent solution. Players caught on quickly that something was up, and over the past few weeks more and more people were trying  to recreate the original dupe, causing massive lag as the game and servers tried to check every item that was transferred between the players’ inventories and the bank vault. The result was a game server that kept sporadically crashing at the worst of times and lag that made the game unplayable at others. Turns out that lagging in a virtual world wasn’t only disorienting, it left players feeling like they had just walked off one of the most nauseating roller coasters known to man. Reports of players retching up their mom’s spaghetti were piling up at a rapid rate, and that wasn’t going to cut it. Even though latency issues were expected in other games, this was the exact reason the company had chosen to invest so much money into an experimental AI that was designed by the military. The government had been using the AI as a combat simulator for years to train fighter pilots and combat infantry and was supposed to run flawlessly.  
Robert had spent most of the night hunched forward in his seat making corrections to another programmer’s code, eyes darting back and forth across the lines as he found and made the necessary corrections to finally fix the error once and for all. Now his body was paying the price. His eyes burned from straining to see tiny rows of text on the bright monitor in an otherwise dark room, and his back felt like that of a man twice his age. Finally got it this time, he thought as the server begin rebooting for what he knew would be the final time necessary to fix the problem. Damn trolls are going to hate me for taking away their fun with this one.  Robert’s final revisions not only fixed the dupe and prevented server stability problems, but contained the final revisions that would fully adapt the new AI to the preexisting world.  
It had been over nine hours since they entered the forest together in search of victims and Darwin had almost forgotten that Kass was actually a person and not a magic ice ball dispenser. In all his games as Arch Lance Ser NightVale, he had never really been great at playing in groups. Even when he went on raids, he only gave necessary orders or stayed quiet. It was probably one of the reasons many people liked him leading instead of the over-talkative chatty cathies. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a lot of things he wanted to say. It was just that when he started grinding or killing in games, he would get so focused on the task at hand that he would forget the people around him weren’t just tools, much like he had already forgotten about Kass not being merely an ice ball dispenser.  
It would have probably been another two or three hours before either of them said anything if it weren’t for Kass’s curiosity finally getting the better of her. “So, why the Bathrobe?”
“Huh? Oh, the Bathrobe. It’s just what I was wearing when I got here.”
“Really? You started with a Bathrobe? I thought Warrior classes started with Studded Leather Armor. Did you buy a special edition game copy and dive platform?”
“No, I don’t think so. Maybe a glitch.”
“The AI system that does the codes is peerless. There aren’t any glitches. If you have a physical combat job class then you should have Studded Leather Armor,” Kass pressed the issue further.
“My Job Class is Novice. Is that a physical combat-based class?”
“Novice?” Kass asked, pausing for a few minutes as she stared at him. “Wow! Your class really is Novice, and even your race isn’t listed. What weapon did you start off with? Maybe that is a good place to start.”
“A Spoon . . .”
“The Spoon you threw at the Minotaur when we met?”
“Yes. It helped me kill the man that had the Axe I used to kill the Minotaur to get these Axes.”
“You killed an armored man with an Axe using a Spoon?”
“Yes.” Darwin smiled as he answered, glad he had managed to find and pick up the souvenir. Without that little Spoon he probably would have died. He couldn’t just let it disappear now.
“. . .”
“What Job Class did you start as?”
“Me? I picked a Wizard for my Job Class. I switched to the subclass Frost Mage as soon as I hit Level 5 though. That’s why my Dress is so pretty and white,” she said, doing a twirl to show off.
“Ah. Then maybe when I promote to a Job Class, I’ll get a bonus. How do you do that?”
“Just find a trainer who teaches the class you want, and if you have the right stats and level, it will let you switch. Also, sometimes a hidden requirement is met, and the system will prompt you as to whether or not you want to change your class. You’re Level 26 now, so you should easily be able to find a trainer.”
“Do you know where a good melee trainer is?”
“Yeah. There are plenty in the town I’m bound to. We have at least 10 White-Horn subjugation quest completions to turn in, so maybe we can kill a few more and go there for the reward. I never thought we’d level this fast, so I’m almost hesitant to leave.”
    “Maybe I can buy some clothes too.”
    “Are you tired of being the Bathrobe Knight?” she poked.
“. . .” Darwin didn’t know how to respond. He knew she was trying to be funny and that he should probably laugh, but it embarrassed him a bit to think about how ridiculous he probably looked. The blood from the fights had turned his green Bathrobe into something of a Christmas color collage with several different shades of fresh red on some spots and dried brown blood on others all painted over the robe’s original forest green.
“Don’t blush, Bathrobe Knight,” she giggled. His face must have turned red from embarrassment. “You’ll be the first person to hit 30 without even a decent class.” She kept laughing, but he only frowned. He somehow knew from years of being picked on at school that the nickname ‘Bathrobe Knight’ would probably stick.
Darwin tried not to think about it as they dove back into combat. When they had started off, the two of them were picking off groups of Minotaurs one at a time and kiting them to prevent full engagements. It made sense too since each Minotaur was around level 25. Now though, as Darwin could finally see, having turned on name, hp and level bars, Darwin and Kass were almost the same level and very used to fighting side by side. They didn’t bother with fighting them one at a time anymore and charged right into full groups of five to ten Minotaurs.
One group dead. Two groups dead. Three groups dead. Not even half an hour later, after Darwin had hit 27, he began to notice that the amount of EXP he was getting per kill was drastically less than it had been before. Each level past level 12 required roughly 5,000 more EXP than the level before, but at 550 EXP per kill, their growth had been really fast. It was just that ever since they had reached Level 20, the amount, 550, had started dropping each level for Darwin. Darwin suspected that either the game designers had intended the early levels to fly by or that they themselves weren’t supposed to be in the area. After all, when Kass first showed up on the scene she was running for her life, and she was level 11.
It left a lot of questions for Darwin. What was she doing out here alone to begin with if she couldn’t hack it without help? How had he managed to kill the Minotaurs at level 5? Who was the guy with the Dull Iron Axe? Was he a PC? Had he killed another person? So many questions, but none of them were as important as the question that the slow-growing EXP bar forced him to ask: “Is there anything that is a higher level? I’m not really getting anything anymore.”
“Yeah, but the White-Horn’s legion is probably close to being dead. Wanna finish the NPCs off before we leave?”
“Sure.” Darwin said it in as positive a manner as he could, but he was secretly grumbling. He wanted to tell her that it would be way more time efficient to go right away, but he didn’t want to argue. The little snow cone factory was the only source of information he had in this new world, and he knew from plenty of experience that when two party members differed in opinion on how to level, the party dissolved.
“Good. Now back to it, Bathrobe Knight. I want to be the first Frost Mage to hit 30!” It’s definitely going to stick. Wait, what? The first? So that’s why she stayed out here after the troops died: she wanted to farm the high level mobs and outlevel her competition. That means the game hasn’t been out long. “How long has the game been out again?”
“Oh! It’s been out just since Monday this week. I’m surprised you didn’t have the date memorized with how expensive the VR dive kits are. I wouldn’t even have one if my dad didn’t get it for me. Did you pull an all nighter and forget what day it was again?”
“Something like that. You could say it’s been a long week.”
“Bathrobe Knight, don’t act so serious. It’s a game. Have some fun. If you keep making that face I’m going to throw a Spoon at you.”
“. . .” He was about to try his hand at a witty remark when he noticed something great. “Is that the only group of Minotaurs left?”
“What? Oh, that sucks. I thought we’d have plenty of killing ahead of us.”
I knew it! She did want us to keep killing these low-experience mobs.
“Well, let’s do it! I bet the King’s bounty on this one will be crazy. I’ll be able to buy like 15 new Dresses and accessories with just the turn-ins alone! “
“15 Dresses? Can you equip more than one Dress at a time”
“What? You are totally a man. You need different Dresses for different occasions. Don’t you know anything?”
“Probably not.”
“Well, now you do, and if you had known it a bit sooner, you might have had more outfits than just one Bathrobe. You should buy a few outfits too after you get your armor.”
“Maybe I will. Where do we turn these things in again?”
“Oh, it’s in the town I’m bound to. Valcrest. The turn-in guy is Captain Elmont. You can find him near the Tavern on the north side of the town. It’s not hard to find. If I have to log before we get back, you shouldn’t have a problem finding it. Actually, after we kill this group, I’m probably going to log. Here, add me so we can find each other easily.”
You have received a friend request from Kass. Would you like to Accept or Reject?

    Accept. “Sounds great. Let’s make this count then.” Darwin charged right at the final group of Minotaurs. He had hundreds of Axes somehow magically stored in his Inventory, so he didn’t hesitate to throw them as he ran towards the group, enjoying the site of them cleaving into the Minotaur’s bodies, and then re-equipping the next Axe. He could always just pull the Axes out of the bodies when the fight was over, but if he didn’t throw them, then there was a chance he might not get as much action in the fight. While she might have only been worth at most one or two ice balls here or there at the start of their adventure, Kass had actually started doing cool stuff by the time she hit Level 20. During the last fight, for instance, she had slammed her staff into the ground shooting out giant cones of frigid air at the enemy. It hadn’t frozen them like her ice ball, but it had clearly done a lot of Damage and didn’t take as absurdly long to cast in combat.
    By the time Darwin reached the group, his Axes had already found 5 homes, and he had no problem cleaving the the first three Minotaurs left in the group. After all, they were already frozen. After pulling his Axe free of the third one, he charged at the final Minotaur. He had to kill it, and he had to kill it quickly before Kass got it--a man has his pride after all. The Minotaur swung in the same way they all did, a good long clean horizontal arc in front of him. He used his left Axe like a shield taking the hit as he swung his right Axe into the neck of the Minotaur.
Critical Hit! You have done 256 Damage
Critical Hit! You have done 256 Damage

    The first one was for him, the second for the Minotaur. The fight was over. They had wiped out every Minotaur in the area. Darwin was glad that they didn’t respawn, too, because if they had, he was sure Kass would have kept him here for months doing the 1 EXP per kill grind. Some players just couldn’t be bothered to switch farming spots.
    “Welp! That’s it! I gotta run before my dad gets home and finds out I didn’t go to bed last night. Who could though, right? I spent all week only getting 10 levels and we are about to hit 30 after turn-ins!”
    “Yeah. It’s been good for me too. Thanks for teaching me the ropes. I’ll see you around, Kass.” He waved goodbye at her, but he wasn’t entirely sure what would happen when she logged out.
    “Bye-bye, Bathroom Knight!” she said, doing one final twirl, and then her smiling face just disappeared. She didn’t instantly disappear like the image on a TV when the power button was pressed. It was like her body had just been a cloud of smoke all along, and it dispersed into its surroundings leaving nothing but a hint that a person might have been there before.

Your friend Kass has logged offline.

    Your friend’--those are two words I don’t remember hearing together in forever. Oh well. Where is this town I have to go to? Tiqpa Map! During the walking time between fights over the last few hours Darwin had gotten very familiar with the controls of the game. He was sure there was something he didn’t know yet, but for now he was confident enough in his knowledge to avoid another tutorial.
    Valcrest is at least an hour from here on foot. Looks like I’m going to have a long walk ahead of me. Darwin finished re-looting the Axes he had thrown and started towards Valcrest. Time to get my Job Class! I wonder how many classes there actually are.
    The King adjusted his Crown as he sat in his chair across from the Messenger he had taken prisoner earlier that day. With his finely-tailored, Three-Piece Purple Suit, Red Cape and emerald-crested gold Crown, his appearance didn’t fit in with the drab, gray, color-drained stones that lay around him. It didn’t fit in with many places at all though.
    “Do you know why you’re here, soldier?” he asked the man chained across from him. The soldier had been stripped of his armor and left with only a pair of ragged cloth breeches that could scarcely be called clothes. The color seemed to somehow be an even duller gray than the stones in the prison where the man was chained. His hands were cuffed behind his back and each foot was locked in place with a chain attached to shackles and threaded through hooks bolted into the floor.
    ". . ." The Messenger didn’t answer. The King knew he wouldn’t if he were guilty. His soldiers had been trained on how to behave if the enemy caught them and knew how to withstand interrogation techniques.
    “1,035.” The King said for the soldier. “That’s why you’re here. Because of you a Kingdom with scarcely a few hundred thousand good men just lost 1,035. If you help us out today we can give you a chance to give these men some justice.”
    ". . ." Still nothing. The soldier just glared at the King with squinted eyes.
    “It’s okay. It’s easy to understand how difficult it might be for a man in your position to bring justice to one thousand and thirty-five dead soldiers,” the King said, stressing every word. Especially when you’re not very smart. But that’s okay because I can tell you how. You see, what’s going to happen is that the Council will find out I’ve stayed your execution. And not only that, but they will also soon learn that I came down here personally to interrogate you.” As the King said this, he crossed his legs and clasped his hands in front of him. Not to act too casual, but to stop himself from adjusting his Crown.  “You see, I made a big show of coming down here just so they would know. After all, their plan didn’t exactly go as they had hoped, and I can imagine you probably weren’t expecting to die for them. About now, they’re probably wondering whether or not you’re going to talk after a few hours of agonizing torture.”
    “I’m honestly not sure either. Most men are good when you pull off the first toe, but the fourth? The fifth? When you start taking out organs or cutting tendons so they can never walk again? It’s hard to say what kind of man will talk and what kind of man will just say anything he can to get away from the pain.” As the King talked, one of the soldiers began bringing in a table and setting it up with as many cutting and breaking tools as the King had been able to find on such short notice. Their dungeon after all wasn’t really equipped for torture, but he had to make do with what he had.
    “Then, after they find out you’re being interrogated, they will complain that questioning a lawful soldier in such a fashion is monstrous and that you should be released immediately. At which point, lucky for you, I’m going to let you go. So take a deep breath and relax.” The soldier obviously didn’t even realize he had been holding his breath since the mention of breaking the first toe. When he did, he let it all out in one loud burst. “That’s right, you’re going to go free. So you can talk to me for a moment, right?”
    ". . ." Still nothing. Who ever said interrogations were easy?
    “What about your daughter? What’s her name?” Panic struck the soldier’s eyes. “Do you want to talk to her?”
    ". . ."
    “It’s okay. She wanted to talk to you, and who could ever resist such a cute kid? Guards! Bring in Annabel!” The King shouted while taking some small pleasure in the soldier’s unexpected shock. One might have thought he had just killed the girl from that expression. “How old is she again? 7?”
    One of the Guards entered the room holding the hands of a young girl with dark hair matching the soldier’s and an awkward gap-toothed smile. “She really is cute, aren’t you, Annabel?”
Annabel, saw her father in chains and looked at the King confused. The King stood up and walked over to the girl. “Don’t worry, Annabel, your dad is just helping test some equipment for the Kingdom. He’s the strongest soldier, don’t you know? That’s why we have to use him. He’s making the world a better place. Aren’t you?”
“Yes. Annabel, just go home.”
“Oh, don’t worry. She’ll be home soon enough. She’s just waiting on her mother. Annabel, why don’t you wait in the other room while your dad finishes his work. We want him to be home in time for dinner, don’t we?”
“Yes . . .” she said as softly as a little kid might be able to speak. The situation was obviously unnerving for her. Damn this man for what he’s made me do. Damn him and those filthy swine. Oh well, here goes nothing. As soon as she left, the King stood up and walked over to the table of tools the Guards had brought in.
“Are we going to talk yet?” the King asked while picking up a rusted saw blade  “Or do I have to bring your daughter back in here and give you . . .  some incentive? But don’t worry. She won’t be alone. For every day you don’t talk I’ll bring someone down here and torture them until they die. Your daughter may be first, but your wife, your friends, your neighbors. I’ll keep going until every trace of every person you’ve ever met is ripped in the most horrendous fashion possible. I’ll even let you watch.”
“What do you want?” he spat more than spoke.
“What do I want? I want 1,035 families to have their husband and fathers come home. I want those 1,035 men to live long and happy lives and never see a day of battle again. What I’m going to settle for is you telling me who you work for, exactly what they wanted you to do, and for you to do everything just as I say.”
“The . . .” he hesitated, not taking his eyes off the tool that the King was playing with in his hands. “The Council paid me five year’s wages to run messages. I carried the messages of the battle plans to the Black-Wings and White-Horns so they would double their troops and be in place to catch the resistance.”
I knew it. Dogs like them should never be allowed to show their face in public. “Good. That wasn’t so hard to say. You see, now your daughter has a chance of living, doesn’t she? But you know we’re not done.”
“What else do you want? All I did was run the messages. I don’t know anything else.”
“What I want you to do next is pen out every detail you can remember while you wait here for your precious den of scoundrels to come rescue you in an attempt to save their own skins. Then, I want you to kill the man who hired you and return to me. He’s going to try to kill you anyways since I didn’t, so my telling you to do this is a favor in and of itself. Then, I want you to report back to me if you are still alive when all is said and done. If you do everything exactly as I have told you, your wife and kids will want for nothing and live happily with me at the castle.” The King smiled again, putting down the twisted, spiked tool and walking towards the exit. He didn’t have to wait for a reply; he knew the soldiers answer. He was just lucky the soldier didn’t know that he would never have hurt anyone no matter what the outcome had been. Control what they see and you can control what they believe is true. A lesson he had never had to use in an interrogation before.  
“Yes, Your Majesty,” The soldier responded as the King walked out the door, unsuccessfully repressing the grit in his voice. The King knew the soldier was smart enough to realize the wife and kids living with him wasn’t a reward. It was a punishment. They were prisoners to guarantee his loyalty. Damn these men for making me even utter these threats.
    Gravel crunched  under the tires of Robert’s car as he turned his car into the driveway that led up to his home. It wasn't much in the way of houses, but it was more than enough for him and his daughter. His salary as one of the leading programmers at a major game company kept them both extremely comfortable, but he had never been one of the types of people that believed in opulence just for the sake of it. Sitting up on a slight hill, the two-story house was one that was mistakable for any other in the hundreds of similar subdivisions throughout the country.  The well-manicured lawn and neat rows of nicely-trimmed hedges blended in with the house next to his, and the one next to that, and so on.
          Bringing the car to a stop and turning off the ignition Robert grabbed his travel mug from the center compartment and stepped out of the car, reached into the back seat, and slung his laptop case over his shoulder. These late nights are gonna kill me, he thought as he walked up the path that lead to the front door. Behind him, the sun was just beginning to peak over tops of the houses across the street and provided a momentary illusion of warmth as the day began to heat up. "Not bloody likely. Spring is months off and it’s cold as a witch's tit," he silently grouched.
          Walking through the house and into the kitchen, Robert dropped his computer case in a chair next to the kitchen table and hung his keys up on the hook right above his daughter’s. He rubbed his weary eyes and started across the room to make a fresh pot of coffee, picking up a bowl crusted with what appeared to be leftover ramen from the table and dropping it into the dishwasher. He had gotten used to living alone while his daughter was away at college, but now that she had graduated and was home again, he found himself getting slightly annoyed at having to pick up after her.
          Walking over to the staircase he shouted, "Kass, you awake yet?" When he didn't hear any response he started up the stairs and was halfway up before realizing that he could hear the sound of the shower running and the small radio she kept in the bathroom burbling some annoyingly upbeat pop tune that was mercifully muffled through the door. Turning back and going down into the kitchen, Robert poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot that wasn't even nearly finished brewing yet and pulled his laptop out. He usually spent a little time reading through the mechanics and feedback forums on the game's website before crashing out for a few precious hours and heading back to work. His bosses usually understood when he was up all night working and would allow him to come in for a half day of work after pulling an all-nighter so he knew he didn't have to be in before noon. He really didn't expect to find very many bug reports.  Since implementing the new AI, the flow of bug fixes had dwindled off to almost nothing.  Generally, it was just someone complaining about accidentally losing an item that was really in their backpack or equipped all along. As hard as he sometimes found it to believe, the new programming was running flawlessly.
          He had slouched back in the chair and was sipping on his coffee when he heard the shower shut off and the door to the bathroom open momentarily, emitting a loud blast of music before it was shut off and and followed by the sound of his daughter starting down the stairs.
          "Oh, hey, Dad, morning. You actually made it home before lunch today, huh?" she teased in greeting as she pulled a cup from the cabinet and began making herself a cup of coffee. "Late night again?"
          "Yeah," he said as he looked up from reading an unusual post from someone complaining about being killed after having a soup spoon thrown into their eye. "Ever since I put in the new AI, it really isn't necessary for me to be at the office till all hours, but I somehow manage to find something that seems to take forever to fix anyway. Looks like you  had a late night as well, huh?" he said, noticing the slightly dark circles under his daughter's eyes.
          "Haha, yeah, I guess so," she laughed in reply, knowing she was being called out. "I was up most of the night trying to kill this group of minotaurs in the game. You've seriously got to change the aggro range on those things, Dad. They want to chase you forever."
          Robert just shrugged in reply as he took another sip of his coffee. "They're minotaurs.  They're supposed to chase you forever; otherwise, it would be too easy. You can't just expect to walk up to an angry, two-legged bull with a giant battle axe and expect to milk it, can you?"
          "Milk a bull, Dad? Eww . . ." Kass laughed back in response.
          "Hey, have you noticed anything in-game worth reporting lately? The feedback at this point is so good it's almost too much to believe. I can't believe how well the AI paired up with the pre-existing architecture. There's almost nothing noteworthy bug-wise at this point."
          "Not really. Everything's been running super smooth lately. I was in-game all night and I didn't even lag once. I'm so glad. I don't think I could handle getting the spins again. It was almost as bad as a night out drinking. I remember this one time when I came back from the bar with this guy--"
          "Seriously, kiddo?" Robert interjected. “Telling your old man about nights out on the town when you were in college?" He just shook his head to cut her off.
          "Alright alright. I guess you don't need to know the details, but you get the point."
          "Yeah, and some things a father should never have to hear. Even if his daughter is grown up now with a college degree. Shouldn't you be spending a little more time looking for a job instead of playing in a virtual world, anyway? And how did I manage to pay a hundred thousand dollars for a college education and them never teach you how to do dishes?"
          "You didn't pay anything for my tuition, Dad" she shot back. "I was on a full ride, and you know it. And I did very well, thankyouverymuch," she said matter of factly.
          "Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. I'm gonna try to get a little sleep before heading back in," Robert sighed as he stood up closing his laptop and rubbing his eyes again.
          "Okay, Dad. Sleep well. By the way, when did you guys decide to put bathrobes into the game instead of starting armor for warriors? That was pretty funny."
          Robert looked up over the hand that was rubbing his eyes.  "Bathrobes . . . ?"
          "Yeah.  I came across this guy last night wearing a bathrobe. It said he was only Level 5 and didn't even have armor. But he still managed to kill those minotaurs I was telling you about like it was nothing. It must have had a +5 Bull's Eye stat because he sure made it look easy."
          "Bathrobe?" he repeated, still not quite understanding.
          "Yeah. Bathrobe. Like the one I'm wearing," she said waving her hand down towards her fluffy pink robe.
          "Yes, Dad. A bathrobe. And I think he was carrying a spoon with him as a weapon.  You guys at the office really do have a sense of humor, huh?"
          "Bathrobe. And a spoon." Robert blinked twice and stared, his mind foggy with lack of sleep and not quite able to grasp the concept. "Can't tell if trolling . . . ?"
          "Nope. Seriously cool idea, Dad. I laughed so hard."
          "Bathrobe. Spoon." Robert sighed as he turned and grabbed his keys off the hook and, instead of heading up to his room for some much needed sleep, began walking back towards the front door and the office again.

End Chapter 1
PS: Please leave comments! Your feedback is crucial to my development as a writer.

Also, this site has some good stories if you need more to read. The author of Zectas is a real nice guy and will take input if you have advice:

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