Even after reaching the silver ore mine a few hours later, Kass was still curious about what was going on with Darwin. The clues kept piling up in her head, but she couldn’t figure out the one crucial detail she was missing. Each interaction with the merchants had felt real. It hadn’t seemed like they were in a game at all. In fact, her entire time in town shopping with him had felt just like it would if she had dragged one of her old boyfriends shopping.
She had taken especially critical note of the interaction with the armor merchant who had customized Darwin’s bathrobe. Had any merchant before made a custom piece of gear for a player? One that may as well have qualified as a unique boss drop for someone? Had any merchant ever offered this service in response to a player’s own visualized uncertainty? The game had only been out a week, so it’s not like anyone had a lot of experience in the area, but she could almost say with certainty that the answer was ‘no.’ No merchant had ever done that for anyone. Something was definitely weird with Darwin, but she didn’t have all the clues yet.
Before they stepped into the cave, which was a simple unlit hole on the side of the cliff so dark it looked like a portal to the void, Kass cast her spell Binding Light. The spell, a Level 1 skill usable by all casting classes, did no damage. Instead, it created a luminescent globe of light that sat on top of her staff’s beautiful sapphire, allowing the weapon to double as a super-effective blue torch.
“There. This should hold us for two hours before I have to recast it,” she said, wearing an ear to ear grin. Frost Mage really is the most useful Class in the game.
“Thanks, I really didn’t plan ahead about the light. Glad you’re here.” Darwin acted like he was going to reach out and pat her on the back, but stopped before finishing his movement.
“No problem,” Kass said, stopping in her tracks as she saw the first monster. She had expected to see goblins or orcs or one of the other grotesque monsters she knew from any one of the thousands of dungeon-crawlers that used the same enemies. Instead, she was greeted by what could only be described as the product of spilt coffee on a game designer’s notepad–Turtle-Wolves. They had the same shell and awkward necks that one would expect of a turtle, but their limbs were hairy, wolf-like appendages. Their faces were that of a gruesome wolf’s, replete with the signature yellow eyes and mangy snout included. Kass could see four of them in total, all standing on their hind-legs and holding spears like they were guards to a town.
“A turtle and a dog in one? I can see this as a tribute to Asian soup chefs,” Darwin said, showing no shame for his ignorant and culturally insensitive comment as he equipped his axes and charged the level 35 Turtle-Wolves. Kass could practically count out how long it would take for him to reach them since she had seen the charge so many times.
I should probably help the goof, she thought, slamming her staff into the ground and activating her spell ‘Winter is Coming.’ It was a high level bind that shot ice chains out of the ground and around the ankles of the Turtle-Wolves, leaving them both chilled and stuck in place. She was happy to have such a high Damage tank when casting it though: the spell could get you killed with how much aggro it drew. By the time the chains had worn off Darwin had killed all four Turtle-Wolves and was already charging the next camp.
How does he run so fast with two axes in slippers? He’s like a deadly pajama sprinter in those things, Kass complained, trying her best to keep up as he ran from mob to mob. Most of her spells took a few seconds to channel, and some even took almost a minute. Her deadliest spells with the largest AOE radius could take up to two or three minutes. This meant that when she was chasing after the Bathrobe Knight, she simply couldn’t cast them and had to rely on her signature spell Snowball’s Chance to freeze the enemies. On one hand, it made Kass really sad because she wanted a chance to see Ice Dragon’s Dance; but on the other hand, it meant that they were getting EXP way faster than the other players.
As the pace slowed down, and the mobs began thinning out, Kass decided to break the silence. Darwin seemed to always get too wrapped up in his work as a cheap but premium-quality Kass-leveling-bot to remember that he could talk. “So what do you do for a living? Or are you like me, currently unemployed?”
“You’re unemployed?” Darwin asked, dodging the question.
“Yeah. I just graduated college, and everyone tells me I need five to ten years of experience to get jobs I want. I did get a sterling offer to work at Pizza Hut though.”
“Not a big fan of getting your crust stuffed?”
“Something like that. Anyways, what about you? What do you do?”
“What did I do before Tiqpa? I was something of an accountant, though on most days it felt like I was just a glorified data entry clerk. Anyways, if you don’t have a job, do you live with your parents?”
“Dad. I live with my dad. My mom passed away when I was young.” Is it just my imagination, or did Darwin say ‘before Tiqpa’ and ‘was?’ Did he quit his job because of the game?
“I’m sorry.” Darwin stopped walking and turned around to face her. “It must have been real hard on you. Do you want to talk about it?”
“Well . . . No. I’m good. Anyways, where do you live?”
“Ah, I lived in Georgia. What about you?” he said.
“Oh, me? I live there too! We moved from San Francisco a while ago.” He said ‘lived,’ not ‘live.’ It’s past tense again. Why is it in past tense? What am I missing? What is the clue I am missing?
Kass wasn’t sure what to ask next, but she didn’t have time to think about it. A group of seven Turtle-Wolves had spotted them, and the conversation came to a grinding halt as she pointed them out. Darwin turned around and did his same reckless charge as always, and Kass raised her staff and leveled it at the one in the far back. Forget it, if these guys are going to ruin my fun, then I’m going to ruin theirs. Frigid Blast! The spell did nothing at first, but after a dozen or so seconds, it shot out a strong gust of wind carrying a series of icicles.
- You have done 550 Damage!
Wow! That’s way more damage than my usual spell. Too bad it took so long to cast that it only hit the one mob Darwin hadn’t killed yet.
“So, what games did you play before Tiqpa?”
“Oh, I used to be really into the MMO Emerald Gardens. I was commander of a good group of guys.” Darwin paused in speech and movement like he had a sudden thought and then just fired the question back. “What about you?”
“Oh. I wasn’t too into games before Tiqpa. Tiqpa just looked super beautiful. But I did occasionally play Emerald Gardens. My character name was Smiling Grumpy Cat. I never got to top level though. That said, I used to play all the time with my friends from the university.
“I’ve been wondering. Kass, do you . . .” he stopped mid-sentence as a spear came hurling at him.
Been wondering what? Can’t you kill and talk at the same time? Ugh! The first time he initiates the conversation with what sounds like a very serious question, he gets interrupted by stupid Turtle-Wolves? ALL OF YOU HAVE TO DIE! Kass angrily shot one Snowball’s Chance after another at the enemies until, halfway through her furious barrage, they were all dead and the only thing left was a status message window.
You have Reached Level 30! You may now take on a specialization for your Job Class. There are three different specializations the Frost Mage can choose from:
Enchanter: An Enchanter specializes in improving the abilities of his or her allies. An enchanter can temporarily imbue allies with powerful bonuses. Allies imbued with an Enchanter’s magic will receive major boosts to their combat abilities.
Sorceress: A Sorceress specializes in harnessing the offensive abilities of her element. A Sorceress is given a boost to all offensive spells. Some standard spells will also be given an AOE effect.
Magus: A Magus specializes in harnessing the defensive abilities of her element. A Magus is given spells to reduce incoming damage and escape tough situations. The Magus is also given the ability to summon familiars of their elemental alignment to defend them.
“Darwin, hold up a moment. I have to pick something for my Job Class before we can keep going,” Kass called up ahead to Darwin, not wanting to rush this decision.
“Okay. I’m going to play around with my status menu too,” he said, pulling out a pen and the piece of paper she had secretly read at the tavern.
Hmm. Now what to pick. I wonder . . . If I picked Magus, could I create an elemental summon that looks like Darwin? and let it die a few times whenever he opened his mouth about dresses or fashion? Actually . . .
“Darwin, are you going to be on this game a lot?”
“Yeah. I don’t see myself logging out much at all. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” she said, trying to hide her wicked smile. Just that I plan on leeching so much EXP from you that other players who see my level growth will demand a nerf. Tiqpa, I pick Enchanter.
You are now a Frost Mage with the Enchanter Subclass. You have been granted the spell Frost Edge.
Kass immediately pulled up her skill tree to look at the new skill. It added bonus damage to an allied party member in the form of cold, based off their existing damage. That’s not bad at all. It starts with a 15% damage increase, and I just got the spell? Kass cast the spell on Darwin, and his two axes slowly grew coats of ice on their blades that seemed to radiate an aura of cold. I wish I could have cast that on myself at the bar for +10 cold shoulder against creepy frat guys. Or I could have cast it on my drink glass. Mmmmm, instantly frosty beer.
“Wow, that’s pretty neat. So I take it this is the only compliment I’m getting from you for a while?” Darwin interrupted her pondering with his admiration of the ice dripping off his two axes.
“Yeah, it’s one of the new spells I get. I can’t wait to find out what the rest are, but I should be getting a ton of buff spells as we level.”
“Cool. I wonder what happens if I . . .” Darwin said, putting his weapons down for a second and watching the ice disappear off his blades and reappear his knuckles. “Now that’s amazing.” He picked his axes back up, the frost reforming alone their blades, and kept on down the path.
He does look pretty cool with those axes.
Other than the Class promotion, their journey through the silver ore mine was rather uneventful until they hit the end of the dungeon. The entire dungeon was extremely linear, no more than one story high, and consisted of narrow corridors crammed full of Turtle-Wolves. As a result, Kass expected the dungeon boss to be either a wolf, a turtle, or a much larger version of the now repetitive Turtle-Wolf. That’s why, when she finally stepped into the boss chamber, she was so surprised she forgot to even breath for a minute.
“What in the . . . heck . . . is that?” she asked Darwin, who, equally dumbfounded, had stopped dead in his tracks as well. While the whole cave had been a series of long, tight, narrow corridors only lit by the blue glow of her Binding Light spell, the boss chamber was a massive square room with torches lining its long silver walls. The chamber had to be at least 3 stories high, and it was filled with circular tables that had chairs lined around them. The only table that was occupied, the one in the center of the room, was host to four Turtle-Wolves and a giant, two-story-tall, white bear with an accountant hat. It looked like they were all playing a game of cards when the pair had interrupted them. The bear stood up and roared when he saw them, prompting the Turtle-Wolves to drop their hands of card and head towards Kass and Darwin in their usual spear-chucking attack mode, minus the spears. They were unarmed.
“Is . . . Is this real, Darwin?” Kass asked, a little dumbfounded. “Did we just interrupt the boss playing a game of cards with his minions?”
“I think we did . . . Do you think he was he winning?” Darwin didn’t wait for her answer, charging the Turtle-Wolves and killing them before the bear could even move. Kass wanted to join him, but for some reason, she was too stunned to realize what was going on until after Darwin had dispatched the four Turtle-Wolves.
Here goes nothing! Kass slammed her staff into the ground, her favorite caster pose, and began casting Winter is Coming on the bear. The snaring effect didn’t work, and the bear charged towards Kass at a frightening speed.
Just before the boss hit her, Darwin slammed into its side with just enough force to push it off its course and into the silver wall on her right. Kass kept casting, scared of what was going to happen next. She did her best to channel her most powerful spell, ‘Ice Dragon Dance.’ The cast time might be long, but she closed her eyes and did her best to channel it as fast as she could while Darwin fought. She couldn’t run; the bear was too fast. She couldn’t cast snowballs; they wouldn’t do anything if ‘Winter is Coming’ didn’t have an effect. She only had this and the Frost Edge that was already on Darwin’s blade.
Almost done . . . Almost done . . . Almost done . . . Th . . . Just before the channeling finished, she felt something kill the entire spell. Her eyes popped open, and she felt fear grip her heart with a chilling hand in a way none of her ice spells ever could.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t have you finish that spell. You’d ruin the show,” a voice said from behind her. “You have no idea how much effort I put into making it here on time. You wouldn’t want to take away my fun, now would you?”
She had been silenced. There was nothing she could do to help Darwin, so she turned around to see who was talking. The voice’s owner was a tall woman wearing a black cocktail dress that flowed onto the floor. Her skin was as pale as the moon, and her eyes were the same crimson red as Darwin’s. As far as Kass could tell, she wasn’t carrying a weapon of any kind.
“It’s okay, little thing. Don’t be scared. I won’t hurt you yet. He’d be mad at me for that,” the woman said, patting Kass’s head. “Just watch the show.”
The show was brutal. With every second that passed, Darwin seemed to somehow get faster. He grew stronger as the battle wore on. His axes cleaved from side to side, and the bear did its best to turn, maw and swipe at the oncoming attacks. It was beautiful. Darwin wasn’t fighting like he was trying to kill a boss. He was fighting like a seasoned warrior clinging to life. She had been petrified by the giant bear, and he had dived to save her life. She had thought it was over, and here he was fighting on like death wasn’t an option.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the woman asked.
It was, and Kass wanted to respond, but her voice was silenced along with her ability to cast spells.
As the bear made its final death cry, bleeding from the hundreds of small cuts and rips of Darwin’s axes, Darwin gave it mercy and buried his axe right between its eyes. The battle was won, and the only sound left was the gentle golfer’s clap that the mysterious woman was making next to Kass.
- You have reached Level 31!
“I’m sorry, dear, I know you’re looking forward to seeing what it dropped, but I can’t have you interrupting a family reunion. After all, this is my first time meeting my brother,” she said, patting Kass on the back and causing a spell to ring throughout her body.
It was a sleep spell, and Kass did everything she could to hold onto consciousness as she hit the floor. She could only make out a few words clearly as the woman called out to Darwin, waving at him like a mother trying to get her kid’s attention after a soccer game. She barely managed to make out a handful of words before the blackness of the sleep spell overtook her.
“Why would you . . . bring a player . . . our home . . .”
You have been knocked unconscious. You have two hours before you will regain consciousness.
Crap. Two hours? What kind of sleep spell is that? The death timer isn’t even that long! Well, I might as well log and get some food and sleep. We’ve been at this all night.