Kass wasn’t sure what to expect when she signed in. Between the conversation with her dad, the events of the night before with Darwin’s ‘family reunion’ and all the chatter on the forums, she was a little nervous to actually hit the button and sign on. She had no clue as to what would happen. When she did, what she found wasn’t at all what she was expecting. It was a town full of players, almost all lowbies, standing around the fountain talking to each other. The streets were devoid of any sign of NPCs. The houses and shops on all sides were charred, burned-out husks, and everyone who remained was talking in hushed murmurs amongst themselves.
Kass overheard someone asking. “What do you think happened to the townspeople?” The players were trying to keep their voices low, for whatever reason, but it was still easy enough to make out what was being said given the lack of any background noise.
“I don’t know. I saw a few of them packing up, but then they just vanished.”
“I heard one of the NPCs tell her daughter to be careful, that the Spoon King had given them a command. I was going to ask her who the Spoon King was, but she went quiet and turned away as soon as she saw that I was listening. It’s creepy how realistic these NPCs are.”
“I still can’t believe what happened last night. I wish I was logged in. I’d have given those PKs a run for their money.”
Kass was trying to follow the gossip between the other players, but it was hard to focus. Spoon King? No . . . It couldn’t be Darwin, could it? Somehow just mentioning the word spoon now reminded her of Darwin. How silly.
“My question is: What do we do now? There aren’t any merchants left to sell our loot to or buy new gear from. Those jerks really ruined it for us. We can’t even pick up new quests or finish turning in the ones we’ve already completed!”
QUEST! That’s right. We just finished the quest to clear the silver ore mine. I need to try and find Captain Elmont so that I can turn this in.
“Hey! Have either of you two seen Captain Elmont?” Kass asked the two whose conversation she had been eavesdropping on.
They didn’t respond to her at first. They just stared at her like she had said something stupid. Then finally, one of them answered, “Yeah, sorry. Really sorry . . . Umm . . . You can find him over at the tavern.”
Kass frowned. She remembered before she logged on reading about how the tavern had burned down. Is that guy such a drunk that he is looking for the last mug of beer in a burned down building? she thought, heading over towards the bar. She did her best to avoid looking at the corpses or buildings along the way. It was too grisly a sight for her handle. I wonder why they haven’t pixelated away into nothing yet? Don’t bodies usually disappear over time in video games? All the monsters we’ve killed are pretty quick to vanish, so why are these still here?
As soon as she saw the clear outline of a body covered with a bedsheet, she knew it was Captain Elmont’s. Crap. Now I’ll never get the quest reward. She dared to pull a corner of the sheet back and check the face, but she covered it up as quickly as she had seen it. The body confirmed her suspicion. Eww, that’s him alright. I hope Darwin didn’t see him like this. They seemed to get along really well. Oh yeah, where is Darwin?
Kass opened up her map and looked around the town for the blue dot that would indicate someone on her friend’s list. Since Darwin was the only person she had added, it was easy to look for him in an area. The problem was that there wasn’t a single blue dot anywhere inside the town. Kass zoomed her map out and kept trying to find where he could be. She was just about to give up, questioning whether or not it was possible that Darwin might have actually logged off, when she finally remembered: The silver-ore mine! He might not know that I would choose to appear back at my bind location in Valcrest since I was logged off for so long. He must still be waiting to make sure I don’t reappear in front of a bunch of bad guys. What a loyal and considerate leveling bot.
Kass decided to whisper Darwin and see what he was up to, but he must have been near enemies because she kept getting error messages. He must be in combat. She knew from talking with her father that the message system wouldn’t work when someone was either in combat or had potential enemies or monsters within a certain range of them. Deciding the only way she was going to get in contact with Darwin was to chase his blue dot, she exited the town. It’s not like there is anything left I can buy around here anyways.
As Kass closed the distance towards Darwin, she couldn’t help but grumble. Why did I have to restart so far away from the silver-ore mine? I don’t even walk this much in real life and I’m doing it in a game? I need a mount. A flying mount would be really cool. It wasn’t until she had made it halfway there before she finally gave up on just walking without doing anything productive and decided that she might as well stop following the road and move through the woods instead. Even though it would slow her down, she could at least kill stuff and grind out some EXP, however small it may be, along the way. Maybe I’ll even get lucky and pick up a decent item drop. I wonder what that polar bear-looking boss dropped? I bet Darwin got really good loot from it.
Almost as soon as she entered the forest, she spotted a group of vicious, red-eyed Deer-Frogs hiding between the tall evergreens’ trunks. Each one of them looked like a programmer had started with a frog, made it the size of a person, added a deer’s antlers and tail and then, just for good measure, stuck giant, red, googly-eyes on its face. Calling it peculiar was an understatement.
All seven of them were in a nice pile and hadn’t noticed her yet, so she figured there was no harm in trying out one of the spells she had never managed to successfully cast: Ice Dragon’s Dance. Casting spells was becoming as natural as breathing. It was such a natural and thoughtless process that she couldn’t explain how to do it, and the idea of not being able to seemed silly–a fact she sometimes had trouble adjusting to in the real world after logging out.
Since she had never actually seen the spell go off, the surprise at how beautiful it was caused her to forget to breathe. A small shred of blue light began to glow at the top of her staff, growing fast and twirling like a helix. Brilliant rays shot out as it grew, streaming in every direction until they began to merge together, taking on the shape and form of flesh. Each second that passed caused the dragon to grow larger and longer until, at last, the dragon was a thin, ten-foot ribbon serpent whose tail broke away from the sapphire at the top of her staff. The dragon shot farther up into the sky and then suddenly turned. It charged the ground where the Deer-Frogs stood and slammed into them, the impact splitting the dragon into two separate entities. Each of the two began spinning around the encampment in a blur, moving so fast Kass wasn’t able to distinguish one from the other. The circle grew tighter and tighter as it spiraled upwards leaving an after image that looked like a blue-tinted Christmas tree surrounding the now-frozen Deer-Frogs. When the snake-like Dragons finally crashed into each other, they shattered, shooting several large shards of ice at everything nearby.
- You have done 815 Damage!
- You have done 815 Damage!
- You have done 815 Damage!
- You have done 815 Damage!
- You have done 815 Damage!
- You have done 815 Damage!
- You have done 815 Damage!
Wow. That was . . . Wow, Kass thought, finally remembering to breathe. The entire spectacle had been so mesmerizing she had forgotten to be impressed with the Damage it had done. It had completely annihilated the camp of Deer-Frogs. The only disappointing moment was when she noticed she didn’t get any loot from the entire kill spree. It made sense in a strange sort of way: they didn’t have hands to carry anything. But that didn’t make it any less disappointing.
Kass did a ‘rinse and repeat’ almost the entire way to the silver ore mine. She found groups of creatures, stealthily moved as close as she could, and then burst them down with an Ice Dragon’s Dance. She would have made it all the way to Darwin with just this pattern if it weren’t for the fact that, when she finally reached the silver ore mine, she noticed two giant, thirteen-foot-tall Ogres with glaring red eyes and weird marks over their left eyes standing guard. Kass knew from talking to her dad and reading up on the game that Ogres grew in size as they leveled. Taking a blind guess, she estimated that an Ogre this size had to be almost level 30. Crap, I bet these are why Darwin is still in the silver ore mine and probably the reason I can’t message him, she thought, trying to think of a way to get past the guards.
Given that she didn’t have any real loot to lose, it didn’t make sense to worry about dying. There was no way Darwin was going to come out of the silver ore mine with those things guarding it, and there was no way she was going to get her EXP bot to farm her levels without getting to him. She grabbed her staff and made the decision to just wing it. This better be worth it, and your bathrobe better not flap open in combat again! she thought, preparing her staff and committing herself to the fight ahead.
“Miss. It’s in your best interest not to do that,” a man said, stepping out of the shadows behind her so quietly that he almost scared her to death.
“Why not?” Kass asked, startled, turning to face the man. If he wanted to hurt me, he’d have waited for me to pull the Ogres and killed me mid-pull.
“Because the boss rather likes his new pets, and we don’t want to be upset him, now do we?” the tall scout said. Kass noticed his attire matched that of the guards she had seen back in Valcrest, when it still had NPCs.
“But I need to get into the cave.”
“If we’re going to use the word ‘need’ so lightly, then I also need to keep you out of the cave,” the guard said callously. “Not that I know how you found us, but we’re not taking guests at the moment.”
“Look . . . I just . . . My friend Darwin is in the cave, and I need to talk to him. I know he’s inside. If I can’t go in, can you send him out?”
The guard didn’t say anything for a long minute then raised one of his hands in a gesture Kass wasn’t quite familiar with. As soon as he made the gesture, two other guards popped out of the woods, lowering the bows they were holding as they did so. When did this game get a stealth class? And how long were they there? Who the heck is their scary boss? Kass was left feeling uncomfortable by their sudden appearance.
“What do you want to do, Alex?” One of the new guards addressed the one she had previously been speaking with.
“She says she needs in the cave, so bring her to the boss. You can escort her, Justin. I still have a job to do out here,” the first guard responded.
“Alright, miss, let’s get going. You better not be lying about having business with the boss. I don’t need to tell you about what kind of man he is. He rips the souls out of people who don’t fall in line,” Justin said, walking ahead of her towards the two giant Ogres.
He rips the souls out of people? He controls giant Ogres? What the heck kind of monster is this? I don’t remember Dad ever mentioning anything about soul-ripping NPCs. Kass felt a growing knot of anxiety sink like a weight in her stomach.
“It’s okay, miss. They won’t hurt anyone with us,” Justin said, seeming to believe that the clearly visible anxiety on her face was due to walking past the colossal Ogres. “The boss stole their souls, and they are just mindless bodyguards now.”
Even though it was just a game, and her death wouldn’t have any real negative impact other than a death timer, the creepiness of the whole situation had Kass beginning to regret her choice to enter the cave.
The silver ore mine only kept its appearance as Kass remembered it for the first hundred or so feet. After that, the cave walls flattened out. They were smooth, like those of a building, and were lit by the magical torches she recognized from Valcrest. The stretch of finished walls didn’t last for long though, and she soon saw why. Dozens of NPCs were working the unrefined section of the wall, all watched over by red-eyed Turtle Wolves with the same markings above their left eye as the Ogres had outside. Did their Boss enslave the entire village? There must be hundreds of them. Kass’s stomach suddenly felt like it had finally managed tie itself into a knot.
She kept glancing over her shoulder at where the entrance had been, much to the bemusement of the guard leading her –especially when one of the glances caused her to almost trip over a pile of the debris that had been cleared off the walls. Each step began to feel more and more familiar to Kass as she recognized all of the dozens of dead ends they had hit in the first venture through the silver ore mine. They were heading to the boss room, and she checked her map one more time. This is taking me directly to Darwin. Could the boss be that girl from yesterday? Is the family reunion still happening?
“We’re here,” Justin said as they finally made it to their destination.
Deep breath, she told herself as she opened the door to the boss room. Before, there had been a vast empty room with only one of its many tables occupied. Now, however, there was a bustling room where every table was filled with NPCs–NPCs eating barbecue. Kass’s eyes scanned the room looking for her EXP bot or some sign of the monstrous presence of the boss.
“There’s the boss,” Justin said, pointing at Darwin who had just walked in from a back room. He was holding two giant plates of cooked meat as if he were a waiter. Wait, did he just say ‘boss’ and point to Darwin?
Justin waited for Darwin to finish serving the meat to two tables before interrupting him. “Boss, this girl claims to know you. Says she has business with you.”
“It’s ok, Justin, she’s my friend. You can relax,” he said, putting a hand on Justin’s shoulder. Justin let out a sigh of relief Kass hadn’t noticed he was holding in. “She does have business with me. She came a long way to get tips on fashion.”
AS IF! Who would play an amazing fantasy game just to dress up like an old man chasing kids off his lawn?
“Thanks, Boss,” Justin said.
“No problem. Now, go report back in with Alex. We can’t have this place turn into a party,” Darwin said, dismissing Justin, who vanished from sight faster than a ninja’s after image in an anime.
“So, you’re the boss?” Kass asked, waiting to unload a million questions on him.
“Yes,” Darwin answered in his usual cryptic style.
Suspicious as ever! “How?”
“I inherited the position from Elmont and the Mayor.”
“But . . . barbecue?” she asked, still having trouble figuring out which question she should ask next.
“The people were hungry, and we have a ton of leftover Turtle-Wolf meat from re-clearing the dungeon.”
“But the Turtle-Wolves I saw coming in?”
“Guards for the forty odd respawn points. Respawns can be killed without a fight while they are still materializing, if you can do it fast enough, so you only need one guard per point.”
This is too much to take in. “So . . . you’re the boss?”
“Yes, Kass, I’m the boss. You’ve asked me this before.”
“Let me get this straight. You took over an entire town and moved them to a dungeon we just cleared–a dungeon that they are now tirelessly working to turn into a normal, clean building. Then you somehow mind-controlled groups of monsters to kill and farm their fellow respawns for food to feed your new cult of a town that’s . . . Wait . . . Are . . . Are you making them build you an evil lair?”
“Yes, that about sums it up. Any other questions?” Darwin asked manner of factly, as if this were all just a common occurrence.
“Because they needed me, Kass. They needed someone, and I was all that was left.” A frown crept across his face as he answered her.
“Darwin, they’re just NPCs,” Kass said, regretting it as soon as the words escaped her lips. Darwin’s eyes had narrowed into a cold gaze that sent an icy chill down her spine.
“They are not just NPCs, Kass,” he responded sharply.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” She tried to backtrack her stupid comment.
“Yes. Yes, you did. It’s okay though, I shouldn’t get mad at you. You didn’t know any better,” Darwin said, looking around at all the NPCs eating in silence. “NPCs shouldn’t feel like they do. Look at them. They’re doing their best just to hold themselves together. That isn’t how NPCs are supposed to behave in a game.”
Kass actually saw the NPCs for the first time since she had entered the room. None of them were smiling. She even got the feeling that her presence somehow made them even more uneasy than they already were. “I’m sorry.”
“Like I said, it’s okay. I’ve done everything I can do at the moment for these people. Now, I’m assuming you came here because you wanted to level, right?”
“Oh, yeah. I did.”
“Good, because I have business that requires my attention. It would go much faster with my Ice Princess helping. Not to mention, I could use the company after the day I’ve had. So . . . do you wanna come?”
“Yes,” Kass answered, smiling for the first time since she entered the mine.