Kass shivered as she watched Darwin rip his ice-covered blade through three Frog-Deer in one precise, lunging sweep she could barely follow. Sure, her spells were devastating and beautiful, but they couldn’t easily match Darwin’s fury. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was, but something about the combination of how he moved in combat and his glowing red eyes made her feel uncomfortable at times. He would go from joking around about what to name a bear to a completely different person the second the conversation ended and the fight started. She just couldn’t figure it out exactly.
She shook off the uneasy feeling, raised her staff and cast another barrage of ice spells at the approaching Frog-Deer. It was becoming a game of hers to see if she could kill them before Darwin reached them. Sure, he was a one-person wrecking crew, but so was she! She hummed the tune to “Anything You Can Do” as her spells ripped through the approaching enemies like a hailstorm. She was so happy with the results that she didn’t even bother checking the damage numbers. It took away from her immersion into the game.
“Wow . . .” She stopped dead in her tracks as the trees gave way, and the dungeon entrance came into view. Whereas the entrance to the silver ore mine had been humble and meager, a mere hole with nothing to really, this was something different. It was a beautiful work of art. The surrounding area was rock, grass and trees, but the entrance was white marble. It was clearly designed to mimic the Parthenon straight out of Ancient Greece. Rather than columns supporting a Grecian roof, however, there were towering white marble statues of men and women whose clothes had been painted red and white. Each one was wearing armor as one might have expected a Roman soldier to wear, but their arms were raised up carrying the roof instead of weapons. “It’s amazing . . .”
“Yeah, it really is,” Darwin said, walking up to one of the statues and touching it. “I don’t think in my entire life in the real world I ever saw anything this beautiful.”
“I don’t think I have either,” Kass said, walking towards the entrance when she saw one of Darwin’s hands slide over a statue’s boob. “Darwin! Stop it!”
“Oh, sorry, it just seemed so real.”
“So you are okay with grabbing boobs that don’t belong to you if they seem real?”
“I didn’t grab; I just was touching it to see how . . . I’m not going to win this conversation, am I?”
“No, you’re not. Just say you’re sorry and let’s move on,” Kass said, trying her best to sound serious and not laugh. Everyone had at one point probably touched a manikin or statue in the past. But that didn’t stop her from still wanting to facepalm when Darwin did it in front of her. Who does that where other people can see?
“Okay, fine. Sorry.”
“There you go. Now, hands to your side. No more touching, and let’s go in the dungeon before you get tempted again.”
“Ha-ha, fine. That said, I wonder how they pick the themes. Do you think someone designs all of this? I mean it’s kind of odd for there to be a Greek theme–with Romanesque soldiers–in the middle of a mountain area like this when all of the villages look like English thatch.”
“It depends. Dad says that the design teams mostly lets the AI generate a lot of the dungeons. That way, more mobs and dungeons can be generated constantly. The teams just provide item and building designs, and the AI will then use a mixture of both those created by the programmers and unique designs of its own to create a dungeon.”
Even as Kass spoke, she was turning her head constantly trying to take in everything. The entrance had just been the tip of the iceberg in terms of the architecture and design. The cave didn’t have stone walls like the silver ore mine. Instead, there were strings of glow-in-the-dark plants climbing up the sides like ivy, each glowing one of the three primary colors. The statues that were present outside continued to support the ceiling all the way down the hall. “So are any of the dungeons purely designed by people?”
“Yeah, every dungeon that existed before the AI was implemented was created by hand. The AI is actually kind of new. They started loading it in a month or so ago, but they didn’t finish fully integrating it into the system until around Christmas.”
Darwin stopped and looked at one of the statues. “Around Christmas, you say?”
“Yeah. Dad said they finished the installs Christmas night.”
“I see. So, your dad, he works at the company?”
It was only then that Kass realized she had never told Darwin anything about her involvement with the game or her dad’s relationship with it. Her dad hadn’t told her not to mention it, but she had instinctively hidden the information from everyone in the game and on the boards.
“Yeah, you could say that,” she answered, and then quickly changed the subject. “What about you? What do your parents do?”
“Oh, I guess I don’t know.”
Crap! I had to ask an orphan about his parents. What do . . . “Darwin! Careful with that hand!” The mood instantly changed from serious to light as Darwin’s hand came a little too close to a statue’s body parts again. It lightened up even more when Fuzzy Wuzzy, now over twice the size he was when they found him, imitated Darwin and touched the butt of one of the statues while growling. “Like father like son, I suppose.” She shook her head as Fuzzy Wuzzy looked over at Darwin with his paws still firmly on the statue’s behind, clearly very happy with himself.
Darwin, who had pulled his hand back, faked a high tone and brought out the finger to admonish Fuzzy Wuzzy like he was an old man yelling at kids to get off of his lawn. “Bad bear! Bad! Get away from that! Bad!” But the Bear just looked confused as he fell back down on all four legs.
“Yep, he clearly takes after his master.”
“Whatever you say, Kass.” Darwin looked like he wanted to say something else, but instead just grumbled as Fuzzy Wuzzy nudged his head under Darwin’s hand while he walked.
That bear loves to be petted. He’s just like a tiny puppy trapped in a ten-foot, grizzled, red-eyed black bear’s body. That doesn’t sound strange at all, right?
“He definitely takes after his master,” Kass said again, still amused.
“Shh. Fuzzy Wuzzy, let’s leave this old lady behind,” Darwin said.
“W . . . Wait! OLD LADY! I’m younger than you!” Kass yelled after him, but Darwin and Fuzzy Wuzzy had already started to walk ahead with the two Turtle-Wolves.
“Kass, does this dungeon feel like it’s missing something?” Darwin asked as she caught up to him. She hadn’t thought about it. It looked amazing. The sculptures, the iridescent walls, the beautiful detail that was painted across every single tile they stepped over. The dungeon didn’t feel like it was missing anything.
Kass couldn’t figure out what he meant as she walked further into the dungeon. Then the realization hit her: she knew what was missing.
“Right?” he asked, almost as if he had been reading her mind.
“Yeah . . . Darwin, what’s going on?”
“I don’t honestly know at this point. I was expecting resistance. I was expecting a fight. I was expecting them to try to stop me,” he said, pointing at the statues.
Kass gulped audibly as the idea set in. There were no monsters; there were only statues. The statues were mostly likely intended to be the monsters, and Darwin had expected them to fight back, except they weren’t moving. They were only holding the roof as if life had never entered them at all. What is he here looking for? Why aren’t they trying to stop us? ” Darwin, what are they supposed to stop you from doing?”
He laughed and smiled that creepy grin of his that sent shivers down her spine. He’s not going to answer me, is he? What are you up to, old man?
“Darwin, you’re being like this on purpose, aren’t you?” she asked, doing her best to press the issue.
“I’m doing nothing but keeping my word to my . . . sister,” he said, the last word coming out slow and forced like someone new to English trying it out for the first time.
“She made you promise not to tell me what was in here?”
“Yes,” he responded with no explanation.
“But she sent you on a mission through an empty dungeon in a mountain that no one goes to for an object that is super top secret?”
“Yes,” he answered again.
“Darwin, you’re being like this on purpose, aren’t you?” she repeated her question, rather frustrated with Darwin.
“I’m just making sure not to upset the person doing me a favor.”
“Well, that I can understand. By the way, what did you two talk about?”
“Now you’re just being nosy.”
Kass scoffed. I am not nosy! I am asking legitimate questions, and he is just being a stuffy, secretive old man! It’s not like I’m being a busybody for wanting to know why I’m being dragged across the continent to explore a dungeon where the mobs, for whatever reason, aren’t attacking us. Kass sighed. She wasn’t going to get anywhere with Darwin at this rate. “Darwin, do you have any other brothers or sisters I need to know about? That are going to perhaps sneak up on my back while you fight a Boss again?”
“Couldn’t tell you. Didn’t know I even had the one till just recently.”
“Wait, how do you not . . .” She was about to finish her question when she remembered the earlier line of questioning. Right, orphan. Of course he wouldn’t know how many sisters or brothers he had. Stupid Kass. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, not all of us were born with a silver spoon . . .” he said, tossing up the spoon he had kept since the Minotaur fight.
Kass couldn’t help but laugh at the terrible attempt at a joke. You’re such a doofus. “At least we haven’t run into any forks in the road.” She joined in on the bad jokes.
“It’s not like they could dish out anything worse than a fork in the road.”
“Careful what you say, there is still plenty of time for us to be served up here,” Kass cautioned.
“Yeah, need to avoid our just deserts, eh?” Darwin tried to keep it going.
Kass didn’t even bother responding with more dinner-themed puns. Instead, she gave Darwin that look that let him know he had failed. Even Fuzzy Wuzzy held his head low, as if sensing his master’s shame. “You think it’ll be a long dungeon?”
“Probably not,” a voice other than Darwin answered. Kass froze. Crap, not again! How do they keep sneaking up on me? She turned her head to see what it was, only to discover a skinny blonde teenage girl with red lipstick smeared across her face like the Joker from Christopher Nolan’s Batman series covering her eyes with her hand. “Hey! Hey, don’t look! Are you trying to get yourself killed?” the young girl shouted.
Kass averted her gaze. “Wait, why am I not looking?”
“Because I’m a Gorgon, you idiot. One look at me and you’ll turn into stone. Don’t you read any mythology? Ugh. Teenagers these days must be allergic to literature or something. The entire world of knowledge for eating, like, at your fingertips, but you won’t even, like, take a bite if it’s not made into a movie first.”
“I . . . I read,” Kass said defiantly, trying to defend herself, but Darwin’s chuckle at the comment betrayed her. She didn’t read that much, not half as much as she should, but there were way too many good games to play to be stuck reading.
“So you’re the dungeon boss,” Darwin asked, as if none of this new information could possibly phase him.
“Yeah! Totes. And I’ve been waiting for, like, forever for someone to come in here and loot the prize so I can get out of this joint.”
“And the statues . . . were your minions, right?” Darwin asked, walking forward as if Barbie the Medusa Clown wasn’t right behind him.
“Ding, ding! Winner, winner chicken dinner!” she carried on talking with smacking lips that sounded as if she was doing a mix between chewing bubblegum and shouting. “It was pretty fun having an entire dungeon of servants, but then they kept coming to report when an intruder was killed, and they insisted on eye contact and, well, now it’s just me. The alone time was nice when there were books to read, but honestly, I’ve run out of things to do now.”
“Good, then you know why I came here too?” Darwin asked.
“Yeah, your sister told me, though I gotta tell you I was, like, totes surprised to find you with a player. What’s the deal with that? Are you just looking for female companions because, like, Oh-Em-Gee, you can do way better than this wallflower here,” the Medusa Barbie went on.
HE CAN NOT! Darwin can NOT do bett– Wait . . . what? His sister came here before us?
“Couldn’t tell you. She’s just fun to hang around and a good friend of mine,” Darwin responded. Kass was beginning to get used to Darwin having conversations as if she weren’t there, no matter how much it still annoyed her.
She needed to speak out, find her voice and not just let the conversation roll without her saying anything. “Hey!” she finally got out, before Medusa Barbie could respond. “I’m not just a wallflower!”
“Of course you’re not. You just, like, totes dress like one, and that’s, like, perfectly norms in my book. Anyways, Darwin dear, are you going to do a lady right and take her magic treasure? I’m like starting to look like a ghost I’ve been down here so long. I wonder if I’ll get sunburned when I go outside again.”
Darwin laughed while he answered, “Sure, yeah, lead the way. Also, does this mean we don’t have to fight?”
“Ewww. No, I don’t want to fight you. Even if I won, your sis would totally kill me. She totally dotes on you. It’s kinda creepy . . . I hope she doesn’t turn out to Cersei you like Jamie–that would be AWKWARD.”
“I . . . did not know.” Darwin shook his head like he usually did. This was beginning to feel like he was trying to make that head shake into a trademark ‘Darwin action’. “I just recently met her and all, so you know how things are.”
“Awww! I bet that was, like, one heck of a reunion. Anyways, we’re almost there, but you know I can’t be letting a player see the magic goods, right?”
“Hey! Why does he get to see them and not me?” Kass interrupted the two chatting away, unhappy at the idea that she had travelled all this way only to be left at the door.
“Because, like, you just can’t. Either Darwin gets to get what he came for without you watching, or you two have to kill me to take it, and, like, most people find that their attempts at that turn out a bit rocky. So, could you, like, wait here a bit? Kay, wallflower?” she said, making Kass want to hit her even more.
What’s with her teenage, bubblegum attitude? She can’t even put on makeup right? It’s like she was trying to be a clown. Oh, wait . . . I’m guessing she can’t use a mirror with her powers or she would turn herself to stone. That’s probably why her lipstick is all over the place.
Darwin gave Kass a look that told her he didn’t want any trouble, and she should just go along with the whole thing. So she did. She watched Darwin and the stone-gaze girl walk off ahead of her.
Hmph. Dragging me all this way just so he can go off and check out the cheerleader’s treasure chest. This feels just like high school all over again. I thought after college I’d be done with this.
“So, about my sister, did she ha . . .” she heard Darwin start to ask as he faded out of sight in front of her.
Kass sighed. I guess I’ve got some time to kill, she thought, and she opened up her skill menu to see how her spells were progressing. She was so close to Level 40 that she could almost taste it. She would definitely hit 40 by the time she got back to Darwin’s cave–if she actually went back to Darwin’s cave. Darwin was supposed to just be an EXP bot for her, but the whole situation with him was somehow getting more and more complicated. Those complications were something that Kass had to decide if she was comfortable dealing with . . . if she was comfortable with how fast he was advancing in the game without her.