A Hop, Skip, and a Pan Away!: Darwin

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As Darwin looked at the prize he had come so far for, he couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. He had expected a giant, glowing, golden chest with beautiful inlaid jewels. He had even expected there to be other magical items around it as if it were a dragon’s hoard of loot. Instead, all he found was an empty chair facing the entrance of the room covered in food crumbs and archaic game consoles he hadn’t seen or heard of in decades. There, lying next to the cluttered, crumby chair, was a wooden container the size of a kid’s shoe box. It was nothing more than a simple wooden chest that had been severely mangled with rhinestones and glitter.

“So this is it,” Stephanie, the peppy medusa, said. “It’s the holy grail of goodness! Inside is that amazeballs stuff that you have, like, totes been after.”

Darwin looked at the wooden treasure trove. “A wooden case covered with glitter?” he asked skeptically.

“Yeah! Who doesn’t, like, absolutely love glitter. It’s, like, totally pretty!” Stephanie shouted happily.

“Why just a wooden bin though?”

“You can’t be serious! Everyone knows the holy grail has to be stored in a wooden container. Didn’t you ever watch Indiana Jones?”

She feels like the Boss of a Mean Girls movie more than a dungeon, Darwin thought, looking at the box. Everything about the dungeon was entirely unexpected, so it took him by surprise when he finally opened up the wooden chest and saw something that looked much closer to what he expected. It was a bright, golden, egg-shaped stone small enough for him to cover up with a fist that seemed to radiate light.

“I’m not sure why, but I was expecting some massive tablet,” Darwin said, holding the tiny egg that would hopefully be the salvation of Valcrest.

“Well, bigger isn’t always, like, better, you know? Like, especially with things you gotta, like, carry around and all. I mean, just . . . ewww . . . can you like imagine having to carry around a bunch of, like, junk in your pockets all the time? It would, like, totes ruin a good outfit. For such an amazing beauty like me, it would, like, be awful! I might, like, look like I had a bulge in my pants or something. That’d be totes disgus’.”

“Yeah, you’re right. By the way, do you ever clean up?”

“Eww, don’t be, like, like that, old man. I already have two parents. Don’t need one more. Also, with, like, how burnt out I am on Tetris, I don’t think I can stand to, like, organize one more thing,” she said, scoffing.

Darwin frowned. He wanted to chide her about the whole room, but his had been just as bad when he was back in the real world. There were often stacks of empty instant ramen noodle packages by his computer, and, on more than one occasion, he had built entire pyramids and castles out of the coke zero cans he went through. “So, yeah, this stone is it, eh?”

“Yep! You don’t know how to, like, activate it at all though, do you?” she laughed. “Did, like, your sister, Eve, not explain anything before she, like, sent you out here to get it?”

His face answered her question before his words could.

“Okay, like, all you have to do is pretend you have the ability it grants you. Just, like, bring up your Tiqpa Menu and ask for it to, like, open up the Town Menu. It’s just, like, that simple.”

“That simple, you say?”

“Yep. Like, it’s so easy even a White-Horn could do it,” she said, still smacking her lips while she talked.

Does she actually have bubble gum? What’s with her? The sound started to grate a bit on Darwin’s nerves. “Thanks for this,” he brought himself to say. Regardless of how annoying the sound was, she had done him a huge favor.

“No problem. It’s, like, the least I could do. Just don’t, like, forget that you totes owe me one, you know?” she said.

“I won’t. Anyways, I’m going to head off. Got a lot to do, and I need to figure out how to use this stone properly,” Darwin said, making sure to avoid glancing at her as he turned around and started to head towards the door and back into the hall.

“Oh, before you leave, I just had like one tiny little question that I’d, like, love you to answer and all,” she said as he was just about to head back to Kass.

“Darwin, why the player?” Her tone suddenly hardened, and her voice flattened out, completely losing its giddy, high-pitched perkiness in an instant.

“Huh?” Darwin asked, the shift taking him by surprise.

“The player, Darwin–you brought a player to my home.”

“She’s my friend,” he answered.

“Yeah, I get that you think that, but that can’t happen, Darwin, and we both know it. You can’t be friends with her.”

“Stephanie, I just said we are friends, and I mean it. It’s not something that can’t happen; it’s something that already has happened. Kass is my friend, okay?” Darwin said.

There was a pause. Darwin hadn’t seen her face this entire time, but he could feel her rolling her eyes at him in frustration. “Darwin, look at me,” she pleaded, and he did.

Darwin turned around and looked her in the eye for the first time since they had come to her private little dungeon. Even with her bad makeup and questionable fashion choices, she was beautiful in a classical sense. She was a young, blonde Audrey Hepburn in knee-high socks, a plaid skirt and an oxford shirt. It was such a pretty sight that he almost forgot what they were talking about.

“See, nothing. No stone, no death, no agonizing scream or death throes. Nothing. But, how much do you want to bet that if Kass or one of those NPCs you are playing stepdaddy to were to look at me for even half a second they’d be holding up the roof of my dungeon right now?” she said.

Darwin knew what she was trying to get at. It was the same point Eve had tried to make in the cave when they first met. He just didn’t care. He had spent too much of his life in the phatic communication zone of endless ‘Hi, how are you? I’m fine, thank you, and you? to want to give up what he had with Kass. “Stephanie, she’s my friend,” he said again. He wasn’t going to change his position on the matter.

Stephanie didn’t respond. She just walked up to his side and patted him on the back.” If you say so, but you should be careful; Eve is not going to like hearing that her long lost brother is hanging around with a player.”

“She’ll get over it,” he said, not entirely sure he believed the words himself.

“Ok, well, like, whatever with the drab. I like bet your friend is totes uncomfortable waiting out in that hall with, like, a hundred hot, chiseled guys posing at her.”

“You mean your statues?”

“Whatever, don’t be jelly of all my rock hard guys outside,” she said, snorting as she suppressed a chuckle at her own joke. “Dates with them will just never feel as alive as they would with you, if you know what I mean.”

“A date with me?” Darwin had to double check the implication she had slipped into the conversation. He had never even heard a girl even mention his name and the word date in the same sentence, let alone joke about it being a good thing.

“Yeah, come on, take a girl out for ice cream sometime. I promise not to turn your favorite restaurant into stone,” she said more directly.

The whole idea came out of left field for Darwin. She had gone from helping him, to lecturing him about hanging out with a player, to asking him out on a date in the course of one conversation. He felt like he was about to get whiplash from all the mood changes, but she really was attractive, and a gamer, despite the awful high school teenager act and the gum smacking sounds. “Umm, yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I kind of have a lot on my plate at the moment, but if we get the chance, I’d love some ice cream. I haven’t had any since I got here.”

“Since you got here?” she asked, as if Darwin had said something wrong.

Did I say something wrong? “Yeah, anyways, not sure when we’ll see each other again, but dessert for sure next time.”

“Kay, I’m, like, totes gonna hold you to it. Later gator,” she said, walking over and plopping down in her chair as Darwin left to go meet back up with Kass.

What the Hell just happened? Darwin thought, a million questions racing through his mind as he made his way back outside. Is it because no one else can look at her without turning to stone? Since I didn’t turn to stone, does this mean Eve was right about me? About us? Regardless of why she had asked him out, Darwin’s cheeks were red and his heart was racing. It was a first, and just the fact that it had happened made every step feel lighter than air. Win.

——-

“So, what’d you get?” Kass asked as she stood up. While waiting, she had obviously decided that Fuzzy Wuzzy was a pillow, not a bear, and used him as a prop to lean up against. “Did I get any loot at all this time?”

He couldn’t tell if her face was bored or frustrated, but she definitely had that forehead wrinkle that showed up on someone’s face when they weren’t enjoying themselves. Who could blame her though: they had spent hours traveling to a dungeon only for her to find out there wasn’t a boss and that she had to wait while someone else went and collected the reward.

“I got this,” Darwin said, deciding to be a little less cryptic and show her the glowing golden rock. “It’s what we came here for.”

Kass’s mouth literally fell open as she looked at it. “Darwin! Darwin, that’s a . . . That’s a Golden Creation Stone!” she shouted excitedly. “How did you get a Golden Creation Stone? They only spawn on raid bosses over Level 300! You’re not even supposed to be able to get one of those until you have a thousand-person guild!”

Darwin hadn’t actually known this. Eve had told him where to go and what to get, but she didn’t fill him in on all the details. He normally wouldn’t have trusted her, but she had laid out perfectly what would happen to Valcrest and what he needed to do in order to save the remaining people. That said, he did know that the level cap for players was 255, probably the game creator’s homage to old number limits from the 8 bit games. He also knew that no one was supposed to reach that level until a few years after the release of the game. “Yeah, I don’t know. I guess the only question left is if Stephanie was actually a raid Boss.”

“No, the real question is, why the heck was one of those on this island? This is a beginners’ island. Who would put a super boss and a hidden Creation Stone on a starter island where no one could ever get it? That just seems really confusing and kind of mean, like they were expecting players to spend forever doing something repetitive just so they could get a reward they weren’t even sure existed.”

“Yeah, kind of like the gem on Diablo 2,” Darwin thought, thinking back on the hours he had spent clicking it without ever knowing what it did–if it even did anything at all.

“Don’t remind me,” Kass muttered under her breath.

“Okay, but yeah, the gem being here does raise a lot of questions. . . questions that we can’t answer here, so we should probably get a move on.”

“Ummm, about that. You see, the thing is . . . I’m not okay with just going back to town right now.”

“Why not?” Darwin asked.

“Because, I want a proper boss fight, Darwin! I want an awesome staff like your sword! Between your family reunion and little miss drools-over-old-men, I’ve spent two days in dungeons and don’t have a single item drop from a Boss fight to show for it,” she whined.

“So you want to try to take on the raid boss?”

“Oh, Hell, no. Let’s get out of here. I’m just saying, let’s go to the closest dungeon around our level and fight a boss, get me some gear, and then we can go back to the mine where you can play Sim City with your new group. But I want a cool staff.”

“Your staff isn’t cool enough with all that ice coming out of it?” Darwin tried to make a pun, but the cold look on Kass’ face showed him it wasn’t appreciated. “Alright, alright, fine. You’ve helped me get this far. I’ll help you with a dungeon. Do you know any close by?”

“Yeah, actually, I thought when you said Grennich dungeon on Menive Mountain you were referring to the dungeon people were talking about on the forums. I didn’t bother checking my map on the way here, since I was just following you. I only realized it was a different place entirely while I was waiting for you to finish . . . whatever you were doing in there. Anyways, they say the boss is supposed to be a giant beast with monstrous power, but I’ve got some cool enchantment spells that should help you handle that.”

“Alright, let’s do it.”

“And I get to keep all the items.”

Darwin stared at her blankly.

“Fine! We’ll go by class breakdown as usual. But just so you know, you’re being totally unfair. Even Fuzzy Wuzzy thinks you should let me keep the items.”

“That’s because Fuzzy Wuzzy hasn’t learned who his master is, has he?” Darwin said, wagging a finger at his Zombie Bear as if it were just a regular bad dog. “No taking her side over mine. Bad! Bad!” The big beast lowered its head like a dog does when it puts its tail between its legs and made a whimpering sound.

“Hey, ease off the big guy. He just knows who is smarter and better looking,” Kass said, wrapping her arms around the big bear.

“Smart enough to talk yourself out of a dungeon?” Darwin threatened.

“Nope! Let’s go. I think I know the way,” Kass ended the conversation before things could go any further.

——-

Kass did not know the way though. It took them half an hour of searching around the area where it ‘should have been’ before they finally found it. They might not have found it at all if one of Fuzzy Wuzzy’s attack attempts against a low-flying, wasp-like monster hadn’t knocked over several small trees blocking their view and revealed the cave. When Darwin noticed that there weren’t any fancy statues, beautiful cut roofs or even a hint of decoration, he felt a weight lift off him that he didn’t know was there. All he needed now was a trusty spear and he’d be back in one of his old games. Maybe he could even get a ridiculously big sword, add fifteen needless buckles to his bathrobe and pretend he was in a Square Enix game. While he was eager to go back to the silver ore mine and play with his new toy, he couldn’t complain about the dungeon idea after seeing it. A good, simple dungeon with easy grinding: it was like being home again for Darwin.

“So what do you think the monster is going to be this time?” Kass asked as they started into the cave.

“I don’t know. Maybe a giant bunny. I’ve heard they’re very deadly,” Darwin said, just as clueless as she was about what they’d run into.

“Not if you know how to count to three.”

“Well, that might be a problem considering I went to a public school in the States.”

“Ouch.”

“Yeah, they let us bring calculators to class so no one would fail algebra, but the teacher was so old he didn’t even know that the calculator would solve equations with variables if you just plug them in.”

“Wow, you got lucky. My teacher wouldn’t even let us bring a cheat-sheet, much less a calculator.”

“Well, to be honest, I spent most of my time playing Snake, Drugwars and Tetris on my calculator. Didn’t really use it much for math.”

“Yeah, that definitely explains a lot.”

“Hey, don’t be like that. I learned plenty of math, just from a higher form of education: video games. I don’t think I would have passed the SAT’s verbal section either if it weren’t for Grammar Nazis on Reddit and video games using outdated words like they were all magical. God bless the modern education system.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be the old man here? Shouldn’t you be lecturing me about staying in school, not telling me to spend my time playing video games and browsing Reddit?”

“Nah. You’re old enough to know that all that stuff about your parents being model students is probably a lie.”

“As if! Mine were– Woah! That thing is ugly!” Kass was about to argue about how great her parents were when she stopped to point out the monster ahead of them.

Darwin could only shake his head. It was a horrendous looking, hairless boar. It had a normal, ugly snout but with a disfigured, lopsided under bite and two sets of tusks instead of one. On top of that, it had horns with patchy hair on them growing out of its ear. “What in the world is that ugly thing? It’s like a pig-man with radiation poisoning.”

“Awww, so it will be another dungeon hosting of a Darwin family reunion,” Kass said, not able to stop herself from laughing.

“Har dee har-har, and here I thought he was your type,” Darwin smirked.

“Okay, well, jokes aside, do you wanna go do your little double sword dance and kill that thing? I’m kind of getting sick just looking at it,” Kass said while enchanting Darwin’s blade with ice.

Darwin shared her desire to get rid of the creature, but he was more worried about the prospect of an entire dungeon of them. The first dungeon had been nothing but Turtle-Wolves, and now this dungeon was likely going to be nothing but Mutant Boars: ugly, gross, disgusting, Mutant Boars.

As he pulled out his two weapons and charged the boar, Darwin found himself very happy he had a strong stomach. If he hadn’t been desensitized from years of horror games and movies, he might have lost his lunch when he cut the thing open with his Burriza’s Blade. It was only after the creature was dead that he stopped thinking about how gross it was and started thinking about something wicked. What if I revive it and have it follow Kass around? How long would it take before she got mad and tried to kill it–or me? The ends of his lips curled up in such a fashion that even Fuzzy Wuzzy started to look uncomfortable. I’ll just get her to agree to it first without realizing what she’s agreeing to, he schemed.

“Kass, I have an idea,” he said, looking over to her.

“Nope,” Kass said.

“Nope? How can you say that so quickly when I haven’t even told you what the idea is?” Darwin was doing his best to stifle a laugh; he couldn’t keep his mind off the idea of a Mutant Zombie Boar following her around.

“I don’t know what you’re planning to do, but I definitely know it’s a nope with that face you’re making.”

Darwin silently cursed his inability to keep a straight face. He would make an awful poker player–maybe he should get a few pointers from the poker-playing bear boss of the dungeon he now owned. “Alright, fine, but it was a good idea.”

“Nope. It wasn’t,” Kass reaffirmed, cutting him off before he could say anymore.

“You don’t even know what it was!” Darwin protested.

“I know enough,” she said with her head held high.

She was right, but Darwin still felt unhappy about the fact he didn’t get a chance to even tell her. When they rounded the corner and saw not one but several Mutant Boars, Darwin sighed and looked over at Fuzzy Wuzzy and the two Turtle-Wolves that were still following them. He knew it was going to be a long dungeon and that those three would be his only backup through most of it. Stupid, ugly boars, couldn’t let me enjoy some quality level grinding, could you?

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