Darwin wasn’t even able to make it halfway back home before Alex came barreling out of the woods in front of him at full speed.
“Captain!” Alex almost shouted as he closed in on Darwin. “Captain, I’m glad I found you in time.”
“In time? In time for what?” Darwin asked, confused.
“To kill them. To kill those scum,” Alex said, pointing at a seemingly random direction in the forest.
“Kill who? What scum are you talking about? What’s going on?”
“The bastards who murdered my family,” Alex said, gritting his teeth as his face grew redder by the minute.
“Wait, scum that killed your family?”
“Captain, during the attack that earned you your title and destroyed our village, many people died defending the town. They fought bravely against the intruders, but some didn’t; some people took advantage of the chaos that ensued during the struggle and murdered and pillaged good, honest people’s homes. A lot of people died that didn’t have to, people that weren’t part of the initial struggle. These people, I know for a fact, were part of that group of traitors who turned on the village and murdered the townspeople during the mayhem.” Alex said it in a way that made it difficult to tell exactly whom he was mad at: the group of people for killing his family or Darwin for wasting precious seconds that could be spent avenging their deaths.
“Say no more,” Darwin said, not wanting to upset Alex any more that he already was by forcing him to wait even longer. “Lead the way.”
As the two of them tore through the woods with Darwin’s entourage, Fuzzy Wuzzy and the four Turtle-Wolves, Alex did his best to update Darwin on the situation. “There are twelve of them. They aren’t nearly as skilled in combat as you, but they are better than the average soldier.”
Better than the average soldier? So they’re at least above Level 20. If they aren’t ‘nearly as skilled as me’ then that means they’re probably all between Level 25 and 30. Darwin began putting the numbers together in his head. It was going to be a mathematical slaughter. I have five troops with me, all of which are Level 41, and each of them gain the Captain’s Emblem’s bonus +5 levels and +5% to all stats. I don’t think I even have to take part in this fight.
“Captain, there is one thing we may need to be concerned about,” Alex continued, breaking Darwin from his happy thoughts about being overpowered against the noobs. “One of them kept talking about all-powerful entities–he called them aliens.”
Darwin’s face fell flat. “You’re worried about . . . aliens?”
“Yeah, this Henry character in the group kept talking about them and how they made us all . . . How they could easily come down and destroy us at a moment’s notice. I normally wouldn’t believe intel like this, but he was casually telling his allies without any knowledge that we were eavesdropping. It makes it a lot more credible.”
Darwin momentarily found himself at a loss for words. “You don’t have to worry about aliens. They aren’t real.”
“Then why would he talk about them as if they were?”
“Do . . . Do your people have a God?”
“No, not really. We haven’t for centuries. Our people abandoned the gods long before the great king Qasin united the people, but some of the White-Horns worship the mountain and the God of the Plains.”
“Ah, well . . . Aliens are basically just another God for people who don’t have one back where I came from.” Darwin instantly cursed himself when he realized he had referred to ‘where he came from.’ Would it be a rule violation to mention the real world to NPCs?
“So in your village they worship aliens, and the aliens live in the heavens above?”
“Yeah, something like that. I’ve even heard stories that the only way to reach out to them is to wear shiny metal reflective hats.”
“That’s . . . That’s an interesting religion. You, uhh . . . don’t follow it, do you?”
“Oh, God, no. To me, this whole world was designed with a purpose, and you could say that purpose was to have fun. No need to think about it further,” Darwin said, laughing at his own fourth wall joke. Yep, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it was definitely programmed, I mean designed, with the intent for the player to have fun.
“Ok, good. The whole concept sounds absolutely ridiculous. Who wants to pretend another random race is your God? I might as well claim to be the god of cows at that point.”
“That’s is an udderly amazing insight, Alex, but try not to milk it for too much,” Darwin punned.
“I’m trusting you on this one then, Captain,” he said, still obviously concerned.
Do gods have more of a part to play in this game universe than they do in reality? Is that why he is still worried even after hearing it is only a crazy religion?
“It seems like everyone is trusting me these days,” Darwin thought aloud, unconsciously reaching out for the Creation Stone in his inventory.
When they finally reached at the group of players, Darwin began to feel a little bad for them. He had noted the general direction they were heading as they followed the marauders’ trail, but now it was certain: they were moving straight towards the silver ore mine. The group they were tracking had stopped a short distance off from the two Ogres that were guarding the entrance, clearly making plans and deciding how they were going to tackle the problem of getting inside the cave.
“Do you think this was their plan out here from the beginning?” Darwin asked, glancing towards Alex as he spoke.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I followed them for an hour, and they didn’t seem to have any clear plan in mind. Could it be coincidence?”
“It might be, but this makes the situation go from bad to worse if we don’t kill them. If they attack those guards, there is still a chance they’ll overpower them, get through the door and find a village loaded with loot from spawn camping just waiting for them. They might not be able to take the village on their own, but you can guarantee they’ll find backup if word gets out of a big enough reward.”
“Even though it would be killing innocent people? Are there really so many who are ready and willing to slaughter innocents just for material possessions?”
Alex is a guard, an NPC. He doesn’t understand that there would be hundreds of players who would appear in a heartbeat to kill others for gear, Darwin thought, remembering all the times that he had killed NPCs in other games just because the reward for being evil was way better than the reward for being good. Regardless of how much it hurt him inside to betray his character, or what he may have preferred, the ends often justified the means. Some of them would do it just for the EXP, some of them just for the fun of it. His faith in people is too strong.
“Yeah, Alex, there are. We can’t let them get through that door. But the question is, do you want to kill them, or do you want to let the ZombOgres do it?” Darwin asked.
“I want to,” he said resolutely, stamping one of the spears he had taken from a Turtle-Wolf into the ground.
“Then let’s do it before they get up the courage to attack.”
“Yes, Captain,” Alex said, falling into a line directly behind Darwin.
As they crept closer to the enemies, Darwin noticed Justin and Blake, two of the other guards, had silently fallen into formation with them as well. Where did they come from? How do they sneak around like that? When he noticed that even the Turtle-Wolves and Fuzzy Wuzzy had started to move with same creepy stealth, he began to feel like a commando on a night raid. Sure, it was broad daylight, and they were just getting ready to kill a bunch of lowbies who were standing around talking amongst themselves, but that didn’t take away from the thrill.
Once they were almost directly on top of the enemies, Darwin raised his hands and gestured for the guards to sweep left and silently sent the Turtle-Wolves around to the right in order to create a circle around the enemies.
“Ummm, Captain, what are you doing?” Alex whispered.
“I’m trying to signal you all to go that way and make a circle around the enemy,” Darwin whispered back, as if anyone should have known.
“Then why didn’t you just say so? It looked like you were having hand seizures.”
Hand seizures? Darwin frowned, upset that his commando act had gone from emboldened to embarrassing so quickly. “Just do it, okay? We don’t want them to be able to escape once we start the attack. We don’t know if they will go for the fight or the flight option once the battle begins.”
“Got it. Justin, Blake, with me,” Alex said, silently vanishing into the brush to Darwin’s left.
“Now, you guys as well, go and stay hidden until I make the first move.” Fuzzy Wuzzy and the Turtle-Wolves disappeared into the woods to his right.
Now it was just Darwin, the leader, and the moment of truth that they had all been waiting for. Even though he knew this would be a slaughter, especially with two more of the guards having joined the group, he was still nervous. He had gotten used to killing monsters and program-generated enemies, and they were predictable. Players, however, were a completely different story. They were erratic, and there was no telling what would happen. One might even suicide with a good spell just to take Darwin with him.
You can do this, Darwin. No time to get nervous now, he thought, grabbing his two blades and taking one last deep breath. Let’s go!
He burst from his concealment within the trees and ran at them, lunging as soon as he got close. Two players fell to the ground dead before his party could even react to the signal and join the fight. There were only twelve of them, but his blade moved like a tornado. He parried, dodged, and danced between arrows, axes and blades as if the battlefield was not just his home, but the place he had been born and his reason for living. Alex, Justin and Fuzzy Wuzzy were the only ones who made it in time to even get in on the action and take a life for themselves. By the time Blake and the four Turtle-Wolves arrived, the fight was over.
“Wow! Captain, that was incredible. The way you spun a full 360 when that arrow was inches away from you, dodging it completely and landing your blade in the archer’s gut? That’s crazy!” Blake said. Never having actually seen Darwin fight before, he was clearly impressed.
He doesn’t know I’m just a higher level than them. It wouldn’t have been so easy otherwise, Darwin thought.
“Yeah, well, they’re dead and we have work to do. Strip them of any gear that doesn’t disappear with the bodies and let’s regroup in the town.”
“Yes, Captain,” Alex said with a broad smile.
“And Alex, one more thing.”
“Bring everyone to the kitchen chamber,” he said, thinking to make sure he wasn’t forgetting something. “Clear out all the tables so that there’s room for everyone. There is a big decision awaiting us that will decide the fate of the town.”
“Thanks again for coming to kill them, sir,” Alex said, making a salute and disappearing. The way he faded in and out of stealth was downright baffling to Darwin.
Is there a stealth function I don’t know about? I wonder . . . I don’t even know what all the classes are in the game. Too bad there isn’t a way to ask Kass about that without just outright saying, “Hey, I’m not a regular player. I was magically warped here after dealing with a break-in homicide in the real world. I don’t know why I’m here; and, oh yeah, this isn’t actually an in-game race. It’s something I have mysteriously been since birth, and I still haven’t figured that one out yet.
Darwin sighed and headed into the dungeon. He still had preparations to make and address all the survivors from Valcrest. The decision was already made. The people just didn’t have the luxury of knowing that.
Darwin stood on a raised platform in the old boss room with the double doors leading into the kitchen behind him. What had once been a poker room, and then a makeshift dining room, was now the best they could do for an auditorium, but it was still too small to fit all of the Valcrest refugees inside. As a result, no children were in attendance and there were still a great number of people in the halls and the kitchen behind him doing their best to listen to what he was about to say.
Darwin, who had never given a public speech before, expected to have sweaty hands, a sore throat and a red face. He had even anticipated that he might feel dizzy and nauseous. The one thing he hadn’t planned for was feeling comfortable, at home, and in control. The second the crowds gathered his eyes sharpened and the room went from being a mass of people to an extension of himself. He felt the words flowing out of his mouth and into the crowd as if it were as natural as water rushing through a river. He knew it didn’t matter what his message was, and it didn’t even really matter what words he used to convey it. None of that was important: it was the confidence in how he said it. It was the demand that mattered, the command that he be trusted, no matter how insane his words may sound.
“Valcrest, I came to you a stranger. I came to you as a man in exile from my own lands: a man without a home, a people and bereft of any belongings that weren’t strapped on my back. But you people told me not worry. You gave me food, shelter, a place to rest my head and a job. You gave purpose back to my life when I was lost. Most importantly, above all of those gifts though, you gave me your trust.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice. It couldn’t have been easy–accepting a stranger into your lives–but you did it. You chose to follow me when almost every one of you is already a capable leader, strong enough in spirit and determination to stand against any challenge; yet you chose instead to honor Elmont and follow a stranger you barely knew. You gave me your trust when I asked you to leave your homes behind–where you had spent generations building families, memories, and friendships–to follow me into a dark and musty cave barely fit for life; yet you did so in an instant and without complaint.”
As he spoke, the crowd became more and more responsive. They had gone from passive listeners to actively nodding and mouthing their agreement as he spoke.
“That’s why it pains me to tell you the trials are not over. That the changes we started when we decided not to merely repair scraps, but create a future, still have a great way to go. But I cannot do this without your continued faith that we are doing the right thing and we are on the right path; that, at the end of the day, you believe the sacrifices I am asking you to make are worth the bounty we will reap once they are completed.”
Darwin paused. Small groups of people had been murmuring and talking amongst themselves when he first started speaking, but now they were all as silent as a church mouse, rapt with attention and their eyes fixed on him with unwavering focus. So this is what public speaking is like? He surveyed the room, giving everyone a moment to take a breath and absorb what he had said so far. Then he opened his inventory and pulled out the Golden Creation Stone and held it up on a flat palm for everyone to see.
“Do you all know what this is?” he asked, waiting for their nods to show him his assumptions were not wrong. “Do you know what will happen if you agree to follow me when I activate this Creation Stone?” he pressed. They nodded again, many doing so excitedly, and others even mouthing yes as they did.
“This is where our path lies,” he said, closing his fingers around the smooth stone and gripping it as tightly as he could within a fist. “This is the tool we will use to create a future where we are more than the pawns of kings and the food of evil men. It is the item that will give us the power to manifest our destiny.”
He stopped again for a moment, letting it sink in with the crowd. There were no questions, and many of the people were still nodding. They were hanging on his movements, their eyes following his every gesture.
“I am going to use this Creation Stone here and now before you. I have been set upon this path by a higher providence and I cannot stray–but you can. That’s why I am here to ask you, do I still have your faith? Your trust? Will you, knowing the dangers and hardships you will have to endure, cast aside your comfort yet again and come with me?”
People began shouting their answers at him even before he finished speaking. “Yes!” they shouted at him. There was no disagreement, no uncertainty or lack of answer from anyone in the group. Even those in the hallway who could not hear the speech were shouting yes to not be left out of the fervor of the crowd.
They do not know that in following me, they are casting aside their Humanity, he thought without a single pang of guilt. He needed them to agree because if he was going to keep them alive then there wasn’t any room for indecision or second guessing. There was no turning back from the path that he had laid out for them.
Activate Tiqpa Creation Stone, he thought, squeezing the stone even harder than before.
You are attempting to activate a Golden Creation Stone. Your Race, Demon, will be set as the faction’s primary Race. All NPCs preexisting within the faction will be converted to Demons and all NPCs generated by the Creation Stone will be Demons until new Races are added to the faction by procuring additional Creation Stones or alliances. Do you wish to Accept or Reject?
Accept. Darwin had already been warned by Eve about what would happen when he chose to use the golden rock.
You have activated a Creation Stone. Please select a name for your new faction.
The StormGuard Alliance, he thought, deciding to name his faction after his old gamer’s guild. The StormGuard Alliance had managed to claim first in several raid bosses and was more than just a guild: it was his prized creation. He might not have socialized, recruited, or even done much in terms of boosting morale after his raid group had wiped, but he had spent hours farming gold for the guild bank, buying upgrades for the guild raid gear and working tirelessly to research and come up with the best strategies for each one of the raids. It was something he had spent years pouring his heart and soul into, and while he couldn’t go back to it on Emerald Gardens, he could at least recreate it here.
Congratulations! You are now leader of the StormGuard Alliance. You may now assign privileges and ranks for your faction through the Tiqpa faction menu.
Everyone was still cheering and the fervor of their excitement had only grown since their agreement. The Creation Stone had been activated, and now that the faction had been named, its magic finally kicked in. Its golden hue grew so bright within his clutched fist that the light escaped from the cracks between his fingers, streamed out and crushed every bit of darkness in the room. Shapes and details vanished under its intensity, leaving only a dazzling brilliance visible to anyone with their eyes open. Then, suddenly, the light receded, leaving Darwin and the people of Valcrest to struggle as their eyes adjusted back. When he could finally see again, Darwin smiled. Where once stood a crowd of people with blue, green, and brown eyes, with red, blonde, and brunette hair, there now stood a room full of dark-haired people whose red eyes shined throughout the crowd. His speech was not a lie. He really had come to them a stranger, but now he had a Race, he had a people, and he had a destiny.