When Kass loaded up the game, she figured it would be best to log into Valcrest instead of the dungeon where she had signed off for the night. It wasn’t that she wasn’t absolutely confident she could probably take the bunny rabbit on her own–it didn’t seem like a hard boss–but the extra time it would take to kill it and make the walk back didn’t seem like it would be worth it. After all, someone else could have already killed the roid-rabbit while she was gone, and there was no telling when it might respawn if that had happened.
She wasn’t surprised to find that the first thing she heard when her avatar loaded was players complaining. Players were always complaining these days. Ever since the attack, the forums had become full of people who couldn’t be bothered to learn to play, adapt and move on to another location, griping about the how the game was to blame for their ineptitude or laziness.
“Valcrest was supposed to be one of the best leveling zones for Humans, right next to the mobs, and now it’s just a pile of rocks,” the tallest of four gamers near her whined. “This isn’t even fun anymore. There aren’t any NPCs at all.”
“Aren’t the NPCs supposed to respawn over time? I wish the game makers would repopulate the town and repair some of the damage,” the youngest one of them complained. “It’s kind of ridiculous that they have a hands off policy with the world when we are paying this much money for the experience,” another one said.
“Yeah, I would get it if this was part of the main continent, but it’s the noob island,” a third, and the only armored one, joined in. “They should really fix this.”
“Relax, man. We can always move south or just hit the dungeons to the east until we hit 40 and rebind on the mainland,” the oldest of the group, a fellow Mage, responded. “We don’t have to go to town and sell gear. It’s not really that important.”
“I guess,” the youngest grumbled disappointingly.
“You’re right. If the town experience was a required part of the game, I’d probably be madder, but it’s just for coin and better items, and we should be getting items off of mobs anyways, like that bathrobe guy,” the tall one said. “There is no way that sword he was killing people with was bought in a town.”
Kass’s ears perked up instantly. Bathrobe guy? Killing people? Did they mean players? Is Darwin a PK? She looked at the four gamers. It was against her better instincts as a woman to talk to other gamers, given half of the time they tried to hit on her or say something gross, but she had to know. She stood straight, fixed her posture, and marched right over to the group.
“Excuse me, can you repeat that part about the guy in a bathrobe?” she asked, crossing her fingers and praying the dreaded, ‘Are you really a girl?’ line didn’t immediately shoot out of one of their mouths.
“Well, like, someone posted a vid on the forums earlier from a fight with some players and a guy in a bathrobe,” the guy repeated back. “Apparently they were out in the forest east of here, and they got jumped by this dude in a white bathrobe. He straight up, like, butchered the whole group of them.”
“A guy in a bathrobe butchered a whole group of players?” she asked, still shocked to hear this. Darwin was such a nice guy; it couldn’t have been him.
“Well, that’s what people are saying. A few are saying he had pets as well as some others with him, but when the guy taking the video died there weren’t any others visible. Probably just trying to cover up the fact that the whole group of them got rolled by one dude. Noobs,” the youngest one said, looking to his friends for agreement.
“So, you watched the video?” she asked, making sure of the details.
“Course,” he laughed. “Who wouldn’t? Whole party got wrecked. It was hilarious.”
“Yeah, remember that one guy crying like a little girl with a skinned knee before he even got hit?” A third one chimed in, laughing and nudging the first guy as he did.
“Don’t front, bro. You’d scream too if that devil was about to turn you into a Human shish kabob,” the first one laughed back. “I’ve heard of some martial artists being really good at the game even when they’re low levels, but that guy was crazy.”
“Wait, wait, one question,” Kass interrupted them. “This guy, with the bathrobe, did he have red eyes?”
“Yeah, actually he did,” the tall guy answered.
“Now that you mention it, how did he?” the young one asked. “I don’t remember red eyes being in the early cosmetic options.”
“Was he using just one sword, or two?” Kass asked.
“He was using two. I think?” the old man answered this time.
“Yeah, it was two,” the armored one replied.
“It’s Darwin alright.” Kass sighed. She didn’t need any more confirmation. There was no one else who wore a bathrobe in the game. Even if there was, for them to be on this island with two swords and red eyes couldn’t happen. It had to be him.
“What? You know him?”
“Not as well as I thought I did,” she muttered, turning around and leaving the four players in shock as she started walking away.
“Hey, wait, where are you going?” one of them asked after her. She didn’t bother to see which one.
“I’m going to teach an old man some much needed manners! And no! You may not follow me!” she yelled back at them without even looking as she rushed out of the town.
Kass didn’t just walk to the lair, she stormed. Her footsteps were stomping attacks against the ground more than movements to get from point A to point B. When did Darwin become a PK? He had better have a good explanation for this. I don’t like being killed, and I sure as heck won’t tolerate my friends killing other people for no reason at all, she thought, trying to come up with a dozen ways to call Darwin a jerk and set him straight if he was actually going about randomly killing players.
But when she walked into the cave where the Valcrest people had established a makeshift home, she momentarily forgot all about the PK issue. She knew the ZombOgres would have red eyes, but she hadn’t anticipated every person in town having them too. One by one, the villagers stopped what they were doing and looked at her as she walked through the tunnels. Being stared at by quiet people with red eyes in a dimly lit cave isn’t scary at all, she thought, not entirely sure though if she could call it a cave anymore.
They had only been at it a day or two at most, but they had managed to transform everything but the first hundred-foot length of cave at the entrance into something entirely different. The walls were flattened, and there was an indented path in the middle of each pathway where one was meant to walk. There were even several stone chairs and benches along the sides if one wanted to take a rest. Sometimes there were even drawings on the walls.
“The Lord is busy,” one of the red-eyed said, popping out of the shadows.
Kass nearly had a heart attack as he did. When did he get here? Holy crap, is it always going to be like that when I try to visit? she thought, trying to regain her composure.
“He won’t be free for a while, but, if you like, I can bring you to him,” the man continued.
Kass looked at him for a second. There was something familiar about his face. Is he . . . Is he Justin? She couldn’t be sure. The face looked familiar, but the red eyes and black hair made his appearance strikingly different. “Justin?” she guessed, “What is going on here?” she asked, hoping she didn’t offend him with a bad guess.
“What do you mean?”
“Why is everyone . . . more . . . Darwin-like?” she asked. As soon as she asked though, she knew the answer.
He had activated the Creation Stone, and the entire village had agreed to join his faction. It meant they would switch from their original Race to his.
“Because we’re no longer Human,” he answered flatly, as if that type of change was so commonplace it didn’t even merit a shift in voice when talking about it. “It was a side effect of the Creation Stone, and a necessary sacrifice for the plans ahead.”
Of course! When a non-Human player activates a Creation Stone, if the NPCs in the town he is in charge of agree to join his faction, then they’ll be slotted into his Race. Wait, his Race? The question struck Kass as something familiar. The paper! He had mentioned his Race was unknown on the paper. Kass suddenly felt as if she had forgotten a key detail to solving a puzzle.
“If you’re not Human, what Race are you?” she asked, hoping to finally solve one of the many mysteries surrounding the bathrobe knight who had rescued her from the Minotaurs.
“Demon, ma’am,” he answered again matter-of-factly. “We’re Demons now.”
Demons. That can’t be right. There isn’t a Demon Race in the game, she thought, still trying to wrap her head around everything. Sure, Black-Wings and some of the other playable races have demonic subspecies, like an Incubus or a Shade, but there aren’t any Races that are just called Demons.
“What type of Demons?” she pressed, double-checking to see if he was a subspecies.
“Just Demons, ma’am. Not sure if there are types of what we are,” he said, looking around. “Anyways, did you want me to bring you to the Lord?”
First he was Captain, and then he was boss. Now he’s Lord? Should I expect there to be a church of the bathrobe knight soon? She grumbled to herself. She didn’t want to admit that she was mostly upset about the fact that the addition of these new titles would mean less time with Darwin farming for her and more time wasted dragging her along on some town-related quest. This was definitely going to make a dent in her rate of EXP and item progression.
“Yeah, might as well,” she finally answered. She had just spent a good bit of time merely getting here. There was no reason at all not to go find Darwin now that she had arrived–especially not just because he had become Lord Onion Knight, slayer of bunnies and bears.
“Alright. This way,” he said, leading the way to Darwin.
When they finally got to Darwin, he was in a large room almost half the size of the cafeteria. He was staring at a map of their island, albeit slightly incomplete and missing many key details, sprawling the full length of the wall to her right when she walked in the room. Darwin was sitting at the center of long stone table to her left with six others while only one person was on her right with the map.
Wow, this is way more professional than I had expected, she thought, admiring the scene as she walked into the room with Justin.
Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at her as she walked in. Ugh, this reaction is like when you have something in your teeth and no one wants to tell you.
Darwin was the first one to break the silence, “Gentlemen, no need to be shy. This is Kass.”
Huh, gentlemen, not ladies and gentlemen? Oh! I see! Kass thought, just noticing that no one in the room was a woman besides her. This was two sexist remarks and fifth of scotch away from being a Mad Men set. He started a new faction, and he’s already installed the glass ceiling.
“I owe much of my success to her, so please treat her with respect,” Darwin continued. “Ren, could you get Kass a chair before you continue?”
“Yes, Lord Darwin,” he said, setting a colored paint brush down and rushing off into another room.
She was about to stop him and say she would get her own, but she realized that they were all stone, and she wasn’t exactly sure how heavy they were. Is lifting giant stone chairs easy for Demons? Or is it just easy for people who aren’t speced fully into the Mage stats?
“Darwin, want to catch me up to speed? What’s going on?” Kass asked, deciding not to wait for the chair to arrive before asking all the questions she had for Darwin.
“We’re planning out a strategy to keep the people safe during the expedition we’re about to launch,” he said, looking at the door behind her to see if the man was back with the chair.
“You’re about to launch an expedition?”
“As soon as the preparations are made. Hopefully within the hour, but I won’t hold my breath. We’ve hit a rather big snafu I’d like some help with, if you don’t mind. I can’t have any of my people getting killed on the journey. It wouldn’t be right after all they’ve been through.”
“Your people? Is it because of the Creation Stone? If that’s why you’re the Lord, and I helped get the Creation Stone, does that make me the Queen?”
“Queen? You mean Lady, right?” he corrected her. “If you want to be the Lady we’ll probably need to get around to a first date, don’t you think?”
“Still dreaming there, aren’t you? If you want a date, you’ll have to learn how to ask properly one of these days, Darwin,” Kass sassed back.
“Oh, us old men can’t get caught asking children out on dates,” he said, smiling wryly.
“I am not a child!” she burst out, momentarily forgetting that everyone in the room was paying attention to their banter. She sniffed, her nose high in the air. “I am the Lady here even if you won’t recognize my rightful title.”
“If you say so . . . Anyways, we have business to do here,” Darwin said, wearing a half grin. “Are you going to join us, or will you need a few new names first?”
“I’m in. That is, if you actually have seats open for women.”
“Don’t blame me. I didn’t make a world where women don’t like politics or join the military,” Darwin divested himself of the guilt. “That’s all on someone else. These are just the closest we have to the people who were in charge of Valcrest.”
“Sure, sure. So what do you need help with?” Kass asked, just as Ren returned with her chair. Wow, he really is carrying that stone chair like it’s nothing more than a feather. “Protecting people from dying, you said?”
“Yes. That’s right. This map,” Darwin began, pointing at the map on the wall, “is the limited knowledge we have about the island. The problem is that there is only one port, and it’s in the center of the White-Horn territory.”
“Why is that a problem?” Kass asked as she sat down and crossed her legs, obviously not catching on to why this was such a dire issue. “The ports are usable by all Races, aren’t they?”
“Kass, the Humans are still at war with the White-Horns,” Darwin said, leaning back with one arm folded across his chest and the other covering a pensive frown. “Even if the port is usable by everyone, getting to the port will still force us to march through the White-Horn territory. There is a good chance we’ll be forced into a skirmish. Even if we win the fight easily, there is still the probability of someone dying.”
“Well, there is another option,” the man on Darwin’s right, whom Kass could only assume was Alex, said. “We could always ignore the harbor completely and build our own ship.”
“No, that won’t work, Alex. It would take too long to finish the boats, and that would set us back farther than I’m comfortable with.”
“But it could save lives if it means avoiding any fights altogether,” he made one final attempt.
“It could cause entirely new problems that might end lives,” Darwin frowned, then waved Ren back up to the map and said, “Anyways, Ren, you were telling us your plan before we were interrupted.”
“Yes. My plan is simple. If we’re going to lose lives, let them be seasoned fighters who volunteer. If we cut this path through the dungeons and defeat the Crossing Boss, we can shave a day off of our time and bypass the White-Horn’s front cities and forts. From what I remember of the scouting reports we’ve collected over the years on the White-Horn territory, they like to keep their armies in well-defended positions along this line.” Ren paused to draw a line across the map. “This means they can respond to threats quickly from the outside, but it also means that if we pop out of the mountain here,” he poked a spot on the map with a finger. “There won’t be any large scale forces capable of catching us before we reach the harbor. They’ll be counting on the Crossing Boss being too difficult to clear, and I don’t think we’ll lose more than one or two soldiers to those.”
We wouldn’t lose any if it was just me, Fuzzy Wuzzy, Darwin and a few of the Turtle-Wolves. Kass thought, scrunching up her face. Why risk a soldier when we’ve got all these red-eyed Zombie thingies to soak up damage and die in their place? Darwin could probably build an entire army of them before we reach these mysterious crossing guards, and then even Fuzzy Wuzzy wouldn’t have to risk his life.
“What?” Darwin asked, noticing Kass’ face.
“Huh?” Kass responded, not used to being called out for thinking. It took her a second to realize why he had asked her what. “Oh, just I think Ren’s plan is good, but you’re making this way more complicated than you have to, Oh Great Spoon Lord.”
“Hmmm . . .” he started for a second, returning to his thinking pose. “I don’t think I am. I think I know what you’re suggesting, but there is one problem.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“You won’t be able to stop Blake, Alex and some of the other guards from volunteering. Even if the Zombies could die for them, they’ll still demand to be on the front lines. They want to fight for their future, not just be given it,” he said, turning to the guards. “Am I wrong?”
“Not at all, your Lordship. We’re with you whether you like it or not.”
“My blade hasn’t tasted blood yet,” the one on the other side of Alex responded. She couldn’t remember all of their names from one meeting.
The mention of blood, however, triggered Kass’ memory and reminded her of why she had stormed all the way here.
“Oh yeah! DARWIN! What in the heck?! I heard you killed a bunch of people near here? How could you?” She immediately jumped up and began gesturing angrily with an open hand. “What on earth would possess you to turn yourself into a murderer? I thought you knew better than that!”
“That wasn’t his fault. It was mine, Lady Kass,” Alex answered, standing as well and giving her a look so stern that it could have made a rock look soft. “That group was responsible for killing friends and family of mine as well as other people from this town during the confusion of the raid. Justice demanded that they die–and quickly.”
Kass’ anger faded instantly, and she was left only with regret for not asking his reason first. The group that died would have been inconvenienced an hour or two at most. The NPCs that had been slain were never coming back, and others were forced to live on without them. Kass could only frown as she struggled to find the words to apologize for jumping to a bad conclusion. Darwin saved her, however, by standing up and drawing everyone’s attention to him instead. All the others gathered in the room rose as he did, and stood watching him expectantly.
“I think Ren’s plan is good, but Kass is also right.” He began walking towards where Kass was standing close to the door as he spoke. “We should bring some of the fodder up front and use them as a force to take the damage off of us during the fights with these crossing guards. If anyone has an issue with that, say so now.”
No one said a word.
“Good. You have one hour to organize your groups and be ready at the entrance of the mine,” he continued. “Once you’ve done roll call and double checked your lists, do it again; we’re not coming back, so we better not leave anyone behind.”
“Yes, Lord Darwin,” Ren said, and the group of them shuffled past Kass and Darwin out the door.
“I’ve asked everyone else, but are you still with me?” Darwin waited until everyone had left before asking the question. “Do you want to join my new faction, the StormGuard Alliance, and travel across the world with me?”
Her instincts told her to answer yes immediately, but they also told her to be careful. There were a lot reasons to join, but there were still a few not to as well. If she didn’t, she’d be stuck looking for a party and having to take the long way off the island.
“Do I get to be an officer?” she questioned, pretending to mull over the decision longer than it actually took her.
“I don’t know. I haven’t even picked out ranks or titles or people yet,” he admitted, obviously dragging his feet on any of these type of commitments.
Can’t make any promises? That’s sure different than the politicians who lie and promise anything you want to hear. She was happy that he was better than most people she knew in power. I guess it won’t be so bad joining up.
“Alright, well, no promises on staying, but I’ll join for now,” Kass said, reasoning that the closer she was to Darwin, the more EXP she would get and the sooner she’d find out about this mystery. “Also, I better see that rank Lady eventually,” she added, still intent on becoming the Lady of Frost for as long as she was with the group.
You are being invited to join the StormGuard Alliance, would you like to Accept or Reject?
Accept. She was sure of her choice.
You are now a member of the StormGuard Alliance.
“Welcome aboard, Kass. Now, let’s get prepping,” he said, giving his first full smile since she had entered the room. “I wasn’t kidding about wanting to leave in an hour.”
“Yes, milord,” she answered, giving him an overly exaggerated and sarcastic curtsy. “Right away.”