Kass had been staring at the warning inscribed into the arch stone since the two of them arrived. Darwin thought it was funny, but for some reason, Kass seemed to take it way more seriously than he thought was necessary. So what if it’s an ominous message? It’s not like those type of shock warnings ever actually amounted to anything. He remembering all the video games that had tried to frighten him with these type of signs in the past. The only thing they ever amounted to was fighting the same boss he did in the last level, just with more hit points and a different avatar. Some games couldn’t even be bothered to switch the elements up each round.
Darwin tried to break Kass’s concentration with a question. “Do you think it’s actually going to be that tough?” he asked.
“Normally, I would say no, but in this game . . .” she trailed off for a moment, still not taking her eyes off the text. “In this game, it’s entirely different.”
“Why is that?” He still wasn’t getting a straight answer from her.
“It’s just that between the game designers and the AI, there is a very real struggle to make the game realistic,” she finally answered.
“So when you say ‘realism,’ you mean that these things are meant to actually forewarn users about a significant danger?”
“Yeah, something like that. My dad said that if I ever saw a sign like this, to make sure I was in a full party and comfortable with dying,” she said. “We may have a full party, but are you comfortable with some, if not all, of the villagers dying?”
Darwin sighed. Some? I’m not comfortable with a single one of them dying, and now there is the possibility that none of them will make it? I’m supposed to be taking these people away from danger, not leading them right into it.
“Darwin, we don’t have to do this,” Kass said, seeing his troubled face. “We can always turn back and take the long route around the mountain. It’d probably be a day or two longer at most, and an army of White-Horns might be a lot easier for you to dispatch than whatever’s in this dungeon.”
“No, we have to go through. We may have to change up the formations a bit, but we can’t lose time.” He somehow managed to fill his words filled with more confidence than he actually had.
“Well, if you don’t mind taking a death, we could stagger the villagers out a bit and go in with just the two of us. You could do your army building thing and we could go with the original plan. Let us and the zombies–or whatever they are–die instead of the villagers.”
If I’m comfortable with taking a death? How could anyone uncertain of what happens after they die be comfortable with taking a death? Death for me in this game is as much a step into the unknown as it is in real life–but she doesn’t know that, does she? Darwin suddenly realized that if it was as dangerous and life threatening as she imagined, there was a very real possibility that he might die too. He had considered that one of the others might, but he hadn’t once humored the possibility in his quick planning sessions that he himself might become a victim. He didn’t even know what could or would happen to the village should he pass away.
“Well . . . It’s at least worth considering, and we still have at least fifteen minutes until anyone shows up. Want to just leave them a note and take a head start?” she asked, eyeing him impatiently. “Come on, I really want to kill something.”
“Didn’t we spend the entire trip here killing stuff?”
“Yeah, but time is gear, EXP and fun. Don’t even try to pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about. With how much you play, there is no way you aren’t a hardcore gamer.”
He wished he still was. When it came to slaying mobs in video games there was no greater feeling, and it definitely catalogued him as a hardcore gamer. People at the office would invite him out to clubs and parties, usually out of politeness. Every time he pulled himself away from his games and bothered to go, all it ever seemed to add up to was twenty bucks and a headache–just so that he could talk to people.
“I guess you could say I am hardcore gamer, but aren’t you?” he countered, as if it was a charge or accusation against him.
“Of course! Though I’m not a fan of the guys who go around calling everyone a bunch of ‘noobs’ or ‘garbage’. I just love games,” she said, her eyes lighting up while she talked. “I remember when my dad started me on my first video game. I wasn’t just a little girl who was constantly talked down to anymore. I was a princess saving the kingdom through magic and guile.”
Darwin wanted to roll his eyes it sounded so corny, but he couldn’t–that had been his exact same experience when played his first game as well. “Yeah, I know what you mean. I loved the Command and Conquer style RTS games at first. I always liked leading armies into battle and knowing that the strategies I devised would be responsible for crushing other nations. I just grew out of it because they weren’t that fun to play alone.”
“But back to the question at hand. Do you want to leave a note and go ahead without them? I think we could do it and then none of the NPCs would die.” Kass was awkwardly pointing her hand in the air. To a random passerby it might have seemed like she had gone crazy and was trying to poke imaginary butterflies, but Darwin knew she was accessing her Tipqa Menu. He had noticed that some users still used their hands even though thought alone would suffice.
“Don’t bother looking for something to write on, we’re not going without them. They have the right to decide how they want to live and where they want to risk dying,” he said, once again mustering up false bravado.
“Fine, fine,” she answered, dropping her arm back to her side. “But if they were my friends and loved ones, I wouldn’t give them the choice at all. It’s a friend’s job to stop their friends from doing stupid things.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Darwin admitted. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a very close friend before.”
“What? Are you kidding me? How can you not have had a best friend before? You’re . . .” her fumbling questions were cut short by the arrival of more people.
“Lord Darwin!” Alex called out to them as he came out of the woods. “Everyone is safe and accounted for.”
“And you’re early.” Darwin complimented him, instinctively looking at a watch that didn’t exist on his wrist. He didn’t need the watch to know what time it was–Tipqa always kept him informed on the ‘in game time’–but habits couldn’t be broken very easily. “I have to say we’re off to a great start.”
“I thought this is exactly when you predicted they’d be here,” Kass whispered, her face wearing the same wrinkled brow it always did when she was confused about something.
“It’s when I expected them to be here, not when they were supposed to have arrived. I knew from their pace that they would get here early,” Darwin answered. “It’s kind of like the lines for rides at an amusement park: they say it’ll take you thirty minutes to reach the front, but you always end up getting on the ride in twenty and feeling like a winner.”
“What? They really do that? That’s so manipulative!” It was really amazing how much shock accusation Kass could pack into a whisper. “And you are too! If you knew it wasn’t going to take them that long to get here, then you shouldn’t have told them it would.”
“Let people have their wins, Kass. It’s good for morale.” It was the last thing he was able to whisper back before Alex and the others made it into earshot. “Since we’re early, did you and your group want to take a break? I think we still have plenty of Turtle-Wolf meat available if you want to rest for a minute.”
“No, sir. Blake and Justin made everyone eat while marching They even said that if anyone wanted to take a bathroom break, he needed to rush ahead beforehand and catch up quick when finished,” Alex reported, standing as straight as a Marine fresh out of boot camp.
I always forget to factor in bathroom breaks when I plan trips! Darwin kicked himself mentally. If it wasn’t for their dedication, his timing would have been off significantly. On the rare occasion that he had to travel out of town for work, he always forgot to add in time for bathroom breaks and gas stops.
“Wow. I’m very impressed,” Darwin said, resting a hand on Alex’s shoulder. “Your determination to reach the destination ahead of schedule is admirable.”
“Thank you, Lord Darwin,” he said, still standing at attention.
“Since you all are doing such a great job, I’m going to leave you in charge keeping everyone organized. Kass and I are going to have the rest of them file in proper. Make sure their formations can fit in the tunnel without any issues.
“Excuse you,” Kass said indignantly.
Darwin looked at her, wondering what he said wrong. Did I forget something again?
“It’s Lady Kass to you, Lord Darwin,” she said, throwing her nose in the air with the type of over-exaggerated flair only bad actors would truly pull off and walking into the entrance of the cave. “Come along when you’re ready, boys.”
For some reason, watching her just now, Darwin couldn’t help but think of the woman who called herself his sister.
“Make sure the best-of-the-best group you bring with you is a small one and that Fuzzy Wuzzy is in it,” Darwin said.
“Yes, milord. It will be done.” Alex moved so fast to carry out his order that he practically vanished in front of Darwin.
Darwin turned around and chased after Kass. “Hey, where do you think you’re going without me,” he shouted at her back.
“You were taking too long being all lordly, so I just thought I’d go kill some stuff without you,” she replied without even turning around.
“Uh oh, has Lady Kass not gotten her due respect?” he said, finally getting a reaction out of her significant enough to make her turn around.
“No, that’s not it. It’s just that we’ve been sitting around waiting for an hour and a half when we could have spent grinding,” she said as she pulled out her staff.
“Kass, we haven’t even had a first date yet,” he mocked. “What type of guy do you take me for?”
Kass’s face turned red. “That’s not what I meant!”
“Sure, sure. That’s what you say now, but we both know that it’s all about action with you. Anytime we are talking it’s just a waste of time to you, isn’t it?” Darwin was doing his best to try and make her even more flustered.
Kass stopped walking. She stared at Darwin, her face growing redder before finally letting out a few words. “Ugh! You know darn well what I meant.”
He laughed to himself. He had known since he first introduced her to Elmont that anything referencing the two of them as a couple was a hot button with her. For some reason though, she seemed to have run out of ways to call him an old man today. Maybe she is just tired?
“Of course it’s not.” He did his best to stifle a laugh but couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. “Kass would never spend the entire day grinding with an old man like me.”
“Now you’re just twisting my words on purpose,” she snapped back.
“Anyways, I have some good news and some bad,” Darwin said, instantly turning from playful to serious.
They were still standing at a dead stop, and Darwin was amazed she hadn’t stormed off to kill mobs yet. “The good news is that we won’t have a lot of dangerous fights,” Darwin said, scratching his chin.
“What’s the bad news?” she asked.
“Well, the bad news is that I don’t think that sign was lying. I think we’re in for some mortal peril.”
Kass didn’t even bother asking what he meant: she knew he could see the reason. She turned around and saw what Darwin was staring at. Off in the distance, barely noticeable from where they were, was a giant twenty-five- to thirty-foot tall hydra-like serpent. They slowly began creeping forward, and each step they took closer revealed more and more details about the dreadful beast. It had solid black scales the size of a normal man’s chest, and by the looks of them, they were almost a foot thick.
The Hydra stood waiting in the center of a massive chamber on six elephant-sized legs and had a tail that shot out like a scorpion’s and hung in the air above its seven heads. Each head had ram’s horns and dark green eyes that shone like lit jades in the darkness of the cavern. Tell-tale, twisting, snake-like tongues that must have been several feet long hung flickered out of the monster’s dragonesque snouts, occasionally twisting up between its sharp teeth like floss.
“Darwin, are you sure you don’t want to go take the long route? We might even be able to sneak through that open area unnoticed,” Kass asked, clearly misreading an expression on his face that she had likely never seen before as something akin to dread or fear. But it wasn’t either of those–it was hunger.
The closer he got to the beast, the worse it grew. By the time Kass had asked him the question, he was far too mesmerized to respond. His heart was thumping in his chest louder than the bass drum in a marching band. He knew he should have responded to Kass. He should have told her, ‘Hey! We need to put a plan together. We need to think this through,’ but even as the thoughts entered his mind, and despite knowing it was probably the right thing to do, the wrong thing to do took hold of his body. It pulled his feet forward. A walk became a jog, a jog became a run, and he found himself with both blades out rapidly closing the distance between him and the Hydra.
“Darwin! What are you doing?” Kass was yelling now from somewhere behind him. Darwin couldn’t tell if she was following after him or not. “Darwin, don’t go by yourself! Darwin! Darwin, wait!”
He clinched his eyes and struggled to regain control. Everything else around him faded. Nothing mattered except the hunger that drove him towards the Hydra as it would a starving infant towards its mother’s breast.
The Hydra, regarding him as nothing more than a fly, swatted its tail at him as soon as he charged into range. He dodged right without missing a beat, but the Hydra, seeing him dodge, pulled its tail back and swiped at him in a long wide sweep. Just like a Minotaur. He knew he remembered how the bovine beasts had fought, how much they loved their long axe sweeps, but he was only vaguely aware of the comparison as it tried to creep its way out of his subconscious.
Darwin vaulted himself up and landed on the passing tail. Its width wasn’t more than a two or three feet wide, but it was flat enough for him to run on. The Hydra immediately jerked its tail back reflexively, trying to throw Darwin off as someone would a mosquito that landed on his arm. Darwin planted his swords into the Hydra’s tail and clung on in a desperate attempt to keep his balance.
Everything came to a standstill as three of the heads watched his feat in confusion and amazement when Darwin wasn’t immediately shaken off. For a brief instant, both Darwin and the Hydra stared each other down. The moment didn’t last more than mere seconds, however, as one of the heads suddenly lurched forward in an attempt to snap at the unshakable nuisance. Darwin ripped his swords free from the leviathan’s tail and launched himself upwards towards the new threat, stabbing both blades into the rapidly approaching head directly on the snout. The attacking head sank its fangs into its own tail and simultaneously had its nose pierced by Darwin’s twin blades.
The adrenaline induced pounding of his heart throughout his body, filling his head with a rapid thumping that grew quicker with each passing minute. Darwin grunted, pulling himself on top of the snout and ripping his swords out of the nostril. Not wasting any time, he forcefully began running up the Hydra’s snout, dragging his blades across the thick scales as he went. He pulled back just long enough to stab a blade into each of the beast’s eyes. He then pulled another sword out of his inventory, a common iron one, and put it in the right eye’s open wound before using his foot to jam it all the way through.
The other Hydra heads didn’t seem to be affected by the spectacle, but only continued to watch. Then, the closest head to him opened its mouth and did the exact same thing. Rinse and repeat. Darwin thought, following through the motions again. Everything went the same, except instead of the head being stuck chewing on a tail, it was stuck mid-bite on another head, its teeth sinking into the dead head’s face.
As Darwin kicked the sword through the right eye of the second head, not even having to switch up the strategy at all, he noticed the others weren’t brave enough to try to chomp him like their two predecessors. They watched wide-eyed for a moment, and then lunged full speed at one of the cave’s walls. Darwin pulled out his two original swords and used them to carve a way down the eight feet of Hydra neck without falling off. When he landed on the beast’s back he crawled towards the middle, doing his best not to fall off as the beast’s charge smashed into the wall. The Hydra, struggling to free its tail with the other heads not brave enough to go for a bite, started throwing its weight side to side.
Darwin knew what it was trying to. The Hydra was trying to roll over, but the elephant-sized legs were spread too wide to do it normally. As the body finally tipped he scurried to climb around the beast in time, barely avoiding being flattened. The problem for the Hydra now was that it couldn’t turn back over. Darwin purposefully walked over to the center of its chest, where he knelt down and pried off a scale.
He took his swords and began hacking at it over and over again. At first it was bone, but bone gave way and flesh became visible. The five remaining heads did their best to try to roll back over, screaming and howling as he tore through their sternum and into the chest. It was more butchery than battle at that point. One of the remaining heads grabbed rocks with its teeth and tried to throw them at him, but he dodged them easily enough and went back to his hack-and-slash work.
“Darwin . . .” He barely heard Kass over the sounds of the five heads screaming in agony, and it didn’t really register that someone was speaking, much less to him.
This is it. He had finally dug far enough into the chest to reach the heart. He took three Turtle-Wolf spears and shoved them into the massive beating thing, silencing the tormented cries of the remaining heads. When it was finally dead, he fell back onto his butt and hands, catching his breath atop the stomach of the fallen Hydra.
“Darwin . . .” Kass said again, standing at the door. “What was that?”
Darwin shook his head to clear away the fog as the world came back into focus. “It was a Hydra,” he gasped out through ragged breaths. How can she ask such an obvious question?
“That’s not what I meant . . . Actually, you know what, never mind. The crossing guard is dead and the rest of the trip should be easy, right?” Her smile was so fake that even Darwin could spot it out from where he was across the chamber.
“Yeah, we did,” he agreed, not caring to dig out whatever was bothering her. She was right: it was a reason to celebrate. “And no one died.”
“You could have . . .” She trailed off, mumbling under her breath so quietly Darwin was surprised he even caught part of what she was saying.
“Lord Darwin,” Alex said, standing with Fuzzy Wuzzy and a few guards. “We only made it in time to watch.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to kill it without you.” Darwin suddenly remembered his promise to the guards to let them take part in the struggle.
“Apology accepted, sir. I understand the glory fighting such a fiend alone would bring a man. It would be rude to deny you that,” Alex answered, Blake and the others nodding as well.
Glory? Had I done it for glory? No, it wasn’t glory, Darwin thought, remembering the feeling that pulled him into the battle against his own sanity. “Thank you for understanding,” he said, deciding not to correct them.
“Darwin . . .” Kass said yet again, frowning.
“Yes?” Darwin answered, trying to figure out what was bothering her, why her eyes somehow managed to look sad.
“Let’s fight with the group for the rest of the trip,” she said.
So first she complains about there not being enough grinding, and now she wants to stick with the group? What’s with her? Darwin thought, a lopsided frown splitting across his face. “Sure, we can do that.” He still didn’t care enough to question her intentions further.
“Good. Now let’s get to that harbor safely,” Kass said as the group walked further through the mountain. They had beaten the crossing guard, so the only thing left for them to do was sneak into the White-Horn harbor unnoticed with a ton of red-eyed Demons and somehow procure enough transportation for everyone to get to the mainland. That shouldn’t be too hard, right? Darwin knew better than to truly believe that there actually wouldn’t be any complications.