Kass rushed the login process as fast as she could. Darwin had said they weren’t going to leave for an hour, and that gave her plenty of time to get a good nap in, but she didn’t want to be late. Regardless of the fact that Darwin had never left her behind, she still had a sinking feeling that he would leave on schedule with or without her. To prevent this EXP-bot-loss tragedy, she had set her alarm so that she would have at least ten minutes to spare. She was almost tempted to skip the nap altogether, but if there was one thing college had taught her, it was the value of the powernap. Everyone but her had seemed to be fully rested and ready to do it in one push, and she wasn’t going to miss out on anything just because she was a little tired or groggy.
She took off running towards the meeting spot as soon as she was fully loaded into the virtual world. Why does running feel more natural than walking in a video game? She couldn’t remember having ever even bothered hitting the walk button in any other game. In fact, she was more likely to find herself jumping around in circles like she was allergic to the ground and a dog was chasing her when she had to wait even a few seconds for a friend or raid group to finish getting ready.
“Lady Kass,” a guard yelled out to her from up ahead. “You’ve made it early! Great! Darwin said we were leaving as soon as you appeared.”
“Everyone’s ready?” she asked, happy that sprinting in virtual world didn’t leave her out of breath like in the game like it did in real life.
“Yes, Lady Kass,” he said, joining her as soon as she reached him in the run towards the entrance. “Lord Darwin and the other guards were able to get the whole population packed and into formation in less than half an hour. Darwin’s blessing is truly a great thing.”
“Darwin’s blessing?” she asked, her brows wrinkling.
“Yes.” He answered without even bothering to look at her. “The great Lord Darwin blessed us with the blood of his people. What would have given two men a struggle to carry, one man can now carry with ease while running.”
“The Great Lord Darwin?” she thought aloud.
“Indeed,” the guard responded as he quickened his pace and moved slightly in front of her.
I wonder what he’s like in real life. She couldn’t help but wonder. In the few games she had played, she found herself a rogue, opportunistic player, always leaving groups because they couldn’t keep up with her growth. On more than one occasion, the group she started playing with at level one wouldn’t even be at the halfway mark when she was finishing up the end game content. But now, now I’m always running just to keep up. She frowned.
She ran with the guard in silence until they exited the cave, at which point she was greeted with a sight that looked as if it was straight off of the History Channel. Darwin had organized two three-by-ten Turtle-Wolf formations that closely resembled Roman soldiers in marching formation. Each of the two groups was flanking either side of the people of the town, who stood in formations five-wide surrounding a few wooden carts that appeared to hold the sum of their possessions. Behind them there was a line of five Turtle-Wolves with the two ZombOgres, and in front a dozen guards stood waiting with Darwin and Fuzzy Wuzzy five paces ahead of everyone else.
“Wow, you got all of them together this quick?” Kass did her best not to gawk. When she had first heard about the development of the game, she knew that there would be massive fights and large, organized battles. It had been exciting for her to imagine the epic clashes that would occur as thousands of players crashed into each other with hundreds of unique spells and weapons as they battled it out for territories, cities and items, but this was the first time, even considering the thousand soldiers that had gone out to fight the White-Horn Minotaurs, that she had seen such an intimidating force. Other than the villagers pulling the six carts, every single child and adult was in perfect formation holding a Turtle-Wolf spear as if they had years of military training.
Kass did her best to collect herself and looked over at the guard. “Lord Darwin says you are to join him at the front,” the guard said to her, breaking into a run again to join the other guards behind Darwin.
I know he is supposed to be the Great Lord Darwin, but how can anyone take a guy wandering around in his bathrobe with insufficient flap protection seriously? Kass joined the others, deciding to herself that she was never going to call him Lord Darwin. I mean, he plays video games all day and somehow thought Fuzzy Wuzzy was an appropriate bear name, so why do the NPCs take him so seriously?
“Good, you’ve made it,” Darwin said when Kass finally reached him. “Did you get a good nap in?”
“Yeah. I even managed to scarf some ramen down right before I logged in,” she said.
“Now that you mention it, how come there isn’t any ramen-ish snack served in the game?” He didn’t wait for her to answer, however, raising his sword before she could answer him. “MOVE OUT!” he yelled, dropping his sword to point it in front of him in the direction of the dungeons that would lead them to the White-Horn territory.
The little Valcrest Demon army moved out at once. While their formations looked perfect, their marching was still lacking, and it took away from the effect a little. It was much more like very fast walking than actual marching, but the speed they were moving at was definitely commendable.
“Well, I’m not sure if you’ll ever get to try it, but the Were-Beast kingdom is supposed to be home to amazing ramen-cooking Were-Pandas.” Kass resumed the conversation where it had left off as soon as the group was moving at a steady pace. “I actually prefer udon over ramen, it’s just that my dad does the shopping and he likes ramen better.”
“If someone else took the time to buy groceries for me, I might even be persuaded to suffer through pizza rolls.” He laughed, looking at her with a big smile. “Maybe you’ll buy me udon sometime; I’ll try it to see if it’s better than ramen.”
“Nuh-uh. If I’m buying, you’ll be having half a plate of air with a side of water,” she said indignantly.
“What? Can’t afford to even add bread to the menu?” he shook his head at her.
“I can afford bread just fine, thank you very much,” she said, doing her best to hide a smile. “I’m just not going to waste money on someone who doesn’t even understand that the gentleman is supposed pay for the lady. And I am a lady, don’t you know?”
“So I’m a gentleman now? I didn’t know you thought so highly of me.” He jokingly made the most over-exaggerated, pompous face Kass could have imagined as he said it, causing the giggle-fit she had been suppressing to finally break loose.
“If you treat me to a nice enough dinner, I’ll be happy to call you whatever you want,” she said, still giggling.
“Whatever I want? Hmmm . . . Perhaps I’ll have you call me the same as that doctor,” Darwin mused aloud as they marched.
“Doctor who?” she asked.
“Exactly,” Darwin chuckled.
Kass wanted to facepalm when she realized she had walked right into that corny line. When will I ever be free of Doctor Who jokes?
Kass looked back over her shoulder and admired the marching army behind her. “I still can’t believe how far you’ve come in such a short amount of time. You built an underground city in days and took a helpless, dying town and turned it into a force to be reckoned with.”
“Well, it’s not like I’m going to be doing much else with my free time,” he said, twirling the still drawn sword in his hand.
“Just saying, I wish I could get you to run our country for a month,” she said, twirling her staff just like Darwin was twirling his sword. “Congress is about as productive as a jittery 56k modem trying to load a movie on Netflix in HD.”
“I don’t think I’d actually be nearly as good at this if it was the real world. When I’m here, I’m focused on the game: I have to protect those close to me, do the right thing, and have a greater goal to work towards. In the real world, I’d most likely just be playing a game.” He finally stopped playing with his sword like it was a toy-baton and sheathed it. “If it was an option, I’d even probably be playing a game in Tiqpa.”
“So you’d log into a state of the art production that programmers and researchers spent thousands of hours of their lives to develop and build just to play a different video game inside it?” She was doing everything she could to keep her jaw from popping open in shock.
“Well, maybe not just any game, but definitely Emerald Gardens. I really miss that game.”
“What? Why don’t you just logout and go play it instead then?” She still couldn’t understand.
“I have my reasons,” he said frowning.
“You mean reasons like Tipqa is a way better MMO?” She nudged him.
“You could say it’s so addicting I couldn’t bring myself to log off even if I tried,” he replied. This time his smile was back, but it was the creepy one that let her know he was hiding something.
“Wait, what are they doing?” Kass asked. The six guards that had been following them had separated themselves into two groups, each following either Blake or Alex, and quickened their pace to outdistance everyone else.
“Oh, them. I figured we could let them clear out the forest monsters and make sure the lower level guards were closer to forty before we hit the caves,” he answered.
“And why aren’t we helping?” she asked.
“Do you really think any of these will be worth EXP at all?” he replied with a lopsided grin.
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. It’s probably better let them get some since we don’t need it. I was just worried about missing out on any of the drops.”
“Kass, we have thousands of spears from the Turtle-Wolf farms that were running twenty-four hours a day while we were clearing dungeons,” he said. “We’ll be fine if we can ever find someone to buy them off us. To be honest, I would be impressed if there was even a merchant that could even afford to buy them all at once.”
“Okay,” she said, but she was still skeptical. “Can we at least kill a few here and there for fun, or is this going to be just another long, boring walk in a video game?”
“Long and boring stroll? I thought girls were supposed to like long walks or something.”
“That’s just what people put on their eHarmony profiles,” she said, taking an extra-large step. “It’s not actually what they mean. You’re also missing some moonlight, a beach, and fireflies before you’re even close to a proper romantic stroll cliché.”
“I see. Am I also missing the chocolate-covered strawberries before it turns into a real date as well?”
“Careful with that date word. A lady might think you were asking her out.” She put her hands over her cheeks in a mock attempt to cover up a non-existent blush.
“I would never deign to,” he said. “Us old men are far trickier than that. We just talk the girl into multiple day adventures where it’s just the two of us.”
“Ah. . . So that’s your scheme.”
“Indeed.” He signaled behind him to Justin, the only guard who hadn’t gone with the others. “Now, if you want some action, I suppose we could get Justin to lead the march, and you and I can sneak off and kill a few things to pass the time. All we’ll have to do is make sure to be back before they get close to the dungeon entrance.”
“Hmmm . . . and it’s not a date?”
“Nope, just the two of us slaughtering some innocent forest creatures while Bambi looks for a Mother’s Day card.”
Kass couldn’t help but frown disapprovingly at his choice of words. Poor Bambi. “Alright, you’ve convinced me. Let’s go,” she said, happy to get away from just walking in a formation.
They pulled into the forest a few minutes south of the group marching east and started clearing the mobs. She found herself more often than not wishing Darwin was a little slower at clearing the enemies so she could use a fancier spell, but considering how weak the enemies were compared to them, it was very unlikely that he was going to slow down.
Darwin may have been an expert at killing while moving, but Kass was just now starting to get the hang of running and casting at the same time. She was able to cast some of her shorter spells in bursts, like Snowball’s Chance, but anything longer than that continued to give her trouble. No matter how many times she tried, or how often she practiced, she just didn’t feel like she was getting any better at the trick. In the game, spells were something you intuitively knew how to cast. It was a strange combination of thinking about the particular spell and just knowing how to do it. Virtually no-one she had read about on the forums, however, had been able to pull off channeling and moving at the same. To make matters even more difficult, the intuitive magic system was unique to each user: what worked for one person was very likely not replicable by another. It was almost impossible for the few players she had read about who were capable of the feat to explain it to anyone else.
It made Kass want to pull her hair out in frustration. She had the strongest desire to use her amazing spells, but she couldn’t channel and keep up at the same time. As a result, she was only left with two options: either ask Darwin to slow down or figure out how to channel while running without breaking her concentration. Both options were impossible: her pride wouldn’t let her do the former, and sheer lack of ability wouldn’t let her do the latter. Another day of spamming Snowball’s Chance, she sighed internally.
As the hours rolled by, and the snowballs kept flying, she became keenly aware of the lack of conversation. The two had talked and goofed off while they were walking, and she was getting to know him. The second Darwin got near a mob, however, it was all business no pleasure. Or was it all ‘business is pleasure?’ Kass frowned trying to decide. Darwin never said anything. He just darted from monster to monster leaving behind one gory mess after another. One second he was stabbing a bumblebee-colored four-foot-tall ant with goat horns in the head, and the next he was slicing a pair of Deer-Frog’s heads off in one clean sweep. He could even be seen upper-cutting the occasional Goldfish-Butterfly-Squirrel into the air before throwing a spoon right through its head.
The only thing he wasn’t doing was talking about himself. He never bothered to mention how his day was, what he was up to in the real world, or what he and his friends did when they weren’t gaming. The longer she stared at him, the more his back began to feel like an impassable wall separating them. What goes through his head while he is fighting that stops him from talking? How can he be that in the zone for hours at a time? she wondered as she unleashed another snowball at two giant Beetle-Bees approaching from his right flank.
While she was watching his back, and since Darwin was doing most of the killing, she had the opportunity to watch the scenery around them slowly change. They had been moving parallel to the route the main force was going to take, though staying well ahead of them, and she noticed that the forest had gradually opened up and a mountain was now visible. She could clearly see the imposing entrance on the side of the mountain that was their destination. It slowly grew in size as they hacked their way towards it and she was able to make it out better. Their goal was plain, lacking ornamentation and design, but not as simple or unrefined as the entrance to the silver-ore mine had been. It had a series of head-sized square stones lining its outer edge as they led up to a single arch stone on top. The arch stone wasn’t a normal one though: it was the size of a massive watermelon and stuck out a good foot beyond the rest. She could tell that there was something carved into it, although she wasn’t close enough to read what it was yet.
“So how long do we have to wait before the rest of them catch up?” She didn’t even bother humoring the idea that they had been late with how fast Darwin butchered his way through the forest.
“Given what time it is now, and the distance they had to travel with the -” he started to answer, but Kass interrupted him right away.
“Nope! Stop that math right there and just tell me how long we have to wait,” she said sternly. She had sat through one too many half hour explanations to simple yes or no questions because of her dad’s love for long-winded math to let Darwin trail off.
“About an hour and a half, give or take five minutes,” he said.
“Might as well make ourselves comfortable then,” she said, walking towards the entrance to read what was written on the arch stone.
She knew it was part of the game, but when she finally managed to read the arch stone, it sent a chill down her spine: The mountain has grown tall on the graves of trespassers; enter not lest you would have it grow taller.