“How much longer till we get there?” It was the fourth time Kass had asked the question, and Darwin was starting to get tired of answering it. He wasn’t even sure why she was asking: both of them could bring up the Tipqa map and see that they were moments away from being in view of a shoreline.
Darwin rolled his eyes before finally answering. “We’re almost there, and if you ask one more time, we’re not going to stop at McDonalds.”
It was the answer he had always heard on television shows. He didn’t exactly know what was so good about McDonald’s that it would make a kid not want to annoy his parents, but he did know it was the appropriate cliché for the moment.
“Eh . . . McDonald’s? Really? That’s where you went with that?” Kass apparently didn’t sharing his sentiment about the fast food chain. “That would actually be a threat if it meant no Chipotle, but if it’s McDonalds, I think I’m better off bugging you until you hold good on that promise of not taking me.”
“Oh, so you’re saying you want me to take you to Chipotle,” he joked again.
“Are you going to buy?” Kass asked with a smile that was a little more coy than her usual one.
“Wouldn’t that make it a date?” Darwin reverted back to the old stand-by, knowing how the subject of dating generally either got a rise out her or quickly silenced her.
“No, it’d just be you paying me back for all those times I’ve helped you. I figure by now you owe me at least twenty dinners.” She did her trademark twirl. Darwin had actually grown to like it when she spun around in her white dress.
“Twenty? I’m pretty sure I saved you when we first met,” he said, remembering how she had suddenly barreled out of the woods with three Minotaurs chasing her. “Shouldn’t that mean you owe me?”
“Save me?” she scoffed. “I had it completely under control! I was just doing you a favor by bringing some mobs to help you level, considering you were clearly a new player.” She managed to say it with such a completely straight face that Darwin had to wonder if she actually believed the lie.
“Oh, I get it. So this whole time you’ve just been helping me along and helping me level, and that’s why I owe you,” Darwin said, nodding his head.
“Mmmhmm. So you know,” she said, smiling now.
“Well, I need to take care of that as quick as possible. I can’t have my debt get any larger,” Darwin responded.
“You should take care of it, and the sooner the better.” She nudged Darwin’s shoulder. “You don’t want to set a bad example as the faction Leader, now do you?”
“Right. Alex, what powers does the ruler of a faction have?” Darwin asked the soldier, who had been silently trailing behind the two of them.
“Milord, it’d be easier to list the powers a ruler doesn’t have,” Alex said, briskly stepping up to the left side of Darwin.
“So can the Lord of a faction order a member to do something like . . . buy lunch for someone else in the faction?”
“Yes, Milord,” Alex responded immediately. “In fact,” he continued unprompted, “as the acting Lord of the faction, you wouldn’t even be expected to reimburse the individual commanded to accomplish the task.”
“I see . . .” Darwin said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “Well, it’s just as I expected then.”
“What? You’re not planning on ordering Alex to buy me dinner in your place, are you?” Kass’s smile quickly turned into a frown.
“Oh no, I plan on having you buy the meals for yourself in my stead,” Darwin said, unable to stop a laugh from coming out with the words.
“What? You can’t do that! That’s cheating!” Kass said in shock.
“Oh, sure I can. You joined the faction of your own accord,” Darwin chuckled, “and, according to the rules, that means I can order you to buy yourself lunches.”
“That is not how it works!” Kass protested. “You are not getting out of treating me to a lunch sometime.”
“Well, if you’re that insistent that I take you on a date, I suppose I could try to make it happen,” Darwin said, expecting her usual flustered reaction.
Instead of denying it and getting mad at him for insisting that an old man like him could ever date her, she just paused for a while. Then finally she said, “It better not be McDonald’s.”
“Oh, I don’t think I could ever bring myself to take anyone to McDonald’s.” He wasn’t sure how he was going to take her anywhere anyway. Being trapped in a virtual reality game made that more than a little difficult, and she probably wanted him to take her somewhere in real life.
“Good, but I still have something I need to ask you, Darwin,” she said, her grin back again.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” Darwin asked.
“Are we there yet?” Kass said, her mischievous smile managing to grow even more.
Oh, for the love of– She has a dang map too! “Why do you keep asking? You know how far away it is, don’t you?”
“Oh. Well, the truth is, when I first asked, I was just messing with you. Now I’m just really hoping that my map is wrong and that the harbor isn’t that giant shore over there,” she said, pointing ahead of them.
It was hard to make out, but it was unmistakably the right place. Even if the buildings hadn’t given it away, the sheer number of people gathered on the shore did. From the distance at which Darwin and the StormGuard Alliance stood, the people gathered looked less like people and more like the ocean to them. The ever so slight swaying of their bodies as they waited in anticipation for an enemy that Darwin could barely see created the illusion of a living wave ebbing back and forth across the sands. They were so tightly packed and pressed together that Darwin was tempted to make the played-out sardines-in-a-can reference. To top it all off, over a thousand black-winged creatures danced across the sky, casting images of shadows on the men below.
“Alex, do you recognize the army below?” Darwin asked, thinking that only the Minotaurs and their lack of armor looked familiar.
“Yes, Milord, but I don’t like it,” he said, squinting his eyes at the force as he tried to make out details more clearly. “It appears to be the Human, Black-Wing and White-Horn capital armies all gathered together.”
“It’s a bad thing for them to be working together?” Kass asked, not catching on to the context.
“If the only three factions on the island–that all hated each other until a month ago–are cooperating with each other to defend the beach against invaders . . . Who are they fighting?” Alex asked.
“Kass, what other islands are near here?” Darwin asked, knowing Alex and the rest of the NPCs likely wouldn’t have information extending beyond the continent they lived on. It would be the same as trying to get information about France out of a Japanese farmer before the advent of modern transportation.
Kass took a moment to think about it before answering. “The closest one would be the island with Fire-Walkers and White-Wings. It’s really the only one that could be easily reached from this coast.”
“Hmmm, well at least that solves one problem,” Darwin said thoughtfully. Kass and Alex both looked at him confused.
“What?” Kass asked, voicing her confusion. “How does the fact that the harbor is covered in armies about to fight each other to the death possibly solving one of our problems?”
“There will be a lot of unoccupied boats soon,” Darwin said, his red eyes shining as he laughed. “We might be able to each take our own personal boat, and we won’t have to pay a dime for any of them.”
“Wait, are you suggesting we hijack the boats?” Kass asked.
“Lord Darwin, I’m not sure those water vessels are safe for the journey. I can’t make them out well, but they appear to be made of glass,” Alex said.
“Wait, you can see the boats from here? All I can make out is a giant blob of things approaching,” Kass complained.
“Alex, we have an expression where I’m from: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Darwin simply ignored Kass’s complaint and went straight past it to Alex’s. “If they made it this far in those glass boats, there must be something to the craftsmanship. We shouldn’t be so willing to dismiss that when it might be our only way off this rock.”
“Yes, Lord Darwin. We’ll need orders on how you wish us to procure their use,” Alex said. “They all seem to be currently occupied, so how would you like us to proceed in properly liberating them, Milord?”
Darwin looked at the armies about to clash. If the boats sank, it would be bad news, but he could tell there was another concern with just a glance. “I wish that was the only bad news to focus on,” Darwin said, catching an unfortunate detail that the people on the ground likely would never notice. “The approaching army is stacked on the north side of the beach.”
“So?” Kass asked.
“So, when that fight starts, the alliance will naturally spread out a bit to make the lines match up evenly,” Darwin explained, reaching down with his sword to draw lines in the sand before being stopped by Alex.
“Allow me, Lord Darwin,” he said, pulling out his own spear and masterfully tearing up the dirt to draw a perfect picture of the enemy formations that would have made even the History Channel proud. It captured the block that made up the native continent drawn on one side, and the enemy birds drawn on the other. It also showed how the line for the bird men was rather thin, except on the north where it was heavily reinforced.
“That’s good artwork there, Alex,” Darwin commented, rather impressed with how perfect his lines were and how well he had grasped the dimensions of the armies.
“Thank you, Milord. I took my job as a forward scout very seriously before joining the StormGuard Alliance,” Alex said with an inflated chest.
“It shows,” Darwin remarked, kneeling by the map. “Great job.”
“Okay, Darwin,” Kass said with a huff. “Will you explain already what this all means?”
“Of course. Sorry for dragging it out,” Darwin lied. He liked to tease Kass by building up the suspense. “You see, they’ve made the middle part here,” Darwin said as he pointed to the center of the enemy’s thin line, “extra dense to create the illusion from a frontal view that it’s the thickest part of their line. The native army will spread out and try to match the enemy. It’s just how battles play out when they aren’t planned and there isn’t a solidly trained formation.”
“How do you know they aren’t trained?”
“Because the alliance, for whatever reason it began, is too new. In Emerald Gardens, it took us months to get even forty people to act properly under pressure,” Darwin explained. “There are at least five thousand down there. Can you imagine how long it would take to get them to act as a single unit?”
“Emerald Gardens?” Alex began to ask.
“A year, at least,” Kass answered Darwin’s rhetorical question, brushing Alex’s question aside. While Stephanie had known about the outside world, it was more likely that she was an exception rather than the rule. “So, basically, we have five thousand untrained soldiers pushing against ten to fifteen thousand enemies that look like they actually have a plan?”
“Yeah, more specifically like fifty to sixty thousand, from what I can tell from here. That’s why the alliance will spread evenly to match their lines. Once they do, the northern flank will cave in instantly from the pressure of all the troops, and the line will crumble into a constant open flank that will leave the native side to be slaughtered.” Darwin watched as Alex drew out his words with his spear on the dirt map.
“So that means that the enemy’s line is a feint, and they are betting everything on the north part crushing its opposition fast and quick?” Kass clarified what Darwin had just explained, doing her best to crouch down by the map without letting her dress reveal too much. It was a struggle that bemused Darwin very much.
“Yes. There’s a good chance they would win a head to head collision anyway, but if they make this move, it will likely prevent them from suffering any significant casualties. It would leave them with a large enough force on the continent to roll over any resistance or rebellions that might pop up later.” Darwin finished his explanation and stood up.
“I hate being the one to ask, but what does this have to do with us?” Kass asked.
“Little to nothing . . . except those boats,” Darwin said, pointing at the approaching opposition. “A battle this size is likely to decimate the only harbor where we can acquire friendly boats. If that happens, we won’t be able to get ahold of any vessels capable of ferrying us to the mainland. I also have the suspicion that this invasion force wouldn’t be too keen on the idea of us walking up and sailing away any time soon. As ignoble as it may be, we may have to consider violence as the only leverage we have in getting out of here.”
“So all we have to do is make sure the alliance wins? Darwin, at this point, wouldn’t it just be safer to let the fight happen and try to make our own boats? We can easily farm the material we need. It won’t set us back more than a week or two at most. Why are we rushing to get to the mainland this fast?” Kass asked.
“Do you want to spend your days farming lowbie trash here?” Darwin asked her.
“No, I don’t, but I definitely don’t like the idea of our faction members dying,” Kass said, surprising Darwin. “I can wait a week if it means we don’t lose anyone here.”
“Thank you, Lady,” Alex spoke before Darwin could respond. “The sentiment behind your concern for us is noted, but I cannot accept the course of action you suggest.”
“Why not?” Her face was flushed red, and it betrayed her frustration with Alex’s stubbornness on the topic. “Is bravery really worth dying for?”
Darwin looked at Alex, who was hesitant to answer the question. His facial expression was sterner than Kass’s was red, and the subject was obviously very close to home for him. He wanted to answer for Alex, but Alex’s face told him that even if he was taking a moment to answer, he wanted to do it himself.
“Lady Kass, what do you think will happen to the people of this land if those White-Wings and Fire-Walkers, as you called them, win? If they defeat that army, what do you think will happen to the people of every village that army comes across?”
Kass didn’t answer, but the color quickly began leaving her face.
“How long do you think it will take them to fly out over the continent and enact their desires on every person in every village across all the nations here?”
Kass still remained silent, the red having completely vanished from her cheeks. Darwin knew it was an awful feeling to lose an argument. He had lost several in his day. Kass wasn’t just losing an argument though; she was losing an argument about keeping the people of her faction safe. Darwin hadn’t thought they had grown on her, but they must have if she was willing to give up a week of her time to make sure none of them perished in the coming fight.
“I remember what it was like . . . coming home to bury someone I cared about and then being told that I had to run and hide . . . that I wouldn’t even have the time to give the dead a proper funeral or pay my respects. I don’t want to die any more than you do, but if we don’t stop those things here, then we may as well be hand delivering that fate to everyone left on the island.”
Kass stared at Alex for a moment seemed to drag on. Darwin hated to interrupt this type of awkward silence–it always made him uncomfortable–but he knew someone had to. He also knew that there was a middle ground for the two.
“Kass, the level restriction is the same for every island, right?”
“Yeah, there shouldn’t be anything over 40, and the NPCs should average around Level 20,” she answered, sighing as she did. “Why?”
“Alex, if I can guarantee that the invading force will be broken here, that they won’t succeed, will the men be okay with sitting out one?” Darwin rested his hand on Alex’s shoulder as he spoke to him, looking him directly in the eyes.
“No, sir. They’d rather be there, but they will if you think it’s for the best.” He paused before adding, “We will if you command it, Lord Darwin.”
“That’s great. I think I have a way to break the army and have everyone walk out of here alive. I just need you two,” Darwin said pointing between Kass and Alex, “the re-risen and five guards. If I can get ya’ll’s cooperation–and there aren’t any surprises–we should be able to all come out of this alive. We’ll even grab all the boats we are going to need to sail out of here. If I’m wrong, if we all die, at least the StormGuard Alliance will live on. Is that okay with you both?”
They looked at each other for a moment, then both answered at the same time: “I’m in.”
“Good. Then I hope you don’t mind getting wet because here is where we start,” he said, using the edge of his sword to draw a small box far to the north of where the conflict was, and clearly in the water. “And we have to make sure not to start until the clash happens.”
“Why that far out in the water?” Alex asked this time.
“Because we can’t let anyone see us–any of us.” Darwin glanced over at one of the especially tall zombies he had made. “If we make a stir too early, we’ll be fighting them head on and not flanking them smoothly.”
“So the plan is just to wait in the water until the fighting starts, and then flank them?” Kass asked for clarification, not sure that it would be simple enough.
“No, it’s not just that. That’s just the timing and where we hit. This strategy is going to be heavily dependent on our own unique abilities and how we combine them,” Darwin said, walking away from the first map and to another clear patch.
“Ok, so what do you have planned?” she asked.
“Well, first, we’re going to need to run the front line like this,” Darwin said, drawing out the formation. He wasn’t sure if it would work, but years spent planning the raids on Emerald Gardens had definitely taught him that confidence and clearly articulated orders were just as, if not more, important than a good strategy.
Kass watched intently as he finished drawing out the plan. “This will really work . . .” she said, the words half question and half statement.
“Do you doubt the great Lord Darwin?” Darwin said, standing up from the etched out formation, proud of his work.
“Not at all, Lord Darwin,” Alex said as he stood up, not understanding the rhetorical question was intended as a joke. “I have no doubt that you will dye the waters red before the sun sets.”