Kass did her best to channel her spells, firing more snowballs per minute than she had ever managed to before. It was probably because, for once, she didn’t have to constantly run after Darwin. She got to sit still happily on a giant Hydra that stopped her from even worrying about having to walk. The snowballs are fast, the enemies are weak and the mount is awesome, she thought, watching as her spells carved destruction into the feathery foes’ wings. Video game life just doesn’t get better than this.
It was mostly Darwin’s idea. He said that he often used roots and the terrain to kite and beat bosses that couldn’t be straight-up tanked back on his old video games. He learned quickly that for melee classes, range and terrain are a significant disadvantage that flying-type mobs can easily leverage. Unfortunately, fliers who would try to leverage it against him would find out that root and stun classes were their worst nightmare. While in the old MMO, it wouldn’t cause them to fall to their death, it would stamina leech them. He guessed that the same principle could be easily applied again.
Unfortunately, Kass was the only one who could cast a spell with any significant range. The second the fight started, she would become the center of attention for anyone within quite a large radius. Not only was she forced to constantly be wary of enemy archers or mages attempting to kill her from range, she was also responsible for protecting her allies from ranged attacks as well. As a result, Darwin had given her the Hydra for the battle. Even if she was the center of attention, the Hydra had seven heads that were constantly watching for threats in every direction. It took some of the stress off Kass by relieving her from having to constantly watch for threats and allowed her to focus on casting offensive magic. When all was said and done, the Hydra was the perfect vehicle for destruction, especially when combined with Kass’s own magic: Frost Step for faster movement, Frost Edge for more damage, and increased power from being enslaved to Darwin. It was, by itself, a fully buffed boss mob guarding her, and all she had to do was stop one of the other high level players from taking it out while she rode comfortably.
In front of her, Darwin was leading the charge and zombifying everything he could. The basis of their plan was simple: flank them and buy enough time for Darwin to use their own numbers against them. As long as everyone was focused on her and her Hydra, Darwin would be able to amass an army before anyone noticed what he was doing. Eventually, if they were able to buy enough time, the zombified army would grow to critical proportions. The plan was simple, and it was working.
Kass looked at Darwin, dancing through the enemies with a savagery that made her grimace. Darwin, you don’t have to do this, she thought as she watched his back. I know you’re not a normal player. I can’t get it out of my head that there is a good chance if you die here, you die for good. Why do you risk so much for these people? We could have just taken our time.
It hadn’t been until his fight with the Hydra that she had ever worried about him dying. Once she did, she couldn’t help but remember the paper she found him writing in the bar. It all added up, and it was impossible to ignore no matter how much she tried. He was always on, and, as fast as she knew, he never slept. He didn’t log in or out like other players: he was always in the game, twenty-four/seven. The only creatures that can maintain that kind of schedule are NPCs, but he wasn’t one of those either. Something was off about him, and she would need to talk to her dad to figure it out. The only problem was that she wasn’t sure if her dad would help Darwin or help ‘solve’ Darwin. Stop it, Kass. Get your head back in the fight. She shook her head trying to clear it of thoughts of Darwin. Granted, that’s where they were more often than not lately–on Darwin.
“Lady Kass, your buffer zone is big enough, and Darwin reports that he has enough White-Wing converts to hold the line temporarily. It’s time for us to enact Phase Two. Bring them down,” Alex said as he appeared on the Hydra next to her. After finishing his message, he threw the spear he was holding into a stray White-Wing and vanished. A moment later, Kass saw him standing atop the dead White-Wing pulling his spear out.
I swear, that boy is more of a magician than I am, Kass thought, annoyed that Alex could always sneak up on her so well. If the StormGuard Alliance ever gets rich, it’s going to lose all of its money treating heart attacks that he will cause startling people.
Kass calmed her nerves, stopped the snowball shooting gallery, closed her eyes and began channeling something new. It was her first time casting the spell in what felt like forever, but it felt like the spell was programed for just this moment. ‘Winter is Coming,’ don’t fail me now! she thought as she started summoning the ice chains from the ground beneath the waters. One after another, they started shooting out of the water and into the air, shackling the flying White-Wings. As she kept channeling the spell, more and more chains began shooting up at a time. After only holding the channeling process open for two minutes, the chains were already starting to shoot up over a dozen at a time.
The White-Wings struggled against their restraints as they were pulled to the ground by the ice chains, screeching in horror. The sky was their advantage–it was their racial right to live in the air–and now they were being grounded in knee-high water. If they weren’t already screaming in horror from the chains pulling them to the ground, they were definitely shouting in pain and fear as the eager Turtle-Wolves and spear-wielding scouts began preying on them the second they touched down. Without a dive, without any mobility, they were sitting ducks for their enemies wading through the blood-red water below.
Even though none of them were worth very much EXP on their own, Kass couldn’t help but notice that her experience bar was slowly creeping up from the sheer volume of the kills. It might not be enough to hit another level, but it was still better than nothing, and EXP was the reason she had stuck with Darwin to begin with. Truthfully, it was the reason she had been okay with ignoring the very real struggle Darwin was probably going through at the moment. Stop it Kass, you’re thinking about Darwin again. You’re in the middle of committing good, old-fashioned, home-grown avian genocide on a level that would make Colonel Sanders proud. Stay focused and turn these White-Wings into dodo birds.
Everything was going down smoother than a well-aged wine, especially with the spell ‘Winter is Coming’ shackling more people than the interest on student loans, when all of a sudden Kass noticed something terrifying. All the White-Wings so far has been fairly generic in appearance: two wings and an angel-like countenance. Kass had watched as Darwin carved his way through their ranks without ever really distinguishing one from another. The one she saw now, however, one was different–even at a glance from afar. Rather than two wings like all the other avians possessed, he had four massive wings sprouting out of his back that dwarfed his allies’ wingspans. He was well over six feet tall and wore steel armor instead of the usual leather. In place of the usual set of daggers or bow and arrow that she saw being used by all the other White-Wings, he was wielding a sword and a shield. Worst of all, he was going right for Darwin.
“What the heck is that?” she mumbled to herself. The sight was so shocking that it had almost caused her to lose her concentration on the Winter is Coming spell. “Fuzzy Wuzzy! Get to Darwin! I got a bad feeling about this!” she yelled down to the bear as soon as she had regained her concentration on channeling the spell.
Fuzzy Wuzzy, who was behind the Hydra, rolling on its back and swatting its giant, ice breathing-bubble with its paws, stood up and looked at Kass while poking the bubble with a claw. I did not make that bubble that thick. Stop being lazy! Kass wanted to shout at the fur-ball, but decided it would have been a waste of time and energy. “Blake! Bust that bubble for Fuzzy Wuzzy so he can go help Darwin. Go with him too!”
Blake didn’t question her at all, but just appeared behind Fuzzy Wuzzy with the same creepy trick Alex always used and broke the bubble with his spear before the two of them took off running towards Darwin. You two better keep him safe, Kass wished after them. She wanted to go with them, but knew that she needed to maintain the spell or the battle would be lost.
Kass watched in horror as the armored, four-winged commander got closer to Darwin. It was just about to ready itself and make a dive, when three White-Wings swooped in from above and began striking it in the back one after another. They didn’t manage to do more than hurt one of its wings before the commander sped up so fast he almost disappeared like Alex, charging them with his shield and knocking them forward into the area just ahead of Kass.
Kass, looked at them incredulously. “Are you three okay? Why are you attacking one of your own?” She couldn’t help but ask. Enemy or not, something about these three made her curious.
“We haven’t been on the White-Wing side since they tried to kill us.” The only male of the three answered, standing up and brushing off his shoulders, then his wings. As the other two stood up, Alex, Justin and two other scouts materialized behind them.
“Do we kill them, Lady Kass?” Alex asked as he trained his spear on them.
“No, they’ve got a story they can tell us after the fight is over. Until then, I need you all to make sure that thing doesn’t kill Darwin,” Kass said, pointing at the four-winged beast who was once again readying his dive for Darwin.
“I wish I could, Lady Kass,” Justin said, staring at the armored angel. “Unfortunately, the great Lord Darwin’s orders are final. He saw it when the fight started and commanded us to protect you should it engage us directly.”
Blake came back with Fuzzy Wuzzy too. “I was sent back as well, Lady Kass.”
What? Protect me? I can die, you idiot! You can’t! Kass seethed on the inside. You made me ask you out, and now you’re going to die before I ever even get that date! She wanted to protest, but knew that it wouldn’t do any good.
“Well, do you mind removing the spears so we go after it again? I don’t think the ‘Great Lord Darwin’ ordered us to do anything,” the male White-Wing spoke again, his hands over his head in the traditional surrender pose. “I mean, do you really want the ‘Great Lord Darwin’ to fight on his own? Against a faction Leader, Lady Kass, was it?”
Kass wanted to tell him to go, but she needed to know first what type of threat Darwin faced–if she was over-reacting or if he was in real danger. “faction Leader? What level are they generally?”
“This one, he’s somewhere between Level 65 to 70 like all of the other faction Leaders. He’s the unrivalled leader of the White-Wings,” one of the two girl White-Wings answered this time. “He also has all the standard NPC Boss buffs.”
“Move, you lumbering beast!” she yelled at the Hydra, ignoring the three White-Wing prisoners. It may not be enough, but I still have to try, she thought as the Hydra started rushing towards Darwin. She watched as the angel flew upwards higher into the sky again, preparing for its dive. She knew she wouldn’t make it in time. She closed her eyes and gulped. She couldn’t watch. All she could do was pray that when he died, Darwin would respawn like she did.
A loud metallic sound, louder than any of the clashing spears, knives, armor and axes across the battlefield, rang out from where Darwin was. Kass shut her eyes even tighter for a second, still afraid to look as the Hydra barreled towards Darwin’s position.
The metallic sound shot out again. Is Darwin fighting? Kass opened her eyes to find Darwin nowhere in sight. Darwin? Did he live? Is he okay? she panicked. Where did he go? She worriedly scanned the battlefield until she saw him, flat on his butt behind a man who had taken his spot on the field: the king. Kass would recognize his face anywhere. It was still the first thing you saw during the intro sequence when picking a Human. Undoubtedly, he was the only Human who would wear a crown into battle.
“I see your bathrobe has gotten a little fancier since we last met.” The king never turned from his opponent as he addressed Darwin, who was sprawled out behind him. He held his sword out towards the four-winged commander, now grounded with his sword and shield in a defensive position.
Wait, Darwin knows the king? When did he meet the king? The shock of the king’s appearance caused her to forget the boss-level mob threatening their life in front of them.
“Yeah, what can I say? Came with the new job title.” Darwin stood up, leveling his sword into his own combat stance. “By the way, thanks for the help.”
“I had to help you out when I saw that you were stuck with a sword and not your weapon of preference: silverware,” the king laughed. It was like the two were long-lost friends. “To be fair, your sister was the one who sent me. She said I would need to assist you here, that you would strike the enemy from the north, and this commander would try to kill you. I needed to interfere before you were saved.”
“Before I was saved?” Darwin asked, almost dropping his stance.
“You are Eve’s brother, right?”
Kass stared on in disbelief. The two stood in the middle of the battlefield, chatting right in front of the enemy.
“Yes, I am Eve’s brother. But you said you came to help me before I was saved? Don’t you mean before I am killed?”
“No, he, like, totes means saved,” a voice Kass immediately recognized said from behind her. She was about to turn around and look when two hands shot over her eyes casting her vision into darkness. “No peeking, girlfriend.”
“Stephanie!” Darwin called out to the person behind her.
Medusa . . . No wonder she covered my eyes.
“Sorry, Darwin. I, like, totes had an awesome entrance planned when I saw the lead female from Touched by an Angel’s first kid get all grumpus in metal at you, but the Burger King boy wouldn’t let me have it my way,” she apologized, as she pulled her hands away from Kass’s eyes.
Kass, eyes now firmly locked shut again, was afraid to look. She knew what happened to those who gazed on the Medusa, but the need to see what was going on was slowly killing her. What are they doing?
“It seems I’m too late to fulfill Eve’s request.” The way he said it made Kass certain he was frowning. “In that case, I am told to pass on a message: Stephanie, you weren’t supposed to be the one to deliver the stone to Darwin.”
“Message, like, received grandpa grumps,” Stephanie said with her usual high-pitched bubble gum voice. What she said next was filled with a darker tone that chilled Kass more than any of her frost spells. “But if you come between us again, I will end you.”
“I’m just delivering the message. Take it up with Eve if you have further concerns. I don’t want to get between you two.” His voice lacked the same bold bass it had before Stephanie showed up.
“Like, whatevs. Anyways . . . Honey, did you miss me?” Stephanie was back to her high pitch.
Honey? Why is she calling Darwin honey? Why should he be missing her? What did they do in that room when I wasn’t there? Kass immediately felt a little jealous.
“Been a little too busy to miss anyone.” Darwin dodged the question.
Kass could hear stone crumbling in the background. For some reason, neither Darwin nor the monarch were affected; but, from the sound of breaking rocks, it was clear that the White-Wings around them weren’t so fortunate.
“Well, like, missing me or not, I think you like totes promised me some ice cream, and I thought I’d come here and collect,” Stephanie said.
“I’d love to sit down and get some ice cream, but I kind of have to stop these bird men from making it far enough into the Human lands to turn into lawyers,” Darwin said, laughing a bit.
How can you be so light-hearted right now? Getting ice cream with her? You’re supposed to be taking me out to a nice lunch! Kass’s jealousy flared up more. She started telling herself that Stephanie’s strength was the only reason Darwin was playing along with her. There was no way he would be into a girl who talked like that. Why do I even care? It’s not like we’re an item anyway.
“Oh, that uncooked serving of chicken pot pie and his rotisserie club? Don’t get your panties in a bunch over them. I can, like, totes take care of it right now if you want,” Stephanie said. “It’s like, no problem at all. But you’ll, like, owe me more than ice cream. Maybe dinner and a movie?”
“If you don’t mind a boat ride. I don’t think I plan on hanging around these lands,” Darwin said.
Wait, he’s not planning on bringing her with us? Kass found herself hoping her face wasn’t as red as it felt.
“Deal,” Stephanie said. The agreement was followed by an awful, bone-wrenching sound.
“Did you just Mola Ram Temple of Doom him?” Darwin asked immediately after.
“I know when I’m not needed,” the king said.
“Yeah, I told you I, like, love me some Indiana Jones.” Stephanie sounded very happy with herself. “Like, off for a moment, dear. Be back with the bacon. Kassy girl, you can open your eyes.”
Kass waited a second just to be sure, then opened her eyes to see the carnage. The king was gone, and Darwin was standing over the four-winged commander, who lay dead on the ground with his chest ripped open. Everywhere she could see the White-Wings were either statues, decapitated or gorily missing limbs. Only the Turtle-Wolves and a dozen White-Wings that Darwin had converted into red-eyes were still standing and not simply torn-up pieces scattered about like red leaves in fall.
“Darwin, why are you taking her out to dinner and a movie?” Kass asked, still grumpy about the developments. “And ice cream?”
“I had to, of course. Your logic, not mine.” He shrugged.
“How do you figure that? I don’t think I said anywhere that you need to have dinner with a mass murderer,” she complained.
“Well, we both know that we’re both mass murderers. But if you bringing me three Minotaurs and helping me kill a few Turtle-Wolves equals twenty meals, how many do you think I owe her for killing a whole army?” Darwin said, his eyes still looking at the dead commander before him.
Kass wanted to argue, but his logic was right. They both owed her, and they owed her big. The king might have helped, but Darwin still might have died if the commander had overpowered him. Darwin might be dead, and from his point of view, that was probably easily worth a hundred dinners and a thousand movies–depending on what the movies were, of course.
“Lord Darwin, I don’t mean to disturb you,” a voice shot out from behind Kass. “But we still need to know what to do with the three prisoners.”
Kass jumped. Why must everyone appear behind me! Am I that easy to sneak up on? This is starting to be bothersome.
“Prisoners? What are you talking about?”
“Three White-Wings who fell fighting . . .” Blake’s eyes paused to look at the dead faction Leader, “. . . their commander. Lady Kass told us not to kill them, milord.”
“I see. The White-Wings were on our side?” Darwin asked for clarification. “Can you bring them to me?”
“Yes, milord. Right away.” He disappeared for a moment, only to reappear moments later with the four other scouts and their three White-Wing prisoners.
They were looking around in as much shock and horror as Kass was. It was hard to take in the slaughter that had occurred. It’s one thing to see people dead in a virtual reality game; it’s another to see them carved up like fine cuts of meat put to a fat man’s knife.
“I am told you three were captured after you failed to kill . . . this guy,” Darwin said, kicking the commander’s dead body. “Any reason you were trying to stab your commander in the back?”
“Tim, sir. I mean, Oh Great Lord Darwin.” One of the two female White-Wings, the frailest and most blood-spattered of the three, answered as she stepped forward and lowered herself into a bow. Hearing the title and seeing the bow caused Darwin to look at Kass confused, but the mystified look didn’t stop the other two from following suit and bowing as well.
Kass shrugged. “Don’t look at me,” she mouthed from atop her Hydra. Darwin looked at Fuzzy Wuzzy, who just roared in confusion. Blake and Justin were clearly just as puzzled as Darwin. They obviously didn’t understand what was awkward or perplexing about a player calling him by the title ‘Great Lord Darwin.’
“That’s enough,” Darwin finally said impatiently, waving his hand. “Just tell me who you are and why a Tim somehow caused you to turn your back on your faction Leader.”
“Great Lord Darwin, my name is Valerie,” the one who bowed first spoke.
“My name is Daniel, Your Majesty,” the only male said next, and was immediately followed by the other female White-Wing.
“My name is Mclean,” she said before Valerie nudged her with her shoulder and she tacked on, “Oh Great Lord.”
“Okay, we can skip the titles and pleasantries for now,” Darwin said, walking over to the Hydra as he spoke. “What does a Tim have to do with why you were attacking your own kind?”
“If I may, Great Lord Darwin, my humble story is one that may take some time,” Valerie said, bowing her head only this time. “Perhaps we should wait until after the battle to begin the tale.”
Darwin looked around for a moment. “I don’t see any battle still going on, so go ahead and start your story before Stephanie gets back.”
“St . . . I mean, yes, Great Lord Darwin. Let me begin with the Fire-Walkers.” She started telling her story, but Kass was too worn out from all the heart-pounding moments to pay close attention. All she could do was sigh. Why do I get the feeling that Darwin’s ego is going to grow even bigger?