Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner: Darwin

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“Push! Thrust! Back! Push! Thrust! Back!” Alex called out to the troops below, the day-old phalanx that now operated like a well-oiled machine.

He had less than a day, and he made them like this? Darwin admired his new force from atop the wall on their side, holding a bow and ready to shoot the retreat signal for the men in the main battlefield if need be. The precision with which the phalanx moved and the unison in which they acted reminded him of perfectly-organized fire ants. It was astounding to see such progress with weapons they had never wielded and in a formation they had never heard of until less than a day ago. Alex is a truly terrifying and fierce force. I’m glad to have him as an ally. Darwin nodded to himself.

Everything was going as planned. His year of reading about the details of the Battle of Thermopylae after watching a graphic-novel-turned-movie on the subject had paid off in spades. Even the detail of raising the platform they were on by just a step and pushing the enemy force back before letting them ebb forward again to maintain that upwards advantage was a success. It was forcing the foe to either climb up, and have no-one at their backs to support them, or push forward into a wall of shields that pressed into them from above and drove them back. Anyone attacking into the position was either immediately killed by the dory spear or forced to fight to maintain their footing as they tripped and stumbled around before eventually being forced to their knees where they would be trampled by their allies. Leonidas couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Now I just have to make sure there isn’t a traitor to betray me with a hidden route to our flank, he chuckled, finding humor in the moment despite the tough battle waging below.

Before the battle, he had tried to give a rousing speech to try and tell the men that here is where they would make their stand, that the force of the enemies was nothing more than the heavy weight of the anvil on which they would strike and break their chains. But the speech had turned out rather poorly. No one could hear him that well from where he sat atop the wall, so it just ended up being an odd shouting match with him trying to make himself heard over the oncoming army and his red-eyed warriors interpreting that as an invitation to shout too and then add some shield slamming as everyone just cheered randomly.

“Cheer up,” Daniel had said from beside him during the speech. “It’s not like we worked more than a few hours on that thing.”

Now that the battle was underway, Daniel, who had flown to the other wall with a bow as well, was in the same boat as Darwin. They were to only fire regular arrows into the enemy force. Then, whenever Darwin shot a flaming arrow into the air to signal orders to the archers behind the wall he was standing on, Daniel was to also relay the signal to the archers inside the wall on his side. It was a rather crude system, but given how ineffective even shouting had been earlier, he was glad that Daniel had talked him into using visual cues for the battle.

“Lord Darwin,” Justin Yoo came up to deliver a message. “The front five lines are starting to weaken. We haven’t taken many casualties, but it’s been an hour now, and they’re getting tired. If we don’t go through with the plan soon, General Alex is afraid that they’ll start making mistakes. He estimates that one error might cost ten lives, and he’s afraid he’ll see two or three mistakes if we don’t relieve them and switch the lines up.”

“He’s right. It’s not that they’re tired. It’s just mentally draining to be trying so hard for so long,” Darwin said with a nod. “Alright. We spent a lot of time preparing it. Ready to see if it works?”

“Yes, Lord Darwin!” Justin almost jumped out of his socks with enthusiasm. “Let me take over for you here. Everyone on their side was still hopeful, but it was easy to tell that the whole defense could be shattered in an instant soon. They were only succeeding because everything was still going as planned. The second the battle deviated from their neatly laid out plan, Darwin knew what would happen. If the shieldwall showed a single crack, then it wouldn’t be ten or twelve that would die. It would be everyone. The reason the shieldwall was getting tired after such a short time, in terms of a normal battle at least, was because of how massive and oppressive the enemy forces were. If they got through the wall, they’d leak into the two courtyards and butcher the archers. Then it would be a race to the finish line. A deadly race to determine if Stephanie would finish in time to save them all like she had before.

“Great! Let’s do it!” Darwin shot a flaming arrow, signaling to Alex and Daniel what was about to come. Daniel, who passed his bow off to a guard on his side and flew over to where Darwin was at, started grabbing a bunch of flasks that they had tucked away and gave them to Darwin. One at a time, Darwin took the flasks and threw them to the ground below, his range varying from five to ten feet in front of the shieldwall to where the walls first started pulling inwards. The enemies paid the flasks little heed, shrugging them off as they shattered and coated them with the foul smelling liquid that they held inside.

“You really come up with weird ideas, don’t you?” Daniel asked as he kept handing the flasks to Darwin. “I mean, this is the new tech in old fantasy world thing, so aren’t we supposed to draw giant rings of fire and split the enemy forces? Play some cliché tricks like that?”

“I think Kitchens already did that with a big semicircle to keep his back safe. He insisted on taking the Hydra to the middle of the battlefield too.”

“Yeah, I remember. Almost wanted to go with them and see the parachuting black bear wearing a top hat and a monocle,” Daniel laughed. “I heard Minx thought it was so cute on Fuzzy Wuzzy that she even tried to stitch a top hat for every single head on the Hydra. Might have done it too if not for the fact the animal cracker brigade showed up early.”

“I feel like if she’s going to indulge herself in the crafting lifestyle, she should consider making some slippers for everyone.” Darwin looked at his feet, hoping that he hadn’t accidently spilled any of the oil on them. “Even I could use a new pair.”

“Hmm, I always liked moccasins better than slippers,” Daniel thought aloud. “Anyways, watch your flap. You need to get down there. That’s plenty. The area is good and covered.”

Darwin nodded then jumped the entire distance to the ground behind the phalanx. He might have been eager to get back to the real world so people would stop trying to kill him, but being in the game world had huge advantages–especially when it came to his ability to run and jump. He had gone from a sit-around gamer to a professional parkour-level runner with just a few level-ups increasing his Speed attribute.

“Ready, Lord Darwin?” Alex asked as he approached from out of nowhere as usual.

“Wouldn’t be here if I weren’t,” Darwin said while equipping his flamberge.

“I know you say it’s for the best, but I still highly recommend against this course of action. The skill, the position, everything about it is too risky. We aren’t in danger of losing the field anytime soon, Lord Darwin, we just need to swap out our front lines–a feat I have done in many battles before.”

“With formations like this one?” Darwin questioned. Pulling men back from a loose formation with space on the sides of each person was different than pulling them out of a phalanx.

“No, Lord Darwin.” Alex gave a lopsided frown.

“Do you have any better ideas for how to do it then? They’re shoulder to shoulder with ten guys pushing on their back,” Darwin said as he looked at the situation. Even he was a bit nervous and sometimes worried about dying, but with enough souls to revive him and an army at his back, it was worth the risk.

“No, I have no alternative suggestions, Lord Darwin.” Alex’s frown worsened. “Be careful, Lord Darwin. We need you back here.”

“As you command,” Darwin joked, though he was the only one who found it funny. And then he quickly jumped up and started the plan.

He pulled out his flamberge zweihander and lept on the shields of the men protecting themselves from arrows and ran across the top of the phalanx. It was a bit of a chore making sure he didn’t get hit by a loose dory or shift all of his weight onto one innocent, unsuspecting soldier, but eventually he made it to the end. When he finally got there, he used the rest of his momentum to jump in the air and slammed the flaming blade into the ground as he landed. It instantly erupted, triggering the oil that he had just been throwing all across the field and setting off an explosion that shook even the walls as it massacred the almost five hundred Animal Kingdom soldiers that were in the split. The sword had hit a special trail of oil that had been laid down before the battle had begun. As this makeshift fuse of sorts had ignited, it had burned his legs a bit; but, for the most part, Darwin was unhurt by the blast, a sentiment that could not be shared by the hundreds caught in the roaring fireball a little over ten feet in front of him. Surrounding Darwin, there were still a number of enemies untouched for the most part by the blast that occurred almost a dozen feet behind them them. However, the Hell that had erupted at their backs had the disoriented the animals, and the phalanx quickly moved forward and mercilessly slaughtered the remaining enemies, pushing them away from Darwin until he was able to pull his blade out of the ground.

Then it happened. As the flames died down, all of the enemies that had been toasted by the explosion started to pick themselves up, howling in a beastly fashion as they did so. Each one then shook himself off as if he never had oil burning across his body to begin with, grabbed his weapon, and stood still, waiting. Upon receiving the order from Darwin telepathically to turn and butcher their erstwhile allies, they obligingly did just that. Their former allies, who had never seen Darwin’s unique ability in action, thought that their comrades had just managed to somehow live through the explosion. Those who seemed to have survived weren’t paying any attention to the fires scattered around them, but it didn’t seem weird to the Panda King’s men for adrenaline to block out their wounded comrades’ pain during a fight. That’s why the unconverted animal soldiers weren’t expecting those who had just picked themselves up off the burning field to turn around and start slicing and stabbing at them. The conversion took an entire line of the animal men by surprise, leaving them gutted before they even had a chance to defend themselves.

Darwin smiled as he watched it all in action. The plan, a rather simple concept that Valerie had come up with, was paying off way better than he had anticipated. After explaining how the ability worked to Valerie, who had persistently asked him over and over again before the fight, she noted that there was an issue of ambiguity–one that might be exploited. If the game said that every time he was personally responsible for killing an NPC, he had the ability to resurrect that particular NPC entity, then there was only one thing that was slightly unclear: what counts as being responsible for killing someone? When they tested killing enemies with oil, he found that he was able to resurrect all of them so long as he both set the oil and triggered the explosion. The best part about it was that the fire that was burning them would be extinguished by the conversion process, so he just had to make sure to get the oil mostly on the enemy rather than on the ground, something tossing flasks on tightly bunched foes easily allowed.

“That’s terrifying,” one of the soldiers from the phalanx said as they lowered their shields for a minute. “Are they the same as us now?”

“I . . .” Darwin was about to say that he didn’t think so, that the zombies had no brains or personality, as was his experience with Turtle-Wolves, but then he remembered Fuzzy Wuzzy. “I actually don’t know. Either way, we’ve bought ourselves some time.”

“Right, right,” the shield man said. “We better get moving, or Alex will kill us before the enemies are back to even try.”

As the phalanx swapped its front and back lines out, Darwin couldn’t help but watch the newly summoned beast-men fighting at the front, holding off the enemy in the push. It pulled to him. The clean, neat and tidy way of phalanx fighting had made him want to enter the battle a little, but the messy massacre that was occurring now drew him in an entirely different way. That’s where you belong, a voice rang through his head like it had whispered in his ear. That’s where you should be right now. You haven’t even given your flamberge a proper test run. Don’t you owe it to yourself to try it out? Go on. They’re still switching positions. They’ll need extra time, right? It kept calling out to him.

“Lord Darwin, we’ve almost finished the swap. Do you want to head back now?” one of the soldiers asked, the troops were making somewhat of an effort to leave a hole for him so he could go back to his position. So he could go back to waiting . . . “Lord Darwin!” the soldier called out again as Darwin gave up on the idea and started charging into the lines with his new miniature army.

Every kill is a new soldier, Darwin told himself. Every kill is one less man that has a chance to kill my people, he justified, pulling out his flamberge and pushing his way through the line of soldiers into the enemy ranks. He knew they were not entirely sound justifications, that his men at the gap could easily handle the enemy and likely wouldn’t take many losses if any at all, but the lack of solid excuses didn’t bother him. He had waited so patiently. He needed to fight. This wasn’t just a siege. It was the ultimate battle in the ultimate game. The crème de la crème of fights, and he couldn’t just stand idly by and watch it happen around him. He needed to feel the thrill of the kill.

“I’m with you, Boss,” Daniel called from above, flying over him, “Let’s make the break count!”

Darwin smiled a bit. Daniel was the only one who had volunteered to wait in the back with him and fire signal arrows. Seeing Daniel join in too, knowing that he understood, was a comforting feeling. “First one to a hundred kills wins!” Darwin laughed, leaping through the final enemies into a downward thrust that split his first opponent in two.

“That’s cheating! You had a head start on me!” Daniel joined in with a chuckle, driving his twin daggers into a poor dog-man’s skull.

Darwin cleaved through three enemies with the flaming zweihander, each of them pulling and piecing back together until they were freshly-made, red-eyed undead, a process that wasn’t finished until he had already split, maimed and fatally wounded several more. Now he had the advantage. He wasn’t just killing the enemy; he was turning their numbers against them. With the weapons, gear, and items that he wore with bonus levels and stats for members in his faction, the dead he raised were significantly stronger than they had been before. That, added to the fact that he was increasing the number of red-eyed warriors by the second, made him question if the phalanx would even be needed anymore.

“Daniel,” he asked as he sidestepped an incoming axe, ducked under another sword, and brought his own blade up diagonally with the most force he could muster to split the two attackers in half. The enemy didn’t let him catch his breath enough to finish his thought though. As soon as those two were dead, he found himself having to push off an enemy that was thrown into him and then stab it before it could turn around and attack him. “Daniel,” he tried again, the three fresh summons providing him enough space to pause long enough to get his thought out. “How are the troops in the center holding?”

“Well . . .” Daniel started, but paused as attacked a few more enemies. Daniel looked less like he was fighting and more like he was playing the part of a yo-yo to some invisible hand in the sky as he landed on his foes then immediately took back to the skies. He didn’t even bother trying to carve up the animal warriors with his daggers once they had fallen like he had with the Blue-Drakes. This time, he knew his strong suit, and he stuck to it. It wasn’t as fast–getting in the air took time–but it was a lot safer and easier to repeat. Taking a quick break from stabbing people, Daniel continued, “I can’t see too well, but between the circling Blue-Drakes and the giant half circle of fire in the middle of the field, I don’t think we will have to fight much longer. This is going to go down in–” he paused as he thumped into another Panthera before lifting off again, “–history as the most one-sided fight to date. It’s like the enemy didn’t prepare at all.”

It didn’t make sense to Darwin. If it was so one-sided, if they were pulling it off so well, how come there hadn’t been a horn for retreat sounded? Why weren’t their commanders pulling back and preparing for a new wave, one where they could levy siege equipment and crush his encampment? He tried to puzzle it out as his flamberge crashed into the shield of a foe, giving the soldier a moment to dig into Darwin’s left arm with the makeshift axe he was holding. Darwin shrugged off the pain, kicked the Ursine holding the shield to generate enough force to pull his blade out, and thrust it into the center of the bear’s chest, cutting right into the bear-man’s lung.

Before he could even pull his flamberge free, another enemy had taken advantage of his occupied weapon and come cutting down at him with a halberd that dug right into Darwin’s left leg, nearly splitting it open.

“Darwin!” Daniel, who heard Darwin’s scream as the halberd ripped flesh from bone, shouted, “Let’s get out of here!”

“No!” Darwin ignored the suggestion. No, he thought as he grabbed the halberd, yanking the tiger-man who held it closer, where he had a headbutt waiting for him. He finally got his flamberge free and used it to decapitate his stunned adversary. This is where I belong. He smiled. The pain was growing. Each grunt turned into a howl as the wound in his arm stung. His leg tormented him with each step or attempt to put weight on it. This is what I want, his thoughts continued to echo. This is what you want.

“Darwin, this is madness! You’re going to die. Get out of there!” Daniel pleaded again, flying down to stab an enemy next to Darwin. “The phalanx works. Your plan works. Let’s get back to where we were atop the wall and let it work.”

The Phalanx did work, but I didn’t. I was useless, Darwin grumbled to himself as he spun forward, landing a cleaving attack that split two more Ursines right down the middle but left his blade wedged into the ground. It was another moment that the enemy seized instantly, impaling his stomach with the pointed end of a halberd from a distance.

“Darwin . . .” Daniel, who had taken to the skies again, watched Darwin dying with an almost empty expression. “Darwin, you really need to get out of here. I can try to carry you,” he tried one last time.

Yes, I need to get out of here, Darwin thought, looking at the wound, watching his health bleed out into the field. He had killed his fair share. Twenty, thirty, forty–it didn’t matter. He had done his fair share and killed the numbers he needed to. It was time to leave. Not yet, you still need more, a voice whispered at him. It tugged in his heart every time the notion of leaving entered his mind. The halberd pressed deeper into his gut, barely missing his spine as Darwin lifted his zweihander up for one more massive cleaving attack. If the foolish mutt-boy had let go of the weapon, he’d have lived. If he hadn’t been so sure that Darwin’s death would stop him from retaliating, that a man wouldn’t press on regardless of the pole sticking out of him, he’d have managed to survive–but he didn’t. The scorching edge of Darwin’s flamberge ripped the enemy open beautifully, cauterizing just as quickly as it cut through his killer.

Freshly avenged, he didn’t have the strength to keep going. “Darwin, come on,” Daniel said as he looked at him. It was a game. Why is he so worried? Darwin wondered as he fell to the ground and the world started to darken around him.

Darwin’s nervous system, which the game had somehow managed to keep intact, was doing it’s best to prove to him over and over again that he was in unbearable agony. His eyes testified to the same as he watched his own blood trickle away onto the field. However, something inside him disagreed with his senses and made him smile as he watched the last of his life fade. Something said, This is fine. This is the price you pay for what you need to do.

“Valerie! Mclean!” Daniel was yelling, calling his two White-Wing friends over to where Darwin lay. “He’s not fading away! We might still be able to save him. Go get the Blue-Drakes before he . . .” And then they went quiet.

Soul Devourer has been activated and consumed your 64 soul charges. You have been restored to full life and will have a +50% increase on all stat values for 320 seconds after the resurrection process is complete.

Due to having no soul charges remaining, you will awaken with Hunger active.

This effect may not occur more than once an hour

“What in the–” Darwin heard Mclean say as his vision pulsed the now familiar dark crimson color. The wounds that had left him on the ground in the first place ripped, spasmed and throbbed with the same aching pang of agony that his last death had brought. He felt the halberd, still lodged in him, being pushed out and his wound closing. He felt his head rip and his hands burn again.

When the pain faded, everything felt as if it were standing still. So the resurrection is finished . . . Time to have fun. He laughed as he picked up his burning blade.

“Darwin, you need to get back. You’ve already died once,” Daniel advised again. Nagging. Doesn’t he understand? Darwin grumbled to himself as he pulled the zweihander in a circular arc through another enemy, spinning as if he were creating a fiery whirlwind with his blade while he ripped and tore through the crowd. Why would I stop now? Darwin couldn’t stop laughing as the blade cleaved into two or three more enemies. Before, a shield would have stopped it. Now, it cut through them like butter. The Soul Devourer buff was giving him Strength and Speed stats that left him unrivaled on the field.

“Daniel, what do we do?” Valerie asked. “He’s . . . He’s lost it, I think.”

“We need to get him out of here. He may be doing well now, but it’s only a matter of time before we find him laying out flat on the ground again,” Daniel said to the other two. “He’s not fighting carefully. He’s taking too many risks. He’s practically trading blows for speed.”

“Daniel, the center column is about to fall. If we’re going to get him out, we need to now. Once that group of fighters goes down or retreats, there will be another surge of enemies,” Mclean said as he pointed to the middle of the field. “I was just there a bit ago. We’re dealing with minutes until it collapses, not hours.”

“Alright, I got an idea,” Daniel said, quietly whispering his plan to the others in the middle of the death-drenched field.

Darwin heard it all though. He knew what they were planning. He just couldn’t stop the onslaught. It felt too good as his blade carved and cut through the enemies, resurrecting his horde as he went. As he was rushing, slicing and cleaving, he felt two pairs of feet collapse into his back, grounding him in the middle of a swing. Before he could even get up or turn over, the feet were replaced by hands, and he felt himself floating off.

“I’m sorry, Darwin,” Daniel whispered in his ear as he carried him. “I can’t let you die. I know your secret. I heard you tell Kass.”

Darwin struggled at first, pulling on each arm fruitlessly as they carried him back to the wall, but after a moment he gave up. Since the buff had worn off, he just couldn’t muster the strength to rip himself free. He just stared at the battlefield and frowned as reason slowly seeped back into his head. He had always understood that he should pull back, that the phalanx had done exactly what it was supposed to, and the people were safe. It was just the urge, the voice that even now whispered: Find a way back into the fray. It was a voice that he found easier to silence the further he got away from the battle. That’s not my home, he told it. My home isn’t here. It’s back at the apartment with a stack of over-caffeinated beverages and hours of uninterrupted game time before I have to go to work in the morning.

“Darwin, are you okay? What’s wrong with you?” Mclean asked. She was on the other side of Daniel. “If you’re not alive for the victory speech, it’ll be kind of odd, and we’ll definitely get less in-game alcohol credits.”

“Don’t worry,” Daniel continued to whisper. “I won’t tell her.”

“Thanks,” Darwin said to both of them. “I don’t know what happened either.”

That was mostly false. He knew what happened, but he just didn’t know why it happened when he wasn’t out of souls. From the time it first took over in the arena to just now, the feeling, the red rush and the sensation that came with it–it was always the same. It was just the way Hunger made him feel and made him want to act.

“Well, one way or another, let’s get you back.” Daniel started laughing. “I wonder if Alex will give me a reward for saving you from stupidity? I bet, given him, I might be able to earn a badge for my bathrobe. Like a ‘Saving Dumb Darwin’ preparedness badge.”

“How about a ‘Learn to Not Hit My Wing While We’re Trying to Fly” preparedness badge?” Mclean shot back at him, but couldn’t stop a smile and a laugh from breaking through.

“Mclean, touching two guys at once, this must be a . . .” Daniel started, then stopped and just smiled. “I mean, thank you for helping out, Mclean.”

“What? Not going to finish that thought?” Mclean laughed. “Well, that’s good. For a minute I was worried I would have to kill you both if you kept going with that sentence. Would defeat the whole point of this rescue operation.”

Darwin still felt too embarrassed about having to be airlifted from the battle to join in with their banter. This is definitely not how I wanted to spend the glorious battle, Darwin frowned, being carried away like a disobedient child from a playground.

“Welp,” Daniel said as they landed back at the platform Darwin had started on, right next to Justin, who was still holding the bow Darwin had given him earlier in the trade off, “let’s try not to get in anymore trouble, okay?”

“Fine,” Darwin said, fully aware he had a bit of a pouty face. This was too shameful, and there was really no way for him to get back his dignity. He had gone from being the commander who led his troops to victory in a glorious fashion to the guy who had to be carried off the field before he died, a second time, from doing something stupid. He would have been mad at Daniel for pulling him out, but, in the end, he was more grateful than upset. If his nature had kept running rampant, the buff would have faded, and he would have been left in the same place he had been airlifted from: on the ground bleeding out. These weren’t easy enemies to fight, and the Zombie skill took more than a second to activate, which meant he had to go into each separate skirmish alone before his fresh kills would be there to back him up. So, while he was upset from the humiliating evac, he was also happy that Daniel, Mclean and Valerie had gotten him out of there before embarrassment became the least of his worries.

But that wasn’t the only issue either, he realized as he watched the fight. He hadn’t been able to stop. He hadn’t been able to put down his blade. They had to force him. This time he was fighting enemies. This time he was killing the bad guys and saving his friends, but next time? What would happen when that thirst took over and he was left holding a zweihander, racked with the effects of Hunger, and only allies in sight? Would he be able to stop himself from killing a friend, a faction member? Would he be able to even stop himself from killing an innocent civilian?

“I really do love it, Daniel,” Darwin said to his comrade, picking up on the conversation they had the night before. “I really do love killing. It really is hard to stop doing it.”

“I know, buddy,” Daniel patted him on the back, “I really do. Sometimes it’s all you think about when you close your eyes at night, but you have to come back to Earth. You can’t let the bloodlust get the best of you. You need to stay in control of it.”

Darwin stayed up on the wall and watched the fight to its end. Between the archers, the Blue-Drakes and the newly resurrected Zombies, the phalanx remained for the most part unused as the enemies all slowly died or cleared the field in fear.

“I think that’s a wrap,” Daniel commented as he watched the last enemies retreat. “Not sure how this all goes, but I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to give a rousing speech of some sort now.”

“Yeah, I should.” Darwin looked down at Alex, who was patting all the soldiers from the phalanx on the back. Or I should be doing what he’s doing instead of sitting up here away from the fight. “Either way, we won. I think that’s enough.” But as he crawled down from his perch, Kitchens came riding in on a Blue-Drake that was holding an injured Fuzzy Wuzzy.

“Kitchens, how did the fight in the center go?” Darwin asked as he saw the samurai’s mount gently lay Fuzzy Wuzzy down before landing so he could dismount himself. “Did everyone make it out okay other than Fuzzy Wuzzy?”

“Actually, Fuzzy Wuzzy and the Hydra are the only two that remain. The Hydra took a beating, but it seemed to regenerate faster than it was hurt. I don’t know if mobs level up, but if they do, that might explain the thing’s constant hit point bumps mid-fight.” Kitchens looked at Fuzzy Wuzzy. For the most part, there wasn’t a scratch on Kitchens. If he had fought to the grueling death with fifty foes or had had a gentlemanly one-bullet duel with someone after a cup of tea, only his bloodied clothes told the difference.

“Where’s Minx?” Darwin asked, knowing immediately upon seeing Kitchens’ reaction that it wasn’t the right question to ask at all.

“She didn’t make it. She died protecting this little guy,” Kitchens said as he patted Fuzzy Wuzzy, who, Darwin just realized, still had his top hat on.

“And . . .” Darwin knew already. The answer had been stated. He just needed to hear it one more time for clarification.

“The rest are dead too, Darwin,” Kitchens said coldly. “Minx will be back here after she respawns. Her bind point is still in the Panda King’s town, but I don’t think anyone will stop her on her way out.”

She’ll be the only one back after the respawns, Darwin thought and sighed. It was a heavy thing to think about. On his end, it had been a one-sided slaughter. They had almost managed to defeat all the invaders with no casualties. On Kitchens’ side, every Turtle-Wolf and the few soldiers from the bandits who had gone there were all dead. As he mulled over the ramifications of what that meant, he noticed that people were starting to congregate around him. While talking to Kitchens about the semicircle strategy, he had found one formed around him. Space was given, and the people slowly hushed themselves from a talk, to a whisper, to dead silence.

“Great Lord Darwin,” Alex came out of the ranks of onlookers, bowed his head, then stood at attention. “Your wisdom and strategic brilliance has crushed yet another oppressive army out to destroy us.”

“Yeah, right,” Louie said from the crowd of archers that started to pour out towards Darwin from behind the pike walls. “It’s like boss man Alex said. You did it. We actually stopped him. We stopped the Panda King flat in his tracks. Just us. No massive army and no great magical weapons. Just us and your wits.”

As the crowd nodded, Darwin felt slightly bolstered. He almost forgot about his rather unsightly exit from the field earlier. “I think the best word you had there was we,” Darwin answered Louie. Just like when he had first started the StormGuard Alliance, he found himself speaking before the words even registered in his own head. “It wasn’t me holding the shields. It was you all. It wasn’t me pulling the strings on the bows. It was you all. I came up with one idea, but that was it. The only thing in this battle that separated me from another leader was my ability to listen. When you told me your strengths, I heard it. When you told me your fears, I held them to my heart. When you told me your plans, I pulled them all together to make one idea. I did nothing more than let you all do what you always could: win with your own hands and your own strength.”

They all picked up, cheering, patting themselves on the back and feeling good. Many denied Darwin’s claim, but all were in good spirits. Darwin, looking around and seeing the joy, was about to share in it himself until he saw Kitchens. That’s right. This battle wasn’t free. “Wait,” he interrupted them. “Is this the first time for many of you that you have felt safe in a long time?” A resounding agreement came from the bandits who had joined the cause. “Is this the first time you will go to bed at night with a full belly, knowing that you won’t have to worry about dying in the middle of the night to a raid or an attack?” Even some of the people from Valcrest shouted ‘yes’ at this point. “Is this the first time that, instead of worrying about today, we can set forth, as a nation, and prepare for tomorrow? Lay down the foundation for days to come and focus on the future years away?” No one was without a jubilant shout of agreement. “Then I want you to do something for me. I want you to find out the names of the people who died on the battlefield. I want you to take their names, write them on a stone, and hand them out until at least one member of every family has a stone. Then thank them every night that you go to bed safe and sound. If you die of old age, happy in your home, then give your children that name, and tell them that the man whose name was written upon that rock is the reason that they have their freedom.”

Everyone stared in silence, unmoving and quiet as Darwin finished his request. Then, after a long pause, Reginald finally broke the silence. “Steve was out there,” he gulped between the words. “I know his sister will want his stone, but I’d like to keep it if it’s okay.”

“Well, I don’t think there would be an issue with two stones made for one person . . .” Darwin didn’t know if he was supposed to handle those types of requests, but he knew it was the right direction. There hadn’t been a single protest at the idea, but the solemn mood after he made the request was almost depressing even him. “Alright, we can do this tomorrow. Tonight, let’s go eat some Blue-Drake meat cooked in their own fires, play some songs, and have a great time!” The cheering returned, half-hearted, but it returned. Then, as soon as the cheering returned, everyone broke off into small groups, hugging, laughing and generally celebrating in a way that Darwin associated almost exclusively with cliché movie endings.

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