Not a Cougar: Darwin

PrevNext

After Alex excused himself from the training session with Darwin, Darwin left to the main cabin to meet up with Stephanie, who helped him practice his sword technique further. He would have probably spent the entire time working on his technique, anything to distract himself from the Hunger, if it weren’t for the fact that, after a few hours, they were interrupted by a loud shouting coming from outside the door.

“Darwin, I know you’re, um . . . busy, but you may want to come outside and check this out,” Daniel said from behind the door before he even started knocking.

“Alright, be out in a minute,” he replied then turned back to Stephanie. “Sorry, I’m going to go check it out. He doesn’t seem like the type to make a big deal out of nothing.”

“Whatever. Like, see you when you get back,” Stephanie said with an exaggerated frown.

“Don’t be like that. You’re welcome to join. Is there some way for you to not turn everyone else into stone?” Darwin wondered out loud, realizing that dating a Gorgon was going to be a lot more difficult than he originally anticipated. But how did she talk to Alex? he started to think before she interrupted him.

“I’m sure we’ll think of something,” she said as she motioned to shoo him off and go see what Daniel was on about.

Darwin gave her one last long look then bolted out the door so as to not miss whatever it was that Daniel was so excited about. Before he could ask though, he saw it. It was the castle city they had set course for; and, as his eyes took hold of the city, what little breath he still had in him left instantly. His eyes popped wide and his mouth hung open like he was trying to catch every snowflake in a blizzard. “That’s magnificent,” he mouthed quietly as he gazed at the spectacle on the horizon. Darwin wasn’t one to often prefer Asian designs for castles and towns–he had spent years of playing fantasy games centered in the European dark ages and all–but this one was spectacular, beautiful.

There were walls on all sides except an opening along one which was only big enough for ten or twelve ships to pass through at any given time. The first fifteen to twenty feet of wall rising above the ground was comprised of nothing but large dark gray stones of all shapes and sizes stacked on each other, lacking even the smallest hint of mortar. Then, on top of the stacked stones were white walls with black, red and gold inlay etching on and around every foundation, corner and window. The walls were capped with little, sloping, terracotta tile roofs. While it was hard to see anything beyond the tiles, the main castle was still visible. It was almost identical to the walls in principle and design except that it was at least five to six stories taller and had red as its primary color instead of white.

“Right? I told you that you were going to want to see this. Thought you might want a view of it before we got too close,” Daniel said.

“Before we got too close? You’re not worried the town is going to turn out like a Monet girl, are you?” Darwin asked, his eyes still glued to the castle city’s walls.

“A Monet girl? Like the painting?” Daniel asked, not sure of the lingo at first. Darwin had only used the term because he had heard it a lot at the office, but felt embarrassed a bit when Daniel didn’t know it at all. “You mean the ones that are pretty from a distance but look uglier the closer you get to them? No. Nothing like that. It’s just looking at the size of it makes me think you won’t be able to get a good view of its scope up close. Won’t be as awesome.”

“Well, you’re not wrong about that. It’s massive,” Darwin agreed. He couldn’t remember if he had ever described a city like that before.

As the boat kept growing closer to the port, the actual inside of the city became visible. Whereas the city walls and castle part of it were ornate and beautiful–even the window frames were designed to look like dragons–the actual city that came into view was much less so. The port was crammed with houses three or four stories high, just shorter than the height of the wall, stacked on each other like Lego bricks from end to end. They had a design that felt something like fishing town shacks, but they had a striking uniformity too. All in all, the port had the appearance of another wall blocking his view of the town behind it.

“It’s haphazard because they are player made,” Daniel noted. “The main city is traditional with its layout. The docks are player owned and all of those houses were bought en masse by people rushing to get space in the city.”

“People buy houses in the city?” Darwin asked, slightly confused as to why someone would want to own one of the Lego dock shacks.

“Yeah. They not only buy them, but those which are for sale are also incredibly expensive to most of us players since we are all just now reaching the mainland.”

“Why?” Darwin found himself honestly puzzled by it. He remembered that in most MMOs he had purchased houses, but it was more because they looked awesome and made him feel special, not to actually hold tangible property. “The inventory is infinite, and you’d sleep outside of the game, no? What’s the point of a house in a city, especially an ugly house like all those?”

“That’s gonna vary based on who you are asking,” Daniel started to explain, “but likely it’s because the squares are too crowded for people to gather effectively, so Guild Leaders will buy up land to have a meeting point. You can’t own shops to sell to other players unless you have a tangible location, and Guilds that own property in a city don’t have to pay the city’s merchant tax when selling to citizens. For you though, I suppose you’ll get a place just so your citizens have somewhere to sleep, unless you expect them to sleep on the boat?”

“This boat has to be a heck of a lot better than those shacks, but I get your point. I’ll have to ask Alex about logistics and scouting the area out.” Darwin looked at the woods to the side of the town thoughtfully. “It’s not ideal, but maybe we can take over a dungeon again?”

“Why are you looking for Alex to do your scouting?” At soft voice came from behind him. With how well the owner had snuck up on the pair of them, Darwin might have thought it was Alex himself had it not been clearly a woman’s voice.

“Oh, just that . . . that is his job. He’s kind of logistics and scouting?” Darwin was confused by the question. Why send a Scout to scout?

“Hate to say it, Boss, but he’s not really that anymore, is he?” Daniel pointed out as Valerie, the woman behind the voice, stepped closer to the rail to properly join the conversation. “You’re talking to me instead of him about this information likely because he’s really busy making sure everyone is tended to and everything is taken care of for the unloading process, right?”

“No argument. He is busy doing that stuff, but I’m sure he also knows who to send to scout for the things we’ll need,” Darwin thought aloud, enjoying Daniel’s abilities as a sounding board.

“Or, if you don’t mind, Great Lord Darwin, I could scout for you?” Valerie offered before Daniel could give his response. “A White-Wing could scout faster than anyone on foot, thanks to the wings and all, and we could report back to someone on the boat as soon as we find a good location to set up camp.”

Darwin didn’t even get time to think of a better alternative to the idea when his heart suddenly started beating twice as hard, and everything in his vision was tainted red for a second. Hunger, he thought, remembering the surprise it had given him the first time he felt it. That’s another tick on the life bar down. The most unsettling part of Hunger wasn’t the loud heartbeat, the momentary adrenaline, or the loss of a percent of health bar. It was the urge that came with it. His eyes, even if for just a minute, switched from regarding people like Daniel and Valerie as friends to regarding them in the same way a cat’s eyes must see a mouse: as food.

“Boss?” Daniel asked. The change must have been visible. “You okay?”

Darwin was about to make up an excuse when he saw Valerie’s face staring at Daniel angrily. Oh! That’s right! She still thinks I’m an NPC that has to be regarded with proper titles, he laughed to himself. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He decided it was best not to lie, but he wasn’t exactly going to tell the whole truth either. “And that sounds great, actually. Just get the details of what we’ll need from Alex before you head out.”

“Great! We’ll complete the job in no time at all, Great Lord Darwin,” Valerie said before darting off.

“Not going to go with her?”

“I will, but knowing her, the first thing she’s going to do is go looking for Mclean, and she’s in the opposite direction of the one Val just took off in,” Daniel said with a wry smile. “I’m just going to wait here until she figures it out.”

“You could have told her?”

“What would be the fun in that? This is a game, after all.”

“That’s true. It is just a game,” Darwin laughed, imagining poor Valerie scurrying around looking for someone on the wrong side of the boat while in a rush.

“You’re not going to tell her that you’re not an NPC either, are you? Let her keep calling you ‘Great Lord Darwin?’” Daniel asked, laughing with Darwin.

“No, no, actually I didn’t plan on it.”

“Well, in that case, I’d say birds of a feather and all . . .” Daniel paused to gesture to his wings, “but I feel like I’ve already used that cliché once. Anyways, it was nice talking with you, Boss, but I have a strange feeling the girl you left in the cabin will be rather grumpy if you leave her there by herself for too long.”

“Birds of a feather, indeed. See you, Daniel,” he chuckled as Daniel skipped off in Mclean’s direction.

I should probably get ready, he thought as he went back into the cabin with Stephanie. No matter how much he wanted to stick to just staying in the cabin all day with her and joking around, he wanted to go out and explore the city even more.

“Why the face?” Stephanie asked as he walked in the door. “Was it bad news?”

“No, just the opposite. It was just a view of the city. It looks amazing.”

“Then why the face?”

“Well, just, I really want to explore it with you, but I don’t think that’s entirely possible given your condition.”

“Well, there is always the next city. Anyways, I couldn’t go with you if I wanted to. I need to go check some things out later, using my super-sneaky stealth arts. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Stealth,” Stephanie giggled as she jokingly hid under the blanket then moved around the room making swift, stealthy noises.

“You have things to check up on? How do you even get around? Do you wrap your whole head like a ninja?” he asked as she lowered the blanket.

“A lady must have a few secrets,” she giggled again and lifted the blanket up once more to say ‘whoosh and fell onto the bed. “But, don’t worry about me. Go have some fun out on the town.”

“Sure, sure, will do,” he said, grabbing his swords and spoons as he left the cabin. Since everyone was likely doing a mission or busy, he figured he might as well get something he hadn’t had in the last few days–a bit of alone time. It’s not that he minded the company, but he was definitely more used to being alone. Thirty years of gaming in solitude had made it into a bit of a need; and, since the trek started, from one dungeon all the way to this town, he hadn’t gotten more than a few moments of peace and quiet.

That said, even while the boat floated into its spot on the dock, he couldn’t help but look around for Kass. Doesn’t she always show up whenever I’m about to go somewhere? I wonder what she could be doing for so long that stops her from gaming? His biggest worry was that she had somehow, even as an adult, managed to get grounded from video games. He had already experienced that type of shock before when, just before facing an incredibly tough raid on Emerald Gardens, his star tank was grounded and prevented from playing video games for a week. He didn’t know the whole story of why the guy was punished, but it apparently involved superglue, syran wrap, and a lot of string.

Walking down the wooden plank to the dock below, he found his eyes wandering from person to person with confusion. Previously, everything had felt very much like a fantasy adventure from the European dark ages. With Minotaurs, Vampires, Satyrs and so forth, it stayed incredibly close to the Western mythos. In this place, however, only the odd, hairy, part-man/part-wolf could be mistaken for a creation of Western culture. As for the rest of the races, they all looked and felt as if they were out of an Eastern mythology book or an Asian cartoon. On every side, there were people with varying degrees of animal characteristics. Some barely had anything but a tuft of fur instead of hair while others were the full-on humanoid version of their animal counterparts. Every animal he could think of was represented. There was even bulgy-eyed Frog-Men and crocodile-looking Reptilians walking around.

By the time he got to the main street he had absolutely lost sense of where he was. The feel of merchants and vendors crowding the streets of the bazaar and shouting over each other at every passerby proved to be both noisy and interesting enough to make him forget which way he had even come from.

“You’re a swordsman, aren’t you?” a cat-like woman approached him from his side. Everything about the girl was very much human, except she had spotted ears and golden eyes that were undeniably those of a cat.

“I suppose? Though lately it’s been just me and these spoons,” he joked to himself, aware that she wouldn’t understand the context.

“I knew it!” the strange, red-kimono-wearing, five-foot-tall Feline shouted while throwing both hands in the air.

“You knew it?” Darwin looked at her puzzled.

“Of course I knew it! How could I not know it? I mean, the kimono–” the girl started off.

“The bathrobe . . .” Darwin tried to interrupt with a correction, but the woman kept talking.

“The two swords, the look in your eyes, and the bump!” She waved her hands around excitedly with each description as if she were talking more with her fingers than she was with her mouth.

“The bump?” Darwin said with a scrunched-up forehead. He felt even more lost now than he did before trying to find his way around the bazaar.

“You haven’t even noticed? That’s astounding man, astounding!”

“I haven’t noticed what?”

“I’ve tried to bump into you at least ten times. At first it was an accident. You were looking one way, and I was looking another, but, by the time I noticed you, it was almost BAM! But you shifted your step so quickly without even looking at me. Like I wasn’t there to you, but you dodged? It raised my interest, so I tried again, of course, but no go twice!”

“You tried to bump into me because you failed the first time?”

“Why not? You’re big. I’m small. No harm, right? But fail again did I! You’ve been staring at this shiny object and that shiny object and dodging me left and right. I’ve tried ten times, and you didn’t even notice me, but dodged each time? Madness! No one without training would have those instincts! I knew you must be a swordsman!” The Feline got more and more excited.

“Because you didn’t bump into me?”

“Well, I was right, wasn’t I? Anyways, this is great! Great news! Wait until I tell Kitchens!”

“Tell who? Wait, why is this go–” Darwin couldn’t get more than a few words out before he was interrupted again.

“Tell Kitchens! We’ve been searching for a swordsman all day. You are good, right? You have to be good! Dodged me you did, so excellent you must be!”

“Yoda, what are you talking about?” Darwin was beginning to lose his cool with the ADD rambling cat girl.

“The tournament, old man! The tournament! Did you just step off the boat?”

“Yes?”

“Oh. Well, in that case, come on. We have to go get Kitchens. I’ll explain on the way,” the short Feline girl said, grabbing his wrist and pulling him quickly through the crowd. Darwin didn’t even have time to think about why or how he should be protesting as she expertly pulled him between one group of people after another, moving at a speed that almost felt like a run.

Is she treating this as an obstacle course? he thought as he had to duck his head for the fifth time to avoid someone’s arms while sneaking between people. “You said you would explain, Miss Kitty,” he managed to yell at her from behind.

“Oh, yeah! There is a tournament, but you need three people to enter today’s. Sword’s the game; cash is the name . . . or is that backwards? Anyways, we need a third swordsman, but you don’t have to be good,” she yelled back without even turning her head as she yanked to the left to dodge a giant panda man chewing bamboo in the middle of the street. “Kitchens is a pro. He’ll cover your slack. Good good he is!”

“And who are you? Are you good good?”

“Great great. I’m Minx the Lynx, but I’m a dagger deep damsel and he’s the sword-wielding superhero, but even boards can enter the competition. It’s just swordsmen are the best, yes?” she said, letting go of his wrist to jump over a group of three people who had managed to form a wall on the sidewalk in front of him. Darwin, with little notice, attempted the same, but the breeze he felt as he landed on the other side clearly told him his bonus Flap Protection +10 was simply not sufficient in all scenarios to save onlookers. The second he landed, his wrist was grabbed, and he found himself being pulled once more by the rapidly dashing lynx in front of him.

“There there! He’s at the registration! I knew it!” she let go of his hand and threw both her fists in the air the same way she had when she found out he was a swordsman. “Right right, we made it! KITCHENS!” she yelled over everyone. “KITCHENS! I got one! I got one!”

As she yelled, a man with lynx ears like hers standing at a booth thirty feet in front of them turned around. While she was dressed in a solid, dark-red kimono that only made it to just above her knees, clearly trying to represent the Asian culture that matched the motif of the entire town, he was dressed on the entire opposite side of the spectrum, wearing a pair of full-length khakis and a tank top.

As he looked at them approaching, he noted that she was holding his wrist and dragging him and sighed. “Minxy, that’s the fourth one. Did you get him to actually agree before you brought him?”

“He said he was a swordsman! This one is! I know. I can’t hit him! He’s um . . . he’s water! Like you said, right? Water water, be shapeless. Water water, move with the flow and don’t struggle against it. That’s how he moves. Watch!” she let go of his hand, pulled out a dagger with her right hand and swung it at Darwin’s head while simultaneously spinning her left leg to follow it up like a roundhouse kick if the dagger missed. Darwin didn’t have time to stop himself, seeing the blade coming at him and the foot following it, he gave up the idea of dodging and moved in instantly, striking her as hard as he could in the stomach and knocking her several feet backwards and onto the ground.

“Sorry,” he apologized. She had started it, but apologizing still felt like the right thing to do as he saw the poor child-like girl on the ground coughing from having the wind knocked out of her.

“See, he’s a fighter. This one’s a fighter,” she said as she spit up a little blood and climbed back onto her feet.

“That’s . . . fire, not water.” Kitchens tilted his head and then turned to the girl on the ground. “But I didn’t ask if he could fight; I asked if he agreed.”

“Um . . . He will! You will, right, mister? Right right, mister?”

Kitchens turned back to face Darwin. “Look, you don’t have to agree, but we only have around twenty minutes left to register. They only accept a team of three, and you’d be doing us both a huge favor if you signed up.”

“Please, mister,” Minx said with obviously-fake puppy dog eyes while covering her mouth with two fists in a clear ploy to try and look cute.

“Is she always like that?” Darwin asked, looking over at Kitchens.

“Minxy? Yeah. Something like that,” he laughed.

“Well . . .”

“Pleeeease . . .” she maintained her pose.

“Fine, fine, but no more swinging daggers at me,” Darwin finally broke down and agreed. Part of it was because of how pitiful she looked begging, but the rest of it was simply because it sounded fun. It just made sense that facing off against the toughest swordsmen in the city was definitely more interesting than shopping around and seeing the sights, and it wasn’t like he was going to make it back to the boat to grab two of Alex’s men in time to register with faction members only.

“Marvelous. Let’s give them your John Hancock and make it official then,” Kitchens said as he started walking towards the line.

You have been invited to Kitchens’ Party. Would you like to Accept or Reject?

Yes. Accept.

“It’s kind of odd, don’t you think?” Minx asked, pushing in between the two of them as they sat in line. “We’re in an advanced VRMMO with the best technology, but the way they enter us in a tournament is through simple pen and paper.”

“Yeah, I guess you could say that is a bit odd,” Darwin agreed. “But I think it’s more for realism. It wouldn’t be too immersive if everything was done through Tiqpa command prompts, now would it?”

“No, nope nope,” she put a finger over her lips as she thought for a moment, “It wouldn’t.”

“Indeed,” Kitchens also agreed.

When they got to the end of the line, they put their names down on the paper and walked over to the waiting area with the rest of the teams. The waiting area was nothing more than a giant, empty room with a garden and stone benches circling stone tables and gazebo-style covers. The three of them picked the first empty one they could find and sat down, causing another group of contestants–weird, Rhino humanoids–that looked like it was trying to take the same table scoff and walk away. As they waited, a young Chinese girl in a white robe came by and poured the three of them some tea.

While they sat there sipping the tea, he could feel their beady eyes on him from time to time, even though every time he looked up they would look away. Their movements were too obvious. This was a game he was used to. It was a game that had defined many of the lunch periods from his old days at school. A simple game where every now and then he’d see if he could catch one of them looking and make awkward eye contact.

“You’re the first Human, you know. It’s why they can’t help but look,” Kitchens said, noticing Darwin’s little eye-contact game.

“Ha, if only I were Human,” Darwin laughed too softly for the others to hear.

The three of them continued sipping their tea quietly–or as quietly as they could with Minx yammering on about everything she saw and observed–when they were finally approached by one of the other groups, who came over to the other side of the table and stood in front of the remaining seats.

“Nya, I see you have new companion, traitor,” the one in front spoke in a heavy Japanese accent. She was a cute, five-foot-six, black-haired cat lady, one modeled more after a common domestic cat than a feral species like the lynx, but only having ears and a cat tail and dressed in full ninja garb from neck to toe.

“Nya, he looks so poor? Is he a beggar? His kimono is very cheap, ne. Nya, it’s like bathrobe, ne,” another Asian girl dressed like a ninja, also modeled after a domestic cat but with whiskers and a cat nose as well as the ears and a tail, laughed from behind the lead girl.

“Kitchens, are they okay?” Darwin asked, ignoring the girl’s mockery. “Why do they keep saying ‘nya’?”

Kitchens let out a hearty laugh. “You’ve never encountered a neko girl?”

“No, not that I can recall.” Darwin scratched his head.

“Nya, why are you ignoring us?” the male of the group butted in.

“It’s ‘cause he is too shameful to know how to respect his betters,” the lead one said. The other two, the girl behind her and the male who matched the ninja theme and could have been the lead one’s twin, did their ‘nya’ thing again and nodded in agreement.

“I take it you all have some history?”

“You could say that,” Kitchens nodded, “They were my teammates.”

“Nya, don’t remind me!” The back one opened her mouth and put one finger in while making a disgusting face. “You’re so not cool, ne. It was charity letting you join us, nya, but you had to try to pick up that ugly, retarded lynx.”

“I still don’t get the ‘nya’ thing. What is that?”

“They’re trying to be kawaii. It’s a thing. Trust me,” Kitchens said before sipping his tea again. His face was calm and unaffected, but Minx’s was visibly tearing up.

Darwin had to admire his patience. Just listening to them talk bad about someone he only knew for a few minutes made him really want to stab them both. If it weren’t for the tournament rules and the fact they were in the middle of a city that probably frowned on PvP killing, he would have done it there and showed them what real charity looked like.

“Nya, so rude!” the lead said abruptly. “Let’s go!” she turned and walked off.

“That was . . . interesting? You put up with them for how long?”

“Only a few days. I probably would still be in their group, but they kept picking on Minxy here because she is, well, Minx,” Kitchens said as he put a hand on the top of Minx’s head, “and I figured we’d be better off without them. I don’t pay for this game to watch the people close to me get bullied.”

Minx nuzzled her head into Kitchens’ hand happily, her smile returning as she let out a mini purr.

 

———–

 

“Blue Contestants! Please make your way to the tournament square two and sit in the fighters’ section!” the lady who had brought them tea yelled, somehow louder than a megaphone, with both hands cupped around her mouth to amplify the sound.

“That’s us,” Kitchens said as he stood up.

Darwin followed Kitchens to the arena with Minx trailing behind him quietly. By the time they got there, the first two rows were filled up, but they were able to scale the stairs and steal some spots on the third row before it filled up too. Looking around, Darwin saw that between the four arenas there were almost a hundred contestants. Each arena was a simple dirt floor with bleachers eight rows deep on each side of it. The contestants entering were only populating the first five rows on one side. The rest seemed to be just citizens eating popcorn and other snacks while they waited for the show to begin.

“The rules are simple,” the announcer began to shout from the center of the dirt square, “Six people enter; only three people leave. Anything you can think of is allowed. Anything you can do to hurt your opponent is encouraged.”

Thunder Dome much? Darwin thought until he realized what that meant. If I don’t win . . .

“Hey, relax. It’s just a game. What’s the worst that can happen? We lose?” Kitchens said, noticing Darwin’s paling face.

“Yeah, it’s just a game . . .” He found himself saying for the second time today.

“By the way, I never got your name.”

“Darwin.”

“Darwin, I’m Kitchens. It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said, extending his hand.

“Likewise.”

“I’d wish you luck in the tournament, but that would be too self-serving, wouldn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t complain,” Darwin said, looking over at Minx, who was still sitting there quietly. Apparently the neko ninjas had shaken her up a bit. She was acting completely different from when he first met her. It was like she had been a kid hopped up on sugar when they met, and now she was post-crash.

They sat quietly in the stands, Darwin painfully aware of the look on Minx’s face, until the first group was called down to the floor. It was the a group of staff-wielding monkey-men of a Simian Race with the team name ‘Sun Wukong’s Children’ versus a team of three lizard-men of the Reptilian Race with the standard sword-and-board approach called ‘Unmade Boots.’ The fight wasn’t anything noteworthy. The three pairs of unmade snakeskin boots hugged each other shoulder to shoulder with shields raised, and the Simians danced over them and used their mobility to completely shatter the formation. The only noteworthy part of the whole fight was when one of the monkey-men wrapped his tail around the eyes of his opponent as he pole vaulted over his foe and yanked the lizard onto his back, only to be swept off his feet by one of the other Reptilians turning as he battled the monkey-man’s comrade. It was entirely accidental, but it at least gave the fight some semblance of not being entirely one-sided.

“Congratulations, Sun Wukong’s Children!” the announcer said after less than a minute of fighting. The whole display was rather sad for the poor unmade boots, especially the way in which they were finished off with a staff crushing their skulls.

I wonder how offended they would be if their bodies went towards making purses instead of boots? Darwin wondered as the corpses were dragged out of the arena to some unknown location in the back, or even worse, snakeskin underwear for some really gross, sweaty guy.

“Next up: Kitchens, Darwin and Minx versus The Three Musketeers!” the announcer called as soon as the previous contestants were clear of the battleground.

“We don’t have a team name?” Darwin asked as he made his way down.

“I couldn’t think of a good one,” Kitchens shrugged.

“Not even something random? Like Mixed Nuts? Buy two get one free? Fruit Ninjas? Five Dollar Footlongs?

“Those all sound food-related . . . and you’re carrying spoons? Should we be concerned?”

“I just haven’t eaten in a while.”

“Do you need to log off between the matches and grab a quick snack?”

“It wouldn’t help,” Darwin sighed. The idea of eating real life food like Doritos was appealing, but sadly impossible.

“Ha, no ramen left over? I’ve been there. Rent is a pain sometimes,” Kitchens said, his insistence on a tank top instead of something more fashionable making much more sense now, not that Darwin had any room to judge.

“Actually, what’s up with the tank top?” he said, questioning Kitchens’ Street Fighter-esque apparel.

“Oh? It gets hot where I’m from. I find them comfortable,” he said and shrugged again as the three lined up across from The Three Musketeers, who turned out to just be three tiger-men of the Panthera Race in an all-blue armor set brandishing rapiers.

“Hmm. Don’t you need real armor in case you get hit?”

“I’ll worry about that when it happens.” His shrug was becoming trademarkable.

“I guess that confidence is good news for me,” Darwin smiled. He couldn’t help but be curious about how good of a swordsman this Kitchens character actually was.

“Nah, we’ve already gotten into the tournament. If you die, that’s your problem,” he laughed, pulling his katana out and holding it in front of him with both hands. He closed his eyes and grinned ear to ear. “Have fun.”

The announcer backed up slowly from the ring and started counting down the fight. “Three, two, one, FIGHT!” she said, and before the word was even finished, one of the Musketeers lunged at Darwin with a rapier.

Darwin backed up a step and parried the thrust with one of his Burriza’s as if he were trying to stop one of Alex’s attacks with his spoons. He then started to follow it up with a lunge of his own using his free weapon when he felt his heart start pounding again. Hunger, he cursed. His vision painted over with red for a minute. As the red tint faded, he found himself holding a tiger-man’s head–though not the one that was attacking him–in one hand and one of his blades in the other. Even though he had been the one to do it, he experienced the whole thing after the fact like a kid watching an old movie rather than actually living it himself.

He had finished the lunge against the Panthera who had attacked him, nailing him square in the chest with one stab after another in rapid succession until the cavity was wide open. Then, he dashed at the remaining one who was fighting Minx. The tiger-man had been doing everything in his power just to stop Minx’s daggers when Darwin closed in on him. He raised his rapier up to stop the charge, ignoring Minx, who had taken a step back as Darwin narrowed the gap. When Darwin finally made contact, he angled both his swords and brought them down in a rapid parry combination, pulling with the opponent’s right blade just far enough with his own left-hand sword so that the follow up with his right blade could peal through the enemy’s arm, ripping the hand off and leaving it as an odd, twisted stump. Before the enemy could scream, Darwin dropped the Burriza’s Blade in his left hand, reached out and grabbed the tiger’s thick neck fur and severed his head with the remaining blade in his right, leaving him standing above a corpse holding a Panthera’s head in one hand and a blood-dripping sword in the other.

“See Minx, fire. Not water,” Kitchens said in the distance as he sheathed his katana, his own opponent split in two from what looked like a single slash to the chest.

Darwin knew he had gone a little further than was necessary. He had turned a simple competition into a crimson spectacle, but the Hunger was sated. The kills had given him the soul charges needed to satisfy the skill’s demand and restore the hit points it had taken away as well as remove the actual hunger pangs that came with it.

Minx just stared at him for a moment, backing up slowly, “No, no, no . . . he’s just scary–scary scary!” she said.

Minx wasn’t the only one either who thought that as the entire crowd, the same one that had cheered after the first fight, sat in silence staring at the dead Pantheras.

“He’s not scary, Minx; he’s our friend,” Kitchens said as he walked up and patted her head. “Come on, let’s clear the zone so the next contestants can fight.”

“Okay, but you sit next to him this time,” she said, nuzzling back into Kitchens’ hand as he patted her head. “His eyes are scary.”

“Nonsense. He’s a nice guy who helped us get into the tournament. Be respectful.”

When they sat down, Minx stayed quiet for a few minutes, and then halfway through match number four, she finally spoke. “Sorry for saying you are scary, mister.”

“It’s fine. You’re not the only one to say that.” Darwin tried his best to play it off, but he wasn’t used to his own allies being afraid of him.

“No, no, no, you’re good good. It’s just your eyes looked evil . . . like a devil’s! Like you were a demon without the wings, all fire-breathy and ‘rawr rawr,’” she said, holding up her hands and mimicking something between a dragon and Godzilla as she even mockingly pretended to breath fire. “Rawr rawr.”

“Rawr rawr, ey?” Darwin chuckled, caught up in the kid’s silliness.

“No, like this: RAWWWRRR,” she roared and went full-on T-Rex with her arms as she joked around, Kitchens and Darwin following the miniature dinosaur back to the stands.

Before they knew it, the other fights were over and the announcer was already calling them back. “Next up: Kitchens, Darwin and Minx versus The Honey Badgers!”

“That’s us. Let’s get ‘em,” Darwin said excitedly. The fighting was a nice relief from sitting awkwardly next to a girl who seemed to act more like a child than an experienced fighter.

“Sure, sure, just try not to scare the little one again,” Kitchens said. His face was so flat that Darwin wasn’t sure if he was joking or warning.

“I’ll do my best.”

“That’s enough. Good luck,” he said, taking his position on the right side, leaving Minx between the two of them as they stood opposite The Honey Badgers.

The Honey Badgers, a group that matched its name just fine, each pulled out shivs that were black and white, matching their own odd fur pattern. One of them even licked the blade creepily as he stared down his opponents.

“Should I cut your head off, old man? Give the tiger-men peace?” the one across from Darwin taunted.

Darwin didn’t even dignify it with a response as he pulled out his Burriza’s Blades. I’ve still got around eight minutes before Hunger interrupts me again, he noted, concerned that it might cause another problem with this fight as well. The passive skill, still new, was unpredictable enough that it did worry him. He knew that he had performed the fight perfectly, but the lack of control he had exhibited during the action was rather disconcerting. He didn’t want to be a bystander to a show that’s outcome could spell out his death.

“What? Do I got you scared, old man?” the honey badger-esque man taunted again. “It’s okay. It’s not like I care. Honey Badger don’t ever care!”

Did he just talk about himself in third person? Here I thought I was losing my sanity.

“Three . . . Two . . . One . . . Fight!” the announcer yelled, prompting Darwin to dash in for a clean lunging slash, but as he did, the honey badger-man-thing backed up, dragging his dagger in a sweep against the ground to pull dirt into the air in an attempt to distract Darwin. Darwin, seeing the dirt in what felt like slow motion, pivoted right, dipped down and pulled his blade in an upward slash at the badger. The badger crossed both his daggers and caught the blade, causing Darwin to feel relieved. What’s the point of holding two blades if you only use them to accomplish one task? he thought as he stabbed his opponent, impaling the badger with his free Burriza’s Blade. As the badger, shocked from the hit, weakened his grip on the two daggers that held off Darwin’s upward slash, that blade joined Darwin’s first one in meeting the flesh of his foe. One down. Who’s left? he wondered, quickly turning to look at the two other fights. Kitchens was standing over his opponent with his arms folded. The badger was cut clean in half like the Panthera he had killed in the first round. Minx was still fending off the other Badger in what looked like a blurry flurry of fast daggers clanging against each other as the two fought as much with their knees and elbows as they did with their weapons. Darwin saw an opportunity and ran around, coming up behind the badger and putting both his blades through the fool’s exposed back. Two down and twenty more minutes for Hunger.

“Mister! That’s not fair!” Minx shouted at Darwin as the pointy ends of his swords popped out of the Badger’s chest in the middle of her fight. “He was mine to kill!”

“Oh, umm . . . Sorry?” Darwin wiped the blood off his blades.

“Hmph. Well, as long as you understand,” she said, her arms crossed and face purposefully flat like Kitchens as she scrunched up her brow.

“Alright, come on you two,” Kitchens said, walking up behind them and putting his hand back on the top of Minx’s head. He wasn’t much taller, barely six feet, but, for some reason as the two walked back to their spots in the stands, it just looked like the hand belonged on top of her head.

“Umm . . . contestants, could you please stay in the Arena. We’re about to begin the final match of the section,” the announcer called as soon as Darwin took the first step up in the stands.

“Oh, oh. yeah. There isn’t another match except our final one, is there?”

“No. There is not,” one of the ‘Sun Wukong’s Children’ members said as he stood up from his seat.

As they walked back towards the center of the dirt arena in awkward silence, the member who spoke earlier turned to Darwin and put forth an open hand. “May this battle bring us both honor,” he said, as Darwin took the invitation for a handshake.

“Let’s both do our best,” he said, happy to see that one of his opponents at least wasn’t a jerk.

“Indeed,” he said, walking to the place opposite of Darwin. “Don’t disappoint me.”

“Darwin.” Kitchens looked over at Darwin. “You’re fire. Your opponent is wind. Do not let his gusts blow you out.”

Darwin had no idea what to do with that advice at all. I’m fire? He’s wind? What does that even mean? He looked curiously at the staff in front of him. Don’t let his gusts blow me out? That sounds very wrong.

“Three . . . Two . . . One . . . FIGHT!” the announcer called out, starting the match. Whereas before each match had begun with lunges the second it commenced, this time the announcer’s starting cry was only followed by stillness.

All six of the combatants eyeballed each other anxiously, none of them moving an inch, until finally Minx broke the standoff, screaming, “JABBERWOCKIES ARE NOT MEAN!” as she pulled out two shuriken and threw them at Darwin’s opponent.

Darwin seized the opportunity, the opening that his opponent’s defense against the shuriken had left, and moved in as quickly as he could. Before he could get too close though, the monkey-man spun his staff at Darwin’s chest, forcing him to brace and shift right, only to be met by an oncoming tail that moved towards his legs.

Darwin cut down at the oncoming tail, clipping part of the tip off, but in the process didn’t have a free hand to block the monkey’s free fist as it hit him square in the stomach and pushed Darwin back. Wind, ey? How does a fire beat wind? he thought, deciding to consider for a moment what Kitchens had said. Not letting him relax though, the monkey vaulted forward at Darwin, who had backed up a bit, planting his staff in the ground and using it to launch his body with both feet forward at Darwin. Darwin was about to plant in and try to block it, but figured he’d go against his nature and try something different: he jumped. To be exact, he jumped right before the impact in the direction the legs were going to push him, using both his arms to catch the armored shins without letting go of the blades as he was knocked to the right. It didn’t cut or hurt the Simian’s legs, but it left him sprawled out on the ground without his staff. The monkey, not expecting the outcome, scrambled for a moment towards the staff that had fallen away from him after the vaulted kick failed, but it was too late. Darwin rolled into him, blade first, right into his back. As he pulled the dripping edge from the monkey, Kitchens stood above him with a hand extended.

“Fire must be careful to be fueled by the wind, lest the wind scatter it into nothing,” he said. Darwin looked over at the two other Simians, both dead, and smiled. They had won the first rounds.

“Stabby stabby, dead dead! I killed one too!” Minx said happily as she joined the two of them. “Minx the Lynx knows the tricks for sticks!” she said, crouching into a boxing stance and stabbing the air with her daggers a few times.

“That you do. Good job. Now, how ‘bout we all go get some tea while we wait for the semifinals?” Kitchens asked, patting Minx twice.

“Tea sounds good,” Darwin admitted, following the two of them, “but shouldn’t we wait for the announcer to excuse us?”

“Oh, her? No. It’s fine. She’ll be bringing us tea anyways. It’s part of the reason the entry fee is expensive.”

“The entry fee was expensive?”

“Yeah, it was at least twenty Gold,” Kitchens said, causing Darwin’s eyes to pop open.

Twenty Gold is a lot? he thought, remembering that his count was likely well over tens of thousands by now from all the spears and weapons from farming the silver ore mine and the White-Wing corpses on the beach. “I’ll . . . I’ll reimburse you,” he said.

“No, it’s fine. The prize is enough to cover your share of the entry fee and then some. We’re in your debt, not the other way around.”

“Sounds good to me. Now, do they have crumpets to go with that tea?”

“If you ask.”

“Great, I’m going to need cookies too,” Darwin was still feeling the effects of a hunger that didn’t come with his Job Class as they walked back to their seats in the winning area.

“Asking for cookies on the Internet? That’s a little cliché, Darwin, but we’ll get some.”

“Nom nom nom.” Minx ate at an invisible cookie as the three sat down in their seats, happy with their win and ready to enjoy some tea and sweets. “Chocolate chip cookies are the best,” she said, smiling.

PrevNext