Kass rushed home to log on. The interview had taken way longer than she had anticipated, and between teasing poor Kerrigan and needing to be shown around by Rainer, she was already going to be late for the docking. In fact, she was going to be around an hour late at the very least. When she got into the game, she burst out of the cabin door only to find that the boat was still populated even though it was pulled up to the dock.
Great, I didn’t miss a thing. Darwin must be on this glass galleon somewhere, she thought, her eyes darting around as she looked for some sign of where he might be. She couldn’t spot him, but she did spot Alex holding up a map and talking to two of the other Demons.
“Alex!” she shouted out to him. “Where’s Darwin?”
He folded up the map neatly in an instant and looked over at her. “Lady Kass,” he said, bowing his head slightly. “I apologize, but we don’t know where he is at this moment.”
“You don’t know where he is?”
“No, it is my fault. He departed into the town by himself without giving notice as soon as we docked. He has been gone for quite some time,” Alex said, gesturing towards the large city past the docks.
Crap, I hope he didn’t go off leveling without me, she thought, ignoring the rest of the Demons moving around on the boat and heading into the town. While she was there, she found her eyes darting around constantly for the flap-fiend, and her ears listening out for any tales of a weirdo in a bathrobe. He was a distinctive enough individual that even being in the area after him often left a trail of talk regarding his appearance and which way he had gone. It took her almost ten minutes until her ears, not her eyes, caught something though.
“Did you hear about that weird, red-eyed Human, the one in the tournament?” she overheard from a group of four random beast-men in the corner.
Red-eyed Human. That has to be Darwin.
“Yeah, I heard he’s gone crazy a few times in the tournament. What’s with his outfit though?”
Why does every conversation about him have to focus on his bathrobe. Isn’t the rest of him strange too?
“I don’t know. He must be trying to copy that guy from the beach fight, the one in the YouTube videos,” the beast-men continued as she walked up to them.
“Excuse me!” she said, “The weird outfit, was it a bathrobe?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it was,” a large, seven-foot-tall Simian, the one who she had interrupted, responded.
“Great, but what is this tournament you are talking about?”
“Lady, there isn’t more than the one,” he said, acting annoyed. “It’s the Melee Fighting Championship in East Town Square.”
“Ah, how do we get there?”
“Woman, what do you want from us? Are we supposed to hold your hand and escort you? Buy you nice things? Please. You Human women are so annoying,” the ape-man said, turning to his friends and leaving Kass just staring at his back in shock.
Human women? “What are you in real life? An ape too? How rude!” she yelled at his back as she pursed her face angrily.
“Ah, it’s okay, young one. You don’t need to be angry at those rude youths. I’ll be happy to help you in their place, if you will forgive their manners, as I am headed there myself. May I show you the way?” a giant panda-man that matched the ape-man in size said from behind her as he extended his hand.
“If you’d be so kind, good sir, my name is Kass,” she responded, finding herself caught up in his manners.
“Wonderful,” he said, “My name is Robin. Please, let me kindly be your guide.” The gentle giant of a bear release the handshake and extended an arm to show her the initial direction they’d be walking.
As they walked, he started to tell her more and more about the city’s history, about the great wars that had befallen it and about how each city square had its own unique history. Kass did her best to listen, to absorb his lectures as he gave them. He regaled Kass with the story of how the city had first begun when each of the animal nations, after a long and brutal war to decide which Kingdom was the greatest, had in a gesture of peace sent their greatest artisans to build a city that would always withstand the conflicts that separated the peoples of the land. The charming panda went on to describe how that decree had been tested several times over the following generations as time and time again a rebellion would occur with either the support of a full race like the Feline people, or a specific group within a race like the black rhino people, who acted without the other rhinos. In any case, the battle ground always tended to end up being the streets of the city.
It was all incredibly fascinating, and she normally would have loved to get into the lore of a game that had this thorough a history, but her thoughts were too focused on Darwin. What tournament did he enter? she wondered. Knowing from the panda that it took three people to enter it, and Darwin had departed on his own only an hour or so ago at best, she wondered to herself, Who did he enter it with?
“Young one, you should relax. The semifinals don’t start for a few more minutes, and we will be there well before then. Tardiness is an abomination to manners,” he said.
“I understand. Please continue telling me more about the snake-men’s defense of the city against the mongoose-men.”
“Ah, that was an interesting one. The snake-men, naturally lacking in . . .” he carried on as they walked. Kass couldn’t help but think that if her history teachers had been this interesting, or their voice had been this deep and calm, she probably never would have done poorly on a single test. It was like the panda’s voice could be used to tell the story of a carpet and make it sound fascinating. Morgan-Panda-Freeman, she thought as she chuckled to herself.
As they finally reached the arena, two tiger-based Pantheras came rushing forward and bowed their heads and threw an arm over each chest before talking. “Great King Robin! We’ve prepared a box in the final arena. The seats are all reserved for Your Excellency.”
“Thank you, you are too kind and thorough in your considerations,” he said, also bowing his head for a moment. “Young one, would you like to join me in the booth? I don’t think you’ll be able to join your friend until after the tournament anyways.”
“Ah, well,” Kass looked around for a minute. She saw four dirt arenas surrounding one giant one in the middle. The center pit had rows of seats ten or twenty stacks high on three of its sides. On the one free side, it had only a raised booth, maybe two stories high, with a few cushioned chairs overlooking the arena. She couldn’t see Darwin anywhere, and after a moment’s attempt to spot him, she gave up. “It’d be my honor,” she said, still finding herself speaking with better manners than she would normally.
“That is wonderful. Your company will be appreciated,” he said. Then, turning to one of the guards, he ordered, “Han Lou, could you kindly make sure there is an extra chair for our guest?”
“Yes, Your Excellency,” the guard said, darting off.
“You’re a King?” she had to ask.
“Oh, sometimes I get called that. More than a King, I’m just an old man who has many friends that look after him.” The more he spoke, the more Kass found herself respecting him. Then it dawned on Kass: he was a King, and not only was he a King, but he was an NPC. She hadn’t noticed at first, but the color-coding on his name was clear as day. An NPC King had gone out of his way to help her out as if he were just a regular old man, and the conversation had been so real that she hadn’t even noticed once that he was an NPC.
“Ah, well, I can tell that these friends of yours must care about you deeply,” she said as she watched the concerned guards scramble to get her chair ready as the two of them ascended the stairs into the booth.
“They do indeed, but they never let themselves forget my position. It is sometimes tiring for an old man like myself,” he sighed. “Now, which one of these young men is yours again?”
“Oh, um . . .” the thought of Darwin being her man didn’t make her blush for once as she looked for him, “I still don’t see him.”
“Ah, that is good news, young one,” he nodded to himself, “it means he must have made it to the semifinals. In that case, they should be coming in soon.”
While they waited, the old king continued filling Kass in about the history of the town. The one thing that she started to pick up from the entire history lesson, something she hadn’t noticed before, was that either the programmers or some odd twist of fate obviously liked to play on natural predators being defeated in rebellions or attacks by their typical prey. The Vermin race had overwhelmed the Feline people when the Vermin people rebelled over a cheese tax. If there had been gazelle people or giraffe people, she was almost certain that they would have defeated the lions and tigers of the Pantheras in some rebellion. She also started to notice that while a lot of different species were represented, the Feline people accounted for the largest number of them. Almost every other player was some form or another of the Feline Race.
When Darwin walked out flanked by two lynx people, she wasn’t at all surprised. Of course they are cat people, was her first thought, and her second thought was: a bathrobe wasn’t strange enough? That guy had to wear a tank top to a competition? “Is that him, the one in the bathrobe?” the pleasant King Robin said, venturing a guess as to who was Kass’ friend.
“Yes, it is. How did you guess?”
“Well, I could tease you and say it’s because of the way you were staring, but it’s really just that you and he are the only ones here who aren’t from any of the beast Kingdoms,” Robin chuckled.
“Oh, yeah. I suppose that is a give away, isn’t it?”
“You could say that. It looks like his group is up first too,” the Panda King noted, “Perhaps we are in for a show?”
“It’s very likely,” Kass reassured him. “Darwin is a great fighter.”
“Excellent, then he should have no problem entertaining us today. Let’s relax and rest easy and have faith in your man.”
Kass knew Darwin would win–he had a way with a sword that she had never seen before–but she still was nervous. She didn’t know how the others would do. She leaned forward and watched as her Bathrobe Knight took the center stage with Mr. Tank Top and their Furry Kimono Kitty. The three of them were squaring off against Canines dressed in old-fashioned samurai armor. Mr. Tank-Top and Darwin flanked the Kimono Kitty, leaving her a bit farther behind them too. When the announcer finally called for the fight to start, Darwin dashed at his opponent in the usual mad battle charge she had become accustomed to watching, whereas the Kimono Kitty girl stayed where she was, and Mr. Tank Top merely walked very slowly straight towards his opponent with his hand on his katana. As Darwin danced, parrying, slashing and tearing at the opponent’s arms in a mad blur until an opening presented itself and let him sink his blade into the dog-like creature’s chest, the Kimono Kitty started throwing little metal objects Kass couldn’t make out. The most interesting part though was when Mr. Tank Top reached his opponent. The enemy held up his sword and tried to swing it into Mr. Tank Top, but the guy merely moved his hand quickly, flashing a shiny reflective light across the dirt stadium, and then the samurai dog-man fell apart in two clean halves as Mr. Tank Top wiped off his blade.
Kimono Kitty, the only one with an opponent still, kept throwing whatever it was she was throwing as she finally started running toward her foe, but before she could reach the last dog standing, Darwin came barreling into the enemy’s flank and cut him through, splitting him open on the spot. At this point, it seemed like the fight was forgotten as the Kimono Kitty started fussing at Darwin over something until Mr. Tank Top patted her head. What in the world did I just watch? Kass found herself mouthing. It’s true she expected that type of speed and ferocity from Darwin, but the way Mr. Tank Top ripped his opponent open as if he was taking a simple stroll through the park was a bit terrifying.
“That is a talented pair of men,” the Panda King said, scratching his beard. “I am not sure which I like more.”
“I think I’m biased; I don’t know the other one,” Kass said.
“Hmm, perhaps our meeting is very fortuitous then.” The Panda King pulled at the tuft of hair on his chin again. “If they indeed win the championship, as I suspect they will, then perhaps there is a very important task the young men could help me with.”
“Would you like me to introduce you to them afterwards?” Kass offered, understanding the King’s polite unsaid request.
“That would be very kind of you.”
“No problem. You’ve been a great deal of help. It’s the least I can do.”
“Well, as long as I’m not troubling you.”
“Not at all.”
“So, do you have a favorite in this race?” the Panda King asked as three Ursine warriors wielding giant two-handed axes stepped into the ring to fight against three Feline ninjas clad from neck to toe in a black ninja garb.
“I must admit, I might find myself pulling for the bears. The ones I’ve met so far are rather kind,” Kass mused.
“Ah, I think we would normally be of like mind, but it is hard for an old man like myself to say that here. Two beautiful women fighting against three of my own race, I’m not sure who to root for, so I’ll do the Kingly thing and remain impartial,” he joked with a slow, deep, hearty laugh that fit his size.
“Well, then I shall root for your kind in your place, Robin,” she said when his laugh finally died down.
“Very good,” he nodded.
The fight wasn’t nearly as one-sided as the one before. The ninja cats pulled the bears in three directions. When they were separated enough, they would all three, with blinding speed, rush to stab the bear furthest from its allies. It was a crude and casual strategy, but it took good advantage of the slow, lumbering nature of the bears. The way the Ursines fought though, even when they were severely outnumbered, made it clear that if they hadn’t separated to chase the Ninjas in a man-on-man fashion, the fight would clearly have gone in their favor. One by one though, the ninjas defeated all three of the big bears in what still turned out to be a rather close fight. Then, two female Felines held up peace signs, lifted their legs and loudly proclaimed “Nya!”
“Hmm. This is the lesson of the bundle of twigs. Easily snapped one at a time, impossible to even bend all at once,” the King said. “Ah, it is sad to see the bears lose a battle of strength.”
“But at least the two pretty girls you were rooting for won, right?”
“Yes, yes, at least that, and now it should be easier for your Darwin to win. He doesn’t seem as dense as the bears were.”
“You’ve never talked to him,” Kass laughed.
“No, I suppose I haven’t. Is he often slow of thought?”
“Especially when it comes to women.”
“I see. I see,” he said, stroking the fur on his chin again. Then he paused, “Ah, the show is about to start. Let’s watch and afterwards I’d love to hear more.”
The ninjas took the field, and, before the fight even started they were splitting up, putting as much distance between them as they could. As they split up, Darwin and his two comrades pulled closer together as if anticipating their strategy. Then, one of the Feline female ninjas started talking to the Kimono Kitty. Kass couldn’t hear what the girl was saying, but she could tell it was angering Darwin. She hadn’t really seen Darwin mad before. She had seen him determined, near death struggling against insane odds, murdering people, dealing with all sorts of stress, but she hadn’t seen him plain mad. She hadn’t seen the look he had on his face as he stared at the girl who kept saying this and that to the Kimono Kitty. Then, as the timer counted down from three, the ninja girl backed up while laughing. What in the world could she say to make Darwin angry like that?
Then, when zero struck, the two ninjas on the extreme sides started throwing what Kass could only assume were ninja stars. They have to be ninja stars, right? What else would Ninjas throw? This time, Mr. Tank Top just stood still. Every time a star came near him, he deflected it with his sword, but he didn’t move. He said something to Darwin, who then bolted in the direction of the first shuriken user. The girl, the one who wasn’t throwing anything, started to move towards Kimono Kitty, but Mr. Tank Top walked between them. It happened a few times and started to look like a game of “protect Kimono Kitty” from the evil ninja kitty girl.
Meanwhile, Darwin chased after the male ninja star tosser with alarming success. Even though the Ninja tried to run, Darwin was clearly faster. As the Ninja turned and decided to throw caution to the wind and just sprint in the direction opposite Darwin, Darwin pulled out his Burriza’s Blade and threw it right into the ninja’s leg, transfixing him to the ground. He then finished closing the distance in an instant and took the ninja’s head off with one clean cut from his remaining sword while pulling the other sword out of the ninja’s leg with his empty hand.
At this point, Darwin shifted and went in for a rear attack on the cat-girl who had angered him earlier while Kimono Kitty, having seen the now dead opponent, went after the other enemy. When the engagement between Darwin and the other ninja girl picked up, Mr. Tank Top started walking towards the remaining ninja star tosser. That ninja was so busy trying to out-maneuver the Kimono Kitty that she didn’t even notice Mr. Tank Top until the bright reflection of his moving katana shone through the audience to let them know the cat-girl was dead. Then he stopped, mid-fight, to pat the Kimono Kitty on the head and say something reassuring to her as they both approached Darwin and his opponent.
Kass, having been caught up watching the surprise attack by the tank top guy, didn’t see Darwin’s battle at all. While the other two had picked off the second member, Darwin had disarmed the female Feline by chopping off her hands at some point. Mr. Tank Top, upon seeing it, stopped walking towards him. There were no words exchanged as Kimono Kitty and Mr. Tank Top watched Darwin further mutilate the female ninja warrior by cutting off her legs. When the handless, legless remaining mass of cat ninja hit the ground, lacking anything to support her, he walked over, stepped on her back, and then plunged both his blades right through her skull. Kass couldn’t make out what expressions were being exchanged, but she could see that even if Mr. Tank Top’s face stayed as stern as always, the Kimono Kitty was covering her face in horror. That wasn’t surprising: Kass found she was doing the same.
Is . . . Is that what Darwin is like when he is angry? Is that what he is capable of? Kass mouthed, unable to take her eyes off the sliced-up body.
“He is indeed an interesting man, young one,” The panda, not at all horrified or showing any disgust at the display, leaned forward, smiling. “Very interesting indeed.”
Even though the Panda King had been very kind to her so far and clearly had displayed a great deal of humility and care for others despite his wealth and position, the way he complimented Darwin at that moment sent shivers down Kass’s spine. That was brutal, unnecessarily wicked. That was not something that a kind man should have found interesting, she worried momentarily.
“If you say so, Robin, but I found that a little bothersome,” she admitted, still not taking her eyes off the two men in the middle of the arena who stood staring at each other like they were stuck in a cheesy western.
“Young miss, I only mean his abilities. The cruelty I could have done without as well,” he said, easing Kass’s flaring instincts. “But, when it comes to a King trying to protect his people, beggars can’t be choosers. I still require someone of his talents to help me with a very important task. I am confident that you will act as a sheath for his temper, and calm him so that he does not repeat such barbaric acts in my name.”
“As you say,” she nodded. The two men, Darwin and Mr. Tank Top, started approaching each other after a few minutes more of the Mexican standoff. Kass almost half expected Mr. Tank Top to try to chop him in half the same way he had done the last two enemies he casually walked up to, but when they reached each other, it was entirely different. They, at the same time, reached out and grasped each other’s arms in an old Nordic-looking handshake as they brought their free hands around for a quick handshake-plus-bro-hug. They then nodded at one another and walked towards the arena’s exit, talking again where Kass couldn’t hear. Her heart was still pounding though, half from the tense situation that felt like it would end in bloodshed and half from the feeling she got as she watched him dismember the woman.
“Young miss, I think it’s time we go congratulate the winners over a cup of tea. I’m sure with how much running around you’ve been doing, you must also be thirsty,” the King said as he stood up.
“Yes, I am very thirsty. Thank you for your consideration,” she said, standing up too.
“Good, and I’d love to be introduced to this very intriguing young man of yours. What did you say his name was again?”
“His name? Oh, it’s Darwin,” she said, stopping herself for a moment from adding in the usual titles that NPCs called him. It wasn’t that she thought of Darwin as anything but Darwin; it was just that she didn’t want to make waves with Alex when introducing him to other NPCs.
“Alright, well, let’s get moving. We can’t have them waiting on their prize forever,” he said as they slowly descended the stairs.
“Great King Robin!” the two tiger-men guards from earlier said, appearing on either side of him as soon as his feet hit solid ground. “Would you kindly allow us to escort you to the winner’s circle?”
“There’s no need for that young ones,” he said, waving them off with his hand in an odd fashion that made Kass actually think he was summoning them closer. “It would give the winners the wrong impression to be greeted with skepticism first, rewards second.”
“But Great King Robin!” they protested. “Did you see how dangerous and cruel they are? If our presence sends the wrong message, we will take the blame. We only worry for your sake!”
“There is no need. I have a beautiful escort to help this old man avoid conflict. Relax and go return to your posts. If you must follow, it may bring some small shame on my position. Please don’t cause this old man to appear mistrustful,” he said, waving them off again.
This time, they just bowed and said, “Yes, Master!” and left.
“Are they always that excited when following your orders?”
“Mm, it depends on the order. This time, as much as they would have guarded me, they both probably already bought a cask of sake and were looking forward to being dismissed so they could drink it.”
“That seems rather irresponsible of a guard,” she noted, thinking about how that could actually lead to a serious problem.
“Ah, but I was worse than they at that age. I was sneaking away with the princess, so let’s not judge them,” he smiled.