“She was all, ‘Nya nya,’ and you were all stab stab, and then it was all KASPLAT!” Minx said excitedly, acting out every detail as Kitchens sipped his tea and Darwin ate his third chocolate chip cookie from the rather large pile the kind woman in a white dress had managed to fetch for him upon request. “That was great, mister! You really were cool!”
“I wasn’t scary?” Darwin asked, remembering her first reaction to his Hunger flashing during the fight.
“Scary? Like scary rawr rawr?” She adopted her T-rex pose again. “Yeah, mister is really scary. But Minx knows mister wouldn’t hurt Minx, so Minx the Lynx won’t question the Sphynx.”
“Don’t question me, Sphynx, I’m too young to die,” she said, sticking out her tongue as she did so. Darwin wasn’t sure if this is just how she always was, or if this was just how she was after eating sugar in a VRMMO. Wait, would eating sugar in a VRMMO have any actual impact? How would you get a sugar rush from a video game?
“How old are you exactly?” Darwin asked, still curious about the figure. She was short enough to be a kid, but certain features of hers were very much those of a woman. Given it was a video game, it wasn’t unheard of for someone to embellish, but what motivation would a child have to pad the front of her resume in such a fashion?
“Don’t be a rude, rude dude! Ask a woman her age? Not cool.” She crossed her arms over her chest and looked away.
When Darwin looked at over at Kitchens, he just shrugged, sipped his tea, and changed the subject. “Thank you for the tournament and what you did for Minx.”
“It’s no problem. I’ve been where Minx was. It only felt right to help,” Darwin said before stuffing his face with another cookie. Mmmm, cookies.
“Psh, I did good good, didn’t I, Kitchens?” She said, unfolding her arms and looking at the guy in the tank top. “I told you he was a good swordsman. You wanted water, I got you water! Enough to fill a hundred cups.”
Kitchens looked like he wanted to correct her about the water part again, but instead just patted her head. “Yes, you did, Minx. Yes, you did.”
“So, why are we waiting? Let’s go go! Let’s conquer the world. Or maybe a dungeon . . . or an entire country! I’ll be all stab stab and Darwin will be all chop chop, and you can be all slice slice.” She had given up sitting down and was standing on top of the stone bench circling the table acting out her impression of how each one of them fought. “Come on! Let’s go! We’ll get tea later.”
“I believe he was waiting on me, young one. My apologies for taking so long. The old bones don’t move as fast as they used to,” a panda wearing a loose black robe with white trimming and a large, ornate, golden sash said as he approached with Kass next to him.
“Kass!” Darwin exclaimed. “You’re here!”
“Yeah, I am,” she said with a look he couldn’t make out. “And I see you couldn’t even wait a few minutes for me before you left.”
“Well . . . actually, I . . .” Darwin was trying to search for an excuse when Minx popped up and helped him out.
“Sorry, old lady! It was my bad!” she said, causing Kass to visibly redden at the ‘old lady’ comment. “I stole him away ‘cause we needed a third fighter! My bad bad! Sorrrrrryyyyy.”
“There’s no need to say you’re sorry, young one,” the panda reassured Minx. “He, as well as the both of you, performed magnificently, and we have you to thank for that.”
“Right right! I did good!” Minx’s ear-to-ear, full-toothed smile shined again.
“Ah, introductions if you don’t mind, young one,” the panda asked Kass.
“Oh, right. This is the Great King Robin, ruler of the city,” she said, first gesturing to Robin, and then gesturing towards Darwin and the two friends of his who had now finished standing up, “Robin, this is my friend, Darwin, and his friends . . .”
“I’m Kitchens. This is Minx,” Kitchen said as he bowed his head while pushing Minx’s head down into a bow too.
“Hahaha!” The Panda King bellowed out a laugh. “Bowing? For an old man like me? Nonsense. Stand up straight, young ones. We have no need of formalities here. You are winners, and I come humbly bearing gifts, not demanding respect.”
“Gifts? Presents? Like it’s Christmas? Oh! Oh! Do they come with bows and in fancy packages?” Minx popped up from her bow like she was loaded with springs.
“Nothing that fancy, nothing that could truly recompense you for the performance you treated us to. All we have here are a few Gold and three tokens to the royal armory,” the panda said, motioning to the girl who had been supplying Darwin with tea and cookies. “Dear, please be so kind as to award each of them their due.”
“Tokens for the royal armory?” Minx asked, tilting her head to the side.
“Ah, you didn’t know what you were fighting for, young one? The royal armory has the finest weapons and armors in all of the land to award to the most outstanding and exceptional warriors,” the King explained. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to say at any tournament what the preference for weapon or gear is going to be, so we bring tokens that you can exchange for any piece on display at the armory.”
“Wow, that’s actually very neat,” Darwin said, looking at the golden token with two swords crossed over a shield on one side and a halberd in front of a helmet on the other. “Thank you very much, Robin. I’ll be sure to use it wisely,” he said, putting the token in his inventory.
“That is good to hear,” the King smiled, “but perhaps before you use it, the three of you wouldn’t mind taking a moment to listen to the request of an old man?”
“Ooo! It’s a quest! A unique one, straight from the King! Kitchens, Kitchens, can we do it? Please please, Kitchens?” Minx pulled at Kitchens’ tank top. “Let’s do it.”
“Let’s listen first, Minx. Then we can decide. Don’t be too eager,” Kitchens said, returning his hand to its usual perch.
“Okay okay, sorry sorry, Mr. King, sir.”
“You needn’t apologize so much, young one,” the King said, “It’s I who am asking you a favor. A very important favor too,” he said, bending over till he was at face height with Minx. “A favor that only you can help me with.”
“Hmmm,” was Kitchens’ only response. Kitchens’ face didn’t move, but Darwin could sense his feelings on the subject.
I understand you perfectly, Kitchens: a man who talks with compliments first and insists about being humble when in public . . . He looked to see what Kass’s expression was, but she seemed to not notice the look on his or Kitchens’ face. Either to her nothing was out of the ordinary in the way the King spoke, or her poker face was peerless.
“You see,” the King dove right into his request, motioning them to sit back down as he walked over and took a seat too, “we’ve been struggling to handle a bandit situation. It’s been several years since they began their attack on our territories, and we’ve found ourselves rather helpless to handle the problem.”
“Bandits?” Darwin asked.
“Bandits, pirates, thieves, you can call them what you want,” the King said, taking a cup of tea from the attendant as he finished sitting down. “No matter what they are called though, they have been preying on our people for almost a decade now.”
“A decade?” Darwin found the amount of time striking. “That is indeed a long time to have a problem.”
“Indeed, young one, indeed. Unfortunately, they have learned well that just as there is strength in numbers, there is also strength in a lack of numbers,” the King said, sipping his tea just like Kitchens. “If we mobilize against them, they scatter. If we try to send only a few men, they fortify.”
Kitchens nodded. “A grain of sand will scatter on the wind before the coming storm.”
“Indeed, young one, and that is the base of our problem,” the King said. “In order to catch them, we must use a force that will crush them before they scatter.”
“So you held a tournament looking for the greatest fighters,” Darwin finished the King’s thought. “You only allowed groups of three in because that size is small enough to travel unnoticed?”
“You are both very bright,” the King said with a grin. “I see I am leaving this task in very capable hands.”
“My deepest apologies, Your Excellency,” Kitchens said, “but I am not sure it is in our best interest to accept your request.”
“What? Kitchens! They need our help! Can we? Can we? Come on! There are bad guys who need a good stabby stabby,” Minx shouted in protest at Kitchens’ denial.
Darwin wanted to protest the decision as soon as he saw Minx’s face in order to assure Minx that there was no reason for them to not take the cause up, but he wasn’t in charge of the group this time, and his instincts told him that Kitchens’ rejection was the right decision.
“Oh, don’t be so hasty to refuse, young one. I’m willing to say that we can double, even triple, the tournament’s winnings if you’ll just say yes,” the King pushed again. “Please don’t make this humble old man beg further, but I will if I must.”
“I’ll go,” Kass said. “I don’t speak for Darwin, but if it’s to stop people from getting hurt, I’ll gladly go.”
Darwin wanted to facepalm. She didn’t understand at all why Kitchens had refused. These so-called bandits obviously didn’t just take from the people: they fed off the people. In order for them to exist in the form the King was describing, they had to have a sponsor. A small group of fighters capable of evading the grasp of a large empire has to be able to move through people like a worm through the earth, leaning on them for support and feeding off their energy. There was a good chance that this was less a group of bandits and more a group of guerilla fighters. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any explanation for why they hadn’t been stamped out already after a decade.
“Well, if big sis is going, then I’m going with her! Okay, big sis?” Minx said stubbornly, still upset that Kitchens had turned down her ‘unique quest.’ “We can beat them up together! You can beat people up, right?”
“It looks like I will have to reconsider my choice, King Robin. I suppose I will be going after all,” Kitchens said, looking at the dregs in his cup of tea with a frown.
“That is good news! And what of you, young swordsman?” the Panda King said, slapping his belly as he cheered, “Will you also join our three brave souls in their quest?”
Darwin, like Kitchens, couldn’t help but frown as he agreed. “I suppose I will join them as well.”
“Then, since you are all agreed, let me show you the root of the problem.” The King waved over the attendant again. This time, instead of tea or cookies, she brought a large, rolled-up scroll. She didn’t hand it to the King, but laid it out on the stone table instead, placing tiny, black pebbles on all four corners of the tan map to hold it in place. “This, my young adventurers, is where our city is.” The King took a red pebble out of the sleeves of one of his robes and placed it on a picture that was a strikingly well done representation of the giant city they were in, except it had a snake-like dragon drawn above it. “And this,” he said, placing a white pebble on a fogged-out section of the mountain, “is where our problem begins.”
“Is the problem still there?” Kitchens asked.
“That is the case for now, but we are worried that if they sense us moving, they will switch locations again.”
“I see,” Darwin nodded. “So it may turn out to be a scavenger hunt as much as a kill quest?”
“You could say that; but, if you act fast, there shouldn’t be a problem. This is a rather new base for them, only a few days old, and they don’t often switch hideouts more than once every other month. We timed the tournament based on our findings concerning their move.”
“Are there any compliant villages nearby?” Kitchens asked.
“Ah, you are an intuitive one. Yes, these villages,” the King said, placing two more white pebbles on the map over towns next to the base, “have both been known to aid them. We don’t believe it is anything more than food and supplies in exchange for a portion of their lootings, but if you are to attack them . . .” The panda gave a slight shrug as if to say that casualties could not be helped.
He concealed information until we pried. What questions have we not asked correctly? Darwin thought, finding himself growing more and more suspicious of the panda. It may have been unwarranted to some degree–the panda may genuinely have been a good man concerned about his people–but the honey from his words hung so sweet in comparison to what he was used to hearing from strangers that it made him not trust the message he was expected to swallow. Kass, what did you get us into, he complained to himself, exchanging a frown with Kitchens.
“We should have asked him more questions. For some reason, I feel that we are missing key pieces of information,” Darwin said, standing up first. The questions may have revealed more important information about the task, but it was unlikely that any further information the panda gave wouldn’t be just as misleading as it was helpful.
“Indeed,” Kitchens said, standing up as well, Kass following suit. “Kass, was it? Please accept the party invite so we can depart immediately.”
“Wait wait! What about the armory? I want new daggers first! Let’s go shopping first! I bet they have super cute boots there!” Minx said as she stood up.
“We’ll have time to check out the armory on the way back. We don’t want to worry the kind King by taking too long, do we?”
“No. No no, ‘kay ‘kay, let’s go go,” Minx said, practically jumping in place. “A super secret, special quest! With new friends!”
While he thought no-one was looking, Darwin grabbed the remaining cookies and put them in his inventory. The King, having spotted him and then catching him with direct eye contact, raised a finger to his mouth as if to say, ‘I won’t tell if you don’t,’ while Darwin finished stashing away the chocolate chip delights. Even if it felt like the old man was trying to pull one over on him, he just couldn’t help but kind of like the guy.
“Yeah, let’s get a move on,” Kass also nodded. “I’m ready when you guys are.”
“We might as well. I’m not sure how much time we have left after all,” Darwin thought aloud, considering how if they stayed away from the village too long, it might be hard for the Scouts to find him; but, for some reason, he was confident that Alex’s team would never have a problem tracking him down.
“Are you as concerned as I am?” Kitchens asked Darwin quietly as soon as they were out of earshot of the King.
“Yeah. I have a feeling they aren’t bandits,” Darwin said, nodding and keeping the conversation between them hushed as the two girls in front of them giggled and laughed back and forth like they were actually sisters.
“Mhmm. Should we tell them?” Kitchens asked, nodding towards the ladies.
“No. I think saying anything now might just cause unnecessary problems,” Darwin weighed in.
“And if it is as we fear?” Kitchens pressed the matter.
“I won’t be a butcher–not for small change and trinkets,” Darwin stated with no uncertainty in his voice. This was not a matter he would budge on.
“Even if it’s just NPCs?” Kitchens continued to play the devil’s advocate.
“Do you honestly think they are just NPCs?” Darwin certainly didn’t.
“Point. NPCs or not, it wouldn’t feel right,” Kitchens agreed while both of them watched what appeared to be Kass and Minx playing an impromptu game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.
“Yeah. They’re more lifelike than people as you can see by that mischievous King,” Darwin said.
“We don’t know if he’s mischievous yet. He could still be an honest leader.”
“You think so?” Darwin asked, chuckling a bit as Minx’s face went red and her hand gestures insinuated that Kass must have cheated to win.
“No, but I’ll hold my reservations for now.”
“Fair enough. So are we just going to go al . . .” Darwin stopped. His concern about the StormGuard Alliance came back in the form of scouts. He had to just stop and stare as Daniel, Mclean and Valerie swooped down and landed a few feet away to greet them.
“Greetings, Great Lord Darwin,” Valerie said, bowing. “We were on our way to return to the boat when we saw you, so we thought we would report directly to you first.”
Darwin did his best not to grin as he looked at Daniel. You still haven’t told her yet? he tried to say to him with his expression. “That’s great news, Valerie, and good timing. Kass and I are about to take care of a small bandit issue in the area, and time is of the essence. So, do you mind taking your report to Alex with an extra message from me?”
Valerie lifted her head and nodded, “Of course, Great Lord Darwin. We’d be happy to pass along an additional message.”
“We can even join you after the message is delivered if you like. Will you need assistance with the task?” Daniel asked.
“You’re welcome to, but I don’t think we will. Unless Alex has something for you that you feel up to, I suggest you three have fun and explore the town,” Darwin responded.
“Thanks, Chief,” Daniel said, eliciting a slap on the shoulder from Valerie. “I mean, thanks, Great Lord Darwin,” he corrected himself after the slap, trying as hard as Darwin and Kass not to crack up.
“Great. I need you to tell him where we’ll be when he’s got everything done or if he needs us,” Darwin said, signaling for Kitchens to pull out the map he had taken from the table earlier. “We’re going to be somewhere between here and this town. We may have to search around this area, but it shouldn’t be hard to find us.”
“I don’t think it’s ever hard to spot you in a crowd,” Daniel added, this time dodging the shoulder slap from Valerie for not adding in a proper title.
“Great,” Darwin said, wanting to ask more about the spot they found. but deciding that it would hold them up too much. “I better hear that you guys enjoyed yourself in the town.”
“Got it, Boss,” Daniel said, taking off first. The other two quickly followed his lead.
When they finally flew off, Minx and Kitchens both stared at Darwin.
“Ummm . . .” Minx twisted her head both ways as if she were trying to see the image inside a Magic Eye 3D picture. “Why did they call you ‘Great Lord Darwin’? Do you have a church?”
“I do believe something of an explanation is owed,” Kitchens said, “but if you don’t feel the need, we can continue on.”
Kass, now actually letting a bit of a laugh escape, was clearly having a hard time not answering on Darwin’s behalf. Minx did well for Kass’s mood. She had often been quite serious lately, but now she was laughing and joking around again. Minx’s humor and attitude must be contagious. “There isn’t that much need for an explanation. I run a faction called the StormGuard Alliance, and that girl insists on formalities just because some of the other members do.”
“Ah, so you’re not the church kind, but the castle kind of lord? Do you get butlers? Do your butlers have to dress up super funny with the penguin outfits?” Minx started firing off questions one after the other.
“Minx, I’m just me. The swordsman, remember? Now, let’s get going.”
“Actually, Darwin, where is Fuzzy Wuzzy? It’s not like you to travel without him.”
“Oh, Fuzzy Wuzzy . . . I think Alex put him to work with the Turtle-Wolves lifting and moving stuff around the ship. He said having Fuzzy Wuzzy help him with the lifting was like having ten or twenty extra Turtle-Wolves.” Darwin did miss Fuzzy Wuzzy, but for some reason he had a feeling that if the bear were here, he’d end up just being a ridable mount for Minx the Lynx.
“Turtle-Wolves?” Kitchens asked.
“They are just as the name sounds,” Darwin said without really answering him.
“Ah.” Kitchens’ face still looked confused, but Minx, who had overheard the question and answer, was already pretending to be on her back and unable to get up–or at least doing the best impression she could from a standing position.
“Anyways, enough dilly dallying. I’m curious how this quest will turn out,” Darwin said as the four departed.
“I as well,” Kitchens agreed, and the four carried back on towards the gate. Then, quietly, he whispered to Darwin, “I’m also curious to see if you’ll end up sharing your chocolate chip cookies with Minx along the way.”
“What? You saw that?” he laughed.
“You lack patience with your stealth,” Kitchens lectured.
Alex would have been stealthy enough to get away with it, Darwin thought, upset that his Job Class had no benefits in the art of being unseen.
“Should I tell Minx you have them?” Kitchens threatened, the smile betraying his intent.
“How many do you want to keep silent?” Darwin asked while trying to guess what Minx was actually pretending to be now with all the gesticulations.
“Hmm, two,” he flatly demanded.
“That . . . That’s half!” Darwin almost yelled in surprise at the extortion, but did his best to keep his voice as muted as possible.
“Oh, well in that case, M–”
“Fine. Here. Are you happy with yourself?”
“Of course. I got chocolate chip cookies,” Kitchens said with a smile. Their suspicious quest had just begun, and already Darwin had managed to get conned.