“There you go. You’re one of us now,” Darwin said to Minx as he welcomed her to the faction. Kitchens had kept his word to join them if Minx still wanted to after they finished the mission, and Minx had harassed him about it the second they had left the cave. Kitchens at first had said, “Is the mission over?” and tried to dodge the topic altogether, but Minx had insisted it must be done because the objective was completed.
“Yay! Minx the Lynx is going to become the cutest girl in the StormGuard Alliance,” Minx said, cheering to herself.
“Hey, that’s not fair to say. What about me?” Kass interrupted, frowning a bit.
“It’s okay, big sis. You can be the second cutest,” Minx said, smiling as if she had already won the title and prize.
Darwin waited for Kass to protest, entirely expecting her to abuse her faction position and make Minx call her ‘Lady Kass’ instead of ‘big sis,’ but all she did was noogie Minx a little bit and then go back to playing. It was fun to watch them playing like that. The extent of his fun had always been reduced to simple point and click with the occasional keyboard stroke thrown in for good measure, but that was it. Having fun and playing games had always just been him, his monitor, and his keyboard. The only thing that had ever lit up with excitement was the screen. He had found it amusing that no matter how many times he typed lol or roflmao or even lawl, it had all meant the same thing: he was mildly amused but not enough to actually generate a genuine laugh.
“I’m surprised you haven’t put that in a bag or maybe even in your inventory, assuming that’s possible,” Kitchens said, noting the head Darwin was carrying.
“It needs to be visible,” Darwin answered. He didn’t know how Scouts worked, but if they functioned anything like Daniel had suggested, they were fast as lightning and would be reporting his coming long before he actually reached the gates. He needed to make sure he could gauge the reaction.
“I understand. But, if you could, perhaps you might try to keep it away from Minx’s field of view,” Kitchens said, looking at Minx as she walked ahead of them.
“Sure, no problem. If she turns around, I’ll try to keep it a bit behind my back.”
“So, you understand what the plan is, right?”
“Right. Turn in contract, get reward, clear dungeon, get another reward.”
“I don’t think your new boss has any cool items to give you as a reward.”
“Hmm. Rewards can come in many shapes and sizes; and, sometimes, the task itself is also the reward.”
“Oh, so you are expecting good feelings as your reward for helping us clear the dungeon?”
“Actually, I was hoping for Gold,” Kitchens laughed. “Then again, perhaps you stole more cookies than I noticed. Perhaps there is an alternative form of payment.”
“I see, so you’re saying that I can appeal to your sweet tooth to bribe you into killing random mobs in a dungeon?”
“So you understand.”
“Hmm,” Darwin thought. He wants me to bribe him with gold or cookies, ey? “Well, I’m not sure either of those are the real options. You see,” Darwin said, a wicked smile spreading across his face, “there is the option that you come with us, join in the faction activities and kill, loot and plunder a new dungeon to your heart’s content with your new brothers in arms. Or, and this is the fun option, you could just stay here. Just wait for the Panda King’s scouts to report movement of the still-living bandit populace, and then hope he is the kind and forgiving type who will excuse our treachery.”
Kitchens’ face sunk down a bit, “I see. You’ll make a fine leader one day, Mr. Fire.”
“Let’s hope that one day is incredibly far away and luck carries me perfectly all the way there,” Darwin thought, his mind flashing back to his death again. It hung there perpetually. He constantly felt the blood draining from wounds that had long since healed. Even as he walked, Darwin found himself touching the holes where the blade had entered him, the wounds that had left his life hanging in limbo, only to be revived by the grace of a skill he didn’t fully understand.
What if I don’t have any soul charges next time? What if I get killed from a dagger to the back or their poison works next time? Darwin found himself worrying. What happens if the skill doesn’t activate, or I find myself the victim of common PKs trying to troll people coming out of a dungeon. PKs that out-leveled me because I was too busy concerning myself with politics, with whether or not I’ll die, with quests that have long walk times and no experience rewards, and I fail to grind properly?
Looking at Kitchens, knowing that he was likely at or higher than his Level, Darwin felt fear again. If just three or four people at Kitchens’ Level were to oppose us, we’d be massacred on the spot. The only way we’d live would be if . . . Stephanie. Will I have to lean on her again? Will I have to lean on her at every turn? Can I even rely on her? Because of her condition, she can’t even go out in public with me. I’d have to either level with her alone and lose all chances of gaining EXP due to our Level differences or simply write her off as a defense mechanism. It’s a lose-lose situation to rely on her until I get closer to her abilities unless she can power level me–a thing that brings in its own mob of dangers.
“What ails you?” Kitchens asked.
“I’m still concerned about the Panda King,” Darwin said, deciding not to tell Kitchens that he was worried he might die in the game, and that death might be real. The last one sure felt real even if the skill undid it.
“Hmmm. To run to the mountains, to fortify against attack and prepare yourself to withstand the blows of battle–this is a good plan you have. It is also the way of the earth, and you are . . . fire. Where the earth knows only patience, where it strikes out with rooted growth when the opportunity presents itself, seeding battlefields long forgotten and withstanding the test of time, a fire will know only hunger,” Kitchens began, folding out philosophical advice in one of the longest single string of words Darwin had ever heard from him. “A flame will only live so long as its hunger is sated. Therefore, it must attack on all fronts, at all times, consuming any morsel or scrap won from battle. What you are doing, these actions, this is defensive. Where the earth has the luxury of knowing both rhythm and timing, the fire will constantly pressure the opposition, controlling the flow of battle.”
“So, I should pressure the Panda King? Control the flow of battle? Is that even possible, given that he is likely a much higher Level than all four of us?” Darwin tried to get specifics out of Kitchens. Kitchens had no idea how right he was about ‘hunger.’ It had already occurred once since the battle, and the pain and urges were far worse this time than before his death. It felt like a thirst that couldn’t be quenched. Before, when it had struck, impulsively pushing him to attack something nearby, it had faded away. This time it lingered. This time, even Kass looked like a juicy, soul charge steak.
“No, you should not. If a fire approaches stone on one side, and grass on the other, it bends and flows to eat the grass. Only then can it grow powerful enough to reach any food that might be protected by the stone.”
“So, I need to feed my hunger until it grows large enough to consume the Panda King or else know that the rocks will always be strong enough to protect against my flames?”
“Thanks. That may indeed be the best course of action.”
“It’s the one I recommended.”
“Yes, yes, it is,” Darwin said, amused by the swordsman’s confidence. “You’re really into this element stuff, aren’t you?” Darwin asked, remembering how when they first met Kitchens had classified him as an element.
“Nature is the deadliest of all predators. If man understands his own nature, he can understand the lessons it offers.”
“He can’t use the lessons from the other elements?”
“I’ve seen it done, but it’s best, in general, if fish don’t try to fly, and birds don’t try to dive beneath the waters. Knowing yourself is important because it lets you understand the path you must choose to achieve your ends.”
“Well, either way, I don’t think you’re wrong this time. I do need to get bigger. I also have a feeling that the game was designed with the panda’s Level being effectively fixed, given we don’t usually see NPC rulers ever leaving their regal thrones to go hunting monsters and clearing dungeons. Not to mention, the distance he is willing to travel to attack us is probably also limited. So I either need to increase my own Level or increase my distance from him,” Darwin mused, still worried that his duties, job and tasks would prevent him from leveling well.
“Indeed. Now, about that gold,” Kitchens smiled.
“You’re persistent, aren’t you?”
“Money is scarce when you must take care of a Minx.”
“Minx will be fine, but if you really want to earn some gold, you should help me figure out why the Panda King wants us dead to begin with,” Darwin said, a little unhappy that the mystery still hadn’t been solved. At first, he had thought that it was merely routine, getting rid of evidence, but now he was slightly concerned it was something more than just covering up the fact he had hired someone to do his dirty work.
Walking through the gates and into the city, they weren’t able to make it more than a few blocks before the Panda King popped up out of nowhere. He had a ridiculously big smile on and was followed by two tiger guards as he approached.
“Darwin! Kitchens! Kass! Minx! What luck to see you all alive, safe and in one piece,” the Panda King said, stretching out both arms as if he were going to attempt to hug them all. “Ah, I see you also bring me good tidings The bandit king is dead.”
Darwin looked at the head. “He didn’t even really put up a fight,” Darwin said, recounting the events in a way that made it so he wouldn’t have to lie.
“That’s great news. I trust you didn’t run into any trouble along the way?” the King probed.
He wants to know if the ninjas betrayed his plan. He probably already knows they died, so if I lie about that part, he’ll suspect something. “Well, it seems that some cats were hired to stop us, probably on the same side as the bandit king. They didn’t make it though, and I was uninjured at the end of our confrontation.”
The Panda King’s smile wavered for a moment. It wasn’t much, just a brief moment, but the grin definitely flickered and betrayed his disgust with that last detail as Darwin spoke it. “I see. Excellent news as well. Now, I believe I promised you all a reward?”
“Is serving an honest King not reward enough?” Darwin said purposefully, looking at the greedy Kitchens who was still trying to leverage cookies and gold out of him.
“You are a blessing to the realms, young ones, but I must bestow upon you the merits you have earned. Here, a second token to the armory,” the Panda King said, tossing a coin at each of the four adventurers, “as we agreed.”
Darwin looked at his token and then looked at Kitchens. Their thoughts were likely both the same: we must go get our prize as soon as possible. “You honor us with this gift, King Robin. We shall not forget such gracious hospitality,” or how you tried to murder us.
“Think nothing of it, young one, but perhaps after you are done picking out some weapons, you could come by the palace? There is another task I could use your help with,” the Panda King said as he wore the same ear to ear grin he always did when speaking.
“There are a lot of things we must do while in town, Your Excellency. Perhaps you will be patient in waiting for us?” Darwin offered, still doing his best not to lie. If there was anything he knew, it was that he was a bad liar. That’s why with every word he spoke, he tried to keep it as close to the truth as possible.
“I shall be waiting, indeed. I look forward to your arrival,” the King said, giving a little head nod and then departed with his two guards.
The second they weren’t in earshot of the King though, Kass spoke first. “You’re not really going to take anoth–”
“Kass,” Kitchens interrupted her. “Where are we?”
Kass’s face scrunched up for a minute, then released in an ‘ah-ha’ moment. “Sorry,” she said, looking around. “I was just thinking we should get those weapons and check in with Alex as soon as possible.”
“I think we’re all in agreement on that.”
“I WANT DAGGERS! Pretty daggers! Maybe even magic daggers! But not ones that talk to me. If they talk to me, then people will think I’m crazy,” Minx said. “Unless they are nice-people daggers who just give me compliments every time I kill someone, saying things like ‘Well done,’ ‘Nice haircut,’ ‘That dress is pretty on you,’ or ‘You are a very smart lady.’ That type of talking magic daggers would be fine.”
“I’m just hoping for a weapon that does more damage than my current swords. I’ve been using them for a long while now.” Darwin frowned at his Burriza’s Blades.
“You’re not going back to axes are you? With the horns, that may be a bit too evil-looking,” Kass noted. “We’d have to invest in a PR campaign just so people wouldn’t run away the moment they saw you.”
“You mean my good looks alone aren’t enough?” Darwin asked, holding his chin up to show off what he thought was his ‘best side.’
“Yeah . . . Do you think we could afford the type of marketing that’d be needed to save Darwin’s image?” Kitchens asked, ignoring Darwin’s reply.
“Maybe . . . We’d have to get everyone in the faction to contribute, but we might be able to come up with something,” Kass said, giggling as she conspired about Darwin right in front of him.
“In Japan, they use kawaii yuru-kyara to make things appealing. Yuru-kyara is a cute mascot! There should be a Darwin mascot!” Minx added this time, butting in between the two as they walked.
Darwin just frowned. He knew that no matter what he said, they would keep talking as if he wasn’t there anyway. After all, this wasn’t the first time people talked about him in front of his face without acknowledging him.
“What would that even be?” Kitchens asked curiously.
“I’m thinking a giant spoon. A big silvery-gold-colored one that carries around two butter knives and has forks for arms and legs,” Kass offered.
“Should the spoon also wear a bathrobe?” Kitchens asked.
“Well, it wouldn’t be a mascot for Darwin if there weren’t at least one bathrobe involved,” Kass answered.
“You could go the other direction. Make a short imp with a bathrobe running around with two spoons! Make him super red and have horns that constantly cause him to fall backwards or forwards,” Minx said, holding her hands up like horns and pretending to fall backwards because of them.
“A mascot might not be enough,” Kass said, nudging Minx. “We need something more.”
“My mom always said mean, ugly and scary people get famous from sex tapes! It worked for Ms. Skin-and-Bones and the three gypsy sisters,” she said. “So, it should work for Darwin too, right? We should get Darwin to make a sex tape!” Minx suggested, jumping up and down.
“Umm, do you know what a sex tape is?” Kass asked.
“Well . . . First, there are bees, and then–” Minx started, drawing out a look of panic on Kass and Kitchens’ faces.
“That’s enough of that. Now, what about a charity? Even the most evil of people get away with looking nice once they donate to charity,” Kitchens chimed in.
“Yeah, that’s a good point. Maybe have a billboard in the middle of town, ‘Darwin! The face of feeding starving orphans!”
“Are there starving orphans in a videogame?” Minx asked. “Should we feed them?”
“Knowing Darwin, if there were any starving orphans in this game, he’d have scooped them up and put him in his faction the second he found out,” Kass said, nudging Darwin this time. “He’s just that type of guy.”
“So that’s where my gold and cookies went,” Kitchens said.
“Gold and cookies?” Minx looked up at Kitchens. “You had gold and cookies?”
“No, Minx, I didn’t, but not for a lack of trying.” Kitchens seemed to frown slightly, but it was hard for Darwin to tell.
“We’re here,” Darwin said, thankful he finally had a means to break up the ongoing gabfest about him. “This is the right armory, yeah?”
“It appears so,” Kitchens said as the four of them entered the large building. While everything was very Asian throughout the town, the royal armory could have fit in anywhere. It was just a big, simple, two-story square building with the word ‘Armory’ on top and four guards at the gate. As they started entering the building, they held up their tokens to show that they had reason to be inside it, and the guards uncrossed their halberds and let them pass through without so much as a word.
When they got inside, everything was broken down into sections. There were what looked like a hundred carbon copies of each weapon or piece of armor, and they were further sorted by type.
“Darwin! Darwin! Look at this one!” Kass called over. Darwin instinctively looked to the spot she had been, and then to the spot she was, still a bit shocked she had managed to disappear and find the section with staves so quickly. The one she was excitedly shouting over looked almost exactly like the one she currently had. It was another staff with a blue sapphire at the top, but the only difference was the actual staff itself was white, not dark, and it was plain and smooth with no etchings or designs.
“Is it better than the one you have?”
“What? Of course it is! It almost triples the current stats. This one will boost my Spirit and Concentration by 50 points each. It even has 20 Vitality! It’s the same for my stats as if I had leveled up twenty times!” She was almost jumping for joy. “And I still get to pick out a piece of armor! Oh, my god! Darwin! This is payday!” She said, jumping in place even more than Minx usually did. “I’m going to find a dress! No peaking! I saw them on my way to the staves. They looked so hot! I can’t wait try one on!”
As Kass tore off in the direction of where the defensive gear was, Darwin went around looking at the different weapons himself. He had been happy with the two Burriza’s for a while, but they hadn’t been upgraded in what felt like forever. As he walked through the sword section, he found Kitchens debating between two katanas that, to Darwin, only differed in the color of their hilts.
“What’s the difference between the two?” Darwin asked,
“The red hilt emphasizes Power. It has a higher Damage and a bonus of 35 points to the Power stat. The blue hilt emphasizes Speed. It has lower Damage than the red hilt, but has a 40 point boost to the Speed stat. Finally, that green hilt over there has the least amount of Damage, but has a 50 point boost to Vitality,” Kitchens said, still playing around between the red and blue hilts.
“I take it you’re not interested in the Vitality one?” Darwin said, seeing that none of them had even been moved an inch from their display on the racks.
“If I were worried about getting hit, I probably would have picked up one of the many Speed-restricting armors,” Kitchens said, not taking his eyes off the blades.
“Maybe you should just pick the blue one then. It’s the color of your favorite element: water. Not to mention, your style seems very dependant on being faster than the opponent.”
“That was my thought at first, but the red one would make it more likely that I could one-shot-kill an enemy.”
“Hmm, well, whatever you say. I should probably go check out long swords and axes,” Darwin said, walking off towards Minx and the other melee weapons as Kitchens stopped him.
“This red blade’s Damage is only 195. Isn’t your blade stronger?”
“How could you tell?”
“I counted the number of times you had to hit them with your no-style attacks. If the stat boost on your blade is existent at all, you may want to consider a necklace or ring. Any weapon you pick will likely be a downgrade in comparison,” Kitchens said.
“Thanks for the tip,” Darwin said. Deciding to heed his advice, he started to turn and walk towards the jewelry section when Minx saw him.
“Darwin! Darwin! Which one looks cooler?” Minx said, calling him over to where the daggers were.
“These are all ‘woosh woosh woosh,’ and this one is all ‘wheoooo wheoooo,’” she said, spinning two different daggers around.
The only problem for Darwin though, trying to think of which one might suit her better, was that they were both red-hilted daggers. Whereas there had actually been a difference in Kitchens’ weapon decision, these were identical. It was likely the case that even the stats were the same. “Ummm, you should go with the ones that are all pew pew pew,” Darwin finally answered, unsure if his answer would even make sense to her.
“Okay! Thanks, mister, but don’t the people with the weapons that go ‘pew pew pew’ always die and never hit anything?”
“Oh, yeah, they do. You should go for the ‘woosh woosh woosh’ ones then,” Darwin said.
“Thanks again, mister! What are you going to get?”
“Me? I’m not sure yet. I’ll figure it out soon, I guess.”
“You should get a piece of armor. Then you won’t look so silly. Maybe a good pair of boots? Everything in life is about a good pair of shoes! That’s what my best friend Sally says.” Minx nodded to herself, then looked at Darwin’s slippers, then nodded to herself again. “Good shoes are a good investment!”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Darwin responded, leaving Minx to her clearly hard decision as he made his way to the jewelry section. He currently had one of the best items there was, not that any of his teammates noticed. The Captain’s Emblem gave all his allies a 5% boost in their stats as well as raising the Levels of NPCs by five. But his ring only added +10 to his primary three physical combat attributes, and he still had plenty of fingers and a neck to add enchanted items to. He might even find a good pair of boots, but for some reason his slippers of +10 Face Smashing had grown on him. They fit perfectly and were just as comfortable as they were worn.
When he got to the jewelry section, he found himself cringing with every piece. Whether they were gaudy, over-sparklish bands or necklaces with weird cliché designs like dragons, he just couldn’t stomach any of them. Finally, as if gravitating towards the only spot his eyes could look at without being blinded by a ridiculous set of stones, he saw a pair of simple iron bands.
He picked one of the rings up to inspect it, curious about what properties could have earned the pair a spot in the royal armory. The item was called the Ring of the Unkept Promise. Darwin looked at the title. What promise wasn’t kept? he asked himself. It wasn’t specific at all. What promise would be so great that it would justify the stats on this ring? He couldn’t understand as he stared at the bonuses: +30 Power, +30 Speed, -10 Vitality, +5% stats to the wearer of Ring of Broken Vows when in range. He picked up the other ring and inspected it immediately too: +30 power, +30 speed, -10 vitality, +5% stats to the wearer of Ring of the Unkept Promise when in range. Does this mean that if I wear both of the rings, I’ll get +10% to all stats on top of these bonuses? Darwin thought, looking at the two rings. He decided to give it a try.
First, he looked at his stats before putting on the first ring. At level 43, his base Power stat was 159 (3×43+30), and the current bonuses were +10 from the Ring of Power, +10 from the Captain’s Ring, +15 from his Bathrobe and +10 from each Burriza’s Blade. That left him with 214 Power currently. His Speed, also pretty high, was at 184 with the items he had on. He put on one of the rings, boosting his Power to 244 and his Speed to 214, but when he put on the second Ring, instead of his power just going up to 274 and his Speed just increasing to 244, the stats both jumped up to 301 and 268 respectively. Dang, that’s amazing. That’s about 40% more Power and 45% more Speed than I had before. Why has no one picked these rings up before me? Darwin found himself astounded. True, his Vitality took a hit from wearing them, dropping 20 points altogether, but the increase in Speed and Power seemed well worth the drop in hit points. After all, more Power also meant more Damage resistance. He didn’t hesitate to make up his mind right away. Every other ring had a rough 60 point increase and no negatives, but the 10% from wearing both of these was just too tempting to avoid, even if it did cost him a few points in Vitality.
“Tokens, sir,” said a Feline with a monocle and top hat who appeared out of nowhere as soon as Darwin stepped away from the ring display.
“Oh, yeah, here they are,” Darwin said, handing him the two tokens.
“Sir, in the future, please do not try on the merchandise without paying for it first. We do not run a charity here,” the Feline said, scoffing at the still overjoyed Darwin. “Not that anyone will mind if you failed to return those ugly, despicable trinkets, but they won’t want other more valuable accessories or items to be handled by a Human before buying them.”
Darwin frowned. A Human, huh? he wanted to say. He also wanted to hit the snotty, snobby Feline, but decided that he should avoid attacking someone when he couldn’t foresee all of the consequences.
“Now that you have no Tokens, please excuse yourself outside to some place where the rest of your peasant kind mingles. Your friends are already waiting, though I can’t imagine why two proud Felines would associate with you people.”
Do I really look like just a Human, even with the red eyes and horns? Darwin wanted to ask, but decided not to. The fact that he was being mistaken for a Human wasn’t the part of this encounter that was wrong, it was the fact that Humans were being looked down on so much. Since he was apparently the last one to make a decision and get an item, and everyone else was already waiting outside, he decided to head out and join them too.
When he walked outside, he saw the three of them, all wearing their new gear. So, a blue hilt for you, Kitchens, and a smaller blade to go with your katana? Still just red hilts for you, Minx, and . . . Wow, Kass, you look stunning, he mouthed to himself as he saw her sitting there in the same white dress but with a thin sapphire studded crown made of what looked to be just ice.
“It’s the Crown of the Ice Queen. Since I’m already wearing the ring, I thought I’d try on the crown and see if it gave me any additional bonuses for being in the same set, but before I could take it off that mean monopoly cat kicked me out. Said, ‘Humans shouldn’t touch things without buying them!’ What about you?” Kass asked as soon as she saw him emerge. “Did you get a cool pair of swords?”
“No, actually, I got a pair of rings.”
“Really? Cool! Let me see!” Kass said, rushing over and grabbing one of his hands. “Is that it? Just a plain metal band?”
“Yeah. Just a plain metal band, but the stats on it are pretty great.”
“That’s awesome. Anyways, let’s head back to the ship. We still need to get out of this town before–” Kass started before Darwin spoke up and cut her off.
“Kass, quiet. We’re still not alone,” Darwin said, placing a finger to his lips to signal a shush. Kitchens had been right to remind Kass of her surroundings earlier, but he probably wasn’t going to keep making the same point over and over again. “Now, let’s go.”
“Indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing my new comrades,” Kitchens said.
“They’re all great, you guys,” Darwin responded. “Y’all should get along real well.”
“Good to hear. Minx, let’s go meet our new friends.”