Kass found herself doing everything in her power to look at Darwin’s face, but given that she had somehow managed to end up in the very back of their small group, and he was at the very front, it was starting to feel like an impossible task. Darwin had somehow already managed to cozy up to the NPCs that they were sent to kill and was walking side by side with the guard in the front, chatting about God only knows what. In fact, Darwin was talking to the very same guard that had locked his arrow on her in a tight hallway less than an hour ago.
None of that mattered though. All that was important now was the fact that there wasn’t a single reflective surface in even one of these corridors that would let her see Darwin’s face again. She just couldn’t shake it. Horns. He has horns! she kept thinking. It doesn’t make any sense. Well, it makes sense given that he’s a Demon, but it doesn’t make sense given he didn’t have them before the gas. How is it that everyone else passes out, and Darwin grows horns? Kass thought, baffled by what was going on. Were the horns a reaction to some event in Tiqpa that I missed?
No matter how much she tried to puzzle it out, she couldn’t find herself resting on any one idea or conclusion regarding Darwin’s transformation. All she knew was that she couldn’t take her eyes off the new additions to his head. They were so weird, yet so cool. Darwin may have been a Demon for as long as she had known him, but now he actually had the horns to go with it. Coupled with his red eyes and already large physique, he was shaping up to be a real devil.
“Big sis, what happened with Darwin?” Minx asked, bumping into Kass again. It was like she had no sense of personal space when she walked. Kass was almost sure the reason Kitchens always rested his hand on her head when the two were walking was to establish where he was relative to her so that she wouldn’t run him off the road doing one of her impromptu impersonations.
“I’m just as curious as you are. I have no idea why he grew horns,” Kass said, still trying her best to look for any reflection that would let her see him again.
“Not his horns, him. Look at him. Earlier he was all–” She bit into fake cookies and then did a smiling head swing side to side, “but now he’s all–” she folded her arms over her chest, pursed her lips and wrinkled her brow.
“Are you sure? He doesn’t look grumpy to me,” Kass thought, unsuccessfully trying to listen in on him now too.
“That’s cause you’re too busy checking to see how horny he is,” Minx said, causing Kass to giggle a bit. It was wrong, but every time Minx talked about how horny Darwin was, she couldn’t help but snicker.
“I’m still not convinced he’s grumpy. I mean, sure, we got poisoned, but everyone came out okay, right?” Kass asked, looking at Darwin’s bathrobe. Everyone came out okay . . . and your white bathrobe is soaked red. His bathrobe is . . . completely soaked in blood. Ugh, how did I not notice that sooner? Kass wanted to hit herself. In the game, holes or injuries to an armor almost always repaired themselves within seconds to minutes, mainly as a precaution put in to stop people from having inappropriate body parts flying around, but blood stains could take hours to fade. Sometimes a player could spend an entire day with blood stains on their outfit.
It wasn’t just on his sleeves or splattered on him either. It was a deep soak, almost as if . . . As if it had come from his own injured body. It didn’t make sense to see it in huge blotches across his legs and abdomen without much spray elsewhere.
“See, big sis! I know that face. You see what I’m talking about! Minx the Lynx is right again!” Minx said, smiling in a way that made it look like she was showing her teeth to the dentist, “But he’s scary again now.”
“He’s scary again?” Kass asked, becoming confused even more.
“Yeah, he was scary earlier . . . like he was going to eat me, and now he’s scary again,” Minx said. “He’s not going to eat me, is he?”
“No matter how horny he gets,” Kass assured her.
“Okay okay. If big sis says so,” Minx said, and then nuzzled into Kass as they were walking. “Comfy sis.”
Darwin, what did you do to scare Minx to death earlier? What did you do while we were passed out, she thought, watching his back. Why does your back seem so much bigger than it used to?
They came to a dead stop when the archers and Darwin arrived at a giant pair of wooden doors at what felt like the end of a mile-long walk. “We’re here,” Louie said, opening one of the doors for Darwin.
Kass wasn’t able to see exactly what was going on at first, still being a ways from the room, but what she did make out instantly was the leader. Everyone else was wearing some off-brown uniform like they were less archers and more rice farmers, whereas the man in the middle, sipping tea and talking to two other men, was wearing a full samurai outfit like he was straight out of a ronin movie. As soon as Darwin entered the room, he dropped his tea cup on the table next to him and stood up while pulling on his mask.
“Who dares intrude on the gre–”
“Weak,” Darwin said in one word, ignoring the man’s attempt at a boastful introduction.
Kitchens looked at Darwin, just as surprised as Kass was. What are you doing, Darwin? Kass thought, watching Darwin push out his chest and walk arrogantly into the room.
“What was that? How dare you t–”
“I said, ‘Weak.’ As in you’re weak. As in you would be dead right now, scattered like bits of flesh across the ground, if not for my generosity,” Darwin said, walking closer to the little, would-be warlord.
Minx tugged on Kass’s dress and whispered, “See, big sis. He’s scary again.”
This is not Darwin. Darwin doesn’t talk like this. He gives rousing speeches. He inspires men. He leads men; he cares for men. This is not how Darwin talks, Kass thought as she watched the spectacle.
The two men that the leader was talking to started to protest, started to say “wait” or “stop” or something, but as soon as they got up to reach for Darwin, he took his sword and slammed it into the ground. “Move again, and I will butcher everyone here,” he said, staring at the two.
“Young man, what is the meaning of this?” the masked samurai shouted.
“Darwin, honey draws more flies than vinegar,” Kitchens cautioned from the doorway.
Everyone had crowded in at the door, but neither the four archers nor Darwin’s three companions had entered.
Darwin didn’t even acknowledge that Kitchens had spoken. “Your men, they threatened to kill my friends. I forgave that. Their incompetence–it almost cost me and my friends our lives on our way to see you. I forgave that too. But,” he paused, looking around at the scene where the three men had been casually drinking tea, “this I cannot let slide. I was almost killed defending the lives of my friends and your men while you were, what? Casually sipping tea? Playing war in the back, dressed up for battle?”
“Young man, we weren’t just sipping tea, we were talking abou–”
“If you interrupt me again, I will rip your tongue out and make you eat it right here, right now. Have I made myself clear?” Darwin said, his eyes pulsing a red that Kass could see all the way from the door without even having a good angle on his face. Minx, also clearly noticing the eyes, had grabbed onto her dress and was holding it as if her life depended on it.
This isn’t Darwin, Kass just repeated to herself, unable to process the actions of the man in front of her. This isn’t Darwin.
The leader under the mask stayed silent, gulping under the threat.
“Speak now, boy. Have I made myself clear?” Darwin’s voice pushed the man back again.
“Ye . . . Y es, yes, you’ve made yourself clear,” he stuttered, shaking a little as he spoke.
“Just so you don’t forget, here’s a reminder,” Darwin said, pulling out a spoon and stabbing the handle through the man’s armor into his arm. As he started to yell in pain, Darwin put a finger to his lips and another hand on the sword he still carried.
Darwin! Kass found herself containing a muted scream. Part of her had thought it was all a bluff, that he was only acting tough, but as soon as the spoon had pierced flesh, she knew it was real.
“Now, you see, I’m going to ask you some questions, and you’re going to answer them. I already know the answer to most of them, so keep in mind that every time I think you are lying, I’m going to stab you. Do you understand? Nod if you understand.”
The man nodded vigorously.
“First question: how long have you been working for the Panda King? Go on. Answer me,” he said, tapping the spoon in the Daimyo’s arm.
“I don’t work fo–” Before he could finish his denial, Darwin had pulled out his blade and stabbed the man’s leg, leaving it in for a second and then pulling it back out.
“That’s bad. You lied to me on the first question,” Darwin said, looking down at the man who had fallen from his chair to the floor as he grabbed the wound on his leg in pain. “Let’s try again, but without the lies. How long have you been working for the Panda King?”
Everyone sat in silence. Even the archers, who had previously looked like they wanted to stab Darwin themselves–even the guards, who had gritted their teeth as he waltzed around like he owned the place–all of them were now docile and quiet, staring at the wounded man on the ground.
“A year before the organization started,” he coughed.
“See? The truth wasn’t so hard to say, was it?” Darwin said, nudging the victim with his foot. “Second question: why does the Panda King want me dead?”
“I don’t know,” the man said, and as Darwin pulled his sword up in exaggerated preparation for stabbing him again, the samurai pleaded further. “I swear! I don’t know! I swear he just sent word an hour before you came that he was going to send some people by to dispose of you.”
“Did he tell you that my mission was to kill you?” Darwin asked.
“No, no, he didn’t. He just said you’d be coming by to talk and to have my best guards ready to kill you if his team failed . . .”
“Louie, Reginald . . . Guys, guess what. You’re the best guards here,” Darwin shouted back in an out-of-the-blue cheerful tone at the four archers. “Congrats.” Then, he turned back to the main on the floor. “Third question: how do you communicate with him?”
“He sends messages via a drop spot outside. He always lights two fires side by side and, when it’s time to read them, I exit the cave through the secret tunnel and check the drop. If someone spots me, I just say I thought I saw enemy movement.”
“I see. So there isn’t any way for him to know if I killed you, is there? There isn’t any way for him to know if I completed my mission or not?”
“Well, no, but . . .”
“Fourth and last question: do you have anything to offer, anything at all, that might be useful enough to stop me from killing you?” Darwin asked, holding his sword with one hand and stroking the blade with the other.
“Uh . . . He . . . He was my accomplice!” the samurai fingered the man he had been drinking tea with next to him. “He’s also a spy!”
After trying to pass the buck, the samurai didn’t say anything. He just stared, his face drained of all color, for a good minute or two. After that, Darwin stabbed the wanna-be daimyo right through the heart. He then waited a minute longer, pulled his sword out, and cut the wretch’s head clean off his slumped body.
“Was that necessary?” Kitchens asked, his eyes following the rolling head.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t piece it all together too.”
“I put together enough, but did you have to kill him?
Kass wanted to join the conversation and ask what the hell was wrong with him, but now that she could actually see his face, she couldn’t find the words. The horns were the least intimidating part of his visage. The eyes that seemed to glow red more than just be red gave off a feeling that just unsettled her. That’s not Darwin, she said to herself again. She started to feel like a broken record, but, even so, it was because there was definitely something broken about what she was seeing.
“Yes, I did, Kitchens,” Darwin said, picking up the head. “I have people in that city, people that will be slaughtered if the King moves against them too quickly. If the King thinks we are a tool to be used, that we still have a function, and he can get rid of us with the next assignment . . . he won’t act right away.”
“Ah, right. I forgot that you’re ‘Great Lord Darwin,’” Kitchens said. Kass wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic. “So you’re going to murder everyone here and bring back the trophy?”
“No. The way I figure it, we only have to bring one head. There’s no way the King will know if we killed everyone or not. The rest of these people will join us in our march for a new home.”
“You think they’ll join you right after you killed their old leader?”
“It’s their choice, but the other option is to have their towns razed and be butchered on the spot. Without their leader playing patsy, selling out to the King while pretending to be good for the cause, it’s only a matter of time before the King marches every able body he can find to wipe them off the face of the earth,” Darwin said nonchalantly as he carried the head towards the big doors.
“They might not trust you or believe the story. It might just be your word against a dead man’s,” Kitchens continued.
“Devil, sir . . . Umm, I mean, Darwin,” Louie spoke this time. “What will happen to us now?” The archer was standing next to his three friends and the innocent guy.
“Well, likely, it’s just like I told Kitchens. Without the patsy pulling the strings, you’re going to be marched on by the Panda King.”
“Yeah, but,” Reginald looked at Louie, and they both exchanged a bit of a nod, “you said there was a way out of that, right? You said there was another option to your friend, didn’t you?”
“He did. That he did, Reginald,” Steve said, nodding. “He said, and not to misquote you on this, Mr. Darwin Devil, but he, I mean you, said–” Stevens paused, cleared his throat excessively, and then began speaking in a perfect Darwin impersonation, “‘the rest of these people will join us in our march for a new home.’”
“You’re right, Steve, he did say that. But, that option is only valid if we actually, fearing for our lives, choose to follow this clearly devilish man,” Louie began, “and, of course, in the case that we believe his claim about this being our only option if we indeed wish to live.”
“Hmm, interesting point. Given our praise to and admiration of a proper diety that promises us eternal salvation upon death, we really shouldn’t be concerned with that outcome, should we? It would invalidate the motivation for joining this proper devil gentleman.”
“That’s right. We really shouldn’t be afraid of death. In fact, hypothetically, it should be something we celebrate to the point of seeking it out.”
“Indeed. I mean, this life is supposed to be something hellish in comparison to what’s all said in the holy writings; so, death, especially a noble one of fighting for a special cause, should definitely be a nice relief. It would almost guarantee us a place in that fancy paradise.”
“Right, right. So, you wanna go with the dying option?”
“Oh, heck, no! I haven’t been to a weekly service in over two years. I’m going to follow the random devil guy.”
“But, can you trust him?” They just kept talking, completely ignoring the other five people in the room. Even Minx shrugged.
“He did figure out our boss was working with the bad guy,” Steve said, looking at the decapitated body. “That’s got to count for something.”
“Okay, my lots in with him too. Let’s go round up the others and tell them the options,” Reginald said, patting Louie on the arm as they started leaving. “I just hope the new place has better uniforms. I’m really getting tired of this ugly color. It’s just so bl . . .” The voices of the four trailed off, Kass unable to hear them as they got too far away.
“They weren’t going to ask you about it at all, were they?” Kitchens almost laughed.
“I don’t think so, but at least they were interesting,” Darwin said.
“They were. I’m guessing if all they do is wait at an entrance all day, they have a lot of time for philosophy,” Kitchens thought out loud.
“Yep. Anyways, what do you want to do with the other traitor?” Darwin said, nodding his head toward the man our little warlord had called out earlier. “Kill him?”
“Might as well,” Kitchens said, as he sliced him in two with his katana, not even waiting for a discussion on the subject. “But, the real question is: do you think this plan will work? What if the Panda King finds out that we didn’t kill all the bandits and we are on to his scheme?”
“Hmmm, in that case, we’d end up having to fight our way through to reconnect with the faction; but, that’s a scenario that’s likely going to occur one way or the other regardless. This at least keeps cards on the table,” Darwin said, holding up the severed head in order to signal exactly what he meant.
Kass, still staring at the head and trying to put her thoughts together, found herself just going with the flow and making excuses for Darwin’s actions. It wasn’t like Darwin wanted to kill that guy. He only did it because he had to in order to protect the people of Valcrest. There is no way Darwin would murder someone in cold blood for no reason, she told herself as the four of them left the room and started heading back towards the city. Darwin just isn’t the type to murder someone in cold blood, she thought again.
This thought persisted all the way until she exited the ore mine and saw the scene ahead. The pleasant, scenic entrance that had been there before had changed from greens and browns to reds and blacks. The ground was covered with the bodies of what looked like a dozen Feline ninjas, their limbs and bodies ripped apart in a rather gorish fashion. She knew the cuts too. She knew exactly what person had left such wounds on his enemies like that, splitting them roughly like a butter knife sawing into bread.
“Impressive,” Kitchens said as the four of them walked closer to the scene. “My thanks again.”
“Wuuuuhhhhh? Mister mister, was that you? Did you do this? Did you kill them all?”
“No, Minx,” Darwin said, walking up to and staring at the body of one particular Feline Ninja. “I think that, this time, they killed me.”
“But, mister, you’re still alive, and they’re dead! What do you mean?” Minx asked again, but Darwin was just quietly staring at the body. After a minute, Minx came up to him and pulled on his shirt. “Mister, what do you mean, mister? I don’t understand.”
“Minx, leave him to his thoughts,” Kitchens called out, summoning Minx back to him like a master calling for his dog to return. “We’ll be back on the road in a minute.”
Kass frowned. Even she wanted to understand what Darwin meant. Darwin, what happened to you? she thought, her brain rejecting half the pieces of the puzzle and leaving her unable to put the whole picture together. She knew she was ignoring details, but she had to. After all, Darwin just isn’t like that.