Darwin tensed up as he and Kass passed the door to his quarters on the way back to the group. “Umm, Kass, I need to do something first. Just tell the others I’ll join them in a minute and let them know what we plan to do.”
Kass gave him a funny look for a minute and then just nodded. “Sure thing. I’ll let the others know our evil scheme.”
“Is it really evil?” Darwin said as he touched his horns. “Don’t tell me I’m actually turning evil too.”
“I’ll see you with the group, Darwin. Go take care of your stuff,” she laughed and walked away, leaving Darwin to stare at the door handle to the Captain’s quarters.
After a few seconds of nervously looking at it, he sighed, reached for it, and finally opened the door. All of the awkward tension from not being sure what to say to Stephanie about his horns or the fact he was leaving without her again the second he got back, even if it was just so that he could get Levels again, was for naught. She wasn’t there. He remembered that she said before he left that she had to take care of some stuff too; but, for some reason, he had kind of expected, maybe even hoped, she would be waiting when he got back. Instead, there was only a simple note written on college ruled looseleaf paper in fancy handwriting lying on his pillow.
He walked over to it, picked it up, and started to read.
If you’re reading this then that means I’m dead. Kidding! I’m probably still out taking care of errands, but how dramatic would that be? It would totally be, like, one of those fancy-pants action movies, and you would have to, like, avenge me all hero style. I’d expect a cape. Actually, given there will probably be players who will try to kill me one day, you should be taking notes. I want you to be wearing a cape, and something really tight, like leather, that shows off those hot muscles and your cute ~ Wait, this letter needs to be PG-13 or it won’t make it into the live action movie. Anyways, remember that!
Now, just in case you beat me back to the cabin, please leave a map of where you’re headed so I can catch up to you later. Thanks, honey.
Last night was really fun, I’ve been thinking about it all day 😉 ← Is it okay to write an emoji? Should I just draw a winky face instead? Will it end up as awkward like if you say “LOL” in real life in place of actually laughing? Get back to me on this.
Lots of kisses, XOXOXOXO
Darwin actually laughed a bit at the comment about people saying ‘LOL’ in real life. He couldn’t help but think of his old guild and that one annoying paladin who never actually laughed, but would constantly say LOL over the voice chat channel just to let everyone know he thought something was funny. That guy’s habit was strangely comforting though, like a reminder to Darwin that even after spending every waking moment that he wasn’t working playing games, he still wasn’t the biggest nerd in the guild–not that it would have been a bad thing.
I wonder what she’s been up to that she still isn’t back, Darwin thought, as he drew out a map for Stephanie. With her Level, what in this area could possibly take her more than a few minutes to handle?
After he finished the rough sketch of a map, the best one he could do with his limited knowledge of the area, he put in his own little note for Stephanie and left to go join the others. Walking back to the group, he felt a sense of joy that hadn’t generally come with the game so far. Sure, everyone here was a gamer just like like him, and he had played countless games before with groups of people, but this time it felt less like he was logging in with a bunch of guys to grind and more like he was about to go hang out with a group of friends and play, which was something he had never really gotten to do as a kid. Today will be a good day, he said to himself.
“Ah! Great Lord Darwin!” Justin shouted as Darwin came closer. “We were just informed of your decision.”
“Yes, we were, and I must protest the current plan. I know my rank does not allow such insubordination, Great Lord Darwin, but my conscience won’t let me send you off into another dungeon without adequate protection,” Alex said, his head ducked low as he maintained a bow throughout the protest.
“Well . . .” Darwin searched his head to come up with a reasonable excuse as to why he didn’t need protection. “Well . . .” he started again, but this time Kass interrupted him.
“Would you feel more comfortable with him going if we took Fuzzy Wuzzy with us?” Kass asked.
Alex paused. “Alright, but you have to figure out how to get Fuzzy Wuzzy to wear his uniform. He won’t put it on.”
“Did you try putting it on for him?” Darwin asked, thinking about how hard it must be for a bear without thumbs to put on a bathrobe. He had thumbs and stood on two feet, and his bathrobe was still sometimes difficult to put on if only for the fact that the sash kept disappearing.
“We have, but he’s been grumpy since he last left the Great Lord’s presence. While he’s been incredibly helpful with the preparations, he’s just not been cooperative with much else. Perhaps if you insist, he’ll wear one.”
“Wait, Fuzzy Wuzzy can talk?” Daniel asked, eyes wide. “I thought he just growled. Those growls aren’t words are they?”
“What, you didn’t know?” Kass said, looking at him like he was an idiot. “Fuzzy Wuzzy is a sophisticated bear gentleman. He doesn’t growl. He speaks with a deep, ursine voice as is the custom of his people. I can’t believe you’re so uncultured that you didn’t even know that.”
“Really?” Valerie asked, her eyes even wider than Daniel’s.
“I believe they’re just pulling our leg, Valerie,” Mclean laughed. “Well, I think they are, but they could also have spent the last two weeks learning an intricate language no one else can speak without a Rosetta Stone.”
“Yeah, no. It’s more like since Fuzzy Wuzzy is a summoned creature, I can understand what he is thinking and relay orders to him in a way that is incredibly hard to explain,” Darwin said as Fuzzy Wuzzy came barreling up the stairs and jumped on him like a big dog who was seeing his master for the first time in a long while. Darwin, who would have been knocked over if it weren’t for the power boosts the game afforded, did his best to stay standing as the big black bear leaned his head over and licked his face. “Although, I’m not exactly making him do this.”
“Tha . . . That’s Fuzzy Wuzzy?” Minx said, staring open mouthed.
“Yeah, that’s our Fuzzy Wuzzy, but you need to be careful,” Kass warned Minx. “Fuzzy Wuzzy preys on cute, young girls. He’s like a big, fat ped–”
“Shh, Kass, don’t tell her that,” Darwin managed to stop her from making the conversation take a dark turn. “Fuzzy Wuzzy is a fine citizen of the StormGuard Alliance.”
“He’s . . . He’s SO CUTE!” Minx said, jumping on the surprised Fuzzy Wuzzy. She caught him right around the neck and hung on tight like she wasn’t sure if she wanted to hug the bear or choke the life out of him. She had in essence become a human tie for the giant, red-eyed teddy bear.
Kitchens just shook his head. “Minx, you can’t keep the bear,” he said, as if understanding what was going on in Minx’s head before she even asked.
“But, but, Dad! He’s so cute!” Minx pleaded as she swung back and forth as the bear’s human tie.
“Wait, Minx is your daughter?” Darwin asked, looking over at Kitchens. “Does that mean, you’re like . . .”
“Yes, I’m an old man who plays video games with his daughter.”
“Well, umm . . . How old?” Darwin felt awkward asking. He actually wanted to know how old Minx was because she acted more cutesy and kiddy that any actual child he had ever seen, but he couldn’t imagine a really little kid ever being allowed on a VRMMO like this one. Not wanting to betray his confusion, he had figured he could probably gauge from Kitchens’ age how old Minx might be.
“Oh, me? I’m forty-two with the full head of gray that comes with it,” Kitchens said, touching his hair.
“Dang, I thought I was the oldest one at thirty. Well, that’s cool you let your kid play a VRMMO. Most parents typically frown on the video game route,” Darwin noted, remembering how many times he had seen parents get in the way of good raids because they insisted their fifteen year old go out and ‘get a life.’
“I’m not a kid!” Minx yelled from her new necktie position. Fuzzy Wuzzy, now standing on two legs, was looking at her and holding his paws over her as if he weren’t sure if she were deadly to touch or not. Occasionally, he’d extend one paw close to her as if he were going to poke her, but then would pull it back. “I’m an adult!” Minx yelled again.
“Of course you are,” Darwin said at the bear tie.
“I am! I’m 18! I’m more than old enough to get a pet, and I want a Fuzzy Wuzzy!” Minx yelled back from the neck of the bear, who, in response to Minx’s plea, just let out a defeated growl.
“She’s 18?” Darwin asked Kitchens in a low voice as to not draw more Minx yells from the bear’s neck.
“Yeah, she is. Actually, the game is a fun way for me to spend time with her and get her to socialize since she doesn’t have friends at school.”
“I’ve heard that kids who go in and out of that Japanese school system have trouble with bullying sometimes,” Kass snuck into the conversation.
“Yeah. The kids at school are a bit unkind to her sometimes, but they mean well,” Kitchens nodded.
“Wait, she goes to school in Japan? How could you tell?” Darwin asked Kass, not sure of what queues he missed.
“‘Cause the only people I know who stand as straight as Kitchens are Marines. There’s that and his reverence for Asian philosophy, the stuff you two are always talking about as if I can’t hear you. Together, the two probably mean that he spent a lot of time stationed in Okinawa, and they most likely either live in Japan or lived in Japan until very recently,” Kass said with a smug smile.
Darwin looked over at Kitchens who just nodded. “Wow, that was impressive,” Darwin admired Kass for a moment. “You figured all of that out from just him standing straight and the topics of our conversation?”
Kass just giggled. “No, of course not. Minx told me earlier when we were talking. You are so gullible, Darwin.”
Darwin scrunched his eyes and covered his face for a moment. “Fine, fine. I’m gullible. Now, can we get this show on the road? Fuzzy Wuzzy, walk on two feet if you have to, but don’t hurt Minx.”
Fuzzy growled, then carefully grabbed the girl who was hanging from him and put her on top of his head as he sat back down on all fours. His switching from two legs to four, with her on his head, left Minx to slide down his neck until she was sitting on top of his back as he walked up to Darwin and pushed his head up against his hand. Why does this remind me of Minx and Kitchens now?
“Umm, Boss, before we go . . . is there any way to ask for a favor?” Daniel asked, scratching his head behind his ear. “See, it’d be great if this whole thing were an order from Alex.”
Mclean and Valerie seemed just as stunned by the request as Darwin, Kass and the rest were. Everyone stared at him blankly for a minute, wondering what he was on about, then both Mclean and Valerie went, “Oh!”
“Yeah! That sounds like a great idea. Please have Alex issue this as an order,” Mclean said.
Alex, who had stood quietly the whole time, nodded and stroked his chin as if he had a beard. “I see. They have a great deal of respect for the chain of command. This is very good, Great Lord Darwin. They’ve been very diligent with the tasks around the ship; and, regarding the moving, they’ve not missed a single thing and have completed all the orders as if their life depended it.”
“Yeah, Great Lord Darwin, we’d like this mission to be an order from Alex, if you don’t mind,” Valerie piped in too.
“Indeed, it’s for the best,” Mclean said, “The chain of command should stay intact. It’d be rude if we, as subordinates of General Alex, were to go above him and work out deals with his superior behind his back. We should make sure General Alex has all of his tasks covered ahead of time.”
“Okay, um . . . What?” Darwin had to ask. This was all too weird. He knew that Valerie was really into role play, but it just didn’t fit for Daniel or Mclean. “What’s really going on?”
“Well, you see–” Daniel started talking with his hands, ready to make an excuse, when Mclean interrupted him.
“It’s the EXP, your Great Lordship,” Mclean said, holding her head low. “We just want the EXP.”
“The EXP?” Kass asked with a face that was just as confused as Darwin’s.
“Yeah, whenever we get a quest,” Mclean explained further, “I mean, a request from Alex, it counts as a quest with a ridiculous EXP reward compared to what the task is. Even something as simple as fetching lunch seems to count for the same amount of EXP as if we did a full dungeon clearing quest.”
“Yeah, it’s really great actually. I am almost Level 44 off of it,” Daniel said. “So, if it’s not too much trouble, we’d like to have Alex issue the request.”
“Wait wait! Minx can get a quest from this?” Minx said from atop Fuzzy Wuzzy’s back. “Minx wants a quest!”
Alex sighed. It was clear to Darwin from his General’s earlier excitement that Alex had such high hopes for the discipline and conduct of the new recruits, but instead they were just using him to increase their power by the same inexplicable method Darwin himself utilized. Darwin couldn’t tell if Alex understood what ‘EXP’ meant, but the sigh definitely let Darwin know that he wasn’t entirely happy with this discovery. “Alright, I need all of you to go with Darwin and do exactly as Darwin says until the new base is established,” Alex said with more than a hint of defeated resignation in his voice.
“Thanks, Alex!” Daniel said, clapping his NPC boss on the back.
“That did it! Thanks a lot, General Alex,” Valerie said.
“Wow, cool! I didn’t know factions had this function! Thanks, Alex!” Minx added as Mclean and Kitchens just issued a two-word ‘thank you.’
“How come I didn’t get one?” Kass asked, looking around at the others.
“Well, if I had to venture a guess, Kass,” Daniel responded, “It’s likely because you’re a higher rank than Alex. Since quests are given by NPCs of a higher rank, and your only boss is a player, I’m guessing this little EXP mine just won’t apply to you. Given we’re the only faction I can think of with NPCs, it’s entirely possible the GMs in charge of fixing glitches like this will never notice it.”
“What? You mean everyone else will level faster than me?” Kass’s face went slightly red. “That totally stinks!”
“For you. For us, it’s quite handy,” Kitchens said, smiling up at Minx. “Minx, you did really good finding this swordsman.”
“See! Minx is the best!” Minx said before straightening up on her bear mount and then pointing towards the dock. “Onward, Sir Fluffster! To victory!”
As they all filed off towards the new quest, one by one with Darwin in the back, Darwin thought for sure he heard Alex say something behind them as they left.
“NPC . . . ?” he thought he could hear Alex saying. “What’s an NPC? Wait, we didn’t give Darwin the bathrobe to give to Fu . . .” the voice trailed off as the distance grew too great.
Halfway through the town on their way to the gate, a group of tiger guards stopped them. “His Excellency has requested an audience with you fine heroes before you leave.”
“That’s excellent!” Darwin feigned happiness. “The sooner we can be of service, the better.” It was a necessary lie. He knew he had to keep up the pretenses until his people could escape the town; but, even through his best fake smile, he could feel his stomach turning inside him with each lie.
“Good. Your entourage can wait here. The audience is only requested of you and you alone,” the Panthera said, looking at his friends with obvious disdain. Darwin felt a little grossed out looking at his beady, yellow eyes while the cat squinted at his companions.
“Fine,” Darwin said. The whole thing was fishier than a fresh-stocked lake, but he didn’t want to start trouble. “I’ll be back. Just wait here,” he said to his friends as he followed the two guards by himself.
“Use your psychic powers to signal Fuzzy Wuzzy if something goes wrong!” Minx shouted at Darwin as he walked away.
They left the crowded street full of players and NPCs haggling left and right and ventured through a few sketchy back alleys until finally the path opened up into a garden behind a gate. The gate had a white floral design inlaid with ivory and was barely one fat Fuzzy Wuzzy wide and not but ten feet tall. The guard opened the gate and then waited as Darwin walked in. Afterwards, he shut and locked the gate behind Darwin.
Well, this meeting is already shady enough to turn the entire desert cool, Darwin grimaced as he walked down the path. If it weren’t for the awkwardness of the circumstances, he would have greatly enjoyed the garden. It was actually rather beautiful. It had flowers flowing in streams of silky purple across the ground on both sides of the pathway and was bordered by lines of white orchids. Red roses spiraled up each one of the garden’s thin, ivory fence posts that edged off sections of the garden and parts of the walkway. It was a simply stunning sight, and there in the middle of it was the Panda King, quietly holding one of the red roses.
“You wanted to see me?” Darwin asked as he approached the Panda King.
“Yes. Yes, I did, young one, but we can get to that in a minute. Until then, perhaps you could take a walk with me?”
“Of course, Your Excellency,” Darwin nodded and walked next to the Panda King, who started walking through the flowers. Each step amid the beautiful floral sea made Darwin want to cringe a little. It was like watching a rhino walk through a china shop and casually knock pieces to the ground.
“You know,” the Panda King began, pausing only to pick up a flower, “when I was young I knew a Human farmer who had two animals. One was a pig, and one was a cow. The farmer raised both of them with care, but he only raised the cow with love. The pig, on the other hand, he treated with disgust. Day after day, he would ignore the pig and praise the cow. The pig, angry at this, finally asked the farmer about it. He asked the farmer why he treated him poorly but the cow with such kindness. The farmer, not caring what the pig thought of him, honestly answered the pig. He told the pig that the reason he treated the cow better was that the cow gave them milk day after day to drink with his breakfast and sell to the town. He told the pig that the reason he treated him poorly was that he resented the pig for still being alive.” The Panda King, in an obvious and overly-dramatic fashion, crushed the flower he had been holding and scattered its broken petals into the gentle breeze. “That, so long as the pig was alive, he was essentially worthless. Only when the pig was dead would it be worth anything.” Then, finishing the parable, the Panda King stopped walking and turned to Darwin. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“That I shouldn’t be the pig?” Darwin asked, clearly understanding what the Panda King said, but still wanting the ruler to clarify how that was to be achieved.
“That those who don’t prove useful every day they are alive, often prove useful when they are dead.” The Panda King’s once friendly smile had transformed from a happy grin into simply a mouth full of teeth. “That’s not something you want, now is it?”
“Not particularly,” Darwin felt an urge to step back as the Panda King’s menacing fang-filled mouth chomped wordlessly. “But how do I stay useful?”
“Ah, that . . . That’s an easy one. All I need you to do this time is the same thing you did last time: clear out a set of terrible pirates,” the Panda King laughed jovially, his usual cheerful and rosy demeanor returning.
“So . . . Same thing I did last time? Same type of problem?” Darwin asked, secretly wanting to know if the Panda King planned on sending more mercenaries or ninjas to kill him mid-mission. He would have, but he had already died once, and he knew the panda could not have obtained the station of King without being formidable in a fight. Just his presence exuded a type of power no one else in the Kingdom seemed to have. Instead of following up his question with a wise remark about the ninjas the Panda King had obviously sent after them, he just asked, “Is there anything else you will need, Your Excellency?”
“No, no, I think that will be all. The guard at the gate will have a map with the location of your next target.” The Panda King turned back to his flowers, the ones he wasn’t stepping on, and bent over to pick one up. “Oh, and Darwin, one more thing,” he said, turning up to Darwin as the warrior was walking back to the gate. “Remember that a good cow will be praised and cared for.”
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Darwin said, and then he started rushing his feet towards the gate as quickly as he could while still maintaining a walk.