“That guy gets creepier with each meeting,” Darwin complained as he returned to the group.
“All that ‘young one’ talk?” Kass asked, remembering the way the old Panda King had insisted on calling them all “young one” all the time.
“No, I wish it were only that. This time he gave me a weird metaphorical speech about a pig and a cow and how he would kill me unless I made him happy every day,” Darwin explained. “It was like he was going for a Godfather vibe and got lost in a pig’s rear halfway through.”
“Ouch, that bad?” Kass sympathized, doing her best to imagine what she had originally thought of as a kind old man making threats like that.
“Yeah,” Darwin nodded, “That bad. Kind of made me want to take a shower.”
“Well, we shouldn’t dilly dally then.”
“No, but we have to make a stop along the way,” Darwin said, pulling out a scroll. “The King actually did us a huge favor. He gave us the location of another group of so-called bandits.”
“How is that a favor again?” Kass wondered.
“Yada yada, more twigs in the bundle makes it harder to break, yada yada,” Minx answered Kass’s question.
“Yada yada?” Kass had heard the phrase a million times, and already had a general idea of how it fit, but she was so surprised to see Minx attempt to talk like Kitchens.
“Minx is tired. Fuzzy-Wuzzy, be my bed. I’m going to sleep now,” Minx said as she ignored Kass’s request for an explanation and curled up on Fuzzy-Wuzzy’s furry back. “Sleeeeeepppyyy time now. Oyasumi.”
“You can sleep in the video game?” Darwin asked, extremely intrigued by this idea. “How do you sleep in the video game?”
“She’s not sleeping. She’s just ignoring Kass’s question because she doesn’t remember the whole point of the example,” Kitchens answered, patting Fuzzy Wuzzy’s head in lieu of Minx’s.
“I’m not sleeping, mya mya mya,” Minx said in an awkward feigned yawn, using ‘mya’ to supplement her fake snores.
“She should have told you that a twig by itself is easy to snap, but a bundle of them bound together is difficult to even bend.” Kitchens continued patting Fuzzy Wuzzy, clearly making up for the lack of his built-in daughter hand rest.
“Yeah, that one, mya mya mya,” Minx deliberately snuggled further into Fuzzy Wuzzy’s fur coat.
“Okay, so we need to go there and gather up more bandits as well as make sure we convince the existing bandits to join us?” Kass clarified.
“Yeah, that. Also, I have some really bad news,” Darwin said, looking at the map.
“Uh oh,” Kass gulped. Darwin never mentioned having bad news. It was his positive, go-getter attitude that she liked about him–that attitude that took challenges as they came and just pressed forward regardless of the risks. For him to mention bad news, it had to be pretty dire. “How bad is it?” she had to know.
“You forgot to get chocolate chip cookies from the Panda King before you left, didn’t you?” Kitchens asked, a smile spreading across his face.
“Yeah, it totally slipped my mind,” Darwin held his head in shame.
What? Chocolate chip cookies? You made me worry over chocolate chip cookies? Kass, who had resisted it several times before, finally facepalmed. “Darwin, you idiot.”
“Uh huh! Stupid Darwin needs to remember the important things next time, mya mya mya,” Minx continued her fake ‘mya’ snoring. For some reason though, even with all the ‘mya’ sounds as snores and the lynx cat ears, Kass just couldn’t see Minx as anything other than a cute puppy who got excited over even the smallest of things. Granted, if Minx somehow managed to walk across her keyboard while she was gaming, that would reverse course and gain her the cat image.
“Are we going to have enough time?” Darwin asked,
“To get chocolate chip cookies? Mya mya mya . . .” Minx’s fake snoring was starting to irritate Kass a bit. “There’s always time, mya mya mya . . .”
“No, I mean is there enough time to pick up both groups of guerilla fighters and still clear the dungeon before Alex and them start their march?” Darwin clarified.
“Well, you could cheat,” Daniel offered, using his wings suddenly to hover a few feet above the ground. “I mean, you do just so happen to have incredibly fast Scouts that could gather up the rebels before you even make it to the dungeon.”
“We could also try to get winged mounts,” Darwin thought aloud. “Every game in the world has them at the first big town, right? I mean, they may be expensive, but we’re not exactly broke.”
“Actually, it doesn’t work like that in this game,” Kass sighed. She remembered hearing about it during the promo videos at the tech conventions. “In this game, the only way to get any type of good mount is to make it to the final neutral city, The City of Light. They are the ones with winged mount trainers.”
“The City of Light? Winged mounts? That sounds awesome,” Darwin said excitedly, “but, we’re probably not going to be there for a long time, are we?”
“Nope. So your best bet is to send us awesome people on a quest,” Daniel said,
“Wait, you got EXP when I told you guys to wait there, didn’t you?” Darwin asked with a half-cocked eye.
“Yep,” Daniel nodded, showing no guilt over his boon.
“So you’re waiting for me to tell you to go do it because it’ll count as another quest you can get done before we even show up at the dungeon?”
“Yep,” he nodded again.
“Haha, alright. If you think you can handle the diplomacy, go take care of both groups and meet us at the dungeon entrance,” Darwin said. Then, noticing the other two waiting, he extended it to all of them. “All of you go handle the first set of guerillas, then handle the second set of guerillas, then meet us at the dungeon.”
“Thank you kindly, Boss,” Daniel said, shooting off into the sky.
“See you round, Chief,” Mclean flew up and joined Daniel.
“Umm . . . What they said, Great Lord Darwin,” Valerie noted, taking off after her two friends.
“And then there were four,” Darwin mumbled, “How ‘bout we take the scenic route and leave those guys waiting on us.”
“You had something in mind?” Kass asked, remembering the hectic battle route they had taken from the silver ore mine to their Hydra’s home.
“Well, there should be enemies in the woods, right?” Darwin asked, more to Minx and Kitchens than to Kass.
“Yeah, and players trying to farm them,” Kitchens answered, putting a hand over his sword hilt. “You’re planning on farming both of them, aren’t you?”
“I think it’s an idea. We definitely need to work on our formation if we’re going to take the dungeon without the most important team role in boss fights.”
“A tank?” Kass asked, remembering how hard it always was to find a good tank for a boss raid in other games.
“That, but I was referring to a healer.” Darwin pulled out his professor hands, gesturing into thin air with each word as they walked towards the gate. “The way I see it, we are three DPS, or damage-oriented characters, and only one support caster. We’ve been skating through our fights by avoiding damage, not preventing it like a solid tank-and-healer combo would. Now, we can either pick those two up, which would take a lot of time but might be incredibly beneficial in the long run–or the quicker fix is we start working on our formation and our team work.”
“Won’t that still create problems later on? What if one of the bosses we fight has an area of effect attack that we can’t avoid?” Kass wondered. She couldn’t remember all of the bosses that she had read about, but she knew some of them had some incredible AOE attacks that would be hard for even Darwin to dodge.
“Yeah, that’s true, but what are we going to really do about it on such short notice?” Darwin asked, the look in his face causing Kass to flinch.
That’s right, he’s worrying about dying again. I need to be careful. This conversation must be stressing him out. “Well, surely there are a few people in the faction who are healers? I mean, the entire StormGuard Alliance can’t be short of healers completely? Can it?”
“I . . . don’t actually know,” Darwin scratched a horn, “I just thought they were all fighters like Alex.”
“You may want to look into that,” Kass suggested. “Well, when you get time, I mean,” she said, dismissing the urgency when she realized that, with her position in the faction, she should probably know too.
“Well, either way, we don’t have a healer, and it’s a good suggestion.” Darwin eyed the tiger guards at the gate as if they were bouncers more than guards as he walked past them out of the city. “Do we go find one and hopefully make it in time, or do we go out right away and work on our formation as was first suggested?”
They all stayed quiet until finally Kitchens put forth a plan of action. “Fire should not act like earth.”
Kass just looked at Minx, still snuggling Fuzzy Wuzzy’s back, and shrugged. She wasn’t far enough into the philosophy mumbo jumbo to get it, but while she was shrugging, Darwin was nodding thoughtfully.
“Yes, that does make sense. Let’s go kill stuff then,” he pulled out two swords and charged into the forest as if the trees were an enemy.
“Right,” Kitchens said, fully unsheathing his new blade and charging behind Darwin.
Kass, not wanting to be left out, followed after the two wild swordsmen with Fuzzy Wuzzy and his fare, dashing into the woods.
As they entered among the trees, Kass cast all of her augmentation spells onto both Kitchens and Darwin. She was tempted to do the same for Minx and Fuzzy Wuzzy, but after seeing the first fight, she decided that was unnecessary. Minx never left Fuzzy Wuzzy’s back, and Fuzzy Wuzzy never made it to the fight before the enemies were dead. Darwin and Kitchens seemed to have a who-can-kill-faster competition going on all the way to the dungeon. It wasn’t a graceful competition, but it was definitely one won by circumstance more than skill. Each time Darwin or Kitchens got close to an enemy, their swords would flash, the enemy would split in half, and they would be off to kill the next poor creature. It was a matter of luck who ended up closer to the next hapless victim first.
As for the enemies, Kass couldn’t wrap her head around how amazing the monsters looked. As she watched Darwin duck under the pincer-like blades of a fire-spitting, spiked, mantis-esque bug with floating, purple eyes, she couldn’t help but admire the work that was done by the game creators or AI. Even the guts and lava-like blood spewing from its sides were oddly beautiful as Darwin, now having cleanly dodged the monster’s attack, pulled his blade through its abdomen splitting the exoskeleton of the giant, flaming insectoid in two.
The creatures were all so well designed and unique that even a Scorpatuar’s entrails plopping onto the forest floor as Kitchens did a 360 degree spin to both dodge and disembowel the scorpion-centaur was a work of art worth admiring. It’s not that the previous areas hadn’t impressed her. There were a lot of cool monsters on the beginning noob island, but most of them weren’t as creative or fearsome as a poison-breathing, eight-legged stink bug with two bladed arms that almost doubled the length of its body crawling around attacking with a long froggish tongue.
It was definitely a far more complex and vicious world. In other games, Kass often couldn’t tell if the enemies were merely placid observers in their own deaths or were actively attempting to prevent it, but here it was clear that Darwin was escaping certain death each fight by a hair’s breadth at best. Sure, he was cutting things in half left and right, but the fights looked as intense as if he were fighting the polar bear in the first silver ore mine all over again except his enemies just took much fewer hits.
Halfway through the mountain climb, Minx decided she was done snuggling Fuzzy Wuzzy and straightened up on top of the bear. The two of them charged around, never actually attacking anything, while she waved a dagger in the air as if she were a general rallying her troops in an old-fashioned, King Henry-styled medieval movie.
“Why is it that every time we get around to killing, you swordsmen go quiet?” Kass asked from the back as Darwin lobbed the head off another Scorpataur. “Is it like trying to listen to the radio and watch TV at the same time?”
“Well,” Darwin managed to breath out heavily as he shifted at the last minute to avoid being crushed by a Rhino-Beetle’s attack with what looked like two giant cinder blocks on sticks, one such club in each of his right arms, “chat can be kind of distracting.” He lunged in, stabbing the Rhino-Beetle square in the center of his shoulder before the creature could recover from the momentum of his swing. “And it definitely messes with the tempo of things.”
“Hmmm, I guess that makes sense.” Kass tried to sneak in a few snowballs at her enemies before recasting her buffs on her comrades and running up to meet them. She hadn’t entirely mastered the art of casting and moving, but she had gone from struggling with the ability to actually being able to run while manipulating augmentation magic. “So is it silence then the rest of the way?”
“No, Minx can talk and fight. Minx can even use special sound effects like she’s in an old-fashioned comic book,” Minx broke in, “Watch!” Minx jumped off of Fuzzy Wuzzy and darted, both daggers first, into the face of one of the nearest Rhino-Beetles while shouting, “KABLAM! See, Minx can talk and fight ‘cause she’s Minx the Lynx, coolest cat on the scene!”
“Does Minx always talk about herself in third person? Kass is just wondering,” Kass teased her.
“Of course. Because my dad always tells me to be the narrator of my own life!” Minx happily announced, totally missing Kass’s tone.
“I’m not sure that’s what I meant,” Kitchens said as he waded through another Rhino-Beetle, “but I’m certainly blessed to have such a daughter who honors her parents.”
“Mhmm! That’s right!” Minx crawled back on top of Fuzzy Wuzzy. “Glad you understand how blessed you are to have such an amazing daughter.”
Kass and Darwin just chuckled to themselves.
“Well, we’ll just talk, Minx, girl to girl about makeup and all the girly stuff while these two are forced to listen to us,” Kass plotted, unable to stop the grin that had spread across her face as she planned topics that would be awkward for both Kitchens and Darwin. “Like for starters, are there any boys you like?”
“I like plenty! But, shhh, one of them might hear us!” Minx whispered from atop Fuzzy Wuzzy.
It took Kass a second, and she thought about just rolling her eyes, but this couldn’t be avoided. The palm from her hand connected squarely with her forehead as she let out a sigh. What am I to do with you?