Darwin’s constant leering was starting to send shivers up Kass’s spine. Whatever his plan was, she was almost certain she didn’t want to be a part of it. “Darwin, no, I’m not answering that,” she instinctively retorted.
“All I’m asking,” Darwin did his best to straighten up his face, but his laughter was reinforcing the creepy smile despite his best efforts, “is whether or not you could outrun the other Drakes if need be? I mean, you do seem to like flying that guy, right?”
Wait, why would I have to . . . “No! I’m not going to do that, Darwin!” Kass stamped her foot as she realized what Darwin was going to ask. If he wants someone to play bait and go gather up all the Drakes, then he can go do it himself! she thought defiantly. There is no way in Hades that he is ever going to get away with making me the lure in this fishing game!
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to take that Drake back then . . .” Darwin raised his hand and motioned as if he was calling a dog home. The big Blue-Drake Kass had been riding on just a moment ago started to move towards Darwin before Kass jumped between the two.
“I’ll do it!” Kass panicked, her body not big enough to block the drake’s return if Darwin seriously called it. “Don’t think like that. There is no reason for you to take Toothifer away.”
“You named him already? And Toothifer at that?”
“Well, it was either that, Scale-eosis, or Scale-ator,” she said, remembering the hard decision she had faced, “but the first sounded like a disease and the second ended up making me think of chicken fingers.”
“Chicken fingers? Really?” Darwin sighed in exasperation.
“Well, you know that the closest living relative to a T-Rex is a chicken, right? So when I thought of Scale-ator, I thought of chickens, and then I remembered that I haven’t had chicken fingers in a while. I couldn’t stop thinking of chicken fingers. So Scale-ator makes me think of chicken fingers.” Kass smiled in satisfaction with her logic. Not everyone knew that the chicken was the closest living ancestor to the T-Rex, or so her news feed said one morning.
“You’ve been spending too much time with Minx.” Darwin scrunched his eyebrows and pinched the top of his nose.
Spending too much time with Minx! Psh, you’ve just been spending too much time with Kitchens, Kass wanted to say, but decided that given he had just gotten her a giant, blue dragon, something she had secretly dreamed about since she had first heard of a VRMMO, it might be okay to let his comment slide without a rebuttal. “Well, whatever, Toothifer just seemed to fit, so I’m going with it.”
“Fair enough, but I still need you and Toothifer to do me a favor. We have an entire dungeon full of enemies,” Darwin pointed to the inside of the dungeon where several Drakes were still visible. “It will take a long time to clear out if we try to fight them fairly. I think our best bet is to get you and Kitchens to take your new mounts and go round up our prey. If you keep a safe distance and aggro them with your rides’ fireballs, you should be able to pull them all without getting in harm’s way.”
“So you want me to not fight, but run away like a coward, right?” Kass clarified, not entirely sure how she felt about her role in the plan, but getting past the Drakes would necessarily be a team effort, and she would have to play a part if it were going to succeed. Actually, this is the first time we’ve done a strategy like this in a dungeon, she thought, remembering how previously it had just been the usual hack and slash grind all the way through. “No fighting, just running?”
“Sure. After all, Scale-ator is a relative of the chicken, right? Should be real easy for him to summon up his ancestral talents and run away from a fight,” Darwin laughed as he put a hand on the blue Drake’s wing.
“His name is Toothifer!” Kass insisted, resisting the urge to stomp on the ground. “Not Scale-ator!”
“Sure, sure. Are you and Toothifer up to the challenge?”
“Yeah, no problem. Just, how come it’s Kitchens and not Minx?”
“Because, if we take out style and defense from the Damage stat equation, Minx does more Damage than Kitchens by a long shot,” Darwin said, walking around Toothifer as if he were a piece of meat at the supermarket. “She’s sloppy, but she hits like the main character in an anime after ten episodes of shouting at the screen. Also, I don’t want to tell her she has to go galloping in yelling Leroy Jenkins after the last incident with Fuzzy Wuzzy. Girl looked like she was going to cry when they started killing the poor guy.”
“Yeah, actually, quick question: if Fuzzy Wuzzy dies . . . Can you resurrect him again?” Kass asked as she stared at Minx, who was playing with the giant bear as if he were a tiny puppy.
“No, I don’t think I can,” Darwin shrugged.
“Well, I think we need to talk to Kitchens about getting his daughter a cat or a dog then,” Kass thought, thinking about the horrifying ramifications if the girl lost her new pet mid-game. It’s really not a matter of ‘if’ so much as ‘when,’ Kass thought, thinking about how tough things were getting and how big of a target the black bear was.
“Maybe,” Darwin nodded in agreement, “but for the moment, let’s stay focused on the dungeon. We don’t have long until Valerie’s crew of bird-men finish their job. I’d like to have the dungeon cleared before they even show up if we can.”
“You’re not worried about how difficult the boss will be with just the four of us?”
“Who said it would only be four of us?” Darwin grinned and eyed the five red-eyed Drakes.
“You know that is a cheat skill, right? Why would they even add a skill like that without a clear limit,” Kass complained. It wasn’t right that she only got a few cool ice spells, and he got the ability to raise giant, undead, zombie armies.
“Actually, there is a limit. It said I can only control the number up to the maximum number of NPCs I can command,” Darwin put a finger to his chin. “But . . .”
“But faction leaders don’t have clear-cut NPC command limitations . . .” Kass understood what he was trying to say.
“Yeah, I’m as lost as you, but it does mean we won’t have to go into that final fight alone.” Darwin turned from the Drake to face Kass. “All you have to do is run.”
It wasn’t so much the idea, demanding that she flee, but the way he said it that cemented her feet to the ground and sent an icy finger running up along the side of her spine.
They had been having so much fun that she had forgotten all about his horns or noticed that his eyes weren’t just red any more–they were pulsing and glowing with a strange light. Have they always looked like that? her own gaze fixated on his like a deer struck stiff by the headlights of a car. Has he always looked like that? She involuntarily shivered a bit, then shook her head to clear it of the thoughts. This is Darwin. There is nothing off about him. “Yeah, that plan does sound easy enough. Well, let me hop on Toothifer, and then I’m ready.”
“Great. Kitchens, no chance you heard the plan?”
“If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” Kitchens climbed up on his new Drake. Then, facing the bear and girl he shouted out to his daughter, “Minx, do what Darwin says. We’ll be right back.” He then spurred on his mount to push its way through the entrance with him on it, surprisingly unscathed.
Kass hopped up on Toothifer and followed after him. “Are we splitting up?” she asked. “Like you go one way and gather them, and I go the other? Or are we going to make the run together, all at once?”
Kitchens did his best to look over his shoulder at her as she tailed him. “I have no preference. You think it’ll go faster if we split up?”
“It can’t hurt. Do you want the right side or the left?” Kass felt pretty comfortable with her flying abilities after only one ride.
“There is nothing right about this, so I’ll take left on the first split,” Kitchens replied, failing his pun delivery. “Also, have you noticed something off about the mounts?”
Kass looked at her Drake. “What do you mean?”
“How do they understand us? If Darwin is their sire, why do they listen to our commands? What causes them to distinguish us from–Oh, there’s my left! See you!” Kitchens’ drake pulled left and disappeared from sight.
What the heck? You can’t start a line of questioning like that and leave instantly, Kass though as she frowned. But he’s not wrong. There are a lot of things that I just don’t get with the pet system. Why does Fuzzy Wuzzy, a mob-based NPC, react and behave as if he were a real-life domesticated pet? Kass’s concerns with the issue consumed her concentration as she soared high above dozens of packs of Blue-Drakes on her way to the end of the dungeon.
Given the nature of the dungeon, it wasn’t hard for Kass to figure out where the end was. She could see it from halfway across the dungeon as she flew several stories above the black platform. There, at the end, was an incredibly large, circular platform twice the size of a football field with a giant dragon sitting in the middle. The drakes were mostly all blue in color, and one or two were darkly-scaled enough to almost verge on black, but the big, full-bodied dragon was irridescent. It had feathers in the place of scales, and it had a tail that was almost as long as its entire wing span, which was already massive in proportion to its body.
When she met up with Kitchens near the front of its habitat, even he couldn’t stop himself from commenting on the creature. “That is indeed an interesting monster.”
“Yeah, I don’t know who designed it, but it is definitely the right mix of beautiful and terrifying.”
“Like a good date,” Kitchens joked from the other side of the boss’s zone, this time actually drawing a laugh out of Kass.
Beautiful and terrifying? What type of dates does he go on? Oh well, time to get a ton of EXP! she thought enthusiastically as she eyed all the enemies in sight. “Shall we?” she said, straightening her back, throwing on her most grumpy face and using her best Darwin voice impression.
“Sounds good,” Kitchens tapped the back of his Drake’s head causing a fireball to shoot out of its mouth at the last pair of Drakes on his side. “Come on AzurWrath, let’s get out of here!”
Kass did her best to mimic Kitchens’ fireball switch, then took off as well. “Let’s beat them back, Toothifer,” she said, holding firmly onto his scales as they passed camp after camp of Blue-Drake’s on the way, shooting fireballs to gather up each group’s aggro. The fire didn’t hurt the drakes at all, but just one attack had the same effect as hitting a hornet’s nest with a baseball bat.
Even though the crowd of winged beasts chasing after Kass kept growing, she was able to maintain a rather sizable and safe distance between her and the closest of them. It wasn’t that they were pausing before following her, it was that she wasn’t slowing down for them, and they took a minute to get into the air and build speed after her. By the time they were up and chasing her, both she and Toothifer were over 150 feet ahead of them. It would have been a smooth and easy trip if it weren’t for one detail–Kitchens was ahead of her.
When she got to the entrance of the dungeon, she found herself with a heavy flank of aggro from the Blue-Drakes that Kitchens was leading on the side, and they were heading in the same direction at roughly the same speed. As one of the drakes that Kitchens had dragged along got closer and closer to Kass, she instinctively started to create space. The problem was, it wasn’t an instinct she should have listened to. The further she got away from it as it tried to come at her while still chasing Kitchens, the more she realized that if she didn’t beat the entire group of them, she would be trying to fight through bodies and bodies of drakes to clamor through the exit.
Crap, why didn’t I think of this before we split up. Kass found herself really starting to worry. If they beat me to that entrance, it’s over, and I forgot to set my new bind stone as the Panda King’s town. If I die, I’ll end up going back to the original bind stone I set. That’ll send me all the way back to Valcrest on noob island!
As the fear built up, she knew she had to do something, but couldn’t figure out what. They’re immune to magic, so I can’t even enchant to slow them down . . . Except, maybe, just maybe, they aren’t immune to everything. Kass grinned. Is this what Darwin feels like when he comes up with one of his ideas? she thought, lifting herself just a bit on Toothifer’s back, high enough to hold her staff with both hands, but low enough that she didn’t get slammed off her mount’s back by the heavy wind their speed was generating. Frost Step, do your trick! she prayed as the spell took hold around her and subsequently Toothifer.
Within moments, the Blue-Drake she was riding had the same familiar blue trails of cold mist flowing out of its four feet and off its wings that she had seen creeping off of Darwin’s every time she had buffed him with the spell. Did it work? She looked around at the flying fiends on her left. So you got the full effect, Toothifer? Now for the tough part.
She hugged the neck of her mount tightly and pulled him softly left so that he started heading straight to the entrance, faster than his competition. The movement speed buff from the Frost Step spell was just enough to help her pull ahead of her pursuers, but she still had to dodge them as she flew past some of the ones in front. One even tried to claw Toothifer’s wing off, but a quick hiss and jerk from Toothifer, without Kass’s prompting, left the wing intact.
When she finally got to the front of the crowd, Kass felt overwhelming relief. There was enough room to cleanly make it through the tunnels without an issue. After she got through, she and Toothifer turned around to watch the massacre. One by one the Blue-Drakes died, opened their newly red-eyes, and climbed through to the other side, each of them lining up in a crescent around the entrance like vultures gathering around a dying man in the desert.
It’s like a right of passage, she observed, noting the mechanical nature in which they would enter a savage, clawing beast and exit a silent, tamed pet. I can’t tell if he’s reviving them, or remaking them.
“Do nothing which is of no use,” Kitchens commented as he climbed down from his Drake, AzurWrath.
“Hmm?” Kass replied, confused.
“For all of Darwin’s rage as the kin of fire, he is still a child of war whose actions show an understanding beyond what his words reveal,” Kitchens walked over to give Kass a hand to help her climb down. “Every move he makes is calculated.”
“And?” Kass didn’t follow. They were killing the beasts because they needed to get to the end of the dungeon unharmed and have a distraction for the boss.
“Do you think Darwin believes that the four of us with flying mounts now at hand could defeat the boss?”
“Yeah, he has that type of confidence.”
“Then it only stands to reason that this army is not for the boss,” Kitchens said, pulling out his katana. “If every action Darwin makes is designed to yield a certain fruit, then what crop shall these seeds yield?”
Kass sat puzzled on top of her drake, which was fine for the conversation since Kitchens had already left to help Minx and Darwin with clearing the mobs out of the hole faster. The thing that had her befuddled the most was that Kitchens was right. She knew she should probably be trying to piece together what an army of Blue-Drakes was for or even thinking about what her own next step would be, but she wasn’t. Instead, she was staring at Darwin as he baptized the Blue-Drakes, one by one, with a single thought running through her head: Was his friendship with me one of use?