Guilty Pleasure: Darwin

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            While Darwin, Kass, Kitchens and Minx were going through the boss loot and playing around with the new items they had found, the three White-Wings approached from the air above holding a piece of wood, the same piece that Minx had carved up earlier with directions to not kill any of the red-eyed Blue-Drakes.

“The Fuzzy Wuzzy ultimate furball signpost worked! It work worked!” Minx bounced as she noticed them carrying her sign. “Wait wait, fuzzy Fuzzy WUZZY! Where did he go? Is he okay?”

“He’s fine. He just turned around and left the cave when he saw the Blue-Drakes respawning. How did you manage to get some of those things to kill the others? I don’t blame the bear for leaving. It was creepy watching a drake kill six others while they respawned right when we came through the entrance,” Mclean answered, her face momentarily going from slightly scrunched up to normal before immediately turning back. “Wait, did you guys just kill the boss?”

“Yeah, we did. It was awesome! He had giant feathers like a hummingbird and a tail that was all woosh swoosh and swoosh woosh,” Minx cheered.

“It was a dragon?” Valerie’s face lit up. “Did it breath fire, or was it ice? Did it have any special abilities like making tornados or–” she managed to get out before she was cut off by Mclean, whose flat stoic visage made her mood impossible to read.

“So you killed the dragon without us?” She stared at Darwin, who didn’t even get a chance to answer before Daniel joined in on the attack.

“I see how it is. Didn’t want to wait for us at all?” Daniel complained. “We rushed back here with good news after doing a job well done, and you guys went ahead and cleared the boss without us?”

“Hey, it was his idea,” Kass immediately shifted the blame to Darwin. “We just do whatever the boss tells us to do.”

“So I’m the boss now,” Darwin chuckled. “Could have sworn you said you wouldn’t ever be calling me Lord Darwin, but now that it’s time to shift the blame, here I am, boss of bosses and one hundred percent responsible for all the wrongdoings.”

“That is how it works, Boss,” Kitchens jumped up to throw Darwin under the boss-bus too. “You’re just going to have to deal with it.”

“Yep yep! Darwin made us do it! He was all mean bossy facey, going, ‘Kill the boss with me or I’ll kill you! Rawr!’ Minx the Lynx was scared,” Minx said, making sure the blame was properly centered.

“Ack, you two as well? Mutiny!” Darwin was now joined by the others in his laugh. The three newly arrived members weren’t in the best of spirits, as their grumpy faces showed, but they still joined in with laughing at the leader turned scapegoat.

“The loyalty runs thick in the StormGuard Alliance, I see,” Daniel mused.

“Hey, I think it’s wise not to joke about that when Alex might be here any minute,” Mclean protested their joking, but wasn’t able to get her face to match her words. “If he heard a joke about the faction he might bring back capital punishment.”

“Hmm. That is a good point. Throwing the fearless leader to the wolves may get us all killed by Alex,” Valerie nodded, her own suppressed laughter making her snort and then turn red when everyone looked at her.

While the joke about Alex’s seriousness didn’t ring as true to Darwin, Kass and the two new members of the faction as it did for the three White-Wings, Darwin could still imagine from his limited interactions with Alex about how right Valerie was. He often speculated that the true power behind whatever leadership position there was in the StormGuard Alliance was mostly derived from Alex and his commitment, and he would easily kill anyone who stood in the way of the faction.

“Anyways, I’d love to keep the banter going, but I really must get to sleep. I can’t pull the two-day gaming sessions I used to, being an old man and all.” Kitchens bowed his head a bit and then logged off.

“Yeah, I have something work related soon. I need to get sleep for it. You said this was going to be our base in the future?” Kass asked as she looked around at the place. “Like with the silver ore mine?”

“Yeah, once Alex finishes setting it up, it should feel nice and cozy like home,” Daniel intercepted Darwin’s question. “He’s been preparing to put it together for a while, and from what I can tell so far, it’s going to be pretty epic.”

“Great, then I need to get going. See you all later!” Kass also disappeared into the real world.

“I should sleep as well. Later gator!” Minx logged off next.

“So, it’s just us four. What do you guys want to do?” Darwin said, looking at the trio of bird people.

“Well, how long does it take for a boss to respawn?” Mclean looked over at the empty spot. “Can we kill it again?”

“It depends how long you have to play. Are you going to be up really late?” Darwin asked, remembering how long it took him to get a second Burizza’s Blade.

“I would if it respawned quickly. I do want to fight a giant dragon like that, but . . . Yeah, I need to get to bed too.” Mclean joined the magicians of the disappearing act and faded into thin air.

“You two?” Darwin grasped at straws. He needed to level, and groups were the best for it, but at this rate there wouldn’t be a group left.

“My mother wakes me up at the same time every morning. I need to go, or I’ll be miserable.” Valerie did a mini bow, and then, before signing off, she added one more statement: “Also, I know you’re not an NPC now!”

“Well, that was odd,” Darwin looked at the empty spot where Valerie was. “I’m assuming there is a story behind that outburst?”

“Yeah, but it’s kind of long, and I think since I’m the last one here, I kind of have to tell you something else first,” Daniel looked over at a camp of Blue-Drakes that was about to spawn. “How ‘bout I tell you over some good, old-fashioned spawn camping?”

“Sounds fun, and I could use a few more ZombiDrakes,” Darwin eyed his future minions.

“Yeah, about that, can I get one? I think a good old flying drake named Sparky would be nice,” Daniel said as he took to the skies.

That’s right, his main attack is a dive, Darwin remembered as Daniel took off into the air, and I believe he said I would run faster with him. “Hey, wait, why do you need a Drake? Can’t you already fly?”

“Sure, but I’m assuming most people who can walk still prefer a bike or a car,” Daniel called down from the sky. “By the way, like the new movement buff?”

Darwin hadn’t noticed it at first, but as soon as Daniel mentioned it, he realized he actually was moving a lot faster. It wasn’t noticeable at first because he often matched his pace for his group, or, rather, Kass specifically. Her Speed stat was significantly lower than his, so he didn’t like to get too far ahead and made it a habit of going slowly for her sake; but, with Daniel’s buff, it seemed like he was almost gliding across the ground. “It’s really impressive. Will it stack with Kass’s Frost Step buff?”

“It should. Generally, all buffs stack, even if they do so with diminishing returns. I know a lot of MMOs like to say that you can only get one buff of any given type or from a certain class, but this isn’t one of those MMOs. They don’t want to cut the legs off groups that show Job Class unity, so to speak.” Daniel dove into a spawning mob, almost killing it instantly, but the second Blue-Drake he attacked took a lot longer to kill even though it was still in the idle phase where it didn’t fight back.

So it’s like a one-bullet gun, Darwin thought as he watched Daniel land a series of well placed dagger attacks into the drake. “By the way, you said you were going to tell me something, right? Is it related to the bandits I sent you to get?”

“Ah, yeah, about that, they’re on their way with a few more camps too,” Daniel did a few fancy katas on another unmoving mob before just jumping into the sky again.

You should have done that in the first place, Darwin snickered to himself. “How did you manage to talk so many into it that quickly?”

“Well, the thing is, we didn’t actually talk them into it.” Daniel’s one shot, one kill dive ripped open another Drake, splitting the head in half. “You did.”

“I did?” Darwin blinked. “That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t remember even meeting them, and . . .” Darwin looked at Daniel pulling up into the air again for another shotgun, “Actually, I have an idea.”

“Yeah?” Daniel dove in for another kill.

Darwin noticed that their sprint had been perfectly timed. The way Kitchens and Kass had originally pulled the mobs, the back ones respawned first except for the very first group, which had been cleared separately, and everything else would spawn after those in the order in which they were killed. That meant that Darwin and Daniel could essentially run the entire gauntlet of the area so long as they were fast, and, with his movement speed buff, they were fast.

“Stay on the ground. I know you don’t do as much damage, but prep as many of the kills for me as you can. Get them to one health so I can finish them off,” Darwin said as he stabbed another cleanly in the middle of its forehead, converting it to one of his following.

“Any particular reason?”

“I have to get more rides for our StormGuard Alliance. Nothing says, ‘bad to the bone faction,’ like a bunch of bathrobe-wearing Demons riding into battle on their Blue-Drakes, don’t you think?” Darwin couldn’t help but picture the sight. I really hope they all have flap protection built into these new fancy robes. He grimaced at the image.

“Yeah, it does sound like a good idea. Sure, I’ll help.” Daniel stopped his dive killing and started prepping enemies for Darwin. It wasn’t much, given how much more damage Darwin did over Daniel, but it did speed the process up.

“So you were telling me about how I somehow managed to recruit a bunch of bandits without realizing?” Darwin asked as he continued to convert one Drake after another.

“Yeah, I was kind of surprised about that too. Have you perchance met a golden-haired goddess anytime recently?”

“Well, if you’re asking me about a beautiful blonde, there is Stephanie, but I’m not entirely sure she’s a goddess.” Darwin’s forehead wrinkled as he tried to imagine what in the world Daniel was actually asking. The two statements didn’t seem connected, but he wouldn’t have mentioned them back to back if they weren’t.

“She’s blonde? Hmm, you think that’s a rare trait around here? A blonde girl?” Daniel thought aloud. “I mean, have you met a blonde among the NPCs in this region?”

“No, I don’t think I have. Every single Human NPC has been either brown or black haired. There hasn’t even been a redhead,” Darwin began to see where Daniel was going with his logic.

“Well, that’s prolly cause they don’t have hair dyes yet,” Daniel laughed. “Once they figure that out, there will be a bunch of upholstery questions on every bachelor’s mind.”

Darwin almost snorted as he laughed at the inappropriate joke. “Wait. Back to topic. I have only met one blonde the entire time I have been in Tiqpa. Are you hinting at what I think you are?”

“I’m not hinting at anything. It’s spelled out pretty clearly,” Daniel said as he opened up another Drake for Darwin to finish off. “Unless Tiqpa has a religion that hasn’t been mentioned in any of the books before, I think I’d have a talk with your girlfriend.”

“Hmmm, what did the people have to say, exactly?” Darwin probed further. “Was it just that the Golden Goddess had come and told them to join me?”

“No, it was creepier than that. They were told that you were to be their savior. That they should rest all of their hopes and dreams on you.” Daniel frowned. “It made me wonder, was it easy to convert the citizens Valcrest into the StormGuard Alliance?”

“It was. It was actually surprisingly easy. I got a title, and then, after everyone of importance died, I was made into the de-facto leader.”

“But only the heavily-populated areas of town were burned, right?” Daniel drew a wince from Darwin as he forced the past events back into his mind.

“No, you’re right. It was the market areas that were demolished.” Darwin cringed. He had done his best not to think about it, not to remember the dead people everywhere. Not to remember how the people, the first people who were ever actually kind to him, were laid out dead on the ground like bags of garbage scattered in a wind storm before he had ever gotten a chance to really know them. Just the recollection left him with a pained expression on his face.

“So if only those were burned, how did the Mayor or Village Chief, both people who would be likely to live on a large estate away from other people, end up dead?” Daniel’s words made Darwin wince once more.

“ . . . I must confess,” Darwin said as he shook his head clear of the disturbing visuals, “I was so busy trying to keep myself and everyone else alive that I never actually thought about it.” Pieces began to click together inside Darwin’s head. His hands began to move on auto pilot, slaying drake after drake as his mind began searching for an explanation other than the conspiracy that Daniel was laying out.

“Look, I’m not going to press the matter,” Daniel explained. “I did my homework. We know for a fact who sacked Valcrest and why they did it. It was players, not NPCs. I’m not trying to blame Stephanie for some terrible crime, and I don’t think even if she did kill the Mayor or the Village Chief or whoever was in charge, it was for the worst.” Daniel did his best to keep his voice gentle. Darwin could tell he knew he was walking on eggshells with each syllable, “Hell,” Daniel’s voice continued shakily, “I’ve been sent on so many missions to kill NPCs whose only crime was not being part of the reigning faction in an area that I couldn’t even count the number of sentient bodies I’d piled up before I realized they weren’t just mobs in a game. At a certain point, it was just a fact I couldn’t ignore: the way the Fire-Walkers plotted, hated and schemed and the way Valerie’s superior had such a weird, self-sacrificing, romantic end. There was just no way they were simply mobs. ”

“I know the feeling. Even now I’m left wondering: how real were the things I’ve killed in the game before now? How intelligent are the rest of the mobs in this game? If Fuzzy Wuzzy can think and show emotions, can the other bears?” Unlike Daniel, Darwin said this all with a steady voice. It didn’t shake or even hint a change in emotion. “I kept wondering that for a long time. The thought ‘I just killed a regular guy playing poker with his friends or a harmless hare making breakfast for himself just because I needed their EXP and items’ stayed with me longer than I could have imagined.”

“But then?” Daniel managed to look at Darwin for a moment even as he continued his murderous work. “What changed?”

“Responsibility. If I don’t kill the boss making breakfast, he either kills me, or I go home too weak to protect my people. Since the moment I landed in Tiqpa, someone has been trying to kill me off. So at first, I didn’t have time to think about why I was stabbing the crazy idiot charging me in the field. After that, I had an entire people to worry about. By the time I realized what impact I was making, I already had too many reasons to ignore it. I had too many burdens to also carry the weight of my enemy’s sorrow.” Darwin hesitated and then decided to let the sentence end there.

“So that’s it? The StormGuard Alliance is why you are okay with it?” Daniel’s wry smile betrayed his eyes. “There is nothing more?”

There was, though, a fact that he couldn’t escape. A fact that he knew deep down from the very first moment his foot crushed the burglar’s face in. “No, that’s not it,” he admitted. It wasn’t something he should admit, but it was no longer something he could lie to himself about. “It’s also the fact that I like the thrill of the fight and the rush of the kill,” he said with a frown. Just saying it out loud felt like he had ripped a bandaid off all at once. It stung, but it was a relief to get it off his chest. “I like it. I’m good at it, and I honestly don’t even feel anything when I cut a man’s head off–except sometimes joy.”

Daniel stopped setting up the Blue-Drakes for a moment and turned to face Darwin. His eyes wide and his mouth half agape. “You . . . like killing?”

“Yeah,” Darwin sighed. “It’s like, I know I shouldn’t, but I do. I can’t separate it from the fun I have in video games, from the thrill I used to get when playing a really tough game. Like I was made to kill, like every kill brings me closer to some understanding of myself.”

“Boss, I don’t know how to put this politely, but that’s kind of scary.” Daniel just stared at Darwin, who never stopped slaughtering the newly-spawned mobs..

“Yeah, for you and me both. I do the right thing. I always do the right thing, but am I doing it because I want to, that it’s what my gut is telling me what to do, or just because I know I should? It is scary.” Darwin didn’t know why he divulged so much. He was having a conversation less with Daniel and more with himself at this point. “It’s terrifying because it means that maybe, just maybe, one day those lines will get blurred, and I won’t know the difference.” He paused the mayhem for a moment and turned and faced Daniel. “One day, I might not just kill because it’s the right thing to do; I might just kill because it’s what my gut tells me to do.”

“Let’s hope that never happens.” Daniel awkwardly shifted about then jumped back into the battle.

Have I alienated one of my few friends? Darwin began to worry, but Daniel put his mind at ease.

“Let’s hope that I don’t reach that day before you.” Daniel pushed his daggers into another foe, switching so that Darwin could follow up. “Because I understand exactly what you mean.”

An eerie silence filled the air between the two as they finished farming the route that Kitchens had pulled. When they reached the end, there were no mobs left on either side. The Blue-Drakes along the route previously pulled by Kass and Minx had already been slain by ZombiDrakes, and the respawn time wasn’t fast enough for there to be any Blue-Drakes on the side they had just come from. All that was left was the uncomfortable, awkward quiet as they stood at the entrance. Fuzzy Wuzzy popped his head around the corner, but seeing that neither of them were speaking, he didn’t even bother to growl an acknowledgement before he walked back outside.

“So, earlier conversation notwithstanding, what now?” Daniel broke the silence.

“I suppose we wait for the bandits or Alex,” Darwin looked around. “I mean, we could go clean out another dungeon, but I don’t know where any are, and I would rather be here to greet the bandits if they get here before Alex arrives.”

“Good point. Well, in that case, I’m going to take a tip from the rest of our friends and log off,” Daniel said, waving goodbye as he signed out.

“Thank God he’s gone.” Stephanie crept out of one of the shadows. “I thought he would never leave.”

“Were you waiting a while?” Darwin wondered how long she had been listening.

“Long enough to know your dirty secret.”

“Not sure how much of a secret it is if I’m telling people.”

“The thing that makes it a secret is that you told someone, but not everyone. A secret untold is just a thought or memory.” Stephanie smiled.

Darwin noticed that Stephanie’s tone and dialect had changed. It was slightly more serious, slightly less teen and more adult. This was the Stephanie that showed for only a few moments when something important happened, when her guard was down. “What’s going on?” He thought he might as well take a stab in the dark with the question.

“Well, I’m just excited is all. I’m actually super happy!” Stephanie seemed to channel Minx for a moment as she clasped both her hands in front of her and her mouth shot open with joy. “You won’t believe the good news I have!”

“Good news?” Darwin was still too busy trying to figure out what she was talking about to be excited with her.

“Yeah! Great news! Amazing news! Fantastic news!” She grabbed one of each of Darwin’s hands, looked him in the face, smiling, and then said one more time, “Darwin! It’s the best of news!”

Darwin, starting to get swept up by her enthusiasm, did his best to moderate his emotion until he found out what was going on without coming off as rude. “Yes, you have said ‘news’ several times. What is this good news? Come on, I’m dying to find out.”

“Well, I found it!” Stephanie’s excitement was spilling over, but it was still hard to share it with her given he didn’t know what ‘it’ was. “I found it! It’s, like, totes awesome!”

“Stephanie! Suspense! Come on!” Darwin was having trouble controlling his own curiosity as he shook her hands even more than she was shaking his.

“A way home!” Stephanie surprised him by switching from holding his hands to holding him in an impromptu hug while Darwin, stiffened and pale like many of her stoney-eyed victims, tried to digest what she just said. “I found a way home!”

“A . . .” Darwin found himself frozen, unable to move. Half of it was because she was squeezing him so tightly that it would actually require a struggle for him to move, but the other half was just because, even after he understood what she said, it was just unbelievable.

“Yes, Darwin. A way home!” Stephanie released him from the hug and backed up, giving him and his lungs enough room to draw in air again. “We can go back to the real world! We can go back to the land of Internet and video games!”

“We?” Darwin didn’t know the exact scope of that word in this situation. Me, me and her, me and her and someone else?

“What? Were you planning on leaving me behind after I worked so hard to find us a way back?”

“You’re from the real world too?” Darwin tried to grasp what she meant.

“Of course I am! Do you think they sell Tetris and Game Boys down here?” Stephanie laughed at Darwin’s expense. “How did you not put that together?”

“Well, you said to be careful about Kass because she was a player . . .” Darwin searched for the right words to mount his defense; but, even after starting the discussion, he had the sinking feeling in his gut that let him know this was a lost cause. “I just thought that . . .”

“And here I thought I was dating you for your brains,” Stephanie reached up and patted Darwin on the head in the most patronizing way possible. “She is a player, but we aren’t. We’re real, and she’s just a loaded digital figment of this world’s imagination.”

“A world can have an imagination?” Darwin scratched his head.

“This one can, and it’s extra dirty,” she winked. “I mean, ‘cause it’s a world, you know, made of a lot of dirt.”

“Well, how do we go there?” Darwin asked and then immediately felt a pang of guilt. It was like he was already abandoning Alex and the rest at the first opportunity.

“Hey, it’s okay. We’re not leaving your people behind,” Stephanie said as she put her hand on his shoulder, answering his concern before his words even had a voice. “We can bring anyone who wants to come with us. It won’t be a problem.”

“We can bring NPCs from this world into ours?” Darwin’s mouth started creeping further and further open as his brain slowly overloaded from the influx of information.

“Darwin, we’re going home!” she said again and then gave him an overly exaggerated smooch. “We’re going home!”

“Wait. Will we be together when we leave, or will it split us up to where we were when we first came here?”

“We’ll be together, but somewhere different entirely. It doesn’t matter though. In the real world we can get around without all the stupid walking and horses. Ugh! I think, after Tiqpa, I’ll have hiked enough for a lifetime,” Stephanie said with a frown.

“I just want to find my way home, kick off my shoes and crawl in bed.” Darwin started thinking about it.

“Wow, you’re awfully forward there.” Stephanie faked a blush, bit her lip, and lifted one leg. “You sure you don’t want to, you know, go on a proper date first?”

Darwin blinked again. “I meant sleep. Sleep–that’s all I’ve been wanting to do since I came here.”

“I know. Just thought I’d tease you for a laugh,” she said with a wink, “make you blush a bit.”

“Did I actually blush?” He felt his cheeks to see if they were warm.

“No, you totes didn’t. Phooey. But you should have! It’s too bad this wasn’t like one of them animes! Then you would have not only blushed, but your nose would have turned into a blood jetpack strapped to your face, and you’d be flying like a pig,” Stephanie grinned, then latched herself onto his right arm. She continued talking before Darwin could point out that pigs don’t actually fly. “Anyways, we’re going home, Darwin. We’re going to the real world! With pasta!”

“You mean ramen, right?” Darwin gasped excitedly. The food in the game world was good, but nothing beat the taste of freshly cooked ramen over some hot MMO grinding. “Oh man, what are you going to eat first? Pizza? Chicken Fingers? Ramen?”

“Ummm, how about we just go buy up like fifty desserts and then get a bunch of different red wines and sample every one,”

“You’re a genius!” Darwin’s mouth watered as he imagined different edible delights. “And let’s not forget about extra-glazed donuts with a ton of sugar. I know the greatest baker ever, a guy who works down the street from my place. He’s named Haikai or some other weird Asian name. Not sure how to pronounce his name right, but the guy makes the best donuts. Like, he must have studied the ancient Asian art of perfect donut sculpting from the great sages of La Patisserie Temple on Mount Pastry.”

“Ahh, that sounds so delicious, but if he’s really that good of a donut maker, we’ll probably get stuck behind an incredibly long line of cops,” Stephanie teased, fulfilling the cliché cop-to-donut connection required anytime donuts are mentioned.

“Well, I’d much rather deal with a line of cops than muggers or robbers,” Darwin said with good reason. He had already had one bad experience with a robber.

“Alright. But after getting some good, old-fashioned, over-glazed American donuts from an Asian guy, we should probably go get some Asian food from an American guy. Maybe Thai or Chinese?” Stephanie hugged tightly onto Darwin’s arm as the two talked about food.

“Yeah, and then we can go home and watch hours of boring Netflix stuff while eating popcorn.”

“Netflix and chill. Sounds good. Maybe we can even go out and actually see a movie!” Stephanie squeezed his arm again. “I haven’t ever been on a date to a movie theater!”

Movie theater dates? Wait. Don’t those cost like . . . Darwin facepalmed. “We’re forgetting something.”

“What’s that?”

“Money?”

“No, we aren’t forgetting it. Let’s just get a bunch of in-game gold before we leave.” Stephanie gave him the same ‘are you being dumb on purpose’ look that she had given him earlier when he didn’t realize she was from his world.

“Well, if that will work, we need to farm a lot. I want to go swimming in the coins like my last name was McDuck.” Darwin grinned an honest ear to ear smile. This was the best day he had managed to have since he first got to Tiqpa.

“Yep, it’ll be totes the best.” The two started to walk towards the entrance of the cave, Stephanie still holding tightly to Darwin’s arm.

“So when can we go?” he pressed. The anticipation of finally being able to go home was almost overwhelming for him. “Should we leave a note for Alex? ‘Be back later. Here’s how to come join us’?”

“Actually, about that . . .” Stephanie slowed their pace until they came to a dead stop. “See, it’s going to take me around a day or more to get the entrance set up. When I said, ‘I found the entrance,’ what I meant to say was that I had found the last component we needed to complete the portal.”

“Should I even ask?” he sighed.

“You’re welcome to, but it would take far longer than I have time to explain.” Stephanie reached into her own imaginary inventory and started pulling out scrolls. “The long and the short of it is that there is a platform under the boss chamber you were just in. It’s hard to spot at first, but, at the back, there is a set of stairs leading to it. Don’t let anyone go back there while I’m working.”

“That sounds easy enough,” he said, nodding.

“Oh, and one more thing: there is going to be an attack on us that will very likely happen before we go through the portal. Also, once I get the portal set up, we have to defend it. If the portal ever closes, I can’t promise that we’ll be able to set it up again should we end up back in this forsaken land somehow. So when that big grumpus Panda King comes with his army, you have to stop them at all costs, understand?” She waved her scrolls around in gestures Darwin didn’t exactly pick up on.

“I got it. Defend the wall, keep the portal open, pull the Gold out of my inventory before going through the portal so we will have all the proper credentials to buy fancy monocles.” Darwin did indeed understand it, but he had to sigh again. This would be another epic battle with his life on the line. Even though he didn’t want to admit it, he knew that the Panda King was currently stronger than he was. The only way he would have a real chance of defeating him was if he could get the large boss dragon as a mount so that he would have an overwhelming advantage, and that was going to be real hard now that all of his faction members had logged out. Even if he did manage to do it, however, the entrance to the cave might never allow it free, and he’d find himself short a lot of the valuable time he could have spent preparing other tactics. A strategy borrowed from the history books would be an option, but it was going to be tough to put together a perfect one when he wasn’t entirely sure of the enemy’s capabilities or how many faction members he would have before the attack happened. Was the Panda King going to attack him personally? Would it be another neko ninja assault? There just wasn’t enough information for Darwin’s liking.

“Great, and before I forget, I still have something supes imports to totes tell you, but it’s a secret, so. . .” Stephanie leaned up like she was about to whisper in his ear, but as soon as his face got close enough, she just kissed him on his cheek instead and turned to leave. “Dont let any of the other players find out about the portal, not even Kass. One of them walking through it could be disastrous. Anyways, have fun!”

He knew he was supposed to ask her something as she walked away, but his eyes were fixated on her departure, and it wasn’t until she was gone that his brain kicked back into full gear. Crap! That’s right! I was supposed to ask you if you knew anything about the Golden Goddess! He kicked himself mentally. Then he remembered what she looked like walking away.

“Lord Darwin, did we come at a bad time?” Justin Yoo approached Darwin from behind as Darwin stared off towards the boss’s lair, eyes still fixated on the disappearing image of Stephanie. It wasn’t just because she was beautiful. It was because there were still a hundred questions he needed to ask her, starting with the question about how she had found a way home.

“We?” Darwin had momentarily forgotten that he was expecting company. He turned around to see Justin wearing the new bathrobe uniforms with his arms at his sides standing by for instructions. “Oh, no, not at all. Perfect timing, actually. Did everyone make the journey okay?”

“Yes, Lord Darwin, everyone is ready and accounted for. I was sent by General Alex to make sure the area was secure before the logistics specialists and civilian population arrived,” Justin explained. The stiffness in his stature as he stood at attention made it almost awkward to look directly at him.

“You didn’t happen to run into any Humans along the way, did you?” Darwin remembered that he was supposed to have bandits show up as well.

“No, Lord Darwin. We ran into several groups of monsters, insects and the likes, but the offensive forces of our growing army were able to dispatch them quickly and easily, securing their resources without delaying the expedition.” Justin didn’t move as he answered the question. Even his head didn’t turn to follow Darwin as his leader moved. He just stared straight ahead in the same awkward, overdone, boot camp pose Darwin was used to seeing in a 1980s movie.

“Justin, can you please relax?” Darwin had a hunch that he should just treat the NPCs of StormGuard Alliance as roleplayers and give them orders to act how he wanted them to act.

“As you wish, Lord Darwin,” Justin said, but his posture didn’t change.

It’s not really ‘as you wish’ if you’re just going to stay stiffer than a morgue’s inventory lineup. Darwin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Alright, how long do we have until Alex and the other crews arrive?”

“They should be here within the next five minutes, Lord Darwin.”

“So, I don’t have much time to do anything with until they arrive?” Darwin frowned. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

“No, Lord Darwin. I apologize for not notifying you sooner, but Alex gave strict orders that you are never to be interrupted when you are speaking to Lady Stephanie,” Justin answered.

Darwin sighed. If Alex was about to be here, it meant he was about to have a ninja-like stealth assassin pop up and try to scare him into an early grave. It wasn’t just Alex, either. Almost all of the Turtle-Wolves seemed to be behaving more and more in the same stealthy fashion as if Alex’s sneaking abilities were less of a skill and more of a contagious condition. You’ve caught Sneaky Foot, suffer -2 to noise for five turns, Darwin mused.

“Lord Darwin, is there anything I can do before he gets here?” Justin offered, ever helpful.

“No, Yoo . . . Well, actually there is one thing.” Darwin thought for a minute. Stephanie said that a player couldn’t be notified of the portal, but that didn’t mean an NPC couldn’t be told to guard the entrance to it. Since he couldn’t stand watch over it himself, it might be a good idea to have someone trustworthy stand guard. “I need you to go to the back of this dungeon. There is a set of stairs at the back of the boss area. Don’t let anyone enter it. Not even General Alex or Lady Kass.”

“As you command, Lord Darwin.” Justin bowed then promptly disappeared.

The way they appear and then vanish, are they trying out to be billionaire vigilante crime fighters? Darwin laughed, remembering some of his favorite movies as a kid. He was about to go find Fuzzy Wuzzy, but as soon as the idea popped into his head, he noticed dozens of glowing red dots, then the bodies that they belonged to, appear in the horizon.

“Lord Darwin,” Alex called out to him, “I apologize for the delay. It could not be helped. We came as quickly as we could, but it was hard sneaking a certain multi-headed beast out of the city unnoticed.”

You managed to teach a gigantic Hydra your fade technique too? Darwin put his right hand against his temple. This is too much. How does a Hydra manage to get out of a city unnoticed? It could literally shade a building if it stood in the right spot, yet it escaped a denizen-heavy harbor without anyone seeing it? “Do I even want know how you pulled that off?” Darwin muttered audibly.

“I can’t answer that, Lord Darwin. It might be a boring explanation, or it could be an informative one,” Alex answered as if it were a serious question.

“No.” Darwin wasn’t sure if he should laugh or facepalm at that answer. “Nevermind that. We have more important business to discuss. Is there someone else qualified to take over and manage the initial base setup? There are time sensitive issues that I need to talk to you about.”

“Yes, Lord Darwin. Give me a moment.” Alex gave the slightest of bows and then walked over to a group of Turtle-Wolves loaded up with giant backpacks plus additional gear and began issuing out a series of orders. Darwin couldn’t make out what he was saying to them, but as soon as he finished, they all nodded and began moving. Each of them put down their stuff next to the door of the entrance of the cave then went out and started instructing the other Turtle-Wolves, who did likewise. After that, Alex returned to Darwin. “Thank you for your patience. Now, please tell me how I may be of service.”

“Well, actually, the thing is I have a very good reason to believe that we’ll be sieged sooner than we anticipated by the Animal Kingdom,” Darwin said, expecting to see a shocked expression, but only getting the same stone-faced look from Alex in response.

“Lord Darwin, since our conversion, every single one of us is capable and willing to fight to the death on the battlefield.” Alex’s chest puffed a bit as he boasted. “This shouldn’t be something to worry about. We will defend and defeat the enemy no matter when they arrive.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure we will be fine, but I’d rather not have many men and women we fought so hard to keep alive butchered the first day they arrive. I’d rather not have any die at all, but realistically that’s not something you can expect out of a battle.” Darwin’s eye twitched as his forehead wrinkled. I need a plan. I need something more than just fighting off the enemy.

“To be honest with you,” Alex said as he looked at the horde of civilians and Turtle-Wolves filing into the dungeon, “it simply won’t go that smoothly. This is something you will have to come to terms with, Lord Darwin. We will fight, we will win, and we will bring glory to the great StormGuard Alliance, but if the foes are numerous, it will not be a picturesque scenario.”

“I know it’s unreasonable, and I should simply, as you put it, come to terms with this, but I need better than that . . .” Darwin sighed. “But I just can’t.”

“Well,” Alex said as his eyes flickered around for a moment while he scratched his chin, “if we are able to get enough swords for every man, woman and child, and I can muster up around a hundred hours’ worth of form training time with each one, and then we can give each of them a few hours to hunt in different regions until they are confident with their blades, then, perhaps then, we could gain you that victory you are looking for.”

“No other ideas?” Darwin felt as if each attempt to get a positive response out of Alex about the outcome of a real battle was like scratching a lottery ticket at a gas station and hoping to win big. Alex was indeed a great quartermaster, and a good General, but he also wasn’t the type to lie and sugarcoat the truth for him.

“None, sir. Perhaps you, in your great wisdom, have a solution to offer?” Alex’s tone was polite, but it was just off enough that the way he said it made Darwin feel like he was actually trying to say ‘Why do you expect me to solve your problems for you?’

“I . . .” Darwin wracked his brain for an idea. Wait! That’s it! “Alex.” This time he straightened his back and spoke confidently. This time, he’d be the commander that his people needed, and not just some guy with two swords and a knack for grinding. “Alex, if we don’t have swords, what weapon do we actually have in abundance?”

“Spears, sir. Even after selling a good portion of our stock, due to the possibility of hostile conditions, we have enough spears to arm four times our current population, the risen included.”

The risen? That’s an interesting way to refer to the monsters I converted. “Good, and how many craftsmen do you have capable of making armor or working with wood?”

“Working with wood? Given proper instruction, roughly anyone over twelve years old could handle the wood. We’d have to allocate project managers to make sure the quality was uniform, but that shouldn’t be a problem. No more than one project manager for five to ten workers, and we can easily afford that.” Alex tilted his head to look at the trees that were now situated behind Darwin as the two talked. “As far as armor, I believe we have only ten or twenty people capable of manipulating metal with fire.”

“Good, good.” Darwin’s smile grew bigger as he put the numbers together in his head. This was exactly what he was hoping for. “Alright, I think we should be able to actually do this then.”

“Do what, sir?” Alex raised one eyebrow.

“Win, and win by a landslide.” He grinned, one lip pulling up higher than the other.

“What do you need me to do, Lord Darwin?” Alex returned his grin. He didn’t even know the plan, but his confidence in Darwin’s abilities was not to be shaken.

“First, I need you to take as many men as you can and split them into two groups. One group needs to clear out these woods. I don’t mean kill all the living creatures in them. I mean chop down every tree and haul it up here. We’re going to need all the wood we can get. The second group needs to go into the dungeon and start harvesting the dead Blue-Drakes. Strip them of their scales and their bones, and make it a priority to get those both gathered up before bothering with the meat. There will be plenty of respawns for meat, but those scales and bones are a must,” Darwin said as he began to unfold his plan piece by piece to Alex.

He knew the basics of it. There had been great empires that rose and fell by the edge of a spear. He remembered hours and days of playing games where he had been forced to command armies and forces into battle that had devastated their enemies with a spear. If this was going to be a war, he needed it to be a total war. Not to mention, years of playing real time strategy games as a zerg-style commander against terrain had given him intimate familiarity with what made and broke a base’s defense.

A lot of people made the mistake of thinking that a good defensive position was one that sealed off all possible attacks. This was a misconception. For a fort to be able to stop an enemy no matter which side it attacks on, it must be stronger than the enemy on all of those sides. Sure, with preparation and time you could easily reinforce the position’s defenses on all sides, but there was a reason most people believed the best defense was a good offense. It just simply wasn’t cost effective to play the ‘Defend All Sides’ card. Instead, Darwin had learned early on that his greatest fear when trying to decimate an enemy’s ranks was not the commander who was prepared for anything, it was the foe that either knew what point he would strike at or lured him into striking a certain point. That type of opponent, the type that could control the battlefield, would always stop him. That’s the type of leader Darwin needed to be, the one who could force the Panda King to fight on his terms at his location and at his pace, and he had just the experience and role models to help him do it.

There was only one problem left: the Panda King likely didn’t get that position from being an amateur. If Darwin were going to win, he would have to use tricks from a world that the Panda King had never been to.

“ Also, we’re going to need a few people to scout ahead, let us know when and where the enemy is going to be coming from,” Darwin said, looking at the soon-to-be-demolished tree line. He knew where they would attack, and he knew he didn’t have much time or men to spare, but he also didn’t want their siege to have the advantage of being a surprise. One thing his Demon people had going for them was that they never got tired or had to sleep, an advantage he would absolutely need if he were to sustain a siege as large as the one he feared would come. Now, all that was left was to farm ZombiDrakes and pray that he could muster a large enough army in time to stop any force from taking the mountain. Too many pieces on the board, he grumbled as he pulled out his blades. Too many pieces on the board moving too quickly.

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