Darwin took a break from farming the Blue-Drakes and went outside to check on the preparations. The Blue-Drakes were of dire importance. They were the only source of renewable troops that would truly make a difference. Since they couldn’t realistically increase the numbers of the other troops, they had only the number of drakes and the strength of the fortifications to improve.
The mountain was very much just a flat wall at their backs, and Darwin was half tempted to simply take several regiments of archers and camp them inside, firing arrows at anyone who tried to walk through the dungeon’s entrance. The only problem was, it would leave them trapped. He wasn’t entirely familiar with the enemy’s technology, but he knew that if they could erect massive castles, they also likely knew how to destroy them; and this mountain wall was nothing more than a castle. A castle that, if destroyed, would kill everyone inside.
“Lord Darwin,” one of the workers on the pike-wall said with a bow as he noticed Darwin approaching. “The right one is done, but we need more time for the left.”
“If it were up to me, you’d have all the time in the world.” Darwin gave a small chuckle. “So how long do you think it’ll take to finish the spike-wall properly? Don’t tell me you’re going to let the actual walls finish before you get those ten-foot spikes in the ground.”
“They have a lot more workers on their team, Lord Darwin. They are able to move at a faster pace for that reason alone.” The red-eyed Demon moved his eyes across Darwin’s face a few times and then smiled. “But we would never let ourselves be beaten in front of the eyes of the Great Lord Darwin.”
“That’s the spirit.” Darwin gave the worker a pat on the back that was hard enough to jostle him forward an inch. “After all, we’re the StormGuard Alliance, the best there is, right?”
“The very best, Lord Darwin!” The worker beamed with pride.
As he was inspecting the spike-wall and the wooden defense behind it, he started to take note of how perfect the craftswork was. He didn’t know if it was a byproduct of the fact they were in a video game or if it was because they all had rigorous training in woodworking before they arrived. Either way, the end result in terms of both method and finished product was that the entire process from start to finish looked like it was computer generated even though it was clearly being made by people right in front of him.
Darwin was still admiring the craftsmanship of the pike-wall when Alex approached him. “Lord Darwin, several groups of Humans are approaching from all directions. Do we send the Blue-Drake riders out to greet them?”
“No, we invited them here.” Darwin’s mood improved significantly upon hearing the news. His army was going to be even bigger than anticipated. The fact that they were approaching from all directions meant that it wasn’t just one of the groups he or Daniel had visited earlier, but several others as well. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be ‘from all directions’ so much as from just two very specific directions.
“Very well. I’ll let everyone know to let them pass safely. We still have a standing kill order on any of the Animal Kingdom that come into the woods, correct?”
“Yes, maintain the kill order.” Darwin looked back at the wall. This was going to be beautiful.
“As you command, Lord Darwin,” Alex said, turning to depart before pausing momentarily and adding, “Oh, and that liquid you wanted us to drain from the sacks you found inside the Blue-Drakes, we have it gathered and are ready to start spreading it across the battlefield in the locations you suggested.”
“Excellent! While you’re there though, how are the other preparations coming along?”
“Well, the special troop you have training right now, they’re starting to fall into formation, but we’d like more time if possible. They have the basic idea of what to do, but it’s still an entirely new style of fighting. They’re not yet comfortable with it,” Alex said as the two looked over what would soon be the front line of his new army. “Even the Turtle-Wolves, who have likely spent their entire lives fighting with spears, found it odd to use it in such a basic fashion.”
“What do you mean?” Darwin asked, trying to understand the root of the problem.
“Well, when we think of battle normally, it’s an endless series of small skirmishes across a long, drawn-out position. The person on the front line is almost guaranteed to die as a result; but, as long as he holds his spot, he’s only fighting the man directly in front of him. If he dies, then someone else takes his spot and that man is only fighting the man in front of him. Sure, there is a lot of pressure as the men behind him continue to press forward, and the frontline bleeds into the enemy ranks creating an awkward area where it’s hard to tell who is friend or foe, but, for the most part, everyone is fighting just one person, and that is something that they can manage to do.”
“And?” Darwin failed to see the issue yet. He had a hunch about what it was, but he wanted to know clearly what was at the heart of Alex’s reticence with the new combat approach.
“Lord Darwin, you’re taking away the men’s freedom to fight man to man with honor. You’re forcing them to fight a guy they can’t see two or three people behind the man in front, not the target right before their eyes,” Alex finally put it bluntly. “The soldiers will no longer be fighting so much as repeating the same action over and over again. Not to mention, no one has gotten used to either the shield or the spears you designed. I don’t understand why they have to be so long or large. The troops won’t be able to maneuver them easily with their size and weight.”
Darwin smiled. “That’s because this war won’t be won one-on-one. If our troops engage just the enemy that is in front of them, how many more will take their place? If they lust for blood and rampage, what will happen with the front lines? Even if they get a few kills, which they very well might if they were trained by you, the line will still be compromised eventually. Gaps and weak points will inevitably form given enough time. There are too many factors that can’t be controlled if the soldiers all have the freedom to act however they want. They need to learn–they must learn–to rely on their brothers and sisters in arms, a trust that has kept me alive a lot recently.”
“And the extra-large shields and long spears will do that?” Alex continued his hunt for answers. When Darwin had first laid out the plan, and showed him the designs for how he would need a shield to be constructed, Alex and the others listening had been more than a little confused. They had been befuddled and bewildered. They were used to the idea of a long spear being taller than a man, but not almost taller than two men. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Darwin needed–spears long enough to reach over several men and continuously stab at and push off the enemy. That’s why the dory, a kind of spear used by Greek hoplites, had been so long.
The second detail that had shocked those currently training with the new weapon was that the spears felt frail and flimsy, especially when compared to the ones they had held and wielded their whole life. The people of this area were used to thick and heavy spears capable of blocking or withstanding hits from the sides, spears that were built to be two handed. The dory, however, was designed specifically be much lighter, only weighing between two to five pounds each. The major differences that made such a feat possible were the type of wood and the fact that the shaft’s diameter was barely two inches wide. The differences left the soldiers feeling uncomfortable and insecure as they held a weapon they had trouble trusting to withstand even the first series of blows from the enemy.
“Yes, they will.” Darwin answered Alex’s question, looking over in the distance at the group’s training. They were lined up in phalanx formation, five men deep and twenty men wide, practicing charging at each other with safety-tipped spears over and over again as they worked out how to get the dory spears to fall so that they hit their enemies square on. “The more they practice, the more they will understand exactly how important they are to each other. They will understand how important their comrade’s shield is and how little they are without it.” He nodded as he saw how much they had already improved. They were slowly starting to get it. The important part of the formation was the shield that protected everything from just above their ankles to over their heads. It was just like his reliance on Minx. It was like his need to have Kass and Kitchens at his back. They were his shields in the previous battle in the dungeon, and if the StormGuard Alliance was going to make it through the upcoming fight, each member would need to rely on more than just himself. They would all need to rely on the shields of their comrades.
“Very well, Lord Darwin. I shall trust you on these matters.” Alex nodded as well, both of them watching the training. “Though I still think you’re a bit crazy.”
Darwin let a big grin break out across his face. “See, even you are learning to trust me thanks to that spear and shield.” He started to laugh. Alex joined in on the chuckle after a moment.
“Lord Darwin, my apologies.” Alex bowed his head ever so slightly. “With the coming siege, I am sure you are very pressed for time, and I am sure I have taken up a great deal of it up by dawdling around here unproductively. Please excuse me,” he finished, and just like that he was gone.
Here I am bringing the technology of my world into his, and he hasn’t even bothered trying to teach me the most fundamental tricks. Am I just supposed to pretend like I’m the commissioner in a masked crusader movie?
“The disappearing thing, it’s crazy, isn’t it?” Kitchens said, walking up behind him. Unlike Alex’s, Darwin could hear the footsteps coming from a distance, a thing that somehow comforted him more and more as days passed.
“Yeah, it really is,” Darwin said, admiring the ability. Even if he were upset, Alex hadn’t offered to teach him the trick yet. “I wish I could do it,” he just blurted out what was on his mind. It was a thing he found himself doing more and more as time passed, being honest and straightforward with his friends.
“Disappear or be invisible?” Kitchens walked up to the spot where Alex had formerly stood.
“Both? I don’t know.” Darwin shrugged. He couldn’t really think of too many practical applications for either of the abilities as he searched through his mind.
“Disappearing can be tricky. Being invisible, not so much. We all are, all the time, to almost everyone.” Kitchens looked around then pointed to a random woman that was helping set up the pike-wall. “For instance, do you see that woman?”
“Yes?” Darwin said, looking at her, she looked like almost every other person in the camp. They all looked almost identical–the same black hair, the same red eyes, the same outfits–but her face was slightly different than the others. She had a mark on her left cheek like she had been cut just enough to leave a scar.
“Good. Now, close your eyes,” Kitchens instructed.
“Okay,” Darwin did as he was told.
“Can you tell me the gender of the two people next to her? Was there anyone in front of her?” He asked.
Darwin, searching his memory for a moment, found that all of those details were missing. He had been so focused on the girl with the scar that he hadn’t noticed anyone around her. He couldn’t even remember if there had even been other people there or not
“You see, we’re all invisible to almost everyone at any given time. It takes more effort to be noticed than it does to be unnoticed,” he said, wrapping up his short and impromptu lesson.
It wasn’t exactly the stealthy trick that Alex was using, but it was definitely useful to think about. “It hasn’t been that long. I thought you would be asleep still,” Darwin said when he remembered that it had barely been six or seven hours since Kitchens had logged off.
“A glass of water before bed serves as a great alarm clock when you start to get older,” Kitchens sighed and smiled at the same time. “Well, that is only the reason for why I am out of bed. The reason I’m up is a very highly caffeinated cup of tea and a nice coffee blend.”
“How old are you again?” Darwin poked fun at him, remembering full and well the rough age of both the old man and his daughter.
“Enough to know a whipper snapper shouldn’t worry about what year a bag of dust expired.” Kitchens’ grin spread wider. “That said, did you even sleep? It’s like you’ve been up all night working on the base.”
“Would you believe me if I told you that I never slept?”
“Maybe. Depends what type of demons you have crawling around in your head.” Kitchens’ smile flattened out and disappeared. “You don’t grow old without locking a few upstairs.”
“Or just ending up as one.” this time Darwin chuckled alone as Kitchens just looked at him funny.
“So what’s going on here? I expected town building, but it seems you skipped everything and went straight for defense,” Kitchens said, noting the surroundings.
“Kind of had to. ‘Bout to be attacked and all,” Darwin offered with a shrug.
“Do we have a rough idea of when?”
“No, nor do we even have a rough idea how many people are actually going to come at us.”
“I see. We don’t know when or how many people are going to attack us, but we do know we’ll be attacked. That’s good. It basically makes us like every country in every region of the world during the middle ages,” Kitchens laughed. “Well, if we’re going to play a simulation game, at least we picked one that hits the mark. After all, what fledgling nation isn’t birthed in blood?”
Darwin tried to think of one for a minute, but, after coming up short-handed, just admitted defeat. “I can’t think of one.”
“Well, you’re in luck. There is still a chance we won’t be attacked. After all, it’s not written in stone that we are going to be sieged within the first twenty-four hours of being established, is it? There is still the possibility that the attacking forces will be beleaguered and show up unexpectedly late. If you push too hard you may lose your momentum.”
“Hmm.” Darwin didn’t know how to explain that he was a seasoned grinder. Getting burnt out just didn’t happen. He spent years pressing the same five keys in rotation as if he were a well-written code himself. “What happened to Miyamoto Musashi’s resolute acceptance of death speech?”
“Even I abandoned that thought when I had a daughter. A man will find that every year he spends on earth he inevitably sends down roots that make it harder for him to think of moving on, and some roots make it almost impossible,” Kitchens spoke slowly as if he were trying to imitate a fortune cookie.
“Like Minx?” Darwin asked, guessing at the root.
“Or video games. Definitely video games and bad television. Every year I think: ‘Welp, curse you, cliffhangers. Now I can’t be reckless for another year or else I might wind up tossing and turning in the grave, never knowing who really killed Kenny,” he chuckled.
“Hmm. I can definitely feel your pain. Even now I am plagued with uncertainty. Will Sherlock ever find out that Watson is the one secretly killing everyone and framing other people?”
“Would that be counted as Watson betraying Sherlock, or helping him?”
“Tough call. Either way, mind helping out around here? I need to get back to the work,” Darwin said, the topic about having too little time hitting too close to home.
“No problem. Mind running me through the basics of the plan?”
“Actually, it’s a really simple idea. I’m creating two walls on each side of the mountain to direct the incoming attackers into the central gap. To prevent them from just climbing up the walls and hitting us from any angle, we’re building a pike-wall in front of it.” He pointed to the ten- to twelve-foot tall wooden walls with pikes laid out at an angle to properly keep them from being scaled.
“I see you’ve done away with the idea of a gate though?” Kitchens noted the fact that where the walls should have turned inward to form a recession in which a gate would normally stand, they instead extended all the way back until they nearly touched the mountain, leaving a narrowing gap between the walls–and the gap wasn’t small either. The walls turned in toward the mountains at roughly 135 degree angles rather than 90, creating a funnel shape, although the walls eventually curved enough that they started running parallel as they got close to the dungeon’s entrance.
“Yeah, if we already know we’re going to be attacked, why not make sure we’ll know where they’ll focus their assault too? Even if they know it’s a trap and lay siege to one of the walls, we’ll be able to adjust and flank them through the central opening before they get past the wall. This way, we can likely lure them into one spot and still have the flexibility to hit them if they strike elsewhere.”
“If you plan to straighten out the corner and run a phalanx,” Kitchens said as he pointed at the training soldiers, “then why do you have a funnel at the front of your defense wall’s opening, with the wall being wider at the outside and narrowing as it approaches where you’re putting the phalanxes?”
“Ah, that’s just an idea I picked up from some real-time strategy games. The idea is to force the enemy to pressure himself instead of just us. As their force continuously tries to narrow and avoid the pikes on the side, they’ll end up squishing themselves and breaking their own order a bit, sometimes even forcing loose men into the pikes to die.” Darwin pause for a moment. “I’m actually taking quite a few gambles. For instance, I need the enemy to be disorganized. I’m betting they won’t match our front lines in numbers or go straight for the walls with any heavy siege equipment,” Darwin noted, drawing a nod from Kitchens. “But I’m not worried. I remember how disorganized Tiqpa’s NPC armies were on the beaches during the White-Wing battle.”
“They are all very feudal, and feudal societies tend to draw from untrained peasants just as much as they do real, trained soldiers. I wouldn’t be surprised if this Kingdom is no different.” Kitchens continued nodding as Darwin spoke, this time stroking his chin. Darwin knew that he was only nodding in agreement, but for some reason he couldn’t help but think of a bobble head sitting on a car dash when he looked over and saw Kitchens nodding his head with such a stiff body.
“That is what I’m hoping for. Although, I wouldn’t mind if they were also severely undertrained, never leveled, and had a commander who couldn’t figure out which direction was up,” Darwin added. “You know, while we are having wishful thoughts.”
“If you’re going to gamble, go big, right?”
“How about after we finish this up, the two of us find a casino, go to a roulette table, and bet it all on red?”
“Would our chances of winning be larger or smaller?” Kitchens actually chuckled. “Maybe afterwards, we can ask a waitress out and see if the number she gives is real or not.”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea, but I thought Minx was your daughter? Aren’t you married?” Darwin asked before realizing the nature of his question.
Kitchens went quiet. He didn’t even move for a moment, then just pretended Darwin had never even asked the question. “Well, your plan seems good enough. I’m going to go wake up Minx and tell her to log on. She’d kill me if she missed this. I figure the two of us can help out with wall reinforcements. Where are you going to want us when the battle starts??”
“Would it be shameful to say that I actually don’t know?”
“How about we take our Blue-Drakes and a squad of fighters and flank the enemy’s sides from above when the fight starts? It’ll let us keep working right until the last minute, and give us the mobility to quickly jump into the battle afterwards,” Kitchens suggested.
It made sense too. The soldiers in the phalanx would each be essentially no better or worse than any other. It wouldn’t be representative of their actual combat abilities. The entire formation was designed to rely on cohesion and coordination as part of a group effort. If the phalanx worked correctly, even the least trained fighter could be highly effective. If they were to use the dragons to cut into the enemy ranks, they could do a great deal of damage without having to sacrifice or modify the existing battle strategy or forcing the phalanx to break rank.
“That might be a good use for all of our best fighters. We have plenty of Blue-Drakes to get them into the battle with, and the drake’s flame breath could be used to protect their flanks if we do it right,” Darwin started thinking aloud.
“Always going with fire, are we? I noticed your men were collecting oil from the dead dragons and storing it in jars. Were you originally planning on forcing the enemy to fight even if he tried to escape? Throwing them into a panic with a surprise rear line or scattering them across the field for extra damage and shock effect when the fireballs rain down?”
“Something like that. I was going to pour it across the field and hope to split up the two armies mid-fight,” Darwin said, drawing out the strategy on the ground with one of his Burriza’s. “Or, if they were a smaller group, it’d seal them in and let us finish them off before they could retreat and regroup with reinforcements.”
“So, basically, you wanted to use the fire to hedge your bets? As a safety mechanism?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Darwin said, “Got a better idea?”
“Well, water generally likes to have a cup. A force with no form will likely spill everywhere, losing both shape and efficiency.” Kitchens began drawing two big Cs in the middle of the area the enemy would walk over, both with their openings facing each other.
“So you want to use the fire for our backs, not theirs?”
“Indeed. This way, we can drop a force anywhere on the field inside one of those semicircles of fire, and the enemy won’t be able to run, but they won’t be able to reach their backs either. They’ll still be able to press in on the sides, so the phalanx formation won’t work, but you will be able to send in a less organized, less formation-heavy units to wreak havoc and break up the enemy’s pressure on the phalanx.”
“That’s . . .” Darwin stared at it, his right eyebrow creeping towards his hairline as the whole thing began to put itself together in his head. “That’s not a bad idea at all. I wonder if we can build a parachute for Fuzzy Wuzzy. Maybe even get a top hat for him. Nothing would make this plan better than having a giant, ferocious, red-eyed bear parachuting off a Blue-Drake while wearing a monocle and top hat into the battlefield, with Minx shouts war cries down from above the entire time, of course.”
“I’ll tell Minx that if she can complete that outfit before the fight starts, I’ll let her off chores today and tomorrow,” Kitchens said. He had been pulling out a bottle of sake before Darwin told him the idea, but instead put the sake away, chuckled, and started moving his hands in the familiar ‘Log Off’ gesture that Darwin was getting used to seeing. “Let me go wake her up so she has enough time to actually get it done.”
“Sounds good, though you may want to give her a bit more time. She doesn’t have the same alarm clock as you,” Darwin joked, finally being able to tease someone else for being the old man.
“Easy there, upstart,” Kitchens snapped back with a light-hearted tone. “You need me around. If I leave, you’ll be the grandpa of the group again. Anyways, I need to go get my daughter. After seeing the setup, I can be sure that if she misses out on a fight like this, she’ll never forgive me. It’ll be worse than that time I just happened to accidentally spill an entire can of crushed ghost peppers into her boyfriend’s meal when he came over for dinner. I thought watching an eighteen year old boy doing a sprinkler impression with his eyes at a dinner table was funny, but she didn’t forgive me for a year. Apparently after eating that much spicy food, his tastes suddenly changed.”
“Eighteen? So this happened recently then?” Darwin asked out of curiosity, but quickly regretted it.
“No, this was three years ago. Why are you asking?” Kitchens’ tone turned cold, and his chest almost seemed to puff up a bit as he moved closer to Darwin, staring him dead in the eye. “You’re not thinking of making advances on my daughter, are you? Two girls not enough? Are you trying for a third?”
“Uh, no. No, sir,” Darwin found himself feeling more than just slightly intimidated, but as soon as he said ‘no,’ Kitchens let him know that he was just joking and patted him on the shoulder with a good laugh. “Good. Because I think a man of good taste should prefer even his alcohol to be over twenty years old. Be back soon.” Kitchens faded.
Darwin looked back at the entrance of the cave, seeing that the Blue-Drakes were beginning to spawn again. He knew he still had work ahead of him. He was happy Kitchens had been the first to log on. The Blue-Drake strategy would definitely improve their chances of winning by giving the greatest warriors a chance to shine, but it wasn’t a tactic he could participate in. He needed to be with his people, he couldn’t leave the phalanx ranks. If something went wrong, if something didn’t go as planned, he would need to be with his people, not savaging around on the battlefield like he was used to–and that meant he needed to keep the soul bar topped off at full. After all, I have no idea how long this battle will last or when it will even start, Darwin thought as he made his way towards the cave’s entrance and the newly spawned drakes.
“There! That’s him! That’s the one! See, I told you! He looks just like I said, doesn’t he?” Darwin was interrupted by shouting just as he finally finished stepping into the lair.
“He looks nothing like you described, Louie,” another voice said. As Darwin turned around, he saw a group of a dozen or so Humans walking up to him, four familiar faces leading them. “You said he was like ten feet tall, with a tail, wings and horns the size of a man’s head. That man there can’t be more than six feet tall. You even got his eyes wrong! They are just red! Not giant balls of fire! So what on earth are you talking about, saying he looks exactly like you described?”
“But he’s got horns! And if you saw the determined way he stared at us all, like he could do anything he wanted in the world, you might have thought he was ten feet tall too,” Louie tried to justify.
“You should have known that the poet would exaggerate the details.” Reginald nudged the outspoken new guy hard enough to knock him off balance. “Your fault for believing him over us to begin with.”
“I didn’t believe him. I’m just not going to admit that he looks exactly like Louie said.”
“Well, at least you didn’t completely ignore us and mistake that bossy Alex guy for being the leader. I can’t believe you went up to him bowing and whatnot. I think you were even shaking a bit there, Darnel. Did you think he was going to murder you?”
“He might have. I don’t know. I heard he chopped your leader in half after being offered tea and crumpets. I had a right to be scared. What if I offered him the wrong gift, or if my gift wasn’t enough? Or what if showing up and offering a gift is simply rude in his mind? You can’t tell what will set a man off, and this man murdered the last person who annoyed him.”
“He’s got a point there, Steve. Some people are just crazy.”
“I told you all before that this is not a set up. He’s a nice guy, and our leader was a spy!”
“Sure, sure. That, or this is all a really elaborate plan to get me back for going on a few dates with your sister and not writing her afterwards,”
“I wouldn’t get us all killed over you being a jerk. Just you, especially when I tell Darwin what you said about his outfit. What was it again? The only type of grown men who run around with open flaps are perverts and deviants?” Steve grinned, and the whole group laughed at the newcomer.
“I did not say that! Stop lying! Shush, he can hear us. You’re going to get us killed!”
“Us? Or just a certain philandering fool who just so happens to be the same guy who hasn’t written my sister in the last three months? The way she pines kinda reminds me of that time you told me that the Great Lord Darwin w–”
“I’ll writer her! I’ll write her! Just quiet down.” The man’s white face had now fully submerged into a ghostly pale color as the panic continued to spread.
“Hmm. Maybe you should send her flowers. A real gentleman always sends flowers to a lady he is courting.”
“I’ll do anything, anything! Just keep it down will–”
“Excuse me, can I help you?” Darwin said, much bemused by the fact the two were still going at it even though they had already come to a dead stop in front of him.
“Yes, Lord Darwin, we’re here about the offer you extended us earlier,” Reginald spoke up, butting through the two men, who, upon realizing Darwin was listening to them, both went deathly quiet. “We have come to join you and seek refuge from the Animal Kingdom.”
“Are you all that have come?”
“No, Lord Darwin,” one of them spoke up. “Other than us, every one here is either the leader or a co-leader of their band of freedom fighters.”
“I’d say a few thousand, maybe three at most, Lord Darwin,” Reginald said.
“So I’m Lord Darwin now?” Darwin suddenly took note of the title change he was receiving from the guards.
“Well, the angry guy with the spear, Alex, he said that if we didn’t address you properly, he would kill us all,” Louie laughed. “I told him we were old friends, that I was there before you got all horned and whatnot, but he didn’t take no for an answer. Said, ‘You address the Lord Darwin improperly, and I will gut you on the spot.’ Right scary lad you’ve got there.”
“He’s a great man,” Darwin complimented Alex. Sometimes, I’m not sure who is actually in charge here: me or him, Darwin pondered for a minute. “Well, I’m glad to see you’ve decided to join us. We could use the help.”
“Help? I’m guessing this has to do with all those scouts that were trying to catch us on our way here,” Reginald took a stab at the Panda King’s reasoning. “I think the Panda King really is going to try to exterminate us once and for all this time.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve also been told that he’ll be here very soon,” Darwin said, remembering how dire Stephanie’s warning had sounded.
“You’ve been told? By the Golden Goddess? Did she say when? Did she say how many were coming?” All of them started looking at each other rapidly, eyes unsteady and darting. “Lord Darwin, are we going to be safe?”
Darwin saw their nervous looks. He wanted to say, ‘No, I have no idea if we’re going to be okay.’ He felt like he should honestly answer them and admit, ‘Well, some of you might be okay, but there is a good chance that most of us will die.’ Except, it wouldn’t do any good. They would either all die here or live on with some, perhaps many, having fallen in the upcoming battle. There was no escaping a tyrant with the type of territorial control and army size that Darwin assumed the Panda King actually had. Being honest, telling them the truth–it’ll do nothing more than cause them more pain and suffering than they have already been through. “We’ll be fine. That formation that Alex is training them in, the funny one with the long spears, it will save our lives and slaughter the furballs; but, we could always use more help with the defenses if you have any willing men.”
They breathed out a sigh of relief in unison. “Well, I can’t say much for the rest of them, but for us, we’re with you until the end, Boss. The Golden Goddess herself deemed you the savior. So if you need our help, we will gladly give it,” one of the new guys said, extending his hand. As Darwin reached out to shake it, he saw the man’s eyes, which were originally brown, brightly flash red. His brown hair darkened into a deep black, and his skin began to pale out from tan to the same type of white that Darwin’s was. “I’m Kirk,” the man said as he shook Darwin’s hand.
Darwin wasn’t the only one shocked by the transformation. Everyone’s mouth kind of dropped as they watched the process. He had seen it before, but it had been a while; and, even so, it was weird seeing it less than an inch away from him.
“Holy crap,” another one of the leaders said. “It’s just like the Golden Goddess said! Me next! I pledge my ‘legiance too!” he shouted, going through the same transformation as Kirk had.
“I kind of like my beautiful brown hair,” Louie said, frowning. “Is there a way to join you without giving up my deep, blue eyes? It’s one of the things girls love about me.”
“Louie, no girl has ever loved your eyes or your poetry. Just sign up,” Steve said as he put forth his hand for Darwin. “I am in. This guy has been a godsend since day one.”
One after another, they reached their hands out and shook Darwin’s, each going through the same transformation and each being christened with the new Demon racial stats as they joined the StormGuard Alliance.
“Is it just me,” Reginald said as he stared at his biceps, then jumped up and down before flexing yet again, “or do you guys feel stronger than before? Like everything is lighter and easier?”
“No, it’s not just you. I feel like I could go all night,” the man who had apparently not stayed with Steve’s sister said, looking at his hands as if they were new to him.
“Maybe you shouldn’t write my sister after all,” Steve laughed.
“Well, we’re ready to help out. What do we need to do?” Louie asked, stepping in front of the others. “This is our fight now too. Just tell us how we can help.”
“For starters?” Darwin started to think. He wanted to shift it all to Alex, to let his loyal general and quartermaster delegate responsibilities, but he knew that wasn’t the way the world was going to work this time. “On average, how good are you guys at archery?”
“Much better than we are with swords. We’ve been hunting in these woods since we were old enough to crawl. There’s not a man who can pull a bowstring faster than I can,” Reginald proudly bragged, chest puffed out.
“Then how about you take every man trained with the bow and start fletching arrows out of what is left from the wood we gathered. We’ll put every trained archer, woman and child big enough to pull a bowstring in two groups when the fight starts. The groups will each be positioned behind alternate sets of walls, and we’ll have you rain arrows down upon the enemy once the battle breaks out.” Darwin was actually rather pleased with the idea. Every guard and soldier he had seen in the giant castle city was a melee fighter. He didn’t notice a single one with a bow. If he had over a thousand archers, and the phalanx held, this wasn’t going to be a win: it was going to be a massacre. “Gather up the rest of the able-bodied men and report to Alex for training. We need more warm bodies in the phalanx as soon as possible.”
“Lord Darwin, did you say women and children too? With the bows?” one of the men he didn’t know yet asked.
“I did,” he looked over at the man. “Is that going to be a problem?”
“No, it’s just . . . Women and children don’t usually fight. They usually do other things during battles” He tried to be as well mannered as possible with his excuse.
“I’ll tell you what . . .” Darwin said, purposefully dragging out the delay between the word what and the next sentence as he tried to think of one of the cool girl power quotes from old fantasy movies he had watched. “You find me a woman or boy who wants to wait inside the dungeon with no say in whether they live or die, and they’re more than welcome to do it. Otherwise, give them a bow and the freedom to choose for themselves whether or not they want to defend themselves, their friends and their families. Let them choose if they want to die fighting or cowering inside a cave.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t going to go south?”
“It will if we start treating everyone like cowards and don’t allow good, able bodies to carry their weight,” Darwin replied with a smirk. With all of the great female adventurers and contributors to quests, it’s amazing that people still hold these type of reservations. I certainly didn’t think Louie’s group had any such issues. They seemed to be more concerned with political correctness than two politicians in a debate.
“Right, right,” Steve nodded in agreement. “You should know that the Lord Darwin always sends two women to do his dirty work for him, clearing out and prepping enemies before he ever shows up. It was like that when he came to talk to our leader. Before we ever saw him there were two cuties already holding weapons at us. Then he sends another two to go meet up with the other camp. Darwin is always sending women first to do his dirty work.”
I . . . I did not send them to do my dirty work for me! Darwin almost corrected him, but then decided that he had spent enough time and effort on talking with his new recruits. “Split up into two groups of archers and send the able-bodied men who don’t use a bow to Alex for training. The battle is going to start any minute, and we aren’t aiming for a win. We’re aiming for a massacre,” Darwin did his best commanding voice. “Now.”
“Yes, Lord Darwin!” the four archers said as they bowed, the others following suit within a second, and the whole group departed. Not realizing that they could still be heard, they started arguing again as soon as they thought they were safe. “You think there will be an official musical instrument for the . . .”
Darwin, spirits lifted from the discovery of a few thousand additional fighters, given he only had around three hundred and fifty to begin with, made his way back into the dungeon. With everyone starting to turn to him for answers and relying on him now more than ever, he had a lot to think about. Stephanie had promised that everyone could come with them into the real world, but did that include thousands or just the hundreds they initially had? Was there going to be a way to provide food and shelter for every single person who was coming through the portal, or was the world of Tiqpa a better option?
“Looking glum there, buddy,” Daniel, who was waiting for him near one of the Blue-Drakes, said.
“Yeah, lot on my mind. Wait, you’re up too?”
“Of course I am! Kitchens sent the whole group a private message just a few minutes ago. Said today was going to be another epic battle that people wouldn’t want to miss and that you needed our help and would die a terrible, awful death if we didn’t log on and chip in right away. So I figured, ‘If the big boss man needs our help, I best forget about sleeping in and get on right away.’ Don’t know about the others, but I’m sure they’ll be on as soon as they get the message. We got your back, old man, we aren’t going to let you go down without a fight,” Daniel said as he patted Darwin on the back. It was great at cheering Darwin up for a minute, but it also left him feeling a bit torn on another subject.
He wanted to join them in the main fight, battle with them side by side in what would likely be the greatest epic struggle of swords and fury since they first arrived in this land, but he had to stay with his people. He had to maintain the lines, watch over his troops, and make sure everyone was doing what was needed. As much as the desire for blood and vengeance on the edge of the battle pulled at him, it was not Alex’s responsibility to do everything. It was his. He was going to be the one to bear the responsibility for every person who died on the battlefield in the fight to come.
“Thanks, it means a lot. Let’s get to work then and see if we can’t level a bit while converting more Blue-Drakes before the battle breaks out,” Darwin said, and the two set about farming the Blue-Drakes again. Unlike before, however, they had help this time. Each zone was already camped by several ZombiDrakes, and, along the way the, others started showing up as well: from Kitchens reappearing with Minx to Valerie and Mclean. The fight hadn’t even started yet, but he was already feeling like he had won.