Darwin stared out over the glass bowsprit at the ocean ahead. Sleep. What I would give for sleep, he thought, remembering how blissful it was to go to bed and wake up with a clear and refreshed mind. Nowadays, his brain felt like an old computer that couldn’t clear its temporary memory cache. If I’m not insane yet, I will be.
“Raise your arms,” Stephanie said as she came up behind Darwin, putting one hand on each side of his back.
“Are you . . . Are you trying to Titanic me?” Darwin laughed, turning around to look at the beautiful blonde girl.
“Shh, just go with it. Afterwards I can, like, paint you like one of my pretty French girls,” Stephanie said as she smiled.
“Does that mean this will end with one of us wet and hanging onto a piece of wood?” Darwin laughed dorkishly at his own bad innuendo. He had been stuck thinking about so many serious things, even good serious things, that he hadn’t actually just laughed and enjoyed his time in Tiqpa much. There were only ever sparse conversations with Kass or Stephanie that took his mind off his mission to care for his people or how little he knew about how to actually do that.
“I volunteer to be the one holding onto the wood.” Stephanie did an overly dramatic lurch forward like she was Rose climbing on top of a piece of the floating debris in the icy waters.
“Are you just saying that so I’ll be the one who goes down?” Darwin continued the perverted jokes, reminiscing about all the bad puns he had made when he was in highschool.
“Well, if you’re the one going down, I’ll still be wet, so what does it matter?” Stephanie countered.
“I guess not a lot. I didn’t think you’d be waiting for me in the cabin though,” Darwin said, looking over Stephanie’s shoulders to make sure no one could see them, “which is weird.”
“How so?” She asked, cozying up close and taking his hand.
“Well, it’s just, I never thought I’d ever get a girlfriend besides my video game, and now I’m dating a girl that’s part of a video game . . . and . . .” Darwin stumbled across his words, trying to put his thoughts together but also being keenly aware of Stephanie’s touch on his skin.
“And what? Like, it’s okay. I’m not going to make fun of you. You’re my first attempt at dating too,” Stephanie reminded him. “Not that there have been a lot of suitors, granite . . .”
“You mean ‘granted’?”
“Do I?” she gave a coy smile.
“Anyway, I just never thought my first dates would feel so sneaky, always having to hide the girl lest someone turns up dead.”
“I just take stunning to a whole new level. It’s not my fault so many people are blinded by beauty.”
“Mhmmm, beauty is it?” Darwin gave his first wry smile of the conversation. “I’m sure that’s the case. Wait, as a Gorgon, are you even comfortable being on the water? Not worried about another frat guy Poseidon incident?”
“Pssshhhh, Poseidon is all washed up. Not to mention, that’s just a myth the Greeks tell because they want to make it seem like a good thing that the only way Perseus could get head was through decapitation,” Stephanie joked, making fun of the Greek legends.
“You know, Perseus probably seems like a terrible frat guy only for those cursed by wisdom,” Darwin continued, punning on the Greek gorgon origin.
“Either way, Captain, we’re on course for smooth sailing,” Stephanie giggled as she gave a weak salute.
“Alright, well, if we’re on course for smooth sailing, how about we get some rest in the cabin. I could use it after everything we’ve been through.”
“Nuh-uh. You can take a rest only after you’ve gotten your lesson in with Alex. You might be my strong, fast and admirable hero, but you’ve been swinging those swords like a drunk gypsy dancer from Bulgaria in the 40s.”
“That’s actually not a bad idea. I wouldn’t mind learning how to be a ninja, or at least figure out how they always sneak up on me as if they have some magical ‘appear out of thin air’ skill.”
“Well, I can’t promise you’ll be able to sneak up on anyone, especially with no class abilities to help you or years of training, but you do need to learn how to stop someone from stabbing you in the back at the very least.”
“I’m convinced. You got me. I’ll go find them and get some training in,” Darwin said, raising his hands in mock surrender.
“Good boy. I’ll see you in the cabin later, and bring me some chocolate on your way back,” she smiled and then vanished even faster than Alex.
Where in the heck does one get chocolate on a boat in the middle of the ocean? Darwin thought as he went to go find Alex. I mean, this is a video game. Is there a magic vendor I don’t know about that appears on every boat? Darwin had a lot of other things on his mind like how he was going to deal with telling Kass about Stephanie.
“I heard you were looking for me, Lord Darwin,” Alex said, tapping Darwin’s shoulder as he pondered his gift-giving dilemma. Normally, Darwin wasn’t easily startled, but the combination of how deep in thought he was and the inexplicable tap attack on his shoulder was enough to make him almost leap out of his own skin.
“I need to give you a cowbell to wear wherever you go,” Darwin muttered loud enough for Alex to hear.
“A cowbell?” Alex thought for a minute, resting his hand on his chin in a contemplative gesture. “Ah, I understand. You wish for me to wear a cowbell as part of a special training regime to improve my sneaking ability? I am currently lacking as a forward scout and you are hoping this will help me.”
“Actually, no,” Darwin thought for a minute, trying to come up with an explanation that wouldn’t just be admitting Alex kept startling him. “That’s not it. It was only a joke.”
“Ah.” Alex pondered again for a minute. “I don’t get it. Is your joke funny?”
“To someone watching, I’m sure.” Darwin wanted to hold his head in shame. How could Alex say that with such a straight face? “Back to the topic of training though, that’s actually why I was looking for you.”
“Ah, you have special training you’d like me to undertake in preparation for future battles,” Alex nodded as if he already knew where the conversation was going. “I look forward to serving and learning under your tutelage.”
“Umm . . . No, that’s not it.” Darwin found it harder and harder to ask what he needed from Alex.
“Oh,” Alex’s face fell flat for a moment, then it perked up, “I’m sorry for jumping to the wrong conclusion, Lord Darwin, of course you’d want to hold a class for all the military personnel and not just myself. Shall I call an all hands formation?”
“No, I’d rather you didn’t because the thing is . . .” Darwin started slowly, and then decided to quickly rush his next sentence so that Alex wouldn’t get a chance to further tar his ability to ask. “I actually need you to train me.”
“I’m sorry, Lord Darwin. What was that?” Alex looked so shocked, Darwin couldn’t tell if he was feigning it or it was sincere.
“I need you to train me. I’ve never had a lesson with a sword, so I don’t know the proper way to use one.” Darwin wasn’t lying. He may have played dozens of video games and watched hundreds of hours of television and movies with sword fighting, but that was the extent of his education and none of it had soaked in–not a single tidbit of how to actually use a blade. It’s not like he could dance across leaves and do exaggerated motions during a fight as if this were one of the oriental action movies he loved, nor was it the case that he could wait for the camera to freeze every five seconds during a battle and pretend like it was an action movie. No, he had no experience or visual memory to draw on. He only had his instincts, and instincts without training can only get you so far.
“Lord Darwin, what exactly do you need training in? Aren’t you like the newcomers? I know no-one talks about them, but I’ve noticed enough to know that their system of education and training isn’t the same as ours,” Alex said with a hesitant expression on his face. “I’m not sure I’m the best one to train you.”
“Wait.” Darwin was about to explain his situation properly when he noticed Alex had mentioned something he hadn’t heard before from another NPC. “The newcomers?”
“Yes, those like you who only showed up in this world recently. They improve very quickly with combat experience and use a unique system to learn how to fight. I don’t know how I didn’t notice this when I was still Human, but after joining the faction and becoming a Demon, I began to put the pieces together from the conversations I had overheard. Little by little, I realized that they function in our reality with an entirely different set of rules.” When Alex finished his explanation, he looked at his spear and then back at Darwin. “The group we killed in the woods together . . . I saw them at the battle on the shore. It didn’t make sense. Even if they were capable of traveling faster than we were and reaching the battle before us, we had killed them. They should have been dead, yet they were alive again as if nothing happened. That’s when I put together everything I had overheard and realized that these people were different.”
Welp, the cat is out of the bag now for sure. Do I fill him in? Where is Kass or Stephanie to give me a cue on how I’m supposed to handle him discovering this. Darwin looked around, as if the combination of his desire to see them and the uncomfortable situation would somehow summon them out of thin air.
“Alex, do you know how the newcomers train?” Darwin did his best to skirt around the topic, still not sure whether or not he wanted to explain to an NPC that this was all just a game.
“I haven’t been able to figure it out. I can recall overhearing conversations about something to do with Tiqpa combat systems, but that’s it.” Alex returned his hand to his chin for tentative scratching. “Though, I’m sure Kass will be able to tell you. The way she disappears and reappears, when she showed up, the way she talks about things . . . She is definitely a newcomer.”
“Yeah, she is.” Darwin didn’t even bother trying to hide it that time. Lying wasn’t the best way to keep your troops loyal.
“Are you, Lord Darwin?”
“I don’t know what I am, Alex.” Darwin looked around for a minute, trying and failing to find something to change the subject with. Then, unable to find a new topic to change to, he pulled out a sword and went with the first one. “I’m only certain that I need combat training.”
“Alright, but I’ve never actually been an instructor, Lord Darwin, so please be patient with me,” Alex said, putting down the spear he always carried and pulling out two swords. “You are a dual-wielder, right?”
“I guess it has worked out that way, yeah,” Darwin said, pulling out his two Burriza’s Blades. He actually wanted to learn how to use the spear–after all, when he was playing his old MMO, Emerald Gardens, he had always liked being a Dragoon. As the great Arch Lance Ser NightVale, the unrivaled spear wielder of the StormGuard Alliance, he had grown to love using that particular weapon. The two swords that had dropped when looting the silver ore mine boss, however, were simply night and day stronger than the spears that had been for sale at the Blacksmith’s shop before he left Valcrest. “So, how do we . . .”
Before Darwin could even begin to ask what they were going to start with, Alex lunged at him with a right thrust. Darwin instinctively used his left blade to strike Alex’s unexpected attack away from him while parrying the follow up slash attack from the left with his right-hand sword.
“Incredible,” Alex said, jumping back from his first feint attack. Darwin almost felt proud for a moment at the compliment until Alex followed it up with, “I can’t believe you’re so good at fighting with such sloppy form.”
Yep, this is going to go swimmingly. “I’m good at fighting, but I lack form?””
“Yeah, you move like the blade is a part of you, and your reaction speed is astounding, but your movements are far too wide and excessive in nature–something very common from fighters with little to no form.”
“So, I’m basically relying on faster reflexes and movement speed to beat my opponents? Because I have no form?” Darwin nodded uncertainly. He wanted to make sure he understood what Alex was trying to convey.
“Indeed. You fight like a wild animal, concerned only with the goal of your actions and not the best methods to achieve them,” Alex also nodded. “It should be an easy enough fix though.”
“Oh?” Darwin pressed for a more precise answer.
“Yes. I plan to teach you form and root you in one of the great combat styles of the Human Empire. But first, I think first we just need to get you to understand that you don’t need to parry by a mile what you can evade by an inch,” he said, pulling something out of his pockets as he spoke.
“Excellent, just tell me what I need to do next.” Darwin understood the basic meaning of what Alex was trying to convey, but he also knew that converting theory into practice would be difficult.
“I need you to defend against me, using only these,” he answered, throwing two spoons for Darwin to catch. “Hold them like swords and get used to blocking when you don’t have the advantage of reach.”
Darwin looked at the spoons for a minute, then looked at Alex, then looked back at the spoons. Why does this feel eerily familiar, like the spoon is a welcome sign for a new adventure? he thought as he stared at the soup-slaughtering weapons in his hand.
“I know it may seem odd, Lord Darwin, but this was also Stephanie’s suggestion. She had already anticipated your need for this type of training when she told me to find you.” He raised his swords again, preparing to attack once more.
Wait, does that mean the entire time I was embarrassedly trying to find a way to ask him for help, he already knew what I wanted? Darwin felt a strong urge to facepalm. Does that mean Alex actually has a sense of humor?
Before he could process the fact that Alex had not only managed to troll him, but also do it with such a straight face, Alex dashed at him with both blades. Darwin grabbed each spoon and readied himself for the incoming blows. At first, it felt absolutely ridiculous trying to stop two long swords from cutting him with just cutlery, but every attack he actually blocked gave him confidence in his movements and made them feel more natural. By the time he had stopped forty or fifty life-threatening swings–or at least swings that would be life threatening in the real world where things weren’t gauged by damage meters and health bars–he was beginning to feel like he had spent his entire childhood fighting with spoons.
So is this where I finally get my training montage? Darwin mused to himself as one minute of fighting off Alex’s relentless attacks melted into ten and then twenty and then forty. He was amazed that with the game’s core endurance and fighting systems he never ran out of stamina or got tired. Should I expect to have to run up some stairs, jump rope, do a few ridiculous workout routines and get a theme song after this?
Once the two hour mark had passed though, Alex suddenly stopped his attacks without warning and bowed his head. “With your permission, I’d like to excuse myself, Lord Darwin. I temporarily lost track of time, but I need to complete my duties and make sure everyone is still accounted for and properly taken care of.”
“Of course,” Darwin said, a little disappointed that the training was over. He had actually enjoyed the adrenaline rush he got from warding off and parrying the deadly attacks. “Do what needs to be done.”
“Yes, Lord Darwin.” Alex turned around to leave, but instead of just vanishing as he frequently did, he looked back at Darwin one more time and said, “I can’t remember if I’ve said it, but thank you, Lord Darwin. Captain Elmont really was right about you.” Then he darted off to handle more pressing tasks.
At first, Darwin couldn’t help but feel a little touched but then a little guilty for the thought that came immediately after. Welp, off to go play pirate on the high seas and see about plundering me some booty. Whatever guilt he felt, however, only lasted until he realized he still hadn’t asked Stephanie about what was going on between her and Eve and why Eve had wanted to stop them from getting together; instead, it was quickly replaced by concern.