The morning sun shone upon the deck of the Maximum, angling toward noon. The sky leaning toward the sunny side of see-sawing cloudiness that had shifted over the past few days in almost hourly waves. The wind holding fairly steady, if slight, barely keeping the ship moving at any measurable speed against the choppy seas, with no indication of changing any time today.
Shades held the upper helm, enjoying the breeze and fresh sea air. The many weeks’ worth of voyaging since he and his friends first acquired the Maximum had done nothing to diminish his sense of wonder as he scanned the horizon. A horizon that seemed to him at least as boundless as the sky, as his eyes were often drawn to that hazy place where the two met.
As he sat there, mostly holding the wheel steady against the restless waters, he found himself overhearing Max and Ma’Quiver, their new passenger of recent acquaintance, training behind him on the deck below.
“…Think of it as one continuous movement, without any conscious thought to trip you up…” the young warrior lectured. Borrowing, Shades presumed, from the words of his own elusive master. “See where you’re going, and let your body move with the speed of thought…”
Since he was a kid, Shades had noticed he possessed a mysterious knack for just going from zero to sixty, taking both himself and his opponents by surprise with both the fluidity and spontaneity of his own moves, but was always at a total loss for how he did it. Perhaps not to the same radical extremes as in his dreams, but easily enough to turn the tide in fights he probably shouldn’t have been able to win at his level. Looking back, he was sure, on some unconscious level, a question he had hoped to find an answer to when he first started studying martial arts with Master Al in the fifth grade. Yet six going on seven years of training later, he was still as mystified by it as ever.
Still couldn’t shift gears at will, only pulling it off either in the midst of a crisis, or, according to his companions, if he totally lost himself in his training. Yet something that only worked out of desperation, or in a controlled environment, was useless on the battlefield. Relied too much on luck rather than skill.
It was only in the last three weeks, with their bargain with Ma’Quiver turning the Maximum into a floating dojo, that it finally started to sink in. Admittedly, it was still very hit and miss, but he was starting to reach a point where he could piece together what made it tick, as the venerable sage Abu-Sharrah once recommended. Perhaps it was that combination of a controlled environment, and Ma’Quiver constantly putting him on the spot, with a fighting style he couldn’t help thinking of as “the Good-Natured Brawl” that was forcing him to internalize it, to make it his own. He just wished he could explain it to Max; that sense of seeing a line flowing through the midst of things, that he need only follow to arrive at places he never realized he could go.
Still, compared to Justin, Max was at least starting to get it, though he had to admit that Justin was taking his own martial arts training more seriously than he used to, and Shades was now quite certain the staff was indeed his weapon, winning more and more of their staff sparring matches despite Shades having years’ more experience at it. That, and Ma’Quiver’s tutelage had done wonders for his rather sketchy basics. Listening to them talk, Shades wished he could turn around and watch Max and Ma’Quiver’s sword training, as it was always a sight to behold.
“…You’re still trying to read me word for word, instead of reading between the lines,” Ma’Quiver told Max as they finished another round of swordplay. “I can show you some useful moves, but you have to use this experience to make them your own.”
“I know,” Max replied, taking the opportunity to give his stun blade a rest, as well. Sweating from head to foot, and still more winded than Ma’Quiver after trading blades for several furious minutes. “You’re at least as hard to read as Erix.”
“You’re beginning to see the difference between knowing one book, and understanding an entire language.” Even so, Ma’Quiver had to admit that he had heard of this Erix, and he found Max’s survival against the likes of him more impressive than what he had seen of Max’s fighting at Nikopolas Arena. “The only thing you’re going to get good at with that method is fighting me. It won’t help you that much against other experienced warriors, though. The greatest strength you can wield with a weapon is not just mastery of technique, but being spontaneous and unpredictable in using it.”
“I still feel like I’m making up for lost time.” Five years in Paradise, where all he could do was rehearse form and technique as best he could, but it wasn’t until he started sparring with Shades, who had years’ more formal training than he, that Max had anything to compare his skills to. His battles since then consisting of a series of grueling wake-up calls, this being the only one that offered him a chance to take his training in a challenging new direction. “If I hadn’t started getting more experience sparring with Justin and Shades before those fights, I don’t think I’d even be here right now.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Ma’Quiver told him, impressed after his own fashion by anyone who would pursue such rigorous training in such isolated solitude. Though he initially had his doubts about stepping into the role of teacher, they were largely dispelled by the company of people who shared his enthusiasm for the martial arts. Even Justin, who was standoffish at first, started getting into it once he noticed how much his skills were improving. To say nothing of simply enjoying his new friends’ more musical training methods. “From what I’ve seen, you’ve come a long way in a very short time.”
Though none of them had shown a hint of aptitude for the time-bending aspect of Shanshou-kan, he hadn’t really expected any of them to. Even his master, in all his travels, had only found one other person besides himself who possessed the gift. Not that he regarded any of this as a waste of time, for all of his fellow travelers were making impressive progress refining their own respective fighting skills.
Max looked up for a moment, spotting Bandit sitting on the upper helm, behind Shades. Both of whose sake he had fought for before, a thought that rekindled his resolve. Firing up his stun blade again, he and Ma’Quiver stepped back into their fighting stances to resume their sparring session once more.
While the two of them continued to sharpen their blades against each other, Justin stood in the door to the storage room below. The very narrow doorway. A fact that the accumulated knot of bruises on both of his elbows gave stern testament to as he ran through a series of punches and blocks while standing right on the threshold, his arms sore and stiff.
Sweat pouring down his face and back, focusing hard on staying inside what Shades called his body line. The reason, Shades told him, why your punches don’t connect most of the time is because you telegraph too much. Your elbows give you away too easily. Told him about how he used to stand in a similarly narrow doorway in the basement of Master Al’s old shop, which also doubled as a dojo, back when he was still a blue belt novice, that it helped him improve his form a great deal. Of course, like a lot of Shades’ training methods, results were not always immediate, but they were very noticeable once he started getting them.
After nearly two weeks of this punishing routine, he was starting to get to a point where he could string together several moves without banging his elbows against the doorframe. More importantly, during their more recent sparring sessions, he was landing a lot more punches against Shades, who, one-on-one, seemed to have the most uncanny defensive reflexes. Still couldn’t put a dent in Ma’Quiver, but he took some consolation in the fact that neither Max nor Shades, whose tight guard was complimented by a similar knack for spotting openings and timing counters, couldn’t do much better against the guy, either.
What he was most proud of, though, was that he could hold his own against Shades on staff sparring, winning the lion’s share of their last few matches.
Attempting to speed up his next flurry of punches to a rate that would be more useful in combat, he struck his left elbow against the frame, hard enough to make his arm go numb for a moment, he stumbled back into the storage room, cursing profusely, and kicking the door while clutching his poor tenderized elbow. As he stood there for a moment, fuming and catching his breath, he happened to glance around, noting with a daily mounting dismay how many empty shelves now marked where their food supply used to be. The emptiness a visual representation to go with the growl of his stomach.
Deciding that training was over for today, he stepped into the bathroom to splash his face a few times before heading up topside to rest in the refreshing breeze of the upper deck before taking his turn at the helm. Passing through the ship’s compact, but well-equipped, galley, he poured himself a cup of water, chugging it all down in a few seconds before leaving the cabin. Skirting around Max and Ma’Quiver’s intense match, he climbed up the ladder, patting Bandit on the head as he took a seat next to Shades.
“Those two are still goin’ at it?” Shades remarked, leaning back in his seat. “Are either of them even going to have the energy to train with me this evening?”
“Not with the lame-ass portions you dish out,” Justin muttered. “Half the time, I’m still hungry after I’m done eating. How do you put up with it?”
“I’m hungry, too,” Shades replied. “I’m just trying to make the food supply last. We’ve been out here for twenty days now, and still no sign of land…”
“Yeah, well you sure do take an awful lot of taste tests when you cook.”
“And you don’t?” Shades snorted. “Last I checked, that was one of the privileges of cooking duty.”
Of course, he knew Justin was usually cranky after training, but their escalating food situation wasn’t helping any. Still, he had to admit, hunger or no hunger, that was the longest he had seen Justin go in one training session, which made him wonder if that was good sign or bad one for crew morale. Distraction, coping mechanism, perhaps? Or release valve for frustration? Then again, Bandit seemed to be taking it the hardest, alternately lounging and moping, increasingly disappointed in their more progressively limited menu selection, edging into lethargic lately, despite Max sharing some of his own portions with his feline friend.
In the midst of their conversation, Max and Ma’Quiver came up, apparently having reached their own limit for the day.
“I’m sorry about that, guys,” Ma’Quiver apologized for what had to be thousandth time on this voyage. “For what it’s worth, I’m grateful you took me with you.”
“Really, there’s no need to apologize,” Shades assured him once again. “If it wasn’t for your help, who knows what would have happened? You know what I say: any friend of Max’s is a friend of mine, man.”
After their narrow escape from the island of Sarna, he had found himself with nearly three weeks to contemplate the complications of adding even one more person to this modest ship’s roster. Food being merely the most blatant and persistent. Fortunately, the lounge table was designed to fold down into another bed, so at least Ma’Quiver didn’t have to sleep on the deck. As well as the whole issue of the ship feeling a lot more crowded, privacy already being at something of a premium before.
And still only one bathroom onboard.
Making it quite obvious to him that even though this was originally a smuggling ship, with ferrying tourists being only a cover, those passengers surely never stayed the night aboard.
“By the way,” Max asked him, “what are you making for lunch today?”
“Haven’t gotten that far yet,” Shades answered. “I’ll have to see what’s left.”
“How much do we have left anyway?” Ma’Quiver brought up.
“Hard to say, exactly,” Shades tried to answer, “but even if we cut back on portions again, I doubt it’ll last more than another week, at most.”
“Cutting back?” Justin moaned. “Again?”
“We have no choice,” Max sighed.
As Justin took his turn at the helm, Shades got up to go prepare lunch, stopping to gaze out on that vast horizon, feeling his usual sense of inspiration begin to sink into stark dread. The impression of searching for an oasis of land in a desert of salt water.