The sun is already hanging over the far mountains by the time the party reaches them. There are only a couple of hours left before the sun sets beyond the tall, snowy peaks, but that does not matter to them. After all, thanks to time in-game moving twice as fast as it does in real life, they can just find a nice spot to set up a temporary camp and then wake from virtual reality to go do whatever they need to do in real life.
For Azalabulia, that means grading papers. For Rao, it means running to the store to buy some more alcohol and spicy chips. For Cassiel and Nell, it means playing with ferrets in real life, watching random videos online, and doing whatever chores need doing around the house since it’s their turn to do them.
Then there is Fenrir and Serra.
The only two who do not wake from virtual reality have different plans now that everybody else has left their virtual bodies under their protection.
And, for once, the plan does not involve anything lewd despite Serra being involved in it.
“Here,” Fenrir says, handing his sword in its sheath over to Serra.
“What now?” Serra asks.
“But you don’t have a sword.”
Fenrir takes Rod off of his belt and extends the living tool into the proper length of a fishing rod. “I’ve got something better.”
“Won’t a sword cut a fishing rod?”
“Come on, Serra. You’ve got to have some more faith in Rod.”
“I have faith in your rod.”
Fenrir taps the top of Serra’s head with the tip of Rod.
“Come on. You want to get stronger too, right? Then let’s teach you how to sword fight.”
“I want a hammer like Tabs.”
“All you get is a sword for now.”
“But hammers are used differently, aren’t they?”
“Learning how to fight is still learning how to fight. You still need to learn when to attack, when to defend, how to dodge – all of that. Those skills are going to transfer even if you start swinging a hammer around instead of a sword.”
“Trust me. Not only should you trust me, but you should be grateful that I’m your teacher!” Fenrir declares with a confident pose. “I may not be the best swordsman ever—”
“Cass Cass is better.”
“As I was saying, I may not be the best swordsman ever, but I’m still pretty good. I taught old guild members how to fight in games before plenty of times when they were still new to VR games.”
“Will it make me better in real life, too?”
“I think so? I’m honestly not sure. I mean, for you, you would probably get better results than me since your character is just like your real self. For me, even though the system does a great job of smoothing over the transition between my real body and this one, things still don’t really feel right sometimes. You ever feel that way?”
Serra shakes her head.
“Then anything you learn how to do in-game will probably translate really well for you to real life. Though, it’s not like you have to learn how to sword fight in real life or anything. I don’t really see how any of this would help you.”
“So I can dom you.”
“You’re hoping fighting skills in-game translate to you being able to dominate me in real life?”
Serra nods and says, “I’ll be able to beat you up and get whatever I want.”
“That makes you sound like a mugger. And a rapist. A rapist-mugger.”
“It’s not rape if I ask you for permission to beat you up first.”
“Oh, you’re going to ask me for permission before beating me up to get whatever you want? Well, that just makes everything better. Congratulations, you’ve been promoted from a rapist-mugger to a friendly mugger.”
“Right. You didn’t get promoted. You just leveled up. Congrats.”
“I’m the best.”
“Yes you are.”
“I bet I could kick your butt with this sword.”
“Swords are for stabbing and slashing, not for kicking.”
“I want you to stab me with your sword.”
“I can’t since you’re holding it right now.”
“Your other sword.”
“I’m beginning to believe that it’s impossible for you to go more than twenty seconds without somehow perverting whatever the current topic is. I could probably talk about intestinal worms and you would somehow turn it sexual, somehow. Actually, I know how… there’s some really weird hentai out there,” Fenrir says and shivers.
“Makes me think of spaghetti.”
“Please don’t ruin spaghetti for me.”
“Too late. Worm spaghetti.”
“You know we just bought the stuff to make that, right? What am I supposed to do when they make it and I’m the only one who looks sick when I look at it?”
“Be a man and eat it.”
“You’re cruel, Serra.”
“I’ll distract you under the table to take your mind off of it.”
“You’re a cruel pervert, Serra Berra.”
“Because I’m the best.”
“Yes, you are. Now, try swinging the sword.”
Serra drops the sheath, holds the sword in both of her hands, and just sort of waves it around rather than trying to actually swing it in any meaningful way.
“Is… that what you call swinging a sword?” Fenrir asks.
“Yeah,” Serra answers.
“Haven’t you picked up anything just from watching me and Cass?”
“We don’t fight a lot.”
“You’re not wrong, but still. Swing the sword like you mean it. I know you know how to.”
Serra shrugs, lifts the sword up over her head, and swings it down in front of her in a vertical slash.
“Aside from the fact that you were so slow that anybody would be able to counter, block, dodge, or kill you in the time it takes for you to move your arms a few inches, good job,” Fenrir says.
Serra pouts and waves the sword at him.
“That is sharp, you know.”
“It’s okay, I know you’re an M sometimes.”
“Remind me to keep all of our knives away from you the next time we wake.”
“Am I going to have to sleep with one eye open?”
Serra smirks and tries swinging the sword again, this time sacrificing form for speed.
“Faster, but sloppy. You’re not going to hit where you want to hit if you can’t swing straight.”
“But I’d still hit them.”
“What if you hit a protected spot instead of a vulnerable one because your sword went to the side? It won’t matter if you hit them since you won’t be doing anything other than opening yourself up.”
“Then how do I get better?”
“Keep doing that. Keep on swinging over, and over, and over until your arms hurt.”
“I disabled pain.”
“Then keep on swinging until they start feeling numb.”
“You’re not good at this. I want Azawaza to teach me.”
“She a caster. Unless you want her to teach you how to explode mountains—”
“Yeah. I wanna make huge explosions.”
“You already do that with my dick.”
Serra grins and points some finger guns at Fenrir.
“I hope you enjoyed that fanservice. That’s the only perverted joke you’re getting out of me until you prove to me that you can swing a sword better than… however it is you are right now.”
She goes back to pouting. “Is there anything else I need to do?”
“Other than that.”
“I just mean to swing again so I can pay attention to your form.”
She swings the sword once more as Fenrir rubs his chin.
“You’re using your wrists too much. Try to keep them straight and still. Only swing your arms.”
Serra swings again with his advice in mind.
“Perfect. See? You’ve already improved – you know how to swing straight now.”
“I’m ready for a break.”
“It’s been like, less than ten minutes. We have almost six hours to go.”
“I give up. Fighting is too hard.”
“Don’t be lazy.”
“Carry me and do all the fighting for me.”
“You can’t have sex if you’re lazy.”
“Yeah you can. You just have to do all the work.”
“Here, to make things more fun and exciting, try hitting me.”
“What if you get hurt?”
“One, it’s a game. Two, you won’t be able to hit me.”
“Sounds like a challenge.”
“That’s exactly what it is. So, come on. Try cutting me.”
Serra steps forward and swings her sword at Fenrir. He barely has to put any effort in to stepping out of the way and avoiding her swing. Then, to top things off, he taps her on the back with Rod.
“Come on. I’m right here,” Fenrir teases.
Serra straightens her hat, looks up at him, and swings!
And completely misses.
“The sword isn’t as long as you think it is. You’re short, so your arms aren’t that long, meaning you’ve got to get closer to me if you want to actually hit me,” Fenrir explains.
She takes a step forward to close the distance, and he takes a step back to maintain it.
“It’s not fair if you move away,” Serra says.
“Do you expect somebody to stand still and let you hit them?”
“No, but it’s still not fair.”
“Fighting isn’t supposed to be fair.”
“I thought knights were honorable.”
“Neither of us are knights.”
“I wanna be a knight.”
“A short, perverted knight with a giant hammer who wants to blow things up?”
“That doesn’t sound very knightly.”
“Then how do you be a knight?”
“Uh… I’m not completely sure. I’ve always been on the side that all the real knights hate, so I guess you just do the opposite of whatever I do – well, what I used to do.”
“Sounds boring. What you used to do sounds fun. Does that make you an evil knight?”
“Sure. Let’s go with that.”
“I wanna be an evil knight.”
“A short, perverted, evil knight with a giant hammer who wants to blow things up?”
“Well, I guess that sounds pretty evil knightly.”
“Then it’s settled.”
“Says the munchkin who can’t even hit me.”
Serra pouts, steps forward, and swings!
She ends up missing, again, and getting tapped on top of her head.
“I think I might have to go even easier on you than I thought,” Fenrir says.
“Let me hit you.”
“I thought you were worried about hurting me?”
“It’s only a game, and if you have pain enabled, it means you’re a masochist who wants it.”
“That’s not how it works. It’s about immersion, not masochism.”
“Only masochists think that pain means immersion.”
Fenrir taps her on the top of her head again using Rod. While she did try to avoid it this latest time, she was nowhere near fast enough and almost tripped in the process.
“You know, I think we might be approaching this the wrong way,” he says.
“Because. You want to be involved in fights more, but you have no idea how to fight. You do love firing cannons and are pretty good at that though, right?”
Serra nods and says, “Especially your cannon.”
“Of course. Anyways, maybe you would be better at ranged combat than melee combat. If me and Cass basically tank, then you and Azawaza wouldn’t ever have to worry about being attacked unless we mess up. Well, that can’t be guaranteed, but you’d get to focus more on aiming and delivering big attacks rather than having to dodge, attack, and pursue all at once.”
“Well, it requires a lot more skill in the aiming department, but you’re pretty good at judging that if your skill with a cannon is anything to judge you by. I think that might translate to you being a good – well, maybe not an archer. What ranged weapon could you do good with…”
“A hammer that shoots cannons.”
“As much as I think Tabs would love to try and make something like that, I’m not sure it’s possible or that it would even be allowed by the overseer. But… maybe a portable cannon isn’t too much to ask for? The only problem is that you’ll have to get even stronger so that you can carry it around properly. I doubt that it would be light.”
“I want a portable cannon. Can’t I swing it like a hammer if I have to?”
“I mean, when you look at it that way, sure. It’s basically just a really big tube hammer. I guess.”
“Tube hammer that shoots big balls.”
“But the real question is: does it shoot balls, or does it shoot balls?”
“You lost me.”
“I – I mean, like, does it shoot at balls or does it shoot balls as ammo.”
“Never mind. Anyways, you still need to learn how to dodge just in case, and swinging a sword will help you out in case you ever need to actually swing a cannon around like a hammer. Just try to dodge my attacks and swinging at Rod whenever you can.”
“Okay. Will you ask Tabs to make me a portable cannon?”
“When we get back. Promise.”
“Now then, get ready unless you want to be smacked over and over.”
Fenrir, with a deadpan expression, smacks Rod against her rear while trying to be as unerotic as possible about it.
“Ahn,” Serra fake moans, her voice just as emotionless as Fenrir’s deadpan expression.
“Come on. Let’s see how much you can improve,” Fenrir says.
The training begins once more.
At first, Serra hardly manages to avoid any of his attacks. Four out of five attacks result in her getting gently tapped by his sentient weapon of a fishing rod, and the one out of five attacks that don’t hit her usually aren’t because she did a good job of dodging. Instead, they’re because she trips and falls in an unpredictable way, so that Fenrir can try to boost her confidence a bit by going extra easy on her, and because Rock has decided to occasionally help out by nudging Serra in the right direction to dodge Fenrir’s slow attacks.
Even Rock could easily dodge his slow attacks. After seeing Serra fail to dodge so often, she started to feel bad.
Meanwhile, the only other member of the party present and awake is Shogun. As the other three train and essentially play around, Shogun stays on guard facing the mountains.
“Is this really working?” Serra asks after almost an hour of dodging attacks and rarely getting to swing her sword.
“You’re getting a bit faster, and I’ve noticed you trying to predict my attacks and dodging sooner, so I would say it is,” Fenrir says. “But, let’s switch things up.”
Serra lets out a relieved sigh and sheathes the sword. “What now?”
Serra looks up at him and tilts her head.
“If you want to carry a portable cannon and swing it around, you’re going to have to be pretty damn strong. That means you need to exercise more.” He looks at Rock. “Pick her up.”
Serra and Rock look at each other and tilt their heads in opposite directions.
“Pick her up?” Serra asks.
“Yeah. She’s the closest thing we have to a heavy weight to lift unless you want to walk around looking for a big enough boulder to lift.”
Serra and Rock both look at Fenrir.
“It’s not nice to call a girl a heavy weight,” Serra tells Fenrir.
Rock barks in agreement but her tail is still wagging anyways.
“That doesn’t matter. You still—”
Shogun’s barking interrupts them.
Rock instinctively runs to Shogun’s side and starts barking in the same direction that he’s barking in, but neither Serra nor Fenrir see anything when they look at where they’re looking.
Though, Fenrir has discovered something odd.
The wolf part of him is half-tempted to bark as well. Though, it only comes out as a stern glare at the nothingness that Rock and Shogun are staring at.
“What’s wrong?” Serra asks.
“Don’t know. Maybe something spooked him,” Fenrir answers.
Shogun shakes his head and barks even louder.
“It’s kind of scary when animals stare and bark at things you can’t see,” Serra says, “but in an exciting way.”
“You’re going to become like Nell if you associate being scared with excitement.”
“The world needs more Nell Nells.”
“You’re – wait.”
“I saw something.”
“Yeah. It was only in the corner of my eye, but I definitely saw something.”
Fenrir steps forward to place himself between what he saw and Serra.
Rock and Shogun have gone silent and are constantly looking in different directions to watch their surroundings.
“Be ready for anything,” Fenrir tells Serra.
“Then it’s not really anything, and that makes it boring.”
“Not even an ocean could quench your thirst.”
Fenrir takes a deep breath and tries to relax his nerves.
“I have a feeling we’re being watched,” he says, “but I have no idea where from.”
“Where’d you see the thing?”
“It went behind that boulder up on the cliff, but it’s got a ton of cover. It’s likely moved from there by now.”
“If only I had a cannon to shoot.”
“Yeah, a ranged attack would make me feel a lot better right… wait. Hey!” he shouts at the sleeping party members in the back of the wagon. “We might be under attack!”
The avatars of Nell, Cassiel, Rao, and Azalabulia get up and form a defensive position around the wagon. Their movements might look natural as they flawlessly copy the owners of the avatars, but each one of them is being temporarily controlled by the overseer and that’s obvious going by the hazy look in their eyes.
“I forgot about that,” Serra says.
“Yeah. It’s one of the best parts of this game even though we never need to use it – well, until now. But anyways, trust me when I say that having a base attacked while everybody is offline really sucks. At least this way, avatars can fight back even if it’s not as effectively as if the actual players were here.”
“Does this mean my avatar can do lewd things to yours while we’re offline?”
“I – I don’t think so.”
“Anyways… hey, Azalabulia, fire a spell up at that boulder. Try to make the blast go off in front of it so it blasts the debris away from us.”
Azalabulia’s avatar steps in front of the group, raises her staff at the boulder, and fires a draconic blast of energy straight at it.
The blast explodes directly in front of the boulder and sends chunks of it and the surrounding ground flying in every direction, including straight down toward the party. None of the debris hits them, thankfully, but Fenrir has learned that trying to control where a magic explosions sends debris is much more difficult than he thought it would be.
“Agh! Watch where you’re firing that thing!” a girl’s voice shouts from higher up on the cliff. “You scared the specimen away!”
Fenrir and Serra look at each other as Rock and Shogun go back to barking.
“Did you hear that?” Fenrir asks.
“Yeah,” Serra answers.
“Gah! I finally found one, too! Do you have any idea how long it took me to find one?! They only come out on full moons when it’s not humid or windy and when they’re looking for a mate which is only once every few months! So much time spent, only to finally find one, and then have it scared away before my eyes… and you put a hole in my bug net! Agh! Dang it!” the voice rants.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have had an AI-controlled Azalabulia randomly blow up a part of the mountain,” Fenrir tells Serra.
“I kinda feel bad. She sounds really upset,” Serra replies.
“Yeah… maybe we should apologize?”
“Why we? You ordered it. I’m just standing here.”
“You’re my girlfriend. You’re supposed to stand by my side through times like this.”
“You’re on your own.”
Fenrir sighs and slumps his shoulders.
“Let’s just hope that she’s not so upset that she wants to kill us or anything,” he says.
With a wish of good luck, Fenrir looks up at where the voice is still coming from. Though, the only noises coming from the voice are those of frustration and whining now.
“Hey! Uh, sorry about that,” he shouts. “We thought you might have been dangerous and spying on us or something.”
“Why the heck would I be watching some random people?! I didn’t even know you were there!” the girl shouts back.
“You didn’t hear the barking or anything?”
“I just thought a couple of animals were in heat or something!”
“Well, uh, sorry anyways.”
“You could apologize for a million years and it wouldn’t make up for what you’ve done!”
“Is it really that big of a deal? Can’t you just look for it another time and hope you get lucky?”
“Look for it another time? Hope I get lucky? Do you have any idea how many weeks I’ve been hunting for this specimen to research?!” she shouts, sticking out from behind another boulder on the side of the mountain. It is too dark for them to see anything more than her silhouette, but what they can see of her silhouette tells them that she’s got a couple of horns and a wide pair of wings angrily flapping behind her. “I’m never going to get my promotion if I can’t bring one back! Do you know how long I’ve been stuck here looking for these things? Weeks! Weeks! And just when I finally thought I could get out of here and go back to my lab, you did this to me!”
“She’s really talkative,” Serra comments.
“I wonder if Azawaza scolds her students in the same way,” Fenrir says.
“Trismy is never going to trust me to run my own branch if I can’t even capture one stupid insect!” the girl continues whining. “Do you know how many new scholars have been promoted faster than me?!”
Hearing that word, “scholars,” sends shivers up Fenrir’s spine.
“I think this is bad,” Fenrir says. “I – I think we found another one of those crazy people.”
“Like the goblin things?” Serra asks.
“Yeah. I can’t think of any other scholars in this game.”
“They were fun.”
“They didn’t make you do a bunch of experiments with fish.”
“But they were nice.”
“Sure, but you can be nice and insane.”
“What do you even have worth protecting that you thought it would be smart to almost blow me up?!” the girl shouts more.
“Our lives?” Fenrir shouts back.
“Insignificant! The pursuit of knowledge always takes precedence!”
“You mean the pursuit of bugs?”
“It’s not a bug! It’s an insect! There’s a difference!” she continues shouting while flying out from behind the boulder, slowly coming down toward Fenrir and the group.
“Alright, alright. The pursuit of insects is more important than our lives. Got it.”
“Do you really?! I don’t think you really do understand! You don’t – what’s that?” she asks, her voice instantly changing from angry to curious.
Before Fenrir gets an answer, the girl propels herself at full speed straight towards him. Only, rather than attack him, she drops onto her knees in front of him and examines his rod, Rod.
“This flashing gem… is this an Etaíros gem?!” she asks, looking up at Fenrir with her excited, heterochromia eyes. Her right eye may be bright white while her left is a deep red, but each eye has a slitted, black pupil.
“Please be careful with those. I have a bad experience with pointy horns,” he says as her long, sharp, ivory horns come dangerously close to stabbing him in his abdomen.
Just as she has one white eye and one red eye, her ivory horns contrast against her crimson hair.
“Oh, sorry,” she says, leaning in even more which brings her face closer to his waist as she makes sure to keep her head straight. She may have just been shouting and angry with him, but now she’s making sure to keep her horns from pointing at him.
“Anyways, yeah. I think that’s what it was called before, but I haven’t heard that name in a while.”
“What kind of weapon does it turn into? Has it gained a mobile form? Does it talk yet? Can it shift during combat?”
Fenrir takes Rod off of his belt again and brings out Rod’s ultimate form.
“A fishing rod?”
“Yep. That’s why I’ve named him Rod.”
“Ooh! So, a fishing rod named Rod and you know that he’s a he?”
“Yeah. Can’t really do all that other stuff yet, but we talk by having him flash the gem. One pulse for yes, two pulses for no.”
Rod pulses once.
“I see, I see! Can I ask you questions?” she asks.
“I’m talking to Rod.”
Rod pulses twice.
“Aww, why not?” she asks.
Fenrir collapses Rod back into travel mode and places him back on his belt.
“We don’t even know who you are,” Fenrir says.
“I’m the one whose life you ruined!” she pouts, now standing up and poking her finger against his chest.
“I didn’t ruin your life. I only scared one bu—insect, and I’m sure you’ll be able to find it again.”
Meanwhile, the party members who aren’t immersed have all gone back to sleeping on the back of the wagon.
“You’re lucky I don’t light you on fire,” she says.
“Magic? Hah! I am all natural, thank you very much!”
She looks to the side, opens her mouth, and shoots out a stream of flame that lights up their surroundings.
“Oh,” Fenrir says.
“I wanna do that,” Serra says, poking out from behind Fenrir.
Serra’s words cause the strange girl to excitedly turn to face her with glimmering eyes. “Right?!” she says, grabbing Serra’s hands and holding them between her own. “Natural powers are the best! I can breathe fire, I can fly, I can stab people with my horns, I can whip them with my tail, I can nullify magic by transforming my arms, I can cover my skin in hard scales, I can control blood with my left eye and shoot holy rays with my right eye, and—”
“None of that sounds natural at all,” Fenrir interrupts.
“It all totally is!”
“It sounds like a ton of magic.”
“It’s not magic if it’s part of my body’s functions!”
“How can your body do all of that?”
“Easy! You just combine a bunch of different body parts.”
“That doesn’t sound very easy.”
“It is once you learn this world’s secrets! I’m on a quest to not only start my own branch after I find that specimen that somebody scared away, but to combine as many different abilities as possible into one body! That’s why I have this wing from a gryphon and one from a thunderbird! My tail is from a basilisk, my horns are from a dragon, the scales on the backs of my wrists are from a land shark, and my legs are from goats!”
“Yeah. I thought it’d be good to have goat legs since I’d be spending so much time in mountains.”
Fenrir looks down and confirms that she does, in fact, have goat legs from the knees down.
“So… you’re turning your body into one giant hybrid?”
“You’ve got it!”
“What about your eyes?”
“Vampire,” she points at her left eye, “and angel,” she points at her right.
Every single explanation is given with a proud smile accompanying it.
“Well, I’ve learned that there are a whole bunch of things in this world now that I didn’t know about before,” Fenrir says.
“Right, right! I want to become as much of a hybrid as possible so that I can use the natural powers of a bunch of different races! Like a blue mage but with my body instead of magic!”
“And how does finding a bug help you with that?”
“Insect! Not a bug! And, because. Trismy said he’d—oh, wait, that’s secret.”
“You can’t just tell me that something is a secret and then not expect me to be curious.”
A sly smile crawls onto her face as she looks up into Fenrir’s eyes.
“Wellll… if you want to know, I might let you know if you help me capture my target,” she says, her thick, serpentine tail sliding from side to side on the ground behind her.
Fenrir sighs and says, “Sorry. I would, but we’ve got something else we need to be doing right now.”
“Finding dragons to befriend.”
“Oh. Huh. Just go up—I mean… if you help me find that insect, I might be able to point you to some friendly dragons!”
“You’re really obvious when you’re trying to manipulate people.”
“I – I am doing no such thing.”
After a sigh, he says, “Alright. Because I feel guilty about messing your bug hun—”
“—insect hunt up, I’ll help you out if you promise that you’ll help us find some dragons.”
“Deal! By the way, what’s your name?”
“Fenrir, and this is Serra,” he says and Serra nods.
“Hi,” Serra says.
“Nice to meet you!” the girl tells Serra. “I’m Eva, apprentice scholar of the Hermetic Scholars!”
Fenrir can’t help but to groan upon hearing the name of that organization again.
“Hm? What’s with that reaction?” Eva asks.
“Do you know a goblin-cat-thing by the name of Thelmes by any chance?”
“Oh! Thelmy! Yeah, I’ve seen him at the great library before. We worked together a few times before he got assigned to Port Tugator.”
Fenrir was not scared of Eva before, but he is now.
“Anyways… so how big is this insect that we’re looking for?” he asks.
“About this big,” she answers, holding her fingers up with barely any space between them.
“And… what color is it?”
“So, I’m looking for a tiny, grey insect at night on a mountain covered in grey rocks with millions of places for it to hide?”
“Are you beginning to understand why I was so angry?”
“By the way, no matter who finds it, all credit goes to me.”