An exhausted groan slipped from Ian’s lips as he mouthed, “Nine hundred ninety-eight, nine hundred ninety-nine, one thousand.”
With that, he collapsed into the dirt, wheezing. He barely avoided splashing his face in the vomit he had spewed halfway through his reps. Every muscle fiber in his body quivered and felt like jelly. Countless drops of sweat oozed from every pore on his skin. The weight of Edmund sitting on his back only worsened the situation. What kind of insanity brought the guy to the decision of making him do one thousand push-ups?
“Congratulations,” Edmund said, clapping slowly. “Now, do another thousand.”
“What?!” Ian exclaimed as best he could muster under the influence of fatigue and weight of a full-grown man. “Do you –hah– have something –hah– against me?”
“Of course not. You have a long way to go before you could survive against any trained person or even mid-tier monsters. Even low-tier ones would probably give you trouble. By the hero’s blood, you wouldn’t even be able to beat a small bear on equal footing,” Edmund retorted, gesturing wildly to emphasize his points. “Therefore, do your next thousand.”
A lash of water suddenly smacked the back of Ian’s thigh. He winced and sucked in his breath. Both of his thighs already turned beet red several minutes earlier due to repeated strikes whenever he paused his repetitions. Perhaps training would pay off in the long run, but knowing that didn’t help in quelling the overwhelming urge to throw in the towel. Just the thought of doing another set made him dizzy. Despite that, he forced himself back into the push-up position.
Does he have to sit on my back, though? Ian thought wearily. Shaking away the notion, he took a deep breath and began the next set. His body shook wildly with each rep.
Along the way, he needed to pause several times to catch his breath, resulting in sharp lashes on his thighs each time. This kind of brutal and agonizing training would never pass as a constructive regimen back on Earth. In fact, he didn’t even believe himself capable of completing the first thousand. In the short amount of time since acquiring Dark Matter, his body obviously improved beyond anything he could have imagined. Still, knowing he could accomplish new feats did not make them any easier. If anything, all of this new training, in spite of its simplicity, dwarfed the difficulty of all his previous regimens.
By the time he reached five hundred, his muscles were shaking so badly that he could barely move. Sweat and fatigue blurred his vision. Even the dirt looked as inviting as a million dollar bed.
“Heh. You’re shaking pretty bad, Ian,” Edmund said, pointing out the obvious.
Exhaustion prevented Ian from retorting. Otherwise, he would have loved to smack the guy into next week. Still, he continued. Little by little, he lost grip on reality. Up and down over and over. He completely lost track of how many times he pushed off the ground, only to be halfway pulled back to full awareness whenever Edmund called out each hundred. Five hundred. Six.
Finally, Ian neared the one thousand mark for the second time. His body felt weightless and his vision darkened around the edges. He could no longer feel the presence of the young man still sitting on his back. With only a handful of repetitions remaining, his arms gave out. He collapsed. The cool, moist dirt welcomed his face like a loving wife.
“Haha! So close, Ian!” Edmund exclaimed, chuckling all the while. “Come on, now. Try to finish the last few.”
“Ugh…” Ian groaned. He wanted it to end. No other thoughts even crossed his mind. As his consciousness began to fade, he recalled all the times he failed to finish things he started. Ruined relationships, half-hearted projects…
A heavy sigh escaped his lips. The sudden memories irritated him. Why did he even decide to stay in this world in the first place? Obviously, he desired change in the mediocre life he brought upon himself on Earth. If he gave up inches from the finish line here, he knew it would come back to haunt him in the long run. So, despite having nothing left in his metaphorical tank, he planted his palms on the dirt and pushed. Every muscle fiber ached and shook as he struggled to lift his own weight. Both arms felt like jelly, sure, but jelly would have to suffice. Little by little, he forced himself far beyond his limit. His lungs and muscles burned as though raked over hot coals. A handful of times, his muscles gave way, causing his body to lurch toward the grown.
Finally, he succeeded, and a roar of pride echoed from his vocal chords almost unintentionally. Although it might have seemed a minimal achievement in the eyes of others, he considered it a huge step in the right direction.
Edmund’s voice rolled through one ear and out the other. It barely registered that the guy basically said he only needed to do a few more.
Four push-ups later, Ian fell again. He forced himself back up. Six more. Fell again. Three more. Edmund called out the number nine hundred ninety-nine. One more.
A wave of relief swept through Ian as he reached the peak of his final repetition. Then, the world darkened. He fell asleep.
* * * * *
Standing over the now unconscious Ian, Edmund stared at him with lips pursed. Honestly, he never expected the guy to finish two-thousand push-ups. In fact, he nearly called it quits the first time Ian collapsed, only for the guy to force himself back up. In a strange way, he considered it a rather inspiring endeavor.
Actually, the entire thing was supposed to serve as more of a test to gauge how seriously they could take training in the future. If Ian could approach any training with the same force of will, then he could probably close the gap between himself and most others his age without much difficulty, at least in terms of physical ability. Magic was a wholly different matter. Still, the whole situation made Edmund feel some respect for the guy. Compared to the fools he grew up with, people like Ian were much more pleasant to spend time with.
“I assume that’s the end of your little test, then?” Gaelan asked, sitting up behind him.
Turning to face the man he respected most, Edmund answered, “Yes, sir. Wasn’t really expecting him to finish, though. At least, not with me sitting on his back the whole time.”
“Hmm… Can’t say I expected it, either,” Gaelan muttered while rubbing his chin. “If you had seen the place he came from, you would probably laugh at the average person. They are truly weak. Pretty sure none of them even use any magic.”
“Oh. Explains why he’s so weak despite everything he’s got going for him,” Edmund said, recalling the moment when Gaelan showed up at the Ursa Keep to recruit his help. Hearing about the fact that the fact his role model accepted an apprentice surprised him. Until now, doubts filled his mind concerning the decision. After all, what kind of person could be capable of living in the shadow of the greatest non-Dwarven blacksmith of modern times? Somehow, Ian’s tenacity set him at ease. Perhaps they could get along better than he thought.
“Well,” Gaelan said, “Let’s carry him to bed. No, we’ll wash him first. Then we’ll put him in bed.”
“Sure thing,” Edmund readily replied.
* * * * *
Early morning sunlight filtered through the slightly fogged window above Ian’s bed, preventing him from falling back asleep after waking to the cooing of roosters. Instantly, the intense soreness in his muscles made him groan. At least the memory foam soothed the aching.
“I can’t believe I did that many push-ups yesterday…” Ian muttered. “Wait, that was yesterday wasn’t it?”
Worried that he may have slept for more than one night, he quickly sat up, only to immediately fall back down in reaction to a sharp contraction of his abdominal muscles. It felt like a sack of rocks had been surgically implanted in his belly.
“Ugh…” He groaned while sinking back into the memory foam. The soft bedding felt pleasant against his sore and aching muscles.
For a few minutes, he simply lay there, completely motionless. He grimaced upon realizing he never got the chance to stretch the lactic acid out of his muscles after the strenuous exercise.
Eventually, he forced himself to basically roll over the side of the bed. He landed on his hands and knees. With a deep breath, he placed a hand on the bedside and pushed upward. Now standing, he immediately stretched his hands into the air and grunted. A few more stretches later, he figured he limbered up enough to wander downstairs in search of vittles.
“I guess my lessons come first… Wait, does Aria even know I’m back?”
Considering he spoke with that frail-looking man previously, he wondered if he should run over to the Visitor Center.
Maybe not… he thought, rubbing his sore muscles. I’ll just wait until she comes over again or something.
Without further ado, he trudged into the hallway and down the stairs. To his surprise, he didn’t see anyone. Perhaps he woke earlier than normal. From there, he meandered outside in his bare feet in order to use the outhouse. The dewy grass gently nestled against his soles with each step. Afterward, he returned to the kitchen to brew his coffee.
In the kitchen, he cleaned out the wood stove and placed new logs inside. Then, using flint and steel, he generated a few sparks. He reached out with his senses to expand the sparks into a small flame. A second later, he tried expanding the flame in a similar manner to when he played with the flame on his bedside candle previously. The fire quickly engulfed the firewood, startling him. Luckily, he didn’t get a headache this time.
While boiling water over the flame he started, the stairs creaked, drawing his attention. Moments later, Bianca appeared in the doorway. She was wearing the same nightgown as when they ran into each other outside before.
“Mornin’, Bianca,” Ian greeted, wincing slightly due to waving with a sore arm.
“Oh, good morning, Mr. Ian…” She tiredly replied.
“I won’t be in your way by making coffee will I?”
“…It’s fine. I can start making breakfast after you’re done.”
She hesitated for a moment there. Seems she’s still not totally comfortable with me… Ian thought.
With that, Bianca left the room.
Shrugging, Ian boiled some water and brewed fresh coffee in the newly repaired french press. After pouring it into a mug, he walked over to the living room. The first thing he noticed was Bianca trying to light a fire in the fireplace. Although a little morning chill never bothered him personally, he knew the same could not be said of many people he knew, particularly his sister.
Back when they were children, she always used to turn up the thermostat whenever their mother left them with a babysitter. Then, he would always turn it back down. It usually ended in a wrestling match. He would always lose. Their older brother would simply watch with a condescending frown from the nearby rocking chair…
Still mulling over the strangely nostalgic memory, Ian raised a hand toward the fireplace. He focused on the small sparks generated each time Bianca struck the flint and steel together. A small flame whooshed over the logs at his beckoning, startling Bianca into reeling back with a yelp of surprise.
“Sorry about that,” Ian apologized. “Probably should have said something before doing that.”
Bianca blinked at him, dumbfounded.
In an attempt to make up for his carelessness, Ian stepped over to offer a hand. In response, she shook her head to clear away her astonishment and accepted it.
Briefly, Bianca opened her mouth as though she wanted to say something but quickly sealed her lips. She then glanced up at Ian for a moment before scurrying toward the kitchen.
Wondering if she had wanted to tell him not to do that again or something, Ian shrugged and sat on the couch. For a few minutes, he simply sipped at his coffee while mulling over all the different ways he could have handled the situation better.
The next thing he knew, the back door swung open. Startled, he spun around, only to lock eyes with Aria.
Before even greeting him, she sniffed the air and asked, “What’s that smell?”
“Good morning to you too,” Ian sarcastically replied.
Aria raised a brow, rolled her eyes, and, in good humor, replied, “Right, good morning to the guy who didn’t bother to tell me he was back in town, preventing me from resuming his lessons.”
“Well, you weren’t there when I stopped by before.”
“I know. My coworker told me some guy came looking for me and basically described you perfectly.”
If that’s true, why did she even bother saying such a thing?
Then, she smirked and added, “Said you were handsome, too. Maybe you could work at his Aunt’s brothel?”
“…No thanks…” Ian muttered.
Aria chuckled while removing her noticeably worn out shoes. Afterward, she walked over to the couch and asked, “So, is that drink the thing I’m smelling?”
“Probably. It’s a drink I brought back from my hometown.”
“Mind if I try some?”
“Nah. Should be some left in the kitchen. Give me a second and I’ll get it for you.”
A minute or so later, Ian returned with a mug for her. While handing it over, he asked, “Do you plan on giving me a lesson today?”
“I wouldn’t have come over if I didn’t,” she answered, taking the cup from him.
“Good,” Ian muttered. “I could use a break from the physical stuff…”
Aria sipped the steaming hot drink. Although she winced at the heat, her eyes widened, and she said, “It’s surprisingly good despite being bitter.”
“I know. The caffeine is giving me a much-needed energy boost, too,” Ian said.
“Caffeine? Well, I don’t know what that is, but if you brought a bunch of it here, you could probably sell it.”