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There are occasional victories in my training, but mostly I'm getting murdered. One day, while recovering from an all-night bachelor party, I chase down Williams during a melee. The Iraq veteran stabs me directly in the eyeball. The hit is illegal, but we both decide to let it go because I basically stumbled directly into him. Another time, Hill mistakenly stabs me in the groin. "Sorry about the boys," she says as she continues bashing me.
Each practice ends with Gasser offering me a manly hug. "I feel that you are really on the path," he says. Whether I will achieve true warriorhood depends on my continued dedication, he reminds me. "It is really a matter of you."
As I train, I secretly compile information to use against my master. I rent Gasser's favorite fighting movie, a bad Antonio Banderas flick called The 13th Warrior. Surprisingly, it describes my exact situation: A novice outsider joins a pack of established combatants and learns their customs and moves. When Gasser isn't around at practice, other fighters provide tips about his weak points; they say he dips his right shoulder before an overhead attack and his left shoulder before a stab. At one point, Williams offers up a cheap shot: a swipe to the outside right ankle that's hard to defend. Hill breaks down one of Gasser's special offensive moves, a fake overhead swing that ends in a chest stab. That move had been crushing me.
On a rainy day in mid-April, I decide to use Gasser's move against him. Without warning, I execute the maneuver, sticking him in the chest.
Gasser stands up straight. His eyes widen. "Ben's got a new shot." Next time I try it, he forcefully knocks my sword out of my hands.
"You can do that once," Gasser says matter-of-factly.
As though to punish me, he begins to increase his pace, driving me across the parking lot. For my one wound, he spanks me a hundred times over. But it's worth it: I learn that Gasser keeps a mental dossier of his opponents' strengths. It reminds me of a moment in The 13th Warrior when Banderas' character is told that a true warrior must "calculate what he can't see."
Finding secret moves will be my strategy to beat him.
As I plan my attack, Gasser and Hill spend several late April nights in the kitchen of her Olathe home, trying to forge new weapons. In a bid for a foam-sword commercial empire, they want an armory to sell at the Wichita Renaissance Festival on April 26. But things aren't going well.
Hill uses her interior-design skills to craft ornately detailed prototypes from wood and household decorations, including bamboo blinds and curtain tacks. Gasser, the chef, moves to the kitchen, churning a series of toxic chemicals barehanded to create rubbery molds. Into the molds, he pours chemicals that dry into foam. Gasser whispers excitedly over and over: "This is the stuff of legends."
Alas, numerous mistakes force delays and run them over budget. Some of the new swords are the wrong density, too limp to be fun or too hard to be safe. Others dry in the molds and can hardly be removed, like foam Excaliburs.