"Aunt Paige, why are we coming out here? I thought you hated being near the lake?" Markus asked after passing the river boulder on the path toward the lake. He could easily recognize it, since it would have been a perfect skipping stone if it was more miniature than not.
His whole family had been acting weird lately, ever since Uncle Tyler came back. Had his uncle done something that upset everyone?
And now Uncle Nick hadn't let him join him in the forest to go on an adventure with him, on account of him looking for mana heavy locations and the increased chance of running into Elder Monsters. Not that Boary cared about Uncle's decision. In fact, Markus thought to himself that Uncle Nick was probably going to just follow Boary around.
Paige's voice broke his introspection though.
"I don't particularly like going to the lake, but training under a waterfall is a classic and time tested method to build strength."
Markus knew right away that his aunt had intentionally left out something like 'probably, supposedly, or I think' to her sentence. He must have been staring skeptically at his aunt too long since she quickly turned and swatted him on the head.
"It is! It will! I know this method works!"
"Will this help me gain a Class? Auntie, I really, really want a Class!"
Markus bit his lip. 'It shouldn't be this hard to get a Class! Lily was born with a Class, but Tyler got his class really fast! How long will it take me then?' Markus frowned in thought.
"Hey, don't worry about it, little Markus. When you get a Class, it'll be an amazing one. Just you wait." He could tell that his aunt was really trying to help.
"I know, Aunt. I guess I'm just jealous about not having one. Even Xavier has a Class! Although he is just an Apprentice Shopkeeper."
"Why do you need a Class though, Markus? You're already learning battle Skills without one."
His aunt looked at him confusedly. He knew what she was getting at. He looked over at his aunt, the words already on his lips. But he realized at the last moment what she was really asking. His Aunt Paige was just a Farmer, yet she could rival even the Cidala's Guard Captain. Or more, if her mock battles with Boary was any indication.
"I want to be special, aunt. I don't want to be a commoner for the rest of my life," Markus grumbled quietly.
"... sometimes being common is special, Markus."
He shook his head in denial. "Fine, I want to be more special than others. I want to have adventures; rescue people in need; fight villains and monsters and earn lots of money! Haven't you ever wanted that, Aunt?"
Aunt Paige kept walking ahead of him, slowly parting the brush in front as they headed deeper into the woods.
"Once upon a time, I was the happiest little girl. My father was a Farmer, my grandparents were Farmers, my great grandparents were Farmers. All I ever wanted to be was a Farmer. Then my whole life changed because of another person's adventure."
His aunt walked into a clearing, the morning mist hadn't yet gone away and was lingering on the forest ground. Markus wavered, the clearing odd. There hadn't been a clearing last week on this path. Had his aunt cleared another section of the forest?
"Wanting to have a grand adventure is the same as wishing something bad would happen to someone else so that you can feel good about yourself. So no Markus, I never really wanted to have an adventure. And I never wanted to be what I eventually became either, even though I am good at it."
Markus thought about that for a few minutes. His aunt's class was a Farmer though, so what was she before now?
"Well, when you put it like that, Aunt... I wish I could protect my family and friends from danger. Would that be bad of me to say?"
"...no, that is a better reason to want a Class. Classes are gifts from the gods, but they are also born from our desires. I just hope that you can tell a good reason from a bad one, Markus.
"But the gods are dead, Aunt. So shouldn't our choices be more important," Markus said a little skeptically. His Aunts and Uncles really did believe the gods were alive, but then why did everyone else claim they were dead?
"Xavier wanted to be a Shopkeeper, just like his mother. Emilia desperately wished for her daughter to be a Magician. Who's to say the gods themselves didn't have a role in Lily or Xavier's Class? Even I would be hard-pressed to say my Class wasn't given to me by the gods. Even if everyone else thinks they're dead."
'Your class being...', Markus waited for his aunt to say what her actual Class was, but she didn't say anything else, not until she reached a lone stump in the clearing.
"You know Markus, this is where I found you five years ago. I and the others got separated in this forest, and as I was walking, I could hear a baby crying. You were just laying here, no note or nothing. Who's to say the gods weren't playing a role in that either?"
"I don't know Aunt... Tyler and Lily say a baby can't live that long alone." Markus hesitated to believe his aunt with her story this time though. "A, Are you sure that there was nothing?"
He loved his aunt's and uncles, but he desperately hoped there was something. Anything that could link him to his real family. It would also collaborate his aunt's story, though Markus had little hope that there was anything there to help identify who his birth family was.
"Well...I wouldn't say nothing. There, there was something, but..." his aunt stammered, hesitant about mentioning whatever it was, Markus realized suddenly.
"I wanna know! What was it!?"
"A, a cape. And a few other things..."
Markus watched as his aunt took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Holding his breath, he waited until his aunt looked back at him, her eyes steeled with determination.
"How about this, Markus? You try your best today and get a Class, and I promise on my Class I will show you it."
"DEAL!" Markus could feel the darkness practically disappearing around him. Even Paige was looking around, evidently impressed by the action.
"Good spirit! Come on, let's get to the waterfall and get you a Class!"
"Hey, Aunt? What exactly is this supposed to be teaching me?"
Markus had to yell over the din of the waterfall as he tried to balance on the slippery rocks. In truth, he thought his aunt was just joking about training under a waterfall. Maybe next to one, sure. But no. No, she actually meant standing right below the waterfall and forcefully resisting the force with nothing but hard work and determination.
In fact, even as he shouted, he couldn't help but stare at his aunt while she was practicing. His aunt was just standing there under the waterfall, just like he was, but instead of bracing his feet in a wide stance, she was balancing on one foot as she held both arms parallel to the rocky ledge. Standing perfectly still was all Markus could handle, and only in short bursts as he lost his grip and fell back into the small pool below.
"A few things. Balance, coordination, physical exhaustion, sensitivity. Eventually, you will start swinging the flat of your sword against the flow of the waterfall, and then the edge of your sword later. And before you ask, the reason I didn't train Tyler like this is that this wouldn't help him. He should know how to deflect the force away from him, which is why I used Boary's charge instead.
For an attacker though, we should be wary of how we strike an opponent. Unless you have a really good weapon, there is no guarantee our weapon can slice through our opponent's defenses, especially if they use a defensive Skill. This will help us practice forcing our weapon to where we want it to go."
Markus slowly edged back to the edge of the waterfall and steeled himself before he went back under the waterfall. "Isn't that what Skills are for?"
"Well yeah, but you should never rely on Skills when fighting. You'll have times when you have to conserve your mana, after all. Or do you think there is a Skill that can last this long continuously with little to no cost?"
"You said Tyler should be worried about swift hits. Well, what type of situation would be comparable to sitting under a waterfall for an attacker?"
His aunt walked out of the waterfall, tapping thoughtfully on her chin while hesitantly speaking, "...getting hit by a dragon?"
A dragon? Had his aunt really not thought about what made this training important!? Her answer was so random that he hardly noticed that his aunt's clothes weren't really soaked, even though she was standing under the waterfall just a few seconds ago.
He could already feel his drive to do this training waning. Who would even think about fighting a dragon? And how many dragons were there that someone would feel the need to train to fight them? He knew his aunt liked to boast, but she usually didn't boast this bad.
"Hey! That's a perfectly reasonable answer. Getting hit by their tail would almost feel the same as a waterfall. Sort of. And that's assuming you can survive their tail hit to begin with."
"Mhmm. But don't dragons breathe fire and fly? Why would they whack you with their tail?"
Hadn't every story he'd heard of started off with the dragon breathing fire and flying?
"That's just in stories. A dragon is more liable to whack you with their tail since most things can't survive the hit anyway. They only use their breath attacks if things are looking south and they are trying to escape or as a diversion."
"That...okay. I guess?"
"Yeah. It is. Now, get back under the waterfall. I know you are stalling for time. You'll never get a Class at this rate."
"Okay, ugh. Hey, aunt, how many dragons have you fought before?"
"A few dozen. I got really close to killing a few too. Mostly I knocked them out and took some spoils from them. And I was really good friends with one dragon in particular, though I am pretty sure he hated my guts. In fact, let me tell you a story about the time...," His aunt chuckled lively as she started telling him a rather funny story about how she met this particular dragon while pooping in the woods.
As he stood under the waterfall and laughed along to his aunt's ridiculous story, he couldn't help but think that his Aunt was an excellent storyteller.
"Are we done for the day Aunt?" Markus asked as he laid his head on his aunt's shoulders.
It was only past noon so far and he was dead tired from standing under the waterfall. Say what you will about the methods his aunt came up with, but it really felt like training at the end of the day. His whole body was sore and he could hardly stand up, yet here his aunt was carrying him around like a sack of potatoes.
"Yeah, I forgot how tiring that can be. It feels good to be training again, though it would have been far more entertaining if that monster actually attacked."
Eh? "A monster?" There wasn't room for any monster that Markus could tell. The pool under the waterfall was barely ten feet wide to begin with.
"Yeah, it was a small Alligator by the looks of it. It was swimming upstream. What a rookie move. Barely eight-feet long but it would have still been a good workout."
A good workout she said. Markus shivered at the thought. A full morning worth of beatings from a waterfall and then a monster fight. How was this a workout? And more importantly, how she still moving?
"Are you using a skill?"
"Hm? Nope, just good old fashioned muscle. Why?"
"I read that book Aunt Zenith had in her reading nook. 'Encyclopedia of Apprentice Level Skills.' It said there was a skill called [Lesser Endurance] that you could spontaneously learn if you pushed yourself hard enough.
"There is a Skill with that name and it is a rather handy skill to have. Hm, I don't know about learning it spontaneous since you still have to train past your breaking point to get it, but most warriors would rather have something like [Battlefield Awareness] or something instead. No amount of endurance is enough if you can't tell how a battle is going and when to retreat. And before you ask, I don't have that Skill right now." His aunt said rather thoughtfully.
But something just didn't seem right with her statement, though it took a while before Markus could place it. "Aren't battles fought to the last man standing? Why in the world would you want to retreat?" Markus asked with confusion.
He thought back to all the tales of heroes and adventures and realized his aunt's view on heroes was really negatively skewed. His other aunt and uncles told grand tales of fights, adventures, and drama; yet all Aunt Paige ever talked about was how bad heroes were.
"In stories or reality? You should ask them next time to tell real stories. It is far better to live another day than to stay and be killed in a battle. Where there is life, there is hope. Well, for some anyway."
"That seems like a bad way for a Hero to live, Aunt."
"They are a Hero so long as they are alive. They are just another dead man when they die. A memory at best."
"So what would happen if I become a Hero?"
His aunt stopped and sighed heavily, "You don't have grand illusions that you can save everyone. You save who you can and leave the rest to fate. And even then, some of your choices can hurt more people than you save.
If, and this is a big if Markus, you become a Hero, I hope to the gods above that you become a better Hero than the world has ever seen. Because from my experience, most heroes are overrated, egotistical bastards who care nothing for others."
"...so if I want to save people, should I still become a Hero?"
"...Class wise, yes. That is still the best Class that can make the biggest impact in the world. But if there is anything I hope you have learned from us thus far, is that a Class does not define who you really are. Some Heroes are no better than Bandits, and some Bandits are better than Heroes."
They both went quiet as they traveled back to their tiny forest settlement. He knew his aunt was thinking about something, her face noticeably blank. Still, why would his aunt be so mad at heroes?
"Anyway, you did really good today Markus. Not bad for an Apprentice."
"An Apprentice? Is that a Class?"
That seemed like a weird Class to Markus. Didn't Classes start off as an actual Class, like Apprentice Swordmaster?
"I think that's the Class you'll be getting since technically you are learning a bit from everyone. An Apprentice would match your situation perfectly. You'll probably get your Class when you fall asleep tonight, Markus. You should anyways. There is a chance your mana could condense when you are awake, but judging by how much mana you used so far today, it is far likelier to happen tonight."
Stopping by the clearing to her food plots, his aunt cocked her head in confusion, frowning as she looked up into the sky. It didn't take long for Markus to realize what she was looking at. Her falcon was circling the skies, and if Markus concentrated he could hear a faint shrill coming from its mouth. How had his aunt heard it though? It was practically silent among the natural sounds of the forest.
Paige held her arm us as her hawk dove down, flapping its wings to arrest its dive. But only one claw gripped Paige's forearm; the other was holding a struggling bluebird, one with a message tied to its leg. "Isn't that Miss Sara's bluebird?" Markus asked, reaching out to hold the bird in question as Paige lightly stripped the letter off its leg.
"Yeah, it is. Did something happen in the town to-" Paige voice slowly faded as she read the small letter. "... Oh. Well, that is a problem."