“What happened, Paige?” Nick croaked as he tried to sit up. He arched in pain as his nerves spasmed uncontrollably.
“Woah, now. Don’t try to get up, Nick. Relax. The mana dispersion fog only allowed one more person to leave. So we’re still stuck here for the time being.” Paige said from his side as she laid another towel over his head. He moved his eyes, tracking Paige’s movement.
“Yeah, we all did. But I checked the tree while you were passed out. It’s still going, albeit weaker than previously. I looked back at my damaged hoes, and it seems that the dispersion fog strength is currently around the two-year mark. Luckily, you weren’t using your mana when you tried to leave, otherwise, you’d probably be in a coma for a few days or so.”
“Damn. So we won’t know who won our bet, will we?”
“Nope. But I’m sure Tyler will pick the guard handles.” Paige said with a smirk.
“I still think he’ll choose the sword handle. The boy has spirit, you know. Even a Ranger like me can see that.” Nick sighed painfully. “You think your gift will go as you planned?”
“I do. Unless his other mentor tries something drastic. He has to be receiving extra tutoring from a Warrior, or a Swordmaster at the very least. Even talent wouldn’t be able to explain some of his moves. And before you argue, Zenith will be fine. Even barring a Warrior, her skills have not deteriorated to the point that she can’t handle close combat. I’ve made sure of that.”
“But your gift is too early. You said it yourself that this is a question all Apprentices go through. But he’s not even that yet. He’s still just a child.”
“He’ll get that class, I’m sure of it. The gods seem to be fairly lenient after all. Hell, you didn’t even become an Apprentice Hunter after your first few hunts. I’m certain that the party was just too small to qualify him for the class.” Paige said with certainty. Although Nick disagreed, Tyler himself had confirmed that Paige’s gift was not too excessive a gift. If anything, Tyler’s gift was even more extravagant for the young boy, if the boy chose the guard handles.
“Fine. We’ll see once they come back.”
“Tyler, your gift is a little different. Paige had Tyler and Nick help with her gift.” She opened her bag, pulling out two small items. A wooden sword handle, and a wooden handle for a shield. Tyler looked between the three gifts, his two items clearly not as important as Lily’s wand. Zenith noted his disappointment and confusion and amended her words slightly. “Paige said this gift is worth much more than a wand, Tyler. You need to decide very carefully about which one you take.”
Zenith could hear laughter behind her; clearly, some thought it was a joke gift. Emilia was already starting to shush the loudest of the jeers rather loudly, to the embarrassment of Tyler. “Can you tell me why I need to choose?”
“…Paige knew that you had another teacher outside the woods. One that was mentoring you in combat,” Tyler’s eyes widened at being caught, “and she doesn’t fault you for it. She forced you to pick up the shield since Lily was there and needed a protector. But now you have a choice to make. Either to pick up the sword and learn offensive skills in school, or pick up the shield and learn defensive skills. You cannot be an Apprentice Warrior and an Apprentice Vanguard, Tyler.”
“But Sir Stephone said that you could be both,” Tyler whispered quietly, just loud enough for Zenith and Lily to hear him. “He said a Warrior was a culmination of all battle techniques, even defensive ones. That Miss Paige was just focusing on one part of the Class.” Lily nodded in agreement as Tyler looked between the two items, clearly preferencing the sword handle.
‘So the butler was his other mentor,’ Zenith thought to herself. Now it makes sense why he’s been evaluating me. Not only because I was teaching Lily, but more for Paige’s skill level. Zenith chose this moment to tell the young boy Paige’s final words “…Butler Stephone might not have mentioned this part then. An Apprentice Warrior cannot be in a party with an Apprentice Mage. If you decide you want to become a Warrior, you have to dissolve your party with Lily.” Lily and Tyler’s eyes widened, both of them clearly hadn’t been told that. “It’s common knowledge in schools. Your new teachers will pair up parties by class types. The only exception is if a defensive class is paired up with a mage since the mage is allowed to request a specific defender. Offensive classes are always randomly assigned.”
“This is why it’s important Tyler. Choose the sword and lose a friend, or choose the shield and lose the sword. Paige says this will determine your path for the next eight years, at the very least.”
Tyler shut his eyes and breathed deeply, using the same technique that Paige used to calm down. Lily looked on nervously, clearly caring about what Tyler’s final decision would be. Zenith held her hand for support, but she knew that it would ultimately be his decision. “I choose the shield handle,” he said loudly as he opened his eyes; eyes that were hardened with determination.
Lily shouted happily and hugged Tyler, who only blushed in response. “Ahem. Since you chose the guard handles, here is the second part of your gift.” Zenith lightly coughed, causing Lily hurriedly separate, blushing fiercely as the crowd heckled behind them. Zenith pulled out a simple metal plate, one that could fit behind a shield. Zenith waved toward Kate, telling her to bring up the other item she had ready, just in case. Coming forward, Kate uncovered a simple tower shield that was almost as large as Tyler was, the noticeable difference being the rather large spike in the middle. “It’s a specialty tower shield, one that is meant for offensive techniques as well.” Zenith turned the shield over and placed the plate and wooden guard handles on the shield, making sure both were well secured in place. “Tyler, insert some mana into the shield please.” Tyler stared in confusion but did as he was told, his bright yellow mana swiftly fusing with the shield. As Tyler and Lily watched, words appeared on the plate, ones just at his eye level if he was crouching behind his shield.
The shield bearer must protect their party, for without them the party is defenseless.
Those who you are relying on you as Party Members: Lily Thompson
“Merchant Tyler and Paige wanted you to have this. So that you always remember who is relying on you in battle.” Zenith said carefully. Patting him on the head, she smiled at the two of them one last time. “May you accomplish great things together. We all have high hopes for the two of you.”
“I’m going to kill Paige when I get the chance!” Zenith said to Kate as she left the garden. Truthfully, even she was a little ashamed at the lengths Paige was willing to go to keep Tyler as a defensive class. Or was she being a matchmaker this early on? Either way, the look on everyone’s faces as they stared at her almost caused her to lose her Diplomats smile. Especially Butler Stephone, or maybe Sir Stephone would be a better title for him. Most didn’t even know how important the young boy’s decision was, but she had noticed a few people give her a small nod of approval, clearly they were battle oriented class as well judging by their posture.
“Hey, it could have been worse. Lily could have kissed him as well. That would have gone off swell with the people trying to rope Lily into their family.” Kate said with a small smile, although she wouldn’t be opposed to having Lily as a daughter in law either.
“Just make fun of me why don’t you. I’m probably public enemy number one now. Where is Markus!” Zenith wasn’t ready to abandon all decorum as she looked for Markus, but she was getting close.
“Auntie! I’m here! Look, look!” Markus called out excitedly, Zenith turned and her heart almost stopped. He was standing in a magic circle, one that was clearly about to go off! “Markus!” she called out, a gust of wind forming around her. She was about to destroy the formation when she noticed other children lined up behind him, clearly waiting to go in as well. Zenith hesitated, looking carefully at the symbols of the active magic circle. “An affinity checker. And it’s even an advanced one?” she asked suspiciously. The one engraved on the ground looked eerily similar to the one she had once created in the woods to check Isabella’s affinity. Instead of a small mana core though, it was noticeably large, one almost the size of her fist. That would cost a fortune alone.
“Mhmm, Emilia rented it out from Nespe Academy. Didn’t you see the guards? Heavens, it even looked like they were about to attack us!” Kate whispered loudly, pointing at the people surrounding Markus, one’s Zenith only noticed now. Three Warriors and One Mage was eyeing her warily, each of them clearly evaluating Zenith. The Mage herself was staring wide-eyed at her. No, at the wind around her, Zenith realized belatedly. She released her hold on the wind, a heavy breeze flowing through the garden. Not powerful enough to be unnatural, but definitely one of the heavier gusts she had felt today.
She nodded apologetically toward the defenders while speaking to Markus, who was still standing in the circle. “Sorry about that. Markus, come along, we shouldn’t waste their time.”
“But I haven’t gone yet! It’ll only take a second, I promise!” Markus called out, asking the mage to hurry The mage eyed Zenith, asking with her expression if it was alright. Zenith hesitated but nodded back. The young mage closed her eyes and released her mana, lightly whispering something as her pale blue mana flowed into the symbols below.
“So, what elements do you think Markus will be proficient in? Nature? WInd? Do you know what his parents were adept at using?” Kate asked, waiting for Markus to release his mana. She never had really seen any of them release their mana before, at least not to her knowledge. Markus waited patiently for the mage to give him permission to release his mana, as Zenith had taught him early on the dangers of messing with an active magic circle.
“We’ll find out soon enough. We never really bothered about testing his elemental affinity,” Zenith carefully lied. His hair was a clear indicator of any what his affinity would be.
“Fair enough. The country really only cares about girls anyways, since an affinity for healing is rare enough as it is.” Kate supplied unhelpfully. Zenith would have to confirm later on that the magic circle was not recording the personal mana signatures.
Markus released his mana, a black cloud gathering around him. Zenith heard the gasps coming from the children and the mage. The magic core absorbed the mana, a few symbols within the magic circle started to glow. Ghostly words started to appear to Zenith’s horror. An affinity checker and a status checker!?
Greater Darkness, Lesser Light
“Congratulations, young man. It’s actually a greater affinity to darkness. Really rare for a human to have, you know.” The mage said carefully, as she eyed his status carefully. Zenith eyed it as well, wondering why it was only showing Human. When Paige had done revealed it to them last, it had clearly shown Human and Demon as his race.
“Zenith, you should do it too,” Kate whispered beside her. “At least that would stop the rumors that an untalented mage was tutoring Lily.”
Zenith frowned, “Since when has that been a rumor?”
“Since Emilia started telling every magic tutor the rate you had been teaching at. Most called you an that in an attempt to belittle Emilia’s decision. She had to put up with a lot of dissenting opinions, especially from those who came with references.” Kate added in, describing what was being said about her in greater detail as she led her closer to the magic circle. Markus stepped out and held Zenith’s free hand.”
“Okay, enough Kate. I’ll do it, just for Emilia’s sake. Though she’ll owe me one for this,” Zenith frowned as she released a wisp of mana from her fingertips, waiting for confirmation from the presiding mage. The mage just frowned though. “You need to step inside the circle before I can start powering the formation.”
“If I step inside, I take no responsibility for the potential destruction of the mana core. It’s been modified to check children’s mana capacity and affinity, not an adult’s.” Zenith said as she evaluated the magic circle. The mage thought for a second and nodded, indicating that Zenith had been right in her assumptions. Zenith eyed her robe and spotted a faint logo on the sleeves. ‘She must be a magic teacher from the Academy.’
“I’ll power it myself, thank you very much,” Zenith added as she started gathering her mana up. The mage teacher stepped back, knowing how dangerous it was to interrupt another mage. The wind swirled around Zenith, flashes of green danced around the air as it swirled faster and faster around her. Tapping the magic circle with her foot, she channeled her mana through her body and into the circle, not even bothering to get out her wand. The circle activated just as Zenith flung a wisp of mana toward the mana stone waiting inside the circle. Zenith watched as the stone absorbed her mana and the symbols below lit up, clearly more than what had released when Markus had channeled his mana. Zenith eyed the results, already having an inkling on what elements she would be proficient in.
Greater Nature, Greater Wind, Lesser Healing
She was surprised to see greater affinity for wind though, as only the tips of her hair were a pale green. The rest of her hair was a chestnut brown, similar to Nick’s, presumably due to her affinity toward nature. Not that she minded of course.
“Wow, Zenith! You could almost be a Battle Mage with affinities like that! And you have an affinity for healing as well!”
Zenith released her mana, powering down the magic circle. Judging by the look in the guards’ eyes, she was certain Emilia would hear about her affinities before the end of the day. “Bah, who’d want to be a Battle Mage. I’m perfectly happy just teaching others.” Zenith replied as she walked away from the mock testing site. “Did you have fun, Markus? How was your first day here?”
“It was fun Auntie Zenith! Joanna took me to visit the candy shops along the way, and I even got into a fight with some older kids! I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with Lily or Tyler though. They were always busy.” Markus said rather upbeat about his day. Zenith overlooked the fighting part gracefully; after all, how much trouble could he have gotten into?
“Markus! How could you do that!” Zenith said loudly, her eyes twitching at the sight. In front of her stood some really irate guardsmen, complete with injured children and angry parents far behind them. Markus had the decency to look slightly embarrassed though, but mostly proud of his accomplishments. ‘Damn it, he has the same look Paige has when she does something wrong,’ she cursed as she surveyed the injuries. None of them were too terrible, mostly bruises to their extremities. Only one child had severe injuries, his face blackened due to injuries.
Zenith cast a questioning gaze toward Markus, nodding her head to the children. He shrugged in response. “They started it. I just finished it.”
“What did they do that you had to be that rough. That’s almost a year’s worth of injuries to that one boy right there,” Zenith asked quietly, controlling the wind to project it quietly to Markus.
“He made fun of me for not having a dad.”
“Okay, now for the real reason. That’s never bothered you before.”
“He made fun of Auntie Paige because she is a Farmer who dreams of being a Warrior.”
“We both know what Paige is capable of. Don’t lie to me again, Markus. What is the real reason.”
“They wanted to take Tyler’s role of Vanguard away from him so that the jerk could be in Lily’s party instead. So I stopped it.” Zenith nodded at his explanation, her eyes hardening. She turned to the scruffy guardsman who stopped her, his eyes a little darkened from a lack of sleep.
“Is that true, Guardsman…Albecki?
“Senior Guardsman, actually. Miss Zenith, the boy is your ward. How do you intend to punish him?”
Zenith eyes furrowed. “Why would I punish him for that? He’s already told me what those boys were planning, and I know which one is a harsher crime. I was told that the Royal Family looks down on factions, and that Party Manipulation is a very harsh crime, especially when the team members have already been decided.”
Senior Guardsman Albecki took Zenith to the side, his back facing the parents. “All those kids are going to Nespe Academy with Lily and Tyler. He’s not going to have a peaceful school life at this rate. Just a token punishment will be enough for me to put this to rest. Besides, if we’re talking crimes, Class Manipulation is a worse crime than party manipulation. Honestly, you have some nerve doing that blatantly at this party. Couldn’t you have granted the boy his Class in private? You’re lucky you are his teacher, or this could have gotten ugly. Fast.”