Chapter 3 – First of Many

Maria Loren was an interesting girl.

As a half-elf, Maria lacked the antlers her mother and other wood elves had, but she kept the longer, pointed ears common to the elvish race. Likewise, while her skin-tone matched her mother’s and her green eyes clearly came from Namita, her orange hair was the spitting, fiery image of her father’s. It was only a bit longer than his, actually, though it was noticeably curlier, and she had a generally leaner build than her mother, which also matched her pretty-boy father.

Thankfully, Julius’s students took to her pretty quickly and were more than fine with letting her join up to help round out the party with a mage for offense instead of just defense. It probably helped that they all met her after she’d prepared a huge meal for everyone. The fact that she happened to be wearing only an apron when they met her also seemed to contribute to their positive impressions.

Today though, Maria was wearing a green tunic and black shorts, along with brown boots and two silver bracelets Namita had given her, the shiny metal barely covering the green vines tattooed around her wrists. Thankfully, the followers of Chlora knew they should actually wear some type of clothing while wandering around areas that didn’t practice their particular faith. After a good evening of feasting and chatting, along with a good night’s sleep in some comfy leaf beds, it was time to get back to their main quest.

Which was exactly what would happen once they got Maria initiated, which was why the group found themselves in a small clearing near the Timberland town of Darton, only about a few hours walk from Chloraton. 

The mayor, a rather annoyed older man with far grayer hair than Julius’s, had requested they try not to burn down the town when Julius asked for a spot to train his students, so now they were out here. Sue, Adrien, Sophia and Sergio were all seated on one end of the clearing, forming an audience for Maria and Julius as they faced each other.

Julius held a blunt, wooden sword in his hands, about as large and heavy as his usual broadsword, while Maria stared him down with a very familiar cocky smirk as she held her hands by her hips, her fingers spread as green wisps in the form of small vines and leaves swirled around her hand.

“You ready over there, Teach? Cuz I’m not gonna go easy on you just ‘cause you’re mom’s old friend!”

“I mean, more like enemies that became allies, but sure, friends.” Julius shrugged. “So was that supposed to be banter or are you just talking to yourself?”

“Oh, sorry Teach! I thought you could hear me fine from over there! Guess I should’ve expected an old man’s hearing to be going already!” …Yep, definitely her mother’s daughter.

“Go Maria!” “Kick his ass, girl!” “Y-You can do it!” “Beat him into the ground!” And then there was that.

“SERIOUSLY?! NONE OF YOU BRATS ARE ROOTING FOR ME!?” Julius shouted, keeping his eyes on Maria even as his students all flinched.

“…Uh, do you need it? You kinda kicked all of our asses in training before, so…”

“Not the point, Adrien.” Well, at least they had a sense of camaraderie going on.

“It’s not like we actually want to see her kick your ass, we’re just helping her feel welcome.” 

“Sue,” Julius said. And, without a moment’s hesitation, she punched Sergio. 

“Hey! Jeez, teacher’s pet much-Ow!”

“You earned that one.”

Maria snorted and grinned at her newfound friends, taking her eyes off of Julius before she looked back at him. “So Teach, you gonna come at me yet or what?”

He grinned grimly back at her. He’d need to work on that. It was a trap most novices fell into, especially when they were up against someone they considered their superior in some way. Especially when they were up against a teacher.

Never let your opponent dictate the flow of the fight.

Despite her words, Maria clearly wasn’t expecting how fast Julius could move when he wanted to make a point and she barely sidestepped his first, overly telegraphed vertical swing. Still, her dodging was a good thing–he ducked back as she tried to retaliate with a blast of green–considering Adrien had gotten a lump right on his head when Julius tried the same trick with him.

She was being smart enough with it though. The grass around his feet suddenly twisted up into vines to try to keep him still as he swung for her head again, horizontal this time. She ducked it and he stamped right on one of the vines. Her eyes widened as it burst in a flash of green lights and nearly got her shoulder smacked when she tried to sidestep again.

“Gah! Damn, you do-Fuck!” She had to duck again.

“Not often. Also, don’t talk during fights,” Julius replied as she stumbled backward and tried to gain some more ground again. He let her, of course, and was somewhat disappointed to note that she didn’t keep trying the vine trick. Still, he wouldn’t hold it against her, focusing like that was tricky and she’d clearly had it prepped before the fight started.

“Ah-Uh, wait, what did you mean-Gah!” He went for a straight thrust this time, letting the sword’s weight carry him slightly before he ‘regained’ his footing. Much to his amusement, she took the bait and slapped the flat of his blade as it passed by her head.

“O-Okay, sure, I’ll admit you’ve got some moves, old man, but you’re forgetting one thing! The forest is my element!” He tried to hold back a snicker. That was just too adorable.

“Catch.” He tossed the sword underhand at Maria as it burst with vines, the wooden blade instantly transformed into a trap for its wielder. Who wasn’t holding it.

Maria yelped as the sword promptly wrapped its vines around her, binding her arms to her sides and knocking her to the ground. “…hm.”

“I didn’t forget what your element is,” Julius pointed out, grinning down at his newest student.

“…I noticed. But! But, I can still totally get out of-” She blinked as Julius lightly tapped his boot against her head.

“Dead.” Julius couldn’t help smirking as his other students all let out groans and sighs of sympathy. It was the little things that made teaching worth it.

“…” Maria grimaced and huffed, flopping back into the grass. “…In my defense, it’s really tricky to have automatic vines not do what their supposed to.”

“Which is tying things up.”

“Yeah.”

Julius nodded, noting her sour tone. “So you haven’t tried practicing with the magic to get them more under your control?”

“They’re trap vines, so having them trap things is the main purpose.” Went unsaid was the ‘duh’. “Trying to get them under my direct control just splits my focus way too much.”

“And you mostly use these for hunting.”

“Yeah.”

“But they’re not as useful against a direct opponent?”

Maria shrugged in her vines, frowning up at him. “Clearly.”

“I wouldn’t say that. Your trick earlier, those were controlled vines?”

“Yeah? Why?”

“So what would’ve happened if you had set some trap vines between you and me before the match even started?”

She blinked. “…Uh…I guess you would’ve fallen for it…Shit, I fucked this one up…”

“You really didn’t.”

“How didn’t I?”

“Well-”

“Teach tends to pull this with all of us,” Sue interrupted as she stood up and walked over to the two of them. “It’s kind of his way of saying ‘I am way more dangerous than you can ever be so don’t get a big head’.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Julius replied, taking a step back so Sue could help Maria rip the vines off of her. “My main plan is to get you kids to be far more dangerous than I ever was.” He grinned. “Though for now, yes, I outclass all of you by a massive amount.”

“You really don’t need to rub it in, old man,” Adrien complained, still sitting with Sophia and Sergio.

“Sounds like you want to try to break your runner record, Adrien.” No, Julius was wrong earlier. Seeing his student go completely pale with just a few words. Now that, specifically, was what made it all worth it.

“Seriously, don’t let it get you down,” Sue continued, snapping the wooden sword straight in half as she chucked it away from a now freed Maria, “The first time he trained me, he slammed the back of my head straight through a street.”

“…What.”

“Yeah,” Julius confirmed as Maria stared at them in some shock.

“…A stone street?”

“Yep.” Julius shrugged. “I knew she was tough enough to take the hit.”

“Still hurt like hell though,” Sue replied, rubbing the back of her head. “But yeah. And that was when I was teamed up with Adrien, so, yeah. Teach is just kind of rough and terrifying.”

Julius chuckled, grinning. Maria was looking far less pissed off and far more thoughtful as Sue basically reframed her loss as less of a defeat and more like a rite of passage that made her a part of the group. “Okay kids, training time’s over. Now for talking time.”

About a minute later, they were all seated again. Sue and Maria were both a part of the ‘audience’ again while Julius sat in front of all of them, his hands on his knees as he sat cross-legged.

“Now, since we have a new member to our party,” Julius began, “I feel like it’s a good time to get us all caught up on what exactly we’re doing and why. Adrien, start us off.” 

“Huh? Oh, um, we’re going on a journey to all of the temples in Estus to strengthen and prepare ourselves to fight the demon lord Valondrac.” 

“Mostly correct, though more specifically, we’re making sure you’re ready. As the hero, it’s your duty to defeat the demon lord. Though fighting an army by yourself is incredibly stupid, hence why it’s always good to have allies you trust.” Pausing for a moment, Julius looked at Adrien. “And, well, a full army would be good too, but we can’t have the Lucenevan army traveling with us to the temples.” 

“Yeah, just think about it. We’d have to split into a bunch of groups just to fit into the temples!” 

“That, and the kingdom needs their soldiers to be ready for any invasions that could happen. Pretty close though. You see, while we will be visiting temples, it’s only the Light Land temples that we’ll be heading to for our quests. Since, even if we were to acquire a skyship, it’d take way too much time to travel to the Sun and Frost Lands and back while the Demon Lord is still looking to invade. And, of course, there won’t be any need to travel to the Ancient Towers once we enter the Dark Lands.”

“Yeah, I don’t imagine any of the Ancients would even let us in in the first place,” Sergio commented.

“That they won’t.” Julius muttered. Back in the day, Douglas had the bright idea that they should check out all of the Ancient’s Towers once they’d actually entered the Dark Lands. The one Tower they’d actually made it to had been ridiculous to reach, and the damn door didn’t even open when they got there. “Anyway, Maria, would you care to guess which Temple we’re going to be heading to next?” 

“Hm…?” Maria stayed silent and tilted her head, thinking it over for a moment, until her face stiffened. She clearly realized what temple was in the direction they were traveling towards. “…Water Temple…?” 

“No,” Julius bluntly replied. “Unless we were planning in taking a scenic route, the Water Temple is to the southwest of here. We are heading to a different Matron Temple though.” 

“Feh, great! Take a plant mage into a fire temple, she’ll work wonders there.” Huffing, she flopped backward into the grass. 

“The best way to test someone is to see how they act in situations where they’re at a disadvantage. That, and luck is part of every adventurer’s life. Sadly for you, this was an unlucky time for you to join up.” 

“Are you just holding some kind of grudge against my mom and taking it out on me?” 

“Heh, no. If anything, Charlotte was the one with the grudge. I don’t have anything against her myself.” 

“…Charlotte? Oh, is she that lady my mom-” 

“Yes, and it’s best to not talk about that. Last thing I need is for her to pop up out of nowhere and attack us for mentioning that…” Julius muttered, very carefully glancing around the treeline for a moment.

“Huh. You really must have met a lot of interesting people in your travels, Mr. Goldforge,” Sophia spoke up. 

“About as many as your kids will meet. Though I’m glad none of you are like Cyrus. Dealing with his former lovers is difficult enough already.” 

“Well, there are some benefits to my dad’s nature,” Maria said. “After all, you do have me on your team now~.” 

“And Andrew has always been a pretty nice guy.” 

“Andrew?” 

“Your half-brother, he’s a city elf who works for me at my shop.” 

“Oh! Then I definitely need to visit that place!” 

“We most likely will at some point. Eventually.” He shrugged. “As for now, we should probably head back into Darton for a meal, and to get you some armor as well.” 

“Oh, sweet, no training today!” 

“Whatever are you talking about Adrien? I was only referring to Maria and I. The four of you need to work up an appetite first.” Silence fell over the rest as Sue, Sophia and Sergio all stared at a sheepish looking Adrien. “But I’ll be nice, you only have to do half the usual set today.” That got the stares off of him, aside from Sergio anyways. 

“You just had to speak up.”

“H-Heh, sorry Serge. Ah, but, hey! Maybe he’s tired from the…” Sergio just kept staring at him. “…Okay, yeah, dumb thing to say. Oh, but I do have one smart thing I can do right now!”

“Which is?”

“Run first.” And with that, Adrien immediately got to his feet and took off.

“W-HEY! YOU ASS!” Sergio snapped, then stiffened as Julius stood up with a smirk, pulling his normal sword off of his back.

“All’s fair in training, Sergio. You really should’ve started running the instant you heard me bring up training,” Julius admonished, before pointing towards Sue and Sophia’s backs as the two girls continued bolting, already ahead of Adrien. “They had the right idea.”

“…That’s a very good lesson to know, Teach. Thank you for telling me-” And he finally got up and started running too, earning a chuckle from Julius and a bewildered look from Maria.

“…Um, what kind of training is this?”

“The best kind,” Julius replied. “Evasion.” He glanced down at her. “You can start running too if you want to join in.”

“…Yeah, uh, thanks. I’m good. I’ll just…practice that vine thing.”

“Ah, good, you’re already using your downtime for more study. Good work ethic. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” And with that, he promptly sprinted after his students, a wide, eager, and possibly somewhat psychotic grin, based on things he’d heard screamed at him during training, spread across his face as he chased them down.

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