The teachers’ office was filled with the soft scratching of pen against paper. Mr. Taylor and Ms. Wilson worked diligently to grade the exams, their eyes flicking from the questions to the answers and back again. The only sound in the room was the occasional hum of the air conditioner and a few murmurs from the teachers.
“Are you seriously even grading that?” Mr. Taylor asked Ms. Wilson as she stared at an essay answer in Nick Gallows’ exam packet. “We both know he failed. Why don’t you just make up a score and move on? It’s not like he will even check it.”
“He didn’t fail though,” Ms. Wilson said, a little shocked herself even as the words left her own mouth. “He aced it.”
“What?” Mr. Taylor seemed more frustrated than confused. “That can’t be right. I heard he didn’t even fill in all the answers.”
“He filled them all in though, and so far . . . they’re all right.” Ms. Wilson flipped through the book once more to double-check in case she had missed something.
“Ha! So what if he got a few multiple-choice questions, right? Even an idiot using dice to pick their answers could get a perfect score with a little luck. That’s all it was, I’m sure. It was just dumb luck,” Mr. Taylor insisted as he leaned over to look at the exam sheet Nick had turned in.
“It’s not just multiple choice. Even his essays are good.”
“That can’t be right . . . There! See! Look at that! That answer is clearly wrong!”
“Yeah, it’s wrong . . . but it’s also right . . . I don’t get it,” Ms Wilson complained in frustration. After all, Nick had gotten the first and easiest answer right off the bat. He had explained perfectly how the horn of the horned rabbit was called a nubbin and how it was used by the rabbit as a weapon and thus could be used as a weapon when cut off. That part was correct, and it was all she expected for an answer.
However, the student had gone far past that. He had listed off not only one, but what felt like a dozen other uses—even going so far as to explain in great detail how to make items from the horn.
“There’s nothing to get,” Mr. Taylor concluded. “Just mark the answer wrong and move on.”
But if I just mark this wrong without even testing one of the alternative answers . . . then I’ll be tanking his first perfect score in my class . . . Ms. Wilson thought, immediately rejecting Mr. Taylor’s suggestion to mark it wrong. That was the last thing she was going to do, at least not before investigating a little. Since the answers Nick had provided so far were so perfect and exemplary, for a moment, she felt like she was grading a college graduate’s paper and not just some high schooler’s exam. Nubbins are a beginner’s equipment item . . . Ms. Wilson reasoned for a moment. It shouldn’t be hard at all to buy one at the guild store, and it’s been a while since I’ve done any research with monster parts.
Nick nearly fell over as a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound, six-foot-six-inch-tall man purposely bumped into him. Before he could even recover his balance, the guy had already cornered him, pushing him into the wall like he was about to hold Nick up for money.
So . . . I found the right place . . . Nick thought as he looked up at the imposing, muscular figure with a stern, craggy face and a pair of bright electric-blue eyes that seemed to peer right into your soul.
“What are you doing out of school, you little punk?” the grumpy old wall of muscle asked. “Shouldn’t you be in class right now?”
“I’m Nick, Nick Gallows. Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Walters,” Nick said, ignoring the rough behavior he was receiving as he extended his hand.
“You didn’t answer my question, boy,” Mr. Walters replied. “What are you doing out of school, and for that matter, how the hell do you know me?”
“Who wouldn’t know you?” Nick began, feeling like an idiot for a moment as he had completely forgotten to come up with an excuse for the situation. “You’re . . . You’re the Great Pastor of the God of Steel.” That was, at least, how this man had been described near the end of the apocalypse by those who followed him. “And as you can tell from how easily you’ve cornered me here, I’m in need of your tutelage.”
“The Great Pastor of the God of Steel?” Mr. Walters’ stern expression melted a little, and Nick could tell the old man was incredibly happy with the title—to the point that he seemed to have completely forgotten he was interrogating Nick. “Yeah. That’s exactly what I am. A pastor and nothing more. I can lead you to the church, and if you pray to the God of Steel every day like a good devout follower, then—” The old man’s rambling suddenly cut off. “Wait. Wait a minute! You won’t trick me, boy! I asked you a question already. Why aren’t you in school? And don’t tell me you’re not a kid! You’re wearing your uniform out in public during a school day like you’re just bragging about your delinquency.”
Ugh! Nice going, Nick. I knew there was something I forgot to do, Nick chastised himself, unable to believe he’d forgotten something as simple as changing his clothes. The private-school uniform was smartly pressed and tailored to give a neat and polished appearance: a crisp white-collared shirt, a navy-blue blazer and slacks, and a navy tie with the school crest. That means that I went to a nightclub in my uniform too . . . and now Topaz and everyone else from that club that saw me knows what school I go to. Freaking hell!
“What? You don’t have a good excuse, boy? Do I need to drag you to your principal’s office and throw you at his feet?” The positive effect of compliments had worn off, and Mr. Walters was once more pressing the truancy issue.
“No, you can’t!” Nick protested. “Taking me there before I get help? You may as well be throwing me to the wolves. I’m so weak, they’ll just keep bullying me. I came to you for help with—”
“What? Bullying? I see! Now I see why you came here. You want help with those bullies, don’t you? Well, tell me who is bullying you, and I’ll go teach them right from wrong myself!” Mr. Walters boasted confidently as he used his bear-sized hand to dust off Nick’s school jacket. “Come on, we’ll go take care of it right away.”
“I wish I could,” Nick said with an exaggerated sigh. “But I can’t just let you stand up for me. When you leave, they’ll just bully me again. I need help, Mr. Walters. I need a guild and a place to grow, and no one else would dare take in someone as weak as I am.”
“As weak as you? You’re just a little underleveled. It can’t be that—”
Mr. Walters was about to try to boost Nick’s confidence when Nick opened up his stat sheet to show him. The second Mr. Walters saw Nick’s stats, he immediately gave up on trying to cheer the kid up.
“See?” Nick said. “I need help.”
“Holy Mother of Squats and Deadlifts . . . what the hell happened to you, boy?” Mr. Walters’ jaw nearly fell off as he just stared at the sheet. “You know what? Nevermind that. Come into my office. I’ll make you a choco-banana-flavored protein shake, and we can talk about it.”
Nick didn’t say anything and just nodded as he followed the large man into the guild office. The guild, The Sanctuary of Steel, would one day be known as the greatest guild in the entire city, responsible for having trained many of the most powerful fighters the city would ever know, but it currently didn’t look like anything worthwhile. Mr. Walters was renting a space above a PC café. Instead of the opulent ten-story building he had known from his past life, packed wall-to-wall with the most advanced equipment known to humanity and filled with hundreds of dungeon divers training before their next adventure, the guild currently only had a single square room—big but filled with ancient equipment from the dawn of weightlifting—and a tiny office next to it.
To make matters even more bleak, despite actually having enough equipment for people to train, Nick didn’t see a single soul besides two men and a woman who all looked too much like Mr. Walters to be anything other than his college-aged kids. Nick followed Walters through the weight room into the office, which was even more depressing. The leather couch Mr. Walters had motioned for him to sit on was covered in duct-taped holes and cuts while the coffee table in front of him looked like it might as well have been made of cardboard.
Just looking around, Nick had a hard time imagining how this particular guild had turned into one of the greatest ever. In fact, he had a hard time imagining how this particular guild hadn’t gone completely bankrupt already. He didn’t even fault Mr. Walters for the dust cloud that rose from the couch when he flopped down in the seat, feeling like there was a very good chance that the guild might not even be able to afford cleaning supplies.
“Here you go kid,” Mr. Walters said after a moment, handing him a giant thirty-two-ounce drink container filled to the brim with the aforementioned banana and chocolate protein shake.
“Thank you,” Nick said, sipping the thick, frothy beverage awkwardly for a moment and immediately regretting it after. He didn’t know what type of discount chocolate whey the guild leader used, but it might as well have been chalk flavored with the same sweetener used in Coke Zero or Diet Pepsi. It took all his effort to keep drinking it and pretend like he liked it, a little afraid that if he said anything otherwise, the guild leader might get upset, and it would sour negotiations.
“So now tell me, how the hell did a good kid like you end up with such a horrendous set of debuffs? Your strength, your constitution, your agility . . . They’ve taken all that is good in life from you!”
“Would you believe me if I told you I was poisoned?” Nick asked, trying to think of exactly how much he could reveal. “Someone at my school did it to me, to be exact, which is why I’m here instead of there—and why I’m getting bullied now and looked down on.”
“Using such a powerful poison on a human?! And not a monster?!” Mr. Walters fumed as he, rather than sitting down in any of the chairs around, promptly half-squatted like he was going to do the horse stance, but instead of sticking his arms out, he folded them over his chest. “But it does answer the question as to why you’re here. I just don’t know what I can do to help you.”
“Well . . . as you can see, with my stats as they are, I can’t be a knight anymore. I’m too weak,” Nick explained.
“So you wanted to join a gym. That way, you could change class?”
“Yeah, and yours is the only gym that would accept someone like me but also help me improve some of those weaker stats. Even if I become a mage, I’m going to need to be able to move around a little,” Nick explained.
Mr. Walters nodded along with Nick’s reasoning as he stroked his beard. “Indeed. A mage without stamina and strength might as well be a big, fat target sign in a dungeon. The monsters would eat you alive before you cleared your first boss.”
“And I also . . .” Nick tried to think of another reason because Mr. Walters still hadn’t agreed to Nick joining. He had only agreed with Nick’s logic. “I’m not good with business,” Nick said, deciding to push for even more sympathy. “I am always getting taken advantage of. Everyone is always using me for my money . . . so I was really scared about joining one of the larger guilds. I know how predatory they can be toward their members.”
“You’re not wrong there either.” Mr. Walters continued nodding his head like he was a giant muscular bobble head rather than a person, but he still didn’t give Nick the magic words he was looking for. “I’ve seen more than my fair share of talented kids get taken for everything they’re worth by their guilds. That’s why we at The Sanctuary of Steel always give our talent twice the cut they’d normally get by industry standards for selling monster parts, and we barely charge them a fee for dungeon acquisitions. We gotta do better than those parasite guilds that forgot we’re supposed to be fighting the monsters for the sake of humanity, not becoming monsters ourselves.”
Hearing the explanation and having completely run out of additional reasons, Nick decided to push for what he wanted more directly. “I know . . . I know your guild is the best. That’s why I really need to join. Can you please, please help me, Mr. Walters?”
“Are you sure you’re ready to join? It’s going to be a big commitment,” Mr. Walters pressed.
Nick nodded. “I am.”
“I don’t think you understand how big of a commitment this is going to be though. Once you start worshipping steel, you can’t stop, or else you’ll lose everything. There is no off ramp. Like the legend of Sisyphus, the rest of your existence will begin and end with lifting the weights up only for them to fall back down again. You’ll not just be giving up the two to four hours a day you’ll need to pray at the altar of steel; you’ll be giving up so much more of your life too. Instead of six hours of sleep, you’ll need eight. Instead of three meals a day, you’ll need four—or even five. Instead of being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want, there will be some days where you couldn’t even walk on the beach with your girl if you wanted because your legs will be too sore. This is your future if you join my guild. I will help you make up for that strength difference. I will help you crush it out of existence. But in return, you will be signing your life away to the discipline, pain, and dedication that the weights require,” Mr. Walters explained solemnly as if his little speech could get Nick to change his mind.
But even after hearing all of the warnings and knowing every single one of them was true, Nick didn’t falter. Even if the price was ten times worse than Mr. Walters described, he knew that if he wanted to save the future, he had to pay for it. He could never falter. As far as he was concerned, his life had already ended back inside Professor Allen Hughes’ lab, and everything he was doing now was to make sure their lives didn’t end in the same way at the same place.
“Just give me the paper then,” Nick demanded. “I knew all of that, and I was prepared before I even came here.”
“Then fine.” Mr. Walters looked rather pleased with Nick’s answer rather than frustrated that Nick wouldn’t take his advice. “That’s the spirit you should have if you want to be great! A glorious day this will be for you, for this will be the beginning of your journey! But I only have one more question: Are you sure you want to give up your class? I can train you until, even with that 50% debuff, you will be twice as strong as any other noble knight. Do you really want to give up the progress you’ve made?”
“I’m certain,” Nick answered even though he was a little tempted this time. With the ability to gain levels, if he could train his strength enough, he might actually make a decent fighter.
“Very well,” Mr. Walters said as he turned and began to rummage through the countless boxes and piles scattered around the room, moving aside stacks of papers and weights until he finally reached the bottom of the clutter. He lifted a heavy bowling-ball-sized orb made of crystal, which shimmered and glowed a brilliant blue as soon as he touched it. Mr. Walters laid the orb on his desk. Nick was overcome with an intense energy emanating from the crystal, and he felt himself being pulled toward it. He reached out, and just as his fingertips were about to make contact, Mr. Walters grabbed his hand.
“One last chance to back out. Are you sure about this? Once you start the process, it cannot be reversed. You’ll lose all the experience you’ve gained, all the skills you’ve learned, and you never know what classes you will be offered.”
“I’m certain,” Nick assured him, and when Mr. Walters let his arm go, he touched the orb. Then there was a flash, and a blue window appeared in front of him. He knew no one else would be able to see it unless he allowed it, so he privately read what his choices were.
Assistant: Instead of excelling in any fields or skills of their own, the assistant is able to help those that are smarter and more qualified with the things they find difficult or tedious. With enough skill and dedication, a good assistant can make themselves indispensable to dozens of qualified people.
Chef: A good chef can make food out of nearly anything. There are no ingredients from which the chef cannot summon flavor.
Lightning Sorcerer: Lightning sorcerers, unlike normal mages, are not those who summon greater and greater currents of power into existence. Rather, they are those who begin with the most powerful of nature’s creations and learn with time and effort to manipulate it with greater and greater control.
Poisonmancer: Part alchemist, part assassin, with careful preparation, the poisonmancer can be the most deadly force in any conflict.
Swordmaster: For the swordmaster, all things can be made into a blade, and a blade can be made to end all things. Even a blade of grass can be made to cut steel as the swordmaster reaches their pinnacle.
Trainer: With enough time and effort, the trainer can build the basics.
Necromancer: The necromancer has been exposed repeatedly to death itself, and now they can control a portion of it.
Nick read through the descriptions twice, a little annoyed with the list, especially the assistant class. He understood how he got most of the classes. He had the mentality of a good assistant drilled into his bones from his work in the future. He could easily be a chef, having had to cook every type of monster part while the others fought. He had handled electricity more than anyone else in the future probably ever would, and the poison was obviously because of his current condition. The necromancer option obviously resulted from how much he had dealt with death in his life. All of those class options made sense in his head, and he knew from experience that they were all terribly mediocre options for him.
As cool as the necromancer option sounded, and as powerful as the idea of infinite minions seemed, he already knew that the necromancer summons wouldn’t ever be a match for the worst of the monsters that came out of the dungeons. In the future, the most powerful necromancer would barely be as good as a good warrior.
Poisonmancer and lightning sorcerer also sounded great on paper, but poison was more useful to mobsters and people targeting humans because they had to get the prey to ingest most of the poisons they could make, and lightning sorcerers were almost completely useless in most dungeons as the powerful electric bolts they could summon would often ground themselves before they reached a single monster. A single metal rod in the dirt could perfectly counter them.
The one class that was actually good was the swordmaster, but with Nick’s current disposition, there was no way he could take advantage of that class. He already knew that it required a person to have a naturally high agility in order to bring out the best swordmaster abilities.
The only class that remained that he could see the merits of was trainer. Given that his ultimate goal was to find Maria and use all of his abilities and foreknowledge to make her more powerful than anyone else in the world, it didn’t feel like it was as horrible an option as the others. He already knew that no matter what he achieved with his other classes, it wouldn’t be as important in the long run as helping Maria, one of the few people with a legendary-level class, achieve even a three-to-five-percent increase in her abilities. He didn’t need to be the hero. He just needed to make sure the hero wouldn’t fail. Though he knew it was a choice that no one else would take, given it had such weak-sounding abilities, and he hadn’t heard of any trainers in the future, he still had to bet on it.
“Trainer,” he said out loud to the level sphere even though the choice only needed to be thought.
You have selected the trainer class. Are you certain of your decision?
“Yes,” Nick said, confirming the selection. The level sphere spun, its light slowly dimming. As it did so, Nick could feel something strange happening to his body. His muscles began to weaken and lose tone. It was like all the strength he had built up over the years was slowly withering away from his body. His constitution declined as did his agility. He suddenly felt frail. He looked at himself in a nearby mirror and saw that he looked gaunt and sickly.
The pathetic sight wasn’t exactly encouraging, but it was part of the plan all the same.
Congratulations on your new class! A new character sheet with your updated class, stats, and abilities has been generated.
Name: Nick Class: Trainer
Level: 1 EXP: 0
Strength: 5 (10-5) Aura: 10
Agility: 5 (10-5) Magic: 10
Constitution: 5 (10-5) Charisma: 10
Training!! Lv. 1 (0%): 0 / 1 Selected Targets
Learning the Basics Lv. 1 (0%)
Allows the trainer to select 1 individual and help that individual improve both their skills and their stats at a 1% faster rate than normal so long as the user is within 5 yards of the selected individual. Individuals selected for the skill will also not suffer penalties or drawbacks from overtraining.
Note: Number of individuals and rate of improvement will vary based on the user’s charisma and skill level.
Learning the Basics [Constitution]
Through hard work and training you can learn the basics.
Nick blinked as he stared at the class’s two unique skills, Training!! and Learning the Basics. While the description for Learning the Basics may as well have just repeated itself, offering nothing helpful, the description for Training!! was far better than he had ever hoped for. Skills and stats were often nearly impossible to train, which was one of the very reasons why gyms were empty right now. It wouldn’t be until people became truly desperate that they’d spend enough hours in the gym to gain a point of strength, agility, or constitution when leveling up in dungeons could gain them five points they could spend wherever in a fraction of the time with much less effort. XP was always considered the best and fastest way to grow.
But now that he had Training!!, all he had to do was level it up.
Hmm . . . why does it have “charisma” next to it though? Nick wondered as he poked at the skill, the system immediately answering his question:
Due to your unique class attribute, most skills will have a stat associated with them. Improving the skill will improve its related stat. You have selected the skill Training!! to activate. Which individual within five yards would you like to add as the active target of Training!!
Huh . . . I can . . . I can select myself?! Nick couldn’t contain his excitement as he mentally selected himself to be the recipient of the Training!! Buff.
“HA! Trainer! That’s excellent! What a glorious class choice! Training is where we succeed. The dungeons are only where we prove the success we already earned in the gym!” Mr. Walters seemed to be overjoyed with Nick’s class choice as he knocked Nick’s scrawny form to the ground with a pat on the back.
“Thanks,” Nick replied as he crawled to his feet.
“Well, young trainer, you’re now a level 1 unmolded blob of wet clay,” Mr. Walters said as he stared at Nick. “Are you ready to begin suffering?”
“Bring on the pain!” Nick laughed, never having expected such an amazing score when he first set out to switch his class. He had only wanted to switch to a competent spell caster so he wouldn’t die when the apocalypse started and so he’d be able to help Maria more, but instead he’d been gifted a heavenly boon he could never have even imagined. “Let’s make these muscles bleed enough sweat to start a salt farm!”
“You talk a big game now, but we’ll see if you can really put up with the pain and show the determination it’s going to take to get those muscles into shape, sport,” Mr. Walters said as he ruffled Nick’s hair.
You’re worried about me being able to handle pain? Nick chuckled. Thanks to the damn poison, I’ve gone through more of it than anyone on earth! This will be nothing to me!