Hollyhock ISC-M, the Central branch of Astradom’s Prime Military, was accepting new students for its Training Institute after three years. Opened to all ages between 13-21 years. Attributes required. Individuals aspiring to become a ForeGuard, earn a Shield, and join the Prime Military welcomed. Expected to commit to a minimum of 2 years of full training, participate in rankings, and compete in galas.
Located at the south end of Celaeno, the capital city of Astradom, it was a dream for many to attend the institute that was an extension of one of the country’s strongest federation. Half a million youths and young adults applied. For twenty-eight consecutive days following the first snow fall, the 100,000 applicants that passed through to the third round were interviewed.
On the twenty-eighth morning, Giles Heliconia, Assistant-Instructor at the institute, listlessly stepped into a conference room where a screen took an entire wall. He logged in for his next set of interviews. His browser opened and thirty video chat boxes popped up on the screen, sixty hopeful eyes staring back. He adjusted his black rimmed glasses and took a chair. "So, let's begin," he said. "Impress me, kids."
Likewise, across the grounds Instructor Maybelle Jonquil stood in her spacious office surrounded by five monitors with thirty-five video chat boxes across the screens. Arms crossed, she scrutinized every face that stared back with her piercing yellow eyes.
When interviews finally came to a close that night, a man in a black suit stepped into the office of Counselor Davis Mazus, the head of the training division. He carried with him a document in which he placed on the desk in front of the Counselor. "This individual is to be admitted," the man said.
"I see," the Counselor said and picked up the document. Simply, he replied, "And so it will be." He passed the student file into the shredder.
* * *
The year of 1120 NE; as a bitter winter reached its end, 390 new students arrived at Hollyhock Training Institute. Gated and heavily guarded, each individual was thoroughly identified and checked before granted entrance. They were crowded into the underground arena for orientation then scattered across the grounds for tours, to be outfitted for training uniforms, and to find their dorms. The institute ran on a regular school schedule; official training did not begin until two weeks with the rest of the schools in Celaeno.
Reasonably, the upperclassmen were not expected back until the following week, although a few had started trickling in early. These early senior peers were hungry wolves that were raring to pick at the fresh-faced youths. The four students from an older class caught their prey outside the gentlemen's dorms. The unfortunate boy of their choice stood at just below average height in the initial stages of his growth, but was fit and lean.
The boy did not defend himself as the gang battered him behind the building. They laughed mercilessly at his expense and mocked him for his inability to fight back. Then they realized he had not uttered a sound. Their joy lessened. Dissatisfaction mounted with each new physical blow that was met with silence.
"Is he mute?"
"He must be crazy."
"We picked up a stupid one."
The three minions pinned the boy against the brick wall. They watched in anticipation as their leader transformed; his yellow eyes narrowing, nails lengthening, and teeth sharpening. Tufts of hair grew on his quickly thickening body, stretching the fabric of his clothes. He snarled, head snapping back, and raised his claws to inflict harm.
Two girls had turned the corner and witnessed the end of his BEAST-ly transformation. The shorter of the two girls stepped forward shouting, "Stop! I'm calling an instructor!"
One of the minions turned on her angrily. "Hah? What are you going to do? Stupid."
"Stop it." It was an order from the leader whose eyes were now fixed on the girls. Very deliberately, he looked them up and down.
The one who’d spoken had dyed turquoise blue hair, braided into twin pigtails, and a curvaceous figure on her short stature. Her companion had long, loose ash-brown hair and a slender figure that complemented her height, putting her at almost a head taller than the first girl.
Eyes unwavering, the leader recalled his BEAST-ly transformation and returned to his normal bodily state. He waved his minions off their prey and walked towards the girls. Disgruntled but obedient, the minions spat at the boy's feet and followed. As the leader reached the girls and passed, he said, "I'll see you around." Then the gang of four was gone around the corner.
"Disgusting pig shit," the shorter girl said after them. She walked closer to the boy and asked, "Are you okay?"
He turned to her, emotionless and eyes cold. He wiped at the small trickle of blood over his cut lower lip and said apathetically, "I didn't ask for your help."
The girl's concern instantly shifted into defensive indignation. "You looked like you needed it.”
"I was collecting data," he replied in that same vexing monotone. "Next time, mind your own business."
Her fiery forwardness chilled into cool anger and she curled her fingers into fists to not punch that blank look off his face. "You’re so pathetic. What an eyesore," she said dismissively and marched away. The taller girl spared the boy one pitying glance before following.
A target of bullies, saved by two girls, and now disliked by both parties – the ill-fated boy was Za Alstroemeria from the remote city of Miram, fourteen years of age. Unusually, the passing event had no effect on him. He hadn't come to Hollyhock Training Institute to interfere with the personal business of strangers and he expected the same. His stomach grumbled, reminding him why he had stepped out of his dorm room in the first place.
Getting to the cafeteria proved a challenge as once again, while going in circles around the grounds, he was stopped. This time it was Assistant-Instructor Giles who interrupted him upon seeing the cuts and dark bruises on his face, as well as his still bleeding lower lip. "Kid, go to the nurse's station," he said.
Za stared back at him without recognition, then moved to leave in the opposite direction.
Giles sighed and adjusted his glasses. It was damn troublesome. He should have ignored it. He beckoned for Za to follow him. "Come on. I'll show you where it is."
The nurse, like most of the staff at the institute, had arrived at Hollyhock early. When Giles stopped by the nurse’s station with Za in tow, she took one look at the boy and said, "I see. You're the punching bag in this class."
Za understood this to mean that his misfortune was a tradition. Giles leaned towards her and said, "Ah Julie, you're destroying a youth’s passionate outlook. Lessons haven't even started."
"My mistake," Julienne Yarrow, also known as Julie, said without much sincerity. She raised her hand to Za's face, hovering over his features with her fingers splayed. White light glowed at the edges of her form. Her EN-hancer ability took effect on his cuts and bruises, willing them to heal faster. By the time she dropped her hand seconds later, Za's face was clear of any signs of bodily harm. "Normally I'd let the small cuts heal naturally, but I'm making this exception," she said. "Let's see where else you're hurt. Take off your shirt."
"I'm fine," Za finally spoke up.
Giles crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. "Just do it, kid."
His interjection was unnecessary as the nurse said matter of fact, "Take off your shirt or I'll confine you to bed for the next two weeks."
"If Julie tells you to do something, you do it," Giles said with an acknowledging nod of his head.
Za thought the Assistant-Instructor spoke too much. Giles also stood closest to the exit so escape was impossible, thus Za relented. He grasped his t-shirt by its hem and pulled it over his head. The eyes of both faculty members swept over his chest and for several passing seconds they were speechless. Directly over Za's heart was a midnight black tattoo; the imprint of a small right hand.
Julie broke the silence, refocusing. "You're an i-VORY. Not many of them get through the selection," she calmly stated. She saw the dark bruises on his skin and raised her hand, her outline glowing white and healing his wounds.
After a few more fixes, Julie dismissed him. Za bowed his head to her in silence and took his leave. Alone with the Assistant-Instructor, she asked, "That boy is in the new class? What is his name?"
Giles pushed off the wall and distractedly wiped at his glasses. "What of it?"
"You saw," Julie said. "That mark over his heart is a Death Bond. It is unusual to find it on one so young. i-VORYs absorb objects and materials into their skin through physical wounds on the flesh. The absorption seals off the wound, leaving an ivory mark as evidence. But once that object is brought back out, the wound reopens. A wound over the heart means--"
"He may die if he pulls out what sealed it," Giles finished. He looked at the door where Za had exited moments before. "Interesting kid."
Unaware that he was the subject of conversation between the nurse and Assistant-Instructor, Za returned to his dorm to find his roommate trying to organize their clothes and putting the clumsily folded ones into messy piles. Lucas Lobelia, a friend from the same hometown and one year older, looked up from his attempts and nodded at Za standing listlessly inside their doorway. "Where's the food?" he asked.
“Oh,” Za said sheepishly. He forgot. "I'm not hungry anymore."
Lucas sighed and shook his head. Between the two of them, he was considered the more put together. He said, "You haven't eaten in two days. Let's go."