At Hollyhock Training Institute, the students were grouped into classes by their entry year and length of training. Classes were a mix of ages and students could remain training at the institute until twenty-three years of age. Therefore, it was common to see matured adults among awkward youths.
In the following days, the students of previous classes began their arrival to the dorms (or their lodging quarters around Celaeno). Of the returning ones, a few lingered in the open courts, cafeteria, or shared spaces to observe the new class and place bets. More than a few ogled Erina Marigold, not only for her beauty, but also her distinguished background.
"She's the heiress of the Marigold Systems Corporation."
"As expected. When you come from wealth and a good bloodline, the aura is just different."
"How is it possible to be born with everything? Life is so unfair."
It was gossip Erina had heard many times before but ignoring them wasn’t easy. All of it annoyed her. Her background or family had not paved the way or made it all easier. Again, she would just have to prove to everyone that she belonged here with the best.
To avoid the ongoing stares and whispers, she went to the library. Empty as expected; no students were in a hurry to study before the official term began. She grabbed a book, chose a seat by the large windows, and indifferently flipped through the pages. The book lightly covered the Attributes that separated the gifted from the Ordinary. It was general information that was common knowledge. The finer details were taught throughout compulsory education. At fifteen years of age, she already knew everything within the book.
In a time before the International Command Service (ISC), the Core of MotherEarth awakened. Its consciousness brought the genetic blessing of Attributes in one-third of mankind (alongside an invasion of mysterious creatures). These non-hereditary Attributes were sorted into eleven categories and ranked by their rarity and power. From least valuable to most, the common Attributes were: i-VORY, BEAST-ly, CON-ductor, STAND-ard, EN-hancer, DI-sparate, and IM-mortal. The last four Attributes appeared in one of a billion, if lucky: BLOOD-Y, SI-REN, DARK-LORD, and SKY-LORD.
Some of the Attributes could be distinguished in an individual at birth; the yellow eyes of BEAST-lys and the red eyes of IM-mortals. A few others developed eventually or surfaced through highly stressful or stimulating experiences. For each individual, the Attribute gift manifested differently in skill and trademark, nurtured by talent and hard work. This also meant Deviants, with capabilities that strayed from the norm within its Attribute classification, was possible (although they were as rare as the last four Attributes).
Of course, not all born with the gift were guaranteed success and achievement. In the eyes of society and the ISC, an untalented human with an Attribute was no different from an Ordinary human. However, those who went on to become ForeGuards were hailed as the protectors of mankind. They guarded against and hunted the invaders that preyed on the MotherEarth and humans: the VER-mins, VI-ruses, PARA-sites, and OGREs. While it was the Round Council (representatives from twenty-three allied countries) that regulated international trade and peace; yet, the exalted heroes of the people were the ForeGuards. At the top, the most famous and celebrated of all was the unit of five best ForeGuards across the allied countries, the First Quints. It was the title and position where many aspiring ForeGuards and students aimed to reach.
Not for Erina. She wanted to earn her Sword Shield, be ordained as a ForeGuard, join the Militia and perhaps one day enlist in the Prime Military, but it was a path naturally laid out for her by society and expectations. There was no personal meaning or purpose behind it for her. The only thing that kept her going was her pride and to uphold her family’s name.
With an inward sigh, Erina finished flipping through the book and returned it. The institute was focused on training and yet she wondered if they carried any cookbooks in their inventory. She went to the further shelves to explore and was startled. The library wasn’t empty after all. A lone student sat at one of the back tables hidden behind several shelves. The student had piles of books on the table around him and was seriously poring over a large volume. Somehow, it annoyed her to see someone studying so hard when everyone else was just happy to spend their last carefree days.
She looped around trying to not stare but did so anyway, until she realized that she recognized this person. Black short cropped hair and sharp, light-colored brown eyes; it was that boy that her roommate had saved on their orientation day. As she passed by, she saw that the volume he was so absorbed in was in fact a beginner's guide to MotherEarth and the Attributes, drawings included; pathetically an even more watered-down overview than the book she’d put away. This was common sense knowledge. Why was a student at Hollyhock Training Institute studying grade school level material? She couldn't wrap her mind around it.
Moving on to the last row of books, Erina was in for another surprise. A young man was lying down in the middle of the aisle, asleep on his side with a book propped under his head as a pillow. His blonde wispy hair curled around his face, framing pretty features that undermined a lean but sturdy frame and strong shoulders.
What is this? She was fazed by his careless attitude and lying in her path. Before she made a decision to act, the boy suddenly sat up fixing his big, sea-blue eyes on her. They blinked at each other for two heartbeats before he stood, towering over her as the top of her head just about reached his shoulders. The boy quickly swiped at his face with the back of his hand then bowed to her. “My apologies," he said in a soft tone. Just as suddenly, he was gone around the corner.
Additionally, in his hurry he’d left behind the book that had been his pillow on the floor. Unhappily, Erina picked it up to return it. Being free of annoyances wasn’t possible at the library either.
Around late evening, a well-rested Lucas and an overzealous Za finally left the library. Lucas refused to skip dinner. The cafeteria closed early, but students were allowed to venture outside the gates on off days or after the last bell, as long as they returned before curfew. Each dorm also came with a spacious kitchen furnished with the latest appliances for students with culinary inclinations. Not in the mood to try his luck with his inept cooking skills, Lucas decided that they would head out to a pasta restaurant he had sighted in the city. Besides, it was not a bad walking distance from the institute.
Mid-sentence, while telling his friend about his favorite pasta, Lucas interrupted himself to follow a stray stream of thought. "Marigold. That's who she is!" At a bemused Za, he explained, "There was a girl in the library. We interacted - briefly. Anyway, I’ve seen her before. She's a Marigold. Her father's a self-made multi-billionaire. They manufacture electronics. We can probably find some of their products here."
"Hmm…" Za hummed. Electronics and the Marigolds. Neither interested him.
They neared the school gates. Up the path ahead, an older student that was familiar to Za stepped in to block their way; the short and spiky carrot-orange hair paired with those yellow eyes was unmistakable. He was the ring leader of the gang from the other day, Kerri Allium. His minions also backed him up today, spreading out behind him, as the two sides closed the distance. Both younger boys came to a full stop in their tracks. Smirking, Kerri said, "You look well."
Za had not explained the first day’s events to his friend but Lucas could read the cold atmosphere. Lucas offered a plastered smile to Kerri and stuck out a hand for a handshake. "My name is Lucas Lobelia. Pleased to meet you."
The older boy looked from an emotionless Za to the still smiling Lucas (half a head taller than him) then at the outstretched hand. He ignored it. "Lobelia. I've heard of you. You're countryside trash."
Lucas's smile tightened painfully and he dropped his offered hand. Za said before his displeased friend could recoup, “We’re in the open.” The gates were just behind Kerri and his gang and that meant the security guards were also close.
Kerri crossed his arms and looked them over haughtily. "Don't worry, trash. I won't hurt you. You got to be ready for your big first day anyway. I've placed a lot of money on you being last in the rankings. Don’t disappoint me."
"What do you mean?" Lucas asked. He had noticed the rampant bets of the upperclassmen. It was a tight-lipped secret that none of the first years had managed to wrangle out of anyone.
"I won’t tell you, trash. But I know - it's going to be a riot,” Kerri said gleefully. With that, he walked away followed by his snickering minions.
Lucas glared after them. The Kerri gang had hit two nerves with him. First, referring to his background. Second, dangling a secret in front of him. He inhaled and exhaled repeatedly, restoring his peace of mind. Finally, he dragged himself out of his hectic thoughts. "Food. Yes. Let's go.” He made mental plans to later wrangle out the story about Za’s toxic relationship with their upperclassman.