To the surprise of many, the official start of the term came with pouring rain and cloudy gray skies. It was both a morning full of excitement and dread.
Za and Lucas changed into their training uniforms, a plum-colored jumpsuit for the boys, and went down to the lobby of the dorm. They saw over a dozen students lined up in pairs by the double doors. A beautiful woman stood at the front, Instructor Maybelle. She had a clipboard in her hand. "Get in line," she said, checking off their attendance on her list, and Za and Lucas complied. Eventually the rest of the boys of Class 1120 NE came down and lined up. They were all hushed and attentive, unsure of what was next.
Maybelle explained, "Lessons will begin tomorrow. Today, all first years will head to the arena for your student rankings. When you enter the hall, you will be handed an armband. Put it on. You will receive your next instructions there." She opened the double doors to the heavy pouring rain. "Go”
"B-but the rain…" one of the boys valiantly spoke up.
Maybelle fixed her sharp yellow eyes on him and then looked around at the rest of the boys. "Run. If any of you arrive after me, you will be punished."
Za took the first step and set off a chain reaction. Within moments, the boys all dived into the onslaught of rain, headed for the arena. The gentlemen's and ladies' dorms were on opposite ends of the campus. In between were the training grounds and facilities for staff offices, classrooms, the library, and extracurriculars. The large arena was located underground, with entrances for the students inside the cafeteria.
Lucas sprinted ahead while Za kept to a light jog. He was soaked through to his skin so it didn't matter if he hurried to get out of it. His pace was consistent and he managed to pass by a few other boys who lost steam and were out of breaths.
The girls of Class 1120 NE awaited them in the hall outside the stage arena, their armbands already on. They were either surprised or giggled as the boys arrived sopping wet in their new uniforms. One girl said above the whispers and gasping, "Mr. Heliconia led us through the underground passage."
"What!?" a boy exclaimed. "That bitch played us."
"Who?" Maybelle asked as she calmly walked up from the end of the hall, perfectly dry. The boy immediately ducked away to another part of the crowd. Maybelle surveyed the throng of students. "Did everyone put their armband on?"
On his way in, Za had been handed one by a faculty standing inside the cafeteria entrance. He pulled it on with some tugging over the wet sleeve of his jumpsuit. The bands were made of a tough but heat resistant fabric and there were ten colors total: white, gray, black, blue, sky blue, red, pink, yellow, orange, and violet. A few of the girls had exchanged armbands to get their favorite color. Za had a white band and Lucas a pink.
Maybelle watched the students nod and some mumble, before raising her hand for silence. Without preamble or warning, she said, "We will begin the first part of your introductory exam at Hollyhock Training Institute.”
Cries of surprise and distraught rang out among the students, followed by a wave of intense whispering and unrest. Why an exam? Didn’t they just get through one to enter into the institute? What difference would it make now?
Ignoring them, she continued, “There are 80 shields, 100 swords, and 120 grenades hidden within the school grounds. The shields are worth 1 point, swords are 2 points, and grenades 3 points. These items are marked with the symbol of a black half sun and moon. Within half an hour, find at least one of these items and bring it back to this place. Any student who fails to return will be expelled.”
A scavenger hunt in the pouring rain. Anxiety, dread, and doubt descended. Shocked faces stared back at Maybelle, but her expression remained firm and her will resolute. She banged her hand against the wall and said, “Go.”
Several boys burst ahead. They’ve been through the onslaught of rain and their bodies were warmed up. It didn’t require any second thought.
A few of the girls paused and formed groups, focusing on team effort. They would go out and return within the time limit. Whether successful or empty-handed, all items gathered in that time would be split among them for points.
Finally, all the students departed except one. Za stood rooted to his spot as the time ticked away. Maybelle crossed her arms and sized him up. He wasn’t one of the students she’d interviewed nor had she seen his application. She had no familiarity with him. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“Collecting data,” Za said.
“Unnecessary,” Maybelle immediately dismissed it.
“Instructor,” he continued, unfazed, “this exam appears to favor i-VORYs. Items worth up to only 3 points apiece won’t make a difference unless you can carry much. The points earned will be minimal. It is possible to get none. The only consequence is expulsion for the failure to return.”
“What are you getting at?” she asked.
“It’s only the first part of the exam, you said. We’re all returning back here. For the second part, I guess. There are no rules against bringing other unmarked items back, is there?” With students going out searching for dangerous weaponry like swords and grenades, the spectrum for miscellaneous items should be thrust wide open.
Maybelle understood his implication and his cheekiness at once annoyed and amused her. She replied, “No, there isn’t. But it’s not practical to bring more. Unless you’re an i-VORY.”
“Exactly. The second part of this exam will be a lot harder on us, I think,” Za said. He added carelessly, “It’ll be a riot.”
Maybelle suppressed a smirk. He must have an idea about the structure of the second part. She responded, “You have 20 minutes left, i-VORY.”
Za nodded before proceeding to walk away. Then upon digesting her words, he paused, glanced back, and said with practiced ease, “Instructor, it’s not just about the Attribute type.”
“Oh?” She was more amused now than annoyed. “What about it?”
Suffice it to say, Maybelle reminded Za of his master. It was that same friendly smirk, alongside the combination of strength and confidence veering into slight arrogance. He’d made a declaration to only his master and this time he similarly said it aloud to this particular instructor, “I’ll be the first i-VORY to be First Quint.”
It was a goal that would shock many and be declared as impossible. i-VORY was the least valuable of the Attributes. In fact, i-VORYs that became ForeGuards were few and far in between. Only this specific Attribute remained detached from the lore of the best; in the history of the ISC, none had managed to rise up the ranks to become First Quint.
Erina was cold and soaked to the skin. She was also empty-handed with only 5 minutes left to go. This was a disaster. It was not as if she’d been unsuccessful in her search. She’d come across a sword and shield each, but both had been humongous pieces and too heavy to lug around for her skinny arms. She’d run into a few other students and learned that the weight, size, and even design of the items may vary. There had even been a shield (thoroughly marked with the black half sun and moon symbol) that was just a piece of scrap metal. She had just been unlucky to not come across those easier pieces.
She was desperate and at the same time she felt silly. An exam that centered on a timed scavenger format wasn’t cut out for her abilities. Yet, every time she thought about giving up and heading back to the hall outside the stage arena, she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t fail without even trying.
She trudged on until the last minute. Then there was nothing left that she could do. It was just an old-fashioned scavenger hunt, but this was their first exam at the institute and she failed. The ordeal, including being helplessly wet and chilled in the rain, was a humbling experience.
She couldn’t go back like this and stood by the entrance inside the cafeteria watching other students shuffle through with their items. A few glanced at her but, as they were short on time, all rushed by. To them she was no longer the Erina Marigold who had everything, just a classmate with no points. Every glance away burned through her skin.
Her eyes refocused and caught sight of her roommate, Ya Nu Amaryllis, running up to her. A big smile on her face, Ya Nu pressed a grenade into Erina’s hand. Erina barely had time to react before Ya Nu pulled her by the arm down the steps into the arena hall. Their wet shoes squeaked and slapped against the polished floors, joined by many others. Erina gripped the grenade to her chest, afraid it would fall or slip out of her hand as Ya Nu continued to hold her arm while they ran. The simple gesture tingled inside her body and at the tips of her fingers, spreading a warm sensation.
A group of students loomed up ahead. This was the place where they were supposed to return. They reached the edge of the crowd and stopped. Ya Nu and Erina doubled over to catch their breaths as up front, Maybelle shouted, “Time’s up!”
Regaining her composure, Erina locked eyes with Ya Nu. She held the grenade tightly and mouthed, “What about you?”
Ya Nu raised both of her arms to the level of her face. Two different sized armguards were strapped to her forearms, one made of leather and another of metal, both marked with the black half sun and moon symbol. Two points each for a total of four. Erina thought the examiners must not have taken their own rules literally. She held a typical grenade, but she wondered what other surprises were in store. A boy in front of her held an axe, marked. A group of girls up ahead each carried a set of daggers, she presumed also marked. Looking at the very real weapons, a chill ran through Erina’s body. They were huddled together, but she felt no friendliness from her classmates. This was like a battlefield.
Just as that thought crossed Erina’s mind, Maybelle proceeded to the next part of the exam. She pushed open the double doors and the Class of 1120 NE looked onto the leveled, circular stage at the center of the arena. The set was humongous and littered with numerous mannequins. The staggered seats beyond the stage stretched in a semi-circle and were filled with students of the older classes. The onlookers saw the open doors and roared in excitement. A feminine voice blared within the arena loudly and clear, “Today is the debut of our Class 1120 NE. Everyone, welcome to the Newcomer Rankings Entry exam!”
The announcement washed over them. Then the realization hit. They were the spectacle. Fear and shock swept through the hearts of the new students. They stood completely frozen in the hall right before the entrance to the stage of the arena.
Maybelle recalled their attention. “Your individual accumulated points here will determine your first ranking at Hollyhock. We began this year with 2465 students. One of you will be ranked 2465th.” She pointed to the mannequins that suddenly rose up and clattered around the stage. “Every puppet taken out is 5 points. Also,” and she smiled carnivorously at the pale faces that looked back at her, “every classmate you take down is worth 100 points. The last student to enter the arena will receive a minus 500 points from their total score. Go.”