In a large parlor, an older gentleman sat alone at one of the furnished benches that enclosed a low oak table. His cravat was untied and his vest unbuttoned, but his appearance remained dignified. As he browsed through several files on the table in front of him, a knock at the double doors interrupted the somber quiet in the room and a woman entered. Visibly nervous, she bowed to the gentleman who did not look up from his work. She moved to place another file in front of him. Again, he paid her no attention.
After a long pause, she said, “Sir, I heard Hollyhock training begins today.”
The gentleman finally glanced at her. Self-conscious, she held his gaze while holding her breath. He set aside his work and picked up the file she’d brought in, flipping through it while she exhaled.
Reassured by his reaction, she said, “I look forward to the young master’s ranking.”
The gentleman reached the last page and threw the file back onto the table in front of her. “Rejected. Imminent failure should be cut off at the root,” he said with a tinge of disdain in his tone. Her courage instantly deflated.
Another small knock interrupted them and a cute young girl with big, sea-blue eyes and short, curly blonde hair stepped into the parlor. She saw that he had company and immediately regretted her decision, wishing she could just disappear. The door clicked shut behind her and she shrank back against it.
“What is it?” the gentleman snapped at her while dismissively waving the woman aside.
The girl’s eyes nervously darted from the glum woman to the impatient gentleman. Her right hand grasped her skirt while her left hand curled in a fist against her chest. “Father,” she said tentatively, “I’m going to Celaeno.”
* * *
Maybelle’s order was concise but devoid of any empathy. She finished giving their instructions and it was their turn to act.
Several long seconds later, the new students of Hollyhock Training Institute gathered their courage and swarmed into the arena. Bloodthirsty cheers from the audience followed. To not be left behind, Ya Nu and Erina joined the mass and stepped onto the stage. Erina braced herself when she felt a touch; it was Ya Nu and she smiled reassuringly at Erina. “Let’s both do our best and make it to the end,” she said.
Erina’s first reaction was to recoil, followed by reasoning. Anyone else she might’ve rejected. With Ya Nu, Erina didn’t doubt her intentions. Maybe Ya Nu’s kindness affected her more than she thought. She mustered a nod in response.
The stage was a circular, relatively levelled grassy field. A reinforced forcefield around the perimeters protected the audience and prevented disruption or any bodies from leaving the stage. On this set, over several dozen mannequins roamed the field. Some were made of straw, wood, rubber, plastic, and metal; their sizes varied.
The students focused unanimously on the mannequins first. It soon became apparent that they were more than mindless toys. The moving mannequins scoured the arena and attacked every living body that crossed their paths. Their forms were strong, battering students and forcing them to the ground. They were persistent in their chase. Taking down the puppets required more than a few knocks.
At one end of the stage, four girls worked together to surround one wooden mannequin. “On a count of three!” the leader shouted. One! Two! Three!
All swarmed in, one girl aiming for its head, another for its arms, a third for its legs, and the last girl targeting its torso. They tore the puppet apart. Disassembling them was the most effective solution to stop them completely. Lop off its head, cut down its limbs, then smash the torso into bits. Across the arena, other groups and individuals did the same. One by one, the puppets were broken and some shattered.
Soon, the tides of the struggle turned as all the mannequins were defeated and students fervently clashed with each other. Vicious fights ensued and the heat on the stage heightened with screams, grunts, sweat, and blood. As the fervor and aggression escalated, faculty on duty briefly dropped into the arena to retrieve critically injured or unconscious students, then carted them out to the nurse’s station. They monitored the actions of the students to prevent irreparable damage and fatalities.
Erina had a hard time focusing in several directions. The arena was packed with constantly changing scenarios. Around the stage, it was chaos with smaller group battles and individual confrontations. She did not know how the faculty kept watch. Up ahead, a boy changed his path and charged at her with his sword. She dodged his clumsy lunge, retaliating by throwing shards of metal she’d collected at him. Some bits embedded into his skin and he fell back with grunts, dropping his sword.
The boy glared at her with his yellow eyes and called upon his BEAST-ly transformation; fangs, claws, and hair grew to override his human features. Even before completing the change, he leaped towards her with fangs bared. He swiped with his claws and she pulled up a large but thin scrap of metal to block, enforcing the sturdiness of the makeshift shield with her EN-hancer, her outline glowing white. Swiped – blocked – swiped – blocked. The offense was relentless and every attack pushed her until she was backed into the forcefield. No more space to move. Then he quickened his pace and hurled his full weight at her shield.
She heard Ya Nu shout, “Fire up, Bo!”
Erina hurriedly wrapped her makeshift shield around her as a burst of flames flared from her left. Her unsuspecting attacker was not fast enough to dodge and howled as he scorched under the flames. The smell overwhelmed Erina. She didn’t realize her eyes were squeezed shut until she opened them to see an instructor standing between Ya Nu and the unconscious beast boy. The instructor had managed to envelope the boy in a thin, protective shield before critical damage was done, but this battle was won. The boy was carried out as the announcer, a student from the older classes, screamed into the mic. Her voice blared overhead, “100 points awarded to Miss STAND-ard! What is that hair color? I love it!”
STAND-ard, the Attribute with power over fire or water. Erina shivered as Ya Nu nodded to her with a calm expression. This was the first time Erina had seen someone burn like that, but Ya Nu was not fazed at all. Erina didn’t think she could ever forget the smell of burnt flesh.
Ya Nu came beside her and whispered, “You okay?”
Erina quickly nodded. How dare she let things like this get to her? She had to prove her worth, yet here she was thinking over things her classmates weren’t even bothered by.
The girls skirted the edge of the arena to avoid getting drawn into another group’s battle. The number of students had quickly dwindled to half the original and the size of the stage became more pronounced. They watched a few more instructors intervene and escort fallen students out before Ya Nu suddenly caught her breath and ran out into the field. Erina was surprised to see her roommate jump in to aid a girl who was getting pounded by two BEAST-ly boys.
“Don’t be so smug!” A girl holding a large paper airplane, swung at the gawking Erina.
Erina dropped to the ground and rolled away, the edge of the paper narrowly missing her, and she nimbly jumped back to her feet. Another confrontation. She braced herself and enforced her shield as the girl leaped and swung her paper airplane again to slam the makeshift weapon into Erina’s guard. In the split second before the impact, Erina saw at the corner of her eyes a second girl with outstretched arms, her outline glowing white – an EN-hancer like herself.
The paper airplane connected and its powerful strike exceeded Erina’s shield like a crushing brick – it’d been reinforced by the EN-hancer, she realized. She was lifted off her feet and sent back several meters. She collided into another student and knocked him unconscious, and it just about knocked her out as well. Grunting through pain, she heard the announcer shout, “Oof! That one was unexpected. Keep an eye out for flying students. One hundred points awarded to the paper airplane!”
Projecting the EN-hancer ability to strengthen the power of others. In defense, she should have the upper hand, unless the opponent’s raw power exceeded her enhancement. In team offense, she was out of her depth. As she climbed to her feet, she fought to calm her rising anxiety. She tried to assess the new situation. Three boys stood in front of her, readied to attack. She had taken down their opponent in her fall and was suddenly lumped into this fight. One of the boys carried a long metal chain, another boy held a string of linked metal plates, and the last gripped twin swords in each hand.
“It’s Marigold. How unlucky.”
“Don’t be fooled. She’s a weakling.”
The trio looked at each other and nodded in silent understanding.
She backed up and they spread out to surround her. She sized them up, and they were confident enough to allow her that time. She still had her hand grenade from the first part of the exam, but did not think that was enough. She had her defensive shield, but that wouldn’t be enough either. She needed Ya Nu’s help. With that thought, her self-doubt crept in again. Weakling described her perfectly.
The boy with the twin swords leaped forward, slashing, and she brought up her shield to block. He repeated an onslaught of blows, feinting and diving and attempting to get through her defense, and she held her own in dodging and blocking. Erina enforced her shield, but her arms ached from the repeated impacts. Her physical strength weakened; hunger and exhausting gnawed at her as her EN-hancer fed on her vitality. Every Attribute had its conditions. She was careful with her health, but the consecutive battles in this exam did her no favors.
The force of the blows pushed her back, again. Taking the necessary steps backwards, her left foot came down on a chain resting on the ground. Holding the other end of the chain was the second boy. He grinned when he saw her step into his trap. The long metal chain sprang into animation. It wound around her leg and traveled up her body like a snake, then coiled tightly around her, rendering her immobile. The boy in command of the chain was a CON-ductor, manipulating objects marked with their personal insignia. His chain restricted some more as it lifted her off her feet and bit into her flesh, eliciting a scream from her. She helplessly thought one of the instructors might see that she could no longer fight back and jump in to eject her from the arena. This must be the end.
But it wasn’t. The chain moved further up, encircled her neck, and squeezed. Black dotted her vision.
Erina is destined for great things, they said.
No, she knew better. She was a Marigold, but it wasn’t as easy as everyone believed.
“Marigold is mine!” The paper girl ran in and unexpectedly slammed her large weapon into the chain CON-ductor. The blow lifted him off his feet and he dropped his weapon. The chain unraveled, crashing Erina onto the ground into a mud puddle. During the course of the exam, numerous small puddles had formed on the stage, causing several students to slip.
Erina rubbed her neck, coughing and wheezing from her torment and being dipped headfirst in the dirty water. She wiped away at her wet face, her sweat, and the pain induced tears. Inhaling deep gulps, she looked up. The paper girl swatted at the third boy in their group, whose linked metal plates loosely came together to shield him, broke apart, and reformed; another CON-ductor. But his strength was no match for the girl’s reinforced paper object and she broke through his protection, slapping him to the ground.
The twin swordsman jumped in and he wasn’t focused on defense. He was nimble enough to dodge her large weapon and slice at her arm. She pulled back with grunts and a trail of blood. It was her turn to dodge his lunges and she wasn’t as quick with her heavy object. She clung to her paper plane under an arm before dropping it completely when the boy attacked her other side.
Erina had a cowardly thought of running. Momentarily, the focus had shifted from her. But she had pride. She couldn’t give up like this. Luck was on her side right now, and she had to make use of it. She picked herself up from the ground and grabbed the dropped paper airplane. The perfect material for quick use. She unfurled it and placed it upright, building her enforced wall for entrapment. They wanted Erina Marigold, so she would be the bait. Then she pulled out her one hand grenade. This was her daringly, ludicrous scheme.