The points earned for the Class of 1120 NE and the overall rankings for the entire student body was posted up in the common area. The exam winner Lucas Lobelia had broken into the top 1,000 in ranks of all students at Hollyhock. For now, the competition among the newcomers was set aside and they celebrated that at least one among them had managed to start high. It was something to take pride in collectively as a class.
Then there was the problem. At the very bottom of the rankings at NO. 2465/2465 was the -500 points student who had belatedly entered the arena, Za Alstroemeria. It wasn’t his rank that bothered them, but the results of the exam. No one could believe it. If he’d manage to pick up at least one point during the scavenger hunt, or participated in dissembling a mannequin thereafter, he’d have earned at least something. The perfect -500 showed that he had not tried. Even the skinny boy that Lucas had taken out with one blow had managed a mere 3 points during the scavenger hunt. The next lowest ranked student was at 0 points, absent during the exam due to sickness. His lack of points could be excused and he ranked one spot above Alstroemeria for good reason.
The question was, who will team up with the Weakling Alstroemeria in a quint?
From the time the notice was posted, they were given fourteen days to decide.
Ya Nu Amaryllis, Buck Dahlia, and Polar Iris were the second most popular classmates after Lucas following the exam. While a few students tried their luck in inviting Lobelia to their quint, many were too intimidated by his popularity and strength. Similarly for Buck. As for Polar, within the first day of the posted notice, she had her quint decided with members among a group of friends. When it came to the kind and good-natured Ya Nu, she was not yet attached to any quints and was a coveted classmate of many looking for a strong teammate.
Despite the numerous invitations, Ya Nu couldn’t make her decision. Did she care about joining the strongest quint among the newcomers? Impossible, especially with Lobelia, Iris, and Dahlia at the forefront and none of them offering her a spot in their quints. Did she care about the individual abilities and Attributes within a quint? It was difficult to measure everyone’s current skills and their potential growth. Did she want a team that highlighted each other’s strengths or covered their weaknesses? To find out, she had to officially join a team, and that was too late. She thought the system of deciding quints within a few days of the school term was faulty. New students could trade among themselves, but seeking trades would seem like a betrayal to the group or a team member. Easier said than done.
At least she had more going for her than some other classmates. The class rotation was divided into six blocks with 65 students allocated to each, and she’d ended up in Block 2 with the Weakling Alstroemeria. She could see that no one approached him or even cared to interact with him, except for Lobelia who was his roommate but had been assigned to Block 1. She couldn’t feel sorry for Alstroemeria, not when she had firsthand experience with his difficult attitude. It was impossible to get along with someone like that. He was intensely focused during academic studies, she’d give him that. But in practical lessons and training, he barely put in effort. It made sense that he came last in the rankings.
Several mornings before the deadline, Ya Nu was called out by another student to meet after lessons. Expecting another invitation to join their quint, she didn’t worry. She woke early as usual and after washing, started her prayers to her Spirit Bo. She had a shrine in her corner of the bedroom. She traced an invisible circle on the ground in front of it, then knelt inside with her hands clasped and eyes closed. STAND-ard abilities allowed for control over fire or water existing within a certain distance, specific to the individual’s level. For STAND-ards to create fire or water from nothing, they had to bond with a Spirit. She met the Fire Spirit Bo when she was ten.
[Heat in the sky, warmth under the skin. Bright One, I am here.] She felt for Bo’s presence and it acknowledged her. [Today is a good morning that I make my offering to you. I will sing a song.] She felt its happiness and acceptance, and so she proceeded to hum a tune. When she finished, she closed with, [I give very little and ask for much. My good day goes to you, Bo.] The Fire Spirit released her and she stood from the prayer circle.
Lucas was still in bed scrolling through his phone. Skimming through yesterday’s world and local news was part of his morning routine. None caught his interest. Theories about the rise in numbers of slave traders. Coverage on the winner of a recent gala. Daring rescues in city fires. Nothing from the International Service Command.
When Za returned from his early morning exercise, Lucas lazily pulled himself up. “Hey, I’m going to be out this afternoon,” he told his roommate. Za merely nodded.
After washing and changing into his jumpsuit, Lucas went alone to the dorm’s dining hall and was instantly surrounded by two other boys. One of them waited for him to fill his tray before copying its contents. The second complained about practical lessons and asked for tips later. Lucas promised to look at his form and the boy was elated. He volunteered to drop Lucas’ breakfast tray at the wash station.
They loitered at the table waiting for their Block’s first lesson when a third boy stopped by and asked, “Hey, did you see yesterday’s stats?”
The boys around them perked up at the topic. “Who won?”
“Obviously the higher ranked quint.”
They gathered closer as their classmate pulled out his phone and browsed through the results of yesterday’s private ranking sessions. Participating in two private ranking sessions were mandatory for each student per school term, and the students could decide when to sign up, which often resulted in random matchups. Popular spots were at the beginning or ending of a school term, and before exams, which also meant these openings were filled quickly. If spots were open, quints could sign up for more, usually with the hopes of increasing their rankings. Students must sign on with their quint; the minimum at five individuals per side, allowing free agents to make their mandatory session by filling in for sick quint members or adding on. These matches were always timed and although not open for viewing, results and official stats were made public.
Yesterday’s private ranking session had been between a quint with members ranking in the 1700s-1900s matched against the 2100s-2400s. The win/lose result was obvious, but there was a surprise. The best individual stats came from a member of the losing team, who jumped up ten places in rankings (although still in the 2000s). The boys were incredulous.
“He beat some high rankers.”
“I bet he levelled up during the break.”
“But his quint sucks.”
“I think he just got lucky.”
“Nah. The higher ranks just levelled down.” Everyone knew that aside from training to rise in ranks, maintaining one’s ranks was also difficult. Hollyhock encouraged competition and getting surpassed was always a possibility.
Wistfully, one of the boys said, “I wish we could’ve seen it. I want to know what happened.”
Lucas kept his silence during the conversation but one of the boys suddenly said, “Lobelia could beat this loser with his eyes closed.” After all, their esteemed classmate was ranked in the 1100s at the beginning of his first term at Hollyhock.
Painting on an awkward smile, Lucas said, “We don’t know unless it happens. Anyone’s Attribute could be the perfect challenger to mine.”
But the boy could not be swayed. “Not much can beat a BLOOD-Y.”
It was not only about the Attribute but how rare and powerful it was, as well as the wielder’s prowess at utilizing it, Lucas thought. He knew the person who proved that thought.