Out of the arena and clearing the cafeteria, as soon as she stepped outside into the open Erina took deep breaths of air. She walked onwards with no destination in sight. Didn’t matter where she was headed. She just needed to get far from this place. She was engulfed in the images returning to her head. The sounds. The smell. All the pain and unhappiness. They had to be locked away. It was an effort to not let it overwhelm her.
By the time she pulled herself out, she stood at the far side of the grounds near the Ghoul Forest located behind Hollyhock. Despite the early afternoon sunlight, the forest still appeared ominous with its impenetrable dark shadows. She couldn’t go back to the presentation, but she should return to the dorm.
As she made that decision, a movement up in the tree tops within the forest caught her eye. She couldn’t make out the person, but it was very clearly a human shape. Someone was in the forest this close to the Hollyhock premises, up high and watching. Someone dangerous? Doesn’t matter. It wasn’t safe. Where were the security guards? Even with the gate in between them, she wasn’t comfortable. Feeling dread, she stepped back and bumped into a boy standing close behind her who had walked up without her noticing. Erina recognized him. The short, spiky hair and BEAST-ly yellow eyes. Her upperclassman, Kerry Allium. The bully. His three cohorts moved to flank her other side, trapping her between them. This nightmare just got worse.
Kerri Allium grinned at her. “I was thinking, how lucky I am to catch Marigold out here alone. With no one else around. You finally noticed me. Good.” He suddenly grasped her upper arm and she winced. His grip was strong.
“Let her go.” Lucas had managed to come up behind Kerri unnoticed, in the same way that Erina had been stalked. He took hold of the older boy’s upper arm, mirroring the hold on Erina.
“Get your dirty hands off me,” Kerri growled.
“Release Marigold,” Lucas responded.
Kerri flashed his teeth, the points sharpening. His nails lengthened and dug into Erina’s sleeve pressing against her skin. She gritted her teeth to keep herself from gasping at the pain. Kerry snarled. “I remember. Lobelia. I lost a lot of money betting against you in the rankings exam. First? Your classmates are imbeciles. Weak. How about going against me?” He released Erina and abruptly swiveled around swiping at Lucas. He was fast. One of Kerri’s nails managed to graze across Lucas’ cheek before they broke apart.
Lucas stopped himself from touching the cut but he could feel it start to mildly bleed. He was fine with that. After all, a BLOOD-Y had many uses for blood. “Challenging me to a duel?” he asked.
“Here. Now,” Kerri confirmed. His transformation continued, tufts of hair growing on his quickly thickening body that stretched his uniform.
Lucas drew a pocketknife and dragged the blade across the palm of his left hand. The cut stung, but he suppressed his reaction. Instead, he was overcome with anticipation. He relished the blood that spilled from the wound. His weapon. “Ah. I still have to pay you back for roughening up my friend. Za Alstroemeria.”
The two boys faced each other with intent in their eyes and a sudden rush of adrenaline in their veins.
Erina had moved away once she’d been released. Watching this situation unfold in front of her, she couldn’t let it continue. She blurted, “I’m calling an instructor.”
The three members of Kerri’s gang moved around to stand between her and the two boys.
“No, you’re not.”
“You’re with us until they’re done.”
“Watch. Kerri will kill him.”
Baring his sharpened teeth, fierce yellow eyes fixed on his prey, Kerri rushed forward. Lucas chose to meet his offense head on. He took a step towards Kerri with his bleeding hand outstretched. The colors of his eyes and hair began its gradual change as he utilized his Attribute. Erina’s mind raced to think of something, anything, that could stop them as the distance between them closed. But she was no longer a relevant player in this duel. The BEAST-ly and BLOOD-Y only had eyes for each other.
A wooden mannequin dropped into the small space between both boys just before they collided, and spun on its head, feet in the air kicking up a whirl. Lucas and Kerri dropped back from each other from the force of it’s blows. Speechless, Erina stared in shock. Lucas righted himself feeling similar surprise as his color returned. Unlike the mannequins they faced at the first rankings exam, this one was much stronger. It was smaller than Kerri and Lucas, but there was much more strength in this toy. The level of impact was different. Lucas could feel his arm and chest throbbing where the mannequin had hit him.
The mannequin climbed to its feet and Erina saw the symbol of a black half sun and moon on its forehead. Identical to the symbol from the exam. A difference was the lens of a camera shining from inside a hole at the center of the mannequin’s face. Eerie.
Kerri was bleeding from a cut on his lip. He spat on the ground and glared at the mannequin. His beast transformation reverted back to its normal state. “Shit. Pres.”
A robotic voice boomed from the speaker embedded in the mannequin’s chest. “This is a warning. Private duels on this property are not allowed without a Shield holder to officiate. Kerri Allium. Lucas Lobelia. Erina Marigold. Return to the arena or your dorms.” The mannequin turned to addressed the older boy specifically. “Allium, this is your second warning this week.”
“Shut up. I know.” Obviously annoyed, Kerri gestured to his three minions. They joined him. He pointed at Lucas. “Lobelia. Watch your back. Next time you won’t be this lucky.” He spat again and walked off with his group following.
Erina walked up to Lucas. She opened her mouth to berate him for his foolishness, but the mannequin was not finished. It turned to Lucas and said, “Lucas Lobelia. I’ve watched you. You’re talented. But as you are now, you are no match for Kerri Allium. Refrain from jumping into battles you cannot win.” The mannequin’s head swiveled around three turns to check its surroundings before dashing away.
It was so strange, Erina’s frustration had dissolved. “Who?” she wondered out loud. Obviously, this mannequin belonged to an individual. A student that took part as an opponent in the Newcomer Rankings Exam. Kerri Allium had blurted out something. Pres?
“I think. The Student Council president,” Lucas said. “A CON-ductor.” He nervously laughed but there was no humor in the sound. He closed his fist over his bleeding palm and pulled out his phone with the other hand. Lucas looked up a student.
Kerri Allium. Class 1117 NE. Age 16. Ranking NO. 089/2465. In his fourth year at Hollyhock, therefore he must have started at age 13. He was only one year older than Lucas and in his short time at the institute, had climbed to within the top 100s in rankings. Even the Student Council president had told Lucas that he was no match against Allium. “Another crazy one,” Lucas muttered.
He switched. The database was easier to search by name, and he didn’t know this student’s name, but that was only a minor setback. The student’s identity could be found in most public domains. The mannequin’s kick had woken him up.
Student Council president. Echo Dianthus. Age 19. Class 1116 NE, in her fifth year at Hollyhock. Lucas grimaced when he saw her ranking. NO. 2/2465.
* * *
The young girl stepped off the train’s platform carrying a small bag. A sturdy old woman followed, standing just behind her elbow and carrying two suitcases and a pack on her back. The sign closest to them read, ‘Welcome to Celaeno.’ They had arrived on a late train. The dark sky was tinged with the light of the fading sun.
“Ms. Lala, this way,” the old woman said as she headed for the exit gate.
The girl’s big sea-blue eyes darted around the station, marveling at its size, before following. She quickened her pace to catch up. Her short curls bobbed around her face. “Nanny, where are we going?” she asked.
“Our accommodations, Ms. Lala. Don’t trip.” The old woman slowed her steps and matched the young girl’s. The girl offered to take one of the suitcases, but the old woman shook her head as they moved along. She assured the child, “We’ll stop by the school after you get some rest.”
“I’m not tired,” the girl murmured.
“After you rest,” the old woman repeated and with her firm tone, there was no room for argument.