The early morning light rises over the top of a flagpole. As the brilliance overtakes it, casting the flowing fabric in silhouette, it illuminates the vast woods lying just beyond a perimeter fence comprised of onyx. The environs of the woods are shrouded, dozens of thickets blanketing the surface below. Nature hasn’t yet stirred, the sounds of insects and birds and frogs eerily absent.
That is until the crunch of footsteps cuts into the monotony. A young lady marches through the debris of the summer season, treading with little caution. Her clothing reflects the consequences of her carefree attitude. Her blue jeans are torn in several places, her orange shirt is covered in mud and other unseemly stains, and the sole of her left shoe has a hole on the side. The young woman doesn’t mind it, though. She approaches a tree, gauging its height, and determines it to be taller than those in the purlieu.
She adjusts her backpack to fit snuggly against her shoulders, then scales the tree with impressive celerity. She grabs one branch with both hands, pulls herself up, and launches herself right for the next. She pulls a few acrobatic maneuvers along the way, including flips and upside-down leg hooks. Her braid swings in the wake of her leaps. When she reaches the higher, thinner branches, she resorts to less flamboyant efforts.
The young lady settles on one of the branches and inhales as the dawn washes over her face. The warm glow makes the dirt stains on her cheeks and forehead appear more fitting with her gamine grin. She brushes the loose bangs from her face, and her eyes shine like the sun rising above the campus in the distance.
“So, that’s Four Hearts Academy, huh?” she asks herself.
From her pocket she withdraws a folded sheet of paper with a set of burn holes on the sides. When she unfolds it, the burn holes double from four to eight. Her fingers slide through the holes as if she were pulling on a fitted glove. The upper portion of the paper reads:
I, Headmaster Neth, am pleased to announce your acceptance into Four Hearts Academy. I hope to see you at the orientation this year, on Cylle 8th. I expressly hope you’ll find what it is you need from your enrollment with us. Four Hearts Academy is an institution second, and a family first. Let us be your family, and we will help you in any way that we can.”
Nuria folds the letter and stares at the burn holes. I don’t know about family, but you’ll definitely help me. In the recesses of her mind, the young lady reimagines the moment she received the acceptance letter.
Nuria was alone in her living room, haphazardly opening the envelope’s seal. A separate stack of envelopes was lying on the arm of an adjacent couch. Those letters are addressed to “Aurum” and “Auriel.” The letter specified for Aurum bore the same crest for “Four Hearts Academy” as the one Nuria was opening. The moment Nuria opened the letter and read the first sentence aloud, her fingers caught fire. For the briefest instant, she witnessed golden flames eating holes into the sides of the letter.
Nuria dropped the letter, and the golden embers decorating the edges of the burn holes quickly extinguished. She knelt down and examined the paper. What was that, she thought.
Nuria turns back to the sun, her eyes brimming with determination. Those weren’t my normal flames. Mom can try to dissuade me all she wants, but that wasn’t natural. Nuria rises, then promptly leans back into a nosedive through the branches. She extends her arms before her, firmly takes hold of a narrow branch that she uses it as a pivot to flip right-side up once more. She lands safely on her feet, disturbing a pile of fresh fall leaves. The way they flutter back down to the ground around her is as graceful as a dance. Nuria takes a few deep breaths.
I suppose I could use one more, she thinks. Nuria loosens her backpack straps before reaching around and pulling a small sack from the side pouch. She dumps the contents of the sack into her palm, sprinkling down half a dozen almond-colored seeds. Nuria picks the biggest seed from the bunch, then places the rest back into the sack.
“Down the hatch,” she tells herself.
Nuria swallows the seed. She exercises her breathing while she waits. A moment passes before she feels a rush of warmth throughout her body. The feeling is so intense that a wisp of steam rises off her shoulders. When Nuria exhales, waves of humidity lift from her mouth, warping the atmosphere before her eyes, which no longer appear to be brilliantly auburn, but white as winter’s precipitation.
“Let’s go!” she cheers. She tightens her shoulder straps, then breaks into a sprint. Her intense kickoff ignites the dry leaves, and they’re swallowed whole by the golden flames Nuria leaves behind.