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   Chapter 3
Fate or Choice

       Kiyoshi turned and walked away into the shadows of the stage. The murmurs of the young students filled the air as hushed whispers of what just happened latched onto every conversation. As worry and dread continuously took hold of the crowd, two additional ASTERs dressed in medical gear holding a gurney slowly gathered the deceased Housen off the stage. 


       “Alright, guys and girls it's finally my time on the stage,” a mysterious female voice shouted. 


       Everyone's eyes returned to the podium as a woman flipped onto the stage, striking a childish pose. Her auburn hair ran down her back barely covering her cat-shaped ears. Her light grey eyes matched the clouds on a stormy day. Her smile revealed her pronounced canines, which looked sharp enough to rip through any flesh. Her long, slender tail waved lazily in the air. Her skin was the color of sand in a desert. Her relaxed pose did nothing to hide the dream body that all the young women in attendance hoped to achieve one day. 


       She was beautiful.


       “Ooh, Kenichi, who do you think she is!? Do you think she will be one of our instructors?” Akito excitedly asked. “She is one of those Neko race people we rarely see back at home. I wouldn’t mind learning a thing or two from her.'' Akito was unable to hide the lust on his face as he stared at the woman on stage, mesmerized. 


       Kenichi knew what Akito was referring to. How can I blame him? This Neko lady is probably one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Maybe even number one if he was to be honest with himself. Sure there were a lot of meet-and-greet parties in the Solveri Family, but nobody was as exotic as her.


       “Hi everyone, I’m Ayumi Seranata. Chief Medical Examiner for Souchi Military Academy. My job is to ensure that no matter what injuries you receive here, no matter how bad during your stay, I’ll be able to fix them right up and get you back to mission-ready condition.” 


       The students’ eyes filled with unknowing hope that an angel had come to save them from the worse outcome they could encounter during training as their attention strayed to the noise one of the ASTERs made when they dropped The Cleaver.  


       “Hey, bucket of bolts. Be careful with that!” She yelled amusingly in anger at the offender. “We still got to return the body to his family.” Turning back to the students regaining her composure, “As I was saying, my job is to fix anything on your precious bodies that may, and will, get broken. Cuts, bruises, broken bones, missing limbs, gouged-out eyeballs. I can fix it all," She proudly declared, standing tall with arms crossed over her chest.


       “Well, everything except death,” Ayumi said gesturing to the recently deceased Housen who was finally being carried out. “First things first though. To make my job a little easier right now, and in the future, let’s weed out some of you that look like you are either about to or have already pissed your pants. This way, it makes the paperwork I have to fill out later a little easier.” 


       “After witnessing what you just saw, if you feel this academy is not for you, you see that big red door behind all of you that you passed when you got in? Well just fall out inside there and give the instructors your information. We will make sure you get back to your village, city, or wherever you might have hailed from. Meow!” 


       Within twenty minutes only about a quarter of the 800 students that originally arrived didn’t file out the door and quit. The ones who left were horrified by the terror they saw in their short stint at this academy. The events would have made for a grim story to tell at whatever new school they were going to. If they weren’t about to have their memory wiped. 


       “Meow! Only about two hundred of you more or less. They just don’t make them like they used to, huh?”


       Kenichi and Akito looked around, amazed at how few people were left. “Hey, Akito, I’m glad you didn’t leave. What we just saw is kind of unbelievable in a way. To know there is a possibility that we could die here. I know you have your own reasons for staying but I still wanted to say that I’m glad you did. It makes it a little easier to handle, knowing that my brother and best friend is here with me."


       Kenichi knew in his heart that Akito wouldn’t so easily tuck his tail and run. 


       They were going to be partners after all. Both needing to get stronger for their own reasons. Something important that each needed to do and this Academy was the only place that could make their dreams a reality.


       “Okay everyone, in order to make this much easier for me, if you could split into two groups. If all the guys could make their way to my left and form a line. Girls, if you would do the same but to my right. Once everyone is finally in place you will walk single file through these two doors which lead to the examination room of the Medical Wing. The girls will obviously follow me, and I will individually conduct the first baseline exam to learn everything there is to know about you. Boys, your body will be in the lovely hands of Mr. Hotaki here.


       She gestured to her left, to a gentleman who stood tall beside the door the men were supposed to enter. This man also appeared to be a Neko-race individual. He bore the same color fur as Ms. Auyumi. The same razor teeth. Same dreamy figure; only this time it was the male audience who were envious. 


       “Hey, you think they are related? Maybe like brother and sister?” Akito asked.


       “Before each of your exams, you will be given a paper with a glyph on it. Do not lose that paper. It will be needed for your medical profile and it will also be needed later. After you finish with your examination, proceed to return here and wait until every student has returned. Meow!” 


       After about two hours, Kenichi finally stood at the door at the end of the hall he entered. “Man this took forever. There were only about twenty people ahead of me.” 


       The door finally opened as the person who was before him finally walked out. Going through the door Kenichi made his way in for his examination. 


       Another hour passed by as Kenichi was finally through with his examination. He was escorted into an office where Mr. Hotaki sat behind a larger desk. He was almost an identical version of Ms. Ayumi aside from his male physique. His features, although feline in nature, gave off the same gentle and kind impression as his female counterpart. 


       “So Kenichi, how did you feel about the tests you just went through?” Hotaki asked, reading over the folder in his hand.


       “The test seemed fairly standard from what I go through at a normal doctor's visit,” Kenichi said.


       “Good. Good. Believe it or not but this academy is where we train all doctors that are seen by civilians. That way we can keep a somewhat uniform experience for both the patient and doctors.” Hotaki responded. “It says here that aside from a perfectly healed arm that was broken some years ago you are very healthy indeed. No issues with your throat, ears, sight, or nose. Bloodwork is all well. All in all; pretty healthy.”


       Kenichi sat in the chair, fiddling with his fingers as he listened to Mr. Hotaki. Man, I really don’t like coming to the doctor. It’s like constantly praying that something you’ve never heard of hasn’t somehow snuck into your body since the last visit, to deliver you a slow and painful death.


       “It says here that you come from the Provence of Tudugong in the southeast part of the region. Is that Correct?” Hotaki read off.


       “Yes sir, it's about 1700 miles in that direction from here."


       Hotaki closed the folder in front of him and looked up at Kenichi, “Ahh, I see. You know, I did some traveling in that area a long time ago. Had to gather a rare mineral from one of the rocks your family mines for some of the medical supplies issued to Guardians in the field. So, did you have any questions for me about anything from your exam?”


       “Not really. As I said, it was a fairly normal experience. Well, all except that one test. The one where they tell you to run Shakti through some kind of device.” Kenichi answered, remembering the weird contraption he had never seen. 


       Mr. Hotaki knew the exact test he was referring to. “Ah yes, that's our Shakti Analyzer. Of course, that’s not the real name but the real name of it would put you to sleep halfway through.”


       Kenichi let a small laugh escape his lips to please the good doctor’s attempt at a joke.

 “I’m sure you're wondering what a test like that does but I assume that you kind of got that from the name. But let me ask you. What do you think we would be able to tell about your Shakti from a machine like that?” Hotaki asked with an intriguing look on his face.

Kenichi looked in on himself as he thought about his answer. I never thought about Shakti in that way. Don’t we all use it every day? We use it to power our machines, our water, electricity, and light protection from extreme elements, among other things. What else is there to know about it besides how to use it in our everyday lives? But with this being a military academy…. “To tell me what elemental affinity I am?” 


       ‘Ugh… No one yet has been able to answer that question right. Who can blame them though? It's the schools’ fault for teaching them such rudimentary uses and knowledge of Shakti application. The vast ways it could improve everyone’s daily life if they knew more about it. The Doctor disappointedly thought to himself. 


       “Well yes, Kenichi it can do that, but there is so much more to know about your Shakti when it comes to an individual person,” Hotaki said informatively.


       Kenichi’s attention peaked as he looked on intently waiting for the doctor to explain more.


       “Did you know there are many different qualities and aspects of Shakti? If I say your affinity is with fire, does that mean you can use fire however you want? What about your specific Shakti efficiency? There is a lot more to know about Shakti than simply knowing how to use it every day or finding out your affinity,” Hotaki lectured.


       “So, what does it do, Doctor?”


       “That test utilizes every aspect of what we know about Shakti and analyzes it on a massively detailed scale. We then use that information as a guideline to integrate it with not only the training structure you will soon be subjected to but we also use it to complement the attributes of your partner. Not to necessarily cover any weakness your partner might have or vice versa. But to enforce and compliment your strengths together to eliminate any notion of weaknesses you may have had in the first place.” 


Hotaki may have thought he was explaining it as well as possible, but as he stared at the young Kenichi it seemed the message wasn’t getting to him or he was not paying attention at the very least. 


       Is this what took so long to get to him? He probably asked every single student the same question he asked me. And then gave this long-winded answer. At this rate, no wonder a exam takes forever. Kenichi thought to himself, completely forgetting that he was talking to the good doctor. 


       “Um, Doc. What is my affinity though?” Kenichi, although not as knowledgeable as he should have been about the finer aspects of Shakti, was still curious as to what elemental affinity he was. Maybe it will be something to compliment Akito in the future. 


       Hotaki reopened the medical folder on his desk, scanning over it to the Attribute section, “

"According to the results here. You have an affinity for both Water and hmm, this is interesting; gravity manipulation. Well, that’s unique. Haven’t seen anyone with that type of secondary trait, at least so far as I’m aware.”


       “Gravity manipulation? I didn’t know gravity was considered an element.” Kenichi questioned suspiciously at the weird answer.


       Hotaki’s hand came to his face as he rubbed his forehead to ease his growing headache at the educational system. “Man, these schools,” he uttered under his breath. “Well, anyway, moving on. What this means is your role will be that of a support Guardian and your partner will serve as the main in your team. Please do well to support her to the best of your ability.” 


       With that, Hotaki ushered Kenichi out of his office, pointing towards the door that led back to the auditorium with the rest of the students. 


       Walking back to the auditorium in the brightly lit hallway, Kenichi thought back to the doctors’ words. So my affinity is water and gravity manipulation huh? More importantly, I’m a support Guardian. What does a support Guardian do anyway? Give him water if he gets tired. Splash the enemy with water to try and get him wet and slippery? Nah.’ Kenichi shook his head, throwing away the silly images popping into his head. ‘Nothing that lame, surely? It's got to be much cooler than that. And what did the doc mean by her? Like he already knew that my partner would be a girl. Akito is a guy. Even if I wasn’t to get paired with him that easily, I'm sure they’ll pair us up by sex to avoid any romantic interest getting in the way of battle. Kenichi stopped worrying about it at this point, knowing he really had no say in the matter. “Right. The only thing I can do now is to wait and see.” 


       Kenichi made his way back into the auditorium. Time slowly passed as he stood watching  people slowly make their way back in. After four hours everyone was already back standing around in crowds that naturally formed when everyone returned. 


       Some students were going around looking for potential partners. Probably support Guardians looking to pair up with someone strong. A few students had rather disappointing looks on their faces. Others were not so secretly hitting on the girls, trying to charm them with their status or presence. The girls were also not so secretly hitting on the guys, except with their fists. Some stood quietly off to the side, minding their own business. More or less everyone was comfortable in the crowd they eventually gravitated to. 


       Kenichi was back by his friend Akitos' side. While seated on the floor, they discussed each other's test results.


       “So, they also told you that you were gonna be a support Guardian too?”


       “Ya, except unlike you I won’t have a dedicated partner. I’ll be helping Guardians already on a team.”


       “Oh” Kenichi couldn’t hide the discouragement he felt at the news.


       “Supposedly I don’t have an affinity to any elements. After they told me that, I was ushered off into a separate room to do some other things. Next thing I know they tell me I’m a support Guardian called an Enchanter.”


       “Well, I always thought you were special when we were growing up. You were always top ten in all the class subjects. You were considered gifted in learning the family’s martial arts. So what does an Enchanter do?”


       “I’m not sure myself. Classified to military personnel is all they told me. From what I gathered I’m basically that third wheel on a date making everyone uncomfortable.”


       “Ha ha ha. Nooo,” Kenichi sarcastically joked “Not the great and powerful Akito Soveri! Ha ha ha.”


       “Ya. Ya. Laugh it up. But don’t come crying to me later when word of how awesome I am gets around.” Akito remarked, puffing his chest out in comedic fashion.


       Even though he acts goofy and childish at times, he really is amazing. No matter what he puts effort into, he can’t help but make it seem easy. As if he’s a natural at everything he does. Even now, he was selected to be a special type of Guardian. Maybe he will reach his goals before me. But I can’t fall behind either. I may not be special like him but I will definitely prove my worth here. No… That’s the wrong way of thinking. My partner and I will have to get stronger to prove that we can defy all expectations. 


       Kenichi’s thoughts took over his attention as Akito suddenly started recounting some gossip that was going on in line while he waited on his examination. 


       I hope that I get partnered with one of the stronger-looking people. Kenichi’s eyes slowly moved to glance at the heart of each of the largest crowds. In the middle of the first gaggle, stood an average-height individual. Dress in clothes similar to his and Akito’s own. Seb Hightower. I never liked him after that incident. He’s changed since then, but still anytime I look at him all I can think of is what happened. I hope I don’t get partnered with him. 


       On the other hand, Kenichi’s eyes drifted off to the second-largest crowd. Now anyone could tell why she has a crowd around her. She would give Ms. Ayumi a run for her money when it came to looks. Starfire Jubi. From the gossip, it seems like she is some prodigy fighter back in her land. I guess you could say we had a somewhat similar upbringing. Word is that her parents sold her off to some rich family because of her incredible gift for fighting. Why some rich family needed someone skilled in fighting is a mystery. She would be a top pick for any girl to team up with her. 


       Kenichi’s eyes drifted to the smallest gathering of people. I don’t know his name but they say he is from the Enlil family. They were brought up a few times at political parties. Supposedly his family builds some of the medical equipment used by the military and academy. Made their family extremely rich supposedly. He doesn’t look particularly strong though. Maybe he has some kind of rare affinity. 


       “Man,” Akito whined, breaking him from his thoughts. “What's taking them so long?” Akito gripped his hair in frustration.  “All this waiting is just making me more anxious. How can you just sit there? I know I don’t have a partner but how are you not pulling your hair out? Not knowing who you are gonna be with by now I would be losing it?”


       Akito laid back staring at the ceiling as a somber tone filled his words. “At first I thought it would be ok. I thought that this school would be fun, so long as I could be by your side. Now…? I won’t lie. I’m kinda scared.”


       Kenichi followed his friends’ actions, now laying beside him. Staying quiet to hear his friend. 


       “This may be the first time in ten years that you won’t be by my side. That courage that you say I give you, well, that goes both ways. But I can’t help but feel like we are going to be forced to abandon each other here.”


       Kenichi could see the nervousness on his face. “Don't worry about it, Akito. Whoever they give me as a partner if we can’t choose, we will work hard enough to make sure they put us on a three-man team. I don’t mind you being the third wheel so long as you don’t get jealous” he joked, hitting his arm. 


       After some time of reassuring each other of their future, a man and a woman walked out on the stage step in step. Their matching dusters draped behind them as they walked. One was seemingly more nervous than the other. 


       “Salutations everyone. My name is Torshiro Osamu and my lovely, adorably, shy partner here is Kagura Osamu. We are a husband and wife partner couple. We are going to discuss with you the living arrangements and the unique partnership aspect of Koumei Seidai. 


       “…Your turn baby,” He whispered, glaring at his shy wife. 


       Kagura stood her hands against her face, too shy to face the crowd directly because of her natural stutter. “R-r right! Each student was given a specific glyph before the start of your exams. I want you to take a few minutes and find the other person with that same glyph.” 


       After a few minutes, everyone slowly started making their way around looking for the person with their matching symbol. 


       Kenichi stood waiting for his partner to find him. He watched Akito gather in a group that matched his symbols. They must be Enchanters like him. Kenichi thought to himself before the light dimmed by a person now standing in front of him. 


       She stood there shrouded in a dirty ripped cloak. I remember wearing a cloak like that when I had to help on one of the farms our parents were trying to create a contract with. Is she from the western provinces? 


       Her eyes were a deep lime green that seemed to give off a mysterious glow through her shadowed face. Her pink hair draped down to her calves, with frosted lime green ends, to compliment her eyes. Her face was set in a stern look, but not necessarily a hostile one. More akin to a serious tone. And in her hand, she held her paper. 


       “Looks like we have matching glyphs,” 


       Kenichi stood there and only nodded. This girl was very pretty. It didn’t take him long to realize he was staring at her, which she probably mistook as weird. So he straightened his posture up to greet her. 


       “Um, hi, my name is Kenichi Solveri. Nice to meet you.” 


       “Hey, I’m Kana Miyamoto. Nice to meet you too.” 


       “Ladies and gents, now that everyone is where they're supposed to be, let me finally let you know that the person that has the matching glyph as you is gonna be your partner for the next three years while you're at this academy and for the rest of your military careers should you graduate.” 


       Torshiro knew that that specific news would shock them. Hell, even I was dumbfounded when they told me on my first day. And because of that, that’s how he ended up marrying this hottie. Who it seems I have to keep reminding her of her line! “Psh… Psh it's your turn again!” 


       “Ri-Ri-Right! I know by now you have noticed that besides the two groups with more than two people in them, everyone here is partnered with the opposite sex. And there is a reason for that. In the early centuries after The Awakening when this school was in the early stages of being built. Our knowledge of Shakti was very minuscule. Ov-over time as sc-science evolved, we were able to study the multiple ways that Shakti affected individuals as well as their offspring. After five gen-generations of compiling data, the analysis concluded that if two Guardians were to bear children there was a ninety percent chance of that child's affinity being inherited from one of the parents. A ninety-three percent chance it came from the stronger of the two. Foregoing the weaker parents' affinity. Of the ten percent, whose children did not inherit their parents’ affinity, a brand new stronger affinity would be created. Usually a combination of the two in some way. These children later became known as ‘mains’ in our current system. It was also revealed that their Shakti control increased dramatically allowing them access to a higher pool of Shakti to multiply their destructive force. We-we-we call this genetic anomaly the Auto-immune Genetic Modifier or AGM.” 


       Whoa so this girl in front of me is that rare. I guess it’s true that there is a thing as being born unique in this world. But that means…! 


       “Now boys and girls I’m sure with all the mumblings going on in the crowd some of you have already figured it out. The whole reason you are paired with the opposite sex as a partner is that part of the mission at this academy is to artificially inflate the number of mains being produced in this region. Our gov’t as a whole saw the rapid decline of mains being created almost 400 years or so ago. To escape the inevitable passing of laws created to force people into some breeding program, this academy agreed to change its training structure to one of mutual attraction through close and constant proximity to naturally facilitate the growth of mains in the region.”


       “If this training program has been going on for 400 years how come we aren't all mains!” 

Kenichi heard some random guy in the auditorium yell the question that was on his mind. If they have been doing this for that long why aren’t there more mains? He could account for a fairly large percentage of them not being mains by simply not going to this academy and choosing to grow up with normal lives. So how come we don’t have a larger majority of main?


       “Excellent question there!! But please if you have a question, raise your hands next time. Listen, ladies and gents. Though we are not the govt definition of a breeding program we still in the traditional sense kinda are. Though we do it with a much more gentle hand than the one they use by allowing you to keep your choice” 


       “N-N-No one here will be forced to date, marry or have children with their current partner. If you're already in a relationship unfortunately you won’t be able to see your significant other for at least two years if they reside outside this academy. Bu-bu but if they are a fellow Guardian cadet then you will be able to freely see your partner as you please in your free time. This program is meant to facilitate natural growth by falling in love with your partner if it happens organically.”


       I see. So it was the only win-win situation they could come up with to address the decline in people being born with the AGM trait. But even still to be this low; something else must be at play. Something I haven't factored in. Kenichi thought. 


       He looked at the person’s face that would be his supposed partner for the rest of his life She’s red in the face! Oh no! Her head was further tilted down, causing her hair to  cover her face. heh, I guess even if she seemed like a more serious-natured person, news like this would shake anyo—!!. 


       Kenichi’s hands grabbed at his throat. I can’t breathe!! 


       Looking towards the closest person in his line of sight for help. Kenichi reached out only to notice that she stepped back away from him.


       Her eyes widened as he noticed her body was shaking.


       Why? Why does she look terrified!?

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